“On Being Aware” (excerpt from) The Wisdom Of Insecurity by Alan Watts
The question "What shall we do about it?" is only asked by those who do not understand the problem.
The question "What shall we do about it?" is only asked by those who do not understand the problem. If a problem can be solved at all, to understand it and to know what to do about it are the same thing. On the other hand, doing something about a problem which you do not understand is like trying to clear away darkness by thrusting it aside with your hands. When light is brought, the darkness vanishes at once.
This applies particularly to the problem now before us. How are we to heal the split between "I" and "me", the brain and the body, man and nature, and bring all the vicious circles which it produces to an end? How are we to experience life as something other than a honey trap in which we are the struggling flies? How are we to find security and peace of mind in a world whose very nature is insecurity, impermanence, and unceasing change? All these questions demand a method and a course of action. At the same time, all of them show that the problem has not been understood. We do not need action yet. We need more light.
Light, here, means awareness to be aware of life, of experience as it is at this moment, without any judgement or ideas about it. In other words, you have to see and feel what you are experiencing as it is. And not as it is named. This very simple "opening of the eyes" brings about the most extraordinary transformation of understanding and living, and shows that many of our most baffling problems are pure illusion. This may sound like an over-simplification because most people imagine themselves to be fully enough aware of the present already, but we shall see that this is far from true.
Because awareness is a view of reality free from ideas and judgements, it is clearly impossible to define and write down what it reveals. Anything which can be described is an idea, and I cannot make a positive statement about something-the real world-which is not an idea. I shall therefore have to be content with talking about the false impressions which awareness removes, rather than the truth which it reveals. The latter can only be symbolized with words which mean little or nothing to those without a direct understanding of the truth in question.
What is true and positive is too real and too living to be described, and to try describe it is like putting red paint on a red rose. Therefore most of what follows will have to have a rather negative quality. The truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light, an art not unlike sculpting, in which the artist creates, not by building, but by hacking away.
We saw the question about finding security and peace of mind in an impermanent world showed that the problem had not been understood. Before going any further, it must be clear that the kind of security we are talking about is primarily spiritual and psychological. To exist at all, human beings must have a minimum livelihood in terms of food, drink, and clothing-with the understanding, however, that it cannot last indefinitely. But if the assurance of a minimum lively hood for sixty years would even begin to satisfy the heart of man, human problems would amount to very little. Indeed, the very reason why we do not have this assurance is that we want so much more than the minimum necessities. 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 commentaries 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 separation 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 defences lead to divisions between us, and so to more insecurity demanding more defences. 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 in two pieces. There must be a good "I" who is going to improve the bad " me." "I," who has let 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 have hardly begun 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 of security may be conceived. You want to be happy, to forget yourself, and yet the more you remember the self you want to forget. You want to escape from pain, but the more you struggle to escape, the more you inflame the agony. You are afraid and want to be brave, but the effort to be brave is fear trying to run away from itself. You want peace of mind, but the attempt to pacify it is like trying to calm the waves with a flat-iron.
We are all familiar with this kind of vicious circle in the form of worry. We know that worrying is futile, but we go on doing it because calling it futile does not stop it. We worry because we feel unsafe, and want to be safe. Yet it is perfectly useless to say that we should not want to be to be safe. Calling a desire bad names doesn't get rid of it. What we have to discover is that when we imagine that we have found it, we don't like it. In other words, if we can really understand what we are looking for-what safety is isolation, and what we do to ourselves when we look for it-we shall see that we do not want it at all. No one has to tell you that that you should not hold your breath for ten minutes. You know that you can't do it, and that the attempt is most uncomfortable.
The principle thing is to understand that there is no safety or insecurity. One of the worst vicious circles is the problem of the alcoholic. In very many cases he knows quite clearly that he is destroying himself, that, for him, liquor is poison, that he actually hates being drunk, and even dislikes the taste of liquor. Yet he drinks. For, dislike it as he may, the experience of not drinking is worse. It gives him the "horrors," for he stands face to face with the unveiled, basic insecurity of the world.
Herein lies the crux of the matter. To stand 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 close 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.
To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change, more even than to observe the transitoriness of life. The notion of security is based is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life. We are struggling to make sure that of the permanence, continuity, and the safety of this enduring core, this centre and the soul of our being which we call "I." For this we think to be the real man-thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the knower of our knowledge. We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realise that this "I" does not exist.
Understanding comes through awareness. Can we, then, approach our experience-our sensations, feeling, and thoughts-quite simply, as if we had never known them before, and, without prejudice, look at what is going on? You may ask, "Which experiences, which sensations and feelings, shall we look at?" I will answer, "Which ones can you look at?" The answer is that you must look at the ones you have now.
That is surely rather obvious. But very obvious things are oftened overlooked. If a feeling is not present, you are not aware of it. There is no experience but present experience. What you know, what you are actually aware of, is just what is happening at this moment, and no more.
We are seeing, then, that our experience is altogether momentary. From one point of view, each moment is so elusive and so brief that we cannot even think about it before it is gone. From another point of view, this moment is always here, since we know no other moment than the present moment. It is always dying, always becoming past more rapidly than imagination can conceive. Yet at the same time is always being born, always new, emerging just as rapidly from the complete unknown which we call the future. Thinking about it almost makes you breathless.
BUY the BOOK: