Being Far Out


Alan Watts touches upon a peculiar tendency wherein psychedelic drugs may ignite mystical experiences similar to those known in the Eastern philosophies. However, wheras Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zen accompany these mystical experiences with discipline in order to cultivate positive outcomes, psychedelically induced insights may lead to unhealthy misinterpretations and possibly even delusions of grandeur if not handled properly.

References:

The Secret Is Out

00:00

Now, today, we are living in an age which is quite peculiar. Because, in the world of science, there are no longer any secrets because the method of science requires that all scientists be in communication with each other and, therefore, that every scientist—as soon as he has discovered something, or got a good idea—he rushes into print. And it’s important for him to do so because some other scientist somewhere else in the world might be thinking about something on the same lines and would be stimulated in his work by this man’s speculations, even if not by discoveries. And so the whole scientific world tries to remain in communication, and for this reason it was absolutely impossible to keep atomic energy a secret. In former ages that might have been managed, because there were many secrets once upon a time and people were not admitted to these secrets unless they were in some way tested and found capable of handling them without running amok. We live in such a dangerous age because all the secrets are out in the open and anybody can run amok with them. And that’s just the situation we have to face and that is just the situation we have to handle. It is too late to stop it because that would be, as they say, locking the door after the horse has bolted.

01:41

The vice president of an extremely important corporation in the United States—very progressive and very vital—a few months ago said, “There are two major forces operating in the world today, for good or for evil. One is red China, the other is LSD.” And there is a certain reason why such a thing as a certain chemical—which is capable of opening people’s minds in a certain way—should be something extremely disturbing. Because this particular chemical—in common with a number of others that have been known for centuries (but have been rather played cool through those centuries)—is capable of doing something which simply cannot be tolerated. That is to say: capable of letting properly prepared individuals—or sometimes improperly prepared individuals—in on a secret which is very closely guarded and which is, as a matter of fact, the deepest and most fundamental of all our social taboos.

03:11

I have just finished writing a book which I have had—with a sort of tongue-in-cheek attitude—had the temerity to call The Book, and it is subtitled The Book, you see, On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Because that is really the thing that cannot be let out.

03:33

Sex is not really a serious taboo in our culture. If you are initiating a young person into life, and you realize that your son or daughter is going to college and that you ought, therefore, to have a serious talk with them, they’ll laugh at you and say, “All these things you’re telling us about sex we knew years ago, and we know more about it than you do.” So that is not a subject for a serious initiation talk to a young person.

04:03

So we have to think again and try and find out—think deeply—what is fundamentally taboo in this culture, and perhaps in other cultures as well? What would—what information, in other words—would really let the cat out of the bag and give away the show?

04:29

Now, quest around a bit. Ask yourself this: for what reason would a person be considered hopelessly insane? What sort of claims must a person simply not make? Well, there is one. And that is if anybody claims that he is God. That simply isn’t done. Certainly not in our culture, although it’s very frequent in India.

05:07

But in our culture that is simply not allowed because we… most of us from a Christian background, and if not that, from a Jewish background—and there’s a great deal in common because both Christians and Jews are deeply concerned about somebody called Jesus Christ. Both Christians and Jews are, in a way, followers of Jesus Christ in different ways. He is a problem to both because he was the man who came out and discovered he was God. And that simply is impermissible. The Jews handled it in one way. The Christians handled it, quite as effectively, in another way. The Christians handled Jesus perfectly—even more tactfully than the Jews—by putting him on a pedestal and saying this was the only man who ever was God, and nobody else was really so before, and certainly nobody can be so afterwards. Stop right there! Put him on the altar, bow down to him, worship him, so that everything he had to say will be null and void. And it worked beautifully. But, you see, the trouble about deep secrets is: they can’t be repressed indefinitely.

