Been reading more Alan Watts. No one I’ve read or listened to has more succintly and pithily summed up the core ideas of Buddhist Dharma for me. If you read one dharma talk then ‘Biting the Iron Bull’ is it. Unfortunately, I can’t find any transcripts of it on line – though there are MP3 versions of Watts reading it.
He talk so brilliantly about many things but I’ve not come across a more perfect description of the ego.
Now, an ego is not the same thing as a particular living organism. The organism is something real, though it is not a separate thing but a feature of the universe. On the other hand, what we call the ego is something abstract, it has the same order and kind of reality as an hour or an inch or pound or a line of longitude. It exists for purposes of discussion, for convenience. …this image is not ourselves anymore than the idea of a tree is a tree, anymore than you can get wet in the word ‘water’.
So far so good. But what he says next is the key and core of practice. And that’s the idea of the unnecessary tension of ego. He compares the ego ‘I’ with the bodily ‘eye’. When the eye is working OK we don’t notice it, it doesn’t make us aware of the optical nerve and the lens or the retinal image being upside down. But the ego gets in the way and makes it’s presence known:
If my ego, my consciousness, is working, I ought not be aware of it; yet I am, as some sort of nuisance, the thing that sits in the middle of everything. I think I have discovered that [the ego] is a chronic and habitual sense of muscular strain, which we were taught to do in the process of perfoming normally spontaneous things to order. When you are taking off in a jet plane, and the plane has gone rather further down the runway than you think it should have without getting up in the air, you may start pulling at your seatbelt to get off the ground. Of course, this is perfectly useless. A similar thing happens when somone tells us to look carefully, to listen or pay attention. We start st raining the muscles around our eyes, ears, jaws and hands. We try to use our muscles to make our nerves work which is, of course, futile and infact hinders the functioning of the nerves. This chronic tension , which in Sanskrit is called sankoca meaning contraction, is the root of what we call the feeling of ego.
How brilliant. The redundant tension that we carry with us is completely unecessary since life goes on quite easily and wonderfully without all that huffing and puffing.
Watts goes on to explore this sense of effortless life as the universe proliferating itself. Like Shelley he notes that we are the eyes of the universe observing itself and finding that is is good – or at least interesting. This brings up the question, ‘Well, yes, but who is doing the observing?’ – which as Watts points out is fallacious question:
When you ask the question ‘who is doing the chasing?’ you are still working under the assumption that every verb has to have a subject, and that when there is an action there has to be a doer. This is merely a grammatical convention, leading to what Whitehead called the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ like the famous ‘it’ in ‘it is raining’. So when one declares that there cannot be a knowing without a knower, one is saying no more than there cannot be a verb without a subject; that, however, is a grammatical rule, not a law of nature.
The universe is just verbs not nouns. It’s a constant stream of patterns and processes and trying to perceive ‘stuff’ in it is just a trick of the eyes. “What we call stuff is simply pattern seen out of focus”.
All this totally ties in with the way I’m feeling right now in the first days of Spring. Spring is the seasonal embodiment of all that change. What was dead comes back to life. What was underground is resurrected into the air. No wonder Easter is when it is. But the illusion that something died in the first place is just another trick of the eyes. We just didn’t pay attention to the constant change.
Watt’s brilliance is to make clear and distinct things that are cloaked in high falutin’ spiritual gobbledegook. We’re taught that egolessness, enlightenment is nigh-on impossible but, actually, all we need to do is relax that tension. That seat-belting-pulling clench. The ego is a useful abstraction but we don’t need it all the time,
The ego cannot be transcended because it does not properly exist. You cannot do anything about a non-existent thing, anymore than you can cut a cheese with a line of longitude.
As Tilda said: ‘Less talk, more action. Less paralysis. More work.’
Enjoy that Spring thing.