Mind over Mind

Alan unravels the myth of self-improvement through willpower alone and exposes the fruitlessness of exerting control over one’s own mind. He points to another way: let go of straining, soften your grasp of yourself, and watch experience unfold with impartial awareness. In releasing the fantasy of domination, he says, our natural essence emerges freely. A thought-provoking exploration of the boundaries of self-mastery and the grace of acceptance.



The general title of these talks that I’m giving here is Mind over Mind, and I’m going into all the various problems which have to do with the control of the mind. And so I might introduce what I’m going to say by saying it from different points of view. For example, if you’re interested in communications, it will be the problem of feedback. Or, if I may put it in theological terms: how does man follow the will of God if the will of man is perverse? The theologians say you cannot do this without having divine grace, or the power, to follow the will of God. How, then, do you get grace? Why is grace given to some and not to others? If I cannot follow the will of God by my own effort because my will is selfish, how will my will—which is selfish—be transformed into an unselfish will? If I cannot do it because I am already the selfish will, then grace must do it. If grace has not already done it, why not? Because I didn’t accept it? But by definition I had no power to accept it because my will was selfish. Must I then become a Calvinist and say that only those people who are predestined to receive grace will be able to live the good life? Then we come back to the inadmissible position that people who live evil lives and do not get grace—because they are not predestined to it out of the infinite wisdom of the Godhead—then God Himself must be held responsible for their evil deeds. And so that is a nice little tangle.


If I put this in the language of oriental philosophy and religion, it would be something like this: the Buddha said that wisdom must come only from the abandonment of selfish craving, or desire. One who abandons that desire attain is nirvāṇa—which is supreme peace, liberation. Nirvāṇa means in Sanskrit “blow out,” that is, “exhale the breath.” The opposite, desire, is to breathe in. Now, if you breathe in and hold it, you lose your breath. But if you breathe out, it comes back to you. So the principle here is: if you want life, don’t cling to it. Let go. But the problem is, if I desire not to desire, is that not already desire? How can I desire not to desire? How can I surrender myself, when myself is precisely and urge to hold on, to cling? To cling to life, to continue to survive? I can see rationally that, by clinging to myself, I may strangle myself. I may be like a person who has a bad habit, as a result of which he is committing suicide. And he knows that, but can’t give it up because the means of death are so sweet.


So it all comes down to this basic question that human beings have for a long, long time been concerned about transforming their minds. Is there any way in which one’s mind can be transformed, or is it simply a process which is nothing more than a vicious circle? I could ask: why have you come here this afternoon? What were you looking for? Would it be too presumptuous of me to say that you were looking for help? That you hoped you would hear somebody who had something to say that would be of help and relevance to you as members of a world which is running into the most intense difficulty? A world beset by a complex of problems—any one of which would be bad enough—but when you add together all the great political, social, and ecological problems with which we are faced, they are appalling. And one naturally says the reason why we are in such a mess is not simply that we have wrong systems for doing things—whether they be technological, political, or religious—but we have the wrong people. The systems may be alright, but they are in the wrong hands, because we are all in various ways self-seeking, lacking in wisdom, lacking in courage, afraid of death, afraid of pain, unwilling really to cooperate with others, unwilling to be open to others. And we all think that’s too bad. It’s me that’s wrong! And if only I could be the right person. Is this man going to tell me something that will help me to change myself so that I will be a more creative and cooperative member of the human race? I would like to improve. So, in so many people’s minds and from so many different angles, there is this urgent feeling that “I” must improve “me.” And this is critically important because it’s obvious that—at least it’s superficially obvious—that the way things are, we are going to hell fast.


