The Myopic View of the World (We as Organism)

Alan Watts argues that we spend most of our life in a sort of myopia; that is, only perceiving a microscopic subsection of the reality which we occupy. By mentally “zooming out,” humans can begin to see (and enjoy) the marvelous universal dance that has been unfolding since the Big Bang—and which now expresses itself in and through us at this very moment.


I wonder if it’s ever struck you how curious a thing it is that most of the things that we experience we regard as things that happen to us, which we ourselves do not originate, which are events expressing some sort of power or activity that is external to ourselves. And if you consider that, you realize that what you mean by ‘yourself’ is rather narrowly circumscribed. Even events that go on in our own bodies are put in the category of things that happen to us in the same way as things that go on in the world outside our skins. If there’s a thunderstorm or an earthquake—well, it happens to you; you’re not responsible for it. But so, in the same way, when you have hiccups you didn’t plan on it. If you have belly rumbles, you had no intention of doing it. And as for the catastrophic act of getting born… well, you had nothing to do with that. And you can spend all your life blaming your parents for putting you in the situation in which you find yourself.


And this way of looking at the world in this sort of passive mood—as something that happens to you—goes right down to our general feeling about life. It goes down to the way in which, as Westerners, we have been accustomed to look at human existence as a precarious event in a cosmos that, on the whole, is depicted as being completely unsympathetic and alien to our existence. In other words, if you’re reared with a 20th century—or, shall we say, an early 20th century—common sense (which is based on the philosophy of science of the 19th century with its rejection of Christianity and Judaism), you regard yourself as an accident—a biological accident—in a stupid universe which is mechanical but has no feelings—no finer feelings. A vast, pointless gyration of radioactive rocks and gas in which you happen to occur.


Of course, if you don’t have that point of view and you are more traditional, you look upon yourself as a child of God and therefore under authority. In other words, there’s a big boss on top of all this who allowed you, at his pleasure, to deign to have the disgusting effrontery to exist, and you better watch your Ps and Qs because that Almighty is looking after you with the attitude of “this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.”


And when you look at the world in that image—or in the other image that it’s a stupid mechanism—either point of view you take, you don’t really belong. You’re not really part of all this. And I could use a stronger word than ‘part,’ only we don’t have it in English. We have to say something like ‘connected with it,’ ‘essential to it.’ Or, to put it in the strongest possible way, it is quite alien to Western thought to conceive that the external world—which is defined as something that happens to you, and your body itself is something that you got caught up with—it is quite alien to our thought to consider all that as you, yourself. Because you see, we have such a myopic view of what one’s self is. It’s as if, in other words, we selected how much experience is really to be regarded as “me,” as if you focused your attention on certain restricted areas of the whole panorama of things that you experience and say “I will take sides with that much of it.”


Now, we come here—right at the start—to an extremely important principle, which is the different points of view you get when you change your level of magnification. That is to say, you can look at something with a microscope and see it a certain way, you can look at it with a naked eye and see it in a certain way, you look at it with a telescope and you see it in another way. Now, which level of magnification is the correct one? Well, obviously, they’re all correct, but they’re just different points of view. You can, for example, look at a newspaper photograph under a magnifying glass and where, with the naked eye, you will see a human face, with a magnifying glass you will just see a profusion of dots rather meaninglessly scattered. But as you stand away from that collection of dots, which all seem to be separate and apart from each other, they suddenly arrange themselves into a pattern. And you see that these individual dots add up to some kind of sense.


Now you’ll see at once, from this illustration, that maybe you—when you take a myopic view of yourself, as most of us do—but you may add up to some kind of sense that is not apparent to you in your ordinary consciousness. When we examine our bloodstreams under a microscope we see there’s one hell of a fight going on. All sorts of microorganisms are chewing each other up. And if we got overly fascinated with our view of our own bloodstreams in the microscope we should start taking sides, which would be fatal. Because the health of our organism depends on the continuance of this battle. What is, in other words, conflict at one level of magnification is harmony at a higher level. Now could it possibly be, therefore, that we—with all our problems, conflicts, neuroses, sicknesses, political outrages, wars, tortures and everything that goes on in human life—are a state of conflict which can be seen in a larger perspective as a situation of harmony?


