The Joyous Cosmology
Alan W. Watts
T0 BEGIN WITH, this world has a different kind of time. It is
the time of biological rhythm, not of the clock and all that goes
with the clock. There is no hurry. Our sense of time is notoriously
subjective and thus dependent upon the quality of our attention,
whether of interest or boredom, and upon the alignment of our
behavior in terms of routines, goals, and deadlines. Here the
present is self-sufficient, but it is not a static present. It
is a dancing presentthe unfolding of a pattern which has no
specific destination in the future but is simply its own point.
It leaves and arrives simultaneously, and the seed is as much
the goal as the flower. There is therefore time to perceive every
detail of the movement with infinitely greater richness of articulation.
Normally we do not so much look at things as overlook them. The
eye sees types and classesflower, leaf, rock, bird, firemental
pictures of things rather than things, rough outlines filled with
flat color, always a little dusty and dim.
But here the depth of light and structure in a bursting bud go
on forever. There is time to see them, time for the whole intricacy
of veins and capillaries to develop in consciousness, time to
see down and down into the shape of greenness, which is not green
at all, but a whole spectrum generalizing itself as greenpurple,
gold, the sunlit turquoise of the ocean, the intense luminescence
of the emerald. I cannot decide where shape ends and color begins.
The bud has opened and the fresh leaves fan out and curve back
with a gesture which is unmistakably communicative but does not
say anything except, "Thus!" And somehow that is quite
satisfactory, even startlingly clear. The meaning is transparent
in the same way that the color and the texture are transparent,
with light which does not seem to fall upon surfaces from above
but to be right inside the structure and color. Which is of course
where it is, for light is an inseparable trinity of sun, object,
and eye, and the chemistry of the leaf is its color, its light.
But at the same time color and light are the gift of the eye to
the leaf and the sun. Transparency is the property of the eyeball,
projected outward as luminous space, interpreting quanta of energy
in terms of the gelatinous fibers in the head. I begin to feel
that the world is at once inside my head and outside it, and the
two, inside and outside, begin to include or "cap" one
another like an infinite series of concentric spheres. I am unusually
aware that everything I am sensing is also my bodythat light,
color, shape, sound, and texture are terms and properties of the
brain conferred upon the outside world. I am not looking at the
world, not confronting it; I am knowing it by a continuous process
of transforming it into myself, so that everything around me,
the whole globe of space, no longer feels away from me but in
This is at first confusing. I am not quite sure of the direction
from which sounds come. The visual space seems to reverberate
with them as if it were a drum. The surrounding hills rumble with
the sound of a truck, and the rumble and the color-shape of the
hills become one and the same gesture. I use that word deliberately
and shall use it again. The hills are moving into their stillness.
They mean something because they are being transformed into my
brain, and my brain is an organ of meaning. The forests of redwood
trees upon them look like green fire, and the copper gold of the
sun-dried grass heaves immensely into the sky. Time is so slow
as to be a kind of eternity, and the flavor of eternity transfers
itself to the hillsburnished mountains which I seem to remember
from an immeasurably distant past, at once so unfamiliar as to
be exotic and yet as familiar as my own hand. Thus transformed
into consciousness, into the electric, interior luminosity of
the nerves, the world seems vaguely insubstantialdeveloped
upon a color film, resounding upon the skin of a drum, pressing,
not with weight, but with vibrations interpreted as weight. Solidity
is a neurological invention, and, I wonder, can the nerves be
solid to themselves? Where do we begin? Does the order of the
brain create the order of the world, or the order of the world
the brain? The two seem like egg and hen, or like back and front.
The physical world is vibration, quanta, but vibrations of what?
To the eye, form and color; to the ear, sound; to the nose, scent;
to the fingers, touch. But these are all different languages for
the same thing, different qualities of sensitivity, different
dimensions of consciousness. The question, "Of what are they
differing forms?" seems to have no meaning. What is light
to the eye is sound to the ear. I have the image of the senses
being terms, forms, or dimensions not of one thing common to all,
but of each other, locked in a circle of mutuality. Closely examined,
shape becomes color, which becomes vibration, which becomes sound,
which becomes smell, which becomes taste, and then touch, and
then again shape. (One can see, for example, that the shape of
a leaf is its color. There is no outline around the leaf; the
outline is the limit where one colored surface becomes another.)
I see all these sensory dimensions as a round dance, gesticulations
of one pattern being transformed into gesticulations of another.
And these gesticulations are flowing through a space that has
still other dimensions, which I want to describe as tones of emotional
color, of light or sound being joyous or fearful, gold elated
or lead depressed. These, too, form a circle of reciprocity, a
round spectrum so polarized that we can only describe each in
terms of the others.
Sometimes the image of the physical world is not so much a dance
of gestures as a woven texture. Light, sound, touch, taste, and
smell become a continuous warp, with the feeling that the whole
dimension of sensation is a single continuum or field. Crossing
the warp is a woof representing the dimension of meaningmoral
and aesthetic values, personal or individual uniqueness, logical
significance, and expressive formand the two dimensions interpenetrate
so as to make distinguishable shapes seem like ripples in the
water of sensation. The warp and the woof stream together, for
the weaving is neither flat nor static but a many-directioned
cross-flow of impulses filling the whole volume of space. I feel
that the world is on something in somewhat the same way that a
color photograph is on a film, underlying and connecting the patches
of color, though the film here is a dense rain of energy. I see
that what it is on is my brain"that enchanted loom,"
as Sherrington called it. Brain and world, warp of sense and woof
of meaning, seem to interpenetrate inseparably. They hold their
boundaries or limits in common in such a way as to define one
another and to be impossible without each other.
