The Book – The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are – Alan Watts




“You agree at an early (age) to lie, to be this convention of self-reference and to play your part by means of the activity of self-contraction. You never told anybody. You got the idea. You got the message. And you became a some kind of assent to that agreement to be that. Those who don’t quite agree are regarded to be whacko. They can’t fit, you see. They don’t quite get it. You’re supposed to be this – got it? …..I, I, I, I, I – got it? Who’s that? SHUT UP! Do this. [clenching fist quickly and repeatedly] Don’t ask! This, this is it. This is what’s happening here, and that’s that. Adi Da Samraj – 2004


The Book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are


Alan Watts

First published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape Ltd 1969


THIS BOOK explores an unrecognized but mighty taboo—our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are. Briefly, the thesis is that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East—in particular the central and germinal Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism.

This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction. We are therefore in urgent need of a sense of our own existence which is in accord with the physical facts and which overcomes our feeling of alienation from the universe. For this purpose I have drawn on the insights of Vedanta, stating them, however, in a completely modern and Western style—so that this volume makes no attempt to be a textbook on or introduction to Vedanta in the ordinary sense. It is rather a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition.

Particular thanks are due to my wife, Mary Jane, for her careful editorial work and her comments on the manuscript. Gratitude is also due to the Bollingen Foundation for its support of a project which included the writing of this book.

Sausalito, California ALAN WATTS

January, 1966



JUST WHAT should a young man or woman know in order to be “in the know”? Is there, in other words, some inside information, some special taboo, some real lowdown on life and existence that most parents and teachers either don’t know or won’t tell?

In Japan it was once customary to give young people about to be married a “pillow book.” This was a small volume of wood-block prints, often colored, showing all the details of sexual intercourse. It wasn’t just that, as the Chinese say, “one picture is worth ten thousand words.” It was also that it spared parents the embarrassment of explaining these intimate matters face-to-face. But today in the West you can get such information at any newsstand. Sex is no longer a serious taboo. Teenagers sometimes know more about it than adults. But if sex is no longer the big taboo, what is? For there is always something taboo, something repressed, unadmitted, or just glimpsed quickly out of the corner of one’s eye because a direct look is too unsettling. Taboos lie within taboos, like the skins of an onion. What, then, would be The Book which fathers might slip to their sons and mothers to their daughters, without ever admitting it openly?

In some circles there is a strong taboo on religion, even in circles where people go to church or read the Bible. Here, religion is one’s own private business. It is bad form or uncool to talk or argue about it, and very bad indeed to make a big show of piety. Yet when you get in on the inside of almost any standard-brand religion, you wonder what on earth the hush was about. Surely The Book I have in mind wouldn’t be the Bible, “the Good Book”—that fascinating anthology of ancient wisdom, history, and fable which has for so long been treated as a Sacred Cow that it might well be locked up for a century or two so that men could hear it again with clean ears. There are indeed secrets in the Bible, and some very subversive ones, but they are all so muffled up in complications, in archaic symbols and ways of thinking, that Christianity has become incredibly difficult to explain to a modern person. That is, unless you are content to water it down to being good and trying to imitate Jesus, but no one ever explains just how to do that. To do it you must have a particular power from God known as “grace,” but all that we really know about grace is that some get it, and some don’t.

The standard-brand religions, whether Jewish, Christian, Mohammedan, Hindu, or Buddhist, are—as now practiced—like exhausted mines: very hard to dig. With some exceptions not too easily found, their ideas about man and the world, their imagery, their rites, and their notions of the good life don’t seem to fit in with the universe as we now know it, or with a human world that is changing so rapidly that much of what one learns in school is already obsolete on graduation day.

The Book I am thinking about would not be religious in the usual

sense, but it would have to discuss many things with which religions

have been concerned—the universe and man’s place in it, the mysterious

center of experience which we call “I myself,” the problems of life and

love, pain and death, and the whole question of whether existence has

meaning in any sense of the word. For there is a growing apprehension

that existence is a rat-race in a trap: living organisms, including people,

are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the

other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them

out. So to keep the farce going, the tubes find ways of making new

tubes, which also put things in at one end and let them out at the other.

At the input end they even develop ganglia of nerves called brains, with

eyes and ears, so that they can more easily scrounge around for things to

swallow. As and when they get enough to eat, they use up their surplus

energy by wiggling in complicated patterns, making all sorts of noises

by blowing air in and out of the input hole, and gathering together in

groups to fight with other groups. In time, the tubes grow such an

abundance of attached appliances that they are hardly recognizable as

mere tubes, and they manage to do this in a staggering variety of forms.

There is a vague rule not to eat tubes of your own form, but in general

there is serious competition as to who is going to be the top type of tube.

All this seems marvelously futile, and yet, when you begin to think about it,

it begins to be more marvelous than futile. Indeed, it seems

extremely odd.


It is a special kind of enlightenment to have this feeling that the

usual, the way things normally are, is odd—uncanny and highly

improbable. G. K. Chesterton once said that it is one thing to be amazed

at a gorgon or a griffin, creatures which do not exist; but it is quite

another and much higher thing to be amazed at a rhinoceros or a giraffe,

creatures which do exist and look as if they don’t. This feeling of

universal oddity includes a basic and intense wondering about the sense

of things. Why, of all possible worlds, this colossal and apparently

unnecessary multitude of galaxies in a mysteriously curved space-time

continuum, these myriads of differing tube-species playing frantic

games of one-upmanship, these numberless ways of “doing it” from the

elegant architecture of the snow crystal or the diatom to the startling

magnificence of the lyrebird or the peacock?


Ludwig Wittgenstein and other modern “logical” philosophers have

tried to suppress this question by saying that it has no meaning and

ought not to be asked. Most philosophical problems are to be solved by

getting rid of them, by coming to the point where you see that such

questions as “Why this universe?” are a kind of intellectual neurosis, a

misuse of words in that the question sounds sensible but is actually as

meaningless as asking “Where is this universe?” when the only things

that are anywhere must be somewhere inside the universe. The task of

philosophy is to cure people of such nonsense. Wittgenstein, as we shall

see, had a point there. Nevertheless, wonder is not a disease. Wonder,

and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important

things which seem to distinguish men from other animals, and

intelligent and sensitive people from morons.

Is there, then, some kind of a lowdown on this astounding scheme of

things, something that never really gets out through the usual channels

for the Answer—the historic religions and philosophies? There is. It has

been said again and again, but in such a fashion that we, today, in this

particular civilization do not hear it. We do not realize that it is utterly

subversive, not so much in the political and moral sense, as in that it

turns our ordinary view of things, our common sense, inside out and

upside down. It may of course have political and moral consequences,

but as yet we have no clear idea of what they may be. Hitherto this inner

revolution of the mind has been confined to rather isolated individuals;

it has never, to my knowledge, been widely characteristic of

communities or societies. It has often been thought too dangerous for

that. Hence the taboo.

But the world is in an extremely dangerous situation, and serious

diseases often require the risk of a dangerous cure—like the Pasteur

serum for rabies. It is not that we may simply blow up the planet with

nuclear bombs, strangle ourselves with overpopulation, destroy our

natural resources through poor conservation, or ruin the soil and its

products with improperly understood chemicals and pesticides. Beyond

all these is the possibility that civilization may be a huge technological

success, but through methods that most people will find baffling,

frightening, and disorienting—because, for one reason alone, the

methods will keep changing. It may be like playing a game in which the

rules are constantly changed without ever being made clear—a game

from which one cannot withdraw without suicide, and in which one can

never return to an older form of the game.

But the problem of man and technics is almost always stated in the

wrong way. It is said that humanity has evolved one-sidedly, growing in

technical power without any comparable growth in moral integrity, or,

as some would prefer to say, without comparable progress in education

and rational thinking. Yet the problem is more basic. The root of the

matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human

beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity.

