The Book on The Taboo
against knowing who you are
by Alan Watts


There is always something taboo, something repressed, unadmitted,
or just glimpsed quickly out of the corner of one`s eye because a
direct look is too unsettling. Taboos lie within taboos, like the skins
of onion.

Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual
suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new
vision of the world. FAITH is, above all, OPEN-NESS - an act of
trust in the unknown.

Story I

An ardent Jehovah`s Witness once tried to convince me that if there
were a God of love, he would certainly provide mankind with a 
reliable and infallible textbook for the guidance of conduct. I
replied that 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

Therefore The Book that I would like to slip to my children would
itself be slippery. It would slip them into a new domain, not of ideas
alone, but of experience and feeling. It would be a temporary medicine
not a diet; a point of departure, not a perpetual point of reference. They
would read it and be done with it, for if it were well and clearly written
they would not have to go back to it again and again for hidden
meanings or for clarification of obscure doctrines.

A poem:

There was a young man who said: Though
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see
Is the I that knows me
When I know that I know that I know.


The child is tricked into the ego-feeling by the attitudes, words, and
actions of the society which surrounds him - his parents, relatives,
teachers, and above all, his similarly hood-winked peers. Other people
teach us who we are. Their attitudes to us are the mirror in which we
learn to see ourselves, but the mirror is distorted. We seldom realize
that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own.
For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not
invent, but which were given to us by our society. We copy emotional
reactions from our parents, learning from them that excrement is
supposed to have a disgusting smell and that vomiting is supposed to
be an unpleasant sensation. The dread of death is also learned from their
anxieties about sickness and from their attitudes to funerals and corpses.
Our social environment has this power just because we do not exist
apart from a society. Society is our extended mind and body.

In the first place, the child is taught that he is responsible, that he is
a free agent, and independent origin of thoughts and actions - a
sort of miniature First Cause. He accepts this make-believe for the very
reason that it is not true. He can`t help accepting it, just as he can`t
help accepting membership in the community where he was born. He
has no way of resisting this kind of social indoctrination. It is
constantly reinforced with rewards and punishments. It is built into the
basic structure of the language he is learning. It is rubbed in repeatedly
with remarks such as It isn`t like you to do a thing like that or
Don`t be a copy-cat; be yourself 

In the second place, he is thereupon commanded, as a free agent, to do
things which will be acceptable only if done voluntarily ! We demand
that you love us because you want to and not because we say you ought

Knowing is a translation of external events into bodily processes,
and especially into states of the nervous system and the brain:
we know the world in terms of the body, and in accordance with its
structure. 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.


All winners need losers; all saints need sinners; all sages need

I define myself in terms of you; I know myself only in terms of what
is "other", no matter whether I see the "other" as below me or above
me in any ladder of values. If above, I enjoy the kick of self-pity,
if below, I enjoy the kick of pride. 
The more resolutely you plumb the question "Who or what am I?" - 
the more unavoidable is the realization that you are nothing at all
apart from everything else. The more you strive for some kind of
perfection or mastery - in morals, in art or in spirituality - the more
you see that you are playing a rarified and lofty form of the old
ego-game, and that your attainment of any height is apparent to
yourself and to others only by contrast with someone else`s depth
of failure. 

This understanding is at first paralyzing. You are in a trap-in the 
worst of all double-binds - seein that any direction you may take
will imply, and so evoke, its opposite. Your first reaction may be
simply: "To hell with it!" The only course may seem to be to forget
the whole effort and become absorbed in trivialities , or to check out
of the game by suicide or psychosis, and spend the rest of your days
blabbering in an asylum.

But, there is another possibility. Instead of checking out, let us
ask what the trap means. What is implied in finding yourself paralyzed,
unable to escape from a game in which all the rules are double-binds and
all moves self-defeating? The sense of paralysis is therefore the dawning
realization that this is nonsense and taht your independent ego is a fiction.
It simply isn`t there...The sense of "I", which should have been identified
with the whole universe of your experiences, was instead cut off and
isolated as a detached observer of that universe.But when you know 
that your separate ego is a fiction, you actually FEEL yourself as the
whole process and pattern of life. Experience and experiencer become
one experiencing, known and knower one knowing.

