The Silent Mind

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 5)


One who talks all the time can never hear what others say. And one who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts. Alan Watts examines the value of silent-mindedness or the practice of meditation in Hinduism and Buddhism.


This is not the figure of a strange pagan god, it is the figure of a man; an awakened man, a Buddha. And I expect you may have wondered why almost all figures of Buddha, or of many other Eastern sages that you see, are seated like this. This figure of Buddha is in the posture of meditation. And the way in which he is seated, and the whole caste of his features and of his expression, symbolize a certain attitude to life, a certain way of looking things, which in Indian and Chinese philosophy is considered essential to sanity.


Perhaps I can give you some idea of the meaning of this attitude by demonstrating it with a Chinese character; a word which represents this whole attitude to life. Most of you probably know that Chinese characters are originally picture writing. And in this particular character [ 觀 ], this half of the character is said originally to have represented some water bird—perhaps a stork or a heron—and this other part of the character is, first of all, a sign meaning the human eye. And then you put legs on it: “the activity of the eye,” and that means “seeing.” And the whole character is pronounced guān, and it means a certain kind of observation, a certain way of looking at things which might be typefied by the image of a heron standing at the edge of the water, as in this painting which is by the great Japanese artist Kanō Motonobu. There is the heron, standing quietly and serenely, watching the water.


And so the whole meaning of this attitude to life is what is summed up in the entire Eastern idea of meditation typefied in these Buddha figures. And I want to try today to explain to you something of the meaning of this attitude to life. For, fundamentally, meditation is not so much an exercise as it is a certain way of using one’s mind or one’s consciousness. Because normally most human beings, when they use their eyes or their ears, are constantly and chronically straining to see and to hear. And when you come to think of it, that’s very odd. Because our eyes don’t work by effort, they don’t have to go out and get the light, the light comes to them. And in the same way, sound comes to our ears, and even the sense of touch comes to our fingertips. We don’t, for example, have to press a thing hard. If I want, in the dark—I’m trying to fumble and feel what this is—I don’t have to press very hard to feel it, because the sensation simply of the hard object comes to the nerve end in my skin.


And so it’s strange, isn’t it, that we have acquired the habit of a constant and chronic effort to see clearly and to hear clearly. I think part of it comes from school. You know, when children are listening to a teacher in class they’re always fidgeting or doing something like this, you know, and looking around, and twisting and jiggling. And the teacher says, “Pay attention!” And the children immediately, to ingratiate the teacher, are able to sort of ham or act what paying attention is like—and paying attention, of course, is staring at the teacher and frowning: “Yes, we’re very interested in what you say.” And sometimes, to get their concentration clear, they curl up their legs ’round the legs of the chair, and go into all these strained attitudes so that the teacher knows they really are trying very hard to attend.


And it is through such conditioning as that—through being taught that we must try to see and try to hear in order to have clear sight and clear hearing—that we learn constantly to strain our senses in their use. But, as a matter of fact, this impedes the clarity of our senses, because if you will try staring hard at a book in front of you, or staring very hard at the TV screen you’re looking at right now, you’ll find that it becomes fuzzy. Well, so, in the same way, if you’re trying to listen, say, to a telephone conversation while the children are running all over the house and screaming, if you try to listen to the telephone, you’ll get very angry and you’ll have to stop to yell at the children to make them be quiet. But, on the other hand, if you just let the sound come to your ears, you have no difficulty at all in hearing.


So you remember, then, that heron I showed you: when that heron was watching the fish, it wasn’t sort of going like this, looking all over the place, going, “Fish here? Fish here?” No. The heron was just quiet, like this. And, as it were, the whole area of vision is simply coming to the heron’s eyes. And the moment it sees a ripple in the water, it darts down and gets the fish.


Now, I don’t think it’s only that we have been taught by teachers and parents and so on to try to see and try to hear clearly. There are other factors in the problem. And one of them is that while we are seeing and hearing, we are trying to make sense of our world by thinking about it. And the act of thinking also introduces an element of strain into the use of our minds. And I think the reason for this is—perhaps you will remember how I showed you on a previous program that thought is linear. You know, it goes one word after another. It’s strung out in a line. We think: thought, thought, thought, thought, thought, in a line like this, one after another. Whereas, when we see, we see to what is going on entirely. We take in a volume when we see. We take in a great area. Nature is a volume rather than something strung out in a line. But when we think, we get one thought after another, and so the process of thought is much slower than the process of seeing and using our consciousness or our mind as a whole. And this, then, requires a certain effort to make thought keep up with what we are seeing or what we are hearing.


Also, you see, thought works by abstraction. What do I mean by abstraction? Well, a lot of Chinese characters are abstractions. If we take, for example, the Chinese character for man, it is written this way [ 人 ]. Now, that was originally the head and legs of a human figure, something like this; let me draw an abstract figure of a man. Everybody knows that’s a man. But, as a matter of fact, it cuts out a great deal of man. This figure cuts out all the details and gives us a simple image which we can grasp all at once. And we have to do that in order to think, so that we can use a series of very simple images (or grasps) of the world, and these are abstractions. And it is fundamentally in terms of abstractions that we think. Now, thought—as I said—is slower because it goes in a line, thought after thought, and also thought is abstract. That is to say, it lacks the full, living quality of real life—just as this figure here is just a sort of skeleton, a ball on top of sticks, and therefore it lacks the vitality, the aliveness, of a real man.


