The Library
The Veil of Thoughts 2
1965


In this seminar, held in Sausalito, Alan describes the ways in which we have concealed truth behind a veil of thoughts. He talks about how and why we mistake symbols for reality, argues that civilization may be a misguided experiment, offers observations about the way in which abstractions have become more powerful than the realities they are referencing, and explains how we can become “unbamboozled” from these ways of thinking.
00:00

Well now, in the first talk I was explaining that the theme of this seminar was the problem of how thoughts protect us from truth and what to do about it, and showing various ways in which the symbolizing process—which we call thinking; the use of signs, words, symbols, numbers to represent what’s going on in the external world or the world of nature—leads us into a curious confusion that we confuse the symbolic process with the actual world. And the temptation to do this arises from the extraordinary relative success that we have had in controlling the world of nature with the power of thought. But I don’t know if it’s ever struck you that we really don’t know whether we have successfully controlled it or not. It could be argued—a very strong case could be made—that the entire intellectual venture of civilization has been a ghastly mistake, and that we are now on a collision course, and that all the vaunted benefits of intelligence (technology and all that) is simply going to draw the human race to an extremely swift conclusion.

01:44

Of course, that might not be a bad thing. I’ve sometimes speculated on the idea that all stars have been created out of planets. And that these planets developed high civilizations which eventually understood the secrets of nuclear energy and, naturally, blew themselves up. And in the process these stars flung out lumps of rock as they blew up, which eventually spun around them and became planets all over again. And that this is the actual method of genesis of the universe which would accord, of course, with the Hindu cosmology where time and the events in time are invariably looked upon as a process of progressive deterioration through the cycles of each kalpa, in which things get worse and worse as time goes on until it can’t stand itself anymore, and it blows up and, after a period of rest and recuperation, begins all over again.

03:09

Why do we somehow have a distaste for a theory of time which runs in that direction? I mean, would you rather have a rhythm that goes nyeeaow-zhip, nyeeaow-zhip, or one that goes neeiyp-pow-neeiyp? See? I mean, which is it? Or you want one that’s going up always? You see? Always getting better. You can’t even imagine such a state of affairs because, you know, it’s relative. As you succeed in life you simply… well, there was a communist—a Russian, not a communist—a Russian philosopher who accused the communists in their various five-year plans and progressive notions (wherein people were always preparing for tomorrow) of converting all human beings into caryatids. Now, you know, a caryatid is a pillar, shaped in a human form, which supports a roof. And he said “You are turning all men into caryatids to support a stage upon which others will dance.” But, of course, you know they never will. You have one row of caryatids supporting a floor, and very soon your children are the next row of caryatids supporting another floor: so that it gets higher and higher, and we don’t really know where we began and we’re always in the same place. Always hoping, always thinking that the next time will be it. And this, of course, is an eternal illusion. It’s much better—actually, one would be much happier—to think that the future is simply deteriorating. I can explain that very simply.

05:17

Human beings are largely engaged in wasting enormous amounts of psychic energy in attempting to do things that are quite impossible. You know—as the proverb says—you can’t lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. But recently, I’ve heard a lot of references in just general reading and listening where people say, “We’ve got to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps!” And you can’t! And you can struggle, and tug, and pull until you’re blue in the face, and nothing happens except that you’ve exhausted yourself. All sensible people therefore begin in life with two fundamental presuppositions: you are not going to improve the world, and you are not going to improve yourself. You are just what you are. And once you have accepted that situation, you have an enormous amount of energy available to do things that can be done. And everybody else, looking at you from an external point of view, will say, “My God, how much so-and-so has improved!” But I know—I mean, hundreds of my friends are at work on enterprises to improve themselves—by one religion or another, one therapy or another, this system, that system—and I’m desperately trying to free people from this. And I suppose that makes me a messiah of some kind.

