Alan Watts: The Book

When people talk about Space, as in “outer space”, they often refer to it as if Earth wouldn’t be in Space – as if Space is everything except Earth. One would wonder, then, where Earth ends and Space begins – is it at the Earth’s surface? Or is it at the ozone layer?

If you imagine that you’re traveling with the first commercial space shuttle from Earth. When, during the flight, would the captain address the passengers to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. We have just entered Space, and if you look to your right, you’ll get a good view of the western hemisphere. The time is 11.42 AM and we will soon be serving you a light meal…”

Obviously, Earth is as much in Space as the Moon, Mars or the Sun, or any far away galaxy – and you can’t draw a distinct line dividing the two. Besides this, Earth is not only in Space, but in fact, Earth is Space – just as New York is America (by which I don’t mean to imply that there’s nothing more to America than New York).

Similarly, people tend to regard themselves as separate from the world: at the perimeter of your skin, you end and the world begins – and while you may be in the world, you certainly are not the world. You feel that you are, as Alan Watts writes in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, “a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin”. This is, he writes, a hallucination.

Some aspects of the “idea” that you are one with the world are easier to accept than others. For example, I think it has been relatively easy to realize that I am a “fruit” of the world. Obviously, I am the fruit of my parents, but beyond that, I am the result of all interactions with people I have met in my life so far. But it is also true that I am the result of all the interactions I haven’t had: if I had met someone I haven’t met, I wouldn’t be exactly the one I am today.

Because of all my interactions and non-interactions with the world, I am one with it. Conversely, I am one with the world because of my interactions and non-interactions – the plain existence of me – affecting the state of the world as a whole.

As for the aspects that are harder to accept, I find these to be difficult to express in words. I just have a sense that it is difficult for me to fully accept the idea, but I can’t point to any particular parts of it that I find hard to digest.

Anyway, this idea of everyone’s one-ness with the world isn’t the invention of Alan Watts. It plays a dominating role in Eastern religion and philosophy, and The Book, to quote its back cover, “modernizes and restates the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta”. It is a very interesting book, and although its topic is the illusion of one’s separateness from the world, my feeling is that it covers much of the philosophy of Alan Watts. If you have ever been interested in reading any of his work, I would bet that this is the best book to start with.

If you have already read this book, or want to read more after reading it, another book I recommend is The Sun My Heart by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, which is a follow-up to his most famous book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Peace out, man!

The above was posted to my personal weblog on April 24, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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