Self and Other

Alan coaxes the listener’s mind to simultaneously zoom in and zoom out in an effort to demonstrate that identity is merely an intellectual hallucination. Instead, personal identity is fluid, ranging from one’s constituent atoms and molecules all the way out to the farthest bounds of cosmic existence. Overcoming this mental myopia leads to greater harmony, contentment, and a desire to playfully dance with this universal energy system.


Part 1


Now, the subject of this seminar is Self and Other, and this is therefore to be an exploration into the subject that interests me most, which is the problem of personal identity, man’s relationship to the universe, and all the things that are connected with that. It is—for our culture, at this time in history—an extremely urgent problem because of our technological power. In known history, nobody has had such capacity for altering the universe than the people of the United States of America. And nobody has gone about it in quite such an aggressive way.


I think, sometimes, that the two symbols of our present kind of technological culture are the rocketship and the bulldozer. The rocket as a very, very phallic symbol (as compensation for the sexually inadequate male), and the bulldozer (which ruthlessly pushes down hills and forests and alters the shape of the landscape): these are two symbols of the negative aspect of our technology. I’m not going to take the position that technology is a mistake. I think there could be a new kind of technology, using a new attitude. But the trouble is that a great deal of our power is wielded by men who I would call “two o’clock types.”


Maybe you saw an article I wrote in Playboy magazine called The Circle of Sex, and it suggested there were at least a dozen sexual types rather than two, and that the men who are at two o’clock on the dial, like a clock, are men who are ambisexterous—named after Julius Caesar, because Julius Caesar was an ambisexterous man, and he equally made love to all his friends’ wives and to his good-looking officers. And he had no sense of guilt about this at all. Now, that type of male, in this culture, has a terrible sense of guilt that he might be homosexual, and is scared to death of being one, and therefore he has to overcompensate for his masculinity. And so he comes on as a police officer, marine sergeant, bouncer, bookie, general—tough, cigar-chewing, real masculine type who is never able to form a relationship to a woman. They’re just dames as far as he’s concerned. But he—just like an ace Air Force pilot puts a little mark on his plane every time he shoots down an enemy—so this kind of man, every time he makes a dame, he chalks up one. Because that reassures him that he is, after all, a male. And he’s a terrible nuisance. The trouble is that the culture doesn’t permit him to recognize and accept his ambisexterity. And so he’s a trouble spot.


But that kind of spirit of knocking the world around is something that is causing serious danger here. It arises, you see, because this tremendous technological power has been evolved in a culture which inherits a sense of personality that is, frankly, a hallucination. And we get this sense of personality from a long, long tradition of Jewish and Christian and Greek ideas which have caused man to feel that the universe of nature—the physical world, in other words—is not himself. You may think that that’s a very odd thing to say, because one always assumes that oneself is one’s own body, or at least something inside one’s body (like a soul), and that, naturally, everything outside is not one’s self. But this is (as I’ve said many, many times) a hallucination.


Let’s think: here we are in the middle of New York City. And you know what happens when New York City goes wrong—when there’s a subway strike, or when the power fails, or when the sewers back up, your life is in danger. Because you are not only constituted by the bloodstream of your veins and the communications network of your nervous system. An extension of your bloodstream, and of your alimentary canal, and of your nervous system, is all the communication systems of this city. In other words, as you know well: every night, streams of trucks pour into this city, carrying food. I understand there is even a kind of a big drain pipe which brings milk in. You consume three million pounds of fish a week. You then also have to have the exit end of this, and the sewers are very complicated. The water system and all its pipes, the telephone systems, the electric light systems, the air conditioning things, the traffic streams. All these things going on are essential extensions of your own inner tubing. And therefore, you have to be aware, more and more, that the city is an extended body for every person living in it. And not only, of course, the city, because the city depends on untold acres of fields (where farm products are grown, cattle are raised), on lakes and underground water sources, on the constitution of the atmosphere, and finally on the location of the Earth in this propitious spot rather close to the sun, where we have our basic heating system working. And all that is not a world into which you arrived from somewhere else altogether, it is a complex system of relationships out of which you grew in exactly the same way that fruit grows on a tree, or a flower on a stem. Just as these blossoms, here, are symptomatic of the plant, and you identify the plant by looking at the blossoms—here are these little oranges, you see—we know that this is an orange tree. Now, in exactly that way, you are all growing in this world, and so we know that this world is a “human-ing” system. And therefore it has a certain kind of innate intelligence, just as this tree, with its roots, has the innate intelligence which comes out in these oranges.


So the cosmos in which we live is a network of communications. You don’t need to think of it in an authoritarian pattern—namely, that there is God the father who makes it all work—because that doesn’t really answer anything. That’s just applying to the world an explanation derived from the political systems of the ancient Near East. You realize that? The great political systems of the Chaldeans and of the Egyptians, where there was an enormous father figure in charge of everything, became the model for the idea of monotheism. And as these great kings (like Hammurabi and Amenhotep IV) laid down legal systems, so man thought of a prince—a “king of kings,” a “lord of lords,” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer. “King of kings, Lord of lords, the only ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon Earth”—it’s a political idea. And I often wonder how citizens of a republic, and who have to curse and swear that they think that this is the best form of government, can put up with a monarchical conception of nature. Very funny. You know: a republic, and it says, “In God We Trust.” And most people, by “God,” mean: a king of the universe. Very strange.


But you don’t have to think that way in order to have the faith that the universe is something other than mere stupid, blind energy. What we are coming to see is that the total universe, consisting of all its galaxies (and not only this galaxy), is a living organism. How will we define that? What do we mean by a living organism? I mean: a system of intercommunication of extreme complexity just like you are. You try to define what you are, and you go into it, you suddenly discover (as you take off the skin and look underneath), that we are an enormously complex system of tubes and fibers, beautifully patterned. When we look at it with a microscope, we say, “Oh my! Look at that, isn’t that gorgeous!” Have you seen those models of cells that the Upjohn Company has made? They’re exquisite.

Cell model
Walk-in model of a brain cell, created by the Upjohn Company in 1958.
Visit this site for more pictures.

And, incidentally, you should all—if you’ve never done so—go to the Charles Darwin Hall in the New York Museum of Natural History and see the glass models of the tiniest microorganisms, called radiolaria. They are also such things as are running around in you. And they are incomparable jewelry.


Now, I suppose if we looked at ourselves from that microscopic point of view, all these funny creatures that are running around us that don’t look like people would (if you got used to them) seem like people. And they would be having their problems: they’ve got all sorts of fights going on, and collaborations and conspiracies, and so on. But if they weren’t doing that, we wouldn’t be healthy. If the various corpuscles and cells in our bloodstream weren’t fighting each other, we would drop dead. And that’s a sobering thought: that war at one level of being can be peace and health at another.


So we are (inside us, each individual body) an enormous ecological system. And what we have to recognize is that that interconnected system which constitutes the beauty of a human organism—that sort of interconnection is going on outside us. Do you remember—in early science fiction that was published in the 1920s by people like Olaf Stapledon and some of the early writers—they pictured the men of the future as having huge heads to contain very big brains. It was expected, in other words, that the future evolution of mankind would be an evolution of the mind and of the brain, and so bigger brains. But what has happened instead of that is that, instead of evolving bigness of brain, we are evolving an electronic network in which our brains are very swiftly being plugged into computer systems.


Now, some very awkward things about this are arising, and we’ve got to watch out for it, because what has increasingly happened is this: nobody is having any private life left. The invasion of ordinary privacy by the telephone, by your watching television (which is, after all, looking at somebody else’s life going on), by people watching you (all the people with bugging systems and snoopers), and credit agents, and everybody knows everything about you. Even in California, all the houses are built with picture windows looking at other picture windows. And if you draw the curtain, somebody thinks you’re snooty. Like, if you build a fence in most Midwestern communities, they think, “Who the hell do you think you are, building a fence to keep everybody else out?” See? You’re not democratic.


But the reason for all this is: imagine the situation when the original neurons all became linked in with the central nervous system. They said, “Well, we’re losing our privacy.” So it’s a very serious question as to how we’re going to be linked in with other people. I feel—it may be old fashioned of me—but I feel very strongly that privacy should be maintained as much as possible. But the reason being that human beings, in my experience, are a combination of two worlds—the private world and the public world—such that a person with a very strong and different and unique personality is not an isolated person, but a person extremely aware of his identity with the rest of the universe. Whereas people with nondescript, mass-produced personalities tend to be unaware of this. They tend to be the kind of person who is taken in by the system.


So what I think we could aim for in the way of human civilization and culture would be a system in which we are all highly aware of our existing interconnection and unity with the whole domain of nature, and therefore do not have to go to all sorts of wild extremes to find that union. In other words, look at the number of people we know who are terrified of silence, and who have to have something going the whole time; some noise streaming into their ears. They’re doing that because of their intense sense of loneliness. And so when they feel silent, they feel lonely and they want to escape from it. Or people who just want to get together—as we say, they want to escape from themselves. More people spend more time running away from themselves. Well, isn’t that wretched? What a definition. What an experience of selfhood if it’s always something you’ve got to be running away from and forgetting. Say you read a mystery story—why? To forget yourself. You join a religion—why? To forget yourself. You get absorbed in a political movement—why? To forget yourself. Well, it must be a pretty miserable kind of self if you have to forget it like that, you see? Now, for a person who doesn’t have an isolated sense of self, he has no need to run away from it, because he knows.


Let’s take hermits. People today think that being a hermit is a very unhealthy thing to do. It’s very antisocial, doesn’t contribute anything to everybody else—because, of course, everybody else is busy contributing like blazes, and a few people have to run off and get out of the way. But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you come to understand that you’re connected with everything. That every little insect who comes buzzing around you is a messenger. And that little insect is connected with human beings everywhere else. You can hear: you become incredibly sensitive in your ears and you hear far-off sounds. And just by the very nature of isolating yourself and getting quiet, you become intensely aware of your relatedness to everything else that’s going on. So if you really want to find out how related you are, try a little solitude off somewhere, and let it begin to tell you how everything is interdependent in the form of what the Japanese Buddhists call jiji muge (事事无碍), meaning: ji means a “thing-event,” so it means “between thing-event and thing-event, there is no block.” Every thing in the world, every event, is like a dewdrop on a multidimensional spider’s web, and every dewdrop contains the reflection of all the other dewdrops.


But, you see, the hermit finds this out through his solitude. And so, also, human beings can acquire a certain solitude, even in the middle of New York City. It’s rather easier, as a matter of fact, to find solitude in New York City than it is in Des Moines, Iowa. But the point is that a human represents a certain kind of development wherein a maximal sense of his oneness with the whole universe goes hand in hand with the maximum development of his personality as somebody unique and different. Whereas the people who are, of course, trying to develop their unique personality directly, and take a Dale Carnegie course on how to win friends and influence people, or how to become successful in some way—all those people come out as if they came from the same cookie cutter. They don’t have any personality.


