Alan Watts on Consciousness, Ego & the Myth of the Fixed Self

the wisdom of insecurity
Beautifully paraphrasing an author whose name I’ve now long forgotten, one of my most beloved professors once said the saddest word in the English language is “temporary.”  No other word has inflicted more despair, more torment, or more misery.  In fact, no struggle in human history has been more unrelenting than the struggle against impermanence.  It is an indubitable law of the cosmos that life is flux: just as peonies blossom under the renewing spring sun but one day disintegrate to rejoin the soil from which they came, all things must end- a fact that necessarily includes man.  The idea that we- creatures of such astonishing intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities-are still earthly beings whose bodies must perish along with the brutes and beasts is petrifying.  Nothing is more harrowing than confronting the inevitability of our own death.  So we spend our lives endeavoring, as Buddhists throughout the millennia have observed, to get an “I” out of our experience- a sense of stable security in a world that is hopelessly transitory.  
But it is our very attempt to sculpt an “I” from the clay of our day to day lives, our strong-willed effort to solidify our sense of self as separate and other, that estranges us from the awe-inspiring ecstasy and raw immediacy of simply being alive.

In his brilliant 1951 volume The Wisdom of Insecurity, British writer and popularizer of Eastern philosophy in the West, Alan Watts, mourns man’s regrettable inability to remain present.  Unlike animals, who are largely driven by the basic instinct to survive, man is blessed with the miracle of consciousness, or the ability to be aware of both the world and itself- a cognitive operation that’s been both exalted as a gorgeous fever and condemned as a thing to be subdued.  Watts would undoubtedly agree with this latter view as it is this very capability that divides the self and alienates us from the now.  Rather than truly hear music and surrender to all its evocative rhythms and beautiful cadences, for example, we bring our rational, egoistic self to the task, spending the course of the song analyzing and evaluating, judging and quantifying.  This ceaseless interior monologue satisfies our desperate longing for a solid self- an “I,” an ego, an experiencer who represents the part of our psyche that must comment on experience, not participate in experience itself.  But the tragic irony, of course, is that by trying to forge an “I” and fortify ourselves against the transience of life and the certainty of death, most of us forfeit living and simply exist:

“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger.  The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.  Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.  To understand music, you must listen to it.  But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.”

Alan-Watts

For Watts, metacognition- mankind’s uncommon ability to think about thinking- is a means of fleeing the present moment in all its terror and uncertainty.  Although this self-defense mechanism supplies us with the steady sense of identity we so hopelessly crave, it divorces us from the love affair that is life.  It is a tragedy that is distinctly pertinent to our age, an anxious era of endless distraction and ceaseless Twitter feeds: we mistake the oblivious stupor of existing in our minds for the exuberance of actually being alive.  After all, to think, “The sky is spectacular!” is to not fully savor the stunning colors of a sunrise:

“While you are watching this present experience, are you aware of someone watching it?  Can you find, in addition to the experience itself, an experiencer?  Can you, at the same time, read this sentence and think about yourself reading it?  You will find that, to think about yourself reading it, you must for a brief second stop reading.  The first experience is reading.  The second experience is the thought, “I am reading.”  Can you find any thinker, who is thinking the thought, “I am reading?”  In other words, when present experience is the thought, “I am reading,” can you think about yourself thinking this thought? 

Once again, you must stop thinking just, “I am reading.”  You pass to a third experience, which is the thought, “I am thinking that I am reading.”  Do not let the rapidity with which these thoughts can change deceive you into the feeling that you think them all at once.”

So why is it that men rally so vehemently against remaining present?  To inhabit each moment fully, to be completely awake and alive is to confront the unsettling reality that “I” is nothing more than a psychological construct meant to alleviate our fears of impermanence- there is no such thing as a fixed self.  What we think of as “I” doesn’t exist beyond the present moment and is in a constant state of flux.  “Who are you?” the protagonist of my favorite novel demands to know of her eccentric mother.  “I am who I say I am and someone completely different the next,” she replies.  Or to borrow James Joyce’s poetic phrase, “Me. And me now.”  Though our capacity for memory gives us the illusion of a permanent, immutable self, at both the empirical level of behavior and the most fundamental level of molecules and atoms, “I” is continuously shifting, perishing only to transform itself:

“The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes.  It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire.  If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time.  This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences.  You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience.  If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.

