Not Two will be doing a short series of posts about pertinent themes in the upcoming books, starting with Anarchism as it pertains to spirituality. It plays a major part in “The Peasant and the King,” though the A word isn’t mentioned once.
As an intro, here is a spoken word piece by the great folk musician and labor agitator Utah Phillips, set to music by Ani diFranco, about the Catholic anarchist Ammon Hennacy, who was a mentor to Phillips and a much admired hero of mine.
“Force is the weapon of the weak.” — Ammon Hennacy
Anarchism vs. Anarchy
This section will present a very personal viewpoint of the subject of Anarchism. Ask ten other anarchists to define the philosophy, and hopefully you’ll get at least 8 or 9 very different answers. An authoritative definition of anarchism is an oxymoron.
The first task is to clear up the important distinction between the philosophy of anarchism and the first thing most people think of when they see the A-word, which is anarchy. Scenes from Somalia and the American Wild West of yesteryear or the “Mad Max” movies fill the popular imagination with the idea that anarchy is a frightening, terrible state. This has nothing at all to do with anarchism.
The common thread through all aspects of anarchism is a bottom-up approach to empowering the individual to live by self-control. Ammon Hennacy’s oft-cited ideal of an anarchist as “someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave” is a reflection of this emphasis on self-governance. Contrary to the cliche of an unleashed beast doing and taking whatever it impulsively desires, the true product of anarchism is a highly principled individual who is led primarily by conscience.
If you took all the inmates of a maximum-security prison and dropped them on an island without supervision or external controls, you would, at least initially, have the popular concept of anarchy, and you would have the opposite of anarchism.
Part of the difficulty in realizing the difference is that we are trained to think in terms of top-down dynamics, whereas anarchism is in all ways a bottom-up approach to life. There’s no better way to illustrate the difference than to draw the distinction made in anarchist thought between power and authority.
A top-down mentality uses the words interchangeably, but anarchism flips the script, saying “we love power, we hate authority.” Power is the individual’s potential to live and love and work and create, and to voluntarily offer their power to collective efforts to meet collective needs. Authority is what puts some people in power to control others and to use other people’s power toward their own ends. Even when those ends are desirable to meet collective needs, authority accomplishes them through coercion and the threat of force.
This automatically triggers the question to anarchist philosophy: if a collective need must be met through threat of force, how necessary is it to a well-lived life? Is it possible that we as individuals have given up too much of our power to meet artificial needs imposed in top-down manner by an outwardly republican but subtly authoritarian society? What would life be like if we reclaimed that power and lived for what is most important to us as the smallest units of being —as individuals, families, and communities?
But that better life doesn’t get accomplished through creating a vacuum of authority over disempowered people —that’s how you achieve the worst caricature of anarchy. As much as some anarchists would love to “smash the state,” this cannot be the primary point of focus; this is a top-down mentality that is an odds with its own ideals. The emphasis must be on creating empowered individuals and communities who can then choose to see state control as unnecessary, redundant, and in many cases even an oppressive force contrary to true power.
Flipping this script is the greatest challenge to being able to make practical use of anarchist ideals, but once you do, everything falls perfectly into place. Anarchism is a systematic approach to facilitating individual empowerment.
Political and Spiritual
Having established the philosophical foundation for all anarchist thought —empowerment of the individual to live by volition and self-control— we can look at two complementary trajectories by which this one principle can be put into action. I call them the political and the spiritual.
Political anarchism could also be called “external” or “extroverted.” It consists of direct action that works to further the core anarchist principle in the outer world— protection and empowerment of marginalized people; the fight for economic justice and leveling and for the freedom to build community-based alternatives to top-down authority structures; the breaking down of all barriers to self-expression and freethought; just to name a few of the many. For those who know true anarchists as opposed to punkish posers, these will likely be the first things that come to mind because they are the most common and visible.
Spiritual anarchism (“internal” or “introverted”) is liberation work aimed in the other direction, toward the interior world. The aim is to empower the true self to overthrow its own head of state—the ego—and thus live a more fruitful and fearless life in direct contact with its base of existence.
Let’s make two important points very clear. First, this has nothing to do with religion, which is generally a top-down approach to spirituality. There is also a strong heritage of anarchism that takes root in the spiritual practices of many religious people, particularly among Christians. We’ll explore this more in a later post, but I would posit that unprogrammed Quakerism is the most successful and widespread manifestation of the principle of anarchism, so naturally combining elements of the political and spiritual that it’s easy to forget there is a religious organization behind it. But there is no need for spiritual anarchism to associate with any formal religion, and in most cases it would be a hindrance.
Second, do not confuse “overthrowing the ego” with the self-ghosting of some mystics whereby “everything is illusion” and all trace of self disappears. Again, there is some potential for overlap with this belief system, but there’s more than one way to skin a self. The phrase “true self” was chosen carefully for its impartiality. For some, this will mean the physical organism; for others, a more self-actualized person free from the bindings of social roles and programming; for others still, something more sublime like the soul or greater Self. The true self could be God. It is whatever you are once you’ve stripped away the artifice of what you think you are. Those who think their understanding of the true self is the only correct one clearly haven’t done it yet.
