The Web of Life (Part 2)

Out of Your Mind 4

A deep dive into the cosmic game of life. Alan says existence is an interwoven, rhythmic dance veiled in illusion, but when we peek behind the veil, we find life is actually playful—so come on in and join the party!



Web As Mutuality


In exploring the theme of The Web of Life, I have thus far discussed two principal topics. First, the web considered as selectivity. Experience considered as what we pay attention to, on the one hand, and what we ignore on the other. And I showed how the way in which we pay attention to the world creates isolates—I’m using that as a noun—isolates that we call particular things, events, and persons, and they seem to be disconnected, and to be alone, because we ignore the connections between them. And I used the analogy of weaving, where the threads go underneath and join on the back in a way that is not seen on the front. So you might say, in the unconscious—although I don’t particularly like that word, because it makes it seem as if it were something rather dead—but, on the unconscious side of life, as on the back of the weaving, or the back of the embroidery, there are connections which are not published.


Now, in the second part of the theme was the web as mutuality. When I discussed the way the existence of a web, the existence of cloth, or anything like that, depends on a mutual support of the warp and the woof. And this miraculous thing occurs that, when these things support each other, being comes into being. Cloth comes into being. And so, in exactly the same way, our world is a manifestation of relativity. And this requires a balance, a combination, a relationship of opposites in every domain of life. And although these opposites are explicitly different, and even antagonistic, they are implicitly one—and that’s the secret. See, there are these two secrets that we went into. The connection between what are supposed to be separate things and events, and the mutual unity between what are manifestly—that is to say, openly, for purposes of publication—opposites.


Now, this afternoon I’m going to take two other aspects of the web. The web is a trap, like the spider’s web is a trap for flies. Also, the lovely embroideries are worn by women as traps for men—from a certain point of view. And I want to consider the web as something playful. You see, there are so many ways of looking at it, and you will find that all these ways are right, but what we need is the fullness of the view.


There are people, for example, who can see the web as a trap and get stuck with that. There are people to whom existence is simply hateful. They see it as nothing but a ghastly mistake. The Lord really erred when he created this world, because he arranged it in such a way that everything lives by eating something else. And what I’m doing is, I’m describing a certain point of view, you see? I’m not exactly philosophizing, I’m describing a point of view. You can look at life in such a way that the whole thing is this ghastly mistake. For example, there is no such thing as genuine kindness or love. Everybody is really pretending that they are loving other people in order to get some advantage from them.


And indeed, there is a point of view which occurs in certain forms of paranoia, where people don’t seem to be real. They are mechanisms, and you can think that out quite intensely with a good deal of intelligence. After all, if you start from a good old Darwinian or Freudian basis, and see that man is a material machine, and that the consciousness of man is simply a very involved and complicated form of chemistry, and that’s what it is, you see? Well, then these awful mechanical things, these Frankensteins that everybody is, they come around and they say, “Well, I’m alive. I’m a human being. I have a heart, I love, I hate, I have problems, I feel.” And you feel like saying, “Come off it! You’re just a monster, and you put on this civilized act because, really, you’re just a set of teeth on the end of a tube, and got a ganglion behind those teeth which you call your brain or your alleged mind.”


And this thing is really, basically, there for two purposes: one, to be cunning enough to get something to eat, to put down the tube, and the other—you know what—Mr. Freud’s libido. And everything else, you see, can be construed as an elaborate, subtle way of pretending that that’s not really what you want to do. But you do, but you put on a great show. Now some people, according to this view, get mixed up. They so repress that what they really want to do is to eat and to screw, that they get involved in higher things that are the masks for these activities, and think that that’s the real purpose of life. And then they become what’s called neurotic, because they get involved in being pure camouflage. So that’s what’s called escaping from the facts: not looking at life, not looking at reality correctly.


Now, this is a very strange thing, you see, that it is partly true that the universe, so far as its biological aspect is concerned, is this weird system that lives by everybody eating everybody else. Only, what we do to maintain what is called order and civilization, is that various species make agreements, as it were, that they won’t eat each other. They’ll cooperate, and so be an enormous gang which can beat down the others. So the human being is the most successful, so far, of this gangster arrangement. We are the most predatory monsters on Earth, and we have cooperated to assault the fish, and the vegetables, and the chickens, and the cows, and everything, you see? Only, we do it by not letting our left hand know what our right hand doeth. In other words, ladies and gentlemen—unless gentlemen happen to be prone to going hunting as a sport—they don’t see their food killed. They don’t see the slaughterhouse. And so, what you get [from] the butcher in the market is steak, you know? It’s a thing in its own right; it has nothing to do with a cow. Steak is a thing shaped thus and so, and it looks as if it might be like a banana, or something like that, you know? And nobody worries. And when a fish is served up, it does indeed look like a fish, but it’s not the squiggly, squirmy fish that comes out at the end of the fisherman’s line. You know, when you really fish, you realize that the fish doesn’t like it very much.


