The Joker

One of Alan’s most popular seminars, and for good reason—in The Joker, listeners will find out why every society needs fools in order to remind itself not to take life so damn seriously.


Part 1

The Game


In ancient times all kings had at their courts a court fool. And sometimes it probably was true that the fool was a crazy person who had a peculiar capacity for making inappropriate remarks. And there’s something about inappropriate remarks that can be very funny. I remember, as a child, we used to play a game in which we had, first of all, a booklet with a story in it, but every now and then a word was left blank. And then you were given a pile of cards that were shuffled ’round the players, and in turn, as the story was read by one person, the players turned up whatever card they had and said the word. And the most extraordinary things happened. And in this way, of course, the person who could make inappropriate remarks at the right moment can sometimes bring the house down.


But actually, as time went on, the function of the fool became more sophisticated than that, and he became a person whose function was not simply to make jokes and to be a funny man, but to remind the monarch of his humanity so that he would never, never get too stuffy. You’ll remember, perhaps, the lines in Richard II, where the king says:

Within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his watch and there the antic sits,

—the antic being the court fool—

…and there the antic sits,

Scoffing at his state and grinning at his pomp,

Allowing him a little time,

To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,

And then at the last comes death, and with a little pin

Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!


See, that was, in a way, the function of the fool. He was reminding you of your finitude; of your mortality; and death, at the end—in somewhat the same way as monks used to keep, on the desks in their cells, a grinning skull. And all this is, of course, nowadays thought very morbid, because today we repress death very, very strongly. And the whole function and role of the mortician in our culture is to pretend in some way that death doesn’t happen. He’s a husher-upper. He sweeps you under the carpet at considerable expense.


Now then, I tried to think whether there isn’t any institution in modern society that really corresponds to the court fool. And there isn’t. There is, of course, the political cartoonist, there is the satirist, there is the commentator, but he doesn’t sit in the President’s office. And the President can ignore him altogether if he so chooses. We don’t like, nowadays, anyone to suggest that our social institutions are not altogether serious. We can’t stand it because we are much too insecure. And this is a very dangerous state of affairs. And so it is really high time that, in many ways, the institution of the fool was reintroduced.


I want to point out a parallel to this. In some ways, the fool (or the joker) and the monk have a parallel function. The monk is a person who abandons society. He is an outlaw, only he’s an outlaw on the upper side instead of on the lower side. As the ordinary criminal is, as it were, below caste, the outlaw in the sense of the monk is above caste. And in the Buddhist religion, at its inception, the followers of the Buddha wore those dark yellow robes because those were the garments of criminals. It’s just as if, today, we were to take the kind of blue jeans they wear over in San Quentin and go around in those, or the old fashioned striped things that were put on jail birds. And so they took on the garments and external appearance of the lower outcaste, but they were in fact respected as upper outcastes.


But in modern society it is very, very difficult to be in that position. For example, in such a true republic as France, every monk and priest is subject to military service. That is not true in the United States, nor is it true in England. They are not quite so republican as the French. But in this kind of modern society, more and more, you must belong. As Thoreau said, “Wherever you may go, men will seek you out and compel you to belong to their desperate company of oddfellows.” And the monks that exist today—Catholic monks and Anglican monks—are really a little bit of a freak in our society. They represent, in other words, the opinions and the discipline of a particular sect. They have no actual official and social recognition. Because, you see, our society cannot stand non-participation. It cannot stand, really, fundamental criticism. And so it’s in a very, very weak state.


I remember, as a boy in London, going off into Hyde Park Corner and listening to people orate against anything they wanted to orate against. They could criticize and vilify, even, the most sacred institutions, and the police would stand by and pay no attention. Sort of lean against the lamppost and let it all go on. And that’s because the people, as a whole, in those days, had a tremendous sense of security. They knew they were right, and therefore there was no point stopping anybody from criticizing them. But when you’re not sure you’re right, you have to stifle criticism completely. And the worst kind of criticism is the person who pokes fun. Non-participation of the monk isn’t so bad. But the person who somehow suggests that society occasionally is something that needs to be giggled at—see, this is the whole position. The joker doesn’t outrightly deride things. He’s not a slapstick comedian. He gives people the giggles about things that they thought were terribly sacred. And that is extremely demoralizing.


So in our day and age, you see, you must belong. And we need to relax on this and allow for non-participation under certain conditions, and these are the ancient conditions. But the person who does not participate in society cannot call upon society for certain things. He cannot call upon the protection of the police or of the army. He cannot call upon education for his children; he’s not supposed to have any children. He may—I suppose, in this day and age—make what arrangements he chooses about his love life, but he mustn’t be the head of a family and he mustn’t feel entitled to the protection and support of the community. If the community respects him and wants to support him just out of its own free will, then that’s their affair. So that’s the way of the monk.


But the fool is in a different class from the monk. And to understand his role fully we have to go into a number of preliminary things, the most important of which is to understand the nature of a social institution. Because, you see, the standpoint of the fool is that all social institutions are games. He sees the whole world as game-playing, and that’s why—when people take their games seriously and put on stern and pious expressions—the fool gets the giggles: because he knows it’s all a game. Now, when I say that he sees everything as a game, this does not mean mere game. Hamlet, although it’s a play, is not mere entertainment. Or when you go to listen to a great orchestra, it is playing music indeed, but you are not seeing something purely frivolous.


The idea of game, basically, is this: that the nature of the world is musical. That is to say, it is doing all these forms of trees and stars and people and all their complexities just to do them. It has no purpose beyond doing it. And in exactly the same way, in music: music has no destination. It isn’t aimed at the future. It does travel in time; that is true. But it doesn’t aim at a goal in time. The point of music is every phrase as it unfolds itself, and as you perceive the relationship of those phrases to earlier and later phrases. But music itself is dance. It’s dancing with sound. And likewise, in the art of dancing, you are not traveling, you are not aiming at a particular place. You are dancing to dance.


And so, what you might call the musical or game theory of the world is that everything that is happening is its own point. It’s true that things do develop. For example, the seed develops into the tree. And you might say, from one point of view, then, that the point of the seed is the tree; that’s the purpose of the seed. But that doesn’t really hold up, because then the tree goes and has seeds again. And so you might say, then, that the purpose of the tree is the seed. Which is which? The whole thing is one process, you see? They really aren’t parts. The seed isn’t one event and the tree another. It’s all one long, continuous event, going on and on just for the sake of going on and on.


Now, of course, you can read purpose in it in another way. That is to say, that a tree is only possible in a certain kind of environment. There have to be—for there to be trees—there has to be a certain kind of temperature, a certain kind of atmosphere, and there have to be insects, and there have to be bacteria in the soil, and there have to be weeds, there have to be birds. All kinds of things are necessary if trees are to live. So you could say this is symbiosis: that the tree lives to look after the birds and provide them with perches, that the birds live to eat the worms which might destroy the roots of the tree, and so everybody lives to support everybody else.


Well, the word “to”—or “in order to”—is not quite correct. It’s a little clumsy. What we should see rather than that is that the whole relationship of trees and birds and worms and bees and so on is a network. And every aspect of the network—you might say every part of it—depends for its existence on every other part. That means, you see, that the network as a whole is a single organism. Just as, in your own physical body (and you call yourselves a single organism), there are billions of creatures of very different kinds, and they’re all running around inside your blood stream and doing their stuff. They’re having battles, love affairs, all kinds of things. And this huge variety of stuff going on constitutes your life as an individual. And so, in turn, you are some kind of a little wiggle in some other sort of stream which constitutes a larger organism yet.


But, really and truly, this tremendous network doesn’t have any separate parts. It’s not like a machine. A machine is a lot of separate parts that are put together, whereas this is different. The parts of this network don’t come into it from outside. I mean, when you drive your car up to the shop and you want a new carburetor or something, they pull the old one out and they take another one off the shelf and jam it in. So it comes off the shelf into the car. But in this network of life that we live in things don’t come in from outside. Everything that comes into it comes from inside—which is a giveaway that the whole thing is really one process, and it’s all a game. Because… in the sense that it has no other object than doing what it’s doing. That’s the fun of it. But it plays, you see, parts. It varies itself. And in playing—playing always involves a certain element of make-believe, that is to say, illusion. And the word “illusion” is from the Latin ludere: “to play.” It involves the illusion of the parts being separate.


And so, then, there are these variety of games: the tree game, the beetle game, the butterfly game, the bird game, the cat game, the people game, the human game. And if you will look on all these things as differentiated in the same way as chess and backgammon and football and hockey and polo are, as rhumba, waltz, twist, minuet, or again as concerto, partita, fugue, sonata, you will begin to see that it’s a perfectly reasonable attitude to look at the world as a game system. Now, you see, we’ve been looking at the fundamental games of what we call physical and biological entities or events. But over and above those we have the social institutions: the subdivisions of the human game.


Now, then, the social institution is of many kinds. It’s not simply things like marriage and the family, the various forms of government, the institutions of the government (like the public health department). It’s not just things like hospitals, and banks, and business corporations. It’s not even money—only, that’s a social institution. So are all our weights and measures, our systems of timing; our clocks. And, you see, what makes these things social institutions is that they are, in another sense, conventions: things that we agree upon. From the Latin convenere: to come together. We come together in agreement about where the equator is and where longitude zero is. And by agreeing about these things we can order our lives, order our communal intercourse.


I have sometimes mentioned the Buddhist and—well, they’re mainly Buddhist—divinities who you see guarding temple gates. And they’re called the heavenly kings, and they’re always very fierce, and they carry weapons. And they are the guardians of the ten directions. In Buddhist philosophy there are ten directions: the eight points of the compass and up and down. And it’s terribly important to keep the ten directions clear, because if I’m not clear about it I could never meet you at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. So I wouldn’t meet you at all, I could never have a date, without knowing the ten directions. And so these dharma kings are the cosmic traffic cops, and they’re keeping everything straight so that everybody can know where they are. So these are the guardians of the social institutions. The agreements we have to make about money, and language, and law. And also about certain values.


Some of these values vary startlingly, but they are still social institutions. Did you realize pain is a social institution? In some cultures, like ours, it’s very unpleasant to go to the dentist. But there are cultures in which dentistry is no problem at all, but on the other hand, they have extreme pain when their fingernails are cut or their hair is cut. We are very largely talked into pain in extreme childhood. And it varies enormously as to what may be considered painful, and I think it’s not only human beings who do this, but animals do. Experimentation with hypnosis shows that pain is an extremely relative thing. Maybe you have to have some pain, but where you have it is very, very variable.