I am listening to the music of an organ. As leaves seemed to gesture,
the organ seems quite literally to speak. There is no use of the
vox humana stop, but every sound seems to issue from a
vast human throat, moist with saliva. As, with the base pedals,
the player moves slowly down the scale, the sounds seem to blow
forth in immense, gooey spludges. As I listen more carefully,
the spludges acquire textureexpanding circles of vibration
finely and evenly toothed like combs, no longer moist and liquidinous
like the living throat, but mechanically discontinuous. The sound
disintegrates into the innumerable individual drrrits of
vibration. Listening on, the gaps close, or perhaps each individual
drrrit becomes in its turn a spludge. The liquid and the
hard, the continuous and the discontinuous, the gooey and the
prickly, seem to be transformations of each other, or to be different
levels of magnification upon the same thing.
This theme recurs in a hundred different waysthe inseparable
polarity of opposites, or the mutuality and reciprocity of all
the possible contents of consciousness. It is easy to see theoretically
that all perception is of contrastsfigure and ground, light
and shadow, clear and vague, firm and weak. But normal attention
seems to have difficulty in taking in both at once. Both sensuously
and conceptually we seem to move serially from one to the other;
we do not seem to be able to attend to the figure without relative
unconsciousness of the ground. But in this new world the mutuality
of things is quite clear at every level. The human face, for example,
becomes clear in all its aspectsthe total form together with
each single hair and wrinkle. Faces become all ages at once, for
characteristics that suggest age also suggest youth by implication;
the bony structure suggesting the skull evokes instantly the newborn
infant. The associative couplings of the brain seem to fire simultaneously
instead of one at a time, projecting a view of life which may
be terrifying in its ambiguity or joyous in its integrity.
Decision can be completely paralyzed by the sudden realization
that there is no way of having good without evil, or that it is
impossible to act upon reliable authority without choosing, from
your own inexperience, to do so. If sanity implies madness and
faith doubt, am I basically a psychotic pretending to be sane,
a blithering terrified idiot who manages, temporarily, to put
on an act of being self-possessed? I begin to see my whole life
as a masterpiece of duplicitythe confused, helpless, hungry,
and hideously sensitive little embryo at the root of me having
learned, step by step, to comply, placate, bully, wheedle, flatter,
bluff, and cheat my way into being taken for a person of competence
and reliability. For when it really comes down to it, what do
any of us know?
I am listening to a priest chanting the Mass and a choir of nuns
responding. His mature, cultivated voice rings with the serene
authority of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of
the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and the nuns
respond, naively it seems, with childlike, utterly innocent devotion.
But, listening again, I can hear the priest "putting on"
his voice, hear the inflated, pompous balloon, the studiedly unctuous
tones of a master deceptionist who has the poor little nuns, kneeling
in their stalls, completely cowed. Listen deeper. The nuns are
not cowed at all. They are playing possum. With just a little
stiffening, the limp gesture of bowing turns into the gesture
of the closing claw. With too few men to go around, the nuns know
what is good for them: how to bend and survive.
But this profoundly cynical view of things is only an intermediate
stage. I begin to congratulate the priest on his gamesmanship,
on the sheer courage of being able to put up such a performance
of authority when he knows precisely nothing. Perhaps there is
no other knowing than the mere competence of the act. If, at the
heart of one's being, there is no real self to which one ought
to be true, sincerity is simply nerve; it lies in the unabashed
vigor of the pretense.
But pretense is only pretense when it is assumed that the act
is not true to the agent. Find the agent. In the priest's voice
I hear down at the root the primordial howl of the beast in the
jungle, but it has been inflected, complicated, refined, and textured
with centuries of culture. Every new twist, every additional subtlety,
was a fresh gambit in the game of making the original howl more
effective. At first, crude and unconcealed, the cry for food or
mate, or just noise for the fun of it, making the rocks echo.
Then rhythm to enchant. then changes of tone to plead or threaten.
Then words to specify the need, to promise and bargain. And then,
much later, the gambits of indirection. The feminine stratagem
of stooping to conquer, the claim to superior worth in renouncing
the world for the spirit, the cunning of weakness proving stronger
than the might of muscleand the meek inheriting the earth.
As I listen, then, I can hear in that one voice the simultaneous
presence of all the levels of man's history, as of all the stages
of life before man. Every step in the game becomes as clear as
the rings in a severed tree. But this is an ascending hierarchy
of maneuvers, of stratagems capping stratagems, all symbolized
in the overlays of refinement beneath which the original howl
is still sounding. Sometimes the howl shifts from the mating call
of the adult animal to the helpless crying of the baby, and I
feel all man's musicits pomp and circumstance, its gaiety,
its awe, its confident solemnityas just so much complication
and concealment of baby wailing for mother. And as I want to cry
with pity, I know I am sorry for myself. I, as an adult, am also
back there alone in the dark, just as the primordial howl is still
present beneath the sublime modulations of the chant.
