Man is a Hoax

This talk plucks at the root of discontent in modern life. Watts reveals how society tricks children into chasing an always elusive happiness down the road, never to be found in the here and now. But ah, to truly live this moment! That is the secret. Let Alan dispel the myth of your separation from the joys inherent in our shared existence.



Now, I’m particularly interested in what Dr. Weaver said about the attitude of the family to children. Because we have an absolutely extraordinary attitude—in our culture and in various other cultures; high civilizations—to the new member of human society. Instead of saying frankly to children, “How do you do? Welcome to the human race. We are playing a game, and we are playing by the following rules. We want to tell you what the rules are so that you will know your way around. And when you’ve understood what rules we’re playing by, when you get older, you may be able to invent better ones.” But instead of that, we still retain an attitude to the child that he is on probation. He’s not really a human being, he’s a candidate for humanity. And therefore, to preserve the role of parent, or to preserve the role of teacher, you have to do what they do in the Arthur Murray School of dancing, which is that they string you out. They don’t tell you all the story about dancing, because if they tell you, you’ll learn in a few weeks and go away, and you’ll know it. But instead they want to keep you on.


And in just this way we have a whole system of preparation of the child for life, which always is preparation and never actually gets there. In other words, we have a system of schooling which starts with grades. And we get this little creature into the thing with a kind of a, “Come on, kitty, kitty, kitty!” And we get it always preparing for something that’s going to happen. So you go into nursery school as preparation for kindergarten. You go to kindergartn as preparation for first grade. And then, you see, you go up the grades until you get to high school. And then comes a time when maybe, if we can get you fascinated enough with this system, you go to college. And then, when you’re going to college—if you’re smart—you get into graduate school and stay a perpetual student, and go back to be a professor, and just go round and round in the system. But in the ordinary way they don’t encourage quite that. They want you (after graduate school, or after graduation; commencement, as it’s called) beginning to get out into the World, with a capital “W.” And so, you know, you’ve been trained for this and now you’ve arrived.


But when you get out into the world, at your first sales meeting they’ve got the same thing going again. Because they want you to make that quota. And if you do make it, they give you a higher quota. And come along about forty five years of age, maybe you’re vice president. And suddenly it dawns on you that you’ve arrived—with a certain sense of having been cheated, because life feels the same as it always felt. And you are conditioned to be in desperate need of a future. So the final goal that this culture prepares for us is called retirement: when you will be a senior citizen and you will have the wealth and the leisure to do what you’ve always wanted, but you will at the same time have impotence, a rotten prostate, and false teeth, and no energy.


So the whole thing, from beginning to end, is a hoax. And furthermore, some other aspects of the hoax, just for kicks: you are involved, by and large, in a very strange business system which divides your day into work and play. Work is something that everybody does, and you get paid to do it because nobody could care less about doing it. In other words, it is so abominable and boring that you can get paid for doing it. And the object of doing this is to make money. And the object of making money is to go home and enjoy the money that you’ve made. When you’ve got it, you see, you can buy pleasure. And this is a complete fallacy. Money never can buy pleasure. Because all pleasures depend upon not putting down a symbol of power—money—but upon disciplines.


In other words, now in Sausalito, where I live, we have pier after pier full of fine boats—motor cruisers, sailing boats, all sorts of things—which nobody ever uses. Because they’ve been bought on the falling for the ad line that if you buy this thing you will have pleasure, you will have status, you will have something or other. But then they suddenly discover that having a boat requires the art of seamanship, which is difficult but rewarding. Therefore, nobody has time for it, and all they do with the boats is have cocktail parties on them at the weekend.


And in myriads of ways, you see, you go home—we’re the wealthiest people in the world, and you would think that, having earned your money, and go home, you would have an orgy and a great banquet and so on. But nobody does. They eat a TV dinner, which is just warmed-over airline food, and then they spend the evening looking at an electronic reproduction of life which is divided from you by a glass screen. You can’t touch it, you can’t smell it. It has no color, except maybe if you’re very wealthy it has color. But by and large it doesn’t. And you look at this thing, and you have a strange feeling, you see, that the whole procession of grades that was leading to something in the future—to that goody, that gorgeous, galuptious goodie that was lying at the end of the line—and it never quite turns up.


