The Tao of Philosophy 8: Limits of Language
April 1973


Alan Watts explains how language helps to construct reality, and what to do about it. He then follows up with the challenges of expressing the ineffable.
00:00

Nature is like a musical expression, which means exactly what it says. Giraffes are giraffing, trees are treeing, stars are starring, clouds are clouding. Rain is raining. And if you don’t understand, look at it again. And people are peopleing. We notice that all these ‘suchnesses’ appear and disappear. They keep changing, they come and they go. But if you get hung up on your particular form—I’ll have to alter the language a little bit because, you see, “your form” makes a duality. Whereas you are your form. You’re what you’re doing. Now, you think, “Hmm. For some strange reason I must make that go on as long as possible.” And therefore you think you have an instinct to survive. And so the only thing anybody can agree about today, so far as the discussion of ethical and moral problems are concerned, is that we ought to survive. And therefore, certain forms of conduct have survival value and certain forms don’t.

01:30

But when you say to yourself you must go on living, you put yourself in a double-bind. Because you’ve said to a process—which is essentially spontaneous—that it must happen. And the basic form of the double-bind which is imposed upon all children is: you are required to do that which will be acceptable only if you do it voluntarily. So when we say to ourselves “you must go on,” the reason is, you see, that we are not living in the eternal now, where reality is. We are always thinking that the satisfaction of life will be coming later. “There’s a good time coming, be it ever so far away.” That one far-off, divine event to which all creation moves. Don’t kid yourself. As the Hindus have taught us: in the course of time everything gets worse. It eventually falls apart. Comes kali yuga, and Shiva at the end, and POOM! Which is to say, only suckers put hope in the future.

03:01

You see—I tell you, there are three classes of people in the Western world: the aristocrats, the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie. The aristocrats live on the past, because they come of noble family, and they’re like potatoes because the best part of them is underground. The proletariat live in the present, because they have nothing else. And the poor bourgeoisie live for the future; they are the eternal suckers. They can always open to a con game. So when they find out that, really, there isn’t much of a future, you’re going to die, they transpose the future into a spiritual dimension. And they figure this material world is not the real world, but the spiritual world is the real world. And there will be, somewhere, somehow, an eternal life for me.

A charge to keep I have,
a God to glorify,
a never-dying soul to save,
and fit it for the sky.
04:36

Well, then you say to them, “What are you going to do there?” Well, they haven’t the faintest idea. You know that? If you ask theologians about what they think is going to happen in heaven, they just dry up. Oh, you’re going to play harps—I mean, there’s a symbolic meaning to that which I could go into, but the average person’s idea of heaven is an absolute bore! I mean, it’s like being in church for ever. Children see this immediately. Children, when they hear a hymn like, “Weary of earth, and laden with my sin, I look’d at Heav’n and long to enter in,” and they go, “Oh god! Heaven is to be in church for always!” And they think hell is preferable; there’s at least some excitement going on.

05:29

And you see it in Medieval art. You go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and you see Jan van Eyck’s painting of The Last Judgement: heaven on top, hell below. In heaven everybody’s looking like the cat that’s swallowed the canary, sitting in rows and very smug. God the father is President and… oh dear. Beneath this there’s a winged skull, like a bat, and squirming bodies, all nude, all being eaten by snakes and I don’t know—it’s a fantastic thing going on. But in that—you see, van Eyck had a ball painting that! Because in Medieval way it was the only way you could get away with painting nudes and sexy scenes; sadomasochistic, see? So that’s naturally why hell became much more interesting than heaven.

06:38

So therefore, this hope for the future is a hoax; it’s a perfect hoax. Maybe we will make spiritual progress. Everybody puts it off. Maybe if I work at yoga for ten years, twenty years, and do this thing, I will eventually make it. To mokṣa, to nirvāṇa, whatever. That’s nothing more than a postponement. It’s this business of… because you’re not fully alive now, you think maybe someday you will be.

07:30

Look, supposing I ask you, “What did you do yesterday?” “Now, what did I do yesterday? In fact, I’ve forgotten.” But most people say, “Well, let me see, now. Let me get out my notebook. I got up at 7:30 and I brushed my teeth, and I read the newspaper over a cup of coffee, and then I looked at the clock, and dressed, and got in the car and drove downtown, and did this and that in the office,” and so on, and you go on, and on, and on, and you suddenly discover that what you’ve described has absolutely nothing to do with what happened. You’ve described a scraggly, skeletal, fleshless list of abstractions. Whereas if you were actually aware of what went on, you could never describe it.

