Hidden Belief Systems

Alan talks about unexamined assumptions that underlie our commonsense beliefs which may cause confusion in our thinking about nature.



You don’t like that? How about that? That better?


Now what I want to talk to you about tonight is hidden belief systems—that is to say: what unexamined assumptions underlie our common sense? Assumptions that are buried in the structure of our language, and thus in the structure of our thinking, which therefore are responsible for the way we think as we do, and for the fact that a great deal of our thinking is against nature and therefore causes an enormous amount of confusion.


Let me begin by putting it in this way: when we try to translate what happens in the world (and also inside our own bodies) into language—whether it be the language of English or Chinese or Sanskrit or Greek or French, or whether it be the language of mathematics—what we’re trying to do is to represent what is going on in this world in terms of a series of symbols that are strung out in a line. One reason why it takes you so long to go through your education is that your eyes [have to scan along] miles and miles and miles of print. [???] don’t know what you’re doing. Show me the steps. And so you get a plane laid out which is one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. See? And so lots of us feel that we don’t understand anything until it is translated into language, not realizing that the translation of nature into language is a deprivation of the richness of nature. Nature itself, the world itself, is far richer than anything we can say about it. And this is most of all apparent to people who are masters of language—who are, say, poets. And a poet is a person who is always trying to say what cannot be said, and therefore feels fascinated by the art of poetry, but at the same time frustrated by its impossibility, and therefore can never quite get the mot juste (the exactly right word, the exactly right phrase) for a living experience, but approximates to it, makes a good try at it. But finally, it cannot be said.


So to make things as clear as I can make them using language: the world as it is is not the same as the world as it is described. But what we study about in all our educational processes—what we are learning, what we are reading about—is the world as described, and we pay very little attention to the world as it is. A professor at Harvard several years ago said, “No knowledge is intellectually respectable which cannot be put into words.” Alas for the department of music. Alas for the department of fine arts. Not to mention the department of physical education. Because in all those disciplines we learn to do things which are nonverbal and which can only be understood by grasping them intuitively. A musician cannot explain in words how certain musical things are done. There is a notation for them, but even that doesn’t explain it adequately. There is, beyond that, the interpretation of the notation, and that you have to understand from actually listening and from actually using the instrument.


So there is this colossal disparity between the world as is and the world as described, because the world as is—from the point of view of the world as described—contains an unknown number of variables. What is a variable? Well, let’s say we are playing a complicated fugue as composed by Bach. Each line of melody in the fugue is a variable. And a skillful organist, using two keyboards, both hands, and his feet as well, can keep perhaps as many as ten variables running at once. Ten melodies all going at the same time—it’s very difficult to do! Because the average person cannot keep more than three variables going at the same time in his head without using a pencil. Three different simultaneous motions.


Now, in nature there are an unknown number of variables going together at the same time in every situation that we experience. And supposing I ask you, “What did you do yesterday?” and you give me a catalog of events strung out in a line, in a history: that will only be the barest skeleton of what you actually did and experienced. Because if a psychologist examined you, if a physiologist examined you, if a sociologist examined you, if a physiologist examined you, they would give very different histories of what you actually did. And all of them would be right. But all of them would be wrong in the sense that they excluded certain aspects of what you did. So there is this radical difficulty of making our descriptions of the world equivalent to the world itself.


So, for example: to the extent that we are hung up on the descriptive language, we are hung up on the verbalized symbolization of what is going on, we have ideas of ourselves that bear no real relationship to ourselves whatsoever. We think of ourselves in terms of images of ourselves derived from the descriptions of ourselves that others have given to us. We have all been told by our elders and betters as well as by our peers who we are, what kind of people we are, what roles we play. And we believe that. But, of course, it’s untrue. We are not who we think we are, because we think in terms of words, and words cannot comprehend the multidimensional complexity of nature.


In order to find out who you are you must, of course, suspend thinking and feel directly without asking, “What is it?” You feel what it is. And you will discover (if you make this very simple experiment) some very odd things. In other words, if you stop thinking and simply feel as if you were a child who had never yet learned to talk: feel. Feel what is going on. You will be amazed to discover that you can feel no future and no past, you can’t feel anyone separate from the feeling that feels the feeling. All that appears to be not there at all. There is just what, for want of a better word, we must call “this.” And when you feel that thoroughly and find out that there is no future—never was and never will be—your anxiety to survive begins to diminish. Why should you go on? What is the point of going on? Everybody feels that it is a great thing to continue to be. Oh? Is that so necessary? Because you’ll eventually die. Everyone now is as good as dead. Because that’s one thing that is certain: that we will die. So we feel this colossal necessity that we must go on through future time. And if we can’t do it ourselves, we’ll produce children, who will produce children, who will produce children, who will always have this frantic necessity to go on and get somewhere. And nobody has any idea where that somewhere is. Fantastic!


Now, here I’m beginning to reveal at once a hidden belief system: the fundamental, commonsensical notion that almost everybody entertains that it is good to go on. When we get some basic reason for ethical behavior, and we get a gathering of people who cannot agree about religion, who cannot agree about the revered will of God and all that—you know, whether you should be monogamous or polygamous, et cetera, et cetera—they all seem to agree that those things are good in behavior which have survival value. That is: those things which enable us to go on. And those things are bad which prevent us from going on.


