Ecological awareness

Thus the point I am making in all these essays is that civilised people, whether Western or Eastern, need to be liberated and dehypnotized from their systems of symbolism and, thereby, become more intensely aware of the living vibrations of the real world. For lack of such awareness our consciousnesses and consciences have become calloused to the daily atrocities of burning children with napalm, of saturation bombing of fertile earth with all its plants, wild animals, and insects (not to mention people), and of manufacturing nuclear and chemical weapons concerning which the real problem is not so much how to prevent their use as how to get them off the face of the earth.

We need to become vividly aware of our ecology, of our interdependence and virtual identity with all other forms of life which the divisive and embossing methods of our current way of thought prevent us from experiencing. The so-called physical world and the so-called human body are a single process, differentiated only as the heart from the lungs or the head from the feet. In stodgy academic circles I refer to this kind of understanding as “ecological awareness.” Elsewhere it would be called “cosmic consciousness” or “mystical experience.” However, our intellectual and scientific “establishment” is, in general, still spellbound by the myth that human intelligence and feeling are a fluke of chance in an entirely mechanical and stupid universe–as if figs would grow on thistles or grapes on thorns. But wouldn’t it be more reasonable to see the entire scheme of things as continuous with our own consciousness and the marvellous neural organisation which, shall we say, sponsors it?

Metaphysical as such considerations may be, it seems to me that their issues are earthy and practical. For our radically mis-named “materialistic” civilisation must above all cultivate love of material, of earth, air, and water, of mountains and forests, of excellent food and imaginative housing and clothing, and of cherishing our artfully erotic contacts between human bodies. Certainly, all these so-called “things” are as impermanent as ripples in water, but what life, what love, what energy is there in a perfectly pure abstraction or a totally solid and eternally indestructible rock?

Alan Watts – Does It Matter?

Alan Watts on taking a stroll after dark in a nice American residential area

Just try taking a stroll after dark in a nice American residential area. If you can penetrate the wire fences along the highways, and then wander along a pleasant lane, you may well be challenged from a police car: “Where are you going?” Aimless strolling is suspicious and
irrational. You are probably a vagrant or burglar. You are not even walking the dog! “How much money are you carrying?” Surely, you could have afforded to take the bus and if you have little or no cash, you are clearly a bum and a nuisance. Any competent housebreaker would approach his quarry in a Cadillac.

Alan Watts – The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Bitcoin and the nature of money

I’ve quoted Alan Watts before on the nature of money, and written on the topic in more detail.

What wasn’t understood then, and still isn’t really understood today, is that the reality of money is of the same type as the reality of centimeters, grams, hours, or lines of longitude. Money is a way measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fish rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion.

And I thought of it again whilst thinking about bit coin. Bitcoin is a ‘digital currency’ that is in the news at the moment due to its wild fluctuations. In fact, whether we can call it a ‘currency’ or not is part of its problem. There’s been loads written about it recently, some of which is quick to claim that it’s not a currency at all.

I quite like the Washington Post’s take on it. It deals with what is for me the most interesting thing about bit coin – it is forcing people to think about what money is.

…money has almost nothing to do with physical form. It also doesn’t have much to do with who creates it: The dollar bills were issued by the Federal Reserve, the checking account created by my neighborhood bank, the money market fund was created by a mutual fund manager, the gold was mined out of the ground, and the refrigerator was made by General Electric.

Rather, what makes money money is what you can do with it. If you can purchase the goods and services that you want and need with it, it is money; if you can’t, it isn’t. Money is memory, said Narayana Kocherlakota in an important 1996 paper (he is now president of the Minneapolis Fed). It is the way we as a society record how much capacity to buy stuff each of us possess.

They also reference an Onion article entitled “U.S. Economy Grinds to Halt As Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.” to help make their point.

This is inline with Watts talk of money as measurement. Bitcoin idealists I guess use this to legitimise themselves; it is just another, radically different (in its lack of centralisation) measurement tool. The Post, however, posit some retorts – one of which is that currency like the Dollar is not just ‘socially’ accepted as currency, it is effectively enforced by the most powerful entity on Earth – the U.S. government. And both the Post and the Guardian bemoan it’s like of liquidity and central control to keep it liquid.

Still, it’s nice to see this debate being played out. Watts was keen to get us to remember that money is not wealth. Bitcoin helps us remember this, I think. Interesting times ahead.

See also: Money and Wealth

Good Friday

We must see Christ as the great mystic, in the proper sense of the word. A mystic is not someone who has all sorts of magical powers and understands spirits and so on. A mystic is one who realizes union with God. This seems to me the crux and message of the gospel. It is summed up in the prayer Saint John records Jesus speaking over his disciples: “May you be one, even as the Father and I are one, that you may be all one.” May we all realize this divine sonship or daughtership or oneness, this basic identity with the eternal energy of the universe, the love that moves the sun and other stars

Alan Watts

The real living

‘Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to “dope.” Somehow we must grab what we can while we can, and drown out the realization that the whole thing is futile and meaningless. This “dope” we call our high standard of living, a violent and complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation. We crave distraction-a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills, and titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded in the shortest possible time.

To keep up this “standard” most of us are willing to put up with lives that consist largely in doing jobs that are a bore, earning the means to seek relief from the tedium by intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure. These intervals are supposed to be the real living, the real purpose served by the necessary evil of work. Or we imagine that the justification of such work is the rearing of a family to go on doing the same kind of thing, in order to rear another family…and so ad infinitum.

This is no caricature. It is the simple reality of millions of lives, so commonplace that we need hardly dwell upon the details, save to note anxiety and frustration of those who put up with it, not knowing what else to do.’

