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Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation

Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation

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by Alan Watts

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Mark Watts compiled this book from his father's extensive journals and audiotapes of famous lectures he delivered in his later years across the country. In three parts, Alan Watts explains the basic philosophy of meditation, how individuals can practice a variety of meditations, and how inner wisdom grows naturally.


Mark Watts compiled this book from his father's extensive journals and audiotapes of famous lectures he delivered in his later years across the country. In three parts, Alan Watts explains the basic philosophy of meditation, how individuals can practice a variety of meditations, and how inner wisdom grows naturally.

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Still the Mind

An Introduction to Meditation

By Alan Watts, Mark Watts, Marc Allen

New World Library

Copyright © 2000 Mark Watts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-329-8


Who We Are in the Universe

I WAS TAUGHT when I was a little boy that it was good to be unselfish and loving, and I used to think that I should grow up to serve other people. But after a while I found out that unless one has something to give people, there is nothing one can do to help them. Just because I thought I ought to help, it didn't mean that I had anything to give.

Gradually, over the years, as I understood what it was that I had received of significance from the world, I realized that these things were never intended as gifts to be given in the usual sense of the word. However much one enjoys the song of birds, they are not singing for the advancement of music, and the clouds are not floating across the sky to be painted by artists.

In the words of a Zen poem,

    The wild geese do not intend
    to cast their reflection
    The water has no mind
    to retain their image

When a mountain stream flows out of a spring beside the road, and a thirsty traveler comes along and drinks deeply, the traveler is welcome. But the mountain stream is not waiting with the intention of refreshing thirsty travelers; it is just bubbling forth, and the travelers are always welcome to help themselves. So in exactly that sense I offer these ideas, and you are all welcome to help yourselves.

Three Wishes

I am offering these words for your entertainment, and to entertain myself. I am not trying to improve you, and I really do not know how I would improve you. It would be imprudent for me to recommend any improvements, because one never knows how these things may turn out — and as they say, be very careful of what you wish for, because you may get it.

One of the problems when people ask for miracles is that they never know what the miracle they ask for ultimately involves. That is why magicians and genies always grant three wishes, so that after the first two you can always use the third one to get back to where you began.

What invariably happens is that with the first wish, things never quite work out as you expected. You may not realize what it may involve if you wish for a glass to be changed into gold, for instance. If we change the arrangement of the universe in such a way that glass becomes gold, you may suddenly find that your eyesight fails or you lose all your hair, because that might go with it. We do not understand all the interconnections between things, because in reality what we call "things" are not really separate from each other. The words and the ideas about them separate them from each other, but they are not separate. They all go with each other, interconnected in one vast vibratory pattern, and if you change it at one point it will be changed at all sorts of other points, because every vibration penetrates through the entire pattern.

Why Do You Believe?

You never really know what is going to happen, and therefore I would not presume to say that you ought to be different than the way you are. I am not a guru, in the sense of a spiritual teacher or an authority from which you may expect something more than what you have. When you confer spiritual authority on another person, you must realize that you are allowing them to pick your pocket and sell you your own watch.

How can you be certain with any great teacher (or scripture for that matter) that they know what they say they know? You may believe in a religion; that is a choice you have made. But how do you know, and why do you believe?

If you believe in something simply because the Bible says it is true, for instance, you do so because you believe that the Bible has the authority to tell you it is true. You may well say that your fathers and mothers and all sorts of reliable people believed it, and therefore you have accepted it on their authority. If you are curious, however, you will also ask, "How did they know it was true?" Did they, by their light and example, show that they were enormously improved because of their belief?

If we look at human history with a clear eye, we see that over an appallingly long period of time people have not improved very much despite their religions and ideals. When you become a grandfather with five grandchildren as I am, you realize that you are just as stupid as your own grandfather was because you still look at things from your own limited position. And although my grandchildren may think that I am a wise and venerable man with a beard, I know that I am still a child, and I feel pretty much as I have always felt. So when you set someone up as an authority, never forget that the belief that you have in this authority is just your opinion.

It Rests on Our Authority

When De Tocqueville said that the people get the government they deserve, he was quite right. We allow the government, whether it be political or spiritual, to get away with it, and so it rests on our authority. This is true also of God. If you believe in God — that God is good, or that God is God at all — it is your opinion. And so God derives from you, and therefore this thought has some very peculiar implications with regard to the government of the universe.

Awareness of the source of spiritual authority — understanding that it comes from us, from the people — may imply that there is some sort of democracy in the kingdom of Heaven. Of course it does not overthrow God, except in the sense of a certain kind of God, and most people do not realize that there can be many quite different ideas of God.