Now, I don’t want to challenge that opinion too emphatically, but I want to get you to think it over: what is so good about going on? Obviously, merely to survive may be horrible. What we want to do, obviously, is to survive elegantly, to survive in a pleasurable manner. We don’t want to survive in jail or in a state of terminal cancer. We want to survive pleasantly. And that introduces a funny qualification. But merely to go on—in the sense that while there is life there is hope—is sort of stupid. T. S. Eliot said, “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.” And G. K. Chesterton replied, “You may go off with a whimper, but we will go off with a bang!”


It might be glorious, you see, to die dramatically. When you’ve got a fire going, some people say, “Cherish that fire. Keep it down to a dull roar, a glow, so that it will go on as long as possible.” You see? This is some anal-retentive, miserly attitude. Other people say, “Let’s have a glorious blaze!” And of course it will finish, but it will have been a great thing. See, here’s a fundamental question about what lifestyle you’re going to choose: are you going to be a glorious blaze or a prolonged glow? Which are you going to be? And what rules will you establish for which is the better? It seems to me very arbitrary matter of choice as to which you’re going to choose.


Those people who are, in history, heroes, fighters—the heroic style is to be short and sweet, to do violent things that are very dangerous, to drive a hot rod and play games like chicken, you know, where you drive two cars straight at each other and the chicken is the one who yields first. I mean, that’s crazy, you know? That’s real life. The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat. And other people say, “Oh, that’s very immature. That’s not true adulthood, to do things like that.” And who knows which of the two is right?


So now I’m beginning to reveal an assumption that underlies our practical everyday conduct that we don’t ordinarily look at: whether it is better to draw out life in what we call a sensible way, make it as long as possible, or whether it wouldn’t be much better to make it as vivid as possible for a short time. Now, the whole medical profession is based on the idea that it should be drawn out as long as possible. The function of a doctor is to save your life. And failure in doctoring is death. Fascinating! I attended a conference several years ago of the American Academy of Psychotherapists, and the subject of the conference was “Failure in Psychotherapy.” And so they presented cases of failure. And the first case that came up was somebody who was about to commit suicide, and went to this therapist who presented the case, and stayed alive for five years and finally committed suicide. Now, I said: “Why do you regard this as failure? If this were a cancer statistic, they regard five years’ survival as a cure. You kept this guy alive for five years. And, of course, at the end of it he died, because you have to die sometime. But by what standards do you regard this as a failure?” Because, of course, for every psychotherapist, a patient who commits suicide is a bad mark. But he kept him alive for five years.


All skill in getting out of trouble is postponing it. Lawyers know this very well. If there’s a sticky case in court, the whole art is putting it off. And a lot of their clients don’t understand this, because they want to come to an immediate decision. They’re anxious, you see, when there’s some case pending: “Let’s get it settled.” But a good lawyer says, “Let’s not get it settled. Let’s put it off as long as possible.” He’s clever like that, you see?


Now we’ll go to another dimension of this problem of hidden assumptions. Our language is so constructed that the basic logic of a sentence is that for every verb there must be a subject. And if the verb is transitive, there must be an object. In other words, an action represented by a verb word, such as “to know,” must have in front of it a noun—such as “I know,” “he knows,” “she knows,” “John knows,” “Mary knows.” If there’s a verb like “love:” “I love you.” Which is the whole basis of the doctrine of the holy trinity. “I” is the Father, “love” is the holy spirit, and “you” is God the son.


Now, how on Earth can an action—loving, knowing, running, moving—be started by a noun? What is a noun? A noun is a word for a thing. I once asked a group of high school children, “What do you mean by a thing?” Well, they said, “It’s an object.” I said, “You’ve only given me a synonym. You haven’t told me really what a thing is.” And some bright child who was Italian in the group said, “A thing is a noun.” She was getting warm. Let’s take “fist.” “Fist” is formally a noun. So we would say this is a thing. But what happens to it when I open my hand? This thing—and all things are regarded as reasonably permanent—suddenly vanishes. Then I can return again. So clearly, “fist” should be a verb. “I fist,” “I hand.” What happens to my lap when I stand up? This thing called a lap unaccountably vanishes and turns into thighs. So it is with every kind of event that we would call a thing.


I could talk of you—just as we talk of houses as “housing”—I could speak of you as “peopleing.” You’re all peopleing in different ways. But when I say you are peopleing, I’ve invented some mysterious entity which does this. Because our language requires that we put a subject in front of the verb. Isn’t that amazing? And when I say, “Isn’t that amazing,” listen to what I’m saying. Amazing means to be in a maze; to be lost in a maze. And so we are amazed—lost in a maze—by our language, and therefore don’t see what is perfectly self-evident and simple, which is in this case that a verb does not really require a subject. There are languages like the Nutka Indian language of the northwest—the Nutka Indians used to flourish somewhere around Seattle—where there are only verbs. No nouns in their language. In Chinese the distinction between nouns and verbs is very vague. Mostly Westerners talk about Chinese nouns and Chinese verbs. But any Chinese character can do duty for both. So do you see? You don’t actually have to think of actions or events or processes as being caused or set into motion by things. That is simply a rule of speech, it is not a law of nature.


