The World As Self (Part 1)

Out of Your Mind 9

Alan parts the veil on Hinduism’s mystical heart. The cosmos is līlā, a divine dance between Brahman, the eternal Self, and māyā, the veiling illusion of multiplicity. We are That: Atman, non-separate from Brahman. Liberation dawns when we wake from māyā’s spell of separateness to realize our timeless unity with the One beyond all opposites.



The Totality of All Being


The basis of all Indian philosophy—particularly the teaching of those books called the Upanishads, which are really the distilled essence of Hindu thought—the basis is called the Self. And this word, in Sanskrit, is Ātman, and that means ‘Self’ in the vastest possible sense, and the most inclusive sense of the word. It means ‘yourself,’ and it means also ‘self as such,’ ‘existence as such,’ the ‘totality of all being.’ And, of course, this is something that one cannot talk about in the sense of talking about it logically. You can’t talk about it. A poet can talk about anything, and the Upanishads are, very largely, poetry.


Of course, everything in the world—knives and forks, tables and chairs, trees and stones—are indescribable. Korzybski referred to the physical world as the ‘unspeakable world,’ which was really rather a funny name because it has two edges. It’s, of course, something you can’t say anything about—that is to say, it is ineffable—but it’s unspeakable also in the sense of the word meaning something taboo. And we shall see, as we go on, wherein that taboo consists.


But from the standpoint of logic we can’t say anything about everything, because in order to say something about something, and state it logically, you have to be able to put it in a class. Now, classes are intellectual boxes. When you play games like Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? you’ve got there three boxes. And when you come to think of it, you don’t know any one without another, because in order to have a box there must be what’s inside the box and what’s outside the box. And then, by this method of contrast, we can make a logical discussion about things. All words, therefore, are labels on intellectual pigeonholes.


But then, when you come to what fundamentally is, then you’re without a box and you can’t talk logically. Of course, you can distinguish ‘is’ from ‘is not,’ but only in a very limited way—as I can say, “I have a pen in my left hand. I do not have a pen in my right hand.” And from this we abstract the idea of ‘to be’ and ‘not to be,’ ‘is’ and ‘isn’t.’


But when we consider Being—with a capital ‘B’—this includes not only such ‘is’es as celestial bodies, but also such ‘isn’t’s as the space that encompasses them. And these two go together, as we shall see in more detail as the time goes on.


But now, a perfectly logical person would therefore say that the notion of the Self—the Ātman, as the fundamental reality in which everything else exists—is meaningless. And, of course, from a logical point of view it is. But at the same time, just because something cannot be put into a logical category does not indicate that it isn’t real. The Self, you see, bears somewhat the same relationship to the world as the diaphragm of the speaker in this radio bears to the music you’ve just been hearing. None of the music was about the diaphragm and nobody said anything about there being a diaphragm. The diaphragm, as such, didn’t come into the picture, and yet it was everything in the picture. All those different noises were vibrations of this thin film of metal. So, also, with your eardrum. So, also, with the apparatus of your eyes.


So one might ask, then—just as you say, “Well, what is it on? What is the music on? Is it on tape, is it on a speaker, is it on a drum?” Whatever the variations may be, we can ask the question, “What are you all on? What is all this on?” And the Hindus answer, “It’s on the Self”—like we say, “This one’s on me.” It isn’t that there’s only one Self in the sense that is taught in a philosophy called solipsism. Solipsism is the idea that you are the only person who exists and everybody else is your dream. Nobody can prove that this isn’t so, except I’d like to see a congress of solipsists arguing as to which one of them is really there.


It isn’t that; it’s more complex than that. It’s saying that the Self in each one of you is really, at root, one. Just in the same way that you have, all over your body, millions of nerve ends: each one of those nerve ends is, as it were, a little eye—because all the senses are, fundamentally, one sense; they are various forms of touch. And the most delicate of the forms of touch is, of course, the human eye. Then the ear, and so on, down the list of the senses. Now imagine, then, every little nerve end is a little eye. And it gets its impression of the world, but it sends it all back into the central brain. Well, in a somewhat similar way, every person, every animal, every (what the Hindus call) sentient being—and even rocks are regarded as sentient beings in a very, very primitive form, right down to the lowest—so all those forms that we see may be looked upon as the eyes that look out of one central Self.


Only, of course, in the body—in the human body—we can see the connections between the nerve ends and the brain. It’s much more difficult to see the connection between one individual and another. If they’re married that’s a little bit closer. But just all us human beings rattling around, we’re not even rooted to the ground like trees. And therefore, it’s very easy for us to form the impression that I am only what is inside my bag of skin, and that my Self is a different Self from your Self. And we’re all, therefore, fundamentally disconnected. And so your apparent disconnection—the fact that you are not tied to other people with umbilical cords, or some kind of wiring that gives you one mind—nevertheless, we do have one mind. In the sense that, for example, all of us turn out to be approximately the same shape. Two eyes, two nostrils, a mouth, two hands, two legs, and so on.


