Your physiology plays a major role in determining your emotional state and how you perceive the world. I have written about this on many occasions. Usually when I write about physiology I emphasize the importance of your breathing and posture, and today I would like to take this concept a bit further by writing about how you and your world change when you slow down and allow yourself to have an open focus, wide angle perspective. When you change the way you attend to life you change your experience of yourself and the world you live in.
Invariably, when you experience stress you feel incapable of cultivating the life experience you deeply desire, and that is much of what stress is all about - feeling incapable or out of control. When you feel stressed you perceive yourself and the world around you in a tight focus. The tighter your focus, the more you miss out on the many opportunities for change that are all around you. When you are stressed it is like looking at the world through a telephoto lens. A lens that only allows for a narrow field of view and a magnified image of your perceived problem. The tighter your focus the larger your problem appears to be, the more alone you feel, and the less you breathe. The tighter your focus the more the present moment and your potential future gets overwhelmed by your past!
When you change your perspective to open-focus wide-angle, you come to realize that you have only been constructing one of many possible realities. Change the way you focus and attend to the world and you will change your reality and your sense of what is possible. Learning and the living of one’s life, is a creative act of self-discovery in which you extract meaning from everything you encounter. You are constantly engaged in the artful and “artificial” synthesis of diverse and paradoxical fragments of “information” into a new integrated whole.
When you are experiencing stress you lose your sense of context (circumstances and setting), proportion (the relationship of one “thing” to another), and scale (the relative size of one “thing” compared to another). The more exaggerated or out of whack these three components of your experience are, the more you will experience anxiety, fear, and stress.
So what to do?
You can change the way you pay attention, which in turn will change what you pay attention to, which in turn will change your perception of what is possible. When your awareness is expansive and wide angle you can achieve a deeper fuller sense of being an active participant in life, an active player in life, an active team member, who is not alone and separate.
You can cultivate the capacity to have a compassionate, composed experience of your life. An experience that is expansive, multidimensional, and multicolor. An experience similar to the many times in your life when you felt great and had the sense that your life really can be all that you have been hoping for.
Slow down your thinking mind by breathing fully, sit up straight, tense and then release various muscle groups throughout your body, place your current challenge in the context of your entire life, and look at your challenge from a distance with the perspective of a wise person. Consider the many resources you have available to you, and the many other times you have overcome challenges. Imagine your have already overcome your challenge, and ask yourself “What did I do to accomplish this?” Let the answer to this question “come to you” slowly over time. You really do have the ability to achieve all you truly desire!
Man is asleep. Little do we know what this means, the extent of this sleep. Little do we know what it means to be really awake, to be ripened, completed, a whole person. Sometimes, when a drop of grace kindles my heart, my first feeling is to cry, with a burning heart for how asleep I am, how blind I can be, without even knowing it. I feel so sad then, so sorry for how far I go from God, how estranged I can be from my true nature. My deep love for Truth, for the precious gold of Reality, melts my heart into warm running tears when I remember how hard it is to remember. The realization that when I am asleep I don't even know how far I am from God makes my heart burn with more fire. It is so easy to forget. And it is such a sad affair, for what I forget is my own true nature, the precious wine of my innermost soul. No wonder the Sufi makes it his first and foremost duty to remember God, day and night. God's name is always on his tongue, constantly within his heart. It is so easy to forget who I am because identifying with my ego patterns is such a smooth and automatic process. It's like gravity, always there to pull me down. Even when I am keenly aware of my process, there always comes a time when a subtle game takes over, and without realizing it I am cut off from the origin, estranged from the source of Being.
Identification always comes with blindness. They go together. When I identify with a particular reaction or a pattern of mine I am really saying that I am this reaction or this pattern, without being aware that I am saying so. The blindness can go so far that I feel self-righteous about this particular identification. And this really means that I am asserting the existence of the devil, and negating what is real. I blind myself from seeing this by rationalization or pretension. Essentially it is self-deception. So I find myself running after gratification of my games with complete justification and self-righteousness, of course. Forgetting God, the one Reality, always means siding with the devil, the delusion we call ego. It's so painful, it's so shameful, that sometimes I actually say to the devil, "Yes, I believe you." I turn my back on God, on Reality, on the source of life, believing that the devil, my ignorant ego, will give me the satisfaction and contentment I desire. Time and time again, with a lot of pain and sorrow, I find that I only end up in more frustration, more suffering, and more alienation.
It is in the nature of ego striving and the desire for gratification that the heart is upset. There can be no peace with craving and grasping. This craving is a certain energy, a certain state that is by its very nature harsh, hard, excited, and violent. It is the seed and source of all negative emotions. It is felt and experienced as violence within the heart. It feels like sand grating against the pure smoothness and softness of the heart. It is no wonder greed, craving and desire for gratification produce wars and violence, for it is actually the energy of war within our hearts, inside our own bodies.
