Power of Space

Weaving connections between Eastern thought and modern science, Alan Watts explores the wonder of space. For him, space is no mere emptiness but a cosmic tapestry integral to existence. He draws parallels between space and the Buddhist void, seeing both as the interwoven ground of being that allows consciousness to emerge.


Part 1


I suppose you may think it rather nervy of me to devote this whole seminar to talking about nothing. But it’s about space. And in most people’s minds space is just nothing unless it’s filled with air. But once you get outside the air, space may be in some way crossed by floating bodies, by various kinds of electrical vibrations—light waves, cosmic rays, et cetera. But since the Michelson-Morley experiment, which seemed to prove conclusively that there wasn’t any such thing as ether (some kind of attenuated fluid through which light was propagated), space just isn’t there. It’s the way we have, in other words, of talking about distances between bodies. In other words, when we say the distance between them increased, as if the distance were a substantive that does something—like: the man walked, the distance increased. But I suppose what we’re actually saying is that the two bodies we’re talking about increased the distance between themselves. They did it. But then you suddenly find that you’ve got distance as an object. They increased the distance—the distance now being the object of the verb, whereas before it was the subject.


And so, at once one begins to see there’s something fishy about space. And, after all, it is the background against which we see everything. And even a blind person has a sense of space in that which does not obstruct motion. And yet, the funny thing about space is that, in a way, it doesn’t end where a solid begins. You can shift a solid around in space without apparently altering it in any way. And, after all, there is space between the two sides, shall we say—or ends—of the solid. We can think of that in terms of space and measure it in terms of space. But it is against space that we experience everything that we experience. And, by the way, also we experience everything not only in the dimension of space, but also in the dimension of time. Now, the fascination about space and time is that, while they are basic to all possible experiences that we have, you just can’t put your finger on them. Space seems to be completely immaterial. And when St. Augustine was asked, “What is time?” he said, “I know what it is, but when you ask me I don’t.”


So these two basic dimensions of our physical world are uncommonly elusive. We could perhaps say that they are pure abstractions. There is no such thing as space and there is no such thing as time. They are merely our way of measuring and thinking about the behavior of the physical universe as a pattern; a system of energy patterns. And if you measure the movement of these patterns, the line along which you measure motion is called the timeline. If you measure their positions, the line along which you measure their positions you would call the spaceline. And these two lines would be as abstract as the equator in relation to longitude zero. These things don’t exist on the physical face of the world, they are imaginary lines and are only to be found on maps.


Could you also say that the same thing was true of time and space? We think, for example, that there are three coordinates of space and one of time. The three coordinates of space being length, breadth, and depth. And through that runs one of time. But, come to think of it, it’s rather artificial. It is making us think of space as having a sort of grain to it, as if it were a crystalline substance. And however transparent the crystal, it does have a grain. And space has the grain of up, across, and through. Those are the three ways in which we think of space. And we can’t think of any more—not with our senses.


We can mathematically conceive spaces with infinitely many dimensions. That is to say, you can write it down as if it were so. But you can’t conceive it in your imagination. You can draw—it’s great fun to draw—a four-dimensional cube having four spatial dimensions; it’s called a tesseract. And “tesseract” is a good word to apply to a person who is ultimately square. A four-dimensional square! But the tesseract, you see—the minute you draw it, that obviously you can’t have more than the three right angular dimensions of space, or the coordinates, in any kind of solid figure that you know. And so you can think about it in terms of mathematics, but you can’t conceive more than these three coordinates sensuously. And so it’s basic common sense to us that space has this structure. But of course the question is: is this a structure of space, or is it a structure of the human nervous system, the human brain, and human thought, which is projected onto the external world as a tool for measuring it? This is one way of approaching the problem.


But there’s another way altogether, which is to consider space as anything but nothing. If space is basic to all that we experience—as time is—you might say, then, that space is as near as we can imagine to being the ground of the world, or what some people have called God. The texts of the Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists are full of ways in which the symbol of space is used to mean the ultimate reality. Space is used in basic Indian philosophy. In Vedanta it is called ākāśa. And ākāśa is, for them, the fundamental element. There are five elements: earth, water, air, and fire—and ākāśa. And so space contains all the other elements. In Buddhist philosophy, where the ultimate reality is called śūnyatā: the void. The Chinese will translate the Sanskrit śūnyatā with their character that means “sky” or “space.” And the Taoists would say—quoting Lao Tzu—the usefulness of the window is not so much in the frame as in the empty space through which something can be seen. The usefulness of a vase is is not so much in the sides made of clay as in the hollow inside into which something can be put.


And, of course, that is a startling metaphor for a Westerner, because we think the other way around, you see. As I started out to say, we really think commonsensically that space is nothing at all. And we are much more sympathetic to the idea that it’s pure abstraction than to the Oriental idea that space has some kind of basic reality. It bothers us, too, when astronomers talk about curved space. How can nothing be curved? Or properties of space. Or expanding space. How can it do that? And then, when architects begin to talk about the functions of spaces, the commonsensical Westerner thinks: “Why don’t they talk about the functions of walls?” Of course, the walls enclose spaces, but the spaces of themselves have no function. And they’re bothered about this. Painters, also, are very aware of space because—especially if you paint in oils—you have to paint your background. And therefore, in filling it in, you begin to realize that it has its own shape. It is the obverse of the foreground. And when you play with photographic negatives or anything that switches foreground to background, foreground to background, you begin to become aware of spaces as having a shape. The interval between all sorts of objects becomes new something significant, even though it’s constantly flowing and changing—as indeed are the objects within the space. So it is a bit of a shock to our common sense (which in most cases has not caught up with twentieth-century physics or astronomy) to hear space considered as something effective, as something definitely there, so that you could say it has properties.


Take another case of space which is rather startling. There are different kinds of space. Space is, basically—isn’t it?—an interval. There is an interval between each one of us sitting here. If we didn’t have that, we would suffocate being packed together like sardines. We need space in order to function of the human being. We need a kind of area in which to gesture and move and walk about and breathe and express ourselves.


Now, you can have intervals not only in space, but in time. Pauses are intervals. You can also have intervals in sound: the intervals between tones or notes. And the interesting thing about the intervals between tones is that they are that upon which the hearing of melody depends. To hear melody is to hear intervals. Now, if you will simply visualize melody in terms of something graphic—supposing you represent a simple, say, introduction of a fugue or whatever, you know—you can see that in terms of the dancing line, or a series of points at different levels representing, like musical notation, the high ones and the low ones. And you will recognize a pattern. But you see at once that the pattern depends on the way the critical dots in it are spaced. And it doesn’t matter much whether the space is a big space or whether it’s a little one, because it will always be relative to the size of the dots. You can magnify it or minify it, but you will see it is the way they are spaced that makes the difference. And here, once again, we are using “spaced” as a transitive verb now.


We’ve talked about spaces or distances increasing, or people increasing a distance. And now we can talk about space as a verb: to space, to be spaced. And so, once again, the language is either playing tricks on us or else expressing a profound intuition. Language does both, and you have to watch out for which it is. Of course it may be both. That is a possibility. But here, at once, you see—especially in that illustration of music—of it being necessary to hear intervals in order to hear melody. You see that the way things are spaced is really another way of talking about the way things are related. So you begin to realize that space is relationship.


Go further now. There is another idea about space which is connected with all the Oriental uses of space. It is quite fundamental to Indian and a great deal of Chinese thinking that space equals consciousness. In other words, what actually we are experiencing as the all-inclusive space in which things happen is your mind. And your mind, of course, is not something inside your head—that is a great mistake to make. Your head is something in your mind. We can define a person’s mind in many ways. But beginning with something rather simple, mind is occupied with thinking. Most people think in words. And you didn’t get words out of your head. You got them from the community in which you live and were brought up. So when you think in a language which your community gave you, you are not really thinking your own thoughts. It is very difficult indeed to have private thoughts. Because when the very materials with which you think are public property, it shows what a vast influence the public has on you in the deepest recesses of your mind. It’s therefore very difficult, also, to think freely—independently—because we are pushed around with the symbolic systems of words or of numbers in which we think.


But since the functioning of the mind in the process of thinking depends upon an outside community, you begin to see that your mind is a network. A network of relationships. You think only in the context of an environment of people and of natural processes. So that you could say that your mind is, at the very least, a most complex network of present and past relationships stretching out to the very limits of the universe. And this, as I’ve often said, explains such truth as there may be in astrology. That, when you want to draw a map of a person’s soul, you draw a map of the universe as it was when he was born. We say that is your chart. That expresses you in a special way. Now, the astrologer’s maps are very crude. They’re based on a rather primitive view of the universe. But the truth of it is there, you see. That, who you really are—your soul, your mind—is the total universe as focused upon you.


And this connects with what in Mahayana Buddhism is called the doctrine of mutual interpenetration: namely, that every thing-event in the world; anything—in other words, supposing the whole world is a moving pattern, and then you want to identify the wiggles in the pattern. It’s very difficult to determine how much of a wiggle makes one wiggle. But by a sort of calculus in which we chew the thing up we say all this wiggly world consists of so many wiggles, and each individual wiggle is a thing-event. What is called in Japanese ji means a thing-event. And so the doctrine of mutual interpenetration is that every thing-event in the universe implies all the others. It goes with it. Doesn’t matter how long it lasts or how short it lasts. The fact that it is, or the fact that it was, implies the existence of everything else.


To put it in another way, the fact that there is a moth flying around me—it’s very small and it will soon run into a candle and extinguish itself. That little incident would not be possible at all except in the context of all these galaxies. Because their existence goeswith the possibility of there being such a minute little life flattering around. What is not so easy to see is the picture in the opposite direction: that, in the same measure, all these galaxies depend upon and gowith this little moth.


As the poet Henry Suso once said—no, it wasn’t Suso. Someone like him; lived about the same time. I’ll think of it a minute. Anyway, he said, “I know that, without me, God could not live for one moment.” And this is the other aspect of it. And this is the difficult one to understand. And we shall be able to approach this in the course of this seminar. In fact, if you realize that, then you’ve really got it. You’ve got the point of your own existence. But to get the reverse picture you have first of all to get, clearly, its opposite one: namely, that the existence of any one minute little thing is intimately related to everything. And then what happens—when you clearly understand that and you’ve really got that—your mind does a flip. Bwllpp, like that. You know, it’s like when you squeeze the air in a sausage balloon, and you get all the air squeezed up (you think) into one end of the balloon, and suddenly it goes bwwlllpp, and it comes out the other end, you see? Well, it’s sort of like that. And you have to be very careful at that point not to go crazy. Because, you see, when you find out that all this universe depends on you—some people get frightened, others get cocky, and from both things disasters can follow. You have to discover that and then be natural. Act as if nothing happened.


