Who Is It That Knows There Is No Ego?

Alan explores the idea of separateness, and whether our language has tricked us into falsely believing that things are individual, independent, and comprehensible all on their own.


Who is it that knows there is no ego? And you must realize, you see, that this is a problem created linguistically. I explained that language based on the sentence composed of subject, verb and predicate, contains the hidden belief system that events are started by nouns, by things. And so it’s very important to understand that, in the real universe, there are no things at all. And this startles people, because we think of the universe as the sum-total of things. But when you go into the question, “What do you mean by a thing?”—you ask children this question, “What do you mean by a thing?” And they’ll say, “Well, an object.” Well, I’ll say, “You’ve just substituted another word. That doesn’t tell me anything.” Or they could come back, if they’re very smart, and say, “What do you mean by anything?”


I got once, in a class of high school kids, an Italian girl who said a thing is a noun. Well, she was getting warm. A thing is a think. It’s almost the same word. It’s a unit of thought in the same way that an inch is a unit of linear measure or a pound a unit of weight. And so in various languages this comes out. In German you’ve got Ding: thing, denken: to think. In Latin, res: thing, reor: to think. So when we reify, that means to thing-ify. And A. N. Whitehead used to talk about the fallacy of misplaced concretion. Thing-ifying what isn’t there.


But it’s easy to understand this; although it’s a little bit of a shock to our common sense. For purposes of description, we must break the world down into some sort of units. This is the basis of calculus. How do you measure a curve? Well, you treat it as a set of points, and in this way, measure it. Although it isn’t a set of points. There is no such thing as a point. Euclid defined a point as that which has position but no magnitude. I think it’s right, isn’t it, that in modern mathematics one doesn’t define a point at all. You just assume. It’s an axiom. So when you ask, “How many things is a person; an individual organism?” Well, it depends on what point of view you’re going to take in describing it. In the normal way we describe one body as a body, and that is a thing. Physiology describes it as many organs. Physics describes it as many molecules, or atoms, or electrons, mesons, protons—what have you. And sociology will look upon you as only a part-thing, because the sociologist likes to have his unit [be] a group, a society.


And so it goes. It depends—let’s take rabbits. The way you describe a rabbit will depend on whether you are a hunter or a furrier. It’s the way you look at it, and the way you describe it, so that the way of describing always varies according to the use you want to make; so that the world is not unlike a Rorschach blot. And in psychological testing we get people to describe Rorschach blots and say what they see in them. Now you can perfectly well imagine that we, in this room, could have an enormous Rorschach blot on the wall. And we would all discuss it and arrive at a consensus about what it was. And we would manage, in other words, to coagulate our different points of view. And if there were a very dominant person present, he or she would tend to force their particular view upon everybody else and say, “No, obviously, it isn’t what you say it is; look! It’s perfectly clear that it’s that!”


So we are living in a Rorschach blot. Only, urban people have difficulty in realizing this. Because urban people live in a straightened out world. And we call them “straights”, or “squares”, because they think in very simplistic terms. See, Euclid had a very simple mind, and therefore, he discussed geometry, which wasn’t a measure of the Earth at all. The word geometry, phrased from the Greek gios: “the world,” “the Earth,” and metro, which means “to measure”. Now, the Greek word for “measure,” from which we get “metric,” “meter,” comes from the Sanskrit root mātr, which also means “to measure.” And derived from that is the Sanskrit word māyā, which means “illusion” as well as “imagination.” So “figuring it out” is the measuring of the world; the metering. And meter is also the Greek word for “mother,” and is, of course, the root of the word “matter,” “material.” And so, when we ask, “Does it matter?” we are asking, “does it measure up to anything?” Well, we come to the conclusion that there is no matter. There’s form. It’s the form that matters, or you could say the universe is a matter of form. And in Sanskrit there is no word for “matter.” The word rūpa, which is used for the material or physical world, means “form.” And so you get nāmarūpa as the full name for what we call “physical reality.” Nāma means “name,” rūpa “form,” so: “it is named ‘form.’” And so Lao-Tzu, in writing the Tao Te Ching, says,

The nameless (or the no-name) is the basis of heaven and Earth. But the named is the mother of ten thousand things.

