Parallel Thinking

Philosophy: East and West, Program 19

April 12, 1968

What a tickling trickster the universe is! As Watts wanders down philosophical byways, tales emerge of those healed by harmonizing body and world. Yet we teach children to twist themselves to fit odd ideals. Tension tunnels through society, our “civilizing” ways quite uncouth! Might we reconsider, relax our willful ways? Observantly ambling amidst being’s little blooms, we rediscover unity in the unruly diversity—finding wisdom whispering within, inviting us to dance delightfully with life’s flowing forms.



One of the most surprising things that has happened to me in my study of Eastern philosophy over the years is to find that, as I thought I was studying something that at first seemed wholly foreign to the western world, at the same time I discovered all kinds of relatively new forms of thought and exploration of man’s consciousness arising indigenously within the Western world, which in various ways paralleled the approaches of Eastern philosophy to the problems of human life. Maybe this is related to the curious problem of what is called simultaneous discovery in science, about which some years ago the British biophysicist L. L. Whyte wrote an article in Harper’s Magazine, showing how, for example, apparently quite independent investigators in various parts of the world engaged in scientific research hit upon discoveries at the same time. And of course in the scientific world this is usually explained by reference to what is called the state of the field. In other words, if, in a given field of science—say, a certain department of physics—knowledge has advanced to a certain state, a certain level, and all the workers in this field are familiar with this knowledge through the journals and other sources of information, then, because they possess information in common, they are liable to hit upon the next step in several places at once. And so you get simultaneous discovery of new things.


However, in some ways, the same thing has happened between east and west. That is to say that, at the same time that the West became aware of Oriental culture, it of itself apparently developed forms of thought and forms of insight very closely paralleling things that had existed long before in the Asian world. And the interesting thing is that these were in many cases developed by people who had no direct knowledge or contact with literature about Asia. And in this way there seems to be a dissimilarity between what has happened in this case and what happens in the sciences. The apparently anti-metaphysical and even anti-religious trends of what is called scientific comparison and sometimes logical positivism, especially as this movement is represented in the early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein—the work, say, that he did about 1914—contains some quite extraordinary parallels to developments that occurred in Indian philosophy and logic between, shall we say, 200 and 700 AD. And again, in an offshoot of these developments in the field of linguistics—and I’m thinking particularly of the semantic philosophy of Korzybski, and the metalinguistic thought of Benjamin Lee Whorf—there are even more striking parallels to some of the later developments of Buddhist philosophy. In other words, the insistence on the distinction between the actual physical world and the forms of words—that is to say, of linguistic symbolism, grammar, and logic—one must recognize that these two things are in a way distinct, and that you mustn’t confuse the order of words with the order of reality. You must keep clear the distinction, as Korzybski used to say, between the map and the territory.


Well, that’s one development in the West strikingly parallel to ideas that have been strongly influential in the East. The parallel ways of thinking that exist between a Chinese Taoist and Neo-Confucian philosophy and the growth of ideas in modern biology. Joseph Needham has pointed this out, of course, in his remarkable History of Science and Civilisation in China. And incidentally, he is himself a biologist. Before he devoted himself to the study of the history of Chinese science, before even he was thirty years old, he had made some remarkable discoveries in biology. And he has pointed out that the Taoistic theory of nature and of man is non-mechanistic, non-theistic, but rather organismic in the same way as the biological theories of people like Kurt Goldstein, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and Woodger in England, and also the man I mentioned a little while ago, the biophysicist L. L. Whyte. And none of these people that I mentioned—Goldstein, Bertalanffy, et cetera, and Needhamb before he began to study Chinese science—none of these people had had any direct contact with the world of Oriental thought. I think I should probably also include in this list of people advocating an organismic theory of the world A. N. Whitehead.


So this is a very remarkable and apparently spontaneous occurrence within the Western world of types of thinking which are parallel to things which we find in Asia. The ones which I’ve mentioned are relatively well known. There are others which are less well known. And there is a kind of tradition existing in the West today—it’s not [a] very popular tradition, because in the nature of these things they’re not easily popularized because they’re not easily expressed in the terms and in the languages of our mass media. But there is a kind of work which I have come across in the last few years which, almost more than the work of the biologists that I’ve mentioned, resembles a Western version of Chinese Taoism. Now, before I say anything about it, I want to stress in what way this kind of thing resembles Chinese Taoism.


