The Joyous Cosmology
Alan W. Watts
The Joyous Cosmology is a brilliant arrangement of words describing
experiences for which our language has no vocabulary. To understand
this wonderful but difficult book it is useful to make the artificial
distinction between the external and the internal. This is, of
course, exactly the distinction which Alan Watts wants us to transcend.
But Mr. Watts is playing the verbal game in a Western language,
and his reader can be excused for following along with conventional
External and internal. Behavior and consciousness. Changing the
external world has been the genius and the obsession of our civilization.
In the last two centuries the Western monotheistic cultures have
faced outward and moved objects about with astonishing efficiency.
In more recent years, however, our culture has become aware of
a disturbing imbalance. We have become aware of the undiscovered
universe within, of the uncharted regions of consciousness.
This dialectic trend is not new. The cycle has occurred in the
lives of many cultures and individuals. External material success
is followed by disillusion and the basic "why" questions,
and then by the discovery of the world withina world infinitely
more complex and rich than the artifactual structures of the outer
world, which after all are, in origin, projections of human imagination.
Eventually, the logical conceptual mind turns on itself, recognizes
the foolish inadequacy of the flimsy systems it imposes on the
world, suspends its own rigid control, and overthrows the domination
of cognitive experience.
We speak here (and Alan Watts speaks in this book) about the politics
of the nervous systemcertainly as complicated and certainly
as important as external politics. The politics of the nervous
system involves the mind against the brain, the tyrannical verbal
brain disassociating itself from the organism and world of which
it is a part, censoring, alerting, evaluating.
Thus appears the fifth freedomfreedom from the learned, cultural
mind. The freedom to expand one's consciousness beyond artifactual
cultural knowledge. The freedom to move from constant preoccupation
with the verbal gamesthe social games, the game of selfto
the joyous unity of what exists beyond.
We are dealing here with an issue that is not new, an issue that
has been considered for centuries by mystics, by philosophers
of the religious experience, by those rare and truly great scientists
who have been able to move in and then out beyond the limits of
the science game. It was seen and described clearly by the great
American psychologist William James:
... our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness
as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst
all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there
lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.. We may
go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply
the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their
completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere
have their field of application and adaptation. No account of
the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other
forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is
the question,-for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness.
Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas,
and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate,
they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.
Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge toward a
kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical
But what are the stimuli necessary and sufficient to overthrow
the domination of the conceptual and to open up the "potential
forms of consciousness"? There are many. Indian philosophers
have described hundreds of methods. So have the Japanese Buddhists.
The monastics of our Western religions provide more examples.
Mexican healers and religious leaders from South and North American
Indian groups have for centuries utilized sacred plants to trigger
off the expansion of consciousness. Recently our Western science
has provided, in the form of chemicals, the most direct techniques
for opening new realms of awareness.
William James used nitrous oxide and ether to "stimulate
the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree." Today
the attention of psychologists, philosophers, and theologians
is centering on the effects of three synthetic substancesmescaline,
lysergic acid, and psilocybin.
What are these substances? Medicines or drugs or sacramental foods?
It is easier to say what they are not. They are not narcotics,
nor intoxicants, nor energizers, nor anaesthetics, nor tranquilizers.
They are, rather, biochemical keys which unlock experiences shatteringly
new to most Westerners.
For the last two years, staff members of the Center for Research
in Personality at Harvard University have engaged in systematic
experiments with these substances. Our first inquiry into the
biochemical expansion of consciousness has been a study of the
reactions of Americans in a supportive, comfortable naturalistic
setting. We have had the opportunity of participating in over
one thousand individual administrations. From our observations,
from interviews and reports, from analysis of questionnaire data,
and from pre-and postexperimental differences in personality
test results, certain conclusions have emerged. (1) These substances
do alter consciousness. There is no dispute on this score. (2)
It is meaningless to talk more specifically about the "effect
of the drug." Set and setting, expectation, and atmosphere
account for all specificity of reaction. There is no "drug
reaction" but always setting-plus-drug. (3) In talking about
potentialities it is useful to consider not just the setting-plus-drug
but rather the potentialities of the human cortex to create images
and experiences far beyond the narrow limitations of words and
concepts. Those of us on this research project spend a good share
of our working hours listening to people talk about the effect
and use of consciousness-altering drugs. If we substitute the
words human cortex for drug we can then agree with any statement
made about the potentialitiesfor good or evil, for helping
or hurting, for loving or fearing. Potentialities of the cortex,
not of the drug. The drug is just an instrument.
In analyzing and interpreting the results of our studies we looked
first to the conventional models of modern psychologypsychoanalytic,
behavioristand found these concepts quite inadequate to map
the richness and breadth of expanded consciousness. To understand
our findings we have finally been forced back on a language and
point of view quite alien to us who are trained in the traditions
of mechanistic objective psychology. We have had to return again
and again to the nondualistic conceptions of Eastern philosophy,
a theory of mind made more explicit and familiar in our Western
world by Bergson, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts. In the first
part of this book Mr. Watts presents with beautiful clarity this
theory of consciousness, which we have seen confirmed in the accounts
of our research subjectsphilosophers, unlettered convicts,
housewives, intellectuals, alcoholics. The leap across entangling
thickets of the verbal, to identify with the totality of the experienced,
is a phenomenon reported over and over by these persons.
Alan Watts spells out in eloquent detail his drug-induced visionary
moments. He is, of course, attempting the impossibleto describe
in words (which always lie) that which is beyond words. But how
well he can do it!
Alan Watts is one of the great reporters of our times. He has
an intuitive sensitivity for news, for the crucial issues and
events of the century. And he has along with this the verbal equipment
of a poetic philosopher to teach and inform. Here he has given
us perhaps the best statement on the subject of space-age mysticism,
more daring than the two classic works of Aldous Huxley because
Watts follows Mr. Huxley's lead and pushes beyond. The recognition
of the love aspects of the mystical experience and the implications
for new forms of social communication are especially important.
You are holding in your hand a great human document. But unless
you are one of the few Westerners who have (accidentally or through
chemical good fortune) experienced a mystical minute of expanded
awareness, you will probably not understand what the author is
saying. Too bad, but still not a cause for surprise. The history
of ideas reminds us that new concepts and new visions have always
been non-understood. We cannot understand that for which we have
no words. But Alan Watts is playing the book game, the word game,
and the reader is his contracted partner.
But listen. Be prepared. There are scores of great lines in this
book. Dozens of great ideas. Too many. Too compressed. They glide
by too quickly. Watch for them.
If you catch even n few of these ideas, you will find yourself
asking the questions which we ask ourselves as we look over our
research data: Where do we go from here? What is the application
of these new wonder medicines? Can they do more than provide memorable
moments and memorable books?
The answer will come from two directions. We must provide more
and more people with these experiences and have them tell us,
as Alan Watts does here, what they experienced. (There will hardly
be a lack of volunteers for this ecstatic voyage. Ninety-one percent
of our subjects are eager to repeat and to share the experience
with their family and friends). We must also encourage systematic
objective research by scientists who have taken the drug themselves
and have come to know the difference between inner and outer,
between consciousness and behavior. Such research should explore
the application of these experiences to the problems of modern
livingin education, religion, creative industry, creative arts.
There are many who believe that we stand at an important turning
point in man's power to control and expand his awareness. Our
research provides tentative grounds for such optimism. The Joyous
Cosmology is solid testimony for the same happy expectations.
|Timothy Leary, Ph.D.|
Richard Alpert, Ph.D.
Harvard University, January, 1962