Still, rare is the individual who will even listen to such a fundamental truth, let alone do anything about it. It's as if our very nature does not want us to see this truth or to admit to its validity and significance. Of course not, the devil does not want to see its deception, ego does not want to die. NO. It will fight fiercely with all weapons possible, more weapons than we can even conceive of, to avoid the truth, to conceal it, to reject it. The devil will not see itself as the devil. It has to point to something else as the cause of trouble. And it will continue opening its hungry mouth, screaming, "Give me, fill me, satisfy me." But of course, this is another illusion; it will never be filled, it can never be satisfied. For its hunger is bottomless, its emptiness has no limits. It is always the temptation of satisfaction, but never total satisfaction. The Buddhists found an apt image for this state of ego. They call it the hungry ghost. It is a being with a huge stomach and a tiny mouth, like the hole of a needle. It can never get enough through the small hole to fill the huge stomach. This is the usual state of ego, whether we are conscious of it or not.
The core of ego is a feeling of deficiency, of poverty, of emptiness, of saying: "I am no good, I am worthless, I am empty. Give me, give me, more, more, more, more." In this state of deficiency I don't love myself, I don't accept myself. I reject myself. I want to run away, distract myself; maybe go to a movie, see a friend, have sex, eat, fill myself with knowledge, or pretend I am O.K. I am always wanting to fill this emptiness, always rejecting it, always afraid of it. In fact, we are all terrified by it. Most of the time people don't know that this emptiness, this deficiency is what is driving most of their actions. It's such a desperation, such a race to fill this bottomless pit. But how sweet it is to say "yes" to this emptiness. How courageous it is to say: "I feel empty, I feel deficient, and I won't attempt to fill it. I want to see the truth. I want to experience the reality of me. I refuse to manipulate. I want to wake up regardless of how painful it is." Only the hero will take this attitude, for it is a heroic act to see your deficiency, your neediness, your emptiness, and yet not try to manipulate your life to fill it. We are so compulsive, so driven to manipulate, to avoid feeling this basic deficiency of our personal ego. But believe me, my friend, there's no other way towards fullness. God will not pour His grace if you don't accept your deficiency and stop manipulating. Manipulation, striving to fill this emptiness, is only the devil doing its efficient work. It is constantly working to hide its weakness.
How I found my way out of depression, thanks to the writings of the English priest
who brought Buddhism to the West.
Ever since I was a child, I have been acutely sensitive to the idea — in the way that other people seem to feel only after bereavement or some shocking unexpected event — that the human intellect is unable, finally, to make sense of the world: everything is contradiction and paradox, and no one really knows much for sure, however loudly they profess to the contrary.
It is an uncomfortable mindset, and as a result I have always felt the need to build a conceptual box in my mind big enough to fit the world into. Most people seem to have a talent for denying or ignoring life’s contradictions, as the demands of work and life take them over. Or they fall for an ideology, perhaps religious or political, that appears to render the world a comprehensible place.
I have never been able to support either strategy. A sense of encroaching mental chaos was always skulking at the edges of my life. Which is perhaps why I fell into an acute depression at the age of 27, and didn’t recover for several years.
The consequence of this was my first book, a memoir called The Scent of Dried Roses (1996). While I was researching it, I read the work of the psychologist Dorothy Rowe, a quiet, almost secret, follower of Buddhist philosophy. Secret, because Rowe knew what the term ‘Buddhist’ implied to the popular imagination (as it did to me) — magical thinking, Tibetan bell-ringing, and sticking gold flakes on statues of the Buddha.
Truth is not to be found by picking everything to pieces like a spoilt child
It was through Rowe’s writing that I first came across Alan Watts, and he sounded like an unlikely philosopher. His name evoked the image of a paper goods sales rep on a small regional industrial estate. But through Watts and his writing, I was exposed directly to the ideas of Zen Buddhism. I was suspicious at first, perceiving Zen Buddhism to be a religion rather than a philosophy. I wasn’t interested in the Four Noble Truths, or the Eightfold Path, and I certainly didn’t believe in karma or reincarnation.
All the same, I read a couple of Watts’s books. They made a significant impact on me. The Meaning of Happiness (1940) and The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951) are striking primers to his work, and they underlined what Rowe was already teaching me: that life had no intrinsic meaning, any more than a piece of music had an intrinsic ‘point’. Life was, in Zen parlance, yugen — a kind of elevated purposelessness.
