Essential Lectures, Program 1


Basing his ideas on sensory perception and physical experience, Alan Watts makes a compelling argument that everything actually depends upon nothing for its very existence.


Welcome to my home. We’re aboard the ferryboat Vallejo, which is tied up at the north end of Sausalito—close to San Francisco—and this is where I live. And you may think this place is rather weird. But that’s because I’ve always loved weird things. I remember when I was a little boy, people used to say me, “Alan, you’re so weird! Why can’t you be like other people?” Well, I thought that was just plain dull, like having the same thing for dinner every day. And as is well said, variety is the spice of life. So you will, indeed, find this place rather strange.

The Negative


And some of the things that are weird are weird because they are just obvious, and nobody ever thinks of them. Some of the most fascinating scientific discoveries have been made by people who called ordinary common sense in question. Like anybody can see that the Earth is flat; people know it’s flat. And calling that fundamental assumption in question is really the beginning of geography. And when I think over the weirdest of all things I can think of, you know what it is? Nothing. The whole idea of nothing is something that has bugged people for centuries, especially in the West. Because we have a saying in Latin: ex nihilo nihil fit, which means that ‘out of nothing comes nothing.’ You can’t, in other words, get something out of nothing. And it’s occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions that lies at the root of all our common sense—not only in the West, but in many parts of the East as well. And it comes up as a kind of terror of nothing. A put-down on nothing, on everything to do with nothing, everything associated with nothing—such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principle is often equated with the negative principle. Although women’s lib people don’t like that kind of thing, but when they get through understanding what I’m going to tell you, I don’t think they’ll object.


Because what has struck me is that nothing—the negative, the empty—is exceedingly powerful. I would say not ex nihilo nihil fit—‘out of nothing comes nothing’—I would say, “you can’t have something without nothing!” How do we basically begin to think about the difference between something and nothing? I can say there is a cigar in my right hand, and there is no cigar in my left hand. And so we get the idea of is here, and isn’t—or empty—here. But behind that, of course, lies the far more obvious contrast of solid and space.


Now, we tend to think of space as nothing. When we talk about the conquest of space—there’s a little element, notice, of hostility in that phrase—but actually we’re talking about the conquest of distance. Space as such, that is to say, whatever it is that lies between the Earth and the Moon, and the Earth and the Sun, is considered—especially since the Michelson-Morley Experiment, which proved there was no aether—is considered to be just nothing at all. But to suggest how very powerful and important this nothing-at-all is, let me point out to you that if you didn’t have space, you couldn’t have anything solid.


To begin with, without space outside the solid, you wouldn’t know where the solid’s edges were. For example, you can see me on the camera because you see a background here and all around me, and that background shows up my outline. But if that wasn’t there, then you would notice only the beads and the microphone here, and this would become the background. But you always have to have a background to see a figure. You just can’t do without it. So that means that the figure and the ground, the solid and the space in some way are inseparable and go together.


Now, we find this very commonly in the phenomena of magnetism and electricity. A magnet has a north pole and a south pole, and a battery has a positive pole and a negative pole. There is no such thing as a magnet with one pole only. Let’s suppose we equate north with ‘is’ and south with ‘isn’t,’ then we see we can’t do without the two of them. You can chop the magnet in two—supposing it’s a bar magnet—and you’ll just get another north pole and south pole on the end of each piece. And so, in the same way, a current will not flow through an electric circuit until the negative pole is connected as well as the positive. Because the current does not wait in the wire, like water in a hose, and then begin to flow when you, as it were, connect it with the negative pole like turning on the nozzle. There won’t be any current in the wire at all until its end point, which is the negative, is established.


So what this is trying to get into our basic logic is this: that there isn’t a sort of fight between something and nothing. You know the famous words of Hamlet: “To be or not to be? That is the question.” It isn’t! To be or not to be is not the question because, as I think I’ve shown, you can’t have a solid without space. Therefore you can’t have an ‘is’ without an ‘isn’t,’ a ‘something’ without a ‘nothing,’ a figure without a background. And we can turn that right the other way around and say you can’t have space without solid. Because imagine nothing but space! Space, space, space, with nothing in it at all for ever. But there you are, imagining it! And you’re something in it. To have the whole idea of there being only space—and nothing else at all—is not only inconceivable, but perfectly meaningless. because we always know what we mean by ‘contrast.’ We know what we mean by white in comparison with black. We know life in comparison with death. We know pleasure in comparison with pain, up in comparison with down. But you will notice of all these things that they must come into being together. You don’t have first something, then nothing, or first nothing, then something. Something and nothing are two sides of the same coin and—as you know—if you take a coin and you file away the tails-side of it, and you file that side of it away completely, the head side will disappear as well. So, in this sense—the positive and the negative, the something and the nothing—are inseparable, they go together, and in this way you could say that the nothing is the force whereby the something can be manifested. Without space, we couldn’t see the stars. The stars not only occupy space, but have space between one point of the sphere, and the opposite point. So there’s space everywhere as absolutely basic to there being anything at all.


