The human pursuit of religion serves a function in our lives. There is a purpose or goal to being religious. Be it the goal of salvation or enlightenment, comfort and guidance for living a moral life, or any of a number of other “higher” purposes in life, religions clearly encourage us to move beyond a life motivated by self-centeredness and pure animal instincts for mere survival. This observation about the ultimate goals, purpose or function of religion can be related to the classic theory of a hierarchy of human needs proposed by Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). 1,2
Religion tends to fulfill the higher needs. Starting with a need for the comfort and camaraderie of community, religion also addresses our need to respect and be respected by others [the “Golden Rule”] and, ultimately, to be all that we can be as “God” created us to be or, in the case of many Eastern religions, to become “enlightened” – thus “self-actualized”.
Most people seem to live a life in pursuit of the lower or base needs of Maslow’s hierarchy. Maslow says that we do first have to fulfill these baser needs before we are free to aim for the higher (deeper) needs. If we are hungry and homeless, our need for food and shelter consumes our every waking moment. Similarly if we are ill, our need to feel better will outweigh any other pursuit. Once these personal and immediate needs are secured, we then turn to safe-guarding them through steady employment and the protection and support from family and friends. We will also seek long-term satisfaction through the personal relationships of friends and family – seeking out a mate and having children of our own. For most people, these lower level needs are the primary consuming drive in our lives.
In addition to the qualities noted in the above diagram, self-actualization is also often marked by “peak experiences.” Mystical or spiritual experience is most definitely an example of a “peak experience.” The need for self-actualization is described as the “desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” (Michelle, Inc. 4) This is a good description of the Confucian ideal of achieving Jen – human heartedness, becoming more fully human, reaching one’s full potential for what it means to be human. Hinduism teaches that who we really are goes well beyond our current form as a human being: “we are spiritual beings, having a human experience.” An “expanded” hierarchy adds cognitive and aesthetic needs between esteem and self-actualization and then goes beyond self-actualization to Transcendence needs – helping others to achieve self-actualization (McLeod 5). This Transcendence level relates quite well to Mahayana Buddhism and the idea of the Bodhisattva who chooses to forgo his or her own entry into Nirvana in favor of helping others become enlightened.
The non-monastic religions like Islam and Judaism, do tend to focus more on the lower as well as higher level needs. Islamic Shariah (religious law) is based around many of the needs identified by Maslow: preservation of life, family, education, property and ultimately of religion. The dietary laws of both Judaism and Islam would seem to protect health as well as morality (causing the least harm to the creatures we eat). Sikhism is a religion from India that is also non-monastic. It too values family and community, working in the world through honest and moral means, and giving back through charity to support those “in need” (of the lowest needs on Maslow’s hierarchy). The Eastern religions also guide with regard to what we eat: a vegetarian or vegan diet amongst the religions of India or the Taoist natural and organic dietary preferences that also avoid too much of the “bad” stuff (meat, spicy and stale foods).
Taoism seeks long life and good health though the practices of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes proactive approaches such as acupuncture, herbal cures, as well as diet and exercise (Tai Chi, for instance). Taoism is also associated with the practice of Feng-Shui, the Chinese art of placement. The Ba-gua tool that is at the center of Feng-Shui practice identifies eight aspects of our life that Feng-Shui seeks to enhance. These eight aspects relate quite well to some of the needs identified by Maslow:
It is interesting to note that none of the areas of concern to Feng Shui relate to the lowest of Maslow’s needs: physiological.
The non-monastic religions emphasize the higher level needs though family values and, of course, encourage us to aspire to the “higher calling” of morality in relation to others. Eating is one of the lowest level needs all living things have. Yet fasting from food is a common practice in many religions, both monastic and non-monastic forms. Jews follow annual 25 hour fasts associated with several of their holy days. The Yom Kippur fast is the best known of these. Islam, of course, has the month-long fast of Ramadan when they do not eat, drink water or have sexual relations from sun-up to sun-down for each day of the month (providing health conditions do not dictate otherwise). Baha’is also fast from sun-up to sun-down for one of their 19 day months. Mormons typically fast the first Sunday of every month. Buddhist monastics eat just one full meal a day, around noon time. To forgo this physiological need for basic sustenance as a spiritual pursuit is just one way that religions emphasize the higher needs. The reasons for fasting are many. Most common are to focus on prayer and to identify with and even help the needy who are hungry on a regular basis.