Also, we know, too, that social institutions govern what we notice. An American male pays relatively little attention to the back of a girl’s neck. And it’s perfectly okay for her to grow her hair down long and cover it. But to a Japanese, the back of a girl’s neck is the most exciting sexual feature. And so, when you see a well-dressed Japanese girl, her kimono hangs a little bit down the back, like this, exposing her neck. They pay no attention, though, to breasts—which seem to so fascinate the American male. It just doesn’t seem to appear. And the way that a traditional Japanese woman clothes herself is exposing the neck but looking very flat in front and not at all showing the hips. She is willowy. She doesn’t look very willowy underneath, as a rule, but she does when dressed in a kimono. So, you see, it isn’t just that nature has built into the human organism certain attractive features about other people. It’s the social institution of what is to be attractive. And, of course, this comes out very, very strongly in the vagaries of fashion, and how to do one’s hair, paint one’s face, et cetera, et cetera.


But now, social institutions go a great deal deeper than anything we’ve mentioned. And the most important kind of social institution is that which has to do with role-playing: who you are. Now, when we ask the question “Who are you?” people think of this question in two different ways. One person, when asked “Who are you?” will answer, “I’m a doctor.” Another person will fall silent because he realizes how profound the question is. He realizes that he’s been asked what his ego is. But a lot of people don’t realize that when they are asked, “Who are you?” I noticed just a little bit of difficulty in my investigations of discussing identity with people; that they fix on their role and use that to describe their identity: their name, their family, their place in society, what they do, what their hobbies are, and so on—all these are roles.


And then, also, there is the role of character-playing. All people are more or less taught to act. We’re all hams from the beginning. And we were schooled in acting in our childhood, although it wasn’t called that. It was called education, it was called upbringing. But a great deal of it is schooling in acting. And you very soon learn, as a child—from your peers and from your parents—what acts are appropriate and what are not. It is the concern of all parents that their child learns a role in life and has an identity by which the child can be recognized. It would be extraordinarily disconcerting, wouldn’t it, if a child had one personality one day and another the next. But children can do that. Don’t you remember, as a child, that you were many different personalities depending on your environment? That you were one person at home with your parents, you were quite a different person out alone with other children. Then, when you went to visit your uncle and aunt, you were somebody else altogether. And so on. And finally, the whole trend of education is to shake all this down and make you more or less constant in every sort of social environment that you enter so that everybody knows who you are. Otherwise it’s disconcerting, you see?


So we are made to believe that we have a real self—that is to say, somebody who we really are, and whom we have to find. To find yourself, to settle down, to grow up, you see, means to fit into a role. And there are a lot of people, you see, who are troubled in our society, and who seem to be misfits and are terribly unhappy, because they just can’t find the role that they’re supposed to fit. They don’t know who they are. There is an inner pandemonium and conflict. But it’s obvious—isn’t it?—that the role you play is a social institution. Because you can’t be an object to your own consciousness—at least not in the ordinary way. You are a subject, from your own point of view. And you can only become an object to the extent that you adopt the attitudes that other people take towards you.


Other people, from the beginning of life, are mirrors. And by the way they respond to you, you begin to learn what they think of you, and therefore, who you are. We all tell each other who we are. And so the role we play, the identity that we have in that sense, is a social institution.


But going further, there is the ego itself. There is this feeling that, inside us, there is an I-center which receives experience and directs action. And this is the inmost myself. And we have all, of course, been taught in this day and age that if this is not our soul, it is a function of our body; it is a chemical efflorescence of the brain—the feeling of “I.”


Now, as I have told many of you before in various ways, this sensation of being a separate “I” cut off from all other “I”s is an illusion. It’s a pure hallucination, because that is not the way we are functioning physically. We are functioning physically not as separate entities, but as beings that live in such a close relationship with everything else that there really is no way of dividing us from it. And so, you see, the mystic in all times and places discovers the illusory nature of this ego, and realizes with a glorious shock that the true “I, myself”—the thing that one really is, fundamentally—is the entire game; the works. Some people call it God, or Brahman, or the Tao, or whatever you want. The name doesn’t make the slightest difference. Fundamentally, what you are is the which than which there is no whicher.


And so, relax! Don’t worry! Because, you see, this doesn’t ordinarily come into consciousness in just the same way that the structure of your brain doesn’t ordinarily come into consciousness. It’s very much there, but you don’t see it directly and you have no memory of it. So, in the same way, you have no memory of being the which than which there is no whicher. But there’s no need to have a memory of that! Because the thing doesn’t need a memory. Memories are only necessary for creatures that have to defend themselves and creatures that have problems; they need memories. But the perfectly, gloriously happy person wouldn’t remember anything, because every experience would be completely satisfactory. All memory is really a form of regurgitation of undigested experience. But, you see, don’t forget (as we all know): memory can be fun. And so can burping. But memory isn’t necessary for the whole thing, except in certain brief forms of memory, where the continuance of anything at all—you see, of any particular form—is a sort of memory in the sense that it’s a repeated gyration of certain physical vibrations.


But it’s possible, you see, to wake up and realize that your ego is a game, and that what we call the necessity for survival is also a game. But society is playing a very, very weird game, the first rule of which is: this game is not a game. This game is serious. And so the great, great social institutions that we inherit from the past, like the church, are places to be serious. I don’t think there ever was a jester in church. Of course, the church formed itself around a particular jester who couldn’t be stood and so had to be crucified; he was just too much. But the whole attitude, you see, of the church is that you are standing in the presence of the most serious God the Father, who really is in earnest and no fooling, you see? And everybody has to keep a straight face.


And so, also, in the court of law. In our excessively serious society I was giving evidence not so long ago, and the two defendants were smiling at each other. And the judge suddenly rapped his gavel and said, “You young men ought to realize that you’re on trial for a very serious crime, and it’s no joking matter. And I want to see proper behavior and conduct in this court.” And the attorney stood up and said, “Your honor, this is the first time they’ve ever been on trial and they’re not used to these things.” And he said, “Well, it’s about time they learned!”


So, you see, the thing is that the game—there’s always the fear, the underlying fear, that the game may be given away. Now, that fear isn’t altogether unreasonable. Because part of the fascination of games is that it’s to get involved and, in a way, to forget that they are games. The actor on the stage does his damnedest to persuade you that he is moving in the real world. And children love to get completely absorbed in their games and get the actual thrill of adventure in playing at war and so on. And, you see, one reason why people don’t really want to know the future—why a really expert fortune teller gives most people a little bit of trepidation—is that, if you know what the future’s going to be, it is less worthwhile going ahead towards it. If you know the outcome, why bother?


See, this is one of the ways we’re trying to stop war. The Rand Corporation is trying to make computer systems that, at any immediate future date, can predict the outcome of a war so that it won’t be necessary to fight it. “If we did fight, this would happen.” So the winner claims the diplomatic advantage, and we go on. So this is the reason, you see, why we don’t want to know that the game is only a game.


Now, if we can make believe that the game is real—whatever that means; we’re not very clear about that—but somehow we know what it means in our bones, if we don’t know very well in our heads what is for real. And we’re always testing things out. What is for real? But when the whole world game becomes too real and people become too earnest, it’s highly necessary to play a new game, which is the game of game against non-game. How far can you get away with giving the show away about the game? Nobody really wants to go the whole hog until you’re ready for final nirvāṇa. You know? Then you give the show away so far as you’re concerned, and that’s it. But in the meantime, the fascination of seeing how to put together knowing it’s a game and still playing it.


And doing this is what, in Mahayana Buddhism, is called being a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a person who doesn’t give his show away completely. He doesn’t simply release his consciousness from playing the human game. He is released and yet still in it. He knows the human game is the game, but he goes on playing it with considerable gusto. And his gusto derives in a great deal from the fact of knowing it’s a game. You see, you can do that, and it’s one of the peculiar properties of self-consciousness: to be able to know it’s a game and yet enjoy doing it. It’s like being happy and knowing you’re happy.


Now, a lot of people are afraid of that. They feel that, if the moment they say, “Well, I’m happy,” that it’ll somehow stop. That it’ll be like being too conscious of digesting your food. There is a point there where enjoying dinner very slowly merges into disgust. But it needn’t be like that. The real gourmet never gets into that bind. And so, in the same way, doing something—being happy and knowing that you’re happy—has about it a certain quality of what I would call resonance. For example, if I talk in a room which is completely soundproofed, it’s terrible. I can’t stand it. There’s no resonance. No little tiny echo. I feel I’m talking into the proverbial wet blanket. But if there’s a little resonance, if there’s a feedback, you see, that makes the thing vibrate a bit more than it ordinarily would. So one gets feedback from an audience. And it’s much easier to talk to an audience than it is to a microphone. Because there’s feedback. And so consciousness is feedback. So, for that reason, your voice sounds better when you’re singing in the bathtub than it does when you’re singing out in an open room: because you get resonance. And so we put resonators—say, a guitar or a violin has a sounding box in it. That’s a resonator, to make it echo a bit. And so great churches at one time—or still are—built by acoustic experts, and so are concert halls, to give them the proper resonance.


But when resonance gets too much, you know, it starts chattering. It gets a system of echoes set up. And some of the old cathedrals which weren’t built with acoustical knowledge, you can hear the echoes of a choir going on for ever and ever and ever. It sounds very marvelous from a certain point of view, but it’s not from a musical point of view. It’s a kind of a… it’s more sentimental. And we used to, even, be taught to sing in church with an echo technique in the voice. So that, even if you weren’t in a great cathedral with its echoes, you’d slightly sound as if you were. Isn’t that trickery for you? That’s real showbiz!


So to play the game and to know it’s a game can be quite fascinating. And not really giving the show away, but giving it away enough, somehow. And that, you see, is the joker’s function. So what he’s doing, then, is: he is in a point of view where he sees all that is going on as a game. He doesn’t take anything seriously. But don’t forget that that doesn’t mean that he is simply shallow and frivolous. Because, for example, if somebody were to say to me, “I love you,” and I turned to them and said, “Are you serious?” she might say, “No. I’m sincere.” Because love isn’t necessarily serious. You see, we use the word “serious” very frequently where we should be using the word “sincere.” And the lack of proper delineation between these two words causes a great deal of confusion. It’s like the confusion about the word “must.” “You must do this.” Whether it’s a commandment or whether it’s a condition, a state of affairs that simply is so. And so, in the same way, we need a clarification of “must” and we need a clarification of “serious.” And it can be divided down into serious on the one hand, or sincere on the other.


What is sincerity? Sincerity is being integrated, being all of a piece. Now, you see, we often think that the person who doesn’t take life seriously isn’t all of a piece. That is to say, his heart’s not really in it. He is out here living, you see, and going along, and talking to people. But the feeling is, of an insincere person, there’s something in the back of his mind that isn’t participating. That’s what worries people about actors. Are they acting in real life? Are they still playing the part? Is this person I’m introduced to as Charlie Chaplin the same man as or different from the funny little man with the Derby hat? And so, actors occasionally bother and bug people. And people may be apt to say, “Well, they’re always on the stage. They’re never really genuine.” And we have a feeling, you know, when you know when somebody is being genuine. See? But mark it: when you know somebody is being genuine, they are not necessarily being serious. They’re not necessarily being grave or solemn.