06:39

Now here’s the problem, you see: that there are certain processes—some of which are what you might call spiritual exercises, others are simply chemicals, others are just horse sense—whereby one comes to see very clearly indeed that black goes with white and self goes with other. And as this becomes clear to you it’s rather shaking because, look: if what you define as “you” is inseparable from everything which you define as “not you”—just as ‘front’ is inseparable from ‘back’—then you realize that deep down, between self and other, there is some sort of conspiracy. If these things always occur in combination—and look very different from each other, and feel quite different—nevertheless, the feeling of difference between them allows each one to exist. And so underneath the opposition—or the polarity—between self and other (or between any other pair of opposites you can think of) there is something in common as there is, for example, between figure and background. You can’t see a figure without a background. You can’t have an organism without an environment. Equally, you can’t have a background without a figure or an environment without organisms in it—or without things in it. You can’t have space which is unoccupied by any solid. You cannot have solids not occupying some space.

08:36

This is absolutely elementary, and yet we don’t realize it because, for example, the average person thinks that space is nothing. It’s just a sort of not-there-ness in which there are things. And we are slightly afraid that not-there-ness—that nothingness, that darkness, that the negative poles of all these oppositions—will win; that they will eventually swallow up every kind of being and every kind of there-ness. But when you catch on to the game you realize that that won’t happen because what is called ‘not existing’ is quite incapable of being there without the contrast of something called ‘existing.’ It’s like the crest and the trough of a wave: you can’t have a wave that is all trough and no crest just as you can’t have wave which is all crest and no trough. Such a thing has never been manifested in the physical universe. They go together. And that is the secret! There really is no other secret than that. But it is thoroughly repressed.

09:52

And therefore we are all educated to feel that we’ve got to fight for the white because the black might win. We’ve got to survive. You must survive: that’s the great thing we’re all working under, and pounding it out day after day in anxiety. Because this is a description of anxiety. Anxiety is the fear that one of a pair of opposites might cancel the other forever. And if—by any chance, by any means—you find out that that is not so, you have an entirely new attitude to what human beings are doing. Which may be very creative, but which also may be very dangerous. You see through the game, the game called “white must win.” Because, you know, that neither black nor white are going to win because they belong to each other.

11:06

So one of the problems of the various chemicals which can change the human mind in certain ways—so that it becomes apparent that inside and outside go together—is that they do rather give the show away, and people who take these chemicals and see through the human game cannot be trusted. They may decide to be good sports and go back into the game and play it as if it were for real, or they may not. And if they don’t, what’s going to happen?

11:45

Now, you see, what is—let me speak specifically for a moment—I said the subject of this is LSD. LSD is one such chemical that does produce this curious effect of making you aware of the polarity of things. It does lots of other things. It does lots of rather unessential and trivial things. And these, of course—in all the publicity in the various national magazines about LSD—get thoroughly emphasized.

12:17

In other words, when somebody says something’s real psychedelic they mean bizarre. And when the national magazines try to illustrate the effect of these chemicals with various photographs they come on with blurred photographs of all sorts of things, higgledy-piggledy mess together, naked girls seen through prisms. Well that’s [got] absolutely nothing to do with it. If you wanted some sort of appropriate illustration for a Life Magazine article on the effects of LSD you would have one very simple solution: you would publish the most gorgeous color reproductions of Persian miniatures, and of Moorish arabesques, and of the illuminations of Celtic manuscripts. That would give you the story so far as changes in human sensation are concerned.

13:17

But there would be one thing very difficult to put across in pictures because the people who looked at them—if they didn’t get the point of view—wouldn’t see it, and that is what I will call the sensation as well as the intellectual understanding of polarity. That is to say, that the inside and the outside, the subjective and the objective, the self and the other go together. In other words, there is a harmony; an unbreakable harmony. When I’m using the word ‘harmony’ I don’t necessarily mean something sweet. I mean absolute concordant relationship between what goes on inside your skin and what goes on outside your skin. It isn’t that what goes on outside is so powerful that it pushes around and controls what goes on inside. Equally so, it isn’t that what goes on inside is so strong that it often succeeds in pushing around what goes on outside.