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of

our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation

that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside

and bounded by the physical body—a center which “confronts” an

“external” world of people and things, making contact through the

senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of

speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face

reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the

universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all

other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world;

we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,”

the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole

realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely,

if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be

true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of

themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

The first result of this illusion is that our attitude to the world

“outside” us is largely hostile. We are forever “conquering” nature,

space, mountains, deserts, bacteria, and insects instead of learning to

cooperate with them in a harmonious order. In America the great

symbols of this conquest are the bulldozer and the rocket—the

instrument that batters the hills into flat tracts for little boxes made of

ticky-tacky and the great phallic projectile that blasts the sky.

(Nonetheless, we have fine architects who know how to fit houses into

hills without ruining the landscape, and astronomers who know that the

earth is already way out in space, and that our first need for exploring

other worlds is sensitive electronic instruments which, like our eyes,

will bring the most distant objects into our own brains.)(1) The hostile

attitude of conquering nature ignores the basic interdependence of all

things and events—that the world beyond the skin is actually an

extension of our own bodies—and will end in destroying the very

environment from which we emerge and upon which our whole life


The second result of feeling that we are separate minds in an alien,

and mostly stupid, universe is that we have no common sense, no way of

making sense of the world upon which we are agreed in common. It’s

just my opinion against yours, and therefore the most aggressive and

violent (and thus insensitive) propagandist makes the decisions. A

muddle of conflicting opinions united by force of propaganda is the

worst possible source of control for a powerful technology.

It might seem, then, that our need is for some genius to invent a new

religion, a philosophy of life and a view of the world, that is plausible

and generally acceptable for the late twentieth century, and through

which every individual can feel that the world as a whole and his own

life in particular have meaning. This, as history has shown repeatedly, is

not enough. Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of

one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the “saved” from

the “damned,” the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the

out-group. Even religious liberals play the game of “we’re-moretolerant-

than-you.” Furthermore, as systems of doctrine, symbolism, and

behavior, religions harden into institutions that must command loyalty,

be defended and kept “pure,” and—because all belief is fervent hope,

and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty—religions must make

converts. The more people who agree with us, the less nagging

insecurity about our position. In the end one is committed to being a

Christian or a Buddhist come what may in the form of new knowledge.

New and indigestible ideas have to be wangled into the religious

tradition, however inconsistent with its original doctrines, so that the

believer can still take his stand and assert, “I am first and foremost a

follower of Christ/Mohammed/Buddha, or whomever.” Irrevocable

commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive

unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith

is, above all, open-ness—an act of trust in the unknown.

An ardent Jehovah’s Witness once tried to convince me that if there

were a God of love, he would certainly provide mankind with a reliable

and infallible textbook for the guidance of conduct. I replied that no

considerate God would destroy the human mind by making it so rigid

and unadaptable as to depend upon one book, the Bible, for all the

answers. For the use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond

themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or

even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not

life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency.

Therefore The Book that I would like to slip to my children would

itself be slippery. It would 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.

We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new

experience—a new feeling of what it is to be “I.” 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.

The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against

knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently

separate, independent, and isolated ego. I am not thinking of Freud’s

barbarous Id or Unconscious as the actual reality behind the façade of

personality. Freud, as we shall see, was under the influence of a

nineteenth-century fashion called “reductionism,” a curious need to put

down human culture and intelligence by calling it a fluky by-product of

blind and irrational forces. They worked very hard, then, to prove that

grapes can grow on thornbushes.

As is so often the way, what we have suppressed and overlooked is

something startlingly obvious. The difficulty is that it is so obvious and

basic that one can hardly find the words for it. The Germans call it a

Hintergedanke, an apprehension lying tacitly in the back of our minds

which we cannot easily admit, even to ourselves. The sensation of “I” as

a lonely and isolated center of being is so powerful and

commonsensical, and so fundamental to our modes of speech and

thought, to our laws and social institutions, that we cannot experience

selfhood except as something superficial in the scheme of the universe. 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 simply the

pulses or vibrations of a single and eternal flow of energy.

The difficulty in realizing this to be so is that conceptual thinking

cannot grasp it. It is as if the eyes were trying to look at themselves

directly, or as if one were trying to describe the color of a mirror in

terms of colors reflected in the mirror. Just as sight is something more

than all things seen, the foundation or “ground” of our existence and our

awareness cannot be understood in terms of things that are known. We

are forced, therefore, to speak of it through myth—that is, through

special metaphors, analogies, and images which say what it is like as

distinct from what it is. At one extreme of its meaning, “myth” is fable,

falsehood, or superstition. But at another, “myth” is a useful and fruitful

image by which we make sense of life in somewhat the same way that

we can explain electrical forces by comparing them with the behavior of

water or air. Yet “myth,” in this second sense, is not to be taken literally,

just as electricity is not to be confused with air or water. Thus in using

myth one must take care not to confuse image with fact, which would be

like climbing up the signpost instead of following the road.

Myth, then, is the form in which I try to answer when children ask

me those fundamental metaphysical questions which come so readily to

their minds: “Where did the world come from?” “Why did God make

the world?” “Where was I before I was born?” “Where do people go

when they die?” Again and again I have found that they seem to be

satisfied with a simple and very ancient story, which goes something

like this:

“There was never a time when the world began, because it goes

round and round like a circle, and there is no place on a circle where it

begins. Look at my watch, which tells the time; it goes round, and so the

world repeats itself again and again. But just as the hour-hand of the

watch goes up to twelve and down to six, so, too, there is day and night,

waking and sleeping, living and dying, summer and winter. You can’t

have any one of these without the other, because you wouldn’t be able to

know what black is unless you had seen it side-by-side with white, or

white unless side-by-side with black.

“In the same way, there are times when the world is, and times when

it isn’t, for if the world went on and on without rest for ever and ever, it

would get horribly tired of itself. It comes and it goes. Now you see it;

now you don’t. So because it doesn’t get tired of itself, it always comes

back again after it disappears. It’s like your breath: it goes in and out, in

and out, and if you try to hold it in all the time you feel terrible. It’s also

like the game of hide-and-seek, because it’s always fun to find new

ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn’t always hide in the

same place. “God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing

outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over

this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of

hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people

in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the

stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of

which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams,

for when he wakes up they will disappear.

“Now when God plays hide and pretends that he is you and I, he does

it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he

hid himself. But that’s the whole fun of it—just what he wanted to do.

He doesn’t want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the

game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we

are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself. But when the game

has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and

remember that we are all one single Self—the God who is all that there

is and who lives for ever and ever.

“Of course, you must remember that God isn’t shaped like a person.

People have skins and there is always something outside our skins. If

there weren’t, we wouldn’t know the difference between what is inside

and outside our bodies. But God has no skin and no shape because there

isn’t any outside to him. [With a sufficiently intelligent child, I illustrate

this with a Möbius strip—a ring of paper tape twisted once in such a

way that it has only one side and one edge.] The inside and the outside

of God are the same. And though I have been talking about God as ‘he’

and not ‘she,’ God isn’t a man or a woman. I didn’t say ‘it’ because we

usually say ‘it’ for things that aren’t alive.

“God is the Self of the world, but you can’t see God for the same

reason that, without a mirror, you can’t see your own eyes, and you

certainly can’t bite your own teeth or look inside your head. Your self is

that cleverly hidden because it is God hiding.

“You may ask why God sometimes hides in the form of horrible

people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain.

Remember, first, that he isn’t really doing this to anyone but himself.

Remember, too, that in almost all the stories you enjoy there have to be

bad people as well as good people, for the thrill of the tale is to find out

how the good people will get the better of the bad. It’s the same as when

we play cards. At the beginning of the game we shuffle them all into a

mess, which is like the bad things in the world, but the point of the

game is to put the mess into good order, and the one who does it best is

the winner. Then we shuffle the cards once more and play again, and so

it goes with the world.”