What I want to give the idea of is sincere laughter. And also sincere play. There is a perfectly sincere laughter. And it may be—ideally, I mean, the sincere laughter expresses a spirit of irrepressible gaiety. And it is not, in other words, a defense mechanism. Laughter is often a defense mechanism—what we call a nervous laugh. Or laughing someone to scorn can very often be a forced laugh that isn’t really funny at all. But the real laugh is, of course, the resolution of anxiety. See, anxiety is serious. And anxiety is a state of palpitation; of the trembles. Anxiety comes upon us when we cannot decide which way to go or which way things are going to go. And so we tremble between alternatives. Because, of course, we tremble between alternatives because we are under the illusion that it matters very much which of these two things happens.


Now, once one has seen the nature of the game, you realize that it matters superficially which of these two things happens, but it doesn’t fundamentally matter because all negative things pair with positives. There is no positive without negative, and there is no negative without positive. I heard a very amusing story which kind of goes with these rugs. The question is, is a zebra a yellow horse with black stripes or a black horse with yellow stripes? The answer is: it is an invisible horse which has been striped yellow and black so that people won’t bump into it. Now, in a similar way, reality is an invisible state of affairs beyond all description and thought, but it has been striped black and white so as to be seen. And this is life and death, up and down, sound and silence—the whole vibratory character of being. And the fundamental game that the universe is playing is to forget that this is so. You see, what you might say in theological language: the invisibility of God is his self-forgetfulness. And the visibility of the world is the game being played.


Now, the nature of the game—I think I’ve told some of you this before, but I see some I haven’t—the nature of the game is: let us pretend that the positive and the negative are not really identical. You see, they’re explicitly different but implicitly the same, because they always go around together. And that reveals a hidden, implicit conspiracy between black and white, and the truth is you can’t have one without the other. But if we can pretend that they don’t go together, that they are actually enemies, then we can have all sorts of games. The first game of which is: oh dear, black might win! The next game is: but white must win! And from that position you can develop all the games you want. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, how so many of our table games—like chess and dominoes and checkers and so on—use the black and white pieces. And you can find, in the conventions of chess—one could discuss all this problem in terms of chess.


When I bring up the joker, of course, we’re in a way discussing in term of a game of cards, because the joker is the card beyond role. The card that’s wild, that can be any card in the pack. In other words, it’s delivered from being a particular someone and can be an anyone. And it pops up here, and it pops up there, and it pops up here. And you never know: where is the joker? Who is the joker? You see? The thing that we have to understand, really, is that all the roles are the joker playing them. And the joker is looking at you out of all pairs of eyes. There he is. Only, he’s pretending very often that he’s not the joker at all. Oh no! It’s just me. I’m not the joker. Where is the joker?

Well, let’s have an intermission.

Part 2

The Insight


Now, to revise a little bit about this morning’s talk so that we’re all up to date: I have been discussing the role of a certain person called the joker. The joker being the one who has insight into the fact that all our social institutions are games. The social game is played with an initial rule. The first rule being: this game is serious. Or: this game is not a game. And therefore, there is a tendency within society to resist very strongly any notion that what it is doing is not altogether serious. And at a still deeper level, beneath the level of social institutions, there is also the recognition on the part of the joker that the basic forms of nature are also games: the human game, the rabbit game, the mouse game, the bee game, the tree game, the stone game. Because all these are forms of a musical nature; that is to say, they are forms played for themselves. They are played in the most intimate interconnection and interrelationship with each other. But they don’t have any purpose beyond what is happening, in the same way as music and dancing.


But when people take games seriously—and part of the fun of a game, you must remember, is to take it seriously—they acquire an attitude which strikes the joker as being half funny, and sometimes a little pitiful. A good joker is inclined, really, not to laugh at people because, if a person is terribly seriously involved—in the sense of the kind of person we call, colloquially, a square—the joker feels sorry for them because they live a deprived life.


But the point is that he is the one who is a wild man, which is to say he has no fixed role. He can play, as the joker can in the deck of cards; any role. And in a way, in that sense, all of us are roles of the joker. Because the real joker—of whom any human joker is a manifestation—the real joker is Brahman, is the ultimate player of the game, the divine ground of the universe.


So, then, if you look upon the world as play—as what the Hindus call the Viṣṇu līlā. Viṣṇu being one of the names of God, and līlā meaning “sport” or “play,” from which we get our word “lilt.” Then Viṣṇu or Brahman is the big joker, and anyone who realizes this is the little joker. And the art of the joker is very paradoxical because it is to give the show away that it is a game, and yet keep the show going on. There is something about a joker of a “now you see it, now you don’t” character, so that even when, somehow, you find in studying all these Hindu and Buddhist texts, that when they’re discussing one’s awakening to the very final secret, somehow there is the feeling of… well, what did we get? Because you step into a new dimension. You see from the standpoint of this sort of awakening that, really and truly, you were awakened all the time.


Imagine going through a gate in a wall. Here is this great barrier. You walk through it, you turn around, and the wall and the gate have both disappeared. And you see you were always there. One of the most extraordinary things that happens in entering into a mystical state of consciousness—one of the most delightful things about it is the discovery that you don’t have to stay in ecstasy. That ordinary consciousness is alright, too. That that is part of the whole total fitness of things. You see that everybody is, as it were, right in the place where he stands. Imagine a pearl necklace; how it’s arranged. Down in the center they put the big pearls, and then they trail off slowly until there are very tiny pearls at the back. And so it doesn’t matter whether you’re a big pearl or a little pearl, you all constitute the harmony of the whole. So they say, in Zen Buddhism:

A long thing is the long body of Buddha,

a short thing is the short body of Buddha.


In the spring scenery there is nothing superior, nothing inferior.

Flowering branches grow naturally; some short, some long.


So from that standpoint, you see, everybody is seen to be a perfect manifestation of the godhead—or of the void; whatever you want to call it. Everybody. And even though the very fact that they don’t know it, and that they’re unhappy, that they quarrel, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, is still a manifestation of this. The whole thing is seen like this. Just as I was discussing the balances of a garden, in which the birds eating the worms and the snails eating the lettuce—all these processes of conflict build up the ongoing miracle of the garden itself. So, in the same way, things that you see in yourself as neuroses, as forms of ill health, as things that you shouldn’t be, they are your slugs and worms. And there is nothing at all in your whole being that’s unnatural. All of it is an integral part of the game. And if you weren’t as awful as you are, you might be creating very serious trouble. Now, I don’t want to say that so that you can say, in turn, “Well, let me be more awful still.” You know, St. Paul got all tangled up in this. He, having explained that without sin there could be no grace, he said, “Shall we then sin, that grace may abound?” And—he’s Greek, you know—mythi genito; “Heaven forbid!”


But this is, of course, a problem that simply has to be faced: that the universe in its grand design has nothing special to do with morality, or rather, no more special connection with morality than with anything else. Morality is a part of the universe. It’s a way of playing the human game. But the thing itself is really beyond good and evil. Now, as I see it, that’s the way it is, whether one likes it or not. It’s always still up to you how you want to behave. If we try to get people to behave decently by scaring them and saying that, if they don’t behave decently, they’ll be out of sorts with God—this doesn’t help at all. Because it merely inculcates a new kind of fear and a new kind of false basis for morality. One can only be moral because you like to do it that way. There really is no other reason whatsoever, and to try and find other reasons always perverts morality.


In just the same way, the powers of the universe—the power of fire, the power of electricity, the power of steel—they are neither good nor evil. You can use either one for the blessing of people or for their destruction. And so the truth itself—I mean, the foundation reality of the world—is something like that. Although it does have this certain edge to it. And so does all human activity. And the edge is something like this. Those powers that we call positive are always in a process of overcoming those that we call negative. It’s the nature of the positive to win and the nature of the negative to lose. But win and lose always go together. Nobody wins unless somebody loses, nobody loses unless somebody wins. Their relationship is transactional in the same way as buying and selling. But if it were the other way around—you see, if the negative were always in the situation of overcoming the positive—you would get a universe that would not be a continuing game. It would be 100 percent tragedy.


You see, the positive and the negative together constitute existence. We have to use “existence” as a neutral word that doesn’t have as an opposite “non-existence.” Existence already includes non-existence. You could say being and non-being constitute existence. Just as we know, physically, sound is constituted by sound/silence in very rapid alternation. So being/non-being constitute existence, and existence is something of which you may say the game is worth the candle. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be. It’s like that. Some people try to say there is good and bad with a small “g” and small “b,” and they together constitute Good with a capital “g.” Or one might say that humanity and the good of humanity is a curious combination of beneficence and rascality, of reason and passion. And if human beings didn’t have those two sides they would be less than human. Man is, in a certain sense, redeemed by his passions, redeemed by being something of a rascal. Because if he weren’t he would be like a stew with no salt in it. The salt somehow is something that, in a large quantity, is horrible, but in a certain small quantity, delightful. And so everybody has to be salted with a certain amount of unrespectability. Otherwise, they’re impossible and intolerable. The only thing is—as a fervent cook—don’t overdo it.


It is in that respect, you know, that it’s said of great gurus in India—they have a very funny thing they say. Westerners go over and they meet this man who’s supposed to be extremely holy, and they’re all agog, you know? And then, after spending a few days with him, they begin to wonder. They find he smokes cigarettes. They find that he occasionally loses his temper. And they begin to think, “Well, is this man so holy after all? I mean, he surely should not be dependent on these little habits and luxuries and so on.” And then they find he has a girlfriend, and they leave because they’re so scandalized. Well, then the Hindus say, “Nuh, uh, uh, uh, you shouldn’t get so upset about this, because if this man didn’t have a few little vices, he would cease to manifest. He would simply disappear. He has to have these things to keep him grounded; to keep him in the world.” Or if, suddenly, you know, he gets terribly angry with a certain student and seems to lose his temper, they say, “Oh, no, no, no. That’s a tactical anger that he did on purpose to wake you up to something. It was for your own development and for your own good. He didn’t really feel angry at all.” Oh dear! But do you see the point? There is something in the fact that if he didn’t have these little attachments, he wouldn’t be manifesting. He’d simply disappear. There’s something in that. Only, don’t take it too piously. I think you get the point.


