Things and Thinks

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 2)


Alan Watts presents an explanation of the East Indian idea of māyā: the division of the world into separate things and events is a work of human thought and not a fact of nature. Watts examines the disastrous consequences of confusing thought with fact.


We were talking last time about the extraordinary conflict between man and nature which exists among almost all highly civilized peoples, and especially here in the Western world, where we talk so much about our conquest of nature, our mastery of space, our subjection of the physical world. And I think one of the main reasons why we feel in this particular way is that each individual experiences himself as a peculiarly separate being. In other words, every man thinks of this world as a collection of objects. The world is a lot of things. And each person considers himself as a thing. And I wonder if you’ve ever stopped to ask yourself what a thing is, and why you think you are a thing? Are you quite sure that you are a thing? Because if we take a look at ourselves from another point of view—for example, like this—we shall find that we’re not one thing at all. We’re an extraordinary number of things. For what you’re looking at there is the cell structure of your own body. A whole multitude of tiny, tiny little individuals.


And now we might ask again: what other points of view could we take to ourselves? We could, of course, take the sociologist’s point of view, where we’re not really a thing at all, but a sub-member of a group. Or, still more, if a man visiting us from another planet in something like a flying saucer were to hover down and look at what sort of creature is inhabiting this Earth, what would he see? Let’s take a look and get some idea of his view. This is the kind of creature he would find inhabiting this planet: a sprawly, nubbly thing, with various lines connecting bits of it. That would be, in his view, the kind of thing that we are. For, you see, how many things we are depends upon the point of view which one takes.


Every point of view that we’ve taken—the point of view of the cells, the point of view of the man hovering above the Earth in a flying saucer or an aeroplane—is a correct point of view. And according to the way in which we look, so we divide the things of the world. For, you see, it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the word “thing” is very like the word “think.” Because by breaking down our world into things is the way in which we think about it. We break down what we call the material world into objects, and assign to those objects the kind of words we describe as nouns. And then the world of action we break into events, and assign to events the kind of word we call verbs. But things and events are fundamentally the ways of breaking up our complex world so that we can think about it.


I wonder if any of you have ever been to a psychologist and taken a Rorschach test and been asked to look at one of these extraordinary blots. Now, actually, the blot that we’re looking at here isn’t a real Rorschach blot, because you’re not allowed to show them in public in case people saw them before the test. But they’re something like this, and they’re made by splodging ink on paper and folding the paper over so that you get a symmetrical blot, and the psychologist says to you when you look at that, “Now, please, will you tell me a story about it? What do you think it looks like?” And you might say, “Well, I think it looks like a great big cat face, or maybe it’s a woman’s handbag, or maybe it’s a dancer waving his arms in front of a pair of pine trees with some rocks around.” All sorts of stories you could invent about it; anything you like. And the psychologist will use the kind of information that you’ve given him, the sort of things that you project out of your own mind into that blot, and he will then form some diagnosis of the kind of person you are. But, you see, he’s not interested in the information which you give him about the blot as a description of the blot, he’s interested in what you say as a description of what is going on inside you. In other words, what you are saying about that blot is a projection of yourself into its strange and complicated conformations.


Now, you see, our whole world is in many ways not so very much unlike this peculiar blot. And you might think that there might be some persuasive person who stands up and gives a story about the blot of the world, and other people agree with what he says. He says, “Look here. That’s a mountain. That’s a tree. That’s a rock.” And everybody else would agree because he was so persuasive, and we would all be beginning to give the same story about the cosmic Rorschach blot. Because, after all, our world is a very wiggly affair. Consider, for example, clouds, or clouds with mountains across them, or waters, or stars. All the world is a wiggly affair, not at all unlike that blot we were looking at. And we have to find out ways of making sense of it.


Perhaps one of the strangest and most difficult to understand things that men first began to make sense of in this kind of Rorschach blot interpretation way were the stars in heaven. And one of the ways in which they did this was to project upon the skies figures of all kinds of mythological monsters and beasts, such as the idea of a dipper for the great bear—those stars in the Great Bear that look, you know, like a ladle; or some people call them the plow. Or here, perhaps on a celestial sphere of this kind, you can see quite clearly the outline of the constellation Leo, the lion. A lion drawn in the sky! So that men could find their way about in the stars, recognize their outlines by associating certain groups of stars with familiar images. But, you see, this is fundamentally a projection of ideas out of our own minds onto nature. Nature itself will take all kinds of different projections, and no one is necessarily the right one. They work for us so long as we agree about them—that is, so long as we abide by convention.


And in Indian philosophy, the fundamental word for this kind of thing is the Sanskrit term māyā. I’m going to write that down for you. And this word comes from a root in the Sanskrit language, ma. And the word ma is at the basis of all kinds of words that we use in our own tongue. It’s at the basis of “matter,” of the Latin “mater” or “mother,” at the basis of “matrix” or “metric,” because the fundamental meaning of the root ma is “to measure.” And so it works in this sort of way.


