Myth of Myself

The Tao of Philosophy 5


The ferryboat philosopher riffs on how we’re not skin bags with an “I” inside, but the whole cosmos peeking out! Says we feel separate because we ignore our cosmic “floodlight” consciousness. But we’re waves in the ocean, apples on the tree. Realizing this brings real joy.



I believe that—if we are honest with ourselves—that the most fascinating problem in the world is: who am I? What do you mean, what do you feel when you say the word “I?” “I, myself.” I don’t think there can be any more fascinating preoccupation than that, because it’s so mysterious; it’s so elusive. Because what you are, in your inmost being, escapes your examination in rather the same way that you can’t look directly into your own eyes without using a mirror, you can’t bite your own teeth, you can’t taste your own tongue, and you can’t touch the tip of this finger with the tip of this finger. And that’s why there’s always an element of profound mystery in the problem of who we are. This problem has fascinated me for many years, and I’ve made many inquiries. What do you mean by the word “I?” And there is a certain consensus about this, a certain agreement, especially among people who live in Western civilization. Most of us feel I—ego, myself, my source of consciousness—to be a center of awareness and of a source of action that resides in the middle of a bag of skin. And so we have what I have called the conception of ourselves as a skin-encapsulated ego.


Now, it’s very funny how we use the word “I.” If we just refer to common speech, we are not accustomed to say “I am a body,” we rather say, “I have a body.” We don’t say, “I beat my heart,” in the same way as we say, “I walk, I think, I talk.” We feel that our heart beats itself, and that has nothing very much to do with I. In other words, we don’t regard I, myself as identical with our whole physical organism, we regard it as something inside it. And most Western people locate their ego inside their heads. You are somewhere between your eyes and between your ears, and the rest of you dangles from that point of reference. It is not so in other cultures. When a Chinese or Japanese person wants to locate the center of himself, he points here [the heart/chest], not here [the head]. Here, to what Japanese call the kokoro [心], or the Chinese call xin [心]—the heart-mind. Some people also locate themselves in the solar plexus.


But, by and large, we locate ourselves behind the eyes and somewhere between the ears, as if—within the dome of the skull—there were some sort of arrangement such as there is at the SAC headquarters in Denver, where there are men in great rooms surrounded with radar screens and all sorts of things, and earphones on, watching all the movements of planes all over the world. So in the same way, we have really the idea of ourselves as a little man inside our heads who has earphones on—which bring messages from the ears—and who has a television set in front of him—which brings messages from the eyes—and all sorts of electrode-things that are all over his body, giving him signals from the hands and so on. And he has a panel in front of him with buttons and dials and things. And so he, more or less, controls the body. But he isn’t the same as the body, because I am in charge of what are called the voluntary actions. And what are called involuntary actions of the body, they happen to me. I am pushed around by them, but to some extent, also, I can push my body around.


This, I have concluded, is the ordinary, average conception of what is one’s self. And look at the way children influenced by our cultural environment ask questions: “Mommy, who would I have been if my father had been someone else?” You see, the child gets the idea from our culture that the father and mother gave him a body into which he was popped at some moment—whether it was conception or whether it was parturition is a little bit vague. But there is, in our whole way of thinking, the idea that we are a soul—a spiritual essence of some kind—imprisoned inside a body, and that we look out upon a world that is foreign to us. In the words of the poet Housman: “I, a stranger and afraid; In a world I never made.” And so, therefore, we speak of confronting reality, facing the facts, we speak of coming into this world. And this whole sensation that we are brought up to have of being an island of consciousness locked up in a bag of skin, facing—outside us—a world that is profoundly alien to us, in the sense that what is outside me is not me. This sets up a fundamental sensation of hostility and estrangement between ourselves and the so-called external world. And therefore we go on to talk about the conquest of nature, the conquest of space, and view ourselves in a kind of battle array towards the world outside us.


I shall have much more to say about that in the second lecture. But in the first, now, I want to examine this strange feeling of being an isolated self. Now, actually, it is absolutely absurd to say that we came into this world. We didn’t. We came out of it. What do you think you are? Supposing this world is a tree—are you leaves on its branches, or are you a bunch of birds that settled on a dead old tree from somewhere else? Surely, everything that we know about living organisms from the standpoint of the sciences shows us that we grow out of this world, that we—each one of us—are what you might call symptoms of the state of the universe as a whole. But, you see, that is not part of our common sense. Western man has, for many centuries, been under the influence of two great myths. When I use the word “myth” I don’t necessarily mean “falsehood.” To me, the word “myth” signifies a great idea in terms of which man tries to make sense of the world. It may be an idea, it may be an image.