Well, it is claimed, you see, that some human beings have broken through to that vision. That they slipped, somehow or other, into states of consciousness where they see the apparent disintegration and disorganization of everyday life as the functioning of a totality which, at its level, is completely harmonious. And you could say, “A-ha, at last, I see. I got the point. I’ve seen how all this makes sense.” But what this insight depended upon was your overcoming the illusion that space separates things. That is to say the space—the interval between your body and mine, the interval created by birth at one end and death at the other, and then after somebody’s death, then somebody else’s birth—these are events with intervals between them. And normally we regard these intervals in time and these intervals in space as having no importance, no function.


We tend to see the universe itself as really consisting in all the stars and galaxies. That’s what it is, that’s what we notice. But the space in which all this happens is sort of written off as something that isn’t really there. But what one has to realize is that the space is an essential function of the things in the space. After all, you can’t have separate stars unless there is a space around them. Eliminate the space and you would see you couldn’t have this phenomenon at all. And vice versa: you couldn’t have the space—it wouldn’t be there in any sense whatsoever—if there weren’t the bodies in it. So the bodies in the space and the space are two aspects of a single continuum. They’re related together in exactly the same way as a back and a front, and you just don’t get one without the other.


So the moment you see that intervals—that space—is connective, you can understand at once how you are not just to be exclusively defined as a flash of consciousness that occurs between two eternal darknesses, which is the popular common-sense view which Western man has of his own life: that you consider that in the darkness that comes before your birth there was no you, and in the eternal darkness that follows your death there is, likewise, no you. And I’m going to discuss these matters not by appealing to any special, spooky knowledge—as if I had been traveling on the higher planes and knew all my previous incarnations, and therefore could tell you authoritatively that you are much more than this individuality. I’m going to do it on a basis of complete common sense that everybody has access to the facts, and that just what you have to realize is that life is a pattern of immense complexity, and what you call ‘yourself,’ as a living organism—say, I am my whole body, at the very least—now what is that body? That body is recognizable, and I recognize my friends when I meet them again (with luck), and you recognize me. Although, the last time any of you saw me, I was absolutely something entirely different from what I am now; just as the flame of a candle is never a constant. A flame of a candle is a stream of hot gas. Only, you say “the flame of the candle” as if it were a constant. Well, it is a recognizably constant pattern: the spear-shaped outline of the flame and its coloration is a constant pattern. But in exactly the same way, we are all constant patterns, and that’s all we are; the only thing constant about us at all is the doing rather than the being. It’s the way we behave, the way we dance; only there’s no ‘we’ that dances, there’s just the dancing. Just as the flame is the streaming of hot gas, just as a whirlpool in a river is a whirling of streaming water. There is no thing that whirlpools, there is the whirlpool.


And in the same way, each one of us is a very, very delightfully complex undulation of the energy of the whole universe. Only, by process of mis-education we’ve been deprived of the knowledge of that fact—not as if there was someone to blame for this because it’s always with our own tacit consent. Because life is, basically, a game of hide-and-seek. Because life is pulsation: on and off, here it is and now it isn’t. And by being this pulsation, we know it’s there. See, you don’t know what you mean by ‘on’ unless you know what you mean by ‘off.’ That’s why, when we want to awaken someone, we knock at the door. It’s not enough to slam the door once with your fist and make this big noise, but you keep up a pulsation. Because that, by its on-and-off-ness, attracts attention.


All life, you see, is this flickering in and out. Only, there are enormous rhythms in it. There are very fast flickering ins and outs like the reaction of light upon our eyes, such that when I take a lighted cigarette in the dark and I spin it, you will see a circle of fire. Because the reflection of that cigarette tip on your retina lasts; it endures, just in the same way as on a radar screen an image stays a little while until it’s revivified by another round. So in that way, you see, you notice continuity. And in the same way, then, you notice the continuity of a light. Because although, like, say, with an arc lamp—an arc lamp is actually a flickering light, and that’s why they don’t allow arc lights to be used in any shop where there’s a circular saw moving: because sometimes the flickering speed of the arc light so synchronizes with the turning speed of the teeth on the blade, that the teeth look as if they’re not moving, and so anybody who might put his hand on the blade will have it chopped off thinking it was a still one.


