The Nature of Consciousness (Part 1)

Out of Your Mind 1


A seminar about “what there is.” Watts weaves together keen insights from science and spirituality to propose that existence is more like a game of hide-and-seek where we pretend not to recognize how self and other are interconnected.



Our Image of the World


I find it a little difficult to say what the subject matter of this seminar is going to be, because it’s too fundamental to give it a title. I’m going to talk about what there is. Now, the first thing, though, that we have to do is to get our perspectives with some background about the basic ideas which, as Westerners, living today in the United States, influence our everyday common sense, our fundamental notions about what life is about. And there are historical origins for this which influence us more strongly than most people realize; ideas of the world which are built into the very nature of the language we use, and of our ideas of logic, and of what makes sense altogether.


And these basic ideas I call myth, not using the word ‘myth’ to mean simply something untrue, but to use the word ‘myth’ in a more powerful sense. A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world. And we, at present, are living under the influence of two very powerful images which are—in the present state of scientific knowledge—inadequate, and one of our major problems today is to find an adequate, satisfying image of the world. Well, that’s what I’m going to talk about—and I’m going to go further than that. Not only what image of the world to have, but how we can get our sensations and our feelings in accordance with the most sensible image of the world that we can manage to conceive.


Alright. Now, the two images which we have been working under for two thousand years—and maybe more—are what I would call two models of the universe, and the first is called the ceramic model, and the second the fully automatic model. The ceramic model of the universe is based on the Book of Genesis, from which Judaism, Islam, and Christianity derive their basic picture of the world. And the image of the world in the Book of Genesis is that the world is an artifact. It is made, as a potter takes clay and forms pots out of it, or as a carpenter takes wood and makes tables and chairs out of it. Don’t forget: Jesus is the son of a carpenter. And also the son of God. So the image of God and of the world is based on the idea of God as a technician, potter, carpenter, architect, who has in mind a plan, and who fashions the universe in accordance with that plan.


So, basic to this image of the world is the notion, you see, that the world consists of stuff, basically. Primordial matter, substance, stuff. As pots are made of clay. And the potter imposes his will on it and makes it become whatever he wants. And so, in the Book of Genesis, the Lord God creates Adam out of the dust of the Earth. In other words, he makes a clay figurine, and then he breathes into it and it becomes alive. Because the clay becomes informed. By itself it is formless; it has no intelligence, and therefore it requires an external intelligence and an external energy to bring it to life, and to put some sense into it. And so, in this way, we inherit a conception of ourselves as being artifacts, as being made, and it is perfectly natural in our culture for a child to ask its mother ‘How was I made?’ or ‘Who made me?’ And this is a very, very powerful idea, but for example, it is not shared by the Chinese, or by the Hindus. A Chinese child would not ask its mother “How was I made?” A Chinese child might ask its mother “How did I grow?”—which is an entirely different procedure from making. You see, when you make something, you put it together; you arrange parts, or you work from the outside to the in, as a sculptor works on stone, or as a potter works on clay. But when you watch something growing, it works in exactly the opposite direction. It works from the inside to the outside. It expands, it burgeons, it blossoms. And it happens all of itself at once. In other words, the original simple form—say of a living cell in the womb—progressively complicates itself, and that’s the growing process, and it’s quite different from the making process.


The Myth of the Ceramic Construct


And so there is for that reason a fundamental difference between the made and the maker. And this image, this ceramic model of the universe, originated in cultures where the form of government was monarchical and where, therefore, the maker of the universe was conceived also at the same time in the image of the king of the universe:

King of kings, lords of lords, the only ruler of princes,

Who dost from thy throne behold all dwellers upon Earth.

I’m quoting the Book of Common Prayer. And so, all those people who are oriented to the universe in that way feel related to basic reality as a subject to a king. And so they are on very, very humble terms in relation to whatever it is that works all this thing. I find it odd—in the United States—that people who are citizens of a republic have a monarchical theory of the universe. Because we are carrying over—from very ancient near-Eastern cultures—the notion that the lord of the universe must be respected in a certain way. People kneel, people bow, people prostrate themselves. And you know what the reason for that is: that nobody is more frightened of everybody else than a tyrant. He sits with his back to the wall, and his guards on either side of him, and he has you face downwards on the ground because you can’t use weapons that way. When you come into his presence, you don’t stand up and face him, because you might attack, and he has reason to fear that you might because he’s ruling you all. And the man who rules you all is the biggest crook in the bunch. Because he’s the one who succeeded in crime. The other people are pushed aside because they—the criminals, the people we lock up in jail—are simply the people who didn’t make it.