I’ve often drawn attention to a curious distinction between Chinese and typically Western attitudes to human nature. We’re reared in the West with a rather fundamental mistrust of our own nature. To use a platonic analogy: we think of man as a sort of rider on a horse, a two-natured person who has a rational soul in an animal body. And the animal body is regarded as something vital but stupid, in charge of the rational soul whose origins seem to be completely independent of those of the animal body. And so the whole problem and the task of human life is to subjugate the animal body to the rational will. And I, again, have often drawn attention to the way in which this theory of man has persisted into the whole climate of opinion of modern science—even though, paradoxically enough, the basic philosophy of modern science (especially the behavioral sciences) is naturalistic. That is to say, it does not admit of there being two quite separate worlds—the natural and the supernatural—but one world, at least ideally describable in one language: simply the world of nature. Although that has been admitted theoretically, in practice the naturalistic scientist tends to be a person who doesn’t trust the natural order at all, but a person who still carries over in a sort of unconscious and habitual way the old Judeo-Christian mistrust of man’s animal nature as a province of the world, preempted (at any rate temporarily) by the devil. Now, therefore, it is somewhat alien to the West, and to Western traditions of thought, to see any sanity in putting trust in the wisdom of one’s own animal nature.


Now, of course, there were tendencies in this direction that arose in the eighteenth century and strengthened in the nineteenth century in what we call philosophy of nature, and later the romantic movement in literature. But these, say, were associated with the work of Rousseau, for example, with his philosophy of the noble savage: the idea that man was by nature free, and as a result of the superimpositions of artificial social structures has been found everywhere in chains. And there were certain elements in this romantic philosophy of nature that nowadays we are apt to regard a sentimental. But nevertheless we are, I think, beginning to come to a point of view whereby we must recognize that, although human nature is not something which if, as it were, were not interfered with, would be entirely good—which is, I think, roughly the romantic point of view—but rather to say something like this: the human nature as we find it is an interplay, a balance, of good and evil, of positive and negative, and that sanity consists in respecting this balance. See, this is not a sentimental point of view. It does not ignore the fact, for example, that we live by destroying other organisms—that there is inevitable conflict in life in its natural state—but that this conflict is something which subserves a higher kind of harmony, and therefore has to be trusted, or rather has to be supported accepted and contained, and that sanity consists fundamentally in this.


Now then, on the basis of this sort of attitude to human nature there has been developed a kind of movement in the West—you would hardly call it a movement in any organized sense—which seems to have originated in Germany. Some years ago in Germany there was a woman called Elsa Gindler, and she happened to have a serious case of tuberculosis. Her doctors told her that, at that time many years ago (she died at the age of seventy about two or three years ago), that she was a hopeless case. There was nothing further they could do for her, and that she may as well get ready for the end. She therefore betook herself, I think, to the Black Forest, and found herself a quiet little hut where she could live in the forest alone. And she said: if this disease came by itself, it can go by itself. And she decided to make an experiment: that she would become as vividly aware as she could of all the subtle motions that were going on inside her body—all the subtle little feelings that she had—and she would respond to them. And so, in the quiet of the forest, she became silent and very, very responsive to everything that was going on within her in the kind of inner life of her organism. And by doing this, after about a year had passed, she found herself recovered from the disease.


And this so fascinated her that she explored further the promptings of her own nature, and explored ways of teaching it to other people, and eventually developed a kind of system of instructing others in this art. But nobody was ever able to think up a kind of label, or name, for what this art is. Of course, a Chinese would say this is the art of Taoism: this is the art that is called in Chinese wu wei, or “non-interference” with the Tao—that is to say, with the course of nature. But, you see, in describing the way that Elsa Gindler went about this, you can see at once that noninterference is a highly difficult thing requiring a great deal of intelligence. Because you have to be patient, you have to be intelligent, you have to be sensitive in order to respond to these subtle promptings of the organism itself. A number of people who were students of Elsa Gindler’s came to the United States and have—in various differing ways in accordance with their own particular personalities and approaches and style, shall we say—have taught this kind of method. I think particularly, for example, of Charlotte Selver, who works in New York, who also was a student of Elsa Gindler.