This story, obviously mythical in form, is not given as a scientific

description of the way things are. Based on the analogies of games and

the drama, and using that much worn-out word “God” for the Player, the

story claims only to be like the way things are. I use it just as

astronomers use the image of inflating a black balloon with white spots

on it for the galaxies, to explain the expanding universe. But to most

children, and many adults, the myth is at once intelligible, simple, and

fascinating. By contrast, so many other mythical explanations of the

world are crude, tortuous, and unintelligible. But many people think that

believing in the unintelligible propositions and symbols of their

religions is the test of true faith. “I believe,” said Tertullian of

Christianity, “because it is absurd.”

People who think for themselves do not accept ideas on this kind of

authority. They don’t feel commanded to believe in miracles or strange

doctrines as Abraham felt commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac.

As T. George Harris put it:

The social hierarchies of the past, where some boss above you

always punished any error, conditioned men to feel a chain of

harsh authority reaching all the way “up there.” We don’t feel this

bond in today’s egalitarian freedom. We don’t even have, since Dr.

Spock, many Jehovah-like fathers in the human family. So the

average unconscious no longer learns to seek forgiveness from a

wrathful God above.

But, he continues—

Our generation knows a cold hell, solitary confinement in this

life, without a God to damn or save it. Until man figures out the

trap and hunts… “the Ultimate Ground of Being,” he has no reason

at all for his existence. Empty, finite, he knows only that he will

soon die. Since this life has no meaning, and he sees no future life,

he is not really a person but a victim of self-extinction.(2)

“The Ultimate Ground of Being” is Paul Tillich’s decontaminated

term for “God” and would also do for “the Self of the world” as I put it

in my story for children. But the secret which my story slips over to the

child is that the Ultimate Ground of Being is you. Not, of course, the

everyday you which the Ground is assuming, or “pretending” to be, but

that inmost Self which escapes inspection because it’s always the

inspector. This, then, is the taboo of taboos: you’re IT!

Yet in our culture this is the touchstone of insanity, the blackest of

blasphemies, and the wildest of delusions. This, we believe, is the

ultimate in megalomania—an inflation of the ego to complete absurdity.

For though we cultivate the ego with one hand, we knock it down with

the other. From generation to generation we kick the stuffing out of our

children to teach them to “know their place” and to behave, think, and

feel with proper modesty as befits one little ego among many. As my

mother used to say, “You’re not the only pebble on the beach!”

Anyone in his right mind who believes that he is God should be

crucified or burned at the stake, though now we take the more charitable

view that no one in his right mind could believe such nonsense. Only a

poor idiot could conceive himself as the omnipotent ruler of the world,

and expect everyone else to fall down and worship.

But this is because we think of God as the King of the Universe, the

Absolute Technocrat who personally and consciously controls every

details of his cosmos—and that is not the kind of God in my story. In

fact, it isn’t my story at all, for any student of the history of religions will

know that it comes from ancient India, and is the mythical way of

explaining the Vedanta philosophy. Vedanta is the teaching of the

Upanishads, a collection of dialogues, stories, and poems, some of

which go back to at least 800 B.C. Sophisticated Hindus do not think of

God as a special and separate superperson who rules the world from

above, like a monarch. Their God is “underneath” rather than “above”

everything, and he (or it) plays the world from inside. One might say

that if religion is the opium of the people, the Hindus have the inside dope.

What is more, no Hindu can realize that he is God in disguise

without seeing at the same time that this is true of everyone and

everything else. In the Vedanta philosophy, nothing exists except God.

There seem to be other things than God, but only because he is

dreaming them up and making them his disguises to play hide-and-seek

with himself. The universe of seemingly separate things is therefore real

only for a while, not eternally real, for it comes and goes as the Self

hides and seeks itself.

But Vedanta is much more than the idea or the belief that this is so. It

is centrally and above all the experience, the immediate knowledge of

its being so, and for this reason such a complete subversion of our

ordinary way of seeing things. It turns the world inside out and outside

in. Likewise, a saying attributed to Jesus runs:


When you make the two one, and

when you make the inner as the outer

and the outer as the inner and the above as the below …

then shall you enter [the Kingdom]….

I am the Light that is above

them all, I am the All,

the All came forth from Me and the All

attained to Me. Cleave a [piece of] wood, I

am there; lift up the stone and you will

find Me there.(3)


Today the Vedanta discipline comes down to us after centuries of

involvement with all the forms, attitudes, and symbols of Hindu culture

in its flowering and slow demise over nearly 2,800 years, sorely

wounded by Islamic fanaticism and corrupted by British puritanism. As

often set forth, Vedanta rings no bell in the West, and attracts mostly the

fastidiously spiritual and diaphanous kind of people for whom

incarnation in a physical body is just too disgusting to be borne.(4) But

it is possible to state its essentials in a present-day idiom, and when this

is done without exotic trappings, Sanskrit terminology, and excessive

postures of spirituality, the message is not only clear to people with no special

interest in “Oriental religions”; it is also the very jolt that we

need to kick ourselves out of our isolated sensation of self.

But this must not be confused with our usual ideas of the practice of

“unselfishness,” which is the effort to identify with others and their

needs while still under the strong illusion of being no more than a skincontained

ego. Such “unselfishness” is apt to be a highly refined

egotism, comparable to the in-group which plays the game of “we’remore-

tolerant-than-you.” The Vedanta was not originally moralistic; it

did not urge people to ape the saints without sharing their real

motivations, or to ape motivations without sharing the knowledge which

sparks them.

For this reason The Book I would pass to my children would contain

no sermons, no shoulds and oughts. Genuine love comes from

knowledge, not from a sense of duty or guilt. How would you like to be

an invalid mother with a daughter who can’t marry because she feels she

ought to look after you, and therefore hates you? My wish would be to

tell, not how things ought to be, but how they are, and how and why we

ignore them as they are. You cannot teach an ego to be anything but

egotistic, even though egos have the subtlest ways of pretending to be

reformed. The basic thing is therefore to dispel, by experiment and

experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego. The consequences

may not be behavior along the lines of conventional morality. It may

well be as the squares said of Jesus, “Look at him! A glutton and a

drinker, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!”

Furthermore, on seeing through the illusion of the ego, it is

impossible to think of oneself as better than, or superior to, others for

having done so. In every direction there is just the one Self playing its

myriad games of hide-and-seek. Birds are not better than the eggs from

which they have broken. Indeed, it could be said that a bird is one egg’s

way of becoming other eggs. Egg is ego, and bird is the liberated Self.

There is a Hindu myth of the Self as a divine swan which laid the egg

from which the world was hatched. Thus I am not even saying that you

ought to break out of your shell. Sometime, somehow, you (the real you,

the Self) will do it anyhow, but it is not impossible that the play of the

Self will be to remain unawakened in most of its human disguises, and

so bring the drama of life on earth to its close in a vast explosion. Another Hindu myth says that as time goes on, life in the world gets

worse and worse, until at last the destructive aspect of the Self, the god

Shiva, dances a terrible dance which consumes everything in fire. There

follow, says the myth, 4,320,000 years of total peace during which the

Self is just itself and does not play hide. And then the game begins

again, starting off as a universe of perfect splendor which begins to

deteriorate only after 1,728,000 years, and every round of the game is so

designed that the forces of darkness present themselves for only one

third of the time, enjoying at the end a brief but quite illusory triumph.

Today we calculate the life of this planet alone in much vaster

periods, but of all ancient civilizations the Hindus had the most

imaginative vision of cosmic time. Yet remember, this story of the

cycles of the world’s appearance and disappearance is myth, not science,

parable rather than prophecy. It is a way of illustrating the idea that the

universe is like the game of hide-and-seek.

