Alan Watts - The Process of Life

A timeless audio essay by Alan Watts seemed so in-tuned with the current state of the world, we made it into a special insert called "The Process of Life".

For decades, Alan Watts traversed the boundaries of technology and transcendent thinking, of the knowable and the mystic. He did this with wit, wisdom and absolute clarity. Though he’s best known as the striking British philosopher who took the tenets of Eastern philosophy (Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism) and relayed them to the eager Beat and then Hippy minds of the Bay Area, it’s his ability to extract timeless questions from the fug of the modern world that keeps us coming back to him.

That’s what we found in this recording made available by his son under the title “The Process of Life.” We don’t know much about where this talk was given, or if it’s from a single talk or series of talks. Watts gave an incredible number of courses and seminars over the years, and here we have few clues beyond an occasionally present and laughing audience, who may or may not be engineers. We’re somewhere in the early 1970s, we think. But then again, these things could have been true at any time at all. It’s the process of life, after all.

Thanks to Mark Watts for his generous permission to reproduce his father’s words in our pages. We have edited order lightly from the audio version and removed some repetition, but otherwise all has been left verbatim.

"Now, what I want to do is have a mutual brain-picking session. I’m going to start the ball rolling by saying why I, as a philosopher, am interested in many things that you are all probably interested in professionally. Basically, what we’re going to talk about is the problem of control as exemplified in the ancient Latin question, quis custodiet ipsos—who guards the guards?

Now, we know that we’re living in an age when there’s been an enormous proliferation of techniques for subjecting every kind of natural process outside the human skin, and now increasingly inside the human skin, to some form of rational control. And, as we succeed in doing this, it also becomes apparent that we’re failing, that the process becomes of such a high degree of complexity that we begin to feel that we’re standing in our own way. That everybody complains, the state of affairs in the modern world, in the technological world, is so complicated that nobody can understand it. Nobody really knows what to do.

For example, you want to run a small business and you find you run into such enormous legal hassles, that you need so many secretaries to do the paperwork that you can hardly do the business. That you’re trying to run a hospital but you have to spend so much time making records and writing things down on paper that you don’t have much time to practice medicine. That you’re trying to run a university and the requirements—the recording, the endless red tape of the registrar’s office in the administration building—is such that the actual work of research and teaching is seriously hampered. And so the individual increasingly feels himself obstructed by his own cautiousness. This is basically what it is.

Now, to explain myself first of all, because most of you are strangers to me, I am a philosopher who has for many years been interested in the mutual fructification of Eastern cultures and Western cultures. Studying oriental ideas, not in the spirit of saying to the West, You ought to be converted to oriental ideas, but in the spirit of saying, You don’t understand the basic assumptions of your own culture if your own culture is the only culture you know. Everybody operates on certain basic assumptions but very few people know what they are.

I very often encounter this character who’s an American businessman, and he says, “Well, I’m a practical businessman. I believe in getting results and things done and all this thinking and highfalutin logic and nonsense is of no concern to me.” Now, I know that the practical basic assumptions, the metaphysics of that man, can be defined as pragmatism, as a school of philosophy. But it’s bad pragmatism because he’s never thought it through. It’s very difficult, you see, to get down to what are your basic assumptions—what do you mean by the good life? What do you mean by consistency? What do you mean by rationality? The only way of finding out what you mean by these things is by contrasting the way you look at something with the way it’s looked at in another culture. Therefore, we have to find cultures which are, in some ways, as sophisticated as our own but as different from our own as possible. For this purpose, I always thought that the Chinese were optimal and the Indians, the East Indians, and that by studying the ideas of these people, by studying their life goals, we could become more aware of our own. It’s the old principle of triangulation. You don’t establish the situation of a particular object unless you observe it from two different points of view and thereby calculate its actual distance from you. By looking at what we are pleased to call “reality,” the physical world, from this basic standpoint of different cultures, I think we’re in a better position to know where we are than if we only have one single line of sight. Therefore, this has been my interest and my background.