08:30

Because nature is multi-dimensional, language is linear. Language is scrawny, and therefore, if you identify the world as it is with the world as described, it’s as if you were trying eat dollar bills and expect a nutritious diet. Or eat numbers; a lot of people eat numbers. People play the stock market; they’re doing nothing but eating numbers. And yet they’re always unhappy, absolutely miserable—because they never get anything. So therefore, they always hope more is coming, because they believe that if they eat enough dollar bills, eventually, something satisfactory will happen. So eating the abstractions all the time, we want more, more, more time. Confucius very wisely said “A man who understands the Tao in the morning may die with content in the evening.” Because when you understand, you don’t put your hope in time. Time won’t solve a thing.

09:52

So when we enter into the practice of meditation, of yoga, we are doing something radically unlike other human activities. Of course, the way yoga is sold in the United States—like everything else—is that it’s supposed to be good for you. It isn’t. It has nothing to do with anything that’s good for you. It’s the one activity which you do for its own sake, and not because it’s good for you; not because it will lead anywhere. Because you cannot go to the place where you are now, obviously. Yoga is to be completely here and now. That’s why the word yuj means ‘join.’ Get with it. Be completely here and now.

10:57

This is the real meaning of concentration, to be in your center. And the Christian word for sinning—in Greek—is amartánei (αμαρτάνει), which means ‘to miss the point.’ And the point is eternal life, which is here and now. Come to your senses. So yoga is defined—in Sanskrit, in the Yoga Sūtrayogas chitta vritti nirodha. Difficult to translate, but roughly ‘yoga is the stopping of…’—vritti is ‘turning,’ see, like a wheel. And chitta is ‘consciousness.’ ‘Turnings in consciousness.’ In other words, the attempt of the mind to catch hold of itself, which is what we call thinking, worrying. So you could say, loosely, “Yoga is the cessation of thinking.” It’s not the cessation of awareness, but of symbolizing, trying to catch—clutch—reality in terms of thoughts, symbols, descriptions, definitions. Give it up. It’s not easy because we do it habitually.

12:33

But until there is silence of the mind, it is almost impossible to understand. Eternal life, that is to say, eternal now. If you could come to the place where you suspend conceptions. Conceptions, in Sanskrit, are called vikalpa, and so this stage is called nirvikalpa: ‘not conceptual.’ And this will be basic to everything I’m going to talk to you about. To understand nonverbal reality, non-conceived reality—what I call ‘suchness,’ tathātā—it’s really very easy; it’s too easy, that’s why it’s difficult. But when you are fully aware and not thinking you will notice some amazing absences. There is no past—can you hear anything past, coincidentally? Can you hear anything future? They’re just not there, to the plain sense of one’s ears.

14:08

Ears are easiest to begin with. Can you hear anyone listening to something else—other than sound, you know? Can you hear the listener? No? Well, then presumably, it’s not there! Then you become again as a child, and simply forget all that you ever were told, and contemplate what is, all these ghosts go away. Huh, weird! But they just go. And then you enter into the eternal state where there’s no problem! Well, then you go back, and you collect your opinions again, and you think, “Well, that won’t do.” How—how can I be practical, and be in that sort of state? Well, I remember—in the Sermon On The Mount—that Jesus said a lot of things about this. “Consider the lilies of the field: how they grow, they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet, Suleiman in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” “And if God so clothed the grass of the field, which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you faithless ones?” Wow! So do not worry about tomorrow, saying, “What shall we eat? what shall we drink?” Or, “How should we clothe ourselves?” All the rabble seeks after these things! Sufficient to the day is the worry of it.

15:57

Nobody ever preaches a sermon on that text! Never—I’ve heard lots of sermons!—and never one on that one, because people say, “Look, that’s all very well because Jesus was the boss’s son. And he knew,” you see, “that he was really in charge of the universe, and he has nothing to worry about. But we have to be practical.” Oh? What do you suppose the Gospel was; the “good news?” Do you know it never got out? “You, too, are the boss’s son.” That was the gospel. If Jesus had lived in India they wouldn’t have put him to death, because everybody in India knows that we’re all God in disguise. So if he had said, “I am the Father, our One”—in India they would have said, “Hooray!” You know? Lots of people in India know that perfectly well. But here? Nuh-uh-uh-uh-uh, that’s a no-no! Who the hell do you think you are? You own the place? You keep your position. You’re just a creature; a critter. It’s in the family system, it’s in everything.

