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“No Gods, No Masters”: The anarchism of personal growth

This article was published in the first issue of Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience in the app. You can read Tribe now on Android or iPhone.

“No Gods, No Masters,” was what I heard Chomsky repeat at a 2013 lecture on Anarchism.

What?

I had a bit of a mini-heart attack, as I heard his quote, before he continued on, defining “No God” as “opposition to ecclesiastical guardianship” before finishing with “individual beliefs are a different matter.”

Again. What?

No Gods. No Masters: the golden rule of anarchism.

But why “no Gods?” Why “no masters?” Why would anarchism reject this?

The answer is somewhat straightforward: Anarchism rejects subservience.

To Chomsky, anarchism is a system which questions all forms of hierarchy and authority, demanding that these systems explain themselves and assert their legitimacy.

If their legitimacy cannot be proved, then these institutions need to be leveled. Chomsky would then add “and then rebuild from the ground up.”

So as to “no Gods,” what Chomsky drives at is the idea of being a spiritual servant of another — of a parishioner taking orders from a priest who takes orders from a bishop who takes orders from a Pontiff who takes orders from a deity — is inherently in opposition to anarchism.

Spiritual guardianship, therefore, inhibits personal growth. Why?

Because the organization of the religion stewards the spirituality of the followers, culling any heterodox thought.

The relationship, however, between the individual and the deity (or deities) must therefore be held at the individual level — with the individual serving as the interrogator of the deity. The believer must therefore ask their god to explain itself. The authority must be questioned.

The answer can be accepted or rejected. That is at the discretion of the individual.

Hearing that, as I said at the beginning, put me on the defensive. While my religious beliefs may skew a little syncretic compared to most Christians, I certainly classify myself as a believer.

Hearing a revered philosopher like Chomsky put my beliefs on the defense made me, well, defensive.

Until I realized that he wasn’t really putting my faith in the defense.

In fact, actually, he was celebrating my individual ability to form my own unique set of tenets and faiths that I hold — as long as I am not using them to push or uphold an illegitimate hierarchy or authority.

As I was coming to this realization, it made me think a lot about the explosion of personal growth practitioners, teachers, gurus, and schools.

It made me think about how uniquely decentralized this industry has become — how with only curiosity and an internet connection, one can learn from all sorts of teachers and can choose to incorporate their teachings into your system of self-growth.

Or not. You can choose not to.

That, to me, is some of the beautiful anarchy of self-help. You can question its validity. You can say, “this isn’t for me,” and turn it off.

Try doing that in the middle of a Sunday service and see how far that takes you.

Venturing out of the box

I’ve always had a personal skepticism toward personal growth because I was always concerned that it placed more emphasis on the individual rather than the society.

I grew up in the Church, and my views on morality were very much of the “they will know we are Christians by our heart” mentality. By this, I mean, the faith was about performing good deeds and loving others as a way to build a just society.

So it’s when Chomsky said, “no Gods, no masters” that I started to reflect on my own spiritual development through the Church. And I realized, so much of it was devoted to the external, to the selfless acts of helping others, while comparatively very little was devoted to enlightening oneself.

Could it be that this form of sacrificing for the community ought to be examined through the radical lens of anarchy’s skepticism?

Maybe. Maybe it should. Maybe the reason why I am averse to self-growth is because of the conditioning that I had received within a religious community.

So I went looking…

I decided to look at “Out of the Box” by Rudá Iandê, a shaman who draws upon Amazonian traditions to help guide individuals on their own paths to self-actualization.

I’m only about halfway through with this course (there are four modules totaling 16 weeks of content), but the mentorship I have accessed so far has been a profound collection of downright anarchic exploration.

Rudá never claims to have the truth. Far from it.

In the first module, he writes something that immediately resonated with me and with Chomsky’s lecture.

“Being unsure in your convictions is actually a good thing, believe it or not. It’s where the real journey begins. This journey is not a search for truth — quite the opposite. Instead, we will be challenging and breaking down, one by one, all of the concepts that come together to make up our own personal Truth.

“You can spend your life either defending your personal truth or interrogating it. If you take the first route, you will live your life defending your way of seeing the world and trying to make sense of the stories you’ve been telling yourself about ‘the way things are.’ You’ll fight for your beliefs and work hard to prove your point. You can study philosophy, mysticism, metaphysics and religion, always improving your ideas, polishing the bricks of your mental constructions, improving and expanding the sand castles you’ve built in your mind. Or you can take the second road, and risk leaving the comfort of the constructions you’ve so carefully built to explore the uncharted territory beyond your own intellect. Instead of wasting time trying to make sense of life, you can embrace it. Life is not safe. Life is wild! We are not ‘beings of light’ — we are as chaotic as life itself! Life is mystery and we are mystery, and that mystery is as terrifying as it is fascinating.”

