The Illusion of Self & Other – Alan Watts

“Within I don’t know how many years, but in not too long a time, it’s going to become basic common sense that you are not some alien being who confronts an external world that is not you, but that almost every intelligent person will have the feeling of being an activity of the entire Universe.”


“The subject of this seminar is ‘Self and Other,’ and this is to be an exploration into the subject that interests me most, which is the problem of personal identity, man’s relationship to the universe, and all the things that are connected with that. It is, for our culture at this time in history an extremely urgent problem, because of our technological power. In known history, nobody has had such capacity for altering the universe… and nobody has gone about it in such an aggressive way.

This kind of spirit of knocking the world around is something that is causing serious danger here. It arises, you see, because this tremendous technological power has evolved in a culture which inherits a sense of personality which is frankly a hallucination.

And we get this sense of personality from a long, long tradition of Jewish and Christian and Greek ideas which have caused man to feel that the universe of nature – the physical world, in other words – is not himself.

You may think that that is a very odd thing to say, because one always assumes that oneself is one’s own body, or at least something inside one’s body, like a soul. And that naturally, everything outside is not oneself. But this is, as I’ve said many, many times, a hallucination.

Let’s think, here we are in the middle of New York City. And you know what happens when New York City goes wrong. When there’s a subway strike, or when the power fails, or when the sewers back up, your life is in danger. Because you are not only constituted by the bloodstream of your veins and the communications network of your nervous system. An extension of your bloodstream, and of your nervous system, is all the communication systems of this city.

In other words, you know well every night streams of trucks pour into this city, carrying food. You consume three million pounds of fish a week. The sewers are very complicated. The water system and all it’s pipes, the telephone systems, the electric light systems, the air conditioning things, the traffic streams.

All these things going on are essential extensions of your own inner tubing. And therefore, you have to be aware, more and more, that the city is an extended body for every person living in it. And not only of course the city, because the city depends on untold acres of fields where farm products are grown, cattle are raised, on lakes and underground water sources; on the constitution of the atmosphere, and finally on the location of the Earth on this propitious spot rather close to the sun, where we have our basic heating system working.

And all that is not a world into which you arrived, from somewhere else altogether. It is a complex system of relationships, out of which you grew in exactly the same way that fruit grows on a tree, or a flower on a stem. Just as these blossoms here are symptomatic of the plant, and you identify the plant by looking at the blossoms – here are these little oranges, you see – we know that this is an orange tree.

Now in exactly that way, you are all growing in this world, and so we know that this world is a ‘humaning’ system – and therefore it has a certain kind of innate intelligence, just as this tree, with its roots, has the innate intelligence which comes out in these oranges.

So the cosmos in which we live is a network of communications. You don’t need to think of it as an authoritarian pattern, that there is God the father, who makes it all work, because that doesn’t really answer anything. That’s just applying to the world an explanation derived from the political systems of the ancient Near East.

But you don’t have to think that way in order to have the faith that the Universe is something other than mere stupid, blind energy. What we are coming to see is that the total universe, consisting of all its galaxies, and not only this galaxy, is a living organism.

What do we mean by a living organism? I mean a system of intercommunication of extreme complexity. Just like you are. You try to define what you are, and you go into it, you suddenly discover that as you take off the skin and look underneath, that we are an enormously complex system of tubes and fibers, beautifully patterned.

We are, inside us, each individual body, an enormous ecological system. And what we have to recognize is that that interconnected system which constitutes the beauty of a human organism, that sort of interconnection is going on outside us..

So what I think we could aim for in the way of human civilization and culture would be a system in which we are all highly aware of our existing interconnection and unity with the whole domain of nature, and therefore do not have to go to all sorts of wild extremes to find that union.

A human represents a certain kind of development, wherein a maximal sense of his oneness with the whole universe goes hand in hand with the maximum development of his personality as somebody unique and different. Whereas the people who are of course trying to develop their personality directly and taking a Dale Carnegie course on how to win friends and influence people, or how to become successful – all those people come out as if they came from the same cookie cutter. They don’t have any personality.

It therefore becomes the great enterprise of our time from this point of view.. that we aquire a new sense of identity. It isn’t just a theoretical thing that we know about, as ecologists, for example, know about the identity of the organism with its environment, but becomes something that we actually experience…

Within I don’t know how many years, but in not too long a time, it’s going to become basic common sense that you are not some alien being who confronts an external world that is not you, but that almost every intelligent person will have the feeling of being an activity of the entire universe.

You see, if you become aware of the fact that you are all of your own body, and that the beating of your heart is not just something that happens to you, but something you’re doing, then you become aware also in the same moment and at the same time that you’re not only beating your heart, but that you are shining the sun.

Why? Because the process of your bodily existence and its rhythms is a process, an energy system which is continuous with the shining of the sun, just like the East River, here, is a continuous energy system, and all the waves in it are activities of the whole East River, and that’s continuous with the Atlantic Ocean, and that’s all one energy system and finally the Atlantic ocean gets around to being the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, etc., and so all the waters of the Earth are a continuous energy system.