I was talking about our world being wiggly—you know, something like this: that is the typical sort of shape that we are having to deal with all the time. And I think you’ll see at once that a shape like that is extraordinarily difficult to talk about. If I were talking on the radio at the moment, and not on television, I would have the greatest difficulty in describing that line to you in such a way that you could write it down on a piece of paper in front of you without seeing it. But here you can see it, and you can understand it at once. But it isn’t enough just to be able to see things. We want to be able to talk about them, we want to be able to describe them exactly so that we can control them and deal with them. I mean, supposing this were the outline of a piece of territory on a map, then you might want to tell someone an exact spot to which he should go. And then you would have to be far more precise about it than you can be when you just get the general idea of it by looking at it.


And so we introduce, then, the idea of māyā by essentially doing this. This might be called a matrix: lines crossed by lines in a very formal, simple pattern. And the moment we do that it becomes very easy indeed to talk about this wiggly line, because we could, for example, number all these squares across—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and so on—and we can also number them downwards. And then, in terms of numbers across and numbers down, we can indicate the exact points on this grid which cross the wiggly line. And by numbering those points one after another, we can give an accurate description of the way that line moves. And furthermore, supposing the line under our grid were not still like this one, but supposing it was wiggling, in motion; supposing it was a flea or something dipped in ink, who is crawling across the paper, and we wanted to know where he was going to go, all we would have to do would be to plot out the positions which he has covered, and then we could calculate statistically a trend which would indicate where he would be likely to go next. And if he went there next, we should say, “By Jove, isn’t that incredible! This little flea crawling across the paper is obeying the laws of statistics.”


Well, as a matter of fact, he isn’t. What he is doing is—or rather, I should say not what he is doing, but what we are doing is: we are making a very, very abstract model of the way in which that line is shaped, or in which that flea is crawling. We are breaking it up into little bits, whereas in fact it is not a lot of little bits, it is a continuous sweep. But by treating it in this way as if it were broken up into bits, we are measuring it, we are making a māyā. And these crossed lines are a māyā just in the same way as the idea of the lion, the Leo constellation in the stars, is a māyā. A way of projecting. You see, this thing, it comes out of our minds, and we project it upon nature like this and break nature into bits so that it can be easily talked about and handled.


But, you see, this tends to give us the impression that our world is a lot of bits, and that things are really separate from each other. You see—how could I demonstrate how this is? I’ve an idea. Mr. Cameraman, will you focus the camera on one small, tiny spot in the set, and come very close to it, and travel along, bit by bit by bit? Now, you see: this is looking at the world little bit by little bit, as if we were only using the central vision of our eyes. The kind of vision we use for reading and close work of that kind. But if this were the only way we had of looking at things it would be very difficult to make any sense of life at all, because we would see everything in series, bit after bit after bit. But fortunately we are also able to enlarge the whole view and take in everything at once in a single sweep. And, you see, this shows all the advantages and the disadvantages of looking at things in the way that Indian philosophy calls māyā. Because if māyā were the only way we had for looking at things, we should only be able to understand one thing at a time. And our world is not just one thing happening one after another, one at a time, our world is an enormous volume, a great vastness, in which everything is happening altogether at once.


Now, being able to think of things one at a time is extraordinarily useful because this is what enables us to have science, to have scientific control of nature, to be able to count things, measure them, manage them, and predict their behavior in the future. But it is inclined to run away with us and give us the impression if we think to hard about things, or if we put too much faith in thinking, that the world is made up of a lot of separate bits, so that we have a kind of bit-by-bit approach to nature—what I might call a putt-putt-putt-putt view of life. It’s useful indeed to break things down into things and to classify them, but the moment it gives us the impression that these little bits into which we have divided the world are really and in nature separate from each other, we get into confusion.


Now, how do we know that divided things aren’t really separate? Look, for example, at me. How do you know I’m here? How can you make out the outlines of my body? Isn’t it because there is a contrast between the background behind me and my figure? You know where the background ends and I begin, and so you are able to see me. But now what would happen if the background should vanish and disappear, and I would no longer be there, but the figure and the ground, instead, would be my button. In order to see me, you have to see a background along with me. And so if we go back and look again at the whole thing, then we can see once again.


Now, what does that tell us? Surely, the thing that it tells us is not merely that the background is one thing and the figure is another. Since the two must go together, it indicates that there is a connection between them. If you can’t have the perception of a figure without a background, if you simply cannot see it if there is no background there, doesn’t that mean that the background and the figure are some way inseparable. They’re different, yes, but they’re inseparable differences. Take, for example, a coin: when you have a coin, it has two sides, heads and tails. And these two sides are indeed different. You might say they are separate sides. But what would happen if we take a file and start rubbing away to get rid of one of the sides? Well, we would rub and rub and rub, and when we finally got rid of the side, the other side would’ve vanished, too. Because the two sides of a coin go together. Yes, they are different, but they are also inseparable.