You poor baby! And yetyou selfish little bastard! As I try
to find the agent behind the act, the motivating force at the
bottom of the whole thing, I seem to see only an endless ambivalence.
Behind the mask of love I find my innate selfishness. What a predicament
I am in if someone asks, "Do you really love me?" I
can't say yes without saying no, for the only answer that will
really satisfy is, "Yes, I love you so much I could eat you!
My love for you is identical with my love for myself. I love you
with the purest selfishness." No one wants to be loved out
of a sense of duty.
So I will be very frank. "Yes, I am pure, selfish desire
and I love you because you make me feel wonderfulat any rate
for the time being." But then I begin to wonder whether there
isn't something a bit cunning in this frankness. It is big of
me to be so sincere, to make a play for her by not pretending
to be more than I amunlike the other guys who say they love
her for herself. I see that there is always something insincere
about trying to be sincere, as if I were to say openly, "The
statement that I am now making is a lie." There seems to
be something phony about every attempt to define myself, to be
totally honest. The trouble is that I can't see the back, much
less the inside, of my head. I can't be honest because I don't
fully know what I am. Consciousness peers out from a center which
it cannot seeand that is the root of the matter.
Life seems to resolve itself down to a tiny germ or nipple of
sensitivity. I call it the Eenie-Weeniea squiggling little
nucleus that is trying to make love to itself and can never quite
get there. The whole fabulous complexity of vegetable and animal
life, as of human civilization, is just a colossal elaboration
of the Eenie-Weenie trying to make the Eenie-Weenie. I am in love
with myself, but cannot seek myself without hiding myself. As
I pursue my own tail, it runs away from me. Does the amoeba split
itself in two in an attempt to solve this problem?
I try to go deeper, sinking thought and feeling down and down
to their ultimate beginnings. What do I mean by loving myself?
In what form do I know myself? Always, it seems, in the form of
something other, something strange. The landscape I am watching
is also a state of myself, of the neurons in my head. I feel the
rock in my hand in terms of my own fingers. And nothing is stranger
than my own bodythe sensation of the pulse, the eye seen through
a magnifying glass in the mirror, the shock of realizing that
oneself is something in the external world. At root, there is
simply no way of separating self from other, self-love from other-love.
All knowledge of self is knowledge of other, and all knowledge
of other knowledge of self. I begin to see that self and other,
the familiar and the strange, the internal and the external, the
predictable and the unpredictable imply each other. One
is seek and the other is hide, and the more I become aware of
their implying each other, the more I feel them to be one with
each other. I become curiously affectionate and intimate with
all that seemed alien. In the features of everything foreign,
threatening, terrifying, incomprehensible, and remote I begin
to recognize myself. Yet this is a "myself" which I
seem to be remembering from long, long agonot at all my empirical
ego of yesterday, not my specious personality.
The "myself" which I am beginning to recognize, which
I had forgotten but actually know better than anything else, goes
far back beyond my childhood, beyond the time when adults confused
me and tried to tell me that I was someone else; when, because
they were bigger and stronger, they could terrify me with their
imaginary fears and bewilder and outface me in the complicated
game that I had not yet learned. (The sadism of the teacher explaining
the game and yet having to prove his superiority in it.) Long
before all that, long before I was an embryo in my mother's womb,
there looms the ever-so-familiar stranger, the everything not
me, which I recognize, with a joy immeasurably more intense than
a meeting of lovers separated by centuries, to be my original
self. The good old sonofabitch who got me involved in this whole
At the same time everyone and everything around me takes on the
feeling of having been there always, and then forgotten, and then
remembered again. We are sitting in a garden surrounded in every
direction by uncultivated hills, a garden of fuchsias and hummingbirds
in a valley that leads down to the westernmost ocean, and where
the gulls take refuge in storms. At some time in the middle of
the twentieth century, upon an afternoon in the summer, we are
sitting around a table on the terrace, eating dark homemade bread
and drinking white wine. And yet we seem to have been there forever,
for the people with me are no longer the humdrum and harassed
little personalities with names, addresses, and social security
numbers, the specifically dated mortals we are all pretending
to be. They appear rather as immortal archetypes of themselves
without, however, losing their humanity. It is just that their
differing characters seem, like the priest's voice, to contain
all history; they are at once unique and eternal, men and women
but also gods and goddesses. For now that we have time to look
at each other we become timeless. The human form becomes immeasurably
precious and, as if to symbolize this, the eyes become intelligent
jewels, the hair spun gold, and the flesh translucent ivory. Between
those who enter this world together there is also a love which
is distinctly eucharistic, an acceptance of each other's natures
from the heights to the depths.
Ella, who planted the garden, is a beneficent Circesorceress,
daughter of the moon, familiar of cats and snakes, herbalist and
healerwith the youngest old face one has ever seen, exquisitely
wrinkled, silver-black hair rippled like flames. Robert is a manifestation
of Pan, but a Pan of bulls instead of the Pan of goats, with frizzled
short hair tufted into blunt hornsa man all sweating muscle
and body, incarnation of exuberant glee. Beryl, his wife, is a
nymph who has stepped out of the forest, a mermaid of the land
with swinging hair and a dancing body that seems to be naked even
when clothed. It is her bread that we are eating, and it tastes
like the Original Bread of which mother's own bread was a bungled
imitation. And then there is Mary, beloved in the usual, dusty
world, but in this world an embodiment of light and gold, daughter
of the sun, with eyes formed from the evening skya creature
of all ages, baby, moppet, maid, matron, crone, and corpse, evoking
love of all ages.
