The Axis of Tao

“The axis of the opposites is the perception of their polarity. The difference between them is explicit, but the unity of them is implicit. There is the explicit difference between two ends of a stick, and the implicit unity that they are ends of the same stick. This is what is understood as the axis. The axis of Tao is what you might call the “secret conspiracy” that lies between all poles and opposites. It is implicit, or esoteric, that they are fundamentally one. Unity, whether it is between you and the universe, or any polarity, is not something that has to be brought into being. If one brings it into being one assumes that it does not exist, and this is called in Zen, putting “legs on a snake” or “a beard on a eunich” — it is just unnecessary. Unity exists; it is always there. You can see it so vividly, and actually almost put your finger on it and sense it. But, of course, if you try to grab the present moment and say, “get ready, get ready, now!” — it is gone!

The finer and finer we draw the hairline on the watch to know exactly when now is, the closer we eventually get to where we cannot see it at all. But, if you leave it alone and do not try to grab the moment as it flies, it is always there. You do not have to mark it, you do not have to put your finger on it, because it is everything that there is. And so, the present moment suddenly expands. It contains the whole of time, all past, all future, everything. You never have to hold on to it. If you can feel that, then realize that the movement of the Tao is exactly the same thing as the present moment — that which we call now is the same thing as the Tao. The Tao, the course of things, the eternal now, the presence of God, anything you want to call it — that is now! And you cannot get out of it. There is no need to get with it because you cannot get away from it! That is beautiful. You just relax and you are there.”

— Alan W. Watts, “Chuang-Tzu: Wisdom of the Ridiculous”, in The Way of Liberation (1983), pp. 87-88

“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 into 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.”

 “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.

— Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (1951), pp. 77-80

“Many people have no feeling at all of an unconscious mind, much less of an inner universe; others believe intellectually in its existence, but have no experience of it. It is important at the start not to have a misleading conception of it; the unconscious has, so far as we know, no definite location and is not strictly speaking at thing. It is rather a process. The internal universe is not actually located inside the human being; it is, as it were, the relationship between impersonal, natural forces and the unconscious processes of the mind. There is probably no real difference between the internal and external universes; it may be more correct to say that the same universe affects us in two different ways — physically and mentally. In both ways we are unconscious of the greater part of these influences. Thus, if we follow the physical body to its origins, we are led to the universe; the same is true when mental processes are traced to their source, and we find that the connection is both historical and immediate. It is historical as mental heredity, and immediate as mental vitality, for all life is ultimately derived from the mysterious, universal energy that vibrates in the electron.

 These, however, are metaphysical considerations, and the psychologist must think in terms of experience. Anyone who is at all aware of himself knows at least something of his many souls, of the deep instinctual and emotional urges which to some extent govern his life. It matters not whether we call them mental or physical; these are only words to describe mysteries whose behavior we know but of whose substance we are utterly ignorant. But our deep urges have undoubtedly a power of their own which, in the long run, is beyond conscious control.

No one, for instance, can absolutely stifle the sexual instinct, and however much you may wish to economize by doing without food, your whole being will demand to eat by afflicting you with a savage hunger…In like manner there are aspects of our psychological life which function instinctively and beyond conscious control. If you sit still for awhile, completely relaxed, and let your thoughts run on, let your mind think of whatever it likes, without interfering, without making suggestions and without raising any kind of obstacle to the free flow of thought, you will soon discover that mental processes have a life of their own. They will call one another to the surface of consciousness by association, and if you raise no barriers, you will soon find yourself thinking all manner of things both fantastic and terrible which you ordinarily keep out of consciousness. Over a period of time this exercise will show you that you have in yourself the potentiality of countless different beings — the animal, the demon, the satyr, the thief, the murderer — so that in time you will be able to feel that no aspect of human life is strange to you. In the ordinary way consciousness is forever interfering with the waters of the mind, which are dark and turbulent, concealing the depths. But when, for awhile, you let them take care of themselves the mud settles and with growing clarity you see the foundations of life and all the denizens of the deep.

