The Inevitable Ecstasy (Part 1)

Out of Your Mind 5

We are called to immerse in the sacred waters of the Now, releasing resistance’s vain clutch upon illusion’s crumbling stones. Feel each quivering wave, Alan chants, and the jewel of awakening will sparkle within your depths. Suffering fades when we cease damming the holy flow, surrendering instead to bliss’s inevitable tide. Allow yourself to be cradled within sensation’s currents. Let go, dissolve, and the river’s timeless mercy will carry you home, beyond words, to dissolve in the ocean’s mystical embrace.



Undifferentiated vs Differentiated Awareness


This seminar is about a very sticky problem. The problem to which the Buddha primarily addressed himself, which is that of agony; suffering. But before we get into that, we have to be clear about certain basics. And these basics have to do not so much with concepts and ideas, as they do with the state of mind. You can call it also a state of feeling, a state of sensation, a state of consciousness. And we need to understand that—even be in that—before we can really go very far. And this is an extraordinarily difficult state of mind to talk about, even though in its nature it’s extremely simple. Because it is, in a way, like we were when we were babies. When we haven’t been told anything and didn’t know anything other than what we felt, and we had no names for it. Now, of course, as we grow older, we learn to differentiate one thing from another, one event from another, and above all, ourselves from everything else. Well and good, provided you don’t lose the foundations.


Just as mountains are differentiated, but they’re all based on the Earth, so the multiple things of this world are differentiated, but they have, as it were, a basis. There is no word for that basis—not really—because words are only for distinctions. And so there can’t really be a word, not even an idea, of the non-distinction. We can feel it, but we can’t think it. But we don’t feel it like an object. You feel you’re alive, you feel you are conscious, but you don’t know what consciousness is because consciousness is present in every conceivable kind of experience. It’s like the space in which we live, which is everywhere. It’s like a fish being in water, and presumably a fish doesn’t know it’s in the water because it never goes out. A bird presumably knows nothing of the air. And we really know nothing of consciousness, and we pretend space isn’t there.


So, however, when you grow up and become fascinated—which is really the right word; spellbound, enchanted—by all the things that adults wave at you, you forget the background. And you come to think that all the distinctions which you’ve been learning are the supremely important things to be concerned with. You become hypnotized, just in the same way as when the beak of a chicken is put to a chalk line, it gets stuck on that line. And so when we are told to pay attention to what matters, we get stuck with it. And that’s what, in Buddhism, is called attachment.


Attachment doesn’t mean that you enjoy your dinner, or that you enjoy sleeping, or beauty. Those are responses of our organism in its environment as natural as feeling hot near a fire or cold near ice. So are certain responses of fear, or of sorrow. They are not attachment. Attachment is exactly translated by the modern slang term hang-up. It’s a kind of stickiness, or what in psychology would be called blocking. When you are in a state of wobbly hesitation, not knowing how to flow on, that’s attachment; what is meant by the Sanskrit word kleśa.


So when the chicken has its beak put to the chalk line, it’s got a hang-up; it’s stuck on that line. And so, in the same way, we get a hang-up on all the various things we are told as we grow up: by our parents, our aunts and uncles, our teachers, and above all, by our peer group. And the first thing that everybody wants to tell us is the difference between ourselves and the rest of the world. And between those actions which are voluntary and those which are involuntary; what we do on the one hand and what happens to us on the other. And this is, of course, immensely confusing to a small child, because it’s told to do all sorts of things that are really supposed to happen, like going to sleep, like having bowel movements, like loving people, like not blushing, stopping being anxious, and all sorts of things like that.


So what happens is this: the child is told, in sum, that we—your parents, elders, and betters—command you to do what will please us only if you do it spontaneously. And no wonder everybody is completely confused! We go through life with that burden on us.


The Marriage Of An Illusion To A Futility


We therefore develop this curious thing: we develop a thing which is called an ego. Now, I’ve got to be very clear to you what I mean by an ego. An ego is not the same thing as a particular living organism. For my philosophy, the particular living organism, which is inseparable from a particular environment—that is to say, from the universe centered here and now—there’s something real; it isn’t a thing. I call it a feature of the universe. But what we call our ego is something abstract, which is to say it has the same order and kind of reality as an hour, or an inch, or a pound, or a line of longitude. It is for purposes of discussion, it is for convenience. In other words, it is a social convention that we have what is called an ego.


But the fallacy that all of us make is that we treat it as if it were a physical organ. As if it were real in that sense, when in fact it is composed, on the one hand, of our image of ourselves—that is, our idea of ourselves as when we say to somebody, “You must improve your image.” Now, this image of ourselves is obviously not ourselves anymore than an idea of a tree is a tree, anymore than you can get wet in the word ‘water.’ And to go on with our image of ourselves is extremely inaccurate and incomplete. With some God the gift he gave us to see ourselves the way others see us; we don’t. So my image of me is not at all your image of me. And my image of me is extremely incomplete, in that it does not include any information, to speak of, about the functioning of my nervous system, my circulation, my metabolism, my subtle relationships with the entire surrounding human and non-human universe.