So then, this Mahayana Buddhist idea of mutual interpenetration is expressed by the great simile of the net of jewels in which you have a multidimensional spider’s web in the morning dew, and on inspecting one dewdrop you see the reflections of all the others. And in each reflection, in turn, reflections of all the others. And again, and again, and again. And so, of course, one discovers this to be no mere philosophical fancy, no mere metaphor. When you start working with laser beams, and finding out that you can reconstruct a whole photograph from a tiny snippet out of the negative. Because the crystalline structure of the whole photographic field—the chemicals spread over the acetate, or whatever—when it’s exposed to light, all those crystals change in harmony with each other. See, supposing we all touch each other, and then somebody says, “Boo!” We’ll all jump a little bit together. And if you examine any one jump carefully enough, any one individual jumping, you will see (if you can find out enough about it) that the way he did it was in response to the ones next to him, and they did it in response the ones next to them, and they jump so far because they couldn’t push any further, and some were a little bit pulled in that jump, and so on. And by seeing exactly what one of them did you could reconstruct what all of them were doing. Only usually, we don’t bother to think about things like that because it takes too long.


And this is one of our great difficulties as human beings: that the mode of thinking upon which we largely rely for our practical calculations is unbelievably clumsy because it can only deal with one thing at a time. And that doesn’t get you anywhere. That’s, in a way, why a great deal of scientific work is apt to be trivial. They are all very well if I had all that time to think it out. But I don’t. I have to make practical decisions in a hurry. And… no time. But, on the other hand, here is nature, here is your body. Not merely your body by itself, as something bounded by the skin, but your body in relationship to a whole community of people and animals and bugs and vegetables, functioning in this astonishing way, doing myriads of things altogether everywhere at once, and not thinking about it at all.


It is astonishing, you know, how we overlook that. Because, of course, this is the faculty which everybody possesses, and therefore we say, “Well, that sort of cleverness is a dime a dozen.” What we like to distinguish is special cleverness: people who can do strange tricks—like great feats of thinking, and talking, and intellectual and cerebral performance. But we mustn’t forget that there are also people who do absolutely astonishing things without thinking at all. There are jugglers, there are very beautiful people—that’s pretty astonishing when you pick out someone and say, “Gee, isn’t she gorgeous!” And that’s done without thinking, and it embarrasses many women to be told that they’re beautiful because they want to be admired for their intellectual achievements rather than for the bodies which their parents provided for them.


And so we are a little bit on the defensive about the things that we achieve without our egos being in charge. But we do the most beautiful things that we do, really, by that means. Because all that thought and intellectuality can do is: it can embellish your natural talents. A lot of people who are incredibly good at thinking never do anything creative because they have no talent available. They may have it, but they don’t trust it, they don’t know how to make use of it, and therefore their intellect works to little purpose. Because the function of the intellect is to be the servant of the organic intelligence. You see? Only, what we’re doing is: we’re trying to make the intellect the master.


The intellect is a wonderful servant just so long as it knows its place. But once it becomes saying to nature, “Look, you submit. I know how you ought to be run. Now I’m going to take charge.” That is the moment of hubris where Adam eats the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge—that is to say, of technical knowledge—and tries to be God to the world. And God says, “Okay, baby, you try!” Then, you see, you’ve got to work. That’s why the curse of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was work. Everything became work. Cats, dogs, and birds—they don’t do any work. They, true, they scurry around getting food, but that’s what there is to do. That’s fun, that’s life, that’s living. It’s not work. Besides, you don’t have to think about it. Your brain tells you where to look for it. Your nose tells you where to find it. You do what comes naturally. And there it is. And if God so clothed the grass of the field which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven, how much more would he clothe you, faithless ones? But I never met a minister—never!—who would not comment upon that, that that is a very impractical passage which we can’t live up to.


But to get back to space. All I was showing in this sort of digression was that our mind, our self, is not inside our heads, but extends. And so, you see, you have—as the great vehicle of this extension of the universe—you have space. And you see immediately that you cannot pin space down. You cannot really conceive space at all. Look at the wonder a child has when it asks questions and begins. What’s up there? What’s beyond? What’s after that? What’s after that? The child is absolutely fascinated by thinking about that. Do you know all children are fascinated with infinity? Don’t you remember seeing, say, a child’s book, and on the cover of this book is a little girl sitting, reading the same book with the same little girl on the cover. And so, naturally, there is another little girl on the cover of the book she’s looking at in the picture. And so the child begins to wonder how small can it get, how far can it go? Or they get in opposing mirrors and look. Gee, that’s wonderful, why can’t you line them up so that it doesn’t just disappear around the corner, always? Couldn’t you get in straight on this? Seems so difficult. Mummy, what did God do before he started the world? You think back. What would it be like to be in heaven and live forever and ever and ever and ever?


And immediately this somehow stretches the skull. And children love doing this because children are always trying out experiments on themselves. You know, they prod themselves, pull themselves, they love to spin in circles and make themselves feel dizzy. Because that’s a great thing, you know, that feeling; wwghlllea, going like this, you see? They’re always fascinated with the limits of experience. So what’s out beyond that? Because now, when a sophisticated astronomer tries to tell you that space is finite, we resent this and say, “Alright, space is finite. But what’s outside it?” “Well,” the astronomer says, “you see, you can only talk about an outside inside space. Outside space, there is no outside.” You see, the mind won’t take it! The sense, you see, of infinity.


So this space fascinates us. Going on forever; expanding. It seems to be actually going on forever, you see? If the universe is a huge explosion. But you can see—can’t you, I think—this: space, although you cannot pin it down, and it has the quality of infinity, there’s no way of talking about space because it has no color, it has no weight, you can’t cut it, you can’t possibly chop it into pieces. And yet, at the same time, you cannot differentiate it from solids. We come to another important point here, you see? That solid and space are in a secret conspiracy with each other. Actually, there’s very little solid in the world. Most of what appears to be solid appears so by virtue of the speed at which it’s jiggling. It’s like an electric fan, which, when put in rotation, the blades appear to form a solid disk. And this chair is solid for rather the same reasons. You can’t put your finger through it; it’s moving too fast. But actually, whatever it is that’s dancing in space is increasingly difficult to define. The more you think about energy, you see—and you can make a calculus of energy like you make a calculus of wiggles in the world, and you can say there are various waves, or wavicles, or particles of energy, which we give all sorts of different names to—but the more we pursue it, the more it all seems to disappear. Like space. The more you try to think what it is, the more difficult it is. So, in the same way, the more you try to say, “Now, come on! Let’s sit down. What is this, here?” It’s alright if you stop at a certain point. Then you say, “Well, now we know. That’s practical. Let’s not ask any more questions.” They say, “Shut up!” See? But if you keep on asking questions, everything falls apart.


You notice this in the scholarly world. Scholars spend far more time debunking than they do creating. Because everything that has ever happened has been debunked, practically. You can show that there is no evidence that Julius Caesar existed—not really. Certainly, there is no evidence that Jesus existed, that Socrates existed. There was a great deal of doubt about Plato. Probably the emperor Shōkō was a myth, and so on. You know, you can go on in that indefinitely, finding out that there really is no evidence. I don’t know—probably the same sort of thing is happening with the Warren Commission. I don’t know. Although it’s something, that it didn’t happen anyway.


Because that is the work of the analytical intellect, you see. When you finally try to be God—that’s to say: define it exactly. Now just where is it? And let’s get perfectly clear so that snap, it’s fixed, see? It all becomes slippery. Because in order to handle the world, you have to touch it rather gently. You mustn’t try to pin things down. As they say in Zen: you do not try to drive a nail into the sky. Because that’s the beauty of space, you see? There’s nothing in it to hang on. It hasn’t a hook to put your hat on, you know, somewhere in space. And yet, it hasn’t got a floor to fall onto. See, if space had a concrete floor on the bottom, it’d be pretty dangerous stuff. But it doesn’t. There’s nowhere in space to collide with space. You can run into somebody or something else, yes. But not with space.


Figure, then, on this. Work on this hypothesis—you see, it’s only a hypothesis at the moment; nothing more—that space is you. Because you are equally inaccessible to inspection. When you look to find out who you are, somebody like a Zen master will interrupt you and say, “Excuse me, but who is it that wants to know? And who is it that’s looking?” Find out that. So, you know, you’re soon chasing your own tail like a little dog. And you never catch up with it. All this, you see. So space is like you. Only, we turned in the ordinary way to think of ourselves, we make the gesture like this, see? I’m here. We go this way. I can feel this. I’m inside it. That’s me. See? But alway, when you get a certain feeling about things, examine the opposite possibility. That you are this. Now we’re going to look in due course at the neurology of this.


But you do see that what you see outside you and feel outside you is the way you feel inside your skin. Since all the optical images, shapes, and colors, and everything, are neurological states in the brain. So what appears to you as outside is the most intimate feeling you have of the inside of your head. Because, you know, it’s difficult to feel inside of your head unless you have a headache or a tumor or something. But in the ordinary way, the inside of your head is unconscious. And a surgeon can open up your skull and put instruments in the brain, and you won’t feel them at all. The brain is very anesthetized. So, in order to feel the brain, you have to look out there. See? And that’s how it feels in the brain.


So I’m just trying to give an indication of how to get the feeling of reciprocity. Of you, on the one hand—it’s easy to see, as I said—you depend on the whole show. Now I want you to see the opposite and equal truth that the whole show depends on you, so that you don’t anymore put yourself down as this wretched little bacterium, living on this obscure planet that evolves around a minor star on the outer fringes of one of the lesser galaxies. This is the great nineteenth-century put-down of man. How nice to be all unimportant. Watch out for this! Watch out for the political consequences of “everybody is equally inferior.”


The political consequences emerging, in becoming clear as day goes by—barbarism is the answer to that. Untrammeled violence, police states, and shocking disregard for human existence. Because they’re only wretched little bacteria. See? Pssht! Let’s get rid of a whole lot of them. Zzzip. Burn them up. And this is not unrelated, you see, to this feeling of the individual as someone who doesn’t matter at all, which can be the reaction against the philosophy of life in which an individual matter too much in the wrong way.


In the Christian tradition we have made the individual matter too much in the wrong way. That is to say, you as an ego are infinitely precious. God has made each one of you separately. And each one of you (as a separate ego) will last forever. And therefore you are all important in the eyes of God. But you better know your place, baby, because you’re subjects of the king! On the other hand, the other way of looking at the individual as an incarnation of the divine, as God him- or it- or herself, coming on at God everywhere. Did you realize how fascinating that is? That if you were God, wouldn’t it be fascinating to see myriads? To know yourself in terms of myriads of reproductions of yourself, all different? And really different! Like other people’s need to be different from you. And they’ve got a secret in them; you don’t know what they’re going to do next. See? So they are alive.


If I push you and you just go bleeah, I say, “It’s only plastic.” If you jump a little, I say, “Ah! That’s someone else! I don’t know what she’s going to do next!” See, that’s what I’m looking for. That’s what we’re all looking for in personal relationships. And that’s—you see, you can imagine, if you simplified, here is a kind of ball of light which is the divine being. But it’s fascinating, you see? It’s fascinated with itself. And so, in order to find out its own possibilities, you see—bllwwp—it puts another one out there. And they bounce together. And fllwpp, there comes another, you see? They go all over the place. And so you get this idea of ever so many echoes of one sound, and they’re all chattering back. But they’re not just plain uniform, you see? Soon you introduce into this the element of differentiation, so that each one looks as different as possible from the other. But it’s all one. Because there can’t be the sense of “I am,” “I,” without the sense of “there is someone else.” Something else. There is other. “I” and “other” imply each other as much as solid implies space.

