Anarchism, Mysticism, Poetry

modern art

[This is the introduction to a long essay I am working on at the moment.]

Anarchism, Mysticism, Poetry

We began as a mineral. We emerged into plant life
and into the animal state, and then into being human,
and always we have forgotten our former states,
except in early spring when we slightly recall
being green again. […]

Humankind is being led along an evolving course,
through this migration of intelligences,
and though we seem to be sleeping,
there is an inner wakefulness
that directs the dream,

and that will eventually startle us back
to the truth of who we are.
– Rumi, ‘The Dream that must be Interpreted’

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.
– Gary Snyder, ‘Buddhism and the Coming Revolution’ (1969)


There is an honourable, transcultural tradition of anti-authoritarian or ‘anarchist’ mystics answering to the ‘truth of who we are.’ From Lao-Tzu, Chuang Tzu, the Buddha and Nagarjuna to Rumi, Hui-Neng, Dogen, Hakuin, Albertus Magnus and Meister Eckhardt, from Angelus Silesius and Gerrard Winstanley to Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder and Thomas Merton. Some of these have been poets and all of them have used poetic language to convey their meanings. While none of them besides Landauer and Snyder would have called themselves ‘anarchists’, I would argue that their mysticism carries a certain affinity to the philosophy of ‘anarchism’ as broadly defined below. I am going to ask Rumi, the 13th century Derwish-Sufi poet (called Jelaluddin Balkhi in Iran and Afghanistan) to help me in this exploration.

Do you think I know what I am doing?
That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself?
As much as a pen knows what it’s writing,
or the ball can guess where it’s going next.
– Rumi

The terms mysticism and anarchism today are mostly used in a derogatory fashion. Mysticism is equated with occultism and mumbo-jumbo, anarchism with terrorism. Apart from the transparent smears and projections of opponents, there are also good reasons for these equations because such phenomena do exist. However, since occultism is not mysticism and almost all of contemporary anarchism is not terrorist (and almost all terrorism not anarchist but state or reactionary-fundamentalist), can we perhaps rescue these terms, or will we have to find new ones?

The central question of this essay is to ask whether there is an inherent affinity between mysticism in general and anarchism. The short answer is, unsurprisingly: yes and no.

Yes. Mysticism is to religion as anarchism is to politics. Deeper.

Both mysticism and anarchism are really not ‘isms’ but anti-ism or non-ism isms. Less ‘philosophies’ and more ways of being or ways of liberation. Both shatter all tidy, comforting cognitive boxes or isms. Their colour is black, the no-colour that grounds all colours, the colour of darkness, the non-dual, the unknown, emptiness, the mystery, the 95 percent (‘dark matter/energy’) of the universe physicists know absolutely nothing about. Mysticism is the internal way of liberation from all those isms and ‘mind-forged manacles’ (radical poet, printer and mystic William Blake), anarchism the external way of liberation. If, as mysticism and the best of anarchism have it, the external and internal cannot really be separated and are in the end one (‘as within, so without’), maybe both need or imply each other.

Mysticism that stays internal and individual, denying the need for a liberated world, is also denying itself. It is cutting off the outflowing energy of love and compassion contained within insight, and is thus ego-centred and non-mystical. Non-active, it risks condoning or supporting the unnecessary suffering and oppressions of the social status quo. Equally, anarchism that disregards internal liberation is also denying itself. It is cutting off its own radiant source of inflowing energy, anger and love, and is thus non-anarchist. In militant flight from silence and original self, such a busy anarchism risks prolonging the spiritual flatland it is combatting:

Your features did not begin in semen.
Don’t try to hide inside anger
radiance that cannot be hidden.
– Rumi

On the other hand, no, there is of course no necessary affinity between mysticism and anarchism at all. Mysticism can also be quietist or even politically reactionary (most Zen abbots have supported Japanese feudal shoguns, emperors, fascism and authoritarian corporations for example), while anarchism is usually anti-religious (‘opium of the masses’ etc) and rationalist, firmly rooted in the secular Enlightenment tradition.

In the end mysticism has no affinity with anything else at all in the known and unknown universe except the universe itself. 13th century founder of Soto Zen Dogen’s process of mystic self-negation is paradigmatic of this great tradition:

To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.

