The Veil of Thoughts (Part 1)
1965


In this seminar, held in Sausalito, Alan describes the ways in which we have concealed truth behind a veil of thoughts. He talks about how and why we mistake symbols for reality, argues that civilization may be a misguided experiment, offers observations about the way in which abstractions have become more powerful than the realities they are referencing, and explains how we can become “unbamboozled” from these ways of thinking.
00:00

The subject of this seminar is The Veil of Thoughts, and following out the theme that somebody once suggested by saying that thought is a means of concealing truth, despite the fact that it’s an extraordinarily useful faculty. But in quite recent weeks we’ve had an astounding example of the way mankind can be bamboozled by thoughts. There was a crisis about gold. And the confusion of money—in any form whatsoever—with wealth is one of the major problems from which civilization is suffering. Because, way back in our development, when we first began to use symbols to represent the events of the physical world, we found this such an ingenious device that we became completely fascinated with it. And in ever so many different dimensions of life we are living in a state of total confusion between symbol and reality. And the real reason why, in our world today—where there is no technical reason whatsoever why there should be any poverty at all—the reason it still exists is people keep asking the question: “Where’s the money going to come from?” Not realizing that money doesn’t come from anywhere and never did, except if you thought it was gold. And then, of course, if to increase the supply of gold and use that to finance all the world’s commerce, prosperity would depend not upon finding new processes for growing food in vast quantities, or getting nutrition out of the ocean, or getting water from atomic energy—no, it depends on discovering a new gold mine.

02:30

And you can see what a nonsensical state of affairs that is, because when gold is used for money it becomes, in fact, useless. Gold is a very useful metal for filling teeth, making jewelry, and maybe covering the dome of the Capitol in Washington. But the moment it is locked up in vaults in the form of ingots it becomes completely useless. It becomes a false security, something that people cling to, like an idol, like a belief in some kind of Big Daddy Oh God with whiskers who lives above the clouds. And all that kind of thing diverts our attention from reality, and we go through all sorts of weird rituals. The symbol, in other words, gets in the way of practical life.

03:28

So it was—you remember the Great Depression? I expect a number of you here, looking around, are old enough to remember the Great Depression—when, one day, everybody was doing business and things were going along pretty well, and the next day there were bread lines. It was like someone came to work and they said to him, “Sorry, chum, but you can’t build today. No building can go on. We don’t have enough inches.” He’d say, “What do you mean, we don’t have enough inches? We’ve got wood, haven’t we? We got metal, we even got tape measures!” They say, “Yeah, but you don’t understand the business world. We just haven’t got enough inches! Just plain inches. We’ve used too much of them.” And that’s exactly what happened when we had the Depression. Because money is something of the same order of reality as inches, grams, meters, pounds, or lines of latitude and longitude. It is an abstraction. It is a method of bookkeeping to obviate the cumbersome procedures of barter. But our culture, our civilization is entirely hung up on the notion that money has an independent reality of its own.

04:55

And this is a very striking, concrete example of what I’m going to talk about: of the way we are bamboozled by our thoughts which are symbols. And what we can do to become un-bamboozled, because it’s a very serious state of affairs. Most of our political squabbles are entirely the result of being bamboozled by thinking. And it is to be noted that, as time goes on, the matters about which we fight with each other are increasingly abstract, and the wars fought about abstract problems get worse and worse. We are thinking about vast abstractions, ideologies called communism, capitalism—all these systems—and paying less and less attention to the world of physical reality, to the world of earth, and trees, and waters, people, and so are in the name of all sorts of abstractions busy destroying our natural environment. Wildlife, for example, is having a terrible problem continuing to exist alongside human beings.

06:30

Another example of this fantastic confusion is that, not so long ago, the Congress voted a law imposing stern penalties upon anyone who should presume to burn the American flag. And they put this law through with a great deal of patriotic oratory, and the quoting of poems and so on about Old Glory, ignoring the fact entirely that these same congressmen—by acts of commission or omission—are burning up that for which the flag stands. They’re allowing the utter pollution of our waters, of our atmosphere, the devastation of our forests, and the increasing power of the bulldozer to bring about a ghastly fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that “every valley shall be exalted, every mountain laid low, and the rough places plain.” But—you see—they don’t see, they don’t notice the difference between the flag and the country. Or, as Korzybski pointed out, the difference between the map and the territory.

07:40

Now, however, I think we should begin by talking a little bit about when we use the word “physical reality”—as distinct from “abstraction”—what are we talking about? Because, you see, there’s going to be a fight about this, philosophically. If I say that the final reality that we’re living in is the physical world, a lot of people will say that I’m a materialist, that I’m un-spiritual, and that I think too much of an identification of the man with the body. Any book that you’ll open on yoga or Hindu philosophy will have in it a declaration that you start a meditation practice by saying to yourself, “I am not the body. I am not my feelings. I am not my thoughts. I am the witness who watches all this and is not really any of it.” And so, if I were to say, then, that the physical world is the basic reality, I would seem to be contradicting what is said in these Hindu texts. But it all depends on what you mean by the “physical world.” What is it?