Hinduism is an interesting mix of monastic and more worldly pursuits. The four goals of life, or Hindu Dharma, relate quite nicely to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The lowest of the four goals is that of seeking pleasure in life (such as through the well-known Kama Sutra) – not just about sex, but about all things sensual. This goal would seem most closely aligned with the lowest level of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. The second goal of Hinduism is that of seeking success in life, living for both yourself and the sake of your family. Here one is the dutiful “householder” – the “family man”, working in the world, supporting and raising a family. Clearly, this goal of life aligns with Maslow’s second and third level needs. Beyond this is the goal of Dharma, one’s duty to one’s society: serving the needs of those who have less (charity – another common theme in many religions), fulfilling one’s role in the larger society of which one and one’s family is a part. This goal might relate to one’s sense of esteem (Maslow’s fourth level of need). Finally, the Hindu goal of Moksha seeks to transcend worldly pursuits as one seeks out ultimate spiritual enlightenment. This is more closely related to what we see in the monastic pursuit of the “peak experience”. Hinduism even refers to this goal as “self-realization” and equates it to “God-realization” – Maslow’s highest need of “self-actualization”.
Kundalini yoga and the chakras of Hindu philosophy also relate quite nicely to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are seven chakras or energy centers identified that run up the spine from the lowest at the coxis 7 to the highest at the crown of the head. The lower two chakras relate to basic survival needs like food and sex (Maslow’s physiological needs). The chakras then proceed through successively higher needs. Self-esteem, love, and self-expression relate to the mid-range of Maslow’s hierarchy. The two highest chakras of wisdom/intuition and, ultimately, spirituality would relate to Maslow’s highest need of “self-actualization.”
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
1 A.H. Maslow, "A theory of human motivation," Psychological Review, 1943-JUL, Vol. 50, #4. Pages 370-396. Abstract at: APA PsycNET. See: http://psycnet.apa.org/
2 Abraham Maslow, "Motivation and Personality," Martino Fine Books, (2013). Available in Kindle and Paperback formats (Cover images differ). Rated by Amazon customers with 4.4 out of 5 stars. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
3 This image was was copied from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. License notice: Factoryjoe, Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs
4 Michelle DeAngelis, Tools & Tips: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Michelle, Inc., 2008, at: http://www.michelleinc.com/
5 Saul McLeod, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs," Simply Psychology, 2007, at: http://www.simplypsychology.org/
6 This image mpan (Own work, based on File:Czakry.png), from: Wikipedia creative commons at: http://creativecommons.org/
7 The coxis is also kown as the coccyx or tailbone, the lower end of the spinal column.
The Road Less Traveled may well have been a life-changing work and one of the best-selling books of all time.
By Robert Epstein Ph.D., published on November 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Scott Peck had a station-wagon with plates that read "THLOST" in his driveway. They speak of his lifelong journey as a self-described mystic. His last book is a memoir titled Glimpses of the Devil. He said it was his last effort because of his affliction with Parkinson's disease. In 2002, Robert Epstein visited him at his home on Lake Waramaug, in Connecticut.
Most people struggle with issues of spirituality in one form or another. Sometimes they arrive at a place of peace, and sometimes they don't. Must we go through this struggle, or can you point us to a shortcut?
I do not think that everybody has to struggle. But to probably at least half of the people, it never seems to enter their minds that they might be engaged in a struggle or that there might be something to struggle with.