So then, we now have to explore a very important aspect of the joker as equivalent to Gurdjieff’s sly man. You see, he points out the four ways: the monk, the fakir, the yogi, and the sly man. And all the first three ways are ways of great difficulty. They involve very, very strenuous discipline. And, of course, as we get it through the books about Gurdjieff, the way of the sly man involves a discipline, too. But I think there’s more to be said about the way of the sly man than appears in any of those writings, because this is very closely connected with the whole approach of Taoism, the Chinese philosophy of wú wéi (or non-aggression), and with what is called in Buddhism the Middle Way.


When the Buddha first discussed the Middle Way he put it like this: he said, “To try and solve the problem of suffering by immersing yourself in pleasure only leads to a hangover. To try and solve the problem by asceticism also brings no liberation.” You merely get tied up in a kind of masochism where you say, “I know I’m right just so long as I’m hurting.” And all that is doing is expiating your infantile guilt sense. So he said there is a Middle Way between asceticism on the one hand and hedonism on the other. But actually, the Middle Way is more subtle than that, and it’s beautifully discussed in Professor Bahm; a book called The Philosophy of Buddha. Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico. And he gives a very, very fascinating analysis of the Middle Way in the form of a dialogue, whereby it works simply like this: the student brings a problem to the teacher, and he says, “I suffer and it’s a problem to me.” And the teacher says, “You suffer because you desire. If you didn’t desire, you wouldn’t suffer. So try not to desire.” And the student goes away and says, “I’m not very successful in this. I can’t stop desiring. It’s terribly difficult. And furthermore, I find that in trying to stop desiring I’m desiring to stop desiring. Now what am I to do about that?” And the teacher replies, “Do not desire to stop desiring any more than you can.” And so the student goes away and practices that. But he comes back to the teacher and said, “I still find myself desiring excessively to stop desiring, and it doesn’t work.” So the teacher says, “Do not desire too much not to desire to stop desiring.”


Now, do you see what’s happening? Step by step, almost like Achilles approaching the tortoise, the student is being brought together with himself to the point where he catches up with his own inner being and can accept it completely. And that is, you see, the most difficult thing to do: to accept one’s self completely. Because the moment you can do that, you have, in effect, done psychologically what is the equivalent of saying, in philosophical or theological terms, “You as you are now are the Buddha”—just as I was explaining a few minutes ago. That’s unbelievable. Because we’re always trying to get away from ourselves as we are now in one fashion or another. And we will only stop doing that through a series of experiments in which we try resolutely to get away from ourselves as we are. So that is the Middle Way.


But ordinarily in these other ways—the way of the yogi, the fakir, and the monk—the individual makes a big thing out of the work of liberation, and especially likes a kind of teacher who will put him through the most severe paces. It’s interesting how there arise, from time to time, schools in the West where someone comes along offering—people say, “Look, it’s all very well to go to discussion groups and talk about these things, but that’s not the real thing. What you need is really to get down and do some work.” And often these teachers are very rude and very stern. But people love it. And such a person will always attract a great following. Because people get the feeling now we’re at serious business here. This is really something, you see? And this, you see, though, can be an awful problem.


Let’s suppose that you have some difficult and distressing habit, like drinking too much. And you’re assured that, once you’ve become the victim of this habit, it’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to get rid of it and it requires intense willpower. And so that kills you right off. You’re a dead duck from then on. It’s as if, you see, you had said to the devil one morning, “Look, I’m going to get rid of you. I’m not going to have anything to do with you anymore.” So the devil—who is an archangel, and is terribly clever—is all set for you. And because he knows that you are getting out of his way he surrounds you with greater temptations than you ever imagined. If you are going to outwit the devil, it’s terribly important that you don’t give him any advance notice! And this is where the work of the sly man comes in.


Put it in other terms—in Hindu or Buddhist terms; in popular terms of popular Hinduism and Buddhism: liberation is getting out of the toils of karma. It’s like this. During your many past lives you’ve done all kinds of deeds good or bad, and you are reaping the consequences of these deeds today. And also, today, you are setting up future consequences. Now, before you can be liberated you’ve got to pay off your karmic debts. And so the moment you set your foot on the path of liberation you are apt to find that all your karmic creditors will come to your door. And that’s why it’s often said that people who start out on a serious work of yoga suddenly get sick and lose their money and their best friends drop dead, and all kinds of ghastly things happen. That’s because, you see, they served notice that they were going to do this. And so all the creditors came around. If you’re going to leave town and you owe lots of money, you know, you mustn’t announce that you’re leaving or give a farewell party to your friends, because the grocer will find out.


So the art of the sly man is to make no contest, but simply to leave without one word. In other words, that’s the meaning of wú wéi in the technical vocabulary of Taoism. Wú wéi: not to interfere, not to force things. That’s the best translation of wú wéi: “not to force things.” But so, he just drops it like that. But in this respect, you see, you’re your own worst enemy. Because even if you serve notice privately on yourself that suddenly you’re going to drop it all, already the devil knows—because who do you think the devil is?


Now, this lies behind the whole problem that is discussed in the book Zen in the Art of Archery. The necessity of letting go of the bowstring without first deciding to do so. Another way of putting it is that the decision to release the bowstring and the action of doing so must be simultaneous. Not to decide and then act, but to act-decide all at once. Now why is this?


If you are going to be an expert archer, you must shoot before you think, otherwise it’ll be too late. You don’t aim and then shoot. It’s all one action. And this is true, likewise, of any sort of shooting—pistol shooting as well—that, if you aim, if you decide and then fire, you’re apt to do things like pulling the trigger instead of squeezing. All kinds of wrong things are done. And you’re always a moment too late if you decide first. You have to act and decide simultaneously. So what does that do, you see? That puts up a very curious problem, which in its own term becomes a bind. To try and act quickly enough so that you overtake the preliminary decision. To try not to decide first. And that is an impossible problem.


I wonder if you ever read von Kleist’s story about the fighting bear. This is included in Nancy Wilson Ross’s book The World of Zen as a kind of Western Zen. It’s a story about a man who has a fight with a circus bear. And the bear reads his mind. And always forestalls any attacks that he makes on it. There’s absolutely nothing he can do to get past the bear. And so, in the same way, you might imagine a guru who is a mind reader, and he always knows if you decide before you act. And if you do, you see, the devil will catch you. Instead, you see, of deciding that you won’t be an alcoholic anymore, the only thing to do is not to drink without any previous decision on this matter.


But how can anyone do that, you see? That’s the question. How can I decide not to decide? How can I announce that I won’t make any announcement without making an announcement? You see, there is no way out of that bind. Try as you may, you’ll go on and on and on trying, as Herrigel did, to release the bowstring without thinking first to release it. But then, strangely enough, one day the thing happened. He did it. And this is involved in our learning of almost all techniques. That we work and work to achieve that final point of perfection, and it doesn’t come, it doesn’t come. And then one day it happens. Now, what is the reason for that?


Is it simply—and this is really, you know, a way it’s usually explained, but this is an oversimplification—it is not that we have practiced it so often that it suddenly becomes perfect. It is much more subtle than that. What happens is that we’ve practiced so often that we find out we can’t do it. And it happens at the moment you can’t do it. When you reach a certain point of despair, when you know that you are the one weird child who will never be able to swim, at that moment you’re swimming. Because the desperation and the total inability to do it at all has brought you to a point which we might call “don’t care.” You stop trying. You stop not trying; trying to get it that way. You just have arrived at the insight that your decision, your will, doesn’t have any part in the thing at all. And that’s what you needed to know. You’ve overcome, you see, the illusion of having a separate ego.


There is no way of telling anyone that that’s an illusion and getting appropriate action, because we are thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that it’s real. And if I say, “Well, I’m going to get rid of my ego,” that’s what the Taoists call “beating a drum in search of a fugitive.” He hears you coming! So the ego—that is to say, the illusion of having a separate will and a separate “I”-center that can be an effective agent—that cannot be overcome by a decision which seems to be centered in the ego. You might as well put out fire with fire. It can come only when an attempt to act from the ego-center has been revealed to be completely futile. Then the thing happens, because you’ve really discovered that it was, after all, an illusion.


Now, be very careful how you formulate this sort of thing philosophically. This could, of course, correspond to the kind of person who feels unafraid and who feels very free because he’s a complete fatalist. A lot of people are, and are very happy in their fatalism. They really feel that they don’t do anything, it just happens, and that it’s all life, and that they won’t die until it’s their time to die. And so why worry? They have the sense of everything is just happening to them. And this is a kind of a floating feeling. It’s as if you didn’t have to push things at all. They just float along.


Well, now, that state of affairs—that feeling of you don’t have to push anything, it just floats along—is very similar to the experience I’m describing, if not the same thing. But this person has interpreted it, as a fatalist, in a rather passive way. That is to say, he has felt that there still is some kind of a little differentiation between himself as the experiencer on the one hand and that force or set of forces called fate on the other. He is pushed around, but he witnesses being pushed around. Now, in this state, this person still has a little fragment of impurity left. There’s still one fly left in the ointment. And that is the sensation of being pushed around. There is still a fundamental division between the knower and the known. And in this case—the case of the fatalist—the knower seems to be the passive thing, and everything known (the objective world, all the goings-on of his own physiology) they appear to be the active end. And the knower just has the experience of himself being moved, moved, moved, moved by the tides of life.


The important thing to find out is this: that the sensation of being the knower and the experiencer of all this is not, as it were, aside from everything else that’s going on, but it’s part of it. Just as you—although you experience your own existence subjectively—you are nevertheless part of the external world. You are in my external world just as I am in your external world. So in this way the final barrier between the knower and the known is broken down. There is nobody, as it were, being carried along by fate. There is just the process. And all that you are is part of the process.


Then there is a curious flip. The individual (who has always felt himself to be the tiny little thing on the end of the big determining process) suddenly goes bllwwwp! Have you watched, sometimes, a tiny little piece of mercury coming nearer and nearer to a large piece of mercury? There’s a sudden moment when they touch each other, and bllwwwp! The little thing vanishes into the big one almost more dramatically than a drop into the ocean. In this case that I’m talking about it isn’t that the individual organism vanishes; the individual human being doesn’t vanish. But he experiences no longer a passive relationship to the world. He simply sees that all that he is and all that he ever was was something that the entire process was doing. At the time, in other words, when he felt himself to be separate, he sees that that is, in a certain way, just what he should have felt. Because that was what the process was doing in him in exactly the same way that it was giving him brown or blue eyes, or blond or brunette hair.


And that’s going through the door, and turning ’round and seeing there wasn’t a door. Finding that you aren’t fated, that you’re not trapped—because there’s nobody in the trap. And it takes something trapped to make a trap.

