The very fact that you are here, at all, to listen to this sort of thing, indicates as all philosophy indicates, that there is some unrest. That to be a human being is in some way problematic. That there is such a thing as a life problem. And different people have different ways of expressing it. But there is the reality of what is called in Buddhism, dukkha, a very comprehensive word generally translated “suffering”. But which might more accurately be called chronic frustration.
And I first of all want to try and identify what this human problem is. And we start out from the fact that most of us have a puzzle with ourselves. Not so much with other people, but oneself. Lots of people say that they do various things, like go to the movies, or get absorbed in work or read novels in order to forget themselves. It’s very commonly said “I want to get away from myself.” And when we are left alone with ourselves in silence and there is no distraction civilized people- whether they belong to the Eastern cultures or the Western cultures tend to feel uncomfortable. This is especially true of Americans who like to live in an environment of constant noise. And to keep their minds busy. What is so much the matter with oneself that you can’t stand it? Well first of all we don’t know what it is, your self is the most difficult thing to get a look at. Because in just the same way that you cannot bite your own teeth. But you cannot look straight into your eyes without the aid of a mirror. That you are not apparently directly aware of your brain. For all this reason your self is too close to you for you to look at. And it always remains an unknown, a kind of of a blind spot in the middle of everything. What color is your head to your eyes? Most people have a vague impression that the high in the eyes there is a blank- It isn’t black, It certainly isn’t white, and you can turn around for all your worth and never see it. What is behind the eyes? We don’t know. But we have ideas about it. And the dominant idea which most people have is that there is something called “I”. When you use the word I, to what sensation do you refer? In what way do you experience “I” as something existing.
Well I’ve made a great deal of inquiries into this. And looking at it from the way most people talk. They think of “I, myself” as a center of awareness and of action- about halfway between ears and a little way behind the eyes. Most people don’t identify myself with their whole body. Because we say in popular speech, “I have a body.” We are not liable to say “I am a body”. We don’t feel that certain things that go on in our bodies are things for which “I, Ego” am responsible. We don’t say “I beat my heart”. We don’t say “I grow my hair,” because we experience the beating of the heart and the growing of the hair as something that happens to us. We feel our bodies are vehicles, like cars, which were given to us by our parents, and into which at some point in our development, the ego was deposited. Pop. When did you begin to be you? All sorts of theories about that.
But generally speaking, I think of myself as the source of voluntary action and of conscious attention. And therefore outside myself as I both inside the body and definitely outside the skin everything else is experienced as not I, as other, as being very largely beyond control. And as in a way alien to me. In the words of the poet Housman “I, a stranger and afraid in a world I never made.” And here lies the root of problems. Because it appears that “I” isn’t really very permanent. At least it’s messed up with or mixed up with a body that grows old and gets achy and inconvenient and finally dissolves. Then what’s going to happen to me? Maybe I’m not afraid of actual death, especially if I believe that death is simply extinction- total unconsciousness is nothing to be afraid of in that. But it’s the process of dying that so inconvenient. One is so hard to get rid of.
And so why? I mean why am I trapped in this situation? I didn’t ask to come here. We say in popular speech I came into this world. We experience this world as other than ourselves in the sense that we say you confront reality, out there, you must face facts, out there and facts are always of course hard facts, nobody ever talks about soft facts but there are lots of them. So this is a sensation of we could call it generally of alienation from the universe. Now of course, it isn’t true that you came into this world. You came out of it, as leaves come out of a tree. As a baby comes out of the womb. You’re a symptom of the world, in the same way that when a tree produces apples you call it an apple tree. And a world that produces people is a world that peoples just as an apple tree apples. In fact our whole situation, of feeling that we are strangers in the earth is a hallucination. And a rather dangerous hallucination, because it moves us to act upon the external world, both of people and of things in a hostile spirit. So that we talk about the conquest of nature. And this general feeling of resentment, of being involved in a world where there are such things as death, disease, accidents, strife, war; we feel put upon.
So, the various forms of Asian philosophy address themselves directly to this problem. But they are not like philosophy in the West and they are not like religion in the West. If religion is something like Judaism or Christianity. Then Buddhism is not a religion. If philosophy is something like this speculations of Kant or Heigel, or even modern philosophers such as Kair and Reichenbach, then Eastern thought is not philosophy. The nearest thing to eastern philosophy in the West is psychotherapy. Because the objective of psychotherapy is to change the way in which people feel. It is, in other words, a technique for changing one’s state of consciousness. And so in exactly that way these systems that I’m going to talk you about: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are primarily methods for changing one’s state of consciousness. If, for example, the person is crazy and feels that he is the center of an enormous plot to persecute him, the object of the psychotherapist is to disabuse him of this illusion and get rid of his state of fear.