God does not have to be a monarch; there can also be an organic god. There are also personal and impersonal gods, and there are gods that are neither personal nor impersonal. There are gods that exist and gods that do not exist, and there are gods that neither exist nor do not exist. But whatever you believe God is, it always goes back to you.

What Does Consciousness Rest Upon?

When his disciples approached the great Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi and asked, "Guruji, who was I in my last incarnation?" he would answer, "Who wants to know?"

When they asked, "Guruji, how does one attain liberation?" he would reply, "Who is it that wants to attain?"

Who is asking the question? It always gets back to you, where it all begins — and what is that? Of course we might think we know who we are — we have been told who we are, and we bought the story we were told.

So you can't really blame anybody else for what you think of yourself. You can't go way back, in a sort of psychoanalytical way, and find the causation for what you are now. The answer is not in the behavior of your parents, or in your peer group, or whatever your situation was when you were a child, because the universe doesn't work that way. Instead it works the other way: It goes backward into the past from you, because you started it. And so when you blame somebody else for putting you into your current situation, it merely means that you have defined yourself incorrectly. Perhaps you have defined yourself as being limited to your conscious attention, and limited to your voluntary musculature. But is that all there is? Is that the real you?

What does consciousness rest upon? Have you ever asked yourself that question?

Who Are You?

Consciousness does not illumine the lamp from which it shines, just as a flashlight doesn't shine on the battery that powers it. When you make a decision, does that come from somewhere other than you? No, it comes from the depths of you, of which you are not really aware. You encompass far more than anything you know about in a conscious way.

But we are so used to thinking of "I" as simply the center of our consciousness, and the center of our will, that we ignore (or are ignorant of) most of ourselves. When you think of a particular person, what do you think of? Suppose I say, "Think of your uncle," or "Think of your mother." What instantly comes to mind is their face, because we are most accustomed to seeing photographs and images of faces. When we see images of the president, most often it is the president's face, the head and shoulders, and only occasionally is the whole body seen.

What do you think of when you think of a flower? In the same way, you think mostly of the blossom, sometimes of the stalk, and occasionally of the whole plant. But very rarely when we think of a flower do we think of the flower out in a field. We would say, "That's more than the flower. The flower is not the field." But is that so? Where would the flower be without the field?

I can say in words, "The flower grows in the field." In words I can chop the field off and say, "The flower grows," and the phrase will still make sense. However, it will not make sense in nature. If I take the field away from the flower, the flower cannot grow. The flower is connected with the field in a very deep way, and so in the same way a person is not just their head. The head has to go with the body, and the body has to go with a social and natural environment — but we never think of in that way. We know it is all there, but it doesn't come to mind automatically.

So who are you? And who decides on the limits of an organism? Who are you that gives spiritual authority to somebody else, and then pretends, "Of course it does not come from me. I bow down because I know that person really knows."?

Now the Buddhists have a very funny trick when it comes to bowing, because Buddhists do not have the idea of a supernatural authority that watches over them. So why, then, do they bow when they pay respect to a Buddha? Why do they bow when they meet you, and greet you so reverently? Bowing is paradoxically the act of a king, because it confers authority. The one who bows sets the revered image on its pedestal, and if there were no one to bow, there would be no image on the pedestal.

You put it there, but again you would ask, "How could it be so that what puts the authority up there is just poor little me, who is neurotic, or sinful, and doesn't really even understand what's going on?" But fundamentally the you that does this is the greater you, which is not just the activity of consciousness but the whole activity that expresses itself as you sit here and read this page. And what is it that expresses itself as you read? And what am I that is called Alan Watts and is offering these ideas?

I stated in the beginning that I am doing all this for entertainment, and I meant it. But who is it that is doing this for entertainment? If I say, "Alan Watts is a big act," who is it that puts on this act?

To try to trace the answer down, we might go to an astrologer and ask, "Who puts on the act?" "Well," he would say, "Where were you born, and at what time?" And he would go and look up the positions of the stars and the planets, and then he would draw a picture of my character, which just happens to be a very crude picture of the universe.

"There you are," he would say. "But I see you've drawn a picture of the universe," I would reply. That may be a surprise to him, because he probably thinks of the influences of the stars and of the planets as something that affects me, and that implies a certain separation between the bodies that cast the influences and the puppet that is influenced. But does the root of a flower influence the flower as something fundamentally different from it? No, surely the root and the flower are one process, and like your head and your feet it all goes together. In that sense then, the universe, and what you or I do, all goes together, and so that picture of the universe is really a picture of you.

