Where Two or Three are Gathered.
On the 12-Steps and Forming Anarcho-Contemplative Community.
They constantly try to escape From the darkness outside and within By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good. But the man that is will shadow The man that pretends to be. ―T.S. Eliot. The Rock.
The Kingdom of Heaven is anarchy.
In no particular order:
The Modern World has failed. The Postmodern has failed. Philosophy has failed. The American Experiment in representational government has failed. Communism has failed. Capitalism has failed. Consumer Capitalism has (really) failed. The Environmental Movement has failed. Therapeutic Indivualist Expressivism has failed. The Sexual Revolution has failed. Traditionalism has failed. Autonomous Human Reason has failed. The PR/Propaganda Machine has failed. The Technocratic Military/Medical/Educational/Entertainment Industrial Complex has failed. Etc.
Have I left anything out? If so, feel free to add it to the list. Because anything I can think of that we humans have tried in this regard, to create a system so perfect one doesn’t need to be good…has failed, is failing, or soon will fail. Yet we keep trying. We think where all others have failed, that somehow this time this new thing, this new way, concocted by the best and the brightest among us, will finally succeed. I don’t know which I think is worse: for it to continue or for it to stop. It seems grim either way.
It will fail because all ideologies seek to do the impossible. Which is to contain the uncontainable cosmos in rational, propositional thought in order to fix it. But the cosmos and the earth are not flawed systems that can be reduced to their atomic parts and then rebuilt perfectly to our own ever-changing and unstable desires. In our attempt, we must reduce the mind-boggling complexity and vastness of reality to a set of knowable propositions. Everything, therefore, will be reduced in order to be comprehended. Therefore it won't really be comprehended at all. Reduction, prediction, and control are very powerful and they have created the modern world. But at what cost? We have lost our souls but have hardly gained the world, as the world is now slipping away from us. Can we even see where we have led ourselves?
The theoretical models we create can never—will never— actually match the unspeakable and unsayable fullness of reality, no matter how powerful our computers become, or thorough our thinking. The map can never be the territory—it is as simple as that. This is even more true with those aspects of reality that actually matter, that actually means something to us, e.g., Love, Meaning, Beauty, God, etc. Instead, this impulse focuses on simple systems it can somewhat model and reduces everything to that. Yet this simple-minded approach is what humans have been trying to do for some 500 years or more. It has in some ways worked wonders, but in those wonders, it has created disasters—disasters both psychological, political, and ecological.
This habit of control is built into the way we have been taught to think, be and move into the institutions that are supposedly charged with our well-being. As this becomes clearer, however murky, we try to hide from it. Since this reductive/abstracted way of relating to the world is what we know because it is what we have been taught, the more we seek to swerve from the catastrophe the more we steer into. We are trying to solve the problem by the same means that got us into it in the first place. Even those who see the problem most clearly are hardly immune from this blindness. To engage with reality differently is now a struggle against ourselves, given the current state of affairs. We need to start from a very different kind of beginning.
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As a way to begin, I am proposing the use of a more or less 12-step process. A recovery program for those of us addicted to Ideology and Systems of Control—which is, of course, pretty much everybody. This might sound like a parody, but I offer it in all seriousness. I have seen 12-steps work for friends and turn them away from destructive behavior when nothing else could. We are a civilization awash with various therapies and “healing modalities” and yet these have done little or nothing to heal us or alter our course, let alone foster true flourishing. In fact, my own hunch is that most of these are also prime contributors to our disaster. Much of what seems to undergird our therapeutic culture is individualist expressivism. The therapeutic mindset is so pervasive that it is both unavoidable and difficult to see clearly. When it comes to the "self" and its pathologies we are all junkies, now.
To illustrate what I mean I will offer the first three steps by way of an example:
1. We admitted we were powerless over our participation in megasystems of reduction and control — that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
The rest of the steps are also relevant, but I will stop here and let this much sink in. This may or may not apply to you at the individual level. In that sense, one’s personal life may be perfectly in order and otherwise quite manageable. The cost of that manageable order, by our simple participation in the unfolding catastrophe, which we cannot easily escape, won’t be long excluded from our own personal sphere. One may wager that this can be continued through one's natural lifetime—and that may be true—but it is a wager.
Even so, those who come after us will have to deal with the mess we have made and our unwillingness to face up to it and deal with it. This is, admittedly, not an easy task. We might try to tell ourselves maybe things are not as bad as they seem. That it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe this is just one big misunderstanding. Maybe, just maybe, the technocrats will get it right this time.
Maybe. But probably not.
