Unpreachable Religion

Floating through this serene lecture, Alan Watts gently guides us to ponder our culture’s materialistic illusion. In calm wisdom, he unveils our preoccupation with purpose over presence and the separation from our sensual nature. Watts lovingly calls us home to the sacred play inherent in life, no longer exiled from the body’s temple. By joining life’s mystical dance arising through us, we are caressed again by joy’s timeless hands.



I have often made the remark that it seems to me a great mistake to regard the civilization of the United States as a materialistic civilization, which is a very common assumption among the peoples of Europe and Asia. The Americans—and especially that aspect of American civilization that we call the Anglo-Saxon subculture—is constantly accused of being interested in absolutely nothing but material values. But it seems to me, on the other hand, that if you can make any really broad generalization about something so complicated as the civilization of the United States, that it is fundamentally an anti-materialistic civilization. Now, not perhaps so much by intent as in the general effect of its action. It seems dedicated to almost, I might say, the annihilation and destruction of the material world, and to its conversion into a junk heap of unimaginable dimensions.


I travel around the country a great deal, and more and more one sees a thing that is called the growth of our expanding communities: an extension of something over the landscape that sometimes is almost indistinguishable from a rubbish heap. One goes down the main streets of all kinds of small towns and it seems to be—if you look at it as you pass by in a car or in a train—you just see a mess of all kinds of higgledy-piggledy pieces of cardboard and paper decked up with neon lights and wire and automotive junkyards, and all sorts of parking lots and dumps of every conceivable type. Yes, there are some nice residential areas out on the corner, but by and large we seem to be converting the world into a dump heap. And I’ve called it the progressive Los Angelization of everywhere from Honolulu to Nantucket.


Now, what is at the root of this? Why is it that we don’t seem to be able to adjust ourselves to the physical environment without destroying it? Why is it that, in a way, this culture represents in a unique fashion the law of diminishing returns; that our success is a failure? That we are building up, in other words, an enormous technological civilization which seems to promise the fulfillment of every wish almost at the touch of a button. And yet, as in so many fairy tales, when the wishes finally materialize they’re like fairy gold: they’re not really material at all. In other words, so many of our products—our cars, our homes, our food, our clothing—looks as if it were really the instant creation of pure thought. That is to say, it is thoroughly insubstantial, lacking in watch the connoisseur of wine calls “body.”


After all, we’ve made the soil incredibly productive, but its products so largely appeal to the eye rather than the stomach. People have been saying—all kinds of people been saying this; this is by no means my idea or my feeling—that our vegetables and fruits and, above all, that symbol, our bread, is just a kind of visually attractive pith or foam rubber. And although it has all kinds of vitamins introduced into it, what I think many of us want of our nutriments is not so much medicine as food. And in so many other ways, the riches that we produce are ephemeral. And as a result of that we’re frustrated. We’re terribly frustrated. We feel that the only thing is to go on getting more and more. And as a result of that, the whole landscape begins to look like the nursery of a spoiled child who’s got too many toys and is bored with them and throws them away as fast as he gets them. Plays them for a few minutes.


Also, we’re dedicated to tremendous war on the basic material dimensions of time and space. We want to obliterate their limitations. We want to get everything done as fast as possible. We want to convert the rhythms and the skills of work into cash—which, indeed, you can buy something with, but you can’t eat it—and then rush home to get away from work and begin the real business of life: to enjoy ourselves. And, you know, for the vast majority of American families, what seems to be the real point of life—what you rush home to get to—is to watch an electronic reproduction of life. You can’t touch it, it doesn’t smell, and it has no taste. You might think that people getting home to the real point of life in a robust material culture would go home to a colossal banquet, or an orgy of lovemaking, or a riot of music and dancing. But nothing of the kind. It turns out to be this purely passive contemplation of a twittering screen. As you walk through suburban areas at night—it doesn’t matter in what part of the community it is—you see mile after mile of darkened houses with that little electronic screen flickering in the room. Everybody isolated, watching this thing, and thus in no real communion with each other at all. And this isolation of people into a private world of their own is really the creation of a mindless crowd.


Some time ago, it occurred to me that a crowd could be defined as a group of people not in mutual communication. A crowd is a group of people that is, say, in communication with one person alone. I regret to say that you, listening to me at this moment, thereby constitute a crowd. We’re not really in full communication with each other. And naturally, it’s terribly difficult to bring about mutual communication between a large number of people. But that does seem to me to be the essence of a crowd, and thus of a community that is not a community; not a real society, but a juxtaposition of persons.


