I’m talking about the symbolic and the real, and from the very beginning I have to make it clear what I mean by these words. I think one of the very best illustrations of the difference between symbol and reality is the difference between money and wealth—and a lot of people don’t know the difference. Nowadays, we’re all accustomed to shopping in a supermarket. And when we go there we get a great cartful of produce and groceries and liquor and what have you. You take it through the cashier’s… gangway-place—you know?—and she taps away on her machine, and she produces an enormously long strip of paper and tears it off, and says, “Thirty dollars, please.” And most people, at that moment, feel slightly depressed because they had to get rid of thirty dollars! And that’s [a] very strange and odd reaction, because you got rid of paper. And in exchange for this paper you got wealth: real edible food, usable things—riches—and you should go home in a very happy mood that you got this great bundle of stuff. But somehow, the loss of money hurts us a little bit.
The relationship of money to wealth is very much the same kind of relationship that words have to reality. But when I use this word, “reality,” what on earth am I talking about? If I produce any kind of object in front of you, and—the most convenient happens to be a piece of money; a quarter—and I ask you, “What is it?” and I show it to you, most people would say, “Well, that’s a quarter.” But, obviously, it isn’t. Because the quarter, when you say, “It’s a quarter”—“quarter” is a noise, isn’t it? Quarter: that’s a noise. It’s a noise you make with your mouth. What noise is this? [Alan flips the quarter.] That doesn’t sound like “quarter,” does it? You think it does? A dime would make the same sound. So, what this is is this, you see? [Alan points at the coin directly.] Just that! Like that, see? That’s what it is.
And so we would distinguish between a world of physical events—physical reality—and on the other hand a world of names, and numbers, and noises, and signs which refer to physical reality. And the fact that we can arrange this in this way, the fact that we can make symbols for the world of physical events, is the thing that peculiarly characterizes human beings, makes them different from almost all animals, and is the root and ground of civilization and culture. You can see, in other words, that being able to make a world of symbols standing over against the world of physical events depends upon being able to stand aside from things and look at them, and also to stand aside from ourselves and look at ourselves. There is something in the nervous system in man, some function of the cortex in the brain, which enables him to do just that.
There was a young man who said, “Though
And that’s what we call self-consciousness. And self-consciousness entirely depends upon something in us which enables us to stand aside from the immediate situation. For example, you may be happy. And in the middle of being happy you say, “My God, I’m happy!” That disconcerts some people, because the minute they begin to know that they’re happy it starts to disappear. They wonder how long they’re going to keep it. But, you know, if you were happy and you didn’t know you were happy, wouldn’t that be too bad? There’d be, as it were, nobody home to enjoy it. See, knowing that you know is like singing in the bathtub. Everybody has a good voice in the bathroom because the bathroom gives you resonance. It gives you echoes. It amplifies the sound in the same way as a great cathedral amplifies the sound of a choir. And so in just that way we have, as it were, an echo system inside our skulls so that we know when we’re happy, we know when we’re sad. And when we exist, we know we exist.
And that is simultaneously the grandeur and the tragedy of being human. Because along with knowing that you know [goes along with] all kinds of things, the most important of which is the knowledge of time. You know the myth of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man? That when Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, death came into the world. Why? It wasn’t that there wasn’t death before. All creatures in nature come and go, everything is born and dies. But for the first time, having eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge—that is, having invented a system of knowledge: the world of symbols—people knew that they were going to die. A cat approaches another dead cat, he sniffs it and sees that it’s good to eat, decides that it’s not and goes away. Probably—although we don’t know for certain—probably, the cat doesn’t reflect: “I will one day be a corpse like that.”
But human beings predict because they are able to think about events with symbols and words. They are able to see what the future will be. And we all believe—don’t we?—that this is the most useful kind of knowledge that we have: to know the future and, therefore, to be able to plan for it. To have your savings account, your life insurance, to plan for your old age. That’s great. But at the same time it has very serious disadvantages, because the more you know the future, and are thereby able to control it, the more you realize that you can’t control it ultimately. That you’re going to come to a bad end. And so that’s what makes human beings so strange. All human beings are, therefore, slightly anxious, slightly depressed. There’s a certain kind of sadness in human nature which the Japanese call aware: a melancholy, deep down in us, because we know—in the words of the song—“But it all comes apart in the end.” And even diamonds come apart at the end.