And arising out of this has come a further question which I would call the problems of human ecology: how is man best related to his environment, especially in circumstances where we are in possession of an extremely powerful technology and have, therefore, the capacity to change our environment far more than anyone else has ever been able to do so? Are we going to end up not by civilizing the world but by Los Angelizing it? In other words, are we going to foul our own nest as a result of technology?

All this gets down to the basic question, which is, really, what are you going to do if you’re God? If you find yourself in charge of the world through technological powers and instead of leaving evolution to what we used to call in the 19th century “the blind processes of nature”— that was begging the question to call them blind, but at any rate—we say we’re not going to leave the evolution anymore to the blind forces of nature but we’re going to direct it ourselves. Because we are increasingly developing, say, control over genetic systems, control over the nervous system, control over all kinds of systems. Then, simply, what do you want to do with it? But most people don’t know what they want, and have never even seriously confronted the question. You ask a group of students to sit down and write a solid paper of twenty pages on, “What is your idea of heaven?”. What would you really like to happen if you could make it happen? That’s the first thing that starts people really thinking, because you soon realize that a lot of the things you think you would want are not things you want at all.

Supposing just for the sake of illustration, you have the power to dream every night any dream you wanted to dream, and you could of course arrange for one night of dreams to be seventy five years of subjective time, or any number of years of subjective time. What would you do? Of course, you would start out by fulfilling every wish. We would have routs, and orgies, and all the most magnificent food, and sexual partners, and everything you could possibly imagine in that direction. When you got tired of that, after several nights, you would switch a bit and you’d soon find yourself involved in adventures and contemplating great works of art, and fantastic mathematical conceptions. You would soon be rescuing princesses from dragons, and all sorts of things like that.

Then, one night, you’d say, “Now, look. Tonight, what we’re going to do is we’re going to forget this dream is a dream, and we’re going to be really shocked.” When you woke up from that one, you’d say, “Oh, wasn’t that an adventure?” Then, you would think of more and more far out ways to get involved and let go of control, knowing that you would always come back to center in the end, but while you were involved in the dream, you wouldn’t know you were going to come back to center, be in control. Eventually, you’d be dreaming a dream in which you found yourselves all sitting around in this room, listening to me talking, all involved with the particular life problems which you have. Maybe that’s what you’re doing. [Raucous laughter in the room.]

But here is the difficulty, you see. The difficulty is control. Are you wise enough to play at being God, and to understand what that question means? We’ve got to go back to metaphysical assumptions, underlying Western common sense and whether you are a Jew or a Christian or an agnostic or an atheist, you are not uninfluenced by the whole tradition of Western culture, the models of the universe which it has employed, which influence our very language, the structure of our thought, the very constitution of logic which are going into, say, computers. The Western model of the universe is political, and engineering or architectural.

It’s natural for a child to ask its mother, “How was I made?” It would be inconceivable for a Chinese child to ask this. It might ask, “How was I grown?” or, “How did I grow?” but not, “How was I made?” as if I were an artifact, something put together, something which is a construct. But all Western thought is based on the idea that the universe is a construct. Even when we got rid of the idea of the constructor, the personal God, we continue to think of the world in terms of a machine—in terms, say, of Newtonian mechanics and later, in terms of what we call quantum mechanics, although I find it rather difficult to understand how quantum theory is in any sense mechanics. It’s much more like organics, which is to me a different concept, however that may be.

But nature itself is clouds, it’s water, it’s the outlines of continents, it’s mountains, it’s biological existences and all of them wiggle. And wiggly things are, to human consciousness, a little bit of a nuisance, because we want to figure it out. It is as if, therefore, some ancient fisherman one day held up his net and looked at the world through the net and he said, “My, just think of that. There, I can see the view, and at that peak of that mountain is one, two, three, four, five, six holes across. The base is one, two, three, four, five holes down. I’ve got its number.”