But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience.  You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience.  When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.

[…]

To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected.”

Triumphing Over Ego: Ryan Holiday on Passion & the Importance of Remaining a Student

ego is enemyWhat is ego?  According to Freud, groundbreaking progenitor of psychoanalysis, the ego is the part of the mind that mediates between the primitive hungers of the unconscious and the demands of external reality.  Ego is “I”- the wellspring of the self.  For others, ego is the source of individuality and innovation and, thus, of all human achievement.  For still others, ego is arrogance, a grandiose sense of one’s own importance that inevitably leads the extraordinary to their doom.  A defeated Napoleon retreating from a war-torn Moscow, his enormous army of 500,000 diminished to a mere 100,000 men.  A reckless, overconfident Icarus ignoring his father Daedalus’s warnings and flying too close to the sun.  An ambitious scientist so hungry to unlock the mysteries of nature that he oversteps the proper bounds of human knowledge and creates a monster.  History abounds with stories of such figures, proud men whose hubris precipitated their fateful end.  

It is the peril of ego that marketing genius and sage stoic disciple Ryan Holiday contemplates in Ego is the Enemyhis instructive handbook to being “humble in your aspirations, resilient in your failures and gracious in your success.”  A tour guide through the millennia, Holiday recounts the stories of remarkable men and women who transformed industries, revolutionized art forms, and won world wars by triumphing over the yearnings of what astrologer and spiritual guru Tosha Silver calls the “small self.”  

If you’re ambitious like me, when pondering ego, one question inevitably asserts itself: who are we if we’re not our “small selves”?  isn’t the “small self” behind history’s greatest achievements?  haven’t the most cutting edge visionaries, the most enterprising entrepreneurs been those very people who had “big” dreams?  whose faith in their capacity to do the impossible was so unwavering as to seem deranged?  This is where Holiday makes a crucial distinction: ambition, he clarifies, is often admirable; after all, where would mankind be without pride, determination, yearning, and something for which to aim?  There would be no advancement, no betterment, no change.  Not to mention the fact that longing for something instills life with meaning and purpose.  It is only when desire teeters on the edge of obsession, when self-confidence tumbles into arrogance, and when self-love metamorphoses into narcissism, its hideously conceited twin, that ego deludes us into believing the myth of our own importance and becomes dangerous:

“[the ego is] the petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else.  The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility-that’s ego.  It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.

It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

The sagest of philosophers concur that the mark of true wisdom is an appreciation of one’s own ignorance.  “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing,” Socrates once said.  Though ego is often thought of as the architect behind all human accomplishment, nothing poses more of a stumbling block to genuine mastery of a domain than an exaggerated sense of self-worth.  Why seek out the tutelage of an expert in your field or practice for several hours a day if you’re already a virtuoso?  Ego assures us there’s nothing more to learn: we’re already talented/intelligent/skilled enough.  It is this cocky bigheadedness, this smug belief in our own superiority that sabotages our ability to improve.  As Epictetus so wisely noted, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he already knows.”  Only when we possess an earnest sense of humility can we admit a lack of knowledge- the essential first step to real growth.  It is those humble few who are willing to be eternal students and enroll in the endlessly enlightening school of life that end up making the most significant contributions to their fields.

To illustrate the life-altering power of remaining a student, Holiday recalls the story of Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist of 80s megastar band Metallica.  Rather than revel in the glory of having “arrived” after being asked to join the up and coming thrash metal group, Hammett decided to seek out the instruction of Joe Satriani, legendary guitar maestro.  The result?  By being humble enough to recognize he still had more to learn, Hammett was able to develop the distinctive style that would land him the #11 spot on Rolling Stone’s distinguished list of 100 greatest guitarists and catapult Metallica into superstardom:

“In April in the early 1980s, a single day became one guitarist’s nightmare and became another’s dream, and dream job.  Without notice, members of the underground metal band Metallica assembled before a planned recording session in a decrepit warehouse in New York and informed their guitarist Dave Mustaine he was being thrown out of the group.  With few words, they handed him a bus ticket back to San Francisco. 

The same day, a decent young guitarist, Kirk Hammett, barely in his twenties and a member of a band called Exodus, was given the job.  Thrown right into a new life, he performed his first show with the band a few days later.