Now, one other thing that one notices about this anti-materialism is its lack of joy—or I prefer to call it its lack of gaiety. A little while ago I was reading a book called Motivation and Personality by A. H. Maslow, who is Professor of Psychology at Brandeis. And he had amassed together a very amusing set of quotations from about thirteen representative and authoritative American psychologists. And they were all saying words to the effect that the main drive behind all forms of animate activity was the survival of the species. In other words, all the manifestations of life are regarded by these men as intensely purposive, and the purpose and the value for which they strive is the value of survival. And Maslow commented on this that American psychology, as a result of its contact with the culture, is over-pragmatic, over-puritan, and over-purposeful. That no textbooks on psychology have chapters on fun and gaiety, or on aimless activity, or on purposeless meandering and puttering, and so on. And he said they are neglecting perhaps what may be one whole and even the most important half of life.


In other words, it is a basic premise of the culture that life is work and it’s serious. And herein lies its lack of joy. Life is real, life is earnest. What do we mean when we say life is serious? What do we mean when we differentiate work from play? Well, work (it seems to me) is what we must do in order to go on living, in order to survive. And play is pretty much everything else. But now, you’ll notice that, in this culture, play is justified and tolerated insofar as it tends to make our work more efficient. We have the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” But that really means dull at work. Play is recreation. Something you do to get refreshed, to go back and face the great problems of life.


Now, this is all very well, but that saying, even to play—the play is necessary. You must play. I remember: in England we used to have the institution of compulsory games in school, as a result of which I developed an intense loathing for most of the games that we played, like cricket and football and so on. They were forcing you to play. And so, in the same way, the thought that the supreme value is survival value—the thought, in other words, that it is absolutely necessary for us to go on living—is a basis for life which takes the joy out of life and is really contrary life.


Now, I feel that the biological process that we call life—with its marvelous proliferation of innumerable patterns and forms—is essentially playful. By that I mean that it doesn’t have a serious purpose beyond itself. It’s an artform like music and like dancing. And the point of these art forms is always their present unfolding; the elaboration of an intelligible design of steps and movements through time. That is not to say that their goal is the present, when you think of the present simply as a hairline on a watch; the immediate instant. The present is—that’s only an abstract present. As, for example, in listening to music: a person who hears a melody: he doesn’t hear simply a sequence of notes, he hears the steps between the notes. A tone-deaf person hears only the notes. What a person able to hear music hears is, therefore, steps in a certain order. And this is what this diffuse present is—what I would call the real or physical present. And I feel life is very much something of this nature: it is a play and it is its own end.


But now, if you say to a form of play: you must happen! You’ve got to go on! You immediately turn it into work, and you immediately turn it, also, into what we call, colloquially, a drag. Are we surviving—is it our duty to survive in order that our children may go on living? Well, if we think that, our children catch the same point of view from us, and they go struggling along for the sake of their children. And the whole thing becomes a fatuous progress to an ever-eluding future. And it is because, I think, fundamentally, that we have this compulsive view of the necessity of existence that our culture is distinctly lacking in gaiety.


Now, it seems to me that this attitude rests on two further premises. The first is the idea of God that we inherit from the European Protestant and to some extent Catholic and Judaic background. This conception of God as creating the universe for the fulfillment of his purpose is a conception of God quite strangely lacking in either humor or joy, despite some hints to the contrary in the Bible. But they haven’t made very much impression. There was a passage in the Book of Proverbs where the divine wisdom, which is God’s creative power, is represented as playing. But in the King James version it’s translated rejoicing. Now, to rejoice is something that one can do very properly. You can rejoice by singing the more joyous hymns. But that’s not quite the same thing as playful joy or gaiety. In other words, look at our churches as symbols of our attitude to God. Must we not admit the fact that the vast majority, especially of small-town Protestant churches in the United States, are absolute triumphs of architectural gloom? There is nothing in the remotest bit beautiful about them. They have appalling windows of an indescribable brown yellow, mottled stained glass. They have vanished wooden pews and pulpits and altars. And hangings of plush and usually dark red or a dismal and unspeakable green.


I’ve looked at so many buildings lately of an ecclesiastical nature and marveled at the pure ingenuity for religious ugliness that lies behind them. And this, you see, reflects the idea of God as a very solemn, serious father of the universe who has created the world for some purpose to which our attitude is supposed to be sort of as stiff as Marines saluting the flag. It’s something that more or less resembles an everlasting church service. And in view of the kind of churches we have for the most part—of course there are exceptions—but in view of the kind of churches we have this is an exceedingly gloomy prospect for the spending of eternity. But unfortunately, this is the idea of God that is in the back of our minds. And this state of mind persists even in people who don’t really believe in that kind of God anymore, but for whom God remains a symbol for a sort of moral idealism in the same way that Uncle Sam is a sort of symbol of the people of the United States.


Now that’s, I think, one root of the attitude. The other root of the attitude is our conception of man. And this conception of man has the same history because it comes from the same cultural roots as our conception of God. And this is, of course, the conception which Lance Whyte has called the European dissociation: the conception of man as an unhappy amalgamation of mind and body, spirit and matter, ego and not-ego, subject knower and object known. And this concept of man has very curious consequences. I’ve mentioned a lot of them. But one that I that strikes me more and more is that it’s a non-participative conception of man.


