Letter to A.V.Parkes,
70 Sheldon Road London N.L8.
In this letter I am going to try, however fumblingly, to begin to expound my view of the world. It will be difficult to communicate, for reasons you will see later, including as it does such diverse themes as Philosophy, Ontology, Epistemology, Psychology, and any other ‘Ology’ you like to mention. The western world has made such a fetish of splitting reality up into artificial sections, and giving them labels, that it is almost impossible to portray what it is all about. Correction – it is probable that it IS impossible. What I might be able to do is to show what it isn’t about (as Watts says – Like a sculptor chipping away stone to reveal the image – what is left is IT).
As I am what is known as an “Undisciplined Syncretist” it will be impossible for me to quote sources accurately; what I have absorbed becomes so inextricably me that all I can do is to mention my indebtedness to various Thinkers as they occur to me. E.G. People like Alan Watts, Marshall Macluhan, George Kelly, Marcuse etc and to such old-time Grooves as G. Buddha and the old Zen Masters. Don’t worry! I haven’t got religion! but all these sources have been helpful.
Basically, what I want to say is very simple – so simple in fact that I’ll probably have to spend the rest of my life saying it, and will fail because any explanation is a falsification. The fundamental postulate is this “What Is – IS. There is that which $8. It is more than the concept of the basic stuff of the universe, because Space and Matter are complementary halves of it, and what I am trying to convey is non-dualistic – beyond dichotomy. IT is THAT beyond which there is no other, beyond which there is no beyond!
Pretty basic Huh? It is wrong, however, to think of this basic as a THING. Thing implies something static, something which has to be acted on from outside – and there is no outside, and nothing, therefore, to act on it. The Chinese called it Tao, the Japanese Zen, the Indians Nirvana, and an awful lot of guff has confused the issue, due to man’s tendency to anthropomorphise everything. The subject has been further confused by the fact that Man feels himself to be outside of all this, looking on as it were, rather than feeling that he too is a pattern in that which he is observing. This gives rise to such notions as EGO and SOUL, the feeling that the body is inhabited by a guiding something apart from the body – ‘a little man in the driving seat in the head’ (Watts), still, more of that later.
The reason for the trend towards interest in the Eastern philosophies recently is that Western scientists are becoming increasingly aware that what they are studying are patterns and processes rather than Stuff. As Alan Watts says – Stuff is the term you use when you can’t perceive the pattern. Also, practically all scientists, from nuclear physicists to psychologists, are discovering that it is impossible to divorce what they are studying from that which surrounds it.
The study of something is also the study of its environment. Relativity cannot be ignored without hopelessly invalidating the study. Thus traditional disciplines are overlapping and intermingling to such an extent that it is becoming obvious that they are completely artificial divisions in a whole. In the East such divisions are not traditional, their philosophers etc. are accustomed to thinking of the whole rather than the parts. In this, they are helped by their languages.
Has it ever occurred to you how much your language governs how you think? Nouns and adjectives, verbs and adverbs, subject and object, their very use determines your thinking. What is a noun? for instance. Take “TREE” for example. We observe a process taking place, a pattern which is changing, as all patterns do, we call certain aspects of this pattern-process TREE, and form a symbol for it. To us, it immediately becomes a THING abstracted from its surroundings, (or the rest of its relative pattern) and we come to believe in THINGS in general, static, inert, acted upon by something other. We ask stupid questions, such as What makes it grow, without seeing that the Tree is growing. We feel that ‘subject verb object’ is reality, rather than an inaccurate flickering of symbols counterfeiting reality like a kinematograph. It may be that thought itself cannot be other than a chain of one-at—time symbols, Incapable of truly representing what the Real really is, but It helps if we know it’s limitations. In Japanese, I believe, adjectives, for example, are more in the nature of verbs. Instead of saying that something is green they say that it is ’greening’. So if we can think of a tree as a bit of what IS! which is ‘Treeing’, we may get a bit closer. All Things, Qualities, actions etc. are patterns, and the shape of the pattern depends on the viewpoint. To a housewife a Table is solid, to a physicist it is composed mostly of space. They are both right!
You may feel that all this is a bit way out, and, even if true, inappropriate to your present concern with ‘Involvement’, but this is not so. The relationship of language to thought, and thought to reality, are fundamental to your problem. If you can see yourself as an organism in an environment, a pattern in that which is, you will have achieved what Yogas, mystics, Buddhist etc, have been striving for thousands of years – but it isn’t easy, because it can’t be something you DO, it has to be a ‘Happening’.
Due to thought being what it is, an abstract of reality, it is natural for the thinker to feel that he too is an abstract something, independent of his mind and his body. We speak about ‘My’ body, ’My’ mind, ‘My’ unconscious mind, and ‘My’ Self ae though they are separate things, rather than facets of a process-pattern. The idea that there exists, what Alan Watts terms, ‘A skin encapsulated-ego’ is so basic to the human being, that it seems unthinkable that this is not so.
