“Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish [people] from other animals, and intelligent and sensitive people from morons.”
Alan Watts’ wonder-filled The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are from 1966, seems especially prescient considering how current it sounds even some 50 years later. For instance, through 3-D printing we hear about the possibility of plastic organs and replacing hearts and kidneys, lungs, and other organs to live in perpetuity. Watts has many things to say about our culture’s issues–fantasies and phobias–related to our fear of death.
“Perpetual leaves are, as we know, made of plastic, and there may come a time when surgeons will be able to replace all our organs with plastic substitutes, so that you will achieve immortality by becoming a plastic model of yourself.”
But more importantly his eastern-religious thoughts on death are refreshing, challenging, wise–and speak as directly to our culture now as then, especially on ideas about how to overcome self-righteous certainty. His thoughts on envisioning the fear in order to overcome it relate to Tim Ferriss’ advice on productivity and creative courage.
“Suppressing the fear of death makes you all the stronger. The point is only to know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that “I” and all other “things” now present will vanish, until this knowledge compels you to release them–to know it now as surely as if you had just fallen off the rim of the Grand Canyon…If you are afraid of death, be afraid. The point is to get with it, to let it take over–fear, ghosts, pains, transience, dissolution, and all. And then comes the hitherto unbelievable surprise; you don’t die because you were never born. You had just forgotten who you are.”
This insight is earned from his strong criticism of our western influenced “ego” and the “barbaric” Freudian-influenced individualism which cuts us off not only from others but from ourselves. His thoughts on the persona and the mask remind one of C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.
“…to confirm us in the illusion of separateness–to help us to be genuine fakes, is precisely what is meant by ‘being a real person.’ For the person, from the Latin persona, was originally the megaphone-mouthed mask used by actors in the open-air theaters of ancient Greece and Rome, the mask through (per) which the sound (sonus) came. In death we doff the persona, as actors take off their masks and costumes in the green room behind the scenes. And just as their friends come behind the stage to congratulate them on the performance, so one’s own friends should gather at the deathbed to help one out of one’s mortal role, to applaud the show, and even more, to celebrate with champagne or sacraements (according to taste) the great awakening of death.”
I now wonder how I would have reacted had I read some of Watts’ simple-powerful assessments of religious critiques, including the Bible had I read them 20 years ago when I went to seminary. I had decided early on that I was going to form a systematic way of analyzing and interpreting the Bible that would destroy Fundamentalist literalism on its own playing field. An impossible task for numerous reasons. Watts begins:
“Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the ‘saved’ from the ‘damned’, the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the out-group. Even religious liberals play the game of ‘we’re-more-tolerant-than-you.'”
It is “intellectual suicide,” he says, to irrevocably commit to any given religion because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world, which is the opposite of what faith should really be, an act of trust in the unknown.
“No considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency.”
The main emphasis of the “book” is that we are connected to the world, to each other. To deny that–as is the way of our culture–is folly or ignorance. We’re not “just [a] little me” who “came into this world” living temporarily “in a bag of skin.” That idea is an illusion, a hoax. And Watts doesn’t just want to make the point intellectually, but to show how it happens, so that we feel the fact, and can come away transformed with the cure.
His thoughts also speak to wisdom literature from all cultures and religions. Without directly saying so, he also connects with Carl Jung’s archetypal collective unconsciousness, as well as Joseph Campbell’s mythical connections. This is just to say that it’s not just an eastern emphasis that Watts brings to the table, but enlightenment thinking about ways for humanity to reconnect with others and self, and to be more affirmative and less hostile to the world, micro-and-macrocosmically. For those ready and willing to really wake up to a more holistic and integrated consciousness, Watts is a thinker to become familiar with. A challenging and thought-filled book.
Here he is on discovering the real you.