Now then, let’s explore this a little further. Everybody assumes that it is basic that there’s such a thing as cause and effect. I mean, this is so much a fundamental assumption of our world that you seem to be an idiot if you call it in question. But all good philosophy is calling in question our basic assumptions. The most thrilling works of philosophy are to take what you find out to be everything everybody agrees about, and then call it in question. Well, everybody agrees about cause and effect. They say everything that happens is the effect of a cause, and everything that happens is the cause of some other effect. This is bullshit! Because actually, what we call a cause and what we call an effect are two ways of looking at one and the same event.


So let us suppose the sun shines and shines and shines, so that there is no rain. And we say: as the result of there being no rain, there is a drought. And as the result of there being a drought, there is no water to drink, the plants do not grow, and people and animals starve. And that is the consequence of the drought and of there being no rain. Well, all that is nonsense. Because the lack of rain, the lack of water, and the starvation, are simply all the same event. Only, they are separated into parts for purposes of description. Perpetual sunshine, no rain, drought, lack of water, lack of food, starvation—these are all names for different aspects of one and the same event. Only, when we separate that event into different parts and have forgotten that we did that in the first place, then we have to explain how they are connected. And so we invent a mythological deity called causality in order to connect them together. There’s nothing of the kind! It’s all one event.


Supposing we say: well, I am the result of the fact that my father went to bed with my mother. That is ridiculous nonsense! You are the same as that. You’re not the result of it. That introduces an element into thinking which is completely unnecessary. A man fertilizing a woman is a child. It’s all one process. And then, if you think it back the other way, you cannot blame your father and mother for having produced you, since you are one event with their having done so. You were their lust for each other. Fascinating when you think of it like that. Because you also contain that lust, and so you should be able to understand them and absolve them for any responsibility for having brought you into this world. You can’t say “I didn’t want to be born” if you yourself have sexual lust. It’s all of a piece.


Let’s go into some other buried commonsensicals. Oh, I think this time I’ll pick a real sticky one. In our culture it is practically a definition of madness to suppose that you are God. If anybody gets up and says “I am God,” they are immediately consigned to a lunatic asylum. Because how can you possibly say that you are in charge of this universe? Jesus—you know, our great culture hero—discovered that he was God, and there was an immense uproar, and they completely were bugged by this and had him put to death for blasphemy. Although his followers were convinced that it was the case (in the case of Jesus) that he was in fact God, but they mixed everybody up by saying only Jesus was God. And they became his followers, and they pedestalized him by putting him up into that peculiar position of preeminence, so that what he had found out was rendered null and void.


Lots of crazy people suddenly discover that they are God. And a certain flip occurs inside their consciousness, as a result of which they become aware—and they may not be very intelligent and sophisticated in expressing what they found out—but they find out that you are doing this universe. In other words, what you do and what is happening to you are the same process. Well, any neurologist can explain this to you. It’s quite simple. Your nervous system has an output as well as an input, and the input and the output are really the same process. Because of the structure of your nervous system, the sun is seen as light, vibrations in the air are heard as noise, and shapes are seen as shapes. If you had a different kind of nervous system, the world would look different. But your nervous system—by virtue of its structure—interprets whatever vibrations are going on out here. So you, as a nervous system, are in fact creating the world that you see. At the same time, it appears that your nervous system is something in the world that you see. So which came the first? Egg or hen? By virtue of being this particular neurological structure, you evoke the kind of world you’re looking at. Everything you see is inside your head—from a strictly neurological point of view.


Oh, but we say it isn’t. It’s out there. There is an objective world. My God, if there isn’t an objective world we’re lost! Because our whole nineteenth-century, twentieth-century faith is that there is an objective world which is so, that it can be defined, that it can be scientifically described, and be settled that there is that objectively. And therefore, on the basis of objectivity there can be authorities who can say, “Bwaah, bwaah, bwaah, bwaah, bwaah, bwaah, this is the way it is!” [Whistles] Everybody says: crazy! We want that authority! My goodness, what would we do without it? Somebody has to know what it’s all about!


But don’t you see? That is pure mythology! Everybody wanted something to hang on to. Everybody wanted security. Everybody wanted to know just what it is. So we invented this immense and marvelous myth of objective reality. But we suddenly discovered in the course of so doing that objects were objectionable. Especially when we made objects of ourselves, and we (through various kinds of psychology, behaviorism, and B. F. Skinner-ism, et cetera) found that we were pure objects; that our psychological processes were simply mental mechanisms. And (having discovered that) we started to hate ourselves because we were objectionable. And so we have engaged on an enormous project to destroy ourselves. I mean, to disintegrate ourselves through physics: through the exploration of the nucleus, through the examination of matter, to such a point that we examine it so closely that it blows up. That is the project of physics. Because we don’t understand this: that when we examine the world minutely, it’s like putting pins in it. It’s like cutting it to pieces. Chop, chop, chop chop! Get it finer, finer, finer, finer. And then they just get it right down until the point where it goes kablooey!


Or the other project, which is to get these telescopes and things, and watch the biggest things there are. And the telescopes get bigger and bigger and bigger, and we find the world is running away from us. We thought we understood it at one point. We thought that we’d found out most of the stars and named them, and so on, and then suddenly we found out that the things that we call spiral nebulae were other galaxies at vast distances from our galaxy. Well, we could take that. But then something turned up called quasars, and nobody’s at all sure what they are. And then, worse still, they found black holes in space! And they said, “Wowee! what’s that?” See?


