Go to the Index of 120 Philosophers Squared
Alan Watts (1915 – 1973) was born in England, lived in America and brought Eastern philosophy to the West. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.
Alan Watts quotes
Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.
Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.
We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.
This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.
The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.
The art of living… is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past on the other. It consists in being sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.
Every intelligent individual wants to know what makes him tick, and yet is at once fascinated and frustrated by the fact that oneself is the most difficult of all things to know.
Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.
I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.
Life is like music for its own sake. We are living in an eternal now, and when we listen to music we are not listening to the past, we are not listening to the future, we are listening to an expanded present.
The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.
A scholar tries to learn something everyday; a student of Buddhism tries to unlearn something daily.
Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.
Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.
Try to imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up… now try to imagine what it was like to wake up having never gone to sleep.
Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.
Jesus Christ knew he was God. So wake up and find out eventually who you really are. In our culture, of course, they’ll say you’re crazy and you’re blasphemous, and they’ll either put you in jail or in a nut house (which is pretty much the same thing). However if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations, ‘My goodness, I’ve just discovered that I’m God,’ they’ll laugh and say, ‘Oh, congratulations, at last you found out.
Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.
A priest once quoted to me the Roman saying that a religion is dead when the priests laugh at each other across the altar. I always laugh at the altar, be it Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist, because real religion is the transformation of anxiety into laughter.
Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.
How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself anything less than a god.
When we attempt to exercise power or control over someone else, we cannot avoid giving that person the very same power or control over us.So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.
One is a great deal less anxious if one feels perfectly free to be anxious, and the same may be said of guilt.
We could say that meditation doesn’t have a reason or doesn’t have a purpose. In this respect it’s unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing. When we make music we don’t do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.
I am what happens between the maternity ward and the Crematorium
And people get all fouled up because they want the world to have meaning as if it were words… As if you had a meaning, as if you were a mere word, as if you were something that could be looked up in a dictionary. You are meaning.
…[W]ords can be communicative only between those who share similar experiences.
Really, the fundamental, ultimate mystery — the only thing you need to know to understand the deepest metaphysical secrets — is this: that for every outside there is an inside and for every inside there is an outside, and although they are different, they go together.
I find that the sensation of myself as an ego inside a bag of skin is really a hallucination.
We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.
People become concerned with being more humble than other people.
But my dear man, reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know.
It is interesting that Hindus, when they speak of the creation of the universe do not call it the work of God, they call it the play of God, the Vishnu lila, lila meaning play. And they look upon the whole manifestation of all the universes as a play, as a sport, as a kind of dance — lila perhaps being somewhat related to our word lilt
Technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe.
We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infintesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.
Most of us assume as a matter of common sense that space is nothing, that it’s not important and has no energy. But as a matter of fact, space is the basis of existence. How could you have stars without space? Stars shine out of space and something comes out of nothing just in the same way as when you listen, in an unprejudiced way, you hear all sounds coming out of silence. It is amazing. Silence is the origin of sound just as space is the origin of stars, and woman is the origin of man. If you listen and pay close attention to what is, you will discover that there is no past, no future, and no one listening. You cannot hear yourself listening. You live in the eternal now and you are that. It is rally extremely simple, and that is the way it is.
We feel that our actions are voluntary when they follow a decision and involuntary when they happen without decision. But if a decision itself were voluntary every decision would have to be preceded by a decision to decide – An infinite regression which fortunately does not occur. Oddly enough, if we had to decide to decide, we would not be free to decide
Like love, the light or guidance of truth that influences us exists only in living form, not in principles or rules or expectations or advice, however widely circulated
Normally, we do not so much look at things as overlook them.
To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know that you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain. The thinker has no other form than his thought. There is no escape.