So naturally, the real boss sits with his back to the wall and his henchmen on either side of him. And so when you design a church what does it look like? Catholic church, with the altar as it used to be—it’s changing now, because the Catholic religion is changing—but the Catholic church has the altar with its back to the wall at the east end of the church. And the altar is the throne, and the priest is the chief vizier of the court, and he is making obeisance to the throne in front; but there is the throne of God, the altar. And all the people are facing it, and kneeling down. And a great Catholic cathedral is called a basilica, from the Greek basilis, which means ‘king.’ So a basilica is the house of a king, and the ritual of the Catholic church is based on the court rituals of Byzantium.


A Protestant church is a little different, but basically the same. The furniture of a Protestant church is based on a judicial courthouse. The pulpit—the judge in an American court wears a black robe, he wears exactly the same dress as a Protestant minister. And everybody sits in these boxes; like there’s a jury box, there’s a box for the judge, there’s a box for this, a box for that, and those are the pews in an ordinary kind of colonial-type Protestant church. So both these kinds of churches—which have an autocratic view of the nature of the universe—decorate themselves, are architecturally constructed in accordance with political images of the universe. One is the king, and the other is the judge. Your honor. There’s sense in this. When in court, you have to refer to the judge as ‘your honor.’ It stops the people engaged in litigation from losing their tempers and getting rude. There’s a certain sense to that.


But when you want to apply that image to the universe itself, to the very nature of life, it has limitations. For one thing, the idea of a difference between matter and spirit. This idea doesn’t work anymore. Long, long ago, physicists stopped asking the question ‘What is matter?’ They began that way. They wanted to know, what is the fundamental substance of the world? And the more they asked that question, the more they realized the couldn’t answer it, because if you’re going to say what matter is, you’ve got to describe it in terms of behavior—that is to say, in terms of form, in terms of pattern. You tell what it does, you describe the smallest shapes of it that you can see. Atoms, electrons, protons, mesons, all sorts of sub-nuclear particles. But you never, never arrive at the basic stuff. Because there isn’t any.


What happens is this: ‘stuff’ is a word for the world as it looks when our eyes are out of focus; fuzzy. Stuff—the idea of stuff is that it’s undifferentiated; some kind of a goo. And when your eyes are not in sharp focus, everything looks fuzzy. When you get your eyes into focus, you see a form, you see a pattern. And so all that we can talk about is patterns. So the picture of the world in the most sophisticated physics of today is not formed stuff—potted clay—but pattern. A self-moving, self-designing pattern; a dance. And we haven’t yet—our common sense as individuals hasn’t yet caught up with this.


The Myth of the Automatic Universe


Well now, in the course of time—in the evolution of Western thought—the ceramic image of the world ran into trouble. And changed into what I call the fully automatic model, or image, of the world. In other words, Western science was based on the idea that there are laws of nature, and it got that idea from Judaism and Christianity and Islam. That, in other words, the potter—the maker of the world in the beginning of things—laid down the laws and the law of God, which is also the law of nature. It’s called the lógos. And in Christianity, the lógos is the second person of the trinity, incarnate as Jesus Christ, who thereby is the perfect exemplar of the divine law. So we have tended to think of all natural phenomena as responding to laws as if, in other words, the laws of the world were like the rails on which a streetcar—or a tram, or a train—runs, and these things exist in a certain way, and all events respond to these laws. You know that limerick,


There was a young man who said ‘Damn,
For it certainly seems that I am
A creature that moves
In determinate grooves.
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.’(*)