Part 3

The Relief


We’ll begin by refreshing memories as to what went before. In discussing the theme of the joker I have been talking about a point of view—the joker’s point of view—from which not only our social institutions but also the formations of the natural world are seen as games. Be careful of the word “game.” It doesn’t mean as “trivialities.” Because when we say, “It’s just a game,” this often means it is just trivial. There can be important games, as when we play the piano or musical instruments. We’re not necessarily doing something frivolous, but we are playing. And there is something in the nature of all play that is not serious, but at the same time may be sincere. And I tried to give you the picture of the multiplicity of natural forms on the one hand, and of human social institutions and all the things we do and consider important and busy ourselves with as human beings—I tried to give you the point of view from which these can be seen as games; as things being done, as it were, simply for themselves and not for some ulterior motive. And therefore, these games are, in a way, best played when they are played as games.


Although it’s really alright for people to take them seriously, except that they are a little bit deprived. They’re missing something. And so when the joker sees a person taking his life seriously and regarding himself as extremely important, there is something a little bit funny about it and he is inclined to get the giggles. And he knows that the very intensity of seriousness with which the individuals concerned are taking these games will be a kind of foil for the subsequent bursting into laughter when he sees that it wasn’t serious after all. You see that? You might say there are these classes of people: there are the very far out people and the very far in people. Now, ordinarily we say someone’s very far out when they are oddballs, when they are exceedingly unconventional. But I want you to turn the picture ’round and look, as a conventional person, look at a square as a person who’s very far out. That is to say, he is so involved in the seriousness of the game he is playing that he is lost. He doesn’t know where he started from, and he thinks he’s there. But he’s completely lost. Because he is actually—under the cover of his assurance, of his status, of his position in society—he’s really a very anxious person.


I said a lot yesterday about the way in which our society shows anxiety because it cannot permit the existence of people who don’t belong. And it cannot really permit the criticism of laughter. It cannot permit the presence of the old-fashioned court jester, because these people are so far out. They’re so involved. But from a certain standpoint, you see—from the joker’s standpoint—he doesn’t condemn such people. He rather congratulates them on their heroism for getting so lost and involved. But to keep the far out people from going quite insane there have to be far in people. And the far in people are those who keep contact with the original goings-on behind the scenes. They are like the prompter in the theater. Where there are the actors out on the stage, relying on their memories, et cetera, and they’re supposed to get completely involved in the play. But there’s a concealed prompter with a script in front of him, and he is the connection of the actor on the stage with the green room behind the stage.


And, you see, in this dramatic analogy of the universe the green room is the central point, the stillpoint of the turning world. The green room is how God is when he’s back home, not involved in all these games, and takes off the mask—see, on the Hindu theory that everybody is a mask of God. Like a wonderful line in one of Chesterton’s poems:

And now a great thing in the street

Seems any human nod,

Where move in strange democracy

The million masks of God.

The million masks of the joker. Because the joker is the player; the trick-player who plays ultimately the great trick on himself. So, really, there can be no resentment about this. Nobody to blame, nobody to turn around to in the end and say, “You, you bastard! You did this to me!” Because it’s always you who are ultimately responsible.


So this prompter, you see, keeps the actor on the stage in touch with the green room. And so there are certain people in the world who might be a kind of a priesthood sometimes—although priesthoods are apt to become corrupt and square. But a kind of people in the know. There always has to be somebody around in the know so that, as it were, the wheel of society and of existence—the wheel of the squirrel cage, the wheel of the rat race—can have an axle firmly planted. And at the center, then, there have to be the far in people. So this is the domain of jokers.


Now, having developed that side of the joker—the person who sees through the social institutions as games—I went on in the second session to discuss another aspect of the joker as the sly man in comparison with the monk, the fakir, and the yogi. All those three undertake in certain different ways disciplines which have the intent of releasing them from their karma. The individual, in other words, challenges his involvement, his attachments, his limitations, his finitude, and endeavors to overcome it. But in each of these three cases the individual involved stirs up an immense opposition because he serves notice upon the devil—or, shall we say, upon his karmic creditors—that he is about to leave town. And so all the creditors come rushing to the door: all his past sins catch up with him and the devil lays his temptations in the way all the more thoroughly. So that the sly man is the one who, when he is going to leave town, does so instantaneously without any prior announcement.


And so in this way there is, shall we say, a cunning manner of becoming a Buddha, and that is to become one instantly without any preparation or warning whatsoever. This is why Zen is called the sudden school, and why satori is a sudden awakening. Because it has to be done without the slightest warning. But then I pointed out that the moment you have any idea about doing this, you’ve already ceased to be sudden. That is to say, the moment you seek for some spiritual attainment—which is becoming a Buddha, becoming awakened, becoming released, getting in there—you already served notice upon your creditors. So that, somehow or other, you find that you have to do it without intending to do it. And that is a double bind which you impose upon yourself when you say, “I must find a way of doing this spontaneously.” That’s the old, old basic double bind “you must be spontaneous.” You are commanded, or you command yourself to do something, which is acceptable only if it happens spontaneously. Then you think about that and say, “Well, well, well. What a fix that is. Here am I, saying I must be surprised. And I’m going to lay plans to surprise myself.”


So by going through this you discover, naturally, that that can’t be done. You can’t surprise yourself on purpose. Yet that’s what you have to do. So what about it? You come to a state of total paralysis. You’re stuck. The one thing that is terribly important to be done can’t be done. It has to happen; it really does if you’re earnest about this. You want to get out of the trap. But you can’t do anything about it—either actively or passively.


But then, as you begin to see what you are doing all the time, you notice a very odd fact, which is that you can’t help being spontaneous. If I say to you, “Good morning,” and you say, “Good morning,” what is that? Did you plan this answer? Did you make preparations to grow your hair? Do you make decisions about having blue eyes? You see? About breathing—is this all planned? About beating your heart? And what about your thinking? Even if it’s very blocked thinking, even if you feel from a certain point of view that you’re all mixed up. What is going on anyway? You see, you can’t stop it. It’s like trying to—we were discussing the Gurdjieff thing yesterday, the self-remembering exercise: the attempt to live completely in the present. Well, that’s not only a Gurdjieff idea, that’s a very ancient yoga and Buddhist discipline. To be completely here and now.


But, of course, as you pursue this you discover you can’t do it. Because you couldn’t even know when to go shopping unless you made plans and started thinking about the future. You couldn’t move. But then you discover, you see, that, in the long run, there’s nothing to think about except the here and now. There really isn’t anything else. Because even when you make plans for the future, you remember the past, you’re doing it all in the present. Your memory is a present activity. There’s no way of not being self-remembering and having presence of mind. So when you discover that, there’s nothing left to you but to have a good laugh!


Well, now, I want to develop to a greater extent something I only touched on yesterday afternoon when we were discussing anxiety and laughter and the relationship between the two. I suggested that anxiety and laughter are really the same phenomenon but seen from different points of view. As we all know, we can have shudders of horror and shudders of delight, tears of grief and tears of joy. And it’s the same shudders and the same tears in either case, but they have a completely different meaning.


Now, life is a matter of oscillation. Life is vibration. It’s yoeeoeeoeeoeeoeeoeeoeeoee the whole time and all the way through. The question is: how are you going to interpret that? Is it tremble, tremble, tremble, or is it laugh, laugh, laugh? That’s the great thing. And sometimes it’s one, and sometimes it’s the other. So that the whole thing of the joker is he comes into being, as it were, at the point when the anxiety-interpretation of the trembling becomes the laughing-interpretation.


We were talking about monks who had skulls in their cells to remind them of mortality. And we think of the skull as a grim thing. But Chesterton had the poem about the skull:

Chattering finch and water-fly

Are not merrier than I;

Here among the flowers I lie

Laughing everlastingly.

No: I may not tell the best;

Surely, friends, I might have guessed

Death was but the good King’s jest,

It was hid so carefully.

So you can see the skull not as a grim thing, but as a laughing thing. It’s all that’s left of a human being. And all the surface is peeled off, and nothing but this beautiful bone remains. It laughs.


Now, why? What is it about death being a jest? We discussed the problem of the zebra. You remember? Whether a zebra is a yellow horse with black stripes or a black horse with yellow stripes. And, of course, you can see it either way. And you can argue till all is blue about which side is right. And let’s suppose that a black horse is a horse of ill omen (even though striped with yellow), and a yellow horse a horse of joy and good omen (even though striped with black). This is our eternal problem. We are in the state of egocentric consciousness, firmly convinced that death is a threat. We are so convinced of this, even though individuals may say, “Well, I’m not really afraid of death. What I’m afraid of is dying in an unpleasant way.” Nevertheless, since almost all moralists and people concerned with ethics seem to agree (whatever their differences of opinion) that survival is a good thing. In some sense, if not survival in this body, even the most—I mean, the people who would rather be dead than red firmly believe that that is true, because they believe there is a hereafter where they can go, and where they can be rewarded for the courageous stand against evil which they have taken. You see? So that’s still some kind of insistence on the value of survival. And we all cling to this idea of survival with tremendous passion.


But we have been fooled. Because survival is an important ideal only so long as you have bothering you the bugbear of death. That the world might stop altogether, and that your death, so far as you are concerned, is curtains forever. And that is really the bogey. You see, it’s all very well to rationalize and say, “No, it’s not death I’m afraid of, it’s the pains of death.” But if you think about it deeply—there are several stages in thinking about it deeply. The first stage is the real horrors of endless night: of the futility, of the whole conception that one’s own life or indeed the whole life of the cosmos might be nothing but a flash, and beyond that nothing, nothing, nothing in all directions. When, for example, we think of the physicist’s idea that the universe is running down, that all energy is seeking a stable state. Supposing, for example, to give an illustration of what they mean: I have a jar of black pepper and a jar of salt. And I pour them together into another jar, and I can see the white salt and the black pepper fairly well delineated. Then I start shaking the jar. And slowly, slowly, slowly, the black and the white disappear into a gray. That can never be sorted out again into black and white. In this sort of way, as things go on, the universe, they say, tends to attain a stable state; to run down, run down, run down until that’s the end. And nobody knows how it could possibly start all over again.


But I always say—and I feel it in a sort of funny, intuitive way—that what happened once can happen again. If this world started sometime—supposing there was a colossal explosion which set all these galaxies flying out—then what existed before that explosion must surely have been something like the stable state to which we shall run down in the end. And if it went bang once, there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t go bang again. I suppose there are temperaments in logic. I have a temperament whereby I just cannot—I mean, it seems to me absolutely basic that what happened once can happen again. But there are other people who so cherish the unique that they can conceive the idea of something like existence happening only once.


