Alan Watts

Alan Watts was a prolific author and speaker, and one of the first to interpret Eastern wisdom for a Western audience.

Prolific Author and Speaker

"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" Alan Watts

About Alan Watts

Alan Wilson Watts was born on 6 January 1915 and died on 16 November 1973. Alan Watts was a single child of a suburban English couple. He announced his conversion to Buddhism aged 13. He published his first book on Zen at age 20. He later went on to become a freelance ‘philosopher-entertainer’.

He is best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. His philosophies seem to transcend ego, politics, and limitations.

On Existence

"Existence - the physical universe, is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn't going anywhere, that is to say, it doesn't have some destination that it ought to arrive at."

Individuals

"Every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole, as every branch is a particular outreaching of the tree."

Life Purpose

If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing — which is stupid!

Nirvana

Nirvana is right where you are, provided that you don't object to it.

The Meaning of Life

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 Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

Book Notes and excerpts from Allan Watts The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

We ignore who, or
what, we really are.

The Book explores an unrecognized but mighty taboo—our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are.

The Preface

Who and what we really are is the focus of The Book. It addresses the central questions we all share, our place in the universe, the universe and man's place in it, the mysterious experience which we call "I myself," and the challenges of life and love, pain and death, and the whole question of whether existence has meaning in any sense of the word.

We ignore who, or what, we really are

THIS BOOK explores an unrecognized but mighty taboo—our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are.

Briefly, the thesis is that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East—in particular the central and germinal Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man's natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction.

A cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition

We are therefore in urgent need of a sense of our own existence which is in accord with the physical facts and which overcomes our feeling of alienation from the universe. For this purpose I have drawn on the insights of Vedanta, stating them, however, in a completely modern and Western style—so that this volume makes no attempt to be a textbook on or introduction to Vedanta in the ordinary sense. It is rather a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition.

On the bible

There are indeed secrets in the Bible, and some very subversive ones, but they are all so muffled up in complications, in archaic symbols and ways of thinking, that Christianity has become incredibly difficult to explain to a modern person. That is, unless you are content to water it down to being good and trying to imitate Jesus, but no one ever explains just how to do that. To do it you must have a particular power from God known as "grace," but all that we really know about grace is that some get it, and some don't.

On the other standard brand religions

The standard-brand religions, whether Jewish, Christian, Mohammedan, Hindu, or Buddhist, are—as now practiced—like exhausted mines: very hard to dig. With some exceptions not too easily found, their ideas about man and the world, their imagery, their rites, and their notions of the good life don't seem to fit in with the universe as we now know it, or with a human world that is changing so rapidly that much of what one learns in school is already obsolete on graduation day

The book we need

A book on the universe and man's place in it, the mysterious center of experience which we call "I myself," the problems of life and love, pain and death, and the whole question of whether existence has meaning in any sense of the word.

The growing Apprehension on modern life

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.

A special kind of enlightenment

It is a special kind of enlightenment to have this feeling that the usual, the way things normally are, is odd—uncanny and highly improbable. This feeling of universal oddity includes a basic and intense wondering about the sense of things. Why, of all possible worlds, this colossal and apparently unnecessary multitude of galaxies in a mysteriously curved space-time continuum, these myriads of differing tube-species playing frantic games of one-upmanship, these numberless ways of "doing it" from the elegant architecture of the snow crystal or the diatom to the startling magnificence of the lyrebird or the peacock?

Wonder is not a disease

Most philosophical problems are to be solved by getting rid of them, by coming to the point where you see that such questions as "Why this universe?" are a kind of intellectual neurosis, a misuse of words in that the question sounds sensible but is actually as meaningless as asking "Where is this universe?" when the only things that are anywhere must be somewhere inside the universe. The task of philosophy is to cure people of such nonsense. Wittgenstein, as we shall see, had a point there. Nevertheless, wonder is not a disease. Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish men from other animals, and intelligent and sensitive people from morons.

Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish men from other animals, and intelligent and sensitive people from morons.

The world is in an extremely dangerous situation.

It is not that we may simply blow up the planet with nuclear bombs, strangle ourselves with overpopulation, destroy our natural resources through poor conservation, or ruin the soil and its products with improperly understood chemicals and pesticides.

Playing a game in which the rules are constantly changed without ever being made clear.

Beyond all these is the possibility that civilization may be a huge technological success, but through methods that most people will find baffling, frightening, and disorienting—because, for one reason alone, the methods will keep changing.