A haiku poem—Japanese haiku—says, “A hundred gourds from the mind of one vine.” And so it is with people, and so it is with everything in the world. That’s just from a purely physical point of view. But going yet deeper, we find that it’s somehow a necessity of thought that there be some sort of a something which is the common ground of all these universes, all these galaxies, and that ground is the Self—as Hindus understand it, the Ātman.


Now, that’s quite [a] startling point of view, because what it’s saying is, you see, that you are basically the works.


Awareness of the Self


Now, the Hindus do say that the Self—the great Self—is consciousness. But of course, that does not mean consciousness in the sense of our ordinary everyday consciousness. Ordinary everyday consciousness is indeed a form of this kind of consciousness—shall we say, a manifestation of it?—but then there’s also consciousness which doesn’t notice, but nevertheless is highly responsive. The way your heart beats, the way you breathe, the way you grow your hair: you’re doing it, but you don’t know how it’s done.


So therefore, just in the same way that conscious attention is not aware of all the other operations of the body, so in just that way we are not aware of our connection—indeed, our identity—with the fundamental Self. When the leaves die and fall off the trees, or the fruit drops—next year: more leaves, more fruit. So, in the same way, when you and I die: more babies later. If the whole human race dies, you bet your life there are all kinds of things that feel that they’re human scattered throughout the multiplicity of galaxies. Because this universe is a peopling universe, just as an apple tree apples. But because we are unconscious of the intervals we are not aware of the Self with our conscious attention when conscious attention isn’t operating. But still, just as you don’t notice what your pineal gland, say, is doing at the moment, so in the same way you don’t notice the connections which tie us all together—not only here and now, but forever and ever and ever and ever.


The difficulty, the basic reason why we don’t notice the Self, is that the Self doesn’t need to look at itself. A knife doesn’t need to cut itself. Fire doesn’t need to burn itself. Water doesn’t need to quench itself, and a light doesn’t need to shine on itself. So this is the fundamental problem of having some sort of awareness of the self. Nevertheless, it is the whole contention of Indian philosophy, especially what we call Vedānta, that it is possible—in a certain way—to become aware of oneself in this deepest sense; to know that you are the totality.


And this experience is the real substance of Indian philosophy as a whole, both Hindu and Buddhist. It is called mokṣa, which roughly means ‘liberation.’ Liberation from the hallucination that you are just “poor little me.” To wake up from that kind of hypnosis and discover that you are simply something—your organism, your physical body, your conscious attention (which is your ego)—that you are something being done by this vast, indescribable Self, which is out of time, which has no beginning, no end, it neither continues nor discontinues. It’s beyond all categorization whatsoever, and so the Upanishads say, “all we can say of it positively is the negative.” Neti neti; ‘it is not this, not that.’ Anything, therefore, you can formulate—imagine, picture—will not be the Self.


So when you are trying to know the Self you have to get rid of every idea in your head. It doesn’t mean, as some people seem to think, that you have to get rid of every sense-impression. It isn’t as if you had to go into a catatonic state of total absorption. Of course that can be done, but the full mokṣa—the full liberation—is when you come back out of absorption and see this everyday world just as it looks now, but see as clearly as clearly can be that it is all the Self. You can become aware of this tremendous interconnectedness of everything, and that is what somebody who is mokṣa—who is liberated—sees. He sees, shall we say, that everything goes together.


And that is, in a way, what we mean by ‘relativity.’ Because relativity means ‘relatedness,’ just as fronts go with backs and tops with bottoms, insides with outsides, solids with spaces, so everything that there is goes together. And it makes no difference whether it lasts a long time or whether it lasts a short time. A galaxy goes together with all the universe just as much as a mosquito, which has a very short life. From the standpoint of the Self, time is completely relative. You can have, if you scale it down, as much time between two of those very rapid drumbeats as you can in eons and eons and eons. It’s all a question of point of view. Or—to use a scientific expression—level of magnification.


Change your magnification and you see molecules. And we know by other methods of observation that it can get smaller and smaller and smaller, and that the spaces between these minute units are so vast that they’re comparable to the distances between the sun and the planets, in scale. So, also, with time. So, in this sense, there could be vast, vast universes full of empires, and battleships, and palaces, and brothels, and restaurants, and orchestras in the tip of your fingernail. And, on the other hand, we could be all going on in the tip of somebody else’s fingernail.


It’s very important to understand not only the relativity of size and of time, but also of what there is. Now, as you know, the human senses respond only to a very small band of the known spectrum of vibrations. We know, through instruments, of quite a vast spectrum, but we—as I say, with our senses—see only a little of it. If our senses were in some way altered we would see a rather different looking world We can do this, of course—we can put on special lenses to enable us to see heat, and then we see all the heat radiations coming out of people. And we say, “Well, I never noticed that about you before!” But so, in the same way, you see, there are infinitely many possibilities of vibration, and of organs sensitive to those vibrations, so that there could be world within worlds within worlds, spaces within spaces, just like the many, many wavelengths of radio and television going on forever and ever in all directions. The possibilities are infinite.


