“gooey prickles and prickly goo”: Alan Watts on our two models of reality and the nature of consciousness

The books of Alan Watts – to whom several websites have been dedicated (here, here, and here) – were an early inspiration to me. It was nice to rediscover him recently through some of the large number of audio recordings of his talks that can be found at the linked websites and on YouTube.

Earlier in life an Anglican priest, he evolved into a teacher of a highly original mix of Zen, Hindu, and Taoist thought. And unlike so many freestyle teachers out there, he had no interest in becoming a guru and didn’t enrich himself at the expense of those who came to hear him. He was an especially powerful communicator and catalyst of a bigger way of seeing.

In a three-part talk called “The Nature of Consciousness,” of which Part 1 is embedded below, he describes our predicament as caught between two untenable models of reality, which he calls the “ceramic” model and the “fully automatic” model. The “ceramic” model posits that the universe and world and all living beings were and are literally made by a Potter/Artificer who somehow stands utterly apart and outside of His/Her/Its creation. The “fully automatic” model arose out of Science throwing out the “lawmaker” (as superfluous to the process of making and testing predictions), but keeping the “law.”

This has been the dominant paradigm of our culture for several decades, its foundational assumption being materialism:

1) only what we can perceive with our human physical senses and measure with our technologies really exists;

2) beings and things are autonomous, separable from one another and their world;

3) there is no such thing as mind or consciousness;

4) we are machines, directed by chemistry;

5) various combinations of genes produce not only everything physical about us but our unimaginably complex emotional and behavioral lives too;

6) they do this via neurochemistry.

The common use of the concept “scientism” is more recent than the 1960s, when this talk was given, but Watts well and characteristically insightfully describes this View – again, the default View of our culture – at the deeper psychological level. I’ve transcribed portions of the talk.


…because what we really believe is the fully automatic model. And that is our basic, plausible common sense: “You are a fluke, you are a separate event, and you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium and that’s it baby. That’s it.”


…the people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game. What they wanted to say was this: “All you people who believe in religion are old ladies and wishful thinkers. You’ve got a big Daddy up there and you want comfort and things, but life is rough. Life is tough, and success goes to the most hard-headed people.” That was a very convenient theory when the European-American world was colonizing the natives everywhere else. They said: “We’re the end product of evolution, and we’re tough, see? I’m a big strong guy because I face facts, and life is just a bunch of junk, and I’m going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else, you see. And I’m real hard.” See that’s a way of flattering yourself.

And so, it has become academically plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles, no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable. Because if you’re an academic person you’ve got to be an intellectually tough person. You’ve got to be prickly.

There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One’s called Prickles, the other’s called Goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it’s waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists and goo people are idealists. And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is that neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn’t know you advocated prickles unless there was somebody else advocating goo. You wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what goo was. Because life is not either prickles or goo, it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.


But however, you see, this whole idea that the universe is just nothing at all but unintelligent force playing around and not even enjoying it is a put-down theory of the world. People who had an advantage to make, a game to play by putting it down, and making out that because they put the world down they were a superior kind of people. So that just won’t do. We’ve had it. Because if you seriously go along with this idea of the world you’re what is technically called alienated. You feel hostile to the world. You feel that the world is a trap. It is a mechanism, it’s electronic and neurological mechanisms into which you somehow got caught.


So you see, all I’m trying to say is that the basic common sense about the nature of the world that is influencing most people in the United States today, the fully automatic model, is simply a myth. If you want to say that the idea of God the Father with his white beard on the golden throne is a myth, in the bad sense of the word “myth,” so is this other one. It’s just as phony and has just as little to support it as being the true state of affairs.

Why? Let’s get this clear. If there is any such thing at all as intelligence, and love, and beauty, well, you’ve found it in other people. In other words it exists in us as human beings. And as I said, if it is there, in us, it is symptomatic of the scheme of things.

We are as symptomatic of the scheme of things as the apples are symptomatic of the apple tree or the rose of the rose bush. The Earth is not a big rock infested with living organisms any more than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. The Earth is geological, yes, but this geological entity grows people, and our existence on the Earth is a symptom of the solar system, and its balances, as much as the solar system in turn is a symptom of our galaxy, and our galaxy in its turn is a symptom of the whole company of galaxies. Goodness only knows what that’s in.