So the image I have of myself is a caricature. It is arrived at through, mainly, my interaction with other people who tell me who I am, in various ways, either directly or indirectly. And I play about with what their picture is of me, and they play something back to me, so we set up this conception. And this started very, very early in life. And I was told, you see, and you were told, that we must have a consistent image. You must be you, you have to find your identity in terms of image. And this is an awful red herring.


A lot of the current quest for identity among younger people is a search for an acceptable image. What role can I play? Who am I in the sense of what am I going to do in life, and so on. Now, while that has a certain importance, if it’s not backed up by deeper matters it’s extraordinarily misleading. So therefore, on the one hand, there is this image which is intellectual, emotional, imaginative, and so forth. Now, we would say I don’t feel that I am only an image. I feel there’s something more real than that because I feel. I mean, I have a sense of there being a particular sort of—how do we say—a center of something. Some sort of sensitive core inside this skin. And that corresponds to the word “I.”


Let’s take a look at this. Because the thing that we feel as being myself is certainly not the whole body, because a lot of the body can be seen as an object. In other words, if you stand—stretch yourself out, lie on the floor, and turn your head and look at yourself, you know—you can see your feet, and your legs, and all this up to here, and finally it all vanishes and there this sort of a vague nose in front. And you assume you have a head because everyone else does, and you’ve looked in a mirror and that told you you had a head, but you could never see it, just like you can’t see your back.


So you tend to put your ego on the side of the unseen part of the body. The part you can’t get at. Because that seems to be where it all comes from, and you feel it. But what is it that we feel? Because if I see clearly, and my eyes are in functioning order, the eyes certainly are not conscious of themselves. There are no spots in front of them, no defects—in other words, in the lens, or in the retina, or in the optic nerves that give hallucinations. So also, therefore, if my ego—my consciousness—is working properly, I ought not to be aware of it. As something sort of there, being a nuisance in a way, in the middle of things because your ego is awfully hard to take care of. Well what is it, then, that we feel?


Well, I think I’ve discovered what it is: it’s a chronic, habitual sense of muscular strain, which we were taught in the whole process of doing spontaneous things to order. When you’re taking off in a jet plane, and the thing has gone rather further down the runway than you think it should have without getting up in the air, you start pulling at your seat belt: get this thing off the ground! Perfectly useless! So, in the same way, when our community tells us, “Look carefully. Now listen, pay attention,” we start using muscular strains around our eyes, ears, jaws, hands, to try to use our muscles to make our nerves work—which is, of course, futile. And, in fact, it gets in the way of the functioning of the nerves.


Try to concentrate. And then, when we try to control our emotions, we hold our breath, pull our stomachs in, or tighten our rectal muscles to hold ourselves together. “Now pull yourself together!” And immediately, what are you to do? What does a child understand by that? He does it muscularly; pulls himself together. This is useless! So everybody chronically pulls themself together, so that—it’s so funny—if you get a person to just lie on the floor and relax—there’s the floor under you, as firm as can be, holding you up—nevertheless, you will detect that the person is making all sorts of tensions, lest he should suddenly turn into a nasty jello on the floor.


So that chronic tension—which in Sanskrit is called saṅkoca, which means contraction—is the root of what we call the feeling of the ego. So that, in other words, this feeling of tightness is the physical referent for the psychological image of ourselves. So that we get the ego as the marriage of an illusion to a futility. Even though the idea of an “I” with a name, with a being, is naturally useful for social communication, provided we know what we are doing and take it for what it is. But we are so hung up on this concept that it confuses us, even in the proposition that it might be possible for us to feel otherwise. Because we ask the question—if we hear about people who have transcended the ego—well, we ask, “How do you do that?” Well, I say, “What do you mean, ‘you?’ How do ‘you’ do that?” Because the you you’re talking about doesn’t exist! So you can’t do anything about it anymore than you can cut a cheese with a line of longitude. Now, that sounds very discouraging, doesn’t it?


The Awareness of a Baby


Let’s suppose, now, you are babies again. You don’t know anything. Now, don’t be frightened, because anything you know you can get back later. But, for the time being, here is our awareness. And let’s suppose you have no information about this at all, and no words for it, and that my talking to you is just a noise. Now, don’t try to do anything about this. Don’t make any effort. Because, naturally, by force of habit, certain tensions remain inside you, and certain ideas and words drift all the time through your mind. Just like the wind blows, or clouds move across the sky. Don’t bother with them at all, don’t try to get rid of them. Just be aware of what’s going on in your head, like it was clouds in the sky, or the crackling of the fire. There’s no problem to this. All you have to do, really, is look and listen without naming. And if you are naming, nevermind; just listen to that.