But having senses and noticing is a selective process. It picks out only certain ones, just as when you play the piano. You don’t take both arms and slam down all keys at once, you select. And so perception is a kind of piano-playing; it is picking out certain things as significant—that is to say, as constituting patterns. And the whole universe seems to be a process of playing with different patterns. But whatever it does, whatever it plays, in whatever dimension, on whatever scale of time or space, it’s all on the Self.


The Fundamental I


The Self is also known in Sanskrit as Brahman. This is a neuter word. Brahman is from the root brh, which means ‘to expand,’ ‘to grow.’ It isn’t quite clear exactly why this word was chosen. Sometimes there’s a still better word for the Self—which I like—is the word tat; almost like ‘tit for tat.’ Tat means ‘that.’ We get our word ‘that’ from the sanskrit tat. And so, when a baby comes into being first of all, the first thing it says is, “Da! Da.” The baby’s pointing, “Da, da, da!” And it’s saying, “That! Look, isn’t that marvelous?” That, you see?


So that is the which in which there is no whicher, and so you get the formula in this Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: tat tvam asi, which means: tat: ‘that;’ tvam: ‘that in,’ you know, ‘you;’ asi: ‘are.’ ‘You are that,’ or ‘that thou art;’ ‘that art thou.’


So in this sense, then, every self is modeled on—and is an expression of—the one Self, because you all feel, individually, that you’re the center of the world. And everything else is seen in circles, circling out, sphering out from where you are. And that’s, as it were—they called them ‘microcosm,’ the little cosmos. But then, in the same way, the macrocosm as a central self, although this is not central in the way we talk about centers in space. Do you see that? A center of a circle is in the middle of the circle and the circumference is away from it. But you could say—you could use a phrase that the Christian theologians have used of God—that circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.


You could speak of Brahman that way. It isn’t in the middle of the universe, spacially speaking. You might ask the question, “Where is the universe?” Ever thought of that one? Where is it? Well, you can’t say where because everywhere has to be in relation to something. There would have to be another universe to say where this one is. But then, since those two together would constitute ‘the universe,’ we wouldn’t—still—be able to say where it was. It isn’t anywhere.


And so, in that sense, the center isn’t anywhere in space, locally—and furthermore, the kind of space we are dealing with is only one possible kind of space. It’s the kind of space our physical organisms are attuned to. We are, you see, like the radio: we pick up what wavelengths we’re on.


So, then, when inquirers used to come to that great modern Hindu saint Sri Ramana Maharshi, and they’d ask him all sorts of silly questions like, “Who was I in my last incarnation? What will I be in my next one?” he would always reply, “Who is asking the question? Who are you? Find out, because that’s the thing you need to know.” As it were, dig down into the depths of your being and say, “What is this that I call ‘I’?” That’s one of the very fascinating questions. It’s also—it teases us out of thought; to think about death in the sense of going to sleep and never waking up. Imagine that. And you find you can’t—and yet, it’s a thought that, although you can’t get to grips with it, it remains fascinating.


Also, the question, “How is it that suddenly you awakened into this world? Where were you before?” In Zen Buddhism they have the meditation problem, the kōan: “Before your father and mother conceived you, what is your original nature?” And that’s the same sort of weird question as what it would be like to go to sleep and never wake up. What was it like to wake up having not previously gone to sleep? It’s very mysterious.


But as you go on and plumb this question you begin to develop the feeling that your existence is exceedingly odd. In many ways odd. Odd because it is here and it so easily might not have been. After all, if your father hadn’t met your mother, would you be here? Of course, somebody would be here, because he might have met somebody else. Would that be you? Of course it would. Don’t you see? You can only be you by being someone. But every someone is you. Every someone is ‘I.’ That’s your name. You say, “It’s me. I am here.” And everybody feels that I in the same way. It’s the same feeling, just like blue everywhere is the same color.


So I-ness being, as it were, the most fundamental thing in man is also fundamental to the universe. It, too, is ‘I.’ And our ‘I’ is a special case of it. Coming out from the ‘central eye,’ like so many tits from the belly of a sow, or so many spines from a sea urchin, so many legs from a spider. And that is, of course, why the images of the Hindu gods are shown with many arms or many faces: because it is saying that all arms are the arms of the divinity, all faces are its masks.


So, you see, there’s really nothing to worry about because the important you is perfectly indestructible. It’s what there is. Our comings and goings, our fortunes and misfortunes are a sort of mirage. The more we know about them, the more we know about the world, the more diaphanous it seems. And therefore everything in the world has the characteristics of smoke—you know, when you blow a cigarette, or pipe, or something, and a cloud of smoke, and you see it in a sunbeam and it’s full of whorls and designs and all kinds of marvelous things going on, and then, slowly, it disappears. Well, everything’s just like that.


