“You did not come into this world, you came out of it. Like a wave from the ocean.”
I’ve been rereading Alan Watts for the first time in years. I have not read the entirety of his catalog, but a few of his books are worth revisiting from time to time, particularly The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, and The Way of Zen. (The former is a roughly Vedic philosophy updated for a modern western reader, and the latter is a book that is, as its name implies, about Zen.)
I stopped reading him for a bit because “real” Zen people don’t seem to like him, which now that I think about it is a pretty stupid reason not to read an author. Especially because he seems very much in tune with the spirit, if not the institution, of Zen.
In reading him again, I can safely say that he is my favorite spiritual writer. I am sure there are many writers who were smarter, who pierced the veil of reality more fully, and who didn’t keep getting divorced before finally dying of alcoholism.
His failings are partly why I like him though. He was a human being. Too many spiritual writers and teachers are trying to sell you something and so they have to pretend to be happier, healthier, and enlightened-er than they actually are. You wouldn’t buy a diet book written by a fat person, so why would you buy a spiritual book from a sinner?
The myth of the perfect person is just that, though. A myth. Being a human necessarily entails feeling shitty, falling out with friends and loved ones, getting sick, listening to people chew, and many other forms of suffering. Zen masters get pissy too and beware any “guru” who claims they don’t.
Alan Watts belonged to no lineage or sect, though he was an ordained Episcopal priest at one point. He never became a guru and he did not seek followers. He called himself a spiritual entertainer and in reading him you get the sense that he wrote and lectured and meditated for the sheer hell of it. Just because it’s fun and he liked to do it.
In his writings and lectures, he always returns to this simple point. You came out of this world. You arose from it. However you want to put it, you are not separate from it.
He dabbled in psychedelics but did not make the mistake that Leary and so many others did of pursuing the exploration of consciousness using nothing beyond psychedelics. In fact, his words on the matter should be read and memorized by all practicing psychonauts.
Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.
In short, he was a modern seeker. It can be very hard to glean the wisdom from the old texts without falling prey to unthinking acceptance and reverence, just as it can be difficult to know when a modern way of thinking is harmful or silly. Alan Watts was excellent at threading that needle.
The quote that I began with is one of the most powerful sentences I have come across in my life because it turns so fully on its head how we usually feel about our lives.
So often my experience feels like “me against the world”, as though “I” am separate from the world around me. But this doesn’t make any sense. The world provides the nutrients that keep my body going and my body is built from atoms that were forged in stars. I need society and family to keep myself happy and fulfilled.
When I was born I didn’t pop in from somewhere other than this universe and when I die I don’t go somewhere else, but evolution and society have trained us not to experience things that way. (Which is all well and good. We wouldn’t have climbed very far up the evolutionary ladder if we hadn’t learned to think of ourselves as entities that are separate from predators.)
It is only an affectation, a learned response, though. It has its value but it is not fundamentally true that you came into here from somewhere else and have somewhere else to go to. Where else can you go? There is nowhere else to go, unless you believe in a heaven that exists outside of our world. I do not believe in that.
What to do then? Nothing. There is nothing to do. And in this there is everything. There is freedom, because you didn’t come into this world from another place. You arose from it. It made you. You made it. You are part of it and it is part of you.
If you wave hello to me, that is literally part of the universe waving to me!
And this is always true, whether you are meditating on a hillside on a quiet spring day, or taking a piss in a grungy dive bar.
I carry this sentence in the back of my mind now. I don’t do mantra meditation but I repeat this often enough to myself that it has become a sort of mantra. It is powerful and beautiful and so simple.
You did not come into this world, you came out of it. Like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.