So, in this way, very fast impulses are looked upon as constant. And we see—where there are fast impulses—a solid thing. When you look at the blade of a propeller or an electric fan, the separated four or three blades become a solid disk and you cannot throw an egg through it. Well, so in exactly the same way, you can’t put your finger through a rock because the rock is moving too fast for your finger to go through. That’s the meaning of the whole phenomenon of hardness. Hardness in nature is immense energy, but acting in a very concentrated space; restricted space, but going to beat hell. That’s why you can’t get through it.


Now, from those very tiny fast rhythms, which give us the impression of continuity, there are also—in this universe—immensely slow rhythms, and these are very difficult for us to keep track of. And they impress us and depress us as our own life and death, as our coming and going which goes for what is—to us—such a slow pace that we can’t possibly believe that it is really a rhythm. We think of it as our birth, as something quite unique that could never occur again, because we’re so close to it, you see? And it’s moving so slowly. And so, with that point of view, we are like Marshall McLuhan has said—he borrowed a metaphor from me—which is that we are driving a car looking at the rear-vision mirror. That means that the environment in which you believe yourself to exist is always a past one, it isn’t the one you’re actually in. The process of growth, the basic process of biology, is one in which lower orders are always being superseded by higher orders. But the lower order can never figure out—or only very rarely figure out—what the higher order is that’s taking over, and may see it as a terrible threat; as total disaster, as the very end. But [it] can never be aware that the principle of growth always has, and always will, continue. Because that’s what’s going on. But you never know what the next step is going to be, because if you did know you wouldn’t take it—because it would already be past. Do you understand this? That any certainly known future is an event of which we can say you’ve had it, and in that sense it’s past.


When we play at games, and we—say, in chess, or in bridge, or whatever game you’re playing—the outcome of the game becomes certain, we at that point cancel the game and begin a new one. Because the whole zest of the thing—and which takes me back to the idea that this whole thing is a hide-and-seek game—is that you don’t know what the next order coming up is. But one thing you can be sure of: it will be an order, and it will comprehend you.


At the moment we stand at a time in history where we’re beginning to think of the great countdown on the end of the human race. Terrifying possibility that, through atomic energy, we may obliterate this planet and turn the whole globe into a star. Maybe that’s the way all the stars started. Imagine, you know, this great thing coming up; the countdown on the end: seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, PEEEEERRRRRRRRRUUMMMMM! Ssshhhhhhhhhwshwshwshwshwwww… POOOSSSSHHHHH! Ssshhhhwwwwwrrrhhh… POOSSSHHHH! Where have you heard that before? You sit on the seashore and you hear the waves going in and out. And you don’t stop to think. That’s what you’re doing. That’s what the whole business is doing. And there are places where the wave mounts and mounts, and it gets too big for its boots or whatever, and it spills and breaks. We could do just that. But… very important to realize that that’s what you’re doing because then you don’t get panicky about it. And the person who’s going to press that button is the person who’s going to be in panic.


So if you realize that that’s what it is and that it doesn’t really matter if the whole human race blows itself up, then there’s a chance that it won’t do it. That’s the only chance we have. Not to do this thing, which attracts us like a kind of vertigo, like a person who looks over a precipice and is all set to throw himself over, or a person who jumps out of a plane when they’re skydiving and forgets to pull the parachute ring because he gets fascinated with a target. It’s called target fascination; you just go straight at it, you see? So we can get absolutely fascinated with disaster, with doom. All—you know—all the news in the newspapers is invariably bad news. There is no good news in the newspaper. People wouldn’t buy a newspaper consisting of good news. Even the free press is full of terrible news. Except the San Francisco Oracle. And the fascination, you see, for this doom might be neutralized if we would say, “Well, why bother about that?” It’s just another fluctuation in this huge, marvelous, endless chain of our own selves and our own energy going on.