09:03

First of all, it must be pointed out that the idea of the “material world” is itself philosophical. It is in its own way a symbol. And so, if I take up something that is generally agreed to be something in the material world, and I argue that this is material—of course, it isn’t. Because nobody has ever been able to put their finger on anything material—that is to say if, by the word “material,” you mean some sort of basic stuff out of which the world is made. By, say, analogy with the art of ceramics, pottery: we use clay and we form it into various shapes, and so a lot of people think that the physical world is various forms of matter. And nobody has ever been able to discover any matter. They’ve been able to discover various forms, yes—there is patterns, but no matter. You can’t even think how you would describe matter in some terms other than form, because whenever a physicist talks about the nature of the world he describes a form, he describes a process which can be put into the shape of a mathematical equation. And so, if you say, “A + B = B + A,” everybody knows exactly what you mean. It’s a perfectly clear statement, but nobody needs to ask, “What do you mean by ‘A’?” or “What do you mean by ‘B’?” Or, if you say, “1 + 2 = 3,” that’s perfectly clear, but you don’t need to know one what, two what, or three what.

10:59

And all our descriptions of the physical world have the nature of these formulae: numbers. They’re simply mathematical patterns. Because what we’re talking about is pattern. But it’s pattern of such a high degree of complexity that it’s very difficult to deal with it by thinking. In science we really work in two different ends of the spectrum of reality. We can deal with problems in which there are a very few variables, or we can deal with problems in which there are almost infinitely many variables. But in between we’re pretty helpless. In other words, the average person cannot think through a problem involving more than three variables without a pencil in his hand. That’s why, for example, it’s difficult to learn complex music. Think of an organist who has two keyboards—or three keyboards—for work with his hands, and each hand is doing a different rhythm. And then his feet on the pedals: he can be doing a different rhythm with each foot. Now, that’s a difficult thing for people to learn to do, just like to rub your stomach in a circle and pat your head at the same time takes a little skill.

12:30

Now, most problems with which we deal in everyday life involve far more than three variables. And we’re really incapable of thinking about them. Actually, the way we think about most of our problems is simply going through the motions of thinking. We don’t really think about them, we do most of our decision-making by hunch. You can collect data about a decision that you have to make, but the data that you collect has the same sort of relation to the actual processes involved in this decision as a skeleton to a living body. It’s just the bones. And there are all sorts of entirely unpredictable possibilities involved in every decision, and you don’t really think about it at all. The truth of the matter is that we are as successful as we are—which is surprising, the degree to which we are successful in conducting our everyday practical lives—because our brains do the thinking for us in an entirely unconscious way. The brain is far more complex than any computer. The brain is, in fact, the most complex known object in the universe. Because our neurologists don’t understand it. They have a very primitive conception of the brain and admit it. And therefore, if we do not understand our own brains, that simply shows that our brains are a great deal more intelligent than we are. Meaning—by “we”—the thing that we have identified ourselves with. Instead of being sensible and identifying ourselves with our brains, we identify ourselves with a very small operation of the brain, which is the faculty of conscious attention, which is a sort of radar that we have that scans the environment for unusual features. And we think we are that, and we’re nothing of the kind. That’s just a little trick we do. So, actually, our brain is analyzing all sensory input all the time: analyzing all the things you don’t notice, don’t think about, don’t have even names for. And so it is this marvelous complex goings on which is responsible for our being able to adapt ourselves intelligently to the rest of the physical world. The brain is, furthermore, an operation of the physical world.

15:38

But now, you see, though, we get back to this question: “physical world.” This is a concept. This is simply an idea. And if you want to ask me to differentiate between the physical and the spiritual, I will not put the spiritual in the same class as the abstract. But most people do. They think that 1 + 2 = 3 is a proposition of a more spiritual nature than, say, for example, a tomato. But I think a tomato is a lot more spiritual than 1 + 2 = 3. This is where we really get to the point. That’s why, in Zen Buddhism, when people ask, “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” you could very well answer “A tomato.” Because, look how—when you examine the material world—how diaphanous it is. It really isn’t very solid. A tomato doesn’t last very long. Nor, for that matter, do the things that we consider most exemplary of physical reality, such as mountains. The poet says, “The hills are shadows, and they flow from form to form, and nothing stands.” Because the physical world is diaphanous. It’s like music. When you play music it simply disappears, there’s nothing left. And for that very reason it is one of the highest and most spiritual of the arts: because it is the most transient.