But, you see, something that happens only once doesn’t happen at all. What happens if a given sound consists of only one vibration? What is the up-crest of a wave apart from the down-crest? Can you conceive that? That’s the same kōan as “what is the sound of one hand?” You see, it always takes two. You can’t have a purely left-sided person. Imagine! So, in this way, just as you can’t have just one vibration—I mean, it’s like the saying: the greatest strength of mind is to eat one peanut, which can hardly be done. So there isn’t just one vibration. A dit but no dah sort of thing. You have to have it do more. So in just the same way, when you magnify this principle, there isn’t just one cosmos or one big explosion that starts and stops. All stopping implies starting. Someone just wrote to me, “We haven’t parted because we never met.”


So the whole point of saying this is the realization that existence is eternal. The going out of existence implies the coming in. And St. Thomas had some points here when he said there could never have been a time when there was not being, because if there had been a time when there was nothing, there was nothing in nothing to produce something. But he didn’t quite have the point, because what he didn’t see was that nothing is productive in the sense that you can’t have nothing without something. They go together. And all this thing is an argument, again, about whether the zebra is yellow striped black or black striped yellow. And what we see is that the black and the yellow, the darkness and the light, are simply two phases of the same. And that realization is exactly what transforms anxiety into laughter: suddenly to see that you just—after all this anxiety—that you don’t have anything to worry about.


Now, that doesn’t mean that there will not, in our future, lie some extremely painful experiences, or experiences that we would ordinarily interpret as horribly painful. We may all die of ghastly diseases, or of radiation burns, or of unimaginable things. But look here: I very briefly touched on pain yesterday and the way pain is interpreted. If you interpret pain as something that is destroying you and is going in the direction of total death, then it’s very serious indeed, and it’s perfectly terrifying. But I’ve been investigating experiences of people who have undergone torture. I don’t know if anybody in this room has; it’s always possible—and if so you can correct me. But the worst part of torture is the beginning when, of course, you’re full of all your illusions and all your fears about black and white and the terror that black may win. But it’s said that, as torture proceeds, it slowly changes the state of mind of the victim to a kind of drunken, masochistic, giving in to the torture, so that it becomes something that he cooperates with. And that, if the torturer notices this, he knows he’s through and has to kill him. So in other words, there is a point at which pain becomes an experience without having a negative interpretation put upon it. It becomes, in other words, converted into ecstasy. It simply becomes, you see, a way of going through extraordinarily far out sensations which have no meaning. If they have meaning—the meaning of threat, the meaning of death looming at the end—and you know this is the tearing-apart and destruction of you, then you see it is absolutely horrendous.


But if it has no meaning at all—just transpose yourself into another dimension to illustrate it, because the dimension I’m talking about is a very tough one. But let’s go back to a simpler one. Let’s take sounds. Now, if you lie down and listen to all the goings-on in this area, and you will planes moving, and cars, and fog horns, and all kinds of crazy sounds, you see? People this way and that, so on. And you can listen to that and find it very interesting, very beautiful. But if someone were to do what John Cage does and put you in a concert hall with the expectation of hearing music, and by having a purely silent playing of the piano compel you instead to listen to all the sounds going on around you, you would be shocked and feel that some kind of avant-garde hoax had been perpetrated.


You see, it depends on the set, on the way you approach the experience. Now, you can listen to sounds that are ordinarily considered unpleasant in a totally unprejudiced way. You can listen to discordant musical noises and find them extremely interesting if you listen carefully enough. You can listen to a squalling brat and find it musical. That this child—I’ll never forget waking up one morning and listening to a child whining. The child wasn’t saying anything, there were no words in it, it was just a plaint. And it wasn’t exactly crying. It was a kind of eeeeh-weeeeeh-waaaaah-ooooooooooh-eeeeooo! There was something marvelous about it; this child’s wonderfully articulate protest against some sort of nuisance.


And so listening into those things without interpreting them, listening to one’s own interior frustration and pain in the same way, without interpreting it as being on one side or the other—on the good side or the bad side, on the black side or the white side—is what makes it possible, you see, to transmute these things. But you can’t do this—you can’t really, honestly transmute pain into a form of play, a form of weird far out sensations that are basically just that—so long as you fail to see the inner unity of the opposites. So long as you fall for the idea that you are nothing more than this particular life, than this particular ego, which came from nowhere and is going nowhere. While you remain under that illusion, you see, you—first of all, you don’t see your identity with everything else that exists.


Now, if death, then, is the joke—I remember the biggest joke on death I ever saw. I mention this in my book. We visited the Capuchin Friar’s Crypt in the Via Veneto in Rome. Some of you may have seen it. Where there are three underground chapels where everything is made of bones. And the altar is made of bones, the pedestals of the altar are all shin bones, and then there are piles of skulls. And the decoration of flowers on the ceiling are ribs alternating with vertebrae. And the vertebrae are the flowers, and the ribs curl this way, curl this way, curl this way, the twining stems. And the whole thing is bones. And they have even a few intact skeletons dressed in monk’s robes standing on either side of these altars. It’s the craziest thing you ever saw. And then, when you have seen it and you come out, there is a little friar with a beard taking your offering at the top of the steps. And he had a funny, wicked gleam in his eye. And one could see that this was a joke. The whole thing was a joke. It was constructed by people who had somehow overcome the fear of death. You couldn’t possibly have such a thing as that. I was fascinated by it because I thought that, on the day of the resurrection, there’s going to be a tremendous scuttle fitting all those bones together and everybody getting up the stairs for the last judgment!


So, if it is seen that death is the jest. But the question is, you see: we are so tormented by the bugbear of it being the real end, by the imagination of the possibility of being in the dark forever. Now, you really must think this through, because it is a pure delusion. If you think, first of all, seriously about annihilation of consciousness, you will realize that annihilation of consciousness couldn’t possibly be an experience. But being in the dark forever could be an experience. I mean, supposing you were buried alive, and somehow you were immortal, but you had to stay shut up in a tomb for always and always and always, that would be pretty grim. But the annihilation of consciousness is not an experience at all. There isn’t anything there to be afraid of. So if that’s what’s going to happen, there’s nothing to worry about, I assure you.


But on the other hand, if you think about it longer—about a state of eternal not-being at all, you know—you realize that nature abhors a vacuum. And that, since—just as the universe happened once, it can happen again—since you were born once (you know, it did happen; really), well, it can happen again. Only, the next “you” won’t remember the one now just as the one now doesn’t remember the one before. Not because you’ve forgotten, but because memory is transmitted along certain channels. It requires the vehicle of brains, for example. It requires books and other records to maintain it. But as I pointed out yesterday, the fundamental what-have-you that underlies all this doesn’t need a memory. It doesn’t need to store memories, just in the same way as you don’t need to be conscious of the inner formations of your brain.


Also—I mean, here I’m talking speculatively—also, there are curious connections where we don’t see any. That is to say, the interval between events is not insignificant. Just as you don’t hear melody unless you hear the interval between tones—it’s the interval that counts—so, in the same way, are blank intervals between successive manifestations of the universe and blank intervals between your forgetting who you are altogether and dying and someone suddenly becoming a baby. The blank intervals are not insignificant. Every painter knows, every architect knows, that the space around an object or inside an object is just as important as the object. That, again, is the fact. If you don’t notice the importance of intervals and you don’t notice the importance of space, it is as if you had settled on the carpet here for the black design being the thing and the white background as having no significance.


So what about the inside of this room? What about the shape of space that it encloses? We would say this is nothing more than a certain quantity of air. But don’t you see that the distance, the space between that wall and this window, is life-room? That is not nothing. That it’s just as important. It comes into being at the same moment as the walls come into being. It connects them. And so, likewise, the space between our planet and other planets is not insignificant.


So once you see that intervals of apparent nothingness are significant intervals, that their size makes all the difference to what’s happening. When the intervals between dits are short, the note is high. When the intervals between the dits are long, the note is low, or large; the high being little. See? Why do we say high and low as distinct from little and big? Big instruments make big noises, little instruments make tiny noises. But at any rate, it’s the interval that’s important.


So, then, once you see the importance of the interval, you have seen that the white is as important as the black. Or the other way ’round if you want to change your analogy. You see how you can switch these analogies? In one case the white can be the nothing, the unimportant, whereas the black is the mark somebody made with a crayon. Or the other way around, the black can be the darkness, and the white is the flash of lightning that appears in the darkness. Change your analogies. It’s like saying… once we used to say about high matters, you know? High matters. Lofty thoughts. But now we don’t. It’s more fashionable to say deep matters and profound thoughts.


Someone was telling me yesterday in the group here that they were going to an Indian village in New Mexico where they had Christianity. But when the speaker referred to Jesus and God and so on, he pointed down all the time. Because, you see, he felt that things grew up like this from below. Whereas, of course, the ancient cults out of which the Jewish and Christian religions grew had the idea that the life of the sun and the rain came down from the heavens and fertilized the feminine Earth, which then responded. But these things keep changing because you can keep switching your point of view. You can see the black as the design against the white background and the white as the design against the black background. And you can flip back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.


And the more you do that, the more you realize that the pairs go together. Anxiety is the state of trying not to flip. All life is flipping. Its flip-floppability is the condition of life. This way and that way. When you’re trying to resist flip-floppability, you’re anxious, you see? When you push against it, it throbs in a way that you interpret as fear. And all rigid personalities—people who can’t swing, who have no movement in their hips, as it were, and psychologically—they are resisting flip-floppability. But when you understand flip-floppability and that this is the way things are, then you laugh. Because that is the big flip-flop.

Part 4

The Joke


This morning I was discussing the joke of death, and the principal point that I was making was that that death and life—or, that is to say in other words, the interval and the event; death being the interval between events, between one appearance and another of human beings in the same way as winter is the interval between the appearance of the leaves in spring and their disappearance in the fall. But there is, you see, the chronic fear that the interval may be all that there is; that the interval may triumph, and there may be no event. And I was trying to show you that there is a polarity between the event and the interval between events in such a way that you can no more have the one without the other than you can have the crest of the wave without the trough. And that this goes on and on and on in endless cycles where there are small intervals and waves, which group together and make up a set of intervals and waves, and they in themselves constitute the crest of a larger wave with a much longer trough. And then again there comes the group of intervals and waves on a short rhythm. And that this thing that goes like—you see? Like this, you see?—that this thing in its turn is the crest of a still greater wave, and that the nature of being is that this is the scheme of things.


But the joke about it, what makes it exciting, is the constant anticipation that there might not be anything again after the interval, that it might all come to an end. And the real problem in order to turn death into a joke—that is to say, suddenly to recover from this terrible anxiety that it might be finished, and then transmute the vibration-trembling of anxiety into laughter—it is the same thing. Only, the trembling of laughter is the trembling of anxiety seen from a different point of view.