Now, the two images which have most profoundly influenced Western man are, number one, the image of the world as an artifact—like a carpenter’s table or a jar made by a potter. Indeed, in the Book of Genesis there comes the idea that man was originally a clay figurine made out of the earth by the lord God, who then breathed into this clay figurine and gave it life. And the whole of Western thought is profoundly influenced through and through and through by the idea that all things, all events, all people, all mountains, all stars, all flowers, all grasshoppers, all worms—everything—are artifacts; they have been made. And it is therefore natural for a Western child to say to its mother, “How was I made?” That would be quite an unnatural question for a Chinese child, because the Chinese do not think of nature as something made. They look upon it as something that grows, and the two processes are quite different. When you make something you put it together, you assemble parts, or you carve an image out of wood or stone, working from the outside to the inside. But when you watch something grow, it works in an entirely different way. It doesn’t assemble parts. It expands from within and gradually complicates itself, expanding outwards, like a bud blossoming, like a seed turning into a plant. But behind our whole thought in the West is the idea that the world is an artifact, that it is put together by a celestial architect, carpenter and artist, who therefore knows how it was done.


When I was a little boy, and I asked many questions which my mother couldn’t answer, she used to resort in desperation to saying, “My dear, there are some things that we are not meant to know.” When I said, “Well, will we ever find out?” and she said, “Yes, when we die and we go to heaven it will all be made clear.” And I used to think that, on wet afternoons in heaven, we would all sit around the throne of grace and say to the lord God, “Now just why did you do it this way?” and “How did you manage at that?” and he would explain it and make it all very clear. All questions would be answered. Because as we have popularly—in popular theology—understood the lord God, he is the mastermind who knows everything. And if you ask the lord God, “Exactly how high is Mount Whitney to the nearest millimeter?” he would know exactly like that, and would tell you. Any question. The cosmic Encyclopædia Britannica.


Unfortunately, this particular image, or myth, became too much for Western man because it was oppressive: to feel that you are known, through and through, and watched all the time by an infinitely just judge. I have a friend—a very enlightened woman; she’s a Catholic convert, but a very enlightened Catholic—and in her bathroom she has, on the pipe that connects the tank with the toilet seat, a little framed picture of an eye. And underneath, in Gothic letters, is written: “Thou God seest me.” Everywhere is this eye watching, watching, watching, watching, watching, and judging you. So that you always feel you’re never really by yourself. But the old gentleman is observing you and writing notes in his black book. And this became too much for the West; became oppressive. They had to get rid of it. And so, instead, we got another myth: the myth of the purely mechanical universe.


This was invented at the end of the 18th century, became increasingly fashionable throughout the course of the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, so that it is today’s common sense. Very few people today really believe in God in the old sense. They say they do, but they really hope there is a God. They don’t really have faith in God. They fervently wish that there was one and feel that they ought to believe that there is, but the idea of the universe being ruled by that marvelous old gentleman is no longer plausible. It isn’t that anybody’s disproved it, but it just somehow doesn’t go with the vast infinitude of galaxies, and the immense light-year distances between them, and so on. So instead, it has become fashionable—and it is nothing more than a fashion—to believe that the universe is dumb; stupid. That intelligence, values, love and fine feelings reside only within the bag of the human epidermis, and that outside that the thing is simply a kind of a chaotic, stupid interaction of blind forces.


Courtesy of Dr. Freud, for example, biological life is based on something called libido, which was a very, very loaded word. Blind, ruthless, uncomprehending lust: that’s the foundation of the human unconscious. And similarly—to thinkers of the 19th century like Ernst Haeckel, even Darwin, T. H. Huxley, and so on—there was this notion that at the root of being is an energy, and this energy is blind. This energy is just energy, and it’s utterly and totally stupid, and our intelligence is an unfortunate accident. By some weird freak of evolution we came to be these feeling and rational beings—more or less rational—and this is a ghastly mistake, because here we are in a universe that has nothing in common with us, that doesn’t share our feelings, has no real interest in us; we’re just sort of a cosmic fluke. And therefore the only hope for mankind is to beat this irrational universe into submission, and conquer it, and master it.


