Essential Lectures, Program 3


As Alan Watts explains, “A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts and loses touch with reality.” He covers basic mediation techniques, including listening without naming and chanting mantras.


The art of meditation is a way of getting into touch with reality. And the reason for it is that most civilized people are out of touch with reality because they confuse the world as it is with the world as they think about it, and talk about it, and describe it. For on the one hand there is the real world, and on the other a whole system of symbols about that world which we have in our minds. These are very, very useful symbols. All civilization depends on them. But like all good things they have their disadvantages, and the principal disadvantage of symbols is that we confuse them with reality, just as we confuse money with actual wealth, and our names about ourselves—our ideas of ourselves, our images of ourselves—with ourselves.


Now, of course, reality—from a philosopher’s point of view—is a dangerous word. A philosopher will ask me: what do I mean by reality? Am I talking about the physical world of nature, or am I talking about a spiritual world, or what? And to that, I have a very simple answer. When we talk about the material world, that is actually a philosophical concept. So, in the same way, if I say that reality is spiritual, that’s also a philosophical concept. And reality itself is not a concept. Reality is [Alan strikes a standing bell], and we won’t give it a name.


Now, it’s amazing what doesn’t exist in the real world. For example, in the real world there aren’t any things, nor are there any events. That doesn’t mean to say that the real world is a perfectly featureless blank. It means that it is a marvelous system of wiggles in which we describe things and events in the same way as we would project images on a Rorschach blot, or pick out particular groups of stars in the sky and call them constellations as if they were separate groups of stars. Well, they’re groups of stars in the mind’s eye, in our system of concepts. They are not—out there, as constellations—already grouped in the sky.


So, in the same way, the difference between myself and all the rest of the universe is nothing more than an idea. It is not a real difference. And meditation is the way in which we come to feel our basic inseparability from the whole universe, and what that requires is that we shut up. That is to say, that we become interiorally silent and cease from the interminable chatter that goes on inside our skulls. Because you see, most of us think compulsively all the time, that is to say, we talk to ourselves.


I remember, when I was a boy, we had a common saying: “Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness.” Now, obviously, if I talk all the time, I don’t hear what anyone else has to say. And so, in exactly the same way, if I think all the time—that is to say if I talk to myself all the time—I don’t have anything to think about except thoughts. And therefore I’m living entirely in the world of symbols, and am never in relationship with reality.


Alright, now that’s the first basic reason for meditation. But there is another sense—and this is going to be a little bit more difficult to understand—why we could say that meditation doesn’t have a reason, or doesn’t have a purpose. And in this respect, it’s unlike almost all other things that we do—except perhaps making music and dancing, because when we make music we don’t do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music—to get to the end of the piece—then, obviously, the fastest players would be the best. And so, likewise, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor, as we would be if we were taking a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point. When we play music, the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation.


Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment. And therefore, if you meditate for an ulterior motive—that is to say, to improve your mind, to improve your character, to be more efficient in life—you’ve got your eye on the future and you are not meditating! Because the future is a concept; it doesn’t exist. As the proverb says, “Tomorrow never comes.” There is no such thing as tomorrow; there never will be, because time is always now. And that’s one of the things we discover when we stop talking to ourselves and stop thinking: we find there is only a present, only an eternal now.


So it’s funny then, isn’t it, that one meditates for no reason at all except—we could say—for the enjoyment of it. And here I would interpose the essential principle that meditation is supposed to be fun. It’s not something you do as a grim duty. The trouble with religion as we know it is that it is so mixed up with grim duties. We do it because it’s good for you; it’s a kind of self-punishment. Well, meditation—when correctly done—has nothing to do with all that. It’s a kind of digging the present, it’s a kind of grooving with the eternal now, and brings us into a state of peace where we can understand that the point of life—the place where it’s at—is simply here and now.


Well now, in the art of meditation there are various props, supports. One thing that we’re going to use as a means of stilling chatter in the mind is pure sound, and for that reason it’s useful to have a gong. This is a Japanese Buddhist gong made of bronze and shaped like a bowl. If you don’t have one of these you can get the rounded end of an oxygen tank—have a machinist saw it off roughly into the shape of a bowl, and use that. Or you can use your own voice; chanting. Another prop in meditation is the use of incense, and that is because the sense of smell is our repressed sense, and because it’s our repressed sense it has a very powerful influence on us. And therefore, we associate certain smells with certain states of mind. And so the smell of incense is associated with peace and contemplation, and so it’s advantageous to burn incense in meditation. The other prop is a string of beads, and these beads are used in meditation for an unconscious method of timing yourself. Instead of looking at a watch, you move a bead each time you breathe in and out, so that at a certain rate—you see, there are always 108 beads on a rosary, and when you get to slow breathing, halfway around the rosary is about 40 minutes. And that is the usual length of time for which one sits in meditation because otherwise, you get uncomfortable, and you get stiff legs and problems of that kind.


