Some Alan Watts: The Basic Thing

Image for post
Image for post
In all his glory

In The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts distills the crux of spirituality, the core of the major religious traditions and substance of mystical experiences into a simple call:

“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.”

And again:

“The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego.”

To dispel is an action; we are used to experimenting and experiencing through things that we do. To dispel the “I” illusion is a basic theme underlying most spiritual practices, and most good Art.

But in Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality, Watts adds:

Robert Oppenheimer is said to have remarked that the whole world is, quite obviously, going to hell — adding, however, that the one slim chance of its not going to hell is that we do absolutely nothing to stop it. For the greatest illusion of the abstract ego is that it can do anything to bring about radical improvement either in itself or in the world….To be human, one must recognize and accept a certain element of irreducible rascality both in oneself and in one’s enemies.”

So, we’re to do nothing? What about dispelling the illusion of the separate ego? Is it possible to experiment and experience anew, rather than by doing something new, by doing nothing? This does sound a lot like meditation’s spiel, but Watts is equally skeptical of meditation & yoga, especially as appropriated in the West:

“This is why I am not overly enthusiastic about the various ‘spiritual exercises’ in meditation or yoga which some consider essential for release from the ego. For when practiced in order to ‘get’ some kind of spiritual illumination or awakening, they strengthen the fallacy that the ego can toss itself away by a tug at its own bootstraps. But there is nothing wrong with meditating just to meditate, in the same way that you listen to music just for the music. If you go to concerts to ‘get culture’ or to improve your mind, you will sit there as deaf as a doorpost.”

~ Alan Watts, “The Book”

The notable difference, of course, is that the first two quotes refer to the individual’s work, while the Oppenheimer remark touches on the collective mentality. But at a certain point of traveling down Watts’ road, is there still a difference between the two?

He concludes the thought in Does it Matter by emphasizing the idea of doing things for no greater motives:

For when it is understood that trying to have good without evil is as absurd as trying to have white without black, all that energy is released for things that can be done. It can be diverted from abstract causes to specific, material undertakings — to farming and cooking, mining and engineering, making clothes and buildings, traveling and learning, art, music, dancing, and making love. Surely, these are excellent things to do for their own sake and not, please not, for one’s own or anyone else’s improvement.”

So long as we’re here on earth, as “gods with anuses” as Ernest Becker puts it, “with our minds we can ponder the infinite, yet we’re housed in these heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying bodies” as Jason Silva elaborates, maybe the best we can do are excellent things for their own sake.

Written by

Interested in many things, like consciousness, meditation & economics. Sure of nothing, like how to exist well, or play the sax (yet). More:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store