It may be like playing a game in which the rules are constantly changed without ever being made clear—a game from which one cannot withdraw without suicide, and in which one can never return to an older form of the game.

The root of the matter.

The root of the matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity. We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms.

Most of us have the sensation that 'I myself' as separate .

Most of us have the sensation that "I myself" is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body—a center which "confronts" an "external" world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. "I came into this world." "You must face reality." "The conquest of nature."

But we do not "come into" this world; we come out of it.

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences.

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. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated "egos" inside bags of skin.

The first result of this illusion.

The first result of this illusion is that our attitude to the world "outside" us is largely hostile. We are forever "conquering" nature, space, mountains, deserts, bacteria, and insects instead of learning to cooperate with them in a harmonious order.

The hostile attitude of conquering nature ignores the basic interdependence of all things and events—that the world beyond the skin is actually an extension of our own bodies—and will end in destroying the very environment from which we emerge and upon which our whole life depends.

The second result of feeling that we are separate.

The second result of feeling that we are separate minds in an alien, and mostly stupid, universe is that we have no common sense, no way of making sense of the world upon which we are agreed in common. It's just my opinion against yours, and therefore the most aggressive and violent (and thus insensitive) propagandist makes the decisions. A muddle of conflicting opinions united by force of propaganda is the worst possible source of control for a powerful technology.

We need a new experience of what it is to be "I."

We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new experience—a new feeling of what it is to be "I."

The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing—with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized.

We have suppressed and overlooked something startlingly obvious.

As is so often the way, what we have suppressed and overlooked is something startlingly obvious. The difficulty is that it is so obvious and basic that one can hardly find the words for it.

The Germans call it a Hintergedanke, an apprehension lying tacitly in the back of our minds which we cannot easily admit, even to ourselves.

The sensation of "I" as a lonely and isolated center of being is so powerful and commonsensical, and so fundamental to our modes of speech and thought, to our laws and social institutions, that we cannot experience selfhood except as something superficial in the scheme of the universe.

We are immeasurably old; our forms are infinite and their comings and goings are simply the pulses or vibrations of a single and eternal flow of energy.

I seem to be a brief light that flashes but once in all the aeons of time—a rare, complicated, and all-too-delicate organism on the fringe of biological evolution, where the wave of life bursts into individual, sparkling, and multicolored drops that gleam for a moment only to vanish forever.

Under such conditioning it seems impossible and even absurd to realize that myself does not reside in the drop alone, but in the whole surge of energy which ranges from the galaxies to the nuclear fields in my body. At this level of existence "I" am immeasurably old; my forms are infinite and their comings and goings are simply the pulses or vibrations of a single and eternal flow of energy.

The difficulty in realizing this to be so is that conceptual thinking cannot grasp it. It is as if the eyes were trying to look at themselves directly, or as if one were trying to describe the color of a mirror in terms of colors reflected in the mirror.

Just as sight is something more than all things seen, the foundation or "ground" of our existence and our awareness cannot be understood in terms of things that are known. We are forced, therefore, to speak of it through myth—that is, through special metaphors, analogies, and images which say what it is like as distinct from what it is. At one extreme of its meaning, "myth" is fable, falsehood, or superstition. But at another, "myth" is a useful and fruitful image by which we make sense of life in somewhat the same way that we can explain electrical forces by comparing them with the behavior of water or air. Yet "myth," in this second sense, is not to be taken literally, just as electricity is not to be confused with air or water. Thus in using myth one must take care not to confuse image with fact, which would be like climbing up the signpost instead of following the road.

We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.

The Game of Black and White

The illusion of separateness.

Attention

Attention is narrowed perception. It is a way of looking at life bit by bit, using memory to string the bits together—as when examining a dark room with a flashlight having a very narrow beam.

Conscious attention

We are so absorbed in conscious attention, so convinced that this narrowed kind of perception is not only the real way of seeing the world, but also the very basic sensation of oneself as a conscious being, that we are fully hypnotized by its disjointed vision of the universe.

We really feel that this world is indeed an assemblage of separate things that have somehow come together or, perhaps, fallen apart, and that we are each only one of them. We see them all alone—born alone, dying alone—maybe as bits and fragments of a universal whole, or expendable parts of a big machine. Rarely do we see all so-called things and events "going together," like the head and tail of the cat, or as the tones and inflections—rising and falling, coming and going—of a single singing voice.