I try to find words that will suggest the numinous, mythological
quality of these people. Yet at the same time they are as familiar
as if I had known them for centuries, or rather, as if I were
recognizing them again as lost friends whom I knew at the beginning
of time, from a country begotten before all worlds. This is of
course bound up with the recognition of my own most ancient identity,
older by far than the blind squiggling of the Eenie-Weenie, as
if the highest form that consciousness could take had somehow
been present at the very beginning of things. All of us look at
each other knowingly, for the feeling that we knew each other
in that most distant past conceals something elsetacit, awesome,
almost unmentionablethe realization that at the deep center
of a time perpendicular to ordinary time we are, and always have
been, one. We acknowledge the marvelously hidden plot, the master
illusion, whereby we appear to be different.
The shock of recognition. In the form of everything most other,
alien, and remotethe ever-receding galaxies, the mystery of
death, the terrors of disease and madness, the foreign-feeling,
gooseflesh world of sea monsters and spiders, the queasy labyrinth
of my own insidesin all these forms I have crept up on myself
and yelled "Boo!" I scare myself out of my wits, and,
while out of my wits, cannot remember just how it happened. Ordinarily
I am lost in a maze. I don't know how I got here, for I have lost
the thread and forgotten the intricately convoluted system of
passages through which the game of hide-and-seek was pursued.
(Was it the path I followed in growing the circuits of my brain?)
But now the principle of the maze is clear. It is the device of
something turning back upon itself so as to seem to be other,
and the turns have been so many and so dizzyingly complex that
I am quite bewildered. The principle is that all dualities and
opposites are not disjoined but polar; they do not encounter and
confront one another from afar; they exfoliate from a common center.
Ordinary thinking conceals polarity and relativity because it
employs terms, the terminals or ends, the poles, neglecting
what lies between them. The difference of front and back, to be
and not to be, hides their unity and mutuality.
Now consciousness, sense perception, is always a sensation of
contrasts. It is a specialization in differences, in noticing,
and nothing is definable, classifiable, or noticeable except by
contrast with something else. But man does not live by consciousness
alone, for the linear, step-by-step, contrast-by-contrast procedure
of attention is quite inadequate for organizing anything so complex
as a living body. The body itself has an "omniscience"
which is unconscious, or superconscious, just because it deals
with relation instead of contrast, with harmonies rather than
discords. It "thinks" or organizes as a plant grows,
not as a botanist describes its growth. This is why Shiva has
ten arms, for he represents the dance of life, the omnipotence
of being able to do innumerably many things at once.
In the type of experience I am describing, it seems that the superconscious
method of thinking becomes conscious. We see the world as the
whole body sees it, and for this very reason there is the greatest
difficulty in attempting to translate this mode of vision into
a form of language that is based on contrast and classification.
To the extent, then, that man has become a being centered in consciousness,
he has become centered in clash, conflict, and discord. He ignores,
as beneath notice, the astounding perfection of his organism as
a whole, and this is why, in most people, there is such a deplorable
disparity between the intelligent and marvelous order of their
bodies and the trivial preoccupations of their consciousness.
But in this other world the situation is reversed. Ordinary people
look like gods because the values of the organism are uppermost,
and the concerns of consciousness fall back into the subordinate
position which they should properly hold. Love, unity, harmony,
and relationship therefore take precedence over war and division.
For what consciousness overlooks is the fact that all boundaries
and divisions are held in common by their opposite sides and areas,
so that when a boundary changes its shape both sides move together.
It is like the yang-yin symbol of the Chinesethe black
and white fishes divided by an S-curve inscribed within a circle.
The bulging head of one is the narrowing tail of the other. But
how much more difficult it is to see that my skin and its movements
belong both to me and to the external world, or that the spheres
of influence of different human beings have common walls like
so many rooms in a house, so that the movement of my wall is also
the movement of yours. You can do what you like in your room just
so long as I can do what I like in mine. But each man's room is
himself in his fullest extension, so that my expansion is your
contraction and vice versa.
I am looking at what I would ordinarily call a confusion of bushesa
tangle of plants and weeds with branches and leaves going every
which way. But now that the organizing, relational mind is uppermost
I see that what is confusing is not the bushes but my clumsy method
of thinking. Every twig is in its proper place, and the tangle
has become an arabesque more delicately ordered than the fabulous
doodles in the margins of Celtic manuscripts. In this same state
of consciousness I have seen a woodland at fall, with the whole
multitude of almost bare branches and twigs in silhouette against
the sky, not as a confusion, but as the lacework or tracery of
an enchanted jeweler. A rotten log bearing rows of fungus and
patches of moss became as precious as any work of Cellinian
inwardly luminous construct of jet, amber, jade, and ivory, all
the porous and spongy disintegrations of the wood seeming to have
been carved out with infinite patience and skill. I do not know
whether this mode of vision organizes the world in the same way
that it organizes the body, or whether it is just that the natural
world is organized in that way.