Now, there is that absolutely extraordinary side of things that is really terrifying. And so, let me repeat the illustration I used of the cross in the net, where one side of it is scissors that cut and eat, teeth that chew and get this thing in, and the opening side of it is like James Joyce’s—in Ulysses, the girl who says, “Yes,” and I said, “Yes, yes, yes, she wants to be absolutely ravaged by her man,” you see? So it’s open, open, open!


But now comes the—if we take the dark view of things, the horrible view—excuse me if I go into some rather grizzly details, but have you ever heard of a vagina dentata? That is the idea that, in the sexual organ of the woman, there are teeth. And a lot of men have this fantasy, and so are rendered impotent. They daren’t make love, because they feel that the price of this blessed experience, this creative experience, this loving experience, is you’re going to get trapped. You’re going to get emasculated, and you’re going to lose your precious member. And this is a very ancient fantasy. It appears throughout all known history, because this is simply the woman’s come-on, where she attracts, but she’s out, really, to get you. She is basically a spider mother, you see, who is selfish and doesn’t really love you—not really—but says she does. And, of course, there are, on the other side, all the tricks of the men, which we can go without mentioning.


So this is a view of the world as a system of mutual exploitation and of maximal selfishness. Now, it’s a very profitable view to explore.


The Nature of Selfishness


Everybody should do—in their lifetime, sometime—two things. One is to consider death: to observe skulls and skeletons, and to wonder what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up. Never. That is a very gloomy thing for contemplation, but it’s like manure. Just as manure fertilizes the plants and so on, so the contemplation of death, and the acceptance of death, is very highly generative of creative life. You get wonderful things out of that. And the other thing to contemplate is to follow the possibility of the idea that you are totally selfish. That you don’t have a good thing to be said for you at all. You’re a complete, utter rascal.


Now, the Christians have avoided this, because although they say, in their Episcopalian form of confession, that “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, and we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” Too much, you know? “We have offended against thy holy laws. We’ve left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” But! It ought to be different. And we are going to do our best to amend, with the help of God’s grace. And that is a real con act, because if you equate health with genuine love and perfect unselfishness, then, in that sense, there is no health in us when we look at ourselves from this point of view.


Now, when you go deeply into the nature of selfishness, what do you discover? You say, “I love myself. I seek my own advantage.” Now, what is the self that I love? What do I want? And that becomes an increasingly, ever-deepening puzzle. Now, I’ve often referred to this. When you say to somebody else, “I love you,” it’s always rather disconcerting to the person to whom you say that. If you imply that you love them with a pure, disinterested, and holy love, they automatically suspect it as being a little bit phony. But if you say, “I love you so much I could eat you,” that’s an expression—it’s a way of saying to a person, “You attract me so much that I can’t help it. I’m absolutely bowled over by you. I’m gone.” And people like that. Then they feel they’re really being loved, that it’s absolutely genuine.


But now, “I love you so much I could eat you.” Now what the devil do I want? I certainly don’t want to eat the girl in the sense of literally devouring her, because then she’d disappear. Hmm. But I love myself. What is me? How do—in what way do I know me? Well, it suddenly occurs to me that I know me only in terms of you.


See, when I think of anything I know and that I like, then it’s always something that can be viewed as other than me. I can never get to look at me—real me. It’s always behind, it’s always hidden. And I really don’t know it well enough to know whether I love it or not. Maybe I don’t. Maybe it’s an appalling mess. But certainly, the things that I do love, and that I want from a selfish point of view, when I really think about them, they’re all something else that’s, in a way, outside me.


Now, we saw that there is a reciprocity. A total, mutual interdependence between what we call the self and what we call the other. That’s the warp and the woof. And so, if you’re perfectly honest about loving yourself (and you don’t pull any punches, you don’t pretend that you’re anything other than exactly what you are), you suddenly come to discover that the self you love—if you really go into it—is the universe. You don’t like all of it, you’re selective about it—as we saw in the beginning, perception is selection—but on the whole, you love yourself in terms of what is other, because it’s only in terms of what is other that you have a self at all.


