Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nature, Man and Woman

We know that the peaceful rationality, the relaxed culture, and the easy normality of civilized human life are a crust of habit repressing emotions too violent or poignant for most of us to stand - the first resting place which life has found in its arduous climb from the primordial, natural world of relentless struggle and terror.

The harsh divisions of spirit and nature, mind and body, subject and object, controller and controlled are seen more and more to be awkward conventions of language. These are misleading and clumsy terms for describing a world in which all events seem to be mutually interdependent - an immense complexity of subtly balanced relationships which, like an endless knot, has no loose end from which it can be untangled and put in supposed order.

We need hardly wonder, then, that cultures in which the individual feels isolated from nature are also cultures wherein men feel squeamish about the sexual relationship, often regarding it as degrading and evil - especially for those dedicated to the life of the spirit.

For the point is not, in our accustomed egocentric mode of thinking, that it would be good to return to our original integrity with nature. The point is that it is simply impossible to get away from it, however vividly we may imagine that we have done so.

For as long as I can remember, I have been puzzled by the fact that I can feel like a Christian only when I am indoors. As soon as I get into the open air, I feel entirely out of relations with everything that goes on in a church - including both the worship and the ideology.

The more a person knows of himself, the more he will hesitate to define his nature and to assert what he must necessarily feel, and the more he will be astounded at his capacity to feel in unsuspected and unpredictable ways. Still more will this be so if he learns to explore, or feel deeply into, his negative states of feeling - his loneliness, sorrow, grief, depression, or fear - without trying to escape from them.

In Christianity, however, the stress is upon belief rather than experience, and immense importance has always been attached to an acceptance of the correct formulation of a dogma, doctrine, or rite. Early in its history, Christianity rejected gnosis, or direct experience of God, in favor of pistis, or the trust of the will in certain revealed propositions about God.

Now it should be obvious that classification is, again, a human invention, and that the natural world is not given to us in a classified form, in cans with labels. When we ask what anything is in its natural state, the only answer can be to point to it directly, suggesting that the questioner observe it with a silent mind. Silent observation of this kind is exactly what is meant here by feeling (as distinct from particular feelings), the attitude and approach whereby nature must be explored if we are to recover our original sense of integrity with the natural world.

From the standpoint of Taoist philosophy natural forms are not made but grown, and there is a radical difference between the organic and the mechanical.

The form of Christianity differs from the form of nature because in the Church and in its spiritual atmosphere we are in a universe that has been made. Outside the Church we are in a universe that has grown.

... a political universe is one in which separate things, facts, and events are governed by the force of law. However much ideas of the laws of nature may have changed, there is no doubt that the idea of natural law first arose from the supposition that the world obeyed the commandments of a ruler conceived in the image of an earthly king.

The growth of bureaucracy and totalitarianism has, then, far less to do with sinister influences than with the mere mechanics of control in an impossibly complex system of interrelations.

Narrowed, serial consciousness, the memory-stored stream of impressions, is the means by which we have the sense of ego. It enables us to feel that behind thought there is a thinker and behind knowledge a knower - an individual who stands aside from the changing panorama of experience to order and control it as best he may. If the ego were to disappear, or rather to be seen as a useful fiction, there would no longer be the duality of subject and object, experiencer and experience. There would simply be a continuous, self-moving stream of experiencing, without the sense either of an active subject who controls it or of a passive subject who suffers it. The thinker would be seen to be no more than the series of thoughts, and the feeler no more than the feelings.

In theological circles "pantheism" has long been a definitively damning label, and those who like their religious and philosophical opinions to be robust and definite are also inclined to use the word "mysticism" with the same kind of opprobrium. They associate it with "mist", with vagueness, with clouding of issues and blurring of distinctions.

By grounding the rules of action in God, the West has not succeeded in fostering any unusual degree of morality. On the contrary, it has invited just those violent ideological revolutions against intolerable authority which are so characteristic of its history. The same would apply to a rigid scientific dogma as to what is natural and what is not. It is little wonder, then, that we seek detachment from the body, wanting to convince ourselves that the real "I" is not this quaking mass of tissue with all its repulsive possibilities for pain and corruption.

It is little wonder that we expect religions, philosophies, and other forms of wisdom to show us above all else a way of deliverance from suffering, from the plight of being a soft body in a world of hard reality. Sometimes therefore it seems that the answer is to match hardness with hardness, to identify ourselves with a spirit which has principles but no feelings, to despise and mortify the body, and to withdraw into the comfortably fleshless world of abstract thought or psychic fantasy. To match the hardness of facts we then identify our minds with such symbols of fixity, entity, and power as the ego, the will, and the immortal soul, believing ourselves to belong in our inmost being to a realm of spirit beyond both the hardness of fact and the weakness of flesh. This is, as it were, a shrinking of consciousness from its environment of pain, gathering itself back and back into a knot around its own center.

In a culture where sex is calculated, religion decorous, dancing polite, music refined or sentimental, and yielding to pain shameful, many people have never experienced full spontaneity. Little or nothing is known of its integrating, cathartic, and purifying consequences, let alone of the fact that it may not only be creatively controlled, but also become a constant way of life.

Spontaneity is, after all, total sincerity - the whole being involved in the act without the slightest reservation - and as a rule the civilized adult is goaded into it only by abject despair, intolerable suffering, or imminent death.

Belief in an unchanging God, an immortal soul, or even in a deathless nirvana as something to be gained is all part of this artfulness, as is equally the sterile certainty and aggressive cocksureness of atheism and scientific materialism. There is no way to where we are, and whoever seeks one finds only a slick wall of granite without passage or foothold. Yogas, prayers, therapies, and spiritual exercises are at root only elaborate postponements of the recognition that there is nothing to be grasped and no way to grasp it.

Sanctity or sagehood as an exclusive vocation is, once again, symptomatic of an exclusive mode of consciousness in general and of the spiritual consciousness in particular. Its basic assumption is that God and nature are in competition and that man must choose between them.

Confucius felt that in the long run human passions and feelings were more trustworthy than human principles of right and wrong, that the natural man was more of a man than the conceptual man, the constructed person. Principles were excellent, and indeed necessary, so long as they were tempered with human-heartedness and the sense of proportion or humor that goes with it.


The superior man goes through life without any one preconceived course of action or any taboo. He merely decides for the moment what is the right thing to do.

A. Waley
[yugen] To watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest with no thought of return, to stand on the shore and gaze after a boat that goes hid by far-off islands, to ponder on the journey of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.

Nature, Man and Woman.
Alan W. Watts
1958. Vintage, New York. ISBN 0-679-73233-0

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