Alan Watts was a Western philosopher and ‘spiritual entertainer’ who was well versed in East Asian philosophies of Zen Buddhism. While not a Buddhist in the practicing sense of the word, he has extracted much of the insight from those philosophies (religions?) and distilled it in his writing and spoken lectures. This book in particular is one of the best books I’ve read at simplifying and making clear what this world really is, and what we mean when we say the word ‘God’. Through analogy he helps to illustrate simple truths that we are blinded from at birth – namely that we are one and the same. We are not individuals, but part of a greater whole.
When you’re able to reframe reality, life takes on different meaning. When you realize that you are not one individual struggling against the universe, but rather one part of the greater whole, part of a cosmic dance, you realize very clearly how everything is working just as it should, and everything will be quite all right. You realize that the human mind exists to reflect and appreciate the awesome beauty of this cosmic dance. You realize that good and bad are just two sides of the same coin, and that what appears as struggle or conflict on one level, is harmony on another. When you realize that you are as much the ground you stand on as you are the body you inhabit, you begin to realize that it is all one process. In some sense, you can never truly die.
He provides a great description of the world that he would use to answer a child’s question of ‘Where did this world come from?’:
There was never a time when the world began, because it goes round and round like a circle, and there is no place on a circle where it begins. Look at my watch, which tells the time; it goes round, and so the world repeats itself again and again. But just as the hour-hand of the watch goes up to twelve and down to six, so, too, there is day and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying, summer and winter. You can’t have any one of these without the other, because you wouldn’t be able to know what black is unless you had seen it side-by-side with white, or white unless side-by-side with black.
In the same way, there are times when the world is, and times when it isn’t, for if the world went on and on without rest for ever and ever, it would get horribly tired of itself. It comes and it goes. Now you see it; now you don’t. So because it doesn’t get tired of itself, it always comes back again after it disappears. It’s like your breath: it goes in and out, in and out, and if you try to hold it in all the time you feel terrible. It’s also like the game of hide-and-seek, because it’s always fun to find new ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn’t always hide in the same place.
God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.
Now when God plays hide and seek, and pretends that he is you and I, he does it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. But that’s the whole fun of it—just what he wanted to do. He doesn’t want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself. But when the game has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and remember that we are all one single Self—the God who is all that there is and who lives for ever and ever.
Of course, you must remember that God isn’t shaped like a person. People have skins and there is always something outside our skins. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t know the difference between what is inside and outside our bodies. But God has no skin and no shape because there isn’t any outside to him. [With a sufficiently intelligent child, I illustrate this with a Möbius strip—a ring of paper tape twisted once in such a way that it has only one side and one edge.] The inside and the outside of God are the same. And though I have been talking about God as ‘he’ and not ‘she,’ God isn’t a man or a woman. I didn’t say ‘it’ because we usually say ‘it’ for things that aren’t alive.
God is the Self of the world, but you can’t see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can’t see your own eyes, and you certainly can’t bite your own teeth or look inside your head. Your self is that cleverly hidden because it is God hiding.
You may ask why God sometimes hides in the form of horrible people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain. Remember, first, that he isn’t really doing this to anyone but himself. Remember, too, that in almost all the stories you enjoy there have to be bad people as well as good people, for the thrill of the tale is to find out how the good people will get the better of the bad. It’s the same as when we play cards. At the beginning of the game we shuffle them all into a mess, which is like the bad things in the world, but the point of the game is to put the mess into good order, and the one who does it best is the winner. Then we shuffle the cards once more and play again, and so it goes with the world.
His philosophies are helpful to zoom out on things and reframe reality, reframe the significance of things. Reframe how we think about our brothers and sisters in the world. We should try to be better to each other, because being better to each other is really being better to our greater self.
On the intelligence of the universe:
Lack of knowledge about the evolution of the organic from the “inorganic,” coupled with misleading myths about life coming “into” this world from somewhere “outside,” has made it difficult for us to see that the biosphere arises, or goeswith, a certain degree of geological and astronomical evolution. But, as Douglas E. Harding has pointed out, we tend to think of this planet as a life-infested rock, which is as absurd as thinking of the human body as a cell-infested skeleton. Surely all forms of life, including man, must be understood as “symptoms” of the earth, the solar system, and the galaxy—in which case we cannot escape the conclusion that the galaxy is intelligent.
The importance of perception to manifest reality:
All these phenomena are interactions, or transactions, of vibrations with a certain arrangement of neurons. Thus vibrations of light and heat from the sun do not actually become light or heat until they interact with a living organism, just as no light-beams are visible in space unless reflected by particles of atmosphere or dust. In other words, it “takes two” to make anything happen.
We have simply been talking of an interaction between physical vibrations and the brain with its various organs of sense, saying only that creatures with brains are an integral feature of the pattern which also includes the solid earth and the stars, and that without this integral feature (or pole of the current) the whole cosmos would be as unmanifested as a rainbow without droplets in the sky, or without an observer.
Hitherto the poets and philosophers of science have used the vast expanse and duration of the universe as a pretext for reflections on the unimportance of man, forgetting that man with “that enchanted loom, the brain” is precisely what transforms this immense electrical pulsation into light and color, shape and sound, large and small, hard and heavy, long and short. In knowing the world we humanize it, and if, as we discover it, we are astonished at its dimensions and its complexity, we should be just as astonished that we have the brains to perceive it.
On waking up:
When this new sensation of self arises, it is at once exhilarating and a little disconcerting. It is like the moment when you first got the knack ofswimming or riding a bicycle. There is the feeling that you are not doing it yourself, but that it is somehow happening on its own, and you wonder whether you will lose it—as indeed you may if you try forcibly to hold on to it. In immediate contrast to the old feeling, there is indeed a certain passivity to the sensation, as if you were a leaf blown along by the wind, until you realize that you are both the leaf and the wind. The world outside your skin is just as much you as the world inside: they move together inseparably, and at first you feel a little out of control because the world outside is so much vaster than the world inside.
Yet you soon discover that you are able to go ahead with ordinary activities—to work and make decisions as ever, though somehow this is less of a drag. Your body is no longer a corpse which the ego has to animate and lug around. There is a feeling of the ground holding you up, and of hills lifting you when you climb them. Air breathes itself in and out of your lungs, and instead,of looking and listening, light and sound come to you on their own. Eyes see and ears hear as wind blows and water flows. All space becomes your mind. Time carries you along like a river, but never flows out of the present: the more it goes, the more it stays, and you no longer have to fight or kill it
In the words of a Chinese Zen master, “Nothing is left to you at this moment but to have a good laugh!” As James Broughton put it: This is It and I am It and You are It and so is That and He is It and She is It and It is It and That is That.