Now, in this question “Can I improve me,” there is the obvious difficulty that if I am in need of improvement, the person who’s going to do the improving is the one who needs to be improved. And there, immediately, we have a vicious circle. Alright, you want grace. Well, ask God, maybe he’ll give it to you. And the theologian will tell you, “Yes, God gives his grace freely. He gives it to all because he loves all. It’s here, like the air. All you have to do is receive it.” Or a more orthodox—say, Catholic Christian—would say: all you have to do is to be baptized, to take the holy sacrament of the altar, the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, and there is the grace right there. And it’s given by the simple physical means so that it’s very easily and readily available. Well, a lot of people got baptized and it doesn’t always take. People fall from grace. Why do they?


You see, we’re just talking about the same old problem, but we’ve put it a step up. But it’s the same problem. “How can I improve myself?” was the first problem. The second problem is: “How can I accept grace?” They’re both the same problem. Because you’ve got to make a move which will put yourself out of your own control into the control of a better. If you don’t believe in the Christian kind of a God, you can believe in the Hindu kind of a God, who is your inner Self. You see, you’ve got a lower self, which you can call your ego. That’s that little scoundrelous fellow that’s always out for me. But behind the ego there is the Ātman, the “inner self”—the “inward light,” as Quakers would call it—the real self, the spirit, which is substantially identical with God. So you’ve got to meditate in such a way that you identify with your higher self. Now, how do you do that?


Well, you start by watching all your thoughts very carefully, watching your feelings, watching your emotions, so that you begin to build up a sense of separation between the watcher and what is watched. So that you are, as it were, no longer carried away by your own stream of consciousness. You remain the witness impassively, impartially, suspending judgment, and watching it all go on. That seems to be something like progress. At least you’re taking an objective view of what is going on. You are beginning to be in a position to control it. But just wait a minute! Who is this Self behind the self; the watching self? Can you watch that one? It’s interesting if you do, because you find out, of course, that this is—just as the problem of grace is nothing more than a transposition of the first problem (how am I to be unselfish by my own power?), it becomes: how am I to get grace by my own power?


So, in the same way, we find that the watching Self, or the observing Self behind all our thoughts and feelings, is itself a thought. That is to say: when the police enter a house in which there are thieves, the thieves go up from the ground floor of the first floor. When the police arrive on the first floor, the thieves have gone up to the second. And so to the third, and finally out of the roof. And so, when the ego is about to be unmasked, it immediately identifies with the higher Self: it goes up a level. Because the religious game is simply a refined and highbrow version of the ordinary game: how can I outwit me? How can I one up me? So if I find, for example, that, in the quest for pleasure—the ordinary pleasures of the world; food, sex, power, possessions—all this becomes a drag, and I think, “No, it isn’t there.” So I go in for the arts and literature, poetry, music, and I absorb myself in that in those pleasures. And after a while they aren’t the answer, so I go to psychoanalysis, you see. And then I found out that’s not the answer. I got to religion. But I’m still thinking what I was seeking when I wanted candy bars! I want to get that goodie. Only, I see now that, of course, it’s not going to be a material goodie. All material goods fall apart. But maybe there’s a spiritual goodie that’s not going to fall apart. But in that quest, the quest is not different from the quest for the candy bar. Same old story, only you’ve refined the candy bar and made it abstract and holy and blessed and so on.


So it is with the higher self. The higher self’s your old ego, and you sure hope it is eternal, indestructible, and all wise. But then the great problem is: how to get that higher self working? How does it make any difference to what you do and what you think? I know all kinds of people who’ve got this higher self going, practicing their yoga, but they’re just like ordinary people. Sometimes a little worse. And they can fool themselves. They can say, for example, “Well, my point of view in religion is very liberal. I believe that all religions have divine revelation in them.” But I don’t understand the way you people fight about it. You fight and say that, “We Jehova’s Witnesses have the real religion.” Others say: “Well, we Roman Catholics have it.” And the Muslims say: “No, it is in the Quran, and this is the right way.” And somebody else gets up, and he may be a rather highbrow Catholic and say: “Well, God has given the spirit through all the traditions, but ours is the most refined and mature.” And then somebody comes along and says: “Well, as I said, they’re all equally revelations of the divine. And in seeing this, of course, I’m much more tolerant than you are!” You see how that game is going to work? I could take this position. Supposing you regard me as some sort of a guru—and you know how gurus hate each other. They’re always putting each other down. And I could say, “Well, I don’t put other groups down.” See? That outwits all of them. See, we’re always doing that. We’re always finding a way to be one up, and by the most incredibly subtle means.


