“I seem, like everything else, to be a center, a sort of vortex, at which the whole energy of the universe realizes itself.. Each one of us, not only human beings but every leaf, every weed, exists in the way it does, only because everything else around it does. The individual and the universe are inseparable.” ~Alan Watts
The following are excerpts from a transcript of Alan Watts’ “Conversations with Myself.” The full video can be viewed here on youtube. It’s the closest thing we have to a TED Talk from Watts, a systems thinking pioneer, decades ahead of his time.
“I’ve been living out here for some months; to write, and to absorb an atmosphere that is different from the city. To try and find out what is the essential difference between the world of nature and the world of man. Because there’s an obvious difference, like the difference of artistic styles.
No one for example would confuse a painting by Leonardo with a painting by Picasso, or music by Bach with music by Shostakovich… In the same way, there seems to be a complete difference of style between the things that human beings do and the things that nature does, even though human beings are themselves part of nature.
On the one hand, nature is wiggling. Everything wiggles. The outlines of the hills. The shapes of the trees. The way the wind brushes the grass. The clouds. Tracts of streams. It all wiggles. And for some reason or other, we find wiggly things very difficult to keep track of…
And we say, “let’s get things straightened out”, “let’s get it ironed out”, “let’s get it all squared away.” And somehow we think we understand things when we have translated into terms of straight lines and squares. Maybe that’s why they call rather rigid people squares.. But it doesn’t fit nature.
You know, wherever human beings have been around and done their thing, you find rectangles. We live in boxes. Our streets, especially across states like Kansas and Nebraska, are laid out in a grid pattern. Why they even dropped a grid pattern on top of San Francisco, with all those hills, so that cars run away.
Because it seems that the human being really has a very simple kind of mind, and all this wigglyness is too complicated. I don’t think it really is complicated, because, after all, it’s very simple to move, say to raise something, or to open and close your hand. It’s perfectly easy, because we don’t have to think about it.
Things become complicated only when we think about them, and that’s because we are trying to translate them into a form of life very much simpler and cruder than the form of life that we are talking about. A triangle is very much simpler and cruder than a mountain, even though you may represent a mountain with a triangle.
Human beings are just as wiggly as nature. And our brains are an incredible mess of wiggles, and that’s the part of ourselves that we understand least at all. I’m afraid the problem is partly due to Mr. Euclid, who invented geometry, because he didn’t really measure the earth. Perhaps we should come to the conclusion that he really had rather a weak intellect.
Because sometimes when I’m in the middle of all of this, I feel as if I were in the middle of an amazing brain. In other words, the brain is a network of interconnected neurons, and each one of those neurons is a fairly simple affair, because it either fires or it doesn’t fire… It gives you the message on or off, or yes or no.
But what we call things: plants, birds, trees.. Are far more complicated than neurons, and there are billions of them. And they are all living together in a network. Just as there is an interdependence of flowers and bees, where there are no flowers there are no bees, and where there are no bees there are no flowers. They’re really one organism.
In the same way, everything in nature depends on everything else. So it’s interconnected. And so the very very many patterns of interconnections, lock it all together into a unity, which is much too complicated for us to think about, except in very simple, crude ways.
But I am part of this. I am, as it were, one of the cells in this tremendous brain, which I can’t understand, because the part cannot comprehend the whole. And yet, at the same time, I don’t feel like so many people seem to feel, that I am a foreigner or a stranger in this world. Its aesthetic forms somehow appeal to me more than most of the atheistic forms which men produce.
I feel in it as if.. In the same way that you see a flower in the field, it’s really the whole field that is flowering, because the flower couldn’t exist in that particular place without the special surroundings of the field that it has. You only find flowers in surroundings which will support them.
You only find human beings on a planet of this kind, with atmosphere of this kind, with temperature of this kind, supplied by a convenient neighboring star. And so, just as the flower is flowering the field, I feel myself as a personing, manning, peopling of the whole universe.
In other words I seem, like everything else, to be a center, a sort of vortex, at which the whole energy of the universe realizes itself, comes alive. A sort of aperture, through which the whole universe is conscious of itself…
The essential point is obvious: that each one of us, not only human beings but every leaf, every weed, exists in the way it does, only because everything else around it does…
The individual and the universe are inseparable. But the curious thing is, that while that is rather easy to see in theory, very few people are aware of it in the important, strong way that one is aware of blue in blue sky or the heat in fire. It’s more of an idea than it is of a realization.
And so, it strikes me more and more, that our failure to feel at home, in this astonishing brain in which we live, is the result of a basic, initial mistake in our thinking about the world, and is, in turn, the cause of what is beginning to look like the failure of our technology.
Of the fact that everything that we are doing trying to improve the world, was a success in the short run, made amazing initial improvements.. But in the long run, we seem to be destroying the planet by our very efforts to control it and to improve it.
And it strikes me that that is because we are really too simple minded to understand what we are doing when we interfere with the natural world strongly and on a vast scale. We don’t really interfere with it because that would suggest that we are something different from it, something outside, but I think what we are doing is we are understanding it in terms of languages, numbers, in terms of a logic which is too simple for the job, too crude for the job.
To begin with, we understand everything in terms of words or numbers, and they’re stretched out in rows and lines. And our eyes have to scan those lines in order to understand them. But when I scan this view, I don’t do it line by line by line, I see the whole thing at once, I take it in as though it were a wide angle lens. But when I try to understand the world through literature and through mathematics, I have to scan lines.
You know that’s why it takes us so long to get educated in school, because our eyes have to scan and organize miles and miles of print, and that takes us twenty years or more to get through it. But life happens, changes go on too rapidly for that. Because you see in the world everything is happening altogether, everywhere all at once.
Meanwhile, we with our myopic little minds, are working it out step by step. Of course we are greatly assisted by the rapidity of the computer. But even so, the computer is still looking at things in rows as the magnetic tape goes through and scanned by the computer.. It’s still going along in a single track.
And I suppose then, that there are difficulties, that we have lamentably one track minds in an infinitely many track universe. And we may have to come to the alarming conclusion that the universe is smarter than we are…”