07:02

But the thing is that you can’t do it for one very simple reason—which, I think, most of you are by now familiar with—is that the part of you which is supposed to improve you is exactly the same as that part of you which needs to be improved. In other words, there isn’t any real distinction between ‘bad me’ and ‘good I,’ between the ‘higher self’ which is spiritual and the ‘lower self’ which is animal. It’s all of a piece; you are this organism, this integrated, fascinating energy pattern. And as Archimedes said: “Give me a fulcrum and I will move the Earth.” But there isn’t one. It’s like—you know—betting on the future of the human race. If I were really smart I would lay a bet that the human race will destroy itself, because (in practical politics) one realizes that nothing is going to work out right. No candidate I’ve ever voted for ever won the election. But the trouble is there’s nowhere to place the bet! And so, since I can’t place the bet anywhere, I’m involved in the world and must perforce try to see that it doesn’t blow itself to pieces.

08:28

But the thing—I once had a terrible argument with Margaret Mead. She was holding forth one evening on the absolute horror of the atomic bomb and how everybody should immediately spring into action and abolish it. But she was getting so furious about it that I said to her, “You know, you scare me. Because I think you’re the kind of person who will push the button in order to get rid of the other people who were going to push it first.” And she told me that I had no love for my future generations, no responsibility for my children, and I was a phony swami who believed in retreating from facts. But I maintain my position. Robert Oppenheimer, a little while before he died, said that it’s perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.

09:41

Because, you see, all the troubles going on in the world now are being supervised by people with very good intentions. They’re attempts to keep things in order, to clean things up, to forbid this and prevent that possible horrendous damage. And the more we try, you see, to put everything to rights, the more we make fantastic messes. And it gets worse. And maybe that’s the way it’s got to be. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all about the folly of trying to put things to right. But simply, on the principle of Blake, let the fool persist in his folly so that he will become wise.

10:34 Audience

Would this be an argument against conservationists?

10:37

This is an argument against all kinds of do-gooding. In other words, it’s simply—it’s the… what I’m saying is: don’t take me too seriously. I’m pitching a case for the fact that civilization has been a mistake; that it would be much better to leave everything alone. That the wild animals are wiser than we in that they—putting it in our crude and not very exact language—they just follow their instincts. And if a moth mistakes a flame for the signal on which it gets a mating call and flies into the flame, so what? That just keeps the moth population down. And a moth doesn’t worry. You know, it doesn’t go buzzing around in a state of anxiety, wondering whether this sex call is the real thing or just a flame. It doesn’t think consciously about the future—at least, we suppose this is so. Maybe it does. But we suppose that it doesn’t and, therefore, it isn’t troubled. But the species of moths goes on and on and on, and so far as we know it’s been around for an incredibly long time, and may be even longer than we have. Bees, ants—creatures of this kind—they have long since escaped from history, so far as we can see. In other words, they live a settled existence which you might consider rather boring because it doesn’t have constant change in the way that we do. They live the same rhythm again and again and again, but because they don’t bother to remember it consciously it never gets boring. And because they don’t bother to predict, they’re never in a state of anxiety. And yet they survive.

12:43

Now we—who “look before and after,” as Emerson says, and predict, and are always concerned whether this generation is gonna be better or worse than the one that came before—we are tormented. And we just don’t realize—because of this tremendous preoccupation with time—we don’t realize how beautiful we are, in spite of ourselves. Because, you see, the conscious radar is a troubleshooter: it’s always on the watch out for variations in the environment which may bring about disaster. And so our consciousness is, from one day’s end to another, entirely occupied with time and with planning, and with what has been and with what will be. And since troubleshooting is its function, we then get the general feeling that man is born to trouble. And we ignore in this preoccupation with conscious attention how marvelously we get on, how—for most of the time—our physical organs are in a fantastically harmonious relationship, how our body relates by all sorts of unconscious responses to the physical environment. So that if you became aware of all the adjustment processes that are being managed spontaneously and subconsciously by your organism, you would find yourself in the middle of great music. And, of course, this occasionally happens.