Now, you can’t force anything here; that you can’t willfully stop thinking and stop naming. It’s only telling you that the separate “you” doesn’t exist. It isn’t a mark of defeat, it isn’t a sign of your lack of practice in meditation. That it runs on all by itself simply means that the individual, separate you is a figment of your imagination. So you are aware, at this point of, a happening. Remember, you don’t know anything about the difference between you and it; you haven’t been told that. You’ve no words for the difference between inside and outside, between here and there, and nobody has taught you that what you see out in front of you is either near or far from your eyes. Watch a baby put out a finger to touch the Moon. You don’t know about that. Just—therefore—here it is. We’ll just call it “this.”


And if you will feel it—the going on, which includes absolutely everything you feel—well, whatever that is, it’s what the Chinese call Tao, or what the Buddhists call ‘suchness,’ or tathātā. And it’s a happening. It doesn’t happen to you, because where is that? You—what you call you—is part of the happening, or an aspect of it. It has no parts; it’s not like machine. And it’s a little scary because you feel, “Who’s in control around here?” Why should there be anyone? It’s a very weird notion we have that processes require something outside them to control them. It never occurred to us that processes could be self-controlling. Even though we say to someone, “Control yourself!” We always, in order to think about self-control, we split a person in two. So that there is a you separate from the self that’s supposed to be controlled. Well, how can that achieve anything? How can a noun start a verb? Yet, it’s a fundamental superstition that that can be done.


The Fallacy Of Misplaced Concreteness


So you have this process—which is quite spontaneous—going on. We call it life. It’s controlling itself! It’s aware of itself. It’s aware of itself through you. You are an aperture through which the universe looks at itself. And because it’s the universe looking at itself through you, there’s always an aspect of itself that it can’t see. So it’s just like that snake, you see, that is pursuing its tail. Because the snake can’t see its head, like you can’t. We always find—as we investigate the universe, make the microscope bigger and bigger—and we will find ever more minute things. Make the telescope bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and the universe expands because it’s running away from itself. It won’t do that if you don’t chase it.


So it’s a game of hide-and-seek. Really, when you ask the question, “Who is doing the chasing?” you are still working under the assumption that every verb has to have a subject. That when there is an action there has to be a doer. That’s what I would call a grammatical convention, leading to what Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Like the famous it in “It is raining.” So when you say, “There cannot be knowing without a knower,” this is merely saying no more than, “There can’t be a verb without a subject,” and that’s a grammatical rule, and not a law of nature.


Anything you can think of as a thing, as a noun, can be described by a verb. And there are languages which do that. It sounds awkward in English, but face it: when you look for doers as distinct from deeds, you can’t find them. Just as when you look for stuff underlying the patterns of nature: you can’t find any stuff. You just find more and more patterns. There never was any stuff; it’s a ghost. What we call stuff is simply pattern seen out of focus. It’s fuzzy, so we call it stuff. Like kapok!


So we have these words—energy, matter, being, reality, even Tao—and we can never find them. They always elude us entirely. Although we do have the very strong intuition that all this that we see is connected or related. So we speak of a universe, although that word really means one turn. It’s your turn now. Or, like, you make one turn to look at yourself, but you can’t make two turns and see what’s looking. So it’s very simple, therefore. You only have to understand that you can’t do anything about it. And as they say in Zen:

You cannot take hold of it, but you can’t get rid of it.

And in not being able to get it, you get it.


So all these trials that gurus put their students through have, as their ultimate object, convincing you that you can’t do anything. Only, it’s convincing you very thoroughly. It’s convincing you in more than a theoretical way. Now, perhaps I shouldn’t tell you that—but you see, I’m not a guru in that I don’t give individual spiritual direction to people. And I give away the guru’s tricks. That may not be very good, but on the other hand, those tricks are only necessary in the sense that I would say to someone, “It’s necessary for you to go see a psychiatrist if you think you must.” And if you’re not going to be satisfied without going to Japan and studying Zen Buddhism from a Rōshi—okay, you better go. It isn’t necessary unless you say it is. If that’s the only thing that’ll satisfy you, and you feel that deep down inside you. If you got that yearn, then you’ve got that yearn. But if, on the other hand, you haven’t, you haven’t. And I’m not going to put you down on that account, you see?


The point is, what do you want to do? What is it in you to do? But there it is: that you can struggle, and struggle, and struggle, and indeed will do so as long as you have the feeling inside you that you are missing something. And people—your friends, all sorts of people—will do their utmost to persuade you that you’re missing something. Because they are missing something, and they think they are getting it through a certain way—and therefore, to assure themselves, they’d like you to do it, too. So there is this thing. And, you see, a clever guru beguiles his students by letting them have the feeling of success and accomplishment in certain directions.