Now then, it therefore becomes the great enterprise of our time—from this point of view, so that this technology shall not go awry, and that it shall not be a war with the cosmos—that we acquire a new sense of identity. It isn’t just a theoretical thing that we know about (as ecologists, for example, know about the identity of the organism with its environment), but becomes something which we actually experience. And I feel that this is not at all beyond the bounds of possibility for an enormous number of people—for a simple reason. Let me draw a historical analogy.


Several hundred years ago, it seemed absolutely incomprehensible to most people that the world could be round, or that the planets and stars should be up in the sky unsupported, or even that the Earth itself should be floating freely in space. The Earth is falling through space, but it seems stable, and therefore it was supposed in ancient mythologies that the Earth rested on a giant turtle. Nobody asked too carefully what the turtle rested on, but just so that there was some sense of solidity under things. So, in the same way, that the stars were supposed to be suspended in crystal spheres. And just as people know that the Earth is flat (because you look at it and see that it is), so people looked into the sky and they could see the crystal spheres. Of course there were crystal spheres: you could see right through them! So when astronomers cast doubts on the existence of crystal spheres, everybody felt threatened that the stars were going to fall on their heads. Just as when they talked about a round Earth, people felt a danger of if you went ’round to the other side, you’d drop off, or feel funny and upside-down, a rush of brains to the head, and all sorts of uncomfortable feelings. But since then we have got quite used to the idea that the stars float freely in space in gravitational fields, that you can go ’round the Earth without falling off, and now everybody realizes this and feels comfortable with it.


Likewise, in our own day, when Einstein propounded the theories of relativity, people said they couldn’t understand it. It used to be something at a cocktail party to be introduced to somebody who understands Einstein. Now, every young person understands Einstein and knows what it’s about. You, say, got even one year of college, you know what relativity is. And you know it not only in an intellectual way, you gave this as a feeling, just as you have a feeling of the roundness of the world—especially if you travel a lot on jet planes. So I feel that, in just that way—within I don’t know how many years, but not too long a time—it’s going to become basic common sense that you are not some alien being who confronts an external world that is not you, but that almost every intelligent person will have the feeling of being an activity of the entire universe.


You see, the point is that an enormous number of things are going on inside us of which we are not conscious. We make a very, very arbitrary distinction between what we do voluntarily and what we do involuntarily, and we define all those things which we do involuntarily as things that happen to us rather than things that we do. In other words, we don’t assume any responsibility for the fact that our heart beats, or that our bones have such and such a shape. You can say to a beautiful girl, “Gee, you’re gorgeous,” and she says, “How like a man! All you think about is bodies. My body was given to me by my parents, and I’m not responsible for it, and I would like to be admired for myself and not for my chassis.” And so I’d tell her, “You poor little chauffeur. You’ve disowned your own being and identified yourself as not associated with your body.” I agree that if she had a terrible body with a lousy figure, she might want to feel that way. But if she is a fine-looking human being, she should get with it and not disown herself. But this happens again and again.


So, you see, if you become aware of the fact that you are all of your own body, and that the beating of your heart is not just something that happens to you, but something you’re doing, then you become aware, also—in the same moment and at the same time—that you’re not only beating your heart, but that you are shining the sun. Why? Because the process of your bodily existence and its rhythms is a process, an energy system, which is continuous with the shining of the sun. Just like the East River, here, is a continuous energy system, and all the waves in it are activities of the whole East River. And that’s continuous with the Atlantic Ocean, and that’s all one energy system. And finally, the Atlantic Ocean gets around to being the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, et cetera. And so all the waters of the Earth are a continuous energy system. It isn’t just that the East River is part of it. You can’t draw any line and say, “Look, this is where the East River ends and the rest of it begins,” as if you can in the parts of an automobile, where you say, “Well, this is very definitely the generator, here, and this over here is a spark plug.” There’s not that kind of isolation between the elements of nature.


So your body knows that its energy system is one with and continuous with the whole energy system, and that if it’s in any sense true to say that I am my body, and that I beat my heart, and that I think by growing a brain—you know, where do you draw the line between what you think and the power to think? Do you think with your brain in the same way that you carve wood with a knife? You know, it’s an instrument that you pick up and use. I don’t think our bodies are just instrumental in that way. They’re something we are doing, only we don’t think about it—in the sense that we don’t have to consider, when we get up in the morning, as an act of voluntary behavior, how to connect all of the switches in our brain as to get us ready for the day. They come on automatically. But this automatic—or I would rather call it spontaneous—functioning of the brain is what is called in Chinese zìrán (自然) (or in Japanese: shizen), that is to say: the spontaneity of nature. It does all this. And what we perform consciously is simply a small fragment of our total activity of which we happen to be aware in a special way. We are far more than that. And it isn’t only that, say, the sun is light because we have eyes and optical nerves which translate the energy of the sun into an experience called light. It is also that that very central fire of the sun is something that you are doing just as much as you are generating temperature in your body.


In other words, let’s suppose that those cosmologists and astronomers are right, who believe that this universe started out with an original big bang which flung all those galaxies out into space. Well, you know what that would be like. It’s like taking a bottle of ink and flinging it hard at a white wall, and it makes a great splash. And you know how the nature of a splash is: in the middle of it, it’s dense, and as it gets to the outside of the splash, there are all kinds of little curlicues. But it’s a continuous energy system. In other words, the bang in the beginning cannot really be separated from the little curlicues at the end. So, supposing there was an original cosmic explosion which went FOOM, we—sitting around in this room now—are little curlicues on the end of it, you see? We are—actually, every one of us is—incredibly ancient. The energy which is now manifested as your body is the same energy that was there in the beginning. If anything at all is old, this hand is as old as anything there is. Incredibly ancient! I mean, the energy keeps changing shapes, doing all sorts of things, but there it all is. It’s one continuous SPAT.


Now, if you just want to define yourself as a little curlicue on the end of the thing and say, “That’s all of me there is,” then you’ve got to be a puppet and you’ve got to say, “Well, I’ve been pushed around by this whole system.” It’s like a juvenile delinquent who knows a little Freud and says, “Well, I can’t help what I’m doing, because it was my mother. She was terribly mixed up, and she didn’t bring me up properly. And my father was a mess. He was an alcoholic and he never paid any attention to me. So I’m a juvenile delinquent.” And so the social worker says, “Yes, I’m afraid that’s so,” and then eventually some journalist gets hold of it and says, “Well, we should punish the parents instead of the kids.” So they go around to the parents, and the mother says, “Yes, I admit I’m a mess,” and the father says, “Of course I’m an alcoholic, but it was our parents who brought us up wrong, and we had all that trouble.” Well, they can’t find them because they’re dead. And so you can go passing the buck way back, and you get to some characters called Adam and Eve. And when they were told they were responsible, they passed it again to the snake. And when that snake was asked about it, he passed the buck back to God, and God said, “I disown you, because I don’t let my right hand know what my left hand doeth.” And you know who the left hand of God is. The right hand is Jesus Christ, the left is the Devil—only, it mustn’t be admitted. Not on your life!


But that’s the whole thing, you see, in a nutshell. That once you define yourself as the puppet, you say, “I’m just poor little me, and I got mixed up in this world. I didn’t ask to be born. My father and mother gave me a body which is a system of tubes into which I got somehow mixed up, and it’s a maze and a tunnel and I don’t understand a way around it. It needs all these engineers and doctors and so on to fix it, educators to tell it how to work and keep going, and I’m mixed up in it. Poor little me!” Well, this is nonsense! You aren’t mixed up in it—it’s you! And everybody’s being a blushing violet, and saying, “I’m not responsible for this universe, I merely came into it.” And the whole function of every great guru is to kid you out of that, and look at you and say, “Don’t give me that line of bull!” But you have to be tactful, you have to be effective. You can’t just tell people this. You can’t talk people out of an illusion.


It’s a curious thing. There’s a whole debate going on now, as you all know, about whether God exists. And they’re going to do a cover story on God in Time magazine! And they sent a reporter around to me—yes! They sent reporters to all sort of prominent theologians and philosophers.





Well, this is the problem. I said, “I have a photograph of God which you must put on the cover.” It’s this gorgeous photograph of a Mexican statue made by Dick [???]. Beautiful God the Father with a triple crown like the Pope. Well, they said they were going to use something by Tintoretto. This photograph is lovely. You know, a real genuine Mexican Indian thing. Simple people think this is what God looks like. Very handsome man. Anyway, they’re going to do a cover story on God because the theologians [are] now arguing about a new kind of Christianity which says there is no God and Jesus Christ is his only son. But what these people want to do is: they desperately want to keep the church in Christianity because it pays off—that’s the minister’s job. And though they feel very embarrassed about God, but what they’re doing is they want the Bible and Jesus to keep this sort of authority going. How you can do that, I don’t know.


But at any rate, the point is that God is what nobody admits to being, and everybody really is. You don’t look out there for God, something in the sky; you look in you. In other words, underneath the surface of the consciousness that you have and the individual role that you’re playing and identifying yourself with, you are the works. Just as you are beating your heart, so in the same way you’re shining the sun, and you’re responsible. But in our culture you mayn’t admit this, because if you come on that you’re God, they’ll put you in the nuthouse. Because our idea of God is based (as I said) on Near Eastern politics. And so if you’re God, then you are the ruler, the governor—“Oh Lord our governor!” And so if you’re the governor, you know all the answers—if that’s what you claim to be. So when anybody in our culture says, “I’m God,” we say, “Well, well, why don’t you turn this shoe into a rabbit and just show me that you’re God.”


But, of course, in Oriental cultures they don’t think of God as an autocrat. God is the fundamental energy of the world which performs all this world without having to think about it. Just in the same way that you open and close your hand without being able to say in words how you do it. You do it. You say, “I can open and close my hand.” But how? You don’t know. That only means, though, that you don’t know in words. You do know, in fact, because you do it! So, in the same way, you know how to beat your heart, because you do it—but you can’t explain it in words. You know how to shine the sun, because you do it—but you can’t explain it in words, unless you’re a very fancy physicist, and he’s just finding out. All the physicist is doing is translating what he’s been doing all along into a code called mathematics. Then he says he knows how it’s done. He means he can put it into the code. And that’s what the academic world is: it’s translating what happens into certain codes called words, numbers, algebras, et cetera. And that helps us repair things when they go wrong.