Now, the more we tend to live in a world of thought, the more we tend to live in an abstract world that is removed from and has a gap between it and the real world of nature. And as a result of this we tend to live in a world that is in some ways unsatisfying, lacking in vitality and life. And also, people tend to think all the time. This becomes for every civilized community, every civilized person, a sort of habit which like constantly talking to yourself. Now, of course, when you meet me here on the TV screen, I’m always talking—or almost always—but I assure you, I am not always talking. I’m often silent. Because, after all, we have to be silent some of the time—don’t we?—in order to hear what other people have to say, and therefore to have something to talk about. In just the same way, our minds have to be silent some of the time if we are really to have anything to think about except thoughts.


You know, there is a popular proverb which says that talking to yourself is the first sign of madness. And there’s some truth in this. Because constant thinking—as distinct from simply experiencing through our senses—constant thinking about our experiences, coding our experiences into words, into signs, into the symbols of thought, is a buzz that goes on day in and day out inside our head, except when we’re sleeping. And as a result of that we begin to live in a world increasingly divorced from reality. And that is why, in those Oriental cultures in India and China and Japan it has always been considered important for everybody to spend some of his time—by no means all of his time, but some of it—not thinking, but simply in the attitude which was represented by that Chinese character which I drew at the beginning, pronounced guān, or “quiet observation.”


Remember this point. It’s important. This is not saying that thinking is a disturbance; is a thing that human beings shouldn’t do. On the contrary. It’s a highly important acquisition of man. But thinking is of no real value to us unless we also can practice non-thinking; unless we can have our mind silent and make immediate contact with the real world as distinct from the world of pure abstraction.


And so this leads to a very common practice in Asia among Hindus, among Buddhists, among Taoists, called meditation. And I want to try and show you something about it by sitting in the posture of meditation which is commonly used, and is done approximately like this: one sits upon a firm cushion—usually, a big city telephone directory is about the right thickness. And ordinarily, among Oriental peoples, they sit in what is called lotus posture—or half lotus posture, as I’m sitting now—which means that the right foot is lifted up onto the left thigh. You will find, of course, that that’s an extraordinarily uncomfortable position if you’re not used to it. But one of the reasons for sitting that way is that it locks your legs together so that you don’t easily fall over if you should go to sleep, and also that this position gives you a sense of being very, very firmly rooted to the ground.


And then the hands are laid like this, and one then turns attention to letting one’s self breathe. You don’t do breathing exercises, taking deep inhalations and exhalations. You simply let your breath come as it wants to, but if anything, let the out-breath—you know, the breath that goes with a sigh of relief; whew!—you let that be the emphasized breath rather than the in-breath. You don’t close your eyes, you usually drop them a little on the floor in front of you. Because the object is not to cut out all the things that you might be experiencing through your eyes and through your ears, through your nose and your nerve ends on the skin. The object is simply to let one’s mind alone; to experience but not to try to catch hold of one’s experience in thoughts. Simply to think—no, I wouldn’t say “think.” That’s a word we use very ambiguously. When I use the word “think,” I mean: talk to yourself, or bring a lot of images before your mind which have nothing to do with what’s right in front of you. So the function of this exercise, this posture, is to let the whole world come to you without interfering with it in any way, just sitting like that.


You may say, “Well, that’s a great waste of time. There are all sorts of interesting things in life to do. Why just spend some hours sitting?” And the reason, though, as I tried to explain, is that it is through this that one comes to have a contact no longer with the world of abstractions, no longer with the world of thought, but with the world that actually is.


Now, as you do this, you begin to notice a rather curious change in your general feeling of life. You notice that there ceases to be what I would call an interruption, or an interval, between your experience and yourself. You see, in our ordinary way of using our minds, the chronic sense of strain, the chronic attempt to think about and make sense of what we are feeling, is what we call our ego. If you say, “I experience my own existence. I am aware constantly of a knower behind and receiving all that is known,” then you get this chronic sensation of there being an “I,” a “self,” who has all these experiences. And that “I” or “self” is what we call the ego. And this chronic sense of strain is our—you might call it—psychological blocking against our experience. The thing that seems to divide us from an external world, from the whole universe.


But when, in this way, the interval begins to diminish, we begin to experience our world as ourselves. There is no interval, there is no interruption, between the knower and the known. Just as when we are completely absorbed listening to music or dancing to music, we are not aware of our separation from it. We go right with it. And so, in this same way, when the mind responds instantly to what the senses bring, it seems almost as if the mind and what it experiences were one and the same.