So you see that, you see? And you say, “I realize I’m always doing that. Tell me: how do I not do that?” I say, “Why do you want to know?” “Well, I’ll be better that way.” “Yeah, but why do you want to be better?” You see, the reason you want to be better is the reason why you aren’t—shall I put it like that? We aren’t better because we want to be, because the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Because all the do-gooders in the world—whether they’re doing good for others or doing it for themselves—are troublemakers, on the basis of: “Kindly let me help you or you’ll drown,” said the monkey, putting the fish safely up a tree. We white Anglo-Saxon protestants—British, German, American—have been on a rampage for the past hundred or more years to improve the world. We have given the benefits of our culture, our religion, our technology to everybody (except perhaps the Australian aborigines), and we have insisted that they receive the benefits of our culture—even our political styles, our democracy: “You better be democratic or we’ll shoot you!” And, having conferred these blessings all over the place, we wonder why everybody hates us. See? Because sometimes, doing good to others, and even doing good to one’s self, is amazingly destructive. Because it’s full of conceit: how do you know what’s good for other people? How do you know what’s good for you? If you say you want to improve, then you ought to know what’s good for you. But obviously you don’t, because if you did you would be improved. So we don’t know.


It’s like the problem of geneticists, which they face today. I went to a meeting of geneticists not so long ago, where they gathered in a group of philosophers and theologians and said, “Now look here. We need help. We now are on the verge of figuring out how to breed any kind of human character we would want to have. We can give you saints, philosophers, scientists, great politicians. Anything you want! Just tell us: what kind of human beings ought we to breed?” So I said, “How will those of us who are genetically unregenerate make up our minds what genetically generate people might be?” Because I’m afraid very much that our selection of virtues may not work. It may be like, for example, this new kind of high-yield grain which is made and which is becoming ecologically destructive. When we interfere with the processes of nature and breed efficient plants and efficient animals, there’s always some way in which we have to pay for it. And I can well see that eugenically-produced human beings might be dreadful. We could have a plague of virtuous people. You realize that? Any animal, considered in itself, is virtuous. It does its thing. But in crowds they’re awful—like a crowd of ants or locusts on the rampage. They’re all perfectly good animals, but it’s just too much. I could imagine a perfectly pestiferous mass of a million saints. So I said to these people, “Look, the only thing you can do: just be sure that a vast variety of human beings is maintained. Don’t, please, breed us down to a few excellent types.” Excellent for what? We never know how circumstances are going to change, and how our need for different kinds of people changes. At one time we may need very individualistic and aggressive people. At another time we may need very cooperative, team-working people. At another time we may need people who are full of interest in dexterous manipulation of the external world. At another time we may need people who explore into their own psychology and are introspective. There is no knowing. But the more varieties and the more skills we have, obviously, the better.


So, you see, here again the problem comes out in genetics. We do not really know how to interfere with the way the world is. The way the world actually is, is an enormously complex interrelated organism. The same problem arises in medicine, because the body is a very complexly interrelated organism. And if you look at the body in a superficial way, you may see there’s something wrong with it—he has chicken pox, and there’s spots that itch that come out all over the place. Well, you might say, “Well, spots are there. Cut ’em off!” So you kill the bug. Well, then you find you’ve got real problems. Because you have to introduce some bugs to kill the bug. It’s like bringing rabbits into Australia. And that starts going all over the place and getting out of hand. And then you think, “Well, now wait a minute. It wasn’t the bugs in the blood. There are bugs all over the place. What was wrong with this person: that his blood system suddenly became vulnerable to those particular bugs. His resistance wasn’t up. Therefore, what you should have given was not an antibiotic, but vitamins.” Okay, so we’re going to build up his resistance. But resistance to what? You may build up resistance to this and this and this class of bugs, but then there’s another one that loves that situation and comes right in.


