The Game of Hide and Seek: Our True, Cultural Taboo

–by Alan Watts (May 4, 2012)

Inline image 3What should a young man or woman know in order to be “in the know”? Is there, in other words, some inside information, some special taboo, that most parents and teachers either don’t know or won’t tell?

In Japan it was once customary to give young people about to be married a “pillow book.” This was a small volume of wood-block prints, showing all the details of sexual intercourse. It wasn’t just that, as the Chinese say, “one picture is worth ten thousand words.” It was also that it spared parents the embarrassment of explaining these intimate matters face-to-face. But today in the West you can get such information at any newsstand…

But if sex is no longer the big taboo, what is? For there is always something taboo, something repressed… Taboos lie within taboos, like the skins of an onion. What, then, would be The Book which fathers might slip to their sons and mothers to their daughters without ever admitting it openly?

…The world is in an extremely dangerous situation, and serious diseases often require the risk of a dangerous cure… We may simply blow up the Planet with nuclear bombs, strangle ourselves with overpopulation, destroy our natural resources through poor conservation, or ruin the soil and its products with improperly understood chemicals and pesticides…

The root of the matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity…

Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action… Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about all living organisms in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. Those who know [this fact] to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

The first result of this illusion is that our attitude to the world “outside” us is largely hostile. We are forever “conquering” nature, space, mountains, deserts, bacteria, and insects instead of learning to cooperate with them in a harmonious order… The hostile attitude of conquering nature ignores the basic interdependence of all things and events–that the world beyond the skin is actually an extension of our own bodies–and will end in destroying the very environment from which we emerge and upon which our whole life depends.

The second result of [this illusion] is that we have no common sense, no way of making sense of the world upon which we are agreed in common. It’s just my opinion against yours, and therefore the most aggressive and violent propagandist makes the decisions…

It might seem, then, that our need is for some genius to invent a new religion, a philosophy of life and a view of the world… This, as history has shown repeatedly, is not enough. Religions are divisive and quarrelsome… Faith is, above all, open-ness –an act of trust in the unknown.

…The use of words, and thus of a book, is to point beyond themselves to a world of life and experience that is not mere words or even ideas. Just as money is not real, consumable wealth, books are not life. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency.

Therefore The Book that I would like to slip to my children would itself be slippery. It would slip them into a new domain of experience and feeling. It would be a temporary medicine, not a diet; a point of departure, not a perpetual point of reference. They would read it and be done with it…

We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new experience–a new feeling of what it is to be “I.”

…”I” am immeasurably old; my forms are infinite and their comings and goings are simply the pulses or vibrations of a single and eternal flow of energy.

The difficulty in realizing this to be so is that conceptual thinking cannot grasp it… Just as sight is something more than all things seen, the foundation or “ground” of our existence and our awareness cannot be understood in terms of things that are known. We are forced, therefore, to speak of it through myth… At one extreme of its meaning, “myth” is fable, falsehood, or superstition. But at another, “myth” is a useful and fruitful image by which we make sense of life… Thus in using myth one must take care not to confuse image with fact, which would be like climbing up the signpost instead of following the road.

Myth, then, is the form in which I try to answer when children ask me those fundamental metaphysical questions which come so readily to their minds: “Where did the world come from?” “Why did God make the world?” “Where was I before I was born?” “Where do people go when they die?” Again and again I have found that they seem to be satisfied with a simple and very ancient story, which goes something like this:

“There was never a time when the world began, because it goes round and round like a circle… Look at my watch, which tells the time; it goes round, and so the world repeats itself again and again. But just as the hour-hand of the watch goes up to twelve and down to six, so, too, there is day and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying, summer and winter…

“In the same way, there are times when the world is, and times when it isn’t, for if the world went on and on without rest for ever and ever, it would get horribly tired of itself… It’s like your breath: it goes in and out, in and out, and if you try to hold it in all the time you feel terrible. It’s also like the game of hide-and-seek, because it’s always fun to find new ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn’t always hide in the same place.

“God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself… He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.

“Now when God plays hide and pretends that he is you and I, he does it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. But that’s the whole fun of it–just what he wanted to do. He doesn’t want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the game. But when the game has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and remember that we are all one single Self–the God who is all that there is and who lives for ever and ever.

“Of course, you must remember that God isn’t shaped like a person. People have skins and there is always something outside our skins. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t know the difference between what is inside and outside our bodies… The inside and the outside of God are the same. God isn’t a man or a woman.

“God is the Self of the world, but you can’t see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can’t see your own eyes, and you certainly can’t bite your own teeth or look inside your head. Your self is that cleverly hidden because it is God hiding…

The secret which my story slips over to the child is that the Ultimate Ground of Being is you…that inmost Self which escapes inspection because it’s always the inspector. This, then, is the taboo of taboos you are IT!

– Alan Watts, from The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

About Pancho

To live in radical joyous shared servanthood to unify humanity.
This entry was posted in natural philosophy, WednesdaysOnFridays and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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