The Book by Alan Watts

The Book

RATING: 7/10…READ: November 8, 2012

Basically this book breaks down the entire universe, the entirety of existence, and dealing with our egos. That sounds like a load of bullshit, but Watts makes some really good arguments and definitely changed how I see the world.

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The 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.

Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency.

-Therefore The Book that I would like to slip to my children would itself be slippery. It would slip them into a new domain, not of ideas alone, but of experience and feeling. It would be temporary medicine, not a diet; a point of departure, not a perpetual point of reference. They would read it and be done with it, for it were well and clearly written they would not have to go back to it again and again for hidden meanings or clarification of obscure doctrines.

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,” 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 cake care not to confuse image with fact, which would be like climbing up the signpost instead of following the road.

-For this reason The Book I would pass on to my children would contain no sermons, no shoulds and ought’s. Genuine love comes from knowledge, not from a sense of duty of guilt. How would you like to be an invalid mother with a daughter who can’t marry because she feels she ought to look after you, and therefore hates you?

I realize, too, that the less I preach, the more likely I am to be heard.

There is no space except space between things, inside things, or outside things. This is why space is the relationship between bodies.

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.

Real travels 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.

The more surely the future is known, the less surprise and the less fun in living it.

To most of us living today, all these 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?

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 does on today is to extend it into tomorrow.

EGO: 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.

All our insides are outside, there in the physical world. But conversely, the outside world has no color, shape, weight, heat or motion without “inside” brains. It has these qualities only in relation to brains, which are, in turn, members of itself.

My problem as a writer, using words, is to dispel the illusions of language while employing one of the languages that generates them.

-Blood in a test tube is not the same thing as blood in the veins because it is not behaving in the same way. Its behavior has changed, just as the meaning of one and the same word may change according to the kind of sentence in which it is used. There is a vast difference between the bark of a tree and the bark of a dog.

The community of which he is necessarily a dependent member defines him as an independent member.

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.

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. This, in turn, arises from the definition of man as an independent agent—in the universe but not of it—saddled with the job of bending this world to his will.

The individual may be understood neither as an isolate 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.

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. The head and the feet are different, but not separate, and though man is not connected to the universe by exactly the same physical relation as branch to tree or feet to head, he is nonetheless connected—and by physical relations of fascinating complexity.

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 right now.

Most of our products are being made by people who do not enjoy making them, whether as owners or workers. Their aim in the enterprise is not the product but money, and therefore every trick is used to cut the cost of production and hoodwink the buyer, by coloring and packaging chicanery, into the belief that the product is well and truly made. The only exceptions for reasons of safety or high cost of purchase—aircraft, computers, space-rockets, scientific instruments, and so forth.

The existence of man implies parents, even though they may be long since dead, and the birth of an organism implies its death. Wouldn’t it be as far fetched to call birth the cause of death as to call the cat’s head the cause of the tail?

To sum up: just as no thing or organism exists on its own, it does not act on its own. Furthermore, every organism is a process: thus the organism is not other than its actions. To put it clumsily: it is what it does.

When we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and housed the homeless, what then? Is the object to enable unfortunate people to help those still more unfortunate? To convert the Hindus and Africans into a huge bourgeoisie, where every Bengali and every Zulu has the privilege of joining our special rat-race, buying appliances on time and a television set to keep him running.

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.

It would be sentimental and impossible to go back. Children are in touch with paradise to the extent they have not fully learned the ego-trick, and the same is true of cultures which, by our standards, are more “primitive” and—by analogy—childlike. 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 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.

If I am because you are you, and if you are you because I am I, them I am not I, and you are not you. Instead we are both something in common between what Martin Buber has called I-and-Though and I-and-It—the magnet itself which lies between the poles, between I myself and everything sensed as other.

Nothing unites a community so much as common cause against an external enemy, yet, in the same amount, that enemy becomes the essential support of social unity. Therefore large societies require larger enemies, bringing us in due course to the perilous point of our present situation, where the world is virtually divided into two huge camps.

Don’t try to get rid of the ego-sensation. Take it, as 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.

If you go to concerts to “get culture” or to improve your mind, you will sit there as deaf as a doorpost.

To paraphrase the Gospel, “Love your competitors, and pray for whose who undercut your prices.” You would be nowhere at all without them.

For it recognizes that the real goodness of human nature is its peculiar balance of love and selfishness, reason and passion, spirituality and sensuality, mysticism and materialism, in which the positive pole has always a slight edge over the negative. (were it otherwise, and the two were equally balanced, life would come to a total stalemate and standstill).

The game of Western man has been “laying” 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 every-retreating mirage, and to switch our immense energy and technical skill to contemplation instead of action.

All knowledge is a recognition of the mutual relations between sense experiences and/or things and events.

All things are known by their differences from and likenesses to teach other.

What lies beyond opposites must be discussed, if at all, in terms of opposites, and this means using the language of analogy, metaphor, and myth.