Essential Lectures, Program 6


Here Alan Watts points out that our insistence that the past determines the present is nonsensical.


Time is a very difficult thing to pin down. There’s a famous saying of St. Augustine of Hippo that when he was asked “What is time?” he said, “I know what it is, but when you ask me I don’t.” And yet it seems absolutely fundamental to our life. “Time is money,” we say. “I don’t have enough time.” “Time flies.” “Time drags.” And I think we should go into the question of what this is, because in our ordinary common sense we think of time as a one-way motion from the past, through the present, and on into the future. And that carries along with it another impression, which is to say that life moves from the past to the future in such a way that what happens now and what will happen is always the result of what has happened in the past. In other words, we seem to be driven along.


You know, once upon a time it was fashionable in psychology for people to speak of man’s and animal’s instincts; that we had, for example, an instinct for survival, an instinct to make love, and so on. But nowadays that word has become unfashionable and psychologists tend, instead, to use the word drives, and to speak of the need for food as a drive, the need for survival or for sex as drives. And that’s a very significant word because it’s brought out—isn’t it?—by people who feel driven.


I must say, personally, if I feel hungry I don’t feel driven. Also, if I feel lusty I don’t feel driven because I don’t say, “Oh, excuse me, but I have to eat.” Or, “Excuse me, but I need to fulfill my sexual urges; my biological impulses.” I say, “Hooray!” I identify myself with my drives. They’re me, and I don’t take a passive attitude towards them and apologize for them.


So the whole idea of our being driven is connected with the idea of causality, of life moving under the power of the past. And that is so ingrained in our common sense that it’s very difficult to get rid of it. Because I want to turn the thing ’round completely the other way and say that the past is the result of the present. Let us suppose, just for the sake of example, that this universe started with a big bang, as some cosmologists believe. Now, when that bang happened it was the present, wasn’t it? And so the universe began in what we will call a now-moment. Then it goes on doing its stuff. And always, when any event that we now call past came into being, came into being in the present and out of the present. That’s one way of seeing it.


But before we get further involved in this, I want to draw your attention to a fallacy in the very common sense idea of causality that events are caused by previous events from which they flow—or result—necessarily. To understand the fallacy of that idea we have to begin by asking: what do you mean by an event? Let’s take the event of a human being coming into the world. Now, when does that event begin? Does it occur at the moment of parturition, when the baby actually comes out of its mother? Or does the baby begin at the moment of conception? Or does the baby begin when it was an evil gleam in its father’s eye? Or does a baby begin when the spermatozoa are generated in the father or the ovum in the mother? Or could you say a baby begins when its father is born, or when its mother is born? All these things can be thought of as beginnings, but we decide for purposes of legal registration that a life begins at the moment of parturition, and that is a purely arbitrary decision. And it has validity only because we all agree about it.


Let me show you the same phenomenon in the dimension of space instead of the dimension of time. Let’s ask: how big is the sun? Are we going to define the sun as limited by the extent of its fire? That’s one possible definition. But we could equally well define the sphere of the sun by the extent of its heat. We could also define the sphere of the sun by the extent of its light. And each of these would be reasonable choices, except that it’s rather difficult to keep track of the extent of its light—because we’re inside it—and therefore we have arbitrarily agreed to define the sun by the limit of its visible fire. But you will see by all these analogies that how big a thing is, or how long an event is, is simply a matter of definition.


Now, therefore, when—by simple definition for purposes of discussion—we have divided events into certain periods… we’ll say the First World War began in 1914 and it 1918. Now, actually, all those things which led up to the First World War started long before 1914 and the repercussions of that war have continued long beyond 1918. How are we to distinguish an event from its repercussions?


So you will see that because we have divided events from one another in this arbitrary way—we do that, and then we sort of forget we did it. And then we have a puzzle: how do events lead to each other? Because, you see, in reality there are no separate events! Life moves along like water, and it’s all connected as the source of a river is connected to the mouth and to the ocean. And all the events—or things—going on are like whirlpools in the stream. Because you go there today and you see a whirlpool. You go there tomorrow and you see a whirlpool. But it isn’t the same whirlpool because all the water is changing every second. What is happening is not really what we should call a whirlpool but rather a whirlpooling. It is an activity, not a thing. And indeed, every so-called thing can be called an event. We call, say, a house housing. We call a mat matting. And we could equally call a cat a catting. So we could say “The catting sat on the matting,” and we would thereby have a world in which there were no things but only events.


To give another illustration: a flame is something [where] we say, “There is a flame on the candle.” But it would be more correct to say “There is a flaming on the candle,” because the flame is a stream of hot gas. Let’s take another amusing example: we say fist, and fist is a noun, and fist looks like a thing. But, suddenly, what happens to the fist when I open my hand? See, I was fisting. Now I’m handing. Handing it to you. So every kind of so-called ‘thing’ can be spoken of as an event, and because events flow into each other—the fisting flows into the handing—we cannot say exactly where one ends and the other begins.


So, therefore, if we remember that, we shall see that we do not need the idea of causality to explain how a prior event influences a following event. Because it’s like this: supposing I’m looking through a narrow slit in a fence and a snake goes by. I’ve never seen a snake before and this is mysterious. And I see—through the slit in the fence—first the snake’s head, then I see a long trailing body, and then, finally, the tail. I say, “Well, that was interesting!” Then the snake turns ’round and goes back. And again I see first the head, and then—after an interval—the tail. Now if I call the head one event and the tail another, it will seem to me that the event ‘head’ is the cause of the event ‘tail,’ and the tail is the effect. But if I look at the whole snake I will see a head-tailed snake and it would be simply absurd to say that the head of the snake is the cause of the tail, as if the snake came into being first the head and then the tail. The snake comes into being out of its egg as a head-tailed snake.