So here’s this idea that there’s a kind of a plan, and everything responds and obeys that plan. Well, in the 18th century, Western intellectuals began to suspect this idea. And what they suspected is whether there is a lawmaker; whether there is an architect of the universe. And they found out—or they reasoned—that you don’t have to suppose that there is. Why? Because the hypothesis of God does not help us to make any predictions. In other words, let’s put it this way: if the business of science is to make predictions about what’s going to happen, science is essentially prophecy. What’s going to happen? By studying the behavior of the past and describing it carefully, we can make predictions about what’s going to happen in the future. That’s really the whole of science. And to do this, and to make successful predictions, you do not need God as a hypothesis. Because it makes no difference to anything. If you say ‘Everything is controlled by God, everything is governed by God,’ that doesn’t make any difference to your prediction of what’s going to happen. And so what they did was simply drop that hypothesis. But they kept the hypothesis of law. Because if you can predict, if you can study the past and describe how things have behaved, and you’ve got some regularities in the behavior of the universe, you call that law. Although it may not be law in the ordinary sense of the word; it’s simply regularity.


And so what they did was: they got rid of the lawmaker and kept the law. And so they conceived the universe in terms of a mechanism. Something, in other words, that is functioning according to regular, clock-like, mechanical principles. Newton’s whole image of the world is based on billiards. The atoms are billiard balls, and they bang each other around. And so your behavior—every individual—is therefore defined as a very, very complex arrangement of billiard balls being banged around by everything else. And so behind the fully automatic model of the universe is the notion that reality itself is—to use the favorite term of 19th century scientists—blind energy. In, say, the metaphysics of Ernst Haeckel, and T.H. Huxley, the world is basically nothing but blind, unintelligent force. And likewise, and parallel to this, in the philosophy of Freud, the basic psychological energy is libido, which is blind lust. And it is only a fluke, it is only as a result of pure chances that, resulting from the exuberance of this energy, there are people. With values, with reason, with languages, with cultures, and with love. Just a fluke. Like, you know, 1,000 monkeys typing on 1,000 typewriters for a million years will eventually type the Encyclopædia Britannica. And of course the moment they stop typing the Encyclopædia Britannica, they will relapse into nonsense.


And so in order that that shall not happen, because you and I are flukes in this cosmos, and we like our way of life—we like being human—if we want to keep it, say these people, we’ve got to fight nature, because it’ll turn us back into nonsense the moment we let it. And so we’ve got to impose our will upon this world as if we were something completely alien to it; from outside. And so we get a culture based on the idea of the war between man and nature. And we talk about the conquest of space. The conquest of Everest. And the great symbols of our culture are the rocket and the bulldozer. The rocket—you know, compensation for the sexually inadequate male. So we’re going to conquer space. You know we’re in space already, way out. If anybody cared to be sensitive and let what’s outside space come to you—you can, if your eyes are clear enough. Aided by telescopes, aided by radio astronomy, aided by all the kind of sensitive instruments we can devise. We’re as far out in space as we’re ever going to get. But, you know, sensitivity isn’t the pitch. Especially in the WASP culture of the United States. We define manliness in terms of aggression, you see, because we’re a little bit frightened as to whether we are really men. And so we put on this great show of being a tough guy. It’s completely unnecessary. If you have what it takes, you don’t need to put on that show. And you don’t need to beat nature into submission. Why be hostile to nature? Because after all, you are a symptom of nature. You, as a human being, grow out of this physical universe in just exactly the same way that an apple grows off an apple tree.


So let’s say the tree which grows apples is a tree which apples, using ‘apple’ as a verb. And a world in which human beings arrive is a world that peoples. And so the existence of people is symptomatic of the kind of universe we live in. Just as spots on somebody’s skin is symptomatic of chicken pox. But we have been brought up by reason of our two great myths—the ceramic and the fully automatic—not to feel that we belong in the world. So our popular speech reflects it. We say “I came into this world.” You didn’t—you came out of it. You say face facts. We talk about encounters with reality, as if it was a head-on meeting of completely alien agencies. And the average person has the sensation that he is a somewhat that exists inside a bag of skin. The center of consciousness which looks out at this thing, and what the hell’s it going to do to me? You see? “I recognize you, you kind of look like me, and I’ve seen myself in a mirror, and you look like you might be people.” So maybe you’re intelligent, and maybe you can love, too. Perhaps you’re all right; some of you are, anyway. If you’ve got the right color of skin, or you have the right religion, or whatever it is, you’re okay. But there are all those people over in Asia, and Africa—and they may not really be people. When you want to destroy someone, you always define them as unpeople; not really human. Monkeys, maybe. Idiots, maybe. Machines, maybe, but not people. But we have this hostility to the external world because of the superstition—the myth, the absolutely unfounded theory—that you, yourself, exist only inside your skin.