17:39

And so, in a way, you might say that transiency is a mark of spirituality. A lot of people think the opposite: that the spiritual things are the everlasting things. But, you see, the more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless. Nothing is so dead as a diamond, and yet, this imagery—the idea of the most mineral objects being the most permanent, and so they get associated with the spiritual. Jesus Christ is called the Rock of Ages. And even the Buddhists have used the diamond—the vajra—as an image of the fundamental reality of the universe. But the reason why they used the diamond was not that it was hard, but that it was completely transparent and, therefore, afforded a symbol of the void which everything fundamentally is. Not meaning that there simply is nothing there, but the void means that you cannot get any idea which will sufficiently define physical reality. Every idea will be wrong. In that sense, it will be void.

19:16

So then, the physical world: we can’t even find any stuff out of which it’s made. We can only recognize each other, and I say “Well, I realize that I met you before, and that I see you again. But the thing that I recognize is not anything, really, except a consistent pattern.” Let’s suppose I have a rope, and this rope begins by being manila rope, then it goes on by being cotton rope, then it goes on with being nylon, then it goes on with being silk. So I tie a knot in the rope, and I move the knot down along the rope. Now, is it—as it moves along—the same knot or a different knot? We would say it is the same because you recognize the pattern of the knot. But at one point it’s manila, at another point it’s cotton, another point it’s nylon, and another it’s silk. And that’s just like us. We are recognized by the fact that, one day, you face the same way as you did the day before, and people recognize your facing. So they say that’s John Doe or Mary Smith. But, actually, the contents of your face—whatever they may be; the water, the carbons, the chemicals—are changing all the time. You’re like a whirlpool in a stream. The stream is doing this consistent whirlpooling and we always recognize—like at Niagara: the whirlpool is one of the sights, but the water is always moving on. And we are just like that, and everything is like that.

21:26

So there’s nothing in the physical world that is what you might call substantial. It’s pattern. And this is why it’s so spiritual. To be non-spiritual is not to see that; in other words, it is to impose upon the physical world the idea of thing-ness, of substantiality. That is to be—in the sense that the Hindus use it—that is “to be involved in matter;” to identify with the body. To believe—in other words—that the body is something constant, something tangible. The body is really very intangible. You cannot pin it down; it’s all falling apart, furthermore. And we’re aging, getting older, and so, therefore, if you cling to the body you will be frustrated. So the whole point is that the material world—the world of nature—is marvelous so long as you don’t try to lean on it, so long as you don’t cling to it. And if you don’t cling to it you can have a wonderful time with it.

22:49

Let’s take a very controversial issue: all spiritual people are generally against lovemaking. Ramkṛiṣṇa used to speak about the evils of woman and gold—I’ve already demonstrated the evils of gold. But what about the evils of woman? In my point of view, yes, women can be a source of evil if you attempt to possess them. I mean, if you can say to another person, “I love you so much I want to own you, and really tie you down, and call you”—well, it’s like that poem of Ogden Nash, where someone claimed that he loved his wife so much he climbed a mountain and named it after her. Called it Mount Mrs. Oswald Tregennis! And so, in other words, if you try to possess people and you make your sexual passion possessive in that way, then, of course, you are trying to cling to the physical world. But, you see, women are—in a way—much more interesting if you don’t cling to them, if you let them be themselves and be free. And, in my opinion, you can have a very spiritual sex life if you are not possessive. But if, on the other hand, you are possessive, then you’re in trouble.

24:45

But, you know, the average svāmī won’t agree with that because he confuses—by thinking that the body (the body that I touch) is something evil—he’s hung up with it. It’s like the story of the two Zen monks who were crossing the river, and the ford was very deep because of the flood. And there was a girl trying to get across, and one of the monks immediately picked her up, threw her over his shoulder and carried her across. Put her down on the other side, and then the monks went one way and she went another. And the other monk, who had been in a kind of embarrassed silence and which he finally broke, he said, “You realize that you broke a monastic rule by touching and picking up a woman like that?” And he said, “Oh, but I left her on the other side of the river, and you’re still carrying her!”

25:56

So the whole question, then, you see, is that even—you can find this to some extent in some rather irritable saint (Paul), where he speaks of the opposition of the flesh and the spirit. Now, this word—σάρξ (sarx) in Greek; “the flesh”—as he uses it, is really—as Bogaev points out—it’s a spiritual category. For the Christian, you see, the word is made flesh in Christ, and there will be the resurrection of the body in the final consummation of the universe. So you cannot really, as an orthodox Christian, take an antagonistic attitude to the flesh. Why, then, does St. Paul take an antagonistic attitude to the flesh?

27:05

Well, you can only save the situation and make the New Testament consistent with itself by saying that he meant by “the flesh” a certain kind of spiritual category. He didn’t mean this [Alan slaps his own arm], because this isn’t flesh. Flesh is a concept, this is not. And so the flesh—or, you might talk about the sins of the flesh—they have entirely to do with certain hangups that we have about our bodies. And that, again, is what I would call leaning on the world, exploiting it.