And so, in exactly the same way, all events are really one event. We’re looking—when we talk about different events—we’re looking at different sections, or parts, of one continuous happening. And therefore the idea of separate events which have to be linked by a mysterious process called cause and effect is completely unnecessary. But having thought that way we think of present events as being caused by past events and therefore we tend to regard ourselves as the puppets of the past, as driven along by something that is always behind us.


Now, to overcome this impression—it’s very simple. You begin again with an experiment which I suggested in the previous talk about meditation. Approach the world through your ears. If you shut your eyes and make contact with reality purely with your ears—I mean, it’s kind of silly, perhaps, to shut your eyes when you’re looking at television, but do it; just for a moment—and you will realize that the sounds you are hearing are all coming out of silence. You hear [Alan strikes a standing bell] … and it fades away; fades, fades, fades, fades, and finally disappears. It’s a curious world, this—isn’t it?—because you hear all the realities in it, the sounds, suddenly coming out of nothing. You don’t see any reason for them to begin, they just appear and then they echo away through the corridors of the mind which we call memory.


Now, if you open your eyes—it’s a little harder to see this with your eyes because, unlike sounds, the eyes sound static. Or rather, they look static; everything looks still to your eyes. But you must understand that the world you are looking at—say, when you look at a light, that light is vibrating—all material things are vibrations, and they are vibrating at you now in the same way as the sound was vibrating on your ears. In other words, the present world that you see is a vibration coming—just as the sound comes out of silence—the light is coming out of space. It’s coming out of nothing straight at you now and echoing away into the past.

Stuck In The Past


So the course of time is really very much like the course of a ship in the ocean. Because here’s the ship, you see, and it leaves behind it a wake. And the wake fades out, and that tells us where the ship has been in just the same way as the past and our memory of the past tells us what we have done. But as we go back into the past, and we go back and back to prehistory, and we use all kinds of instruments and scientific methods for detecting what happened, we eventually reach a point where all record of the past fades away in just the same way as the wake of the ship. Now, the important thing to remember in this illustration is that the wake doesn’t drive the ship any more than the tail wags the dog.


Supposing there’s a neurotic, difficult child. And one school of thought used to say, “Well, bang him about and beat him up, and maybe he’ll change.” Then they said, “Oh no! That’s not fair to the child, to beat him up, because it was his parents. They didn’t bring him up properly.” And so, then they say, “Well, punish the parents.” Well, the parents say, “Excuse me, but our parents were neurotic, too, and they brought us up badly, so we couldn’t help what we did.” And so, since the grandparents are dead, we can’t get at them. And in any case—supposing we could—we would pass the whole blame back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and say they started all this mess. Then Eve would say, “No! The serpent tempted me and I did eat, and it was the serpent’s fault!” Well, you know, when God—in the story of Genesis—asked Eve: “Didst thou eat the fruit of the tree whereof I told thee thou shouldst not eat?” She said, “Oh, but the serpent tempted me, and I did eat.” And God looked at the serpent. And the serpent didn’t make any excuse. He probably winked. Because the serpent—being an angel—was wise enough to know where the present begins.


So, you see, if you insist on being moved—being determined by the past—that’s your game, but the fact of the matter is: it all starts right now. But we like to establish a connectivity with the past because that gives other people the impression that we’re sane.


If you ask me, then, why am I talking? Well, I could say I’m making a living this way, or I have a message that I want to get across to you. But that is not the reason. I’m talking for the same reason that birds sing and for the same reason that the stars shine. I dig it. Why do you dig it? Well, I could go on answering all sorts of questions about human motivation and psychology, but they wouldn’t explain a thing because explaining things by the past is really a refusal to explain them at all. All you’re doing is postponing the explanation. You’re putting it back, and back, and back, and back, and that explains nothing. What does explain things is the present. Why do you do it now?


Now, this is a slight cheat because that doesn’t explain it either. Because what happens now? Just as the sound comes out of silence, all this comes out of nowhere. This is in connection with what I explained to you in another talk about the power of nothingness: all life suddenly emerges out of space. Bang! Right now. And to ask, again, “why does it happen?” is an unprofitable question because the interesting thing is not why but what. What happens? Not why does it happen? I can say, “Well, I am doing this now because I did that then.” And so I am producing for you a continuous line of thought. But actually, I’m doing it backwards. I’m doing it always from now and connecting up what I do now with what I did so that you can see a consistent story.


If I define myself as the whole field of events—we’ll say the organism-environment field, which is the real me—then all the things that happen to me may be called my doing. And that is the real sense of karma. But when we speak about freedom from karma, freedom from being the puppet of the past, that simply involves a change in your thinking. It involves, in other words, your getting rid of the habit of thought whereby you define yourself as the result of what has gone before, and instead get into the more plausible and more reasonable habit of thought in terms of which you don’t define yourself in terms of what you’ve done before but in terms of what you’re doing now. And that is liberation from the ridiculous situation of being a dog wagged by its tail.


Alan Watts


Document Options
Find out more