And so it’s a curious thing whether a human being is really a logical construction. It’s a great question. Whether a human being is not actually a self-defeating organism, a creature who knows too much for his own good. Because—you know the proverb “What you gain on the roundabout you lose on the swings?” So with man: what you gain in power by having foresight and dexterity in controlling the world through symbols—what a price we pay for it! Because no one of us can any longer afford to be spontaneous. Imagine a life in which you don’t have to take any provision for the future. You do just what you feel like on impulse. Now, you’d make many mistakes, and you might do things that would be quite fatal. Like a moth which can’t distinguish between a candle and the sex call of a female, and so it flies straight into the flame and it blows up. Is that too bad? In a way, from the standpoint of the universe, it’s a fairly good arrangement, because if this didn’t happen there would be too many moths. And every time a moth plunges into the flame it’s a sudden disaster. The moth isn’t worried about this—I mean, it doesn’t have anxiety about it before it happens—and the moth goes out, just like that. With a glorious explosion. And so, in the same way, all these creatures who don’t think what to do next—cats don’t lie awake at night worrying about what contracts they’re going to have to make the next day, and yet, nothing can match the dignity of a cat when it walks, and when it licks itself. What a magnificent creature. So imagine a world in which there isn’t any worry. There will be disasters, but you won’t know it’s going to hit you.
But we have figured out how to beat that world, how to last longer and to be more smart than any other creature on earth. But the price is anxiety. The price is lying awake nights. The price is having an ego, a thing in us that we call “I,” “my self.” A compound of all the memories that we have of our experiences; a history. When you are asked to give an account of yourself, what do you do? You give your, kind of, biography: where you were born, where you were educated, where you have been, where you have traveled, what things you are competent in. It’s your life story, it’s your history. And we learn to identify ourselves with our history. And that is a series of symbols representing the actual events through which we have passed in our lifetime. And that history is something with which we fervently identify ourselves. But all histories come to an end. And so the more we know about our history, about ourselves in that kind of a way of knowing, the more anxiety we have about the thought that this history cannot go on indefinitely. It cannot be a story of complete success.
Now then, I want to go into some of the properties of the human mind upon which this sense of our own existence is based. And the most remarkable property that we have which enables us to create a symbolic world standing over against the world of physical reality and, of course—may I just put in parentheses—when I talk about the world of physical reality, this is a symbolic noise. And many people, when they hear physical reality spoken about, react to it in terms of 19th century scientific mythology, which is that the world of material, of energy—the world outside human skins—is mechanical and stupid. That was one of the dogmas of 19th century scientism which carries on into the common sense of the 20th century. So when I say the world of physical reality, please don’t put any such ideas on it. We really don’t know very much about it at all.
So then, the ability—the peculiar ability—of the human mind that underlies being able to create a symbolic world alongside the world of reality—and, through this, to manipulate and control and play god towards the world of physical reality—the thing that underlies this is what we call consciousness. Consciousness is conscious attention: the ability to focus our senses on what we call one thing at a time.
Now, consciousness is, therefore, comparable to the use of a spotlight which casts a narrow, bright beam upon certain areas. We all were taught to use this as children because, when we went to school, one of the most frequent things our teachers said to us was, [loud clap] “Pay attention!” Because the children were doing this, and they were doodling, and looking out of the window, and so on—having a wonderful time. But the teacher wants to get you to be able to focus on a point. See? Now watch my finger. Who else does this, other than teachers? Who else does that? Hypnotists! Hypnotists and conjurers; magicians! They’re always saying, “Now, watch my hand. There’s absolutely nothing in it.” And when you watch the hand, you know, he’s busy pulling a rabbit out of his pocket or something. So teachers all do that. And the children comply by tightening their legs ’round the legs of the chair and frowning, and looking at the teacher with a fixed gaze, because by that the teacher will know—so children think—that they’re really attending.
Now, so you see, by this means we are taught to focus our awareness—that is, say, the total sensitive power of all our five senses—to focus it on certain areas of the external world, sometimes the internal world, which are called significant. What is significant? What is important to notice? Many of us—you know, let’s say men—go out to a luncheon meeting where all sorts of people are present and we’ve got some kind of business to transact, and we go home, and the wives say to the husbands, “Well, you were at this luncheon meeting. Was Mrs. So-and-so there?” “Yes, she was there. I sat opposite to her.” “What was she wearing?” “I didn’t notice.” See? He looked right at it, he saw right in front of him the dress that this woman had on, but he didn’t notice it. Because from his point of view it wasn’t significant. He might’ve been interested in what was underneath it, but not what was on top, so he didn’t see it. And so, in the same way, you can drive your car daily into town, and talk with a friend, and you’re absorbed in conversation, and you don’t remember—you don’t even think about driving. And yet, you go through all these complicated stoplights, you avoid all the other maniacs on the road, and you get in comfortably. But you didn’t notice it. Because there is an aspect of your total awareness that is not consciousness. It reacts, and it reacts intelligently, but it doesn’t enter into what we call the stream of consciousness: the stream of events which we focus on with our spotlight and consider to be important and significant.