See, here’s the problem: because of our myopia, because of the way we’ve restricted consciousness to focus upon just that certain little area of experience that we call ‘voluntary action’—that’s us—and everything else happens to us. Now, that’s obviously absurd. Let’s suppose you take in your hand one of those toys—a gyroscopic top—and you suddenly notice, the minute you get this in your hand, that it has a kind of vitality to it. It seems to resist you, it starts pushing you in a certain way, see? And sometimes you’re with it and following it, and then sometimes—you see, it’s just as if you held a living animal in your hand. You know, you pick up a hamster, you know, or a guinea pig, and you hold this little thing in your hand and it’s always trying to escape. So the gyroscope always seems to be trying to escape your hold. Now, in exactly the same way, what you’re experiencing all the time: all sorts of things are getting out of control and doing things you don’t expect. It’s trying to escape your hold. Alright, then don’t grab it so hard! And you discover that this living thing that you’re feeling—like the gyroscope top—it’s your own life. Because you can see very simply that you would not understand the experience that you call ‘voluntary action’ and ‘decision,’ ‘being in control’ and ‘being yourself,’ unless in opposition to that there were something else. You couldn’t realize self and control and will unless there were something other, out of control, and instead of will, won’t! It’s the two, together only, that produces the sensation that you call ‘having a personal identity.’


Only, there is a funny thing about human consciousness which has been worked out very carefully in Gestalt psychology, which is that our attention is captured by the figure rather than the background, by the relatively enclosed area rather than the diffuse area, and by something moving rather than what is relatively still. And to all those phenomena that—in this way—attract our attention, we attribute a higher degree of reality than the ones we don’t notice. That’s only because, for the moment, those are more important to us. Consciousness, you see, is a radar that is scanning the environment to look out for trouble just in the same way as a ship’s radar is looking for rocks or other ships. And the radar, therefore, does not notice the vast areas of space where there are no rocks, no other ships. So, in the same way, our eyes—or rather, the selective consciousness behind the eyes—only pays attention to what we think is important.


I am at this moment aware of all of you in this room, of every single detail of your clothing, of your faces and so on, but I’m not noticing it all. And therefore I will not be able to remember tomorrow exactly how each one of you looked and what you were wearing. Because what I notice is restricted to things that I think are particularly important. If I notice some particularly beautiful girl in the audience, then I might notice also what she’s wearing, and that would be memorable. But by and large—you see—we scan things over, but we pay attention only to what our set of values tells us we ought to pay attention to. And so, in this way, we have this rather myopic way of looking at things and we screen out—from attention—anything that is not immediately important to a scanning system based on sensing danger. But, quite obviously, you—as a complete individual—are much more than this scanning system. You are in relationships with the external world that, on the whole, are incredibly harmonious.


Going back to this illustration of every living body as something like the flame of a candle: the energies of life—in the form of temperature, light, air and food, and so on—are streaming through you all at this moment in the most magnificently harmonious way. And you’re—all of you—far more beautiful than any candle flame. Just sitting in these chairs; just zzzhwwwwt: going, you know? Only, we’re so used to it we say about that, “So what? Show me something interesting. Show me something new.” Because it’s a characteristic of consciousness that it ignores stimuli that are constant. When anything is constant it says, “Okay, that’s safe. It’s in the bag. Needn’t pay attention to that anymore.” And therefore we eliminate—systematically, from our awareness—all the gorgeous things that are going on all the time, and instead only become focused on the troublesome things that might happen to upset it. Which is alright, but we make too much of it and become… we make so much of it that we identify our very selves—I, ego—with the radar; with the troubleshooter. And that’s only [a] tiny fragment of one’s total being.


So that if you do become aware that you are not simply that scanning mechanism, but you are your complete organism, then—very swiftly in turn; as a consequence of that—you become aware that your organism is not the way you think about it when you look at it from the standpoint of conscious attention, from the standpoint of the ego. From the standpoint of the ego, your organism is your—kind of—vehicle, your automobile, in which you go around. But from a physical point of view, your organism is, again, like the candle flame or the whirlpool: it is something which is a continuous patterning—or activity—of the whole cosmos.


The key idea here is pattern. Let’s suppose—I’m going to borrow a metaphor from Buckminster Fuller—suppose we have a rope, and one section of this rope is made of manila hemp, the next section is cotton, the next section is silk, the next section is nylon, and so on. Now we tie a knot in this rope—just an ordinary one-over knot—and you find, by putting your finger in the knot, you can move it all the way down the rope. Now as this knot travels, it’s first of all made of manila hemp, it’s then made of cotton, it’s then made of silk, it’s then made of nylon, and so on. But the knot keeps going on. That’s the integrity of pattern; the continuing pattern, which is what you are. Because you might, you know, be—for several years—you might be a vegetarian, and you might be a meat-eater, and so on. And, you know, your constitution changes all the time, but your friends still recognize you because you’re still putting on the same show. It’s the same pattern that is the recognizable individual.