A journey into this new mode of consciousness gives one a marvelously
enhanced appreciation of patterning in nature, a fascination deeper
than ever with the structure of ferns, the formation of crystals,
the markings upon sea shells, the incredible jewelry of such unicellular
creatures of the ocean as the radiolaria, the fairy architecture
of seeds and pods, the engineering of bones and skeletons, the
aerodynamics of feathers, and the astonishing profusion of eye-forms
upon the wings of butterflies and birds. All this involved delicacy
of organization may, from one point of view, be strictly functional
for the purposes of reproduction and survival. But when you come
down to it, the survival of these creatures is the same as their
very existenceand what is that for?
More and more it seems that the ordering of nature is an art akin
to musicfugues in shell and cartilage, counterpoint in fibers
and capillaries, throbbing rhythm in waves of sound, light, and
nerve. And oneself is connected with it quite inextricablya
node, a ganglion, an electronic interweaving of paths, circuits,
and impulses that stretch and hum through the whole of time and
space. The entire pattern swirls in its complexity like smoke
in sunbeams or the rippling networks of sunlight in shallow water.
Transforming itself endlessly into itself, the pattern alone remains.
The crosspoints, nodes, nets, and curlicues vanish perpetually
into each other. "The baseless fabric of this vision."
It is its own base. When the ground dissolves beneath me I float.
Closed-eye fantasies in this world seem sometimes to be revelations
of the secret workings of the brain, of the associative and patterning
processes, the ordering systems which carry out all our sensing
and thinking. Unlike the one I have just described, they are for
the most part ever more complex variations upon a themeferns
sprouting ferns sprouting ferns in multidimensional spaces, vast
kaleidoscopic domes of stained glass or mosaic, or patterns like
the models of highly intricate moleculessystems of colored
balls, each one of which turns out to be a multitude of smaller
balls, forever and ever. Is this, perhaps, an inner view of the
organizing process which, when the eyes are open, makes sense
of the world even at points where it appears to be supremely messy?
Later that same afternoon, Robert takes us over to his barn from
which he has been cleaning out junk and piling it into a big and
battered Buick convertible, with all the stuffing coming out of
the upholstery. The sight of trash poses two of the great questions
of human life, "Where are we going to put it?" and "Who's
going to clean up?" From one point of view living creatures
are simply tubes, putting things in at one end and pushing them
out at the otheruntil the tube wears out. The problem is always
where to put what is pushed out at the other end, especially when
it begins to pile so high that the tubes are in danger of being
crowded off the earth by their own refuse. And the questions have
metaphysical overtones. "Where are we going to put it?"
asks for the foundation upon which things ultimately restthe
First Cause, the Divine Ground, the bases of morality, the origin
of action. "Who's going to clean up?" is asking where
responsibility ultimately lies, or how to solve our ever-multiplying
problems other than by passing the buck to the next generation.
I contemplate the mystery of trash in its immediate manifestation:
Robert's car piled high, with only the driver's seat left unoccupied
by broken door-frames, rusty stoves, tangles of chicken-wire,
squashed cans, insides of ancient harmoniums, nameless enormities
of cracked plastic, headless dolls, bicycles without wheels, torn
cushions vomiting kapok, non-returnable bottles, busted dressmakers'
dummies, rhomboid picture-frames, shattered bird-cages, and inconceivable
messes of string, electric wiring, orange peels, eggshells, potato
skins, and light bulbsall garnished with some ghastly-white
chemical powder that we call "angel shit." Tomorrow
we shall escort this in a joyous convoy to the local dump. And
then what? Can any melting and burning imaginable get rid of these
ever-rising mountains of ruinespecially when the things we
make and build are beginning to look more and more like rubbish
even before they are thrown away? The only answer seems to be
that of the present group. The sight of Robert's car has everyone
helpless with hysterics.
The Divine Comedy. All things dissolve in laughter. And for Robert
this huge heap of marvelously incongruous uselessness is a veritable
creation, a masterpiece of nonsense. He slams it together and
ropes it securely to the bulbous, low-slung wreck of the supposedly
chic convertible, and then stands back to admire it as if it were
a float for a carnival. Theme: the American way of life. But our
laughter is without malice, for in this state of consciousness
everything is the doing of gods. The culmination of civilization
in monumental heaps of junk is seen, not as thoughtless ugliness,
but as self-caricatureas the creation of phenomenally absurd
collages and abstract sculptures in deliberate but kindly mockery
of our own pretensions. For in this world nothing is wrong, nothing
is even stupid. The sense of wrong is simply failure to see where
something fits into a pattern, to be confused as to the hierarchical
level upon which an event belongsa play which seems quite improper
at level 28 may be exactly right at level 96. I am speaking of
levels or stages in the labyrinth of twists and turns, gambits
and counter-gambits, in which life is involving and evolving itself
the cosmological one-upmanship which the yang and the
yin, the light and the dark principles, are forever playing,
the game which at some early level in its development seems
to be the serious battle between good and evil. If the square
may be defined as one who takes the game seriously, one must admire
him for the very depth of his involvement, for the courage to
be so far-out that he doesn't know where he started.
The more prosaic, the more dreadfully ordinary anyone or anything
seems to be, the more I am moved to marvel at the ingenuity with
which divinity hides in order to seek itself, at the lengths to
which this cosmic joie de vivre will go in elaborating
its dance. I think of a corner gas station on a hot afternoon.