A guru gives people exercises; A: that are difficult but can be accomplished, and B: that are impossible. You’ll always be hung-up on the impossible ones, but the possible ones, you will get the feeling of making progress, so that you will double your efforts to solve the impossible exercises. And then they range things in many, many ranks and levels through which you can advance. This state of consciousness, that stage of consciousness, or think of the degrees of masonry, or so on. Ranks, and learning things, the different belts in jūdō, and all that kind of jazz. You can do that, and it gives people this sense of competing with themselves, or even with others. Because of the feeling, inside, that there is just something I’m missing.


And, of course, if you are learning any sort of skill and you haven’t perfected the skill, there is indeed something you are missing. But in this thing that we are talking about that isn’t true. Because you, as the Buddhists say, “are Buddhas from the very beginning.” And all that searching is like looking for your own head, which you can’t see and therefore might conceivably imagine that you are lost. So that, indeed, is the point: that we don’t see what looks, and therefore we think we’ve lost it. And so we are in search of the Self, the ātman. Well, that’s the one thing we can’t find because we have it; we are it! But we confuse it with all these images.


The Sensation of the Happening


So therefore, if you understand perfectly clearly that you can’t do anything to find that very, very important thing—God, Enlightenment, Nirvāṇa, whatever—then what? Well, I find—you know—it’s so stupid, because even if I tell myself, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.” Why did I say that? You see? why did I say that? Why did I go out of my way to tell myself there’s nothing I can do about it? Because in the back of my mind there’s a funny little feeling that if I did tell myself that, something different would happen. See?


Alright, so even that doesn’t work. Nothing works. Now, when absolutely nothing works, where are you? Well, here we are—I mean, there’s a feeling of something going on. The world doesn’t stop dead when there’s nothing you can do. There’s something happening. Now, just there: that’s what I’m talking about. There’s the happening. When you are not doing anything about it, you’re not not doing anything about it; you just can’t help it, it goes on despite anything you think or worry about, or whatever. Now there is the point. Right there.


And remember, although you will think at first that this is a kind of determinism, there are two reasons why it isn’t. One, there is nobody being determined. Now, other people think of determinism as the direction of what happens by the past; the causation of what happens by the past. Now, if you will use your senses you will see that that is a hallucination. The present does not come from the past.


If you listen—and only listen; close your eyes—where do the sounds come from, according to your ears? You hear them coming out of silence. The sounds come, and then they fade off. They go like echoes. Or echoes in the labyrinths of your brain, which we call memories. The sounds don’t come from the past, they come out of now and trail off. You can do that later with your eyes. You can see—like when you are watching television—there’s a vibration coming out from the screen to your eyes. And it starts from there, somehow.


Because we see the hands and then they move, we think that the movement is caused by the hands—and that the hands were there before, and so can move later. We don’t see that our memory of the hands is an echo of there always being now. They never were, they never will be. They’re always now. So is the motion. And that that is recollected is the trailing off echo like the wake of a ship. And so, just as the wake doesn’t move the ship, the past does not move the present. Unless you insist that it does.


And if you say, “Well, naturally, I’m always moved by the past,” that’s an alibi, and it completely fails to explain how you ever learn anything new. That’s why all the psychologists who are mostly behaviorists are completely bogged down in trying to find a theory of learning. Because, according to the theory of learning that we have, everything new that you assimilate is really only learned when translated into terms of what you already know. So in that sense, learning becomes like a library which increases only by the addition of books about books already in it. A lot of libraries are indeed like that. So that’s what we call scholasticism.


So then, you become aware that this happening isn’t happening to you, because you are the happening. The only you there is is what’s going on. Feel it. And disregard the stupid distinctions that you’ve been taught—I mean stupid relatively speaking—and feel it genuinely. When you feel it genuinely—you get down to rock bottom—all that isn’t there. That’s a game that’s been erected on it. And it isn’t determined. In other words, you get this odd feeling of a synthesis between doing and happening, in which doing is as much happening as happening, and happening is as much doing as doing. And if you’re not very careful at that point, you’ll proclaim yourself God Almighty in the Hebrew Christian sense. Like Freud alleges babies feel that they’re omnipotent. And in a way they are. I am omnipotent in so far as I am the universe, but I’m not omnipotent in the role of Alan Watts. Only cunning.


Of Pain and Suffering


So now, then, this sensation of the happening is basic to all we want to explore. With that in mind, we can go on, now, to the question of pain and our so-called reactions to it. And once again, you will see that the problem, as posed, immediately sets up the duality of the pain and the one who suffers it; the one who offers resistance. And therefore, reasoning from that, you can quite easily see that a great deal of the energy of pain is derived from the resistance offered to it. And that resistance takes very many forms, not only of attempts to get away from a pain which is present.