But we are trained in our language. The very structure of the language we talk deceives us into misunderstanding this, because when we see a pattern we ask, “What’s it made of?” Like, you see a table: is it made of wood or is it made of aluminum? But then, when you inquire into what is wood and how does wood differ from aluminum, the only thing a scientist can tell you is the different patterns—that is to say, the different molecular structure of the two things. And the molecular structure is not a description of what something is made of, it is a description of what dance it is performing, what motions, what kind of a symphony this is. Because, basically, all phenomena of life are musical, and gold differs from lead in exactly the same way that a waltz differs from a mazurka: it’s a different dance. And there isn’t any thing that’s dancing.


That is a deception we get into because we have two parts of speech in our grammar: we have nouns and verbs. And verbs are supposed to describe the activities of nouns. And this is simply a convention of speech. You could have a language with only verbs in it; you don’t need any nouns. Or you could also have a language with nouns only and no verbs, and it would perfectly adequately describe what’s going on in the world. So if you were used to speaking with a language that had one part of speech, you could say just as much as we can with two and be a lot clearer—only: at first it would sound awkward, but you’d soon get used to it. And then, when you got used to it, it would be a matter of common sense that the patterning of the world is not some kind of stuff that’s patterning; you don’t have to seek for a substance underlying the whole thing, it’s just patterning! And we’re all that.


And so, in this way, there is—to a person who really wakes up—you very soon realize that your existence is not something that is just the hopeless little creature that’s suddenly confronted with a great big external world that goes GAAAH! at it—you know?—and eats him up. Every tiniest little thing that comes into being—every minute little fruit fly or gnat or bacterium—I will go so far as to say is an event upon which this whole cosmos depends. Because this thing goes both ways: it’s not only that every little organism which exists depends on its total environment. The reverse is also true: that the total environment depends on each and every one of those little organisms. So that you could say this universe consists of an arrangement of pattern in which every event is essential to the whole thing.


Now, we screen that idea out of our consciousness in exactly the same way that we screen out the perception of space as an important reality. Just as we pay attention to the figure and ignore the background, so we see one way of looking at things: mainly, that the organism is very frail against the environment. It lasts a long time—the environment—but the organism only lasts a short time. What do you mean, the environment lasts a long time? What does the environment consist of? Just a lot of little things. And yet, there is the environment just as the same way as there is the face in the newspaper photograph behind all those little dots. When you get far enough away from it you see the face. When you get far enough away from all the organisms and the little bits of things you see the environment in another scale of magnification. But actually, the whole thing is arranged in a polar system where the enormous depends on the tiny and the tiny depends on the enormous, and you get a relationship between these extremes which can be called a transaction. That is to say, a transaction—when there’s buying and selling, it’s impossible to have buying without selling and selling without buying.


So you always—wherever you are looking at the general panorama of sensory experience, try switching. Try shifting your attention to all the things you thought were unimportant—to the constants, to the background—and begin looking at the spaces between people. All painters have to learn this, because—especially if you’re working in oils—you actually have to paint in the background. Weavers know this because when they are making patterns in weaving they’ve got to weave the background as well. Or if you do needlepoint with embroidery, think of the hours you spend putting in the background over the canvas in wool. And you become aware of it. Same way that people have made the great oriental carpets. They’re much more aware of the background as constituting an essential part of the total experience.


So as you become aware of this you see the same thing that you notice in music, namely that it is only as a result of hearing the interval between tones that you hear any melody. If you don’t hear the interval you’re tone deaf, and all notes are the same noise; all you hear is rhythm if you don’t hear any melody. You’ve got to hear the interval. So then: watch the intervals between people, the things that aren’t said, the things that are tacit, the things that are implicit rather than explicit in all life. And then you begin to get connected. You know, it’s very important to have a connection in life and to be in the know. And this is the way it fundamentally comes out of seeing the thing you forgot.