Well, we’ll have an intermission.

Part 2


Last night I began by reviewing two possible concepts of the nature of space. One: that it is simply an abstraction, and projected upon the physical world in rather the same way that we project measurements—lines of latitude and longitude or the cutting up of another abstraction called time into divisions like hours, minutes, and seconds, which are there only on the dial of the clock. The Earth, in its rotation, doesn’t tick. And time is, of course, seen thus; simply a measure of change, of the rate of change as between two changing processes. The changing process of the clock and the changing process of, say, a person running around. It is out of that relationship, in other words, that you get a concept of time. And similarly, through being able to measure distances in a similar way, you get a concept of space.


You see, this is one point of view: that it’s the an abstraction, because force would be lent to this point of view by the fact that space itself isn’t really there. Space is just absence, and you must be very careful not—as Whitehead would have said—to reify; that is, to make a thing out of something that is isn’t there at all. Like saying, “Have an absinthe.” Oh boy! Gary Snyder invented a corporation. It was called the Null and Void Guarantee and Trust Company. And its slogan was “register your absence with us.” And so I had some business cards made up for him, which put at the bottom: Gary Snyder, Non-Representative.


But this is, of course, Zen humor. Because Zen people are always joking about things not really being there at all. The general feeling of this being nobody at all—as distinct from being important and somebody—has a kind of inverse humor to it. One becomes a sort of bag of wind, and there’s something about that. The Zen masters call each other wind bags and rice bags, and things like that, because the whole idea of taking nothingness for real is somehow funny.


The other point of view that I was trying to contrast with this was rather different. And that is that, just because they are so imponderable and so un-get-at-able, space is you. Space is your consciousness. And your consciousness is not something located in your head—although your head is a way in which it’s focused. And therefore consciousness can be altered by a surgeon putting instruments into the brain. But the full range of consciousness, or the full range of the mind, is the entirety of space as the continuum in which the universe exists in rather much the same way as images exist in a mirror. Only here, there seems to be no solid mirror. There is an infinitely permeable continuum of space.


In a Chinese text called the Tánjīng—or the Platform Sutra—attributed to the sixth patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Huìnéng, he has the passage where he says that the mind is like the emptiness of space. Now, he says if you want to realize this, don’t exclude everything from your mind. Because if your mind is like space, space contains the Earth, and the stars, and the sun, the moon, and the mountains, and forests, good men and bad men, enlightened men and unenlightened men. Everything is in it. And so, if a person wants to attain an understanding of the mind merely by emptying his mind, he’s making his mind small instead of a great.


So you cannot, therefore, separate space from what it contains. Because without the content there is no container. Without the container, no content. And when you see that kind of relationship—when you see two apparently very different things going together inseparably, always find them together—you can smell a rat. For example, nobody has seen any stuff that had no shape, and nobody has ever seen a shape that had no stuff. There is a suspicion here, then, that stuff and shape are the same. And likewise, improbable as it may seem, you can realize that space and solid are the same. Only, they are, as it were, the same energy showing itself under two different aspects to a being who always must see things two-sidedly, which is man.


Man is symmetrical—almost, you see—right down this dividing line. Two sides to his brain, two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, a symmetrical mouth, two arms, two nipples, hips, legs. You see? All balancing except the heart is a little bit over to one side. But here he is, you see: this two-wayed thing. Man is like a Rorschach blot. He’s some mess that was squeezed, folded, and then you unfold it, and by Jove! It’s symmetrical. And it’s a very strange thing about that. You could make order out of almost any mess by symmetrizing it in various ways.


You know, there’s a gadget called a teleidoscope, which is a marriage between a kaleidoscope and a telescope. And you can look at things through it, and because it’s got mirrors inside of the 45 degree angle, they will balance the reflection in a circle, which is very elegant. And the more messy that you thing you look at, the more interesting it is with the teleidoscope. Because it is through this balancing process of some sort of symmetry that order comes about, repetition, regularity. So the human being, being thus two sided, is always wanting to ask, “Is you is or is you ain’t?” Is it this or is it that? Answer yes or no. True or false. Black or white. And has very different great difficulties. The more simpleminded the person is, the more difficulty they have in using their conscious attention to do anything but estimate these very simple contrasts between the good guys and bad guys. You man or you woman? There can be no doubt, see? There may be nothing vaguely in between:, no grays, no washes. Because a simple mind wants this great precision—which, of course, you can’t have.


But as poles—you see, one of the greatest dualities in the world is the duality of something and nothing. Of being and non-being. And, of course, in our thinking the solid-world represents existence and the space-world represents nonexistence. The conquest of space, therefore, will be the conquest of nonexistence, perhaps. See, this is our great attempt to survive by being able to leave this increasingly plundered planet, go somewhere else and plunder that. That’s the difference between mining and farming. Hunting and farming, too.


Well, so there’s this great contrast of reality considered as what’s in the space. That’s what’s there. And the space is simply what’s not there. But you can’t make it that simple because you’ve only got to think about one step to realize that you can’t have the recognition—or perhaps even the existence of what is there—unless there is also what is not. In other words, I wouldn’t be able to see you as moving human entities if you were all densely packed in some sort of material medium—like, say, jello, or milk, or whatever—because then there would be no intervals between you to bring you out. You see?


Now, actually, space must—in this connection—for a moment be considered from the point of view of optics. The eye is receptive to a certain spectrum of vibrations of light. And therefore, where such vibrations are not being transmitted, the nerve ends are not stimulated, and therefore don’t report. And that failure to report is space. We call it darkness: where there is no visible light. But actually, there is nowhere in the universe where there is not some kind of vibration going on. So that if you had instrument that responded to it, you would see that space was full of impulses. And if you saw it all, you wouldn’t be able to make out the individual outlines which require these non-being intervals in order that their being can be realized. That is to say, outlined, distinguished, delineated. Discriminated. So to see the outline of the being, you must have the intervening space of the non-being. But non-being means simply, in this connection, the lack of stimulation of whatever perceptive or perceiving instrument you are using.


Now, for example, when you print a book, we say there is empty paper underneath the print. But, of course, it isn’t nothing under the print. It’s nothing so far as print is concerned, but something very much so far as white paper is concerned. Now, do you see, in the same way, perhaps it isn’t nothing in which we are living in moving. It’s only nothing so far as our visible shapes are concerned. But you could say this: that space is something of a quite different order than ordinary something. Ordinary something being the things and events which we say occupies space, just as the print occupies the paper.


But the philosophers—especially modern philosophers—have a great deal of trouble thinking about this. And the reason is that they are too one-sided in the kind of instruments they use for understanding the world. And the instrument they use principally is words and thought. Now, they have just as much trouble in thinking about the universe in terms of their words and thoughts and logical categories as you would have in a printed book, writing some words down which pointed directly to the paper underneath them.


Supposing I say, “There is paper underneath every word on this page.” Now, the philosopher—the type of logical positivist person who dominates American and British academic philosophy today—he would think that could only mean something if I wrote the sentence, “there is paper under every word on this page,” and then under each one of those words I wrote the word “paper,” “paper,” “paper,” “paper,” “paper.” Then he would say, “Yes that’s true.” But, you see, that isn’t the way it is. The difficulty is, you see, there is an incommensurability between the print and the paper. If we can stand outside that because we are diverse enough to realize that print is one process and paper is another, and they can be put together. But if you are immersed in the print, you can’t see the paper.


And so, if you’re immersed in the kind of consciousness which simply discriminates things, you cannot realize the background. That is to say, then, you cannot realize the nature of space when you use only your analytical consciousness—the consciousness which looks at things bit by bit by bit by bit, that I call the spotlight consciousness—if you use that alone, then you can’t think anything about the continuum, the ground in which all this flourishes.


But you may then go on to make a mistake if you’re not following me correctly. And this is the mistake, of course, that these kind of philosophers fall into. If I say, now, underneath all distinct things space constitutes the ground in which they live and move and have their being, this is not quite correct. Because, if I speak of space in that way, it makes it just another thing of the same kind and nature as all the things it contains. If, in other words, I can think about space—and I can only think about it by analogy, by likening it to paper, to a mirror, to a basis, a background—well, if I can think about it, that makes it a think; which is to say, a thing. All things are thinks. They’re as much of life as you can catch hold of in one thought. That means a think. So, likewise, in German: denken, “to think,” Ding, “thing.” In Latin, reor, “to think,” res, “thing.”


So if I make space into a think, I’ve somehow missed it. That’s why we have to say it’s a no-think. In Buddhism it is said the real nature of mind is no mind. And you realize this in daily life by the fact that, when you see clearly, you see everything except your eyes—except if there’s something wrong with your eyes and you see spots in front, you know? That interferes with seeing. If you hear clearly, you don’t hear your ears. But if you have ear trouble you get buzzing in your ears. Same way if you’re very healthy, physically, you hardly notice your body except as a kind of blissful vagueness, which is exhilarating and so on. And if your clothes are comfortable, you don’t notice them.


So this is connected with the nature of a beautifully functioning mind is that it doesn’t get its own way. It doesn’t think itself. If it thinks itself, it gets in its own a way because it’s a no-think. No-thinks is the background for thinks. See? So that’s why every attempt to conceptualize the ground of being—whether it’s space or God—is an idolatry. And that’s why sages have always condemned idolatry. To understand the nature of the the ground of being correctly you must not have an image of it.


Now, we don’t need to be compulsive about that. Compulsive iconoclasm is a terrible thing. The Islamic people suffered from it from time to time, and when they got to India they knocked down all the Buddhas and beautiful images and banged off their noses. And the Puritans did the same sort of thing to Roman Catholic and Anglican churches in England. They hated images. That meant, you see, they were terribly attached to them. They were still hung up by the images and therefore had to smash them. Either way, if you say: you must not—as in very strict orthodox Islamic culture—you must not make any image of any living creature. And so their art—very interestingly, one must admit—went off into abstract patterning. But what one is saying here is not that it is somehow just wrong to make an image. The point is much deeper than that. It is this: that, in order to realize, in order to experience the ground of being, you need to be free from images. That is to say, you need to suspend the activity called thinking.


Now, most people imagine that if they stop thinking, that’s sort of the end: the life of the mind instantly curls up and dies. But this isn’t the case, because there’s a lot more to the mind than thinking. There is this direct apprehension of the world, unmediated through concepts or thoughts. And that’s the kind of apprehension of the world you need to understand space. It’s interesting how, to some extent, this sort of thing enters even into the sciences. Because scientists operate with certain, shall we say—it’s hard to say “concept”—with certain tools that are not concepts, really. We always feel about a concept that you have to know what it is. But, for example, the basis of algebra is operating with patterns. And you don’t know what they are. They’re called unknowns: X is the unknown. You can say X + Y = Y + X, and you made a perfectly clear statement. But you don’t have to know what X is or what Y is. Could mean anything at all.