If, then, I am not saying that you ought to awaken from the egoillusion

and help save the world from disaster, why The Book? Why not

sit back and let things take their course? Simply that it is part of “things

taking their course” that I write. As a human being it is just my nature to

enjoy and share philosophy. I do this in the same way that some birds

are eagles and some doves, some flowers lilies and some roses. I realize,

too, that the less I preach, the more likely I am to be heard.

(1) “I do not believe that anything really worthwhile will come out of the

exploration of the slag heap that constitutes the surface of the moon. . . . Nobody

should imagine that the enormous financial budget of NASA implies that astronomy is

now well supported.” Fred Hoyle, Galaxies, Nuclei, and Quasars. Heinemann

Educational, 1966.

(2) A discussion of the views of theologian Paul Tillich in “The Battle of the

Bible,” Look, Vol. XIX, No. 15. July 27, 1965. p. 19.

(3) A. Guillaumont and others (trs.), The Gospel According to Thomas. Collins,

1959. pp. 17-18, 43. A recently discovered Coptic manuscript, possibly translated

from a Greek version as old as A.D. 140. The “I” and the “Me” are obvious references

to the disguised Self.

(4) I said “mostly” because I am aware of some very special exceptions both here

and in India.















TO HAVE spoken of a new vision is to be asked, in the next breath,

what good it will do. When you come to think of it, this is astonishing,

but it is invariably true in speaking with people brought up in the

environment of Protestantism. Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems,

and Taoists understand that vision, or contemplation, is good in itself,

even the supreme good in the sense of the Beatific Vision where all

beings are eternally absorbed in the knowledge and love of God. But

this possibility makes Protestants nervous, and one of their official

prayers asks that those in heaven may be granted “continual growth in

thy love and service,” because, after all, you can’t stop Progress. Even

heaven must be a growing community.

The reason is, I suppose, that modern Protestantism in particular, in

its liberal and progressive forms, is the religion most strongly

influenced by the mythology of the world of objects, and of man as the

separate ego. Man so defined and so experienced is, of course, incapable

of pleasure and contentment, let alone creative power. Hoaxed into the

illusion of being an independent, responsible source of actions, he

cannot understand why what he does never comes up to what he should

do, for a society which has defined him as separate cannot persuade him

to behave as if he really belonged. Thus he feels chronic guilt and

makes the most heroic efforts to placate his conscience.

From these efforts come social services, hospitals, peace movements,

foreign-aid programs, free education, and the whole philosophy of the

welfare state. Yet we are bedeviled by the fact that the more these

heroic and admirable enterprises succeed, the more they provoke new

and increasingly horrendous problems. For one thing, few of us have

ever thought through the problem of what good such enterprises are

ultimately supposed to achieve. When we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and housed the homeless, what then? Is the object to enable

unfortunate people to help those still more unfortunate? To convert

Hindus and Africans into a huge bourgeoisie, where every Bengali and

every Zulu has the privilege of joining our special rat-race, buying

appliances on time and a television set to keep him running?

Some years ago a friend of mine was walking through tea plantations

near Darjeeling, and noticed one particular group of fields where the

bushes were all shriveled. On asking why, it was explained that the

owner had felt so sorry for his impoverished workers that he had paid

them double. But as a result, they had turned up for work only half the

time, which was disastrous in the critical season when the plants have to

be tended every day. My friend put this problem to an Indian

communist. His solution was to pay them double and compel them to

work. He then put it to an American businessman. His solution was to

pay them double—and put radios in their homes! No one seemed to

understand that those workers valued time for goofing off more than


It is hard for compulsive activists to see that the vast social and

economic problems of the world cannot be settled by mere effort and

technique. The outsider cannot just barge in like Santa Claus and put

things to right—especially our kind of outsider who, because he has no

sense of belonging in the world, invariably smells like an interferer. He

does not really know what he wants, and therefore everyone suspects

that there are limitless strings attached to his gifts. For if you know what

you want, and will be content with it, you can be trusted. But if you do

not know, your desires are limitless and no one can tell how to deal with

you. Nothing satisfies an individual incapable of enjoyment. I am not

saying that American and European corporations are run by greedy

villains who live off the fat of the land at everyone else’s expense. The

point becomes clear only as one realizes, with compassion and sorrow,

that many of our most powerful and wealthy men are miserable dupes

and captives in a treadmill, who—with the rarest exceptions—have not

the ghost of a notion how to spend and enjoy money. If I had been a Heathen,

I’d have praised the purple vine,

My slaves would dig the vineyards,

And I would drink the wine;

But Higgins is a Heathen,

And his slaves grow lean and grey,

That he may drink some tepid milk

Exactly twice a day.(1)

The startling truth is that our best efforts for civil rights, international

peace, population control, conservation of natural resources, and

assistance to the starving of the earth—urgent as they are—will destroy

rather than help if made in the present spirit. For, as things stand, we

have nothing to give. If our own riches and our own way of life are not

enjoyed here, they will not be enjoyed anywhere else. Certainly they

will supply the immediate jolt of energy and hope that methedrine, and

similar drugs, give in extreme fatigue. But peace can be made only by

those who are peaceful, and love can be shown only by those who love.

No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart,

just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no

capacity for living now.

The separate person is without content, in both senses of the word.

He lives perpetually on hope, on looking forward to tomorrow, having

been brought up this way from childhood, when his uncomprehending

rage at double-binds was propitiated with toys. If you want to find a true

folk-religion in our culture, look at the rites of Santa Claus. Even before

the beginning of Advent, which was supposed to be a three-to-fourweek

fasting period in preparation for the feast, the streets are decorated

for Christmas, the shops glitter with tinsel and festive display of gifts,

and public-address systems warble electronic carols so that one is sick

to death of Venite adoremus long before Christmas Day. Trees are

already baubled and illumined in most homes, and as the big buildup

proceeds they are surrounded by those shiny packages with shimmering

ribbons which look as if they held gifts for princes. By this time

Christmas parties have already been held in schools and offices before

closing for the actual holiday, so that by Christmas Eve the celebrations

have just about blown their top. But there are still those packages under

the tree and stockings by the fireplace.

When at last the Day comes the children are frantic. Hardly able to

wait for breakfast, and not having slept most of the night, they tear those

gold and silver parcels to shreds as if they contained nothing less than

the Elixir of Life or the Philosopher’s Stone. By noon the living-room

looks as if a wastepaper truck had crashed into a dimestore, leaving a

wreck of mangled cartons, excelsior, wrapping-paper, and writhing

ribbons; neckties, up-ended dolls, half-assembled model railroads,

space-suits, plastic atom-bombs, and scattered chocolate bars; hundreds

of tinker-toy pieces, crushed tree ornaments, miniature sportscars,

water-pistols, bottles of whisky, and balloons. An hour later the children

are blubbering or screaming, and have to be shooed out-of-doors while

the mess is shoved together to make room for Christmas dinner.

Thereafter, the Twelve Days of Christmas are spent with upset

stomachs, colds, and influenza, and on New Year’s Eve the adults get

stoned to forget the whole thing.

Well, it was fun describing it, but the point is that intense expectation

fizzled. The girl was gorgeous but the guy was impotent. But since there

must be something somewhere, expectation is kindled again to keep us

all going for that golden, galuptious goodie at the end of the line. What

could it be? The children knew it well until they got caught in the ratrace.

One of the best Christmas presents I ever had was a cheap ring

with a glass diamond. It was quite incidental—something that came out

of a snapper (or cracker) at a party. But I sat down in front of the

fireplace with this enchanted object, and turned it to catch the different

colors of light which blazed inside it. I knew that I had found the Ring

of Solomon, with which he summoned djinns and afrits with wings of

brass—and it wasn’t that I wanted them to do anything for me, for it was

just enough to be in that atmosphere, to watch these magical beings

come to life in the flames of the fire, and to feel that I was in touch with

the timeless paradise-world.

