Book : On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts
A revelatory guide to understanding the essence of being human and a transformative handbook for embarking on a journey into the profound enigma of existence, written by a renowned figure known for interpreting Eastern knowledge for the modern Western world.
Deep at the core of human discord lies our inherent misconception of our true nature. Our misguided belief in our separateness from the vast cosmic web has fostered hostility towards the external world, leading us to misuse our technological advancements and impose violence and dominion upon nature.
Addressing this vital issue of personal identity, Alan Watts offers us a much-awaited solution rooted in the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. Cast within this Hindu framework, Watts helps us recognize that the essence of the universe lies within the very fabric of our being, ultimately reshaping our perception of ourselves and the world around us.
The Illusion of Separateness: Rediscovering the Whole
Inside information, just what should a young man or woman know in order to be well-informed? Is there, in other words, some secret knowledge, some special taboo, some hidden truths about life and existence that most parents and teachers either don’t know or won’t divulge?
In Japan, it was customary to give young people about to be married a “pillow book” – a small volume of woodblock prints showing all the details of sexual intercourse. It spared parents the embarrassment of explaining these intimate matters face to face. Today, however, information about sex is readily available at newsstands. Teenagers sometimes know more about it than adults.
But if sex is no longer a big taboo, what is? There must always be something taboo, something repressed or unadmitted or just glimpsed quickly out of the corner of our eye, because a direct look is too unsettling. There are taboos within taboos, like the skins of an onion.
So what is the book that parents might secretly pass to their children, without ever admitting it openly? It surely wouldn’t be the Bible, that sacred cow which has been treated as a holy book for so long. It would have to be something — a new philosophy of life and view of the world — that discusses the universe, our place in it, the problems of life and love, pain and death, and the question of whether existence has meaning.
Religions have attempted to address these questions, but they have ultimately become divisive and quarrelsome. We need a new experience, a new feeling of what it is to be, because the normal sensation of self is a hoax or at best a temporary role that we are playing, and have been conned into playing with our own consent, just like every hypnotized person is 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. The sensation of “I” as a lonely and isolated center of being is so powerful and fundamental to our modes of speech and thought, our laws and social institutions, that we cannot experience selfhood except as something superficial in the scheme of the universe. We are forced to speak of it through myth, metaphors, analogies, and images, which say what it is like, as distinct from what it is.
Myth is the form in which I try to answer the fundamental metaphysical questions that children ask me – Where did the world come from? Why did God make the world? What happens when we die? – to which I respond with a simple and ancient story that goes something like this:
There was never a time when the world began, because it goes round and round like a circle and there’s no place where a circle begins. Just as the hour hand of a watch goes up to 12 and down to 6, there is day and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying, winter and summer. You can’t have one without the other. There are times when the world is and times when it isn’t. If the world went on and on without rest, it would get horribly tired of itself. So it comes and it goes. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Because it doesn’t get tired of itself, it always comes back after it disappears. It’s like your breath. It goes in and out. And if you try to hold it in all the time, you feel terrible. Also, the world is 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 of God, he has no one to play with but himself. He pretends that he is not himself – that is his way of hiding from himself. God pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals and plants, all the rocks and stars. He has strange and wonderful adventures, and some of them are terrible and frightening. But when he wakes up, they will disappear.
I could go on and on but I would rather leave it at this: when all of us wake up, we will remember that we are all one single self, and that self is God.
Of course, this story is merely a mythical way of explaining the Vedanta philosophy. Vedanta teaches that the self in each one of us is really one, just as we have nerve ends all over our body and each one is a little self, because all the senses are fundamentally one sense. Every person, every animal, every sentient being may be looked upon as the eyes that look out of one central self. And going yet deeper, we find that there must be some sort of something which is the common ground of all these universes, all these galaxies. That ground is the self, the atman.
The vision of this self is no small matter. It is something that requires a keen sense of correlative vision – a thorough understanding that all explicit opposites are implicit allies, interdependent and inseparable. Life must be lived in the spirit of play, not work. The conflicts in life are to be carried on in the realization that no species or party can survive without its natural antagonists, and that cooperation and conflict are both necessary for balance and harmony in the universe.
The self, the ego, is a mere illusion. It is the result of forgetting that we are part of a larger whole, that everything in this universe is interconnected and interdependent. We must let go of the ego and see ourselves as one with the universe, with everything that is. When we do this, we will realize that life is a magical illusion and a fabulous game, and that our true self is the whole universe experiencing itself in its infinite forms and manifestations.