Ego

Essential Lectures, Program 2

1972

Alan Watts was concerned with the way we trap ourselves in words. He considered it unfortunate that we separate the “I” from reality and think of “I” in terms of how others see us or the image that we want to project. What is the answer?

00:23

I suppose the most fascinating question in the whole world is: “Who am I?” or “What am I?” Because—as I’ve suggested in several of the previous talks—the seer, the knower, the one whom you are, is the most inaccessible of all experiences, completely mysterious and hidden. And yet we talk about our egos. We use the word ‘I.’ And I’ve always been tremendously interested in what people mean by the word ‘I,’ because it comes out in curious lapses of speech.

01:16

Like, we don’t say “I am a body,” we say “I have a body.” And somehow we don’t seem to identify ourselves with all of ourselves. We say, sort of, my feet, my hands, my teeth, as if they were something somehow outside me. And, as far as I can make out, most people feel that they are something or other about halfway between the ears and a little way behind the eyes, inside the head, and from this center the rest of them sort of dangles. And that governing principle in there is what you call the ego, and that’s me. And I just can’t get rid of the idea that that’s a hallucination. That’s not what you are at all, and it’s a very dangerous hallucination because it gives you the idea that you are a center of consciousness, of energy, and responsibility that stands over, against, and in opposition to, everything else. You’re a chauffeur inside your own body as if your body were an automobile and you are the chauffeur principle inside it. But you feel caught in a trap because your body’s kind of a mess. It gets sick, tired, hurts, and eventually wears out and dies—and you feel caught in the thing because you feel different from it. And you feel the world outside your body, furthermore, is an awful trap. It’s full of stupid people who are sometimes nice to you but mostly aren’t because they’re all out for themselves (like you are), and therefore there’s one hell of a conflict going on. And the rest of it, aside from people, is absolutely dumb! Animals, plants, mere vegetables, rocks, and finally—behind the whole thing—blazing centers of radioactivity called stars. And out there, where there’s no air, there’s no place for a person to live.

03:45

And so we have come to feel ourselves as centers of very, very tender, sensitive, vulnerable consciousness confronted with a world that doesn’t give a damn about us. And that, therefore, we have to pick a fight with this external world and beat it into submission to our wills. So we talk about the conquest of nature. We conquer everything. We talk about the conquest of mountains— like Everest, the conquest of space, the conquest of cancer, et cetera, et cetera. We’re at war, because inside we feel ourselves to be these lonely ego-principles trapped in, somehow inextricably bound up with, a world that doesn’t go our way—unless, somehow, we can manage to force it to do so.

04:56

Well now, as I have said, I feel that this sensation of ourselves as an ego is a hallucination. And I feel—let me say, as against this completely false conception of ourselves as an ego inside a bag of skins—that what we really are is, first of all, we are the whole of our body. Beyond that, however, the body—although it is bounded by a skin and I can, say, differentiate (in a way) between my outside and my inside. Although, is this part here outside or inside? It gets a little tricky there, doesn’t it? But my body cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. Obviously, it requires air, and that air must be at a certain temperature. It requires nutrition. It requires, therefore, that it be on a certain kind of planet, near a certain kind of warm star, spinning regularly around it in a harmonious and rhythmical way so that life can go on. And all that arrangement is just as essential to the existence of my body as its own internal organs; as, say, my heart, my brain, my lungs, and so forth. So there really is no way of separating myself, as a physical body, from the natural environment in which I live.

06:47

Now, that means that I—as a body—gowith my natural environment in the same way, exactly, say, that bees gowith flowers. Bees look very different from flowers. The flower grows out of the ground, colors and perfumes the air. The bee is independent, and buzzes around, and flies. But where there are no bees, there are no flowers. And where there are no flowers, there are no bees. They go together. And in that sense, they make up a single system. Substitute for the word ‘system’ the word ‘organism:’ a single life-form, a single individual. Bees and flowers, however different they look. Now naturally, my feet look very different from my head. Of course, there’s strings joining them, and therefore we say, “well, it’s all one, obviously.” But yet they are very different, but they’re both me. And the feet and the head, though different, are like the bees and the flowers. They gowith each other.

