Revisiting Alan Watts this week, who’s book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are has been resounding in my conscious like the most beautiful of tuning forks. What a genius the man was! How prolific! Why isn’t he required reading in every ‘religious studies’ class in the known world? In this work, he imagines out loud about the kind of book about life he would wish to pass on to his own children, that could ‘slip them into a new domain, not of ideas alone, but of experience and feeling. It would be a temporary medicine, not a diet; a point of departure, not a perpetual point of reference. They would read it and be done with it, for if it were well and clearly written they would not have to go back to it again and again for hidden meanings or for clarification of obscure doctrines.’
What’s he talking about? What is this ultimate taboo?
The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing—with our own tacit consent,just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized.
Rarely have I heard it put better than this! Whatever we may hear about Alan Watts – alcoholic, relentless womaniser etc – it seems abundantly clear that he had realised his true nature. And despite the occasionally dated (but quite endearing) 60’s language he uses, such as ‘beat,’ ‘square’ etc, he was also a true writer, and his communication of these ideas remains absolutely bang on.
I seem to be a brief light that flashes but once in all the aeons of time—a rare, complicated, and all-too-delicate organism on the fringe of biological evolution, where the wave of life bursts into individual, sparkling, and multicolored drops that gleam for a moment only to vanish forever. Under such conditioning it seems impossible and even absurd to realize that myself does not reside in the drop alone, but in the whole surge of energy which ranges from the galaxies to the nuclear fields in my body. At this level of existence “I” am immeasurably old; my forms are infinite and their comings and goings are.
All of this rings true in the most wonderful sense. As indeed, does Watts’s tracing of this great ‘taboo’ through the technocratic heart of Western civilization, in which we seek – through ever more elaborate means – some illusion of control. Why instead do we not simply accept that we have no control, that we are mere functioning threads of an infinite system, completely indivisable from the whole itself. This, surely, is where the sense of meaning actually lies – not in some finite moment of personal power, but in the absolute negation of the personal, and the sure realisation that we are the entire system itself, enjoying ‘itself’ through the medium of this individual body, and nothing more, because there quite simply IS nothing more. What we are encompasses the deep blue infinitudes of space, and the closest penetrating glimpse through a quantum lens. It is the Gandhi and the Hitler, the healing hands and the acid rain. Nothing is outside of us, no matter how vile, or how full of something we may term ‘love.’