So in the sense, then, of this, you can understand the saying, “In the beginning was the Word.” All things were made by Him, and without Him there’s not anything made that was made. Because you don’t get things until you start naming. Because then you point out, on the universal Rorschach blot, this wiggle. What do you mean, this wiggle? Where does one wiggle begin and the other end? This is a matter of arbitrary definition. Where does your head end and your neck begin? Here? Here? Here? Here? Here? Well, where is it? We know vaguely. But you can’t be precise about it. Because you can look at the head and the neck as continuous. You can start here and say, “Well, it’s all one thing up from here to here,” see? Or you can start here and say, “No, it’s all one thing from here to here.” Et cetera. Because it’s all arbitrary. And the value of it is that, by description, and by conventional decisions as to where to draw the line, we can communicate in language. And this is socially valuable.


But we must not be deluded by what we are doing. Because if we do truly believe that the world is a lot of separate things, we believe that we can take them apart and have this without that. And so, when you apply this, say, to medicine, and you get a medical specialist who knows all about the heart and nothing about the lungs, he starts interfering with the human body as if it were an automobile with replaceable parts. He says, “We’ll take this out.” Just a little mechanical work; get a wrench, and a screwdriver, and so on—only, the surgical equivalents—and he would take this out. So there’s a tumor, and we take it out. Alright, if he’s not terribly careful, a metastatic consequence follows that some of the cancerous cells will go into the bloodstream through the cutting, and the cancer will spread all over the body. Or if you start fiddling around with people’s glands and give them certain medicines to stimulate this gland, or to cool its operation in some way, you upset a balance which runs through the whole physical system. Exactly the same thing happens when you use DDT on mosquitoes. Well, it kills the birds. And the birds were eating the mosquitoes anyway, and so were the spiders. And you killed the spiders along with the mosquitoes. Or the fleas. And we find, in other words, that the natural universe is a very intricate system of balances which cannot really be split.


Now, let’s take the bees and the flowers. In a world of no bees there’s no flowers; in a world of no flowers—no bees. Because bees and flowers are aspects of the same organism, or organization. They go together, so I invent the word goeswith to indicate organic relationships. And we as human beings, obviously, we gowith an enormous cosmos of geological, botanical, and zoological events. And we are entirely dependent on them, and we cannot treat them as really and truly separate species. The bees are as much a part of us as they are a part of the flowers, because we need vegetables—and we can’t have those without bees or other insects. So what we’ve got is a universe that all hangs together, and where each so-called part of it implies all the other parts.


Let’s take what we call holography. This is a method of visual reproduction that employs laser beams. Now, you can cut a small piece out of the photographic negative—just a tiny little square—and by holographic method you can reconstruct, from that little piece, the rest of the negative. It will be pretty clear in the middle place, where you’ve taken out the tiny square, and then vaguer towards the edges. But it’s all implied in that little square. Now, of course, a photographic negative is a crystal. It’s a structure of crystals. And the way the crystals are formed in that tiny piece depends on its original environment on the whole negative. See that? You, the way you are, depends on—or goeswith—your cultural, social, and biophysical environment.


So there is really and truly no way of separating out independent things. And this is difficult for people to understand because of our method of motion. A plant is understandable as something growing out of the earth because it’s rooted. But human beings wander about on legs. And we don’t seem so stuck to things as plants do. And therefore we have delusions of separation. But what about the seed that comes from the plant? It’s fascinating how plants have different methods of seeding themselves. They have little helicopters. They have burs that stick in the fur of animals. They have fruit, which is tempting to birds and other creatures to eat. And they swallow the seeds, and take them somewhere else and excrete them, in manure, all ready to go. They have wonderful little fuzzy things of cotton fibers, where there’s a seed in the middle, which float through the air for miles and miles. There’s also an extremely ingenious plant that has pods. And when the pods are ripe, they suddenly break. The pod twists itself, each side of it, into a spiral, and the seeds are thrown way out. We used to have one in our garden in England next to a wooden fence. And every time it went crack, all these seeds would rattle on the fence. Tremendous energy they were sent out with. And look at the whole process of pollination and how extraordinary that is. Showing and arguing a very high order of intelligence—in vegetables. So when we say of somebody, “She’s a vegetable”—terminal cancer—“alas, only become a vegetable.” This is a misuse of the word vegetable. Vegetables must be respected. And people who do respect vegetables, and who talk to them, and love them—somehow, those vegetables respond. And they become—we say they have a green thumb.