We may not recognize ourselves because we think of ourselves as a chopped-off piece surrounded by our skin, and therefore we see ourselves in a rather impoverished way. And this form of perception is almost automatic. We think of ourselves as separate beings who stand alone and move through all sorts of different places but are cut off from the environment.

As a result we have an underlying feeling of alienation, of not really belonging in this universe, and we feel that we are being confronted by something that does not give a damn about us. It was here long before us, and will be here long after we are gone. We come into this world for a brief span as a little flash of consciousness between two eternal darknesses. Of course during our lives all sorts of other things go on, but nevertheless the feeling that haunts almost everybody is that this "I" is an orphan, here on a visit, and we don't feel that we really belong here.

In the same way, what do you feel when you look out at those galaxies? If you go out into a desert or up in the mountains where the sky is clear, you see this colossal affair that you are involved in. It makes a lot of people feel very small, but it shouldn't. It should make you feel as big as it is, because it is all inseparably connected with what you call you.

This tremendous whirling of energy is exactly one and the same energy that is looking out of your eyes, that is running along inside your brain, that is breathing, and that makes noises when you talk. The whole energy of the universe is coming at you and through you, and you are that energy.

The Nature of Energy

"Well," we say, "but surely we die, and we disappear, we turn into dust, and this will go on long after I am gone." The whole nature of energy, however, is that it is a vibration, and a vibration is a wave, and a wave has a crest and a trough. It is like a pulse, it goes on and it goes off, and everything goes on and off.

Things like light go on and off so quickly that you can't see the off, because by definition on is always a little bit more noticeable than off. It is positive, whereas off is negative.

The outside of things is vibration, but because it goes very fast we don't quite sense it, and therefore it seems constant or solid, like the blades of an electric fan. This is true of light and also true of sound, but when you hear a very deep sound it vibrates noticeably. You can hear the texture in it; you can hear the vibrations going on and off. When you hear a great pipe organ, the whole building shudders with these vibrations. We barely notice most of the pulses, however, including the slower pulses created by the turning of the earth, the cycles of the tides, or the coming and going of the equinoxes. These are very slow vibrations, but they always go on, and then off.

We are aware of these changes only because of the contrast within them. Of course you would not know something was on if it did not occasionally go off, and you would not know it was off if it did not sometimes go on. So I have often asked the question "How would you know you are alive unless you had once been dead?"

Where Would You Be Without Nothing?

Where were you before you were born?

Where will you be when you die?

We may think we will become nothing, but what we don't realize is that nothing, in its own way, is as important as something. Where would you be without nothing? What is the background to being if it is not nonbeing?

You have to have nothing to have something. It is so simple, but nobody sees it because it is fundamental to Western philosophy that out of nothing comes nothing. But how can that be? According to our logic, in order for something, or someone, to come out of nothing, there must be some kind of hidden structure inside nothing. It must contain some sort of inner workings out of which something comes. But this is not the case at all. The whole point is that there is no concealed structure, and it is just because it is honest-to-goodness plain nothing that something comes out of it. That is elementary logic, but no one sees it because everybody is afraid of nothing.

People think, "Well, if it's nothing, it will never be something again, because that's going to be the end." The theologians get this mixed up too, and even someone like Saint Thomas Aquinas believed that out of nothing comes nothing, and then he said, "God created the world out of nothing." He made a mistake because he tried to identify God exclusively with being — and of course you cannot have being without nonbeing.

The Hindus understand this, as well as the Buddhists, who inherited their philosophy and mythology. They say God is neither being nor nonbeing; it is what they have in common. Yet nobody can say what that is, and still you know perfectly well that being and nonbeing go together, like an inside and an outside, a front and a back, a top and a bottom. Being and nonbeing are polarities, like the North and South Poles. What is in between?

Nobody really knows, because you can only know what you can compare with something else. You can know something only because you can compare it with nothing, and vice versa, but nobody knows what to compare with that which is common to both something and nothing.

It is for that same sort of reason that you cannot see for yourself the color of consciousness. What's the color of eyesight? We know all of the colors because they are different from each other. We see different colors in a mirror, but what is the color of the mirror?


Excerpted from Still the Mind by Alan Watts, Mark Watts, Marc Allen. Copyright © 2000 Mark Watts. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan Watts was one of the most famous and insightful writers and speakers of the twentieth century on the subjects of Eastern thought and meditation. He was born in England in 1915 and lived in the United States, where he was an Episcopalian priest at Northwestern University until 1950. Soon after, he devoted himself to the study of Eastern philosophy and meditation at the Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, and became one of the most famous and enduring writers on Asian philosophy. He died in his home in northern California in 1973. His books include The Way of Zen, Psychotherapy East and West, The Joyous Cosmology, and The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

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