Watts, like Rowe, showed me how we construct our own meanings about life. That nothing is a given and, since everything is uncertain, we must put together a world view that might fit roughly with the facts, but is never anything other than a guess — a working fiction. This, too, is a typical Zen understanding — that life cannot be described, only experienced. Trying to see all of life is like trying to explore a vast cave with a box of matches.
Impressed though I was, I more or less forgot about Watts after I finished his books, and pursued my career as a fiction writer. I was weary of introspection. Then, years later, a bad spell in my life propelled me back into a chasm. In 2004, three close friends died in sudden succession. One died in front of my eyes. Another was murdered. A third succumbed to cancer. My depression — and that original sense of meaninglessness — resurfaced. I turned to Watts again. This time, it was as if I was reading for dear life.
Alan Watts had been prolific in his 58 years. He died in 1973, after producing not only 27 books but also scores of lectures, all of which were available online. They had intriguing titles such as ‘On Being Vague’, ‘Death’, ‘Nothingness’ and ‘Omnipotence’. I stopped writing novels and worked my way through every one of them instead.
I found a DVD of an animation of Watts by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame). I discovered that Van Morrison had written a song about him, and that Johnny Depp was a follower. But he remained largely unknown in Britain, even though he was English, albeit an expatriate.
Watts was born in 1915 in Chislehurst, Kent. His father had been a sales rep for the Michelin tyre company and his mother was a housewife whose father had been a missionary. In later life, Watts wrote of mystical visions he’d had after suffering fever as a child. During school holidays — while he was a scholar at King’s School in Cambridge — he went on trips with the Buddhism enthusiast Francis Croshaw, who first developed his interest in Eastern religion.
With penetrating eyes like Aleister Crowley’s, he described himself as a ‘spiritual entertainer’
By the age of 16, Watts was the secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge, which was run by the barrister Christmas Humphreys. But Watts spoiled his chances of a scholarship to Oxford because one examination essay was judged ‘presumptuous and capricious’. And, despite his obviously brilliant mind, Watts never achieved a British university degree. This, perhaps, is another of his qualities that chimes with my own spirit — I too left school with only two A-levels, and am, like Watts, an autodidact.
As a young man, Watts worked in a printing house and then a bank. During this time, he hooked up with the Serbian ‘rascal guru’ Dimitrije Mitrinović — a follower of the Armenian spiritual teacher GI Gurdjieff and the Russian esotericist PD Ouspensky — who became a major influence on his thinking.
At the age of 21, in 1936, he attended the World Congress of Faiths at the University of London. There, he heard the renowned Zen scholar DT Suzuki speak, and was introduced to him. Later that year, Watts published his first book The Spirit of Zen.
That same year, he met the American heiress Eleanor Everett, whose mother was involved with a traditional Zen Buddhist circle in New York. He married Eleanor in 1938 and they moved to America, where he trained as an Episcopal priest, before leaving the ministry in 1950, thus separating once and for all from his Christian roots. From then on he concentrated on the study and communication of Eastern philosophical ideas to Western audiences.
I felt powerfully attracted to Alan Watts. Not only to his ideas, but to him, personally. Watts was no dry, academic philosopher. With eyes hooded and penetrating like Aleister Crowley’s, he was a jester as well as a thinker, describing himself as a ‘spiritual entertainer’. Aldous Huxley described him as ‘a curious man. Half monk and half racecourse operator.’ Watts wholeheartedly agreed with Huxley’s characterization. He carried a silver cane ‘for pure swank’, he hung out with Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac (he is even parodied in On the Road as Arthur Whale). His English public school-educated voice was rich and deep, like a prophet’s, and his laugh juicy and contagious.
But it was his thinking that most excited me. He was, if not the earliest, then certainly the foremost translator of Eastern philosophical ideas to the West. In some ways, his interpretations were radical — for instance, he dismissed the core Zen idea of zazen (which meant spending hours seated in contemplative meditation) as unnecessary. ‘A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away,’ was his forgiving interpretation of zazen. Slightly less forgiving was his comment on Western Zen enthusiasts, whom he mocked as ‘The uptight school … who seem to believe that Zen is essentially sitting on your ass for interminable hours.’ It was a great relief to read this for someone like me, who found the idea of excessive meditation as unhealthy as the idea of excessive masturbation.
Watts also rejected the conventional ideas of reincarnation and the popular understanding of karma as a system of rewards and punishments carried out, lifetime after lifetime. It was this radical approach that made his ideas so fresh — he had no time for received wisdom, even from those who claimed to know Zen inside out.
