I’m frequently disappointed by what passes for spirituality, from a non-dualist perspective. Quite often, there is a crafty repackaging of salvation woven into an author’s sales pitch, or there is a totally unrealistic descent into a spiritual pipedream of “universal love.”
Alan Watts, happily, manages to be both a non-dualist and a down-to-earth realist. In recent years, one of the most interesting dilemmas I went through was the clash between non-dualism (which says that everything is one) and LaVeyan Satanism (which grasps that the universe is adversarial). I rate both of these observations as true, but the latter one is often missed. Watts gets it. He describes existence within the universe as “a harmony of contained conflicts,” understanding that it cannot be any other way, by virtue of the dualistic predicament of all life.
This was a fabulous read. It began with a suggestion of how non-dualism can be explained to young children, as a better alternative to the “God made the universe” stereotype. Watts goes on to tackle non-dualism from a vector that had never even occurred to me: our inability to separate the human organism from the environment around it. We naturally think of the self as a human body – a distinct unit isolated from what is around it. But the air that is breathed into the body from the environment and the carbon dioxide that is breathed out are just as essential to the body as the blood that circulates within. The body cannot be isolated from its environment, nor can the immediate environment be isolated from the planet, the planet from the solar system, and so on. The division of self into body and environment is arbitrary – merely an act of labelling. There is no “you” independent of everything else – only an organism within a super-organism, i.e. the universe itself.
Many times in the book, Watts made observations that were profound, simple, and obviously true, yet so easily missed until pointed out. Chief among them was our conditioned way of thinking, “I came into this world,” when it is far more accurate to say “I came out of the universe.” A person is like the eyes of the universe, which is gazing at itself. Watts has a way of describing life on earth that makes the materialism of atheists seem absurd. Atheists commonly think of the universe as something unconscious. But since man came out of (not into) the universe, and man is conscious, does this not mean that the universe must be conscious?
The balance of nature, the “harmony of contained conflicts,” in which man thrives is a network of mutually interdependent organisms of the most astounding subtlety and complexity. Teilhard de Chardin has called it the “biosphere,” the film of living organisms which covers the original “geosphere,” the mineral planet. Lack of knowledge about the evolution of the organic from the “inorganic,” coupled with misleading myths about life coming “into” this world from somewhere “outside,” has made it difficult for us to see that the biosphere arises, or goes with, a certain degree of geological and astronomical evolution. But, as Douglas E. Harding has pointed out, we tend to think of this planet as a life-infested rock, which is as absurd as thinking of the human body as a cell-infested skeleton. Surely all forms of life, including man, must be understood as “symptoms” of the earth, the solar system, and the galaxy – in which case we cannot escape the conclusion that the galaxy is intelligent.
Watts is well versed in Eastern philosophy (Hinduism and Buddhism), and his writing serves as a useful bridge between very different cultures, helping us in the West to appreciate a wider metaphysical perspective outside of the cramped confines of Western materialism.
After reading this book, I want to get hold of everything that Watts has written.