14:41

The mystical experience is nothing other than becoming aware of your true physical relationship to the universe. And you’re amazedthunderstruck—by the feeling that underneath everything that goes on in this world, the fundamental thing is a state of unbelievable bliss. Well, why not? Why else would there be anything happening? Because if the game isn’t worth the candle, if the universe is basically nothing but a tormented struggle, why have one? Hasn’t it ever struck you that it would be much simpler not to have any existence? It would require no effort. There would be no problems. So why is there anything going on? Let me say not why, but how is there anything going on? Because if it’s all fundamentally a drag, I just don’t see any reason for its being. Everything would have committed suicide long ago. And to be at rest.

Abou Ben Adhem—may his tribe decrease
By cautious birth control and be at peace.

G.K. Chesterton, The Philanthropist

16:20

So we might work on this possibility, then—that civilization is a mistake and that we’ve taken completely the wrong track and should have left things to nature, as it were. And, of course, this is the same problem that is brought up in the Book of Genesis. Actually, the fall of man, in Genesis, is his venture into technology. Because in the Bible, the Hebrew words for the knowledge of good and evil are connected with technics. What is technically expeditious and what is not—words connected with, actually, metallurgy—and to be as God, you see. When you “eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and you become as God” means you think you’re going to control your own life. And God says, “Okay, baby! You wanted to be God! You try it!” But the trouble with you is you’ve got a one-track mind. And therefore you can’t be God. To be God you have to have an infinitely many-tracked mind—which is, of course, what your brain has, you see? The brain is infinitely many-tracked, but consciousness is not—it’s one-tracked. As we say: you can only think of one thing at a time. And you cannot take charge of the universe with that kind of a consciousness because there’s too much of it. As I explained before: too many variables. And our science can take care of a few variables, or of an enormous number of variables (as in quantum mechanics) by statistical methods—as we can use statistical methods to predict that most people will live to be 65 years old, at least, but we cannot say of any given individual whether he will live to 65 or not. That’s what we wanted to know! But the problem is that the variables on each individual are too complicated. And we have not yet, you see, developed a science which can deal with, say, 50- or 100- or 500-variable systems. It’s too complicated to think about. But computers are going to help us. But, as yet, we are either on the low number or the extremely high number. And these are outside the range of the problems with which we are really concerned.

19:22

That’s why, for example, a lot of people have taken to using the I Ching; the Book of Changes. Because if you’re tossing a coin to make your decisions—and everybody does, fundamentally, make their decision by tossing coins—it’s better to have a 64-sided coin than a two-sided coin. The I Ching gives you 64 possibilities of approach to any given decision instead of just two: yes or no. It’s based on yes or no because it’s based on the yang and the yin, but in the same way that digital computers use a number-system which consists only of the figures 0 and 1 out of which you can construct any number. And this was invented by Leibniz, who got it from the Book of Changes. It’s amazing how this book is somehow always with us. But this, then, is a way of helping your own multi-variabled brain arrive at decisions, cooperating with your own mind. Because, then again, after you’ve tossed your 64-sided coin, the oracle that you read—that explains each particular hexagram in the Book of Changes—is a sort of Rorschach blot. It is a very laconic remarks into which everybody reads just exactly what they want to read. But that helps you make a decision by the fact that you don’t really have to accept responsibility for it. See? Then you can say, “It told me. I consulted the oracle.” The same way when you go to a guru. You say, “My guru is very wise and he’s instructed me this, that, and the other.” But it was you who decided on this guru. How did you know he was a good one? See? You gave him his authority because you picked him out. It always comes back to you, but we like to pretend it doesn’t. But the thing is that one’s self is certainly not the stream of consciousness. One’s self is everything that goes on underneath that, and of which the stream of consciousness is a mere—well, it has about the same relation to one’s self as the bookkeeping does to a business. And if you’re selling grocery, there’s very little resemblance between your books and what you move over your shelves and counters. It’s just a record of it, and that’s what our consciousness keeps.