A Wiggly World


Now I want to propose another idea altogether. There are astronomers that say there was a primordial explosion, an enormous bang millions of years ago—billions of years ago—which flung all the galaxies into space. Well let’s take that just for the sake of argument and say that was the way it happened. It’s like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spreads; zzwshh! And in the middle it’s dense, isn’t it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets are finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so we define ourselves as being only that. If you think that you are only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curlicue, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space, and way out in time. Billions of years ago, you were a big bang, but now you’re a complicated human being. And then we cut ourselves off, crrrck!, like this, and don’t feel that we’re still the big bang. But you are. Depends how you define yourself. You are actually—if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning—you’re not something that is a result of the big bang, on the end of the process. You are still the process. You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. See, when I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as—Mr. so-and-so, Ms. so-and-so, Mrs. so-and-so—I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I’m that, too. But we’ve learned to define ourselves as separate from it.


And so what I would call a kind of a basic problem we’ve got to go through first is to understand that there are no such things as things. That is to say separate things, or separate events. That that is only a way of talking. If you can understand this, you’re going to have no further problems. I once asked a group of high school children “What do you mean by a thing?” And first of all, they gave me all sorts of synonyms. They said “It’s an object,” which is simply another word for a thing; it doesn’t tell you anything about what you mean by a thing. Finally, a very smart girl from Italy, who was in the group, said a thing is a noun. And she was quite right. A noun isn’t a part of nature, it’s a part of speech. There are no nouns in the physical world. There are no separate things in the physical world, either. The physical world is wiggly. Clouds, mountains, trees, people are all wiggly. And only when human beings get working on things—they build buildings in straight lines, and try and make out that the world isn’t really wiggly. But here we—sitting in this room all built on straight lines, but each one of us is as wiggly as all get-out.


Now then, when you want to get control of something that wiggles, it’s pretty difficult, isn’t it? You try and pick up a fish in your hands, and the fish is wiggly and it slips out. What do you do to get hold of the fish? You use a net. And so the net is the basic thing we have for getting hold of the wiggly world. So if you want to get hold of this wiggle, you’ve got to put a net over it. And I can number the holes in a net. So many so holes up, so many holes across. And if I can number these holes, I can count exactly where each wiggle is in terms of a hole in that net. And that’s the beginning of calculus, the art of measuring the world. But in order to do that, I’ve got to break up the wiggle into bits. I’ve got to call this a specific bit, and this the next bit of the wiggle, and this the next bit, and this the next bit of the wiggle. And so these bits are things or events; bits of wiggles, which I mark out in order to talk about the wiggle. In order to measure and therefore, in order to control it. But in nature, in fact, in the physical world, the wiggle isn’t bitted. Like you don’t get a cut-up fryer out of an egg. But you have to cut the chicken up in order to eat it. You bite it. But it doesn’t come bitten.


So the world doesn’t come thinged; it doesn’t come evented. You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean. The ocean waves, and the universe peoples. And, as the wave, I wave at you and say “Yoo-hoo!”—the world is waving at me with you and saying, “Hi, I’m here!” But our consciousness—the way we feel and sense our existence, being based on a myth that we are made, that we are parts, that we are things—our consciousness has been influenced so that each one of us does not feel that. We have been hypnotized—literally hypnotized—by social convention into feeling and sensing that we exist only inside our skins. That we are not the original bang, but just something out on the end of it. And therefore we are scared stiff. Because my wave is going to disappear; I’m going to die! And that would be awful. We’ve got a mythology going now which, as Father Maskell put it, “We are nothing but something that happens between the maternity ward and the crematorium.” And that’s it. And therefore everybody feels unhappy and miserable.


