The Joyous Cosmology - by Alan Watts


The feeling that there is something wrong in all this revolves around a contradiction characteristic of all civilizations. This is the simultaneous compulsion to preserve oneself and to forget oneself. Here is the vicious circle: if you feel separate from your organic life, you feel driven to survive; survival--going on living--thus becomes a duty and also a drag because you are not fully with it; because it does not quite come up to expectations, you continue to hope that it will, to crave for more time, to feel driven all the more to go on. What we call self-consciousness is thus the sensation of the organism obstructing itself, of not being with itself, of driving, so to say, with accelerator and brake on at once. Naturally, this is a highly unpleasant sensation, which most people want to forget. The lowbrow way of forgetting oneself is to get drunk, to be diverted with entertainments, or to exploit such natural means of self-transcendence as sexual intercourse. The highbrow way is to throw oneself into the pursuit of the arts, of social service, or of religious mysticism. These measures are rarely successful because they do not disclose the basic error of the split self.

The hidden point is that man cannot function properly through changing anything so superficial as the order of his thoughts, of his dissociated mind. What has to change is the behavior of his organism; it has to become self-controlling instead of self-frustrating. How is this to be brought about? Clearly, nothing can be done by the mind, by the conscious will, so long as this is felt to be something apart from the total organism. But if it were felt otherwise, nothing would need to be done!

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."

All the scientific papers I have read seem to add up to the vague impression that in some way these drugs suspend certain inhibitory or selective processes in the nervous system so as to render our sensory apparatus more open to impressions than is usual. They are classed, officially, as hallucinogens--an astonishingly inaccurate term, since they cause one neither to hear voices nor to see visions such as might be confused with physical reality. While they do indeed produce the most complex and very obviously "hallucinatory" patterns before closed eyes, their general effect is to sharpen the senses to a supernormal degree of awareness.

There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these three drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear. Strictly speaking, these drugs do not impart wisdom at all, any more than the microscope alone gives knowledge. They provide the raw materials of wisdom, and are useful to the extent that the individual can integrate what they reveal into the whole pattern of his behavior and the whole system of his knowledge. As an escape, an isolated and dissociated ecstasy, they may have the same sort of value as a rest cure or a good entertainment. But this is like using a giant computer to play tick-tack-toe, and the hours of heightened perception are wasted unless occupied with sustained reflection or meditation upon whatever themes may be suggested.

In using lysergic acid or psilocybin, I usually start with some such theme as polarity, transformation (as of food into organism), competition for survival, the relation of the abstract to the concrete, or of Logos to Eros, and then allow my heightened perception to elucidate the theme in terms of certain works of art or music, of some such natural object as a fern, a flower, or a sea shell, of a religious or mythological archetype (it might be the Mass), and even of personal relationships with those who happen to be with me at the time. Or I may concentrate upon one of the senses and try, as it were, to turn it back upon itself so as to see the process of seeing, and from this move on to trying to know knowing, so approaching the problem of my own identity. From these reflections there arise intuitive insights of astonishing clarity, and because there is little difficulty in remembering them after the effects of the drug have ceased (especially if they are recorded or written down at the time), the days or weeks following may be used for testing them by the normal standards of logical, aesthetic, philosophical, or scientific criticism.

Consciousness-changing drugs are popularly associated with the evocation of bizarre and fantastic images, but in my own experience this happens only with closed eyes. Otherwise, it is simply that the natural world is endowed with a richness of grace, color, significance, and, sometimes, humor, for which our normal adjectives are insufficient. The speed of thought and association is increased so astonishingly that it is hard for words to keep pace with the flood of ideas that come to mind.

The Joyous Cosmology

This world has a different kind of time. Here the present is self-sufficient, but it is not a static present. It is a dancing present--the unfolding of a pattern which has no specific destination in the future but is simply its own point.

Decision can be completely paralyzed by the sudden realization that there is no way of having good without evil, or that it is impossible to act upon reliable authority without choosing, from your own inexperience, to do so. If sanity implies madness and faith doubt, am I basically a psychotic pretending to be sane, a blithering terrified idiot who manages, temporarily, to put on an act of being self-possessed? I begin to see my whole life as a masterpiece of duplicity--the confused, helpless, hungry, and hideously sensitive little embryo at the root of me having learned, step by step, to comply, placate, bully, wheedle, flatter, bluff, and cheat my way into being taken for a person of competence and reliability. For when it really comes down to it, what do any of us know?

I begin to congratulate the priest on his gamesmanship, on the sheer courage of being able to put up such a performance of authority when he knows precisely nothing. Perhaps there is no other knowing than the mere competence of the act. If, at the heart of one's being, there is no real self to which one ought to be true, sincerity is simply nerve; it lies in the unabashed vigor of the pretense.

All of us look at each other knowingly, for the feeling that we knew each other in that most distant past conceals something else--tacit, awesome, almost unmentionable--the realization that at the deep center of a time perpendicular to ordinary time we are, and always have been, one. We acknowledge the marvelously hidden plot, the master illusion, whereby we appear to be different.

In the type of experience I am describing, it seems that the superconscious method of thinking becomes conscious. We see the world as the whole body sees it, and for this very reason there is the greatest difficulty in attempting to translate this mode of vision into a form of language that is based on contrast and classification. To the extent, then, that man has become a being centered in consciousness, he has become centered in clash, conflict, and discord. He ignores, as beneath notice, the astounding perfection of his organism as a whole, and this is why, in most people, there is such a deplorable disparity between the intelligent and marvelous order of their bodies and the trivial preoccupations of their consciousness. But in this other world the situation is reversed. Ordinary people look like gods because the values of the organism are uppermost, and the concerns of consciousness fall back into the subordinate position which they should properly hold. Love, unity, harmony, and relationship therefore take precedence over war and division.