And this is true of almost everything in the world, because we distinguish things from their background, we distinguish one side from another as we distinguish up from down. Now, imagine what would happen if we arranged everything in this set—or tried to arrange everything—so that nothing were down, everything had to be up. If we could really, in nature, separate the up from the down—why, we couldn’t do it. Because up goes with down, is unintelligible apart from down, in the same way that the head side of a coin goes together with the tail side. And so, in this way, we—as individuals, as separate beings—are really inseparable from the whole natural environment in which we live. We go together. And you cannot have the one without the other. Without what we call things, there would be no world. But without what we would call the whole world, there would be no things.


And this is not only true of what we call things and objects, it’s also true of many of our experiences. Let’s take, for example, one of the most fundamental distinctions in experience: what is pleasant and what is not. Now, a great many people are bending the whole effort of their lives to have pleasure and get rid of pain. This pursuit of pleasure is regarded as the fundamental aim of human existence. And, you know, when you start to read old books on Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, they very often say that the first thing a man must understand is to give up the pursuit of pleasure. And people who read these things think that these are very… oh, ripey puritans, people who have a sour attitude to life, who burnt their fingers in the game of the pursuit of pleasure and say, “Well, let’s not get mixed up with that anymore.” But, as a matter of fact, this is just a plain clear sensible statement. It’s like saying you cannot have up without down, you cannot have a figure without a background. And in the same way, exactly, you cannot experience pleasure unless there is something with which you can contrast it.


You know what happens when a person who’s longed to make a great deal of money all his life, and he makes it—finally he gets a million dollars. And he thinks this is the answer. Well, it’s fine just in the moment of transition, while he is going to poverty to richness. But when he’s had his million dollars for a few months, everything adjusts itself and he begins to feel just the same as he always felt before. Conversely, if some of you have lived near a tannery, or near a public utility place like a gas-producing factory, you get so used to the bad smell in the background that you cease to notice it. It becomes the normal smell, and so you don’t notice it anymore as a bad smell. For both the bad and the good need each other as contrasts.


And therefore, when we try to get rid of one of the pairs and possess the other only, we do something that is profoundly nonsensical. We think we can do it, because in māyā—that is to say, in conventional thinking in terms of that kind of measurement that we call “thought”—we can separate the one from the other, we can talk about “up” as different from “down,” we can talk about one thing as different from other things. But in actual experience it can’t be done, just as in actual experience that wiggly line was a continuous line and not a series of points. And in another way, too, we can’t really pursue pleasure, because pleasure is something that has to come to us.


For example, you can pursue a cow, and you can go out and catch it and kill it and serve it up as steak. That you can do. But you can’t pursue the pleasure that you get from eating steak. If, in other words, you try to get pleasure out of steaks—supposing I sit here and I have a great big splendid steak served to me, and I say, “This is the best steak I ever ate! Why, it’s a chateaubriand and it cost $12 a plate, and therefore I must make the very maximum effort to enjoy it,” and I cut the thing up, and I put it in my mouth and say, “Now I really got to get the most out of this piece of steak!” And so I chew it with all my might to get the very best out of it. And what happens? I’m making so much muscular strain, I’m trying so hard to get something out of it, that I frustrate the very pleasure that it should give. Why is that? Surely it is because pleasure is a function of nerves. And you can’t make an effort with your nerves. Catching a cow is a function of muscles, and you can make an effort with your muscles.


To give another illustration of the same thing: supposing I want to see an object in the far distance. I want to make out the time on a distant clock. Now, my eyes are nervous rather than muscular. And if I strain my eyes very hard to make out what is way off on the clock in the distance, what happens? All the images of the figures on the clock go fuzzy. But if I relax my eyes and let the image come to it, as light does in fact come to the eyes, then I can see the image clearly.


So when we think of the world as consisting primarily of a lot of disconnected things, and ourselves as one of them, so that we go out and get those things, or we can push those things around to suit ourselves, we forget so easily that the entire system of nature, ourselves included, is interconnected in every conceivable way. You know what happens when you think, “Well, we’ve got a lot of mosquitoes around here. All kinds of insects that bite us and bother us. Let’s get rid of them!” So we bring in the DDT and we send and aeroplane over and spray the whole surrounding territory with DDT. Now, what happens? Suddenly we find that other insects or other pests which those insects we destroyed were feeding upon multiply and increase, and we have a new problem. We have to get rid of those. It’s like when they brought rabbits into Australia because they thought they’d be useful there for some reason or other. The rabbits multiplied because there was nothing that fed on rabbits. Then they had a plague of rabbits.


You see, you cannot just push nature around. You cannot regard it as something to be attacked, so that you can grab bits from it and shove it around any old way as if it were a machine that you could bang around like a mechanic. Indeed, even machines—as any good mechanic knows—are not that simple to play with. But if we do not see that our view of the separateness of the world is based on a convention of thinking—it exists, as it were, in here, it doesn’t exist out here in actual concrete reality. And if we are confused, then we jump to follow our thoughts instead of our senses. And this is no-sense.

Things and Thinks

Alan Watts

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