Book Review: The Taboo Against Knowing Who You are by Alan Watts

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are has blown my mind. Watts is basically saying there is no “I” there is no separate individual. I and everything is apart of the universe just like my toes are apart of me, or leaves are apart of a tree, or a head is apart of the cat. Although, I may see myself as an individual entity that is as wrong as saying that a tail is not part of the cat but a separate entity.

We’ve developed this perception of the world by breaking things into separate pieces to make things easier to understand. Additionally, our culture and institutions advocate for separate identities. From grade school we are pitted in this battle of “I” vs. something (nature, people, death, sickness, fear etc.).

However, this is an illusion that we have created and we have made it our truth. In actuality there is no “I” at all, there is just universal energy. I am universal energy and so is everyone and everything around me. We are all composed of the same elements that were born from the Big Bang billions of years ago. Everything in our world evolved from the same micro-organisms. My life is inextricably linked to everything else in the world other people, organisms, biosphere, resources etc. This premise that we are independent is just not possible because the truth is we are dependent on everything for existence.

A very difficult concept for me to understand is the non-existence of “I”. There is a fear that we all harbor to some extent about death. The fear is rooted in this idea that there is an “I” that is going to die. However, if we are all just a manifestation of the universe, apart of this universal energy there is nothing that dies. After death “I” ceases to exist but that “I” is an artificial creation.

Believe me, I definitely understand what I’m describing may seem nonsensical, to be honest I don’t know if I quite understand it. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to understand is because Watts’ point, if true, means that we must depart from our fixed identities and ego’s where we’ve created a world of I vs. something. This is such an extreme departure from mainstream thinking that it just makes some of his points really difficult to understand.

I’ll make sure to update this post when some of what I read has an opportunity to settle in, in the interim I’ll share some of my favorite quotes:

“This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.”

“The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see that the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat.”

“Life and love generate effort, but effort will not generate them. Faith— in life, in other people, and in oneself— is the attitude of allowing the spontaneous to be spontaneous, in its own way and in its own time. This is, of course , risky because life and other people do not always respond to faith as we might wish. Faith is always a gamble because life itself is a gambling game with what must appear, in the hiding aspect of the game, to be colossal stakes. But to take the gamble out of the game, to try to make winning a dead certainty, is to achieve a certainty which is indeed dead. The alternative to a community based on mutual trust is a totalitarian police-state, a community in which spontaneity is virtually forbidden.”

“All winners need losers; all saints need sinners; all sages need fools— that is, so long as the major kick in life is to “amount to something” or to “be someone” as a particular and separate godlet. But I define myself in terms of you; I know myself only in terms of what is “other,” no matter whether I see the “other” as below me or above me in any ladder of values. If above, I enjoy the kick of self-pity; if below, I enjoy the kick of pride. I being I goeswith you being you. Thus, as a great Hassidic rabbi put it, “ If I am I because you are you, and if you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.” Instead we are both something in common between what Martin Buber has called I-and-Thou and I-and-It— the magnet itself which lies between the poles, between I myself and everything sensed as other.”

“Once you have seen this you can return to the world of practical affairs with a new spirit. You have seen that the universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that there is no separate “you” to get something out of it, as if life were a bank to be robbed. The only real “you” is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For “you” is the universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that come and go so that the vision is forever new. What we see as death, empty space, or nothingness is only the trough between the crests of this endlessly waving ocean. It is all part of the illusion that there should seem to be something to be gained in the future, and that there is an urgent necessity to go on and on until we get it. Yet just as there is no time but the present, and no one except the all-and-everything, there is never anything to be gained—though the zest of the game is to pretend that there is.”


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