I’ve been looking at an article she wrote some time ago in the Bulletin of the General Semantics people in which she describes this kind of work. It’s so fascinating because a work of this kind escapes all classification—which is in itself a mark of some kind of distinction. See, everything in this world has to be classified. People want to label you. They want to say: oh, you’re a Catholic, or you’re a Republican, or you’re a Buddhist, or you’re a beatnik, or you’re a Zennist, or you’re a psychoanalyst, or whatever it may be. Because they feel that when they can put a label on you, they’ve sort of dismissed you. They know where you are. They know what pigeonhole you’re in and you can cause them any trouble. And therefore one can be deeply and creatively troubled by some kind of work—you can’t quite call it philosophy—which is impossible to pin down.


I’ve been familiar with Charlotte Selver’s particular interpretation of Elsa Gindler’s idea for some years. And in being asked often to explain it I’ve been completely dumbfounded to do so in just a short phrase. It isn’t physical education, it isn’t rhythmic studies, it isn’t dance, it isn’t relaxation, it isn’t body culture or anything of that kind. It’s a fascinating experiment in simply becoming ever more aware of one’s physical organism, and learning to trust it, and learning to become in accord consciously with what it wants to do, and that wish (or that want) is ordinarily unconscious. And therefore, it’s something that’s very difficult to explain without actually participating in it, without doing it. But still, it’s always been one of my particular attempts or efforts to describe the indescribable. Anybody who works with words—poet, author, and so on—is really trying to describe the indescribable. This is the whole lot of speech and literature.


Perhaps I might introduce this by a story which Charlotte Selver once told me about herself and her study with Elsa Gindler. One of the things that Elsa Gindler tried sometimes to get her students to do was to make a drawing of the way in which one feels one’s own body. And when Charlotte first went to study with her, she was full of all kinds of funny ideas. And when she was asked to draw how she feels, she made a grand drawing of everything about herself that she knew intellectually—you see, that she had all her bones and muscles, and everything was put there in the right position. There were several people in the class. And when all the drawings were put up along the wall, Charlotte Selver was astonished to see that none of the other drawings looked in the least bit like her own. They were all kinds of funny lines and blushes and blobs. And indeed, one of them was simply a blank piece of paper with a small black spot on it. And she said that Elsa Gindler walked along the drawings, making various comments about them, and when she came to the one with a black spot she said, “Oh, I see you still have that tension in your left hip.” And Charlotte was expecting, you see, that at the time that Elsa Gindler arrived at her, she would compliment her on what a really sensitive drawing she had done of her own body. But when she finally approached that drawing, she said nothing and passed right on. And that was a great moment. That was one of those moments of truth in life; those moments of conversion when one finds out the difference between what you think you feel and what you really feel.


One of the things most strongly emphasized in this work is that we’re all brought up to try and conform ourselves to fixed patterns of what a human being ought to be. This happens in very many different ways, but one of the ways in which it happens is how we ought to move and hold ourselves physically. We talk about postures: what is the right way to sit, the right way to stand, the right way to use one’s hands, and so on and so forth. And of course it doesn’t strike us that all these things are very stylized. And if they don’t correspond in any way with what our physical organism actually wants to do, the adoption of these stylized postures is going to cause conflict between what we try to be and what we are. And since what we try to be has really no special virtue about it—a lot of the postures that we adopt have no particular sense to them at all, they’re sort of social rituals.


