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.”

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