“I think, therefore I am!” seems to have been extended to imply “I think, therefore I am something separate!” and this divorcing of the Ego from the organism, and the organism from the environment, is the cause of all the unhappiness, neuroses, psychoses, and downright confusion that bedevils the human race.
An extravagant claim? Not a bit! Do you see how the concept of ‘things being acted upon’ rather than ‘processes and patterns’ can give rise to the idea of an Almighty God who Made the world, who Plans the future?, and how the idea of a ‘Self’, Ego, or Soul imprisoned in the body, gives rise to a fear of death or ‘stopping’?
What makes Man unique, at least’ on this planet, is the fact that he has, or is a very effective feedback system, in which part of the universe is reflecting itself, called consciousness. What differentiates man from the other animals which possess consciousness is that he has developed and enlarged the memory by the employment of symbols, thought expressed in language. Language is a grid system which we hold up against the world to remember and understand it. By and large, it works very well, but we have fallen into the error of confusing the grid with the reality, of feeling that the symbols are more real than that which they represent!
Language is not the only grid we use. All ‘Knowledge’ is a grid as are mathematics and music (both ‘languages’ in their own way), but the biggest grid of all is social convention! The ’rules* of society, for the human race which, of necessity, must live communally and rely one on the other, are a very important grid indeed. But they are artificial, they are not ‘Laws of Nature’, and a lot of trouble has been caused in the Judaic-Christian civilization by trying to palm off the rules of Man as the ‘Will of God’.
It is in this sense that I referred, in an earlier letter, to Life as a Game, It is a game, comprised of many games, and some of them pretty silly games too!
I am reminded of a favourite story:-
During the war, at the time of the Battle of Britain, an A.T.S. girl on a gunsite, was put on a charge for some trivial offence.
The sergeant-major, shouting orders, marched her into the C.O.s office “Leftrightleftrightleft!”. The charge was read out, and the C.O., a major, gave her a lecture on good behaviour, concluding with the words “Well? What have you to say for yourself?
She looked at him for a moment and said,
“Oh! you SILLY little man!”
That, I think is a wonderful example of seeing -through the game.
Yet, because the prime rule of most of our games is “You must take it seriously”, it is amazing how easy it is to get caught up in whatever game they are playing around you. The rule is that the game is not to be considered a game. This puts you at a disadvantage. Rule Two is that you MUST play, on pain of very heavy penalties if you refuse, (consider the draft dodgers!). One of the most crippling rules, though, is the one that Bays, “You must consider yourself responsible” e.g. that you are an independent being; but at the same time “You must conform!” (to the role thrust upon you), i.e. you are not to be independent! It is this “Double Bind” which gives rise to guilt. You are coerced by the full force of society to believe that you are what you are not, and are NOT what you are. Any wonder that the world is in a mess?
What is encouraging to me about this new and emerging generation, is that they are beginning to see all this, perhaps SEE is the wrong word, to FEED perhaps. With the increase in knowledge (the scientist and artist are way ahead of society), the young people of today are beginning to sense that what they are Told, and what they observe for themselves encompass an enormous discrepancy. They are beginning to question the rules of the Social Game, This is not necessarily because they are brighter, or more intelligent, than their predecessors, (although this may well be so); it is because their environment is drastically different. I don’t know if you have read anything by Marshall Macluhan, but he has a theory that might account for it ~ too long to recount here (but read “Understanding Media”(Penguin Books.). Briefly, it is as follows:- Due to the “Electronic Revolution”, as he calls it, it is no longer possible to pretend that we are not Involved. The Vietnam war is fought in our lounge-rooms, as it happens, by television. Live satellite broadcasts link the world. What is happening ten thousand miles away is happening RIGHT NOW! The world has shrunk to a “Global Village” (Macluhan). It is the age of “instant” this and “Instant” that. Our knowledge is being modified and amended so fast nowadays that before you have time to grow accustomed to an idea it has been enlarged upon or even superceded. The environment is no longer in the background, it is omnipresent, and we are in it – Right in it!!
I have a feeling that we are witnessing and participating in, a major evolutionary change (at least psychologically). The Human Race, always emotionally behind the times, is shaking itself down to fit the twentieth century, and to do this it must discard its I6th-century personality and I9th-century morality!
At long last it may be happening; not through the organism rejoining the environment, as attempted by centuries of Zen Buddhism; but strangely enough, by the environment enfolding the organism – The Mountain is coming ta Mahomet!!!
Such is my message of hope and good cheer! If this has provoked you to thought please reply soon as pose, by Air, followed up by seamail if you feel tempted to make a long comment — or even though I hope not) to join the battle!