Insight and Ecstasy


Alan says ecstasy is fleeting while insight endures. Drugs or mysticism may spark rapture, but real spirituality stems from seeing through the illusion of a separate self. This liberating insight dissolves imaginary problems, merging subject and object into a unified whole. Joy may follow, but penetrating truth remains.

Part of the Way Beyond the West radio series.



I was listening with very great interest to a recent book review broadcast by Kenneth Rexroth on KPFA in which he was discussing a recent book of poems by the San Francisco poet Philip Lamantia. And he was pointing out how the poems were of a decidedly ecstatic character, and was making a number of very interesting observations upon what might almost be called a cult of ecstasy; a cult of ecstasy expressing itself in the current interest in unusual states of consciousness—whether they be the result of mysticism or of drugs or of anything of this kind. And he was saying that you have to make a very clear distinction indeed between ecstasy and sanctity. I’m not quite sure that this is the happiest pair of opposites one could produce because, after all, sanctity has special overtones of a person who has perfected himself in a certain morality or rule of life. And perhaps it didn’t originally mean that. “Holy,” for example, does not originally mean “good.” “Holy” means “whole,” “complete,” and thus you might say god is not holy unless god also somehow includes the devil, which is, as it were, the other face of god.


But I think it’s terribly important to understand that if you’re interested in Eastern philosophy—if you’re studying Hinduism or Buddhism or something of that kind—with the object of attaining ecstasy, at this point Kenneth Rexroth was perfectly right in saying that this is a complete misunderstanding.


He was also saying that—he was making a kind of contrast of beat and square. He was saying how all the New York and San Francisco beat people are just fascinated with ecstasy, but that, on the contrary, genuine mysticism is much more likely to be found among humble and devoted adherents of such great traditions as Roman Catholicism or perhaps Buddhism or Hinduism as it’s actually practiced in Asia. Because these are not people looking for ecstasy, they’re people simply devotedly following a way of life which is often very hard indeed.


And he was of course particularly irate about the people who think that they can get anything of this kind by taking certain drugs. And he went so far as to call Aldous Huxley the “Los Angeles Idiot.” Well, I think that’s really very unfair, because it should be said that although ecstasy will not, of itself—however induced—produce creative activity, whether it be moral or whether it be artistic, it won’t do it for you. But if a person has a great deal of intelligence or artistic ability anyhow, then an ecstatic experience may give him something to express. After all, if I’m incapable of describing things—if I was so poor a writer that I couldn’t even describe a cloud—I shouldn’t be able to communicate much as a result of having had some ecstasy. But on the other hand, if a person can communicate—and Aldous Huxley is an absolutely superb writer—then, as a result of having an ecstasy, he’s got something to say. And, after all, this is actually a man of very great intelligence and learning. And the point is not at all that one could somehow transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse with a dose of mescaline, but that certain experiences of this kind might be valuable to people able to profit from them.


But this is not the main point. The main point that I think is of great importance here is that there must [audio cut] relation between ecstasy—that is to say the thrill, the kick, the delight, the joy—of a mystical experience and the experience itself. Because the experience itself may or may not have ecstasy as a consequence. That is simply a byproduct. The experience itself is always a matter of insight. And the insight, the understanding, of the way things are, what you are, what life is, may indeed produce ecstasy, because sometimes this understanding is an enormous relief. And that is the reason when one has been battling, say, with some tremendous problem, and suddenly finds the whole thing disappears. When you’ve been terrified at something or anxious about something, and all the grounds for anxiety vanish, then very naturally you feel enormously happy and joyous.


And also, I would add that the kind of insight which is the essence or the core of this sort of experience has a way of making the ordinary everyday world seem extraordinarily beautiful. And that, again, is a byproduct. Whereas things before seemed rather dim and oppressive—you know how, even on a fine day, if you’re feeling sad or depressed, the actual landscape somehow dimmer. Whereas, on the other hand, if you’re feeling wonderful, the landscape itself looks wonderful. And so, in the same way, if one has had certain insights which bring about an extraordinary sense of relief from the oppression of certain problems, then very naturally everything in the world looks a lot better. [I would] even go so far as to say it seems transfused with a divine light.


