Alan Watts – Understanding Life

In this video, Alan Watts gives a powerful speech about who you are, what this all means and why the hell we are here on earth.

alan watts


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I believe that if we are honest with ourselves that the most fascinating problem in the world is Who am I what do you mean what do you feel when you say the word I I myself I don’t think there can be any more fascinating preoccupation than that because it’s so mysterious it’s so elusive because what you are in your inmost being escapes your examination in rather the same way that you can’t look directly into your own eyes without using a mirror you can’t bite your own teeth you can’t taste your own tongue and you can’t touch the tip of this finger with the

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tip of this finger and that’s why there’s always an element of profound mystery in the problem of who we are this problem has fascinated me for many years and I’ve made many inquiries what do you mean by the word I and there is a certain consensus about this a certain agreement especially among people who live in Western civilization most of us feel I ego myself my source of consciousness to be a center of awareness and of a source of action that resides in the middle of a bag of skin and so we have what I have called the

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conception of ourselves as a skin in capsulated ego now it’s very funny how we use the word I if we just refer to common speech we are not accustomed to say I am a body we rather say I have a body we don’t say I beat my heart in the same way as we say I walk I think I talk we feel that our heart beats itself and that has nothing very much to do with I in other words we don’t regard I myself as identical with our whole physical

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organism we regarded as something inside it and most Western people locate their ego inside their heads you are somewhere between your eyes and between your ears and the rest of you dangles from that point of reference it is not so in other cultures when a Chinese or Japanese person wants to locate the center of himself he points here not here here – what Japanese call the cockerel on Chinese called shin the heart mind some people also locate themselves at the solar plexus but by and large we locate ourselves between behind the eyes and somewhere between the ears as if within

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the Dome of the skull there was some sort of arrangement such as there is that the si si headquarters in Denver where there are men in great rooms surrounded with radar screens and all sorts of things and earphones on watching all the movements of planes all over the world so in the same way we have really the idea of ourselves as a little man inside our heads who has earphones on which bring messages from the ears and who has a television set in front of him which brings messages from the eyes and all sorts of electrode things there all over his body giving him signals from the hands and so on and he has a panel in front of him of buttons and dials and things and so he more or less controls the body but he isn’t the same as the body because I am in charge of what are called the voluntary actions and what are called

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involuntary actions of the body they happen to me I am pushed around by them but to some extent also I can push my body around this I have concluded is the ordinary average conception of what is oneself and look at the way children influenced by our cultural environment ask questions mummy who would I have been if my father had been someone else you see the child gets the idea from our culture that the father another gave him a body into which he was popped at some moment whether it was conception or whether it was partition is a little bit vague but there is in our whole way of thinking the idea that

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we are a soul a spiritual essence of some kind imprisoned inside a body and that we look out upon a world that is foreign to us in the words of the poet Houseman I a stranger and afraid in a world I never made and so therefore we speak of confronting reality facing the facts we speak of coming into this world and this whole sensation that we are brought up to have of being an island of consciousness locked up in a bag of skin facing outside us a world that is profoundly

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alien to us in the sense that what is outside me is not me this sets up a fundamental sensation of hostility and estrangement between ourselves and the so-called external world and therefore we go on to talk about the conquest of nature the conquest of space and view ourselves in a kind of battle array towards the world outside us I shall have much more to say about that in the second lecture but in the first now I want to examine the strange feeling of being an isolated self now actually it

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is absolutely absurd to say that we came into this world we didn’t we came out of it what do you think you are supposing this world is a tree are you leaves on its branches or are you a bunch of birds that settled on a dead old tree from somewhere else surely everything that we know about living organisms from the standpoint of the sciences shows us that we grow out of this world that we each one of us are what you might call simp terms of the state of the universe as a whole but you see that is not part of our common sense Western man has for many centuries been under the influence

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of two great myths when I use the word myth I don’t necessarily mean falsehood to me the word myth signifies a great idea in terms of which man tries to make sense of the world maybe an idea it maybe an image now the two images which have most profoundly influenced Western man are number one the image of the world as an artifact like a carpenter’s table or a jar made by a Potter indeed in the book of Genesis there comes the idea that man was originally a clay figurine made out of the earth by the Lord God who then breathed into this

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clay figurine and gave it life and the whole of Western thought is profoundly influenced through and through and through by the idea that all things all events all people all mountains all stars or flowers or grasshoppers all worms everything are artifacts they have been made and it is therefore natural for a Western child to say to its mother how was I made that would be quite an unnatural question for a Chinese child because the Chinese do not think of nature as something made they look upon it as something that grows and the two processes are quite