The more you probe into it, the more it runs away from you. Because it’s you looking at yourself. It’s like a snake chasing its own tail or a dog running after its tail. The more we explore into the atom, the more we explore into the exterior vastness. We’re really looking for ourselves. We want to know what it is. And it—obviously, it, the universe—is you. But that’s a thing that’s closed to Western knowledge. The whole thing is—in the West, the basic assumption of common sense is that it is not you. That you are something that confronts it, that encounters it, has something that you must master and conquer and understand. And you don’t see that it’s you.


Here we’re getting to the root of the matter: the basic hidden belief system that “I came into this world.” You didn’t. You came out of it. You are an expression of it. You are an aperture through which the universe is examining itself. Just as you have ever so many nerve endings in your retina which (by their multiplicity) see an image, so we are all nerve endings of a cosmos which, by the multiplicity, takes a not-too-prejudiced view of what’s going on. Because the cosmos is feeling itself. Don’t you like to feel yourself?






So every child, little babies, start out by feeling themselves. They pick their noses, they pull faces, they pull out their ears, they play with their toes, they explore their whole body. And as they grow up they do it in a more sophisticated way. They study physics and chemistry and athletics and one thing and another, but it’s all the same thing. It’s feeling out who you are!


Now, what’s the point of going into all this? I have a sensation that if we don’t know what we’re doing, if we don’t have this sense of the world outside us is the same as the world inside us—in other words, if you don’t realize that what you do and what happens to you are the same process—you get crazy, because you go on a rampage against what you call the objective world, the external world, other people, other things, and so have projects with a conquest of nature, the conquest of space, and so on and so on. There is no longer that fundamental friendly relationship between the subject and the object. If you don’t have that fundamental friendly relationship between the subject and the object, and then you go on to develop an extremely powerful technology, what that technology does is to magnify, turn up the volume, on the state of mind in which you are. So that baby hostility becomes colossal hostility. It becomes bong bumm-bum bumm bumm, bong bumm-bum bumm bumm, haa laa-la-laaa tumm, bong! You know, with the atomic bomb on the end of it. And none of us really want that to happen—unless you are in a finally suicidal mood and you’re fed up with it. Then you can go out with a glorious explosion. But I don’t think most of us really feel that way. We feel more confused than that.


So it’s important—as I see it—to penetrate and realize the absurdity of this fundamental assumption that I confront an external world which is different from me. You are what you see. And, more than that, do you realize—ever thought about space? Every child thinks about space. It’s one of the fascinating things that intrigues children is: how far out does it go? And they pester their parents with questions about how far it goes. And the parents finally say, “Oh, shut up and suck your lollipop!” The child wants to go on and on and on, imagining the vastness of space. What do you think about that? What is space? Well, we can say it’s extension, distance. But all of this is nothing at all. That doesn’t tell us anything about space. What is space? Certainly it isn’t air. You know, there’s space between my hands, but between my thumb and my little finger there is space, and between this part of my palm and that part of my palm there is space. This solid cannot exist without space. But we think we know what a solid is, but we can’t really think what space is. Space. Could there be anything without space? No. Obviously. But space is nothing. But what fantastic importance this nothing has. Without it, no form is possible. And it goes on forever. And yet, how big is forever? It could be very small. Because it really has no size.


Isn’t it clear that what you call space is yourself? That’s your real mind, your true nature: infinite space. That’s you. Oh yes, maybe focused inside your head somewhere—but really and truly you are space. That was obvious to many cultures. It isn’t obvious to ours, because we think of ourselves as solids inside space. We think of, you know, this head as being a thing, and of all space outside it. Let’s take a new look at your head. Can you see your head? What color is it? Oh yes, you say it’s cheating to look in a mirror. That only shows you the outside. Let’s be simple, childlike, and take a look at our heads. You all have heads but I don’t. I can’t find my head anywhere. I don’t find behind my eyes a black spot, I don’t find a vague spot. All I can find behind my eyes, inside, is everything that’s outside. Because I know very well that everything I see out there is a sensation in my optical nerves. So I have a blind spot where there should be a head. And, in other words, my head and infinite space are the same. And the skull—as in many ancient mythologies and symbolisms—represents the firmament of heaven.


Alright. Now, what I’m saying is this (and I have only been able to enter into a few aspects of the question), which is: call in question your fundamental assumptions about who you are, what reality is, what is the good life, where you are going, whether it is a good thing to survive. Question them. See what would happen if their opposites were true. That is the task of philosophy. And if you do that, you will find that you have a far richer and more exciting life than if you don’t do it. And I assume that I’m talking to an audience that is educated, that is academic in a way. Most of you are either students in a college or graduates of college. And the fertility of the intellectual life depends upon this kind of questioning.


And then, beyond it, when we go to this questioning, we go on to something else, which is what the Orient calls meditation: the ultimate inquiry. The observation or contemplation of reality without verbalizing it. Looking directly at it—as they say in Zen Buddhism: tasting water and knowing for yourself that it is cold or wet or whatever. This, to me, is the foundation of sanity: to be able to regard what is—I won’t even say “the world,” because that is a loaded word. Just simply what is. Whether inside or outside, to regard what is. Touch it, feel it, smell it directly without classifying it.