So there are many, many different versions of what is significant about our world. The world, you see, is in many ways like a blot in a Rorschach test—I presume you are all familiar with a Rorschach test?—where you have an ink blot that is made by pouring ink on a piece of paper, and then folding it over, and then opening it up so that you get a symmetrical pattern. And the person being tested is asked to describe what he sees in the blot and, according to what he describes, the psychologists believe that they can evaluate his personality. Well, actually, the whole world is a Rorschach blot. It’s all fundamentally wiggly. Clouds are wiggly, mountains are wiggly, plants and waters and, above all, people. People are peculiarly wiggly. And then the task, you see, of consciousness is to make sense out of it all, is to tell a consistent story about the wiggles so that we can keep track of them. And what happens is: in human society, our forefathers—the more persuasive among them—invented a story about the universal Rorschach blot, and they pounded their children and made them believe it, too. And so, now, we all accept approximately the same version of the thing. And so, by this method of attending to one little bit of the wiggle, and then another little bit of the wiggle, we can make sense out of the wiggle.
You see, you do it the same way—supposing, instead of a Rorschach blot, you have a piece of territory: you have the Monterey Peninsula. And on the map it’s a wiggle. But if we superimpose over this map a grid, simply lines—north and south, lines of latitude and longitude—and then we describe where each wiggle is in terms of the numbers up or the numbers across of these lines, we can measure the area. Well, that’s the basis of calculus. That’s the basis of all careful, accurate description of our wiggly world. And so, by concentrating on the wiggles, area by area, bit by bit, we learn how to manage it, how to make sense out of it. Just in the same way, for example, your mouth has only a certain size and therefore you can’t eat a whole chicken at once. In order to be able to absorb a chicken you have to cut it into pieces. So you get a cut-up fryer. And even then, you have to reduce it to bite-sized units so as to assimilate it. Well, in exactly the same way, the physical world has to be reduced to bite-sized units in order to be assimilated by our intellect. And those bite-sized units we call “things” and “events.”
There are—in nature, in the actual physical universe—no such things as things, and no such happenings as events. They’re all invented by us in the same way as we invent lines of latitude and longitude, inches, meters, minutes and hours. They’re all measures: they don’t really exist out there. But we choose certain lines. For example, we choose the boundary of the human skin and we say this divides me from everything else. Inside this bag of skin is “me,” inside those bags of skin is “you.” And outside that is a foreign world that isn’t me, that isn’t you. But that’s not true! The skin, from one point of view, can be said to divide us from the external world, but from another point of view it is exactly what joins us to the external world. The skin is full of pores through which we breathe the air. The skin is full of nerve ends through which we become sensitive to what goes on around us. And if, as a matter of fact, the air pressure outside the skin was not exactly fifteen pounds per square inch—if it was anything less than that—we’d blow up. The pressure inside would be too much for the outside. See? What we don’t—we are carefully educated not to notice certain things, because once you start noticing it—in other words, using your spotlight to concentrate on certain areas—at the same time as you notice, you also ignore, you also don’t notice.
Often I take a blackboard and I draw a circle on it. And I say to people, “What have I drawn?” And they’ll say, “A circle,” “a ball,” “a sphere.” Very few people ever say, “A hole in the wall.” A few smart ones do. In other words, do you notice what’s inside the circle, or do you notice what’s outside? Because what’s outside is just as important as what’s inside. You know, the fundamental secret of life—I’m going to tell you this, and this is worth all your price of admission; it’s the ultimate secret! The ultimate secret is: for every inside, there is an outside. And they go together, and you can’t have one without the other. And that’s the whole problem of metaphysics, of religion, of life and death, so be of good cheer. But normally, you see, the way we are trained to attend our attention is captured by the area inside just as it’s captured by an object that moves rather than one that’s still. In other words, if a mouse were suddenly to go skitty-skit across the floor here, everybody would notice the mouse. And I keep moving a little instead of standing still, like this, while I talk to you so that you will notice me a little, see?