Dust and exhaust fumes, the regular Standard guy all baseball
and sports cars, the billboards halfheartedly gaudy, the flatness
so reassuringnothing around here but just us folks! I can see
people just pretending not to see that they are avatars of Brahma,
Vishnu, and Shiva, that the cells of their bodies aren't millions
of gods, that the dust isn't a haze of jewels. How solemnly they
would go through the act of not understanding me if I were to
step up and say, "Well, who do you think you're kidding?
Come off it, Shiva, you old rascal! It's a great act, but it doesn't
fool me." But the conscious ego doesn't know that it is something
which that divine organ, the body, is only pretending to be.*
When people go to a guru, a master of
wisdom, seeking a way out of darkness, all he really does is to
humor them in their pretense until they are outfaced into dropping
it. He tells nothing, but the twinkle in his eye speaks to the
unconscious"You know....You know!"
In the contrast world of ordinary consciousness man feels himself,
as will, to be something in nature but not of it. He likes it
or dislikes it. He accepts it or resists it. He moves it or it
moves him. But in the basic superconsciousness of the whole organism
this division does not exist. The organism and its surrounding
world are a single, integrated pattern of action in which there
is neither subject nor object, doer nor done to. At this level
there is not one thing called pain and another thing called myself,
which dislikes pain. Pain and the "response" to pain
are the same thing. When this becomes conscious it feels as if
everything that happens is my own will. But this is a preliminary
and clumsy way of feeling that what happens outside the body is
one process with what happens inside it. This is that "original
identity" which ordinary language and our conventional definitions
of man so completely conceal.
The active and the passive are two phases of the same act. A seed,
floating in its white sunburst of down, drifts across the sky,
sighing with the sound of a jet plane invisible above. I catch
it by one hair between thumb and index finger, and am astonished
to watch this little creature actually wiggling and pulling as
if it were struggling to get away. Common sense tells me that
this tugging is the action of the wind, not of the thistledown.
But then I recognize that it is the "intelligence" of
the seed to have just such delicate antennae of silk that, in
an environment of wind, it can move. Having such extensions, it
moves itself with the wind. When it comes to it, is there any
basic difference between putting up a sail and pulling an oar?
If anything, the former is a more intelligent use of effort than
the latter. True, the seed does not intend to move itself with
the wind, but neither did I intend to have arms and legs.
It is this vivid realization of the reciprocity of will and world,
active and passive, inside and outside, self and not-self, which
evokes the aspect of these experiences that is most puzzling from
the standpoint of ordinary consciousness: the strange and seemingly
unholy conviction that "I" am God. In Western culture
this sensation is seen as the very signature of insanity But in
India it is simply a matter of course that the deepest center
of man, atman, is the deepest center of the universe, Brahman.
Why not? Surely a continuous view of the world is more whole,
more holy, more healthy, than one in which there is a yawning
emptiness between the Cause and its effects. Obviously, the "I"
which is God is not the ego, the consciousness of self which is
simultaneously an unconsciousness of the fact that its outer limits
are held in common with the inner limits of the rest of the world.
But in this wider, less ignore-ant consciousness I am forced to
see that everything I claim to will and intend has a common boundary
with all I pretend to disown. The limits of what I will, the form
and shape of all those actions which I claim as mine, are identical
and coterminous with the limits of all those events which I have
been taught to define as alien and external.
The feeling of self is no longer confined to the inside of the
skin. Instead, my individual being seems to grow out from the
rest of the universe like a hair from a head or a limb from a
body, so that my center is also the center of the whole. I find
that in ordinary consciousness I am habitually trying to ring
myself off from this totality, that I am perpetually on the defensive.
But what am I trying to protect? Only very occasionally are my
defensive attitudes directly concerned with warding off physical
damage or deprivation. For the most part I am defending my defenses:
rings around rings around rings around nothing. Guards inside
a fortress inside entrenchments inside a radar curtain. The military
war is the outward parody of the war of ego versus world: only
the guards are safe. In the next war only the air force will outlive
the women and children.
I trace myself back through the labyrinth of my brain, through
the innumerable turns by which I have ringed myself off and, by
perpetual circling, obliterated the original trail whereby I entered
this forest. Back through the tunnelsthrough the devious status-and-survival
strategy of adult life, through the interminable passages which
we remember in dreamsall the streets we have ever traveled,
the corridors of schools, the winding pathways between the legs
of tables and chairs where one crawled as a child, the tight and
bloody exit from the womb, the fountainous surge through the channel
of the penis, the timeless wanderings through ducts and spongy
caverns. Down and back through ever-narrowing tubes to the point
where the passage itself is the travelera thin string of molecules
going through the trial and error of getting itself into the right
order to be a unit of organic life. Relentlessly back and back
through endless and whirling dances in the astronomically proportioned
spaces which surround the original nuclei of the world, the centers
of centers, as remotely distant on the inside as the nebulae beyond
our galaxy on the outside.
Down and at last outout of the cosmic maze to recognize in
and as myself, the bewildered traveler, the forgotten yet familiar
sensation of the original impulse of all things, supreme identity,
inmost light, ultimate center, self more me than myself. Standing
in the midst of Ella's garden I feel, with a peace so deep that
it sings to be shared with all the world, that at last I belong,
that I have returned to the home behind home, that I have come
into the inheritance unknowingly bequeathed from all my ancestors
since the beginning. Plucked like the strings of a harp, the warp
and woof of the world reverberate with memories of triumphant
hymns. The sure foundation upon which I had sought to stand has
turned out to be the center from which I seek. The elusive substance
beneath all the forms of the universe is discovered as the immediate
gesture of my hand. But how did I ever get lost? And why have
I traveled so far through these intertwined tunnels that I seem
to be the quaking vortex of defended defensiveness which is my
Going indoors I find that all the household furniture is alive.