Although the rhythm of the waves beats a kind of time, it is not clock or calendar time. It has no urgency. It happens to be timeless time. I know that I am listening to a rhythm which has been just the same for millions of years, and it takes me out of a world of relentlessly ticking clocks. Clocks for some reason or other always seem to be marching, and, as with armies, marching is never to anything but doom. But in the motion of waves there is no marching rhythm. It harmonizes with our very breathing. It does not count our days. Its pulse is not in the stingy spirit of measuring, of marking out how much still remains. It is the breathing of eternity, like the God Brahma of Indian mythology inhaling and exhaling, manifesting and dissolving the worlds, forever. As a mere conception this might sound appallingly monotonous, until you come to listen to the breaking and washing of waves.
If we cling to belief in God, we cannot likewise have faith, since faith is not clinging but letting go.
There is nothing at all that can be talked about adequately, and the whole art of poetry is to say what can’t be said.
Zen is a liberation from time. For if we open our eyes and see clearly, it becomes obvious that there is no other time than this instant, and that the past and the future are abstractions without any concrete reality.
Like too much alcohol,self-consciousness makes us see ourselves double, and we make the double image for two selves – mental and material, controlling and controlled, reflective and spontaneous. Thus instead of suffering we suffer about suffering, and suffer about suffering about suffering.
The source of all light is in the eye.
Other people teach us who we are. Their attitudes to us are the mirror in which we learn to see ourselves, but the mirror is distorted. We are, perhaps, rather dimly aware of the immense power of our social environment.
You have seen that the universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that there is no separate “you” to get something out of it, as if life were a bank to be robbed. The only real “you” is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For “you” is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new.
But the transformation of consciousness undertaken in Taoism and Zen is more like the correction of faulty perception or the curing of a disease. It is not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather an unlearning of wrong habits and opinions. As Lao-tzu said, “The scholar gains every day, but the Taoist loses every day.”
realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. We
copy emotional reactions from our parents, learning from them that excrement is supposed to have a disgusting smell and that vomiting is supposed to be an unpleasant sensation. The dread of death is also learned from their anxieties about sickness and from their attitudes to funerals and corpses. Our social environment has this power just because we do not exist apart from a society. Society is our extended mind and body. Yet the very society from which the individual is inseparable is using its whole irresistible force to persuade the individual that he is indeed separate! Society as we now know it is therefore playing a game with self-contradictory rules.
You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes.
For there is a growing apprehension that existence is a rat-race in a trap: living organisms, including people,are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out. So to keep the farce going, the tubes find ways of making new tubes, which also put things in at one end and let them out at the other. At the input end they even develop ganglia of nerves called brains, with eyes and ears, so that they can more easily scrounge around for things to swallow. As and when they get enough to eat, they use up their surplus energy by wiggling in complicated patterns, making all sorts of noises by blowing air in and out of the input hole, and gathering together in groups to fight with other groups. In time, the tubes grow such an abundance of attached appliances that they are hardly recognizable as mere tubes, and they manage to do this in a staggering variety of forms. There is a vague rule not to eat tubes of your own form, but in general there is serious competition as to who is going to be the top type of tube. All this seems marvelously futile, and yet, when you begin to think about it, it begins to be more marvelous than futile. Indeed, it seems extremely odd.
The religious idea of God cannot do full duty for the metaphysical infinity.
Jesus was not the man he was as a result of making Jesus Christ his personal savior.
For man seems to be unable to live without myth, without the belief that the routine and drudgery, the pain and fear of this life have some meaning and goal in the future. At once new myths come into being – political and economic myths with extravagant promises of the best of futures in the present world. These myths give the individual a certain sense of meaning by making him part of a vast social effort, in which he loses something of his own emptiness and loneliness. Yet the very violence of these political religions betrays the anxiety beneath them – for they are but men huddling together and shouting to give themselves courage in the dark.
Our pleasures are not material pleasures, but symbols of pleasure – attractively packaged but inferior in content.
Hospitals should be arranged in such a way as to make being sick an interesting experience. One learns a great deal sometimes from being sick.
