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Society and Politics

Self and Other

Alan WattsA lecture given by Alan Watts which explores personal identity and man's relationship to the universe.

Now, the subject of this seminar is 'Self and Other,' and this is therefore to be an exploration into the subject that interests me most, which is the problem of personal identity, man's relationship to the universe, and all the things that are connected with that. It is, for our culture at this time in history an extremely urgent problem, because of our technological power. In known history, nobody has had such capacity for altering the universe than the people of the United States of America. And nobody has gone about it in such an aggressive way.

I think sometimes that the two symbols of our present kind of technological culture are the rocket ship and the bulldozer. The rocket as a very, very phallic symbol of compensation for the sexually inadequate male. And the bulldozer, which ruthlessly pushes down hills and forests and alters the shape of the landscape. These are two symbols of the negative aspect of our technology. I'm not going to take the position that technology is a mistake. I think that there could be a new kind of technology, using a new attitude. But the trouble is that a great deal of our power is wielded by men who I would call 'two o'clock types.'

Maybe you saw an article I wrote in "Playboy" magazine called "The Circle of Sex," and it suggested at least a dozen sexual types rather than two. And that the men who are two o'clock on the dial, like a clock, are men who are ambisexterous, named after Julius Caesar, because Julius Caesar was an ambisexterous man, and he equally made love to all his friend's wives and to his good-looking officers. And he had no sense of guilt about this at all. Now, that type of male in this culture has a terrible sense of guilt, that he might be homosexual, and is scared to death of being one, and therefore he has to overcompensate for his masculinity. And so he comes on as a police officer, Marine sergeant, bouncer, bookie, general--tough, cigar-chewing, real masculine type who is never able to form a relationship with a woman; they're just 'dames' as far as he's concerned. But he, just like an ace Air Force pilot puts a little mark on his plane each time he shoots down an enemy, so this kind of man, every time he makes a dame he chalks up one, because that reassures him that he is after all a male. And he's a terrible nuisance. The trouble is that the culture doesn't permit him to recognize and accept his ambisexterity. And so he's a trouble spot.

But that kind of spirit of knocking the world around is something that is causing serious danger here. It arises, you see, because this tremendous technological power has been evolved in a culture which inherits a sense of personality which is frankly a hallucination. And we get this sense of personality from a long, long tradition of Jewish and Christian and Greek ideas which have caused man to feel that the universe of nature - the physical world, in other words - is not himself. You may think that that is a very odd thing to say, because one always assumes that oneself is one's own body, or at least something inside one's body, like a soul. And that naturally, everything outside is not oneself. But this is, as I've said many, many times, a hallucination. Let's think, here we are in the middle of New York City. And you know what happens when New York City goes wrong. When there's a subway strike, or when the power fails, or when the sewers back up, your life is in danger. Because you are not only constituted by the bloodstream of your veins and the communications network of your nervous system. An extension of your bloodstream, and of your alimentary canal, and of your nervous system, is all the communication systems of this city.

In other words, you know well every night streams of trucks pour into this city, carrying food. I understand there is even a kind of big drain pipe which brings milk in. You consume three million pounds of fish a week. You then also have to have the exit end of this. The sewers are very complicated. The water system and all it's pipes, the telephone systems, the electric light systems, the air conditioning things, the traffic streams. All these things going on are essential extensions of your own inner tubing. And therefore, you have to be aware, more and more, that the city is an extended body for every person living in it. And not only of course the city, because the city depends on untold acres of fields where farm products are grown, cattle are raised, on lakes and underground water sources; on the constitution of the atmosphere, and finally on the location of the Earth on this propitious spot rather close to the sun, where we have our basic heating system working.

And all that is not a world into which you arrived, from somewhere else altogether. It is a complex system of relationships, out of which you grew in exactly the same way that fruit grows on a tree, or a flower on a stem. Just as these blossoms here are symptomatic of the plant, and you identify the plant by looking at the blossoms - here are these little oranges, you see - we know that this is an orange tree. Now in exactly that way, you are all growing in this world, and so we know that this world is a 'humaning' system - and therefore it has a certain kind of innate intelligence, just as this tree, with its roots, has the innate intelligence which comes out in these oranges.