So in a rather similar way, let us suppose that normal people are simply sharing a collective insanity which because it’s normal they think is the is the ordinary way to be. It is perfectly clear I think, that the world is insane. That we are on a collision course. And that therefore there is something to be said for the idea that the normal person’s state of consciousness might do with a change. Especially if it’s hallucination. And especially if the way we feel our own existence is in flat contradiction to the way our existence would be described by a scientist such as a biologist, or an ecologist, or a physicist. You know I think ecology is a very important science having to do with the relationship between organisms and their environments. Now, when an ecologist or a biologist looks at a living organism, the business of science is to describe what’s happening. And he describes the living organism. He finds out a very funny thing. He cannot describe the organism, defined as something bounded by an epidermis, without also describing its environment. See science describes behavior: what is going on. The man behind the microscope has this advice for you: instead of asking what it is just ask what does it do. So the behavior of an organism cannot be described without also describing the behavior of the environment. If I describe somebody in the act of walking and I say nothing about the floor or the area or room or whatever in which he’s walking all I’m describing is a body in empty space dangling its legs. That’s not walking. To describe walking I have to describe the other behaviors or processes going on around the organism. Well what does that tell me when I find that out? It tells me that what I am talking about is not the organism alone, but something for which we’ve got only the clumsy term “organism environment”. Because you see that’s what you are. Imagine how could you feel the existence of yourself unless at the same time you felt something other?
How could you aspire any kind of figure, shape, form unless at the same time you saw its background? Supposing the outlines of my body were co-terminus with your whole field of vision. You wouldn’t see me. You’d see the microphone, the neck tie or pattern on the shirt that would be the thing you were looking at because you can only recognize anything if it goes along with a background. Which is telling us that figure and ground are inseparable. They are different, yes. You have to get the crucial idea of things being different but inseparable. As for example, the two poles of a magnet are inseparable. You can’t have a one pole magnet. But they’re different the two sides of a coin are different but inseparable. And so there is a word that I’ve coined called “go-with”. There are certain things that go with each other. And the organism goes with the environment. And incidentally the environment goes with the organism- that’s harder for us to see but I shall explain it in due course.
A go-withness is a transaction. For example, when we buy and sell that is a transaction- now obviously you can’t buy unless somebody is selling. And you can’t sell unless someone is buying. The operations a different. Buying is different from selling, but they’re inseparable. And that suggests a certain kind of conspiracy between them. They’re explicitly different operations buying and selling but they’re implicitly one. You and everything you call “other” are explicitly different. But since you always find these two aspects of experience together there’s a there’s a kind of something fishy about it. That isn’t noticed, that’s been overlooked. And that is that they’re implicitly one. But you see in the ordinary course of events, as I’ve explained, we are not aware of this. And we think that everything not-self, Or in other words “other” is not merely different from us- but separate. And therefore have this sense of not really belonging in this universe, of finding nature a problem and that’s compounded by the current superstitions of the modern world- the mythology of 19th century science which is everybody’s common sense today- that the world itself is stupid. That it’s a huge system of electronic energy buzzing, mindlessly. In which we exist by virtue of some statistical flukes.
You know that if a million monkeys sat with a million typewriters for a million years in some course, in some day they would type out the Encyclopedia Brittanica. They’d eventually have to get around to it, by just chance. so there’s the feeling among many people that what we are at this moment is just such an event. And that therefore if we are going to maintain the human order, our values, our reason, our civilization, we’ve got to fight the world to maintain it. Because the world is stupid. So in the philosophy of science in the nineteenth century, you hear people talking about energy lying behind matter as blind energy. Freud defines psychic energy as the unconscious and furthermore calls it libido which means blind lust- it’s stupid, the unconscious is stupid, it wants pleasure. And has no sense of reality. And therefore Freud would oppose the pleasure principle to the reality principle. And therefore civilization is always thought of as being against pleasure because if you let people enjoy themselves too much they’ll fall apart. Because the pleasure principle the pleasure urge is stupid, by definition.
So you see then we have the sensation of living in an alien world. All this is further complicated by other factors which I must now go on to explain. The feeling of insularity, of being “I, alone and separate” has something to do with the way in which we pay attention to life, and with the way in which we think about it- and these two things go together. The task of any school teacher with little children is to increase- isn’t it- their attention span. Little children are allegedly, although this isn’t always true, little children are supposed not to pay attention to anything particularly for very long. They run from one thing to another, they look out of the window, they pick their noses, they moon around and so the teacher has to rap the desk and say “pay attention!”. And all the little children know exactly what’s expected of them. That is to wrap their legs tightly around the legs of the chair and stare at the teacher with a slight frown- that is paying attention. It has nothing to do with paying attention, it is simply an act. But what it does suggest is that we feel that paying attention or concentration involves a certain strain.
And [it] actually has nothing to do with it. Concentration is hindered by strain. But we all say ‘try to pay attention’, ‘try to think’, ‘try to understand what I’m saying’; you don’t have to, your brain will do it for you beautifully if you just give it a chance. Your brain isn’t a muscle. You need effort, yes, to lift something heavy. But you don’t have to make an effort to think a complicated thought, if you do the effort will get in the way of the thinking, that will distract you. But everyone thinks that that’s what you have to do. So what you call “I”, the sensation of I, is among other things a chronic sense of mental strain. And it is physiologically located between the eyes. It’s been found out that if you relax all sense of tension between the eyes you will change your sense of your own existence. But that’s where it is. And that’s why the frown comes. And that’s why of course Buddhas are always depicted with a bright jewel between the eyes. A sign of openness, of illumination. The next thing is you see when you pay attention, don’t we say in ordinary speech that you can only think of one thing at a time? What do you mean that? It raises two questions. Why can we only think of one thing at a time? And what is a thing? I love asking children “what do you mean by a thing?” And they will say “an object” which is another way of saying a thing, it doesn’t help at all. One very smart child once said to me “a thing is a noun”. And she’s quite right. Because you can’t think. And to think and to thing of the same process without using words or notation of some kind. You can think in words, you can think in numbers, and you can think in simple images like squares triangles crosses as when we think in terms of road signs that mean certain things.