But you see, when as a scientist you describe the behavior of a living organism, you try to say what a person does. It’s the only way in which you can describe what a person is: describe what they do. Then you find out that in making this description you cannot confine yourself to what happens inside the skin. In other words you can’t talk about a person walking unless you start describing the floor, because when I walk I don’t just dangle my legs in empty space. I move in relationship to a room. And so in order to describe what I’m doing when I’m walking I have to describe the room. I have to describe the territory. So in describing my talking at the moment, I can’t describe this just as a thing in itself, because I’m talking to you.

And so what I’m doing at the moment is not completely described unless your being here is described also. So if that is necessary, if in other words in order to describe my behavior I have to describe your behavior and the behavior of the environment, it means that we’ve really got one system of behavior. That what I am involves what you are. I don’t know who I am unless I know who you are. And you don’t know who you are unless you know who I am.

There was a wise Rabbi once said “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.” In other words we are not separate. We define each other; we’re all backs and fronts to each other. You know, you can’t for example have two sticks. You lean two sticks against each other and they stand up, because they support each other. Take one away and the other falls. They interdepend. And so in exactly that way we and our environment and all of us and each other are interdependent systems. We know who we are in terms of other people; we all lock together. And this is, again and again, the serious scientific description of how things happen, and any good scientist knows, therefore, that what you call the external world is as much you as your own body. Your skin doesn’t separate you from the world. It’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you, and you flow into it.

Just for example as a whirlpool in water, you could say because you have a skin you have a definite shape, you have a definite form. Right? Here is a flow of water, and suddenly it does a whirlpool, and then it goes on. The whirlpool is a definite form, but no water stays put in it. The whirlpool is something the stream is doing, and exactly the same way, the whole universe is doing each one of us, and I see you today and I recognize you tomorrow, just as I would recognize a whirlpool in a stream. I’d say “Oh yes, I’ve seen that whirlpool before, it’s just near so-and-so’s house on the edge of the river, and it’s always there.” So in the same way when I meet you tomorrow, I recognize you. You’re the same whirlpool you were yesterday. But you’re moving. The whole world is moving through you: all the cosmic rays, all the food you’re eating, the stream of steaks and milk and eggs and everything is just flowing right through you. When you’re wiggling the same way, the world is wiggling, the stream is wiggling you.

But the problem is, you see, we haven’t been taught to feel that way. The myths underlying our culture and underlying our common sense have not taught us to feel identical with the universe, but only parts of it, only in it, only confronting it: aliens. And we are, I think, quite urgently in need of coming to feel that we are the eternal universe, each one of us. Otherwise we’re going to go out of our heads. We’re going to commit suicide, collectively, courtesy of H-bombs. And all right, supposing we do, well that will be that, and there will be life-making experiments on other galaxies. Maybe they’ll find a better game.

[Edit (1/22/15): embedded video removed as it is no longer online, alas. Hopefully it can be reuploaded at some future point. I will check periodically.]

climate change: an elemental view

Brendan Kelly, an acupuncturist and herbalist, also writes on Chinese medicine and is completing a book on climate change from this perspective. His approach demonstrates how necessary an elemental/energetic view is in confronting the multi-faceted challenges we face.


Our culture looks to science-technology to solve more-or-less everything, but the very expectations and attitudes we bring to problem-solving can also contribute to the mess. What Chinese medicine brings is an ancient and deep way of seeing, one which recognizes complete interdependence at all levels of our experience, inner and outer. So normally we think: climate, ah, “outer,” and ask technology to fix all such “external” problems. Isolate something we can improve, and pretty much ignore everything else.

The trouble is that this “everything else” is always, inherently, inseparable from what we’ve extracted from it, and there’s nothing we can do about that. So solving deep-rooted problems means solving them, well, deep-rootedly, and with big vision.

Western medicine, too, has a strong reductionist tendency. It thinks in terms of disease – analyzing down to symptoms deemed treatable (often succeeding in doing so very powerfully). Chinese medicine on the other hand always sees through the lens of health, health as an ever-fluctuating harmony subject to various kinds of imbalance. The body has an innate kind of intelligence, and so do ecosystems. They are always seeking balance, and our intentions and actions can either help or hinder this process.