Now, ordinarily we think that what is basic to the physical world is something we call matter. And then matter has various shapes. We think of tables as made of wood. We think of pots as made of clay. But, I ask you: is a tree made of wood, in the same way as a table is? No, that would be stupid—isn’t it? Because a tree is wood, it isn’t made of wood. ‘Wood’ and ‘tree’ are two different names for the same thing. But there’s—in the back of our mind—the notion, as a root of common sense, that everything in the world is made of something; made of some kind of basic stuff. And physicists through the centuries have, of course, wanted to know what that was. And physics began as a quest to discover the basic ‘stuff’ out of which the world is made. And with all our advances in physics we’ve never found it. What we have found is not stuff, but form. We have found shapes, we have found structures. Because, when you turn up the microscope, and you look at things where you thought there was some sort of stuff, you find—instead—form, pattern, structure. You find the shapes of crystals, and you go in beyond the shapes of crystals and you find molecules, and you go in beyond molecules and you find atoms, and you go in beyond atoms and you find electrons and positrons—between which there are vast spaces, and we can’t make up your minds as to these electrons. Whether they’re waves, or whether they’re particles, and so we call them ‘wavicles’—but they’re very tiny. And if you want to ask “what stuff are electrons made of,” we might be able to make a further analysis. But what we will come up with will never be stuff, it will always be a pattern—a moving pattern—which can be described and measured. But we never get to any stuff, for the simple reason that there isn’t any.


You see, what stuff is—actually—is when you see something unclearly, or out of focus, it becomes fuzzy. You know, we say “stuffing” in something—like kapok in a cushion, or stuff like clay—because when we look at it with the naked eye it looks just like goo. We can’t make out any significant shape to it. But then, when you put it under a microscope, you suddenly see shapes. It comes into clear focus as shape. And you can go on, and on, and on, looking into the nature of the world, and you will never find anything except form. Because, think of stuff: why, you wouldn’t know how to talk about it, even if you found it. How would you describe what it was like? You couldn’t say anything about a structure in it, you couldn’t say anything about a pattern or a process in it because it’d be just absolute, primordial goo.


Well, what else is there besides form in the world? Obviously, between the shape—the significant shapes of any form—there is space. And space and form, in that sense, go together as the fundamental things we’re dealing with in this universe. And that’s why there’s a Buddhist saying—really, the whole of Buddhism is based on this saying—which is:

That which is void is precisely form, and that which is form is precisely void.

Let me illustrate this to you in an extremely simple way. When you use the word ‘clarity,’ what do you mean by clarity? What’s the first thing you think of when I say “clarity?” Well, it might be a perfectly polished lens or mirror, or a clear day when there’s no smog and the air is perfectly transparent, like space. Now, what’s the next thing you think of? Clarity? The next thing you think of is form in clear focus. All the details, articulate and perfect. So the one word—clarity—suggests to you these two, apparently completely opposite, things. The clarity of the lens or of the mirror, and the clarity of articulate form. And it is in this sense, then, you see, that the Buddhists say form is void, void is form. Or we could put it in another way: instead of saying is, we could say implies, or the word that I invented: goeswith (spelled all in one). Like: a front goeswith a back, a male goeswith a female, and so on. So form always goeswith void. And there really isn’t—in this whole universe—any stuff. Form, indeed, is inseparable from the idea of energy. And frisky form, especially if it’s moving in a very circumscribed area, appears to us as solid. In the same way, for example, when you spin an electric fan, the empty spaces between the blades sort of disappear into a blur and you can’t push a pencil, much less your finger, through the fan. So, in the same way, you can’t push your finger through the floor, because the floor is going too fast. But basically, what you have down there is nothing except nothing, and form in motion.


I know there was a physicist at the University of Chicago (he was rather crazy, like some scientists), and this impressed him so much—the insolidity, the instability of the physical world—that he used to go around in enormous padded slippers for fear that he should fall through the floor. But here it is: this common-sense notion that the world is made of some kind of ‘stuff’ is shown to be a nonsense idea in the back of our minds. It isn’t there at all. But instead, form and emptiness.



Now, we all know that energy is always vibration, pulsation. Whether it be the energy of light or the energy of sound, it’s always on and off. And in the case of light—say, you get very fast light, very strong light; even, say, with alternating current—you don’t notice the discontinuity because your retina retains the impression of the on-pulse, and so that carries over during the off-pulse and you don’t notice the off-pulse, except in a slow light like an arc lamp. And it’s exactly the same thing with sound. When you hear a high note that goes “Ooooooooooooo” it seems much more continuous. That’s because the vibrations are faster than a low note, as when I go “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh.” Now, in that you can hear a kind of graininess. And that graininess is because you are hearing the rapid alternations of on and off on a lower note.