The idea of walking around with a metaphorical stick to whack yourself with is foreign to a Zen master
Many Zen ideas have become debased into ‘new age’ philosophy, basely transmuted into wishful thinking, quasi-religious mumbo jumbo and the narcissistic fantasies of the ‘me generation’. But before the beatniks and the hippies got hold of it, Zen philosophy, as described by Watts, was hard-edged, practical, logical and, in some ways, oddly English in tone, as it had deep strands of skepticism and humor. (You’ll never see Christian saints laughing. But most of the great sages of Zen have smiles on their faces, as does Buddha.)
Zen and Taoism are more akin to psychotherapy than to religion, as Watts explained in his book Psychotherapy East and West (1961). They are about finding a way to maintain a healthy personality in a culture that tends to tangle you up in a lot of unconscious logical binds. On the one hand, you are told to be ‘free’ and, on the other, that you should follow the demands of the community. Another example is the instruction that you must be spontaneous.
These kinds of snags, or double binds, according to Zen writings, produce inner tension, frustration, and neurosis — what Buddhism calls dukkha. Watts saw his job, via Zen philosophy, to teach you to think clearly, so that you could see through conventional thinking to a place where your mind could be at peace inside a culture that could have been designed to generate anxiety.
But, although he was an entertaining writer who presented his ideas with a brilliant clarity, Watts had a difficult job on his hands — mainly because Zen and Taoism are so fundamentally counter-intuitive to the Western mind. Western philosophers and laymen find Eastern thinkers frustrating because Buddhist sages don’t have the same emphasis on the power of language, reason and logic to transform the self or to ‘know’, in the way Westerners think of the word.
The riddles, or koans, that Zen thinkers speak in are intended to trip you up and make you realize how inadequate words — either spoken or inner dialogue — are in making sense. Zen emphasizes intuition and mushin, that is, an empty mind, over planning and thought. The ideal is that your mind can be unblocked from maya (which means both illusion and play) and thus acquire a kind of resonance or instant reflection, or munen, which translates awkwardly as now/mind/heart.
This makes it alien to Western philosophical traditions, which tend to distrust spontaneity, since it supposedly clears the way for the dominance of brute animal instincts and dangerous passions. But the idea of walking around with a metaphorical big stick with which to whack yourself if you make a mistake, or get carried away by your emotions, is foreign to a Zen master.
Zen, after all, was used by the Samurai warriors, who had to strike immediately without reflection or die. Intuition, in a healthy soul, is more important than conscious reflection. Millions of years of evolution have made the human unconscious wise, not reckless. You can find similar ideas in modern books such as Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, which emphasizes the value of gut reactions.
Zen started as a reaction against the highly conventionalized and ritualized Japanese society from which it emerged. This must have struck a chord with Watts, who grew up at a time when British society — hidebound, introverted and conventional — was not so different from the self-controlled, ‘uptight’ world of the Japanese. In such a society, spontaneous behavior becomes impossible.
The word Zen is a Japanese way of pronouncing chan, which is the Chinese way of pronouncing the Indian Sanskrit dhyana or sunya, meaning emptiness or void. This is the basis of Zen itself — that all life and existence is based on a kind of dynamic emptiness [a view now supported by modern science, which sees phenomena at a subatomic level popping in and out of existence in a ‘quantum froth’].
In this view, there is no ‘stuff’, no difference between matter and energy. Look at anything closely enough — even a rock or a table — and you will see that it is an event, not a thing. Every ‘thing’ is, in truth, happening. This too, accords with modern scientific knowledge. Furthermore, there is not a ‘multiplicity of events’. There is just one event, with multiple aspects, unfolding. We are not just separate egos locked in bags of skin. We come out of the world, not into it. We are each expressions of the world, not strangers in a strange land, flukes of consciousness in a blind, stupid universe, as evolutionary science teaches us.
The emphasis on the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive characteristic. In our Western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.
It tries to have you understand, without arguing the point, that there is no purpose in getting anywhere if, when you get there, all you do is think about getting to some other future moment. Life exists in the present or nowhere at all, and if you cannot grasp that, you are simply living a fantasy.
For all Zen writers life is, as it was for Shakespeare, akin to a dream — transitory and insubstantial. There is no ‘rock of ages cleft for thee’. There is no security. Looking for security, Watts said, is like jumping off a cliff while holding on to a rock for safety — an absurd illusion. Everything passes and you must die. Don’t waste your time thinking otherwise. Neither Buddha nor his Zen followers had time for any notion of an afterlife. The doctrine of reincarnation can be more accurately thought about as a constant rebirth, of death throughout life, and the continual coming and going of universal energy, of which we are all part, before and after death.