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different when you make something you put it together you assemble parts or you carve an image out of wood or stone working from the outside to the inside but when you watch something grow it works in an entirely different way it doesn’t assemble parts it expands from within and gradually complicates itself expanding outwards like a bulb blossoming like a seed turning into a plant but behind our whole thought in the West is the idea that the world is an artifact that it is put together by a celestial architect carpenter and artist who therefore knows how it was done when

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I was a little boy and I asked many questions which my mother couldn’t answer she used to resort in desperation to say my dear there are some things that we are not meant to know when I said well will we ever find out and she said yes when we die and we go to heaven it will all be made clear and I used to think that on wet afternoons in heaven we would all sit around the throne of grace and say to the Lord God now just why did you do it this way and how did you manage it that and he would explain it to make it all very clear the all questions would be answered because as we have popularly in popular theology understood the Lord God he is the mastermind who knows everything and if you ask the Lord God exactly how high is Mount Whitney nearest millimeter he

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would know exactly like that and would tell you any question the cosmic Encyclopedia Brittanica unfortunately this particular image or myth became too much for Western man because it was oppressive to feel that you are known through and through and watched all the time by an infinitely just judge I have a friend a very enlightened woman she’s a Catholic convert but a very enlightened Catholic and in her bathroom she has on the the pipe that connects the tank with the toilet seat a little framed picture of an eye and underneath in Gothic letters

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is written thou God seest me everywhere is this eye watching watching watching watching watching and judging you so that you always feel you’ll never really by yourself but the old gentleman is observing you and writing notes in his black book and this became too much for the West it became oppressive they had to get rid of it and so instead we got another myth the myth of the purely mechanical universe this was invented at the end of the 18th century became increasingly fashionable throughout the course of the nineteenth century and well into the 20th century so that it is today’s common sense very few people today really believe in God in the old sense they say they do but they really hope there is a God they

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don’t really have faith in God they they they they fervently wish that there was one and feel that they ought to believe that there is but the idea of the universe being ruled by that marvelous old gentleman is no longer plausible it isn’t that anybody’s disproved but it just somehow doesn’t go with the vast infinitude of galaxies and the immense light year distances between them and so on so instead it has become fashionable and it is nothing more than a fashion to believe that the universe is done stupid that intelligence values love and fine feelings reside only within the bag of the human epidermis and that outside that the thing is simply a kind of a chaotic stupid

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interaction of blind forces courtesy of dr. Freud for example biological life is based on something called libido which was a very very loaded word blind ruthless uncomprehending lust that’s the foundation of the human unconscious and similarly two thinkers like of the 19th century like MST echo even Darwin th Huxley and so on there was this notion that at the root of being is an energy and this energy is blind this energy is just energy and it’s utterly and totally stupid and our intelligence is an unfortunate accident by some weird freak

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of evolution we came to be these feeling and rational beings more or less rational and this isn’t ghastly mistake because here we are in a universe that has nothing in common with us it doesn’t share our feelings has no real interest in us we’re just a sort of cosmic fluke and therefore the only hope for mankind is to beat this irrational universe into submission and conquer it and mastered now all this was perfectly idiotic if you would think that the idea of the universe as being the creation of a benevolent old gentleman although he’s not so benevolent he takes a sort of this hurts me more than it’s going to

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hurt you sort of a dictator things you can have that on the one hand and if that becomes uncomfortable you can exchange it for its opposite the idea that the ultimate reality doesn’t have any intelligence at all at least that gets rid of the old bogey in the sky in exchange for a picture of the world that is completely stupid now these ideas don’t make any sense especially the last one because you cannot get an intelligent organisms such as a human being out of an unintelligent universe the saying in the New Testament that figs do not grow on thistles nor grapes on thorns applies

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equally to the world you do not find an intelligent organism living in an unintelligent environment look here is a tree in the garden and every summer it produces apples and we call it an apple tree because the tree apples that’s what it does all right now here is a solar system inside a galaxy among the peculiarities of this solar system is that at least on the planet Earth the thing peoples in just the same way that an apple tree apples now made me two million years ago

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somebody came from another galaxy in a flying saucer and had a look at this solar system and they looked it over and shrugged their shoulders and said just a bunch of rocks and they went away later on maybe 2 million years later they came around and they looked at it again and they said excuse me we thought it was a bunch of rocks but it’s peopling and it’s alive after all it has done something intelligent because you see we grow out of this world in exactly the same way that the apples grow on the apple tree if evolution means anything it means that but you see we curiously twisted we say well first of all in the beginning there was nothing but gas and rock and then intelligence happen to arise in it you know like a sort of fungus or slime on the top of the whole

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thing but we’re thinking in a way you see that disconnects the intelligence from the rocks where there are rocks watch out watch out because the rocks are going eventually to come alive [Music] where there are rocks watch out watch out because the rocks are going eventually to come alive and they’re going to have people crawling over them it’s only a matter of time just in the same way as the seed the acorn is eventually going to turn into the oak because it has the potentiality of that within it rocks are not dead you see it