See, now I could say to you: become again as children. Feel it as it is and forget for a moment all your opinions about it. You can check those at the door, and you can always pick them up again when you go out if you feel you need them. But for this moment forget everything you think you know about life. All your philosophical ideas, all your religious ideas. Forget them. Just lay them aside, and let’s naïvely—as if we were a bunch of babies—feel what’s going on. Where’s your ego? Where’s your role? Where’s your death? Where’s your birth? Where are your problems? Where’s your neurosis? Well, that’s the art of meditation. You know, simply see what is. Where did all those great questions go? Poof!


Well, now there’s going to be an intermission for about five minutes in case any of you have to leave, and then we will gather together again, and I will attempt to answer such questions as you may have.


Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you will resume your seats, we can continue.


So then, if you have questions, wave your hand at me and I’ll recognize you. Yes, sir?



What’s your motive for talking? [???]



My motive and I are the same thing. If you ask me what is my motive, you are looking at life by analogy with a game of billiards: what cue hit your ball? I look at it backwards. I look at it as the ball moving the cue. Because life begins from the present, not from the past. The past is the wake of the present, like the wake of a ship in the water. So when you ask what is my motive, it is like a child asking: why? Why does this happen? Why does that happen? And eventually the child tires out the person answering the questions. Because the question “Why?” always leads to a point of evaporation. It may be more useful to ask: how does something happen? How is it done? How do you do it? And sometimes somebody can explain how it is done. But when you ask why, the question ultimately goes back to: why does the universe exist? And of course nobody knows. What could it exist for? We say, well, really, it exists for itself. When you get into a state of cosmic consciousness, you see very clearly that the point of existence is now. I mean, us, sitting here at this moment, is what it’s all about. So what my motivation is—I mean, I could construct a fiction and explain my motivations to you, but that would be cheating you.

There was another hand waving in your neighborhood. Yes, sir?



Yes, I wondered if you had anything to say about Marxist utopianism [???] and your sense of social liberation?



The question is: what do I think of Marxist utopianism?






And sense of social liberation. Well, I don’t think we can make a successful experiment of that kind until we have a changed sense of our own identity. If you force the Marxist experiment upon people, it will be forcing a communal style of life upon people who are not ready for it, and therefore there will be something strained and false about it. I’m very interested to see what’s going on in China, and as soon as I can get over there and explore what’s happening, I’d be most interested. Although my spies have reported various things to me which I don’t altogether like, and some of them I do like. They still know how to cook.


But I equally don’t like what we’re doing here. You know, a Republican government is, in the United States, supposed to represent the individual, the small businessman. But it does nothing of the kind. And nor does the Democratic government. They’re both the same. This is no way of choosing between them, except which group of gangsters you’re going to put in power. I don’t know how it is in Canada, but that’s what it is below the border. I’m, in a way, an anarchist—in the sense of the philosophical anarchist, not the bomb-throwing anarchist, but the Prince Kropotkin style of anarchist, who would like to leave things pretty well alone so they sort themselves out.


All society depends on our trusting each other. Now, we’re all untrustworthy. But there is no alternative than trusting each other, even though our trust may be misplaced. We must make that gamble. Because the only alternative to trusting each other is a police state—and who trusts the policemen? Do they have our best interests at heart? All governments become self-serving corporations with their interests at heart. So face it in a hard-boiled realistic way: we’ve got to trust each other. And there is no way of going on unless we do that.

Yes, I see an arm waving here.






This is a question which I get quite often. I’m going to repeat the question. Can you hear me?






I’ll repeat closer. Now maybe this is better. Can you hear? This is a very urgent question nowadays which I often get: do I feel that something very special is happening today? That there is a fundamental change in human civilization going on, or is it just a matter of—as the French say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing? There can be no doubt that the twentieth century is a unique historical period where things are going on that have never gone on before—whether for good or for ill, we don’t know. But the face of the Earth and of human civilization has within the last hundred years undergone catastrophic—or if you want to say anastrophic—change. No question about that. But I think for myself that we should be cautious about all this New Age idealism—the Aquarian Age, and all that sort of thing.


Because it is looking to the future for solutions—and there is no future, there is only now. The future is an abstraction. It is memory projected ahead. And prophecy is the contamination of the future with the past. Live now! Be completely aware now of what is. And if you do that, tomorrow will take care of itself. For as Jesus says, “Sufficient to the day is the trouble thereof. Be not anxious for tomorrow; what you will eat, what you will drink, or with what you shall be clothed.” And I noticed that ministers never preach on that text, because they say that’s impractical. It was alright for the boss’s son, because he knew he was God anyway and there was nothing to worry about. But don’t you know that? You see, the Gospel of Jesus is that you are all the son of God. That’s the “good news.” As ordinarily interpreted, I don’t see that the Gospel is good news at all. It’s very bad news. Because it’s the institutionalization of the sense of guilt: the guiltier you feel, the better you are in failing to come up to the example of Jesus. But the real Gospel is dynamite! And so it is this realization of the eternal present.

Now, let me see. The next question—yes, the lady in front, here.






Yeah, this is very amusing. The question is that if you really go into experiencing the eternal now, your psychiatric friends will call you catatonic, withdrawn, and all that kind of thing. And you must realize that institutional psychiatry—as distinct from certain individual psychiatrists, who are rather different—institutional psychiatry is the enforcement and guardianship of standard reality. Now, you know, if you’re in a funny state of consciousness—supposing you’ve taken LSD or something—the attending psychiatrist will ask you such questions as, “what is the sum of nine and seven?” You know? So that you know that. Because they see the world as real in terms of seeing the world on a bleak Monday morning, and also in terms of whether you are functionally able to drive a car.