So I think that we are living in an intensely interconnected universe. Only, our language system has broken it up for purposes of discussion. And we spend so much time in discussion that we form the false impression that the world is broken up in the way language breaks it up, and it isn’t! Now, I may know that theoretically as a scientist, as a biologist, or whatever be my approach, but I don’t necessarily feel it. An ecologist, a person who devotes a whole life study to realizing the interdependence of everything in the world, is in private life still a Christian ego—that is to say, a separate soul inside his bag of body. That’s the way he feels. And we have enormous difficulty in avoiding that feeling because of our social influence on each other.


Now, if you befriend, say, a group of Christians—and they may be Baptists—and for various reasons it’s important for you to be a member of this group, you will eventually think their way. The most startling example of this was an experiment devised by B. F. Skinner. He would be giving a class in psychology, and he would suddenly send two students out of the room, and say “come back when we call you.” Then he would explain to the class the game rule: “We’re going to put two chairs here, up beside me. Chair A. Chair B. We’re going to have a discussion, and these two students are going to come back. We will agree with everything that is said by the student who sits in chair A; we will disagree with everything said by the student in chair B. The effect of this was astounding. Because, even if the student sitting in chair A was rather inarticulate, the fact that the group agreed with everything he said made him extremely expressive and very happy. However articulate the student in chair B, where everything was wrong with him—he got completely confused. And the only way out was for the student—either student—to explain to the class the game rules that they were playing. But, you see, they didn’t know these rules, and they had to be very clever indeed to deduce what was the pattern.


I once got into this situation. I had a group of students come and visit me with their faculty member in charge of them. And he was very obstreperous. He argued; he really wanted to argue. So I got the general drift of his argument, see? What sort of opinions were likable to him. And then said something that would entirely accord with that sort of opinion system. And he denied it. So I said, “Sir, you are playing a game. You are bound and determined to disagree with anything I say.” And he was nonplussed. So, you see, we are under this tremendous social pressure, because talking with each other is our principal means of communication, and so, more and more, it hypnotizes us. When you hypnotize a person, you do it chiefly by talking. “Relax while I count up to five,” you know? “Be very relaxed,” et cetera, all that jazz. And so it is the word which spellbinds us. Look at that word: the spellbind, a victim of spelling.


And so all these conventions of language in which we think, even if we’re quite illiterate—illiterate people think in words just as much as literate people. In other words, an ordinary ignoramus is just as much, if not more, under the spell of words than an intellectual. Children, as soon as they are taught language, become absolutely clobbered by it, and resent, tremendously, being called something. See, if I say “Johnny is a sissy”—“He called me a sissy!” And children are absolute victims of the calendar. They want to know when it’s going to happen. How soon is Christmas? How soon is my birthday? They want time to go in jerks from one festival to another, because they are so poisoned by adult conceptions. They have no antibodies against them.


So, likewise, the Japanese have no antibodies against Western culture. They are complete victims of it. They succumb to smog, and even think it’s a good thing to have smog. They have songs about it: how the beautiful fog over the furnace buildings of the factories… you know? Haiku—this is true; I’m not kidding. In a nation of people that’s supposed to be great lovers of nature! Japan is unbelievable! Go to a beach in Japan. You’d think they would appreciate wonderful stretches of sand, and rocks, and the sound of the waves. The tide line of a Japanese beach almost anywhere around the island is a complete mess of plastic cast-offs. Sun-lotion bottles, condoms, discarded sandals, anything you could imagine—just masses of it. Go to a natural beauty place, where all the tourists go to look a the famous view, and the whole place is scattered with rubbish. Napkins, Kleenex, sandwich bags, cigarette packages, what have you. When you travel, in Japan, on the underground, in Tokyo, one imagines the Japanese are always very polite. And in their own setting, and in their own cultural context they indeed are. But on a subway everything goes amok, and people are crammed in like sardines. They even have special officials to shove the crowd into—into the train! They cannot cope with this situation that is foreign to their cultural context. So this is—what I’m saying is, watch out—for your social conditioning, and how your constant commerce in language with other people shapes the way in which you actually sense the world. Now, we say “seeing is believing.” But it is truer to say that believing is seeing.


