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 takea
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 distantwith 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 meditationwere
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 presentso 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
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
If our sanity is to be strong and flexible, there must be occasional
periods for the expression of completely spontaneous movementfor
dancing, singing, howling, babbling, jumping, groaning, wailingin
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 expressiblesensible
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 disciplinethe 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
wayas 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 realityincluding 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 leaderwhether 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 itfrom 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 ignoresthe 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.