Now, there are two attitudes you can take to that state of affairs. You can say sour grapes, it’s all a lousy, wretched trap. And here I am, I’m given all these feelings of love and attachment and joy of life, and then I fall apart. My teeth drop out, my eyes become feeble, I get cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, or something, and then it all falls apart, and it’s too bad! Therefore, therefore, don’t become attached to things. Don’t enjoy life. Treat it, holding it off—like that—just like a very, very firm person who’s been jilted and says, “Never again will I get mixed up with love, because love hurts.”


But on the other hand, a weaving of smoke can be very beautiful, provided you don’t lean on it. Provided you don’t try to preserve it. Catch hold of it—then you destroy it. So, exactly the same way: there’s nothing in the way of form that you can lean on, that you can grasp. And if you see that, then the world of form is very beautiful. If you let it go.


To love people—you see, if you are husband and wife you must let each other go, otherwise the marriage is either going to break up or it’s going to be hell. If you love a person you say to that person, “Look, I love you—whatever that may be. I’ve seen quite a bit of it, and I know there’s lots I haven’t seen. But still, it’s you, and I want you to be what you want to be. And I won’t be happy if I’ve got you in a cage. You’d be a bird without song.” And they’re likely to go on loving each other. But if they wrap each other up with all sorts of ties and chains and documents and things, then they’re not on a very safe basis. The very firm words of those documents belie the situation, because nobody curses, and swears, and kisses the Bible, and all sorts of things like that if he means ‘yes.’ If there’s some doubt that he means yes, then he’s asked to make all these rituals of cursing and swearing, signing on dotted lines, and see and some—indicates doubt right at once. It’s just a fly in the ointment from the beginning.


Self as Play


So when the Hindu and Buddhist philosophers speak of detachment from all this apparent world of separate beings—detachment means ‘going with’ this whole thing and not resisting its change. And you can afford to go with it, you can afford to get mixed up in life, and to fall in love, and to get involved with all sorts of things. You can afford it if you know that it’s an illusion. But this is not illusion in a bad sense of the word.


Here’s this Hindu word—crucial—the world is called māyā. This word, māyā—yes, it means ‘illusion,’ it means ‘magic,’ it means ‘art,’ it means ‘delineation,’ or ‘measurement’—and so from matr we get ‘meter,’ and we also get ‘matter,’ ‘material.’ Isn’t it funny that the way we say ‘material’—today, we mean something very real, but the root of the word is ‘illusion.’ So, you see—I mean, measurement is kind of an illusion. You don’t find inches lying around; you can’t pick up an inch. So, in the same way that hours and inches and pounds and dollars and so on are actually imaginary—they’re elaborate systems of cosmic bookkeeping with their little scratches on paper, little hairlines on dials—so in exactly that way the distinction between things is māyā, is imaginary. But what an imagination! In a way, to say that the world is māyā is at the same time to say that what lies behind māyā is immaterial. Look at the reversal of the word. Oh, it’s immaterial, it doesn’t matter. What matters is all this.


But that gets us to a deeper point yet. The Self—the real Self—doesn’t matter, which is another way of saying it doesn’t exist for any purpose. It doesn’t need to exist for any purpose. What purpose would it exist for, when it’s what there is! It won’t find anything in the future, has nothing in the past that it has to go back and remember. It’s now. An eternal now. And so, in that way it doesn’t matter. But therefore, the most important thing in the universe is the one thing that doesn’t matter. The one thing that’s totally and completely useless, and that nobody can find anything for.


Once, a Zen master was asked, “What is the most valuable thing in the world?”

And he answered, “The head of a dead cat.”


“Because no one can put a price on it.”


So this Self, the Brahman, is like the head of a dead cat. But you see, if, then, you say, “Mmm, I really ought to get that dead cat’s head because… something spiritual about it and it’d be very good for me. After all, if I knew the Self I might be a better person. People might like me more. I’d be more constructive in society. I would do this, that, and the other.” You see, that’s putting the cart before the horse. That’s trying to make the tail wag the dog.


The knowledge of Brahman—the Self—never does anybody any good if they’re trying to make it do them some good. Only when they are not concerned with whether it does them any good or not does it do them any good. It’s like when you relax and you go out and play. Americans, in particular, don’t know how to do this because they always justify it. They always say, “It’s good for me. It’s exercise. It’s just a change from work, and that’ll be able to make me work better.” See? Everything they do is done for some serious reasons. It’s the Protestant conscience. And so we never play, except very exceptionally. Because play is that which is done just for itself—for fun.


So the Self—the Ātman, the Brahman—exists for fun. See, there is no reason to exist; it’s completely useless. And it is—therefore, māyā is linked with the word līlā, and that means ‘play.’ Also, of course, the word ‘illusion,’ in English, is derived from the Latin ludere, ‘to play.’


So the nature, you might say, of the Self is that it does no work, it only plays. Work is something serious, you now, that you do for a purpose because you believe that you’ve got to go on living! You work to survive, because you think you have to survive. That was one of the things they told you as a little child. You’ve got to go on, man!