There was a very marvelous scientist of optics by the name of Adelbert Ames, who devised a whole series of experiments where you could go into a big room, say with booths all around, and in these booths there were exhibits that defied the laws of logic—or seemed to. There was, for example, the marvelous experiment of the trapezoidal window. You make a window frame, one side of which is much longer than the other, see? Then you suspend this on wires in such a way that an axis is formed through the perpendicular center of the frame. And on this, the frame revolves. What you see is a window frame twitching, like this. It’s actually going round, but it seems to be twitching. Then you put a little cube on one upper corner, and color it red, see? So it will stand out. And you see this thing twitching, but the cube, unaccountably, going round. Then, another experiment, where you’re in a dark room; there’s a group of people. And a little bright light suddenly appears in front of them; very small. And the operator says, “Will those who observe any movement of this light please account for it and describe it?” So somebody says, “It’s floating upwards.” Somebody says, “It’s not drifting off to the left.” And all this conversation goes on. Then the lights are turned up, and it’s shown that this point had never moved at all. It was a fixed light. So there are all kinds of things. I mean, Ames only scratched the surface of what we see because we believe in it. We see what we want to see, or what we are supposed to see, and are not really aware of what’s going on.


Now, all stage magic is based on this. And this is why one can learn a great deal about mysticism from stage magic. What the magician does is, he persuades you to see what you expect to see, but in the meantime does something completely unexpected. Your attention has been misdirected. He says, “Look at this. I want you to look at it very carefully because we don’t want any hocus pocus around here.” See? “I want you to examine this thing I’m showing you and be sure there is no hocus pocus.” Meanwhile, he’s doing something that you don’t notice at all, and laying a trap. So that when you understand the nature of stage magic, you think goddamnit, how simple that was. Why didn’t I see? Why was I such a fool as I overlooked this idiotically simple trick? And the best tricks are the simplest, and don’t involve complicated apparatus at all. The best stage magicians are the ones who will stand in the middle of a crowd of people, you know—with no stage hocus pocus, all wires, or trapdoors; anything like that—and right under your nose will use a deck of cards or a few coins to do things that flabbergast people totally. And all those things are extremely simple—once you know. And so that’s very much like being enlightened. Having satori. When you get it, you think oh, for heaven’s sakes, why didn’t I see that? I mean, how obvious?


But the difficulty in communication here is that satori, or enlightenment, is very much like seeing a joke. And then you laugh. You laugh genuinely, from here. But if somebody explains it to you, you don’t get the same laugh as if you saw it right off. You get a throat-laugh instead of a belly-laugh. So that’s why people are reluctant to explain too much about it, and rather use the method whereby you will see it for yourself, and then laugh—or what is the cosmic equivalent. So therefore, we are, most of us, in a state of hypnosis induced by the incantation of language. The enchantment, the spellbinding. And when one speaks of awakening—as, say, in Buddhism one speaks of the Buddha as the “awakened one”—it means, therefore, “dehypnotization.” Coming to your senses. But of course, to do that, you have to go out of your mind. Well, then, what that involves—among other things—is an awakening to the true structure of your common sense.


I once was invited to give an address before the American Psychiatric Association. It was a very funny situation because Aldous Huxley had been supposed to give the talk, and he was sick. And so they invited me to come give it instead. And it was on a very dangerous subject: on the use of LSD. This was many years ago; this was in 1958, when LSD was just discovered. And what was I going to say? Oh, they were horrified. Would I please meet with the committee, because they didn’t want anything to be said that would somehow damage their scientific integrity. So here they were, anxious as all get-out. Well, I said, “You invited me here to talk. And to tell you the truth, I don’t know what I’m going to say, because I never prepare anything in advance. I’m going to listen to what you have to say first, and then I’ll make up my mind.” So I attended the morning conference. And one interminably dull paper after another was read, you know? And most of them by psychoanalytically oriented people who were discussing mysticism in terms of regression. Regression to the womb. Regression to the oceanic feeling of the—as yet—undifferentiated infant.