23:10

Now supposing, then, we work with the argument that we’ve made an awful mistake in bringing out civilization and we’re not going to survive. Now, there are various things that can be said about this. Just as I made the joke that all stars used to be planets, one could say, “Well, is it such a good thing to survive?” You know T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land says “this is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a whimper.” But some people would rather end with a bang than a whimper. Some people are stingy and they like to burn up their fire very gradually, conserving the fuel and just keep enough heat going so that they get a long time. Other people prefer a kind of a potlatch situation where they have a huge whiz-bang fire that goes out in a hurry. Now, who is right? Do you want to be a tortoise? You know, a tortoise that lives for hundreds of years but drags itself around all the time very slow, slow, slow sullen? Or would you rather be a little hummingbird—yeah, yeah! Humming bird, that’s the thing! See?—that dances and lives at a terrific pace? Well, you can’t say one is right and the other’s wrong. And so there may be nothing wrong with the idea of a world, a civilization, a culture that lives at a terrific increasing pace of change and then explodes. That may be perfectly okay. My point is that if we could reconcile ourselves to the notion that that is perfectly okay, then we would be less inclined to push that button. It’s the anxiety. If you cannot stand anxiety—and if you cannot simply be content for issues to be undecided—you are liable to push the button because you say, “Let’s get it over with.”

25:57

People who have trouble with the law and are manipulating the courts in one way or another always learn to delay everything: put it off, introduce legal red tape managed to—like Ralph Ginzburg, who’s been in trouble because of the Eros Magazine. He’s got a very smart attorney who’s simply the—although the case has gone to the Supreme Court—he’s simply mumbling away and putting up all sorts of things so that he keeps Ralph out of jail. And that’s life! Life is simply a way of postponing death. And that’s what we have to do.

26:49

So then, let’s say, “Well, civilization wasn’t really a mistake. It was just as natural as anything else: a being that exists under conditions of illusion that imagines that it’s controlling its own destiny, that thinks it’s capable of improving itself, and—by virtue of this illusion—destroys itself rapidly in an interesting way.” You see? Let’s suppose that’s what we are. But you still come back to the point that you are spending an enormous amount of energy in doing things that can’t be done—that is to say, tugging at the bootstraps. And if you find this frustrating, if you really don’t like it, you don’t have to do it! You can stop. And the paradox is that, when you stop, you become happier and more energetic. People always wondered about the Calvinists because Calvinists believed that, from the beginning of time, God had foreordained who was to be saved and who is to be damned, and you have no choice. Predestination. Therefore, the logical assumption would be that people who believed in predestination would be a laissez faire: they just sit and wait saying, “There’s nothing we can do about it.” But Calvinists were quite other than that. They were very energetic people; too energetic. Very, very vigorously moral. They gave us the Protestant ethic. But they believed in predestination because, you see, they simply had all the psychic energy which Catholics were dissipating upon wondering whether they were saved or not—see?—and being in a state of fear and trembling about “Have I made the right decision? Did I act rightly?” and so on. So they didn’t have as much energy as the Calvinists.

29:40

So then, in this day and age we say—in the line of thought of psychiatry or of most schools of psychotherapy—it’s important for you to accept yourself rather than to be in conflict. Get with yourself. But everybody says, “But!” Because nobody dares take that too far. There’s always a little bit of reservation on the end of it. It’s like, I’ve never heard a preacher—to this day!—give a sermon on the passage in the Sermon on the Mount which begins: “Be not anxious for the morrow.” They do, occasionally, refer to it and say, “Well, that’s all very well for Jesus.” But the the actual putting into practice of this—nobody will agree with. They say it’s not practical to not give a damn about how you’re going to provide for the next day’s meals, and all that sort of thing. But it is practical. It’s much more practical than what we’re doing, if you mean by “practical” that it has survival value. Only, I want to point out that this is a kind of a two-step way. See, the first step is not being anxious for the morrow, not dreaming for one moment that you can change anything, or improve anything. Which of you—by being anxious—can add one cubit to his stature, you see? But this, just like the belief in predestination, has an unexpected consequence: namely, the making of the energy available so that, in fact, you can take care of the morrow—but for the simple reason that you’re no longer worrying about it. And thus it comes about that people who do not live for the morrow have some reason to make plans, but those who live for the morrow have no reason to make plans for anything because they never catch up with tomorrow; because they don’t live in the present. They live for a future which never arrives. That is very stupid.