And this is because, from the beginning, we condition our children to a defective sense of identity. And this, I think, is the most important feature in the whole thing. That a child grows into our culture and—as I repeat, this is not only Western culture, it’s equally true in Japan; it’s an area which I can speak with some firsthand knowledge—we condition the child in a way that sets the child a life problem which is insoluble, and therefore attended by constant frustration. And as a result of this problem being insoluble, it is perpetually postponed to the future. So that one is educated to live in the future, and one is not ever educated to live today.


Now, I’m not saying that—you know the philosophy of carpe diem: let us drink today, for tomorrow we die, and not make any plans. What I am saying is that making plans for the future is of use only to people who are capable of living completely in the present. Because when you make plans for the future and they mature, if you can’t live in the present, you are not able to enjoy the future for which you have planned, because you will have a new kind of syndrome whereby happiness consists in promises and not in direct and immediate realizations so long as you feel that tomorrow it will come.


You see, on a dollar bill it always says “promise to pay.” It’s a promissory note. And nobody ever can come across. Because the promise is tomorrow, and as we say in common speech: tomorrow never comes. But everything is based on the idea, you see, that you will get it tomorrow, and you can enjoy yourself today so long as tomorrow looks bright. But Confucius once said: “A man who understands the Tao in the morning can die contentedly in the evening.” That is to say, if you have ever lived one complete moment, you can be ready to die. You can say, “Well, that was it. That was the good. I’ve had it.” You see? But if you never live that complete moment, death is always the guy who, like, comes into a bar at two o’clock in the morning and says, “Time, gentlemen, please.” And he says, “Oh please, one more drink.” “Not yet.” Because you haven’t really had the feeling that you ever had it, that you ever got there.


Now then, the main factor in this kind of conditioning seems to me to be, as I said, the way in which we give children a sense of identity. And in this respect we do something extraordinarily odd. We define a person. Consider this for a moment: this word, “person.” Harry Emerson Fosdick once wrote a book called How to be a Real Person. And this, in translation, means: how to be a genuine fake. Because the word “person” means a mask. The persona: the mask worn by actors in Greco-Roman drama, which was a megaphone-mouthed mask so that through which (per-sona) the sound goes. And so at the beginning of a play script you will see the dramatis personae: the persons of the drama—that is to say, the list of the masks that the actors are going to wear. But the word has so—for them, from its original use—that to be a person has come to mean your real identity; your true, sincere, honest self. The person. And we say of someone, then: “He’s a real person.” That means he’s genuine. But we have confused, you see, the individual organism with the person—with (that is to say) its role. And we have defined the role of the person in such a way that it condemns everybody so defined to perpetual frustration. Now how is this so?


When you are a child, your parents, your peers, your teachers, your uncles and aunts are very anxious to define you. And what they are going to tell you is that you are a free agent. You are responsible. That is to say: you are an independent first cause. You are an origin of actions and thoughts and feelings. And we can praise you or blame you for what you do. And above all we require of you that you love us. You love your parents, you love your brothers and sisters—as Fred said: a child is not allowed to say to let that baby sister go back where it came from, because that is not nice. All nice children love their brothers and sisters and their parents—not, of course, because we tell you to do so, but because you would want to do it yourself. You see, now, here, what’s going on? You are required and commanded to do certain things which will be appreciated only if you do them voluntarily.


Now, you see, when your identity is defined by society, you cannot resist it. You don’t have the knowledge, you don’t have the wisdom, you don’t have the resources to understand that something’s being put over on you. You cannot but help believe the definition of you as a free agent. But you believe yourself to be a free agent as a result of not being free—that is to say, of being hopelessly unable to resist society’s identification of you. So in the whole sense of our personality there is a contradiction. And that is why the sense of ego, of being one’s self, is simultaneously a sense of frustration. The feeling of I-ness, so far as most people are concerned, is a feeling of tension between the eyes and behind them.