So the discovery of our inseparability from everything else is something that I don’t think will have to come by the primitive methods of difficult yoga meditations, or even through the use of psychedelic chemicals. I think it’s something that is within the reach of very many people’s simple comprehension—once you get the point. Just in the same way as we could understand that the world was round and experience it as such. You could call this a kind of guyana yoga in Hindu terms, but I don’t think it’s going to be necessary for our culture to get this point by staring at its navel, or by spending hours practicing zazen—not that I’ve anything against it. Because, after all, to sit still can be an extraordinarily pleasant thing to do, and it is important for us to have more quiet.


But I think this is essentially a matter of a sort of intuitive comprehension that will dawn upon us and suddenly hit us all of a heap, and you suddenly see that this is totally commonsensical, and that your present feeling of how you are is a hoax. You know how Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote a book called How to be a Real Person? Translated into its original terms, that means “How to be a Genuine Fake.” Because the person is the mask, the persona, worn by actors in Greco-Roman drama. They put a mask on their face which had a megaphone-shaped mouth which projected the sound in an open-air theater. So the dramatis personae at the beginning of a play is the list of masks. And the word “person,” which meant “mask,” has come to mean the “real you.” How to be a real person—imagine it!


But I think we’ll get over it and discover again the thing that we simply don’t let our children in on; we don’t let ourselves in on. In other words, let me just emphasize this point again. It is not, at the moment, commonsensical and not plausible because of our conditioning. But we can very simply come to see that you are not some kind of accident that pops up for a while and then vanishes, but that deep inwards, you are what there is and all that there is—which is eternal, and that which there is no whicher. The ground of being, as Tillich and Eckhart called it. That’s you. Now, you don’t have to remember that all the time, just as you don’t have to remember how to beat your heart. You could die and forget everything you ever knew in this lifetime, because it’s not necessary to remember it. You’re going to pop up as somebody else later on, just like you did before, without knowing who you were. It’s as simple as that.


If you got born once, you can get born again. If there was a cosmic explosion once that blew everything into existence and it’s going to fizzle out—well, if it happened once, it can happen again. And it goes on. It’s a kind of undulatory system of vibrations. Everything’s a system of vibrations. Everything is on/off; now you see it, now you don’t. Light itself is going nyooee yooee yooee yooee yooee yooee yooee, but it’s happening so fast that the retina doesn’t register it. Everything in the sun is like an arc lamp, only it’s a very fast one. It goes on and off. Sound does. And the reason you can’t put your finger through the floor is the same reason you can’t, without serious problems, push it through an electric fan. The floor is going so fast—even faster than a fan. The fan is going slow enough to cut your finger if you put it into it. But the floor is going so fast, you can’t even get in. But that’s the only reason. It’s coming into existence and going out of existence at a terrific clip.


So everything is on/off. So with our life. You can die, say, “Well, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know anything.” Just like, in the same way, you don’t know what’s going on inside your nervous system; how the nervous system links together or anything like that. You don’t need to know. And if you had to find it all out, you’d get so confused with the information that you wouldn’t be able to operate. It’d be just too much to think about with a one-pointed ordinary attention consciousness, which is a scanning system, like radar. You don’t need to know how it all works in order to work it. That’s the real meaning of omnipotence.

Part 2


This morning I was discussing the problem of technological civilization’s urgent need of a new sense of human existence in which the human being no longer discovers himself as an alien oddity, somehow trapped and caught up in a system of tubes called the body, confronting an external world which is not himself. The urgency of realizing that, just as this city is an extension of you, so is everything out to the farthest galaxies that we have any knowledge of, and beyond. Of regaining a sense of responsibility and identity with the basic functioning of yourself as a complete physical organism, and that beyond that, your own organism, in a certain sense, knows its identity with its whole environment. In other words, the human body belongs in a continuous energy system which is co-extensive with the universe. And instead of making out that this is something you got caught up in, and for which you are not responsible, and in which you are just a victim, and if you’re lucky, you beat the game for a while and win, until death destroys you and you lose everything. You know? You can’t take it with you.


That reminds me of a funny—Gary Snyder is a great friend of mine. He’s a poet from the west coast, and he’s a very good Zen student. He’s studying at Daitoku-ji under Oda-Rōshi. And he suggested one day that we found a Null and Void Title and Guarantee Trust Company, with its slogan: “Register your absence with us.” And what you do is: you give your fortune to this, and we guarantee to transport it to you in the next life.


Anyway, this situation I was suggesting is one that can be overcome reasonably simply, if you can just get the idea straight. A lot of people say, you know, “I understand what you say intellectually, but that’s not enough. I don’t really understand it.” But I often think that when people say that, they don’t fully understand it intellectually. If you can get something quite clear—really clear—in your head, I don’t think that our mind is compartmentalized so that the intellect’s over here, and the feelings are over here, and the intuition is over there, and the sensations are over there. I don’t think Jung meant that when he made this fourfold classification. I think every faculty of the mind is continuous with all the others. And so what you’re saying when you say, “I understand it intellectually, but I don’t get it intuitively,” or “I don’t feel it in my bones,” is that you understand it in the sense of being able to repeat a form of words.


Now, it’s true that there are lots of debates and problems that are purely verbal. A great deal of what goes on as theological or philosophical discussion is absolutely nothing except a war of words. And a logical positivist, for example, can show conclusively that all metaphysical statements are meaningless. But so what? That’s just talk. People have, on the other hand, experienced, say, mystical states, and these experiences are quite as real as the experience of swimming in water, or lying in the sun, or eating a steak, or dying. And you can’t talk them away. They’re there, in a very concrete sense. But there is a very close connection between your conceptual understanding of the world and how you actually see the world.


In other words, let’s take for example this problem: there are people who don’t have number systems going beyond three. They count: one, two, three, many. So anything above three is a “heap,” or “many.” Now, those people cannot know that a square table has four corners. It has many corners. But once you’re able to count beyond four, and you can extend your counting system indefinitely, you have a different feeling about nature. It’s not only you know more, but you feel more. You feel more clearly. So my point is simply that the intellect is not something just cut off from every other kind of experience, existing in a sort of abstract vacuum which has nothing to do with anything else. The intellect is part and parcel of the whole fabric of life. It goes along with your fingers, it goes along with being able to do this, and touch. After all, what an intellectual thing, in a way, the human hand is! It can do things that other hands can’t do. No other mammal can do this—have thumb-finger contact. The monkey can do this, you see, but it doesn’t achieve this thing.


So the hand is intellectual. So, as a matter of fact, a plant is intellectual. This thing is a gorgeous pattern. If you look into it and realize how this is designed to absorb light and moisture and so on, and to expose itself in different ways and to propagate its species, that it is in alliance with bees and other insects so that the bees and the plants—since they go together and are found together—they’re all one continuous form of life. This doesn’t exist except in a world where bees are floating around. I mean, you can bring it into an apartment, but you don’t expect this plant to propagate beyond that point. It’s decorative here. But in its natural habitat, this goes with there being bees, and bees go with there being something else. So this form that you see here is inseparable from all kinds of other forms which must exist if this is to exist. And the bees have language—if you’ve read von Frisch’s book about bees and their marvelous intelligence. But you see that the intelligence of the plant is the same as the pattern of the plant. You shouldn’t think I would say the plant is the result of intelligence. The shape of it is the same as its intelligence. So the shape of your brain, the shape of your face, the whole structure of the culture you live in, the human interrelationships that go on—it is that pattern which is intelligence. Now, what I’m trying to talk about is a deeper understanding of the pattern in which we live. And if you understand that, it suddenly hits you, so that you feel, right in your guts, this new kind of existence that is not yourself alone facing an alien world, but yourself as an expression of the world in the same way as the wave is the expression of the ocean.


Now, then, the most important shift that one has to make in intelligence and understanding this is to be able to think in a polar way. We sometimes say of things that we want to describe as being opposed to each other, as being in conflict, that they are “the poles apart.” People who belong to different schools of thought, people who belong to nations in opposition with each other, people who are in flat, outright conflict—we say they are the poles apart. But that’s a very funny phrase. Because things that are the poles apart happen to be very deeply connected. The north and the south pole are the poles of one Earth. So try and imagine a situation in which there is an encounter between opposites that have no connection with each other at all. Where will they come from? How will they meet each other? You think from the opposite ends of space? But what is space? For space to have opposite ends, there has to be a continuum between the ends. And so to think in a polar way is to realize the intimate connection between processes or events or things, which language describes as if they were unconnected and opposed.


Let’s take, first of all, two very fundamental poles. We’ll call them, respectively, “solid” and “space.” If you want, “existence” and “non-existence,” because we tend to treat space as something that is not there. That’s simply because we don’t see it; we ignore it. We treat it as if it had no effective function whatsoever. And thus, when our astronomers begin to talk about curved space, expanding space, properties of space, and so on, we think: what are they talking about? How can space have a shape? How can there be a structure in space? Because space is nothing. But it isn’t so.


You see, this is something we completely ignore. Why? Because we have specialized in a form of attention to the world which concentrates on certain features as important. We call this conscious attention, and therefore it ignores or screens out everything which doesn’t fit into its particular scheme. And one of the things that doesn’t fit into our scheme is space. So we come into a room like this, and we notice all the people in the room, and the furniture, and the flowers and the ornaments, and think that everything else just isn’t there. I mean, what about this interval that is between me sitting here and the inner circle of people who are arranged around the floor? What a mess we would be in if there wasn’t that interval! You know, I would be blowing down your throat to talk to you.


Now, intervals of this spatial kind are tremendously important, and let me demonstrate this to you in a musical way. When you listen to a melody, la la la la laaa la la la la la laaa la la la la laaa laa, what is the difference between hearing that melody and hearing a series of noises? The answer is that you heard the intervals. You heard the musical spaces between the series of tones. If you didn’t hear that, you heard no melody, and you would be what’s called tone deaf. But what you actually hear is the steps between the levels of sound—the levels of vibration—that constitute the different tones. Now, those weren’t stated. They were tacit. Only the tones were stated, but you heard the interval. And so it made all the difference whether you heard the interval or not. So, in exactly the same way, the intervals between us, seated around here, constitute many important things. They constitute the dignity of us all. They constitute the fact that my face isn’t all mushed up in your face, and that we have, therefore, individual faces, and that need space around us.


In a country like Japan, space is the most valuable commodity because it’s a small island that’s heavily overpopulated. And so an apartment in Japan costs you a lot of money. In Hong Kong it’s sky-high. But they have mastered the control of space in a fantastic way. And one of the ways in which they control space is through politeness. You can live with other people so that you live in a house where you’re so close together that you can hear every belly rumble of your neighbor, and you know exactly what’s going on. But you learn to hear without listening, and to see without looking. There’s a courtesy, you see? A respect for privacy which puts an interval between one individual and another. And it’s by reason of that interval that you are defined as you and I’m defined as I.