So, in the same way, in in modern geometry: you don’t define what you mean by a point. They’ve abandoned this as a sort of a nonsense definition; Euclid’s idea that a point is that which has position but no magnitude. What do you mean, it has position? What has position? And so now, a point. Everybody knows what a point is. But you don’t explain it. Because, you see, there must be a starting point in anything that anybody does, and anything they think about, in any system of ideas, any conception of the good life, where you don’t explain it. Because everybody knows what it is. And yet, when you ask them about it, they don’t. And, you see, we get time and space. If you turn back on your starting point and say, “I will not go anywhere. I will not proceed with my geometry, with my investigation, with my business plans, until I am quite sure of my starting point.” You will never begin. Because you can go back into your starting point forever. And that manifests itself in people who, for example, have certain kinds of hypochondria. Their starting point is the body. They wonder. “My goodness! Ought I to go out? Would I catch cold? Would I get into an accident? Should I go to a foreign country? Would I get the great Siberian itch, or heebie jeebies, or trots, or whatever?” So, always worrying about the starting point forever. Now, are you quite sure that your premises are right? It’s always good to look at your premises. But you can very quickly come to the conclusion that, if you don’t have some premises, you won’t go anywhere at all. So, as one general once said: a poor plan of attack carried out with zest and determination is much better than an excellent plan carried out in a wobbling way.


So, in this way—for example, in Japan I have no ideas, really, about talking Japanese. I know lots of words and no grammar. Therefore, I have no compunction whatsoever about talking because I know it’s mistakes all over the place. And if I were nervous about it, as they get nervous about talking English, because they do desperately want to be correct, I have absolutely no desire to be correct because I know that, in my whole lifetime, I will never be able to speak correct Japanese. So I just plunge in and I get understood. And that’s the way you have to do it in life: you muddle through. So if you keep turning back, you see, on the initial beginning point and trying to be sure of it, nothing will ever happen.


So then, whatever is the point, whatever is the ground that we are and that we take our stand upon, appears to us as space, as not being there, to give us transparency. You see, if God were visible, nobody could see anything but God. It would blot out everything else. But by virtue of becoming invisible, the world is created. Because, as it were, God gets out of the way so that the world can appear. And the world is a selection. As I explained, the eyes select what they see, because they are only noticing what goes on in a certain spectrum of light. If you could change the eyes’ spectrum altogether, you would see a different world of creatures. Flip, flip, flip: you could have the thing like a radio tuner, going from performance to performance, all on different bands of a spectrum. To see them all at once, though, would be (for our kind of intellect) like taking your hands like this across the piano and going slam. See? You just get this chaos of sound.


So that there being realized objects in space is partly dependent upon our using an attentive and selective type of consciousness. You see, they’re the same thing. If you have a selective consciousness, you have a selective world. So, putting down the five fingers on the piano—instead of the full, flat arm—selects a certain pattern of sound. And you can say it’s a chord, it’s a melody, and so on. So when the angels play their harps in heaven, they are selecting: they’re the fingers of God selecting what kind of patterns are appearing in the world, you see? That’s really what that image is about.


So then, to see this, then, you go back to no thinking. The suspension of thought is—for modern man in particular—a tremendously important undertaking. When, in about 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein published a book called the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, it was the end of Western philosophy. Because where he finished, he said, you know, philosophy is really a method for getting rid of meaningless concepts. And so he practically got rid of all metaphysical concepts and ended up by saying, “Whereof one cannot speak, of that one should be silent.” This was the great moment for philosophy departments all over the Western world to lapse into silence and practice meditation. But instead, they had to go on talking. Because they couldn’t prove that they were an academic discipline unless they did some talking and especially some publishing. So they began, then, to chatter nauseatingly about trivialities. They became grammarians, mathematical logicians, and things. And everybody forgot about philosophy because it got so dull. It wasn’t expressing any more man’s fascination and wonder at the improbable situation of living in the universe.


But fortunately, things are at last getting through to people. And you would not be entirely laughed out of court in academic surroundings today if you suggested that some non-verbal research be carried on. You would have to put it rather carefully. You would have to refrain from calling it yoga, or Buddhism, or meditation, but it would be the sort of research in non-verbal sensory awareness, or something. You know, something out of academic gobbledygook. But it’s coming.


And this presents problems to people who are compulsive thinkers. Because when they try to reach this completely non-verbal level, they think about doing it. They think, “I’m trying to reach the nonverbal level. I’m trying to empty my mind of thoughts. I’m trying to think not-thinking.” And you feel so sorry for those people. But it is an awful problem if you have it. And to get rid of it, then, one uses gimmicks. One uses methods of absorbing the individual in non-conceptual experiences. Such as: you can play a single loud musical tone, and get that going, and it really shatters thinking. It just turns you into this—your whole body becomes this one tone. And you get the person concentrated on that one point, you see? Go, go, go, go! And zzzzip, cut it off. Then where are you? Haven’t had time to collect your thoughts. You’re blown by this tone. And all those techniques that are used in yoga—when they chant, when they do some kind of physical exercises, when they have a nonsense proposition like a kōan to concentrate on—all these things work in the same essential way: to suspend the analytical thinking, to suspend the spotlight mind for a while. So that you get back to what is called original mind, where you act without thinking.


That’s why, in the whole interchange between a Zen teacher and his students, the Zen teacher is constantly challenging the student to respond intelligently to a given situation without thinking, without stopping to think. Just as in, say, using Judo: you mustn’t stop to think. You’re lost if you do. You must learn to respond without thinking. So, creative skill in so many things depends upon the opposite of thinking. When you examine what people say, what inventors say, what artists say, what mathematicians say about the discovery of new ideas, very few of them arrived at those ideas by a purely thought, thinking, verbal or numerical process.


And the reason is, of course, that the structures which we have a arrived at and we do understand by analytical thinking—once you see them, they tend to stay put. They become habits. And there’s nothing more difficult to cure in an individual than a habit of thought. You know, I’ve argued for hours and hours and hours, sometimes, with people who simply can’t understand knowing without a knower. Because they are so trapped by sentence structure. The verb has to have that subject. Therefore, you can’t have a state of affairs in which there is just the verb—that is to say, knowing. They say, “Well, who is knowing?” And it’s as bad as arguing with a flat-Earthist or a Jehovah’s witness. Impossible! Because of the ruts of thought. And such a person can never be inventive. Why? Because he will never see a new pattern a new structure. And he won’t see one because he’s thinking all the time. He’s not open to the variations of the actual world. And so he can only see what he’s been taught to see.


That’s why academic psychology is always in a position of bafflement about learning theory. Because if learning is a process of converting new experience into the terms of what you’ve already learned, you never really learn all. It’s like, according to kind of a narrow-minded aerodynamics, bees cannot fly. There is no way of explaining the aerodynamics of that vibration. But it flies! And you often come up against this when an inventor has an idea, and all his colleagues say to him, “Oh, don’t be silly! You can’t do that. It just wouldn’t work.” Well, he says, “I’ve tried it and it does work.” Well, they say, “Come on.” And very often they won’t even try. They’ll just say it can’t be done. You can get a fantastic dogmatism in the scientific world. And you have to be terribly careful not to upset certain absolutely fundamental, strictly, prejudices, which are the result of thinking too much and of getting accustomed to the warm ruts of thought. And so you never could see the new.


So this is the real meaning of an open mind. Not merely that you’re a liberal sort of guy, but that you can turn off thoughts—and, yes, thus be turned on to reality. Thoughts, you see, belong to the world of symbols. What we experience with our senses is, of course, the physical world; the real world. You may ask me, “Well, isn’t there also a spiritual world?” But you must understand that the spiritual world is the same thing as the physical, when the physical is not confused with the symbolic. There is no real difference between the spiritual and the physical. It’s all one energy, all in one space.


Now, you see, though, the difficulty is that, in saying something like, “It’s all one energy,” this is the really the point. I mean, if you understand that this whole universe is one energy and you’re it, you don’t really have any much in the way of further problems. I mean, you have some few practical problems, like how to make a good table or a beautiful dress or whatever it is that you’re after. But you don’t have any more metaphysical problems when you see that. But a person who thinks a lot can’t understand that at all, because he says, “Well, it doesn’t make any difference. If everything is all one energy, let’s begin again. I mean, what have you said?” Of course, we haven’t said anything. Logically, the statement is pure nonsense. “Everything is one energy.” So What? But that’s only because the person who has received this communication has had it only as a thought. And as a thought it’s, again, like saying, “There is paper under every word on this page,” and thinking that that means, “paper,” “paper,” “paper,” “paper.”


But when this is something that emerges from not-thinking, and when you see that you’ve been bamboozled. All your life long you’ve been bugged by everybody else into thinking that you are some kind of a freak that came into this world. And you don’t really belong here because, probably, your parents didn’t really want you, and certainly your brothers, older brothers and sisters didn’t want you around; you were eating up more. And in school they tell you, you know, you’ve got to learn that you’re not the only pebble on the beach and that, therefore, the best way of teaching you that is that you’re really rather insufferable around here, and you’re on probation until you are acceptable. Well, babies, they grow up, you see, with this treatment: feeling strangers, feeling that the Earth is something alien.


And so we all have this feeling of being alone, of being impotent little puppets of a huge system going on. And so we are progressively fooled out of, really, with our own cooperation, fooled out of this sense that you can get if you suspend all these identifications that that one does with the thinking process. This is this, this is that, I’m me, what’s me is different from so on. You suspend that. And you see not simply that all those problems and all those definitions of who you are were unreal. There’s something else. You see, there is the feeling—beyond having dissipated the illusion—of the sheer joy and delight of this one energy now is realizing itself as you. And how nice that it won’t always be doing that, because that would get boring. It’ll go bwwllpp, like this, you see? And it will be a different situation altogether. You know, you’ll run into a brick wall and bwwllpp, before you know where you are, you’re going peep, peep, peep, peep out of an eggshell. Waaaah! The whole thing is flipped and you’re doing it on another track. But there’s only one you, you see? It’s all the one energy.


But this is, as I say, difficult to understand logically if you don’t understand it experimentally. If you understand it experimentally, it’s perfectly clear when somebody says everything is one energy. You say, “Of course!” But the person who’s stuck with the concepts and has nothing more than the concept simply can’t make any sense of it at all. And he says, “Well, you’re suffering from a hallucination.” And will proceed to prove, according to his ideas, that what you’ve achieved in that has made no difference to you or to anything else. Of course he can prove it. Because his proof is set up to give just that result.


Well then, I got into that at some length—the question of no thinking—because of trying to point out how one must avoid trying to understand space in such a way as to make it a thing. Like a box, you see, which contains all the objects in it. But a no-thing like space is at the same time in cahoots with things. They’re two aspects, two poles, two terms, of the same one energy. Don’t make space at the same pole of the one energy as the things. It’s the opposite pole.


It is, then, because of our treatment of space as nothing, you see, that we are afraid of death. We are afraid of that pole of experience, which is unconsciousness, that corresponds to space surrounding the world. And because we think that reality, that our life, that our identity, is entirely in the domain of consciousness and thingness and thinkableness, the other pole seems completely threatening. Whereas, of course, it is that on which it all depends. Because the two poles depend on each other. They energize each other.