But thinking is the process of calculus. It is examining the world bit-by-bit, in series, one after another one bit after another. It’s as if we were looking at a dark room with the aid of a narrow beam spotlight and tracing it out all over the room and then in memory piecing together the bits, the series of bits over which this beam passed, and then we construct from that what sort of a room this is. A floodlight would of course be quite different. With a floodlight like this we see the whole room in a glance and we don’t have to bit it. But we see actually an enormous amount of things of which we never pay attention to. For example, if someone were to say about a particular woman at this gathering: “was Mrs So and So there this morning?” I say “yes she was there she sat opposite me,” “what was she wearing?” Well I tell you I have no idea. I saw it, but I didn’t notice it. Why didn’t I notice it? Because I wasn’t interested, I might have been interested in a face but I wasn’t interested in what she was wearing. Therefore I had no notation for it because it wasn’t noteworthy. Now you see then when we use notation what we do is we select we pay attention to those features of the environment which we have been taught to regard as significant, important. And then we stick a label on them. That label is a word, a symbol of some kind or number. And in this way we fragment the world into bits called things. Or events, things are represented by noun-labels and events are represented by verb-labels. And so we come to imagine that the world really does consist of separate things and events. And it doesn’t. And that’s a very difficult idea for people to grasp. The reason is you see that we’ve found this method of thinking about the about the world so useful for predicting what will happen, for remembering what did happen, and in order to predict what will happen- it is based on remembering what did happen- that it’s run away with us.
And as a species we are seriously in danger of being completely fooled by our own thinking processes. I can gives some very simple illustrations of this. One of the main symbols which all civilized people use is money. It’s a very convenient symbolism because it gets rid of the necessity for barter. Of having to go down to the store with a truckload of eggs in order to buy some clothes. So we use money instead. And when you go to the supermarket, and you roll up to the cashier a great cart full of goodies and the girl goes tickity tickity tickity this long tape comes out and she says thirty dollars please. Most Housewives feel slightly depressed at parting with thirty dollars. Whereas they’ve got the real wealth in the cart. That’s what you’ve got. You’ve got rid of some paper. But you’ve got edible goodies in the cart. Something’s wrong with you. And we are witnessing right now a major crisis economically because of so stupid a thing called Gold. Which has some use for filling teeth and making jewelry but when hoarded in vast vaults and fortresses it is completely useless doing nothing. But the superstition you see that gold is wealth. Or that money is wealth is the confusion of the symbol with the reality. Take it far enough and people will start eating menus instead of dinners. And as a matter of fact are so doing. Our bread, for example, the bread we eat in the ordinary way that you buy in the ordinary grocery, is symbolic bread. It is a purely It is nothing but squishy styrofoam injected with allegedly nutritive chemicals.
This is a conglomeration of plastic bubbles, which had some vague original connection with wheat. It is it is pure rat poison. The only trouble with it is that it isn’t large enough or permanent enough to be used as a bolster. But this is being eaten all over, in the superstition that this is this is food, it’s symbolic food. It’s an imitation of what mama’s new bread used to look like and feel like, you know when it first came out of the oven it was a little squishy.That’s what everybody was looking for, but they’ve been fooled. Same with the car. The average American car looks as if it were a streamlined thundering rocket. Now it isn’t, because a an engine of that kind is not streamlined unless it’s streamlined underneath as well as on top. And all it is is a fake, imitation of streamlined plunked down with an open bottle on a chassey. They even have Cadillacs have fake rocket exhausts on the backs where the little vents as if there were an engine right somewhere in that thing as a jet engine is in a capsule on a plane. They see the thing is, the thing is front, it’s a pose it’s it’s a- it’s a fake. So you see, what is happening to us and is the ability to think has gone to our heads. And we have to go out of our minds to come to our senses.
It’s like this has happened in the past in the course of evolution, there was a prehistoric animal called titanithea[sic]. Which was a sort of forbear of the rhinoceros. And it had a nose horn which was of course a very useful weapon. But this thing kept developing the nose horn because it was so useful until it got bigger and bigger and bigger and at last the creature couldn’t hold its head up and it became extinct- too much of a good thing. The dinosaurs, became too big, they found bigness was an advantage over other animals but they overdid it- they had to have one brain in the head and another in the rump. So that some caveman you know has a pet dinosaur and when he goes to bed at night he takes his club and bangs it on the tail and it screams in time to wake him up in the morning. So it became extinct. So the human being can become extinct through overdoing his head, by thinking too much.