You know, this is what people really believe today. You may go to church, you may say you believe in this, that, and the other. But you don’t. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are the most fundamentalist fundamentalists—they are polite when they come round and knock on the door. But if you really believed in Christianity, you would be screaming in the streets. But nobody does. You would be taking full-page ads in the paper every day. You would have the most terrifying television programs. The churches would be going out of their minds if they really believed what they teach. But they don’t. They think they ought to believe what they teach. They believe they should believe, but they don’t believe it because what we really believe is the fully automatic model. And that is our basic, plausible common sense. You are a fluke. You are a separate event. And you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium, and that’s it, baby. That’s it.


A Game That’s Worth The Candle


Now why does anybody think that way? There’s no reason to, because it isn’t even scientific. It’s just a myth. And it’s invented by people who wanted to feel a certain way. They want to play a certain game. The game of God got embarrassing. The idea of God as the potter, the architect of the universe, is good and it makes you feel that life is, after all, important. There is someone who cares. It has meaning, it has sense, and you are valuable in the eyes of the Father. But after a while it gets embarrassing, and you realize that everything you do is being watched by God. He knows your tiniest, inmost feelings and thoughts, and you say after a while, “Quit bugging me! I don’t want you around!” So you become an atheist, just to get rid of him. Then, then you feel terrible after that, because you got rid of God, but that means you got rid of yourself. You’re just nothing but a machine. And your idea that you’re a machine is just a machine, too. So if you’re a smart kid, you commit suicide. Camus said there is only really one serious philosophical question, which is whether or not to commit suicide. I think there are four or five serious philosophical questions. The first one is ‘Who started it?’ The second is ‘Are we going to make it?’ The third is ‘Where are we going to put it?’ The fourth is ‘Who’s going to clean up?’ And the fifth, ‘Is it serious?’


But still, should you or not commit suicide? This is a good question. Why go on? And you only go on if the game is worth the candle. Now the universe has been going on for an incredible long time. And so really, a satisfactory theory of the universe has to be one that’s worth betting on. That’s a very—it seems to me—absolutely elementary common sense. If you make a theory of the universe which isn’t worth betting on, why bother? Just commit suicide. But if you want to go on playing the game, you’ve got to have an optimal theory for playing the game. Otherwise there’s no point in it. But the people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game. What they wanted to say was this: “All you people who believe in religion are old ladies and wishful thinkers. You’ve got a big daddy up there, and you want comfort and things, but life is rough. Life is tough, and success goes to the most hard-headed people.” That was a very convenient theory when the European-American world was colonizing the natives everywhere else. They said, “We are the end product of evolution, and we’re tough, see? I’m a big, strong guy because I face facts, and life is just a bunch of junk, and I’m going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else, you see? And I’m real hard.” See, that’s a way of flattering yourself.


And so, it has become academically plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable. Because if you’re an academic person, you’ve got to be an intellectually tough person. You’ve got to be prickly. There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One’s called prickles, the other’s called goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it’s waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists, and goo people are idealists. And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn’t know you advocated prickles unless there was somebody else advocating goo. You wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what goo was. Because life is not either prickles or goo, it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo. They go together like back and front, male and female. And that’s the answer to philosophy. You see, I’m a philosopher, and I’m not going to argue very much, because if you don’t argue with me, I don’t know what I think. So if we argue, I say “Thank you,” because owing to the courtesy of your taking a different point of view, I understand what I mean. So I can’t get rid of you.


But however, you see, this whole idea that the universe is just nothing at all but unintelligent force playing around and not even enjoying it is a put-down theory of the world. People who had an advantage to make, a game to play by putting it down, and making out that because they put the world down they were a superior kind of people. So that just won’t do. We’ve had it. Because if you seriously go along with this idea of the world, you’re what is technically called alienated. You feel hostile to the world. You feel that the world is a trap. It is a mechanism; it’s electronic and neurological mechanisms into which you somehow got caught. And you poor thing have to put up with being in a body that’s falling apart, and that gets cancer, that gets the Great Siberian Itch, and it’s just terrible. And these mechanics-doctors are trying to help you out, but they really can’t succeed in the end, and you’re just going to fall apart, and it’s a grim business, and it’s too bad. So if you think that that’s the way things are, you may as well commit suicide right now. Unless you say, “Well, I’m damned.” Because there really, after all, there might be eternal damnation in the back of the thing, if I did that. Or I identify with my children, or something, and I think of them going on without me and nobody to support them. Because if I do go on in this frame of mind and continue to support them, I shall merely teach them to be like I am. And they’ll go on, dragging it out to support their children, and they won’t enjoy it, and they’ll be afraid to commit suicide, and so will their children. They all learn the same lesson.


