The Psychedelic Library Homepage

Books Menu Page

  The Joyous Cosmology

    Alan W. Watts


THIS IS, as I have said, a record not of one experiment with consciousness-changing drugs, but of several, compressed for reasons of poetic unity into a single day. At the same time I have more or less kept to the basic form which every individual experiment seems to take—a sort of cycle in which one's personality is taken apart and then put together again, in what one hopes is a more intelligent fashion. For example, one's true identity is first of all felt as something extremely ancient, familiarly distant—with overtones of the magical, mythological, and archaic. But in the end it revolves back to what one is in the immediate present, for the moment of the world's creation is seen to lie, not in some unthinkably remote past, but in the eternal now. Similarly, the play of life is at first apprehended rather cynically as an extremely intricate contest in one-upmanship, expressing itself deviously even in the most altruistic of human endeavors. Later, one begins to feel a "good old rascal" attitude toward the system; humor gets the better of cynicism. But finally, rapacious and all-embracing cosmic selfishness turns out to be a disguise for the unmotivated play of love.
    But I do not mean to generalize. I am speaking only of what I have experienced for myself, and I wish to repeat that drugs of this kind are in no sense bottled and predigested wisdom. I feel that had I no skill as a writer or philosopher, drugs which dissolve some of the barriers between ordinary, pedestrian consciousness and the multidimensional superconsciousness of the organism would bring little but delightful, or sometimes terrifying, confusion. I am not saying that only intellectuals can benefit from them, but that there must be sufficient discipline or insight to relate this expanded consciousness to our normal, everyday life.
    Such aids to perception are medicines, not diets, and as the use of a medicine should lead on to a more healthful mode of living, so the experiences which I have described suggest measures we might take to maintain a sounder form of sanity. Of these, the most important is the practice of what I would like to call meditation—were it not that this word often connotes spiritual or mental gymnastics. But by meditation I do not mean a practice or exercise undertaken as a preparation for something, as a means to some future end, or as a discipline in which one is concerned with progress. A better word may be "contemplation" or even "centering," for what I mean is a slowing down of time, of mental hurry, and an allowing of one's attention to rest in the present—so coming to the unseeking observation, not of what should be, but of what is. It is quite possible, even easy, to do this without the aid of any drug, though these chemicals have the advantage of "doing it for you" in a peculiarly deep and prolonged fashion.
    But those of us who live in this driven and over-purposeful civilization need, more than anyone else, to lay aside some span of clock time for ignoring time, and for allowing the contents of consciousness to happen without interference. Within such timeless spaces, perception has an opportunity to develop and deepen in much the same way that I have described. Because one stops forcing experience with the conscious will and looking at things as if one were confronting them, or standing aside from them to manage them, it is possible for one's fundamental and unitive apprehension of the world to rise to the surface. But it is of no use to make this a goal or to try to work oneself into that way of seeing things. Every effort to change what is being felt or seen presupposes and confirms the illusion of the independent knower or ego, and to try to get rid of what isn't there is only to prolong confusion. On the whole, it is better to try to be aware of one's ego than to get rid of it. We can then discover that the "knower" is no different from the sensation of the "known," whether the known be "external" objects or "internal" thoughts and memories.
    In this way it begins to appear that instead of knowers and knowns there are simply knowings, and instead of doers and deeds simply doings. Divided matter and form becomes unified pattern-in-process. Thus when Buddhists say that reality is "void" they mean simply that life, the pattern-in-process, does not proceed from or fall upon some substantial basis. At first, this may seem rather disconcerting, but in principle the idea is no more difficult to abandon than that of the crystalline spheres which were once supposed to support and move the planets.
    Eventually this unified and timeless mode of perception "caps" our ordinary way of thinking and acting in the practical world: it includes it without destroying it. But it also modifies it by making it clear that the function of practical action is to serve the abiding present rather than the ever-receding future, and the living organism rather than the mechanical system of the state or the social order.