So the cosmos in which we live is a network of communications. You don't need to think of it in an authoritarian pattern, namely there is God the father, who makes it all work, because that doesn't really answer anything. That's just applying to the world an explanation derived from the political systems of the ancient Near East. You realize that? The great political systems of the Egyptians and the Chaldeans, where there was an enormous father figure in charge of everything, became the model for the idea of monotheism. And these great kings, like Hammurabi and Amenhotep IV, laid down legal systems so man thought of a prince, a king of kings, a lord of lords, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer. It's a political idea. And I often wonder how citizens of a republic, who have to curse and swear that they think that this is the best form of government, can put up with a monarchial conception of nature. Very funny. You know, a republic, and it says 'In God We Trust,' and most people by God mean a king of the universe. Very strange.

But you don't have to think that way in order to have the faith that the universe is something other than mere stupid, blind energy. What we are coming to see is that the total universe, consisting of all its galaxies, and not only this galaxy, is a living organism. How will we define that? What do we mean by a living organism? I mean a system of intercommunication of extreme complexity. Just like you are. You try to define what you are, and you go into it, you suddenly discover that as you take off the skin and look underneath, that we are an enormously complex system of tubes and fibers, beautifully patterned. When we look at it with a microscope, we say 'Oh my, look at that. Isn't that gorgeous?' Have you seen those models of cells that the Upjohn Company has made? They're exquisite. And incidentally, you should all, if you've never done so, go to the Charles Darwin Hall in the New York Museum of Natural History and see the glass models of the tiniest microorganisms, called radiolaria. They are also such things as are running around in you, and they are incomparable jewelry.

Now I suppose if we looked at ourselves from that microscopic point of view, all these funny creatures that are running around us that don't look like people, would if you got used to them seem like people. And they would be having their problems. They've got all sorts of fights going on, and collaborations and conspiracies and so on. But if they weren't doing that, we wouldn't be healthy. If the various corpuscles and cells in our blood stream weren't fighting each other, we would drop dead. And that's a sobering thought, that war at one level of being can bring peace and health at another.

So we are, inside us, each individial body, an enormous ecological system. And what we have to recognize is that that interconnected system which constitutes the beauty of a human organism, that sort of interconnection is going on outside us. Do you remember in early science fiction that was published in the 1920s, by people like Olaf Stapleton and some of the early writers? They pictured the men of the future as having huge heads to contain very big brains. It was expected, in other words, that the future evolution of mankind would be an evolution of the mind and the brain, and so bigger brains. But what has happened instead of that is that instead of evolving bigness of brain, we are evolving an electronic network in which our brains are very swiftly being plugged into computer systems. Now some very awkward things about this are arising, and we've got to watch out for it, because what has increasingly happened is this: nobody is having any private life left. The invasion of ordinary privacy by the telephone, by your watching television, which is after all looking at somebody else's life going on, by people watching you - all the people with bugging systems and snoopers, and credit agents, and everybody knows everything about you. Even in California, all the houses are built with picture windows looking at other picture windows, and if you draw the curtains, everyone thinks you're snooty. Like if you build a fence in most Midwestern communities, they think 'Who the hell do you think you are, building a fence to keep everybody else out? See, you're not democratic.'

But the reason for all this is, imagine the situation when all the original neurons became linked in with the central nervous system. They said, 'Well, we're losing our privacy.' So it's a very serious question as to how we're going to be linked in with other people. I feel - it may be old fashioned of me - but I feel very strongly that privacy should be maintained as much as possible. But the reason being that human beings, in my experience, are a combination of two worlds - the private world and the public world - such that a person with a very strong and different and unique personality is not an isolated person, but a person extremely aware of his identity with the rest of the universe. Whereas people with nondescript, mass-produced personalities tend to be unaware of this. They tend to be the kind of person who is taken in by the system.