Let’s suppose you try to run away from a migraine headache. As you carry it with you you can’t get away from it, and it seems to be absolutely in the middle of everything that you are. So that, however much you thresh and resist, the pain goes with the threshing. Other forms of pain are problematic, to a large extent, because of our prior anxiety about them, and because of the valuations that we put on them. And we may as well start from that point. And what we very largely dislike about people in pain is the noise they make.


When I challenged R. H. Blyth and said, “You’re a vegetarian, but don’t you realize that plants have feelings?” He said, “Yes, I do, but they don’t scream so loudly.” And so, say, in a hospital or any place like that, it is taboo to scream. Because you must understand that hospitals—and any institution of that kind—is run for the convenience of the staff. All institutions are. And so everything is done in such a way as to interiorize—localize—pain. Of course, in a way, that makes it worse.


So we have a big, big social problem. Fundamental, right from the beginning, about our reaction to anything painful. And these are very odd things. Let’s take, for example, when a child has eaten something that doesn’t agree with it and it vomits. Now, you well know that, when you’ve got a bad stomach, that vomiting is a very pleasant release from that. But because when mama sees the vomit—or somebody else does—they say, “Ugh!” You are taught that doing it is socially unacceptable, and therefore people suppress vomiting, and learn from their parents that it’s nasty—just as they learn that excrement is nasty, and just as they learn to worry about disease and death.


Must Life Go On and On?


Now, there really isn’t anything radically wrong with being sick or with dying. Who said you’re supposed to survive? Who gave you the idea that it’s a gas to go on and on and on? And we can’t say that it’s a good thing for everything to go on living from the very simple demonstration that, if we enable everyone to go on living, we overcrowd ourselves. That we are like an unpruned tree. And so, therefore, one person who dies—in a way—is honorable, because he is making room for others. And the panic that all life, everywhere, must be saved—although each one of us, individually, will naturally appreciate it when anybody saves our life—if we apply that case, you see, all around, we can see that it is not workable.


We can also look further into it, and see that if our death could be indefinitely postponed we would not actually go on postponing it indefinitely. Because after a certain point we would realize that that isn’t the way in which we wanted to survive. Why else would we have children? Because children arrange for us to survive in another way. By, as it were, passing on a torch so that you don’t have to carry it all the time. There comes a point where you can give it up and say, “Now you work.”


It’s a far more amusing arrangement for nature to continue the process of life through different individuals, than it is always with the same individual. Because as each new individual approaches life, life is renewed. And one remembers how fascinating the most ordinary everyday things are to a child. Because they see them all as marvelous, because they see them all in a way that is not related to survival and profit. When we get to thinking of everything in terms of survival and profit value—as we do—then the shapes of scratches on the floor cease to have magic. And most things, in fact, cease to have magic. So therefore, in the course of nature, once we have ceased to see magic in the world anymore, we’re no longer fulfilling nature’s game of being aware of itself. There’s no point in it anymore, and so we die. And so something else comes to birth, which gets an entirely new view. And so, nature’s self-awareness is a game worth the candle.


It is not, therefore, natural for us to wish to prolong life indefinitely. But we live in a culture where it has been rubbed into us, in every conceivable way, that to die is a terrible thing. And that is a tremendous disease from which our culture, in particular, suffers. And we notice it, firstly, in the way in which death is swept under the carpet. This is one of the major problems in hospital work.


When a family conspires with a doctor to keep from grandmother the knowledge that she is dying. Grandmother suspects that she is dying, but probably doesn’t really want to know for sure, and her family talk with her in such a way as to say, “Well, you’ll probably be getting alright in a few weeks. Wouldn’t it be nice to do this, that, and the other?” Because they have this funny feeling that it’s important to build up courage and hope. And so they become liars. And a mutual mistrust develops, because once you are playing the game on that level, you tend to play the mistrust on other levels.


And so the person is left to die alone, suddenly, unprepared, and doped up to the point where death hardly happens. And there is no derivation from it—of the peculiar spiritual experience that can come with death.


A Natural Satori


Back in 1958 I was in Zürich, and there met a most extraordinary man by the name of Karlfried von Dürckheim. He was a former German diplomat who had studied Zen in Japan, and when he came back after the war, he opened a meditation school and retreat in the Black Forest. And he said, “Well, I tell you what, a lot of my work has to do with people who went through spiritual crises during the war.” And he said, “You know, we all know when a person’s in an absolutely extreme situation, and they accept it, there is a possibility of a natural satori.” And that’s what I mean when I was explaining that, when one gets to an extreme—that is to say, to the point where you realize there is nothing you can do about life, nothing you can not do about life—then you’re the mosquito biting the iron bull. Well, so in the same way, he said, “Look, you heard a bomb coming at you—you could hear it whistle, and you knew it was right above you and headed straight at you, and that you were finished—and you accepted it. And suddenly, there was a strange feeling that everything is absolutely clear. You suddenly see that there isn’t a grain of dust in the whole universe that’s in the wrong place. That you understand completely—absolutely, totally—what it’s all about!” You can’t say what it is. But he said, “In so many cases, the bomb was a dud and they lived to tell the tale.”