Now, all this is perfectly idiotic. If you would think that the idea of the universe as being the creation of a benevolent old gentleman—although he’s not so benevolent; he takes a sort of “this hurts me more than it’s going to hurt you” sort of attitude to things—you can have that on the one hand. And if that becomes uncomfortable, you can exchange it for its opposite: the idea that the ultimate reality doesn’t have any intelligence at all. At least that gets rid of the old bogey in the sky, in exchange for a picture of the world that is completely stupid.


Now, these ideas don’t make any sense—especially the last one—because you cannot get an intelligent organism, such as a human being, out of an unintelligent universe. The saying in the New Testament that “figs do not grow on thistles nor grapes on thorns” applies equally to the world. You do not find an intelligent organism living in an unintelligent environment. Look: here is a tree in the garden, and every summer it produces apples. And we call it an “apple tree” because the tree apples; that’s what it does. Alright, now here is a solar system inside a galaxy, and one of the peculiarities of this solar system is that—at least on the planet Earth—the thing peoples, in just the same way that an apple tree apples. Now, maybe two million years ago somebody came from another galaxy in a flying saucer and had a look at this solar system, and they looked it over and shrugged their shoulders and said, “Just a bunch of rocks.” And they went away. Later on—maybe two million years later—they came around, and they looked at it again, and they said, “Excuse me! We thought it was a bunch of rocks but it’s peopleing,” and “It’s alive after all; it has done something intelligent.”


Because, you see, we grow out of this world in exactly the same way that the apples grow on the apple tree. If evolution means anything, it means that. But, you see, we curiously twist it. We say, well, first of all—in the beginning—there was nothing but gas and rock. And then intelligence happened to arise in it—you know, like a sort of fungus or slime on top of the whole thing. But we’re thinking in a way, you see, that disconnects the intelligence from the rocks. Where there are rocks, watch out! Watch out! Because the rocks are going, eventually, to come alive. And they’re going to have people crawling over them. It’s only a matter of time. Just in the same way as the seed, the acorn, is eventually going to turn into the oak, because it has the potentiality of that within it. Rocks are not dead.


You see, it depends on what kind of attitude you want to take to the world. If you want to put the world down you say, “Oh well, fundamentally it’s only just a lot of geology. It’s a stupidity, and it so happens that a kind of a freak comes up in it which we call consciousness.” And that’s an attitude that you take when you want to prove to people that you’re a tough guy, that you’re realistic, that you face facts, and that you don’t indulge in wishful thinking. It’s just a matter of role-playing. And you must be aware of these things; they are fashions in the intellectual world. On the other hand, if you feel warm-hearted towards the universe you put it up instead of putting it down, and you say about rocks, they’re really conscious, but a very primitive form of consciousness. Because, after all, when I take even this crystal here, which is glass, and go [knocks knuckles against it]… well, it makes a noise. And that response, that resonance, is an extremely primitive form of consciousness. Our consciousness is much more subtle than that, but when you hit a bell and it rings, you touch a crystal and it responds, inside itself—it has a very simple reaction. It goes jangle inside, whereas we go jangle with all sorts of colors and lights and intelligence, ideas and thoughts—it’s more complicated. Both are equally conscious, but conscious in different degrees. That’s a perfectly acceptable idea, it’s just the opposite of the idea—see, all I’m saying is that minerals are a rudimentary form of consciousness, whereas the other people are saying that consciousness is a complicated form of minerals. See? What they want to do is to say everything is kind of bleagh! Whereas what I want to say is hooray, you know? Life is a good show!


Now then: as we study man—or any other living organism—and try and describe him accurately and scientifically, we find that our normal sensation of ourselves as isolated egos inside a bag of skin is a hallucination. It really is; it’s absolutely nutty. Because when you describe human behavior—or the behavior of a mouse, or a rat, or a chicken, or anything you want to describe—you find that, as you try to describe its behavior accurately, you must also describe the behavior of its environment.