Two men looked into a pond. Said the one: “I see a quantity of mud, a shoe and an old can.” Said the other: “I see all these, but I also see the glorious reflection of the sky.” For the unconscious is not, as some imagine, a mental refuse-pit; it is simply unfettered nature, demonic and divine, painful and pleasant, hideous and lovely, cruel and compassionate, destructive and creative. It is the source of heroism, love, and inspiration as well as of fear, hatred, and crime. Indeed, it is as if we carried inside of us an exact duplicate of the world we see around us, for the world is a mirror of the soul, and the soul a mirror of the world. therefore when you learn to feel the unconscious you begin to understand not only yourself but others as well and when you look upon human crime and stupidity, you can say with real feeling, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”

Beyond this it is irrelevant and useless to “prove” the existence of the unconscious. It can only be proved by personal experience, and as a mere conception it is almost valueless. The important thing is to have some feeling, however rudimentary, of its existence and of its potentialities for good and for evil. And, after all, to say that we have an unconscious is only another way of saying that mentally and physically we are children of nature and that our lives have roots which go beyond our ken. There remains now the question of the capacity to accept the unconscious, and this involves three things: firstly, the capacity to accept its “dark” aspect, secondly, the capacity to accept the independence of its “gods and demons” from the ego, and thirdly, the capacity to accept the conflict between some of those gods and demons and the ego.”

— Alan W. Watts, The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East (1940), pp. 105-107

“The Devil is God’s unconsciously produced shadow. Naturally, God is not allowed to be responsible for the origin of evil, for the connection between the two lies in the unconscious. Man says, “I didn’t mean to hurt you, but my temper got the better of me. I shall try to control it in the future.” And God says, “I didn’t mean there to be any evil, but my angel Lucifer brought it up of his own free will. In the future I will shut him up safely in hell.

A problem of evil arises as soon as there is a problem of good, that is, as soon as there is any thought of what may be done to make the present situation “better,” under whatever nomenclature the idea may be concealed…must there not be fools and knaves as the correlatives of sages and saints, and does not the fallacy attacked simply reappear in the attack?

 If the positive and the negative, the good and the evil, are indeed correlative, no course of action can be recommended, including even the course of inaction. Nothing will make anything better which will not also make it worse. But this is exactly the predicament of the human ego as Taoist philosophy sees it. It is always wanting to control its situation so as to improve it, but neither action nor, with the motive of improvement, inaction will succeed. Recognizing the trap in which it finds itself, the mind has no alternative but to surrender that “straining after the good” which constitutes the ego. It does not surrender cunningly, with the thought that this will make things better. It surrenders unconditionally — not because it is good to do nothing, but because nothing can be done. All at once there descends upon it, quite spontaneously, a profound and completely uncontrived stillness — a quietude that envelops the world like the first fall of heavy snow, or like a windless afternoon in the mountains, where silence makes itself known in the undisturbed hum of insects in the grass.

In this stillness there is no sense of passivity, of submitting to necessity, for there is no longer any differentiation between the mind and its experience. All acts, one’s own and others’, seem to be happening freely from a single source. Life keeps moving on, and yet remains profoundly rooted in the present, seeking no result, for the present has spread out from its constriction in an illusive pin-point of strained consciousness to an all-embracing eternity. Feelings both positive and negative come and go without turmoil, for they seem to be simply observed, though there is no one observing. They pass trackless like birds in the sky, and build up no resistances which have to be dissipated in reckless action.

Clearly this state is, in retrospect, “better” than the seeking and staring strain of the mind which came before. But its goodness is of another order. Because it came unsought, it is not the kind of goodness which is in relation to evil, not the fantasy of peace which is conceived in the midst of turmoil. Furthermore, since nothing is done to retain it, it is not in relation to the memory of the former state, which otherwise would move one to fortify and protect it against change. For now there is no one left to build the fortifications. Memories rise and fall like other feelings, ordered perhaps better than before, but no longer congealing around an ego to build its illusion of continued identity.

From this standpoint it can be seen that intelligence is not a separate, ordering faculty of the mind, but a characteristic of the whole organism-environment relationship, the field of forces wherein lies the reality of a human being. For as Macneile Dixon Said in his Human Situation, “Tangible and visible things are but the poles, or terminations of these fields of unperceived energy. Matter, if it exists at all in any sense, is a sleeping partner in the firm of Nature.” Between subject and object, organism and environment, yang and yin, is the balancing or homeostatic relationship called Tao — intelligent not because it has an ego but because it has li, organic pattern. The spontaneous flow of feeling, rising and falling in its mood, is an essential part of this balancing process, and is not, then, to be regarded as the disordered play of blind passions. Thus it is said that Lieh-tzu attained the Tao by “letting the events of the heart go just as they liked.””