See, we always look at the human being medically, in bits and pieces—because we have heart specialists, lung specialists, bone specialists, nerve specialists, and so on—and they each see the human being from their point of view. There are a few generalists, but they realize that human body is so complicated that no one mind can understand it. And furthermore, supposing we do succeed in healing all these people of their diseases. What do we then do about the population problem? I mean, we’ve stopped cholera, the black bubonic plague, we’re getting the better of tuberculosis, we may fix cancer and heart disease. Then what will people die of? Well, they’ll just go on living. There’ll be enormous quantities of us. Then we have to fix this birth thing. Pills for everybody. Then we find: what are the side effects of those pills. What are the psychological effects upon men and women of not breeding children in the usual way? We don’t know. And what seems a good thing today—or yesterday, like DDT—turns out tomorrow to have been a disaster. What seemed in the moral and spiritual sphere, too—like great virtues in times past—are easily seen today as hideous evils.


Let’s take, for example, the Inquisition. In its own day, among Catholics, the Holy Inquisition was regarded as we today regard the practice of psychiatry. You, you see, you feel that, in curing the person of cancer, almost anything is justified. The most complex operations, the most weird surgery. People suspended for days and days on end on the end of tubes with, x-ray penetration burning. Or people undergoing shock treatment. People locked in the colorless monotonous corridors of mental institutions. In all good faith, they knew that witchcraft and heresy were terrible things. Awful plagues imperiling people’s souls for ever and ever. So any means were justified to cure people of heresy. We don’t change. We’re doing the same thing today, but under different names. We can look back at those people and see how evil that was, but we can’t see it in ourselves. So therefore, beware of virtue.


Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, said, “The highest virtue is not virtue, and therefore really is virtue. But inferior virtue cannot let go of being virtuous, and therefore is not virtue.” Translated in more of a paraphrastic way: “The highest virtue is not conscious of itself as virtue, and therefore really is virtue. Lower virtue is so self-conscious that it’s not virtue.” In other words: when you breathe, you don’t congratulate yourself on being virtuous. But breathing is a great virtue. It’s living. When you come out with beautiful eyes—blue or brown or green as the case may be—you don’t congratulate yourself for having grown one of the most fabulous jewels on Earth. It’s just eyes. And you don’t count it a virtue to see, to entertain the miracles of color and form. You say, “Oh, that’s just….” But that’s real virtue! Virtue in the old sense of the word as strength, as when we talk about the healing virtue of a plant. That’s real virtue. But the other virtue is a stuck on. They’re ersatz, they’re imitation virtues, and they usually create trouble. Because more diabolical things are done in the name of righteousness. And be assured that everybody—of whatever nationality, or political frame of mind, or religion—always goes to war with a sense of complete rightness. The other side is the devil. Our opponents, whether in China or Russia or Vietnam, have the same feeling of righteousness about what they’re doing as we have on our side. And a plague on both houses. Because, as Confucius said, “The goodie-goodies are the thieves of virtue,” which is the form of our own proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”


So, in a way, the moral (or the immoral) of these considerations is that, if you are really aware of your own inner workings, you will realize there’s nothing you can do to improve yourself, because you don’t know what better is, in any case. And you, who will do the improving, are the one who needs to be improved. And this also goes for society. We can change society. We can get enormous enthusiasm going out of the idea that there is a revolution afoot, and that this revolution is going to set everything to right. Do you know a revolution that ever set anything to right? Whether the revolution came from the left wing or from the right wing? The best forms of government that have ever existed in the world are those which muddled through. Where they didn’t have any very clear setup of control, but they muddle along. A kind of (what are called) controlled anarchy seems to work out better than anything else. When we have a great system and great power to put it into effect, there is always more violence, more bloodshed, more trouble. Makes no difference whether it be Chairman Mao or Adolf Hitler.