08:04

So therefore, if I’m to define myself in a scientific way, I will find that if I am to make a clear description of my body, my organism, my behavior, and say what it’s doing, I find that I cannot describe what my body is doing unless I also describe the surroundings, the environment in which it is doing it. In other words, it would be meaningless to describe myself as walking if I didn’t describe the ground. Because if I didn’t describe the ground, my description of walking would simply be of a person swinging his legs like this in the middle of empty space—that wouldn’t be walking. I have to describe the ground in which I walk. So what I am is a transaction, or an interaction, between this organism and its surrounding environment, and they go together, and they constitute what we call—in physics—a unified field for which we, at present, have only the very awkward name organism-environment. You know, put it all together. That’s what I am from a purely physical-scientific point of view. It may involve many more things than that, but so far is enough. I am an organism-environment.

09:29

But! That’s not what my ego feels like. That’s not the average, commonsensical conception of ‘I.’ Because ‘I’ is associated with the organism and not with the environment—it is opposing the environment—and furthermore, it is not associated with all of the organism. Because, as I said, the ego tends to regard the rest of the organism as the chauffeur to the automobile.

10:06

Well, how do we get this false sensation of being an ego? Well, it seems to me that it’s made up of two things, and the first thing we have to understand—which I have explained before in a previous talk, but it’s worth going over it again—is that in the course of civilization we make a confusion between our ideas, and words, and symbols about the world, and the world itself. You know, the General Semantics people, founded by Dr. Korzybski, they have a little song:

Oh, the word is not the thing,
the word is not the thing,
hi ho the derry-o
the word is not the thing.

Because, obviously, you can’t get wet in the sound ‘water.’ So the image—the idea, the symbol, the word—is not the reality.

11:04

So the ego—what we feel as ‘I’—consists of two elements. Number one is our image, or our idea, of ourselves. This is made up, mostly, of things that other people have told us about ourselves, or by looking at ourselves in a mirror, or by listening to ourselves played back on a tape recorder or television, and we get an image of ourselves.

11:39

When I was a little boy I remember I had a friend up the street called Peter, and I admired Peter very much. Sometimes I came home and I imitated Peter’s behavior. And my mother said to me, “Alan, that’s not you! That’s Peter!” Because, you see, she was giving me an image of myself. And when I did anything terrible she said, “Alan, it’s just not like you to do that!” See, she was busy building in me an image, an idea, of the kind of act I was supposed to put on, the kind of person I was supposed to be, and you know the word ‘person’ comes from the Latin persona, which means ‘that through which’—personum, ‘the sound goes.’ And it referred originally to the mask worn by actors in classical drama because those masks had megaphonic mouths so that, in the open-air theater, they would project the sound. So the persona—the person—is the mask, is the role you’re playing. And all your friends and relations and parents and teachers are busy telling you who you are, what your role in life is. And you know there are a certain number of acceptable roles you can play.

12:50

So first of all, then, your sense of ‘I’ is your sense of who you are, whether you are tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, whether you’re a clown type, a strong, silent man type, a clinging-vine feminine type, et cetera, et cetera—we can name dozens of them. But you identify yourself with a certain way of acting. It’s quite complicated, but nevertheless, there’s a certain way acting with which you identify yourself and which constitutes your image.

13:24

Now that image of yourself that you have is a social institution in the same way, for example, as it is a social institution to divide the day into 24 hours, or to divide the foot into twelve inches, or to draw lines of latitude and longitude—which are purely imaginary—over the surface of the Earth. It’s very useful to do that because by means of that we navigate. But there are no lines of latitude and longitude over the Earth, they are imaginary. You cannot, for example, use the Equator to tie up a package because it’s an abstract, imaginary line. And so, in just the same way, your image of yourself as ego is an imaginary concept that is not this organism and is, furthermore, not this organism in its inseparable relationship to its whole physical and natural environment.