Now it is symptomatic of our rusty-beer-can type of sanity that our

culture produces very few magical objects. Jewelry is slick and

uninteresting. Architecture is almost totally bereft of exuberance,

obsessed with erecting glass boxes. Children’s books are written by

serious ladies with three names and no imagination, and as for comics,

have you ever looked at the furniture in Dagwood’s home? The

potentially magical ceremonies of the Catholic Church are either

gabbled away at top speed, or rationalized with the aid of a

commentator. Drama or ritual in everyday behavior is considered

affectation and bad form, and manners have become indistinguishable

from manerisms—where they exist at all. We produce nothing

comparable to the great Oriental carpets, Persian glass, tiles, and

illuminated books, Arabian leatherwork, Spanish marquetry, Hindu

textiles, Chinese porcelain and embroidery, Japanese lacquer and

brocade, French tapestries, or Inca jewelry. (Though, incidentally, there

are certain rather small electronic devices that come unwittingly close to

fine jewels.)

The reason is not just that we are too much in a hurry and have no

sense of the present; not just that we cannot afford the type of labor that

such things would now involve, nor just that we prefer money to

materials. The reason is that we have scrubbed the world clean of

magic. We have lost even the vision of paradise, so that our artists and

craftsmen can no longer discern its forms. This is the price that must be

paid for attempting to control the world from the standpoint of an “I” for

whom everything that can be experienced is a foreign object and a


It would be sentimental and impossible to go back. Children are in

touch with paradise to the extent that they have not fully learned the

ego-trick, and the same is true of cultures which, by our standards, are

more “primitive” and—by analogy—childlike. If, then, after

understanding, at least in theory, that the ego-trick is a hoax and that,

beneath everything, “I” and “universe” are one, you ask, “So what?

What is the next step, the practical application?”—I will answer that the

absolutely vital thing is to consolidate your understanding, to become

capable of enjoyment, of living in the present, and of the discipline

which this involves. Without this you have nothing to give—to the

cause of peace or of racial integration, to starving Hindus and Chinese,

or even to your closest friends. Without this, all social concern will be

muddlesome meddling, and all work for the future will be planned


But the way is not back. Just as science overcame its purely atomistic

and mechanical view of the world through more science, the ego-trick

must be overcome through intensified self-consciousness. For there is

no way of getting rid of the feeling of separateness by a so-called “act of

will,” by trying to forget yourself, or by getting absorbed in some other

interest. This is why moralistic preaching is such a failure: it breeds

only cunning hypocrites—people sermonized into shame, guilt, or fear,

who thereupon force themselves to behave as if they actually loved

others, so that their “virtues” are often more destructive, and arouse

more resentment, than their “vices.” A British social service project, run

by earnest and rather formidable ladies, called the Charity Organization

Society—C.O.S. for short—used to be known among the poor as

“Cringe or Starve.”

The Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu described such efforts to be egoless

as “beating a drum in search of a fugitive,” or, as we would put it,

driving to a police raid with sirens on. Or, as the Hindus say, it is like

trying not to think of a monkey while taking medicine, on the basis of

the popular superstition that thinking of a monkey will make the

medicine ineffective. All that such efforts can teach us is that they do

not work, for the more we try to behave without greed or fear, the more

we realize that we are doing this for greedy or fearful reasons. Saints

have always declared themselves as abject sinners—through recognition

that their aspiration to be saintly is motivated by the worst of all sins,

spiritual pride, the desire to admire oneself as a supreme success in the

art of love and unselfishness. And beneath this lies a bottomless pit of

vicious circles: the game, “I am more penitent than you” or “My pride in

my humility is worse than yours.” Is there any way not to be involved in

some kind of one-upmanship? “I am less of a one-upman than you.” “I

am a worse one-upman than you.” “I realize more clearly than you that

everything we do is one-upmanship.” The ego-trick seems to reaffirm

itself endlessly in posture after posture.

But as I pursue these games—as I become more conscious of being

conscious, more aware that I am unable to define myself as being up

without you (or something other than myself) being down—I see vividly

that I depend on your being down for my being up. I would never be

able to know that I belong to the in-group of “nice” or “saved” people

without the assistance of an out-group of “nasty” or “damned” people.

How can any in-group maintain its collective ego without relishing

dinnertable discussions about the ghastly conduct of outsiders? The very

identity of racist Southerners depends upon contrasting themselves with

those dirty black “nigras.” But, conversely, the out-groups feel that they

are really and truly “in,” and nourish their collective ego with

relishingly indignant conversation about squares, Ofays, Wasps,

Philistines, and the blasted bourgeoisie. Even Saint Thomas Aquinas let

it out that part of the blessedness of the saints in Heaven was that they

could look over the battlements and enjoy the “proper justice” of the

sinners squirming in Hell. All winners need losers; all saints need

sinners; all sages need fools—that is, so long as the major kick in life is

to “amount to something” or to “be someone” as a particular and

separate godlet.

But I define myself in terms of you; I know myself only in terms of

what is “other,” no matter whether I see the “other” as below me or

above me in any ladder of values. If above, I enjoy the kick of self-pity;

if below, I enjoy the kick of pride. I being I goes with you being you.

Thus, as a great Hassidic rabbi put it, “If I am I because you are you,

and if you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you.”

Instead we are both something in common between what Martin Buber

has called I-and-Thou and I-and-It—the magnet itself which lies

between the poles, between I myself and everything sensed as other.

There it is, a theoretically undeniable fact. But the question is how to

get over the sensation of being locked out from everything “other,” of

being only oneself—an organism flung into unavoidable competition

and conflict with almost every “object” in its experience. There are

innumerable recipes for this project, almost all of which have something

to recommend them. There are the practices of yoga meditation, dervish

dancing, psychotherapy, Zen Buddhism, Ignatian, Salesian, and

Hesychast methods of “prayer,” the use of consciousness-changing

chemicals such as LSD and mescaline, psychodrama, group dynamics,

sensory-awareness techniques, Quakerism, Gurdjieff exercises,

relaxation therapies,the Alexander method, autogenic training, and selfhypnosis.

The difficulty with every one of these disciplines is that the

moment you are seriously involved, you find yourself boxed in some

special in-group which defines itself, often with the most elegant

subtlety, by the exclusion of an out-group. In this way, every religion or

cult is self-defeating, and this is equally true of projects which define

themselves as non-religions or universally inclusive religions, playing

the game of “I am less exclusive than you.”

It is thus that religions and non-religions—all established in the name

of brotherhood and universal love—are invariably divisive and

quarrelsome. What, for example, is more quarrelsome—in practical

politics—than the project for a truly classless and democratic society?

Yet the historical origin of this movement is mystical. It goes back to

Jesus and Saint Paul, to Eckhart and Tauler, to the Anabaptists,

Levelers, and Brothers of the Free Spirit, and their insistence that all

men are equal in the sight of God. It seems almost as if to be is to

quarrel, or at least to differ, to be in contrast with something else. If so,

whoever does not put up a fight has no identity; whoever is not selfish

has no self. Nothing unites a community so much as common cause

against an external enemy, yet, in the same moment, that enemy

becomes the essential support of social unity. Therefore larger societies

require larger enemies, bringing us in due course to the perilous point of

our present situation, where the world is virtually divided into two huge

camps. But if high officers on both sides have any intelligence at all,

they make a secret agreement to contain the conflict: to call each other

the worst names, but to refrain from dropping bombs. Or, if they insist

that there must be some fighting to keep armies in trim, they restrict it to

local conflicts in “unimportant” countries. Voltaire should have said that

if the Devil did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Nevertheless, the more it becomes clear that to be is to quarrel and to

pursue self-interest, the more you are compelled to recognize your need

for enemies to support you. In the same way, the more resolutely you

plumb the question “Who or what am I?”—the more unavoidable is the

realization that you are nothing at all apart from everything else. Yet

again, the more you strive for some kind of perfection or mastery—in

morals, in art or in spirituality—the more you see that you are playing a

rarified and lofty form of the old ego-game, and that your attainment of

any height is apparent to yourself and to others only by contrast with

someone else’s depth or failure.