So, you see the various kinds of space, various kinds of interval? The pauses when a person plays the drum and they go [drums]? It’s those intervals between—otherwise it would just be [drums], which is of no interest. It’s the intervals that make the thing valuable. The space, then, is as real as the solid. This is the principle of polarity. Space and solid, in other words, which are formally opposed things. And you think, “Well, where there is a solid, there is something, and where there is space, there is nothing.” They are actually as mutually supportive as back and front. They go together. Nobody ever found a space without a solid, and nobody ever found a solid without a space. But we’ve been trained to fix our attention on the solid and disregard the space. Well then, obviously you haven’t been given the news—you haven’t been let in on what the secret of life is. It is that the space is as important as the solid. And if you see that, you have the clue.


Now, in the same way, exactly, all other kinds of supposedly opposed entities and forces imply and involve each other. And this is the key to getting a different kind of consciousness of one’s self, because you wouldn’t know who you are unless you knew what you have defined as other than yourself. Self and other define each other mutually. Now, Let’s consider this, first of all, in a kind of a funny social way. In every town in the United States, there are a group of people who consider themselves to be the nice people. They live on the right side of the tracks. Where I live in Sausalito, California, they live up on the hill. And down on the waterfront there live all kinds of beatniks and bums, and we live in boats and shacks of all kinds. Some of these shacks are elegant inside, but that’s a secret. We call the boat I live on the Oyster, because you know how an oyster’s shell on the outside is very rough and crude, but there’s pearls on the inside. Well anyway, the people up on the hill say—what do they talk about? When they get together for cocktails and dinner or whatever, and they have their social occasions, what’s the topic of conversation? It’s how the people are awful down below. And they’re encroaching, and the town is going to the dogs, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. By this means they preserve their collective ego. Meanwhile, the people down below, what do they talk about at their parties? They talk about the squares up on the hill who are engaged in business which is ridiculous because it’s nothing but a rat race, and they buy Cadillacs and other phony objects, and they deride them. But in the same way, those beatniks are enhancing their collective ego. And they don’t realize that they need each other. That the symbiosis between the nice people and the nasty people, the in-group and the out-group, is as much a symbiosis as between the bees and the flowers. Because you wouldn’t know who you were unless there was an outside.


In exactly the same way, politically speaking, our economy is at present dependent on the Cold War, which mustn’t be allowed to become hot. Because if there weren’t an enemy—defined as communism—nobody would be disturbed, and nobody would be worried, and therefore they wouldn’t put all this energy and money and taxes into a certain kind of productivity. Likewise, on the other side, if those people in China and Russia couldn’t be afraid of and worried about the dirty capitalists, they wouldn’t have any means of stirring up their people to do something. Everybody would presumably just loaf around. So because you define your position in opposition to another position, then you know who you are courtesy of the outsider. And so you can say to the outsider—if this suddenly strikes you, you start laughing. Because you realize that you’re indebted to the outsider whom you defined as awful. Because you know where he is, you know where you are.


Well, now, it’s the same thing in philosophy and religion. There are all sorts of schools of thought, and they disagree with each other. They debate with each other. But so far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t know what I thought unless there were people who had different opinions than mine. Therefore, instead of saying to those people, “You ought to agree with me,” I’d say to them, “Thank you so much for disagreeing, because now I know where I am.” I wouldn’t know otherwise. In other words, the in goes with the out, the solid with the space. This is a very funny thing.


Take any highly organized system of life. Take the way a garden exists. It’s full of, in a sense, competitive species: snails and thrushes and various insects that are supposed to be at war with each other. And because their fights keep going on, the life of the garden as a whole is maintained. And so I can’t say, “All snails in this garden should be abolished, so that the lettuces should thrive,” because if there aren’t some snails around there, the birds won’t come around, because they like the snails. And the birds do all sorts of things for my garden, not to mention supplying it with manure and all kinds of things. So I need them around. So the price of having birds is snails that eat your lettuces. And so on. I mean, this is merely an instance, an example of this.


The funny thing is, though, that when you realize this, and you suddenly see for the first time that you and your point of view—and everything that you stand for and believe in, and you think, “Boy, I’m going to stand for that and I’m going to fight for that!”—that it depends on its opposite. When you get that, it starts giving you the giggles. And you begin to laugh at yourself. And this is one of the most amazing forces in life. The most creative force is humor. Because when you are in a state of anxiety and you are afraid that black may win over white, that darkness may conquer light, that non-being may conquer being, you haven’t seen this point. When it strikes you that the two go together, the trembling emotional feeling which we call anxiety is given a different value, and it’s called laughter.


Now let’s take the phenomenon of an electric bell. When you turn on an electric bell, you set up a system in which yes implies no. That is to say, here’s the bell, and beneath it there’s an electromagnet. And that magnet, when it’s switched on, magnetizes an armature which comes and hits the bell. But the moment it does that it turns off the current, so that the magnet releases it. And because the armature has a spring on it, it goes back. That turns the current on. So it comes back—that turns the current off. So yes equals no, no equals yes. And so the bell vibrates, which is what you want it to do. Now, how do you interpret your own vibrating, your alternation between yes and no? You can interpret this as an awful thing—oh oh oh oh oh oh oh—of doubt, and then you say you were anxious. But if you see that the one implies the other, it becomes ha ha ha ha ha! It becomes a laugh. So the transformation of anxiety into laughter comes about through realizing the polarity of yes and no, of to be and not to be. But the important thing for our purposes is the polarity between the self and the other.


Let’s consider, for example, when you say you love yourself. “I love me.” Let’s be very egotistic and very selfish indeed. What do you love when you love yourself? Think about it. Say you were going to live a completely dissolute, self-interested life, and other people can go hang. Now consider: what is it that you’re interested in? “Well,” you say, “for example, I like eating.” Okay. Do you eat yourself? “No. I like eating fish, oysters, radishes, filet de boeuf, mushrooms.” All these are things that are (formally speaking) not me, and yet these are what I say I like. Well, could you say, “What I really like about them is the state they put me in when they impinge on me?” In other words, when I put the mushroom sauce into my mouth, that does something to my mouth and my body, and it’s that that I like rather than the mushrooms as such? Well, that isn’t the truth. If that’s all, you can’t cook properly. I can tell instantly, when I taste something that’s been cooked, what state of mind the cook was in.


Now let me tell you a secret. You cannot possibly be a good cook unless you like to pick up an onion in your hands, and look it over, and say, “Oh, isn’t that lovely!” Or feel an egg—I think an egg is one of the most beautiful shapes on Earth—and you take it up, and although it’s an opaque shell, it has a kind of subtle, luminous transparency to it, especially when you see the variations between white eggs and brown eggs. And you look at those things and you just love them. Now, unless you have that feeling, you can’t cook. You may follow recipes, you may have had a training course, you may have had everything. But everything you’re going to cook, unless you have that feeling, is going to taste as though it’s been washed in detergents. And you can tell. It may be that they used no fancy sauces, they roasted a piece of meat. Look, let’s take the Chinese way of cooking a chicken. You take a chicken, and you put in boiling water for ten minutes, with salt and a little sherry. You turn it off, and you leave it there for half an hour. Then you take it out and chill it. and that can be the most succulent chicken imaginable. But somehow it doesn’t quite come off if this was just a formula. Same way when you strike a note on the piano, it isn’t simply a matter of so much pressure which could be measured on some kind of mechanical instrument. Because if that were so, all we have to do is get those player pianos which hit the notes regularly in accordance with the formula—and they all sound terrible. Because there’s a thing in touching that’s called follow-through. When you hit a golf ball, it’s not enough to hit the ball with a certain volume, you have to have a swing that goes beyond it, you see? And so, in the same way with striking notes, there has to be a thing called follow-through: that you go beyond the actual hitting of the note. And that is a thing that’s hard to measure, but is very important and makes all the difference.


So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself. In fact, the more you try to think about what your self is, the more you discover that you can only think about yourself in terms of things that you thought were other than yourself. If you search for yourself—this is one of the great kōan problems in Zen: produce you, find out who you are. When, for example, Sri Ramana Maharshi, that great Hindu sage of modern times—people used to come to him and say, “Who was I in my previous incarnation?” You know, this sort of stupid question. He would say, “Who wants to know? Who are you? Find out who you are.” And you can search for you endlessly and never find out. Never! Everything that you get a kind of sensation of as being yourself will, upon examination, turn out to be something else; something other.


And now let’s work on the other direction. Just go exactly the opposite way. What do you mean by something other? Let’s find something other than me and search for that. Well, I say, “Alright. I can touch the ground here.” This is something other than me. And yet, I realize that my sensation of this soft carpet with something firm underneath it is a state of my nerve endings in the hands and my muscles which report to me that this is a softly covered hardness, and that everything I feel about this carpet and the floor is a condition of my brain. In other words, when I feel this so-called external thing, I feel it only as it is, as it were, translated into states of my own body. All of you I see with your various shapes and colors, when I look out here, I am actually having an experience of how it feels inside my head. That’s the place where I know you. And you know me in your heads. So that I really do not have any sensations of anything other than myself, because whatever I do know, I have to translate it into a state of my own body in order to know it at all.


But do you see now what I’ve done? I carried in one direction the argument: where do I find my self? And it all turned out to be something other. Then I followed the question: how do I find something other? And it all turned out to be me. The same thing happens, for example, when you get into the old debates about fate and free will. When you discover that everything you do is completely determined, then you suddenly have to wake up to the fact that the only real you is whatever it is that’s determining what you do. I mean, if you say, for example, “All that I do here and now is a result of the past. There have been processes in the past, going back and back and back. And my sitting here in this room and talking to you is simply the necessary effect of all that ever happened before.” Do you know what that’s saying? It’s saying that here in your presence talking to you is everything that ever happened before. That’s me. Wowee! And so, of course, with you being here, if you want to figure it that way.


Because all this problem about causality is completely phony. It’s all based on this: that in order to talk about the world and think about it, we had to chop it up into bits. And we called those bits things and events. In the same way, if you want to eat chicken, you can’t swallow a whole chicken unless you’ve got a huge mouth. So you cut it up into pieces and—say you got a cut-up fryer from the store, but you don’t get a cut-up fryer out of an egg. Chicken comes whole out of the egg. So, in the same way, the universe of nature doesn’t come in bits or bites. It comes all of a piece. But to digest it, to (in other words) absorb it into your mind, you have to cut it into bits and take it in, as we say, one thing at a time. But that chopping of the world into these separate bits is like chopping up the chicken, or carving the slices off the beef, or taking water out cupful by cupful. You can handle it that way, but that’s not the way it is.


