Reading Alan Watts always leaves me feeling like a tangled snarl of string. He begins with a compelling premise, elucidates his considerable thinking on the matter, amplifying his views with quotes from poets like William Blake and from various scriptures and sacred writings. And, by the end of the argument, I have followed him down into a place where the light is either too faint or too glaring for me to see properly. I can’t get to the end of the lesson. Mostly there doesn’t seem to be an end—which is probably what he meant anyway.
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is typically brilliant, ahead of its time and infinitely frustrating. Watts examines the social conditioning that teaches us we are separate beings in a physical world of distinct objects and boundaries. He counters this assumption with a mash-up of Vedanta and contemporary physics to assert that our personal selves don’t actually exist. Well, they don’t actually exist as independent beings, disconnected from everything else. We are, in fact, entirely interconnected—as much to the city bus as to the irritating dolt in the next cubicle. And to Mother Theresa and Oprah and all of our friends and to every river, cucumber, butterfly and star.
If your life is a bowl of cherry pits, the collective unconscious, including your own unconscious, created that for your awareness. Or possibly you perceived those pits from the specific level of your own awareness. Sigh.
Some of the most fascinating ideas in Watts’ book (first published in 1966) are his evaluations of the limits of technology and the damage we are doing to the planet with extraordinary depletion of its resources—all because we don’t realize that we are both divine energy and the ground of the universe. We are the creators and to wander around deluded about that is to be unhappy and dissatisfied and to make a complete muck of life.
Nearly half a century ago, Watts was warning about the loss of privacy, technology creep, the eventual restriction of travel, artificially-created foods, the destruction of the environment and the standardization that transforms Waikiki Beach into any island beach anywhere—or maybe an especially theatrical resort pool area far from a real ocean. Wonder what he would have had to say about reality TV?
The monetization of work exhausts you and turns you and your product/service/labor/innovation into cheap commodities. This holds for burger jockeys as well as architects, scientists, housemaids and oil paint slingers (otherwise known as artists). The twin skills of attention and awareness can reveal glimpses of your true nature. We need to acknowledge the existence of magic in the world because, at its heart, all of this is a mystery and there are no words that can adequately capture it, no philosophy that can serve it up to us in neat digestible bits.
I wish I could get a solid handle on the brain of Alan Watts. I think he is right and intellectually dazzling but what the words represent is elusive. I agree we are deluded—I am deluded. But my simple soul would do cartwheels at some graspable notion of how to wake up. Clearly, I will have to read The Book again.
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are Alan Watts | Vintage Books 1989