I want to quote from Charlotte Selver’s article in the General Semantics Bulletin a little story. She says:

The other day I visited some friends. Among the guests there was a couple with their daughter—a little girl of eight, a thoughtful a very graceful child. While we were talking the little go played in the garden. I had the pleasure of watching her through the window. Then she came upstairs and sat down, one leg hanging down, the other one on the couch. Her mother said, “But Helen! How do you sit? Take your leg off the couch! A girl never should sit like that!” The little girl took her leg down, on which occasion her skirt flew high above her knees. The mother: “Helen, pull your skirt down! One can see everything!” The child blushed, looked down on herself and pulled her skirt down, but asked, “Why? What is wrong?” The mother looked at her quite shocked and said, “One doesn’t do that.” By this time the atmosphere in the room was completely uncomfortable. The little girl not only had her legs down, but had them pressed against each other. Her shoulders had gone up and she held her arms tight against her little body. This went on until she couldn’t stand it any longer. She suddenly stretched herself and yawned heartily. Again, a storm of indignation from her mother. By now—this all lasted about ten minutes—the child had changed completely. Her gracefulness had turned into awkwardness, all her motions were stilled, her little body was tense, she hardly seemed to be alive anymore. What will happen to this child? She will hold her on unhappy pose for a few minutes before she shakes it off. The next time my mother will admonish her she will hold it a few minutes longer, and so on, each time a little longer, until at last she will have repressed her naturalness so deeply that she will have forgotten it. The mother will then have reached her goal: she will have educated her to be socially acceptable. As a human being the child will be greatly inhibited, because, as the mother will chain in this direction, she will chain in a thousand other directions.

End of quote.


And so, you see, it isn’t simply in—the social conditioning of the child is not simply a matter of training children in the fundamental conventions of moral behavior, which perhaps are artificial, but certainly are necessary for some sort of social cohesion and agreement. But the training of children in all kinds of weird, symbolic attitudes which are held to be proper and nice and ritualistically decent, which produces in all of us a state of chronic psychophysical strain and discomfort, which after a while becomes unconscious, we fail to notice it, but it underlies our ulcers and our irritations and our frustrations, which eventually build up into our vast and appalling political idiocies.


It’s very difficult to get people to recover from this. Because, you see, in trying to come back to themselves—to come back to a unity and harmony with their own organisms—they still have the cast of mind, the tendency, to look to authority of some kind to tell them what they ought to be. And Charlotte Selver has often told me that people who come to work with her expect to be told what kind of physical posture, what kind of physical feelings they ought to have. She says they want to know how to move, how to stand, how to sit. Or, in order to be exercised, they’re quite astonished at first when they’re invited to become more restful, to give up the doing, so that they can listen better to what their body has to tell them. We need quiet for self experience. Quiet and awakeness. We need permissiveness, too: to all the subtle changes which may be needed.


But we ask, therefore: what can one feel of one’s own organism? What of happenings within? Not what one knows of one’s body or what one thinks about it, or believe somebody else expects one to feel of it, but what one actually senses, no matter what comes to the fore. But this is difficult, of course, because we expect that we are supposed to conform to a pattern, and that there is somebody who knows what we ideally ought to be, ought to feel. And this despite—this is the curious thing, this is the paradox—this despite all the emphasis in the Western world on the value of individuality, the value of personal uniquenesses, and the differences between man and man. Isn’t it strange that, to fulfill this great ideal—this democratic, personalistic ideal of the Western world—it seems to be very necessary for us to learn from the East and from things like the East; to learn from the very great differences which exist between one individual physical organism and another. To trust what Charlotte Selver and Elsa Gindler used to call one’s own “Inner.”


This is, I suppose, the most difficult thing to explain in words. Because when we just think about it theoretically all kinds of objections come up to it, and we think that there can only be sanity, only order in society, by holding a club over ourselves as if we were naturally (organically and physically) little monsters. Really, there is no monstrousness in nature like the monstrousness of man. We talk about the violent life of the ocean’s depth, of the way the fishes eat each other and live in perpetual conflict. At least the fishes stay in the ocean and don’t come up and attack the birds and the mammals and the people on the dry land. But nobody is safe from man. Radioactive fish in the Pacific. Birds bewildered by turmoil in the skies. Insects ravaged and upset in their balances. This is not a condemnation of human intelligence, but an appeal to human intelligence to be both intelligent and sensitive, to be (temporarily, at least) silent before the subtle movements of nature, to study them better, and to work with the grain of the world instead of against it.

Parallel Thinking

Alan Watts

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