Another challenge for Western thinkers when struggling with Zen is that, unlike Western religion and philosophy, it has no particular moral code. The Noble Truths are not moral teachings. Zen [unlike Mahayana Buddhism with its ‘Eightfold Path’] makes no judgment about good or bad, except to say that they are both necessary to make the universe dynamic.
Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, there is no idea of ‘good’ out to destroy ‘evil’, or vice versa. Evil cannot be destroyed, any more than good can, because they are polar opposites of the same thing, like poles of a magnet. Destruction is as necessary as creation. Chaos must exist if we are to know what order is. Both aspects of reality, in tension with one another, are necessary to keep the whole game going: the unity of opposites.
This can lead to some fairly shocking moral reasoning. When the American composer and Zen follower John Cage was asked, ‘Don’t you think there’s too much suffering in the world?’, he answered, ‘I think there’s just the right amount.’ This encapsulates, and yet somewhat satirizes the Zen world view — that the dark and the light, the negative and the positive, the yin and the yang, are all necessary parts of the overall whole.
Behind this thinking is the idea that, for the accomplished follower of Zen, moralists are dangerous because they will destroy everything in pursuit of their vision of ‘the good’. Straightforward greed might result in the destruction of the local village to get their wealth and their women — but that won’t be too bad because it will preserve the wealth and the women.
A ‘cutting-up’ attitude to life gives us dead knowledge, not live knowledge
However, if you are on a moral crusade, you will destroy everything in your wake. And who can deny that the history of the 20th century bears out this view, with Nazi and Communist ideologies causing such havoc? After all, Hitler was an idealist, too. So Confucius — who was not, admittedly, part of the Zen tradition, though he influenced it — puts the greatest value not on absolute good, but on ‘human-heartedness’, or jen. If you are human-hearted, you are unlikely to want to do any great ill, even without a great moral vision to guide you. And, even if you do, the damage you cause will be limited by your own self-interest.
This lack of a clear moral code is perhaps why Zen is not a philosophy wholly appropriate for the young or immature mind. In the 1950s, Watts critiqued the Beatnik appropriation of Zen in his book Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen (1959). The apparent fatalism of Zen seemed to open the door for an individual to do ‘whatever they like’. Watts thought the Beats were childish, although he did suggest that their behavior also revealed a clever paradox: that absolute fatalism implies absolute freedom. Again, you can look at it both ways.
In fact, Zen isn’t fatalistic. Rather, it accepts something that Western philosophy finds hard to grasp — that two contradictory truths are possible at the same time. It just depends on which way you look at it. The world is not a logically consistent one, but a profoundly paradoxical one. Again, this is illustrated in science, which shows that two things can be one at the same time — light, for instance, acts as both a particle and a wave. The Zen masters say the same thing about human life. Perhaps you are doing ‘it’. Perhaps ‘it’ is doing you. There is no way of knowing which is which. It is like a formal dance so deft that you cannot tell who is leading, and who is following.
While it is refreshing that Zen philosophy is supported in many ways by present scientific knowledge, it is also a critique of scientific thought. The scientific tradition requires things up to be cut up — both mentally and physically — into smaller and small pieces to investigate them. It suggests that the only kind of knowledge is empirical and that the rigid laws of scientific method are the only kind that are valid.
Zen implies that this is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater — scientific thinking might be immensely useful, but it also does violence to a meaningful conception of life. It tends to screen out the essential connectedness of things. We live in an imprecise world. Nature is extraordinarily vague. Science promotes the idea of hard, clear ‘brute facts’ — but some facts are soft. A ‘cutting-up’ attitude to life gives us dead knowledge, not live knowledge.
The fundamental nature of the world is not something you can get too precise about. The basis of one’s life and thought must always remain undefined. Some ideas — such as the Tao, the ‘way of things’ — come to us, we can’t just go out and get them. They are mysterious and unknown.
This kind of thinking is anathema to the modern scientist who thinks that everything can be known and finally will be known. But, Watts argued, it is impossible to appreciate the universe unless you know when to stop investigating. Truth is not to be found by picking everything to pieces like a spoilt child.
It is impossible, of course, to summarize Zen in a few thousand words. In fact it doesn’t ask to be summarized. The first principle of Zen, voiced by the philosopher Lao Tzu, is ‘Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.’ Zen is not proselytizing, quite the reverse. It asks you to come to it, in supplication, and to tease it out. Another Zen saying is, ‘He who seeks to persuade does not convince.’
But it convinced me. After spending nearly two years studying Zen, Taoism and the works of Alan Watts, I think I genuinely achieved a sort of satori — a freedom from the inner weights and contradictions of ordinary life. When a student asked Watts what enlightenment felt like, he said if felt very ordinary — but like walking slightly in the air, an inch above the ground. And that is exactly how I felt — every day.