Now then, the other thing—first of all, what we have to go into—is: how does one sit in meditation? You can sit any way you want. You can sit in a chair, or you can sit like I’m sitting—which is the Japanese way of sitting—or you can sit in the lotus posture—which is more difficult, with the feet on the thighs, soles upwards; and the younger you start that in life, the easier you’ll find it to do—or you can just sit cross-legged on a raised cushion above the floor. Now, the point of this is that if you keep your back erect—I don’t mean stiff like this, nor slumped like this, but just easily erect—you are centered and easily balanced, and you have a feeling of being thoroughly rooted to the ground. And that sort of physical stability is very important for the avoidance of distraction and generally feeling settled. Here and now; je suis j’ouest, as the French say. I’m here and I’m gonna stay.


Well now, the easiest way to get into the meditative state is to begin by listening. If you simply close your eyes and allow yourself to hear all the sounds that are going on around you. Just listen to the general hum and buzz of the world as if you were listening to music. Don’t try to identify the sounds you are hearing, don’t put names on them, simply allow them to play with your eardrums and let them go. In other words, you could put it: let your ears hear whatever they want to hear. Don’t judge the sounds. There are no, as it were, “proper” sounds or “improper” sounds, and it doesn’t matter if somebody coughs, or sneezes, or drops something; it’s all… just… sound. And if I am talking to you right now and you’re doing this, I want you to listen to the sound of my voice just as if it were noise. Don’t try to make any sense out of what I’m saying because your brain will take care of that automatically. You don’t have to try to understand anything, just listen to the sound. As you pursue that experiment you will very naturally find that you can’t help naming sounds (identifying them), that you will go on thinking—that is to say, talking to yourself inside your head—automatically. But it’s important that you don’t try to repress those thoughts by forcing them out of your mind because that will have precisely the same effect as if you were trying to smooth rough water with a flatiron. You’re just going to disturb it all the more.


What you do is this: as you hear sounds coming up in your head—thoughts—you simply listen to them as part of the general noise going on, just as you would be listening to the sound of my voice, or just as you would be listening to cars going by or to birds chattering outside the window. So look at your own thoughts as just noises, and soon you will find that the so-called “Outside World” and the so-called “Inside World” come together. They are a happening. Your thoughts are a happening just like the sounds going on outside, and everything is simply a happening and all you’re doing is watching it.


Now, in this process another thing that is happening that is very important is that you’re breathing. And as you start meditation, you allow your breath to run just as it wills. In other words, don’t do—at first—any breathing exercise, but just watch your breath breathing the way it wants to breathe. And then notice a curious thing about this: you say, in the ordinary way, “I breathe” because you feel that breathing is something that you are doing voluntarily, just in the same way as you might be walking or talking. But you will also notice that, when you are not thinking about breathing, your breathing goes on just the same. So the curious thing about breath is that it can be looked at both as a voluntary and an involuntary action. You can feel, on the one hand, “I am doing it,” and on the other hand, “It is happening to me.” And that is why breathing is a most important part of meditation: because it is going to show you—as you become aware of your breath—that the hard and fast division that we make between what we do on the one hand, and what happens to us on the other, is arbitrary. So that, as you watch your breathing, you will become aware that both the voluntary and the involuntary aspects of your experience are all one happening.


Now, that may at first seem a little scary because you may think, “Well, am I just the puppet of a happening? The mere passive witness of something that’s going on completely beyond my control?” Or, on the other hand, “Am I really doing everything that’s going along? Well… if I were, I should be God. And that would be very embarrassing because I would be in charge of everything. That would be a terribly responsible position.” The truth of the matter—as you will see it—is that both things are true. You can see it that everything is happening to you, and on the other hand, you’re doing everything. For example, it’s your eyes that are turning the sun into light. It’s the nerve ends in your skin that are turning electric vibrations in the air into heat and temperature. It’s your eardrums that are turning vibrations in the air into sound. And in that way you are creating the world. But when we’re not talking about it, when we’re not philosophizing about it, then there is just this happening, this [Gong]… and we won’t give it a name.