14:24

It is, very simply, that the two processes—the two behaviors—are one. What you do is what the universe does, and what the universe does is also what you do. Not “you” in the sense of your superficial ego—which is a very small, little, tiny area of your conscious sensitivity—but “you” in the sense of your total psychophysical organism, conscious as well as unconscious. This is not something that arrived in the world from somewhere else altogether, that confronts an alien reality. What you are is the universe—in fact, the works; what there is, and always has been, and always will be for ever and ever—performing an act called John Doe. And this is such a subversion of common sense, but is, matter of fact, something—if you stop to think about it—it is completely obvious. Only: everything conspires to prevent you from seeing that obvious thing.

15:41

Because when you were babies—practically—all your parents, and your teachers, and your aunts and uncles, and your older brothers and sisters got together and they told you who you were. They defined you as Johnny… who’s just Johnny, and don’t you come on too strong, Johnny, because krrrrxkrrrk—you know—you’ve got elders and betters around you. But you’re responsible! You’re a free agent. You’d better be! And so when you are told, from childhood, that you are expected and commanded to behave in a way that will be acceptable only if you do it voluntarily, you remain permanently mixed up. That, if anything, is permanent brain damage.

16:39

But that’s the idea, you see? Because that’s the game we’re playing: you started it! I didn’t. See? That’s the game we’re playing, and we can make all kinds of complexities out of that and, really—in a way—have enormous fun. But once anybody sees through that… well, we’re frightened. Once you get this sense of polarity—of your inside being the same process as your outside, and your ego being one and the same process as the whole universe going on—then we’re afraid that people may say, well, good equals bad and we can do anything we like, and we needn’t in any way be further subject to the ordinary rules of human conduct, and we can wear what clothes we like—or no clothes at all. We can have what sexual life we like. We can do anything. And we are going to—generally, because the world is being rather oppressive towards us—challenge the whole thing and run amok. And a lot of people are doing just exactly that.

Eastern Discipline

17:49

So I want to introduce into this whole problem some ancient wisdom. I’ve really two things to talk about: how cultures—which always did know in some way, or among whom a large number of people always did know this secret—handled it, and then I want to make some observations about how we’re trying to handle it and how it’s not going to work.

18:17

Among the Hindus and among the Buddhists this view of the real identity of a human being has always been known, at least by a very influential minority. The central doctrine of the Hindu way of life—I call it that rather than a religion—is, in Sanskrit, tat tvam asi: ‘you’re it,’ to put it in a kind of colloquial way. You’re it! And ‘it’ is the which than which there is no whicher, which they call the Brahman or the Ātman—with a capital A—meaning ‘the self.’ You are only just kidding that you’re just poor little me.

19:04

See, the function of a guru—that is to say, a spiritual teacher in India—is to give you a funny look in the eye because you come to him and say, “Mr. Guru, I have problems. I suffer, and it’s a mess, and I can’t control my mind, and I’m miserable and depressed,” and so on. And he gives you a funny look. You feel a bit nervous about the way he looks at you because, you know, he’s reading your thoughts. This man is a great magician. He can read everything that’s in you. He knows right down into your unconscious, and you know all the dreadful things you’ve thought and all the awful desires you have, and you are rather embarrassed that this man looks right through you and sees them all. That’s not what he’s looking at! He’s giving you a funny look for quite another reason altogether, because he sees in you the Brahman—the Godhead—just claiming it’s poor little me. And he’s going to eventually (by all sorts of subtle techniques that are called in Sanskrit upāya—that, in politics, means ‘chicanery’ and in spiritual education means ‘skillful pedagogy’) he’s going to try and kid you back into realizing who you really are. That’s why he gives you a funny look and why he seems to see right through you, as if to say, “Śiva, old boy, don’t kid me: I know who you are. But you’re coming on beautifully in this act that you’re somebody else altogether. And I congratulate you, you’re doing a wonderful job!” Playing this part which you call the person; my person.