Or, he said you were in a concentration camp; you’ve been there so long that you gave up all hope whatsoever of ever getting out—you were just going through this miserable, boring, degrading grind, week after week, after week. Nobody paid the slightest attention to you, as an individual. You knew you would never get out and you accepted it. And suddenly, something changed. This extraordinary feeling. Freedom. Or he said you were a displaced refugee. You had lost your family, you didn’t know whether they even existed; you were miles from your home, you didn’t know whether it existed. You had lost your job, your very identity. You were absolutely nowhere. And you accepted it. And suddenly you were as light as a feather and free as the air.


Now, he said, “So many people have had those experiences, and they talk about them to their families and friends, and they say, ‘Oh well, you were under terrific pressure, you probably had some hallucination,’ you know?” Well, he said, “I am showing those people that, so far from having a hallucination, those were the few, few occasions in which they woke up.”


So, you see, this is always the opportunity presented by death: that if one can go into death with eyes opened and have somebody help you, if necessary, to give up before you die, this extraordinary thing can happen to you. So that, from your standpoint in that position at that time, you would say, “I wouldn’t miss that opportunity for the world! Now I understand why we die! The reason we die is to give us the opportunity to understand what life is all about; by letting go.” Because then we come to a situation that the ego can’t deal with.


When we are no longer hypnotized by that, then our natural consciousness can see clearly what all this universe is for. So, therefore, we have missed this golden opportunity by institutionalizing death out of the way instead of having a socially understood acceptance of death, and rejoicing in death. Now, I can imagine that one person would want to rejoice in death in an entirely different way from another. Like, say, a wedding. It’s a rite of passage. There are certainly some forms of celebrating a wedding which I would find a total bore and quite offensive. Other ways would be very good; I would enjoy it.


So everybody—in other words, I’m not saying that you’ve got to get mixed up with a lot of people coming, laughing around you, and bringing you presents, and cards, and everything because you’re going to die. But I’m only indicating a general thing. That the doctor, the ministers, the psychiatrists—and, above all, us—really owe it to our friends to work out an entirely new approach to death. Because what has happened, you see—from earliest childhood, the child learned that great uncle was dying, and saw the family put on long faces and say, “Aaaawh, that’s too bad.” Even Christians, who think they’re going to go to heaven, you know? They get absolutely morbid—more so than anybody else—about death, because heaven, as they all know, is a very boring place. And so this frightful thing: “Oh! He’s dead.” You know?


No one understands that, for the living to lose someone you love—or even for a dying person—to worry about what on earth my wife, my children, my whatever are going to do without me? One can understand a certain worry in that. But nobody is indispensable, and there comes a point when you have to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m completely going to abandon responsibility for anything. Because there is no further way I can do it.” This is another way of that surrender. And then the curious thing that occurs is: the moment all that is dropped, suddenly, it dawns on you that—to be important—existence does not have to go on any longer than a moment. Quantitative continuity is of no value. How long can you hold your breath? Who cares!


So it follows from that, you see, that if any one of us—without being shocked into it by being bombed, or put in a concentration camp—could, at this moment, be as one about to die, genuinely and honestly, we would understand the mystery of life. Because death is the—in a certain sense—the source of life. Just as we see in nature when the leaves fall from the trees, they mold and rot, and this supplies humus from which more plants can grow. It’s a cycle like that.


But in every way—symbolic and otherwise—human beings try to stop that cycle. Unamuno said, “Human beings are the only species that hoard their dead.” And therefore, with the ghastly art of the mortician, we try to make the body unpalatable to the worms, and so to stop life. As if to be eaten, in due course, were an indignity to the human being. Whereas we eat everything else and we give nothing back. So that is a kind of a social symptom of our profound disorientation with respect to death.


We think death is unnatural—and furthermore, in our culture—we think birth is a disease, and send the mama to the hospital for the most unnatural and weird kind of parturition. In other words, more and more, one regards the healthy and inevitable and natural transformations of the body as pathological. I can imagine, you know, people having sexual intercourse on an operating table to be sure that the whole thing is hygienic. You know, everything about us, like that, is becoming over-interfered with by specialists, and less and less the province of our own preferences. It’s very, very hard, indeed, to die in your own way without some blasted bunch of relatives come fussing around and insisting that you go to a hospital, that you get fixed with the tortures of being fed through tubes, and things to keep you alive indefinitely, and waste the family’s savings. It’s even a crime to commit suicide. That’s simply nonsense. It’s this perfect panic to survive at all costs.