One of my shticks is about why we need to do hard scientific research on religion. A study shows that if you ask people whether they believe in God, probably 95 percent of Americans will say they do. And there is nothing particularly great about their mental health. But if you ask them whether they have ever had any personal experience with God, only about 15 to 20 percent will say "yes." Those few have also been judged as more mentally healthy than the others. And the experience is not necessarily one we choose. Everyone is different, so your spirituality is not going to be my spirituality; your wrestling match is not my wrestling match. But right off the bat, the wrestling match has been a gift of God to you.
In the 1970s, when you wrote The Road Less Traveled, where were you at spiritually?
Although I was raised in a profoundly secular home, I had a belief, an awareness of God, from as far back as I can remember. In poetic form, there is a footnote in The Road Less Traveled about my earliest memory: "In the autumn, when I was three, my mother woke me from dark sleep to see the northern lights dancing in the cold. In her warm night arms, I danced all the way to China before she carried me in. I still dance, and I do not know if I can ever forgive her for such love." That is quite a first memory. I credit my mother with that, rather than credit God.
In my senior year at Friends Seminary, a little Quaker school on the edge of Greenwich Village in New York City, I took an elective course in world religions. The book we used was very objective, and it contained quotes from the Upanishads and Zen Buddhism. It wasn't that these religions taught me mysticism, for I was already a mystic. But for the first time, I had a religious identity. I had come home. And so I called myself a Zen Buddhist at the age of 18.
Around age 30 I found myself thirsting for a less abstract religion. I'd always been into Jewish mystical stories, Hasidic stories. Then I discovered Sufism. All Sufi stories are about psychotherapy and teaching and learning. So I started being nurtured by the Muslim mystics; they were a little more down-to-earth.
I'd turned down a lucrative Harvard fellowship and stayed in the Army as a psychiatrist. Together with a senator's aide, we toured the new drug-abuse programs to get a feeling for how they were doing. One of the places we went was Fort Jackson in South Carolina. When we got there, everyone wanted to see this controversial new show coming to town called Jesus Christ Superstar. That show was a real eye-opener. It was the first thing that put me in touch with Jesus' humanity and realness.
The other major thing was reading the Gospels at the age of 40. I lay in bed at night reading the New Testament. And just as I had felt with Jesus Christ Superstar, I was blown away. Now I think a small part of the Gospels is made up. But I found this incredibly real person. Jesus was lonely and sorrowful and scared—an unbelievably real person. And it was at that point that I began to take becoming a Christian seriously. Some people who arrive at Christianity start with Jesus' divinity, and some with his humanity. With me, it was his humanity. And only later did I begin to get in touch with his divinity, which was initially difficult for me to swallow.
This whole time, you were a practicing psychiatrist. You were in a community of confident mainstream mental health and medical professionals, many of whom had research backgrounds. How were you reconciling your spirituality with what you did for a living, namely practicing psychiatry, where there is little or no religious orientation?
Well, when I began to practice psychiatry it was 1964, so I was 28. My spirituality had not developed, so I could not talk about it fluently the way I do today. But I already saw no great difference between the psyche and spirituality. To amass knowledge without becoming wise is not my idea of progress in therapy. As soon as I became comfortable doing so, therapy became for me a quasi-spiritual endeavor. And, often with trepidation, I would carefully use certain religious concepts in therapy when appropriate.
For example, take people with phobias. Two things characterize them. One is that they see this world as a very dangerous place. The other is that they see themselves as isolated in this dangerous world. So it is up to them, by their wits alone, to keep themselves alive. You usually treat them by converting them to adopt a more benign view of the world as a less dangerous place, or by persuading them that there is something called grace protecting them so they don't have to worry about everything all the time.
You must have had some serious doubts.
Are you familiar with James Fowler? He's the expert on the stages of faith development. I simplify them a bit. Jim's theory has six stages; mine has four. The fundamental stage, one I call "chaotic antisocial," is a stage of absent spirituality. The second stage is "formal institutional," in which the fundamentalists fall. Stage three I call "skeptic individual," where religion is either thrown out or seriously doubted. And then there is stage four, which I call "mystical communal." To get from stage two to stage four—if you can in a lifetime—you must go through stage three. You have to go through a phase of doubting. One of the great sins of the Christian church is the discouragement of doubting. There's a limit to doubting. If you become really good at stage-three doubting, you begin to doubt your own doubts. And that's when you begin to move to stage four.
