The Ego and the Universe

The Ego and the Universe

By Maria Popova

Alan Watts on Becoming Who You Really Are

“The cause of and cure for the illusion of separateness that keeps us from embracing the richness of life.” 

During the 1950s and 1960s, British philosopher and writer Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, offering a wholly different perspective on inner wholeness in the age of anxiety and what it really means to live a life of purpose. We owe much of today’s mainstream adoption of practices like yoga and meditation to Watts’s influence. His 1966 masterwork The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (public library) builds upon his indispensable earlier work as Watts argues with equal parts conviction and compassion that “the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East.” He explores the cause and cure of that illusion in a way that flows from profound unease as we confront our cultural conditioning into a deep sense of lightness as we surrender to the comforting mystery and interconnectedness of the universe.

Envisioned as a packet of essential advice a parent might hand down to his child on the brink of adulthood as initiation into the central mystery of life, this existential manual is rooted in what Watts calls “a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition.”

Though strictly nonreligious, the book explores many of the core inquiries which religions have historically tried to address—the problems of life and love, death and sorrow, the universe and our place in it, what it means to have an “I” at the center of our experience, and what the meaning of existence might be. In fact, Watts begins by pulling into question how well-equipped traditional religions might be to answer those questions:

“The standard-brand religions, whether Jewish, Christian, Mohammedan, Hindu, or Buddhist, are—as now practiced—like exhausted mines: very hard to dig. With some exceptions not too easily found, their ideas about man and the world, their imagery, their rites, and their notions of the good life don’t seem to fit in with the universe as we now know it, or with a human world that is changing so rapidly that much of what one learns in school is already obsolete on graduation day.”

Watts considers the singular anxiety of the age, perhaps even more resonant today, half a century and a manic increase of pace later:

“There is a growing apprehension that existence is a rat-race in a trap: living organisms, including people, are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out.”

He weighs how philosophy might alleviate this central concern by contributing a beautiful addition to the definitions of what philosophy is and recognizing the essential role of wonder in the human experience:

“Most philosophical problems are to be solved by getting rid of them, by coming to the point where you see that such questions as 'Why this universe?' are a kind of intellectual neurosis, a misuse of words in that the question sounds sensible but is actually as meaningless as asking 'Where is this universe?' when the only things that are anywhere must be somewhere inside the universe. The task of philosophy is to cure people of such nonsense. . . . Nevertheless, wonder is not a disease. Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish men from other animals, and intelligent and sensitive people from morons.”

At the heart of the human condition, Watts argues, is a core illusion that fuels our deep-seated sense of loneliness the more we subscribe to the myth of the sole ego, one reflected in the most basic language we use to make sense of the world:

“We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that 'I myself' is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body—a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. 'I came into this world.' 'You must face reality.' 'The conquest of nature.' ”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

(A curious aside for music aficionados and fans of the show Weeds: Watts uses the phrase “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” to describe the homogenizing and perilous effect of the American quest for dominance over “nature , space, mountains, deserts, bacteria, and insects instead of learning to cooperate with them in a harmonious order.” The following year, Malvina Reynolds used the phrase in the lyrics to her song Little Boxes, which satirizes suburbia and the development of the middle class. The song became a hit for Pete Seeger in 1963 and was used by Showtime as the opening credits score for the first three seasons of Jenji Kohan’s Weeds.)

Religions, Watts points out, work to reinforce rather than liberate us from this sense of separateness, for at their heart lies a basic intolerance for uncertainty—the very state embracing which is fundamental to our happiness, as modern psychology has indicated, and crucial to the creative process:

Watts writes:
“Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the 'saved' from the 'damned,' the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the out-group... All belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty.”

In a sentiment that Alan Lightman would come to echo more than half a century later in his remarkable meditation on science and what faith really means, Watts adds:

“Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness—an act of trust in the unknown.”
[…]
“No considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency.”

Instead, Watts proposes that we need “a new domain, not of ideas alone, but of experience and feeling,” something that serves as “a point of departure, not a perpetual point of reference” and offers not a new Bible but a new way of understanding human experience, “a new feeling of what it is to be an ‘I.'” In recognizing and fully inhabiting that feeling, he argues, lies the greatest taboo of human culture:

“Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing—with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.”

And yet, he argues, the sense of “I” and the illusion of its separateness from the rest of the universe is so pervasive and so deeply rooted in the infrastructure of our language, our institutions, and our cultural conventions that we find ourselves unable to “experience selfhood except as something superficial in the scheme of the universe.”

“The antidote lies in recognizing not merely that we belong to and with the rest of the universe, but that there is no 'rest' in the first place—we are the universe.”


Original piece at Brainpickings

Maria Popova is the mastermind behind brainpickings.org, a treasure trove of culture, wisdom and heart.

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