This state of affairs is known technically as the “double-bind.” A
person is put in a double-bind by a command or request which contains
a concealed contradiction…
This is a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t
situation which arises constantly in human (and especially family)
The social doublebind game can be phrased in several ways:The first rule of this game is that it is not a game. Everyone must play. You must love us. You must go on living. Be yourself, but play a consistent and acceptable role. Control yourself and be natural. Try to be sincere. Essentially, this game is a demand for spontaneous behavior of certain kinds. Living, loving, being natural or sincere—all these are spontaneous forms of behavior: they happen “of themselves” like digesting food or growing hair. As soon as they are forced they acquire that unnatural, contrived, and phony atmosphere which everyone deplores—weak and scentless like forced flowers and tasteless like forced fruit. Life and love generate effort, but effort will not generate them. Faith—in life, in other people, and in oneself—is the attitude of allowing the spontaneous to be spontaneous, in its own way and in its own time.
What we have to discover is that there is no safety, that seeking is painful, and that when we imagine that we have found it, we don’t like it.
Just as true humor is laughter at oneself, true humanity is knowledge of oneself.
The morning glory which blooms for an hour differs not at heart from the giant pine, which lives for a thousand years.
Naturally, for a person who finds his identity in something other than his full organism is less than half a man. He is cut off from complete participation in nature. Instead of being a body, he ‘has’ a body. Instead of living and loving he ‘has’ instincts for survival and copulation.
In reality there are no separate events. Life moves along like water, it’s all connected to the source of the river is connected to the mouth and the ocean.
But nirvana is a radical transformation of how it feels to be alive: it feels as if everything were myself, or as if everything—including “my” thoughts and actions—were happening of itself. There are still efforts, choices, and decisions, but not the sense that “I make them”; they arise of themselves in relation to circumstances. This is therefore to feel life, not as an encounter between subject and object, but as a polarized field where the contest of opposites has become the play of opposites.
Here’s an example: someone says, “Master, please hand me the knife,” and he hands them the knife, blade first. “Please give me the other end,” he says. And the master replies, “What would you do with the other end?” This is answering an everyday matter in terms of the metaphysical.
When the question is, “Master, what is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” Then he replies, “There is enough breeze in this fan to keep me cool.” That is answering the metaphysical in terms of the everyday, and that is, more or less, the principle zen works on. The mundane and the sacred are one and the same.
For unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, “Now, I’ve arrived!” Your entire education has deprived you of this capacity because it was preparing
you for the future, instead of showing you how to be alive now.
The art of meditation is a way of getting into touch with reality, and the reason for it is that most civilized people are out of touch with reality because they confuse the world as it with the world as they think about it and talk about it and describe it. For on the one hand there is the real world and on the other there is a whole system of symbols about that world which we have in our minds. These are very very useful symbols, all civilization depends on them, but like all good things they have their disadvantages, and the principle disadvantage of symbols is that we confuse them with reality, just as we confuse money with actual wealth.
The menu is not the meal.
What we see as death, empty space, or nothingness is only the trough between the crests of this endlessly waving ocean. It is all part of the illusion that there should seem to be something to be gained in the future, and that there is an urgent necessity to go on and on until we get it. Yet just as there is no time but the present, and no one except the all-and-everything, there is never anything to be gained—though the zest of the game is to pretend that there is.
We think that the world is limited and explained by its past. We tend to think that what happened in the past determines what is going to happen next, and we do not see that it is exactly the other way around! What is always the source of the world is the present; the past doesn’t explain a thing. The past trails behind the present like the wake of a ship and eventually disappears.
Where there is to be creative action, it is quite beside the point to discuss what we should or should not do in order to be right or good. A mind that is single and sincere is not interested in being good, in conducting relations with other people so as to live up to a rule. Nor, on the other hand, is it interested in being free, in acting perversely just to prove its independence. Its interest is not in itself, but in the people and problems of which it is aware; these are “itself.” It acts, not according to the rules, but according to the circumstances of the moment, and the “well” it wishes to others is not security but liberty.
