The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are - by Alan Watts

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.

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" 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. 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.

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. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.

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. 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.

Vedanta is the teaching of the Upanishads, a collection of dialogues, stories, and poems, some of which go back to at least 800 B.C. Sophisticated Hindus do not think of God as a special and separate super-person who rules the world from above, like a monarch. Their God is "underneath" rather than "above" everything, and he (or it) plays the world from inside.

This must not be confused with our usual ideas of the practice of "unselfishness," which is the effort to identify with others and their needs while still under the strong illusion of being no more than a skin-contained ego. Such "unselfishness" is apt to be a highly refined egotism, comparable to the in-group which plays the game of "we're-more-tolerant-than-you." The Vedanta was not originally moralistic; it did not urge people to ape the saints without sharing their real motivations, or to ape motivations without sharing the knowledge which sparks them. For this reason The Book I would pass to my children would contain no sermons, no shoulds and oughts. Genuine love comes from knowledge, not from a sense of duty or guilt. My wish would be to tell, not how things ought to be, but how they are, and how and why we ignore them as they are. You cannot teach an ego to be anything but egotistic, even though egos have the subtlest ways of pretending to be reformed. The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego.

When we attend to something we ignore everything else. 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. Perception thus narrowed has the advantage of being sharp and bright, but it has to focus on one area of the world after another, and one feature after another. And where there are no features, only space or uniform surfaces, it somehow gets bored and searches about for more features. But a scanning process that observes the world bit by bit soon persuades its user that the world is a great collection of bits, and these he calls separate things or events. We often say that you can only think of one thing at a time. The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see that the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat.

The constant awareness of death shows the world to be as flowing and diaphanous as the filmy patterns of blue smoke in the air--that there really is nothing to clutch and no one to clutch it. This is depressing only so long as there remains a notion that there might be some way of fixing it, of putting it off just once more, or hoping that one has, or is, some kind of ego-soul that will survive bodily dissolution. (I am not saying that there is no personal continuity beyond death--only that believing in it keeps us in bondage.)

A human body is like a whirlpool; there seems to be a constant form, called the whirlpool, but it functions for the very reason that no water stays in it. The very molecules and atoms of the water are also "whirlpools"--patterns of motion containing no constant and irreducible "stuff." Every person is the form taken by a stream--a marvelous torrent of milk, water, bread, beefsteak, fruit, vegetables, air, light, radiation--all of which are streams in their own turn. So with our institutions. There is a "constant" called the University of California in which nothing stays put: students, faculty, administrators, and even buildings come and go, leaving the university itself only as a continuing process, a pattern of behavior.

It is not enough, therefore, to describe, define, and try to understand things or events by analysis alone, by taking them to pieces to find out "how they are made." This tells us much, but probably rather less than half the story. Today, scientists are more and more aware that what things are, and what they are doing, depends on where and when they are doing it. If, then, the definition of a thing or event must include definition of its environment, we realize that any given thing goes with a given environment so intimately and inseparably that it is more difficult to draw a clear boundary between the thing and its surroundings.

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. Just because we do not exist apart from the community, the community is able to convince us that we do--that each one of us is an independent source of action with a mind of its own. The more successfully the community implants this feeling, the more trouble it has in getting the individual to cooperate, with the result that children raised in such an environment are almost permanently confused. 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. "Stop being self-conscious!" "Try to relax." Or the famous prosecuting attorney's question to the man accused of cruelty to his wife--"Have you stopped beating your wife yet? Answer yes or no." This is a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't situation which arises constantly in human (and especially family) relations.

There is a third possibility. The individual may be understood neither as an isolated person nor as an expendable, humanoid working-machine. He may be seen, instead, as one particular focal point at which the whole universe expresses itself--as an incarnation of the Self, of the Godhead, or whatever one may choose to call IT. This view retains and, indeed, amplifies our apprehension that the individual is in some way sacred. At the same time it dissolves the paradox of the personal ego, which is to have attained the "precious state" of being a unique person at the price of perpetual anxiety for one's survival. The hallucination of separateness prevents one from seeing that to cherish the ego is to cherish misery. We do not realize that our so-called love and concern for the individual is simply the other face of our own fear of death or rejection. In his exaggerated valuation of separate identity, the personal ego is sawing off the branch on which he is sitting, and then getting more and more anxious about the coming crash!

The World Is Your Body

We have now found out that many things which we felt to be basic realities of nature are social fictions, arising from commonly accepted or traditional ways of thinking about the world. These fictions have included:

  1. The notion that the world is made up or composed of separate bits or things.

  2. That things are differing forms of some basic stuff.

  3. That individual organisms are such things, and that they are inhabited and partially controlled by independent egos.

  4. That the opposite poles of relationships, such as light/darkness and solid/space, are in actual conflict which may result in the permanent victory of one of the poles.

  5. That death is evil, and that life must be a constant war against it.

  6. That man, individually and collectively, should aspire to be top species and put himself in control of nature.

Surely all forms of life, including man, must be understood as "symptoms" of the earth, the solar system, and the galaxy--in which case we cannot escape the conclusion that the galaxy is intelligent.