So the lines of latitude and longitude, the lines of celestial and terrestrial latitude and longitude, the whole idea of a matrix, of looking at things through graph paper printed on cellophane is the basic idea of measurement. This is the way we calculate. We break down the wiggliness of the world into comprehensible, countable geometrical units and thereby figure it and construct it in those terms. This is so successful, up to a point, that we can come to imagine that this is the way the physical world really is—discreet, discontinuous, full of points and in fact, a mechanism.

But I want to just put into your mind the notion that this may be the prejudice of a certain personality type. In the history of philosophy and poetry and art, we always find the interchange of two personality types, which I call prickles and goo. The prickly people are advocates of intellectual porcupinism. They want rigor. They want precise statistics. They have a certain clipped attitude in their voices and you know this very well in academic circles. And they accuse other people of being disgustingly vague and miasmic and mystical. But the vague, miasmic and mystical people accuse the prickly people of being near-skeletons with no flesh on their bones. They say to you, “You just rattle. You’re not really a human being. You know the words but you don’t know the music.”

Therefore, if you belong to the prickly type, you hope that the ultimate constituent of matter is particles. If you belong to the gooey type, you hope it’s waves. If you are prickly, you’re a classicist and if you are gooey, you’re a romanticist. Going back into medieval philosophy, if you’re prickly, you’re a nominalist. If you’re gooey, you’re a realist, and so it goes but we know very well that this natural universe is neither prickles nor goo exclusively. It’s gooey-prickles and prickly-goo. You see, it all depends on your level of magnification. If you’ve got your magnification on something so that the focus is clear, you’ve got a prickly point of view. You’ve got structure! Shape clearly outlined! Sharply defined! Then go a little out-of-focus and you’ve got goo. But we’re always playing with the two, because it’s like the question: is the world basically stuff, like matter, or is it basically structure? We find out today that in science, we don’t consider the idea of matter, of there being some sort of stuff, because supposed you wanted to describe stuff, in what terms would you describe it? You always have to describe it in terms of structure—something countable, something that can be designated as a pattern. So we never get to any basic stuff.

It seems to me that this way of thinking is based on a form of consciousness that we could best call scanning. The capacity to divide experiences into bits is somehow related to a physical facility, which corresponds to sweeping a radar beam or a spotlight over the environment. The advantage of the spotlight is it gives you intensely concentrated light on restricted areas. A floodlight, by comparison, has less intensity, but if you examine, say this room were in total darkness and you used a spotlight, with a very thin beam, and you scanned the room with it, you would have to retain in memory all the areas over which it passed and then by an additive process, you would make out the contours of the room.

And it seems to me that this is something in which civilized man, both in the East and in the West, has specialized, in a method of paying attention to things which we call noticing, and therefore it’s highly selective. It picks out. It’s punctive. It picks out features in the environment which we say are noteworthy and which we therefore register with a notation, be it the notation of words, the notation of numbers or such a notation, say, as algebra or music, so that we notice those things, only those things, for which we have notation.

It has percolated, you see, into the roots of our common sense that the world is a construct. It’s an artifact and therefore, as one understands the operations of a machine by analysis of its parts, by separating them into their original bits, we have bitted the cosmos and see everything going on in terms of bits of information and have found that this is extremely fruitful in enabling us to control what’s happening. After all, the whole of Western technology is the result of bitting, and so we thing the world. That is to say, in order to measure a curve, you have to reduce it to point instance and apply the calculus. In exactly the same way, in order to discuss or talk about the universe, you have to reduce it to things, but each thing or think is, as it were, one grasp of that spotlight going, chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, chug. Like this, you see.

We don’t know the origins of all this. It may go back thousands of years. The way we develop the art of thinking, which is essentially calculus, is this: the universe as it comes in nature, the physical universe, is something like a Rorschach blot. It’s all wiggles. We who live in cities are not really used to this because we build everything in straight lines and rectangles and so on. Wherever you see this sort of thing, you know human beings have been around because they’re always trying to straighten things out.