The end goal of spiritual anarchism is the same as with its political complement: empowerment of the individual/true self to live and move and have its being with its own sense of volition and self-control. Force or coercion, either by external or internal authority, suggests a top-down approach that’s antithetical to the anarchist principle. The spiritual anarchist finds their God/Nature/Ground of Being within, and works to bring it out.
It is possible to be fully immersed in either practice of anarchism without giving any thought or energy to the other, though as with most things, balance is healthier, and I would make the case that political anarchism is bound to stay very limited in success and scope unless it embraces the spiritual practices that curb the excesses of ego. Personally I’ve always been a political anarchist sympathizer, but not much of an activist, perhaps only because I’m a rather extreme introvert; the spiritual aspect comes much more naturally to me. We can certainly use more people who are well-versed in both, but since the spiritual side is far less recognized, it doesn’t hurt that some of us are wired to specialize in it.
Conscience: the Anarchist Voice of God
“And what is good, Phaedrus? And what is not good? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”— Plato [Symposium], and the epigraph to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
To recap, political anarchism is not about dope, guns, and fucking in the streets. Outward signs of unrestrained pandemonium that often coincide with anarchy are a clear sign that the state of social order we mean by anarchism is not present. Pandemonium is not indicative of an empowered public, but rather of an immature, authority-dependent mobocracy, made of enfants terribles whose apron strings were cut too soon, like a house full of 12-year olds living on their own.
Political anarchism involves owned responsibility and voluntary cooperation. It involves government by ad hoc committees, formed in the recognition that there are collective needs that require group efforts, but without solidifying into the non-human, authoritarian corporate personhood we call “the state.” Anarchism asserts that, for all its messiness and inevitable travails, human life is best lived in a state of freedom and self-control, without the artifice of an authoritarian “head” above all that is human-scale and real.
To achieve this state, though, political anarchism must evolve. It cannot be imposed on an unprepared public by a band of revolutionaries. Romantic as the idea is, people cannot be rescued from their dependence on authority and set free like a domesticated dairy cow in the wilderness. We must do the unsexy grunt work of empowering them first. People must voluntarily unlearn the need to be governed by others.
Oddly enough, the best way for the individual human to become both ungovernable and without the need to be governed is by overthrowing their own internal “head of state”—the ego. As without, so within.
That’s where spiritual anarchism comes into play.
Likewise, spiritual anarchism is not a willy-nilly spirituality of “anything goes,” nor does it endorse the smashing of other people’s temples and idols. These are signs of someone whose artifice of ego is still running the show, and is manipulable by the whims of the culture architects who define the roles that make up the ego.
Instead of committees and cooperatives, internally-oriented anarchism focuses on contemplation: discernment of the real from falsehood. A spiritual anarchist thus learns to parse what is ego-driven from what is essential to the health and vitality of the true self, not by being told so by an authority figure, but through meticulous, direct observation of the self. This is the grunt work that makes internal self-empowerment possible and enables the spiritual anarchist to walk away from authoritarian religion.
To paraphrase Ammon Hennacy, a spiritual anarchist is someone who doesn’t need God, the ultimate celestial cop, to make him behave.
But what takes the place of the Heavenly Head of State that replaced or subdued the unrefined natural self?
(And to be very clear, it did so fruitfully and according to need. This is a subject for an entirely different inquiry, but I propose that Homo sapiens would not have survived the self-domestication process that made civilizations possible without the binding-up influence of organized religion and our ability to submit the individual will to a greater collective one. That doesn’t mean that this will always be the best solution for our evolutionary challenges though, and I’d say we are long past the time when it was.)
This passage from The Peasant and the King introduces the answer:
“As a peasant [human], you tend to experience your thoughts after they arrive [in the semantic brain], where they are draped in lexical imagery and encased in semantic meaning. But the thought itself is an upwelling from pure consciousness. It originates in the King [which can best be translated here as Brahman or Tao]. Words are your interpretation of the footprints left behind where the King has tread.
“Had you not fallen into the spell of Duo [duality], you would know this more clearly than your own name. You would perceive your thoughts with your sentience, feel them with your sapience, and yes, even think them with your cognizance before conceptualizing them as words. You would think in images and emotions and ideational structures more clearly than in words, and you would do this as simply as you move and breathe.
“Humanity is not unfamiliar with thought as it precedes the formation of words— you simply categorize it as something other than thought, and trace it to mysterious realms of which you have no clear concept. Thoughts about right behavior and judgment are relegated to ‘conscience,’ while novel ideas or arrangements of form are called ‘intuition.’ Artists and scientists speak of inspiration and insight. The religious flock to those who speak of premonition and prophecy, while the self-propelled spiritualists among you tell of occult messages, visions, communion with angels, or channeling of any number of astral helpers and ‘higher selves.’ These are all different concepts you have for the same experience of receiving pre-conceptual thought [from universal Mind, the omniscient progenitor of all mental activity]. None of this is abnormal or paranormal or out of line with the basic experience of thought traced back to its source. Nor will all such thought be expressed in words: visual images, music, and mathematical formulas are among many other manifestations of thought that appear as non-verbal mental activity. The wise among you remain open to all that rises up within them.”