So what I think we could aim for in the way of human civilization and culture would be a system in which we are all highly aware of our existing interconnection and unity with the whole domain of nature, and therefore do not have to go to all sorts of wild extremes to find that union. In other words, look at the number of people we know who are terrified of silence, and who have to have something going all the time, some noise streaming into their ears. They're doing that because of their intense sense of loneliness. And so when they feel silent, they feel lonely and they want to escape from it. Or people who just want to get together. As we say, they want to escape from themselves. More people spend more time running away from themselves. Isn't that wretched? What a definition. What an experience of self if it's something you've always got to be running away from and forgetting. Say you read a mystery story. Why? So you forget yourself. You join a religion. Why? To forget yourself. You get absorbed in a political movement. Why? To forget yourself. Well it must be a pretty miserable kind of self if you have to forget it like that. Now for a person who doesn't have an isolated sense of self, he has no need to run away from it, because he knows.

Let's take hermits. People today think being a hermit is a very unhealthy thing to do. Very antisocial, doesn't contribute anything to everybody else - because everybody else is busy contributing like blazes, and a few people have to run off and get out of the way. But I'll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you'll come to understand that you're connected with everything. That every little insect that comes buzzing around you is a messenger, and that little insect is connected with human beings everywhere else. You can hear. You become incredibly sensitive in your ears and you hear far-off sounds. And just by the very nature of isolating yourself and becoming quiet, you become intensely aware of your relationship with everything else that's going on. So if you really want to find out how related you really are, try a little solitude off somewhere, and let it begin to tell you how everything is interdependant in the form of what the Japanese buddhists call 'jijimugi'(?). 'Ji' means a 'thing event,' so it means 'between thing event and thing event, there is no block.' Every thing in the world, every event, is like a dewdrop on a multidimensional spider's web, and every dewdrop contains the reflection of all the other dewdrops. But you see, the hermit finds this out through his solitude, and so also human beings can acquire a certain solitude, even in the middle of New York City. It's rather easier, as a matter of fact, to find solitude in New York City than it is in Des Moines, Iowa.

But the point is that a human represents a certain kind of development, wherein a maximal sense of his oneness with the whole universe goes hand in hand with the maximum development of his personality as somebody unique and different. Whereas the people who are of course trying to develop their personality directly and taking a Dale Carnegie course on how to win friends and influence people, or how to become successful - all those people come out as if they came from the same cookie cutter. They don't have any personality.

Now then, it therefore becomes the great enterprise of our time from this point of view so this technology shall not go awry, and that it shall not be a war with the cosmos, that we acquire a new sense of identity. It isn't just a theoretical thing that we know about, as ecologists, for example, know about the identity of the organism with its environment, but becomes something that we actually experience. And I feel that this is not at all beyond the bounds of possibility for an enormous number of people. For a simple reason. Let me draw a historical analogy. Several hundred years ago, it seemed absolutely incomprehensible for most people that the world could be round, or that the planets and stars should be up in the sky unsupported, or even that the Earth itself should be floating freely in space. The Earth is falling through space, but it seems stable, and therefore it was supposed in ancient mythologies that the Earth rested on a giant turtle. Nobody asked too carefully what the turtle rested on, but just so that there was some sense of solidity under things. So in the same way that the stars were supposed to be suspended in crystal spheres, and just as people know that the Earth is flat because you can look at it and see that it is, so people looked into the sky and they could see the crystal spheres. Of course you could see the crystal spheres: you could see right through them. So when the astronomers cast doubts on the existence of crystal spheres, everybody felt threatened, that the stars were going to fall on their heads. Just as when they talked about a round Earth, people felt a danger of if you went around to the other side, you'd drop off, or feel funny and upside-down, a rush of brains to the head, and all sorts of uncomfortable feelings. But then since then, we have got quite used to the idea that the stars float freely in space in gravitational fields, that you can go around the Earth without falling off, and now everybody realizes this and feels comfortable with i t.