Most people achieve this without being in therapy.
Right. But therapy can—although not very well without the use of religious concepts—sometimes facilitate this transition.
People who are trained in psychology and psychiatry keep religion at arm's length. In The Road Less Traveled you wrote, "My plea would be that psychotherapists of all kinds should push themselves to become no less involved but rather more sophisticated in religious matters than they currently are." That philosophy contradicts the training that's provided in the field. Even mental health professionals with strong religious beliefs don't bring them into the therapeutic exchange. You're saying this is wrong?
Yes. I said it was wrong many years ago, and I say it's wrong today. In 1992, the American Psychiatric Association, for political reasons, decided it needed to give me recognition because people were getting pissed off at [the APA] for not giving me any. So [the APA] gave me a plaque that read, "For his work as a teacher and clinician." I also gave a lecture. As did William Styron, the author of Sophie's Choice, who wrote a book about his own depression. The best-attended APA lectures were his and mine. [At my lecture] they started off with a room that seated 500. Then they removed a wall [to expand the room] and got 1,000 people in. Then 200 or 300 more came in, and then there were about 200 or 300 outside. At the end, there was a standing ovation.
I wrote to the president of the APA and said, "We've got to do more, and I am here to consult with you in any way you might like." And he said, "Yes, we have to do more." I never heard back from him. There are lots of reasons for this state of affairs historically, going back to Galileo, with the fight between science and religion. And psychiatry really does begin with Freud, who was extremely secular and scientific-minded. He was terribly conflicted about religion, as many people are. Of course, most people are familiar with stage-two religion. And by God, we're going to keep psychiatry scientific. And then, for often crass motives, the APA has run with the medical model for insurance purposes. Thank God I've been out of practice for 15 years now. There are a lot of reasons for this split. But that doesn't mean it's right, or it's real.
There's some irony here. They flock to you because of your spirituality, and then spurn you for the same reasons. Another irony is that your books sell well in the Bible Belt. And yet, you are down on fundamentalism, and the fundamentalist Christians are very down on you.
They picketed me twice some years ago as me being the Antichrist. Not an antichrist, but the Antichrist. That's power.
Can you tell me more about the roots of your spirituality—about the intellectual and experiential side?
All my work can be traced back to my Harvard college thesis, "Anxiety, Modern Science and the Epistemological Problem." I outlined three basic ways to try and look at things. They can be looked at as if they were caused by something external, or they were caused by something internal, or they were caused by relationships between things. Unfortunately, none of these three ways can answer all the questions we have. That is, our questions about the cause for intellectual anxiety. Increasingly, modern science is about our realization that we just don't know. Much of my life since has consisted of working out that thesis. The answer to understanding things is not one of those three, but all of them simultaneously. It's more than a paradox—it's a “triadox."
I am really an empiricist, a believer in the importance of experience. I've had all kinds of experiences with God in terms of revelation through a still, small voice or dreams or coincidences. Hundreds of them. Once, a secular Jewish woman wrote a negative review of me in The New York Times, ending it with the comment that unfortunately, most of us don't have a direct phone line to God. I wrote her back and said, "You know, please don't think that my phone works very well. A lot of times I can't get ahold of God, and sometimes the phone rings and I forget to answer. So I suspect there are a lot of people who deliberately leave the phone off the hook because they have these same experiences and they just don't recognize them as the miracles that they are."
I can remember years ago sitting on my bed and suddenly thinking, "I am God." And my next thought was that I better not go down to New Milford, Connecticut, and start talking to people about this. On further contemplation, I realized that, to a significant degree, it was my responsibility to decide who God was. And that, in some ways, made me God's creator. It was at that point that I began to feel sorry for God. I mean, think of the burdens that God shoulders with unfailing gaiety. That was the real beginning of my personal relationship with Him or Her. When I realized that we are "co-creators," for better or worse.
