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The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are Paperback – August 28, 1989
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Modern Western culture and technology is inextricably tied to the belief in the existence of a self as a separate ego, separated from and in conflict with the rest of the world. In this classic book, Watts provides a lucid and simple presentation of an alternative view based on Hindu and Vedantic philosophy.
“Perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, Watts had the rare gift of ‘writing beautifully the unwritable.’” —Los Angeles Times
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The basic premise of the book is that we have been told that we are isolated beings, "unconnected to the rest of the universe", which has led to our viewing the "outside" world with hostility and "has fueled our misuse of technology and our violent and hostile subjugation of the natural world". However, Watts asserts that this belief is mistaken and that we are in fact directly connected to everything else there is. In the beginning of the book, Watts discusses the concept of cultural taboos—things like making direct eye contact with another person or performing an act that is against one's religion. This leads him to make the following point:
"The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego."
The concept of "I" is extremely powerful and commonplace in most societies on Earth, and it is so fundamental to our modes of speech and thought, as well as our laws and social institutions. Watts spends many words of this book arguing against the concept of personal selfhood in favor of a more universal concept of identity—one that includes the rest of reality in addition to the components that we would normally judge as "ourselves".
One of the other things I found interesting was Watts' definition of "attention" as "narrowed perception"—because when we attend to one thing, we ignore everything else. In Watts' own words: "conscious attention is at the same time ignore-ance (i.e., ignorance) despite the fact that it gives us a vividly clear picture of whatever we choose to notice."
These are just some of the concepts that Watts describes in The Book. If either of these ideas sound interesting to you, I would definitely give this a read. I wish that this review was able to more fully show how wonderful this book is, but since this is only my first read-through, I feel like I was only able to skim the surface of its ideas and therefore will likely have more to say about it upon successive readings. I definitely give this one two thumbs up though!
The central thesis of THE BOOK can be expressed in a single sentence: "Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe." (p. 9).
From the beginning, Watts insists that what is needed is not "words to live by," but a new sense of self and the world. When confronted by a world it perceives as alien and hostile to itself, the reaction of the empty and impoverished ego is to attack. While our present limited view has led us into a cycle of violence against our environment and each other, the first battle field is intimately personal:
"Our generation knows a cold hell, solitary confinement in this life, without a God to damn or save it. Until man figures out the trap and hunts ... "the Ultimate Ground of Being," he has no reason at all for his existence. Empty, finite, he knows only that he will soon die. Since this life has no meaning, and he sees no future life, he is not really a person but a victim of self-extinction." (p. 17)
The internecine human conflicts Watts has observed and the rapacious resolve to subjugate nature are rooted, not only in the "ego-trick," but in the "dualism" that Vedanta also denies, the conviction that Reality divides neatly into two opposed halves, whether man and nature, life against death, or pure good vs. pure evil. Moreover, rather than see these dualities as poles of a single process, we see within each dyad two bitter enemies of one another. We play "the game of black and white," as Watts calls it, not as a game at all, but as a war. At this writing, the same ancient warfare is being enacted between Republicans and Democrats, and between Moslems and the West. Not content to moderate and "contain" the conflict, each side works to exterminate the other.
From beginning to end, Watts returns again and again, ever more elegantly to restate the original problem:
"The sensation of "I" as a lonely and isolated center of being is so powerful and commonsensical, and so fundamental to our modes of speech and thought, to our laws and social -institutions, that we cannot experience selfhood except as something superficial in the scheme of the universe. I seem to be a brief light that flashes but once in all the aeons of time-- a rare, complicated, and all-too-delicate organism on the fringe of biological evolution, where the wave of life bursts into individual, sparkling, and multicolored drops that gleam for a moment only to vanish forever. Under such conditioning it seems impossible and even absurd to realize that myself does not reside in the drop alone, but in the whole surge of energy which ranges from the galaxies to the nuclear fields in my body." (pp. 12-13)
On the other hand, Watts is eager to disabuse us of the notion that, now we must strive with all our might to realize that this is so. There is an ancient traditional formula that "The One has become many for the sake of reunion through Love." If this is so, the Self is free to awaken or not in its own good time. In the meantime, our adventure will not leave a trace on its original nature.
What then ARE we to do with this astonishing revelation?
"If, then, after understanding, at least in theory, that the ego-trick is a hoax and that, beneath everything, "I" and "universe" are one, you ask, "So what? What is the next step, the practical application?"-- I will answer that the absolutely vital thing is to consolidate your understanding, to become capable of enjoyment, of living in the present, and of the discipline which this involves. Without this you have nothing to give-- to the cause of peace or of racial integration, to starving Hindus and Chinese, or even to your closest friends," (p. 115-116)
I have been cultivating that advice ever since.
Review by the author of:
Redesigning God: Nuts and Bolts of the Emerging Religion
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