Likewise, in our day when Einstein propounded the theories of relativity, people said they couldn't understand it. It used to be something at a cocktail party to be introduced to somebody who understands Einstein. Now every young person understands Einstein and knows what it's about. You've got even one year of college, you know what relativity is. And you know it not only in an intellectual way, you know this as a feeling, just as you have a feeling of the roundness of the world, especially if you travel a lot on jet planes. So I feel that in just that way, within I don't know how many years, but in not too long a time, it's going to become basic common sense that you are not some alien being who confronts an external world that is not you, but that almost every intelligent person will have the feeling of being an activity of the entire universe.

You see, the point is that an enormous number of things are going on inside us of which we are not conscious. We make a very, very arbitrary distinction between what we do voluntarity and what we do involuntarity, and we define all those things which we do involuntarily as things which 'happen' to us, rather than things that we do. In other words, we don't assume any responsibility for the fact that our heart beats, or that our bones have such and such a shape. You can say to a beautiful girl, 'Gee, you're gorgeous,' and she'd say 'How like a man, all you think about is bodies. My body was given to me by my parents, and I'm not responsible for it, and I'd like to be admired for my self and not for my chassis.' And so I'd tell her 'You poor little chauffeur. You've disowned your own being and identified yourself not being associated with your own body.' I agree that if she had a terrible body with a lousy figure, she might want to feel that way, but if she is a fine-looking human being, she should get with it and not disown herself. But this happens again and again.

So you see, if you become aware of the fact that you are all of your own body, and that the beating of your heart is not just something that happens to you, but something you're doing, then you become aware also in the same moment and at the same time that you're not only beating your heart, but that you are shining the sun. Why? Because the process of your bodily existence and its rhythms is a process, an energy system which is continuous with the shining of the sun, just like the East River, here, is a continuous energy system, and all the waves in it are activities of the whole East River, and that's continuous with the Atlantic Ocean, and that's all one energy system and finally the Atlantic ocean gets around to being the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, etc., and so all the waters of the Earth are a continuous energy system. It isn't just that the East River is part of it. You can't draw any line and say 'Look, this is where the East River ends and the rest of it begins,' as if you can in the parts of an automobile, where you can say 'This is definitely part of the generator, here, and over here is a spark plug.' There's not that kind of isolation between the elements of nature.

So your body knows that its energy system is one with and continuous with the whole energy system, and that if it's in any sense true to say that I am my body, and that I beat my heart, and that I think by growing a brain, where do you draw the line between what you think and the power to think? Do you think with your brain in the same way that you carve wood with a knife? Y'know, it's an instrument that you pick up and use. I don't think our bodies are just instrumental in that way. They're something we are doing, only we don't think about it, in the sense that we don't have to consider when we get up in the morning as an act of voluntary behavior how to connect all of the switches in our brain to get us ready for the day; they come on automatically. But this automatic or, I would rather call it, spontaneous functioning of the brain is what is called in Japanese 'shizen'(?), that is to say, the spontaneity of nature. It does all this, and what we perform consciously is simply a small fragment of our total activity, of which we happen to be aware in a special way. We are far more than that. And it isn't only, say, that the sun is light because we have eyes and optical nerves which translate the energy of the sun into an experience called 'light.' It is also that that very central fire of the sun is something that you are doing just as much as you are generating temperature in your body.

In other words, let's suppose that those cosmologists and astronomers are right who believe that this universe started out with an original big bang, which flung all those galaxies out into space. Well, you know what that would be like. It'd be like taking a bottle of ink and flinging it hard at a white wall, and it makes a great splash. And you know how the nature of a splash is--in the middle of it, it's dense, and as it gets to the outside of the splash, there's all kinds of curlicues. But it's a continuous energy system. In other words, the bang in the beginning cannot really be separated from the little curlicues at the end. So, supposing there was an original cosmic explosion which went FOOM, we sitting around in this room now are little curlicues on the end of it, you see? We are, actually, every one of us is incredibly ancient. The energy which is now manifested as your body is the same energy which was there in the beginning. If anything at all is old, this hand is as old as anything there is. Incredibly ancient. I mean, the energy keeps changing shapes, doing all sorts of things, but there it all is. It's one continuous SPAT.