Supposing I walk, and you want to describe the action of walking: you can’t talk about my walking without also describing the floor, because if you don’t describe the floor and the space in which I am moving, all you will be describing is somebody swinging his legs in empty space. So as to describe my walking, you must describe the space in which you find me. You know, you couldn’t see me unless you could also see my background, what stands behind me. See, if I myself—if the boundaries of my skin were coterminous with your whole field of vision, you wouldn’t see me at all. You would see my bright red vest instead. (That’s why I put it on this evening, to demonstrate this point.) And that would be the thing that filled your field of vision, that was the thing standing there. You wouldn’t see me, because in order to see me you have to see not only what is inside the boundary of my skin, but you have to see what is outside it, too.


Now, that’s terribly important. Really, the fundamental ultimate mystery, the only thing you need to know to understand the deepest metaphysical secrets, is this: that for every outside there is an inside, and for every inside there is an outside. And although they are different, they go together. There is, in other words, a secret conspiracy between all insides and all outsides, and the conspiracy is this: to look as different as possible, and yet underneath to be identical. Because you don’t find one without the other, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle. Note that: agreed.


So there is a secret. What is esoteric, what is profound and what is deep is what we will call the implicit. What is obvious and on the open is what we will call the explicit. And I and my environment, you and your environment, are explicitly as different as different could be. But implicitly you go together. And this is discovered by the scientist when he tries—as the whole art of science is to describe what happens exactly—and when he describes exactly what you do, he finds out that you, your behavior, is not something that can be separated from the behavior of the world around you. He realizes, then, that “you” are something that the whole world is doing. Just as when the sea has waves on it—alright, the sea, the ocean, is waving. And so each one of us is a waving of the whole cosmos; the entire works, all there is! And with each one of us it’s waving and saying, “Yoo-hoo! Here I am!” Only it does it differently each time, because variety is the spice of life.


But you see, the funny thing is we haven’t been brought up to feel that way. Instead of feeling that we—each one of us—are something that the whole realm of being is doing, we feel that we are something that has come in to the whole realm of being as a stranger. When we were born we don’t really know where we came from, because we don’t remember. And we think when we die that’s just going to be that. Some people console themselves with the idea that they’re going to heaven, of that they’re going to be reincarnated, or they’re going to Summerland or something, you know? People don’t really believe that. For most people it’s plausible—the real thing that haunts them—is that when they die, they’re going to sleep and never going to wake up. They’re going to be locked up in the safe deposit box of darkness forever. But that all depends, you see, upon a false notion of what is one’s self.


Now, the reason why we have this false notion of ourselves is, as far as I can understand it, that we have specialized in one particular kind of consciousness. Being very general and rough, we have two kinds of consciousness. One I will call the spotlight, and the other the floodlight. The spotlight is what we call conscious attention, and that is trained into us from childhood as the most valuable form of consciousness. When the teacher in class says, “Pay attention!” everybody stares, and looks fast at the teacher like that. That’s spotlight consciousness: fixing your mind on one thing at a time. Concentrate! And even though you may not be able to have a very long attention span, nevertheless you concentrate; you use your spotlight [on] one thing after another, one thing after another, flip, flip, flip, flip, flip, flip, flip, flip, like that.


But we also have another kind of consciousness, which I’ll call the floodlight. For example, you can drive your car for several miles with a friend sitting next to you, and your spotlight consciousness will be completely absorbed into your friend. Nevertheless, your floodlight consciousness will manage the driving of the car, will notice all the stoplights, the other idiots on the road, and so on, and you’ll get there safely—without even thinking about it. But our culture has taught us to specialize in spotlight consciousness and to identify ourselves with that form of consciousness alone. I am my spotlight consciousness. My conscious attention, that is my ego, that is me! And very largely we ignore the floodlight.


Now, the floodlight consciousness is working all the time. Every nerve end that we have is its instrument. You know, you can go out to a luncheon or something, and you sit next to Mrs. So-and-so, and you go home and your wife says to you, “Was Mrs. So-and-so there?” “Yes, I sat next to her.” “Well, what was she wearing?” “I haven’t the faintest idea.” You saw, but you didn’t notice. Now, because we have been brought up to identify ourselves with the spotlight consciousness and the floodlight consciousness is undervalued, we have this sensation of ourselves as being just the spotlight. Just the ego that looks and attends to this and that and the other. And so we ignore and are unaware of the vast, vast extent of our being.