It isn’t just that the East River is part of it. You can’t draw any line and say ‘Look, this is where the East River ends and the rest of it begins,’ as if you can in the parts of an automobile, where you can say ‘This is definitely part of the generator, here, and over here is a spark plug.’ There’s not that kind of isolation between the elements of nature.

So your body knows that its energy system is one with and continuous with the whole energy system, and that if it’s in any sense true to say that I am my body, and that I beat my heart, and that I think by growing a brain, where do you draw the line between what you think and the power to think?

This automatic or, I would rather call it, spontaneous functioning of the brain is what is called in Japanese ‘shizen‘ (自然), that is to say, the spontaneity of nature. It does all this, and what we perform consciously is simply a small fragment of our total activity, of which we happen to be aware in a special way.

We are far more than that. And it isn’t only, say, that the sun is light because we have eyes and optical nerves which translate the energy of the sun into an experience called ‘light.’ It is also that that very central fire of the sun is something that you are doing just as much as you are generating temperature in your body.

In other words, let’s suppose that those cosmologists and astronomers are right who believe that this universe started out with an original big bang, which flung all those galaxies out into space. It’s a continuous energy system. The energy which is now manifested as your body is the same energy which was there in the beginning. If anything at all is old, this hand is as old as anything there is. Incredibly ancient. I mean, the energy keeps changing shapes, doing all sorts of things, but there it all is.

That’s the whole thing, you see, in a nutshell. That once you define yourelf as the puppet, you say ‘I’m just poor little me, and I got mixed up in this world. I didn’t ask to be born. My father and mother gave me a body which is a system of tubes into which I got somehow mixed up, and it’s a maze and a tunnel and I don’t understand a way around it. It needs all these engineers and doctors and so on to fix it, educate it, tell it how to keep going, and I’m mixed up in it. Poor little me.’

Well this is nonsense! You aren’t mixed up in it, it’s YOU, and everybody’s being a blushing violet and saying ‘I’m not responsible for this universe, I merely came into it.’ And the whole function of every great guru is to kid you out of that, and look at you and say ‘Don’t give me that line of bull.’

At any rate, the point is that God is what nobody admits to being, and everybody really is. You don’t look out there for God, something in the sky, you look in you. In other words, underneath the surface of the consciousness that you have and the individual role that you play and are identifying yourself with, you are the works. Just as you ARE beating your heart, in the same way you’re shining the sun, and you’re responsible.

But in our culture, you musn’t admit this, because if you come on that you’re God, they’ll put you in the nuthouse. Because our idea of God is based on Near Eastern politics, and so if you’re God, then you’re the ruler, the governor..

But of course in Oriental cultures, they don’t think of God as an autocrat. God is the fundamental energy of the world which performs all this world without having to think about it. Just in the same way that you open and close your hand without being able to say in words how you do it. You do it. But how? You don’t know. That only means, though, that you don’t know in words. You do know in fact, because you do it.

So, the discovery of our inseparability from everything else is something that I don’t think will have to come by the primitive methods of difficult yoga meditations, or even through the use of psychedelic chemicals. I think it’s something that’s within the reach of very many people’s simple comprehension. Once you get the point. Just in the same way you can understand that the world is round and you experience it as such.

I think this is essentially a matter of intuitive comprehension that will dawn upon us and suddenly hit us all in a heap, and you suddenly see that this is totally common sense, and that your present feeling of how you are is a hoax.

I think we’ll get over it, and discover the thing that we simply don’t let our children in on, that we don’t let ourselves in on. Let me emphasize this point again. It is not at the moment common sense, not plausible, because of our condition, but we can very simply come to see that YOU are not some kind of accident that pops up for a while and then vanishes – but that deep inwards, you are what there is and all that there is, which is eternal, and that which there is no whicher. That’s you…”

Excerpts from “Self & Other” a talk by Alan Watts

About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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7 Responses to The Illusion of Self & Other – Alan Watts

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    Good old Alan — a true pathfinder, who held up a light in the dark for many who came later to see by. Thanks for reminding us, Chris — the message in the essay is even more urgent today, it seems.


    • Hi Bob,

      Yes, he seemed to be decades ahead of the curve. In recent years he’s become a youtube sensation, an Internet prophet. His old radio talks and other recorded presentations have been put to music and mixed with Nature visuals…

      • Bob OHearn says:

        Cool! Although there are those among the Buddhist “elite” who will critique him for being long on theory and short on practice, not one of them has served to get as many people started on the path as Alan, and so I will always consider him a true Bodhisattva. Thanks again Chris!


      • I think so too, Bob. Many “imperfect” Bodhisattvas, especially in this turning age…

  2. Alan Watts is a wonderful inspiration, thank you.
    Here’s my animation of his’ account of Nirvana as recorded in his Lectures on Buddhism:
    Watts’ Nirvana

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