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Alan Watts - How We Define Ourselves

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Uploaded on Oct 23, 2010

"Out Of Your Mind" Lecture on "The Nature of Consciousness"

At a time when the West was just starting to take notice of Eastern spiritual thought, Alan Watts was in the vanguard. A former Anglican priest who dove into an intense study of Buddhism, he explained mystical ideas in terms that an English or American ear could understand. And he combined a profound scholarly knowledge of both traditions with an irreverent sense of humor that was more than just leavening—it was an essential piece of his world view.

To take an example that comes from the very beginning of the Out of Your Mind collection, Watts discusses the two Western views of the cosmos. In the "ceramic myth," the universe is created by God as a potter creates the bowl. As created beings, we are fragile and infinitely dependent on our creator. By contrast, the "fully automatic myth" views the universe as a clockwork machine, running by its own laws independently toward the inevitable conclusion. Both, Watts insists, are myths: meant to serve a certain purpose, and reflective of the people who created them. He proposes an alternative, the "dramatic myth," in which we are all players acting on the illusory stage of life, making up the rules as we go.

You see how many levels this operates on? On the one hand, we can say that the "ceramic" myth represents the traditional Judeo-Christian world view, and the "fully automatic" myth represents the scientific materialism that has displaced it among Western intellectuals. In the West, we tend to feel that we have to choose between the two. But the "dramatic" myth, essentially Watts's framing of the Hindu or Buddhist cosmology, suggests that there are infinitely many more choices, and that "Christian vs. scientific" is a very narrow, false dichotomy.

But Watts is not insisting at all that the dramatic myth is true. His real point is that any myth falls short as an objective description of reality, but works to express the needs of the people who create it. We all look at the myths of ancient peoples in exactly that way. If we can view our own myths in that same light, we can come to take them less seriously, on a certain level. We can learn from them and we can laugh at them at the same time.

Of course this way of thinking is familiar to anyone who has read much Watts. But listening to him speak is a very different experience. For one thing—and this is a bit embarrassing to admit—I was surprised by his accent. His British vowels sound almost stuffy at first, in a C.S. Lewis kind of way (if you've ever heard C.S. Lewis). He plays with it, mimicking different British accents as well as Chinese and Irish for comic effect, and he does them all incredibly well. He seems perfectly at home telling a joke, and he laughs at his own humor if the audience laughs first.

But beyond that, I was impressed by his seriousness. I don't mean "serious" as in "grim," but as in "dedicated." Watts read everything about Buddhism, so he can explain why Buddhists value reading so much less than Christians do. He discusses ancient Vedic texts, making frequent reference to the original Sanskrit or Pali when appropriate—but strangely, I never get the feeling he is just showing off. He is trying to educate his audience, to entertain them, to inform them, and most importantly, to share with them the highest and most beautiful wisdom.

Since the publication of his first book, The Spirit of Zen in 1936, Alan Watts has brought the essential teachings of the East to generations of seekers, suggesting the need to "go out of your mind in order to come to your senses." Carefully distilled from hundreds of hours of never-before-released material, Out of Your Mind presents a philosophical tour de force from this legendary self-described "spiritual entertainer" -- 12 lucid sessions sparking insights into the nature of reality; death and rebirth; the dilemma of polarity; the suspension of judgment; the art of contemplation; and much more.

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