[audio cut] before saying anything about the nature of insight, to point out that I have long been convinced that the mystical experience—that is to say when it doesn’t involve visions; when it doesn’t involve seeing Jesus or the Buddha or Krishna or something of this kind—when we have what I would call a non-imagistic type of experience, it’s pretty much the same thing all over the world and in whatever tradition it happens to arise. But because it is an extraordinarily difficult thing to describe, people use images and figures of speech which lie ready to them. A person who is a believer in god will almost inevitably draw in his idea of god to interpret this experience, whereas, on the other hand, a person who is not a believer in god will not use that way of describing it. And the types of description, the imagery used, is so diverse that, very naturally, students of comparative religion and comparative mysticism are sometimes led to believe that there are completely different kinds of insight and that, for example, the nirvana experience of a Buddhist is something totally different in its epistemological or psychological character from the Christian’s vision of god.


But I don’t think that this necessarily follows at all. And perhaps we can see why if we go back to the subject of the original insight itself and try to see wherein that consists. And we shall see not only how it differs from ecstasy, but also how it could be understood as being the same thing that underlies types of mystical experience that are expressed in very different sorts of imagery.


Speaking, first of all, from, say, a Buddhist’s standpoint, there’s no doubt in my mind that the insight in question—that constitutes what is called satori in Zen or in more general Buddhism bodhi, which means “awakening”—this is not the vision of something like a god underlying the world. Although Buddhist philosophy occasionally uses expressions like “the great void,” or “suchness,” or the dharmakāya, the “absolute reality,” and thus gives the impression that it has a belief in some sort of continuum underlying the world in rather the same way that water is a continuum in which fish move and air is a continuum in which men move. There are many, many texts in the literature of Mahayana Buddhism which explicitly deny that this is the meaning.


It would be much more correct to describe what they call the void as a state of complete mental clarity in which one ceases entirely to be bothered by false problems. Because the basic thesis of Buddhist philosophy is that the sufferings, the agonies of mankind—especially the psychological ones—derive almost entirely from false problems: from bothering our heads over questions that are not real questions at all. And when these problems are solved, when it is seen that we were asking the wrong question, then one gets this astonishing sensation of seeing that problems exist only, as it were, in a mental sphere—they exist as a result of thought—whereas the world which is not thought, the world which simply is, is entirely free from problems.


Now, of course, that is something extraordinarily contrary to our general common sense. We think the physical world is full of problems, and we have thought as a valuable instrument to enable us to solve them. And it’s true: thought is a valuable instrument. But valuable (we might ask) for whom? Valuable for those who can use it. But not so valuable for those who are used by it; those who, in other words, are hoodwinked by thinking into problems which would not exist otherwise, and which really have no reason to exist.


Now let us take as a simple example the common philosophical problem with which we’ve been obsessed in the West for centuries: the problems which are called ontology (or the study of being), and the problems of epistemology (the study of knowledge). These problems very largely have to do with the inquiry as to who or what I am (that’s epistemology), and who or what the whole universe is (that is ontology). And they derive from what appears to be the commonsense feeling that processes of any kind, actions of any kind, have to have behind them an agent. In other words, if we know, we ask very naturally the question: who or what knows? If we see a movement or an action, we ask: who or what moves? And underlying the whole history of scientific inquiry until quite recent times there has been the urge to know: what ultimately underlies the process of the universe?


And, you see, this has its roots in the historic division of life into two categories: the category of substance and that of function. We always seem to feel that, wherever we see activity, operation, movement, energy, that there must be some thing which does it. Now, many of you who’ve read the writings of that extraordinarily interesting American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf will remember how he pointed out the arbitrariness of this distinction between events and things. How, for example, he showed that very often in our language phenomena which are clearly events are masquerading in words which seem to suggest that they are things. And he made some most interesting discussions in his book Language, Thought, and Reality about what we really mean by the distinction between these two classes, to which we assign in our language nouns for things and verbs for events.


And he pointed out, for example, that the word “fist” looks like a noun. And so you could raise the little conundrum: what happens to my fist when I open my hand? And by this conundrum it suddenly seems that a noun, a thing, has totally vanished. Of course, the answer is that, when I open my hand, I stop fisting—showing that the noun was really an event masquerading as a thing.


But, of course, in recent philosophy it’s become more and more clear to us that we can use verb language, or process language, or operational language, to discuss almost anything we want. Any natural phenomenon can be described as doing rather than being. And in general this is a very useful way of talking about things. We, in other words, dispense with an unnecessary duality in language, an unnecessary distinction, between process and entity. And what appear to be entities can always be described in terms of, perhaps, a slower type of process than the things we’ve normally described by verbs.