— Alan W. Watts, Nature, Man and Woman (1958), pp. 89-91

“We own what we do and disown what happens, and go on to expand the area which we can own and control. Technology, as now practices, is one of the principle means of this expansion, but we are just beginning to see that this extension of the voluntary is also extension of the involuntary, because our behavior is increasingly controlled by the nature and structure of our machinery. Our food, clothing, housing, traveling, and general behavior must increasingly be dictated by mechanical efficiency to the point — already passed — where we cannot live without it. It is even conceivable that machinery is creating an environment in which only machines can live, that it will capture the voluntary aspect of karma and eliminate the biological world by regimentation and asphyxiation. Its operations are not restrained or confused by emotions or tender feelings. But, on the other hand, our very strength is in the possibility of feeling for, or owning, what is other than ourselves — and if machines can not accomplish this transcendence of self and other they will destroy themselves faster than people have done the same.

Overstressing the voluntary aspect karma is ignore-ance of the other, which is in turn that craving or grasping of control described by the Buddha as the root of suffering. His dharma or method of life was, instead, the Middle Way of compassion — that is, of feeling for both sides, of allowing, respecting, and owning the apparently random and involuntary aspect of our karma. This means increasing tolerance for surprising and unscheduled events, for life-forms and life-styles other than our own, and for all things sinuous, slippery, wayward, and wiggly as distinct from straight, square, boxed, and classified in defiance of the curvaceous forms of the natural world.

When we fight the environment and disown it, our methods and weapons become part of it, part of the involuntary and uncontrollable component of karma. This, as in the tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is the fate of all power games, not only in the areas of material power but also in those of psychic and spiritual power. This is why one should not be misled by the many forms of mental and psychic discipline which promise greater and greater control over thought and emotion, and even magical powers. All such methods — unless specifically designed to be self-defeating and so to reduce the ambition for power to absurdity — are simply “ego trips” of a refined and highbrow order, but often they produce such sensational short-run results that people are easily beguiled by the pseudo-gurus who tout them. Even Tibetan Buddhists, upon whom romanticists project their wildest fantasies of spiritual magic, make a clear distinction between the Way of Powers and the Way of Wisdom, insisting that the former, however far pursued, can never lead to Buddhahood.

The way of Wisdom lies, therefore, in recognizing things which happen to you as your own karma—not as punishment for misdeeds or rewards for virtue (for there really is no “bad” or “good” karma), but as your own doing. For in this way you come to see that the real “you” includes both the controlled and the uncontrolled aspects of your experience. Much as we despise primitives for their animistic beliefs which regard mountains, rivers, trees, and animals as if they were people, they are on the right track because the animation of nature (rather than machinery) is a step in the direction of owning it as we own our brains and bodies, our appetites and dreams, for nature is our own unconscious activity. But almost every educated person has been trained to believe that everything outside the human skin is stupid and that air, water, earth, and fire are simply dead and witless substances. At the same time he has been trained to feel this whole dimension of “things that happen” as entirely disconnected from his own inner workings.

We ourselves did not get born on purpose; we do not plan our breath, nor calculate the circuitry of our brains, yet it is amazing how little we seem to realize that we would be incapable of purpose without these marvels of purposeless and involuntary construction. We are simply not used to the idea that there are forms of intelligence which do not use the linear, timebound methods of conscious attention and scanning. Just as we do not confuse a televised image of the president with the president himself, we should not confuse our linear models of the world (in terms of words, numbers, or other strung-out signs) with the world itself.

 I — and others — have been saying for years that destruction of the environment is based on contempt for everything outside the human skin, failure to see that as a field flowers, the planet peoples, and ignorance that the fact that the oceans, the air, and even the solar system are as much our vital organs as heart and stomach. We are not in nature; we are nature. But as masters of technical weapons we are fighting the environment as if we still believed ourselves to be strangers on the earth, sent down into this world from a purely abstract, ideational, and spiritual heaven. Oddly enough, people who call themselves naturalists and materialists are, when judged by their actions, the most devout abstractionists and the most dedicated violators of material.

 What this comes to is that the spiritualist (or mentalist) and materialist (or mechanistic) philosophies are both on the same side. They represent opposed concepts of reality, and reality — nature — is not a concept. It is not material, if “material” means unspiritual, and not spiritual, if “spiritual” means nonmaterial. One could, perhaps, say that the sound of the waves is a spiritual experience and that pure mathematics is a physical operation of the nervous system. But the point is that our ideas about reality represent it but do not embrace it, since all conceptual views — spiritualism, materialism, volunteerism, determinism, vitalism, mechanism, etc. — are one-sided deviations from the Middle Way, where the wind is your own breath and your private thoughts are clouds in the sky.”

 — Alan W. Watts, Cloud-Hidden Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal (1974), pp. 78-83

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