So when you are scared of the non-being side of things, you are, as it were, frightened of your own mother. Now, of course, you may have reason to be, because there are such things as devouring mothers. But the devouring mother represents the original horror felt for the unknown. And in practice, in human relationships, the devouring type of mother is that precisely the person who cannot come to terms with her own unknown. Therefore, she wants to control everything: she wants to see that all the children remain perpetually under her dominance. Because she can’t let go. Because if she let go, you know, she would become uncorseted and flop all over the place, as it were. So she becomes the devourer.


But you always conquer the devourer by dropping into it. By faith, in other words. Faith in the sense of trust. I don’t mean belief. Trust. Drop into space and you float. See, this only begins to be understood by rocket people as they get out there. And we’re going to have—I don’t know how the psychology of this is proceeding—but we’re going to have an awful lot of people getting out in space and not wanting to come back. Because when you’re in orbit and you float—very interesting sensation. And they have to follow very strict rules. The same way you do with skin diving. When you get to a certain level of pressure, you start floating and you feel no body weight. And you have to absolutely keep your will going. When the watch says a certain thing, up you go. Orders is orders, see? Otherwise you’ll drown—in great delight and bliss.


So the point is, though, that we are at the moment looking at space as something to be entered by the tremendous thrust of a rocket. Because that is the attitude of attacking the unknown. And that causes us not to realize that we are already on the most magnificently equipped spaceship which could hardly be improved upon. It has got a source of temperature and energy just at the right distance from it. It’s beautifully equipped with oxygen, with food supplies, with all kinds of delightful things to do while on the journey. And it’s traveling through space at a colossal speed. And it’s called the planet Earth. The art of exploring from the planet Earth depends not on conquering space with rockets and bombs, but on developing greater sensitivity in the place where we are. Lao Tzu said, “Without going out of my house, I know the whole universe.”


Clumsy beginnings of this sensitivity are seen in radio astronomy which, instead of trying to leap out of the world, stays here and gets more sensitive. And eventually, I feel, that we shall discover each one of us have inside our heads a radio astronomical contraption of great subtlety. And we shall eventually, the more we use instruments, we shall begin to watch a process which I will call etherealization. What at present we call miniaturization is connected with this. Miniaturization means that electronic equipment becomes smaller and smaller and smaller, until what was originally a great box like this becomes a tiny, tiny little thing. Little tiny cell. And so, in the same way, as certain techniques advance, all kinds of joining lines like wires begin to vanish. See, when radio substitutes for the telephone, all the wires vanish. When the airplane substitutes for road and railway, all the roads and rails are going to vanish. See? And more and more we’ll find means of getting rid of the clumsiness of primitive technology. And then, as all this apparatus disappears, we find that we are moving in the direction of having it all in our own apparatus. Just like dolphins have sonar, homing pigeons have built-in radar. I think it’s all in us. But we had to exteriorize it technologically in order to discover it within.

Part 3


It’s curious how, past the middle of the twentieth century, there’s a very strong evidence of a revival in Western philosophy of what used to be called idealism—not in the moral sense, but in the metaphysical sense. That is to say, of the feeling that the external world is in some way a creation of the mind. Only, we come to this point of view with very different assumptions than were held by people like Hegel or Berkeley or Radley (the great idealists of the European metaphysical tradition), and probably rather more akin to similar trends in Buddhist philosophy emerging from India about 400 A.D. The difference of approach, the difference of the way in which today this thing arises and the way in which it arose in the thought of a man like Bishop Berkeley is that the new idealism has a kind of curiously physical basis.


When one would argue everything you know is in your mind, and the distance, the feeling of externality between you and other objects and people is also the content of consciousness, and therefore it’s all your consciousness—this, of course, created all sorts of weird feelings. Are things there when I’m not witnessing them, or is there anybody else there, or are you all my personal dream? And one has only to imagine a conference of such people of solipsists—those who believe that they alone exist—arguing as to which one of them is really there to make the whole idea rather laughable. And furthermore, there seems to be no clarity in such philosophical thinking as to what the term “mind” or “consciousness” meant. It had long associations with the mic and the gaseous by way of images. Mind and soul and spirit were always vague and formless. And matter, by contrast, was very rugged; craggly. And how these two ever influenced each other, nobody ever could decide. Because all properly behaved ghosts walk straight through brick walls without disturbing either the bricks or the ghost. And so how can a mind incarnate in a material body move that body in any way? This was always a puzzle.


So people began to think that the differentiation between mind and matter was of no use. Because actually, what happens in making such a differentiation is that you impoverish both sides of it. When you try to think of matter as mindless, or mind as immaterial, you get a kind of a mess on both sides. It’s the same way when you get a mystic who is not a bit of a sensualist, and a sensualist who has no whit of a mystic. Such a sensualist is boring. Such a mystic is a fanatic; too spiritual. It’s the same when we divide the medical profession from the priesthood: both are losers. Not just because they lose their so-called opposite half, but the problem is, when you separate a doctor from a priest, you do more than create a specialization out of what was originally one field; to create two specializations. Because a priest-physician is more than a priest plus a physician. By having, as it were, the binocular vision from medicine and from religion, he just doesn’t see two added areas. He sees the area in three dimensions as a result of this combination.


Well, in a similar way, when we have the concepts of mind and matter working separately, both are impoverished. Mind becomes a vague kind of gas; psychic gas. And matter becomes mere stuff. But, you see, what has enabled us to make a transition is, first of all—above all, I would say—two sciences: biology and neurology. Because through biology (and to some extent physics), the method of physics has shown us, that the idea that man can be an objective observer of an external world that is not himself, so that, as it were, he can stand back from it and look at it and say what is out there—we see that this cannot be done. We can approximately do it. But we cannot really and fully do it for two reasons.


One—the most important reason—is that the biologist will show us very clearly there is no way of definitively separating a human organism from its external environment. The two are a single field of behavior. And then, furthermore, to observe something—either simply by looking at it, or more so by making experiments, by doing science on it—you alter what you’re looking at. You cannot carry out an observation without in some way interfering with what you observe. It is this that we try when we’re watching, say, the habits of birds: to be sure that the birds don’t notice us that we’re watching. To watch something, it must not know you are looking. And, of course, what you ultimately want to do is to be able to watch yourself without knowing that you’re looking. Then you can really catch yourself not on your best behavior and see yourself as you really are. But this can never be done. And likewise, the physicist cannot simultaneously establish the position and the velocity of very minute particles or wavicles. And this is in part because the experiment of observing nuclear behavior alters and affects what you’re looking at. This is one side of it: the inseparability of man and his world, which deflates the myth of the object of observer standing aside and observing a world that is merely mechanical, a thing that operates like a machine out there.


The second is from the science of neurology, where we understand so clearly now that the kind of world we see is relative to the structure of the sense organ. That, in other words, what used to be called the qualities of the external world—its qualities of weight, or color, texture, and so on—are possessed by it only in relation to a perceiving organism. The very structure of our optical system confers light and color upon outside energy. And in this sense, then—especially if you want to read a very easily digestible account of this thing, you get the book by J. Z. Young called Doubt and Certainty in Science.


But, you see, here from a new basis altogether we have a new answer to the old riddle, “If a tree falls in the forest when nobody is listening, does it make a noise?” The answer in terms of modern science is perfectly clear: that the falling tree creates vibrations in the air, and these become noise if and only if they relate to an eardrum and to an auditory nervous system. Just as an ordinary drum, however hard you hit, the drum will make no sound if it has no skin. Because sound is not something that exists in the external world. Sound is a relationship between vibrating air and certain kinds of biological organisms. And therefore, it is these organisms which confer what we call sound upon a vibration, which in an earless world would make no noise.


Now, you see, that is perfectly clear and straightforward. But now, dare we take certain steps from that? Could we say, for example, that before any organisms existed, there was no world? And what we’re talking about when we talk about a world prior to the existence of organisms is what is called an extrapolation. Let me explain extrapolation for a moment. Supposing you have a map of Kansas and you want, from the evidence contained in the map, to guess at what kind of territory lies beyond its edges. Well, naturally, you will extend those straight line roads off and off and off. That’s the only basis you’ve got to go on. Nothing in the map of Kansas would warn you that, a little way west, you will encounter the Rocky Mountains and the roads will have to wiggle. And still less will warn you that you’re going to encounter the Pacific Ocean way out beyond, where you can’t build any roads. So naturally, you see, we extrapolate from what we know to the unknown. And so one might say then, is the existence of a universe before there were any living organism an extrapolation? All we are saying is this is how things would have been if we had been around. But we weren’t, so it wasn’t. That is a possible argument, although in the climate of opinion today it is one that is not fashionable.


You must watch out above all for fashion in philosophy, fashion in science. There are completely irrational functions that govern what is or what is not a respectable scientific opinion. And although there is very careful work done, very valuable and thoughtful experimentation—always in the background of this work there are these irrational fashions of what is believable and what is not. Many things that we accept today were completely unbelievable. We are always coming across this. Authoritative pronouncements that no one will ever reach the moon because of incontrovertible evidence about this, that, and the other. But nowadays we have swung over perhaps to be a little bit too uncritical. And as Norbert Wiener warned in his book The Human Use of Human Beings, we must not take science as a sort of fairy godmother and say, well, we have all these problems of overpopulation and lack of water and so on, but science will solve it, don’t worry. See, that’s the other extreme. But there are these fashions.


And so the idea that the world is in some way, you see? Therefore, the one moment you let this little idealism thing in under the door—and I remind you, I’m using idealism not in a moral sense but in a metaphysical sense, as opposed to some sort of materialism. Now, the moment you let that in under the door, if I can possibly realize that the way the world is is evoked by the structure of my organism—it is that way. All mountains and suns and moons and stars are the inhabitants of a strictly human world. Perhaps insects with their different sense organs have a very different universe, and that is an insect universe. This is again, it seems, to be a recrudescence of what used to be called the prophetic fallacy, which was the attribution of human qualities and emotions to natural phenomena. The wind sighs in the trees. My heart is sad. And somebody comes along and says, “It isn’t the wind that sighing, it’s you.” True or not true? Because you wouldn’t be able to sigh if there were no wind. And you sighing and wind blowing gowith each other.


I’ve invented this new word, gowith, or goeswith. It is to replace the idea of causality. Certain things gowith each other. And sighing wind goeswith a sane world in which there are human hearts and human emotions. And if there were not a world with human hearts and emotions, there would be no wind. And if there were no wind, air, there would be no human hearts and emotions. It’s a transaction, it’s reciprocity. So, in the same way, every event in the external world is dependent on the observer for its happening as, for example, is a rainbow. You can say the sun is shining, and there’s moisture in the atmosphere. And the sun being at the right angle to the moisture makes a rainbow. And if somebody is there, they see the rainbow. That is a mythology; a way of putting things that is acceptable to us in the current climate of philosophical and scientific fashion.


But I want to put it in another way. The sun is shining and there is a person standing. If there were moisture in the atmosphere, there would be a rainbow. But there isn’t, so there is no rainbow. If you want to be fair, there is no rainbow if nobody is watching it, you see? Because you must have one of the three components—sun, moisture, observer—to have the thing called rainbow. And what applies to the tenuous, filmy, luminescent rainbow applies equally well to the hardest rocks, the solidest mountains, and the hottest fires. Because all existence is a relationship. It’s like the skin of the drum. If it’s not there, no amount of hitting a nonexistent skin will produce any noise.