There is another aspect of 12-steps that I would like to point out. This is a part of what is known as the 12-step tradition. This is something that I was not aware of but find fascinating about how things are structured, or rather not structured. I will quote the relevant traditions, which I have modified more or less for the topic at hand.
1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon unity.
2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
3. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop participating in a destructive megasystem of reduction and control.
4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other single groups or as a whole.
5. Each group has but one primary purpose — to carry its message to the person who still suffers in and from the megasystem.
7. Every group ought to seek to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
9. The various groups., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
The 12-steps are a tradition of anarchy. This will become more relevant as the institutions that we rely on become increasingly unreliable. We will need to depend more on one another. And a tradition of anarchy isn’t a contradiction in terms. As an outsider to the 12-steps, it appears to be a path with shared principles, but that leaves the management of each group to its own initiative. There is no system of top-down control. The 12-steps is not an ideology that seeks to manage reality. Rather to the contrary, it begins by admitting that one’s attempts, personal and societal, to control have been a disaster. Letting go and letting be are the only proper response. One can not simply let go abstractly, but we need to do this in the place where we are and with the people around us and the actual life we are living. And it cannot be micromanaged.
Anarchy as I am proposing it is principled, non-coercive, communitarian, and local. It is the working out of a practical way of being in the world, as the person we are and with others we are attempting the same. It is done by actually interacting persons in an actual concrete place with the goal of flourishing there together. This means this will look different with different people in different places with different, sometimes incompatible ideas of what it means to flourish. There will most certainly be versions of this that I personally would not like nor desire to participate in. A good number I would probably find repellent. As long as we leave each other alone, it really isn’t my concern.
This idea of non-interference should not be passed over lightly. The historical record and our own personal experience dealing with one another are less than stellar, to say the least. What this tells us is that our track record of leaving each other alone is nothing short of abysmal. And that we often seek to destroy what good others may have simply because we don’t want them to have it. Human beings are complex, but also fairly straightforward in that regard. Without dealing first with this, as best we can, everything else will be pointless.
All of us, without exception, have a strong, often hidden tendency to seek to control the behavior of those around us. Sometimes this is necessary but not nearly as much as we are inclined to rationalize to ourselves. All of what I am now beginning to propose here is predicated on the ability to dismantle this will to power. First and foremost, and perhaps solely, in ourselves and not concerning ourselves so much with the faults of others. This is, I admit, a tall order.
I will add one last bit on how this might be done. The 11th step is as follows:
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His Will for us and the power to carry that out.
For thousands of years and all over the world a small minority of human beings have run an experiment. This experiment is something like this: what happens when I remove myself from distractions, sit silently in silence, and remain still? When one does this interesting things begin to happen. We settle down, we typically become peaceful, and we don’t seek to control everything, either within ourselves or outside ourselves.
The contemplative path is typically neither quick nor easy. It is best done with the guidance of those more experienced than us. By those who know the pitfalls and blind alleys—what used to be called Elders. We are a civilization that has traded in our Elders for technique. To turn contemplation into a technique is a mistake. There is no way to make it safe or easy. We will likely get lost, and having someone to guide us is essential. If there is a better way to dismantle the will to power in ourselves, and therefore to diminish the megasystems of reduction and control we have built up to serve that will, I am open to suggestions.
Though it is the 11th-step meant to be begun later in the process, I have seen this step also referred to as the “zeroth step”. Meaning it is never too soon to begin. The point of combing contemplation with the 12-steps—particularly absent a life-threatening addiction—is that they are mutually enhancing. The hope is that together these practices will go deeper than doing one or the other.
Finally, I will back away somewhat from everything I have just suggested. I don’t think simply using the 12-step method, or even practicing contemplation will be sufficient. It seems to me that central to the 12-step path is the sense that one’s life is immediately unmanageable to point of risking death in avoiding one’s addiction. This appears to be the glue that makes 12-step so successful and what can and often does, create deep bonds between people who might very well avoid each other due to political and cultural differences. It isn’t the same to be addicted to one’s smartphone or to surfing the internet. Such addictions are still a spiritual problem, but they aren’t going to kill you either. Even so, I do think these can serve as a way of beginning to come together to find a different path out of the catastrophe. The hope is that from this beginning other deeper ways will emerge.
The alternative is to think we need to find and elaborate, a priori, a plan that will guide us and guarantee our success out of the maze. This is the trap of ideological and technological thinking, i.e., the belief that if I can just read enough, listen to enough podcasts, think it through enough, plot it as a set of elements in a system, etc., I can figure it all out before any need for taking action. This kind of thinking must be avoided. Risks are always unavoidable. Seeking to avoid them is the cause of the mess in the first place.