32:40

But, you see, so all this is said in quite another spirit than the spirit of sermonizing. I’m not talking at all about something you should do. All I’m doing is explaining a situation, and you can do anything you like about it. Actually, you know, you cannot lift yourself up by your own bootstraps—however hard you try—and I’m merely pointing out the it can’t be done. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try, because it may be your lifestyle to be constantly attempting to do things that can’t be done. I do this in a way because all poets do it. A poet is always trying to describe what cannot be said. And he gets close, you know? He often really gives the illusion that he’s made it. And that’s a great thing: to be able to say what can’t be said. I’m trying to say, to express, the mystical experience—and it just can’t be done. And therefore, everything I’m saying to you is a very elaborate deception. I’m weaving all kinds of intricate nonsense patterns which sound as if they were about to make sense, and they don’t really. But, you see, we could take that to another level and say, “Well, that’s just life!”

34:12

Once I was talking with Fritz Perls at the Esalen Institute and he said, “The trouble with you is you’re all words. Why don’t you practice what you preach?” So I said, “I don’t preach. And furthermore, don’t put words down. Because the patterns that people make with words are just like the patterns of ferns, or of the marks on seashells. They are a dance. And they’re just as much a legitimate form of life as flowers.” He said, “You’re impossible!” But, you see, that’s very important.

35:13

And that is why—in certain forms of methods of meditation and religious rituals—we use words in a way that is not ordinarily in accord with the use of words. Words are normally used to convey information. But in religious rituals words are not used to convey information: words are used musically for the sake of sound. And this is a method of liberating oneself from enthrallment with words. When you say any ordinary word—just take a word like “body,” see?—and you say it once, and it seems to be quite sensible. But say it four or five times: body, body, body, body, body, body. And you think, “What a funny noise.” Isn’t that curious? Or “apple dumpling.” Apple dumpling, you know? That’s kind of a nice sound: apple dumpling.

36:30

And so in one of the great methods of meditation—which is called mantra yoga—the use of sound for liberating consciousness is precisely that. You take all sorts of nonsense and chant it. And you concentrate on these sounds quite apart from anything that they may mean. See, this is why the Catholic Church has made a ghastly mistake in having Mass celebrated in the vernacular. Now everybody knows what it means, and it really wasn’t so hard after all. And—while it was in a tongue that was completely incomprehensible—have this sense of mystery to it. And furthermore, if you knew how to use it as a sādhanā; a method of meditation—you could do very well. All monks were trained when they recited the Divine Office. They would explain to a novice: “Don’t think about the meaning of the words. Just say the words with your mouth and keep your consciousness on the presence of God.” They used it that way, see?

37:53

So it’s a very good thing, then, to use words in this way to overcome slavery to words. I’ve just written a book of nonsense ditties which are to be used in this way. To get the rhythm going—which is an incantation. Which is a way of getting beyond the bondage of thought. Because, you see, you cannot think without words. You can use numbers and a few things like that. But if you preoccupy your consciousness with meaningless words, that very simply stops you from thinking. And then you dig the sound. Do you know what it is, to dig the sound of anything? Anybody who’s had a psychedelic experience knows exactly what this means. That you—I can only call it “you go down into sound,” and you listen to that vibration, and you go into it, and into it, and into it, and you suddenly realize that that vibration that you’re listening to—or singing—is what there is. That’s the energy of the cosmos. That’s what’s going on. And everything that’s going on is a kind of a pulsation of energy, which in Buddhism is called “suchness” or “thatness”—tathātā. You see? What’s da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da. And that’s what we’re all doing. Only: we look around and, you know, here we all are with people. We’ve got faces on, and we talk, and we’re supposed to be making sense, but actually we’re just going da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-d-da-da in very complicated ways, see? And playing this life-game. And the thing is that if we don’t get with it, it passes us by. That’s alright! You can miss the bus; it’s your privilege. You see? But it really is a great deal to go with the dance and know that that’s what you’re doing, instead of agonizing about the whole thing.