So, you see, energy is—we can see this—energy is relationship. We can see the falling fist on the skin of the drum. Boing! Like that. And if there isn’t both the falling fist and the skin—no noise, no existence. But existence is not only the impact of rocks upon each other. Existence requires always, as its third—you can get the rocks knocking, the sun and the moisture, the tree crashing to the ground, the sun pouring out electrical energy—but none of these things constitute existence until related with the neurological complex. But then you have to look backwards, and say at the same time the neurological complex belongs to the same world as the sun. It’s a physical pattern; physical behavior, physical energy. But it takes this complexity of pattern to evoke the world. You see, this idea is unfamiliar. And that’s the difficulty of understanding it, that’s all. It’s a very simple idea, but it’s an unfamiliar one, and it’s an unfashionable one. Although, as I say, this sort of thinking is coming back to us at this time very largely as a result of people’s experiments with psychedelics, where one gets the perfectly uncanny feeling of the world and one’s self as simply two phases of a single process.


Well, as the rainbow metaphor illustrated, we arbitrarily favor an explanation of the triangle. The impact of energies in the external world, and an observer of this impact—which, as it were, energizes or realizes them; makes them real. The difficulty that we have in our prejudice, that it’s the two forces out there that are real and the observer is irrelevant to the reality of the situation—it’s what we’re really saying—goes back to the whole notion that man himself is irrelevant. Man is conceived as something, therefore, that is irrelevant in various ways. He could be said to be irrelevant because he is a spiritual visitor from another world altogether. He could be said to be irrelevant because he’s unimportant. He makes very little difference to the total universe. He’s very small.


But when you get this kind of thinking, you want to go back and ask, “Why do people want to believe that man is irrelevant?” In all theory of this kind, look for some sort of… ask the question, “What do these people want to achieve by their theory? By holding this stance?” And it was fashionable in the nineteenth century to look upon man as irrelevant for some very sound political reasons. I may sound a little bit like a Marxist in saying this, but it’s when you’re on the rampage, you have to believe either that you’re the representative of God Almighty and doing everything at his bidding, or that what you’re doing isn’t really very important. Either position will give you an alibi for behaving like a barbarian. So the great put-down on man that our little affairs are of no concern to God—thank heaven he’s not watching any more! Then we can get away with murder, which is what we wanted to do in the colonization doings, especially of the nineteenth century, and the outrages of the two world wars. There is no God watching anymore. You know, the teacher has gone out, boys! Let’s raise hell. That was a way of getting rid of teacher. You know? God is dead, let’s have a drink.


And as a result of this, you see, it became so fashionable to think of man as merely unimportant—little victim of the cosmic trap—that, for a while, Western man lost his sense of the dependence of the—well, what the Hebrews used to call—he lost his sense of man’s position as the head of nature. And when you hear, today, people’s comments on that old myth of man as the head of nature, they come back in a very funny way. They say, “Oh, that’s the most conceited point of view! Man is part of nature.” Yes, but why is it that the naturalists—who think that man is part of nature—are always fighting nature? Because they don’t understand what it means to be the head of nature.


Every creature is the head of nature—in its turn. And we all take turns, because it’s taking turns that makes the world go ’round. Every creature in its turn is the head of nature, because each creature creates the world in its own image. And so, each creature, as a creator of the world, is man. “Man” simply means the middle position. This is the whole idea of man: the middle way; the mean. And so, wherever is the central point, that is the point called man. Just as you are the center of your universe. And as the astrologers explained, that when you wanted to draw the map of the soul, you took the centerpoint occupied by the individual organism. In other words, a date and a time, and that gave you a latitude and longitude. And so, in relation to that date and time—how was the universe arranged?—shows the map of the individual soul. Because the individual is the whole universe considered from this point of view, or focused at this point of view.


So, in like way, the cosmic situation of a bee or a mouse puts that mouse in the position of man when the mouse is considered the center of the universe. Now, every point in a curved space-time continuum is the center of the universe. You can see it—although this is only a metaphor and is not quite the right mathematical and physical description. But when you consider the surface of a ball, of a sphere, any point on that surface can be the center. Just rotate it to what appears to be the front as you look at it, and it’s the center of the surface of the sphere. Any point. So if our space is curved like the surface of the sphere, then any point on it may legitimately be considered the center. And so, considered as the center, that is the point called “man.” Although, as I say, it may be mouse, it may be ant, it maybe insect—anything.


But this becomes inconceivable and unimaginable to individuals who have no experience of themselves as center. And people who insist on the idea of being an objective observer—of standing outside and watching the world as a kind of television screen or movie screen upon which there is a distant panorama of passing events—that person, by adopting that position, has excluded himself from the feeling of centrality. In fact, he rather looks down on the feeling of centrality. He says, “That is the egotistic situation. You are the center of everything.” But, you know, you may call it all sorts of bad names, you may call it the egocentric predicament, but that’s the way it is. And it’s much less egocentric to accept it than to say, “Well, I’ll go off and play my own eccentric game”—as an objective observer, who is a sort of controller outside the world in that qualitative sense in which the monotheistic God is said to be outside the world: the boss.


So then, if you take this to a very far extent—see how far we can go with it—is it, then, that in the measure that you are the behavior of the universe, is the universe the behavior of you? I was talking in the beginning, you see, about the ease of understanding one way of looking at this and the difficulty of understanding the other, even though one implies the other. When we see that the degree to which individual behavior is a factor of the whole environmental scene, we tend to try and understand that in terms of determinism: that the individual organism is helplessly pushed around by and responding to environmental forces. But, on the other hand, if the relationship between the organism and its environment is transactional, it won’t be that one-sided. If the relationship is transactional it will be true, simultaneously, that the individual organism behaves in accordance with the environment, and the environment behaves in accordance with the individual organism.


So if we put that in startling practical terms: if you got into a mess, that was what you wanted. Well, you say, “I didn’t know I wanted it. I certainly didn’t think I wanted it.” No. Because that will be true. You didn’t want it—so long as you refer to yourself only in terms of the conscious spotlight which scans experience bit by bit, and which thinks about it. To the degree you identify your own functioning with that alone, then you will say of what happens to you, “Well, I didn’t ask for this. It has nothing to do with me. I wasn’t responsible.” But as soon as you extend your way of looking at things, and are not that myopic about it, you’ll begin to see what is, I think, clumsily foreshadowed by Freud and Jung—especially Freud in his idea of self-punitiveness, death-wishes, and all these things, where he is trying to say of the functioning of the unconscious that, when you get into a catastrophe, you are accident-prone because you want to punish yourself.


Now, actually, Groddeck is much better at this than Freud. Very few people know Groddeck. Groddeck really was behind a lot of Freud’s ideas, and he wrote a thing called The Book of the It; Das Buch vom Es. And in this he explains the most extraordinary theory of the unconscious, which he doesn’t—like Freud; Freud basically didn’t trust the unconscious. That’s why he felt that the reality principle was in irreconcilable conflict with the pleasure principle, and that this conflict would destroy human civilization. Groddeck—who looked like a goblin with enormous ears; he was a little man. Really looked like a goblin. And he ran a sanitarium at Baden-Baden where people who came for massage got psychoanalysis, and people who came for psychoanalysis got massage. Well, he wrote this book in the form of letters from a goblin to a young girl. And it’s much more sexy than Freud. But through the whole thing he has this complete faith in the unconscious and its wisdom. And a friend to whom I once lent this book years ago said, “After reading that, I will never be afraid of getting sick again.” Because he pointed out, about all sickness, that sickness is really not a disease, but a symptom of the the It, the unconscious, trying to cure you. And therefore, just as one does not simply knock down a fever with quinine, because that would stop the work of the fever, so perhaps one should not knock down all sorts of diseases because, for purposes which we do not as yet understand, the unconscious is using them for a constructive purpose.


But now, so you see, this was something Freud was fumbling after: the notion of an intelligence in us greater than the intelligence of consciousness, and operating in an unconscious way. Note the choice of words. Why didn’t he say super-conscious? Because the climate of opinion at the time in which he was alive wanted to insist that everything below human conscious reason was stupid. That mere matter, blind energy, had displaced God upon the throne of heaven. But it comes back, you see, with Freud, that you cannot eliminate the unconscious as part of your essential operation, yourself. Because you are an inseparable part of the world, you cannot divvy up responsibility and say, “You should praise me for that. I should blame you for that. It’s your fault!”, “No, it wasn’t, it’s your fault!” You know? All this is a perfectly silly argument. And if we think it dignifies human beings and gives them a sense of—and theologians are always talking a lot of nonsense about this kind of thing. They’re saying that the dignity of man depends upon each individual assuming his responsibility. And then, as soon as they start doing this, and then “Nyah, nyah, nyah!” “’Tis, ’tisn’t, ’tis, ’tisn’t.” You know? And arranging who’s to be clobbered, who’s the fall guy, who gets the blame for the situation? It’s usually somebody who just happened to be standing by when it happened.


So if, then, you understand that you are an integral, functioning part of this whole cosmos, what price do you pay for stopping this yak, yak, yak about your fault, my fault, et cetera? The price you pay is: you have to admit your own complicity in the catastrophes that occur to you. You have to see that everything that comes to you is what went out of you. Everything that comes to you is a return to you of what went out of you. You asked for it. But it’s not the conscious you that asked for it—not the you that is just the spotlight consciousness—because that’s unconscious of most of the things that go on in you.


So you get a curious, fascinating picture of how things are operating underneath the surface. This is what’s so valuable about studying some science. Take a very so-called simple science, like elementary botany—or, best of all, a kind of elementary course in ecology: plant, microbe, organism relationships—and what you see is this: you see a developing pattern in which everything that happens gets integrated into the whole thing that’s going on. That, what is from one point of view, say, the disease of a certain plant, is the method of reproduction of some other species. If we get, say, malaria from anopheles mosquitoes, that’s because anopheles mosquitoes have an extraordinary reproduction cycle that involves their being parasitic to us. Now, if you take the anopheles’ point of view, it becomes man. You see? So that, as you study these systems, you see what is going on is: “We need it a little bit this way.” And someone says, “Oh no! That’s going too far!” And then they pull it and it comes back, you see, and now a little bit this way. You get it going over here. And then they say, “Oh no, no! That’s too much! Too much, too much!” They feel a strain or something that said “too much.” So there’s constant adjustment going on.


And if you would examine, for example, the sharp edge of a leaf: you put it down under a huge microscope and there’s a churning, churning, churning, going along. And there are certain little elements, cells, in that leaf, you see, that want to go wheee, way out there. And if they do, you know, the leaf is disintegrating into gas. And wheee! But then some police come along, along that line, and say, “Hey! Get back inside! Keep in, keep in!” The other thing: “No, you’re destroying our liberty! We want to go out.” See? “Go on, get in!” And this whole thing, this clamor, goes along the edge of the leaf, see? But from our point of view it’s a perfectly stable, clean edge. We’re not looking closely enough. So our turmoils, our problems, our wars, and calamities, and atomic explosions mean: if the planet blows up, that’s going to be like—[???] Morgenroth once showed me a great plant covered in greenfly. They were succulent and fat and having a ball. Came by the next day, the whole thing was gray dust. They’d eaten up the plant and disintegrated. As a fact of nature, around here we say, “Thank heavens for that! Those green flies just ate the weed up. And both of them were pests, anyway.” It works out in the balancing system of nature.