In The Road Less Traveled, you present us with an outrageous challenge: "God wants us to become himself or herself or itself. We are growing toward Godhood. God is the goal of evolution."
That idea has been recognized for ages. Unification with God is the goal of contemplatives. St. Paul clearly expressed it when he said, "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
You've influenced tens of millions of people. Are you satisfied with your impact?
Oh, I'm more than satisfied. I was really lucky. Had I written my books much earlier, they wouldn't have sold at all.
But I am not talking about book sales.
That is just a measurement of the impact. One of the things I regret is that some of my books other than The Road Less Traveled have not been more successful. I think my best books are not my most popular, although they were the best reviewed. They are the more complicated and multileveled, and many people don't like complicated things.
How would you like to be remembered?
I've spent little energy thinking about it, and I guess I don't care much. I would like to be recognized. It amuses me that I've gotten all kinds of honors but never an honorary degree. But I think there are reasons for that. I'm a popularist. I have made a fair amount of money, and most academicians don't make a fair amount of money. They sneer at my scholarship—as well they might, because I am a poor scholar. My wife and I have long been involved with community building and set up a foundation [the Foundation for Community Encouragement], which spawned similar work around the world. Maybe I will be remembered for that.
I've said a lot of things that I think are new and true ideas that may someday be incorporated into psychiatry. In The Road Less Traveled, I said most psychological disorders were considered to have their root in the unconscious, under all these little demons of anger and sex and lust, etc. But the reason they are in the unconscious is because the conscious mind puts them there, because it will not tolerate the pain of dealing with them. But then they become ghosts that haunt us and ultimately cause more pain. As far as I am concerned, virtually all psychological diseases have their origin in our conscious minds. And that is not what we are taught.
Do you have any significant regrets?
A significant regret is that I was not as good a father as I would have ideally liked to be. I was not, I think, a bad father. I did fine until my children were two, two and a half. But from two and a half to eleven or so, they bored me. You need to flow with children, and it is hard to flow when your mind is filled with working on an article about religious ecstasy. I also regret very much, every day now, the lack of sympathy that I had for my parents in their old age. There was a lot I could have given them if I had only been empathetic. Of course, I had not been through their aches and pains.
You had, many years ago, a problem with infidelity that you later overcame.
I didn't overcome it, I lost my libido.
You still smoke and drink. There's the occasional cynic who says, "This man is a hypocrite because he is saying this, but he is doing that." How would you reply?
Cynicism is a terrible disease. I don't think I ever suggested that it's good to smoke, or that people should drink or have affairs. I am not going to justify it. I've never said anywhere that they are supposed to imitate me. I've gone to great lengths not to be a guru. I think the notion of guruhood is utterly pathological, and I couldn't live that way. I am just a person. It isn't my choosing, but my fault. In a number of ways, I don't understand who I am. I have an unpublished first draft of a novel about somebody very special who was born that way—born the son of a sultan, and consequently, he ruled the region. And he, the sultan's son, kept asking throughout the book, "Why me? Who am I?"
You can tell [the cynics] that if by some chance I am a saint, I'm one who smokes and drinks. I'm somebody who often, like so many people, preaches what he needs to learn.
“Beauty Sleep” by Rachael Parker
The universe is a system which forgets itself and then again remembers anew so there’s always constant change and constant variety in the span of time. It also does it in the span of space by looking at itself through every different living organism, giving an all-around view.
That is a way of getting rid of prejudice, getting rid of a one-sided view. Death in that sense is a tremendous release from monotony. It puts an end to all of total forgetting in a rhythmic process of on/off, on/off so you can begin all over again and never be bored. But the point is that if you can fantasize the idea of being nothing for always and always, what you are really saying is after I’m dead the universe stops, and what I’m saying is it goes on just as it did when you were born. You may think it incredible that you have more than one life, but isn’t it incredible that you have this one? That’s astonishing! And it can always happen again and again and again!