I don’t know how long the experience lasted. Perhaps as long as a year, perhaps even longer. All that time, Watts and the Zen idea were there in my head, informing my thoughts and actions. The background noise, the static of worry and gabble that informed my old life had disappeared. My head was clear. The philosophy entirely permeated me. My life was truly more joyful than it had ever been. Nothing bothered me. I felt full of energy and optimism.
Then one day, I lost the vision. I don’t know how it happened. A period of stress and clinical depression took me under and, when I surfaced again, Watts and the Tao had left my thoughts. I was alone again, puzzled and conflicted. I knew the words, but I couldn’t hear the music anymore. The old thoughts and habits I had been conditioned into since birth reasserted themselves. Once more, I worried about things pointlessly, and got lost in the past and the future instead of existing in the dynamic present.
But then, I shouldn’t have been surprised. What Alan Watts taught, above all else, is that everything is transitory. Everything comes and goes. Watts himself did not exist in a perpetual state of spiritual bliss. He died an alcoholic. He had been a lifelong heavy drinker. His later life was not easy — in the last years, he cut a Dickensian figure, working desperately to support his seven children and, presumably, his two ex-wives (by the time he died he was on a third). But he was by no accounts an ‘unhappy’ drunk. He never expressed guilt or regret about his drinking and smoking, and never missed a lecture or a writing deadline.
If Watts’s own example is to be taken into account, being ‘enlightened’ doesn’t always make you happy. Yet it is still something worth attaining. It brings clarity and peace, even if it doesn’t protect you from all of life’s vicissitudes.
My personal ‘enlightenment’ came and went — but I hope it might return. Perhaps this article will be the first step in that direction. It feels like it is. It might be in my hands or it might not. But if I can find the path again, then I will stay on it — until I lose it. And, as the Zen saying instructs, if I see the Buddha, I will kill him. Because the moment you start thinking of yourself as ‘enlightened’, you are not.
Off-beat Zen by Tim Lott
The subject of this seminar is going to be Taoism as contained in the teachings of Lao-Tzu and Chuang Tzu who lived approximately 400 years or more before Christ, separated probably by 100 years from each other. And as is often repeated, Lao-Tzu started out by explaining that "The Tao which can be explained is not the eternal Tao," and then went on to write a book about it, also saying "Those who say do not know; those who know do not say." Because there's nothing to be explained. You must remember that the word "explain" means to lay out in a plane. That is, to put it on a flat sheet of paper.
All mathematics is done on a flat sheet of paper until very recent times. But it makes a great deal of difference, because this world isn't flat. If you draw a circle on a flat sheet of paper it has an inside and an outside which are different. On the other hand if you draw a circle around a doughnut the inside and the outside are the same. So what we are first of all saying is that the Tao - whatever that is - cannot be explained in that sense.
So it's important, first of all, to experience it so we know what we're talking about. And in order to go into Taoism at all we must begin by being in the frame of mind which can understand it. You cannot force yourself into this frame of mind, any more than you can smooth disturbed water with your hand. But let's say that our starting point is that we forget what we know - or think we know. That we suspend judgment about practically everything, returning to what we were when we were babies. When we have not yet learned the names, or language, and although we have extremely sensitive bodies - very alive senses - we have no means of making an intellectual or verbal commentary on what is going on.
Now can you consider that as your state? Just plain ignorant, but still very much alive. And in this state you just feel what is without calling it anything at all. You know nothing at all about anything called an external world in relation to an internal world. You don't know who you are. You haven't even got the idea of the word "you" or "I." It's before all that. Nobody has taught you self-control. So you don't know the difference between the noise of a car outside and a wandering thought that enters your mind. They're both something that happens. You don't identify the presence of the thought, which might be just an image of a passing cloud in your mind's eye, and the passing automobile. They happen. Your breath happens. Light all around you happens. Your response to it by blinking happens.
So you simply are really unable to do anything. There's nothing that you're supposed to do. Nobody's told you anything to do. You're unable, completely, to do anything but be aware of the buzz. The visual buzz, the audible buzz, the tangible buzz, the smellable buzz, all buzz that's going on. Ha ha. Watch it! Don't ask who's watching it. You've no information about that yet, that it requires a watcher for something to be watched. That's somebody's idea. You don't know that.
And Lao-Tzu says, "The scholar learns something every day. The man of Tao unlearns something every day... until he gets back to non-doing." And that's what we are in at the moment.