I was floored reading this. “You can spend your life either defending your personal truth or interrogating it.”

I’ll be honest: up until this point, I’d been unconsciously firm in the camp of “defending my truth.”

I am defined by my tenets. And I will find proof to prove my tenets.

That was my unconscious line of thinking.

Interrogating truth is scary. What if I don’t want to interrogate my truth? I have comfort in the sandcastles of my mind’s tenets.

I don’t want “no Gods.” I don’t want to be that alone.

But the last line, “life is mystery and we are mystery”, struck me.

It reminds me of a Greek Orthodox tradition stipulating that God is firmly unknowable. Defining God is not only pointless, it is impossible.

With that tradition, comes the second concept of “theosis,” the transformative process of (throughout one’s life) the unification with God.

This theosis is a lifelong journey that is brought about through “catharsis” (cleansing) and “theoria” (illumination).

Gotta say, for a very hierarchical organization, Greek Orthodox thought can be downright groovy.

Life is mystery. God is unknowable. Your life is a journey to be in union with the unknowable nature of God.

These concepts all seem to fan out as far more similar than they are different.

They seem quite radical.

They seem downright anarchic.

Motivational speakers of the corporate class

The day I was fired, we had a motivational speaker coming to our company.

I won’t tell you who the speaker is, but he’s a well-known motivational speaker with several world records for physical fitness.

I remember, sitting in the back row (I really didn’t want to come down for his speech), hearing him tell this story of his abusive childhood, followed by his total life-transformation, ultimately becoming a high-performing man who claimed to have the key to peak performance.

I remember sitting there, hearing him hammer on about “excellence” and only wanting “the best of his best” on “his team,” and showing us how we could become “the best of the best.”

Because who wants to be mediocre?

And I remember thinking “why not mediocrity?”

Why work so hard to become “the best of the best?”

His pitch was: work hard, overcome your obstacles, and be the peak performer so that you can be excellent.

Why be excellent? What does excellence give you?

He never really answered, except to add “and make a lot of money.”

It felt sickly. Abhorrent even. I remember thinking “everyone cannot be the best.”

Not every man can be the CEO. Not every woman can become a millionaire.

Instead, the majority of us have to be, well — average.

And his speech never acknowledged that. Corporate culture cannot acknowledge that.

Let’s face it: if you run a company with 500 employees and all 500 of them were performing at peak excellence — at being the best workers who ever lived, you couldn’t promote all of them.

You couldn’t have 500 CEOs.

So the framework of excellence being the key to success is inherently combative. It’s competitive. It’s not about being your best.

It’s about being better than others.

This is why my company pushed this speaker. Because his mission pushes other employees to not better themselves but to compete against each other for the approval of their bosses in order to hopefully land one of the limited promotions available.

I didn’t want this. It disturbed me.

I didn’t want a promotion. I just wanted to take my paycheck and go home to my dog.

So, more or less, I told my boss that. Well, under duress I told her that. She basically said, “I get the feeling you don’t want to be here.”

I replied, “I’m applying to graduate schools. I’ve been applying since before I got this job.”

Clear subtext: this job is a means to an end.

Result: Fired the next day.

Unfortunate aspect: did not get into any grad program.

Upside: became a freelance writer.

I’ll be honest, being a freelance writer hasn’t always been a cakewalk. There are uncertainty and elements of feast-or-famine but there are “no Gods, no Masters.”

I am responsible for myself. For that, I feel free.

The myth of success

It’s with this skepticism of success, skepticism of excellence, skepticism of commodifying talent, that I approached Out of the Box.

And I was so grateful to have found a kindred spirit in Rudá.

Rudá calls “success” the most insidious myth!

Of the rat race to grasp excellence, Rudá writes:

“You don’t have to be very good at math to calculate how possible it is to accomplish this in real life. It’s a fantasy. This myth creates a constant sense of oppression because we are never successful enough. It keeps us forever running away from the monster of failure, chasing the oasis of success in the distance. But the cruel irony is that when we finally reach this oasis, we see that it is a mirage that disappears as soon as we get close to it.

Until you find your own definition of success, this modern myth will keep you always feeling like a failure.”

According to Rudá, these theories of success, of happiness, of rightness and wrongness, are not inherent. Instead, these are all myths that have been forced upon us by society, by our parents, by the media.