Trigant Burrow, a remarkable man, did some studies about two kinds of awareness, which he call ditension and cotension. Ditentive is the normal kind of awareness that we have of being a skin-encapsulated ego, of being separate from the environment, and of confronting an external, objective world of which we are the independent observer. And this myth, he said, goes hand in hand with a physical state, which is a state of tension between the eyes. Then he defined cotension as another form of awareness, which you might call a certain kind of openness in which you realize that the external world is just as much you as anything inside your skin, and that you are not something that comes into this world on probation and doesn’t really belong—this is, you see, the attitude that we foster in the child—but that you are something not that comes into the world, but comes out of it in the same way as a flower comes out of a plant or a fruit comes out of a tree. That you are an expression: you, as a human being, are a symptom of nature. And that you really belong there, and that furthermore, your actual self—what is finally and fundamentally you—is not a separate and lonely part of the world, but the real you is the world itself, everything that there is, expressing itself as this particular organism here and now and, of course (as you look across the room) as all these other organisms in their here and now—we are all tits on the same sow, if I may put it so crudely. Or, if you want to do it more poetically: rays from the same sun.


Now, children very often ask their parents, you see, as a result of having been given this funny sense of identity: “Mommy, who would I have been if my father had been someone else?” This is a very common child’s question, because the child gets the message from the parents (using the English language, the French language, the German language, or whatever) that I am somewhat in my body. You gave me my body. But who am I to whom this was given? You see? You can say to her a girl in our culture, “Darling you’re absolutely gorgeous. You’re so beautiful.” And she says, “How like a man! All you think about is bodies. I may be beautiful, but my parents gave me my body. But I want to be admired for myself, and not for my chassis.” And this poor girl is a chauffeur. She’s alienated from her body. And she doesn’t take any credit, doesn’t assume any responsibility, for being what she is physically. And this is, of course, as much true of men as of women. It is a common cultural attitude. We say, “I have a body.” We don’t say, “I am a body.” We feel a very sharp distinction, in other words, between our consciousness—which is a kind of focused attention—together with all those actions that we are able to perform voluntarily on the one hand, and on the other hand everything both within us and outside us that seems merely to happen to us.


Consider, for a moment, breathing: do you breathe, or are you breathed? You can feel it either way. If you become conscious of breathing, you get the sense that you are doing it in the same way as thinking or walking. But if you forget about it, it goes on and you don’t have to do it at all. That is why breathing exercises are fundamental in all meditation practices in the Orient. Because you can understand through breathing and through the experience of breathing that there really is no differentiation between the involuntary experience and the voluntary experience. But when you set up game rules whereby you identify all that you do voluntarily with “you,” and all that happens involuntarily with the “other,” with what happens to you, and then you put a gulf between these things not realizing—and this is the secret that is never given away—that self and other are inseparable. Just in the same way that the front and the back of a coin are different but identical. It’s all one coin. So, in exactly the same way, the experience of self and the experience of other are mutually necessary. You wouldn’t know what you meant by self unless you knew other, you wouldn’t know other unless you knew what you meant by self. They are therefore polarities, like north and south pole of a magnet. They’re inseparable.


But that secret doesn’t get out because civilized language and thought ignores the fact that all classes, all logical classes—and words are, after all, labels on classes—are so constructed that they are intellectual boxes, and every box which has an inside also must have an outside. And we think that insides exist apart from outsides, and outsides apart from insides. We don’t realize that, although they are opposed, they go together. And, you see, that is the secret of the whole thing. That is what the child is not let on to. And so, instead, the child is defined as a stranger in the Earth and not as a symptom of the Earth. And as a result of that we have the vast terrifying social problem of alienation: of feeling that the world outside human skins is unfeeling, fully automatic stupidity which we have to fight and dominate. Otherwise it will swallow us up and condemn us to the imaginary terrors of everlasting nothingness.