You will never get to the irreducible definition of anything because you will never be able to explain why you want to explain, and so on. The system will gobble itself up.
We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.
In looking out upon the world, we forget that the world is looking at itself.
If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world.
Real travel requires a maximum of unscheduled wandering, for there is no other way of discovering surprises and marvels, which, as I see it, is the only good reason for not staying at home.
For if you know what you want, and will be content with it, you can be trusted. But if you do not know, your desires are limitless and no one can tell how to deal with you. Nothing satisfies an individual incapable of enjoyment.
If our own riches and our own way of life are not enjoyed here, they will not be enjoyed anywhere else. Certainly they will supply the immediate jolt of energy and hope that methedrine, and similar drugs, give in extreme fatigue. But peace can be made only by those who are peaceful, and love can be shown only by those who love. No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
Suppressing the fear of death makes it all the stronger. The point is only to know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that “I” and all other “things” now present will vanish, until this knowledge compels you to release them – to know it now as surely as if you had just fallen off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Indeed you were kicked off the edge of a precipice when you were born, and it’s no help to cling to the rocks falling with you. If you are afraid of death, be afraid. The point is to get with it, to let it take over – fear, ghosts, pains, transience, dissolution, and all. And then comes the hitherto unbelievable surprise; you don’t die because you were never born. You had just forgotten who you are.
We must abandon completely the notion of blaming the past for any kind of situation we’re in and reverse our thinking and see that the past always flows back from the present. That now is the creative point of life. So you see its like the idea of forgiving somebody, you change the meaning of the past by doing that…Also watch the flow of music. The melody as its expressed is changed by notes that come later. Just as the meaning of a sentence…you wait till later to find out what the sentence means…The present is always changing the past.
Your body does not eliminate poisons by knowing their names. To try to control fear or depression or boredom by calling them names is to resort to superstition of trust in curses and invocations. It is so easy to see why this does not work. Obviously, we try to know, name, and define fear in order to make it “objective,” that is, separate from “I.”
If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so. If this world is a vicious trap, so is its accuser, and the pot is calling the kettle black.
We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.
Peace can be made only by those who are peaceful, and love can be shown only by those who love. No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, openness – an act of trust in the unknown.
Yet again, the more you strive for some kind of perfection or mastery—in morals, in art or in spirituality—the more you see that you are playing a rarified and lofty form of the old ego-game, and that your attainment of any height is apparent to yourself and to others only by contrast with someone else’s depth or failure.
For every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole, as every branch is a particular outreaching of the tree. To manifest individuality, every branch must have a sensitive connection with the tree, just as our independently moving and differentiated fingers must have a sensitive connection with the whole body. The point, which can hardly be repeated too often, is that differentiation is not separation.
We therefore work, not for the work’s sake, but for money—and money is supposed to get us what we really want in our hours of leisure and play. In the United States even poor people have lots of money compared with the wretched and skinny millions of India, Africa, and China, while our middle and upper classes (or should we say “income groups”) are as prosperous as princes. Yet, by and large, they have but slight taste for pleasure. Money alone cannot buy pleasure, though it can help. For enjoyment is an art and a skill for which we have little talent or energy.
The more we try to live in the world of words, the more we feel isolated and alone, the more all the joy and liveliness of things is exchanged for mere certainty and security. On the other hand, the more we are forced to admit that we actually live in the real world, the more we feel ignorant, uncertain, and insecure about everything.
The clash between science and religion has not shown that religion is false and science is true. It has shown that all systems of definition are relative to various purposes, and that none of them actually “grasp” reality.
Make a spurious division of one process into two, forget that you have done it, and then puzzle for centuries as to how the two get together.