Now, this is an aside on your question, but I have to mention this, because driving a car has become the criterion of competence. Whereas anybody who is deeply in love should not drive a car, anybody who is angry should not drive a car, anybody who is depressed should not drive a car, because you are in a very human condition. And most people are in this sort of condition. To drive a car properly you should be as sober as an airline pilot. And you know how these airline pilots are: they look the absolute model of sobriety. They’re usually a little graying at the hair. Their uniforms, they look like, you know, the guy who’s really in charge. The airlines establish this model, but few of us human beings can keep that up indefinitely every day. And a jet pilot doesn’t have to fly a plane every day. They give them periods off where they can make fun with the hostesses or whatever they do.


But we are completely dominated by the industrial ideal of driving a car. It’s a very dangerous instrument. And we have to do this because we have such terrible public transportation that we have to drive our cars to work every day. Now, that’s an insane thing to do. It’s completely mad! I would recommend, first of all, to all of you who do commute to consider whether you might not use the telephone instead and at less cost. It doesn’t solve everybody’s problem, but there are many professions and kinds of work in which you could telephone instead of moving. Consider it. I’ve even got in touch with a telephone company about this so that they could go in competition with General Motors. You know, competition is a good Western custom, and they should play it!


Now I haven’t quite answered your question yet. Elaborate a little bit more, would you?






Yes. Now, I’ve got on the track again. One rule when you come into contact with psychiatric people is that you must not evince any interest in religion, and especially in Oriental religion, because that is practically a definition of insanity. Keep off the subject and—especially if the psychiatrist has any authority over you—appear to be as pedestrian as possible. I heard a very funny conversation in the bar this afternoon at Seattle airport. There were three men sitting at a table, and one of them said that when he entered the Marine Corps, he was asked what his religion was. And he put down: pedestrian. Because he was actually a Presbyterian. But that’s what he thought he was. We sort of have people from the South who wrote down that they were Babdist. And the funniest things came up. Protistan. So always be sure that you are, by religion, a pedestrian. Although I’ve pointed out that you should really put down: automobilist.

Next question. Yes, sir?



I would like to hear you talk a little about what [???] does society have for educating children?



What should society do about educating children?






Well, I wish I could present myself as an example of this, but I have not been a good father. Because to ensure harmony within the family I had to go along with what my wives and our neighbors thought about as the proper method of education. Now, I’ll tell you what I really think: that the moment you get a child you must recognize that it is as if you had walked out on the street and to the first person you met given a promise of twenty years’ support, healthcare, and education. A child is a stranger. But nevertheless, it’s very important that a child be treated as a small adult, and that from the beginning you talk to a child as if you were talking to another adult. Don’t use baby language. Don’t even use oversimplified language. Talk to a child just as you would talk to another person. You will find that, by the time they’re three years old, they will have an amazing mastery of the English language and will be able to tell you all sorts of things about what it is to be a child that child psychologists have been longing to know but could never get out of children, because all children have been taught to be Mickey Mouse.


So we say to this child that comes into the world, “Doodey, doodey, doodey, doo,” you know? Instead of saying quite simply, “How do you do? We welcome you to the human race as a new member. And there are all sorts of strange things that we’re doing which we’re going to try and explain to you as to what are our game rules, in the hope that, when you’ve understood them, you will be able to think of better ones.” But the trouble is: if you do that, see, you will have an amazingly intelligent three-year-old. Then you’ve got to send the brat to school! And when the child goes to school, such an intelligent child will be regarded as a freak by all the other children. Because, you see, when you send a child to school, your child is brought up by all the other children—and that is to say: by the lowest common denominator of the culture. And the teachers have no real influence at all in big schools where there are thirty or forty children in a class. The teachers are merely desperately trying to keep order. You know, in order to keep these brats off the labor market.


And now it’s reached desperate situations. I have many young people who are my friends, and they say: “What on Earth is the use of our going on to get a graduate degree, since we know all these people with PhDs who can’t find jobs?” What are we going to do? There are dozens and dozens of children completely dependent economically on their parents. Not able to find work. So they have to become perpetual students. When you get a PhD, your only recourse is to become a professor. And so all academic institutions teach teachers to teach teachers to teach teachers. So everybody is teaching everybody else. It’s like a society where everybody earns a living by taking in each other’s washing. Oh, it’s farcical!


But I would suggest as an initial step, if you’re adventurous, to treat your child as an adult. Treat the child fairly. Don’t talk down to your child, talk up to your child. And you will find that they can be amazingly intelligent. I’ve seen some of these specimens, and they are quite something. They are very, very interesting. Whereas a child brought up to be “a child” is a bore and a pest. You know, it’s a cutey-pie, itsy-bitsy sort of approach that is just, to my mind, nowhere. That’s what Disneyland is made for.

Yes, ma’am?