20:50

You know, a person is a fake. The word means a mask. So if you read books on how to be a real person, you’re reading books on how to be a genuine fake. The word persona—as you know—means a mask worn in Greco-Roman drama. So if you come on to the guru and say, well… he asks you who you are—Sri Ramana Maharshi, when anybody came to him and they said to him (as people do), “Who was I in my last incarnation?” or “Will I be reincarnated again?” he always replied, “Who’s asking the question?” And everybody was irritated because he wouldn’t give them answers about what they were in their former lives. He just said, “Who are you?” And he looked at you—have you looked at photographs of this man? I keep a photograph of him close by because of the humor in his eyes. They’re looking at you with a dancing twinkle, saying “Come off it!”

21:50

Now then, in these Asiatic traditions it is well recognized that people who get the knowledge that you’re it may very well run amok, and therefore they always couple any method of gaining this—whether it is yoga, whether it is smoking something or drinking something, or whatever is the method—they always couple it with a discipline. Now, I know the word ‘discipline’ isn’t very popular these days and I would like to have a new word for it, because most people who teach disciplines don’t teach them very well. They teach it with a kind of… violence, as if a discipline were something that is going to be extremely unpleasant and that you’re going to have to put up with. But that’s not the real secret of discipline. I would prefer to use the word ‘skill.’

22:50

Discipline is a way of expression. Say, you want to express your feelings in stone. Now, stone doesn’t give way very easily; it’s tough stuff. And so you have to learn the skill—or the discipline—of the sculptor in order to express yourself in stone. So in every other way, whatever you do, you require a skill. And it’s enormously important, especially for American people, to understand that there is absolutely no possibility of having any pleasure in life at all without skill. Money. Doesn’t. Buy. Pleasure. Ever. Look: if you want to get stone-drunk, and go out and get a bottle of bourbon and down it, you can’t do that except for people who have practiced the distiller’s art. You can’t even make love without art.

23:53

Where I live, in Sausalito, we have a harbor full of ever so many pleasure craft. Motor cruisers, sailing boats, all kinds of things—and they never leave the dock. All that happens with them is their owners have cocktail parties there on Saturdays and Sundays, because they discovered—having bought these things—that the discipline of sailing is difficult to learn and takes a lot of time. And they didn’t have time for it, so they just bought the thing as a status symbol.

24:24

So, in other words, you can’t have pleasure in life without skill, but it isn’t an unpleasant task to learn a skill. If the teacher—in the first place—gets you fascinated with it, there is immense pleasure in learning how to do anything skillfully. To make carpentry things, to cook, to write, to calculate—anything you want can be immensely pleasurable to learn the discipline. And it is completely indispensable. Because, look: you may be a very inspired musician. I am not a musical technologist, you see—and I regret it—but I’m a word technologist. But I can hear in my head all kinds of symphonies and all kinds of marvelous compositions, but I don’t have the technique to write them down on paper and share them with somebody else. Too bad. Maybe next time around. But you see, so far as words are concerned, I can express ideas because I have studied language and I have worked very hard—not that I didn’t like it; I intensely enjoy the work of writing a book, although it is difficult. But it’s fascinating to say what can never possibly be said.

25:53

So you see what’s happening? What you have to do: you have inspiration, but then you have to have technique to incarnate—to express—your inspiration, that is to say, to bring heaven down to Earth and to express heaven in terms of Earth. Of course they are really one behind the scenes, but there’s no way of pointing it out unless you do something skillful. You see, we’re all at the moment absolutely in the midst of the beatific vision. We’re all one with the divine. Although… I don’t like that sort of wishy-washy language, but… we’re all there. But we’re so much there that we’re like fish in water: they don’t know they’re in water. Like the birds don’t know they’re in the air because it’s all around them. And in the same way we don’t know what the color of our eyes is. I don’t mean whether you’ve got blue or brown eyes, but the color of the lens of your eye. You call that transparent; no color, see, because you can’t see it. But it’s basic to being able to see anything. So in order to find out where you are there has to be some way of drawing attention to it, and that involves skill. Upāya, in Sanskrit: ‘skillful means.’