So then, I feel that one of the very great things that C. G. Jung contributed to mankind’s understanding was the concept of the shadow. That everybody has a shadow, and that the main task of the psychotherapist is to do what he called, “to integrate the evil,” to, as it were, put the devil in us in its proper function. Because, you see, it’s always the devil, the unacknowledged one, the outcast, the scapegoat, the bastard, the bad guy, you see, the black sheep of the family. It’s always from that point that—which we could call the fly in the ointment, you see—that generation comes.


In other words, in the same way as in the drama: to have the play it’s necessary to introduce a villain, it’s necessary to introduce a certain element of trouble. So, in the whole scheme of life, there has to be the shadow, because without the shadow there can’t be the substance.


So this is why there is a very strange association between crime and all naughty things, and holyness. You see, holyness is way beyond being good. Good people aren’t necessarily holy people. A holy person is one who is whole; who has, as it were, reconciled his opposites. And so there’s always something slightly scary about holy people. And other people react to them in very strange ways; they can’t make up their minds whether they’re saints or devils. And so holy people have, throughout history, always created a great deal of trouble, along with their creative results.


Let’s take Jesus, for example. The trouble that Jesus created is absolutely incalculable. Think of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the—heaven only knows what’s gone on in the name of Jesus. Very remarkable. Freud’s a big troublemaker, as well as a great healer, you see? It all goes together.


So, the holy person is scary because he is like the earthquakes—or better, still—he’s like the ocean. See, the ocean, on a lovely sunny day, you can say, “Oh, isn’t that gorgeous?” You can go into it, and relax, and float around. But boy, when the storm comes does that thing get mad. Terrifying! So there is, in us, the ocean, you see? And Jung felt that the whole point was to bring the two together, and—by a kind of fantastic honesty—to penetrate one’s own motivations to the depths.


A Perfectly Genuine Act


Jung had a tremendous humor. And he knew that nobody can be completely honest. That you will try, and you’ll have a great deal of success in exploring your motivations and your dark, unconscious depths, but there will be a certain point at which you will say, “Well, I’ve had enough of that!” You know? And, do you see how, in a strange way, there’s a certain sanity in that? When a person indulges in a certain kind of duplicity, of deception, there is something—you all laughed when I said that—there’s something humorous about it.


And this humor is [a] very funny thing. Basically, humor is an attitude of laughter about one’s self. There is malicious humor, which is laughing at other people. But real, deep humor is laughter at one’s self. Now why, fundamentally, do you laugh about yourself? What makes you laugh about yourself? Isn’t it because you know that there is a big difference between what goes on the outside and what goes on the inside? That if I hint, you see, that your inside is the opposite of your outside, it makes people laugh—if I don’t do it unkindly. If I get up in the attitude of a preacher and say, “You’re a bunch of miserable sinners and you ought to be different,” nobody laughs. But if I say, “Well, after all, boys will be boys, girls will be girls,” we all know; then, people laugh.


Now, you see, what’s happening when we do that? I passed you around a lot of embroidery to look at before we started. And I’m perfectly sure that you got the point that there’s a big difference between the front and the back. In some forms of embroidery the back is very different from the front because people take shortcuts. In the front everything is orderly, and it is supposed to be kind of messy on the backside. See? Which side will you wear? You’ve got to be sure you get the front in the front and the back in the back. And the back has all the little tricks in it, all the shortcuts, all the lowdown that people don’t acknowledge, see?


And it’s exactly the same with the way we live. You know, like sweeping the dust under the carpet in a hurry, just before the guests come. I mean, we do ever so many things like that. And if you don’t do it, if you don’t think you do it, and you think, “Well, really, my embroidery is the same on both sides.” See? Well, you’re deceiving yourself, because what you’re doing is you’re taking the shortcuts in another dimension, which you’re keeping out of consciousness. Everybody takes the shortcuts, everybody plays tricks, everybody has in himself an element of duplicity, of deception.


Because, you see, from this point of view that I’m discussing, where the web is the trap, to be is to deceive. Think of camouflage. The chameleon who changes its color. Think of the butterfly pretending it has eyes. Think of the flower saying to the bee, “Like my honey?” The bee says, “Wow!” But then that means that the bee has to be, and it has to go on living, and all the trouble it takes to go around collecting honey, and raising other bees, and organizing itself, and doing that dance which tells the other bees where there’s more honey—all that stuff to do, because the flower was deceptive.


Now, in the same way, I’ve often said life is a drama, and a drama is a deception. It’s a big act. When you peel an onion, and you don’t really understand the nature of an onion, you might look for the pit in the center, like any ordinary fruit has. But the onion doesn’t have a center. It’s all skins. And so, when you get right down, there’s nothing but a bunch of skins. You say, “Well, that was kind of disappointing.” But, of course, you have to understand that the skins were the part that you eat.