Now, the question is: if we’re all one self, basically, if you encounter somebody who you think is perfectly terrible—you know, a real slob—what is to be your attitude? Now, understand this: that the sensation of your being yourself is dependent upon and in relation to the sensation that there is something other. Imagine for a moment a world of experience in which there was nothing that could be identified as the horrible. And you will see, I think, immediately that we need what we experience as the horrible so that we can experience the good. Not necessarily that the horrible has to be around us all the time, but at least there has to be the apprehension in the back of our minds that something awful could happen, which mustn’t happen at all costs. And that gives us a kind of verve. It’s like a spice in a stew. The whole stew is not to be spiced. We don’t want to eat solid spice. But just a bit! And so there has to be just a bit of experience in our lives that is negative.


And that’s why Jesus had the idea that praying for your enemies and for those who despitefully use you. We need them. Any biological species needs another species that preys on it. If we abolished all bacteria—the principal beings who prey on us—we would overpopulate to the point where we would become impossible to ourselves. So all species have other species which keep them down. And so, in the same way, in our own relations among each other, we have people we just consider impossible, offensive, and abominable. That is the yin and the yang of it.

Yes, the lady here.






In what, the now? It ruins the now? No, no. Wait a minute. When you really get into the now, you find that you stop judging. You stop evaluating. I often work with people in this, and we practice a meditation which consists of listening to all sounds happening. Now ordinarily, when you ask a group of people to be quiet, there is some embarrassment about coughing or foot shuffling. And suddenly somebody gets an awful itch in their throat and feels that they have to leave the room in order not to disturb the quiet. And I say invariably: forget it. If you want to cough, cough. Because that’s all part of the symphony that we’re listening to.


Now—so we listen to sound without judging. And, in the same way, we can attend to the various manifestations of human behavior without judging. If birds chatter outside, we say, “Oh, it’s birds.” And so, in the same way, if people become foolish, one says, “It’s people.” So learn to listen to sound—this is the beginning of the process—learn to listen to sound without judging it; as a susurrus, as a thing going on. I always say that you cannot meditate properly unless you can meditate in a boiler factory, or at a very heavy crossroads of traffic. Just listen to it. Everything going nyaaah nyeeah naaah laaah bleeeaaa ka-che-katta katta katta blwoomm, you know? And just dig that sound.

Yes, sir?



Can you raise your level of consciousness to a cosmic level at will?



Can I raise my level of consciousness to cosmic consciousness at will? It’s the wrong question. See, what you have to find out first of all is that the idea of will is phony. Because that—if I say “at will,” that means I’m something different from the universe, I’m something different from what is going on. And I introduce a thing called “will” which says: switch from this state to that. Now, you cannot switch into cosmic consciousness that way. Cosmic consciousness consists in discovering that what you will and what happens are the same. And therefore, the idea of “I” being in command of a state of consciousness is precisely the obstruction to cosmic consciousness.

Yes, sir—on the aisle.






No. The question is this: we divide the universe up into separate things, as it were, by imposing a rigid grid over the flux of our experience. Just in the same way, for example, as we put lines of latitude and longitude on both the Earth and the heavens. Wittgenstein explained this very beautifully in his Tractatus. So the question is: how do we get rid of the grid? Simply by understanding that that’s what we are doing. An enormous amount of what I would call spiritual insight, enlightenment, is merely a matter of recognition of what’s happening. When you understand that the moon is a ball and not a plate, you never forget it. You always see it as a ball. When you understand perspective, it is instantly apparent how perspective works, and you feel the depth in a picture—which, although it is on a flat surface, has the canons of perspective in it, and it appears to you to be three-dimensional. That’s the kind of understanding I mean.

Any more questions? Yes?



In one of your books, The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, you talk about [???] good always winning [???] never eliminating evil, evil always losing [???]



The question is: based on the fact that in Hindu cosmology, where the course of time is discussed, and there are four yugas, or epochs, in every kalpa, or time cycle. And if you add up the years in which the good prevails and those in which the evil prevails, the evil amounts to one third of the time, and the good to two thirds of the time. In this sense, the game is worth the candle. There must be some evil to give spice to the good. But there must be an overplus of the good to make the game worth happening at all. One would think, logically, that they ought to be balanced half and half. But a half and half situation never works, because it has no blwwp to it. It is static. But the universe has this thing which I call blwwp, and this is known as flip-floppability. And that is always a result of a certain kind of imbalance. So that the Earth does not revolve about the sun in a sedately circular orbit, but in an elliptical orbit. So, in the same way, when you put a ball on the end of a string and spin it round your head: you can’t do it with this motion, you have to do twwt, twwt, twwt, twwt, like that. That’s the flip-floppability, see? I don’t know how to explain that logically, but it seems to me to be the way life happens.






Yes. I mean, you will always find that. Let me see how to clarify that. Let’s take it that, in the largest frame of reference that we can think of, nothing happens that is out of order. For example, within your own life, your own feeling, your own behavior, you cannot deviate from the Tao, from the course of nature, from the divine. Take that as a fundamental premise. Now, within smaller frameworks there can be deviation, there can be evil. A favorite illustration I use is that in this room there’s a very definite distinction between up and down: we wouldn’t dream of trying to sit on the ceiling. We’d all fall off. But this room is also in interstellar space, where there is no difference between up and down.


Now, first of all, go to your interstellar space situation, where it does not matter whether you live or die, and realize that state. Having realized that state, you can come back to the other states and live them with more verve. Because then you will have courage. So when you discover your divine nature, come back to your human nature. This is the Buddhist idea of when one attains Buddhahood, you don’t quit the world, but come back as a bodhisattva: go back into life out of compassion for all living beings and become involved. Don’t be afraid to get into life, into emotion, into feeling, and so on. Do that. That’s the bodhisattva’s way.