So generally speaking Western medicine treats conditions discretely, whereas the Chinese approach is to look for the deeper level of energetic or elemental imbalance which is the true origin. It thus is always relating to causes and conditions as well as symptoms, and treating in such a way as to avoid the creation of further imbalances in the future (the “side effects” that pretty much inherently bedevil Western-style pharmacology).

Brendan’s approach in this article is to look at climate change as a symptom of our collective body in the same way he looks at symptoms of the individual body in the clinic. One of the things he sees, on multiple levels, is heightened yang energy and a depletion of yin. We are overheated internally – individually and collectively – and now our earth too is quite literally overheating.

We value speed, power, novelty, and frenetic activity. We devalue simplicity, stillness, nourishment, contemplation and openness. Our minds and bodies are frantically multitasking and all the media we are immersed in has made it much harder to contact space in our lives.

In Chinese thought when a situation is out of balance too far and for too long there comes a point when it begins to right itself, one way or another. Our choice is whether that way will be directed by us, or imposed upon us.

The aspect here that interests me the most is the understanding that in attempting to reverse our course we cannot rely on the same basic energetic approach that got us here in the first place. We haven’t learned this lesson, however. We still think cleverer technology – one magic bullet after another – can do it all for us, that we won’t have to change our basic orientation to the physical world, the elements, ourselves, each other. But we will. Among other things, we’re really, truly, going to have to learn how to sloooooow … dowwwnnnn…


Sandy (2)

(continued from below)

And the results of that unfolding can only be experienced elementally. Earth yields and collapses, water expands and engulfs, heat/fire is generated and consumes, wind overpowers and destroys. Living through an actual earthquake we suddenly remember earth, real earth, not the chemical composition of soil. Maneuvering through turbulent sea or sky we remember, in our bones and blood – not “H2O” but real water, not a mere list of gases with approximate compositional percentages but real air. Our very emotions, kinds of insight, styles of personality, along with all our bodily processes, correlate remarkably beautifully and profoundly with these fundamental qualities of energy – symbolized for example by the five colors of Tibetan prayer flags.

The entirety of taoist practice and Chinese medicine, too, emerges out of elemental sacred vision and experience – again five energies, as it happens, though seen and worked with in somewhat different ways from the Indo-Tibetan. I know very little about other systems than these but enough to say that wisdom traditions in every continent seem to have arisen out of this kind of awareness.

By contrast, what does a purely scientific – that is, fundamentally conceptual and analytic – way of understanding what is “elemental” have to tell us about ourselves? About how we actually experience our lives, day to day, moment to moment? Copper, phosphorus, bromine, praseodymium: these truly are abstractions utterly disconnected from our bodily human reality. They take their places within an elegant and revelatory periodic table, yielding crisp, pristine, purposeful answers to a multitude of material concerns. And at the same time … they have nothing to say to us as we meet, personally, the phenomena of our inner lives in every instant.

I’m as much a product of my times as anyone and I’ve been experiencing Sandy, yes, as a rational phenomenon that can be “explained” via translation into meteorological language. But at the same time … there has been something, no not sentient, but in any event truly, fully alive taking place in “her.”

Today while walking, for instance, I couldn’t help but sense the closer presence of the storm. Vastly weakened from its peak, it is now passing about as close to us here as it will, and somehow this truth registered despite mostly gorgeous mild weather this last day of October. It announced itself in astonishing cloud formations and in the smell of the air, a sense of something mighty, commanding complete respect, having been discharged, of release and decline. Of the return to harmony after so monumental a display of power. Uneasy reprieve (those clouds belonging, after all, to the very same system that pulverized NJ and NYC), a feeling of some giant gliding past, all of us tip-toeing and holding our breaths as it were, hoping to avoid notice, lest maybe this Sandy character might change its mind and decide to go out, after all, with just one more bang…

a thought on Sandy

Ultra-clever apes as we can be, we “developed” Westerners have seen fit to banish all elemental/energetic understanding from our universe. All “ordinary magic,” all sacredness.

We “know” that earth, water, fire, and air are not “real” elements but rather incoherent, primitive categories of “developing,” pre-scientific cultures. We know that there is only one possible way of understanding the elemental: conceptually, via thoroughgoing analysis. In fact, really, we can’t any longer conceive that there could be an alternative mode of seeing.