Well, in rather the same way, you see, you find—when you explore yourself, and your motivations, and you go through and through—and you try to find out that thing which is really genuine. That’s why, in Zen discipline, they give you kōans which require a perfectly genuine act. An act of total and absolute sincerety. And people knock themselves out trying to do this thing, but they always know that the master is going to catch them, because he reads their thought. Do you know that story of von Kleist, about the man who had a fight with a bear? And the bear could read his thoughts, so that the only way of hitting the bear was to do so not on purpose—because the bear would know in advance. So it’s the same in working with a Zen master. You have to do the genuine act not on purpose. But since you’re put in a situation where it’s rather formal, and you’re supposed to do it on purpose, you’re stuck, you see? So you explore the onion, and you go in, and in, and in, and then you find—well, it’s all a deception!


Now then, the question arises: who’s deceiving who? Who’s fooling who? I’m fooling me? What is fooling? Fooling is playing like you’re there when you’re not. You know, getting somebody else to answer your name in the roll call. So we’re all—you see, this is the metaphysical basis of it, this is what the Hindus mean by māyā: the world-illusion. The world is playing it’s there when it isn’t. And it’s a trap. And it sucks you in. And you can’t get out of it. And it’s a thorough, big trap, too.


But always, when you get an idea like this, or a feeling like this, follow it to its extreme. Don’t back out from it. If you find you’re selfish, go to the extreme of what selfishness means. Confusion largely results from not following feelings or ideas to their depth. You know, people think they want to be immortal, they’d like to live forever. Do you really want to do that? Think about it. Really go into it, what it would be like. People say they want this, that, and the other; they want this kind of car, they want this kind of dress, or so on, and this much money, and so on—it’s always a good idea to think it right through. What it would involve to be in that situation, to have those desires fulfilled? Also, when you form a relationship to another person, think it through, too. You see? How inconvenient would they be, however attractive? And always turn the embroidery around and look at the underside, but don’t get caught doing it. See, that’s something one does on the side, in secret. Because otherwise you play the game that everything is as it’s supposed to be on the front. But that makes you humorous, and that makes you human.


The Sound of Rain Needs No Translation


Now, summing up, we’ve discussed the web from three points of view. As an analogy of the selective operation of our senses and mind, whereby certain things in the world are picked out as significant according to certain game rules. The game that we are playing, mostly, is the survival game. That is to say, the game ought to go on. Only, the way we play the survival game has a kind of element in it which makes it difficult, because we tend to say, “The first rule of this game is that it’s serious,” and that messes the whole thing up. So you have to watch out, in other words—when you play—for contradictory game rules. Self-contradictory game rules. Because if you get mixed up into them, the game ceases to be worth the candle. You start straining at doing something when it just isn’t worth it.


Then, the second thing that we observed was the web as an analogy of mutual interdependence. We could call it the idea that all existence is relative, that all existence is transactional. The transaction being typically exemplified by, say, the operation of buying and selling, in which there can be no buying without somebody selling, and there can be no selling without somebody else buying. That kind of interdependence of the inside going together with the outside, what is in you going together with what is outside you, is absolutely fundamental to existence. It is existence. Existence is relativity.


Then we explored the web as a trap. The spider’s web: “Won’t you come into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly. And we saw what happens if you look at all of life from the point of view that it is original selfishness and original hunger. And we found that if you take that point of view to its ultimate extreme, it dissolves. And it isn’t so bad after all. There’s a famous comment that R. H. Blyth made on the passage in Macbeth, where Shakespeare says, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And Blyth says, “When it’s put that way it doesn’t seem so bad after all.”


I remember that I had a Zen master friend who wrote a letter to a friend of mine, which was passed on to me, saying that the greatest writers—this friend of mine was aspiring to be a writer, and he was trying to write novels that would put across Buddhism to people. You know, sugar the pill. And my Zen master friend didn’t approve of this at all. He said, “Don’t write any story to people. Write it to the great sky.” Because all the real masters of literature, especially novelists and storytellers, are great masters of nonsense. Think of Lewis Carroll. You can use Lewis Carroll—and he did use Alice in Wonderland—as a Zen textbook: because “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” And that’s Zen.