When a child, very often a child will point at something and say to its parents, “What’s that?” and they’re not clear what the child is pointing to. The child is pointing to something which we consider is not a thing. The child has pointed to an area, say a funny pattern on a dirty wall, and has noticed the figure on it but the child doesn’t have a word for it and says, “What’s that?” The adult says, “Oh, that’s just a mess,” because that doesn’t count for us as a thing. You come through this to the understanding, what do you mean by a thing? It’s very fascinating to ask children, and they don’t know because it’s one of the unexamined suppositions of the culture. What you mean by an event? Everybody knows what an event is but nobody can say, because a thing is a think. It’s a unit of thought like an inch is a unit of measurement.

So we reduce the infinite wiggliness of the world to grasps or bits. We’re getting back to biting, you see, the idea of teeth, to grasps of thought. We thereby describe the world in terms of things just as that fisherman could describe his view by the number of net holes over through which the view was showing. This has been the immensely and apparently successful enterprise of all technological culture.

The problem that arises is this. First of all—very obviously, everybody knows, I hardly need to mention it—go to the science of medicine; you’ve got a specialist who really understands the function of the gallbladder and he studied gallbladders, gallbladders, gallbladders ad infinitum and he really thinks he knows all about it. But whenever he looks at a human being, he sees them in terms of gallbladder. If he operates on the gallbladder, he may do so very knowledgeably about that particular area of the organism but he does not foresee the unpredictable effects of this operation in other connected areas because the human being’s gallbladder is not a thing in the same way as a spark plug in a car can be extracted and a new one replaced. Because the system isn’t the same.

There is a fundamental difference between a mechanism and an organism, which can be described operationally. A mechanism is assembled. You add this bit to that bit to that bit to that bit. But an organism grows. That is to say, when you watch in a microscope a solution in which crystals are forming, you don’t see this shape. It’s like when you watch a photographic plate developing. Suddenly, the whole area which you’re watching seems to organize itself and to develop, to make sense, moving from the relatively simple and gooey to the relatively structured and prickly, but not by addition. So then, if we are trying to control and understand the world through conscious attention—which is a scanning system which takes in everything, bit, bit, bit, bit, bit, bit, bit, bit, bit—what we’re going to run into is that if that’s the only method we rely on, everything is going to appear increasingly too complicated to manage. Let’s take the problem of the electronic industry; the catalogs of products that are being produced over the world by the electronic industry. Who has read all the catalogs? How do you know whether something you’re working on is patented or not? Who else has taken out a patent? Has anybody had time to read all the catalogs? Nobody has. They’re just voluminous.

It’s exactly the same in almost any other field. There’s an information explosion like a population explosion. How on earth are you going to scan all that information? Yes, of course you can get computers to help you in this direction, but by Parkinson’s Law, the sooner you become more efficient in doing this, the more the thing is going to develop so that you will have to have more efficient computers built to assimilate all the information. You’ll be ahead, but only for a short time. You see this problem of this sort of competition of consciousness; how fast can you go, do di do di do di, do di do di do di, do di do di do, and keep track of it? You see? I’ve got a good memory. I’ll keep track of that. You say to you, I bet you can’t. Musicians do this, drummers you know? They get things going and so long as they count, and lots of musicians do count—it’s crazy but they do—and they count, count, count and they out-complicate each other, to the point where you can’t retain it any longer in memory. So you say, “Okay, if I can’t retain it, we’ve got this gadget here that can.” And we’ve got these marvelous mechanical memories and they will retain it and they’ll go much more fancy. They’ll go do di do di do di, at this colossal speed, zzzzt, like that, you see?”