Now, if you just want to define yourself as a little curlicue on the end of things and say 'That's all of me there is,' then you've got to be a puppet and say 'Well, I've been pushed around by this whole system.' Like a juvenile delinquent who knows a little Freud. 'Well I can't help what I'm doing, because it was my mother. She was terribly mixed up, and she didn't bring me up properly, and my father was a mess. He was an alcoholic and he never paid any attention to me. So I'm a juvenile delinquent.' So the social worker says 'Yes, I'm afraid that's so,' and eventually some journalist gets a hold of it and says 'We should punish the parents instead of the kids.' So they go around to the parents and the mother says 'Yes, I admit I'm a mess,' and the father says 'Of course I'm an alcoholic, but it was OUR parents who brought us up wrong, and we had all that trouble.' Well, they can't find them because they're dead. And so you can go passing the buck way back, and you get to some characters called Adam and Eve. And when THEY were told they were responsible, they passed it again to a snake. And when that snake was asked about it, he passed the buck back to God, and God said 'I disown you, because I don't let my right hand know what my left hand doeth.' And you know who the left hand of God is. The right hand is Jesus Christ, the left is the Devil. Only it mustn't be admitted. Not on your life.

But that's the whole thing, you see, in a nutshell. That once you define yourself as the puppet, you say 'I'm just poor little me, and I got mixed up in this world. I didn't ask to be born. My father and mother gave me a body which is a system of tubes into which I got somehow mixed up, and it's a maze and a tunnel and I don't understand a way around it. It needs all these engineers and doctors and so on to fix it, educate it, tell it how to keep going, and I'm mixed up in it. Poor little me.' Well this is nonsense! You aren't mixed up in it, it's you, and everybody's being a blushing violet and saying 'I'm not responsible for this universe, I merely came into it.' And the whole function of every great guru is to kid you out of that, and look at you and say 'Don't give me that line of bull.' But you have to be tactful; you have to be effective. You can't just tell people this. You can't talk people out of an illusion. It's a curious thing.

There's a whole debate going on now, as you all know, about whether God exists, and they're going to do a cover story on God in 'Time' magazine, and they sent a reporter around to me - they sent reporters around to all sorts of prominent theologians and philosophers. I said 'I have a photograph of God which you must put on the cover.' It's a gorgeous photograph of a Mexican statue made by Dick Borst(?). Beautiful God-the-father with a crown like the Pope. Only they said they were going to use something by Tintoretto. This photograph is a lovely thing. You know, a real genuine Mexican Indian thing. Simple people think this is what God looks like; very handsome man. Anyway, they're going to do a cover story on God because the theologians are now arguing about a new kind of Christianity which says there's no God and Jesus Christ is his only son. But what these people want to do is they desperately want to keep the church in Christianity because it pays off, that's the minister's job, and although they feel very embarrassed about God, what they're doing is they want the Bible and Jesus to sort of keep this authority going. How you can do that, I don't know.

But at any rate, the point is that God is what nobody admits to being, and everybody really is. You don't look out there for God, something in the sky, you look in you. In other words, underneath the surface of the consciousness that you have and the individual role that you play and are identifying yourself with, you are the works. Just as you ARE beating your heart, in the same way you're shining the sun, and you're responsible. But in our culture, you mayn't admit this, because if you come on that you're God, they'll put you in the nuthouse. Because our idea of God is based on Near Eastern politics, and so if you're God, then you're the ruler, the governor - 'Oh Lord our governor!' And so if you're the governor, you know all the answers if that's what you claim to be. So when anybody in our culture says 'I'm God,' we say 'Well, well, why don't you turn this shoe into a rabbit and show me that you're God.'

But of course in Oriental cultures, they don't think of God as an autocrat. God is the fundamental energy of the world which performs all this world without having to think about it. Just in the same way that you open and close your hand without being able to say in words how you do it. You do it. You say 'I can open and close my hand.' But how? You don't know. That only means, though, that you don't know in words. You do know in fact, because you do it. So in the same way, you know how to beat your heart, because you do it, but you can't explain it in words. You know how to shine the sun, because you do it, but you can't explain it in words, unless you're a very fancy physicist, and he's just finding out - what a physicist is doing is translating what he's been doing all along into a code called mathematics. Then he says he knows how it's done. He means he can put it into the code - and that's what the academic world is. It's translating what happened into certain codes called words, numbers, algorythms, etc., and that helps us repair things when they go wrong.