Now, what are the things that are obstacles to our being able to see that? It’s almost as if life were itself a guru. And you know how gurus throw out tests to their students to see if they can pass these various initiations, all of which require nerve in the face of some formidable obstacle. All fairy stories are full of this. And so life itself throws out all kinds of reasons for supposing that we are faced with something serious instead of something playful. And I want to discuss with you a few ways which, in Western history, this obstacle has been thrown out, and how we today are bamboozled by these obstacles.


In the history of Western civilization there have really been, in the past 2,000 years, two dominant mythologies. One has had a long run and the other has had a fairly short run. But they are both ways of terrifying you so that you won’t see the point. But at the same time they are, perhaps, not merely negative things, but challenges: barriers of the same kind that a guru would offer. For example, in the study of Zen, each kōan is referred to as a barrier. And if you can pass the barrier, you see, you get in, in, in. But the function of the teacher is to put the barriers up to see how you’ll react to them.


So, in a way, we could say that the two great mythologies which have dominated the Western world in the past 2,000 years are two barriers. The first, of course, is the Christian mythology. And in the Christian mythology the individual is made to feel that he is strictly on probation, that he does not really belong, that if he is at all a son of God he is so by adoption and grace. He isn’t really one of the family. Let me explore the theology of that a moment.


In Christian theology, God has only one son. The monogenēs, or the only begotten son of God, who is the second person of the trinity, the lógos: the divine idea of itself. The trinity constitutes a family. Naturally, it’s therefore threefold, because for the Greek mind—and it was the Greek mind that molded Christian theology—meaning entirely depends on the structure of the Greek language. And Greek in common with all Western languages—and indeed also Sanskrit, from which it is derived—has a sentence structure in which there is the subject, the verb, and the predicate. And we can’t make any sense without those three things. We have to have an “I love you” or an “I know you” sentence for there to be any love or for there to be any knowledge. There must be the lover. The lover can’t love without having a beloved. And the lover doesn’t relate to the beloved without the relationship of love between them. So there you have the subject, the predicate, and the verb. And so naturally, in Greek, the very inner nature of reality, of the godhead itself, must be threefold, following the structure of Greek thought and Greek grammar.


So in this way, the inner life of the godhead is completely self-sufficient. There is the son, the object of God’s love, so that God doesn’t need any created world of finite beings as the necessary object of his love, so that he can be love, you see? So then, the created world is something extraneous. It’s something that the Lord threw off in a fit of exuberance. And although it is very much beloved by him, he doesn’t in any way depend on it. He, in a sense, fathered it. But he fathered it out of nothing. It had no true mother. And so, in a way, it’s an orphan. And the relationship between the creator and the creature in popular Christianity has always been the relationship between the king and the subject. And the relationship between the king and the subject is very strange; estranged. Because the king—in the archetypes of kingship which existed in the Near East in ancient times, and upon which this theological imagery was originally modeled—the king was really afraid. He always appeared in the throne room with his back to the wall. He didn’t stand in the middle of his people and look around at everybody like that. He stood with his back to the wall like this. It’s funny how all altars, Buddhas, and things have their backs to the wall. Because there you can’t be stabbed. And you have your guards and your henchmen on either side of you. And all the people prostrate themselves, because that way you can watch them all. They can’t see you and you can see them. So you’re safe.


And that’s the imagery, you see, which has given us our Western conception of God, of the father whose children have become a little bit too much for him. He’s had too many. And they had to be kept in their place. And so he’s a little bit frightened. And so the rules are set up: “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! You just do so-and-so and so-and-so.” And you must feel grateful for having been fathered. You’re a miserable worm—inwardly. Because without me you might not have been. You owe everything you have to my having produced you. And you are a debtor. And because you’re a debtor you have a duty. “Duty” is the same word as “debt,” “debit.” You owe life to me, who produced you. Although I won’t admit I had a great deal of fun doing it. And so you must all crawl.


Now, you see, that conception of our relationship to reality has been the popular idea for centuries in the Western world. So that you never really knew where you stood with the authority. Because the authority gives you the impression that you are so bad, intrinsically, that at any time you ought to be punished and eaten up. And it’s only a matter of mercy that you’re not being eaten up. So the prayers of the Christian church are full of the idea “Oh Lord, we are not worthy. And since it is only of thy great mercy that we continue to survive at all, we humbly beseech thee,” et cetera, et cetera. Imagine! Going around with that feeling about the nature of reality: that it is watching you all the time, that you’re always on probation like a released prisoner.


And therefore there is an all-seeing eye at every moment of the day and night, surveilling you much more efficiently than any big brother could watch you through tiny TV cameras in your bedroom. I know a friend of mine who is a devout Catholic, and in her toilet there—but she is different; she has a sense of humor—and in the toilet (you know, it’s an old-fashioned one: there’s a tank and a pipe coming down to the john) there’s a little placard on it with a big eye painted. And in Gothic letters underneath it it says, “Thou God seest me.” So always, everywhere, according to this mythology, there is the eye of the paternal judge watching you.


Now, what can you do with a situation like that? If that’s the way things really are, you don’t know whether this lord has a sense of humor and whether you can say to him, “Hey, look, don’t take such an advantage of me like that! Turn down that light a little. Close off your eyes sometimes. You don’t need to be all that particular. You know I can’t do anything to you. I can’t knock you over. Why do you need to bug me all the time?” That “Ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh” sort of attitude is too much. And so people couldn’t stand it. You know, 600 years of it was enough. And it became intolerable. Really intolerable. Because everybody knew they were sinners, and that they were doing all the things against the rules in the book, and nobody could possibly put up with it. So the only thing they could do to relieve themselves of this horrible father figure was to make out that the universe didn’t have a father at all. That it was really an orphan. Not even virgin-born. It didn’t even have a mother. In other words, in order to escape from the mythology of a conception of ultimate reality which was much too intelligent and much too nosy, people had to invent a conception of the ultimate reality that was completely banal and dead.


So the second Western mythology is the mythology of the mechanical universe, which is a fluke emerging from a process of absolutely blind energy. And you must notice the language in which the great thinkers of the nineteenth century thought about the world. Freud, for the basic psychic energy, used the word “libido,” which in nineteenth-century Vienna was exceedingly uncomplimentary. Libido: blind lust. And so, in the same way, the science philosophers of the nineteenth century talked about the world as being based on brute force, unintelligent energy, and worked out a conception of man as a really rather unfortunate natural fluke. Consciousness, reason, and indeed also the passions and feelings and desires of the human heart were nothing but the end product of a roulette wheel of natural selection.


It’s a most curious paradox that those philosophers of the nineteenth century who denied the supernatural origin of man—and who insisted that man is simply a part of nature, one of the members of nature—nevertheless set up a state of alienation between man and nature without precedent. I am a part of nature. I am something that nature fluked into being. But nevertheless, this fluke is something that nature doesn’t care about. It doesn’t care about my ego and its future. All that is important to nature is the species. The individual is irrelevant.


At the same time this philosophy arose when we were becoming conscious of the sheer magnitude of the universe. And it took the first impression of this vastness as a pretext for making little of human beings, and saying, “What do you matter in this huge cosmos? You’re just a little fluke. You’re just a little nothing at all. This thing goes way on, on, on, on, on beyond all imagination. And therefore man is just so much fungus on a rock, and a very tiny rock at that.”


In other words, it took the standpoint: let’s set up a scale between two limits. And this is the traditional Western opposition. On the one end of the scale, to the left here, you have matter: the inert, the clay put into shape by the potter. On the other end of the scale you have spirit, which is intelligence. And these are what mathematicians call limits. And the limit is something you approach, but you never actually get there. Now, what the nineteenth-century mythology did was to think of all things towards the limit called matter. It said, in effect, there is this dead material stuff. It is energetic, but the energy is unintelligent. It’s a kind of roaring mechanical energy like fire, or electricity, or so on. It is not intelligent. And everything is really that. What we call human intelligence and consciousness are merely complicated forms of this primordial energy. And they are nothing but that. In the same way, we are evolved from lower orders of animals, and I can trace my ancestry to a protoplasmo globule—Poobah says. And, you know, that’s what you really are. You’re only a complicated protoplasmo globule.


Now, do you see the intent behind this mythology? The intent is to deprecate. The intent is, as we say now, to put down the human being because the human being felt that, hitherto, he had been put up too far in the wrong way. You are a child of God, and the Lord loves you very dearly, but… you know? That’s just insufferable, to be put up in that way. You have an immortal soul. Your life is endless, but it can very well turn out to be a life of endless agony when you fry in hell. And that was a very serious threat to both the Protestants and Catholics. And so it’s much better, much more comfortable, to have a dead universe than a living universe so everlastingly threatening.


So, then, the mythology of the nineteenth century, under which most of us still operate—we operate under it because it has become so plausible. The science out of which this mythology arose has been so effective, it has produced such a marvelous splash of technological marvels, that the point of view of those scientists who started the whole thing going has become amazingly persuasive and convincing. After all, if I can reach into your brain with a very, very subtle instrument, and I can poke about inside and press there, and suddenly, on a certain point, when I press it, a world of memory comes to life so vividly that you see it before your very eyes. I remove the instrument, it vanishes. I touch another place—you experience intense pleasure, absolutely unbelievable pleasure. I remove it, the sensation vanishes. Every time I touch inside, you get a sensation externally of intense reality. And I say, “After all, I was only just pushing things in your brain. You see what a push-button thing you are? That’s it. I can just poke around and you can see anything. But all that’s happening is I’m putting a little electrode or something on parts of your brain. That’s all you are, poor fish! You’re just a kind of a sensitive sponge inside your headbone.” Well, that gets very persuasive, you see?


And people are therefore in a position—they are prejudiced—to favor a mythology that will make out that you are, after all, nothing but something or other. Nothing but a kind of a complicated neurological jello. And that point of view, as I said, has become enormously convincing. It’s plausible today, whereas the old point of view of God the father and all the angels isn’t plausible. It seems kind of weird in relation to what we know about the state of the universe.


Now, what we have to see is that both of these points of view are equally mythological. And there’s no more reason to take one than the other. And that what these points of view reflect are nothing other than certain attitudes to living, Now, you see, if you want to live in a way that always is saying, “I think that life is disgusting”—supposing you want to deny being—then you can always describe it in ways that are offensive. You could always say playing the violin is just scraping cat’s entrails with horse hair. That puts it down. And you say people who play golf, they’re a bunch of idiots who go out, take a walk, and hit a stupid little ball with sticks. People who like music are just a bunch of idiots who sit around and go out of their minds listening to a lot of complicated noises. See, there’s always a way of talking about something to make it sound terrible. Equally, there’s a way of talking about something to make it sound great.


