Essential Lectures, Program 8


Alan Watts comments on the circle of life and our response to the surprising event of being born in the first place.



As far back as I can remember, into earliest childhood, I’ve always been absolutely fascinated with the idea of death. Now you may think that’s kind of morbid, but you know when a child at night says the phrase “If I should die before I wake,” there’s something about it that’s absolutely weird. What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up? Now, most reasonable people just dismiss the thought. They say you can’t imagine that. They shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’ll be that.” But I suppose I’m one of those ornery people who aren’t content with an answer like that. Not that I’m trying to find something else beyond that, but that I’m just absolutely fascinated with what it would be like to go to sleep and never wake up.


I mean, lots of people think it will be like going into the dark forever, or being buried alive. But obviously, it wouldn’t be like that at all because we know darkness by contrast—and only by contrast—with light. I have a friend—a girl who’s very intelligent and articulate—and she was born blind, and she hasn’t the faintest idea what darkness is. The word means as little to her as the word ‘light.’


So if you went to sleep—you’re not aware of darkness when you’re asleep—and so if you went into sleep, into unconsciousness, for always and always and always, it wouldn’t be at all like going into the dark, it wouldn’t be at all like being buried alive. It would be as if, as a matter of fact, you had never existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. You would be in that state as if you had never been. And there, of course, would be no problems, there would be no one to regret the loss of anything, you couldn’t even call it a tragedy because there would be no one to experience it as a tragedy. It would be—simple—nothing at all. For ever and for never, because not only would you have no future, you would also have no past and no present.


Now, you would think that that was the point where we’d say, “Well, let’s talk about something else.” But I’m not content with that; I demur because this makes me think of two other things. This state of nothingness makes me think, first of all—the only thing I get anywhere in my experience that’s close to nothingness is the way my head looks to my eyes. Because I seem to feel that there is a world out there—as it were—confronting my eyes and then, behind my eyes, there isn’t a black spot, there isn’t even a hazy spot. There’s nothing at all. I’m not aware of my head, as it were, as a black hole in the middle of all this luminous visual experience. It doesn’t even have very clear edges, because the field of vision is an oval. And if I run my fingers along my field of vision it’s like this, and this is the point where my fingers just disappear from sight. Vague edge. But then behind this oval of vision there is nothing at all. Just from the sense of sight. Of course, if I use my fingers and touch, I can feel something behind my eyes. But if I use the sense of sight alone, there’s just nothing there at all. Now, nevertheless, out of that blankness I see. Well, that’s the first thing it makes me think of.


Now the next thing it makes me think of is this: if, when I’m dead, I am as if I never had been, then that’s the way I was before I was born. Because—just as if I try to go back behind my eyes and find what is there, I come to a blank—if I try to remember back, and back, and back, and back, I’ve got my earliest memories and then, behind them, nothing. Total blank. But just as I know there’s something behind my eyes by using my fingers on my head, so I know through other sources of information that before I was born there was something going on. There were my father and my mother, and their fathers and mothers, and the whole material environment of the Earth and its life out of which they came, and behind that the solar system, and behind that the galaxy, and behind that all the galaxies, and behind that… another blank: space.


So I reason that if I go back, when I’m dead, to the state where I was before I was born, couldn’t I happen again? You know, what has happened once can very well happen again. If it happened once it’s extraordinary, and it’s not really very much more extraordinary if it happened all over again. So, in other words, I do know for certain—because I’ve seen people die and I’ve seen people born after them—that (at any rate) after I die not only somebody, but myriads of other beings will be born. That I know. We all know that, there’s no doubt about it. But what worries us is that, when we’re dead, there could be nothing at all for ever, as if that were something to worry about. Before you were born there was this same nothing at all for ever, and yet you happened. And if you happened once, you could happen again.


Now what does that mean? Well, we’ll get at it first in its very simplest way, and to explain myself I must invent a new verb: this is the verb to I. And in the first place, we’ll spell that with the letter I, but instead of having it as a pronoun we’ll call it a verb. The universe I-s. It has I-ed in me and it I-s in you. Now let’s re-spell the word eye. When I talk about “to eye something,” it means to look at something, to be aware of something. So we’ll change the spelling and we’ll say the universe eye-s; it becomes aware of itself in each one of us. And it keeps on eye-ing and every time it eye-s, every one of us in whom it eye-s feels that he is the center of the whole thing. And that I know that you feel that you are I in just the same way that I feel that I am I. And we all have the same background of nothing. We don’t remember having done it before, and yet it has been done before. Again, and again, and again, not only before in time, but all around us everywhere else in space is everybody; is the universe I-ing


Now look, let me try and make this clearer in this way: when I say “It’s the universe I-ing,” who is I-ing? What do you mean by ‘I?’ Well, there are two things you can mean by it. On the one hand, you can mean what’s called your ego, your personality. But that’s not your real I-ing because your personality is your idea of yourself; it’s your image of yourself. And that’s made up of how you feel yourself, how you think about yourself, thrown in with what all your friends and relations have told you about yourself.