Now, in a way, of course, this is actually true. We can understand this theoretically, but we don’t ordinarily really feel it. For example, you know the old saying, “If a tree falls in a forest with nobody listening to it, will there be any noise?” Perhaps you know the limericks in which this problem is posed:

There was a young man who said, “God,

I find it exceedingly odd

That a tree, as a tree,

Simply ceases to be

When there’s no one around in the quad.”

And the answer was:

“Young man, your astonishment’s odd.

I’m always around in the quad.

So the tree, as a tree,

Never ceases to be

Since observed by yours faithfully, God.”


But this is a great philosophical puzzle for the Western world: does what we know depend on there being a knower? Now, in a way, obviously it does. Because when a tree falls in a forest, it certainly makes vibrations in the air. But those vibrations in the air do not become noise unless they vibrate an eardrum. So, in the same way, the light from the sun does not become light unless it falls on an eyeball. And, too, we could say the external world is full of hard things. But nothing is hard except in relation to the soft surface of the human skin. Nothing is heavy except in relation to human muscles.


So if there is not a human organism, the world does not appear to us at all as having any of the characteristics which we attach to an external world. In other words, we could say the sun is light, but only because of eyes. Rocks are hard, but only because of soft fingers. Falling rocks are noisy, but only because of sensitive human ears. We cannot form any idea at all of what the world would be like without an observing mind. Even such things as duration, the span of time, depend upon the human mind to appreciate them. Space depends on a human mind to observe the world from a particular position, and so know that there are things which are distant from it. Without this mind there could not be any world that we could think about or conceive or imagine in any way whatsoever.


And so this shows in a very clear way that our mind and the external world go together. They are inseparable differences. You remember in a recent program how I tried to illustrate the idea of inseparable differences by taking a coin or an object, here, like a cigar, which has two distinct ends, but you cannot separate those ends. This is very important. It’s worth repeating, because it’s quite fundamental. If I would want to take one of these ends off and break the thing and throw it away, it would still have another end. There would still be two ends there. I could never get rid of the situation of it having two ends. So, you see, that although the two ends are different, there is just one object. And so, in the same way, although there is a difference, in a way, between the knower and the known, between man and the world, nevertheless these two go together and they are fundamentally inseparable.


And therefore, when our consciousness is responding instantly, without any interval or interruption—without any, shall we say, stopping to think about it—then we have a situation in which we are actually realizing, we are actually feeling, the true physical relationship which exists between man and his environment. And this we could call the experience of oneness, or unity with the universe, which is the function of meditation.


Now, I think it’s not difficult to see some very obvious values in this. Because… well, if we live entirely in a world of thought, all the things that we pursue in life tend, in a way, to become arid and unsatisfactory because we are living in an abstract world. In other words, nobody in his senses is going to eat a menu instead of dinner. Nobody in his sense is going to try and get a satisfactory diet off dollar bills. And yet, you see, dollar bills and menus stand in the same relation—on the one hand to wealth, on the other to dinner—in which thought stands to reality. They represent it. They symbolize reality, but they are in no sense substitutions for it. Yes, you can do a great deal of things if you have a lot of dollar bills. But unless you exchange those dollar bills into real concrete worth, they are of no value to you.


And so, in the same way, if we try to live in the world of pure thought, we begin to feel a strange unsatisfactory quality to the world. And this living in pure thought is not something that is only done by, you know, professors and intellectuals and thinking people. Perfectly ordinary people often live in the world of pure thought, as, for example, when pursue certain goals in life; when we say, “I want to be successful,” “I want to be happy.” These are really abstractions. Because, supposing you become enormously wealthy and you are able to afford three cars and six houses: you can’t drive in three cars at once, you can’t live in six houses at once. You have a symbol, which we call prestige, of your status. But that is an abstract symbol. You can’t eat prestige, you can’t eat success.


And so, to overcome that kind of beguilement by the fantasies of thought, not thinking is an important adjunct to thought—to be able, every so often, to cease the hubbub going on inside one’s head, and to let talking to one’s self stop and come to stillness. You needn’t, of course, sit in the meditation posture like this to do it. This is simply the way it’s done by Buddhists, Hindus. You can walk, you can sit in the ordinary way, you can lie in the bathtub and do it, you can lie on your back in bed before you get up in the morning and do it. Just let your mind alone, and stop trying to make sense of the world so that there is really something to think about other than thought itself. It’s like if we wrote books about nothing but books—this is, I’m afraid, what a great deal of scholarship is: books about books about books.


And so, in this way, through meditation we come to that kind of profound peace which is exhibited in the faces of the Buddhas. I remember particularly some words by Lafcadio Hearn in which he gives a marvelous description of the whole attitude which these faces represent:

Each eidolon shaped by human faith remains the shell of a truth eternally divine, and even the shell itself may hold a ghostly power. The soft serenity, the passionless tenderness, of these Buddha faces might yet give peace of soul to a West weary of creeds transformed into conventions eager for the coming of another teacher to proclaim, “I have the same feeling for the high as for the low, for the moral as for the immoral, for the depraved as for the virtuous, for those holding sectarian views and false opinions, as for those whose beliefs are good and true.”

The Silent Mind

Alan Watts

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