What I am saying then is just because you don’t know how you manage to be conscious, how you manage to grow and shape your body, doesn’t mean that you’re not doing it. Equally, if you don’t know how the universe shines the stars, constellates the constellations, or galactifies the galaxies – you don’t know but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing it just the same way as you are breathing without knowing how you breathe.
If I say really and truly I am this whole universe, or this particular organism is an I’ing being done by the whole universe, then somebody could say to me, “Who the hell do you think you are? Are you God? Do you warm up the galaxies? Canst’ thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades or loosen the bonds of Orion?” And I reply, “Who the hell do you think you are! Can you tell me how you grow your brain, how you shape your eyeballs, and how you manage to see? Well, if you can’t tell me that, I can’t tell you how I warm up the galaxy. Only I’ve located the center of myself at a deeper and more universal level than we are, in our culture, accustomed to do.”
So then, if that universal energy is the real me, the real self which I’s as different organisms in different spaces or places, and happening again and again at different times, we’ve got a marvelous system going in which you can be eternally surprised. The universe is really a system which keeps on surprising itself.
Many of us have an ambition, especially in an age of technological competence, to have everything under our control. This is a false ambition because you’ve only got to think for one moment what it would be like to really know and control everything. Supposing we had a supercolossal technology which could go to our wildest dreams of technological competence so that everything that is going to happen would be foreknown, predicted, and everything would be under our control. Why, it would be like making love to a plastic woman! There would be no surprise in it, no sudden answering touch as when we touch another human being. There comes out a response, something unexpected, and that’s what we really want.
You can’t experience the feeling you call self unless it’s in contrast with the feeling of other. It’s like known and unknown, light and dark, positive and negative. Other is necessary in order for you to feel self. Isn’t that the arrangement you want? And, in the same way, couldn’t you say the arrangement you want is not to remember? Memory is always, remember, a form of control: I’ve got it in mind. I know your number, you’re under control. Eventually you want to release that control.
Now if you go on remembering and remembering and remembering, it’s like writing on a piece of paper and going on writing and writing until there is no space left on the paper. Your memory is filled up and you need to wipe it clean so you can begin to write on it once more.
That’s what death does for us: It wipes the slate clean and also, for looking at it from the point of view of population and the human organism on the planet, it keeps cleaning us out! A technology which would enable each one of us to be immortal would progressively crowd the planet with people having hopelessly crowded memories. They would be like people living in a house where they had accumulated so much property, so many books, so many vases, so many sets of knives and forks, so many tables and chairs, so many newspapers that there wouldn’t be any room to move around.
To live we need space, and space is a kind of nothingness, and death is a kind of nothingness – it’s all the same principle. And by putting blocks or spaces of nothingness, spaces of space in between spaces of something, we get life properly spaced out. The German word lebensraum means room for living, and that’s what space gives us, and that’s what death gives us.
Notice that in everything I’ve said about death I haven’t brought in anything that I could call spookery. I haven’t brought in any information about anything that you don’t already know. I haven’t invoked any mysterious knowledge about souls, memory of former lives, anything like that; I’ve just talked about it in terms that we already know. If you believe the idea that life beyond the grave is just wishful thinking, I’ll grant that.
Let’s assume that it is wishful thinking and when we are dead there just won’t be anything. That’ll be the end. Notice, first of all, that’s the worst thing you’ve got to fear. Does it frighten you? Who’s going to be afraid? Supposing it ends – no more problems.
But then you will see that this nothingness, if you’ve followed my argument, is something you’d bounce off from again just as you bounced in in the first place when you were born. You bounced out of nothingness. Nothingness is a kind of bounce because it implies that nothing implies something. You bounce back all new, all different, nothing to compare it with before, a refreshing experience.
You get this sense of nothingness, just like you’ve got the sense of nothing behind your eyes, very powerful frisky nothingness underlying your whole being. There’s nothing in that nothing to be afraid of. With that sense you can come on like the rest of your life is gravy because you’re already dead: You know you’re going to die.