So you have to see that the whole notion of there being particular, separate events, and particular and separate things, is nothing more than a calculus. A calculus. Calculus means “pebbles.” Pebbles used for counting. You know? And you put one, two, three, four, five, six, et cetera. So when we measure curves, we pretend as if they were a series of points. And the position of these points can be expressed in an arithmetical way, say, by tracing a curve across a piece of finely calibrated graph paper. That’s the basis of the calculus. So that a curve swings so many points across, so many down, et cetera, and so you feel you have control of the curve that way. You measure it, you know where it really goes. But where it really goes—you have set up this “really” in terms of your other criss-cross system, and you said, “That’s for real.” All it means is: you’ve meshed two different systems, one on top of the other, and you’re saying, “What I mean by ‘reality’ is the systems of measurements that I’ve invented. The system of weights and measures. This thing is really”—and you feel a great sense of confidence—“exactly two pounds. That’s what it weighs.” Simply because you’ve made the two pounds of apples correspond with the weighing machine, which is a constant. Two pounds of apples, two pounds of grapes; different number of apples, different number of grapes in each case. But you say, “That’s really two pounds.”


But so, in just the same way, we say, “There are really different people. There are really different events.” But actually there aren’t. I’m not saying that if we were to see the world in its truth, all of you different people would disappear, that your outlines would suddenly become vague and you would turn into a solid lump of gelatinous goo. A lot of people think that that’s the way mystics see things. That’s not at all what would happen. The thing I’m saying is this: we are all different, but we are as interrelated and indispensable to each other as the different organs in our body—stomach, heart, glands, bones, et cetera. Now, you see, you can argue that the stomach is fundamental: eating is the big thing. And therefore we grew brains as extensions of the stomach to get it more food. So that you say, “The brain is the servant of the stomach.” But you can argue equally that the brain is primary, and it has all these thinking games to play, and it needs a stomach as an appendage to supply it with energy. Or you can argue that the sex organs are primary, and that they need the brain and the stomach to keep that ecstasy going. But the brain and the stomach can equally argue that they wouldn’t find it worthwhile going on unless they had the sex organ appendage to give them solace. The truth of the matter is that nobody comes first. Nobody pushes the other one around. You don’t find brains without stomachs and sex organs. They all go together. And this is the fallacy of Freud in saying, for example, that the sexual apparatus and urge is primary. It just goes along with the others.


So that you don’t have a universe in which a series or a collection of separate events and things are banging each other around like an enormous mass of billiard balls. You have a situation which is quite different from that, where what have hitherto been called causally related events—to say that certain events are causally related is a very clumsy way of saying that these certain specific events (which you have isolated as being causally related) were in fact really all parts of the same event.

Part 3


In the previous session I was discussing polarity, and polar thinking as the key to understanding that our identity is more than the skin-encapsulated ego. Polar thinking is the crux (the essential tool) for making the jump from feeling yourself to be something merely in this universe on the one hand, to the state of feeling, on the other hand, that you are this universe, focused and acting in that particular way that we call the human individual.


If you study the writings of the mystics, you will always find things in them that appear to be paradoxes—as in Zen, particularly.

Empty-handed I go, yet a spade is in my hand.

I walk on foot, and yet I’m riding on the back of an ox.

And when crossing a bridge, the bridge flows, and the water stays still.


When Jim drinks, John gets tipsy.

Zen is full of paradoxes of this kind. Eckhart is full of sayings like this:

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.

The love with which I love God is the same love with which God loves me.

Things like that.


So this principle is explained in the sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch. You know, the famous Platform Sūtra of Huìnéng, where he gives a long instruction on how to answer people’s questions about Zen. And he says, “If they ask you a question about something sacred, give them an answer in terms of the secular. If they ask about something secular, give them an answer in terms of the sacred.” So if somebody says, “What is Buddha?” you say, “This saucepan holds about a quart.” If they ask you about a saucepan, you say, “Why is my hand so much like the Buddha’s hand?”


And so that’s the secret of understanding funny stories in Zen. That it’s the same thing that… it’s polarity. All these paradoxes are polarity thinking. Because what makes the difference between a person who has this type of cosmic or mystical consciousness—I don’t like these words, but we haven’t got a good word for this state of mind. Well, we’ll have to put our heads together and invent something better. In academic circles, I call it “ecological awareness,” because “mysticism” is a dirty word around the academy. And so “ecological awareness” does fairly well—except, again, you always have to explain to people what ecology is; they don’t know yet. So ecology is the science which deals with the relationships between organisms and their environments. That’s “ecology.” Just as “economics:” in Greek, ecos (or sometimes pronounced oikos; modern Greek pronounces it ecos) is the “home.” And so economics: ecosnomos is the law of the home. And ecologos is the logic of the home. And so the ecos, the home of man, is the world. And so ecology is man’s relationship to the world, or the relationship of a plant to its environment. All that kind of relationship—the study of the bee and flower bit—is ecology.


So the thing that is so characteristic, then, of this new or different kind of consciousness is that it starts from or has its foundation in awareness of relationship; of “go-withness.” That the inside of a situation “goeswith” the outside, and although you may think from the point of view of ordinary consciousness that they work independently of each other, in this state of consciousness you see that they don’t. In other words, it’s slowly beginning to penetrate our ordinary consciousness that what any individual does—and we ascribe to him as his behavior, and praise him for it or blame him for it—everything that he does goeswith what happens outside him. The behavior of the environment and the behavior of that organism in that environment is one behavior. You mustn’t think of this deterministically—that is to say, as if the organism were something merely subservient to the environment. Nor must you think the opposite way, that the environment is something that can be pushed around by the organism. When an organism starts looking as if it was pushing its environment around, it simply means that the environment-organism, the total field, is changing itself.


So there is no determinism in this, just as there is no idea of old-fashioned free will. You learn to see that there is simply one behavior pattern working, which we will call the organism-environment. And if you understand that, you understand that you are this totality organism-environment. And so you are moving with it in the same way that all the organs of your physical body are moving together, as all the cells of the brain cooperate. You don’t have to make them cooperate, you don’t have to tell them to, you don’t have to arrange a treaty of some kind. They just do so. So when birds fly—you notice particularly birds like sandpipers—when they turn suddenly in the air, they turn as if they were all one bird. Although when they land on the sand, they become individuals and they run about independently looking for worms. Then, suddenly, you shout at them, and they shoot into the air and they’re all one creature, moving as if it had a single mind. You know that haiku poem:

A hundred gourds from the mind of one vine.

You see?


So just as we are organized that way, as organisms, so also we are—although not aware of it—organized that way collectively as individuals relating to each other and relating to the other forms of life, and to the geology, and the meteorological and astronomical phenomena around us. Only, we haven’t come to notice it. Our attention has been so fixed upon some of the details of this relationship that we have created a system of details as if it were a separate physical system. You understand—I’ve mentioned this, I’m sure, to many of you before—that human beings have for at least 3,000 years specialized in one kind of attention only that is what we call conscious attention. And that is a form of scanning the physical environment as if we were looking at it with a spotlight. And therefore, the nature of scanning is this: that it takes in the whole scene in series, bit by bit. Even if you don’t go in a straight line, and you scan like this, looking around you, you have a series of, shall I say, glimpses or glances piled up. And that gives you the history, the linear time, of your existence. Because it’s one experience of attention after another.


Now, in just the same way with all of us in this room exist totally together here and now—with all our innumerable physical organs, and every single one of our hairs, all present here—nevertheless, we notice all this in series. And we come to imagine, therefore, that we live in time instead of in eternity. And so I have to resort to funny little tricks like I was discussing yesterday to show how the past is influenced by the future, because we screen that possibility out by the way we pay attention to things. We are absolutely befuddled with words. Because, you see, words follow the same linear pattern because words are a notation. Conscious observation of the world by the spotlight always is accompanied by a notation. That is to say, the notation of language, the notation of written letters, the notation of numbers, the notation of algebraical symbols, any kind of notation you want to think of. Musical notes—they do the same thing. And you notice what you can notate, and that is what is notable, noteworthy: because we observe and become aware consciously only of those things that we consider important. And what do you consider important? Well, that depends on your hobby. For which, for most people, is survival.


But when you get relaxed, if you get into the contemplative state, and you sit quietly—you know, you should try tea ceremony for this—this is a way of noticing everything. I mean, of suddenly realizing that what people consider important is that most of them are absolutely out of their minds. They are rushing around with piercing eyes looking into the future, trying to make livings. And then, when they make the living, they don’t know what to do with it because they’ve no time to enjoy it. I mean, after all, if you’ve got a business in which you’re fleecing the public by putting out an inferior product and making scads of money doing this, then when you’ve made your money all you have to buy is the inferior products of your competitors, and you’ve cheated yourself because you didn’t know how to live.


I’m getting ready to do a new television series on the contributions of Asia to the leisurely life and the good life. It’s going to be about things like Chinese and Indian cooking, Japanese bathtubs (how to install one in the American home), how to do Japanese massage, how to make up your wife like a Hindu dancing girl, how to dress (what Asia has to contribute to comfortable clothes), all kinds of things like that. How to be civilized, yes. Because we’re gently twitting the American public that it is the richest people in the world and they don’t know how to enjoy themselves. Really, the things that we are told are enjoyable aren’t very. It will discuss, for example, things like the snow treatment, which is for couples—or for anybody, for that matter—it’s where an evening is set aside for one person to serve the other, wait on them hand and foot, and deliver them a glorious evening of dining, dancing, hot tubs, massage, lovemaking, everything, you see? And you just really knock yourself out to do something beautiful for another person. But people don’t do that sort of thing. I don’t know why not, it’s tremendous fun for both parties involved. “Snow” is slang for heroin. And it is used in this case as a joke; that this is the ultimate pleasure. And so we say to “snow” someone is to give them an absolutely royal time.


But this incapacity for—well, we could call it an incapacity for pleasure—and this tremendous preoccupation with time and with rush and with getting there is a result of overspecialization in linear consciousness. Now, linear consciousness is indeed remarkable, but it is something, in a way, aggressive. Just as the sword, the cutting edge, is an aggressive instrument as distinct from the total skin, you see? With the total skin you can feel all over, and in this way you embrace life. When you get into a hot tub, it goes all over your skin, you see? And it’s a type of diffused thing; what Freud called polymorphous erotic feeling. All over. Whereas conscious awareness is like the point of a pencil: it jabs, and it writes down precisely what. And so those people who are all conscious attention are sort of intellectual porcupines. They’re all prickles into things. And that gives them an essentially hostile attitude toward life, because, of course, conscious attention is a troubleshooter. It’s the radar in the human organism to watch out for changes in the environment, just as the radar of a ship is watching out for icebergs, and an aeroplane’s radar is watching out for thunderclouds. And so, in the same way, our thing is going around like this, and it’s serving a very valuable function. But if you identify yourself, all entire, with that part-function, then you define yourself as being in trouble and looking for trouble, and you become unaware of your generalized relationship with the external world.


