At the age of sixty, I seem to be coming full circle -- back to one of my favorite 60's personalities, Alan Watts.
I've been reading or re-reading quite a few of his books lately. Most recently, "The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are."
For a long time I thought of Watts as a philosophical light-weight, a popularizer of Eastern wisdom who possessed more wit than substance. But now he seems to me to get things almost exactly right, which shows how I've changed.
I saw Watts once in person. He gave a talk at San Jose State College my freshman or sophomore year, probably 1966 or 1967.
I was sitting in the front row of the meeting hall, where the doors were open to the warm California air. Watts had started speaking from the lectern. A dog ran in, stopped, looked up at Watts, and began to bark like crazy.
Watts glanced down at it. Almost instantly, in one smooth flowing motion, he picked up his water glass and threw the contents at the dog. Watts had a good aim.
The dog shook his head, trying to get dry, and trotted out the door. Watts kept on speaking, barely missing a beat.
I learned more about Zen and Taoism from that non-verbal episode than from everything else he said that night, all of which I've forgotten.
So...who is Alan Watts? Who am I? Who are you? It just takes a few pages before The Book points to an answer.
This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.
As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the entire universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals.
Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated "egos" inside bags of skin.
I like how Watts rarely cites religious or mystical literature in support of his arguments. He just lays out how he sees things, using common sense, science, and everyday experience to make his case.
Even though The Book was first published in 1966, scientifically it has held up well. If anything, modern neuroscience supports more strongly now Watts' contention that we aren't passive imbibers of reality, but rather its creator (in a very real sense).
Apart from your brain, or some brain, the world is devoid of light, heat, weight, solidity, motion, space, time, or any other imaginable feature. All these phenomena are interactions, or transactions, of vibrations with a certain arrangement of neurons.
Thus vibrations of light and heat from the sun do not actually become light or heat until they interact with a living organism, just as no light-beams are visible in space unless reflected by particles of atmosphere or dust. In other words, it "takes two" to make anything happen.
So we aren't the passive recipient of God's creation. Dualistic notions such as creator/creation, spirit/soul, mind/body, good/evil, universal/individual, and the like are a limited view of how things truly are.
Which is...who knows? There's no way to say, because sayings concern objects and the Whole Shebang ("how things truly are") can't be an object since it is everything.
Watts honors it with capital letters: IT.
The problem is that IT is so much more myself than I thought I was, so central and so basic to my existence, that I cannot make it an object. There is no way to stand outside IT, and, in fact, no way to do so. For so long as I am trying to grasp IT, I am implying that IT is not really myself.
If it were possible, I am losing the sense of it by attempting to find it. This is why those who really know that they are IT invariably say they do not understand it, for IT understands understanding, not the other way about. One cannot, and need not, go deeper than deep!
Religion, then, is useless. It's a quest for what hasn't been lost. A pointless exercise. So is every other form of spiritual pursuit, unless carried on in a spirit of play.
It's fine to engage in spiritual practices, Watts says, just as it's fine to dance or play the piano. There aren't really reasons for doing these things (or anything, for that matter). You just do it.
Or, do IT.
I like Watts' final sentences. Not because I understand them. Because I don't.
To come on like IT -- to play at being God -- is to play the Self as a role, which is just what it isn't. When IT plays, it plays at being everything else.