But it’s the same old problem. Because you get something that can outdo that. But supposing there was some other way of understanding things. Let’s go back from the spotlight to the floodlight, to the extraordinary capacity of the human nervous system to comprehend situations instantaneously without analysis. That is to say without verbal or numerical symbolism of the situation in order to understand it. I hope you understand what I mean by that. We do do that. We have this curious ability of pattern recognition, which the mechanical systems have only in a very primitive way. Xerox has put out a machine, which recognizes figures written in almost anyone’s handwriting provided their handwriting is fairly grade school and normal.

But the computer has a terrible time trying to recognize the letter A when it’s printed in, say, sans serif, gothic, longhand or whatever kind of A you may write. The human recognizes instantly this pattern but the computer is still at a disadvantage here. It seems to lack a kind of capacity I would call field organization because it’s all punctive. It’s digital. It’s dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, like a newspaper photograph, which when you look at it under a microscope is all dots.

Now, the problem is this: in developing technology, are we leaving out of consideration our strongest suit, which is the brain itself? See, we are at a situation where the brain is still not really worked out by even the most competent neurologists. It puzzles them. They can’t give a model of the brain in numerical or verbal language. Now, you are that, you see. You are this thing. You yourself are this thing which you yourself can’t figure out. In the same way that I cannot touch the tip of this finger with the tip of this finger, I can’t bite my own teeth. But I, who is attempting to touch the tip of this finger with this finger, am, by the sheer complexity of my structure, far more evolved than any system which I can imagine. This is, in a way, slightly akin to the Gödel theorem that states you can’t have a system which defines its own axioms. The axioms of any given system must always be defined in terms of a higher system. So you are the most complex thing that has yet been encountered in the cosmos and you can’t figure you out.

Now, suppose we’re going to try to do that and become completely transparent to ourselves so that we entirely understand the organization or the mechanics of our own brains. What happens when we do that? Well you’re back in the situation of God. When you’re God, what are you going to do? When you’re God, you know what you’re going to do, you’re going to say to yourself, “Man, get lost,” because what you want is a surprise. When you’ve figured everything out, there won’t be any surprises. You’ll be completely bored. On the other hand, a person I would say who is really functioning completely is basically a person who trusts his own brains, and permits his brain to operate at a more optimal level. In other words, he knows how to think things out but he makes his best discoveries without thinking. In other words, you all know very well the processes of creative invention: you’ve got a problem, you think it over and you can’t find out any answer to it because the digital system of thinking is too simple, too clumsy to deal with. It’s more complex. There are more variables than can be kept in mind at one time; so you say, “I’ll sleep on it.” Or you go to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, or Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, where they pay you to goof off, which is a highly excellent idea. You moon around and you’ve got a blackboard and you look out the window and pick your nose and so on. And your brain eventually hands you the solution to the problem. Immediately, because you have technical knowledge, you recognize that’s a solution; but then, naturally, you go back and check it. You work the bit-by-bit form of thinking on it and say, “Now, does it come out on those terms?” If it does, everybody will agree with you. They’ll say, Yes, that’s the answer, but if it doesn’t come out in those terms, they won’t agree with you, because you haven’t subjected it to the socially acceptable traditional form of analyzing knowledge.

But here’s the problem. It takes an awful long time to check these things out. It takes an awful long time to arrive at the solution—which you’ve got like that—by a clearly calculated process. Most of the situations of life are such that they don’t wait for us to make up our mind, so an enormous amount of carefully worked out scientific knowledge is trivial. All very well, very finely worked out, but much too late. Life comes at you from all sides, all over everywhere at once. The only thing you’ve got to deal with that is thing inside here, in the skull.