These aren’t our wants. They’re the wants of society.

And the chaotic shamanism of Rudá wants us to question this.

“Why do I want to be happy?”

“Why do I want to be excellent?”

This questioning of success, of looking to reframe success not based upon society, but rather our goal for life, is so radical.

But why is it radical? It’s radical because it rejects what millennia of teachings have impressed upon us: and that is that “we have the vision of success and you must take these steps to achieve it”.

To Rudá, this success is not in your interest. It is in society’s interest. Society wants you to work hard to make money because it makes society function more efficiently.

Me “being excellent” at my company doesn’t bring me happiness. It brings my company productivity.

Rejecting this is to, in effect, reject society.

And that, a rejection of hierarchy, a critique of authority, is anarchy.

And the anarchy that I presented (I do not want to be excellent) came at a swift cost: my job.

But I was free.

Freedom and anarchy

Chomsky said,

“For the anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.”

Freedom is not “being excellent”.

Freedom is not “getting rich”.

It could be those things. But it is not defined by those things.

Instead, freedom is the possibility for humans to achieve self-actualization — to develop themselves to their greatest ability and then give these abilities back to a society to help others achieve this self-actualization.

Freedom is, in a non-supernatural sense, almost the spiritual crux of anarchy.

It is this articulation of how the self-enlightenment is able to contribute to a society while not being infringed upon by society which I had been lacking.

It’s what put me off of many self-help courses — those that were solely focused on the individual (and, let’s be honest, focused on helping the individual make more money, get a promotion, and find true love).

It’s what had given me pause about my traditional religious background.

My church had never said “You must be excellent. You must work and be rich.” But, they had said, “these are our tenets, these are our morals. This is what truth is.”

I learned how to be a good Christian. But I didn’t learn how to be a self-realized human.

Out of the Box, in the anarchist tradition, embraces the dichotomy of the individual vs. the collective.

In fact, Out of the Box, embraces dichotomy as a tenet of being a human.

Rudá says “you are beautiful chaos”.

You are your shadow and your light. The shadows of ourselves (our flaws and failings, shames, and suppressed emotions) are to be embraced, rather than discarded.

These shadows are the elements of our life that we, our society, the hierarchies we adhere to; have demanded that we discard.

And we complied — without questioning it.

We, according to Rudá, have discarded half of ourselves without even thinking about it.

And therefore, we exist as half of a whole. And the half cannot function.

This is why we chase the excellence of the paycheck while never gaining satisfaction.

We are molding ourselves not to our will but to the will of others. And we punish ourselves when we inevitably fail to keep half of our psyche bottled up.

Rudá demands that we embrace this beautiful chaos. We have to interrogate ourselves — the parts of ourselves that we have hidden from the world and from our “polite psyche” that we present to the public.

We have to, as Rudá says, “embody our unlimited being”.

Unlimited being

I have not done this. I have not sat down and aggressively interrogated myself. I have not embraced my beautiful chaos completely. I’m still only finished with about half of the course.

And at the halfway mark, it feels that I have just broached the ideas of deconstructing my mental barriers, without yet knowing how to walk the path forward.

I have been made aware that my previous line of thinking — building mental sandcastles to defend my beliefs — is unsustainable. It’s inhibiting my ability to become a self-actualized person.

My sandcastle has been hit with a powerful battering ram of anarchism, labeled “no Gods, no Masters”.

It has knocked down walls that I believed about self-betterment, individualism vs. collectivism. It has given me a way to articulate my dissatisfaction at the cult of excellence.

I have peeked my head out of the tower to see a world that appears a lot more mysterious, chaotic, and more magnificent than I imagined.

It is a world of radical rejection of the presupposed authority of others. It is a world of radical rejection of assumed hierarchy. Of radical rejections of the demands of society in order to discover the mystery of the suppressed individual.

It’s as Rudá said:

“Life is not safe. Life is wild! We are not “beings of light”

We are as chaotic as life itself! Life is mystery and we are mystery, and that mystery is as terrifying as it is fascinating.”

And life is wild. And I feel grateful for being pushed to embrace the wild.

I am eager to continue this course to see what wild chaos may be present and how it may hopefully help me stumble forward in the dark.

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Written by Nathan Dennis

Nathan Dennis is a Manhattan based playwright and poet of Floridian extraction. A graduate of NYU Tisch Department of Dramatic Writing, he served as a Rita and Burton Goldberg Fellow, and was awarded Outstanding Writing for the Stage in Spring of 2015. His most recent play, Lord of Florida, was workshopped by PrismHouse Theatre Company in the Fall of 2017.

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