So your image of yourself—however obviously—isn’t you anymore than your photograph is you or anymore than the image of anything is it. All our images of ourselves are nothing more than caricatures. They contain no information, for most of us, on how we grow our brains, how we work our nerves, how we circulate our blood, how we secrete with our glands, and how we shape our bones. That isn’t contained in the sensation, or the image, which we call the ego. So obviously, then, the ego-image is not my self.


So my self contains all these factors that, we could say, the body is doing: the circulation of the blood, the breathing, the electrical activity of the nerves—all this is me, but I don’t know anything about it. i don’t know how it came together, I don’t know how it’s constructed. And yet I do all that, if it is true, also, to say “I breathe. I walk. I think. I am conscious.” I don’t know how I manage to be, but I do it in the same way as I grow my hair. So I must, therefore, locate the center of me—my I-ing—at a deeper level than my ego, which is my image or idea of myself.


But how deep do we go? We can say the body is the I, but the body comes out of the rest of the universe, comes out of all its energy. So it’s the universe that’s I-ing. The universe I-s in the same way that a tree apples or that a star shines. And the center of the apple-ing is the tree, the center of the shining is the star, and so the basic center—or Self—of the I-ing—which is called in this case Alan Watts, which is only a name for this particular physical organism; flowering from, shining out of this particular environment—makes the center of all this I-ing the eternal universe. Oh, eternal—the thing has existed for ten thousand million years and will probably go on for at least that much more, so we won’t worry about how long it goes on.


But—repeatedly—it I-s, so that it seems to me absolutely reasonable to assume that when I die and this physical body evaporates, and the whole memory system with it, then it will be all over once again the awareness that I had before—not exactly the same way—but of a baby being born. There will, of course, be myriads of babies born, not only baby human beings but baby frogs, baby rabbits, baby fruit flies, baby viruses, baby bacteria, and which one of them am I going to be? Only one of them, and yet every one of them. Because this experience comes always in the singular, one at a time. But, certainly, one of them.


Actually, it doesn’t make much difference. Because if I were born again as a fruit fly I would think that being a fruit fly was the normal, ordinary course of events. And naturally I would think that I was an important person—a highly cultured being—because fruit flies obviously have a high culture. We don’t even know how to look for it but, probably, they have all sorts of symphonies, and music, and artistic performances in the way light is reflected on their wings in different ways, the way they dance in the air, and they say, “Oh, look at her! She has real style! Look how the sunlight comes off her wings!” And they, in their world, they’re as important and as civilized as we do in our world, so that if I were to wake up as a fruit fly I wouldn’t feel any different (as it were) than I do when I wake up as a human being. I would be used to it.


“Well,” you say, though, “it wouldn’t be me! Because if it would be me again I would have to remember how I was before.” Alright, but you don’t—now—remember how you were before, and yet you’re content enough to be the me that you are. In fact, it’s a thoroughly good arrangement in this world that we don’t remember what it was before. Why? Because variety is the spice of life, and if we remembered, remembered, remembered having done this again, and again, and again, and again, we should get bored. And just as a memory is a beautiful thing to have to remember, without memory we can’t be intelligent. But just as I have explained that in order to see the figure you have to have the background, in order that a memory be valuable you’ve also got to have a forgettery.


That’s why we sleep every night to refresh ourselves: we go into the unconscious so that coming back to the conscious is, again, a great experience. Well, when that’s gone on long enough—when, day after day, we remember the days that have gone before (even though there’s the interval of sleep)—there comes a point when, really, if we consider what is to our true liking, we will want to forget everything that went before so that we can have the extraordinary experience of seeing the world once again through the eyes of a baby—whatever kind of baby. So that it’s completely new and we have all the startling wonder that a child has; all the vividness of perception, which we can’t have if we remember everything for ever.


So do you see what happens? The universe is a system which not only forgets itself, and then again remembers anew so that there’s always this constant change and constant variety in the span of time, but it also does it in the span of space by looking at itself through every different living organism to give, as it were, an all-round view—you know, that’s a way of getting rid of prejudice: getting rid of a one-sided view. So death, in that sense, is a tremendous release from monotony. It puts an interval of total forgetting in a rhythmic process of on and off, on and off so that you can begin all over again and never be bored.


But the point is that if you fantasize the idea of being nothing for always, and always, and always, what you’re really saying is: “After I’m dead the universe stops.” And what I’m saying is: no, it goes on just as it did when you were born. You see, you may say that you think it incredible that you have more than one life. But I say, first of all, isn’t it incredible that you have this one? Isn’t it incredible that, out of the nothing that is your past, here you are? Why, it’s astonishing. So if that’s astonishing it can always happen again, and again, and again.