I had a discussion with a great master in Japan, on the last visit there, and we were talking about the various people who are working to translate the Zen books into English. And he said that’s a waste of time. “If you really understand Zen,” he said, “you can use any book.” You could use the Bible. You could use Alice in Wonderland. You could use the dictionary. “Because,” he said, “the sound of the rain needs no translation.” So what does the rain say? Evening rain. It is the banana leaf that speaks of it first. You see, that’s the point. And all the talk in the world doesn’t get it unless you listen to the talk in a new way. “The sound of the rain needs no translation.”


So, you see, there’s something going on. This web may be looked at as pattern. And the world is basically patterning. What else do you do, when you come to think of it? When you eat you are turning food into the pattern of your skeleton, your muscles, and your nervous system. That’s a pattern. And you say, you see—basically—“Hooray for that pattern! That’s great! It’s terribly interesting!” But then you want other patterns. You like to look through a microscope and see the patterns that exist in the small world. You like to look through a kaleidoscope, or a telidoscope, and see the patterns. You like to have paintings around and see the patterns. You like to watch the water play. You want to watch the birds go, and the clouds, and all that. Fascinating patterns. And that really does—doesn’t it?—seem to be the point.


I mean, what do you do when you’re very rich and you want—let’s take some rascal from ancient times who became very rich by all sorts of skullduggery, and warfare, and so on: he got himself a suit of armor, a beautiful sword. And he had the armorer make the most intricate patters, arabesques of inlaid gold, on the steel. Why? Because it’s, as they say among the Pennsylvania Dutch, it’s “f’nice.” It’s a great thing to have all that jazz, and that’s what we go for.


What Game Would You Like to Play?


What do people do most of the time when they—what would they like to do, really? What’s your idea of heaven? When people are unoccupied, as far as I can make out, they get together and they sing and dance. Or else watch somebody else do it. Nowadays we live in a non-participative culture and we don’t do very much singing and dancing. We are lugubrious. But we watch other people do it on television. What we really are interested in is to be able to spend all the time going, “gohooda-bada-doo boom-di-di-boo-ba, bee-boo doodie-boodie doo-doo tchi-ko boom-boom-boom,” you know, something like this. And that’s what our heart’s doing, that’s what our lungs are doing, it’s what our eyeballs are doing, and it’s what all these fantastic capillaries of the veins are doing. They’re just going, “joo-di-boo-di, huppa-bubba, umpa-buba jee-dee-dee-dee,” you see? And that’s the point.


Now, the thing is: ought this to be allowed? You know? Dare we admit it? Because we’ve been brought up, you see, in a cultural context in which the universe is presided over by somebody serious. And it’s only very, very occasional obscure references in the Jewish and Christian scriptures to the idea that God dances. Of course, in Hindus—they know Shiva dances, and all the Gods dance, and they are represented in the dance.


But in our way of looking at things—no. Back, deep down in, there is something that you must respect with a very, very—you mustn’t laugh in church, especially if you got in front of the throne of heaven. Everybody would be dead silent. Wow! You see, I mean, that’s really serious. Here is the Father Almighty, world without end, and you watch out! Don’t you laugh! Why not? Because Father Almighty, world without end, is a very insecure fellow. And if anybody laughed he might feel uneasy, you know? Like something wrong going on; someone challenged his power. So he is a funny fellow, you see, as we’ve mythologized ultimate reality in the form of this cosmic grandpapa, who is also a king and is demanding—above all things—reverence and respect.


So it’s difficult for us—because of that cultural heritage—to accept, to accommodate our common sense, to the idea that the web might basically be playful. That it might be like somebody saying, “Won’t you come and play with me?” A child. And the other child has some little hesitation. “I don’t know whether I ought to play with you. You come from the wrong side of the tracks.” Or, “I don’t feel like playing today; I feel serious. I don’t think play is important. We ought to do something real, like wash the dishes for mother.” Who, incidentally, has forgotten that the whole point of washing the dishes is playful. You know, you don’t wash the dishes for a serious reason. You like the table to look nice, you know? You don’t want to serve up the dishes with dinner with all the leavings of breakfast still lying on them. So why do you want the table to look nice? Well again, it’s “f’nice,” you see? You like the pattern of it that way.


People get terribly compulsive about doing these things, and they think that going on arranging the patterns of life is something that’s a duty. That means a debt that you owe it to yourself, or to your family, or to someone or other. You’re in debt. See, that’s the trouble. When a child comes into the world, the parents play an awful game on it. Instead of being honest, they say, “We’ve made such great sacrifices for you. Here we are, we’ve supported you, we’ve paid for your education, and you’re an ungrateful little bastard.” And the child feels terribly guilty because what we do is we build into every human being the idea that existence is guilt. The existentialists make a big deal out of this, and you watch out for them because they’re hoaxers, and they say that guilt is ontological. If you’re not feeling guilty you’re not human. And that was because papa and mama said, “Look at all the trouble you’ve caused us. You shouldn’t dare to exist. You have no rights, but maybe we’ll give you some out of the generosity of our hearts, so that you’ll be permanently indebted to us.”