So we are doubtless in the same situation. Only, we have a kind of blinkers on, whereby we only see half the picture. We get the end of it—that it can push us around—but we don’t get the end of it that being pushed around is what we asked for. We evoked it all by the very fact that we’re here. Children don’t think that they are responsible for being born. They blame their parents—not realizing that they can’t really separate themselves from their parents. That, in the measure that, say, for example, I have sexual desires, I can really understand my father’s predicament. And I couldn’t possibly blame him because, actually, I was the evil gleam in his eye when he approached my mother. You know? I asked for it.


Now, you can see in this that your relationship to the world as being responsible for everything that happens to you is not the same as an ordinary boss, who would be a magician and say that all sorts of improbable things should happen. Rather, it is this: if you think of yourself only as the consciousness, then, if you get some ideas from me about being in control of everything that happens to you, you will act stupidly as if you were the boss of the whole thing, like a kind of a lunatic thinking he’s God. But if, on the other hand, you understand that your real self is the wisdom that is expressed in the intelligent form of your organism, then you won’t fall into the error of thinking your relationship to the world of being that as its governor.

Part 4


This morning I want to talk about space in relation to what is ordinarily is called reincarnation. Because this is one of the most fascinating applications of the sense that space constitutes something significant. Now, the subject of reincarnation is one around which is ringed an incredible amount of hocus pocus, and yet there is something in it. And there seems to be something in it not mainly because there is a lot of alleged evidence for it in the form of stories of children who remember their former lives, and so on. I want to approach the subject much in the way that Erwin Schrödinger, the physicist, does. Because he has a view of this that does not involve any hocus pocus at all. It is perfectly simple, and all the evidence for it is already before us. So it involves no claim to special insight, psychic knowledge, but merely to grasping a principle that is staring us in the face. And this principle is difficult to understand not because there’s any inherent intellectual complexity to it, but simply because it requires getting across something that’s just unfamiliar.


There is obviously some sort of analogy—which I’ve already drawn your attention to—between space and unconsciousness. Between stars there is darkness. Between stars there is not the energy which constitutes a so-called body. In some modern physical theory that is purely hypothetical, not really tested, bodies in space are thought of as points at which space is intensified. But at any rate, there are these gaps, these intervals, and obviously the unconscious state must appear always to the conscious state as a gap or interval. So when we go to sleep at night, we wake up in the morning almost instantly. In other words, there appears to have happened nothing except something quite vague between going to sleep and waking—unless you had dreams. And so you can conceive, or barely conceive, going to sleep but not waking up. Or the reverse of it: waking up without ever having gone to sleep, which appears to be the nearest we can imagine to death and birth, respectively. To go to sleep and never wake up when we die. When we were born, to wake up but not to remember ever having gone to sleep.


And, of course, this bugs our imagination because it’s inconceivable in terms of consciousness. People are afraid—some people are afraid—of the possibility of eternal annihilation. And I suppose one of the most eloquent expressions of that is John Betjeman’s poem Before the Anesthetic, where he would prefer “rather even the dismal hells than that this I should cease to be.” And other people, perhaps of a more rational bent, say, “Well, that’s no problem, because if you simply cease to be there’s nobody to be disturbed by it.” You can’t experience not being there forever. And what most people do is: they project upon the prospect of annihilation the imagination of being shut up in a dark prison—an, as it were, supersensory deprivation chamber—forever. But, of course, the notion of eternal annihilation really has no meaning. It is an attempt to conceive nothingness; non-experience. And, so far as our imaginations are concerned, nature abhors a vacuum. We have to project something into that. Because psychologically, as well as logically, it is a void.


However, you see, just as we’ve been discussing the notion that all creatures whatsoever—not to mention all people—feel themselves in the middle: they feel central to their experience. And being central to experience is the nearest thing I can conceive as a meaning for the word “I.” Not an ego, because that is a social structure, a social institution, which has been kind of implanted upon our psychological behavior—upon, shall we say, experience. Because experience is a thing that we are taught. We are taught what experiences are permissible and what are not. Just in the same way as we are taught what speech is permissible and what is not, and what gestures are permissible, what actions are permissible and what are not. So our experience is trained, and we are trained to experience ourselves as egos. But still, underneath the implantation of the ego experience there is this sensation of centrality. You may feel that your center is isolated, as in the ego thing, or you may feel that your center is simply the center of a being—which is you, which extends to the ultimate limits. But in every case there is the sense of centrality in every being that exists. And therefore, every being is “I” just as you are. And there are always “I”s, in this sense. So long as the planet endures and there are living creatures on it, this is a planet with “I”s. And so long as there is the possibility that anywhere in the galaxies there should be such a planet, or creatures, who focus the centrality-feeling of the universe, there is “I.” And that “I” is always you.


We know that, when people die, other people are born after them. And that is all the evidence we need for the notion of a reincarnation. Or it could be explained in various ways; discussed in various ways and elaborated. But fundamentally, people die and then people are born. And that is only the simplest way of saying it, because people are born while others are living. And the whole collection of “I”-centers can sit around in a ring in this room, and I would explain—according to my feeling—that we are all a cycle of reincarnations sitting ’round here in a circle. Because reincarnation is the reincarnation of “I.” If you wanted to be the reincarnation of a particular “I,” then you will have to do something else altogether, which we shall go on to talk about.


But one thing seems to me to be perfectly clear: there was a time when your “I” woke up. It emerged from the biological continuum—what de Chardin calls the biosphere of this planet. And you don’t remember having been here before, at least not in the ordinary way. That is as surprising and as inconceivable an event as ceasing to be and without any apparent prospect of being again. But, you see, after this event called life, if you go back to unconsciousness, you go back to where you were before you started. And since there can’t be any experience of non-experience, obviously, any next “I” that comes up—and all, in fact, next “I”s that come up—are you. Only, since “I” is an experience of centrality, you don’t experience yourself as multi-centered. You experience yourself as a particular center. Because the universe—although it is multi-centered, each center is experienced uniquely.


So what you might roughly expect is this: that after you die, the next thing you know is that you are without the slightest memory of whatever happened before. You repeat the same sort of experiences that you had when you were born. Because it’s somebody else being born. There has to be someone around. I’m merely saying that the experience of being “I” goes on—even if there’s an interval of several billion years. It makes no difference whatsoever. Supposing the human race was wiped off the planet and it took that much time for it to reappear—or any living creature. That would make no difference to this phenomenon. So let me repeat: since there is no possibility of a non-experience, there are always experiences coming up. And each one of them is you. Because it’s “I.”


Now, I know there’s a difficulty in this, because it arises from the fact that we identify “I” with the ego, and a part of ego is a memory system. You know who you are in the sense that you remember who you are. You identify yourself with a series of events that you remember, and these are strung out in a line; they’re like a certain tune. And therefore you identify yourself with that tune. So we repeat ourselves, we have consistent characters, just in the same way as a tune is always constructed to repeat itself in a certain way with variations, so that we recognize the tune and the name of the piece by hearing even one part of it. So here is a tune, you see, that is being played. And it is attached to a center called “I.” Only, the “I” is much more than this particular tune, this particular series of memories. Even though we are persuaded and kind of hoaxed into identifying the whole “I” with that series of memories. But, you know, supposing somebody plays a Chopin Étude and then he stops. Then, later on, somebody else plays it. Is it the same tune? Why, in one sense, yes. In another sense, no. So it is possible, isn’t it, that, even though your tune was wiped out because the memory system goes with death, the same sort of tune could be played again with its characteristics themes. And that will be, in another sense, you in a more particular sense than the you of centrality.


In Buddhism there has never been the idea that rebirth or reincarnation involves the transmigration of a specific soul, because all schools of Buddhism are agreed on the idea that the individual self, or soul, is an illusion; a māyā. And they liken the process of rebirth to the motion of a wave across the surface of water. Actually, the motion is illusory. The water simply goes up and down. Now, there is an optical impression of a wave moving out. No wave moves, and yet there is the seeming of movement. So the Buddhist would say: no soul reincarnates, and yet there is the illusion of reincarnation. Buddhists think of reincarnation as an illusion, and yet believe in it. Westerners think of it as something that might be a fact and find it difficult to believe in it. Westerners adopt the idea of reincarnation as a comforting idea. Buddhists are trying to get out of being reincarnated. It’s very funny.


But at any rate, the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation says that what passes problem life to life is karma; is doing, action—that’s what karma means. Process. And that’s something like a wave. Not soul, not entity. That doesn’t pass. You can look at it in another way. There is an institution like the University of California. This university keeps going on and on and on, and yet all the buildings change, certainly all the students change, all the faculty changes, all the administrative offices change as the years go by, and yet it’s still the University of California. What is the University of California? Why, it is a process. It is a doing. It is a pattern of behavior. Your body is in the same situation. There is not one scrap of you that was with you ten years ago. It has all been rebuilt, reorganized, completely repaired and renewed. Then: who are you? You’re a pattern, you see? You’re a process that is identifiable and recognizable. You face in a certain way, you hair in a certain way, you are in a certain way, and you behave in a certain way. So we recognize you. But it’s all in constant—it’s like a whirlpool in water: the water flows through and the whirlpool retains the shape, until it doesn’t. But then, it can always whirlpool again somewhere else.


So now, what do we do? If that’s clear so far, what do we do to give any credence at all to the notion that there is some connection between some lives of a peculiar character? That we could take a life lived between the years of 1500 and 1580 and look at that, and then see another life lived between 1700 and 1792 and say, “Ye gods, there’s no getting away from it, but that the latter is a continuation of the former.” Now, how could you do that? Well, very simply. Let us consider that we are looking at an enormous number of biographies, scattered over a very great period of years. But to visualize them we’ve got to think of them as different colored spots. Now, as you look at this great mosaic, you see, of spots of all sorts of different colors, you will very soon begin to pick out patterns in it as you do with a Rorschach blot. And you will see continuities running across. And you will therefore have projected a particular, even personal, reincarnation pattern running between these different biographies. It is highly conceivable that one of these blots may, at a certain point—there may be a stream of blots that you associate as being a stream. And then, at a certain point they divide. And two lines proceed from it. It could very well be, you see, that an individual could reincarnate as two next time. Or any number you want. Amoeba fashion. But you will see these connections in your blots.