We know that the universe is really made up of Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium and so on, all the way up to … Flerovium and Livermorium now, it looks like. It never occurs to us that these too are actually human creations, abstractions. Except we also know that at the sub-atomic level all that solidity breaks down in very peculiar ways difficult to conceptualize. In fact at that point it all looks rather like what the buddhists call space – their fifth element, the non-material one of accommodation/complete openness which makes all form and phenomena possible. Which makes all combinations of the other four possible.

And yet, how interesting it is that for example we also give our hurricanes names. Human, mortal names, as befits a would-be democratic age, but names all the same. How is this so very different from the practice of cultures all over the world in naming deities of Ocean, Thunder, Fire, particular territories of the earth, the animating spirits of individual animals or plants? We no longer say Briareos but rather Sandy or Irene, but the impulse is the same, isn’t it?

The objection of course will be: ah but we don’t actually believe there’s a sentient being in there somewhere, animating that storm with purpose. This is true, but also not quite the point.

An energetic or sacred understanding of reality is not at all antagonistic to a scientific one as such. The two modes of perception simply operate in different registers, different realms in a sense. Side by side with all the explanations of why this storm was so unprecedented and powerful, with the hourly projections concerning trajectories, timing, wind speeds, rainfall, surge heights, another form of experience could yet be sensed within the discourse, dimly but unmistakeably. Underpinning the assumption of pure rationality lay, in fact, an attitude of awe, and fundamental incomprehension. Something like the “beginner’s mind” of Zen.

With all of our knowledges, we will never capture a storm in the pure abstraction of concept. We know, too, that we cannot master a storm. We may split atoms in a kind of ultimate display of techno-analysis, but even the terrifyingly murderous weapons that can be produced from such cleverness are still no match for an “entity,” that is to say a process, like Sandy. So we may only sit, and watch, and wait, as something far bigger than what our comprehension can encompass … unfolds. In its own sweet time.

(to be continued)

“buddhism” or “dharma”: what to call it?

I’ve never liked the word “buddhism.” “Isms” tend to be belief systems; “buddhism” is not concerned with beliefs, even understands them as, ultimately, obstacles. Worse still, the word tends to perpetuate the false idea that buddhist practice has something to do with the worship of a man, the historical figure of Siddhartha Gautama.

The alternative approach, which many buddhists adopt, is simply to speak of “the dharma,” an inherently non-sectarian word. “Dharma” simply means something like “the way it is” or “the nature of reality.” It is a much bigger and deeper term than “buddhism,” which is historically and culturally bound. Perhaps we could say that buddhist teachings expound upon and embody dharma in an exceptionally comprehensive way, but dharma is everywhere and ultimately quite independent of buddhism as a concept. Within buddhism, one isn’t trying to become a buddhist but rather a buddha, a fully realized, fully awake being, having completely perfected both wisdom and compassionate skillful means.

So the benefit of using the word is that we can speak of dharmic qualities in people, practices, art, understanding, institutions, businesses etc. that have nothing to do with the narrower entity of buddhism.

The downside is that if the person reading that word is not aware of what it means or how it is being used, it may come across in a manner diametrically opposed to what is intended. I occasionally have used it and then immediately realized that the person I was speaking to must’ve understood it in the same kind of sense I hear phrases like “the Gospel” or “the Word of the Lord” or “the Truth.” In another words, as a sectarian word bound to a particular tradition.

So it’s a dilemma I haven’t worked my way through yet. At the moment I suppose I feel that, as a term for general use, “dharma” doesn’t tend to work so well, unfortunately. So I use “buddhism” (faithful to its Sanskrit and Pali origin, languages with no upper-case letters), and hope that its lower-casedness conveys some kind of distinction at least. (“The tao” versus “taoism” involves exactly the same issue.)

or, as once was said long ago…

The living are soft and yielding;
the dead are rigid and stiff.
Living plants are flexible and tender;
the dead are brittle and dry.

Those who are stiff and rigid
are the disciples of death.
Those who are soft and yielding
are the disciples of life.

The rigid and stiff will be broken.
The soft and yielding will overcome.

Tao Te Ching 76 (J.H. McDonald translation)