17:35

Of course, they have their own way of doing it in India, because they have a delayed action on it. When you get to be a certain age, and after you’ve studied long enough with a certain guru, then—and then only—may you realize this. But until then, nuh-uh-uh; it’s still a no-no. But if you’ve put in the time, they finally let you in. Here, you have to wait until you’re dead. [Laughs]

18:15

Well, all that’s bullshit. The only place to begin is now, because here is where we are. So why put it off? A lot of people say, “Well, I’m not ready.” What do you mean, you’re not ready? What’re you—why, where… what do you have to be to be ready? “Well, I—I’m—I’m not good enough because I’m neurotic, I’m (perhaps) not old enough, not mature enough for such knowledge. I still am frightened of pain, and of course I’d have to overcome that. I’m still dependent on material things. I have to, you know, eat a lot, and drink a lot, and sex around, and all that kind of thing. And I think that I’d better get all of that under control first.” Oh? You mean you’ve got a case of spiritual pride? You want to be able to congratulate yourself for having gone through “The Discipline,” which is rewarded with realization? Nu-uh. That is trying to quench fire with fire.

20:01

In other words, the reason you’re—wouldn’t it be great to be a mystic? Look at it this way. I mean, ca-razy! To have no fear, no attachments, no hang-ups! To be as free as the air! So that, you know, you could just wander out on the streets, and give away all your clothes to the beggars, and let go of the whole thing; let it all hang out. Wouldn’t it be crazy to have that courage? And you look into yourself honestly and you find that, inside, you’re actually a quaking mess of sensitivity. “Ughh!” You know? So that this desire to be the great mystic is nothing more than a symptom of your quaking mess. It’s self-defense. So you think, “Wowee! We’ll do that yoga bit, and we’ll get real tough.” That only means you’re going to be increasingly insensitive. Running away from the quaking mess, escaping. You never can. You’re stuck with it. There is nothing you can actually do to transform your own nature into unattached selflessness, because you have a selfish reason for wanting to do it.

21:44

Well, that’s pretty depressing, isn’t it? You mean to tell me that the only people who get really enlightened and liberated are those whom the grace of God somehow hits in an arbitrary way? And all you can do is sit around and wait? Well, let’s begin with that supposition. Let’s suppose there’s nothing we can do to change ourselves. You know? Psychotherapy, religion, all this is just absolutely in vain. There’s nothing, nothing, nothing you can do about it. It’s like trying—as I said—to bite your own teeth, or lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. (Incidentally, it struck me as funny: a lot of people using that phrase in the wrong way. They say when something very difficult has to be done, we have to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps—you can’t! It’s impossible.) They say, “That’s terribly depressing! What do you mean, Alan Watts? You’ve come here simply to tell us that there’s nothing we can do?” I mean, here we are all presumably assembled in a cultural milieu, spiritual milieu, psychotherapeutic milieu, where we are supposed to get better. And I tell you there’s nothing you can do about it. “Well, give us our money back. [We’ll] go to somebody else who’ll be more encouraging.”

23:08

But! But… what does it mean, that you can’t do anything about it? It’s singing loud in fear. The reason you can’t do anything about it is that you don’t exist. That is, as an ego, as a soul, as separate will—it just isn’t there! Well, when you understand that, you’re liberated. They say, in Zen,

You cannot take hold of it, nor can you get rid of it.
In not being able to get it, you get it.
When you are silent, it speaks.
When you speak, it is silent.
24:07

Now, don’t misunderstand me. This is not any kind of fatalism when I say “you”—as you conceive yourself to be, that is your ego, your image of yourself—isn’t there! That it doesn’t exist. It’s an abstraction. It’s like ‘three.’ Did you ever see three? Plain, ordinary three? No, nobody ever saw it. It’s a concept, it’s a vikalpa. So, in the same way, is one’s self. There is the happening, the suchness—yes, sure, you bet—but it’s not pushing you around, because there’s no you to be pushed around. In other words, there’s no billiard ball on the end of the cue. There’s the cue, you know? Like this. It goes this way and goes that way. You know, they call a Buddha a Tathāgata: ‘one who comes or goes thus.’ This way and that way, see? He went that-a-way! So this illusion of the persecuted ego who is pushed around by fate—it has altogether disappeared. And so in, likewise, the illusion of the ego who pushes fate around has also disappeared. There’s a happening.

25:36

So—in this, do you see what has happened? By dying to yourself, by having become completely incompetent and found that you don’t exist, you’re reborn. You become everything. In the words of Sir Edwin Arnold, “Foregoing self, the universe grows I.”



Find out more