Motion against relative stillness, the background of the curtain, captures our attention. And my figure against the curtain captures your attention. Imagine what would happen if the total consciousness of the curtain vanished and your entire field of vision was filled by me only. Then do you see what would happen? I would disappear, and what you would become conscious of as the thing presented to you would be my necktie, or something like that. See? So by that I mean the inside always goes with the outside.
Now then, the whole use of consciousness—this is the point I’m making—the whole use of consciousness is the isolation of certain areas which we pay attention to. And we pay as the price for that kind of attention ignoring what stands outside them. For example, most people think that space is nothing. Space is just emptiness through which we all move. Interstellar space—the space between planets, the space between galaxies—is nothing. But every painter and every architect knows that space isn’t nothing at all. Architects sometimes talk about the influence of space upon behavior. And to the uninitiated this sounds like nonsense. And if you paint, you realize that you have to paint the space as well as the things in the space. In other words, if you work in oils on canvas, you have to work on the background. You have to paint the background in. And you realize, therefore, that it’s something that’s there.
Can you imagine a solid without a space ’round it? Why, you can’t possibly do so! Can you imagine a space without a solid in it? You can’t possibly, because you have to constitute the solid to imagine yourself in the middle of an empty space. There is no way of having a space without a solid just as there is no way of having a front without a back. They go together.
But we are trained by our education and by our language—by the patterns of thought which our culture instills in us—to notice the solid and ignore the space. So, in the same way, we notice ourselves as we exist inside our skins and ignore ourselves as we exist outside our skins. And that gives us our peculiar feeling of insularity, of being skin-encapsulated egos who feel ourselves to be different from, to confront, to meet an alien, external, and largely hostile physical universe. And this is the supremely difficult price that we pay for our ingenious ability to use symbols, and to divide the world into the symbolic and the real, the significant and the insignificant, the important and the unimportant.
We have lost the fundamental physical elemental sense that every single one of us is the entire works, focused here and now. That is to say, every human being—every beetle, every mosquito, every living cell—is something that the entire cosmos, the whole universe, is doing in a particular way. Just as when you hold a magnifying glass to the sun, and you focus the sun as a vivid little point of light at that particular spot on that particular leaf, so every creature that exists is a focus, a special case of what the entire works of existence is doing. Only: we have been taught to forget that. By being concentrated on the here and now—who I am, what circumstances I’m in, what I’m doing, what’s important for me—we get absorbed in it.
Supposing, for example, you got under a microscope some of the little animals that are working inside your blood stream. You would suddenly become aware through your narrowed attention of a great conflict going on. There’s a thing with wild whiskers on it and eyes all over that’s going to eat that thing, which is more humane-looking because it’s only got eyes on one end. And you see this awful thing through the microscope about to eat that and you get panicky. What’s the result going to be? What’s going to come out of this? See? But from a larger point of view you realize that if that fight weren’t going on, you wouldn’t be healthy. Because the constant conflict of microorganisms at one level is, at another level, your ongoing life and health. But if you look at it intensely—I mean, if you concentrate and ignore the context of what’s happening—you get involved in this struggle and think, “Oh! It’s going to eat it!” Well, that’s the situation we’re all in. We’re all absorbed in our daily success, our business opportunities; whether we’re going to make it or not.
See, that’s one of the great philosophical questions. There are really four philosophical questions: Who started it? Are we going to make it? Where are we going to put it? And who’s going to clean up? So this “Are we going to make it?”—see?—arises immediately; someone has started it. And what they’ve started is this concentrated attention: looking at the little details. Those details are fascinating! I mean, you know, it’s the details that matter. It’s whether a woman’s nose goes this way or that way that determines whether she’s attractive or not, whether she goes this way or that way that determines—you see? It’s the details. And it’s the details that differentiate between each individual personality. And we get absorbed in that. It’s marvelous! Beautiful!
But unless you can keep the details in balance with the background you get so sucked into the details that you lose yourself. You lose your balance. And so, in this way, the narrowed attention gets you involved into believing that you—I, myself, ego—am just some kind of a thing inside this skin. I’m a sort of chauffeur in my physical body. And I believe that. It’s a hoax, but I believe it. And the whole of society conspires to make you believe that. The whole of education is designed to give you that particular sensation. But it just isn’t so. Because if every inside goes with an outside—like the head goes with the feet; you don’t find heads without feet. You don’t find cats that have tails but no heads. Only manx cats have heads but no tails. They go together. So, in the same way, a living organism goeswith an environment.