And so everybody goes around with that sort of thing in their background, unless they had different kinds of papas and mamas who didn’t play that trick on them. But so many papas and mamas do do that. And if they don’t do it, somebody else does it. Aunty comes around and says, “You don’t realize what your father and mother have done for you. You think,” you know, “you can just stay around here and goof off! But they’ve sweat blood to give you your clothes, and food, and so on, and you ought to be grateful for it.” But that’s not the way to make people grateful. They won’t be grateful that way; they’ll imitate gratefulness. They’ll go and put on a big show and say, “Oh thank you so much! I feel so indebted to you!” And so on, and so forth, and they’ll make it look good. But it isn’t real. Because, actually, one’s father and mother had a great deal of fun bringing you into being—or we hope they did. And they wanted to do that the worst way. They have no reason to complain about all these things, and try and make the children feel guilty.


But, you see, it’s an amazing thing in our culture that everyone is afflicted with ontological guilt. For example, if a policeman comes to the door, everybody is instantly frightened; you wonder, “What on Earth have I done?” And there are certain clergy who are absolute experts in making you feel guilty. They’re really marvelous. And there are clergy of all kinds, for all classes, and for all levels of intelligence, and they can make you feel real guilty! Only, you have to watch—always—what games people are playing.


Now, you see, the thing is—that really is a puzzle—is that they don’t admit they are playing games. And when a person is playing games, and doesn’t admit that they are playing games, then you have some kind of a trickster who isn’t really being fair to you. Now, of course, the game that this game is not a game has a certain kind of a fascinating quality to it. How mixed up can we all get? Let’s try. See? There’s a certain possibility in that. I would like to go insane, and be as insane as anybody has ever been, and be the far-est out crazy nut in the world. See? That’s a game. But it’s not a good game. It’s a game being played by a person who didn’t really understand that everyday life was a game, too. And I think the most important thing is to admit this.


Is It Serious?


All really humane people admit that they’re rascals. That’s, you see, on the side of the not respectable, the selfish. But so, also, all humane people should admit that they’re jokers; that they are playing games and playing tricks. That I am doing it on you; I am most ready to admit this. I hoaxed you all into coming here to tell you—what? It was a trap, you see? But I’m going to make it an entertaining trap so that you won’t feel so badly about it.


Now, this is philosophy, but I think philosophy is like music. You go to a concert and you listen to somebody play Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, and what’s all that about? You know, it isn’t about anything except “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee, dee-dee diddly-dee”, you know? That’s what it’s about. And so, in the same way, as I conceive my work as a philosopher, I am simply pointing out that existence is the same kind of a thing as a Bach invention. It’s going this way, and that way, and hills, and water is going “tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch” all out there, and the fish are going around in it, breeding, and the ducks are going this, that, and the other, and that’s the same thing as “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee, dee diddly-dee,” see?


So, if you can admit that—that that’s what it’s all about—you have a little problem. Because there’s not only the threat that it really might be serious, and that you shouldn’t be laughing about this, but there’s also a kind of opposite. Then are you saying it’s merely just fiddling around? I mean, are you saying that it’s only a game? Is that all there is to it? What do you think? You see, this, again, is a question that everybody has to think things through. What did you want? Didn’t you want a game? Did you want it to be serious in the end? Think about the question. What kind of a thing would you like God to be? What would you like to do for eternity? Really?


Here is Jan van Eyck, who paints the eschatological picture of the Last Judgement. What a strange man he must have been. Here is heaven above, and hell below. And in heaven, here’s God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, all that together, and the virgin Mary, and the Apostles, and they are all sitting in committee, and they have an aisle—you know, just like in church—and there they are, facing each other, and they’re all sitting there very solemnly.


Now, I don’t know what it’s about. But below, right at the end of the aisle, you see, where all these Apostles are sitting, is Saint Michael: a rather gorgeous figure in beautiful armor with wings. And underneath him is a batwinged skull. And beneath those batwings all horrors is let loose. Michael is about to slosh that skull, you see, with his sword. But below; whoo! There are nude bodies—some of them pretty comely—and they’re all squirming in there, and they’re being eaten by worms, and they are eating the worms, and it’s a kind of a mush. It’s like the sort of situation you find when you turn up a big rock and there’s all that going on underneath. Now, there’s no question whatever that van Eyck, the painter, had more fun painting that part of the picture, than he did painting the top part.