So, what instead, therefore—if we see that you can’t outwit yourself, you can’t be (shall I say) unselfconscious on purpose, you can’t be designedly spontaneous, and you cannot be genuinely loving by intending to love. Either you love someone or you don’t. If you pretend to love a person, you deceive them and build up reasons for resentment. So you say, “Well, I ought to be honest.” That’s the beginning of—oh!—so many lies, you can’t imagine. It’s like when I hear a lot said about love; the big love thing on the way. Everybody’s gotta love everybody! Everybody sings songs about love. Do you know what I do? I buy a gun and bar my door! Because I know there’s a storm of hypocrisy brewing.


So let’s look at this thing from another point of view, which you will at first think highly depressing. Let’s suppose we can’t do anything to change ourselves. Suppose we’re stuck with it. Now that is the the worst thing an American audience can hear: “there’s no way of improving yourself.” Because every kind of culture in this country is dedicated to self-improvement. Let’s take jogging, that deplorable practice: it’s a very nice thing to run, and to go dancing across the hills at a fast speed. But these joggers are jog jog jog jog jog jog jog jog, shaking their bones, and rattling their brains, running on their heels. Because there’s a grimness about it. It’s determinately good for you! See? Why do you go to school? No, now look, look—now, wait a minute, you may not clap when I’m through! There’s only one reason for going to school, and that is that somebody’s got something here—whether it’s a professor or a library—that you want to find out; that you are incredibly interested in how to write Chinese characters, or how to understand botany, and you would like to know. You are just interested in flowers and you would like to find out everything there is to be known about them. That’s the point of coming here. Or you might like to know how to practice yoga. There are courses now being offered at UCLA on Kundalini Yoga—for credit! Pretty funny, when I think back ten years. But the whole point of coming to school is that you’re interested in something. You don’t come to improve yourself.


But the trouble is that the schools got the wrong idea. They gave people honors for learning. And the reward for studying French should be the ability to speak French and enjoy reading French and having fun with French people. But when you get a degree for it, then the degree becomes the point in a game of one-upmanship. And, of course, one-upmanship is the main business of the educational community today. You learn all the rules of how to be a good professor. It’s instructive to go to a professional professors’ meeting. In my field, which is philosophy, you go to a congress of philosophers, and you’ll find when they all get together in the bar, or in the restaurant, or somebody’s room, the one thing they don’t talk about is philosophy. It is very bad form indeed to show interest in philosophy among your colleagues. The same is exactly true in clergy gatherings. They don’t talk about religion. What they both talk about is politics—church politics and academic politics. Because it’s bad form to be brilliant on a faculty, because it out classes your colleagues. Therefore, faculty people tend to cultivate a studied mediocrity. And you’ve got to watch out for that. I mean, if you get mobs of students coming to your lectures, you get pretty black looks from your colleagues. And then, of course, there’s a whole world of one-upmanship in research and publication of learned papers, and what’s the relative quantity of footnotes to basic text, and footnotes on footnotes, and the various ways of making your bibliography painfully accurate. It’s endless.


But, you see, what it is: it’s scholarship about scholarship, and not scholarship. Just as “learning because learning is good for you” is irrelevant to learning. The whole idea of improving yourself by learning is irrelevant to the learning process. And, in the same way, doing business is doing business. Doing business such as manufacturing clothes is a very good thing to do. I could conceive that it would be extremely enjoyable, something one could be very proud of: to make good clothes. Of course you need to sell them, because you need to eat. But to make clothes to make money raises another question, because then your interest is not in making clothes, it’s in making money—and then you are going to cheat on the clothes. And then you get an awful lot of money and you don’t know what to do with it. You can’t eat ten roasts of beef in one day. Can’t live in six houses at once. Can’t drive three Rolls-Royces at the same time. What’re you to do? Well, you just go make more money. You put your money back. Invest it in something else and it’ll make more. And you don’t give a damn how it’s made so long as they make it. You don’t care if they foul the rivers, put oil fumes throughout the air everywhere, kill off all the fish. So what? So long as you see these figures happening. You’re not aware of anything else.


