The Nature of Consciousness by Alan Watts

Alan Watts lived from 1915 to 1973. He was born and grew up in England, but he moved to the U.S.A. in 1950, became an American citizen, and lived in California. He was a philosopher who recorded many of his talks, one of which is ‘The Nature of Consciousness’, which you can hear online. Or read the text. You’ll also hear that he was a funny guy. The funnier he is, the more serious he is.

He begins by speaking of awakening, which requires ‘de-hypnotization, coming to your senses, but of course to do that, you have to go out of your mind.’

De-hypnotization requires each of us to look at our myths. Our civilization has had two such basic myths or models. He calls these myths the ‘Ceramic Model‘ and the ‘Fully Automatic Model‘.

In the Ceramic Model, God is in complete control, God has a plan, God imposes His will. It’s called the the Ceramic Model because God made us out of clay.

In the Fully Automatic Model, there may or may not be a God to get things started, but once running, God is not needed. In this model, we are flukes or random by-products of ‘blind’ nature, so we must fight nature and impose our will.

‘But these two great myths, the Ceramic Model and the Fully Automatic Model, make us feel separate from nature.’

If we suppose the universe started with the Big Bang, we find it’s dense in the middle, but gets finer and more complicated towards the edges. ‘You don’t feel you are part of that Big Bang, but you are…. You are not a result of the Big Bang, you are still part of the process of the Big Bang.’

There are no separate things in the physical world. The physical world is ‘wiggly’, not straight. But to control the wiggles, to make them into straight lines, you use net. A net has coordinates, which break up the wiggles. You count the coordinates–two up, three over–and that is the start of math. You break the wiggles into bits or separate things.

The Ceramic Model is useful because it provides you with a sense of your place in the order, you are cared for, you are not a fluke, but God knows everything you do, ‘so you become an atheist. You get rid of God, but you also get rid of yourself, because you are just a cog in the machine.’

Watts counters that we are not flukes or random by-products, but the result of the universe’s process: as an apple tree apples and the ocean waves, so the universe peoples. Camus said there is only one serious philosophical question (‘Should you commit suicide?’) ‘But I say there are four or five:

  1. Who started it?
  2. Are we going to make it?
  3. Where are we going to put it?
  4. Who’s going to clean up?
  5. Is it serious?’

Just as there are two basic models, there are two basic kinds of people: prickly people (who are apt to be logical positivists)–they are precise, rigorous, logical, preferring certainty (for example, in physics, ultimately matter is made of particles)–and gooey people (who tend to be idealists)–they prefer vagueness (in physics, ultimately matter is made of waves). Though opposites, they need each other to define one another.

As a scientist you can’t say what a thing is, you can only describe what it does. And what it does depends upon its environment, which may include you and me. In describing myself, I must describe you. I don’t know who I am unless I know who you are [which is kinda like the Golden Rule]. Your skin doesn’t separate you from the world; it’s a bridge between you and the rest of the world. Everything changes, yet things remain recognizable, like a whirlpool: the whirlpool stays constant, though the water is always renewing.

Life is like a play, in that it’s pretend, it’s make-believe, it’s purposeful forgetting. Instead of the Ceramic Model or the Fully Automatic Model, Watts proposes what he calls the Dramatic Model: ‘the basis of all drama is the game of Hide’n’seek’ (see below). God/dess is playing Hide’n’seek with Him/Herself.

Furthermore, ‘life is not a conflict between opposites but a polarity.’ Polarity requires unity, where opposites ‘have the same centre’–can’t have one without the other; for example, life&death, being&non-being, self&other.

But self-knowledge can lead to anxiety; it simultaneously has advantages and disadvantages [for example, because we can know ourselves, we can talk about ourselves and others, which is an advantage; but this difference, this separation and alienation, can result in anxiety, which is a disadvantage, if we’re not mindful that this difference is not real.] Reality is represented by symbols (like numbers and words), but those symbols are secondary–don’t mistake them for reality.

God in Hindu mythology is not a judge but total joy. The universe is a celebration. ‘However, there is no point in just sustaining bliss.’ For example, in dreaming, you would start with total wish fulfilment, but you would increasingly take risks until ‘you’re living the life you live now.’ The point is to play a game of Hide’n’seek with yourself and pretend that you are not God, not all; pretend, like actors in a drama.

Away from the drama, in the Green Room, the actors take off their masks. In ancient Greek and Roman times, a mask served to amplify the actor’s voice. A mask was a per sonaper sona means ‘through sound’–but we think the mask is the real deal: ‘how to be a real person, how to be a genuine fake’.

‘You are not victims of the scheme of things, of a mechanical world or an autocratic god.’ This is a game you chose, even if you were born with syphilis or in a Nazi concentration camp. ‘You play non-bliss in order to experience bliss. In my metaphysics we are all one, pretending to be asleep, and then we wake up; until then, we go on pretending.’

When you wake up, you realize that you are what you are, which is God/dess. Furthermore, ‘you can say with gusto, ”I am responsible for this life. Whether comedy or tragedy, I did it.” And it seems to me a basis for behaviour in going on which is more fundamentally joyous and profitable, great, than defining ourselves as miserable victims or sinners or what-have-you.’

Recap: in the Dramatic Model, you are the actor, the self or atman, the player, playing Hide’n’seek with yourself, and ‘you are deliberately forgetting who you really are, or what you really are’, your essential self, ‘what Tillich calls “the ground of being.”

The ego is just the focus of conscious attention; the ego is like a radar on a ship: a troubleshooter: ‘Is there anything in the way?’ But if you identify with your troubleshooter, you’ll be in perpetual anxiety. The larger picture is harmonious. What is discord at one level is harmony at a higher level; the discords in your life at a higher level are healthy and harmonious.

In the nineteenth century we discovered that we are on a minor planet orbiting a minor star in a minor galaxy, ‘and we really are small and God doesn’t love us and nature doesn’t give a damn.’ But we are able with ‘our ingenuity from this magnificent organic structure to evoke the whole universe.’ We are not some accident but ‘what the whole show is growing there, and realizing its own presence.’

‘But here is the problem: the moment you start practising yoga, or praying, or meditating, or indulging in some sort of spiritual cultivation, you are getting in your own way.’ Which leads to the paradoxes of desiring not to desire and of capturing this moment (the perfect, eternal now) forever. Yet these transactions are ‘all one process,’ a unity. There may be billions of years between the birth of primeval energy and the arrival of intelligent life. ‘It takes a little time, but it’s already implied’ because it’s all connected.

‘What I think awakening really involves is a re-examination of our common sense. We’ve got all sorts of ideas built into us, which seem unquestioned, obvious…. Our common sense has been rigged, you see, so that we feel as strangers and aliens. When you question this basic assumption that underlies our culture, you find there is a new kind of common sense…. In a few years, it’ll be a matter of common sense with many people that they are one with the universe. It’ll be so simple. And then, maybe, if that happens, we shall be in a position to start handling our technologies with more sense, with love instead of hate for our environment.’

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