This understanding is at first paralyzing. You are in a trap—in the

worst of all double-binds—seeing that any direction you may take will imply, and so evoke, its opposite. Decide to be a Christ, and there will

be a Judas to betray you and a mob to crucify you. Decide to be a devil,

and men will unite against you in the closest brotherly love. Your first

reaction may be simply, “To hell with it!” The only course may seem to

be to forget the whole effort and become absorbed in trivialities, or to

check out of the game by suicide or psychosis, and spend the rest of

your days blabbering in an asylum.

But there is another possibility. Instead of checking out, let us ask

what the trap means. What is implied in finding yourself paralyzed,

unable to escape from a game in which all the rules are double-binds

and all moves self-defeating? Surely this is a deep and intense

experience of the same double-bind that was placed upon you in

infancy, when the community told you that you must be free,

responsible, and loving, and when you were helplessly defined as an

independent agent. The sense of paralysis is therefore the dawning

realization that this is nonsense and that your independent ego is a

fiction. It simply isn’t there, either to do anything or to be pushed around

by external forces, to change things or to submit to change. The sense of

“I,” which should have been identified with the whole universe of your

experience, was instead cut off and isolated as a detached observer of

that universe. In the preceding chapter we saw that this unity of

organism and environment is a physical fact. But when you know for

sure that your separate ego is a fiction, you actually feel yourself as the

whole process and pattern of life. Experience and experiencer become

one experiencing, known and knower one knowing.

Each organism experiences this from a different standpoint and in a

different way, for each organism is the universe experiencing itself in

endless variety. One need not, then, fall into the trap which this

experience holds for believers in an external, all-powerful God—the

temptation to feel “I am God” in that sense, and to expect to be

worshipped and obeyed by all other organisms.

Remember, above all, that an experience of this kind cannot be

forced or made to happen by any act of your fictitious “will,” except

insofar as repeated efforts to be one-up on the universe may eventually

reveal their futility. Don’t try to get rid of the ego-sensation. Take it, so

long as it lasts, as a feature or play of the total process—like a cloud or

wave, or like feeling warm or cold, or anything else that happens of

itself. Getting rid of one’s ego is the last resort of invincible egoism! It

simply confirms and strengthens the reality of the feeling. But when this

feeling of separateness is approached and accepted like any other

sensation, it evaporates like the mirage that it is.

This is why I am not overly enthusiastic about the various “spiritual

exercises” in meditation or yoga which some consider essential for

release from the ego. For when practiced in order to “get” some kind of

spiritual illumination or awakening, they strengthen the fallacy that the

ego can toss itself away by a tug at its own bootstraps. But there is

nothing wrong with meditating just to meditate, in the same way that

you listen to music just for the music. If you go to concerts to “get

culture” or to improve your mind, you will sit there as deaf as a


If, then, you ask me how to get beyond the ego-feeling, I shall ask

you why you want to get there. If you give me the honest answer, which

is that your ego will feel better in the “higher spiritual status” of selftranscendence,

you will thus realize that you—as ego—are a fake. You

will feel like an onion: skin after skin, subterfuge after subterfuge, is

pulled off to find no kernel at the center. Which is the whole point: to

find out that the ego is indeed a fake—a wall of defense around a wall

of defense … around nothing. You can’t even want to get rid of it, nor

yet want to want to.

Understanding this, you will see that the ego is exactly what it

pretends it isn’t. Far from being the free center of personality, it is an

automatic mechanism implanted since childhood by social authority,

with—perhaps—a touch of heredity thrown in. This may give you the

temporary feeling of being a zombie or a puppet dancing irresponsibly

on strings that lead away to unknown forces. At this point, the ego may

reassert itself with the insidious “I-can’t-help-myself” play in which the

ego splits itself in two and pretends that it is its own victim. “See, I’m

only a bundle of conditioned reflexes, so you mustn’t get angry with me

for acting just as I feel.” (To which the answer could be, “Well, we’re

just zombies too, so you shouldn’t complain if we get angry.”)

But who is it that mustn’t get angry or shouldn’t complain, as if there

were still some choice in the matter? The ego is still surviving as the “I”

which must passively endure the automatic behavior of “myself” and

others—again, as if there were some choice which the witnessing self

can make between putting up with things and attacking them violently.

What has happened is that the frustrated ego has withdrawn into its last

stronghold of independence, retaining its identity as a mere watcher, or

sufferer, of all that goes on. Here it pities itself or consoles itself as a

puppet of fate.

But if this is seen as yet another subterfuge, we are close to the final

showdown. A line of separation is now drawn between everything that

happens to me, including my own feelings, on the one side, and on the

other, I myself as the conscious witness. Isn’t it easy to see that this line

is imaginary, and that it, and the witness behind it, are the same old

faking process automatically learned in childhood? The same old cleft

between the knower and the known? The same old split between the

organism/environment and the organism’s feedback, or self-conscious

mechanism? If, then, there is no choice in what happens to me, on one

side of the line, there is equally no choice on the other, on the

witnessing side, as to whether I should accept what happens or reject it.

I accept, I reject, I witness just as automatically as things happen or as

my emotions reflect my physiological chemistry.

Yet in this moment when one seems about to become a really total

zombie, the whole thing blows up. For there is not fate unless there is

someone or something to be fated. There is no trap without someone to

be caught. There is, indeed, no compulsion unless there is also freedom

of choice, for the sensation of behaving involuntarily is known only by

contrast with that of behaving voluntarily. Thus when the line between

myself and what happens to me is dissolved and there is no stronghold

left for an ego even as a passive witness, I find myself not in a world but

as a world which is neither compulsive nor capricious. What happens is

neither automatic nor arbitrary: it just happens, and all happenings are

mutually interdependent in a way that seems unbelievably harmonious.

Every this goes with every that. Without others there is no self, and

without somewhere else there is no here, so that—in this sense—self is

other and here is there.

When this new sensation of self arises, it is at once exhilarating and a

little disconcerting. It is like the moment when you first got the knack of

swimming or riding a bicycle. There is the feeling that you are not doing

it yourself, but that it is somehow happening on its own, and you

wonder whether you will lose it—as indeed you may if you try forcibly

to hold on to it. In immediate contrast to the old feeling, there is indeed

a certain passivity to the sensation, as if you were a leaf blown along by

the wind, until you realize that you are both the leaf and the wind. The

world outside your skin is just as much you as the world inside: they

move together inseparably, and at first you feel a little out of control

because the world outside is so much vaster than the world inside. Yet

you soon discover that you are able to go ahead with ordinary

activities—to work and make decisions as ever, though somehow this is

less of a drag. Your body is no longer a corpse which the ego has to

animate and lug around. There is a feeling of the ground holding you

up, and of hills lifting you when you climb them. Air breathes itself in

and out of your lungs, and instead,of looking and listening, light and

sound come to you on their own. Eyes see and ears hear as wind blows

and water flows. All space becomes your mind. Time carries you along

like a river, but never flows out of the present: the more it goes, the

more it stays, and you no longer have to fight or kill it.

You do not ask what is the value, or what is the use, of this feeling.