People who, by various methods, become fully aware of their floodlight consciousness have what is called a mystical experience, or a cosmic consciousness, or what the Buddhists call bodhi [बोधि], awakening, and the Hindus call mokṣa [मोक्ष], liberation. Because they discover that the real, deep, deep self—that which you really are, fundamentally and forever—is the whole of being, all that there is, the works. That’s you. Only that universal self that is you has a capacity to focus itself at ever so many different here-and-now’s. So when you use the word “I,” this is—as William James said—really a word of position, like this, or here. Just as a sun, or star, has many rays, so the whole cosmos expresses itself in you, in you, in you, in you, in you, in all the different variations. It plays games. It plays the John Doe game, the Mary Smith game, it plays the beetle game, the butterfly game, the bird game, the pigeon game, the fish game, the star game. Just like—these are games that differ from each other just like backgammon wist bridge, poker, pinochle, or like waltz, mazurka, minuet, and so on. It dances with infinite variety. But every single dance that it does—that is to say, you—is what the whole thing is doing. But you see, we forget it. We don’t know; we’re brought up in a special way so that we are unaware of the connection, unaware that each one of us is the works playing it this way for a while.


And so we have been taught to dread death as if that were the end of the show. It won’t happen anymore. And therefore, to be afraid of all the things that might bring about death: pain, sickness, suffering. And if you don’t know, you see, if you’re not really vividly aware of the fact that you are basically the works, you have no real joy in life. You’re just a bundle of anxiety mixed up with guilt. Because, you see, when we bring children into the world we play awful games with them. Instead of saying, “How do you do? Welcome to the human race. Now, my dear, we are playing some very complicated games. And these are the rules of the game we’re playing. I want you to understand them, and then you’ll learn them, and then—when you get a little bit older—you may be able to think up some better rules.” Instead of being quite direct with our children, instead, we say, “You’re here on probation, you understand that? And maybe, when you grow up a bit, you’ll be acceptable. But until then you should be seen and not heard. You’re a mess, and you’ve got to be educated, and schooled, and whipped until you are human.” So that these attitudes which are inculcated into us in infancy go on into old age. The way you start out is liable to be the way you finish. So people [are] going around fundamentally feeling that they don’t belong, because their parents said to them in the first place, “Look, you don’t really belong here. You’re here on sufferance. You’re on probation, you’re not a human being yet.” And people feel this right on into old age. And so they figure that the universe is presided over by this awful kind of God the father-parent who—yes—has our best interests at heart, is loving, but who spares the rod spoils the child. Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth. So, sort of, when’s it going to hit next?


So [people] don’t feel that they belong. So we get this ghastly (what I call) Christian ego—it’s a little bit Jewish, too—who really feels that he’s homeless; he’s an orphan. Even the Christians say we are sons of God by adoption and grace—not real sons, but by adoption, and grace, and sufferance. And so comes this sensation, you see—so characteristic of Western man and, indeed, of all highly civilized people—of being a stranger in the Earth, a momentary flash of consciousness between two eternal blacknesses. And therefore in constant contentiousness with everything around you. Not only with other people, but with the Earth, with the waters. And the symbol of it all in our culture is the bulldozer.


Where I live, aboard a ferryboat, there is opposite us, across the water—or was opposite to us—some lovely hills. They’re going to put houses there. But they are going to try and put the sort of houses you would find in the suburban tract lot on a hill, of all things. Because a good architect can make a house fit the hill, he doesn’t have to destroy the hill to put a house on it. And if you want to live on a hill, obviously, you want to live on a hill, and you don’t want to destroy the hill by virtue of living on it. But that’s what they do, especially in California. Texas is kind of flat, and they don’t have to do that kind of thing, but in California, where we’ve got lots of hills, they always scrape the tops off them until they’re perfectly flat. Then they put houses on and then they scrape them off in terraces all the way down. They upset the ecology of the hill, and eventually all the houses fall down. And… so what? But by that time, the payments have been made.


But that’s because the builder doesn’t feel that the external world is his own body. It is; the external world is your own body, extended. So he—instead of going up to the hill and saying, “Good afternoon! I very much want to live here and I would want to like to know what kind of house you would like to have built on you.”—an intelligent architect always does that—instead of that, he has a prejudice about what kind of a house is a house. And he has to make the hill submit to this prejudice. So he has to ruin the hill and get rid of it, pretty much; then put the house on it. He’s absolutely out of his mind. And he’s out of his mind because he doesn’t realize that the external world is his body. When he realizes that he’ll get his mind back.

Myth of Myself

Alan Watts

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