Everything gestures. Tables are tabling, pots are potting, walls
are walling, fixtures are fixturinga world of events instead
of things. Robert turns on the phonograph, without telling me
what is being played. Looking intently at the pictures picturing,
I only gradually become conscious of the music, and at first cannot
decide whether I am hearing an instrument or a human voice simply
falling. A single stream of sound, curving, rippling, and jiggling
with a soft snarl that at last reveals it to be a reed instrumentsome
sort of oboe. Later, human voices join it. But they are not singing
words, nothing but a kind of "buohbuahbueeh"
which seems to be exploring all the liquidinous inflections of
which the voice is capable. What has Robert got here? I imagine
it must be some of his far-out friends in a great session of nonsense-chanting.
The singing intensifies into the most refined, exuberant, and
delightful warbling, burbling. honking. hooting. and howlingwhich
quite obviously means nothing whatsoever. and is being done out
of pure glee. There is a pause. A voice says. "Dit!"
Another seems to reply, "Da!" Then, "Dit-da!
Di-dittty-da!" And getting gradually faster. "Da-di-ditty-di-ditty-da!
Di-da-di-ditty-ditty-da-di-da-di-ditty-da-da!" And so
on, until the players are quite out of their minds. The record
cover which Robert now shows me, says "Classical Music of
India," and informs me that this is a series edited by Alain
Danielou, who happens to be the most serious, esoteric, and learned
scholar of Hindu music, and an exponent. in the line of Rene Guenon
and Ananda Coomaraswamy, of the most formal, traditional, and
difficult interpretation of Yoga and Vedanta. Somehow I cannot
quite reconcile Danielou, the pandit of pandits, with this delirious
outpouring of human bird-song. I feel my leg is being pulled.
Or perhaps Danielou's leg.
But then, maybe not. Oh, indeed not ! For quite suddenly I feel
my understanding dawning into a colossal clarity, as if everything
were opening up down to the roots of my being and of time and
space themselves. The sense of the world becomes totally obvious.
I am struck with amazement that I or anyone could have thought
life a problem or being a mystery. I call to everyone to gather
"Listen, there's something I must tell. I've never,
never seen it so clearly. But it doesn't matter a bit if you don't
understand, because each one of you is quite perfect as you are,
even if you don't know it. Life is basically a gesture, but no
one, no thing, is making it. There is no necessity for
it to happen, and none for it to go on happening. For it isn't
being driven by anything; it just happens freely of itself. It's
a gesture of motion, of sound, of color, and just as no one is
making it, it isn't happening to anyone. There is simply
no problem of life; it is completely purposeless playexuberance
which is its own end. Basically there is the gesture. Time, space,
and multiplicity are complications of it. There is no reason whatever
to explain it, for explanations are just another form of complexity,
a new manifestation of life on top of life, of gestures gesturing.
Pain and suffering are simply extreme forms of play, and there
isn't anything in the whole universe to be afraid of because it
doesn't happen to anyone! There isn't any substantial ego at all.
The ego is a kind of flip, a knowing of knowing, a fearing of
fearing. It's a curlicue, an extra jazz to experience, a sort
of double-take or reverberation, a dithering of consciousness
which is the same as anxiety."
Of course, to say that life is just a gesture, an action
without agent, recipient, or purpose, sounds much more empty and
futile than joyous. But to me it seems that an ego, a substantial
entity to which experience happens, is more of a minus than a
plus. It is an estrangement from experience, a lack of participation.
And in this moment I feel absolutely with the world, free
of that chronic resistance to experience which blocks the free
flowing of life and makes us move like muscle-bound dancers. But
I don't have to overcome resistance. I see that resistance, ego,
is just an extra vortex in the stream--part of itand that
in fact there is no actual resistance at all. There is no point
from which to confront life, or stand against it.
I go into the garden again. The hummingbirds are soaring up and
falling in their mating dance, as if there were someone behind
the bushes playing ball with them. Fruit and more wine have been
put out on the table. Orangestransformations of the sun into
its own image, as if the tree were acknowledging gratitude for
warmth. Leaves, green with the pale, yellow-fresh green that I
remember from the springtimes of my childhood in Kentish spinneys,
where breaking buds were spotted all over the hazel branches in
a floating mist. Within them, trunks, boughs, and twigs moist
black behind the sunlit green. Fuchsia bushes, tangled traceries
of stalks, intermingled with thousands of magenta ballerinas with
purple petticoats. And, behind all, towering into the near-twilight
sky, the grove of giant eucalyptus trees with their waving clusters
of distinctly individual, bamboo-like leaves. Everything here
is the visual form of the lilting nonsense and abandoned vocal
dexterity of those Hindu musicians.