An Independent System


So you see, all I’m trying to say is that the basic common sense about the nature of the world that is influencing most people in the United States today—the fully automatic model—is simply a myth. If you want to say that the idea of God the father with his white beard on the golden throne is a myth, in a bad sense of the word ‘myth,’ so is this other one. It’s just as phony and has just as little to support it as being the true state of affairs. Why? Let’s get this clear. If there is any such thing at all as intelligence, and love, and beauty—well, you’ve found it in other people. In other words, it exists in us as human beings. And as I said, if it is there in us, it is symptomatic of the scheme of things. We are as symptomatic of the scheme of things as the apples are symptomatic of the apple tree, or the rose of the rose bush. The Earth is not a big rock infested with living organisms any more than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. The Earth is geological, yes, but this geological entity grows people. And our existence on the Earth is a symptom of the solar system and its balances as much as the solar system, in turn, is a symptom of our galaxy—and our galaxy, in its turn, is a symptom of the whole company of galaxies. Goodness only knows what that’s in.


But you see, when—as a scientist—you describe the behavior of a living organism, you try to say what a person does. It’s the only way in which you can describe what a person is: describe what they do. Then you find out that in making this description, you cannot confine yourself to what happens inside the skin. In other words, you can’t talk about a person walking unless you start describing the floor. Because when I walk, I don’t just dangle my legs in empty space. I move in relationship to a room. And so in order to describe what I’m doing when I’m walking, I have to describe the room; I have to describe the territory. So in describing my talking at the moment, I can’t describe it as just a thing in itself, because I’m talking to you. And so what I’m doing at the moment is not completely described unless your being here is described also. So if that is necessary—if, in other words, in order to describe my behavior, I have to describe your behavior, and the behavior of the environment, it means that we’ve really got one system of behavior. That what I am involves what you are. I don’t know who I am unless I know who you are. And you don’t know who you are unless you know who I am.


There was a wise rabbi who once said,

If I am I because you are you,
And you are you because I am I,
Then I am not I and you are not you.

In other words, we are not separate. We define each other, we’re all backs and fronts to each other. You know, you can’t—for example—have two sticks; you lean two sticks against each other and they stand up, because they support each other. Take one away and the other falls. They interdepend. And so in exactly that way, we and our environment, and all of us and each other, are interdependent systems. We know who we are in terms of other people. We all lock together. Now this is, again and again, the serious, scientific description of how things happen, and any good scientist knows, therefore, that what you call the “external world” is as much you as your own body. Your skin doesn’t separate you from the world, it’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you and you flow into it.


Just, for example, as a whirlpool in water. You could say because you have a skin you have a definite shape; you have a definite form. All right, here is a flow of water, and suddenly it does a whirlpool, and then it goes on. The whirlpool is a definite form, but no water stays put in it. The whirlpool is something the stream is doing, and in exactly the same way, the whole universe is doing each one of us. And I see you today, and I recognize you tomorrow, just as I would recognize a whirlpool in a stream. I’d say, “Oh yes, I’ve seen that whirlpool before. It’s just near so-and-so’s house on the edge of the river, and it’s always there.” So in the same way, when I meet you tomorrow, I recognize you; you’re the same whirlpool you were yesterday. But you’re moving. The whole world is moving through you. All the cosmic rays, all the food you’re eating—the stream of steaks and milk and eggs and everything—is just flowing right through you. When you’re wiggling the same way, the world is wiggling, the stream is wiggling you.


But the problem is, you see, we haven’t been taught to feel that way. The myths underlying our culture and underlying our common sense have not taught us to feel identical with the universe, but only parts of it, only in it, only confronting it; aliens. And we are, I think, quite urgently in need of coming to feel that we are the eternal universe; each one of us. Otherwise we’re going to go out of our heads. We’re going to commit suicide, collectively, courtesy of H-bombs. And—all right, supposing we do—well, that will be that, then there will be life making experiments on other galaxies. Maybe they’ll find a better game.


Whose Game Is It?