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depends on what kind of attitude you want to take to the world if you want to put the world down you say oh well fundamentally it’s only just a lot of geology it’s a stupidity and it so happens that there’s a kind of a freak comes up in it which we call consciousness and that’s an attitude that you take when you want to prove to people that you’re a tough guy that you’re realistic that you face facts and that you don’t indulge in wishful thinking it’s just a matter of role-playing and you must be aware of these things their fashions in the intellectual world on the other hand if you feel warm hearted towards the universe you put it up instead of putting it down and you say about rocks they are really conscious but a very primitive form of consciousness because after all when I take even this crystal

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here which is glass and go well it makes a noise and that response that resonance is an extremely primitive form of consciousness our consciousness is much more subtle than that but when you hit a bell and it rings you touch a crystal and it responds inside itself I mean it has a very simple reaction it goes jangle inside whereas we go jangle with all sorts of colors and lights and intelligence ideas and thought it’s more complicated but both are equally conscious but conscious in different degrees that is a perfectly acceptable idea it’s just the opposite of the idea see all I’m saying is that minerals are a rudimentary form of consciousness whereas the other people are saying that consciousness is a complicated form of minerals you see on that what they want to do is to say everything is kind of yeah that’s what I want to say is for a

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you know let’s the life is a good show now then as we study man or any other living organism and try and describe him accurately and scientifically we find that our normal sensation of ourselves as isolated he goes inside a bag of skin is the hallucination it really is it’s absolutely nothing because when you describe human behavior all the behavior of a mouse or a rat or a chicken or anything you want to describe you find that as you try to describe its behavior accurately you must also describe the behavior of

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its environment supposing I walk and you want to describe the action of walking you can’t talk about my walking without also describing the floor because if you don’t describe the floor and the space in which I am moving all you will be describing is somebody swinging his legs in empty space so as to describe my walking you must describe the space in which you find me you know you couldn’t see me unless you could also see my background what stands behind me see if I myself if the boundaries of my skin were coterminous with your whole field of vision you wouldn’t see me at all you would see my bright red vest instead

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that’s why I put it on as evening to demonstrate this point and that would be the thing that filled your field of vision that that was the thing standing there you wouldn’t be me because in order to see me you have to see not only what is inside the boundary of my skin but you have to see what is outside it too now that’s terribly important really the fundamental ultimate mystery the only thing you need to know to understand the deepest metaphysical secrets is this that for every outside there is an inside and for every inside there is an outside and although they are different they go together there is in other words a secret conspiracy between all insides and all outsides and the conspiracy is this to look as different as possible and yet underneath to be identical

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because you don’t find one without the other like Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle note that agreed so there is a secret what is esoteric what is profound and what is deep is what we will call the implicit what is obvious and on the open is what we will call the explicit and I and my environment you and your environment are explicitly as different as different could be but implicitly you go together and this is discovered by the scientist when he tries as of the whole art of science is to describe what happens exactly and when he describes exactly what you do he finds out that you your behavior is not something that can be separated from the behavior of the world

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around you he realizes then that you are something that the whole world is doing just as when the sea has waves on it all right the sea the ocean is waving and so each one of us is a waving of the whole cosmos the entire works all there is and with each one of us its waving and saying you here I am only it does it differently each time because variety is the spice of life but you see the funny thing is we haven’t been brought up to feel that way instead of feeling that we each one of us are something that the whole realm of being is doing we feel that we are

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something that has come into the whole realm of being as a stranger when we were born we don’t really know where we came from because we don’t remember and we think when we die that’s just going to be that some people can toll themselves with the idea that they’re going to heaven or that they’re going to be reincarnated or they’re going to summer land or something I don’t people don’t really believe that but for most people it’s plausible the real thing that haunts them is that when they die they’re going to sleep and never going to wake up they’re going to be locked up in the safe deposit box of Darkness forever but that all depends you see upon a false notion of what is oneself now the reason why we have this false notion of ourselves as as far as I can understand it that we have specialized

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in one particular kind of consciousness being very general and rough we have two kinds of consciousness one I will call the spotlight and the other the floodlight the spotlight is what we call conscious attention and that is trained into us from childhood as the most valuable form of consciousness when the teacher in class says pay attention everybody stares it looks fast at the teacher like that that’s spotlight country fixing your mind on one thing at a time concentrate and even though you may not be able to have a very long attention span nevertheless you concentrate you use your spotlight one thing after another one thing after another flip flip flip flip flip flip flip flip like that but