Of what use is the universe? What is the practical application of a

million galaxies? Yet just because it has no use, it has a use—which

may sound like a paradox, but is not. What, for instance, is the use of

playing music? If you play to make money, to outdo some other artist,

to be a person of culture, or to improve your mind, you are not really

playing—for your mind is not on the music. You don’t swing. When

you come to think of it, playing or listening to music is a pure luxury, an

addiction, a waste of valuable time and money for nothing more than

making elaborate patterns of sound. Yet what would we think of a

society which had no place for music, which did not allow for dancing,

or for any activity not directly involved with the practical problems of

survival? Obviously, such a society would be surviving to no purpose—

unless it could somehow make a delight out of the “essential tasks” of

farming, building, soldiering, manufacturing, or cooking. But in that

moment the goal of survival is forgotten. The tasks are being done for

their own sake, whereupon farms begin to look like gardens, sensible

living-boxes sprout interesting roofs and mysterious ornaments, arms

are engraved with curious patterns, carpenters take time to “finish” their

work, and cooks become gourmets.

A Chinese philosophical work called The Secret of the Golden

Flower says that “when purpose has been used to achieve

purposelessness, the thing has been grasped.” For a society surviving to

no purpose is one that makes no provision for purposeless behavior—

that is, for actions not directly aimed at survival, which fulfill

themselves in being done in the present and do not necessarily imply

some future reward. But indirectly and unintentionally, such behavior is

useful for survival because it gives a point to surviving—not, however,

when pursued for that reason. To play so as to be relaxed and refreshed

for work is not to play, and no work is well and finely done unless it,

too, is a form of play.

To be released from the “You must survive” double-bind is to see

that life is at root playing. The difficulty in understanding this is that the

idea of “play” has two distinct meanings which are often confused. On

the one hand, to do something only or merely in play, is to be trivial and

insincere, and here we should use the word “toying” instead of

“playing.” But if some woman should say to me, “I love you,” would it

be right to answer, “Are you serious, or are you just playing with me?”

After all, if this relationship is to flourish, I very much hope that she is

not serious and that she will play with me. No, the better question would

be, “Are you sincere, or are you just toying with me?” Sincerity is better

than seriousness, for who wants to be loved gravely? Thus, on the other

hand, there is a form of playing which is not trivial at all, as when

Segovia plays the guitar or Sir Laurence Olivier plays the part of

Hamlet, or, obviously, when someone plays the organ in church. In this

sense of the word Saint Gregory Nazianzen could say of the Logos, the

creative wisdom of God:

For the Logos on high plays,

stirring the whole cosmos back and forth, as he wills,

into shapes of every kind.

And, at the other end of the earth, the Japanese Zen master Hakuin:

In singing and dancing is the voice of the Law.

So, too, in the Vedanta the whole world is seen as the lila and the

maya of the Self, the first word meaning “play” and the second having

the complex sense of illusion (from the Latin ludere, to play), magic,

creative power, art, and measuring—as when one dances or draws a

design to a certain measure. From this point of view the universe in

general and playing in particular are, in a special sense, “meaningless”:

that is, they do not—like words and symbols—signify or point to

something beyond themselves, just as a Mozart sonata conveys no

moral or social message and does not try to suggest the natural sounds

of wind, thunder, or birdsong. When I make the sound “water,” you

know what I mean. But what does this whole situation mean—I making

the sound and your understanding it? What is the meaning of a pelican,

a sunflower, a seaurchin, a mottled stone, or a galaxy? Or of a + b = b +

a? They are all patterns, dancing patterns of light and sound, water and

fire, rhythm and vibration, electricity and spacetime, going like

Thrummular, thrummular thrilp,

Hum lipsible, lipsible lilp;

Dim thricken mithrummy,

Lumgumptulous hummy,

Stormgurgle umbumdular bilp.

Or, in the famous words of Sir Arthur Eddington about the nature of


We see the atoms with their girdles of circulating electrons darting

hither and thither, colliding and rebounding. Free electrons torn from

the girdles hurry away a hundred times faster, curving sharply round

the atoms with side-slips and hairbreadth escapes…. The spectacle is

so fascinating that we have perhaps forgotten that there was a time

when we wanted to be told what an electron is. The question was

never answered…. Something unknown is doing we don’t know

what—that is what our theory amounts to. It does not sound a

particularly illuminating theory. I have read something like it


The slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

There is the same suggestion of activity. There is the same

indefiniteness as to the nature of the activity and of what it is that is


The point is that “the spectacle is so fascinating.” For the world is a

spell (in Latin, fascinum), an enchantment (being thrilled by a chant), an

amazement (being lost in a maze), an arabesque of such stunning

rhythm and a plot so intriguing that we are drawn by its web into a state

of involvement where we forget that it is a game. We become fascinated

to the point where the cheering and the booing are transformed into

intense love and hate, or delight and terror, ecstatic orgasm or

screaming meemies. All made out of on-and-off or black-and-white,

pulsed, stuttered, diagrammed mosaiced, syncopated, shaded, jolted,

tangoed, and lilted through all possible measures and dimensions. It is

simultaneously the purest nonsense and the utmost artistry.

Listen intently to a voice singing without words. It may charm you

into crying, force you to dance, fill you with rage, or make you jump for

joy. You can’t tell where the music ends and the emotions begin, for the

whole thing is a kind of music—the voice playing on your nerves as the

breath plays on a flute. All experience is just that, except that its music

has many more dimensions than sound. It vibrates in the dimensions of

sight, touch, taste, and smell, and in the intellectual dimension of

symbols and words—all evoking and playing upon each other. But at

root—and this is a negative way of saying something highly positive—it

is nothing more than the mysterious utterance of the old man of

Spithead, who opened the window and said:

Fill jomble, fill jumble,

Fill rumble-come-tumble.

Bach states it more elegantly, but with just as little external meaning:

Once you have seen this you can return to the world of practical

affairs with a new spirit. You have seen that the universe is at root a

magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that there is no separate

“you” to get something out of it, as if life were a bank to be robbed. The

only real “you” is the one that comes and goes, manifests and withdraws

itself eternally in and as every conscious being. For “you” is the

universe looking at itself from billions of points of view, points that

come and go so that the vision is forever new. What we see as death,

empty space, or nothingness is only the trough between the crests of this

endlessly waving ocean. It is all part of the illusion that there should

seem to be something to be gained in the future, and that there is an

urgent necessity to go on and on until we get it. Yet just as there is no

time but the present, and no one except the all-and-everything, there is

never anything to be gained—though the zest of the game is to pretend

that there is.

Anyone who brags about knowing this doesn’t understand it, for he is

only using the theory as a trick to maintain his illusion of separateness, a

gimmick in a game of spiritual one-upmanship. Moreover, such

bragging is deeply offensive to those who do not understand, and who

honestly believe themselves to be lonely, individual spirits in a

desperate and agonizing struggle for life. For all such there must be

deep and unpatronizing compassion, even a special kind of reverence

and respect, because, after all, in them the Self is playing its most farout

and daring game—the game of having lost Itself completely and of

being in danger of some total and irremediable disaster. This is why

Hindus do not shake hands on meeting, but put their palms together and

bow in a gesture of reverence, honoring the Godhead in the stranger.

And do not suppose that this understanding will transform you all at

once into a model of virtue. I have never yet met a saint or sage who did

not have some human frailties. For so long as you manifest yourself in

human or animal form, you must eat at the expense of other life and

accept the limitations of your particular organism, which fire will still

burn and wherein danger will still secrete adrenalin. The morality that

goes with this understanding is, above all, the frank recognition of your

dependence upon enemies, underlings, out-groups, and, indeed, upon all

other forms of life whatsoever. Involved as you may be in the conflicts

and competitive games of practical life, you will never again be able to

indulge in the illusion that the “offensive other” is all in the wrong, and

could or should be wiped out. This will give you the priceless ability of

being able to contain conflicts so that they do not get out-of-hand, of

being willing to compromise and adapt, of playing, yes, but playing it

cool. This is what is called “honor among thieves,” for the really

dangerous people are those who do not recognize that they are thieves—

the unfortunates who play the role of the “good guys” with such blind

zeal that they are unconscious of any indebtedness to the “bad guys”

who support their status. To paraphrase the Gospel, “Love your

competitors, and pray for those who undercut your prices.” You would

be nowhere at all without them.