The more prosaic, the more dreadfully ordinary anyone or anything seems to be, the more I am moved to marvel at the ingenuity with which divinity hides in order to seek itself, at the lengths to which this cosmic joie de vivre will go in elaborating its dance. The conscious ego doesn't know that it is something which that divine organ, the body, is only pretending to be. When people go to a guru, a master of wisdom, seeking a way out of darkness, all he really does is to humor them in their pretense until they are outfaced into dropping it. He tells nothing, but the twinkle in his eye speaks to the unconscious--"You know.… You know!"

The feeling of self is no longer confined to the inside of the skin. Instead, my individual being seems to grow out from the rest of the universe like a hair from a head or a limb from a body, so that my center is also the center of the whole. I find that in ordinary consciousness I am habitually trying to ring myself off from this totality, that I am perpetually on the defensive. But what am I trying to protect? Only very occasionally are my defensive attitudes directly concerned with warding off physical damage or deprivation. For the most part I am defending my defenses: rings around rings around rings around nothing.


I have more or less kept to the basic form which every individual experiment seems to take--a sort of cycle in which one's personality is taken apart and then put together again, in what one hopes is a more intelligent fashion. For example, one's true identity is first of all felt as something extremely ancient, familiarly distant--with overtones of the magical, mythological, and archaic. But in the end it revolves back to what one is in the immediate present, for the moment of the world's creation is seen to lie, not in some unthinkably remote past, but in the eternal now. Similarly, the play of life is at first apprehended rather cynically as an extremely intricate contest in one-upmanship, expressing itself deviously even in the most altruistic of human endeavors. Later, one begins to feel a "good old rascal" attitude toward the system; humor gets the better of cynicism. But finally, rapacious and all-embracing cosmic selfishness turns out to be a disguise for the unmotivated play of love.

I feel that had I no skill as a writer or philosopher, drugs which dissolve some of the barriers between ordinary, pedestrian consciousness and the multidimensional superconsciousness of the organism would bring little but delightful, or sometimes terrifying, confusion. I am not saying that only intellectuals can benefit from them, but that there must be sufficient discipline or insight to relate this expanded consciousness to our normal, everyday life.

The experiences which I have described suggest measures we might take to maintain a sounder form of sanity. Of these, the most important is the practice of what I would like to call meditation. But by meditation I do not mean a practice or exercise undertaken as a preparation for something, as a means to some future end, or as a discipline in which one is concerned with progress. A better word may be "contemplation" or even "centering," for what I mean is a slowing down of time, of mental hurry, and an allowing of one's attention to rest in the present--so coming to the unseeking observation, not of what should be, but of what is.

In addition to this quiet and contemplative mode of meditation there seems to me to be an important place for another, somewhat akin to the spiritual exercises of the dervishes. No one is more dangerously insane than one who is sane all the time: he is like a steel bridge without flexibility, and the order of his life is rigid and brittle. The manners and mores of Western civilization force this perpetual sanity upon us to an extreme degree, for there is no accepted corner in our lives for the art of pure nonsense. Our play is never real play because it is almost invariably rationalized; we do it on the pretext that it is good for us, enabling us to go back to work refreshed. There is no protected situation in which we can really let ourselves go. If our sanity is to be strong and flexible, there must be occasional periods for the expression of completely spontaneous movement--for dancing, singing, howling, babbling, jumping, groaning, wailing--in short, for following any motion to which the organism as a whole seems to be inclined. The function of such intervals for nonsense is not merely to be an outlet for pent-up emotion or unused psychic energy, but to set in motion a mode of spontaneous action which, though at first appearing as nonsense, can eventually express itself in intelligible forms.

Are there not also ways in which we can, even without using the drugs, come back to this sense of unity with other people? The cultured Westerner has a very healthy distaste for crowds and for the loss of personal identity in "herd-consciousness." But there is an enormous difference between a formless crowd and an organic social group. The latter is a relatively small association in which every member is in communication with every other member. The former is a relatively large association in which the members are in communication only with a leader, and because of this crude structure a crowd is not really an organism. To think of people as "the masses" is to think of them by analogy with a subhuman style of order. Our trouble is that we have ignored and thus feel insecure in the enormous spectrum of love which lies between rather formal friendship and genital sexuality, and thus are always afraid that once we overstep the bounds of formal friendship we must slide inevitably to the extreme of sexual promiscuity, or worse, to homosexuality. This unoccupied gulf between spiritual or brotherly love and sexual love corresponds to the cleft between spirit and matter, mind and body, so divided that our affections or our activities are assigned either to one or to the other. There is no continuum between the two, and the lack of any connection, any intervening spectrum, makes spiritual love insipid and sexual love brutal.

Appendix: Psychedelics and Religious Experience

Almost invariably, my experiments with psychedelics have had four dominant characteristics.

  1. The first characteristic is a slowing down of time, a concentration in the present.

  2. The second characteristic I will call awareness of polarity. This is the vivid realization that states, things, and events that we ordinarily call opposite are interdependent, like back and front or the poles of a magnet.

  3. The third characteristic, arising from the second, is awareness of relativity. I see that I am a link in an infinite hierarchy of processes and beings, ranging from molecules through bacteria and insects to human beings, and, maybe, to angels and gods--a hierarchy in which every level is in effect the same situation. From this it is but a short step to the realization that all forms of life and being are simply variations on a single theme: we are all in fact one being doing the same thing in as many different ways as possible.

  4. The fourth characteristic is awareness of eternal energy, often in the form of intense white light, which seems to be both the current in your nerves and that mysterious e which equals mc2. This may sound like megalomania or delusion of grandeur--but one sees quite clearly that all existence is a single energy, and that this energy is one's own being.