Alan Watts – The Wisdom of Insecurity

The Double Bind

This week in Ireland we had a referendum in which only 33.5% of the electorate voted. This has sparked some debate as to why people did not vote, and how do you solve this problem etc. Scanning various online streams, some have suggested that voting should be mandatory. More so than this was a general frustration or anger at people who did not vote – with the suggestion that it is a moral duty and imperative to vote in polls. An idea which as I noted, was encouraged officially.

Then today, as it was Remembrance Sunday, there were a few stories from the UK about the wearing of the Poppy to commemorate the war dead, and in particular those who choose not to wear it.

As I thought about both of these things – voting and wearing a symbol of remembrance – and people’s expectation that you should do these things – I thought of Alan Watts description of the double-bind game, from his classic “The Book”

A double-bind game is a game with self-contradictory rules, a game doomed to perpetual self-frustration—like trying to invent a perpetual- motion machine in terms of Newtonian mechanics, or trying to trisect any given angle with a straightedge and compass. The social double- bind game can be phrased in several ways:

The first rule of this game is that it is not a game.
Everyone must play.
You must love us.
You must go on living.
Be yourself, but play a consistent and acceptable role.
Control yourself and be natural.
Try to be sincere.

Essentially, this game is a demand for spontaneous behavior of certain kinds. Living, loving, being natural or sincere—all these are spontaneous forms of behavior: they happen “of themselves” like digesting food or growing hair. As soon as they are forced they acquire that unnatural, contrived, and phony atmosphere which everyone deplores—weak and scentless like forced flowers and tasteless like forced fruit. Life and love generate effort, but effort will not generate them. Faith—in life, in other people, and in oneself—is the attitude of allowing the spontaneous to be spontaneous, in its own way and in its own time. This is, of course, risky because life and other people do not always respond to faith as we might wish. Faith is always a gamble because life itself is a gambling game with what must appear, in the hiding aspect of the game, to be colossal stakes. But to take the gamble out of the game, to try to make winning a dead certainty, is to achieve a certainty which is indeed dead.

The alternative to a community based on mutual trust is a totalitarian police-state, a community in which spontaneity is virtually forbidden.

A free democratic society that forces you to engage in those very activities that make it a free democracy is surely a double-bind? And, in the case of wearing the Poppy, that very act itself is only meaningful because people choose to do it. It must lose all potency when it becomes a mandatory activity.

Alan Watts and Squiggly Zen

Readers of the blog would know I talk/read/think a lot about Alan Watts, (Hell, the blog is named after a saying of his), and I pepper a lot of my posts with reference to him, but I’ve never gotten around to directly writing a post about him. Kudos then to The Vile Scribbler for linking me to this piece by Tim Lott, about Watts’ life, work and influence. It’s a nice, quick summation of his life and viewpoint and a good jumping off point for diving into his large cannon of work.

A warning though: whilst to my amateur Wattist eye the stuff about Alan is fine, I found a bunch of inaccuracies relating to Zen Buddhism. Some are minor; like stating that Zen “emerged” in Japan, when indeed it was imported from China (although, as Buddhism always does, adapting to its new surroundings) others are more serious:

“The Noble Truths are not moral teachings. Zen (unlike Mahayana Buddhism with its ‘Eightfold Path’) makes no judgment about good or bad”

To begin with, to talk about Zen in opposition to Mahayana Buddhism makes is strange, since Zen is a branch of the Mahayana (admittedly with it’s own unique take on things), but furthermore to suggest that Zen has the Four Noble Truths, but not the Eightfold Path is nonsensical: The fourth Noble Truth IS the Eightfold Path, so you cannot have one without the other. It also suggests that whilst the Four Noble Truths are not a moral code (true) that the Eightfold Path is, or that the Noble Eightfold Path makes judgements ‘about good or bad’ is not true.

As I say though, generally it is a fine attempt to summate Watts and the general thrust of Zen philosophy, and a good place to start with him.

Off-beat Zen: How I found my way out of depression, thanks to the writings of the English priest who brought Buddhism to the West by Tim Lott

Not so great expectations

The other day there was a very interesting opinion piece in the New York Times about happiness and expectations. It argues that the reason Danish people continually rate as the happiest people in the world is due to lowered expectations. As I was reading it, it occurred to me that this argument was rife for a bit of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, and lo and behold, the author did too.

Though not an especially religious people, Danes would make good Buddhists. They live their lives as the Buddha advised: in the present tense, not grasping at some future happiness jackpot.

It’s a natural fit, as a central idea of Buddhism is that suffering/dissatisfaction/unhappiness occurs because we desire or expect one thing to happen, but reality often serves us up something different. We live our lives waiting for something in the future that will make us happy, and thus wallow in unhappiness now. We miss out on enjoying the here and now (which, is all there actually is) in the promise of something better tomorrow. But inevitably when this thing comes, its not good enough, and we wait for more. And more..and more.

This was excellently put by Alan Watts, and captured brilliantly in the “Music and Life” short film:

Or as Eric Weiner in the New York Times put it:

Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.

I was thinking about all this last week as I had my breakfast. It was a typical Irish summer morning – grey, over cast and bucketing rain. I scanned some social networks and saw the inevitable dawn chorus – “Feckin’ rain!” etc, with people pretty pissed off and down about our weather. We have high expectations for the weather – its Summer, it should be warm and sunny. And when we wake up the Universe has a different plan. When this split between expectation and reality occurs, we get upset.

Within an hour, the sun was out, the sky was blue and people were merrily skipping about town in short sleeves, and people were happy. The day had finally lived up to their expectations.

The next morning? Rain and gloom. If we lowered our expectations about the weather – the rain wouldn’t seem so bad. And the sunshine would be a pleasant surprise, but one that we would expect to pass and so would not mourn its passing.