So the papers went on and on, and it was time for lunch. And everybody was hungry and bored. So I said to the chairman—he called me to the platform—I said, “How much time?” “Oh,” he said, “I don’t know; make it fifteen minutes.” “Okay.” So I said to the group, “Now, look. I know you’re waiting for lunch, and this is not going to be another learned paper. It is going to be a few remarks off the cuff. We philosophers are very grateful to you psychiatrists for all your explorations into the emotional and unconscious bases of our opinions, and our views of the world. And this has been extremely informative and interesting. Now, however, the shoe is on the other foot, and we’d like to inform you of the unconscious intellectual assumptions underlying your psychiatric methods. You are all—whether you know it or not—products of the world view of the 19th century. And your ideas of the functioning of the nervous system and of psychoanalytic process are based on Newtonian mechanics. Psychoanalysis is, in effect, psycho-hydraulics, because you talk about damming up things, you talk about repression, you talk about the flow of—what do you call it?—free association, and you talk about unconscious mental mechanisms. So it is clear that you are still in a Newtonian psyche, and you haven’t yet graduated to a quantum psyche. And so, because of this, you have a theory—which amounts to high dogma—that the unconscious is stupid. And you call it libido, which is a cussword. Libidinous. It means blind lust. And Freud used that word in parallel with Ernst Haeckel, who was a contemporary biologist who thought that the energy of the universe was blind energy. Despite the fact we have eyes.”


So they all had their reductionist view that human life was a complication of a force that was basically stupid, ignorant, unconscious, and immoral. “Well,” they said, “we can’t be like the Christians and attempt to beat this force into submission because it’s too powerful for us. But we’ve got a new wrinkle. What we are going to do is, we’re going to do it like we train a horse. Instead of whipping it, you give it lumps of sugar.” And you—watch out though! You see, Freud was scared stiff of the unconscious. He was a good, bourgeois, Jewish-Viennese, well-behaved person. Once upon a time, Freud and Jung went together to New York. And Jung was delighted to walk down Fifth Avenue and see so many beautiful women. And he turned to Freud and said, “My goodness, how many beautiful women there are here. Why don’t we somehow arrange and make a date for the night?” And Freud drew himself up and said, “You forget, Herr Doktor, I’m a married man.”


So Freud always thought that the unconscious was not really very nice. Now, he had a contemporary by the name of Georg Groddeck. And Georg Groddeck is very little known in this country. And Groddeck gave Freud many of his basic ideas. The—he used slightly differently. Where Freud called it the id, Groddeck called it the it. But Groddeck had tremendous faith in the unconscious. He trusted it completely. And he wrote a book called The Book of the It, which is a series of letters to his niece which he signs Patrick Troll. And you know, a troll is a goblin. And Groddeck looked like a goblin. He had very big, pointed ears that stuck out. And the kind of strangely weird but benign expression. And he had a sanitarium in Baden-Baden, and there he practiced massage for people who came to him for analysis, and analysis for people who came to him for massage. He was a completely wonderful man because everybody felt calmed by him. They felt an atmosphere of implicit faith in nature, and especially in your own inner nature. No matter what, there is a wisdom inside you which may seem absurd, but you have to trust it. And so Keyserling, Hermann Keyserling, you know, who was a great Lithuanian philosopher, said nobody could possibly remind him more of Lao-Tzu than Groddeck.