Just simply, without comment, without an idea in your head, be aware. What else can you do? Don't try to be aware. You are. You'll find, of course, that you can't stop the commentary going on inside of your head. But at least you can regard it as interior noise. Listen to your chattering thoughts as you listen to the singing of a kettle. We don't know what it is we are aware of. Especially when you take it all together. And there's this sense of something going on. I won't even say that. This. You see? This.
Well, I said it was going on. That's an idea. It's a form of words. Obviously I wouldn't know if anything was going on unless I could say something else wasn't. Huh. I know motion by contrast with rest. So while I am aware of motion I am also aware of rest, so maybe what's at rest isn't going on and what's motion is going on. So I won't use that concept because I've got to include both. And if I say, "Well here it is," that excludes what isn't - like space. And if I say "this" it excludes "that." Ha ha ha, I'm reduced to silence!
But you can feel what I'm talking about, can't you? That's what's called "Tao" in Chinese. That's where we begin.
Tao means basically "way" - and so "course" - the course of Nature. Of which Lao-Tzu says "Tao fa tzu yan," which means - the "fa" - "Tao fa" means the way of functioning of the Tao. "Tzu yan" is of itself, so. That is to say, is spontaneous.
Watch again what's going on. If you approach it with this wise ignorance you will see that you are witnessing a happening. In other words, in this primal way of looking at things there's no difference between what you do on the one hand and what happens to you on the other. It's all the same process. Just as your thoughts happen the car happens outside. The clouds. The stars.
When a Westerner hears that he thinks of fatalism or determinism. That's because he still preserves in the back of his mind two illusions. One is that what is happening is happening to him, and therefore he is the victim of circumstances. But when you are in primal ignorance there is no you different from what's happening, and therefore it's not happening to you. It's just happening. Ha ha. So is you, you know, what you call "you," what you later call "you" is part of the happening. You're part of the Universe. Although the Universe, strictly speaking, has no parts. We only call certain features of the Universe parts of it, but you can't disconnect them from the rest without causing them to be not only nonexistent but never to have existed. Ha ha.
So when you have this happening the other illusion that a Westerner is liable to have is that it's determined in the sense that what is happening now follows necessarily from what happened in the past. But you don't know anything about that in your primal ignorance. Cause and effect? Why, obviously not! Ha ha ha! Because if you're really na•ve you see that the past is the result of what's happening now. It goes backwards into the past like a wake goes backwards from a ship. All the echoes are disappearing, finally, going away and away and away. And it's all starting now. What we call the future is nothing, the great void. And everything comes out of the great void.
That's the way a na•ve person - and as I explained if any of you were at my lecture last night, if you shut your eyes and contemplate reality only with your ears you'll find there's a background of silence and all sounds are coming out of it. They start out of silence. If you close your eyes - listen, just listen. [rings meditation bell] You see the bell came out of nothing, floated off, off, off, off, and then stopped being a sonic echo and became a memory, which is another kind of echo. A wake. It's very simple!
It all begins now. And therefore it's spontaneous. It isn't determined. That's a philosophical notion. Nor is it capricious! That's another philosophical notion. As we distinguish between what is orderly and what is random. Of course we don't really know what randomness is. If you talk to a mathematician about randomness he'll make you feel quite weird.
What is so of itself? "Sui generis" in Latin. That means coming into being spontaneously on its own accord. It's the real meaning of "virgin birth." Sui generis. And that's the world. That is the Tao. That makes us feel scared. Perhaps. Because we say "Well if all this is happening spontaneously who's in charge? I'm not in charge, that's pretty obvious! Ha ha ha! But I hope there's God or somebody looking after all this." Though why should there be someone looking after it? Because then there's a new worry that you may not have thought of. Like who takes care of the caretaker's daughter while the caretaker's busy taking care? Who guards the guards? Who supervises the police? Who looks after God? Well you say "God doesn't need looking after." Oh. Oh, then nor does this!
Tao. Because Tao is a certain kind of order. And this kind of order is not quite what we call order. When we arrange everything geometrically in boxes or in rows that's a very crude kind of order. But when you look at a plant it's perfectly obvious that this bamboo plant has order. We recognize at once that that is not a mess. But it is not symmetrical. And it is not geometrical looking. It looks like a Chinese drawing. Because the Chinese appreciated this kind of order so much that they put it into their painting. Non-symmetrical order.
In the Chinese language this is called "li" and the character for li means originally the markings in jade. Also means the grain in wood, and the fiber in muscle. We could say too that clouds have li, marble has li, the Human body has li. And we all recognize it, and the artist copies it whether he is a landscape painter, a portrait painter, or an abstract painter, or a non-objective painter. They all are trying for li.