We say the only things certain are death and taxes. And the death of each one of us now is as certain as it would be if we were going to die five minutes from now. So where’s your anxiety? Where’s your hangup? Regard yourself as dead already so that you have nothing to lose. A Turkish proverb says, “He who sleeps on the floor will not fall out of bed.” So in the same way is the person who regards himself as already dead.
Therefore, you are virtually nothing. A hundred years from now you will be a handful of dust, and that will be for real. All right now, act on that reality. And out of that…nothing. You will suddenly surprise yourself: The more you know you are nothing the more you will amount to something.
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“Beauty Sleep” by Rachael Parker
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of death as far back as I can remember, from earliest childhood. You may think that’s kind of morbid, but when a child at night says the phrase If I should die before I wake, there’s something about it that’s absolutely weird. What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up? Most reasonable people just dismiss the thought. They say, “You can’t imagine that”; they shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that will be that.”
But I’m one of those ornery people who aren’t content with an answer like that. Not that I’m trying to find something else beyond that, but I am absolutely fascinated with what it would be like to go to sleep and never wake up. Many people think it would be like going into the dark forever or being buried alive. Obviously it wouldn’t be like that at all! Because we know darkness by contrast, and only by contrast, with light.
I have a friend, a girl, who is very intelligent and articulate, who was born blind and hasn’t the faintest idea what darkness is. The word means as little to her as the word light. So it is the same for you: you are not aware of darkness when you are asleep.
If you went to sleep, into unconsciousness for always and always, it wouldn’t be at all like going into the dark; it wouldn’t be at all like being buried alive. As a matter of fact, it would be as if you had never existed at all! Not only you, but everything else as well. You would be in that state, as if you had never been. And, of course, there would be no problems, there would be no one to regret the loss of anything. You couldn’t even call it a tragedy because there would be no one to experience it as a tragedy. It would be a simple – nothing at all. Forever and for never. Because, not only would you have no future, you would also have no past and no present.
At this point you are probably thinking, “Let’s talk about something else.” But I’m not content with that, because this makes me think of two other things. First of all, the state of nothingness makes me think that the only thing in my experience close to nothingness is the way my head looks to my eye, and then behind my eye there isn’t a black spot, there isn’t even a hazy spot. There’s nothing at all! I’m not aware of my head, as it were, as a black hole in the middle of all this luminous experience. It doesn’t even have very clear edges. The field of vision is an oval, and because this oval of vision there is nothing at all. Of course, if I use my fingers and touch I can feel something behind my eyes; if I use the sense of sight alone there is just nothing there at all. Nevertheless, out of that blankness, I see.
The second thing it makes me think of is when I’m dead I am as if I never had been born, and that’s the way I was before I was born. Just as I try to go back behind my eyes and find what is there I come to a blank, if I try to remember back and back and back to my earliest memories and behind that – nothing, total blank. But just as I know there’s something behind my eyes by using my fingers on my head, so I know through other sources of information that before I was born there was something going on. There were my father and my mother, and their fathers and mothers, and the whole material environment of the Earth and its life out of which they came, and behind that the solar system, and behind that the galaxy, and behind that all the galaxies, and behind that another blank – space. I reason that if I go back when I’m dead to the state where I was before I was born, couldn’t I happen again?
What has happened once can very well happen again. If it happened once it’s extraordinary, and it’s not really very much more extraordinary if it happened all over again. I do know I’ve seen people die and I’ve seen people born after them. So after I die not only somebody but myriads of other beings will be born. We all know that; there’s no doubt about it. What worries us is that when we’re dead there could be nothing at all forever, as if that were something to worry about. Before you were born there was this same nothing at all forever, and yet you happened. If you happened once you can happen again.
Now what does that mean? To look at it in its very simplest way and to properly explain myself, I must invent a new verb. This is the verb to I. We’ll spell it with the letter I but instead of having it as a pronoun we will call it a verb. The universe I’s. It has I’d in me it I’s in you. Now let’s respell the word eye. When I talk about to eye, it means to look at something, to be aware of something. So we will change the spelling, and will say the universe I’s. It becomes aware of itself in each one of us, and it keeps the I’ing, and every time it I’s every one of us in whom it I’s feels that he is the center of the whole thing. I know that you feel that you are I in just the same way that I feel that I am I. We all have the same background of nothing, we don’t remember having done it before, and yet it has been done before again and again and again, not only before in time but all around us everywhere else in space is everybody, is the universe I’ing.