To this list of concepts we have developed to explain pre-conceptual thought, we could add “the still, small voice of God.” The figurehead behind that voice is a symbol and nothing more, but the voice is real, and it is yours. Not the speaking voice of your person; it comes from something more truly you than that.
This singular voice, given many names as it performs different functions, is that of consciousness itself, or the universal Mind if you’re thrown by that use of “consciousness.” It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why (but not this, that, or the other), but there is reason to see the interior functions historically attributed to God and other divine personages as fruits of non-dual awareness of the “highest Self” common to all beings and things.
Likewise, there is reason to see every contemplative aspect of each religion, spirituality, mindfulness practice, or mystical self-improvement racket taught by humanity as a codified system for learning to tap this universal source of wisdom and guidance —to find it, to listen to it, to trust it, and to live by it.
A personal relationship with Jesus Christ, for instance, is an elaborate and often highly ritualized enactment of the same interior connection depicted between the mortal Arjuna and the universal being of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, which is not essentially different than the very full nothingness that guides the Zen master without the trappings of exterior concepts and personification, which is none other than the “high power” evoked by “friends of Bill W.” at AA meetings everywhere. What differs drastically in these contemplative milieus are the cultural contexts and conceptualizations of the root source of guidance; what never changes is the root source itself. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and the voice of innermost Self in any other form would sound as savory to the inner ear.
Because God is most often cited as the source of moral standards for human behavior, let’s focus on this function of the voice of God as it is commonly known (but horribly understood) in both religious and secular contexts: conscience.
Spiritual anarchism stakes out two fundamental positions regarding conscience, one to address encroachments on it from without, and the other from within.
Outwardly, it asserts that no authority stands between an individual and conscience. It is important to remember that conscience is a property of the universal Self, not of individuals, though individuals must discern and decipher its voice in order to utilize it. The contemplative arts are what teach the skills of discernment, and just as with any art there are varying degrees of attainment and proficiency among artists. But ultimately, anarchism says, the skill to teach someone else how to access conscience does not also make one an arbiter of what conscience says to anyone else. You may have mastered the art of portrait drawing, but you cannot draw a more authentic representation of my imaginary friend than my stick figure drawing of her, though you may endeavor to teach me how to draw better. Likewise, the most learned religious scholar or priest may teach a neophyte all he knows about the practices that engender attention and surrender to conscience, but he cannot authentically tell her what conscience is saying to her. As soon as she gives him the power to do so, she is disempowered and an authoritarian hierarchy of access is established, which anarchism rejects.
Inwardly, spiritual anarchism asserts that the empowered individual must also reject the subjective authority of the ego in order to retain the power to follow conscience. The ego entices the individual to place their interests above all others, but conscience does not play such games of favoritism. It places the individual’s interests within all others, and observes a homeostatic principle of ecology rather than egocentricity. With the aid of conscience (as with all intuitive mental functions), we can think in holistic ethical systems, not just fragmented segments as the ego does.
We tend to think of ego as an expression of individuality, but this doesn’t hold water when you look closer at what actually constitutes the ego: a mishmash of social roles defined by various collectives. The ego is a self-marking tool of a finite social unit of being, not an individual with access to infinite insight and wisdom. It is a container of limited knowledge and specialization, not “an aperture through which the whole cosmos looks out.” (Alan Watts) Therefore the ego is a blind guide and a rather unqualified monarch. In a very real sense, a spiritual anarchist is an ego who endeavors to depose herself from the throne of selfhood and put her true self in its rightful place, for the ultimate purpose of its abdication. The Peasant and the King is an allegorical walk-through and outward depiction of this mostly interior process.
Most of Western society is stuck in the phase of liberating the self from the cloak of collectively defined ego, because we recognize the fictional nature of collectives but we lack the metaphysical insight to take it to the next step. The self is then seen as a self-propagated and self-propelled ego, an atomized unit of being devoid of any proper grounding beyond a natural imperative to survive at all costs, a phase I call hyperindividualism. This is a difficult part of the process to manage because it seems to be the opposite of what we need as spiritual beings. It seems to set the stage for the ego to run amok and have its final pyrrhic triumph in destroying the society that created it, so there is an instinct to retreat back into identification with collectives. But intuition knows we can only go forward, that the illness is the cure, and that hyperindividualism creates the crucible we need to pivot forward into what spiritual anarchism proffers as our deliverance: the crowning of the true self that knows it is not separate from anyone or anything in existence.
Most specifically, we must recognize at this point that the challenges of climate change cannot be adequately addressed by collectives acting in clumsy, fragmented spurts of egocentric action. Nothing short of humanity seeing from the holistic perspective of the entire biosphere is going to keep this world hospitable to complex life forms. Ideally, then, nature would encourage intuitive capacity as an adaptive trait. But it is questionable whether we can afford to wait for natural selection to create adequate numbers of capable humans. We may need to accelerate the process by encouraging more individuals to recognize their own sovereignty and pursue their own deposition.