The Aversion to Death


Now, let’s get practical. You say, “Okay, I understand what you are saying theoretically, but I know that I would be terrified if there’s somebody who is going to tell me that I was going to die. And that I would look frantically around for some doctor, some sort of something.” That this panic to live is in us in an uncontrollable way, and this is part of the reason why we say we have an instinct to survive. The instinct is this panic. So let’s take another step, now, in the same way as I showed you steps about realizing that you don’t have an ego.


You say to yourself, in the ordinary way, when you feel that panic, you feel a bit ashamed of it. Even though you’ve been taught that you should do everything possible to survive. See what a bind you are in here? So one feels, “Oh goodness, I must face this thing calmly and bravely, and not be in this panic.” But the point of the fact is, you are in a panic, and you can’t stop it! Now, that’s very important because this is another way of showing you the same thing that death is showing you: that you can’t do anything about it. Just as when you finally realize you can’t do anything about the death, you could’ve solved all that before, by understanding you couldn’t do anything about the panic.


But if you think all the time “I’m supposed to stop this panic,” then all that happens is you’re at cross-purposes with yourself again. The panic is, of course, put off in the ordinary way. We all know we are going to die. But it’s sufficiently far off so that we can put it out of our minds. And anybody who does put it in our minds in the ordinary way is taken to be a skeleton at the banquet—a Cassandra, and gloomy.


So that the old-fashioned preacher of bygone days who preached about death, and those monks who kept skulls on their desks—and all that sort of thing—is regarded today as very morbid. Why, in the Baroque times, it was a fashion, for a while, of making tombstones with marvelous sculptures of skeletons and bones all over them. And on the Via Veneto in Rome there is a Capuchin church where, down in the crypt, there are chapels where the altar furnishings and everything are made entirely from the bones of departed monks. Then we have, among Tibetans and Buddhists, graveyard meditations. And they have trumpets in Tibetan Buddhism made of human thigh bones. And they have cups—ritual cups—made of the domes of human skulls, richly worked in silver and turquoise. And we say all that is very morbid.


So, from this point of view you can see—first of all, theoretically—how death can solve its own problem. Now if you say, “I can only see it theoretically, and I can’t go the whole way with you,” then I will ask you, “What is blocking you?” Well, you say, “It gives me the heebie-jeebies and the horrors.” I say, “Alright, so death is not the problem. The heebie-jeebies is the problem.” So let’s deal with the heebie-jeebies in the same way as with death. You cannot stop the heebie-jeebies. You think you should. I say don’t! The heebie-jeebies are very valuable. Not that they will stop you from dying, but becuase from them you will learn the same thing as you would learn from dying.


But the social pressure on you to resist the heebie-jeebies is terrific. Now, why must you do that? Why is everybody saying these heebie-jeebies, these fears, et cetera, are not permissible? You wonder about that, and the reasoning behind all that is not very clear, because it seems to be saying, “Well, if you have all these fears and things like that, you won’t be a very good soldier. You won’t be able to act competently in a crisis; you’ll get the heebie-jeebies instead, and you won’t know what to do.” Well, nobody has ever really proved that. Because actually, people who we would call ‘very courageous,’ are, in fact, often quite frightened. And courageous action is not necessarily a consequence of having no fear. Sometimes it might be, but it isn’t always so. The real reason why the heebie-jeebies are suppressed has more to do with its orgiastic aspects.


The Eroticism of Pain


Wherever the human organism gets into a certain kind of extreme, it starts an oscillating process going. Just as it does in sexual orgasm. And that oscillating process will inspire in others an emotion which they cannot identify, either as disgust or as lust. They don’t know quite what it is. All those extreme situations—terror, and as we shall see more, response to pain—have an orgiastic quality. And they are, therefore, embarrassing because they conflict with our image of ourselves as in control, composed, deported—that’s in the sense of deportment.


But it would be shameful, in a way—you might not want to look at your own face in a state of complete sexual rapture. As a matter of fact, if you saw a photograph of your face, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether you were in pleasure or in pain. It might be either. Because then, you see, what has happened is that a tide, a vibration, a pulsation, has taken over the whole being, so that you are, as it were, in the possession of a God. And that’s something taboo.


So we begin, here, to move into a very difficult area. Because a lot of people will beginn to say this conversation is getting out of line, because we are moving into what are normally called perverse experiences. And the two critical forms of perverse experience are sadism and masochism, where there is the association of pain and ecstasy. In sadism, the confusion of another person’s suffering with that person’s sexual orgasm. In masochism, the identification—or if you want to say confusion—of your own suffering with sexual orgasm. Now, we say “Well, that’s pathological, that’s absurd!” But it exists! People do it all the time—both ways, and sometimes both together. And although this is generally put under the heading of pathology, the fact remains that we can still learn something from it. There’s an important principle in there. Somehow, somewhere. And perhaps, in people who are sadists and masochists, the phenomenon is somehow out of hand because they don’t understand the principle.


