Artwork by  Randal Roberts. (

7 Profound Lessons From The Books Of Alan Watts

Artwork by Randal Roberts. (


by Daniel Hand

on April 8, 2015

“The universe is the game of the self, which plays hide and seek forever and ever.” -Alan Watts

From the late fifties to early seventies, Alan Watts (1915-1973) introduced the West to Eastern philosophy, which in part fueled the spirit and imagination of the beat and countercultural movements. In recent years, Watts’ lectures have reemerged on the Internet with the help of his fans and his son Mark Watts, and also the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who have animated this talk that has over 2 million views. Listening to his voice gives the best sense of his personality. He’s assured, relaxed, encouraging, and British. The combination gives the feeling he’s directing his words at your inner child.

He was a prolific man who wrote 25 books, lectured as Dean of the Institute of Asian Studies in San Francisco, hosted a radio show on Berkeley’s free radio KPFA and recorded television specials.

In his book The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Watts draws from Vedanta, Buddhism (Zen in particular), quantum physics, and Freudian psychology, and combines them in a singular acrobatic philosophy. With this, he tries to reorient and deconstruct the modern West’s conception of an alienated, disembodied self — including the persistent myth that humans are ‘against’ or ‘above’ nature — and shows a holistic self, living ‘within’ nature and the greater cosmos.

For Watts, the task of aligning with nature and our genuine self requires a basic awareness of “nothingness.” By fearing void and nothingness, or the “cosmic background,” Watts thinks we’re playing a broken game of “white-versus-black,” when the greater picture is one of “white-and-black.” Form cannot exist without nothingness; foreground is inseparable from background. It’s a modification of Zen directed at the modern ego, a retelling of the wisdom of Eastern philosophy for the West’s particular psychological, spiritual, scientific, and cultural hangups. (Not that these hangups couldn’t also be that of any industrialized culture, East or West.) Death and life are opposite sides of the same cosmic coin, Watts reiterates, and anxiety around death is in part a result of ‘forgetting’ this oneness.

These notions, given half a century to digest, might seem at this point a little easier to reckon with, but they were (and are) radically novel ideas. In addition to the gutsily titled The Book, I’ve also included a short summary in excerpts from The Joyous Cosmology, a short book where he describes a series of psychedelic trips on LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin, which he experienced at Druid Heights, a Northern Californian oceanside utopia he helped to build. Timothy Leary’s foreword compares The Book with Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, but with an additional sensitivity to the “love aspects of mystical experience.”

Below are seven excerpts from Watts’ two books, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966) and The Joyous Cosmology (1962).

The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are:

The Self in Nature

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.”

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.

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 depends.

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.

The Taboo Against Knowing Yourself

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.

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.

The Game of Black and White

The general habit of conscious attention is, in various ways, to ignore intervals.

We do not play the Game of Black-and-White — the universal game of up/down, on/off, solid/space, and each/all. Instead, we play the game of Black-versus-White or, more usually, White-versus-Black. But the game “White must win” is no longer a game. It is a fight — a fight haunted by a sense of chronic frustration, because we are doing something as crazy as trying to keep the mountains and get rid of the valleys.

The principal form of this fight is Life-versus-Death, the so-called battle for survival, which is supposed to be the real, serious task of all living creatures.

Thus for thousands of years human history has been a magnificently futile conflict, a wonderfully staged panorama of triumphs and tragedies based on the resolute taboo against admitting that black goes with white. Nothing, perhaps, ever got nowhere with so much fascinating ado. As when Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle, the essential trick of the Game of Black-and-White is a most tacit conspiracy for the partners to conceal their unity, and to look as different as possible. It is like a stage fight so well acted that the audience is ready to believe it a real fight. Hidden behind their explicit differences is the implicit unity of what Vedanta calls the Self, the One-without-a-second, the what there is and the all that there is which conceals itself in the form of you.

If, then, there is this basic unity between self and other, individual and universe, how have our minds become so narrow that we don’t know it?

How to Be a Genuine Fake

The cat has already been let out of the bag. The inside information is that yourself as “just little me” who “came into this world” and lives temporarily in a bag of skin is a hoax and a fake. The fact is that because no one thing or feature of this universe is separable from the whole, the only real You, or Self, is the whole. The first step is to understand, as vividly as possible, how the hoax begins.