So that all wave motion, then, is this process. And it’s curious—isn’t it?—when we think of waves and talk about waves, we think about the crests. We think about this point, and we say that is waves. And that is because the crests stand out from the underlying, uniform bed of water, which is relatively solid in comparison with the space above, so that these crests are perceived as the things, the forms, the waves. But isn’t it obvious that you cannot have the ups without the downs? You could call—see, you get this dividing line here, between above and below. Now, isn’t it obvious—first of all: you cannot have the emphasis, called a crest—the concave—without the de-emphasis—or convex—called the trough. They necessarily gowith one another; so as to have anything standing out there must be, as it were, something standing down or standing back.


So, in this way we must realize that if you had this part alone, the up-part, that would not excite your senses in any way because there would be no contrast. In other words, when sound comes upon your ear, the eardrum vibrates. When the on-pulse of the sound comes, the eardrum is driven in a little. When the off succeeds, the eardrum comes out again. And so the eardrum wiggles. If you just pushed it in uniformly and left it there, you wouldn’t hear anything in the same way—if there is no sound, and the eardrum is not being pushed at all—you have silence. But to have sound, you must have the alternation of sound-silence-sound-silence-sound-silence, and so you get that “Aaaaaaahhh,” which you can hear on a very deep note.


Now, the same thing is true of all life together. We shouldn’t really contrast existence with nonexistence because, actually, existence is the alternation of to be and not to be, of positive and negative, of on and off. So you could say existence is eternal if we are to consider existence as this alternation of now you see it, now you don’t, now you see it, now you don’t, now you see it, now you don’t. It is that contrast that presents the sensation of there being anything at all. Now, in light and sound these waves are extraordinarily rapid, so that we don’t hear the interval between them. But there are other circumstances in which the waves are extraordinarily slow, as in the alternation of day and night, light and darkness, and the much vaster alternations of life and death, of the great slow cycles of the world. But these alternations are just as necessary to the being of the universe as in the very fast motions—where we get it in light, and in sound, and in the sense of solid contact—where it’s going so rapidly that we notice the continuity, or the is-side, and we ignore the intervention of the isnt-side—but it’s there just the same, just as there are vast spaces within the very heart of the atom.



Now, another thing that goes along with all of this is that it’s perfectly obvious that the universe is a system which is aware of itself. In other words, we—as living organisms—are forms of the energy of the universe just as much as the stars and the galaxies, and through our sense organs this system of energy becomes aware of itself. But there’s a puzzle in this, which again relates back to our basic contrast between on and off, and something and nothing, which is this: that the aspect of the universe which is aware of itself—that is to say, the aspect which (to put it in a very clumsy phrase) does the aware-ing—does not see itself.


In other words, you can’t look at your eyes with your eyes. You can’t kiss your own lips, you can’t bite your own teeth, you can’t observe yourself in the act of observing. All scientists, neurologists, physicists have wanted to do that, but they can’t do it. Just as you can’t touch the tip of this finger with the tip of this finger, no matter how hard you try. And that, therefore, creates—on the backside of all observation—a blank spot. Just, for example, as behind your eyes: from the point of view of your eyes, however you look around, there is blankness behind them. That’s the unknown. That’s the part of the universe, in other words, which does not see itself because it is seeing. And so we always get this division of experience into one half known, one half unknown. We would like—of course if would be fascinating if we could know the always-unknown. But if we, say, examine the brain and the structure of the nerves behind the eyes, we’re always looking at somebody else’s brain out there. We’re never looking at our own brain at the same time as we’re investigating somebody else’s brain. So there always remains this blank side of experience.


Now what I’m suggesting to you is this: that the blank side of experience has the same relationship to the conscious side as the off-principle of vibration has to the on-principle. Do you see that? There’s a fundamental division. The Chinese call them—the positive side—the yáng, and the negative side the yīn. That corresponds to the idea of ‘one’—in our language— and ‘zero.’ All numbers can be made of one and zero; that’s called binary arithmetic, which is used for computers.


And so it’s all made up of off and on, and therefore, equally, of conscious and unconscious. But the unconscious is, so to say, the part of experience which is doing consciousness, just as the trough manifests the wave, the space manifests the solid, the background manifests the figure. And so all that side of life which you call unconscious, unknown, impenetrable is unconscious, and is unknown, and is impenetrable because it’s really you! In other words, the deepest you is the nothing-side, is the side which you don’t know. So, in this sense, don’t be afraid of nothing! I could make a joke and say there’s nothing in nothing to be afraid of. But people in our culture are terrified of nothing. They’re terrified of death, they are uneasy about sleep—because they think it’s a waste of time—and they have a lurking fear in the back of their minds that all this universe is eventually going to run down and end in nothing, and it will all be forgotten, buried, and dead. But this is a completely unreasonable fear, because it is just precisely this nothing which is always the source of something.


Think of it, once again, in the image of clarity; when we say crystal-clear. Nothing is what brings something into focus, and this nothingness—symbolized by the crystal—is your own eyeball, your own consciousness, and the clear space in which all the stars have freedom to be seen.


Alan Watts

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