The political and personal morality of the West, especially in the

United States, is—for lack of this sense—utterly schizophrenic. It is a

monstrous combination of uncompromising idealism and unscrupulous

gangsterism, and thus devoid of the humor and humaneness which

enables confessed rascals to sit down together and work out reasonable

deals. No one can be moral—that is, no one can harmonize contained

conflicts—without coming to a working arrangement between the angel

in himself and the devil in himself, between his rose above and his

manure below. The two forces or tendencies are mutually

interdependent, and the game is a working game just so long as the

angel is winning, but does not win, and the devil is losing, but is never

lost. (The game doesn’t work in reverse, just as the ocean doesn’t work

with wave-crests down and troughs up.)

It is most important that this be understood by those concerned with

civil rights, international peace, and the restraint of nuclear weapons.

These are most undoubtedly causes to be backed with full vigor, but

never in a spirit which fails to honor the opposition, or which regards it

as entirely evil or insane. It is not without reason that the formal rules of

boxing, judo, fencing, and even dueling require that the combatants

salute each other before the engagement. In any foreseeable future there

are going to be thousands and thousands of people who detest and

abominate Negroes, communists, Russians, Chinese, Jews, Catholics,

beatniks, homosexuals, and “dope-fiends.” These hatreds are not going

to be healed, but only inflamed, by insulting those who feel them, and

the abusive labels with which we plaster them—squares, fascists,

rightists, know-nothings—may well become the proud badges and

symbols around which they will rally and consolidate themselves. Nor

will it do to confront the opposition in public with polite and nonviolent

sit-ins and demonstrations, while boosting our collective ego by

insulting them in private. If we want justice for minorities and cooled

wars with our natural enemies, whether human or non-human, we must

first come to terms with the minority and the enemy in ourselves and in

our own hearts, for the rascal is there as much as anywhere in the

“external” world—-especially when you realize that the world outside

your skin is as much yourself as the world inside. For want of this

awareness, no one can be more belligerent than a pacifist on the

rampage, or more militantly nationalistic than an anti-imperialist.

You may, indeed, argue that this is asking too much. You may resort

to the old alibi that the task of “changing human nature” is too arduous

and too slow, and that what we need is immediate and massive action.

Obviously, it takes discipline to make any radical change in one’s own

behavior patterns, and psychotherapy can drag on for years and years.

But this is not my suggestion. Does it really take any considerable time

or effort just to understand that you depend on enemies and outsiders to

define yourself, and that without some opposition you would be lost? To

see this is to acquire, almost instantly, the virtue of humor, and humor

and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive. Humor is the twinkle in

the eye of a just judge, who knows that he is also the felon in the dock.

How could he be sitting there in stately judgment, being addressed as

“Your Honor” or “Mi Lud,” without those poor bastards being dragged

before him day after day? It does not undermine his work and his

function to recognize this. He plays the role of judge all the better for

realizing that on the next turn of the Wheel of Fortune he may be the

accused, and that if all the truth were known, he would be standing

there now.

If this is cynicism, it is at least loving cynicism—an attitude and an

atmosphere that cools off human conflicts more effectively than any

amount of physical or moral violence. For it recognizes that the real

goodness of human nature is its peculiar balance of love and selfishness,

reason and passion, spirituality and sensuality, mysticism and

materialism, in which the positive pole has always a slight edge over the

negative. (Were it otherwise, and the two were equally balanced, life

would come to a total stalemate and standstill.) Thus when the two

poles, good and bad, forget their interdependence and try to obliterate

each other, man becomes subhuman—the implacable crusader or the

cold, sadistic thug. It is not for man to be either an angel or a devil, and

the would-be angels should realize that, as their ambition succeeds, they

evoke hordes of devils to keep the balance. This was the lesson of

Prohibition, as of all other attempts to enforce purely angelic behavior,

or to pluck out evil root and branch.

It comes, then, to this: that to be “viable,” livable, or merely

practical, life must be lived as a game—and the “must” here expresses a

condition, not a commandment. It must be lived in the spirit of play

rather than work, and the conflicts which it involves must be carried on

in the realization that no species, or party to a game, can survive without

its natural antagonists, its beloved enemies, its indispensable opponents.

For to “love your enemies” is to love them as enemies; it is not

necessarily a clever device for winning them over to your own side. The

lion lies down with the lamb in paradise, but not on earth—”paradise”

being the tacit, off-stage level where, behind the scenes, all conflicting

parties recognize their interdependence, and, through this recognition,

are able to keep their conflicts within bounds. This recognition is the

absolutely essential chivalry which must set the limits within all

warfare, with human and non-human enemies alike, for chivalry is the

debonair spirit of the knight who “plays with his life” in the knowledge

that even mortal combat is a game.

No one who has been hoaxed into the belief that he is nothing but his

ego, or nothing but his individual organism, can be chivalrous, let alone

a civilized, sensitive, and intelligent member of the cosmos.

But to be lived this way, the life-game has to be purged of selfcontradictory

rules. This, and not some kind of moral effort, is the way

out of the hoax of separateness. Thus when a game sets the players an

impossible and not simply difficult task, it comes quickly to the point

where it is no longer worth playing. There is no way of observing a rule

set in the form of a double-bind—that is, a two-part rule whose parts are

mutually exclusive. No one can be compelled to behave freely or forced

to act independently. Yet whole cultures and civilizations have

befuddled themselves with this kind of nonsense, and, through failing to

spot the self-contradiction, their members have been haunted all through

their lives by the sense that individual existence is a problem and a

predicament—a form of nature doomed to perpetual frustration. The

sense of ego is at root a discomfort and a bore, and nothing shows it

more clearly than such everyday phrases as: “I need to get away from

myself” or “You should find something to take you out of yourself” or

“I read to forget myself.” Get lost! Hence the fanaticisms and

intoxications—religious, political, and sexual, the Nazis, the Klan,

Hell’s Angels, the Circus Maximus, the dreary fascination of the TV

screen, witch-burnings, Mickey Spillane and James Bond, pachinko

parlors, alcoholic stupors, revivals, tabloid newspapers, and juvenile

gangs—all of which, as things stand, are the necessary safety-valves and

palliatives for human beings whose very existence is defined in selfcontradictory

and self-defeating terms.

Finally, the game of life as Western man has been “playing” it for the

past century needs less emphasis on practicality, results, progress, and

aggression. This is why I am discussing vision, and keeping off the

subject of justifying the vision in terms of its practical applications and

consequences. Whatever may be true for the Chinese and the Hindus, it

is timely for us to recognize that the future is an ever-retreating mirage,

and to switch our immense energy and technical skill to contemplation

instead of action. However much we may now disagree with Aristotle’s

logic and his metaphors, he must still be respected for reminding us that

the goal of action is always contemplation—knowing and being rather

than seeking and becoming.

As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested

experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our

own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us

more boring than simple being. If I ask you what you did, saw, heard,

smelled, touched, and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more

than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of

those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an

existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an

infinite future is insatiable? But suppose you could answer, “It would

take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s

happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive

jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and

such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as

anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably

subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvelous patterns of

its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole

company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of

all eternity can be bored with being?

(1) G. K. Chesterton, “The Song of the Strange Ascetic,” Collected Poems. Dodd,

Mead, New York, 1932. p. 199; Methuen, 1950.

(2) The Nature of the Physical World. J. M. Dent, 1935. pp. 280-81.





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