Here's another of the blog posts where I share notes I take while listening to audio recordings of talks by Alan Watts, thanks to Sam Harris making these available on his Waking Up app. I've now shared summaries of all of the talks in the Tao of Philosophy section.
I'll be taking a break from my Alan Watts listening, then probably I'll jump around and sample the many other Watts talks on the Waking Up app. I enjoyed this one about the Limits of Language, just as I have the other talks.
Watts is correct that the language we grow up with shapes how we view the world. The current issue of The New Yorker has an interesting article about how classical Chinese with its thousands of difficult to draw ideograms made it very difficult for the Chinese people to read and write their own language.
So in the 1900s ways were found to simplify Chinese, which made possible China's transformation into a global power. But the special character of Chinese remained, a subject Watts often alludes to his talks, such as how verbs often or usually lack a subject/noun, which is rare in English.
Limits of Language
Ideas are very powerful, not just emotions. Underneath the surface of every language are hidden beliefs. Like, the assumption that everything material is made of some basic stuff, as a carpenter makes things out of wood.
But is a tree made of wood? No, it is wood. Our language contains many ghosts. There isn't a flash of lightning. The flash is lightning. What are some hidden assumptions that underlie language and mathematics?
Organisms are made of something. Stuff had to be assembled by an outside intelligence, a boss. The boss is different from what he puts into shape, because common sense does not allow that things shape themselves. But in Chinese, nature means that which is so by itself.
To be made is to be commanded, by God or the laws of nature. Like a military command. God the Father is a beneficent parent.
At first an atom was viewed as not cuttable into smaller pieces. But a deeper look revealed that the atomic realm consists of particles and waves, which then looked more like a wavicle. Even smaller particles were found.
Through us, the universe is looking at itself. But you can't directly see the back of your head. The knower never becomes the object of knowledge. So there's always a profound mystery. You will never know what is really going on, because if you were, it would be like making love to a plastic woman.
Why I became a philosopher is because I always believed existence was weird. It's odd that we're here. You get a philosophical itch. Why is this so? Then you realize the real question is, how is it?
What is this it? If you got an answer, you wouldn't be able to put it into words. We always classify when you ask "What is it?" Man or woman. Republican or Democrat. Cat or dog. But with existence we need a group of all groups. We can't envision what the outside would be. So we can't answer the question, "What is it?"
Physicists give us the answer in terms of form, not substance. Seemingly wavicles must be of some thing, but they're not. It is the form that matters.
Matter comes from the Sanskrit root "to measure." So we get maya, illusion. In Chinese "li" is organic pattern. A grammatical illusion is that all verbs need subjects. What is the difference between a thing and an event? I close my fingers and I'm fisting. Handing is when my fingers are open.
Chinese is close to this, having only verbs, not nouns. When we divide the world into doers and doings, we lose sight of the possibility that the whole universe is a process. It's a ridiculous idea that a commander is always needed.
The world is a musical phenomenon. Good music is always only about itself. Listening to music is the meaning of it. Suchness. You are your form. You are what you're doing.
"You must go on living" is a double bind. We're not living in the now where reality lives. Only suckers put hope in the future. Aristocrats live in the past. Proletariat live in the present because they have nothing else. Bourgeousie live in the future.
They transform the future into a spiritual future. They will never die, being with God. This hope for the future is a hoax. Maybe I'll make spiritual progress if I work at yoga for 20-30 years. Because you're not fully alive now, you think that one day you will be.
If you were actually aware of how the world is, you couldn't describe it. We eat abstractions all the time. When you understand, you don't put your hope in time. Meditation is unlike any other human activity. You do it for its own sake, not to improve yourself.
Be completely in the here and now. Come to your senses. Yoga is the cessation of symbolizing. Until there is silence of the mind, eternal now eludes us.
Understand non-verbal reality. Very easy. Be fully aware without thinking. Can you hear the past or future? Can you hear anyone listening to something else? Contemplate what is. Then all these ghosts go away.
Jesus said, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." In India, Jesus wouldn't have been put to death. "I and the Father are one" -- they'd say, yes, so right.
But we have a delayed notion. Only at a certain age, if you've been with a certain guru. Here, you have to wait until you're dead to understand reality.
"I'm neurotic." "I'm frightened." "I'm dependent on material things." I need to get all that under control first. So you've got spiritual pride. You want to be rewarded for all the work you'll put in. Wouldn't it be great to be as free as the air? But you see that you're a mess.
You want to run away from making a mess, but you can't. There's nothing you can do to transform yourself into someone liberated, because you want this. You can't bite your own teeth. Or lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.
What does it mean if you can't do anything about it? The reason is that you don't really exist. That is, as an ego, a soul, a separate will. When you realize this, you're liberated. Zen: neither can you take hold of it, nor can you get rid of it. Not being able to get it, you get it.
This isn't fatalism. Ego is an abstraction, like "3" is a concept. So is one's self. There's a happening, but that's not you. By dying to yourself, finding you don't exist, you're reborn. Forgetting yourself, the universe flows on.