You know, you can always bug people in a beautiful way—in a very helpful way—by just saying to them, “What did you forget?” They say, “Well, I don’t know. Was I supposed to remember?” “I’m really not trying to put you on. I mean, it’s not difficult; this is something completely obvious that you forgot. You’ll easily remember it because it’s so obvious.” Well, that’s the hardest thing in the world to think of. What’s the most obvious thing I forgot? Huh, what’s that? Well, who do you think you are? Well, how do you answer that question, “Who are you?” Well, you give a name. You say, “I’m Joe Dokes, I’m Alan Watts.” That’s not true. That’s what people told you you were. They put that name on you and they taught you to identify with it and to behave as it was expected to behave. But that’s not who you are. You know very well. Go back in your memory, go back into your infancy before they started telling you all this stuff. Who are you? And if you get with that you’ll know very well who you are: the jolly old ancient of days.


Only: there’s a conspiracy that you mustn’t let on about that because everybody is. And if one person realizes it, the other is a little bit offended and will say, “Well, how come you’re so great?” We worked it in Christianity by a very clever thing: of allowing just one individual to be recognized as the God incarnate, and nobody else, therefore, could be. And since he had been safely crucified and whisked up to heaven, he wouldn’t bother us anymore. So everybody, therefore, who gets an intimation of who they really are and ever comes out with it—in Christian civilization—people say, “Who the hell do you think you are? You’re Jesus Christ?” Well, you say, “Jesus Christ said he was Jesus Christ and everybody put him down for it, and that’s what you’re doing to me.” “Oh,” they say, “forget that one.” Because that’s like somebody comes out and composes some perfectly terrible music, and the critics say, “This man is a cacophonist, he is completely incompetent.” And he said, “Did you read the reviews of Beethoven’s First Symphony when it was performed at Vienna?”


Now, the thing is: we allowed one person, you see—one human individual—to be the incarnate God, because we have all been living in a theory of the universe in which the individual is simply involved in something that happens to him. And we feel that this thing that happens to us is reality, it is facts that we have to face and accept and cope with. See? It’s always something other than you. You don’t recognize it as an integral part of your own being without which you cannot know what you mean by the word ‘I.’ But in the truth of the matter is, though, that if you will face it out, every single one of us knows that that isn’t true. There is, as it were, a recess of the soul—of the psyche—where everybody knows perfectly well that you are not just this irresponsible little mouse that’s been chucked down into this world, but that you are really doing this work. You’re running it.


Only: you can’t admit it just in the same way as you can’t admit that you’re responsible for the way your own heart beats. You say, “Oh that’s not my doing. I’ve no control over my heart.” Do you have any control over being conscious? Do you know how you will? When you say, “I intend to take my hand down from my face and put it on my leg”—I can do that, but I don’t know how the hell it’s done. So that what we mean by the capacity of voluntary control—in the ordinary sense of the word—we don’t understand it at all! So you might say, in a funny backwards way, that the only kind of control you really understand is that where you’re not using your will because you just do it. So easy, like you open and close your hand. You know how to do it? Sure you know how to do it. But you can’t put it into words and explain to someone how to do it. You say, “Well, come on. Aren’t you human? Don’t you know how to open and close your hand? Just do it, silly!”


But we don’t realize, you see, that just as we know how to do this, we know equally well how to turn the Sun into light, how to blue the sky, how to blow the wind, how to wave the ocean, how to digest food. And, I might add, to be digested—by bacteria—and transformed. As we transform our steaks we will, in turn, be transformed. But the pattern keeps going. And it’s always you. Only, you see, you have this marvelous capacity to transform yourself without knowing that you’re doing it. Therefore, you keep surprising yourself, and therefore you keep on doing it. Because if you didn’t surprise yourself you wouldn’t go on doing it. It’s just the very fact, you see, that you seem to be the victims of a thing you don’t understand, and that you seem to conclude your life every time in a wipeout called ‘death’—where all your control goes—it’s just exactly that opposite condition to what you call ‘being alive’ that allows you to be alive! Only: every time it happens it’s like it’s new. It’s like every time you’re born it seems like it was the only time. But, of course, if it wasn’t like that you wouldn’t do it.

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