    In addition to this quiet and contemplative mode of meditation there seems to me to be an important place for another, somewhat akin to the spiritual exercises of the dervishes. No one is more dangerously insane than one who is sane all the time: he is like a steel bridge without flexibility, and the order of his life is rigid and brittle. The manners and mores of Western civilization force this perpetual sanity upon us to an extreme degree, for there is no accepted corner in our lives for the art of pure nonsense. Our play is never real play because it is almost invariably rationalized; we do it on the pretext that it is good for us, enabling us to go back to work refreshed. There is no protected situation in which we can really let ourselves go. Day in and day out we must tick obediently like clocks, and "strange thoughts" frighten us so much that we rush to the nearest head-doctor. Our difficulty is that we have perverted the Sabbath into a day for laying on rationality and listening to sermons instead of letting off steam.
    If our sanity is to be strong and flexible, there must be occasional periods for the expression of completely spontaneous movement—for dancing, singing, howling, babbling, jumping, groaning, wailing—in short, for following any motion to which the organism as a whole seems to be inclined. It is by no means impossible to set up physical and moral boundaries within which this freedom of action is expressible—sensible contexts in which nonsense may have its way. Those who provide for this essential irrationality will never become stuffy or dull, and, what is far more important, they will be opening up the channels through which the formative and intelligent spontaneity of the organism can at last flow into consciousness. This is why free association is such a valuable technique in psychotherapy; its limitation is that it is purely verbal. The function of such intervals for nonsense is not merely to be an outlet for pent-up emotion or unused psychic energy, but to set in motion a mode of spontaneous action which, though at first appearing as nonsense, can eventually express itself in intelligible forms.
    Disciplined action is generally mistaken for forced action, done in the dualistic spirit of compelling oneself, as if the will were quite other than the rest of the organism. But a unified and integrated concept of human nature requires a new concept of discipline—the control, not of forced action, but of spontaneous action. It is necessary to see discipline as a technique which the organism uses, as a carpenter uses tools, and not as a system to which the organism must be conformed. Otherwise the purely mechanical and organizational ends of the system assume greater importance than those of the organism. We find ourselves in the situation where man is made for the Sabbath, instead of the Sabbath for man. But before spontaneous action can be expressed in controlled patterns, its current must be set in motion. That is to say, we must acquire a far greater sensitivity to what the organism itself wants to do, and learn responsiveness to its inner motions.
    Our language almost compels us to express this point in the wrong way—as if the "we" that must be sensitive to the organism and respond to it were something apart. Unfortunately our forms of speech follow the design of the social fiction which separates the conscious will from the rest of the organism, making it the independent agent which causes and regulates our actions. It is thus that we fail to recognize what the ego, the agent, or the conscious will is. We do not see that it is a social convention, like the intervals of clock time, as distinct from a biological or even psychological entity. For the conscious will, working against the grain of instinct, is the interiorization, the inner echo, of social demands upon the individual coupled with the picture of his role or identity which he acquires from parents, teachers, and early associates. It is an imaginary, socially fabricated self working against the organism, the self that is biologically grown. By means of this fiction the child is taught to control himself and conform himself to the requirements of social life.
    At first sight this seems to be an ingenious and highly necessary device for maintaining an orderly society based upon individual responsibility. In fact it is a penny-wise, pound-foolish blunder which is creating many more problems than it solves. To the degree that society teaches the individual to identify himself with a controlling will separate from his total organism, it merely intensifies his feeling of separateness, from himself and from others. In the long run it aggravates the problem that it is designed to solve, because it creates a style of personality in which an acute sense of responsibility is coupled with an acute sense of alienation.
    The mystical experience, whether induced by chemicals or other means, enables the individual to be so peculiarly open and sensitive to organic reality that the ego begins to be seen for the transparent abstraction that it is. In its place there arises (especially in the latter phases of the drug experience) a strong sensation of oneness with others, presumably akin to the sensitivity which enables a flock of birds to twist and turn as one body. A sensation of this kind would seem to provide a far better basis for social love and order than the fiction of the separate will.
    The general effect of the drugs seems to be that they diminish defensive attitudes without blurring perception, as in the case of alcohol. We become aware of things against which we normally protect ourselves, and this accounts, I feel, for the high susceptibility to anxiety in the early phases of the experience. But when defenses are down we begin to see, not hallucinations, but customarily ignored aspects of reality—including a sense of social unity which civilized man has long since lost. To regain this sense we do not need to abandon culture and return to some precivilized level, for neither in the drug experience nor in more general forms of mystical experience does one lose the skills or the knowledge which civilization has produced.