So then, you don’t see that other things are important besides those things which are “practical.” Nobody takes time off to look at these things. Nan-sen, the Zen master, said: “most people look at these flowers as if they were in a dream.” That is to say, as if they were not awake, not looking at it at all. And people think, “Well, they’re pretty. They decorate the room. They have green leaves, and that’s nice.” And once you get them to draw what they think it looks like, it doesn’t look anything like it. You know, you draw a leaf, you make an outline like this, and fill it up with green paint. But these leaves aren’t green. They’re every color of the rainbow. If you look at any single leaf of this kind, and you look deeply enough, you will see the reflection of every color in the room in it. And you will begin to realize, if you contemplate long enough on the leaf of the flower, that it involves the whole universe.


You should watch for things like this; it’s fascinating. Don’t dismiss reflections as things that aren’t there. When you walk into a room, you can see that not only do the windowpanes—and polished furniture, and people’s spectacles, and people’s eyeballs—not only do they reflect everything going on around you, but also, things pick up color. What color is the carpet? It depends on the light. You say, “Well, it’s a white carpet.” That’s only because the windows aren’t colored. If the windows were blue, it would be a blue carpet. But you say the transparent window is of course a truer and more correct window than a blue one. But is it? Why should it be? Why should so-called white glass be more real somehow than blue glass? Nobody ever answered that. So it’s just that white glass is what we use most of the time, and so we say that’s more real than what we would only use occasionally. But then, in a dark room, the color of the carpet changes. When it’s got shadows on it in a certain way, any painter can say, and he can watch the shadows of your feet and say that’s no longer a white carpet. What color are these shadows? I don’t know. Some of them look gold. So then you begin to realize through reflection that, in a way, everything is reflection. That’s quite a thought.


We all feel that there are substantial things. The feeling of hardness I get when I shove my fist against something is exactly like the feeling of light when I meet something with my eyes. The point is that the eyes are so sensitive that they can realize the concreteness of light. The ears are so sensitive that they can realize the concreteness of air vibrations and turn them into sound. The fingers are less sensitive, and they realize concreteness—that is, reality—in terms of touch, in terms of hardness. But all these things are reflections. That is to say… well, let’s ask the question: is a rainbow real? Well, it fulfills all the categories for being there because it’s a matter of public observation. And it isn’t the hallucination of just one observer, because you can stand beside me and see the rainbow, too. But you just try to get a hold of that rainbow, approach it. I remember, as a little boy, I’d ride my bicycle around chasing rainbow ends, and believe that there might be a pot of gold at the end of it. But the irritating thing was: you could never catch up with the rainbow. Well, was it there, or wasn’t it? Well, everybody saw it. But, you see, it depends on a kind of triangulation between you and the sun and the moisture in the atmosphere. And if that triangulation doesn’t exist, and those three functions don’t exist, there isn’t any rainbow. Just like, I got a drum here, and I pound the hell out of it with no skin on the drum, it won’t make any noise. In other words, for a drum to beat, it needs both skin and a fist. If there’s no skin, the drum doesn’t make any noise. If there’s no fist, the drum doesn’t make any noise.


So, in the same way, exactly, the hard floor made of stone is like a rainbow. It is there only if certain conditions of relationship are fulfilled. Now, we like to think, you see, that houses and things go on existing in their natural state when we’re not around looking at them or feeling them. But what about the rainbow? Supposing that there was nobody to see it. Would it be there? Or let me put it in another way: we’re supporting the myth that the external world exists without us, but let’s ask the question in another way. Supposing I was there, capable of seeing a rainbow, but there wasn’t any sun out. It wouldn’t be there, would it? Let’s put it another way. Let’s suppose the sun was out and I was there to see it, but there wasn’t any moisture in the atmosphere. It wouldn’t be there, would it? So, equally, it wouldn’t be there if there was no one there to see it. It just as much depends on somebody to see it as it depends on the sun and as it depends on the moisture.


But we try to pretend, you see, that the external world exists altogether independently of us. That’s the whole myth of the independent observer, of man coming into a world to which he doesn’t really belong, and that it’s all going in there and he has nothing to do with it, but he just arrives in here and sees it as it always was. But that’s a joke! People could only think that way if they felt completely alienated and did not feel that the external world was continuous with their own organism. You bet you the external world is so continuous with your own organism that the whole world is human, because it’s human-ing.


There was a superstition in the nineteenth century to think of it some other way. Because, for example, when it was found out that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos, but that we were a small planet in a rather insignificant solar system, way out on the edge of a galaxy that certainly wasn’t the biggest galaxy there was in all space, and people began to say, “Oh, dear me! Man is nothing. He’s just a little fungus on this rock that goes ’round the sun, and nature couldn’t care less.” And so all the poets of the new nineteenth century philosophy of science said, “Man is nothing.” Man is just pshht, see? But, at the same time, man was saying he was the spearhead of evolution, the farthest that life had progressed, and he was going to conquer nature. Because he’s just a poor little accident, and if he’s going to make his way of life successful, he’s got to fight all this nonsense around him, all these other creatures that aren’t even civilized, and beat them into submission so they’ll be civilized. Well, that’s a big story; that’s a fairly tale.


You could equally say man is a mighty atom: tiny, way off in some funny corner of the universe. But don’t forget: the universe has no corners. Everywhere in it is the middle or can be regarded as such, just as I pointed out to you that any point on a sphere can be seen as the center of the surface of the sphere. So, in the same way, anything in curved space can be seen as the middle of it all. And here, in the middle of it all, once again, the Earth has become the center of the cosmos. The infinitely mobile central point of all possible orbits. That was a joke phrase invented by Franz Werfel in his book Star of the Unborn. But it really is. You can regard anywhere as central. So here, in the center, is this extraordinary little being whose importance is not in his size—that’s no criterion of value—but in his complexity, in his sensitivity, in the fact that these little germs, these tiny, tiny creatures we call people are (each one of them) essential to the existence of the whole cosmos. That’s the sort of relation we have here between the great and the small, the macrocosm and the microcosm.


But, you see, we don’t think about it, because of a way—we are all brought up within social forms which denied us. “Little children should be seen and not heard.” When children come into this world, we put them down. You get used to that in infancy, and all your life through you feel vaguely put down by reality. Government gives itself airs and graces, even in a democracy. The police are superbly rude to everybody else, just because they happen to be the instruments of the law. Incidentally, there’s a very amusing article in a periodical called the East Village Other on policemanship, and what to do if you’re detained by one of these officers of the law; how to behave. You must be respectful, that’s the main point. You see, that attitude—that you are here on probation, on sufferance, that you don’t matter, that you’re not important to this whole thing at all, and that you could be wiped out any time and no one would miss you—is very, very deeply pushed into us by social institutions. Because we’re afraid that if we taught people otherwise, they would get too big for their boots. Well, of course, they might. Because they would be reacting against the old way of doing things. If you tell a person who’s been put down all his life that he is in fact the lord God, he’s liable to go off his rocker.


But the problem is that we have got a certain criterion of what to experience, and what to look at, and what to regard as important, as a result of specialization of conscious attention alone. And with that goes the idea that the most important virtue in a living organism is aggression, you see? We’re terribly anxious if our kids aren’t brought up to be aggressive. You know? You get a report about your boy from the school teacher, and it says Johnny’s not aggressive enough. Well, you thought he was supposed to be integrated with the group—that’s what they were talking about some while ago—and now they say he doesn’t show aggression. Because the culture is aggressive. For example, you can look at our taboos: we have no taboo against pictures of people being tortured and murdered, which are very unpleasant, but we do have a taboo against pictures of people making love. Why? We have the feeling, you see, that everything to do with the glowing, flowing, glorious, warm participation with life is slightly sickening. Whereas where life is not participated in, but where there’s a kind of a sharp contact—why, that’s real. See, a lot of people don’t really know they’re here unless they hurt. And if you have any doubts in your conscience as to whether you’re alright, so long as you’re in pain you can be sure you are. Suffering is so good for you because it builds character and, above all, it tells you that you’re here. I know people who like going to the dentist because they get a great sense of reality from going to the dentist.


But in the history of mankind there have been all kinds of perfectly viable and successful cultures which didn’t buy that story. The famous matriarchal or matrist cultures were always different in their attitude. They weren’t afraid of pleasure. They wouldn’t say that ecstasy was enfeebling. This is a system of values based on people for whom the object of existence is survival and conquest. And they say, “Well, that is important,” and they cannot understand that survival might not be that important. Survival only seems to you that important when you think that your particular death is curtains. But if you see that the world goes on anyhow, and that, even, supposing we were to blow up this planet tomorrow completely, it’d be a matter of time, but the whole thing would soon get going again. Might not be in this solar system or even in this galaxy. Because simply: what happened once can happen again. And it may take billions of years, but what’s that in cosmic time? It’ll go on. And if people see this, they won’t blow it up. What will make us blow the planet up that the competition for survival; is our anxiety about the whole thing. “Oh, let’s blow it up, because we can’t bear sitting around wondering when it’s going to happen. Get it over with!” You see? And this is our difficulty.


So if you understand (let’s carry this further now) that you are really the cosmos, and that you can’t die—in that sense of “you;” you can disappear as an individual organism, yes, but that’s only your surface. The real you can’t die, so stop fooling around as if you could. And you’ll be relaxed and you’ll be happy, and you won’t start these tremendous project to assert your individuality over everybody else just to tell you that you’re really there—that’s all they do. I mean, a person who goes out for power, who wants to feel that he’s in control of all the things that are happening around him, is simply somebody who is in a state of terror. I was in a club in Dallas a few days ago, and I met a man who’s alleged to be the richest man in the United States, and he looked miserable! But boy, does he have power. And, of course, he’s spending his life trying to prevent other people having any, especially his competitors. But he’s miserable. He looks as if he had ulcers, and just terrible.


So this is a question of learning new values and learning them by letting up on this tremendously frantic kind of consciousness, which simply jumps from one thing to another and says, “What’s next?”

Part 4


Now, Western philosophy, for centuries, was dominated by a big fight between the people who call themselves who call themselves realists and the people who call themselves nominalists. Realists were not what we call realist today at all; quite different. The realists were those in the tradition of Plato, who felt that every individual example of a species, say—every man, every bird, every flower—was a special case of something called a universal, namely: mankind, flowerness, treeness, fishness, and so on. Finally, every existing thing was an example of existence. And therefore, that these universals were real; in fact, more real than the particular individuals that exemplified them. The nominalists, on the other hand, said that’s a lot of nonsense. There is not such a thing as mankind. There are only individual people. That’s all there is. And the nominalists, as you know, won the day. Nominalism remained dominant in Western philosophy until the most modern times.


