Watts: “One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To ‘know’ reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.”
Think of a wave on the ocean. Its existence (existere means “to stand out”) is defined by the rolling swell of a much larger and deeper current of energy, but from its limited perspective “this” is all there is. From its peak can be seen countless others just like itself, some in the rise and others in the fall of their own lifecycles. From this vantage-point they are all separate formations, separate beings, existing apart from each other and essentially alone in the vast ocean.
Throughout its career, this wave is occasionally involved in competition with other waves nearby. Who is more lively and charismatic, who is more interesting or successful in “waving,” whose peak is highest? And now, having passed the meridian of its own crest and on its way down, a peculiar anxiety is beginning to take over. Still far out from a shoreline that no one has even seen, will its existence be for naught? Wasn’t the purpose to reach the other side? What has been the point to all this thrashing about?
At the surface all waves seem separate. The space between them and differences among them give the impression of an astonishing diversity – exciting at first, but more overwhelming as time goes by. What the wave doesn’t realize – especially during the phase of its swelling self-involvement – is that a greater reality lies beneath. If only its axis of vision could shift from the horizontal to the vertical it would see what’s really going on: all these waves are what the ocean is doing right now.
This shift from the horizontal (out) to the vertical (down) is the critical change in orientation between a rational and a mystical view of reality. One is based on the principle of separation and the meaningful arrangement of things (objects, ideas, values), while the other is grounded in an awareness that all things are the manifestation of a single, ineffable mystery. It is tempting to judge the first as “lesser” and fundamentally mistaken, but this would itself be a mistake.
As ego, an ancient and impulsive animal nature has been shaped into a domesticated and socially well-behaved member of my tribe. Here in the societal arena, separation/attachment is the name of the game: standing out to be recognized and fitting in to belong. As I look out from the perch of my individual wave, I can see you there, working things out for yourself. Others exist apart from me, the world is all around me, and god is above me – separation.
From this vantage-point, the effort of meaning-making involves composing classifications and explanations that describe reality, make sense of it, and thereby reduce the mystery to terms and values that make sense to us. Anything and everything becomes the subject of an “ology” – a study of, a science of, a theory of a something else. We have amassed a huge library of information and a technology of mastery that has enabled us to control forces which previous cultures worshiped or knew nothing about.
But we’re missing something. All of this horizontal separation-and-control has alienated us from the soul-center of awareness and the corresponding spiritual dimension of reality. Watts says that we’re missing reality entirely. To really know it we must understand that we are part of it, manifestations of it, individual waves on its surface. In addition to looking “out,” we must also look “down.” The rational is not replaced by the mystical, but deepened, expanded, and finally transcended.
Watts’ point, that “this is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart,” encourages us to hold on loosely to our theories, our “ologies.” It’s also fair warning of what will inevitably happen if we keep insisting on being right. To temper these dogmatic and fundamentalist tendencies, it is becoming increasingly urgent that we learn to release ourselves to the unfathomable mystery of being.
To know life from the inside, to live out of the depths, to see it all as One. This is wisdom, is it not?
5 thoughts on “Out of the Depths”
Not only is it wisdom, it is the essence of true “soul-surfing.” Let’s paddle out and ride a few waves, my friend, free of judgment and “surf-ology.”
It’s tough for ego to trust in the “providence” of the ocean, isn’t it Christopher? Surrendering control sounds/feels too much like losing control – and what ego can accept that?! I suspect that this is behind the need of so many, that “God is in control.”
Had I known that philosophy had so many similarities to quantum physics, I would have taken more classes on the liberal arts side. While we all might be waves, does that describe people enough? I suggest that we are also particles. With waves, the entire life is one path – birth to death and this path relates to other paths. It’s hard to see the interconnections between separate entities when so much of the whole path needs to be absorbed and comprehended. If we take a moment and get the here (3 dimensions) and the now (yep another dimension), then I can tack on another dimension and examine my closeness to the mystery. With such a small sliver of the now, perhaps I can also see not only my relationship to the mystery but also to others.
You ask, “What about the past?” The past determines our point in “now” just as others affect our “now”. This encourages us to live for the now, yet still be cognizant that the now and the past still determine the future.
I know I need more “here” and “now”. However, I’m still looking for “where” I am.
Thanks for your insightful comments, Kris!
The strands of relationship that define our place in existence are indeed countless. I’m not sure what you mean, though, about the past determining our present; or about the past and present determining the future. That sounds “deterministic” – suggesting there may be no freedom anywhere in there. Is that your meaning?
Yes mostly deterministic but with choice. For example, I don’t like mangoes. As a small child, my teeth were caught in the strands. Therefore I associate the fruit, smell and taste with pain. Thus I “choose”not to eat mangoes based on the past.
The same can be thought about good and evil. There is always a choice. However social conditioning leans us primarily one way our another. If there wasn’t then accountability would be zero.
Is complete control always necessary or desired? No. Sometimes it’s good to float and learn the mystery. However learning can become blurred with doing.