Now, what do you want to do? Do you want to live your life in such a way that you’re always saying to it, “Eeeh, bwuuh, bleeeaaaah!” You know? Do you want—is that a good way to conduct things? Or do you want to live your life in such a way that you say, “Come on! Let’s go!” You see? “Let’s swing this thing!” On the one hand, you see, you’re always intentioned against it. Do you remember—I pointed out to you this morning that the person who’s constantly anxious is a person who is resisting the flip-floppability of things? Life is vibrating. It’s going bllwwp, bllwwp, bllwwp, bllwwp, bllwwp all the time, and the anxious person says, “God’s sake, don’t do that!” Because, you know, you might do it too much! “I don’t want to bllwwp like this. Makes me feel nervous! Stoppit!” And so, as he puts his weight on this bllwwp, bllwwp, he goes bllwbllwbllwbllwbllwbllw, like this, you see? He gets trembling. So instead of him saying, “C’mon, let’s bllwwp! Let’s go and do this thing,” so, in exactly the same way, the person who wants to say, “Well, you’re nothing but some kind of chemicals. And they’re just a lot of… you’re a bag of pus and blood, basically, with a few bones inside.” And that person is doing the same thing, you see, as the person who’s putting pressure on the flip-floppability of things, and so he gets anxious.


And a person who does this “Aaaaah,” he wants to say—look, think about your friends and the people who are philosophical and enthusiastic materialists. They’re always going to pose themselves as a certain kind of hero. After all, you’re just a dreamer. But I face facts. See? I’m a hard-headed realist, and as a matter of fact I’m an intellectual porcupine. I have my prickles out all over the place because I’m the kind of person who—in the academic world, at any rate—is full of rigor. I ask: “What, precisely, is the evidence about this?” And I’m analytical. And I don’t like woolly and vague thinking. I like it clearcut. And you can see that porcupine’s bristle going krrrrr-ck right through like that. See? All this is a personality type who wants to play that role, whose message in saying all this jazz is, “I’m the kind of person who is all dry as a bone, but I believe that that is strength and that’s reality.” And another kind of person says to him, “Oh, you are intolerable! You’re so dry, you’re so dull! You rattle! You don’t have any juice in you, and what we need is juice. And we need flow. We need lilt and rhythm and gaiety,” you see? So that’s an opposed mythology. And that’s another character part you’re going to play.


So we’ve got to consider: these are games. You see? As I tried to show you earlier. That the kind of roles we play are the kind of games we play. But the question is: which is the optimal game? Certainly, we can’t do without some prickly people because life is prickles and goo, and it’s basically gooey prickles and prickly goo. But the gooey people are always trying to make out that it’s only goo, and the prickly people are always trying to make out that it’s only prickles. Now, we do need both, see? But the question is, fundamentally: which game works better? The game that resists the vibration, the flip-flop, or the game that goes with it. Obviously, the game that goes with it, that cooperates with the general scene, will be a longer game and a more amusing game than one that totally resists it.


I said “totally” advisedly, because it’s great fun to resist it at times. See? It’s just like when somebody massages you, you know? And they’re really experts. And those fingers are just vibrating like this on your back. You can give and just go fwooof. But it’s also fun, sometimes, to tighten your muscles against it so as to feel the full impact of this thing, you see?


But the real point I want to get across is that what seems to us the hard boiled common sense of a mechanistic view of the universe is nothing other than a myth. You don’t have to be taken in by this, because there is no more solid argument that that is the way things are than any other argument about any other way things might be.


Now, it goes like this, you see: again, think of the idea of limits. We’ll take different limits this time. We’ll take one limit, on the right hand here, as consciousness. Extreme, lively sensitivity. And on the other hand we’ll take the opposite limit, which is geological—the stone, the blind energy, the electrical force without any consciousness whatsoever. These are observable things. We see the living human being on one extreme and we see the stone or the fire on the other. Now, our nineteenth-century mythologist wants to describe this limit in terms of this one. He wants to say that consciousness is nothing but a very complicated form of minerals. Why can’t you go the other way and just as easily say minerals are a very simple form of consciousness? That works, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, here is this mineral. [Gong strike] I knock it, and it says that to me. This is a rudimentary form of consciousness. This thing inside is not making a noise to itself because that requires ears. But in some way this thing is going yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee-yoee to itself; it’s shaking like that. And that’s its consciousness, its response, its resonance. It isn’t totally unconscious. But its consciousness is extremely simple.


Now, you may think I’m spinning fairy stories. But is that any more of a fairy story than to say that your consciousness is nothing but chemistry? I mean, you think you’re conscious and that you have this high and mighty state of affairs, but actually, of course, if we look at this very realistically, all this is just colloidal substances wobbling around. You see? Both that story and the other story can be made to seem equally fanciful. But the question is this: if I say about the gong, “Look, my friend, I respect you because you are a little bit conscious.” See? “You relate to me; you’re kind of a younger brother.” And, you know, then there’s something endearing and warm about this attitude to things. Whereas if I say, “Pfft, you’re just a piece of metal. And as a matter of fact, I’m just a piece of metal, too.” That’s a kind of insult. The people who believe that are really suicidal maniacs. They want to put themselves down. They are against their own life and they take a great pride in being that way, and they call it being realistic. And I’m only saying it’s a better gamble to take it the other way and say the best thing you can say about it: that this is a living being, but not so much of a living being as a snail or something that actually wanders along and wiggles. So, you see, the pressure upon us of the whole mythology of the nineteenth century—the whole attitude of putting down the universe because the previous myth had been too uncomfortably alive—is simply a way of looking at things.


Let me give another illustration of the same thing. If you study the various forms of life from the standpoint of natural selection, you may come up with a rationalization for everything. Somebody wants to know: “Why do butterflies have eyes on their wings?” Some butterflies. Well, somebody scratches his head and says, “Oh, well, there must be an explanation for that.” There’s an explanation for everything. Why is there an explanation for everything? Because the universe is really a tight engineering job. So why do some butterflies have eyes? Well, it so happened that some fluke of a butterfly got an eye on its wing, and birds would avoid it because that eye looked at them and it was just too much. So those butterflies that had eyes on their wings bred, whereas the butterflies that didn’t have eyes got eaten up more easily. Although some of them had other alternatives, because of not having eyes, they were invisible and the birds couldn’t see them. And so more of that kind survived, although those with the terrifying eyes survived, and so they didn’t get eaten up either. So those tended to multiply. So this is a perfectly easy, simple explanation of why butterflies have eyes on their wings. Or some other things—some birds with extraordinary plumages which look so obvious that anybody could catch them; any cat, any hunter. No, they survive because they were so attractive to their females. And so they bred very well—as a matter of fact, this isn’t true. They didn’t. And, you know: any explanation will do—provided it seems to explain. Now, that is one way of looking at things. You can make an extremely consistent theory for the different kind of species of flowers and birds and insects, and all their markings and so on; just why they have them.


But, on the other hand, you can equally well explain it in a completely different way. You can say it would be exceedingly dreary if there were nothing but one uniform type of life. Supposing there’d never been anything but amoebas. And they were just globules. And they divided, and then they divided again, and then they divided again. You know, that could’ve gone on and could’ve been terribly efficient, because the minute you went to hit an amoeba you would strike it but suddenly find you’d killed only one of them because it split just before you hit. That’s a marvelous arrangement. And they could split very fast. You could suddenly go at another with two hammers, hoping to catch both amoebas, but suddenly they split, split, split, split, and there were eight of them before you knew where you were. That would be fine. But actually, or the reason why there is all this colossal variety and all these patterns on butterflies’ wings is that nature is a poet and is simply having a wonderful time making all this variety, and doing all these various things. And that explanation is just as plausible as the efficient explanation.


You see, the philosophy is to a large extent to a matter of taste. What sort of explanations suit your personality? If you’re an anal-retentive type and rather tight, then you like the efficient explanation. On the other hand, if you’re an effusive type you like the poetic explanation. But there are, though—beyond this—certain considerations of which of these explanations affords better games. And the economic, anal-retentive explanation can give good games up to a point. Because there’s all the thrill of working out the chains of interconnection, all the reasoning whereby, finally, you go through all sorts of rational connections and explain why the butterfly has a big eye on its wing. Fine. But where do you end up? You end up in a mechanical straightjacket. You’ve got to be careful along the other line approach that you just don’t end up in a morass. You could do that. So you look for a middle way.


But the point that emerges from all this is: don’t be bamboozled into fearing that the black will win because the white is the only thing there is. And the black, the nothing that surrounds it, will eventually engulf it. All these are, as it were, nursery stories to terrify children. You live in a cosmos where the light of consciousness and the darkness of unconsciousness go back and forth just as the crests and the troughs of the waves. And this situation of yang and yin, positive and negative, is exceedingly productive. It’s like a male and a female who become the parents of all sorts of children. And out of yang and yin, black and white, come all these adventures through the original stratagem of pretending that the one is and the other isn’t, that yang is and that yin isn’t. Both have equally good arguments on their side, and one now wins, and the other now wins. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. But don’t be deceived. The two are always together.


And the thing that you most fear—the awful, awful thing that could happen—think it through: what could that be? What could the very end be? What is it that you dread? And you’ll find out that if you go down, down, down, down, down, down, down into what you dread—to be swallowed up, to be annihilated, let the horrible scorpion-spider mother, the octopus thing catch you and take you down into its inmost guts—what will it do with you? Why, it’ll transform you into itself. And then, when you are it—as I said, every creature feels like it’s a human being. Because, after all, that’s “I.” So fish, when they’ve eaten up something, and that thing has become them. You know? And then the fish looks around and says, “Gee, that was a good dinner.” And it feels human. And the fish looks around and it sees things that aren’t fish, and they look like cows. And human beings wandering around there, they look like predatory monsters of some kind; awful looking things, ghastly teeth and weird inhumane arms and legs on them. Not nice, orderly fins and tails, and beautiful scales on the side like a really good person should look. See?


So, you know, this thing of death and of being transformed is where our life reaches a certain point where it has to go bllwwp. And in the moment you go bllwwp, you forget. You lose control, you see? That’s the sensation. When control is going, just on the verge of the crisis where it’s going to bllwwp—and you say, “Well, where was I? Gee, this is strange. I’m alive. I don’t remember where I was before.” That’s the sensation of coming to birth. And you grow and grow, and you become more familiar with this and more familiar. When you’re completely familiar it goes bllwwp, and you’re new all over again. See? It’s quite different. We can never believe, you see, when it gets to the point where we know it’s about to go bllwwp, you never believe that it will go into life. We always think it’s going to go into something dreadful.


But, you see, once you know it’s going to keep flipping, and it’s going to keep flipping, and it’s going to keep flipping, and the only thing is to go with that flip. See? Get ready to go. Are you ready? BLLWWP! Then you can laugh—because you know there’s no way out.

Alan Watts

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