Death

Death is, after all, a great event. So long as it is not imminent, we cling to ourselves and our lives in chronic anxiety, however pushed into the back of the mind. But when the time comes where clinging is no longer of the least avail, the circumstances are ideal for letting go of oneself completely. When this happens, the individual is released from his ego-prison. In the normal course of events this is the golden opportunity for awakening into the knowledge that one's actual self is the Self which plays the universe—an occasion for great rejoicing. But as customs now prevail, doctors, nurses, and relatives come around with smiling masks, assuring the patient that he will soon get over it, and that next week or next month he will be back home or taking a vacation by the sea.

The illusion of separateness

When we are children, our other selves, our families, friends, and teachers, do everything possible to confirm us in the illusion of separateness—to help us to be genuine fakes, which is precisely what is meant by "being a real person."

For the person, from the Latin persona, was originally the megaphone-mouthed mask used by actors in the open-air theaters of ancient Greece and Rome, the mask through (per) which the sound (sonus) came.

In death we doff the persona, as actors take off their masks and costumes in the green room behind the scenes. And just as their friends come behind the stage to congratulate them on the performance, so one's own friends should gather at the deathbed to help one out of one's mortal role, to applaud the show, and, even more, to celebrate with champagne or sacraments (according to taste) the great awakening of death.

Objectionable Fantasies of the future

To most of us living today, the fantasies of the future seem most objectionable: the loss of privacy and freedom, the restriction of travel, and the progressive conversion of flesh and blood, wood and stone, fruit and fish, sight and sound, into plastic, synthetic and electronic reproductions. Increasingly, the artist and musician puts himself out of business through making ever more faithful and inexpensive reproductions of his original works. Is reproduction in this sense to replace biological reproduction, through cellular fission or sexual union? In short, is the next step in evolution to be the transformation of man into nothing more than electronic patterns?

All these eventualities may seem so remote as to be unworthy of concern. Yet in so many ways they are already with us, and, as we have seen, the speed of technical and social change accelerates more than we like to admit. The popularity of science-fiction attests to a very widespread fascination with such questions, and so much science-fiction is in fact a commentary on the present, since one of the best ways of understanding what goes on today is to extend it into tomorrow.

The science-fiction in which we have just been indulging has, then, two important morals. The first is that if the game of order-versuschance is to continue as a game, order must not win. As prediction and control increase, so, in proportion, the game ceases to be worth the candle. We look for a new game with an uncertain result. In other words, we have to hide again, perhaps in a new way, and then seek in new ways, since the two together make up the dance and the wonder of existence. Contrariwise, chance must not win, and probably cannot, because the order/chance polarity appears to be of the same kind as the on/off and up/down. Some astronomers believe that our universe began with an explosion that hurled all the galaxies into space, where, through negative entropy, it will dissolve forever into featureless radiation. I cannot think this way. It is, I suppose, my basic metaphysical axiom, my "leap of faith," that what happened once can always happen again. Not so much that there must be time before the first explosion and time after the final dissolution, but that time (like space) curves back on itself.

This assumption is strengthened by the second moral of these fantasies, which is the more startling. Here applies the French proverb plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose—the more it changes, the more it's the same thing. Change is in some sense an illusion, for we are always at the point where any future can take us! 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.

Technology

In solving problems, technology creates new problems, and we seem, as in Through the Looking-Glass, to have to keep running faster and faster to stay where we are. The question is then whether technical progress actually "gets anywhere" in the sense of increasing the delight and happiness of life. There is certainly a sense of exhilaration or relief at the moment of change—at the first few uses of telephone, radio, television, jet aircraft, miracle drug, or calculating machine. But all too soon these new contrivances are taken for granted, and we find ourselves oppressed with the new predicaments which they bring with them.

How have our minds become so narrow?

We might "conquer" nature if we could first, or at the same time, conquer our own nature, though we do not see that human nature and "outside" nature are all of a piece. In the same way, we do not see that "I" as the knower and controller am the same fellow as "myself" as something to be known and controlled. The self-conscious feedback mechanism of the cortex allows us the hallucination that we are two souls in one body—a rational soul and an animal soul, a rider and a horse, a good guy with better instincts and finer feelings and a rascal with rapacious lusts and unruly passions. Hence the marvelously involved hypocrisies of guilt and penitence, and the frightful cruelties of punishment, warfare, and even self-torment in the name of taking the side of the good soul against the evil. The more it sides with itself, the more the good soul reveals its inseparable shadow, and the more it disowns its shadow, the more it becomes it.