But the problem with a nominalist is this: how far are you going to go with this point of view? Are you, after all, going to say of a given individual human being that he is a universal, a generalization, and an abstraction because, in fact, he is nothing but his component molecules? And they are the real individuals, and that the assemblage of them is an abstraction? Or go further: that submolecular vibrations or particles or whatever they may be are the only real things? That the world finally is only the dust of which it’s made and the individual grains thereof? That’s a way of looking at things.


But, you see, this has been the tendency of science to try and understand the world by analysis: to try to break it down into its smallest component parts. And you can find out some very interesting things by doing that. When you get down through that electron microscope and see the wiggles on the tiniest level, they are fascinating. And beautiful. But that’s only half the explanation.


In order to understand what the wiggles are doing, the tiniest little itty-bitty thing—I’ve coined a language for this. That the tiniest thing is the eenie-weenie. See? That’s a kind of a fundamental unit of life which I will just abstract. We won’t call it a scientific term, like an electron or a proton or a meson, because they’ll eventually find one smaller. I mean the smallest thing that will at any time ever be found is called the eenie-weenie. Mathematicians play this game. They talk about the largest number short of infinity and call it aleph. Who can say what the largest number anybody will ever think of will be. They call it aleph, you see? They do tricks like that. And if they can do tricks like that and call themselves scientists, I don’t see why I shouldn’t talk about the smallest thing that will ever be discovered at any time, anywhere, and call that the eenie-weenie.


Anyway, but the eenie-weenie doesn’t by itself explain everything that happens. The vision of the painters like Seurat, who were pointillist, they saw the eenie-weenie, and they made paintings of tiny dots. And that vision of things. When you, for example, look at a newspaper photograph and you find it’s all on a screen, it’s all little black and white dots, those are eenie-weenies. And it doesn’t matter how actually small or how actually large they are, the whole idea is of a component part, the unit. In a way, the “atom” means that, because that’s the Greek ἄτομος, which means that which is non-cuttable into any smaller portions. I don’t say you can’t cut the eenie-weenie, but that if and when anybody does, what the new situation will be will be the eenie-weenie.


But this thing doesn’t make sense by itself. The thing that every analyst always forgets is that the little bits are what they are in relation to a context, and the context is not just what kind of bits exist also around any given bit, but what pattern they’re arranged in, what they’re doing. So that’s why science has to include a description not merely of the smallest components of any given element or so-called substance, but it also has to include a description of the environment in which this thing is found. Just as the meaning of the word changes in the context of the sentence, and the sentence changes in the context of the paragraph, and the paragraph in the context of the book, and the book in the context of all literary productions going on at the time of its publication, and that in the context of the social order and its institutions. They all are determinative factors in the meaning of any given expression in speech. That’s why a literary historian can look at almost any piece of writing and date it. Because he knows the historical context in which it was written.


If, for example, forty years ago somebody said, “Do you dig this situation?” he couldn’t possibly have said it. At least not in the way we mean it now. And this new word for “appreciate” has something, however, a little bit more in it than “appreciate.” If you use the word it means you are au fait with a kind of hip culture and you know something about it. You’re not necessarily a beatnik, but you know this kind of new language. And that tells a great deal about you, and where you live, what sort of people you’re exposed to. And so, in one of my books I use the word “dig,” then the literary historian can look at that and say, “Well, that passage couldn’t’ve been written before 1955, and probably not later than 1973.” Or however long this goes on.


So the component element of anything, you see, depends on its context. And so in order to give a description of what’s happening—and that’s all science is: science is attempting to describe what goes on as accurately as possible. And so to do that it has to describe not only the eenie-weenies of which things are composed, but also the biggie-wiggies in which they’re found. And so, in the same way, now, when you then change your level of magnification so that you go down to the small components, you suddenly find that what you thought was a thing (that is to say, a unity) disappears into a multiplicity. And the funny thing is, the really weird thing, is that in, say, the human body there is more space than anything else. When we get down to these minute components of cells and molecules and atoms, we find that they are separated by vast spaces. Well, if anything separates things from things, surely it’s space. There are no strings joining these things together. They’re all free-falling entities, except that when things start being free-falling in the middle of space, they start influencing one another. There is also the influence and the properties of space itself. And so, somehow or other, they manage to hang together. But then you look at that individual molecule and say, “Well, that’s what I’m made of. That’s all there is. Just those.” But, you see, then, when you withdraw, and you see it at a higher and higher and higher level of magnification, the distinction between those molecules is lost and you get what you call another thing at a higher level, a unified thing.


So, in exactly the same way, when you examine your situation in the midst of humanity and realize that you are looking at it microscopically, and that if you can alter your point of view and (as it were) draw away from it, you suddenly see everything that you thought was a separately functioning molecule of experience merge into a larger whole. Now, for some reason or other, human beings are made happy by seeing that. That’s a very strange thing, but it’s so. Because if you look at things on any given level, and you see uppermost their conflicts, well, you don’t feel so hot about that level of things. But when, on the other hand, you see that a certain conflict, a certain nasty situation, at some higher level becomes essential and important—a necessary ingredient in that higher situation—you feel happy about it. You say, “Well, that had to be, after all. It makes sense. Now I realize.”


You know, you went through a personal tragedy of some kind in your life, and if that hadn’t happened you wouldn’t have met your present wife, or something like that. And you feel, if you love her, that that was great, you see? Now the tragedy has been resolved. Because you fitted it into a pattern which you feel to be a larger pattern than the pattern of things at the level of the tragedy itself.


So then, in exactly the same way, when you look at your ordinary situation, you look at your individuality, you feel you’re operating at a separately moving automotive body. And, as such, we’re always getting into trouble because we are unaware (or very largely unaware) of the structure of interpersonal behavior. I mean, look at all the work that a man like Sullivan did to try and straighten people out with respect to their interpersonal relationships. But he goes way beyond that. So as this, shall we say, interpersonal level comes into realization, we are doing the same thing as a biologist is doing when he says, “Don’t tell me simply about how the anopheles mosquito is made up, tell me how it functions in relation to its environment.” Because then I will tell you that the anopheles mosquito is not just something which makes use of an environment, it is a functioning of the environment. An environment which produces these bugs is on the same level—no, on a different level—the same thing as a world which peoples. So malaria swamps mosquito—using it as a verb.


And when you see that, when you see that you as a separate being are actually belonging in a greater harmony, you feel harmonious. And most people want to feel harmonious for some reason or other. So you feel happy. And you say, “At last I found out that my life has a meaning.” I felt that, when you say life is meaningless, you feel disjointed, you feel cut off from things, you feel that if you die it wouldn’t make any difference. Maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe the work on the other side of town that you’ve become so interested in would be carried on anyhow. Maybe.


But when you get the sense, now, of yourself as a unit, and the sense of magnification grows, and you see yourself now as a component in a larger pattern, you’re doing just the same thing as you did when you stepped back from the microscope and saw all the crystals or all the amoebas or all the cells fit into the pattern of living tissue. Now let me ask you the question: when you understand this and you suddenly see that you fit in, who’s understanding this? Where are “you” at that moment? See, you thought you knew where you were. You thought you were looking down the microscope, and at those little things on the other end, and you suddenly found out that all those little molecules turn into your finger. Then you suddenly are looking through another kind of a telescope maybe, and you find out that you’re a molecule looking up at something to which you belong. Now, who is “you” at that point?


Well, you see, we’re accustomed to think of ourselves according to certain definitions. And if you believe the popular physical superstitions of our time, you believe that you are a sort of electrical buzz given off by the brain—that is to say, the sensation of “I,” the sensation of consciousness. And here’s this brain inside your head, and that buzzes in a certain way and gives off an electrical charge, or a field, and that’s “you.” And when you blow the brains out, all that will stop and “you” will vanish forever. But that’s just because you’re being myopic. If you want to identify yourself that way, it’s your privilege to do so. But you can (with just as much right) identify yourself as a far vaster system than that.


As I said: the whole world is a single energy system, and you can cut it up in this way and that way and the other way, and say so much is me, and so much is somebody else, and so on. But I want to point out that that is just as arbitrary as the way in which we are accustomed to divide up our own bodies into superego, ego, id, personal unconscious, collective unconsciousness, persona, ego—all these divisions of human nature are really very arbitrary. You might say they are drawn along boundaries which don’t necessarily exist in nature. They may be imaginary boundaries.


So perhaps, in a way, you see, there is no final way that you are. Maybe the whole definition of identity of personality is extremely flexible and you are what you want to be. And if you want to come on as an UUGH! individual, “me,” and to play this game about being here for four score years and ten, and then you give up and die—if you want to come on that way, I guess that’s perfectly alright. Only, I think it’d be alrighter if you saw that that’s only one possibility. That you can define yourself in many other ways besides that, according to the way in which you are looking at yourself—that is to say, according to the level of magnification on which you’re working. So that if that’s a very large level, you see that you are just as much your next-door neighbor as you are just you.


Some people couldn’t possibly accept this theory. It would destroy their whole lives; unnerve them. But at the same time it is actually no different in principle—as a theory of human nature, as a theory of identity—it is no different in principle whatsoever from seeing and being able to understand that all the cells in your body function together as a single organism.


The question, of course, is: how are you going to see that? And, once again, you can say to me: “I understand this thing theoretically, as you put it. I can see why that would be true, but somehow I don’t have the power to step outside myself emotionally. I seem to be able to step outside intellectually and entertain and, I believe, understand a set of ideas in which this new theory of personality is truer than the old one. But how do I translate this intellectual comprehension into vivid experience so that I will behave as if it were true and not merely behave as if I understood it in theory?”


Now, I mentioned this morning that there isn’t all the jump between the intellect and other faculties that we sometimes like to propose. At the same time, there is involved in this something more than a merely verbal understanding of the situation, as when… well, let’s suppose you see in front of you an optical illusion. Those sort of diagrams that they put in psychology textbooks. And you absolutely swear that a set of lines that are in fact parallel to each other and are crossed by little lines that go this way and then by little lines that go this way, and those little cross lines seem to bend the other lines in such a way that they are not parallel to each other. You have terrible difficulty in realizing that, sensuously.

Example of the Zöllner illusion
The Zöllner illusion.

Because an intellectual trick has been played upon you. You are fooled by the optical illusion not because your eyes are kidding you, but because your thinking system is kidding you.


You know the famous experiment of the trapezoidal window which was worked out by Adelbert Ames? This is, in case you don’t know it, a frame, and simply one side of it is longer than the other side, so that the connecting upper and lower parts of the frame go like this—to a short side, and this to a long side. Now, you suspend that window through the center of the upper and lower frames. You then cause it to revolve. Now, because we have been trained in the convention of perspective, and because we have learned to regard an ordinary rectangular window as looking trapezoidal when we look at it from across the sides, we see, of course, the right side of the window, if that’s further away from us, we see it as smaller than the left side. But in this damn trapezoidal window this doesn’t apply. And so, as it rotates, it seems as if the short side is always further away from us than the long side, although it’s often closer. So the apparent behavior of the trapezoidal window is to switch, to do this. Then what you do is: you attach a little red cube to one corner of it, and to your amazement you see this cube going ’round and ’round and ’round while the window flips.