You don’t have to. This thing doesn’t have to go on—that’s why it does. I know that sounds paradoxical, but there’s so many things in life that are like that. If I’m trying to impress people I usually don’t. If you try too hard with anything you usually make a mess of it. And so this basic thing, then, is that the Self—the Brahman behind the world—is engaged in play. It is in this sense that the Hindu philosophers say, “Brahman does not actually become the world.” The meaning of that is: he’s playing at being it—or it’s playing at being it—as distinct from working at it.


And so, in certain Oriental countries, when one refers to noble people of high birth it is often said, “Lord So-and-so has died.” The Japanese would say he’s played at dying. Or will he play at taking a journey to Tokyo? Also, remember this: although I have constantly used in this talk the word ‘one’ to apply to the Self—and ‘central’—the Hindus don’t use this word except speaking poetically and loosely. The Self is not one. The Self is called ‘non-dual’—because, you see, the idea of one has an opposite. The opposite of one is many—or none. But the which then which there is no whicher has no opposite; there’s nothing outside it, so you can’t call it ‘one.’ Because ‘one’ is an exclusive idea, it excludes ‘two.’ So they call it, instead of ‘one,’ they call it ‘non-dual,’ which is advaita. This is from the word, you see—dva is the root meaning ‘two;’ the ‘v’ becomes ‘u,’ so we get ‘dual;’ and ‘a’ is the meaning—in Sanskrit, often—‘non.’ Non-dual, advaita.


And so it doesn’t exclude anything. ‘One’ is an exclusive word. Advaita is meant to be a totally inclusive kind of unity. Now, of course, this word itself—when you look at it from a logical standpoint—is a dualistic word, just like ‘one.’ It’s the opposite of dvaita. Dvaita and advaita. But the idea here, in Indian philosophy, is to use this word in a certain way. Now, you know that on a flat surface you can’t draw three dimensions. Anything you draw will be in two dimensions. But why do we see three dimensions? Because of an artistic convention called one-point perspective, which will give you the illusion of a third dimension.


Now, in other words, a two-dimensional line is being used to imply a third dimension which can never be expressed on a flat surface. So, in exactly the same way, advaita is a word used specially to designate what lies beyond all logical categories.


The Rhythmic Dance


So you must remember, of course, that the word ‘play’ and the word ‘game’ have many levels of meaning. We are accustomed to use the word ‘play’ in opposition to ‘work’ and to regard play as trivial and work as serious. Very largely, a game or a play is something associated in our minds with triviality. “You’re only playing with me,” says a girl to a suitor, “you’re not serious.” How serious do you have to be? When does one get serious in a flirtation? When do we say this is getting serious? When you’re holding hands? Playing footsies under the table? Do you see? Petting? Sleeping together? Married and babies? Maybe that’s serious.


But we also use the word ‘play’ in a non-trivial sense. I went to hear Heifetz play the violin. Was that a trivial matter? On the contrary—the very highest kind of artform. Still: ‘play.’ I say, too—when I do philosophy, like I’m doing with you—this is entertainment, but in the sense—perhaps, I hope—of your listening to someone play a musical classic. I’m not being serious, but I am being sincere.


The difference, you see, between seriousness and sincerity is that seriousness is someone speaking in the context of the possibility of tragedy; that there is a situation where things might go absolutely wrong, and then I put on the expression which is serious. That’s why soldiers on parade are always serious. They don’t laugh. And when they salute the flag they put on a stern expression. That’s why, in courts of law and in churches, people normally don’t laugh—because all that we deal with here is very important, a matter of life and death.


But the fundamental question must be brought forth: is God serious? And obviously the answer is no, because there’s nothing to be serious about. I said, also, that the Self—as conceived, the supreme Self—was quite useless, that it was immaterial. Doesn’t matter. Because it transcends all values of what is better or worse, what is upwards or downwards, what is good and bad. It so weaves the world that the good or the bad play together like the black and white pieces in the game of chess.


So play is—deeply—the sort of thing children like to do with deep absorption and fascination. To drop pebbles into the water and watch the concentric circles of waves. Or mathematicians. Mathematicians, you know—especially what we call higher mathematicians—are entirely lacking in seriousness. They couldn’t give a hoot in hell as to whether what they’re doing has any practical application. They are working entirely on interesting puzzles and working out what they call elegant and beautiful solutions to these puzzles. And they can go on and on like that in absorbed meditation, spend their whole lives doing it. Or consider the musician: practicing, working out interpretations; what is he doing? He’s making series of interesting noises on instruments.


Now, what do people like to do when they don’t have to do anything? Well, as far as I can make out as you look all over the world, they like to get together and do something rhythmic. They may dance, they may sing, they may even play games—because, say, in playing dice there’s a certain wonderful rhythm to shaking the cup and rolling the dice out on the table. Or dealing cards: “Tsu-tsu-tsu-tsu-tsu-tsu-tsu Wwrrrrrrtt! Crrrck!” You know? All the things that people like to do and think about: these rhythms. Or some people like to knit, and this is a rhythmic thing, you see? Others just like to breathe. There are all sorts of ways in which we love to do this.