Now, I feel in a way when we say, “I wasn’t responsible for being born,” you know, one of the great problems of psychotherapy today is passing the buck by a kind of superficial Freudian attitude. You, as a juvenile delinquent, are not responsible for what you do because it was your parents who fouled you up. And so they write articles in the press that, instead of prosecuting the children, we ought to prosecute the parents. So they haul the parents in. But the parents say, “I know we’re mixed up, but that was the fault of our parents.” And it all goes back to a guy called Adam, and he blamed it on Eve, and she blamed it on the serpent. And God said about the serpent, “I’m not responsible for the serpent. He did it on his own.” You see?


Because the serpent is the left hand of God. And what we call God, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, et cetera, that’s the right hand. But Jesus Christ sits on the right hand of the father. Nobody ever says who sits on the left. Because let not your left hand know what your right hand doeth. See? My temper got the better of me, I didn’t really mean it. My lusts got the better of me. I’m really not responsible for them. They were given to me. You see?


Now, all this idea that you—you see, we’re laboring under a definition of the self which is extremely is limited. So that we, for example, acknowledge thinking and walking, and we’re doing things with our hands and speaking. But we don’t acknowledge that we are growing our hair and beating our hearts. That is defined as happening to us. Birth is defined as something that happens to us. And then you feel that was my father’s responsibility. He had a dirty gleam in his eye and went after my mother, and so on, and he did it.





Yes, alright.


Because there is this point about responsibility. And one way of looking at it is that we are really not responsible for what happens in our past. We are responsible for what happens beginning right now.





But we are not responsible [???] what happens to us [???]



No. But, you see, I feel this is a hoax. You see, look: let’s suppose now that we’ll follow the theory of those astronomers who maintain that the universe is not a steady state thing, but there was an enormous bang billions of years ago, and from this bang all the galaxies were thrown out into space. Now then, you look back at this as something which happened in the past and which is, as it were, the cause of the present. But what I would say is that bang is still going on. When you take a lovely bottle of black ink and throw it as hard as you can at a white wall and smash it, all of it goes floosh, like this, you know? And in the center it’s dense. But on the out fringes it has all kinds of interesting curlicues. And that’s all, you see, one splash. Now, in the same way, we are at the moment—sitting in this room, and talking and thinking—we are all the little curlicues out on the end of the original cosmic bang. We are it. We’re not effects of it.


Because to think that you are separate from the big bang is simply a matter of definition. It’s a way of talking. We separate events from each other in order to measure them—that is to say, the notion that there are distinct things and distinct events in the physical world is a calculus. It is like pretending that a curve is a series of points. And so, in the same way: supposing you have a wiggle. Now, you’ve got a wiggly line, you see? And the whole world is wiggly lines: clouds, mountains, people, rivers. Everything is wiggly lines. Now, how much of a wiggly line is a wiggle? You see? What is one wiggle? And you can see that this is a very arbitrary matter. So we see the more obvious wiggles in the world, and we define them as people. Each of you is a wiggle. And this wiggle is you!


[???] one wiggle. What about the wiggle of the child fighting to get out of the universe, through the birth canal, and be born? How do you do that in the general…?



Well, that’s simply a repetition of the original explosion.


Is he a participant right then and there?



Of course.


Do you view this as a natural expression of the entire Earth?



Yes, exactly. This is the repetition of the original explosion. “Go, man!” You see?


So any possibility would start with [???]



It starts before birth. Because the definition of yourself as beginning only—when shall we put it? Where did you begin? At parturition? At conception? Or when you were an evil gleam in your father’s eye? When did you begin? Let’s go back. You began on the first dawn of creation, whenever that was. Because you did it! See, everybody’s pretending they didn’t. And you can kind of play a game. This is what gurus do, you see? Zen masters and so on: they give you a funny look. And you say, “Well, I have a problem. Please, teacher. I’m just little me, and I’m caught in this thing called life. I got mixed up with all these tubes and nerves, and it’s uncomfortable, and I don’t know what to do about it because it’s all going to fall apart.” And so the teacher says—whether it’s Sri Ramana Maharshi, or whether it’s a Zen teacher—“Who is mixed up in this thing? Who are you? Who asked this question? Show me. Find yourself.” You say, “Well, it’s just me.” And he says, “Oh, come on! You? Don’t make me laugh!” See? So eventually the person feels very bugged. Because the teacher is calling his bluff.


