On Being Aware
The following was taken from the book The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. It will help bring together many of the concepts so far. This is an incredible book. Enjoy the excerpt.
THE QUESTION “WHAT SHALL WE DO ABOUT IT?” IS only asked by those who do not understand the problem. If a problem can be solved at all, to understand it and to know what to do about it are the same thing. On the other hand, doing something about a problem which you do not understand is like trying to clear away darkness by thrusting it aside with your hands. When light is brought, the darkness vanishes at once.
This applies particularly to the problem now before us. How are we to heal the split between “I” and “me,” the brain and the body, man and nature, and bring all the vicious circles which it produces to an end? How are we to experience life as something other than a honey trap in which we are the struggling flies? How are we to find security and peace of mind in a world whose very nature is insecurity, impermanence, and unceasing change? All these questions demand a method and a course of action. At the same time, all of them show that the problem has not been understood. We do not need action—yet. We need more light.
Light, here, means awareness—to be aware of life, of experience as it is at this moment, without any judgments or ideas about it. In other words, you have to see and feel what you are experiencing as it is, and not as it is named. This very simple “opening of the eyes” brings about the most extraordinary transformation of understanding and living, and shows that many of our most baffling problems are pure illusion. This may sound like an over-simplification because most people imagine themselves to be fully enough aware of the present already, but we shall see that this is far from true.
Because awareness is a view of reality free from ideas and judgments, it is clearly impossible to define and write down what it reveals. Anything which can be described is an idea, and I cannot make a positive statement about something—the real world—which is not an idea. I shall therefore have to be content with talking about the false impressions which awareness removes, rather than the truth which it reveals. The latter can only be symbolized with words which mean little or nothing to those without a direct understanding of the truth in question.
What is true and positive is too real and too living to be described, and to try to describe it is like putting red paint on a red rose. Therefore most of what follows will have to have a rather negative quality. The truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light, an art not unlike sculpture, in which the artist creates, not by building, but by hacking away.
We saw that the questions about finding security and peace of mind in an impermanent world showed that the problem had not been understood. Before going any further, it must be clear that the kind of security we are talking about is primarily spiritual and psychological. To exist at all, human beings must have a minimum livelihood in terms of food, drink, and clothing—with the understanding, however, that it cannot last indefinitely. But if the assurance of a minimum livelihood for sixty years would even begin to satisfy the heart of man, human problems would amount to very little. Indeed, the very reason why we do not have this assurance is that we want so much more than the minimum necessities.
It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.
To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.
We look for this security by fortifying and enclosing ourselves in innumerable ways. We want the protection of being “exclusive” and “special,” seeking to belong to the safest church, the best nation, the highest class, the right set, and the “nice” people. These defenses lead to divisions between us, and so to more insecurity demanding more defenses. Of course it is all done in the sincere belief that we are trying to do the right things and live in the best way; but this, too, is a contradiction.
I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me.” “I,” who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward “me,” and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently “I” will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make “me” behave so badly.
We can hardly begin to consider this problem unless it is clear that the craving for security is itself a pain and a contradiction, and that the more we pursue it, the more painful it becomes. This is true in whatever form security may be conceived. You want to be happy, to forget yourself, and yet the more you try to forget yourself, the more you remember the self you want to forget. You want to escape from pain, but the more you struggle to escape, the more you inflame the agony. You are afraid and want to be brave, but the effort to be brave is fear trying to run away from itself. You want peace of mind, but the attempt to pacify it is like trying to calm the waves with a flat-iron.
We are all familiar with this kind of vicious circle in the form of worry. We know that worrying is futile, but we go on doing it because calling it futile does not stop it. We worry because we feel unsafe, and want to be safe. Yet it is perfectly useless to say that we should not want to be safe. Calling a desire bad names doesn’t get rid of it. What we have to discover is that there is no safety, that seeking it is painful, and that when we imagine that we have found it, we don’t like it. In other words, if we can really understand what we are looking for—that safety is isolation, and what we do to ourselves when we look for it—we shall see that we do not want it at all. No one has to tell you that you should not hold your breath for ten minutes. You know that you can’t do it, and that the attempt is most uncomfortable.
The principal thing is to understand that there is no safety or security. One of the worst vicious circles is the problem of the alcoholic. In very many cases he knows quite clearly that he is destroying himself, that, for him, liquor is poison, that he actually hates being drunk, and even dislikes the taste of liquor. And yet he drinks. For, dislike it as he may, the experience of not drinking is worse. It gives him the “horrors,” for he stands face to face with the unveiled, basic insecurity of the world.
Herein lies the crux of the matter. To stand face to face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it, you must not face it but be it. It is like the Persian story of the sage who came to the door of Heaven and knocked. From within the voice of God asked, “Who is there” and the sage answered, “It is I.” “In this House,” replied the voice, “there is no room for thee and me.” So the sage went away, and spent many years pondering over this answer in deep meditation. Returning a second time, the voice asked the same question, and again the sage answered, “It is I.” The door remained closed. After some years he returned for the third time, and, at his knocking, the voice once more demanded, “Who is there?” And the sage cried, “It is thyself!” The door was opened.
To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change, more even than to observe the transitoriness of life. The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life. We are struggling to make sure of the permanence, continuity, and safety of this enduring core, this center and soul of our being which we call “I.” For this we think to be the real man—the thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the knower of our knowledge. We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realize that this “I” does not exist.