I recall the words of an ancient Tantric scripture: "As waves
come with water and flames with fire, so the universal waves with
us." Gestures of the gesture, waves of the waveleaves
flowing into caterpillars, grass into cows, milk into babies,
bodies into worms, earth into flowers, seeds into birds, quanta
of energy into the iridescent or reverberating labyrinths of the
brain. Within and swept up into this endless, exulting, cosmological
dance are the base and grinding undertones of the pain which transformation
involves: chewed nerve endings, sudden electric-striking snakes
in the meadow grass, swoop of the lazily circling hawks, sore
muscles piling logs, sleepless nights trying to keep track of
the unrelenting bookkeeping which civilized survival demands.
How unfamiliarly natural it is to see pain as no longer a problem.
For problematic pain arises with the tendency of self-consciousness
to short-circuit the brain and fill its passages with dithering
echoesrevulsions to revulsions, fears of fear, cringing from
cringing, guilt about guilttwisting thought to trap itself
in endless oscillations. In his ordinary consciousness man lives
like someone trying to speak in an excessively sensitive echo-chamber;
he can proceed only by doggedly ignoring the interminably gibbering
reflections of his voice. For in the brain there are echoes and
reflected images in every dimension of sense, thought, and feeling,
chattering on and on in the tunnels of memory. The difficulty
is that we confuse this storing of information with an intelligent
commentary on what we are doing at the moment, mistaking for intelligence
the raw materials of the data with which it works. Like too much
alcohol, self-consciousness makes us see ourselves double, and
we mistake the double image for two selvesmental and material,
controlling and controlled, reflective and spontaneous. Thus instead
of suffering we suffer about suffering, and suffer about suffering
As has always been said, clarity comes with the giving up of self.
But what this means is that we cease to attribute selfhood to
these echoes and mirror images. Otherwise we stand in a hall of
mirrors, dancing hesitantly and irresolutely because we are making
the images take the lead. We move in circles because we are following
what we have already done. We have lost touch with our original
identity, which is not the system of images but the great self-moving
gesture of this as yet unremembered moment. The gift of remembering
and binding time creates the illusion that the past stands to
the present as agent to act, mover to moved. Living thus from
the past, with echoes taking the lead, we are not truly here,
and are always a little late for the feast. Yet could anything
be more obvious than that the past follows from the present like
the wake of a ship, and that if we are to be alive at all, here
is the place to be?
Evening at last closes a day that seemed to have been going on
since the world began. At the high end of the garden, above a
clearing, there stands against the mountain wall a semicircle
of trees, immensely tall and dense with foliage, suggesting the
entrance grove to some ancient temple. It is from here that the
deep blue-green transparency of twilight comes down, silencing
the birds and hushing our own conversation. We have been watching
the sunset, sitting in a row upon the ridgepole of the great barn
whose roof of redwood tiles, warped and cracked, sweeps clear
to the ground. Below, to the west, lies an open sward where two
white goats are munching the grass, and beyond this is Robert's
house where lights in the kitchen show that Beryl is preparing
dinner. Time to go in, and leave the garden to the awakening stars.
Again musicharpsichords and a string orchestra, and Bach in
his most exultant mood. I lie down to listen, and close my eyes.
All day, in wave after wave and from all directions of the mind's
compass, there has repeatedly come upon me the sense of my original
identity as one with the very fountain of the universe. I have
seen, too, that the fountain is its own source and motive, and
that its spirit is an unbounded playfulness which is the many-dimensioned
dance of life. There is no problem left, but who will believe
it? Will I believe it myself when I return to normal consciousness?
Yet I can see at the moment that this does not matter. The play
is hide-and-seek or lost-and-found, and it is all part of the
play that one can get very lost indeed. How far, then, can one
go in getting found?
As if in answer to my question there appears before my closed
eyes a vision in symbolic form of what Eliot has called "the
still point of the turning world." I find myself looking
down at the floor of a vast courtyard, as if from a window high
upon the wall, and the floor and the walls are entirely surfaced
with ceramic tiles displaying densely involved arabesques in gold,
purple, and blue. The scene might be the inner court of some Persian
palace, were it not of such immense proportions and its colors
of such preternatural transparency. In the center of the floor
there is a great sunken arena, shaped like a combination of star
and rose, and bordered with a strip of tiles that suggest the
finest inlay work in vermilion, gold, and obsidian.
Within this arena some kind of ritual is being performed in time
with the music. At first its mood is stately and royal, as if
there were officers and courtiers in rich armor and many-colored
cloaks dancing before their king. As I watch, the mood changes.
The courtiers become angels with wings of golden fire, and in
the center of the arena there appears a pool of dazzling flame.
Looking into the pool I see, just for a moment, a face which reminds
me of the Christos Pantocrator of Byzantine mosaics, and I feel
that the angels are drawing back with wings over their faces in
a motion of reverent dread. But the face dissolves. The pool of
flame grows brighter and brighter, and I notice that the winged
beings are drawing back with a gesture, not of dread, but of tendernessfor
the flame knows no anger. Its warmth and radiance"tongues
of flame infolded"are an efflorescence of love so endearing
that I feel I have seen the heart of all hearts.
* "Self-conscious man thinks he thinks.
This has long been recognized to be an error, for the conscious
subject who thinks he thinks is not the same as the organ which
does the thinking. The conscious person is one component only,
a series of transitory aspects, of the thinking person."
L. L. Whyte, The Unconscious Before Freud (Basic Books,
New York, 1960), p. 59. (back)