And you are not the lord God in the Jehovah sense of Christianity, who is the cosmic technocrat who knows all the answers to everything, but you are the law of God in the Hindu sense, who is different. Because a Hindu god doesn’t know how he does everything—in the sense that he doesn’t translate it into words. He can’t explain it because there’s no point in explaining it. You open and close your hand without knowing how you do it, and yet you surely do it, but you can’t put it into words how it happens—unless you’re a physiologist. And then, even so, it doesn’t help you much to open and close your hand better than anybody else. See? So you do know how to do it, but you can’t explain it. Because words are a very clumsy way of talking about something which, from the standpoint of words, from the standpoint of logic, is a very, very complicated process. So if you ask Shiva how he dances the cosmos, he would say, “I just do it,” like you say, “Well, I just open and close my hand.”


So the guru says to you, “Listen, Shiva, don’t kid me,” you know, “that you’re not Shiva, that you’re just this thing called Mary Smith or John Doe, et cetera. Haha!” And everybody says, “Uh-oh, you can’t admit that.” Because, you see, if I did admit that, I would have to be considered responsible, and I would be considered crazy, and I would feel that I really was one with this whole scheme of things. And that’s, you see, the secret that we don’t let the children know. In all—well, not in all, but in many cultures—initiation into manhood consists precisely in finding that out. They finally get around to saying to you, “After all, you know, we’ve been pretending all this time that you were just this little boy or little girl. But now we’re going to let you in on the real story.” But not in this culture. That’s the problem.


In this culture we do have an initiation into adult life called psychoanalysis. And everybody is ruined by education, and then—it can’t be helped, because they have to know all the conventions. And just like to preserve beef you make it salt. And when you’re going to cook it you have to soak the salt out of it. So, in the same way, to make a child a tolerable companion you have to—





Yeah, it’s going, still. You have to be salted with education. Then, when that mixes up all your natural instincts, you have to be psychoanalyzed in order to be straightened out and cured of your education, cured of your upbringing. But the difficulty is, you see, that the assumptions of psychoanalysis and of a good deal of psychotherapy in various types and schools do not include the insight that you are basically the works.


They have, in other words—that is simply because, historically speaking, psychotherapy originated in the nineteenth century, and therefore still carries on the nineteenth century assumptions about the nature of the universe. And all those nineteenth century assumptions about the universe were a put down. They included the myth, you see, that the universe is actually blind energy. It is essentially stupid. And man’s intelligence and man’s values and man’s consciousness are a fluke in the world. And so this myth is that the world—man, in other words, is not a symptom of the world, like an apple is a symptom of an apple tree. That man is a fluke, kind of a joke, chance. And that to be realistic and hardheaded and factual—in other words, a strong man—you must realize that you are caught in this trap and face the facts.


So then, this—for the West, at any rate—this nineteenth century philosophy of man’s place in the world and his identity has become the most plausible common sense. In other words, people say they are Christians, they say they are Jews, they say they are Theosophists, Vedantists, Buddhist, et cetera, et cetera. But they are not. Because they know in their heart of hearts, whatever they choose to believe, that the world is as described in the nineteenth century myth, because that’s become our common sense. If people were Christians, they’d be screaming in the streets. They’re not screaming in the streets. They’d be taking full-page ads. They’d be sponsoring TV programs about the tremendous urgency of this Christian bit, and they’re not doing anything of the kind. A few Jehova’s Witnesses are doing it, but even they are fairly polite when they come to your front door. They show no urgency, really.


So they don’t believe it. Because the plausible myth of our age is the myth of the fully automatic model of the universe in which man is a fluke, and which he doesn’t really belong. He’s a chance operation. And when you’re dead, you’re dead, and that’s all there is to it. And that’s so plausible that really almost everyone believes in it without realizing that it is made out of whole cloth. It’s nothing but a myth. It’s a way of looking at things, a way of striking an attitude. But this is the powerful, powerful idea that governs our children and that gives us our sense of basic identity, alienation, so that we live always in expectation of a future—which, of course, never happens.

Well, that’s enough from me for the moment.

Alan Watts

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