But fascination with symbols—the fact that we can talk about the organism as if it were something separate from the environment, because we can talk about “I” as if I was something separate from you—hypnotizes us into the feeling that we really are separate. And so we lose the sensation of being really at home in the world.
You know, you might use an illustration: Here’s a tree. A barren tree; dead branches. And from nowhere at all a bunch of birds come and alight on it. There they are: birds from somewhere else alighting on a barren tree. That’s the way most people feel themselves in the world: human beings in a world largely composed of rocks, and fire, and electronic jazz which has no feelings, no sense of values, no intelligence. But we just live here by accident. The other image is the tree, again, that suddenly gives rise to leaves and fruit. What a different situation. But according to all our knowledge of the sciences—of biology, ecology, evolution, and so on—we are leaves on a tree. We live, we express—each one of us—a world which produces human beings in precisely the same way that an apple tree produces apples. After all, when we see the apple tree in the spring it has no apples on it, only blossom. And in the winter not even any blossom. And you might go by the apple tree and say, “Just a tree.” And you come by later and you see the blossoms, and you begin to get interested. And then, later in the summer, you go by and it hat apples on it. And you say, “Excuse me!”
So, in the same way, this solar system might have been visited ten million years ago by someone in a flying saucer from Alpha Centaurus, and he would’ve looked ’round and said, “Just a bunch of rocks,” and gone away. Now he comes back in his flying saucer again, and looks at us and says, “Excuse me! I see you were, after all, intelligent rocks. Because you are human-ing just as the apple tree apple-s,” you see? A world which does us is an intelligent world, is a human world. At the very least it may be something more. Goodness only knows what it might do next! But at least, you see, it does us.
Now this, then, is my moral: the ability to cut the world up into pieces as a result of our facility with symbols and words is marvelous. It enables us to analyze things, to predict the future, to see all the details and to bring out the value of the details. That is a wonderful thing. But you can have too much of a good thing. You need to underpin, to background this vision of the details with something to support it, otherwise you go insane. Otherwise you get lost in a detail. You get lost in a point. You get so absorbed that, as we say, you can’t see the forest for the trees: we can’t see the world for the selves. And this isn’t just a matter of theoretical understanding, not just grasping a new theory. We need to find ways in which our actual everyday consciousness—our sensation, our physical feeling of being alive—is so transformed that each one of us feels himself not only to be alive inside his skin, but also to be definitely, substantially identical with everything going on around him. So that when you move and talk to me, I feel that that’s just as much me as it is you. Because these are the facts. This is the way it is. The outside goes with the inside, and you don’t find them apart from each other anymore than you find the front of the coin without the back.
Look: supposing I’m interested in another human being, but this is a human being who thinks only about themselves—has no interest other than what is defined as themselves, socially. In other words, the interior of the bag of skin. Well, this is the most boring kind of person you could imagine. Has no personality whatsoever, even though they’re entirely concentrated on themselves. When I feel that a person has genuine personality—is unique, and different, and alive—that is a function of their interest in things outside themselves—in other people, in their ancestry, and so on. You know? It’s wonderful to look at a person and say, “I think your background is… hmm… a little bit French, slightly Irish, touch of Yugoslavian.” Wow! See? Then I’m beginning—the person might say, “Well, you’re not talking about me, you’re just talking about my parents.” But you are your parents, you see? That makes you interesting. And then your interest in music, in fish, in birds, in trees, in clothes—anything you want to mention—makes you more interesting. In other words, the more related you are to your external world, the more unique and interesting you become.
My fingers—all of them move separately and independently, but only because they are part of the hand, and only because the hand is part of the arm, and so on. So underneath our marvelous ability to analyze the world through concentrated attention and through symbols—words which suggest that a tree is a tree. The word “tree” is different from the word “ground,” and therefore it seems that the tree is different from the ground. But it isn’t. The tree is the ground reaching up to grab at the sky and, you know… enjoy. It’s the ground, swinging. So, in the same way, each one of us is the whole cosmos waving and saying, “Yoo-hoo! I’m here!” So that knowledge is necessary. That knowledge of being one with the totality is necessary to underpin and support the knowledge of being different, and unique, and individual. Without it, the individual goes mad. Crazy mad, not angry mad. Crazy mad, because he feels unsupported, and therefore he seeks security in the collective—that is to say, in religious or political merging of individuals into the crowd, into the mob, into the mass—to escape the terror of being alone.