14:40

So, therefore, the image of yourself that you have is simply a caricature, just when we make a caricature, say, of Adolf Hitler, and we pull down the hair and put a comb instead of a mustache, you know? We just associate Adolf Hitler’s image with the shock of hair and the toothbrush mustache. So in the same way, our image of ourselves is a caricature of ourselves because it does not include almost all the important things about ourselves. It does not include all the goings-on inside the physical organism. Oh, we get belly rumbles, and occasionally we’re aware of that, occasionally we’re aware of our breathing, occasionally we’re aware if it hurts somewhere, but for the most part, we’re totally unconscious of everything going on inside us. We’re unconscious of our brains and how they work, we’re unconscious of our relationships to the external world, many of our relationships to other people are completely unconscious. I mean, we depend, say, on telephone operators, electricians, supplying our electricity; on all kinds of services that we never even think about. We don’t think about air pressure, we don’t think about the chemical constitution of the air we breathe, we don’t think about cosmic rays, gamma rays, x-rays, the output of the sun. All these things are absolutely essential to our life, but they are not included in the ego image. So the ego image is very incomplete. In fact, it’s an illusion.

16:26

But we say, “Now, look: it can’t be that way because I feel I!” I mean, it’s not just an image of myself I have, I have a solid feeling behind the word ‘I,’ when I think “I” I feel there’s something there! So I feel—don’t I—that behind this image, this symbol of myself, there is what we would call a concrete referent. There is a feeling, a solid sensation to which it refers. Now, what is that?

17:05

Interesting question. Because the first thing: if your brain is your ego, you have very little in the way of direct sensation of your brain. In fact, operations can be performed on the brain with only surface anesthesia, because there’s no feeling in the brain itself. Try that one out for size. You don’t feel all these interior operations. They, therefore, cannot be the sensation of ego. When your eyes are functioning well, you don’t see your eyes. If your eyes are imperfect you see spots in front of them, that means there’s some lesions in the retina or wherever it may be. And because your eyes aren’t working properly, you feel them. So, in the same way, you don’t hear your ears. If you have singing in your ears it means there’s something wrong with your ears. So, therefore, if you do feel yourself, there must be something wrong with you! And whenever you have the sensation of ‘I,’ [it] is like spots in front of the eyes; it means something’s wrong with your functioning. That’s why you feel you’re there, why you feel you as being different from—and somehow cut off from—all that you really are, which is everything you’re experiencing. The real you is the totality of everything you’re aware of, and a great deal more besides. But what is this thing that we feel in ourselves when we say that is the concrete, material me!

18:48

Well, I’ll tell you what it is. When you were a little child in school—you remember?—you were picking your nose and looking out of the window, flicking spitballs at something. Suddenly, the teacher rapped the desk and said, “Pay attention!” Wowee! Now, how did you do that? Well, you stared at the teacher and you put a frown on your face because that’s how it looks like to pay attention. And when the teacher sees all pupils in the class staring at her—or him—and frowning, then the teacher is consoled and feels that the class is paying attention. This class is doing nothing of the kind. The class is pretending to pay attention.

19:35

Alright, so you’re reading a book; there’s some difficult book you have to read because it’s required, and you’re bored to death with it, and you think, “Well, I really have got to concentrate on this book.” And so you sort of glare at it and you try to force your mind to follow its argument, and then you discover you’re not really reading the book—you’re thinking about how you ought to read it. What do you do if I say to you, “Now look: take a hard look at me. Would you please take a hard look at me?” See? Take a real hard look. Now, what are you doing? What’s the difference between a hard look and a soft look? Why, with your hard look you are straining muscles around your eyes, and you’re starting to stare. Now, if you stare at a distant image—like a clock far away from you—you make the image fuzzy. If you want to see the clock clearly you must close your eyes, imagine black for a while, and then lazily and easily open them and you’ll see the image. The light will come to you. What do you do when I say, “Now, listen carefully! Listen very carefully to what I’m saying.” You find you’re beginning to strain yourself around your ears.

20:57

Golly, I remember—in school—I had a boy who couldn’t read sat next to me. And he wanted to convince the teacher that he really was trying to read, so he would say, “Rrrruuunn Sspooott, rrrrrrruunnn!” You know? And he was all his muscles. Well, what have they got to do with reading? What does straining your muscles here to hear, straining your muscles here to see—what does that have got to do with seeing? Nothing. Alright, supposing somebody says, “Okay, now: you’ve got to use your will. Got to exercise strong will.” That’s the ego, isn’t it? What do you do when you exercise your will? Well, they say “Grit your teeth! Clench your fists!” See? So you grit your teeth, you clench your fists—or, if you want to stop wayward emotions, you go uptight. You pull your stomach in, or hold your breath, or contract your rectal muscles. “Uuuungh,” like this.