Well now, I was discussing two of the great myths, or models, of the universe, which lie in the intellectual and psychological background of all of us. The myth of the world as a political, monarchical state in which we are all here on sufferance as subjects of God. In which we are made artifacts, who do not exist in our own right. God alone, in the first myth, exists in his own right, and you exist as a favor, and you ought to be grateful. Like your parents come on and say to you, maybe, “Look at all the things we’ve done for you, all the money we spent to send you to college, and you turn out to be a beatnik. You’re a wretched, ungrateful child.” And you’re supposed to say, “Sorry, I really am.” But you’re definitely in the position of being on probation.


So that idea of the royal god—the king of kings and the lord of lords—which we inherit from the political structures of the Tigris-Euphrates cultures, and from Egypt. The Pharaoh Amenhotep IV is probably, as Freud suggested, the original author of Moses’ monotheism, and certainly the Jewish law code comes from Hammurabi in Chaldea. And these men lived in a culture where the pyramid and the ziggurat—the ziggurat is the Chaldean version of the pyramid—indicate, somehow, a hierarchy of power, from the boss all the way down. And God, in this first myth that we’ve been discussing—the ceramic myth—is the boss, and the idea of God is that the universe is governed from above.


But do you see, this parallels—and goes hand in hand with—the idea that you govern your own body. That the ego, which lies somewhere between the ears and behind the eyes in the brain, is the governor of the body. And so we can’t understand a system of order, a system of life, in which there isn’t a governor. “O Lord, our governor, how excellent is thy name in all the world.”


But supposing, on the contrary, there could be a system which doesn’t have a governor. That’s what we are supposed to have in this society. We are supposed to be a democracy and a republic. And we are supposed to govern ourselves. And yet, as I said, it’s so funny that Americans can be politically republican—I don’t mean republican in the party sense—and yet religiously monarchical. It’s a real strange contradiction.


So what is this universe? Is it a monarchy? Is it a republic? Is it a mechanism or an organism? Because, you see, if it’s a mechanism, either it’s a mere mechanism, as in the fully automatic model, or else it’s a mechanism under the control of a driver; a mechanic. If it’s not that, it’s an organism, and an organism is a thing that governs itself. In your body there is no boss. You could argue, for example, that the brain is a gadget evolved by the stomach in order to serve the stomach for the purposes of getting food. Or you can argue that the stomach is a gadget evolved by the brain to feed it and keep it alive. Whose game is this? Is it the brain’s game, or the stomach’s game? Actually, they’re mutual. The brain implies the stomach, the stomach implies the brain, and neither of them is the boss.


You know that story about all the limbs of the body? The hand said, “We do all our work,” the feet said, “We do our work,” the mouth said, “We do all the chewing, and here’s this lazy stomach who just gets it all and doesn’t do a thing. He doesn’t do any work, so let’s go on strike.” And the hands refused to carry, the feet refused to walk, the mouth refused to chew, and said “Now we’re on strike against the stomach.” But, after a while, all of them found themselves getting weaker, and weaker, and weaker, and weaker, because they didn’t recognize that the stomach fed them.


So there is the possibility, then, that we are not in the kind of system that these two myths delineate. That we are not living in a world where we, ourselves, in the deepest sense of self, are outside reality, and somehow in a position that we have to bow down to it and say “As a great favor, please preserve us in existence.” Nor are we in a system which is merely mechanical, and in which we are nothing but flukes, trapped in the electrical wiring of a nervous system, which is fundamentally rather inefficiently arranged. What’s the alternative?


The World as a Drama


Well, we can put the alternative in another image altogether, and I will call this not the ceramic image, not the fully automatic image, but the dramatic image. Consider the world as a drama. What’s the basis of all drama? The basis of all stories, of all plots, of all happenings? It’s the game of hide-and-seek. You get a baby—what’s the fundamental first game you play with a baby? You put a book in front of your face, and you peek at the baby, like this. The baby starts giggling. Because the baby is close to the origins of life; it comes from the womb really knowing what it’s all about, but it can’t put it into words. See, what every child psychologist really wants to know is to get a baby to talk psychological jargon, and explain how it feels. But the baby knows; you do this, and this, this, this, and the baby starts laughing, because the baby is a recent incarnation of God. And the baby knows, therefore, that hide-and-seek is the basic game.