So, you see, you went out to do a self-improvement thing. Making money, you see, is a measure of improvement; a measure of your economic worthwhileness—or at least that’s what it’s supposed to be. It isn’t anything of the kind. But you went out, in other words, for the status instead of for the actuality. So if, in other words, you do an art—you’re a musician—why do you play music? The only reason for playing music is to enjoy it. If you play music to impress an audience, to read about yourself in the newspaper, you’re not interested in music. So, in the same way: why do I come and talk to you? Because I enjoy it. I like the sound of my own voice. I’m interested in what I’m talking about. And I get paid for it. And that’s smart in this life: is to get paid for what you enjoy.


So here’s the situation, you see: the whole idea of self-improvement is a will-o’-the-wisp and a hoax. That’s not what it’s about. Let’s begin where we are. What happens if you know? If you know beyond any shadow of doubt that there is nothing you can do to be better? Well, it’s kind of a relief, isn’t it? Now, you say, “Well, now what will I do?” See, there’s a little fidget comes up. Because we’re so used to making things better—leave the world a better place than when you found that sort of thing; I want to be of service to other people, and all these dreadfully hazy ideas—and so there’s that little itch still. But supposing, instead of that, seeing that there isn’t really anything we can do to improve ourselves or to improve the world, if we realize that that is so, it gives us a breather—in the course of which we may simply watch what is going on. Watch what happens. Nobody ever does this, you know? And therefore it sounds terribly simple. It sounds so simple that it almost looks as if it isn’t worth doing. But ever just watched? Watch what’s happening, and watch what you are doing by way of reaction to it. Just watch it happen. And don’t be in a hurry to think you know what it is. In other words: people look at it and say, “Well, that’s the external world.” Oh? How do you know? The whole thing, from a neurological point of view, is a happening in your head. That you think there is something outside the skull is a notion in your nervous system. There may or may not be. But it’s a notion in your nervous system. Hm. You think this is the material world. Well, that’s somebody is philosophical idea. Or maybe you think it’s spiritual. That, too, is somebody is philosophical idea. This is real world is not spiritual. It is not material. The real world is simply [clap]. So could we look at things in that way without, as it were, fixing labels and names and gradations and judgments on everything, but watch what happens? Watch what we do.


Now, you see, if you do that, you do at least give yourself a chance. And it may be that, when you are in this way freed from busybodiness and being out to improve everything, that your own nature will begin to take care of itself. Because you’re not getting in the way of yourself all the time. You will begin to find out that the great things that you do are really happenings. For example, no great genius can explain how he does it. “Yes,” he says, “I have learned a technique to express myself, because I had something in me that had to come out. I had to know how to give it out. So if I were a musician, I had to learn how music is produced. That means learning to use an instrument or learning a technique of musical notation or whatever it may be. If I want to describe something, I have to learn a language so that others can understand me. I need a technique. But then, beyond that, I’m afraid I can’t tell you how it was that I used that technique to express this mysterious thing I wanted to show you.” If we could tell people that, we would have schools where we would infallibly train musical geniuses, scientific miracle minds. And there would be so many of them, we wouldn’t know what to do with them. Geniuses would be a dime a dozen, and then we would say well these people are after all not very ingenious. You know? PhDs—how many of them are there? Because what is fascinating, always, about genius is: the fellow does something we can’t understand. He surprises us. But, you see, just in the same way we cannot understand our own brains. Neurology knows relatively little about the brain, which is only to say that the brain is a lot smarter than neurology. Yes, there is this which can perform all these extraordinary intellectual and cultural miracles. But we don’t know how we did. But we did. We didn’t have some campaign to have an improved brain over the monkeys or whatever may be our ancestors. It happened. And all growth, you see, is fundamentally something that happens.