Now you see, our very existence is a rhythm of waking and sleeping, eating, and moving—and that’s all we’re doing. Just consider what we do every day. What’s it all about? Does it really mean anything? Does it go anywhere? It’s just because we want to keep on doing this kind of a hoop-dee-dah. So you can get a certain vision of life where everything is seen to be a complex pattern of rhythm. Dances. The human dance, the flower dance, the bee dance, the giraffe dance. And these are also comparable to various games: poker, bridge, backgammon, chess, checkers, et cetera, or to various musical forms: sonata, fugue, partita, concerto, symphony, or whatever.


And that’s what this all is: it’s jazz, you see? This is a big jazz, this world. And what it’s trying to do is to see how jazzed up it can get, how far out this play of rhythm can go. Because that what we all come down to, you see? We’re going this “di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-DI-di-di-di-di” in every conceivable way. So then that is why, you see, this fundamental view that the world is play.

Now, let’s examine the rules of this game.


Rules of the Game


The basic form of the cosmic game according to the Hindu view is the game of hide-and-seek—or you might call it the game of lost-and-found. Or, again, now you see it, now you don’t. In examining the nature of vibration we find a very peculiar thing. If you represent vibration as a wave motion you will notice that there is no such manifestation as half a wave. We do not find in nature crests without troughs or troughs without crests. No sound is produced unless there is both. Both the beat, as it were, and the interval between.


Now, this wave phenomenon is happening on ever so many scales. There is the very, very fast wave of light, the slower wave of sound, then there are all sorts of other wave processes—the beat of the heart, the rhythm of the breath, waking and sleeping, the peak of human life from birth to maturity and down again to death. And the slower the wave goes the more difficult it is to see that the crest and the trough are inseparable, so that we become persuaded in the game of hide-and-seek that it is possible for the trough to go down and down and down for ever and never rise again into a crest; forgetting that trough implies crest just as crest implies trough. There is no such thing, you see, as pure sound. Sound is sound-silence. Light is light-darkness. Light is pulsation, and between every light pulse there’s the dark pulse. And so the Hindu image is that the Self eternally plays a game of hide-and-seek with itself.


Hindus calculate time in kalpa units, and the kalpa is 4,320,000 years. And so they say that for a period of a kalpa the worlds are manifested—or any particular universe, not all universes, but let’s say any particular galaxy or whatever it may be; world order of some kind. Don’t take this too literally; don’t take these figures as being some sort of divine revelation as to making predicitons and prophecies. They’re symbolic figures. So for one kalpa the world is manifested, and that period is called in Sanskrit a Manvantara. And during that time the Brahman plays ‘hide,’ and he hides—it hides—in all of us, pretending that it’s us. And then, at the end of the kalpa, there comes the period called Pralaya, and that is also a kalpa long. And in that period the Brahman, as it were, comes out of the act and returns to itself in peace and bliss.


This is a very logical idea. What would you do if you were God? Isn’t the whole fun of things, as every child knows, to go on adventures? To make believe, to create illusions—that is to say, patterns. And so, for some ways of talking in Hindu thought, this world is the dream of the godhead. The godhead is, of course, represented as—in a way—two-faced. With one face he dreams and is absorbed in the dream world. With the other face he is liberated. In other words, what you have to understand correctly is that from the standpoint of the Self—the supreme Self—the Pralaya and the Manvantara are simultaneous.


But put into mythological form for human consumption they are represented as being in sequence, following each other. But they really happen at the same time, so that one doesn’t realize union with the Self after death; later than a certain time. All references to the hereafter should correctly be understood as the herein, as a domain deeper than egocentric consciousness—that is to say, when you get down to the bottom of the egocentric consciousness you get to its limit, which is, figuratively, its death. Then you go on, inwards—the Self deeper than the conscious attention. And in that way you go inwards to eternity, you don’t go onwards to eternity. To go onwards is to find only time, and time, and time, and more time, and more time, in which things go round and round and round for ever. But to go in is to go to eternity.


But in the ordinary way, when we are talking about this graphically and vividly in imagistic terms, we can talk about the everlasting game of hide-and-seek, which the Self plays with itself. It forgets who it is and then creeps up behind itself and says, “Boo!” And that’s a great thrill. It pretends that things are getting serious, just as a great actor on the stage—although the audience know that what they’re seeing is only a play—the skill of the actor is to take the audience in and have them all sitting in anxiety on the edges of their seats, or to be weeping or laughing, or utterly involved in what they really know is only a play. So you would imagine that if there were a very great actor with absolutely superb technique he would take himself in. And he, you see, would feel that the play was real.


Well, that’s their idea of what we’re doing here and now. We are all the Brahman, acting our own parts, being human, playing the human game—so beautifully that he is enchanted! You see what enchanted means? Under the influence of a chant. Hypnotized. Spellbound. Fascinated. And that fascination is māyā.