Now what this is saying, then, is that just as you don’t know how you manage to be conscious, how you manage to grow and shape this body of yours, that doesn’t mean to say that you’re not doing it. Equally, you don’t know how the universe shines the stars, constellates the constellations, and galactifies the galaxies—you don’t know. But that doesn’t mean to say that you aren’t doing it in just the same way as you’re breathing without knowing how you breathe. If I say, “Really and truly, I am this whole universe,” or—put it in another way—“This particular organism is an I-ing being done by the whole universe,” and somebody could say to me “Well who the hell do you think you are? Are you God? Do you warm up the galaxies? Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades or loosen the bonds of Orion?” And I’d reply to that: “Who the hell do you think you are? Can you tell me how you grow your brain, how you shape your eyeballs, and how you manage to see? Well, if you can’t tell me that, I can’t tell you how I warm up the galaxy.” Only: I’ve located the center of myself at a deeper and a more universal level than we are, in our culture, accustomed to do.


So then, if that universal energy is the real me—the real Self which I-s as all these different organisms spread out in different spaces, or places, and happening again, and again, and again at different times—we’ve got a marvelous system going in which you can be eternally surprised. The universe is really a system which keeps on surprising itself. The ambition that many of us have (especially in an age of technological competence) to have everything under our control is a false ambition because you’ve only got to think for one moment: what would it be like if you did really know and control everything? Supposing we had a supercolossal technology which could go to our wildest dreams of technological competence so that everything that is going to happen would be foreknown, predicted, and everything would be under our control? Why, you know, it would be like making love to a plastic woman. There would be no surprise in it, no sudden answering touch—as when we touch another human being, it’s not like touching something made of plastic. There comes out a response, something unexpected. And that’s what we really want when we want to relate to the other.


You see, you can’t experience the feeling you call ‘self’ unless it’s in contrast with the feeling of ‘other.’ It’s like known and unknown, light and dark, positive and negative. Other is necessary in order for you to feel self. So then, isn’t that the arrangement you want?


And so, in the same way, couldn’t you say the arrangement you want is not to remember—memory is always, remember, a form of control: I’ve got it in mind, I remember it, I know your number. You’re under control. Now, if you go on remembering, and remembering, and remembering, it’s like writing on a piece of paper and going on writing, and writing, and writing until there’s no white space left on the paper. Your memory is filled up, and so you need to wipe it all clean so that you have a white paper all over again and can begin to write on it once more.


So that’s what death does for us: it wipes the slate clean and also—looking at it from the point of view of population and the human organism on the planet—it keeps cleaning us out. And the idea of a technology which would enable each one of us to be immortal would be something that would progressively crowd the planet with people with hopelessly crowded memories. They would, as it were, be like people living in a house where they’d’ve accumulated so much property, so many books, so many vases, so many sets of knives and forks, so many tables and chairs, so many newspapers—there wouldn’t be any room to move around! To live we need space. And space is a kind of nothingness. And death is a kind of nothingness. It’s all the same principle. And by putting blocks, as it were, or spaces of nothingness—spaces of space—in between spaces of something we get life properly spaced out. To use the German word: Lebensraum, “room for living.” That’s what space gives us, and that’s what death gives us.


Now look: notice that in everything I’ve said about death I haven’t brought in anything that I could call spookery. I haven’t brought in any information about anything that you don’t already know. I haven’t invoked any mysterious knowledge about souls, memory of former lives, anything like that. I’ve just talked about it in terms that we already know. So then, if you say, “All this idea that people have of life beyond the grave is just wishful thinking,” I say, “Okay. I’ll grant that.” Let’s assume that is wishful thinking and that when we’re dead there just won’t be anything, see? Let’s face that fact: that’ll be the end. Now notice, first of all, that’s the worst thing you’ve got to fear. Does it frighten you? Who’s going to be afraid? Supposing it ends? No more problems!


But then you will see that this nothingness—if you followed my argument—is something, as it were, you bounce off from again just as you bounced in the first place when you were born: you bounced out of nothingness. Nothingness is a kind of bounce because it implies—the nothing implies something. So you bounce back. All new, all different, nothing to compare it with before, a refreshing experience.


And if, therefore, you get this sense—just like you’ve got the sense of nothing behind your eyes—get the sense of nothingness (very powerful, frisky nothingness) underlying your whole being, and there’s nothing in that nothing to be afraid of, then—with that sense—you can come on like a person for whom the rest of life is gravy because you’re already dead. You know you’re going to die. We say there’s one thing certain, which is death and taxes. And the death of each one of us, now, is as certain as it would be if we were going to die five minutes from now. So where’s your anxiety, where’s your hangup? Regard yourself as dead already so that you have nothing to lose. A Turkish proverb says, “He who sleeps on the floor will not fall out of bed.” So, in the same way, the person who regards himself as already dead, who—therefore, you are virtually nothing. A hundred years from now you’ll be a handful of dust. That’ll be for real. Alright. Act on that reality, and out of that nothing you will suddenly surprise yourself: that the more you know you’re nothing, the more you’ll amount to something.


Alan Watts

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