So, in the same way with Hieronymus Bosch, and with Bruegel: they painted every kind of weird, surrealistic deviltry going on, and they really loved it. But they couldn’t admit it. Now, the only time when the holy people had a ball was when, for example, the Islamic artists made arabesques, and the Celtic artists made fantastically intricate lattices to decorate the margins of their gospels and missals. They are unbelievably beautiful. Or take stained glass, or something like that.


But what are they doing? What’s it all about? So you asked the question, then what will you do in heaven? And the thing you wanna do, of course, is to get mixed up in this “tshhhh twtwtwtwtwt.” See it’s like the musician: he likes to take a melody, and he likes to put another melody that fits in with it, and another one that fits in with both, and then a fourth one, and arrange them together, and then invents an instrument like an organ that he plays with two hands, then he adds foot pedals so he can play with his two feet. And he’d get this hand doing one rhythm, this is doing another, this is doing another, and this doing another. See, that makes it complicated.


And so, when drummers get together and play, somebody starts out with a certain rhythm, and then that rhythm has holes in it. In other words, it has certain silences. And the next drummer fills those silences in an interesting way. He comes and picks out a pattern. And what do you imagine DNA is? The basic form of biological existence. Now, DNA is like a necklace—like Charlotte’s wearing—with different kinds of beads in it. And according to the order, and the way those beads are arranged, so you get genes, and so you get the particular form of life that emerges from those genes.


So what we are doing—basic down, way down—is saying, “She loves me, she don’t, she have me, she won’t, she would if she could, but she can’t.” You see? Or, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.” This is the way life is going on. And as a result comes all this, you see?


The question is then, you see—in you heart of hearts—you can take the attitude that all this is terrible, or that it’s dreadfully serious. You see, you can play comedies, you can play tragedies, farces, histories and romances, and all that kind of thing, and you can take these various attitudes to it. But if you are awakened, and, as it were, you’ve been let in to the secret—which is what we’ve been talking about, see? Because the web is also the curtain, you know? The veil. The veil which hides the face of God from the angels, you see? There’s always this veil.


That’s why we like a strip tease: because there’s an implication that this—you should never give the show completely away; always should be a little bit of a veil left, you see? There always is. Because even if you find the strip tease artist gets completely naked, there’s really something hidden. What’s the motivation? What sort of a person is she? Would I really like to embrace her? Or will she have bad breath? You know? Or something. And you never really know. You never really get to the bottom. That’s why everybody—all men poets say that women are basically mysterious. And they ought to be. So are men basically mysterious, from women’s point of view—although they play that they’re not. See, this is the way it goes: men are supposed to be very open, and they say, “Well,” of a certain situation, “this is the way it is. After all, it’s perfectly rational; a matter of practical affairs.” And women say, “Well, I’m not quite as articulate as you are, but I know there’s something you’ve left out, but I can’t explain it.” And by this means everything is kept going.


An Invitation to Dance


So, what I’m saying is, I think, this: I’m trying to share with you a certain style of life, and an attitude to life, and an insight. I’ve taken you to one side and said, “Listen, kids, things aren’t what they seem. Don’t be fooled. There’s a big deception going on, and you’re involved in it, but I just thought you ought to know it and enjoy it.” See? I’m terribly puzzled about the way people go out of their way to dis-enjoy themselves. It takes so much trouble about it.


Did you ever read H. L. Mencken’s essay called The Libido for the Ugly? And it describes a Pennsylvania mining town which isn’t exactly totally impoverished. I mean, they can build things, and they have enough money to do this, that, and the other. But they—he describes how they made a church out of yellow stone that’s so awful that it looks like a Presbyterian with a grin. And all around you have only to look and you see this perfect passion for making the world look grizzly. And it isn’t only job builders and garage owners who do this kind of thing, it’s also people who profess to be painters. They’re actually using excrements for painting in Paris today, on the theory that the world is shot to pieces.


And since the artist is a representative of his times, he ought to show the times as they really are, as a social critic. And so he makes the most weird—I mean, he paints Campbell’s soup can, and then he makes music that shrieks and screams, and the most—he just goes out of his way to make it sound as ugly as he possibly can manage. And the ingenuity about that is endless. Because that is the times. He’s the critic, you see? Instead of being somebody who reveals.