Now, if Groddeck had got into Freud, it would’ve been a much better scene. But there was in all this, you see, in Freud, the basic mistrust of the unconscious. And this led to a quarrel with Jung, because Jung went down to a lower level of the unconscious, which he called collective, and found out that there was a patterning process here—formative patterning process, which contained all the wisdom of mankind. So for example, if you say, “Well, it’s a great pity that the American Indian culture is wiped out,” a Jungian would say, “I know it is a pity but, it’s all still there—in the depths of the psyche—and sooner or later it will all emerge again.” Because this patterning is eternal. And we, in our modern life, we reproduce patterns, we reproduce rituals, we reproduce fantasies and myths which can be discovered as having existed 25,000 years ago. Because your unconscious is timeless. And everything is there if you go hunting for it. But they were still a bit scared. I know some of the old Jungian analysts I used to know in New York were very uptight about fishing in the unconscious and said, “Yeah... true, but there is also in the unconscious the primordial slime, which is full of serpents and crocodiles and most things that would give us the heebie-jeebies.” And if you’re not very careful those things will come up and invade your consciousness. Also, there are not only serpents and crocodiles, and all those creepy-crawlies, ghoulies and ghosties, and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night—there’s also the divine. And if you’re not very careful you can be inflated by the divine. You can suddenly have a mystical experience.


Supposing you’re kind of a half-miseducated person, like most of us are, who takes LSD. And suddenly, these unconscious contents come up and you discover you’re divine, and you think you’re God. And you take on all these airs and graces. I mean, the people like Meher Baba, who ran around announcing that he was personally in charge of the universe, and expected to be treated as such. Well, we put such people in the nuthouse; that’s what they did to Jesus. That’s intolerable. And Jung was right, in a way, when he said that is inflation. It is turning your ego into God instead of having God as your ego. Because you didn’t understand. You have to, in other words. Obviously, if you’re going to let up all these great energies in the unconscious, you must be wise. You must know something about it and not jump to silly conclusions and delusions.


But you see, there was in Jung a basic trust. More than the creepy-crawlies and the ghoulies and ghosties, the collective unconscious was a source of wisdom. A formative pattern, which—if allowed to develop in the right way—would integrate the individual so that all his conscious functioning would become like a flower. And you know how a flower is balanced. It comes out as a beautiful circle, with a middle. And for some reason as yet unexplained, when anybody wants to create a symbol of the divine they don’t use a human face—they use a flower or a star. The rose window, the lotus. When I think what I want, you know, I try sometimes to figure out what I would really like to have. What do I like to look at? I eventually settle for a flower. That’s why they bring flowers to sick people in hospitals. Take a morning glory and look at it. Did you ever see such a thing? Well, they say in the Freudian explanation you use that as a substitute for a vagina. I say that’s not an answer to a question; it raises a new one. What’s so interesting about a vagina?


See, the only thing my father and I don’t agree about is sex. We agree about everything else; religion and so on. But sex—he’s old-fashioned. And he said, “Nature makes this activity extremely pleasant in order that the species will continue. So that we will be sure to go on. But you must be very careful not to do it just for the pleasure of it, but remembering the responsibility of continuing the species. Well, then we got the population boom. And is that going to be solved by chastity? I doubt it. You know, taking a rather realistic view of things. No, I don’t think that the—when I ask myself, “What is the point of continuing the species?”—we get back to the thing I was raising this morning about survival: why go on? What’s it about? Do you live to eat or do you eat to live? Personally, I live to eat. And I don’t reproduce children—although, I’ve done my bit on that… rather, a little too much—but I think the point of having life going on is so that we can have sex. It’s a good thing in itself. It’s like dancing and really communicating. Loving somebody is a tremendously fascinating thing. I mean, what to do with an evening? Okay, you go to the movies and you watch other people loving each other. Why don’t you do it yourself? I very rarely go to the movies because my own life is more fun than what I see on the movies.


Now, you see what I’m doing? I’m wringing around a whole lot of subjects and ways of looking at certain topics which show us that it ain’t necessarily so. Things are not necessarily what they seem. And so we can get in the mood to be open-minded. Now that doesn’t mean that you’re merely lax in your opinions. True open-mindedness is what I’ve tried to explain as mental silence, of being able to be completely surprised by reality, and to observe that it is not at all what you thought it was or what you were brought up to believe. And not to be afraid when you suddenly discover the obvious, which is that the real you is not the ego, but the eternal center of the universe.

Well, we’ll take an intermission now.

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