Yes, sir?






Would I kindly point to the place from which all this originally sprung? Take any place—you know?







Ooooh, there was always Armageddon going on. Be careful of these historical fantasies. Because people who talk about these things generate self-fulfilling prophecies. Prophecy is very dangerous. If somebody told you—supposing I told you that on April the 15th, 1975, you were going to die in the middle of downtown Vancouver, and I made myself sound very authoritative, I bet you anything you would do all you could not to be in downtown Vancouver on April the 15th.



Well, I didn’t mean it in that context.



Well, what context did you mean it in?






Wait a minute, I didn’t get your question. Could I—?






Well, if you can’t find the words, it is highly possible that the question is answered.

Yes, there’s a lady here.






The question is to tell you some more about meditation and the methods of meditation. A little difficult to do that briefly, because there’s so many kinds of meditation. And I don’t want to lay down the law because there are lots of other teachers of meditation who have, one way or another, somewhat different ideas than mine, and I don’t want to put them down. But the way I teach it is to see if we can get ourselves into a state where we are simply aware of what is. You’re not going anywhere, you’re not trying to change anything, you have no goal, no objective in the future. You are simply observing what is now. And the easiest way to start that for most people is to close your eyes and listen to the sound going on now without naming it or judging it. Although, if you find out that, compulsively, you are thinking about it and naming it, don’t try to stop that but listen to it as part of the sound. Listen to your own interior thinking as of the same nature as the sound of traffic outside or whatever. Simply observe what is in a very simple-minded way. Observe what is in the same way that you listen to classical music, where you are listening to the sound of it without asking what it means.


Then, after a little while, become aware of your breath as part of what is. Are you breathing or is it breathing you? Do you do it or does it happen to you? Can you hear anything past? Can you hear anything future? Can you hear anybody listening to sound? If you can’t, then obviously those things must be figments of your imagination. So by pure listening—ears first, only: look, mama, no hands!—you will hear sounds coming out of silence, which is pretty weird. Then open your eyes and look in the same way as you’ve been listening without naming. And you will see light coming out of space just as sound was coming out of silence. All that I’m looking at is buzzing at me. It’s a vibration. All of you are going zuzz-zuzz-zuzz-zuzz-zuzz-zuzz-zuzz, but incredibly fast. And you’re all coming out of nothingness right now. Wowee! We’re all present at the creation of the universe. This is it, today. This moment. Don’t look to the past for some big bang. The past will tell you nothing, because the past vanishes like an echo. But now is when it begins, see? Now is the time. Now is the day of our salvation. Heh! See, it begins right now! This is where it’s at!


Oh, I can make jokes about this. This is why, in Sanskrit, the real Self is called the Ātman: the man where it’s at. Philologists will be horrified. Here! See? I say, “UGH!” That started it. I keep starting it, see? Well, I don’t know who I am. Because I—you can never get at. It’s like you can’t bite your own teeth. You will never make “I” an object. But I am. Yahweh is the name of God. “Before Abraham was, I am.” But “I” is not ego—ego is just your image of yourself, which must be false. Because it’s just an image. “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image.” Whew! These Christians don’t know what they’re saying!

Yes, sir?



Help me to understand what yin and yang is all about.



Can I help you to understand what yin and yang is all about? Well, the words mean roughly the shadow side and the sunny side of a mountain. Obviously, where you have a peak, you have to have two sides. You can’t imagine a one-sided peak. So one side is in the shade and the other is in the sun. And so we get what we call the positive and the negative, as we have in electricity. You can’t have electrical current without the positive and the negative poles, you can’t have a magnet without the north and the south poles. You take a bar magnet, chop it in two in order, say, to eliminate the north pole, and you will find you have two new magnets, each with a north and a south pole.


Now, however, these poles are different. But although they are different, they are inseparable—like a front and a back. You can’t have a front without a back. The only exception to this is a very curious phenomenon called a Möbius strip, which is a strip of paper which is twisted, and then joined, and you discover to your amazement that its front is the same as its back, and it has only one edge. But this is the exception which proves the rule. The back is the front. So in all life the back is the front, and you can’t have one without the other. Explicitly they are different, but implicitly they are the same. Exoterically, good is different from bad. Esoterically, they’re the same. And esoteric knowledge simply means the understanding of the unity of the opposites.


Now, socially that is disreputable. That’s why esoteric knowledge is kept silent. Mysticism comes from the Greek root muin, and muin means the finger on the lips. Shh! Mum’s the word. Don’t give away the secret. Oh, so I’m talking to a big audience, and in a way giving away the secret—but on the assumption that you are a very select company of people, and you’ve come here at some trouble to yourselves, and I feel that if you aren’t ready to know what I’m talking about, you won’t understand.


So the yin and the yang generate each other. In the Chinese phrase, they arise mutually. Just as to be and not to be. You can’t understand one without the other. You don’t know what you mean by beautiful unless you know what you mean by ugly. You don’t know what you mean by solid unless you know what you mean by empty. And if you understand that, I really would have nothing further to explain to you.

Now it’s time to draw this session to a conclusion, and I thank you all very much for coming here and for giving me the pleasure of thinking out loud in your presence and watching your intelligent faces. Thank you so much and good night!

Alan Watts


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