The Hindu Yugas


Now then, this works on a little plan. Let us consider the breakdown of a single kalpa. It consists of four yugas. Yuga: that means an “epoch.” Number one is called krita, or sometimes satya. And these names are based on the Hindu game of dice. There are four throws in their game, and krita means the perfect throw; the throw of four. Number two is treta, the throw of three. Number three is dwapara, the throw of two, and number four is kali—that’s the worst throw, the throw of value one.


Now, you will see that these yugas divide up a period of 4,320,000 years. (I never remember numbers too well.) So the first yuga is 1,780,000 years long. The second is 1,296,000 years. The third—the dwapara—is 864,000, and the kali yuga is 432,000.


Now, you see what’s happening here? When the manifestation starts it’s as good as possible; everything is just glorious. Because you know well that if you were dreaming anything you wanted to dream you would start out by having the most luscious dreams imaginable. Now, when we get, you see, to the treta yuga, something is a little bit wrong. Krita is “four square”—everything’s perfect, like the symbol of the square is an ancient symbol of perfection. Treta is the triangle—something’s missing; there’s a little bit of uncertainty, and danger now enters. By the time we get to dwapara, the forces of light and darkness are equal—duality, the pair. But when we get to kali, the force of darkness overcomes.


But now, you see, what happens is: if you take one third of the treta yuga as being on the bad side, half of the dwapara yuga as being on the bad side, and all of the kali yuga, and you add those figures up, you will get the bad side occupying only one third of the total time. So what’s going on here? It is not quite a situation, you see—it is not a view of the cosmos in which good and evil are so evenly balanced that nothing happens. ‘Evil’ is just troublesome enough to give ‘good’ a run for its money. It’s as if the game that is being played here is playing order against chaos, but you gotta have some chaos in order to play the game of order against it. But if order wins there’s no further game. If chaos wins there’s no further game. If they’re equally balanced it’s a stalemate. So what happens is this: chaos is always losing, but is never defeated. It’s the good loser. And that is a game that is worth the candle.


Let’s take playing chess. If you get an opponent who can always defeat you, you stop playing with him. If you get an opponent whom you can always defeat, you stop playing with him. But so long as there is a certain uncertainty of outcome and you win some of the time, then it’s a good game. And this is simply a number symbolism—as I said, again, not to be taken literally—of the way this thing works.


So the mythology says that we are now in the kali yuga, which started a little before 3,000 B.C.—so we’ve got a long way to go to the end of it, if you’re going to take this literally. But of course, people have a way of always being in the kali yuga. We can go back to Egyptian inscriptions from 6,000 B.C., which say that the world is going hopelessly to the dogs. That’s always been the complaint. But according to this mythology there are—you have to realize the Lord, the Brahman, in three aspects. One is Brahma, the creative principle; two is Vishnu, the preserving principle; and three is Shiva, the destroying principle.


And Shiva is very important here. Shiva is always represented in Hindu imagery as a yogi. He is the destroyer in the sense of being the liberator, the cracker of shells so that chickens can come forth. The breaker-up of mothers so that their children can be un-smothered. The liberative destruction. The bonfire. That’s why devotees of Shiva like to do their meditations along the banks of the Ganges where they burn dead bodies—because through destruction, life is constantly renewed.


Shiva has a paramour, and her name is Kālī, but that is a different word than this kali (yuga); you mustn’t confuse the two. And Kālī is much worse than Shiva. She’s black, and she has a long, long tongue, and her teeth are like fangs—but she’s very beautiful… otherwise; has a lovely figure, but she’s black. And in one hand—her right hand—she carries a scimitar, and in her left she carries a severed head hanging by the hair.


And Kālī, who is Shiva’s—you see, Shiva is normally considered wedded; all the gods have their paramours, and they’re all examples of the one central Self—she’s called Pārvatī. But that’s her bright aspect. But her dark aspect is Kālī. And Kālī is the awful awfuls. The thing about all that men most dread. Kālī is outer darkness, Kālī is the end. She may be represented as a blood-sucking octopus, as a spider-mother that eats its spouse. And Kālī is the principle of total night. And yet, there are those in India like Sri Ramakrishna, for whom Kālī is the supreme mother goddess. Because she is two-faced. She is playful and terrifying, loving and devouring, destroyer and savior. And the cult of Kālī has as its importance helping one to see the light principle in the very depth of darkness.


I have some suggestions for meditation on Kālī, which you can all practice very easily. You go to the aquarium and you find out there the monsters of the deep that make you feel most uncomfortable, and you study them. So in this way, Kālī is studied by her devotees. And if you meditate on those, this will be like putting manure on the soil. And out of all this apparently morbid and dismal thinking, bright things will begin to arise—because you will realize that what Kālī is is the most far out act that the supreme Self can put on. The symbol of complete alienation from itself.


So what happens, you see, is this: in the process of the game of hide-and-seek the supreme Self tries to see how far out it can get. Just like children like to sit around and have a competition as to who can make the most hideous face. And so this gets worse and worse as the time cycle goes on, until—at the end of the kali yugaShiva puts in an appearance, and he’s all black and has ten arms, and he dances a dance called the Tāṇḍava. And in dancing the Tāṇḍava the whole universe is destroyed in fire. But, of course, as Shiva—having done this wreckage—turns around to leave the stage, you find that on the back of his head is the face of Brahma, the creator. And it starts again.


