can’t see the forest

Wise Words from Mr. Watts

Posted in Alan Watts, cosmology, ecology, philosophy, spirituality by Curtis on 9/18/07

I find that the sensation of my Self as an ego inside a bag of skin is really an hallucination. What we really are is, first of all, the whole of our body. And although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between inside and outside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. Obviously a body requires air . . . in order to occur, the body must be on a mild and nutritive planet with just enough oxygen in the atmosphere, spinning regularly near a certain kind of star. That arrangement is just as essential to my body as my heart, my lungs, and my brain.

So to describe myself in a scientific way, I must also describe my surroundings, which is a clumsy way of getting around to the realization that you are the entire Universe. However, we do not normally feel that way because we have constructed in thought an abstract idea of our Self.

Alan Watts


What Watts is getting at, it seems to me, is that any construct in which one’s Self is separated from the totality of its context is in some way fictitious, artificial. That includes most of the Self-concepts we work with and consider quite intuitive and useful.

There is the spatial, corporeal Self, constrained within the bounds of one’s physiology. My arms and my fingers are parts of my Self; the table upon which my arms rest and the keys I am pressing, though in contact with my arms and fingers, are not part of my Self. This is the equation of the Self with the body.

Also there is the temporal, existential Self, the borders of which are, roughly, the lifespan. Clearly the atomic parts of which I am composed were in existence a very long time before my conception and birth, but I do not consider the distant past of my atomic parts to be a part of my Self. To say that those atomic parts came from the Sun, for one example of a frame of reference, is to say that once they were part of the Sun and not part of me; furthermore, the Self that represents my ‘me’ did not yet exist.

There are very real problems with trying to define Self in either of these ways, principally in resolving the spatial or temporal boundaries of the Self with accuracy. This is not to mention the confusion with which the stockpot of dualism is continually boiling over.

One wonders: does it not follow that, if both you and I are the Universe, that we are exactly the same thing? No. The Universe is more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps a more linguistically demonstrative way to say “You are the Universe” would be to say “You are inseparable from the Universe, and the Universe requires your existence in order to be what it is.” What is made evident by Watts’ beautifully thorough conception of the Self, though, includes:

1.) That since our contexts are much larger than our corporeal Selves, the totality of enumerable differences between even the most disparate organisms is really very insignificant. For instance, while we consider humans and sea sponges to be quite dissimilar organisms, we must also recognize that this dissimilarity is extremely superficial at cosmic scales.

2.) That ecological awareness is sublimely illuminating in a way that dualistic spirituality can only pretend to be.


3 Responses

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  1. […] of Can’t See the Forest also writes about this recent lecture. He provides a little more insight into the ideas presented […]

  2. Michael said, on 3/1/08 at 6:37 pm

    I have been intending to comment on this post for a while and I was just reminded of it when I was going through my old posts (you commented on one of them).

    I think I see what Watts, and you, are saying but I think it is too big of a stretch to include “the universe” as part of the self. Yes, it is the proper context of the self, but if the air is a part of the self only because we need it, then we should be a part of the air’s self…but the air doesn’t need us. I don’t know how coherent my thoughts seem right now.

    Believe me, I’m all for context both in literature and in terms of defining ourselves…but Watts’ notion seems to be a stretch to me.

    The mind or “soul” is the important factor, I suppose.

    I think I actually prefer dualism over ecological awareness.

  3. Anthony said, on 5/28/08 at 11:52 pm

    Michael, I understand what you are saying, but I think the problem that you see is in the hierarchical (or holarchical) nature this notion implies. To explain further, to describe the self (in corporeal terms) we see that we are made up of atoms, those atoms make up molecules, molecules making systems, etc. until the human body as a self is formed and recognized as such. But Watts does not stop there, because we wouldn’t exist as a self, if it were not for the air that we breath. We would not exist as a self, if it were not for the climate provided by our sun and our planet’s proximity to it. The list can go on and on. But the point being that in this lineage of things that make up the self, the bottom portion in the ladder (the atoms, molecules etc), are just and equally as important as the upper portions of the ladder (air, planets, external factors) which transcend the conception of the self as it is conventionally viewed. This is a notion that pretty much explains the holarchical nature of the universe which is explicated in detail by Ken Wilber. You should check him out.

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