    I have suggested that in these experiences we acquire clues and insights which should be followed up through certain forms of meditation. Are there not also ways in which we can, even without using the drugs, come back to this sense of unity with other people? The cultured Westerner has a very healthy distaste for crowds and for the loss of personal identity in "herd-consciousness." But there is an enormous difference between a formless crowd and an organic social group. The latter is a relatively small association in which every member is in communication with every other member. The former is a relatively large association in which the members are in communication only with a leader, and because of this crude structure a crowd is not really an organism. To think of people as "the masses" is to think of them by analogy with a subhuman style of order.
    The corporate worship of churches might have been the natural answer to this need, were it not that church services follow the crowd pattern instead of the group pattern. Participants sit in rows looking at the backs of each other's necks, and are in communication only with the leader—whether preacher, priest, or some symbol of an autocratic God. Many churches try to make up for this lack of communion by "socials" and dances outside the regular services. But these events have a secular connotation, and the type of communion involved is always somewhat distant and demure. There are, indeed, discussion groups in which the leader or "resource person" encourages every member to have his say, but, again, the communion so achieved is merely verbal and ideational.
    The difficulty is that the defended defensiveness of the ego recoils from the very thing that would allay it—from associations with others based on physical gestures of affection, from rites, dances, or forms of play which clearly symbolize mutual love between the members of the group. Sometimes a play of this kind will occur naturally and unexpectedly between close friends, but how embarrassing it might be to be involved in the deliberate organization of such a relationship with total strangers ! Nevertheless, there are countless associations of people who, claiming to be firm friends, still lack the nerve to represent their affection for each other by physical and erotic contact which might raise friendship to the level of love. Our trouble is that we have ignored and thus feel insecure in the enormous spectrum of love which lies between rather formal friendship and genital sexuality, and thus are always afraid that once we overstep the bounds of formal friendship we must slide inevitably to the extreme of sexual promiscuity, or worse, to homosexuality.
    This unoccupied gulf between spiritual or brotherly love and sexual love corresponds to the cleft between spirit and matter, mind and body, so divided that our affections or our activities are assigned either to one or to the other. There is no continuum between the two, and the lack of any connection, any intervening spectrum, makes spiritual love insipid and sexual love brutal. To overstep the limits of brotherly love cannot, therefore, be understood as anything but an immediate swing to its opposite pole. Thus the subtle and wonderful gradations that lie between the two are almost entirely lost. In other words, the greater part of love is a relationship that we hardly allow, for love experienced only in its extreme forms is like buying a loaf of bread and being given only the two heels.
    I have no idea what can be done to correct this in a culture where personal identity seems to depend on being physically aloof, and where many people shrink even from holding the hand of someone with whom they have no formally sexual or familial tie. To force or make propaganda for more affectionate contacts with others would bring little more than embarrassment. One can but hope that in the years to come our defenses will crack spontaneously, like eggshells when the birds are ready to hatch. This hope may gain some encouragement from all those trends in philosophy and psychology, religion and science, from which we are beginning to evolve a new image of man, not as a spirit imprisoned in incompatible flesh, but as an organism inseparable from his social and natural environment.
    This is certainly the view of man disclosed by these remarkable medicines which temporarily dissolve our defenses and permit us to see what separative consciousness normally ignores—the world as an interrelated whole. This vision is assuredly far beyond any drug-induced hallucination or superstitious fantasy. It wears a striking resemblance to the unfamiliar universe that physicists and biologists are trying to describe here and now. For the clear direction of their thought is toward the revelation of a unified cosmology, no longer sundered by the ancient irreconcilables of mind and matter, substance and attribute, thing and event, agent and act, stuff and energy. And if this should come to be a universe in which man is neither thought nor felt to be a lonely subject confronted by alien and threatening objects, we shall have a cosmology not only unified but also joyous.

Send e-mail to The Psychedelic Library:

The Psychedelic Library | Books Menu Page