Now, I’m not saying this to put down all this marvelous work of calculation, brought to immense sophistication electronically and so on. Not at all. Actually, you people are the first people to understand the limitations of your own kind of knowledge. And you’re going to have to tell the politicians about this. They don’t understand it. They think that this kind of knowledge is the answer to everything. And I think most people know it isn’t, which is not something, I repeat, against technology. It’s only saying that when you walk, you put your right foot forward. That’s fine but then, you must put your left foot forward. Let’s say the great technological enterprise has been putting the right foot forward, but you must bring up the left foot. That is to say bring up revaluation and new respect for the organic type of organization which is incomprehensible to technological thinking, but which always underlies it. That, by itself, doesn’t work, because after you bring the left foot up, you’ve then got to bring up the right foot. The analytic. After goo comes prickles. After prickles, comes goo. You have to keep this thing up. I think our danger at present time is that we are so heavy, so delighted with the results of prickles that we’ve got to let back a little bit of goo into the system.

Now, what we’ve got to try and do is, I think, to work out a way of making the brain itself more efficient. And this is the thing that civilized education has neglected. Lynn White, I have to quote him again, he used to say that the academic world today only values three kinds of intelligence: verbal intelligence; mnemonic intelligence, in other words, remembering; and computational intelligence. He said that it entirely neglects kinesthetic intelligence, social intelligence… He had at least seven kinds of intelligence, I forget what they all were, but it is this extraordinary capacity of the neural organization to engage in pattern recognition and in solving instantly certain complex problems without knowing how it does it.

The trouble is when you do something you don’t know how to do, you’ve got an unrepeatable experiment. In other words, you can’t explain to someone else how to put it together, but you can do it like you can open and close your hand, without any knowledge of physiology, do it every time. Oops, I don't know how I do it. I just do it, you see? We have an enormous potential of intelligence, of knowing how to do all sorts of things, which to the extent that we are academically minded people, we won’t allow ourselves to do, because we can’t explain it. For example, there’s a way of cooling a brazing furnace. It’s very simple but engineers say it’s theoretically impossible. It can’t happen. It’s like, bees can’t fly by the laws of aerodynamics, but they do.

So the rather practical issue I come to is this. Technology, if it relies exclusively on linear thinking, is going to destroy the environment. It’s going to become too complicated to handle. Man is going to be like the dinosaur which had to have a brain in its head and a brain in its rump because it was so big. The caveman kept that dinosaur and when he went to bed at night, he’d clump it on the tail with a club. It would scream at eight o’clock in the morning and wake him up. It seems to me we’re getting into that kind of saurian situation with our technology which is going to lead us to extinction. So the question is, are we going to foul things up by insisting on using linear input information as the dominant tool of controlling the world, or can we master all that as we have done and still use the linear input and analysis but with the fundamental trust in our power to assimilate multiple inputs, although we really don’t know how we do it. My point is that you can’t find an absolute which you can pin down. There always remains, in any human operation, the basic central thing which you can’t pin down because it’s you! Just as the teeth can’t bite themselves.

Now, the assumption of Judeo-Christian culture is that man in his nature is sinful and therefore can’t be trusted. The assumption of at least ancient Chinese culture is that man in his essential nature is good and therefore, has to be trusted. Because they say to us, “If you can’t trust your own basic nature, you can’t really rely on the idea that you’re untrustworthy. Therefore, you are hopelessly fouled up.” So this has amazing political and other consequences. There’s a different assumption. If we say, “No, we human beings are fallible and basically selfish and really, really fundamentally evil and therefore we need law and order. We need a control system to put us in order.” We thereby project these control systems into the Church or into the police or into somebody, who are really ourselves disguised. It’s like daylight saving time! Everybody could simply get up an hour earlier but instead of doing that, we alter the clock because the clock is a kind of authority. We’ll say, the clock says it’s time for you to get up. The Amerindians laugh at the palefaces because they say, “Paleface, he doesn’t know when he’s hungry until he looks at his watch.” So in this way, we become clock dominated. The abstract system takes over from the physical, organic situation. And this is my big pitch, if I’m going to make a big pitch:

We’ve run into a cultural situation where we’ve confused the symbol with the physical reality—the money with the wealth and the menu with the dinner. We’re starving and eating menus.

No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.