From the viewpoint of your eyes your own head seems to be an invisible blank, neither dark nor light, standing immediately behind the nearest thing you can see. But in fact the whole field of vision "out there in front" is a sensation in the lower back of your head, where the optical centers of the brain are located. What you see out there is, immediately, how the inside of your head "looks" or "feels." So, too, everything that you hear, touch, taste, and smell is some kind of vibration interacting with your brain, which translates that vibration into what you know as light, color, sound, hardness, roughness, saltiness, heaviness, or pungence. Apart from your brain, all these vibrations would be like the sound of one hand clapping, or of sticks playing on a skinless drum. Apart from your brain, or some brain, the world is devoid of light, heat, weight, solidity, motion, space, time, or any other imaginable feature. All these phenomena are interactions, or transactions, of vibrations with a certain arrangement of neurons. Thus vibrations of light and heat from the sun do not actually become light or heat until they interact with a living organism, just as no light-beams are visible in space unless reflected by particles of atmosphere or dust. In other words, it "takes two" to make anything happen.

So What?

If, then, after understanding, at least in theory, that the ego-trick is a hoax and that, beneath everything, "I" and "universe" are one, you ask, "So what? 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--to the cause of peace or of racial integration, to starving Hindus and Chinese, or even to your closest friends. Without this, all social concern will be muddlesome meddling, and all work for the future will be planned disaster.

When you know for sure that your separate ego is a fiction, you actually feel yourself as the whole process and pattern of life. Experience and experiencer become one experiencing, known and knower one knowing.

Don't try to get rid of the ego-sensation. Take it, so long as it lasts, as a feature or play of the total process--like a cloud or wave, or like feeling warm or cold, or anything else that happens of itself. Getting rid of one's ego is the last resort of invincible egoism! It simply confirms and strengthens the reality of the feeling. But when this feeling of separateness is approached and accepted like any other sensation, it evaporates like the mirage that it is.

When the line between myself and what happens to me is dissolved and there is no stronghold left for an ego even as a passive witness, I find myself not in a world but as a world which is neither compulsive nor capricious. What happens is neither automatic nor arbitrary: it just happens, and all happenings are mutually interdependent in a way that seems unbelievably harmonious. Every this goes with every that. Without others there is no self, and without somewhere else there is no here, so that--in this sense--self is other and here is there.

To be released from the "You must survive" double-bind is to see that life is at root playing. The difficulty in understanding this is that the idea of "play" has two distinct meanings which are often confused. On the one hand, to do something only or merely in play, is to be trivial and insincere, and here we should use the word "toying" instead of "playing." On the other hand, there is a form of playing which is not trivial at all, as when Segovia plays the guitar or Sir Laurence Olivier plays the part of Hamlet, or, obviously, when someone plays the organ in church. In this sense of the word Saint Gregory Nazianzen could say of the Logos, the creative wisdom of God:

For the Logos on high plays,
stirring the whole cosmos back and forth,
as he wills, into shapes of every kind.

Once you have seen this you can return to the world of practical affairs with a new spirit. 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. 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.

And do not suppose that this understanding will transform you all at once into a model of virtue. I have never yet met a saint or sage who did not have some human frailties. For so long as you manifest yourself in human or animal form, you must eat at the expense of other life and accept the limitations of your particular organism, which fire will still burn and wherein danger will still secrete adrenalin. 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. This will give you the priceless ability of being able to contain conflicts so that they do not get out-of-hand, of being willing to compromise and adapt, of playing, yes, but playing it cool. This is what is called "honor among thieves," for the really dangerous people are those who do not recognize that they are thieves--the unfortunates who play the role of the "good guys" with such blind zeal that they are unconscious of any indebtedness to the "bad guys" who support their status. To paraphrase the Gospel, "Love your competitors, and pray for those who undercut your prices." You would be nowhere at all without them.

It comes, then, to this: that to be "viable," livable, or merely practical, life must be lived as a game--and the "must" here expresses a condition, not a commandment. It must be lived in the spirit of play rather than work, and the conflicts which it involves must be carried on in the realization that no species, or party to a game, can survive without its natural antagonists, its beloved enemies, its indispensable opponents. For to "love your enemies" is to love them as enemies; it is not necessarily a clever device for winning them over to your own side.

Finally, the game of life as Western man has been "playing" it for the past century needs less emphasis on practicality, results, progress, and aggression. This is why I am discussing vision, and keeping off the subject of justifying the vision in terms of its practical applications and consequences. Whatever may be true for the Chinese and the Hindus, it is timely for us to recognize that the future is an ever-retreating mirage, and to switch our immense energy and technical skill to contemplation instead of action. However much we may now disagree with Aristotle's logic and his metaphors, he must still be respected for reminding us that the goal of action is always contemplation--knowing and being rather than seeking and becoming. As it is, we are merely bolting our lives--gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in--because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being.