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we also have another kind of consciousness which I’ll call the floodlight for example you can drive your car for several miles with a friend sitting next to you and your spotlight consciousness will be completely absorbed in talking to your friend nevertheless your floodlight consciousness will manage the driving of the car will notice all the stop lights the other idiots on the road and so on and you’ll get there safely without even thinking about it but our culture has taught us to specialize in spotlight consciousness and to identify ourselves with that form of consciousness alone I am my spotlight consciousness my conscious attention that is my ego that is me and very largely we ignore the floodlight now the floodlight consciousness is working all the time every nerve in that we have is

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its instrument you know you can go out to luncheon or something and you sit next to mrs. so-and-so and you go home and your wife says to you was mrs. so-and-so there yes i sat next to her well what was she wearing but I haven’t the faintest idea you saw but you didn’t notice now because we have been brought up to identify ourselves with the spotlight consciousness and the floodlight consciousness is undervalued we have the sensation of ourselves as being just the spotlight just the ego that looks and attends to this and that and the other and so we ignore and are unaware of the

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vast vast extent of our being people who by various methods become fully aware of their floodlight consciousness have what is called a mystical experience or a cosmic consciousness or what the Buddhists call Bodhi awakening the Hindus called moksha liberation because they discover that the real deep deep self that which you really are fundamentally and forever is the whole of being all that there is the works that’s you only that universal self that is you has the

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capacity to focus itself out ever so many different here and now’s so when you use the word I this is William James said is really a word of position like this or here just as they Sun or star has many rays so the whole cosmos expresses itself in you and you and you and you you with all the different variations it plays games it plays the John Doe game the Mary Smith game it plays the Beatle game the butterfly game the bird game pigeon game the fish game a star game just like these are games that differ from each other just like backgammon whist bridge poker pinochle or like waltz mazurka minuet and so on

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it dances with infinite variety but every single dance that it does that is to say you is what the whole thing is doing but you see we forget it we don’t know we brought up in a special way so that we are unaware of the connection unaware that each one of us is the is the works playing it this way for a while and so we have been taught to dread death as if that was the end of the show

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they won’t happen anymore and therefore to be afraid of all the things that might bring about their pain sickness suffering and if you don’t know if you’re not really vividly aware of the fact that you are basically the works you have no real joy in life you’re just a bundle of anxiety mixed up with guilt because you see when we bring children into the world we play awful games with them instead of saying how do you do welcome to the human race now my dear we are playing some very complicated games and these are the rules of the game we play I want you to understand them and then you learn them and then when you get a little bit older you may be able to think up some better rules instead of being quite direct with our children instead we say you’re here on probation

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you understand that and maybe when you grow up a bit you’ll be acceptable but until then you should be seen and not heard your your men and you’ve got to be educated in school and whipped until you’re human so that these attitudes which are inculcated into us in infancy go on into old age the way you start out is liable to be the way you finish so people going around fundamentally feeling that they don’t belong because their parents said to them in the first place look you don’t really belong here you’re here on sufferance you’re on probation you’re not a human being yet and people feel this right on into old age and so they figure that the universe is presided over by this awful kind of God the

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Father parent who yes has our best interest at heart is loving but who spares the rod spoils the child whom the Lord loveth he chased me so everybody sorted when’s it gonna hit next [Music] so don’t feel that they belong so we get this ghastly what I call Christian ego a little bit Jewish – who really feels that he doesn’t he’s homeless he doesn’t often even the Christians say we are sons of God by adoption and grace not real sons but by adoption and grace on sufferance and so comes the sensation

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music so characteristic of Western man and indeed of all highly civilized people of being a stranger in the earth a momentary flash of consciousness between two eternal blackness and therefore inconstant contentiousness with everything around you not only with other people but with the earth with the waters and the symbol of it all in our culture is the bulldozer where I live aboard a ferry boat there is opposite us across the water of walls opposite to us some lovely hills they

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are going to put houses there but they are going to try and put the sort of houses you would find in the suburban tract flock on a hill of all things because a good architect can make a house fit the hill he doesn’t have to destroy the hill to put a house on it and if you want to live on a hill obviously you want to live on a hill and you don’t want to destroy the hill by virtue of living on it but that’s what they do especially in California as Texas kind of flat and they don’t have to do that kind of thing but in California where we got lots of hills they always scrape the tops off them till they’re perfectly flat then they put houses on and then they scrape them off in terraces all the way down they upset the ecology of the hill and eventually all the houses fall down [Music]

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so what but by that time the payments have been made [Music] but that’s because the builder doesn’t feel that the external world is his own body it is the external world is your own body extended so he instead of going up to the hill and saying good afternoon I very much want to live here and I would want to like to know what kind of house you would like to have built on me an intelligent architect always does that instead of that he has a prejudice about what kind of a house as a house and he has to make the hill submit to this prejudice so he has to ruin the hill and get rid of it pretty much then put the house he’s absolutely out of his mind and he’s out of his mind because he doesn’t realize that the external world is his body when he realizes that he’ll get his mind back

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