Now then, when you breathe for a while, just letting it happen and not forcing it in any way, you will discover a curious thing: that, without making any effort, you can breathe more and more deeply. In other words, supposing you simply are breathing out—and breathing out is important because it’s the breath of relaxation, as when we say, “Whew!” and heave a sigh of relief. So when you are breathing out, you get the sensation that your breath is falling out. Dropping, dropping, dropping out, with the same sort of feeling you have as if you were settling down into an extremely comfortable bed. And you just get as heavy as possible and let yourself go, and you let your breath go out in just that way. And when it’s thoroughly, comfortably out and it feels like coming back again, you don’t pull it back in, you let it fall back in. Letting your lungs expand, expand, expand, until they feel very comfortably full, and you wait a moment and let it stay there, and then once again you let it fall out.


And so, in this way, you will discover that your breath gets quite naturally easier and easier, and slower and slower, and more and more powerful. So that with these various aids—listening to sound, listening to your own interior feelings and thoughts, just as if they were something going on, not something you are doing, but just happenings; and watching your breath as a happening that is neither voluntary nor involuntary, you are simply aware of these basic sensations—then you will begin to be in the state of meditation. But don’t hurry anything. Don’t worry about the future. Don’t worry about what progress you’re making. Just be entirely content to be aware of what is. Don’t be terribly selective, particular; say, “I should think of this and not of that.” Just watch whatever is happening.


Now then: to make this somewhat easier to have the mind free from discursive, verbal thinking, sound—or chanted sound—is extremely useful. If you, for example, simply listen to the gong [Gong] and let that sound be the whole of your experience—it’s quite simple, it requires no effort. [Gong] And then along with that, especially if you don’t have a gong, we can use what are called in the Sanskrit language mantra. Mantra are chanted sounds which are used not so much for their meaning as for the simple tone, and they go along with that easy kind of slow breath. One of the basic mantras is, of course, the sound Aum. That sound is used because, if you spell it out A-U-M, it runs from the back of your throat to your lips, and therefore it contains the whole range of the voice. And for that reason, it represents the total energy of the universe. This word is called the praṇava (प्रणव), the name for the ultimate reality, for the which than which there is no whicher. And so, in this way, then, [Gong] if you chant it: “Ooooooouuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmm.” And it’s varied like this: [Gong] “Aaaaaauuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmm.” [Gong]“Hoouuummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.”


And you can keep that up for quite a long time, and eventually you will find—as you go on chanting—that the words of the chant will simply have become pure sound. And you won’t be thinking about it; you won’t have any images about the sound going on in your mind, you will simply become completely absorbed in sound, and therefore you will find yourself living in an eternal now in which there is no past, and there is no future, and there is no thing called ‘difference,’ between what you as knower and what you are as the known; between yourself and the world of nature outside you. It all becomes one doing, one happening.


Now, in addition to those slow-moving chants, you may find it, according to your temperament, easier to do a fast-moving one. These have a sort of rhythm to them that is absorbing. Say, a chant that many of you have heard, that goes:

Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa

Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare

Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa

Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare

Hare Rāma Hare Rāma

Rāma Rāma Hare Hare

Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa

Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare

Hare Rāma Hare Rāma

Rāma Rāma Hare Hare

And it doesn’t matter what it means. Actually, Kṛṣṇa and Rāma are the names of Hindu divinities. But that’s not the point! The point is just to get with that thing that is running, running, running:

Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa

Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare

And so on. And if you’re a Christian or a Jew, and you feel more inclined to use a meditation word that is more congenial to you, you can use, say:

Alleluia, alleluia

Alleluia, alleluia

Or, if you’re a Mohammedan, you can use Allāh [الله‎], the name of God. They have a way of doing it, you know, which gets very exciting:

Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah!

And it gets faster and faster; you can keep that up for 40 minutes.


And you’ll be out of your mind! But, you see, to go out of your mind—at least once a day—is tremendously important because by going out of your mind you come to your senses. And if you stay in your mind all the time, you are over-rational. In other words, you’re like a very rigid bridge which—because it has got no give, no craziness, in it—is going to be blown down in the first hurricane.


Alan Watts

Document Options
Find out more