Now, you see, let’s take the sort of the character of the Pied Piper: the person who brings you an invitation to dance. I would say, then, you see, “There is going to be a dance this evening, and I would like you all to come.” You know? That’s the spirit in which I invite you to a seminar. I am not inviting you in the spirit of saying “No, we’re going to have to discuss some very grave matters, and you ought to be awake to all these things and arouse your social conscience,” and so on, and so forth. Because when you get through with all that, then what? When you get through with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked—and we are making great strides with automation, and technology, and abolishing poverty totally—then what are we going to do? Well, you see, if you got all these people clothed, and fed, and so on, and then they say, “Well, now, what next?” And if you got a kind of a Quakerish state of mind you don’t know what to do. Well, feed and clothe somebody else, you see? Get busy. But then, where is that leading?


So, you see, to spread joy you have to have it. To impart delight you have to be, more or less, delightful. And to be delightful is not some factor of trying to make yourself look delightful. It is to do things that are delightful to you. You become, thereby, delightful to others. That’s to say, people who are interesting are people who are interested. Any person, for example, who is always constantly thinking about all sorts of other things, and other people, and so on—because they are fascinating—becomes a fascinating person. But a person who doesn’t think about anybody else, and who’s got very little going on inside their skull, is boring. So, in other words, your engagement with the external world—the more you are involved, the more your personality is enriched. But if you try to enrich your personality by taking a course on how to win friends and how to influence people, or how to be a real person, you become just a washout. Because you’ll be—in a small circle—you’ll be, as it were, you’ll be like somebody trying to get a good nutrition by biting his nails. And then the fingers next, you know? And then half an arm gone, and so on, and you’re entirely nourishing yourself with yourself.


Now, of course, on a vast scale the universe does that: it eats itself up. That’s why the symbol of the snake swallowing its tail is a very fundamental, archaic symbol of life. But the way it’s done is that the snake has, in some part of the ring, a place where it’s not sensitive. It’s called the unconscious. Where it doesn’t know that what comes to it in the form of food is actually what left it in the form of excrement. That thing is—don’t mention it. After all, as the Lord said, “In the beginning of the universe you must draw the line somewhere.”


And so, as a result of there always being a kind of gap—that’s the gap, you know, like where the electric spark jumps—that’s the thing behind your head, behind your eyes, that you can never get to look at. It’s the gap. And because of that little gap the circle doesn’t just revolve in a dull way, just going round, and round, and round like a boring thing. It has rhythm. See, if I say, “Yoeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee;” no rhythm, see? It’s just one long sound. After a while you’ll say, “Oh, cut it out!” Or we just become insensitive to it.


But what we want to hear is a break in it, you see? And we want to hear it go on and off, and vanish and come back again, and so on. And it sets up a rhythm; that becomes interesting. That’s putting gaps between, you see? We need those gaps. So: now you see it, now you don’t, now you see it, now you don’t. Well, that’s pretty dull. So what we are going to do is this: we’re going to have you see it three times, and then with a regular not see it between them, then there are gonna be a longer not see it after that one, and then I’m going to do something very complicated after that, so that you don’t really know when it’s going to come next. So it’s going to be a surprise. You know how we all do that?


And interesting people are those who do this in very involved ways. Dull people—sort of, people who put their hats on absolutely straight—are the kind of people, for example, who have the same meal every day. Exactly the same thing, always. See? Have no inventiveness. They have the same routine, they go to the same office, they answer the same kind of letters, and that’s that. See? But then, if they want to start up a more interesting kind of business and make more money, then they have to figure out—take the people who make clothes. They figure out fashion. There’s going to be a new thing for ladies; a new style this fall. We’re going to make them do long skirts instead of the short skirts and the middle skirts. And they skirts go “wi-tchi-tchi tchi-tchi tchi-tchi,” like this. Then, finally, they thought about having topless women, and they are going to play around with that and have an absolutely scandalous ball. But that’s the whole thing, you see? It’s this thing of rhythm.


And yes, you ask, “Well, I see that. What is doing this rhythm? Who, after all, am I?” And as you explore deeper, and deeper, and deeper into the nature of yourself, you find that you are a rhythm doing a rhythm. And behind that there is another rhythm doing a rhythm. You’re vibrations; and once again you meet our friend, the onion. And who, who is doing all this? Why, he disappeared. He came around, there it was, and we were looking for him, and he vanished. And then, just when we weren’t looking for him again, there he is. But every time we try to see, he isn’t there. Now do you see that? That that situation is what’s called life.

The Web of Life (Part 2)

Alan Watts

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