I don’t mean we don’t think things through, but we must do so concretely with others, face to face and in a very particular context, clarifying and deepening our shared commitments and principles as we go. To this end, I do see 12-steps and contemplation as the best way to begin. Where it goes from there is anybody’s guess. Really, who knows?
And where it goes for you from there is not really any of my business.
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By “fix” I mean that in both senses of the word, i.e., to hold it immobile by reducing it to knowable points in a system, so that it, presumably, can be repaired.
Of course, we are quite good at hiding troubling things from ourselves as well as anything else we find uncomfortable, and perhaps, after T.S. Eliot it is true that humankind can’t bear much reality.
As one longtime friend would put it, “I’m me, baby!”. This pretty much sums it up. Our protestations and displays, verbal or otherwise, of our supposed individualism are largely the results of a relentless PR campaign. It is through our belief that we are unlike anyone else that we are exactly like everyone else. We are convinced that no one could manipulate us. Which is exactly how we are manipulated.
Manageable in regards and towards what exactly?
I fully acknowledge that the word anarchy is a loaded one. There is a place for loaded words. A loaded word can constitute a challenge to our habitual thought patterns. But what I don’t mean by anarchy is social and personal chaos brought about by everyone doing whatever they want regardless of the consequences. So what do I mean?
The cultivation of Elders would seem to be one of the first priorities. But it is probably best done naturally. Anyone seeking leadership is suspect from the start. Otherwise natural and temporary hierarchies are not necessarily forms of control. Though we should be careful with this. To acknowledge where a particular person has natural authority in a particular sphere of knowledge is unavoidable.
Any Elder would likely oppose the megasystems of technique and ideology as delusional and hubristic. This is one reason why they are necessary.
The lack of a guide should not dissuade us from beginning a contemplative practice. It means that we need to pay attention and not hurry things.
They won’t kill you immediately, anyway. But they are changing us, and not for the better.
The fundamental delusion, I think, is the belief that if I have my ideology “correct” I won’t have to take action. The ideology, however, will take care of it.
Or at least, a way to begin. I am completely open to other suggestions.
Last weekend my wife, Liz, and I were sat on the concourse at Kings Cross railway station in London, drinking coffee and waiting for our train, north, back home. A young man materialised at our side; a suddenly still figure in the shifting mass of folk in transit. He had a newspaper in his hand. Turns out he was homeless and selling the paper was the way he kept body and soul together. “It’s a really good alternative to the mainstream media”, was his sales pitch. The paper was called Dope. The front page was taken up by the legend, “Already Against the Next War”. I have it here. On the inside cover a strap line informs the reader that the paper is published, “in solidarity until everyone has a home and nobody lives in a cage”. It counsels the reader to “Let this radicalise you rather than lead you to despair”.
Dope is a kind of anarchist patchwork quilt comprising freshly written pieces and extracts filleted from texts of the tradition. We were reading bits and passing it back and forth between us on the train to Hull. I can’t remember whether Liz or I came to the last piece first. No matter. The concluding story was written by a woman who had opened a community bread making business. She named her enterprise, The Conquest of Bread, after the book written by the great libertarian-pacifist anarchist Peter Kropotkin.
I guess the bread-maker doesn’t know this, but she shares her reverence for Kropotkin with Servant of God Dorothy Day. However, she may well hear all about that link soon enough as the bread-making takes place in a small bakery in Hull. And, given that Liz and I are currently reading, The Conquest of Bread, after our morning prayer; and, as we are currently seeking some kind of encounter with local anarchists that we might re-engage politically during this weird time we have exchanged e mails with the baker.
Your latest offering landed in our in-box as we began our baker-outreach thing. Got to say, I love it, Jack. Our struggle is to find the language necessary to radicalise the faith and spiritualise the
anarchy. The attendant problems this endeavour encounters has been my major preoccupation ever since we quit the Catholic Worker. Still thinking. Don’t want this to get too long and clunky. So, et me quit, here. I may have suggested this before, but you really ought to read Jacques Ellul; Christianity and Anarchism, and The Meaning of The City, are slim but indispensable volumes. I would argue, strongly, that much the same could be said for Peter Kropotkin’s, The Conquest of Bread.
Thank you for this thoughtful piece 🧡 Nearing 60, having done such things as started a school of sustainability, facilitated for Occupy, represented the incarcerated at standing rock, gone through Al-anon, and come out of decades of yoga with the jewel of a simple daily 40 minute meditation practice, I have come to these same conclusions. Being only a few years into my contemplation practice, I am finding much loosening of neurosis and an expansion of the understanding of what it is to “hold space” for others. I still struggle with how to expand this into larger local efforts-projects but I trust that will come in time 🙏🏼