Each organism experiences this from a different standpoint and ina 
different way, for each organism is the universe experiencing itself in
endless variety.

The world outside your skin is just as much you as the world inside:
they move together inseparably, and at first you feel a little out of 
control because the world outside is so much vaster than the world
inside. Yet you soon discover that you are able to go ahead with
ordinary activities - to work and make decisions as ever, though
somehow this is less of a drag. Your body is no longer a corpse which
the ego has to animate and lug around. You do not ask what is the
value, or what is the use, of this feeling. Of what use is the universe?
What is the practical application of a million galaxies?

If you play music to make money, to outdo some other artist, to be
a person of culture, or to improve your mind, you are not really
playing - for your mind is not on the music. No work is well and
finely done unless it, too, is a form of play. To be released from the
double-bind is to see that LIFE IS AT ROOT PLAYING.
The universe in general and playing in particular are, in a special
sense, "meaningless": that is, they do not-like words and symbols-
signify or point to something beyond themselves, just as a Mozart
sonata conveys no moral or social message and does ot try to suggest
the natural sounds of wind, thunder or birdsong.

There is no point and no purpose. Everything is just a dancing pattern
of light and sound, water and fire, rhythm and vibration, electricity
and spacetime.

UNIVERSE is at root a magical illusion and a fabolous game, and
there is no separate "you" to get something out of it, as if life were
a bank to be robbed. The only real "you" is the one that comes and
goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every 
conscious being. For "YOU" is the universe looking at itself from
billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision
is forever new. What we see as death, empty space, or nothingness is
only the trough between the crests of this  enlessly waving ocean. It
is all part of the illusion that there should seem to be something to be
gained in the future, and that there is an urgent necessity to go on 
and on until we get it.

You depend on your enemies and outsiders to define yourself, and
without some opposition you would be lost? To see is to acquire,
almost instantly, the virtue of humor, and humor and self-righteousness
are mutually exclusive. Humor is the twinkle in the eye of a just
judge, who knows that he is also the felon in the dock. It does not
undermine his work and his function to recongize this. He plays the
role of judge all the better for realizing that on the next turn of the
Wheel of Fortune he may be the accused, and that if all the truth
were known, he would be standing there now.

If this is cynicism, it is at least loving cynicism - an attitude and an
atmosphere that cools off human conflicts more effectively than any
amount of physical or moral violence. For it recognizes that the real
goodness of human nature is its peculiar balance of love and
selfishness, reason and passion, spirituality and sensuality, mysticism
and materialism, in which the positive pole has always a slight edge over
the negative. It is not for a man to be either an angel or a devil, and the
would-be angels hsould realize that, as their ambition succeeds, they evoke
hordes of devils to keep the balance.

It comes to this: to be "viable", "livable" or merely "practical", life must
be lived as a game - and the "must" here expresses a condition not a
commandment. It must be lived in the spirit of play rather than work.

True humor is laughter at one`s Self - at the fabulous deception. Consider
death as the permanent end of consciousness, the point at which you
and your knowledge of the universe simply cease, and where you become
as if you had never existed at all. Consider it also on a much vaster
scale - the death of the universe at the time when all energy runs out. It
will be as if it had never happened. Likewise, when you are dead, you
will be as you were before you were conceived. So - there has been a
flash of consciousness or a flash of galaxies. It happened. Even if  there is
no one left to remember.

Conscious memory plays little part in our biological existence. Thus
as my sensation of "I-ness" of being alive, once came into being without
conscious memory or intent, so it will arise again and again, as the
"central"  Self - the IT - appears as the self/other situation in its myriads
of pulsating forms - always the same and always new. And if I forget
how many times I have been here, and in how many shapes, this forgetting
is the necessary interval of darkness between every pulsation of light.
I return in every baby born.

In looking out upon the world, we forget that the world is looking at
itself - through our eyes and IT-s.
What guarantee is there that the five senses, taken together, do cover
the whole of possible experience? They cover simply our actual
experience, our human knowledge of facts or events.

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