But for it to happen, two things are important. And the first is, as I said: you must have the technical ability to express what happens. And secondly: you must get out of your own way. But right at the bottom of the whole problem of control is: how am I to get out of my own way? And if I showed you a system—“Let’s all practice getting out of our own way”—it would turn into another form of self-improvement. See? Here’s the dynamics of this thing. And we find this problem, you see, repeatedly throughout the entire history of human spirituality. In the phraseology of Zen Buddhism: you cannot get this by thinking. You cannot attain to it by not thinking. It is only, you see, as getting out of your own way ceases to be a matter of choice when you see that there’s nothing else for you to do. When you see, in other words, that doing something about your situation is not going to help you. When you see, equally, that trying not to do anything about it is not going to help you, where are you? Where do you stand? You’re nonplussed and you are simply reduced to watching.


Now, you may say, “I need some help in this process, and therefore I am going to find someone else to help me.” It may be a therapist, it may be a clergyman, it may be a guru, it may be any kind of person who teaches a technique of self-improvement. Now, how will you know whether this person is able to teach you? How can you judge, for example, whether a psychotherapist is effective or just a charlatan? How can you judge whether a guru is himself spiritually wise or merely a good chatterbox? Well, of course, you ask your friends, you ask his other students or patients—and they’re all, of course, enthusiastic. You have to be enthusiastic when you’ve bought something expensive. If you bought an automobile which turned out to be a lemon, it’s very difficult to admit that it was a lemon and that you were fooled. And it’s the same when you buy a religion or an expensive operation. But what people do not sufficiently realize is that, when you pick an authority—whether it’s a psychotherapeutic one or a religious one—you chose it. In other words, that this fellow or this book or this system is the right one is your opinion, and how are you competent to judge? After all, if you’re saying to this other person or other source, “I think you are the authority,” that’s your opinion! So you cannot really judge whether an authority is a sound authority unless you yourself are a sound authority. Otherwise you may just be being fooled. You may say, for example, “I believe that the Bible is the Word of God.” Alright, that’s your opinion. I know the Bible says it’s the Word of God, but it’s your opinion that the Bible is not lying. The church says the Bible is the word of God, but it’s your opinion that the church is right. You cannot escape from that situation. It’s your opinion! So, you see, when you select an authority who will help you to improve yourself, it’s like hiring the police (out of your tax money) and putting them in charge of seeing that you obey the law. I mean, can’t you take care of yourselves? I mean, is this the land of the free and the home of the brave or isn’t it? But, you see, nobody seems to want to be in charge of themselves, because they feel they can’t do it. As Saint Paul said: “To will is present with me. But how to do good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.” So there, at once, we are in difficulty. Because trying to improve yourself is like trying to lift yourself up into the air by tugging at your own bootstraps—and it can’t be done!


Now, there are all sorts of ways in which religious people try to explain that it can be done. I referred already to the grace of God. And you say, “No, you can’t do the job yourself.” Because the improving you is the one that needs to be improved. Therefore you have to say: “God, help me.” Now, of course, that God exists is your opinion. That God will answer your prayer is your opinion. And your idea of God is your idea of God. If you bought somebody else’s script, you bought it. Maybe your mother and father talked to you about God in a very impressive way. But basically, you bought their idea. And if you’re a father yourself—I’m a grandfather now, I’ve got five grandchildren, and I know I’m as stupid as my own grandfather must’ve been. You know, I am one. I sit there in the position which they look at, and think, “Woah, wowee! There’s an important man!” But I know that I’m just like anyone else. So I hope my children are not believing things on my authority, because it’s always their authority. If I look impressive and make big noises at them, they’ve just been taken in.

Alan Watts


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