Let me try to make this clearer by saying it is the universe I’ing. Who is I’ing? What do you mean by I? There are two things. First, you can mean your ego, your personality. But that’s not your real I’ing, because your personality is your idea of your self, your image of yourself, and that’s made up of how you feel yourself, how you think about yourself thrown in with what all your friends and relations have told you about yourself. So your image of yourself obviously isn’t you any more than your photograph is you or any more than the image of anything is it. All our images of ourselves are nothing more than caricatures. They contain no information for most of us on how we grow our brains, how we work our nerves, how we circulate our blood, how we secrete with our glands, and how we shape our bones. That isn’t contained in the sensation of the image we call the ego, so obviously, then the ego image is not my self.
My self contains all these things that the body is doing, the circulation of the blood, the breathing, the electrical activity of the nerves, all this is me but I don’t know how it’s constructed. And yet, I do all that. It is true to say I breathe, I walk, I think, I am conscious – I don’t know how I manage to be, but I do it in the same way as I grow my hair. I must therefore locate the center of me, my I’ing, at a deeper level than my ego which is my image or idea of myself. But how deep do we go?
We can say the body is the I, but the body comes out of the rest of the universe, comes out of all this energy – so it’s the universe that’s I’ing. The universe I’s in the same way that a tree apples or that a star shines, and the center of the appling is the tree and the center of the shining is the star, and so the basic center of self of the I’ing is the eternal universe or eternal thing that has existed for ten thousand million years and will probably go on for at least that much more. We are not concerned about how long it goes on, but repeatedly it I’s, so that it seems absolutely reasonable to assume that when I die and this physical body evaporates and the whole memory system with it, then the awareness that I had before will begin all over once again, not in exactly the same way, but that of a baby being born.
Of course, there will be myriads of babies born, not only baby human beings but baby frogs, baby rabbits, baby fruit flies, baby viruses, baby bacteria –and which one of them am I going to be? Only one of them and yet every one of them, this experience comes always in the singular one at a time, but certainly one of them. Actually it doesn’t make much difference, because if I were born again as a fruit fly I would think that being a fruit fly was the normal ordinary course of events, and naturally I would think that I was an important person, a highly cultured being, because fruit flies obviously have a high culture. We don’t even know how to look at it. But probably they have all sorts of symphonies and music, and artistic performances in the way light is reflected on their wings in different ways, the way they dance in the air, and they say, “Oh, look at her, she has real style, look how the sunlight comes off her wings.” They in their world think they are as important and civilized as we do in our world. So, if I were to wake up as a fruit fly I wouldn’t feel any different than I do when I wake up as a human being. I would be used to it.
Well, you say, “It wouldn’t be me! Because if it were me again I would have to remember how I was before!” Right, but you don’t know, remember, how you were before and yet you are content enough to be the me that you are. In fact, it’s a thoroughly good arrangement in this world that we don’t remember what it was like before. Why? Because variety is the spice of life, and if we remembered, remembered, remembered having done this again and again and again we should get bored. In order to see a figure you have to have a background, in order that a memory be valuable you also have to have a forgettory. That’s why we sleep every night to refresh ourselves; we go into the unconscious so that coming back to the conscious is again a great experience.
Day after day we remember the days that have gone on before, even though there is the interval of sleep. Finally there comes a time when, if we consider what is to our true liking, we will want to forget everything that went before. Then we can have the extraordinary experience of seeing the world once again through the eyes of a baby – whatever kind of baby. Then it will be completely new and we will have all the startling wonder that a child has, all the vividness of perception which we wouldn’t have if we remembered everything forever.
NEXT WEEK PART 2 OF “DEATH” by Alan Watts
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