Now, do you realize many sadists want nothing more than that their victim should enjoy the pain? The combination sadist and masochist is perfect. And many sadists would be quite reluctant if the victim really didn’t like participating in this at all. And so there’s the joke of the masochist asking the sadist to beat him and he says, “I won’t.” But what happens here is that pain, and the attendant convulsive behavior of the organism, is associated with the erotic. A different value is given to the same symptoms as, say, it is common in France to get a young woman really aroused, you know? And she will say, “Tue-moi! Tue-moi!”—“Kill me! Kill me!” As if, you know, to go as far as you can in throwing yourself away to somebody else, you know? Do anything you want to. And in that abandon, you see, there is the possibility that this—an undulation of feeling, which is total orgiastic feeling—may take over. And in that feeling, you see, you are one with what is happening; completely. And that’s what everybody, as it were, finally aspires to.


So therefore—the masochist, in particular—is a person who has learned throughout life to defend himself against pain by eroticizing pain. Now, do you understand how, therefore, different valuations can be put on one and the same vibration?


The Spectrum of Vibrations


We see, don’t we, all that we experience is understandable as a spectrum of vibrations. There are different kinds of spectra. There’s a spectrum of light, there’s the spectrum of sound. We can also think of spectra of smells, of tactile feelings, of emotions, and so on, all down the line. We are, as it were, living in the midst of a woven tapestry of many dimensions, in which the warps of and woofs are all these different spectra of various kinds of vibrations. And as, on the loom, the warp crosses the woof, and if you didn’t have one you wouldn’t have the other, it takes two to reveal the pattern. So see yourselves as patterns in a weaving system. You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the interlocking of all these different spectra of dimensions.


So then, here they go, and these things are vibrating. Now, when it reaches a certain point, you say, “Oh, that’s too much!” When it reaches another point, you say, “It’s not enough! Why, there’s nothing here! I don’t feel a thing!” You know? “I’m going to go to sleep.” But on the other end, you say, “No, no! No, no, you’re going far enough! If you go any further it is going to tear things apart! I can’t withhold this tension!” See? Now, so, some people will say, “Alright, now. Now, relax, relax, relax. Take it easy, take it easy.” But often, you see, the point is you can’t do that. So then, what I would say to the person who cannot relax—I will stress his tension; go the other way. In other words, go with the line of least resistance. Say, “Okay, you’re tense about all this. Now let’s get really tense! Let’s scream! No! No! No! No! No!” See, you get violent inside! This is not to happen, see? But so that, one way or the other, you see—it doesn’t matter which you go—you begin to get into this thing, which is what is happening when the boat of life begins really to rock. Get rocking with it by whatever way is open. But you are not going to force the issue here.


Instead of saying to you, “You should be doing it in another way that you’re doing it,” I will say, “Now find out the way you must do it, and go that way.” Now, this is a general principle of an art, and we will find there is a kind of a—there are limits to this art, and how it can be used, and so forth. But once the general principles are clear, there aren’t many serious problems left.


That if you begin to look at it in that way, you will begin to realize that ecstasy, by one road or another, is inevitable. That, indeed, ecstasy is, in a way, the nature of existence. There is a universe for the simple reason that it’s ecstatic. What else is all this fireworks about? It is just like music in this ecstatic thing going off. And you have to be, certainly, careful—in a little way here—that any initiation into a deep wisdom is apt, at first, to demotivate you. You think, “What the hell am I doing? All these projects, building this up, and that up, and doing something to save the world, and so on and so forth. Why, the whole thing is nonsense!” Yes!


If you stick there, that’s what they call, in Mahayana Buddhism, the pratyekabuddha. That means the ‘private Buddha,’ as distinct from Bodhisattva, who comes back into everyday life, as they say, for the liberation of all other sentient beings. Because when you know that all this is alright anyway, and that the situation is inevitable ecstasy—I mean, you’re going to get it one way or another—you say, “Well, what was all the fuss about?” you know?


The fact remains: there are a lot of people who just don’t know that and are really hating life, not knowing how to handle hate. And if you are at a certain point you know those other people are you. They’re like—you had an extended body, and all these were nerve ends on the end of it, you see? However, you know also that you can’t really show them anything that they don’t already know, and won’t be able to show them anything else until they know it. But then, the question “What shall I do?” has now disappeared. It should have disappeared in the beginning. Because there wasn’t any real I, there was just the happening. And so that question brings us back again to the experience itself, see? That’s the only way that you can answer the question: is from the experience. You would say, “what would happen if?” The answer is only: “You must feel it. Then you’ll know.”


And the people who hear about this and say, “Wouldn’t that—wouldn’t everybody become totally callous and impassive? How can you assure me that that wouldn’t happen?” I say, “I can’t. But you must get into this state, then you’ll find out.” There’s just no you to get into it anyway.

The Inevitable Ecstasy (Part 1)

Alan Watts

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