For the world is an ever-elusive and ever-disappointing mirage only from the standpoint of someone standing aside from it—as if it were quite other than himself—and then trying to grasp it.
But a third response is possible. Not withdrawal, not stewardship on the hypothesis of a future reward, but the fullest collaboration with the world as a harmonious system of contained conflicts—based on the realization that the only real “I” is the whole endless process.
No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
To the philosophers of India, however, Relativity is no new discovery, just as the concept of light years is no matter for astonishment to people used to thinking of time in millions of kalpas, (A kalpa is about 4,320,000 years). The fact that the wise men of India have not been concerned with technological applications of this knowledge arises from the circumstance that technology is but one of innumerable ways of applying it.
I owe my solitude to other people.
Society is our extended mind and body.
For we have never actually understood the revolutionary sense beneath them – the incredible truth that what religion calls the vision of God is found in giving up any belief in the idea of God.
It is hard indeed to notice anything for which the languages available to us have no description.
If the human race develops an electronic nervous system, outside the bodies of individual people, thus giving us all one mind and one global body, this is almost precisely what has happened in the organization of cells which compose our own bodies. We have already done it. […] If all this ends with the human race leaving no more trace of itself in the universe than a system of electronic patterns, why should that trouble us? For that is exactly what we are now!
In the Gestalt theory of perception this is known as the figure/ground relationship. This theory asserts, in brief, that no figure is ever perceived except in relation to a background.
Nothing fails like success—because the self-imposed task of our society and all its members is a contradiction: to force things to happen which are acceptable only when they happen without force.
The morality that goes with this understanding is, above all, the frank recognition of your dependence upon enemies, underlings, out-groups, and, indeed, upon all other forms of life whatsoever. Involved as you may be in the conflicts and competitive games of practical life, you will never again be able to indulge in the illusion that the “offensive other” is all in the wrong, and could or should be wiped out.
There was a young man who said though, it seems that I know that I know, but what I would like to see is the I that knows me when I know that I know that I know.
The agnostic, the skeptic, is neurotic, but this does not imply a false philosophy; it implies the discovery of facts to which he does not know how to adapt himself. The intellectual who tries to escape from neurosis by escaping from the facts is merely acting on the principle that “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.
Just as true humour is laughter at oneself, true humanity is knowledge of oneself.
Fictions are useful so long as they are taken as fictions. They are then simply ways of “figuring” the world which we agree to follow so that we can act in cooperation, as we agree about inches and hours, numbers and words, mathematical systems and languages. If we have no agreement about measures of time and space, I would have no way of making a date with you at the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue at 3 P.M. on Sunday, April 4.
Man aspires to govern nature, but the more one studies ecology, the more absurd it seems to speak of any one feature of an organism, or of an organism/environment field, as governing or ruling others.
A successful college president once complained to me, I’m so busy that I’m going to have to get a helicopter! Well, I answered, you’ll be ahead so long as you’re the only president who has one. But don’t get it. Everyone will expect more out of you.
What is the next step, the practical application? —I will answer that the absolutely vital thing is to consolidate your understanding, to become capable of enjoyment, of living in the present, and of the discipline which this involves. Without this you have nothing to give.
Philosophers, for example, often fail to recognize that their remarks about the universe apply also to themselves and their remarks. If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so.
Thought and science are therefore raising problems which their terms of study can never answer, many of which are doubtless problems only for thought. The trisection of an angle is similarly an insoluble problem only for compass and straight-edge construction, and Achilles cannot overtake the tortoise so long as their progress is considered piecemeal, endlessly having the distance between them. However, as it is not Achilles but the method of measurement which fails to catch up with the tortoise, so it is not man but his method of thought which fails to find fulfillment in experience.”