So, you see, your sensory experience, which is something very immediate, has been altered by your concept. And I’m saying this to show how powerful concepts can be. Now, this idea of our individuality as being something locked up in a bag of skin and existing only from the maternity ward to the crematorium is a concept. I perhaps use this word—it’s a little politer than “myth.” But it’s a concept.


Now, then, in Sanskrit this concept is called vikalpa. It means: a concept, a theory of the world. Now, you can have many theories of the world, many vikalpa. And the more you have, the more you will realize that they are all rather provisional. Some work better than others, but it depends on the circumstances you’re in as to whether one works better than another. And so they describe the highest state of consciousness as nirvikalpa, which means: free from concepts. Now, even the idea that I have sort of put forward—that you basically are the whole cosmos—is a sort of vikalpa. It’s still, in other words, we’re projecting on everything that exists the conception of unity; that it’s an organism, that it all works as one, so that you get what you might call an organic theory of the universe as distinct from a mechanistic one, or as distinct from a creationist one that the universe is an artifact manufactured by an extraterrestrial spirit. But these are all vikalpa.


Now, the basic idea in Zen is to see life without vikalpa. And so, in a way, it one-ups, or goes one step further, than Hinduism. Hinduism sees it all as the Self, you see? All as the basic whatever-there-is. In Zen, we look through all the various vikalpa, all the various conceptions of the world, and abandon them all. I don’t mean get rid of them all as if you burn the library. But you realize that you can use all these different concepts, and you don’t have to be hooked on any one of them. To have no fixed concept. The word to be underlined is “fixed.”


What did you say about Hindu [???]?



I was saying that this, in a way, this is not quite technically correct, because a profound Hindu thinker goes beyond unity to nonduality. But in the mythology of Hinduism as popularly presented, we are all the one Self. And this is sort of saying like I said: we’re all tits on the cosmic sow. That ultimately, behind all our multiplicities, there is one Self who’s playing this game of being different.


Now, we’re going to take that a step further and say: that’s still an idea, a concept, a way of fixing the universe. And the difficulty is that if you take any one of these concepts that you could call a fixed philosophical position, and you cling on to it, somebody’s going to upset you one of these days. It may be somebody who comes and argues philosophically with you, it may be some practical dumb bunny who phases you and puts you out of joint—it may be yourself; you just start feeling unhappy and that that doesn’t explain anything. You know, there are certain conditions under which you could have a mystical experience which explained it all to you, and you said, “So what? I’d rather be in a state of ordinary consciousness.” That can happen.


So let’s go a step further to the point where we don’t have a concept. This is called the state of spiritual poverty. You don’t have no religion, you don’t have any virtues that you can brag about, you don’t have any ideas you cling to and believe in passionately and hope they’re true. I mean, so far as ultimate things are concerned, you are like this, you see? Here’s the thing: there’s no reason why you should not—all of you—be realized and liberated instantly, right now, this afternoon, in Millie’s apartment. Because we’re all disintegrating, just like disappearing smoke, you see? It takes a little longer. We are more cohesive than smoke, but we’re frisky and we’re doing everything that’s bad for us, and everything is just falling apart. And eventually we’ll blow away as so much dust, although we will employ the morticians to embalm us and put us in concrete vaults so we won’t blow away quite as fast as all that. In California they’ve got things so sewed up that if you want to scatter a person’s ashes, you have to charter a plane and take it outside the three-mile limit and scatter them on the ocean, just to put you to lots of trouble and make it difficult to do that. To make it difficult to disintegrate.


Now, the great thing in this world is to disintegrate joyfully. In other words: get with it. Not in a spirit of hostility to the flesh, not in a spirit that the suffering is good for you. But the point is: this is what is happening. Life is something which is absolutely incapable of being held onto. Because if you could hold onto it, it wouldn’t be life. And all that everybody is doing who interests himself (as far as I can make out) in the spiritual life and religion and all that, is they are trying to put this off. In other words, they are trying to find a reason why they’re not really going to disintegrate, and that they’ll go to heaven or something or other and be there for always.


Fine. But the thing is that you never discover that you’re there for always except in the degree that you’re willing to disintegrate. This is one of these paradoxes where the thing flips. As I said with the Zen paradox: empty-handed I go, and yet a spade is in my hand. In other words, you wouldn’t know what an empty hand was if it always was found with a spade in it, would you? If everybody had a spade in their hand you would think that was part of the hand, and so it would be. But because they sometimes don’t have one, it depends on your having a spade in the hand, sometimes, to know when your hand is empty. So, also, the difference between walking and riding.


So, in the same way, the complete abandonment of clinging to any system of concepts for your safety or of clinging to yourself in whatever form you experience yourself, you have got to let go. Life assists you. Life itself compels you to let go. Because you are just so much dust—only: exciting dust, beautiful dust, dust dancing in the most weird patterns. And there it is. It’s doing that. But it is all falling apart. Of course it reforms, but you have no conscious control over that. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t be sure that you will reform in the way you want to reform.


So the only thing is to accept this. And one of the funniest things about that is that you can’t do it, because you object. And you find out that you can’t accept it—and that, too, is part of the thing that’s falling apart. Do you get what I mean? Just as you don’t have the power to hold the thing together, you don’t even have the power to go with it—not as an ego. And what that’s telling you is that you, as something separate from all this stuff that’s falling apart, don’t exist. If you did exist as something separate from all this stuff that’s falling apart, you’d be able to accept it or you’d be able to control it. But you can’t do either. You’d like to control it; yes, sure. And we do to some extent. But it all comes apart in the end. We can only do it for a certain time. Then you’d say, “Well, I’d like to be able to accept that and take an attitude of philosophical resignation.” And you find you can’t do that, either.


So the message of all that, the lesson that that’s telling you, is that—as something separate from this, which could either control it from outside or accept it from outside—you don’t exist. You’re just a figment of your own imagination, a concept. So what we get to in the end is not a kind of concept of ourselves as a god who is somehow ultimately in charge of all this. If you hang on to that concept you’re going to get in a very weird state. It’s alright provisionally, provided somebody comes along and knocks it down in the end. It’s an excellent stepping stone concept to move you from one to another.


But that’s not the final thing, because when you really seriously go into the idea of god and ask yourself this, what would your state of mind be if you knew everything? If you were in control of everything, including your own will? Let’s suppose your entire being-structure is voluntary and it’s up to you now. What are you going to do? If I say total responsibility, see?


Is everyone else [???]?



Let’s just suppose this were the case. I’m making a supposition. Everybody else is that way because they’re all doing what you tell them to. I’m describing a certain state of consciousness in which you see quite clearly that everybody else is just as much you as your own fingers are on the end of your hand—but they all sit out there with a different kind of space than the fingers have, but nevertheless just as connected with you as that. And you wiggle your fingers, you don’t know why you did; you made up some rationalization that you were going to illustrate something, but a lot of time you wiggle your fingers without even thinking. So you can feel I wiggle all these fingers sitting around this room without really knowing why I’m doing it. And each one of them, naturally, thinks they wiggle me and all the others. And you feel perhaps you’re somehow in control of it. You’re doing it. It’s a beautiful experience that you are somehow the ultimate center.


Now, if you get into that state of consciousness, don’t get stuck there. There’s a saying in Zen that nothing is good which cannot be destroyed. That when Zhaozhou, the old Chinese master of the Tang Dynasty, was asked, “What would you say to a man who comes to you with nothing?” (which is the ultimate attainment in Zen), he said, “Throw it away.” Another saying they have: “The monk who has satori goes to hell as straight as an arrow.” You see? The whole point in this is: wherever you think you’ve got it—that you understand, that you claim something as a certain kind of spiritual possession—get rid of it and see that there isn’t any security at all.


Now, naturally, for people who’ve worked all their lives and saved up money and are looking forward to retirement and security of one kind or another, that sounds depressing. But actually, it isn’t depressing at all. That’s behind the symbolism of the bum who doesn’t own anything, and whose clothes are the skies, whose candle is the sun, whose bath is the sea, and whose musicians are the birds. As St. Paul’s language: as having nothing but possessing all things. That image, you see, is of the person who just doesn’t own a thing. Spiritual poverty. No claims, no concepts. And he feels as happy as a lark because he’s free. He is really, really and truly with it.


As the Hindus say in the Upanishads: “If you think that you understand Brahman”—this is in the Kena Upanishad—“you have yet to be instructed further.” He who knows Brahman does not know him, but he who does not know Brahman truly knows. Why? Because, of course, the ultimate reality doesn’t make itself an object of its own knowledge. I mean, that would be the ultimate stupidity of the ouroboros. Really, the ouroboros is a fascinating symbol. But a snake that feeds on its own tail is just going nowhere faster and faster.


Of course, the snake will only feed on its own tail because there’s a blind spot somewhere in the snake. So that, you see, the snake has eyes in front of its head and doesn’t see what’s behind it. So when it sees its tail coming at it, it thinks this is someone else. And so it eats it and says, “Why the devil does this hurt? But it is good food!” So, now, that snake is the Brahman, actually, in the state of illusion—that is to say, in the state of having not discovered that the tail was itself.


Now, of course, as you start getting nearer and nearer to your own head in swallowing your own tail, and it begins to give you indigestion, you’re more and more liable to wake up. And then, when you spit your own tail out and stop pursuing your own end, you see, you become endless. You’re free. Only: you can’t pin yourself down. It isn’t just that your identity is no longer an ego inside a skin, it is that you don’t know who you are. Only: instead of feeling lost and miserable that you don’t know who you are, this is a kind of upper kind of not knowing. That’s why there’s always a kind of parallel between the sage and the fool, between the saint and the idiot.


So when Bodhidharma is asked by the emperor: “Who is it that stands before me?” he says, “I don’t know. You may wish to ask where the flowers come from, but even the god of spring doesn’t know.” Of course he doesn’t, because he’s a god. Again, like you don’t know how you grow your hair.


So there’s a great thing about this kind of superior and glorious not-knowing where, suddenly, you absolutely give yourself up. Now, it isn’t that you throw yourself away, like a person who hates himself throws himself into the garbage can or jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. He knows himself all too well, or thinks he does, and wants to get rid of it. But when you find out that you’ve been gotten rid of long ago, there’s no need to jump off the bridge. You don’t know who you are. And you can go ’round in circles for ever and ever trying to find out, but that’s just going ’round in circles. You don’t know. And because you don’t know who you are, you are never, never, never going to be bored.

Alan Watts

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