27:13

So it’s all very well. Anybody can have ecstasy. Anybody, as a matter of fact, can become aware that he is one with the eternal ground of the universe. But since that’s what you are anyway, I’m going to ask: so what? When a hero goes on an adventure, and he leaves his people and is going to a strange land, he can go away and just hide himself around the corner in an obscure house and then appear a year later and say, “I’ve been on a heroic journey” and tell all sorts of tales. And they say, “Prove it!” Because they expect him to bring back something, something which nobody has seen before. Then they believe you’ve been on the journey. So, in the same way exactly, anybody who goes on a spiritual journey must bring something back. Because if you just say, “Oh man, it was a gas!”—anyone can say that!

28:18

Now this is why, in the doctrines of Buddhism, there is a differentiation between two kinds of enlightened beings. They are both forms of Buddha—which is to say, the word Buddha means somebody who has awakened, who has discovered the secret behind all this; in other words, all this thing we call life with its frantic concerns is a big act which you, in your unconscious depths, are deliberately setting up. So you can do one of two things when you discover this. You can become what’s called a pratyekabuddha—that means a private Buddha who doesn’t tell anything—or you can become a bodhisattva. A pratyekabuddha goes off into his ecstasy and never is seen again. Bodhisattva is one who comes back and appears in the everyday world and plays the game of the everyday world by the rules of the everyday world, but he brings with him upāya. He brings with him some way of showing that he’s been on the journey, that he’s come back, and he’s going to let you in on the secret, too. If you—if, if, if!—you’ll play it cool and also come back to join in the everyday life of everyday people.

29:45

Because this is the rule: if the world is dramatic, if the world—as the Hindus say—is a big act put on by the divine Self, one of the rules of coming on stage is that you don’t come on as yourself. You come on as the part that you’re going to play. It’s very bad form if an actor always acts the same way. That’s what’s called a star as distinct from an actor. A real actor can become anything, but in private life… well, he’s just Mr. Jones. But he doesn’t come on the stage that way. So, in the same way, if you know that—behind the scenes, in the depths, fundamentally—you are it, you don’t come on that way. It always comes on as something else. That’s the rule of the stage, because without that there wouldn’t be a play. It would only be reality; no illusion. And the whole point of life is illusion. From the word, in Latin, ludere: ‘to play.’ Showbiz. The show must go on, so don’t give it away.

31:03

But truth has a way of leaking. It gets out. But then the important thing is, you see: when the truth gets out, those who catch hold of it must find a way of staying in contact with what society calls reality. That is to say, if you have a radio you don’t only need an antenna, you also need a ground. So what happens in the world of mysticism, of psychedelic visions, and so on, needs to be grounded.

31:50

So then, there are always two directions in which such a discipline works. One: preparatory. In other words, those who taught disciplines for awakening in the Orient were always careful to screen—first of all, to screen—those who applied, and then, after screening them, to make them sensible so that they knew how to handle the game of ordinary human existence and play it by the ordinary human rules. In other words, they had strength of character and were not the sort of people who would be wiped out—because they had no strength of character—by an overwhelming experience. Then they let them in.

32:41

But there are certain disciplines, such as Zen, where you get in to the essential secret very early on in the discipline. And after that they are concerned with much more training in showing you how to use it. How to use the power, to use the vision which you have acquired.