22:06

But all those activities have absolutely nothing to do with the efficient functioning of your nervous system. Just as staring at images makes them fuzzy, listening hard—all this muscular tension around here—distracts you from what you’re actually hearing, gritting your teeth has nothing to do with courage. All this is a total distraction, and yet we do it all the time, and therefore we have a chronic sensation of muscular strain—the object of which is an attempt to make our nervous system (our brains, our sensitivity) function properly, and it doesn’t work! It’s like, you know, taking off in a jet plane. You’ve gone zooming down the runway and you think this plane has gone too far down the runway, and it isn’t up in the air yet. So you start pulling at your seat belts to help the thing up. It doesn’t have any effect. And so, in exactly the same way, all these muscular strains we do and have been taught to do all our lives long—so that we look as if we’re paying attention, we look as if we’re trying—all this is futile. But the chronic sensation of strain is the sensation to which we are referring as ‘I.’ So our ego is—what have you—an illusion married to a futility. It’s the image of ourselves—which is incorrect, false, and only a caricature—married to, combined with, a futile muscular effort to will, to be effective.

23:52

So then, what do we do about that? I mean, wouldn’t it be much better if we had a sensation of ourselves that was in accord with facts? And—as I tried to explain in the beginning—the facts, the reality, of our existence is that we are both the natural environment (which ultimately is the whole universe) and the organism playing together. Why don’t we feel that way? Why, obviously because this other feeling gets in the way of it. This socially induced feeling—which comes about as a result of a kind of hypnotism exercised upon us throughout the whole educational process—has given us a hallucinatory feeling of who we are, and therefore we act like madmen. We don’t respect our environment, we destroy it… but, you know, exploiting and destroying your environment, polluting the water and the air and everything is just like destroying your own body. The environment is your body. But we act in this crazy way because we’ve got a crazy conception of who we are. We are raving mad!

25:11

“Well,” you say to me then, “alright, how do I get rid of it?” My answer to that is: “That’s the wrong question.” How does what get rid of it? You can’t get rid of your hallucination of being an ego by an activity of the ego. Sorry, but it can’t be done! You can’t lift yourself up by your own bootstraps, you can’t put out fire with fire, and if you try to get rid of your ego with your ego, you’ll just get into a vicious circle. You’ll be like somebody who worries because they worry, and then worries because they worry because they worry. And you go round and round and get crazier than ever. The first thing to understand—when you say “What can I do about getting rid of this false ego?”—is: the first answer is “Nothing.” Because you’re asking the wrong question. You’re asking “How can I, thinking of myself as an ego, get rid of thinking of myself as an ego?” Well, obviously, you can’t!

26:24

“No,” you’ll say, “then it’s hopeless!” No, no, now wait a minute! Don’t go so fast! It isn’t hopeless. You haven’t got the message, that’s all. If you find out that your ego-feeling, your will, and all that jazz, cannot get rid of that hallucination, you found out something very important. In finding out that you can’t do anything about it, what you have found out is that you don’t exist—that is to say, you as ego—you don’t exist, so obviously you can’t do anything about it.

27:02

So you find you can’t control—not really—your thoughts, your feelings, your emotions, all the processes going on inside you and outside you that are happening; there’s nothing you can do about it. So then, what follows? Well, there’s only one thing that follows: you watch what’s going on. You see, feel this whole thing happening, and then suddenly you find—to your amazement—that you can perfectly well get up, walk over to the table, pick up a glass of milk and drink it. There’s nothing standing in your way for doing that. You can still act, you can still move, you can still go on in a rational way, but you’ve suddenly discovered that you’re not what you thought you were.

27:59

You’re not this ego pushing and shoving things inside a bag of skin. You feel yourself, now, in a new way, as the whole world—which includes your body, everything that you experience—is going along. It’s intelligent. Trust it.

Ego

Alan Watts

https://www.organism.earth/library/docs/alan-watts/essential-lectures-02-cover.webp

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