And if we consider this, and start talking about everything that happens in process language, in operational language, we suddenly see that things or entities—that is to say, the who or what that does something; the agent behind the act—these things completely disappear. A famous instance which Whorf gave of this was in the Hopi language: that when we say “a light flashed,” the Hopis just say “flashed.” And he pointed out that’s much more accurate, because the flashing is, of course, the light—unless you mean “lantern” or “flashlight.” But in this way we have created a thing behind the act which is a sort of ghost. And the objective of Buddhist discipline is, as one old Zen master put it, to beat the ghosts out of you.


Now, in the same way, you see, when we know something, or we act, it’s a very basic commonsense supposition that we are the agent behind the actor—that, in other words, behind thought there’s a thinker, behind experience an experiencer, behind perception a perceiver. And we are—all of us, you see—tremendously concerned with this image (the doer, the agent) which has become our image of ourselves. You might call it our self-image if you speak in a psychological jargon. And this is the thing we’re all concerned about: its future, its history, its destiny, what’s going to become of it, and so on and so forth.


But through clarity it can turn out that this thing that we fancy ourselves to be simply is a figure of thought or a figure of speech, and is not there at all. And the only reason why this makes us feel astounded and bothered and unbelieving is the momentum of a habit of thought. Although it may become sort of intellectually clear to us that this is so, we still have deep in us the habit of attributing all actions to an agent. And it’s difficult for us to realize, to become really clear, that this is only figurative; that there is no, as it were, distinct order of being that is the doer as distinct from the deed.


Then you might say: what is the relationship between the doer and the deed? Does one process do another another process? Does one process cause another process? Well, no. That’s simply a matter of description. As Wittgenstein pointed out: there is no necessity in nature—necessity is only logical. That is to say, if you see, say, a sunflower: now, sunflowers have a way of turning as the sun moves. And at one time people might say that the sunflower turned in order to keep its face to the sun, attributing purpose to a flower. Well, nowadays no botanist would say that. They would say simply that the structure of a sunflower is such that, when the sun moves, it turns. And so one might say: well, that’s simply a matter of necessity. It’s cause and effect that the sun and the structure of the sunflower together make the flower turn.


Well, I wonder what that really means. Does it mean that the sunflower must turn? I don’t think it does at all. Because if the sunflower didn’t turn—it might be dead, but if it was a live sunflower and it didn’t turn as the sun moved, it wouldn’t be a sunflower. In other words, the same situation would exist if the thing had blue petals and fern-like leaves. Then it wouldn’t be a sunflower. In the same way, if an unsupported rock didn’t fall, it wouldn’t be a rock, it’d be a balloon. And the idea that a rock must necessarily fall, that the consequence of a rock being unsupported is that it falls, is not a consequence in nature, it’s a consequence of description. If you divide, in describing it, the unsupported rock from the process of falling, and you look first at one thing and then at the other, one aspect then at the other aspect, then you can say: necessarily, with the unsupported state of the rock goes falling. But, of course, actually, the falling of the rock in this condition is as much a part of the definition of a rock as the fact that it’s hard, that it weighs so much, and so on and so forth.


So one is then confronted—when one realizes this vividly with the astonishing realization that one is not this entity that one supposed one’s self to be, that one is not being pushed around by laws of physical necessity—the difficulty is, you see, that thought is, as it were, a system of symbols that stands apart from life and represents it, just as words stand apart from things and represent them—they don’t really stand apart from them; words and noises and thoughts are sensations or images, and they only apparently stand apart. Well, as we identify ourselves to so large an extent with our thinking process, we naturally come to feel that we, too, stand apart from life. And as a result of this we have the customary feeling that, when we’re not distracted with thought, we have a curious feeling of emptiness, of having no time, of being very… well, just being evaporating histories. But, of course, if you stand apart from life, you’re dead. But we don’t really stand apart. But we think we do.


And therefore, when one recovers from that illusion, and the sense of one’s separateness, of one’s being a thing, an agent, simply disappears—it’s not a kind of fatalistic situation because the feeling of fatalism is that one is the agent but one is being pushed around. And so this disappearance, and this loss of the sense of separation between the subject and the object, the thinker and the thought, and in turn thought and life, could be called, you see, a sense of unity—to which one might, if one were a Christian, give the sense of a union with god. But a Buddhist doesn’t give it that sense.


And since it involves release from the problem of one’s self, a lifting of a colossal burden from one’s shoulders, there may ensue ecstasy. But the ecstasy itself has nothing to do with it. It’s simply a byproduct of the insight of living in a physical world that is totally free from most of the thought problems, if not all the thought problems, about which we continuously beat our bodies and our brains.

Alan Watts

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