My Respects

33:03

And so it is with the current—what we will call—LSD scene that is raging through the United States: it unfortunately lacks discipline. And I’m not trying to say this in a kind of severe, authoritarian, paternalistic way, but only that it would be so much more fun if it had it. In other words, when people try to express what they have seen in this kind of changed state of consciousness, they show five movies going on at once projected upon torn bedsheets with stroboscopic lights going as fast as possible at the same time and eleven jazz bands playing. And they’re going to blow their minds, baby! Everybody else who hasn’t seen this thing looks around and says, “Well, it’s a mess! I don’t like the looks of it.”

34:10

Let’s suppose that while you were very, very high on LSD you looked into a filthy ashtray and you saw the beatific vision—which is, of course, the case because wherever you look (if your eyes are open) you will see the face of the divine. Then you come out of your ecstasy with the dirty ashtray and say to everybody, “Here it is.” No. There is a possibility—if you are an extraordinarily skillful painter, or even photographer—of presenting the dirty ashtray so that everybody else will see almost what you saw in it. But you will have to have a technique which will translate every grain of ash into a jewel, because that’s what you actually saw. But that requires mastery of an art. And I’m afraid people think that all that’s necessary to do is… just throw out any old thing, because under that transformed state of consciousness any old thing is the works. But nobody else can see it if they haven’t shared that point of view.

35:37

So then, this becomes—for us, in the United States—an extremely important social problem. The cat is out of the bag. We are living in a scientific world where secrets cannot be kept. And anyone, anytime, can pick up something which will short-circuit all the ancient religious techniques—yoga practice, meditation, et cetera, et cetera. This is all very embarrassing, but it will happen—not for everybody, but for a lot of people—and they will see what all those sages, and Buddhas, and yogis, and prophets saw in ancient times, and it will be very clear.

36:30

So what? So, you see, you can say, “Look at all these people who haven’t seen it.” This is a temptation. Look at them all going about their business: earning money and grinding it out at the bank, or the insurance office—or whatever it is—every day, and how serious they look about it, and they don’t really know it’s a game. And you can cultivate a certain contempt for people like that. But it’s very, very bad to do that. Because, of course, don’t forget: they have a certain contempt for you. You see—always—the nice people in town, who live in the best residences, they know that they’re nice because there are some people on the other side of the tracks who are not nice. And so, at their cocktail parties, they have a lot to say about the people who are not nice because that boosts their collective ego. There would be no other way of doing it. You don’t know that you’re a law-abiding citizen unless there are some people who aren’t. And if it’s important to you to congratulate yourself on being law-abiding, you therefore have to have some criminal classes—outside the pale, of course, of your immediate associates. On the other hand, the people who are not nice, they have their parties and they boost their collective ego by saying they are the people who are really in, whereas these poor squares who deliver the mail faithfully, and who carry on what you call responsible jobs, they’re just dupes. When they earn their money, all they do is they buy toy rocket ships with it and go roaring around, and so on, and they think that’s pleasure. So the people who are not nice boost their collective ego in that way. Neither of them realizing that they need the other just as much as a flower needs a bee and a bee needs a flower.

38:43

So when you see the people who you think are not in on the secret—if you really understand, you have to revise your opinion completely and say that the squares are the people who are really far out, because they don’t even know where they started. See, an enlightened Hindu or Buddhist looks at the ignorant people of this world and says, “My respects. Because here I see the divine essence having altogether forgotten what it is and playing the most far out game of being completely lost. Congratulations! How far out can you get?” So if you understand that you don’t start a war with people you might say are square. Don’t challenge them, don’t bug them, don’t frighten them. The reason is not because they are immature, because they are babies and you mustn’t scare babies. It’s nothing to do with that. You mustn’t frighten them because they are doing a very far out act. They’re walking on a tightrope, miles up, and they’ve got to do that balancing act. And if you shout they may lose their nerve. See? That’s what we call the responsible people of the world are doing: it is an act; it’s a game just like the tightrope walker. But it’s a risky one and you can get ulcers from it, and all sorts of troubles. But you must respect it and say, “Congratulations on being so far out.”



Find out more