One would assume that this was the moment Hammett had been waiting for his whole life.  Indeed it was.  Though only known in small circles at the time, Metallica was a band that seemed destined to go places.  Their music had already begun to push the boundaries of the genre of thrash metal, and cult stardom had already begun.  Within a few short years, it would be one of the biggest bands in the world, eventually selling more than 100 million albums.

It was around this time that Kirk came to what must have been a humbling realization-that despite years of playing and being invited to join Metallica, he wasn’t as good as he’d like to be.  At his home in San Francisco, he looked for a guitar teacher.  In other words, despite joining his dream group and literally turning professional, Kirk insisted that he needed more instruction- that he was still a student

Think about what Hammett could have done- what we might have done in his position were we to suddenly find ourselves a rock star, or soon-to-be rock star in our chosen field.  The temptation is to think: I’ve made it.  I’ve arrived.  They tossed the other guy out because he’s not as good as I am.  They chose me because I have what it takes.  Had he done that, we’d probably have never heard of him or the band.  There are, after all, plenty of forgotten metal groups from the 1980s.”

It’s easy to be students when we’re novices in our fields, when it’s so undeniably apparent that we know nothing, but the key to gaining true mastery and making a noteworthy contribution is remaining a student- even after we turn pro.  As we rise to the top of our professions and garner the esteem of the most prominent members of our domains, the tendency is to become complacent: we choose the harbor of the familiar over the expedition to the unknown.  Strengthening our command of a skill, deepening our expertise: all require we be vulnerable enough to risk looking like an imbecile.  But if we’re too egotistical, our very worth as a human being depends on being better than, recognized for.  Because we find being “less than” intolerable, we refrain from the very risks that would stretch our abilities and help us improve.  Like learning to ride a bike, it’s only the unflinching child who’s willing to stumble who ever parts with his training wheels:

“It is not enough to be a student at the beginning.  It is a position that one has to assume for life.  Learn from everyone and everything.  From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies.  At every step and every juncture in life, there is an opportunity to learn- and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.  

Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know).  It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course.  This is where the silent toll is taken.  

Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft.  Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song- which can lead to a wreck.  The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt.  That’s why Frank Shamrock said, ‘Always stay a student.’  As in, it never ends.” 

ryan holiday

As a lifelong proponent of passion, I’ve always cherished the idea that irrepressible vehemence for one’s vocation is what separated the exceptional from the mediocre.  It was when preoccupation verged on obsession, when zeal crossed the line into zealotry that- I thought- ordinary men became extraordinary.  However, throughout the ages, hysterical, irrational passion is what has led countless remarkable men to their doom.  Romeo is the quintessential example.  Enamored of the stunning Juliet, Romeo mistakes youthful infatuation for true love and allows his passion to interfere with his ability to make sound decisions.  Rash and foolhardy, Romeo marries a 14-year-old he barely knows, brutally murders her cousin, gets banished, and kills himself- all in a span of less than four days.  Had he taken the time to carefully consider any one of these decisions, his life (and Juliet’s) might have been spared.  

Though today Romeo & Juliet is seen as the pinnacle of romance (or, for teenage boys forced to read it against their will, as a syrupy, sentimental piece of 17th century chick lit), Shakespeare actually intended for these star-crossed lovers to warn against passion’s exhilarating- but intoxicating- effects.  Like a heady liqueur, passion entrances and elates- but ultimately hinders our capacity to make sober judgements:

Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.  We don’t conceive of the consequences until we look at their trajectory.  With the Segway, the inventor and investors wrongly assumed a much greater demand than ever existed.  With the run-up to the war in Iraq, its proponents ignored objections and negative feedback because they conflicted with what they so deeply needed to believe.  The tragic end to the Into the Wild story is the result of youthful naiveté and a lack of preparation.  With Robert Falcon Scott, it was overconfidence and zeal without consideration of real dangers.  We imagine Napoleon was brimming with passion as he contemplated the invasion of Russia and only finally became free of it as he limped home with a fraction of the men he’d so confidently left with.  In many more examples we see the mistakes of over investing, underinvesting, acting before someone is really ready, breaking things that required delicacy- not so much malice as the drunkenness of passion.”  