And the interesting thing is that although we all know what it is there's no way of defining it. But because Tao is the course we can also call li the watercourse, because the patterns of li are patterns of flowing water. And we see those patterns of flow memorialized as it were in sculpture, in the grain in wood (which is the flow of sap), in marble, in bones, in muscles. All these things are patterned according to the basic principles. That is the fa, Tao fa, the Tao's principle of flow.
There is a book called "Sensitive Chaos" by Theodore Svenk with many many studies and photographs of flow patterns. And there in the patterns of flowing water you will see all kinds of motifs from Chinese art. Immediately recognizable, including the S-curve in the circle, the yang-yin, like this.... See?
So li means then the order of flow, the wonderful dancing pattern of liquid. Because Lao-Tzu likens Tao to water. "The great Tao," he says, "flows everywhere, to the left and to the right. [Like water]," - I'm interpolating that - "it loves and nourishes all things but does not lord it over them." "Because," he says elsewhere, "water always seeks the lowest level, which men abhor." Because we're always trying to play games of one-upmanship and be on top of each other. Well, Lao-Tzu explains that the top position is the most insecure. Everybody wants to get to the top of the tree. But then if they do the tree will collapse.
That's the fallacy of American democracy. You too might be president. The answer is, no one but a maniac would want to be president! [Laughter] Who wants to be put in charge of a runaway truck? [Laughter]
So, Lao-Tzu says that the basic position is the most powerful. And this we can see at once in Judo, or Aikido, which are wrestling arts or self-defensive arts where you always get underneath the opponent, and so he falls over you if he attacks you. The moment he moves to be aggressive you go either lower than he is, or in a smaller circle than he's moving. And you have spin if you know Aikido. You're always spinning, and you know how something rapidly spinning exercises centrifugal force. So if somebody comes into your field of centrifugal force he gets flung out, but by his own bounce. Huh, it's very curious. So, therefore, the watercourse way is the way of Tao.
Now, that seems to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and Irish Catholics... lazy... spineless... passive. And I'm always being asked when I talk about things, "If people did what you suggest wouldn't they become terribly passive?" Well, from a superficial point of view I would suggest that a certain amount of passivity would be an excellent corrective for our kind of culture. Because we are always creating trouble by doing good to other people. [Laughter] You know, we wage wars for people's benefit. [Laughter] And educate the poor for their benefit, so that they desire more things which they can't get. I mean, that sounds rather callous. But our rich people are not happy, whereas the poor people of Haiti are - to judge by the way they laugh. And we think-- we're sorry, really, not for the poor but for ourselves. Guilty.
So a certain amount of doing nothing, and stopping rushing around, would cool everything. But also it must be remembered that passivity is the root of action. Where do you suppose you're going to get energy from, just by being energetic? No, you can't get energy that way. That is exhausting yourself. To have energy you must sleep, but also much more important than sleep is what I told you at the beginning. Passivity of mind, mental silence. Not-- you can't, as I tried to explain, be passive, as an exercise that's good for you. You can only get to that point by realizing there's nothing else you can do. So for God's sake don't cultivate passivity as a form of progress. That's like playing because it's good for your work. [Laughter] You never get to play! [Laughter]
PHILOSOPHY OF THE TAO BY Alan Watts
(Lecture by Alan Watts, circa 1970 transcribed by Scott Lahteine)
In the Judeo-Christian religions, one hears much of “fear of God” and “love of God”—also “obedience to God”. In early Chinese Taoism, one speaks not so much in terms of “love of Tao”—and certainly not “fear of Tao”!—but rather of “being in harmony with the Tao”.
Fear of Tao is completely ludicrous! Tao loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them! Tao is something totally friendly and benevolent—friendly to all beings, not just those who believe in it or “accept it as their Savior!” Thus Tao is the sort of thing which is impossible to believe in without loving. But the loving of Tao is not stressed for the simple reason that it is so obvious. To command love of Tao would be as silly as commanding one to love his closest friend!
By contrast the Bible commands us to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy might”. We are also enjoined to seek salvation; it is our duty to seek salvation, our very purpose is to be saved. Indeed some Protestant sects say that the purpose of man is to “love God and enjoy Him forever”.
Now, is it not strange that the Taoist Sage abides in the Tao, not because he is “commanded” to nor because it is his “duty”, but simply because he loves to! He is not seeking anything from the Tao; he is not striving to “save his soul”, nor does he seek any “future reward”; he has no purpose in abiding in the Tao; he is in the Tao simply because it is delightful to be there.
The situation is like that of the many children and friends who visit us—sometimes for extended periods—in our country house in Elka Park. They abide with us not because they are commanded to, or because it is their duty, nor do they “discipline themselves” for some future good. They come because—to use the children’s words—“we like it here”.
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