Now as you plumb out into the universe and explore it astronomically, it gets very strange. You begin to see things in the depths that at first sight seem utterly remote. How could they have anything to do with us. They are so far off and so unlikely. And in the same way, when you start probing into the inner workings of the human body you come across all kinds of funny little monsters and wiggly things that bear no resemblance to what we recognize as the human image. Look at a spermatozoon under a microscope. That little tadpole! And how can that have any connection with a grown human being. It’s so unlike, you see. It’s foreign feeling. And you get the creeps, a foreign feeling, about yourself…But what we will always find out in the end when we meet the very strange thing, there will one day be the dawning recognition: Why that’s me.
This, then, is the human problem: there is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.
Herein lies the crux of the matter. To stand face to face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it, you must not face it but be it.
Since opposed principles, or ideologies, are irreconcilable, wars fought over principle will be wars of mutual annihilation. But wars fought for simple greed will be far less destructive, because the aggressor will be careful not to destroy what he is fighting to capture. Reasonable – that is, human – men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life.
To look at life without words is not to lose the ability to form words- to think, remember, and plan. To be silent is not to lose your tongue. On the contrary, it is only through silence that one can discover something new to talk about. One who talked incessantly, without stopping to look and listen, would repeat himself ad nauseam.
It is the same with thinking, which is really silent talking. It is not, by itself, open to the discovery of anything new, for its only novelties are simply arrangements of old words and ideas.
For if you know what you want, and will be content with it, you can be trusted. But if you do not know, your desires are limitless and no one can tell how to deal with you. Nothing satisfies an individual incapable of enjoyment. This statement by Alan Watts strikes me as being pure Roman Stoicism from the pre-Christian era. The Stoics aimed at being content with what they had and practiced having little or no concern over what others had, or they themselves might acquire. Thus a Stoic could be trusted because he had no philosophical or emotional reason to acquire more. Stoics take enjoyment in what they have and ignore what they don’t have.
Its interest is not in itself, but in the people and problems of which it is aware; these are “itself.” It acts, not according to the rules, but according to the circumstances of the moment, and the “well” it wishes to others is not security but liberty. This statement excites me because of my goal of maximizing humanity’s happiness. That happiness becomes difficult to define, but the concepts of liberty or freedom, although nebulous themselves, mean creating situations where all individuals may have the liberty to do as they please. Thus, I am not forcing happiness upon anyone, but rather offering them the liberty to seek happiness as they see fit.
We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. This is central to Watts’ idea that we are part of the Universe. Who could deny that, but it is a contradiction to the speculation that we have an eternal soul independent of the Universe. We grow out the of stuff of the Universe and we have a unique soul because of our developing it out of the materials that the Universe supplies. The point is only to know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that “I” and all other “things” now present will vanish, until this knowledge compels you to release them – to know it now. This is a continuation of his idea that we are made of the stuff of the Universe. That isn’t his idea, but he makes a solid statement that we will vanish back into the stuff of which we came, and by extension so with the Universe itself. The only real “I” is the whole endless process. We are immersed in a process, and although it may not be infinitely endless, by human standards it vastly exceeds any of our personal time scales. In the Gestalt theory of perception this is known as the figure/ground relationship. This theory asserts, in brief, that no figure is ever perceived except in relation to a background. When thinking of humans in universal terms the Universe itself becomes the background from which we are born, exist and return.
Another of Watts’ ideas that is so obvious, once it has been stated clearly, is the danger we all face from other humans who are certain of their ideas. Men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life. The reason that statement carries impact is because true believers have absolute standards with no human flexibility built into them, and thus they may destroy anything and everything in their perfect knowledge that they are doing the right thing. – Everything!
For thinking to be productive it must have the input of error. If we think with perfect understanding of what we do we are doing nothing more than a perfect computer can do. Watts writes, With thinking, which is really silent talking. It is not, by itself, open to the discovery of anything new, for its only novelties are simply arrangements of old words and ideas. To understand our world and our relationships with it requires that some humans must explore the outer boundaries, where error is common, and then have the human judgment to choose those paths that will be productive for human happiness.