Thursday, November 08, 2007

Alan Watts's "The Book"

(Photo from Wikipedia)

I came across Alan Watts while browsing the religion bookshelves at the Strand about a month ago. I was looking for books on Sikhism, and Watts's "The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you are" caught my eye, and then my mind. So many things he wrote resonate.

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" (12).


...the physical world is basically vibration. Whether we think of this vibration in terms of waves or of particles, or perhaps wavicles, we never find the crest of the wave without a trough or a particle without an interval, or space, between itself and others. In other words, there is no such thing as a half wave, or a particle all by itself without any space around it. There is no on without off, no up without down (26).


(Of the problem of cause and effect) Again, this is a problem which comes from asking the wrong question. Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariably and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head's effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together; they are all one cat....

...The narrow slit in the fence is much like the way in which we look at life by conscious attention, for 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....

...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.


At one extreme, then, we have the sacred individual--the unique personal ego, separate from both nature and God--defined as such by a society which, almost in the same break, commands him to be free and commands him to conform. At the other extreme is the coolie, the cog in the industrial-collectivist machine, or the mere "hand"....If one believes that the personal ego is a natural endowment of all men, as distinct from a social comvention, then the lot of the coolie is beak indeed--for one sees him as a repressed and frustrated person, though his own society may never have defined him as such.

However, 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 inidividual 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 presents one from seeing that to cherish the ego is to cherish misery. We do no realize that our so-called love and concern for the individual is simply the other face of our own fear of feath or rejection....

Let it be clear, furthermore, that the ego-fiction is in no way essential to the individual, to the total human organism, in fulfilling and expressing his individuality. For 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 ahdly 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. The death of an individual is not disconnection but simply withdrawal. The corpse is like a footprint or an echo--the dissolving trace of something which the Self has ceased to do.


The idea of the universe as vibration, and the image of the tree branch both remind me of the great ending of Yeats's "Among School Children":

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?


Anonymous said...

Señor Watts gets down to it.
Have you seen his videos?

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for the tip-off. I will look out for the videos.

Jee Leong

busyblogger said...

Wow, you can't go wrong with Alan Watts dovetailed to William Butler Yeats.

Watts definitely offers a very sane vision into the present moment. He lets us see very clearly that we live in a universe that grows things like us, which in turn grows more of the universe.

It would be nice, to paraphrase Pablo Neruda, to poke people on the street and pipe in Alan Watt's lectures into their iPods. It would be a saner world.

Great little post