Few people seem to use the word for their whole physical organism. “I have a body” is more common than “I am a body.” We speak of “my” legs as we speak of “my” clothes, and “I” seems to remain intact even if the legs are amputated. We say, “I speak, I walk, I think, and (even) I breathe.” But we do not say, “I shape my bones, I grow my nails, and I circulate my blood.” We seem to use “I” for something in the body but not really of the body, for much of what goes on in the body seems to happen to “I” in the same way as external events.

Nevertheless, “I” usually refers to a center in the body, but different peoples feel it in different places. For some cultures, it is in the region of the solar plexus. The Chinese hsin, the heart-mind or soul, is found in the center of the chest. But most Westerners locate the ego in the head, from which center the rest of us dangles. The ego is somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears. It is as if there sat beneath the dome of the skull a controlling officer who wears earphones wired to the ears, and watches a television screen wired to the eyes. Before him stands a great panel of dials and switches connected with all other parts of the body that yield conscious information or respond to the officer’s will.

Wherever people may feel that the ego is located, and however much, or little, of the physical body is identified with it, almost all agree that “I” am not anything outside my skin. As Shakespeare’s King John says to Hubert, “Within this wall of flesh there is a soul counts thee her creditor.” The skin is always considered as a wall, barrier, or boundary which definitively separates oneself from the world — despite the fact that it is covered with pores breathing air and with nerve-ends relaying information. The skin informs us just as much as it outforms; it is as much a bridge as a barrier. Nevertheless, it is our firm conviction that beyond this “wall of flesh” lies an alien world only slightly concerned with us, so that much energy is required to command or attract its attention, or to change its behavior. It was there before we were born, and it will continue after we die. We live in it temporarily as rather unimportant fragments, disconnected and alone.

The only real “I” is the whole endless process. This realization is already in us in the sense that our bodies know it, our bones and nerves and sense organs. We do not know it only in the sense that the thin ray of conscious attention has been taught to ignore it, and taught so thoroughly that we are very genuine fakes indeed.”

So What?

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.

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.

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?

The Joyous Cosmology

To begin with, this world has a different kind of time. It is the time of biological rhythm, not of the clock and all that goes with the clock. There is no hurry.

…here the depth of light and structure in a bursting bud go on forever. There is time to see them, time for the whole intricacy of veins and capillaries to develop in consciousness, time to see down and down into the shape of greenness, which is not green at all, but a whole spectrum generalizing itself as green — purple, gold, the sunlit turquoise of the ocean, the intense luminescence of the emerald.

I am not quite sure of the direction from which sounds come. The visual space seems to reverberate with them as if it were a drum. The surrounding hills rumble with the sound of a truck, and the rumble and the color-shape of the hills become one and the same gesture.

I feel that the world is on something in somewhat the same way that a color photograph is on a film, underlying and connecting the patches of color, though the film here is a dense rain of energy.

I see that there is always something insincere about trying to be sincere, as if I were to say openly, “The statement that I am now making is a lie.” There seems to be something phony about every attempt to define myself, to be totally honest. The trouble is that I can’t see the back, much less the inside, of my head. I can’t be honest because I don’t fully know what I am. Consciousness peers out from a center which it cannot see — and that is the root of the matter.

I try to go deeper, sinking thought and feeling down and down to their ultimate beginnings. What do I mean by loving myself?

At root, there is simply no way of separating self from other, self-love from other-love. All knowledge of self is knowledge of other, and all knowledge of other knowledge of self.

The “myself” which I am beginning to recognize, which I had forgotten but actually know better than anything else, goes far back beyond my childhood, beyond the time when adults confused me and tried to tell me that I was someone else; when, because they were bigger and stronger, they could terrify me with their imaginary fears and bewilder and outface me in the complicated game that I had not yet learned.

Ordinary thinking conceals polarity and relativity because it employs terms, the terminals or ends, the poles, neglecting what lies between them. The difference of front and back, to be and not to be, hides their unity and mutuality,

If the square may be defined as one who takes the game seriously, one must admire him for the very depth of his involvement, for the courage to be so far-out that he doesn’t know where he started.

I can see people just pretending not to see that they are avatars of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, that the cells of their bodies aren’t millions of gods, that the dust isn’t a haze of jewels. How solemnly they would go through the act of not understanding me if I were to step up and say, “Well, who do you think you’re kidding? Come off it, Shiva, you old rascal! It’s a great act, but it doesn’t fool me.” But the conscious ego doesn’t know that it is something which that divine organ, the body, is only pretending to be. When people go to a guru, a master of wisdom, seeking a way out of darkness, all he really does is to humor them in their pretense until they are outfaced into dropping it. He tells nothing, but the twinkle in his eye speaks to the unconscious — “You know … You know!”