Understanding comes through awareness. Can we, then, approach our experience—our sensations, feelings, and thoughts—quite simply, as if we had never known them before, and, without prejudice, look at what is going on? You may ask, “Which experiences, which sensations and feelings, shall we look at?” I will answer, “Which ones can you look at?” The answer is that you must look at the ones you have now. That is surely rather obvious. But very obvious things are often overlooked. If a feeling is not present, you are not aware of it. There is no experience but present experience. What you know, what you are actually aware of, is just what is happening at this moment, and no more.
But what about memories? Surely by remembering I can also know what is past? Very well, remember something. Remember the incident of seeing a friend walking down the street. What are you aware of? You are not actually watching the veritable event of your friend walking down the street. You can’t go up and shake hands with him, or get an answer to a question you forgot to ask him at the past time you are remembering. In other words, you are not looking at the actual past at all. You are looking at a present trace of the past.
It is like seeing the tracks of a bird on the sand. I see the present tracks. I do not, at the same time, see the bird making those tracks an hour before. The bird has flown, and I am not aware of him. From the tracks I infer that a bird was there. From memories you infer that there have been past events. But you are not aware of any past events. You know the past only in the present and as part of the present.
We are seeing, then, that our experience is altogether momentary. From one point of view, each moment is so elusive and so brief that we cannot even think about it before it has gone. From another point of view, this moment is always here, since we know no other moment than the present moment. It is always dying, always becoming past more rapidly than imagination can conceive. Yet at the same time it is always being born, always new, emerging just as rapidly from that complete unknown which we call the future. Thinking about it almost makes you breathless.
To say that experience is momentary is really to say that experience and the present moment are the same thing. To say that this moment is always dying, or becoming past, and always being born, or coming out of the unknown, is to say the same thing of experience. The experience you have just had has vanished irretrievably, and all that remains of it is a sort of wake or track in the present, which we call memory. While you can make a guess as to what experience is coming next, in actual fact you do not know. Anything might happen. But the experience which is going on now is, as it were, a newborn infant which vanishes before it can even begin to get older.
While you are watching this present experience, are you aware of someone watching it? Can you find, in addition to the experience itself, an experiencer? Can you, at the same time, read this sentence and think about yourself reading it? You will find that, to think about yourself reading it, you must for a brief second stop reading. The first experience is reading. The second experience is the thought, “I am reading.” Can you find any thinker, who is thinking the thought, I am reading?” In other words, when present experience is the thought, “I am reading,” can you think about yourself thinking this thought?
Once again, you must stop thinking just, “I am reading.” You pass to a third experience, which is the thought, “I am thinking that I am reading.” Do not let the rapidity with which these thoughts can change deceive you into the feeling that you think them all at once.
But what has happened? Never at any time were you able to separate yourself from your present thought, or your present experience. The first present experience was reading. When you tried to think about yourself reading, the experience changed, and the next present experience was the thought “I am reading.” You could not separate yourself from this experience without passing on to another. It was “ring around the rosy.” When you were thinking, “I am reading this sentence” you were not reading it. In other words, in each present experience you were only aware of that experience. You were never aware of being aware. You were never able to separate the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known. All you ever found was a new thought, a new experience.
To be aware, then, is to be aware of thoughts, feelings, sensations, desires, and all other forms of experience. Never at any time are you aware of anything which is not experience, not a thought or feeling, but instead an experiencer, thinker, or feeler. If this is so, what makes us think that any such thing exists?
We might say, for example, that the “I” who is the thinker is this physical body and brain. But this body is in no way separate from its thoughts and sensations. When you have a sensation, say, of touch, that sensation is part of your body. While that sensation is going on, you cannot move the body away from it any more than you can walk away from a headache or from your own feet. So long as it is present, that sensation is your body and is you. You can remove the body from an uncomfortable chair, but you cannot move it from the sensation of a chair.
The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences. You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.”
But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves. There is simply experience. There is not something or someone experiencing experience! You do not feel feelings, think thoughts, or sense sensations any more than you hear hearing, see sight, or smell smelling. “I feel fine” means that a fine feeling is present. It does not mean that there is one thing called an “I” and another separate thing called a feeling, so that when you bring them together this “I” feels the fine feeling. There are no feelings but present feelings, and whatever feeling is present is “I.” No one ever found an “I” apart from some present experience, or some experience apart from an “I”—which is only to say that the two are the same thing.
As a mere philosophical argument this is a waste of time. We are not trying to have an “intellectual discussion.” We are being aware of the fact that any separate “I” who thinks thoughts and experiences experience is an illusion. To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected.
There is a Chinese story of one who came to a great sage, saying, “I have no peace of mind. Please pacify my mind.” The sage answered, “Bring out your mind (your ‘I’) before me, and I will pacify it.” “These may years,” he replied, “I have sought my mind, but I cannot find it.” “There.” concluded the sage, “it is pacified!”
The real reason why human life can be o utt3erly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called, death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present w4 circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.
While the notion that I am separate from my experience remains, there is confusion and turmoil. Because of this, there is neither awareness nor understanding of experience, and thus no real possibility off assimilating it. To understand this moment I must not try to be divided from it; I must be aware of it with my whole being. This, like refraining from holding my breath for ten minutes, is not something I should do. In reality, it is the only thing I can do. Everything else is the insanity of attempting the impossible.
To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening. To understand joy or fear, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it. So long as you are calling it names and saying, “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it. Fear, pain, sorrow, and boredom must remain problems if we do not understand them, but understanding requires a single undivided mind. This, surely, is the meaning of that strange saying, “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”