So, the discovery of our inseparability from everything else is something that I don't think will have to come by the primitive methods of difficult yoga meditations, or even through the use of psychedelic chemicals. I think it's something that's within the reach of very many people's simple comprehension. Once you get the point. Just in the same way you can understand that the world is round and you experience it as such. You could call this a kind of guinana(?) yoga, in Hindu terms. But I don't think it's going to be necessary for our culture to get this point by staring at it's navel, or by spending hours practicing Za-Zen, not that I've got anything against it, because after all, to sit still can be an extraordinarily pleasant thing to do, and it's important for us to have more quiet. But I think this is essentially a matter of intuitive comprehension that will dawn upon us and suddenly hit us all in a heap, and you suddenly see that this is totally common sense, and that your present feeling of how you are is a hoax. You know how Henry Emerson Foster wrote a book called 'How to be a Real Person'? Translated into it's original terms, that means 'How to be a Genuine Fake.' Because the person is the mask, the 'persona' worn by actors in Greco-Roman drama. They put a mask on their face which had a megaphone-shaped mouth which projected the sound in an open- air theater. So the 'dramatis persona' at the beginning of a play is the list of masks, and the word 'person,' which means 'mask,' has come to mean the real you. 'How to be a Real Person.' Imagine.

But I think we'll get over it, and discover the thing that we simply don't let our children in on, that we don't let ourselves in on. Let me emphasize this point again. It is not at the moment common sense, not plausible, because of our condition, but we can very simply come to see that YOU are not some kind of accident that pops up for a while and then vanishes - but that deep inwards, you are what there is and all that there is, which is eternal, and that which there is no whicher. That's you. Now, you don't have to remember that all the time, as you don't have to remember how to beat your heart. You could die and forget everything you ever knew in this lifetime, because it's not necessary to remember it. You're going to pop up as somebody else later on, just as you did before, without knowing who you were. It's as simple as that. You were born once, you can get born again. If there was a cosmic explosion once that blew everything into existence and is going to fizzle out, if it happened once, it can happen again, and it goes on..

It's a kind of undulating system of vibrations. Everything's a system of vibrations. Everything is on/off. Now you see it, now you don't. Light itself is, but it's happening so fast that the retina doesn't register it. Everything in the sun is like an arc-lamp, only it's a very fast one. It goes on-off. Sound does; and the reason you can't put your finger through the floor is the same reason you can't, without serious problems, push it through an electric fan. The floor is going so fast. Even faster than a fan. The fan is going slow enough to cut your finger if you put it into it. But the floor is going so fast, you can't even get in. But that's the only reason. It's coming into existence and going out of existence at a terrific clip. So everything is on/off. So is our life. You can die, say 'Well, I don't know where I'm going, I don't know anything.' Just like in the same way you don't know what's going on inside your nervous system. How the nervous system links together, or anything like that. You don't need to know, and if you had to find it all out, you'd get so confused with all the information that you wouldn't be able to operate. It'd be just too much to think about with a single-pointed ordinary attention consciousness, which is a scanning system, like radar. You don't need to know how it all works in order to work it out. That's the real meaning of omnipotence.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3



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Alan Watts was born in England in 1915.

He earned a reputation as one of the foremost interpreters of Eastern philosophy, widely recognized for his Zen writings and for The Book, On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

He died in 1973 at his home in California.
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Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

VHS only of a PBS lecture series by one of the first Westerners to "import" Buddhism into the West. Slightly dated, but still potent!
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Become What You Are
Become What You Are
by Alan Watts

For such a small book there is an incredible quantity of wisdom here to contemplate.

The essays included in this collection are all from Watt's work in the 50's. It becomes clear that this man was not merely ahead of his time- he was beyond time. -- S. C. Curtis
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