By that I mean it causes us to feel ourselves as observers of life, whether that life is inside our own bodies or whether it’s outside in the external world. We’re observers. We are the subjects, and all that is the object. And that is to say it confronts us; it stands over against us. And we’re looking at it. And, in a way, this is symbolized in our whole way of life insofar as its end and object seems to be to confront the television screen, which is non-participative contemplation of something which has been impoverished in its material and physical reality. Deprived of, say, touch and smell and taste, and so on. And so, because we have great expectations out of this contemplation—whether it be of television or of mundane existence—but we are not with it.


You see, we don’t believe we are our bodies. We say, “I have a body” and we say, “I have instincts.” We never say, “I am a body” or “I am instincts.” And the bodies that we allow ourselves to have are a little bit pseudo. I mean, they are elegant surfaces. The ideal body is—I mean, you know, Marilyn Monroe. It’s an elegant surface, but it’s not supposed to secrete sweat or tears, it’s not supposed to smell at all. Its insides are rather improper. And one is expected to give it attention in a sort of aloof way, but spend one’s life, on the whole, being as unconscious of one’s body as possible. Alright then, so we have a conception of ourselves which is estranged from our physical organism, and therefore our whole life is estranged. It is, as I’ve said, not-participative.


And this comes out in a very marked way in the current attitude of this subculture to sexuality, because here [is] where we represent sex as a necessary instinct. Now, of course, we all know sexuality in this culture is the big thing. The sexually seductive girl is used to catch the eye and to advertise anything and everything, however remote it may be, from the sexual process. It advertises beer, it advertises automobiles, it advertises undertakers, bakeries, anything. Because it will catch the eye. Note that: the eye. The thing is made for the eye. For that sense which rests upon the surface of things. And thus it comes about that our attitude to sexuality is a superficial attitude and, again, a basically non-participative attitude.


As I said, it’s an attitude that’s changed a bit in recent years. We can talk about sex matters very freely. We don’t have the prudery of some of our ancestors. But just the same, although it’s all good clean fun, you know? And although we can talk about it in terms of psychoanalysis, and we can admit that, yes, the sexual drive is a very necessary thing, and some outlet has to be provided for it—we’re not with it. It’s become a duty. Look, for example, at the McKinsey report. This, in a way, it was a very remarkable job. But it’s a cataloging of sexual outlets. As if just the orgasm was a thing. As if, in a way, we had to have this outlet in order to reduce tension—in other words, to get rid of the urge.


But note that, in speaking of an instinct like sex or hunger as an urge, that we’ve set it away from ourselves. We’ve represented it, you see, as an instinct of the body which drives the mind. And the mind is therefore moved to it. And it admits that it’s unfortunately necessary to be moved by it. But we say, for example, in teaching children about the birds the bees and the flowers, that nature or God has given us the sexual instinct in order to make the reproduction of the species attractive—on the assumption that, if it wasn’t attractive, we wouldn’t do it; on the further assumption that life itself is a rather boring thing which we have to be made to undergo by rewards and punishments, by the seductions of sex, or by the penalties of pain which ensue with disease and not living a healthy life. But these rewards and punishments are regarded as extraneous, as things which drive us.


And therefore, to the extent that we feel that the sexual urge, or the urge to eat—or any other so-called instinct—insofar as we feel that is an alien and animal thing that exercises a compelling power over us—and here the “us” is the cut-off, dissociated little ego inside the body that is driven around by all this—then, naturally, our fulfillment of these instincts is fundamentally lacking in zest. We say sex is necessary on the assumption, I suppose, that if it weren’t it oughtn’t to happen. And that goes back, you see, to our psychology about play.


Play is only justifiable to the degree that it’s necessary. And play is only necessary to the degree that it furthers work. Alright, the same attitude with regard to sexuality: it’s only justifiable because it’s necessary—either to reproduce the species, or some new-fangled ideal such as rounding out a complete personality. No one seems to have the courage to admit that it is intrinsically a good thing, and that the basic biological urges are not mechanical drives, they are our own inmost will. And why don’t we get with it?


If we got with ourselves and really admitted that we are organisms, we might also get with each other. Here, again, I pointed out how little we actually get with each other; how, in this television world, everybody stays at home, and if you walk out on the streets in the evening the police stop you and wonder whether you’re crazy. And especially if you’re not going anywhere, because going for a walk—that’s deeply suspicious. I mean, a person has to have a purpose, you see? He must be going somewhere. And so we don’t get with each other except for public expressions of getting rid of our hostility, like football or prize-fighting. And even in the spectacles one sees on this television it’s perfectly proper to exhibit people slugging and slaying each other. But, oh dear, no! Not people loving each other—except in a rather restrained way. One can only draw the conclusion that the assumption underlying this is that expressions of physical love are far more dangerous than expressions of physical hatred. And it seems to me that a culture that has that sort of assumption is basically crazy and devoted—unintentionally, indeed, but nevertheless in fact—devoted not to survival but to the actual destruction of life.

Alan Watts


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