Western Difficulty with Hindu Mythology


Well now, you see, this involves certain ideas that are quite alien to the West. One, the idea of the world as play. Our Lord God in the West tends to be over-serious, and no great Christian artist has ever painted a laughing Christ, or a smiling Christ. Nothing that I’ve seen of any of the great masters. Always, this figure is tragic and has that sort of look in the eye which says, “One of these days you and I have got to get together for a very serious talk.” So, you see, there is some difficulty about the notion of the world as a dramatic play; for us.


There’s another difficult notion here, and that is cyclic time. See, most of us live in linear time. This originated with Saint Augustine and his interpretation of the Bible. Now, I don’t know how true this really is, but it’s certainly a big fashion in modern scholarship to say that it was Judaism that gave us the idea of history. Hindus have no interest in history whatsoever—or, not until recent times—to the total exasperation of historians. There is no way of finding textual evidence of the age of most of the Hindu scriptures—because they aren’t interested in history as such, they are only interested in human events as archetypal occurrences, as repetitions of the great mythological themes, over and over again. So if a document started out that a certain adventure happened to king so-and-so—whom everybody knew at the time—in the next generation they had changed the name of that king to the current king, because the story was typical anyway. They just wanted to say a king that everybody knew. They altered things in that way, and so they know no kind of chronology. And if you ask even quite intelligent Asians about this, they have difficulty in understanding what kind of a question you’re asking. What is this history thing?


Whereas, on the other hand—according to our scholars—the Jews were historically minded, because they remembered the story of their descent from Adam and Abraham, the great event of the liberation from Egypt, and then the triumphant reign of King David, and then things go sliding downhill as other political forces become stronger and stronger. And so they get a fix on the idea that one day is going to be the day of the Lord, and the Messiah will come and put an end to history. And there will be the restoration of Paradise.


But this is linear. They don’t think of the world having been created many, many times before, and come to an end many, many times before. It’s one clear ascent from start to finish, from alpha to omega.


Well, when Saint Augustine was thinking about this, he thought, “If time is cyclic, Jesus would have to be crucified for the salvation of the world once in every cycle.” But for some reason he had it firmly fixed into his head that there was only one historical crucifixion in time—what they call the one, full, perfect, sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Once is enough.


Now, of course, he got his hierarchies confused. It’s true—there is one sacrifice, but that’s on the plane of eternity. On the plane of time, eternal things can be repeated again and again and again. But so, as a result of that, we are handed down not a Greek—the Greeks also had cyclic time, like the Hindus—but we have been handed down linear time, and therefore we’re always thinking of a progression that will take us steadily, steadily, steadily, faster and faster to a more and more perfect world. And it will get better and better and better and better all the way along—if we keep our heads.


Now, this shows—I think—a rather naïve view of human nature. Human beings tend to smash what they create and say, “Let’s do it again!” There is that in man which is also in the child. Rub it out—what fun! And so it isn’t really too realistic to suppose that human beings will simply get better and better and better and better and better, because they’ll soon get tired of it. They’ll say, “Let’s be as awful as possible.” See, there was that element in Nazism: how awful can you get? How brutal can you be? How destructive? And that—it isn’t just Germans, you know, who have that. See? We are converting all the living world around us into excrement and pretending it doesn’t happen that way. And we are the most marvelous vortices in this stream of food which whirls around as us and then disappears into excrements, which again fertilize the soil—and we keep on at it.


So you see, there is that thing in us—which is represented by Shiva-Kālī—and it’s always there. But the Hindu looks at the world with very, very hard-boiled realism in this way and sees terror and magnificence, love and fury; those two faces of the same thing. And you could say, “Well, is there any peace possible?” after you’ve looked at this picture for a long, long time, and you’ve conceived the endless, endless cycles because this thing goes on always and always and always. Per omnia secula seculorum: world without end.


And the Hindu sometimes feels, “Oh, Braham, don’t you ever get tired of it?” No. Because Brahma doesn’t have to remember anything—and you only get tired of things you remember. That’s why, from the standpoint of Brahma, there’s no time—only an eternal now. So the secret of waking up from the drama, the endless cycles, is the realization that the only time that there is is the present. And when you become awake to that, boredom is at an end and you are delivered from the cycles. Not in the sense that they disappear; that you no longer go through them. You do go through them, but you know—you realize—that they’re not going anywhere.


Now then, supposing you liken the rhythm of these cycles to music—why, surely, you don’t hurry it up. You don’t say, “Let’s get to the end faster.” You know how to listen to music only when you slow down time, and sit back, and let that be. And so, in the same way, you can see every little detail of life in a new way. You say, “Oh my! Look at that!” And so one’s eyes are opened in astonishment by being, living—totally—here and now.

The World As Self (Part 1)

Alan Watts

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