27:53

When you take, as a Buddhist, you take the Third Precept: Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi. And it’s usually translated “I undertake the precept to refrain from adultery.” It doesn’t say anything of the kind. Kāma is “passion.” Kāmesumicchācāra, therefore, is “I undertake the precept not to exploit the passions.” So, in other words, you may be bored—see?—and you’re feeling sort of empty and at a loose end, and you think, “Well, I dunno, let’s go and commit adultery. It might liven things up.” See? And that would be what they call in Zen “raising waves when no wind is blowing.” It would be quite a different matter if, in a perfectly spontaneous and natural way, you fell in love with some woman. You wouldn’t be going out of your way to get in trouble. It would be appropriate and natural at the time. Or, in the same way, a lot of people—instead of saying “let’s commit adultery”—when they feel sort of bored they say, “Let’s go and eat something.” And so they become fatter and fatter and fatter because they’re filling the spiritual vacuum in their psyche with food, which doesn’t do the job. It’s not the function of food to fill spiritual vacuums. So, in this way, one exploits the appetites or the passions.

29:42

So, likewise, also the Fifth Precept: Surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā is a list of intoxicating substances. And it doesn’t say that you are not going to take them, it says you’re not going to be intoxicated by them. In other words: a Buddhist may drink, but not to get drunk. I don’t know how that applies to psychedelics, but that’s another story.

30:17

So one might say, then, that we are confused, through and through, about what we mean by the “material world.” And what I’m first of all doing is I’m just giving a number of illustrations which show how confused we are. And let me repeat this to get it clear, because it is rather complicated: in the first place, we confuse abstract symbols—that is to say, numbers and words and formulae—with physical events as we confuse money with consumable wealth. In the second place, we confuse physical events—the whole class and category of physical events—with matter. But matter, you see, is an idea; it’s a concept. It’s the concept of stuff, of something solid and permanent that you can catch hold of. Now, you just can’t catch hold of the physical world. The physical world is the most evasive, illusive process that there is. It will not be pinned down and, therefore, it fulfills all the requirements of spirit.

31:53

So what I’m saying, then, is that the non-abstract world—which Korzybski called “unspeakable,” which is really a rather good word—is the spiritual world. And the spiritual world isn’t something kind of gaseous, abstract, formless (in that sense of “shapeless”), it’s formless in another sense: the formless world is the wiggly world. There really is no way that the physical world is. In other words, the nature of truth—I said in the beginning that somebody had said thoughts were made to conceal truth—this is a fact because there is no such thing as the truth that can be stated. In other words, ask the question “What is the true position of the stars in the Big Dipper?” Well, it depends where you’re looking at them from. And there is no absolute position. So, in the same way, a good accountant will tell you that any balance sheet is simply a matter of opinion. There’s no such thing as the true state of affairs of a business.

33:18

But we’re all hooked on the idea that there is, you see, an external, objective world which is a certain way, and that it really is that way. History, for example, is a matter of opinion. History is an art, not a science. It’s something constructed, which is accepted as a more or less satisfactory explanation of events which, as a matter of fact, don’t have an explanation at all. Most of what happens in history is completely irrational. But people always have to feel that they’ve got to find a meaning. For example: you get sick, and you’ve lived a very good life, and you’ve been helpful to other people and done all sorts of nice things. Then you get cancer. And you say to the clergyman, “Why did this have to happen to me?” And you’re looking for an explanation—and there isn’t one. It just happened that way. But people feel if they can’t find an explanation they feel very, very insecure. Why? Because they haven’t been able to straighten things out. The world is not that way.

34:32

So the truth—in other words: what is going on—is, of course, a lot of wiggles. But the way it is is always in relation to the way you are. In other words, however hard I hit a skinless drum, it will make no noise, because noise is a relationship between a fist and a skin. So, in exactly the same way, light is a relationship between electrical energy and eyeballs. It is you, in other words, who evoke the world. And you evoke the world in accordance with what kind of a you you are; what kind of an organism. One organism evokes one world, another organism evokes another world. And so everything—reality is a kind of relationship.

35:39

So once one gets rid of the idea of “the truth” as some way the world is in a fixed sense—say “it is that way,” see?—then you get to another idea of the truth altogether: the idea of a truth that cannot be stated, the truth that cannot be pinned down. And then, that is the kind of truth that is God when we speak of God as the reality that exceeds all thoughts, that surpasses all definitions, that is infinite, unbounded, eternal, immeasurable in terms of time. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about a gaseous vertebrate or a huge, vast void without any wiggles in it. All gas. We’ll put it another way altogether: the truth that cannot be pinned.



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