On The Hallucination in THE BOOK: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

(This book is available free on-line. I got my copy here.)

The basic idea is that really, separateness is a hallucination. ‘This  underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man’s [sic] natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction. We are therefore in urgent need of a sense of our own existence which is in accord with the physical facts and which overcomes our feeling of alienation from the universe,’ Watts writes. He elaborates: ‘We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new experience—a new feeling of what it is to be “I.”…. 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.’ After all these years, is the taboo still taboo? It must be, for we still misuse technology, still think we are masters and mistresses of nature, still sleepwalk in this hallucination. But there are signs of change. ‘Ideas about man and the world … don’t seem to fit in with the universe as we now know it’. Uh oh. That’s not good, to be out of sync. That should be a warning shot across our bow.

‘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.’

Watts knows that the illusory ‘sensation of “I” as a lonely and isolated center of being is so powerful and commonsensical … that we cannot experience selfhood except as something superficial in the scheme of the universe…. We are forced, therefore, to speak of it through myth [‘a useful and fruitful image by which we make sense of life’].’

In our limited understanding we often come up against the unknown, which we experience as a paradox of dualities (ante/post, night/day, etc). Watts counters by analogy of a Möbius strip, which looks like it’s two-sided but in reality is one-sided. Underlying the apparent duality is a unity. Our limited understanding creates a duality of self/other, which leads to an existential crisis, whereas the reality is a unity where we are all part of one another and there is no crisis.

Under the illusion of a duality, we suffer existential angst. Watts quotes T. George Harris: ‘ “Our generation knows a cold hell, solitary confinement in this life, without a God to damn or save it”, and adds, ‘Empty, finite, he knows only that he will soon die. Since this life has no meaning, … he sees no future’. His solution, and the solution of the ancients? Find the divine. ‘One might say that if religion is the opium of the people, the Hindus have the inside dope.’ In quantum mechanics in general and specifically in Schroedinger’s Cat, dualities don’t exist until observed. Max Planck, who gave us the scientific notion of quanta over a hundred years ago, recognized that ‘when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.’ Watts seems to agree when he writes, ‘Today, scientists are more and more aware that what things are, and what they are doing, depends on where and when they are doing it.’ In quantum mechanics, opposites both exist until you measure them, which goes against our common sense. Watts contends that ‘the illusion that every form consists of, or is made of, some kind of basic “stuff” is deeply embedded in our common sense. We have quite forgotten that both “matter” and “meter” are alike derived from the Sanskrit root matr-, “to measure,” and that the “material” world means no more than the world as measured or measurable….’ Is it the nature of the ego to select only one reality? If we’re not careful, or even if we are, is consciousness a means of creating this illusion?

Watts calls this duality an ‘ego-illusion…. Not realizing that so-called opposites … are poles or aspects of the same thing … [and] not realizing the inseparability of the positive and negative poles of the rhythm,… [we] fight … Life-versus-Death, the so-called battle for survival, which is supposed to be the real, serious task of all living creatures.’

We are inventing our notion of the self electronically. Watts, writing in 1966, foresaw the internet, where ‘all information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined…. This electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences…. The tendency will be for all individuals to coalesce into a single bioelectronic body.’ However, he cautions ‘the real wiggly world slips like water through our imaginary nets. However much we divide, count, sort, or classify this wiggling into particular things and events, this is no more than a way of thinking about the world: it is never actually divided.’

He warns of a bureaucratic nightmare: ‘The more one interferes, the more one must analyze an ever-growing volume of detailed information about the results of interference on a world whose infinite details are inextricably interwoven. Already this information, even in the most highly specialized sciences, is so vast that no individual has time to read it—let alone absorb it. In solving problems, technology creates new problems, and we seem, as in Through the Looking-Glass, to have to keep running faster and faster to stay where we are.’ Sound familiar? If pumping out carbon doesn’t get us, maybe the paperwork will.

Watts promises that ‘the rest of this book will attempt to make this [–‘that the only real You, or Self, is the whole’–] so clear that you will not only understand the words but feel the fact.’ Which is a neat-o trick, if you can manage it. I couldn’t, quite. To explain a feeling. Mmmm…. I’m open to what he says, I believe in the integrated, interconnected whole, but I still feel to be me. At times. It takes a lot of meditation to feel, to feel integrated, to feel connected. To integrate and connect with the past and the future. While the past may be known, the future is unknown. It’s not certain and thus requires faith. ‘Faith—in life, in other people, and in oneself,’ writes Watts, ‘is the attitude of allowing the spontaneous to be spontaneous, in its own way and in its own time. This is, of course, risky because life and other people do not always respond to faith as we might wish. Faith is always a gamble because life itself is a gambling game with what must appear, in the hiding aspect of the game, to be colossal stakes. But to take the gamble out of the game, to try to make winning a dead certainty, is to achieve a certainty which is indeed dead. The alternative to a community based on mutual trust is a totalitarian police-state, a community in which spontaneity is virtually forbidden.’ Is our current desire for certainty, as evidenced in the need to insure everything and control everything with technology, a sign of our lack of faith? Has the internet and call screening replaced being social?

Must we suffer the anxiety of existentialism or the depression of sweeping, anonymous history? ‘There is a third possibility. The individual may be understood neither as an isolated person nor as an expendable, humanoid working-machine [but] may be seen, instead, as one particular focal point at which the whole universe expresses itself—as an incarnation of the Self, of the Godhead, or whatever one may choose to call IT. This view retains and, indeed, amplifies our apprehension that the individual is in some way sacred.’

Individuality requires connection. ‘To manifest individuality, every branch must have a sensitive connection with the tree, just as our independently moving and differentiated fingers must have a sensitive connection with the whole body. The point, which can hardly be repeated too often, is that differentiation is not separation.’

Since everything is connected, ‘if we want justice for [others]…, whether human or non-human, we must first come to terms with the minority and the enemy in ourselves and in our own hearts, for the rascal is there as much as anywhere’.

The best emotion, when confronted with  mystery, is not anxiety or despair but humour. ‘True humor is, indeed, laughter at one’s Self—at the Divine Comedy.’ That we’re learning to laugh, to truly laugh, is seen in the rise of community gardens, CSAs, farmers’ markets, fair trade, organics, whole foods, and best-selling books, such as The World Without Us, documentaries, and movies, such as Cloud Atlas.

Watts presumes that when he dies, his consciousness dies too, but ‘conscious memory plays little part in our biological existence.’ He uses myth and dualities to explain the ineffable. ‘Thus as my sensation of “I-ness,” of being alive…, once came into being without conscious memory or intent, so it will arise again and again [as a re-constitution of atoms], as the “central” Self—the IT—appears as the self/other situation in its myriads of pulsating forms—always the same and always new, a here in the midst of a there, a now in the midst of then, and a one in the midst of many. And if I forget how many times I have been here, and in how many shapes, this forgetting is the necessary interval of darkness between every pulsation of light. I return in every baby born…. [however,] we do not trust the universe to repeat what it has already done—to “I” itself again and again. We see it as an eternal arena in which the individual is no more than a temporary stranger—a visitor who hardly belongs—for the thin ray of consciousness does not shine upon its own source. In looking out upon the world, we forget that the world is looking at itself—through our eyes and IT’s.’

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