If, then, there is this basic unity between self and other, individual and universe, how have our minds become so narrow that we don't know it?

How to be a Genuine Fake

THE CAT has already been let out of the bag. The inside information is that yourself as "just little me" who "came into this world" and lives temporarily in a bag of skin is a hoax and a fake.

The fact is that because no one thing or feature of this universe is separable from the whole, the only real You, or Self, is the whole.

How the hoax begins.

Few people seem to use the word for their whole physical organism. "I have a body" is more common than "I am a body." We speak of "my" legs as we speak of "my" clothes, and "I" seems to remain intact even if the legs are amputated.

We say, "I speak, I walk, I think, and (even) I breathe." But we do not say, "I shape my bones, I grow my nails, and I circulate my blood." We seem to use "I" for something in the body but not really of the body, for much of what goes on in the body seems to happen to "I" in the same way as external events. "I" is used as the center of voluntary behavior and conscious attention, but not consistently. Breathing is only partially voluntary, and we say "I was sick" or "I dreamed" or "I fell asleep" as if the verbs were not passive but active.

Questions and Answers

Sourced from The Book, by Alan Watts.
  • Where did the world come from?

    There was never a time when the world began, because it goes round and round like a circle, and there is no place on a circle where it begins.

    Look at my watch, which tells the time; it goes round, and so the world repeats itself again and again. But just as the hour-hand of the watch goes up to twelve and down to six, so, too, there is day and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying, summer and winter. You can't have any one of these without the other, because you wouldn't be able to know what black is unless you had seen it side-by-side with white, or white unless side-by-side with black.
  • Where was I before I was born?

    In the same way, there are times when the world is, and times when it isn't, for if the world went on and on without rest for ever and ever, it would get horribly tired of itself. It comes and it goes. Now you see it; now you don't. So because it doesn't get tired of itself, it always comes back again after it disappears. It's like your breath: it goes in and out, in and out, and if you try to hold it in all the time you feel terrible. It's also like the game of hide-and-seek, because it's always fun to find new ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn't always hide in the same place.
  • God isn't shaped like a person.

    Of course, you must remember that God isn't shaped like a person. People have skins and there is always something outside our skins. If there weren't, we wouldn't know the difference between what is inside and outside our bodies. But God has no skin and no shape because there isn't any outside to him.
  • Why does God sometimes hides in the form of horrible people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain?

    You may ask why God sometimes hides in the form of horrible people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain. Remember, first, that he isn't really doing this to anyone but himself. Remember, too, that in almost all the stories you enjoy there have to be bad people as well as good people, for the thrill of the tale is to find out how the good people will get the better of the bad.

    It's the same as when we play cards. At the beginning of the game we shuffle them all into a mess, which is like the bad things in the world, but the point of the game is to put the mess into good order, and the one who does it best is the winner. Then we shuffle the cards once more and play again, and so it goes with the world.
  • Why did God make the world?

    God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.
  • Where do people go when they die?

    In the same way, there are times when the world is, and times when it isn't, for if the world went on and on without rest for ever and ever, it would get horribly tired of itself. It comes and it goes. Now you see it; now you don't.

    So because it doesn't get tired of itself, it always comes back again after it disappears. It's like your breath: it goes in and out, in and out, and if you try to hold it in all the time you feel terrible. It's also like the game of hide-and-seek, because it's always fun to find new ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn't always hide in the same place.
  • Who is the the Self of the world?

    God is the Self of the world, but you can't see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can't see your own eyes, and you certainly can't bite your own teeth or look inside your head. Your self is that cleverly hidden because it is God hiding.

At this level of existence "I" am immeasurably old; my forms are infinite and their comings and goings are simply the pulses or vibrations of a single and eternal flow of energy.

Faith is, above all, open-ness—an act of trust in the unknown

Statements

Alan Watts

On Existence

Existence - the physical universe, is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn't going anywhere, that is to say, it doesn't have some destination that it ought to arrive at.

Individuals

Every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole, as every branch is a particular outreaching of the tree.

Life Purpose

If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing — which is stupid!

The Meaning of Life

Existence - the physical universe, is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn't going anywhere, that is to say, it doesn't have some destination that it ought to arrive at.

The meaning of life

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.

Nirvana

Nirvana is right where you are, provided that you don't object to it.