Mysticism is the vita contemplativa (contemplative life) beyond all confrontational struggle and ‘politics’. It would see much or most activism as caught up in the very mechanisms it seeks to externally overcome, as ideological, self-righteous, judgmental, overly busy, a blind acting-out of the wilful ego, an unacknowledged drive for power and/or attention, an unconscious escape attempt from unacknowledged personal or spiritual problems and anxieties. Krishnamurti puts the classic mystic case against politics:

A man who is passionate about the world and the necessity for change, must be free from political activity, religious conformity and tradition – which means, free from the weight of time, free from the burden of the past, free from all the action of will: this is the new human being. This only is the social, psychological, and even the political revolution. (‘The New Human Being’ in: The Urgency of Change, p. 318)

Anarchism on the other hand is the exemplified vita activa (active life) firmly rooted in the world and inherently sceptical of anything that seems to go beyond, or distract from, it. It would see much mysticism as obscurantism and/or an egoistic withdrawal on the part of privileged elites. Its focus is mostly on external social revolution.

Such non-political mysticism does indeed risk ego-centred withdrawal, elitism and collusion with oppression. Such anti-mystic anarchism does indeed risk blind (ego-centred) ‘acting out’ and the shallowness and desiccation inherent in believing that only external changes, changed social institutions, are necessary for human liberation from existential suffering. What seems to be needed is an active mysticism and a contemplative activism/anarchism, a higher synthesis of what Buddhist poet and eco-activist Gary Snyder has called the dual and complementary ‘mercies’ of the East and West.

In fact, mysticism can also be seen not in opposition to the rationalism, scepticism and the humanist Enlightenment tradition that largely informs progressive struggles, but as their very radicalisation and deepening. Historically, grassroots Christian mystical sects and mass movements of the late Middle Ages helped lay the foundations for Renaissance humanism, the Reformation and Enlightenment as much as alchemy helped lay the foundations of modern science. Philosophically, the Enlightenment nominalism and scepticism of an Ockham, Hume or Wittgenstein can segue effortlessly into mysticism, the ‘perennial philosophy’ (Aldous Huxley).

So can the cutting edge of modern science. Modern quantum mechanics and cosmology are, through the mathematical momentum of their own findings, constantly knocking against the limits of quantification and on the doors of mysticism. Studied objects are ‘superpositions’ of more than one state (e.g. they may be simultaneously waves and particles until we observe/measure them), past, present and future are fundamentally indistinguishable, most modern physics taking up an ‘impossible’ position standing outside time, space and the universe when ‘gazing down’ upon it, and realising that “any sense that our ‘now’ is somehow special, or that time flows past it, is an illusion we create in our heads” (M. Slezak, ‘The now delusion’, in New Scientist The Collection, The Unknown Universe, p. 93).

The reductionist quest of modern physics to find some firm, ultimate, ‘first principle’, some secure foundation to the universe, ends up, by its very own process, in the mystic Unknown/Void: “In our search for foundations, we have gone round in a circle, from the mind, via various components of matter, back to the mind […] But this just means nothing is fundamental […] The moral to draw from the reductionist scenario seems to be that either what is fundamental is not material, or that nothing at all is fundamental” (Jan Westerhoff, ‘Is matter real?’ in New Scientist The Collection The Big Questions, p. 18).

Similarly, contemporary neurological science is empirically re-discovering the other central tenet of mysticism: “[…] our self is comparable to an illusion – but without anybody there that experiences the illusion” (Jan Westerhoff, ‘What are you?’, in New Scientist The Collection, The Big Questions, p. 99). Rather than there being an opposition between mysticism and science or rationality, mysticism can in fact be read as the experience/non-experience of what cutting-edge science itself intellectually discovers when it attempts to reach ever further ‘downwards’ into reality with quantitative means.

Whether explicitly or not, mysticism also shares with reductionist science and anarchism a certain scepticism towards, or even critique of, organized religion, as it does towards ideas and thus any belief system whatsoever. Similarly, anarchism is to ‘politics’, including socialist/progressive politics, as Meister Eckhart or Thomas Merton are to Christianity, Sufism is to Islam, Advaita Vedanta is to Hinduism, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are to organized Taoism, Zen is to organized Buddhism. Going even beyond that, mysticism is the radical scepticism and critique of not just organized religion but of all ‘idols’, all ‘ideologies’, starting with the most basic idol, language, indeed thought itself and its producer and product, the ego, that cornerstone of most human identity.

Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into colour.
Do it now.
You’re covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
from silence.
The speechless full moon
comes out now.

– Rumi, ‘Quietness’

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on August 13, 2014.

4 Responses to “Anarchism, Mysticism, Poetry”

  1. Nice dance along the razors edge. Important work if the “left” is to move forward at all. I think putting ideologies in quote marks indicates the depth of that badly needed exploration as well ( my own little project at the moment).

    • Thanks, Dave, and hope you’re well. Yes, ‘razor’s edge’ is right. Bit like life. Tend to despair of much of the ‘left’. Not sure what you mean by ‘putting ideologies in quote marks indicating the depth of that badly needed exploration’?

  2. talk about connecting the dots…. (:
    can’t wait for the whole essay !

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