See, before—when we were children, we were taught “1, 2, 3,” and “A, B, C,” but we weren’t sat down on our mothers’ knees and taught the game of black-and-white. That’s the thing that was left out of all our educations: that life is not a conflict between opposites, but a polarity. The difference between a conflict and a polarity is simply: when you say about opposite things, we sometimes use the expression, “These two things are the poles apart.” You say, for example, about someone with whom you totally disagree, “I am the poles apart from this person.” But your very saying that gives the show away: poles. Poles are the opposite ends of one magnet. And if you take a magnet, there’s a north pole and a south pole. Alright, chop off the south pole; move it away. The piece you’ve got left creates a new south pole. You never get rid of the south pole. Things may be the poles apart, but they go together. You can’t have the one without the other. That’s the basic idea of polarity. But what we’re trying to imagine is the encounter of forces that come from absolutely opposed realms that have nothing in common. When we say of two personality types that they’re the poles apart, we are trying to think eccentrically instead of concentrically. And so in this way, we haven’t realized that life and death, black and white, good and evil, being and non-being, come from the same center. They imply each other, so that you wouldn’t know the one without the other.


Now I’m not saying that that’s bad. That’s fun. You’re playing the game that you don’t know that self and other go together, in just the same way as the poles of the magnet. So that, when anybody in our culture slips into the state of consciousness where they suddenly find this to be true, and they come on and say “I’m God,” we say “You’re insane.”


Now, it’s very difficult—you can very easily slip into the state of consciousness where you feel you’re God; it can happen to anyone. Just in the same way as you can get the flu, or measles, or something like that, you can slip into this state of consciousness. And when you get it, it depends upon your background and your training as to how you’re going to interpret it. If you’ve got the idea of God that comes from popular Christianity—God as the governor, the political head of the world—and you think you’re God, then you say to everybody, “Well, you should bow down and worship me.” But if you’re a member of Hindu culture, and you suddenly tell all your friends, “I’m God,” instead of saying, “You’re insane,” they say, “Congratulations! At last, you found out.” Because their idea of God is not the autocratic governor. When they make images of Shiva—say, he has ten arms. How would you use ten arms? It’s hard enough to use two. You know, if you play the organ, you’ve got to use your two feet and your two hands, and you play different rhythms with each member. It’s kind of tricky. But actually we’re all masters at this, because how do you grow each hair without having to think about it? Each nerve? How do you beat your heart and digest with your stomach at the same time? You don’t have to think about it. In your very body, you are omnipotent in the true sense of omnipotence, which is that you are able to be omni-potent; you are able to do all these things without having to think about it.


When I was a child I used to ask my mother—of course—all sorts of ridiculous questions that every child asks, and when she got bored with my questions she would say, “Darling, there are just some things we’re just not meant to know.” I said, “Will we ever know?” She said, “Yes, of course, when we die and go to heaven, God will make everything plain.” So I used to imagine on wet afternoons in heaven, we’d all sit around the throne of grace and say to God, “Well, now, why did you do this?” and “How did you do that?” and he would explain it to us. “Heavenly father, why are the leaves green?” And he would say, “Because of the chlorophyll.” And we’d say, “Oh.”


But in he Hindu universe, you would say to God, “How did you make the mountains?” And he would say: well, I just did it. Because what you’re asking me for—when you ask me how did I make the mountains, you’re asking me to describe in words how I made the mountains, and there are no words which can do this. Words cannot tell you how I made the mountains any more than I can drink the ocean with a fork. A fork may be useful for sticking into a piece of something and eating it, but it’s of no use for imbibing the ocean. It would take millions of years. So it would take millions of years, and you would be bored with my description long before I got through it, if I put it to you in words. Because I didn’t create the mountains with words, I just did it. Like you open and close your hand. You know how to do this, but can you describe in words how you do it? But you do it. You are conscious, aren’t you? Don’t you know how you manage to be conscious? Do you know how you beat your heart? Can you say in words, explain correctly, how this is done? You do it, but you can’t put it into words! Because words are too clumsy, and yet you manage this expertly for as long as you’re able to do it.

The Nature of Consciousness (Part 1)

Alan Watts

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