So why does our cultural admiration of passion persist- despite evidence that fervor unfettered usually leads to catastrophe?  For one, passion is glamourous.  It’s exciting to write a 20-page letter confessing your love to a long-time crush at 3 in the morning; it’s exciting to risk your life savings on a business idea.  More moderate, reserved qualities- caution, prudence, pragmatism- are depicted as disgraceful signs of cowardice- or worse, harbingers of failure.  But those who attain real, lasting success embody these very traits.  Rather than be rushed headlong by passion or naiveté, rather than let their desire to accomplish a particular goal persuade them to overestimate its feasibility, successful people weigh the pros and cons of their decisions and rationally consider their consequences- in other words, behave responsibly.  Does this mean they refuse to be daring, that they tremble at the thought of taking daunting risks?  No, they just don’t act hastily:

“What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism.  Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries.  Realism is detachment and perspective.”

Bird By Bird: Anne Lamott on the Antidote to Overwhelm & the Beauty of Short Assignments

bird by birdIn life, how often have we become immobilized by the sheer enormity of a project?  Maybe we were writing a book or compiling a short story collection.  Perhaps when we first conceived of the idea, we were brimming with possibility- “This is going to be brilliant!” a heartening voice reassured us.  But come time to do the real work and we freeze up.  Sitting at our work stations, we feel like our desks: disorganized and in disarray, cluttered by crumbled notes and dusty encyclopedias.  Rather than focus on the next doable step, we become debilitated by the journey itself.  “What made us think we could possibly write a book?” we demand to know, scoffing at the impracticable naiveté we mistook for light-hearted optimism, “A book is hundreds, sometimes thousands of pages long.  How could we ever expect to accomplish something of such spectacular magnitude?”  A writer pondering the immensity of his project is akin to a Muslim dwelling on the distance to Mecca.  A man making a holy pilgrimage doesn’t stop to brood over the arduousness of his trek- he just puts one foot in front of the other.  So must the writer.  

Over half a century after Brenda Ueland published her stirring entreaty to lead a bold, creative life, endearingly candid novelist Anne Lamott professed the beauty of short assignments in Bird by Bird, her delightful instruction manual for writing and life.  For Lamott, whom Maria Popova has called a “writer of exceptional lucidity and enchantment,” the antidote to overwhelm is breaking down the insurmountable into small, manageable tasks.  In a voice as resonant with humor as with wisdom hard-won, Lamott advises writers to focus only on what can be seen through a one-inch picture frame (a lovely idea that has often consoled me when I struggle at the page).  Rather than try to write a whole book at once, we must remember that every book- no matter its quality or length-was written one word, one page at a time:

“Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of-oh, say-say women.  But this is like trying to scale a glacier.  It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up.  Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives.  And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back. 

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop…I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.  This is all I have to bite off for the time being.  All I’m going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running.  I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.  Or all I’m going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch.  I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car- just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.”   

Later, Lamott recalls the incident three decades ago that would inspire Bird by Bird’s title:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.  Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'” 

anne lamott

Because much of the creative life is plagued by self-disparagement and self-doubt, Lamott- like a warm, lovingly reassuring mother-encourages us to stop being so serious and approach the task of writing with a sense of humor.  “Lighten up” is the advice underlying her philosophy as a writer.  Instead of chastise ourselves for falling short of our impossible ambitions, we must adopt a gentler, more forgiving, more nurturing voice with which to speak to ourselves:

“In the Bill Murray movie Stripes, in which he joins the army, there is a scene that takes place the first night of boot camp, where Murray’s platoon is assembled in the barracks.  They are supposed to be getting to know their sergeant, played by Warren Oates, and one another.  So each man takes a few moments to say a few things about who he is and where he is from.  Finally it is the turn of this incredibly intense, angry guy named Francis.  ‘My name is Francis,’ he says.  ‘No one calls me Francis-anyone here calls me Francis and I’ll kill them.  And another thing.  I don’t like to be touched.  Anyone here ever tries to touch me, I’ll kill them,’ at which point Warren Oates jumps in and says, ‘Hey-lighten up, Francis.’  

This is not a bad line to have taped to the wall of your office.

Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry.  That is all we are going to do for now.  We are just going to take this bird by bird.  But we are going to finish this one short assignment.”