Alan Watts On Why Our Minds And Technology Can’t Grasp Reality

The world is a marvelous system of wiggles,” says Alan Watts in a series of lectures I keep on my iPod at all times. He means that the world, as it really exists, does not comprise all the lines, angles, and hard edges that our various systems of words, symbols, and numbers do. Were I to distill a single overarching argument from all I’ve read and heard of the body of work Watts produced on Zen Buddhist thought, I would do so as follows: humanity has made astounding progress by creating and reading “maps” of reality out of language, numbers, and images, but we run an ever more dangerous risk of mistaking these maps for the land. In this 1971 National Educational Television program, A Conversation With Myself (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4), Watts claims that our comparatively simple minds and the simple technologies they’ve produced have proven desperately inadequate to handle reality’s actual complexity. But what to do about it?

Using an aesthetic now rarely seen on television, A Conversation With Myself captures, in only two unbroken shots, an informal “lecture” delivered by Watts straight to the viewer. Speaking first amid the abundant greenery surrounding his Mount Tamalpais cabin and then over a cup of ceremonial Japanese green tea (“good on a cold day”), he explains why he thinks we have thus far failed to comprehend the world and our interference with it. In part, we’ve failed because our “one-track” minds operating in this “multi-track” world insist on calling it interference at all, not realizing that the boundaries between us, one another, our technology, and nature don’t actually exist. They’re only artifacts of the methods we’ve used to look at the world, just like the distortions you get when digitizing a piece of analog sight or sound. Like early digitization systems, the crude tools we’ve been thinking with have, in Watts’ view, forced all of reality’s “wiggles” into unhelpful “lines and rows.” He sums up the problem with a memorable dash of Buddha-by-way-of-Britain wit: “You’re trying to straighten out a wiggly world, and now you’re really in trouble.”

(If you’d like a side of irony, ponder for a moment the implications of absorbing all this not only through human language, but through technology like iPods and Google Video!)

Related Content:

Alan Watts Introduces America to Meditation & Eastern Philosophy (1960)

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.



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by | Permalink | Comments (14) |

  • jld

    Well, sure, but mysticism doesn’t offer any better grasp of reality, only a different kind of delusion.
    We cannot do more than being wary about our opinions and keep in mind the Box and Draper quote:
    “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.

  • tien

    If he really wants to return to nature, he should go into the woods with david attenborough and not just remain in this artificially cleared fields.

  • http://www.globalisr.com Irv Beiman

    It’s fascinating that Watts’ message from 40+ years ago has powerful implications for what’s happening today. His use of the term “biosphere” and observation that by grasping for “progress” we are making a worse mess of things.

    It’s worrisome that Watts believes there is little we can do about it, as long as we remain driven by ego [and associated belief].

    I am reminded of what an architect from a sustainable community in India said to me: “The only solution is a change in human consciousness.”

    The grief, suffering and tragedy that is increasing [and seems more than likely to accelerate] may bring about a massive major perturbation in human consciousness, with the evolutionary possibilities….

    Thanks to OPENCULTURE for making this video available!

  • Wayne

    I have begun to dwell increasingly in the comfortable space behind my thoughts.

  • Roshan Dasari

    Profoundly Simple.

  • Alfonso

    Some models are useful… We can assimilate half truths trough language, and technology but to digest and grow with these ideas requires just an open, and aware mind.

  • John Smallberries

    You might want to find a copy of “Alan Watts The Future of Communications” and read/listen to what he has to say about the open society.

  • Art M.

    I have always found his talks wise and fascinating. Recently I read that he died an unhappy alcoholic, and now I don’t know what to make of the whole situation.

  • Zola

    Watts is being polite when saying “we’re simple-minded”. Humans are greedy, vicious and reckless. Not all, but 1% is leading the way for the rest of dimwits. Misanthropic comment? – yes indeed. People are a disease and they don’t even care.

  • http://Openculture Naz

    I find this man really shallow with everything that comes out of his simple brain. He rejects human abstraction and prefers the aesthetic form of nature yet the simpleton doesn’t realise that the very forest he was standing and wiggling about in was recreated by man. His choice of words and linked sentences are concocted for him to express a point of view which is counter to the human experience at this moment in time. The very dense language that he uses to express his opinions would not have existed had we still been part of the forest/nature, not that we are not part of it now anyway. Innately we are stuck with our conciousness and our ego. Nothing we can do will change that. As a specie we are both extremely creative and destructive. We are both the God and the Devil of this planet. In our schizophrenia we have managed so far to create some sort of a ‘balance’in our competition with our environment. All living things compete on this planet. Where all that will leads us we have yet to experience. We live only in today. Tomorrow? That’s the future.

  • Ross

    To Naz,

    Finding this presentation as shallow is a reflection of your own type of thinking my friend. You have not at all grasped how Watts was using the landscape as an example of the ‘wiggly’ substratum of the cosmos. Think about the concave-convex motion of a wiggle, the opposite shapes define each other and are not at all separate, they are integral parts of a single movement. When he mentioned the city and the wilderness being close to each other and when he spoke about the contrast in artistic ‘styles’ and indeed throughout the whole piece, he was speaking about that. All is defined by it’s opposite, and two opposites are always ends of a single movement; a wiggle.

    When he spoke about man’s tendency to try and ‘straighten-out’ the world, he was saying that if we view the universe only in terms of our linear thinking(no matter how relatively complex it is) then that would be comparable to taking out a ruler and concluding that the universe is comprised of inches.

  • Bobby-z Lambert

    Can we not look appon each of us commenting here as the action of a self constructing hive mind. I think the Internet is the latest substrate for the human hive mind and it’s growing every day. In a way perhaps each of us, our individual life experience is akin to a neron? Self construction and fractalization continues. Where it’s going and what it is doing, who can know? Not religion nor science. Not yet that’s for sure. UNTILL YOU CAN HOLD THE UNIVERSE AND ALL THINGS IN YOUR MIND IT REMAINS A MYSTERY. Our brains don’t sit easy with the unknown. Our brains crave labels and certainty. Perhaps we can take heart in the knowledge we as a species are young. Given time and luck we might grow a brain or combined hive mind capable of accepting the self constructing necessity of not accepting ahahhaha.

    UNTILL then carry on my friends as the millions before us did to get us this fare. Warm thoughts to all of you free thinkers. Bobby-z.com

  • Bobby-z Lambert

    Oh I forgot, I could not recommend more highly the late Donella Meads book Thinking In Systems A Primer. Extremely useful to anyone pondering the questions posed here by all. Ps forgive my spelling it remains far from perfect.

  • siomystic

    …when he died I don’t think he was trapped in and exclusively identified with being ‘someone’ who was going through the experience of being an ‘unhappy alcoholic’ …he was the unhappy alcoholic and also the rest of the unified field of life that ‘unhappy alcoholic’ went with… he realized the experiencer is the experience…also he realized that the description isn’t the described. To one who was only noticing the surface appearance he would seem an unhappy alcoholic, but along with being the surface he was also that which goes far deeper and way beyond the surface.

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