Now then, the question arises: is this just your idea or are these connections real? In order to answer that one, all we have to do is to look at some sort of pattern formation that we find, not in the situation that we find a Rorschach blot, but, say, we are examining the structure of a muscle. We’ve sliced the muscle and are looking at it carefully with microscopes and things. What do we find? We find that muscle is an enormous conglomeration of cells, but that these cells have patterns in them—or, at any rate, we notice certain areas of their behavior where they seem to constitute tubes. But what is the difference between the tubes one sees in a cross-section of muscle and the pictures of forms one sees in a Rorschach blot? Just get down to it. What is the difference? You might say that would be a large variation of individual opinion as to the nature of the Rorschach blot patterns and less division of opinion about how one should interpret muscle patterns. But is that alone enough establish a significant difference between the two situations? Especially when you get down to the micro level where, more and more, the molecules or cells or whatever are distant from each other. You say, “Isn’t it really remarkable that, at a certain level of magnification, we see this as a huge distribution of rather formless things? And we can only see what form we make when we go down in magnification, and come back to approaching the normal vision, that we see these vastly scattered blobs and globs and globule, or whatever, take shape. And is this alteration of magnification anything like a psychological projection? It’s very difficult to draw a hard and fast line between making out sensible patterns in the physical world of everyday life on the one hand, and interpretive Rorschach blots on the other: seeing faces in marble, seeing cities in the clouds, and so on.


So then, what might appear as lines of continuity between various lives could be said to be there in the sense that there are veins and nerve lines embedded in the cell structure of muscles. But it’s quite clear to us: there is something about the projections we make of faces into marble that has a kind of illusion to it. Quite so. And what Buddhist philosophy wants to draw our attention to is that the same kind of illusion is existing in our attitude to the physical world. We are projecting. But, of course, creatures of like structure will make the same projections. Just as we look around here and see that we are more or less all the same basic shape, and therefore, probably, have the same sort of brains inside our heads. We are projecting a more or less similar structure upon the external world. And our agreement about that is the same thing as saying, “Well, that’s the way it is.” But, you see how relative that is? It is in relation to having a brain system of this particular kind.


So the Westerner may be anxious that his idea about reincarnation is something more than a fantasy. The Oriental, the Buddhist, or the Hindu very much hopes it is only a fantasy—and in that case it can be overcome. He can be delivered from a cycle of futility. Only, you mustn’t understand—again—you mustn’t understand that too literally. If you want to know what Buddhists really teach on this matter, put it in a very simple way, you get a book by Alexandra David-Néel, called The Secret Oral Teachings. Difficult to get hold of, but somebody in this country is going to publish it soon. It is published in India. But I think Lawrence Ferlinghetti is going to publish it—City Lights San Francisco. That book really goes into this. And I call it the I-told-you-so book because I’ve often been accused of inventing my own unique brand of Buddhism and hoisting it off on the public as being the real thing. I just have to point them to this book and say, “You see?” Alexandra David-Néel, that’s French.


So now, what becomes interesting in this is that you will pick out the lines of continuity between lives upon what basis? Why, just in the same way as you pick out continuity between tones: by the way they interval to each other. In which case the death-interval, the off-interval, becomes the significant connecting factor between the on-intervals. That’s what you do when you look at patterns of blobs on a wall. You could play with Roland Hall’s paintings that way and see all sorts of things in them. And it depends what intervals you find significant that connects what you call the on-pieces. See, you’ve always got off-pieces and on-pieces. You’ve got a kind of mosaic. Look into a press photograph with a magnifying glass and you find a mosaic of black and white dots. And so you can—again, you can make the significant connections. And as you do you come out with somebody’s face.


And so, in the world our nerves are very much like the press photograph. When something impinges upon the retinal backdrop of the eye, it impinges on a whole lot of rods and cones that are either on or off. The state of a neuron, you see, is that it fires or it doesn’t fire. So we’ve got this press photograph thing in it. If you work with LSD this becomes very clear. You get a vision, sometimes, of the world which is positively pointillist, like the paintings of Seurat. Somehow it seems as if your nerve ends had been activated individually and you become aware of a grainy quality in everything. This could be dismissed as a pure hallucination, but all hallucinations have some basis in our neural structure, you see? They may not be experiences of what we call the objective world, but in any experiment that turns your consciousness on your consciousness, your senses on your senses, you will get curious things happening. Just as you might get oscillations in electric circuitry.


So it would then be intervals, once again, that could be the significant connecting factors in a developmental pattern of an individual through a series of incarnations. But those intervals are illusions. The connection is illusory—but, in a sense, an illusion to which we Westerners are not really accustomed. Because māyā means illusion in a very complex sense. It means also creative power, art, magic, calculation in the sense of the calculus. This is difficult for us to understand, you see, the notion that the world is māyā. Why is it difficult for us to understand that? What is our feeling about saying, “This is a dream, a projection?” What’s the objection to that idea?


Well, I think that that, historically, at the root of our Western objection to this idea is that it’s discourteous to God. It is if to say God did not really create the world—as it says in the Bible—but that he only seemed to. But you realize that this is an absolute verbal hangup. It’s really also a question of values. If the world is real, then I must take you seriously, and you must take me seriously. If the world is only a dream, then it doesn’t matter. You see, if you say it doesn’t matter, then you are saying it’s purely spiritual. Like, it’s immaterial, baby! And you see how we flip around in our use of words. We say something: “Oh, that’s mere matter.” So, it doesn’t matter. Everybody gets completely confused in the way they think about these things because they’ve never really been thought about clearly, these questions of: is it real or is it not real?


When an Oriental says of something that it’s not real, the first thing he means is: it’s not permanent. And so the quality of change of the smoke-like—and therefore they say the dreamlike, because the dream vanishes, you see—and so they say life is like a dream. As you get older you’re more and more aware of the speed at which things change. With the child it seems to be slow. Children easily get bored. As you get older life is just going zzzzwwhit—especially if you live in California where you can’t keep a steady mailing list for two months, because every two months a quarter of the addresses changed. And, you know, the bulldozers come in and they change the shape of everything, knock down all the old buildings, and up go new ones, and then they get knocked down. Or they’re so jerrybuilt that they fall apart. But there it goes, you see? and so there is this quality. He means dream-like. The thing is in constant flux.


But he also means “illusion” in showing the extent to which what is going on in this flux is a creation of the perceiving organism. So that, by “illusion,” the Oriental also means relative—as in the relationship between the air vibrations and the ear, between the cloud, the sun, and the observer, these things produce, rainbow, sound, and so on. But these are relative realities. And so, when Buddhists use the word “void”—śūnyatā in Sanskrit—as designating the nature of the world, this should rather be translated “relativity” than “nothingness.” The great scholar Shcherbatskoy made this very plain in his book on the Buddhist nirvāṇa. It is relativity that we should think of rather than our ideas of non-being. So, from that point of view—as also from the standpoint of quantum mechanics and modern physics—the illusory nature of the world is very clear. It was so much so that one physicist, who was a little daft, used to go round in the most enormous padded shoes for fear of dropping through the atomic structure of the floor.


So one gets this extraordinary sense, then, of living in this incredibly real-seeming world which, the more you analyze it, consists mostly of space. And you come to feel a—shall I say—diaphanous quality about things: that a mountain is only a faster wave and longer-lasting rainbow. And that, as the poet said, “The hills are shadows and they flow from form to form, and nothing stands.” And if you will experience this kind of creepy feeling you get when you think that this is just you, and everything about you is just a wwwhhshht—here and gone, and swallowed up in space. Why do you say swallowed up? You see? People, poets, people who talk. Swallowed by the grave, swallowed into space. Disappeared into nothing. Gone, vanished into thin, thin air. Why is there an objection to this? Well, one’s been taught to object. Because you’ve been taught to identify with a solid side of the picture and to dis-identify with the empty side of the picture. But you’ve been hoaxed and fooled. Because you, when you die, are not, as it were, gulped out by thin air. You’re just as much the thin air as anything else. It’s all of a piece. It isn’t a fight going on. But everything is represented as a fight; a contest between this side and that.


But this is really the whole thing about illusion. Where the ordinary person sees a battle, the enlightened person sees a cooperation between two sides. Have you ever tried to play chess with yourself and honestly take each side as you play its move against the other one? Or to get two—you know, those swords they have in bars; they stick into olives and martinis—you get two of these swords and fence with yourself, and see if you really can stick it into one of your hands and have the other one defend it. This is the most fascinating game. And this is the game God is playing, sitting there; two hands, you know, is good, is evil. Here is Jesus Christ and here is Lucifer. And he just got everyone involved in this fight, you see? When he finds out that, if he makes the right hand win all the time, there’s no point in the game. He also has to get in the left hand. But in order for there to be a real fight, he mustn’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing, and vice versa, you see? He explains all this stuff in the Bible!


But really, you see, underneath, the two hands, they join back here like a kind of a horseshoe or like the snake ouroboros, which is always after its own tail. And an aspect of that—not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing—is the way we identify ourselves with what’s inside the skin and not with what’s outside it. We identify ourselves as reality with the solid things that we can see, and all the rest is space, and that’s nothing, you see? We characteristically take sides in a situation where both sides are aspects of the situation. Who would take this side? Will you have this or that? Choose. But the sage doesn’t choose, because he says, “Well, there’s no choice here.” He might choose for the sake of going along. You know, like, somebody says, “Well, what would you like to do today? We can go into town and do some marketing or we can stay out here and go swimming.” You don’t care which you do, so you just say one in order to satisfy your host.


So then, behind the explicit battle there is the implicit agreement. Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle. We agree to differ—if we want to have a sane social order. So cheer up! You may well be so conditioned to feel the fear of the unknown, even though you know much better. If you have come through in life to a point where, say, you have bad teeth through aging, or hardening eyeballs—when you get awakened and you get satori or anything, it won’t make any difference to your teeth or your eyeballs. I’ve never heard of a case of spiritual healing of somebody’s teeth.


So, in rather a similar way, there will be certain emotional habits that you have that will be practically unchangeable. And they settle in as you get older, and you’ll have to live with them, just like you have to live with the color of your hair, or whether you’ve got a funny shaped mouth, or something like that. It all goes along. It’s part of the pattern that you’re in for the time being and will live out. But a lot of people go around judging other people and say, “Well, they think they’ve had some wonderful experience, but they are still sick in some way”—as if that was reprehensible. Or they still lose their tempers a bit. One expects all these things to change. Emotional habits—poof, like that. One must get rid of that kind of the Beaver Protestantism.


But, you know, what does happen is, although you have fears—anxiety, basically—in the face of life and death, nevertheless you can get to a point where it’s like having a deep center which isn’t anxious and, above all, isn’t anxious about being anxious. You say, “Okay, so I anxious.” And somehow you can tolerate it, you can stand the tension. It’s one of the most fascinating things to learn: to hold tension and not go, when you get a problem, not go rushing off to solve it immediately. Because most problems, when solved in a rush, are solved in the wrong way. Especially emotional problems between people. You have to stand, for example, not being liked, which is a terribly difficult thing for Americans.


But what I’ve said here, I think, about space and about rebirth, and so on—you will notice one thing about it all. Nothing that I’ve said, or understanding anything that I’ve said, doesn’t require any, kind of, what I would call special knowledge. It’s all out in front of you. It doesn’t require—actually, it doesn’t require meditation exercises, or LSD, or anything. It’s all out in the open. And the only really essential meditation exercise is stopping thinking and being able to perceive without conceptualizing what you’re looking at. And that’s the interior silence without which there is really nothing to think about or talk about except thinking and talking.

So, let’s have an intermission.

Alan Watts


Document Options
Find out more