Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Sacred Individual

At one extreme, then, we have the sacred individual—the unique personal ego, separate from both nature and God—defined as such by a society which, almost in the same breath, commands him to be free and commands him to conform. At the other extreme is the coolie, the cog in the industrial-collectivist machine, or the mere "hand" (as the factory worker is often called). If one believes that the personal ego is a natural endowment of all men, as distinct from a social convention, then the lot of the coolie is bleak indeed—for one sees him as a repressed and frustrated person, though his own society may never have defined him as such.

However, there is a third possibility. The individual may be understood neither as an isolated person nor as an expendable, humanoid working-machine. He may be seen, instead, as one particular focal point at which the whole universe expresses itself—as an incarnation of the Self, of the Godhead, or whatever one may choose to call IT. This view retains and, indeed, amplifies our apprehension that the individual is in some way sacred. At the same time it dissolves the paradox of the personal ego, which is to have attained the "precious state" of being a unique person at the price of perpetual anxiety for one's survival. The hallucination of separateness prevents one from seeing that to cherish the ego is to cherish misery. We do not realize that our so-called love and concern for the individual is simply the other face of our own fear of death or rejection. In his exaggerated valuation of
separate identity, the personal ego is sawing off the branch on which he is sitting, and then getting more and more anxious about the coming crash!

Let it be clear, furthermore, that the ego-fiction is in no way essential to the individual, to the total human organism, in fulfilling and expressing his individuality. For every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole, as every branch is a particular outreaching of the tree. To manifest individuality, every branch must have a sensitive connection with the tree, just as our independently moving and differentiated fingers must have a sensitive connection with the whole
body. The point, which can hardly be repeated too often, is that differentiation is not separation. The head and the feet are different, but not separate, and though man is not connected to the universe by exactly the same physical relation as branch to tree or feet to head, he is nonetheless connected—and by physical relations of fascinating complexity. The death of the individual is not disconnection but simply
withdrawal. The corpse is like a footprint or an echo—the dissolving trace of something which the Self has ceased to do.

If, then, the differentiation of individuals is of great value, on the principle that variety is the spice of life, this value is not going to be enhanced by a self-contradictory definition of individuality. Our society—that is, we ourselves, all of us—is defining the individual with a double-bind, commanding him to be free and separate from the world, which he is not, for otherwise the command would not work. Under the circumstances, it works only in the sense of implanting an illusion of separateness, just as the commands of a hypnotist can create illusions. Thus bamboozled, the individual—instead of fulfilling his unique function in the world—is exhausted and frustrated in efforts to accomplish, self-contradictory goals. Because he is now so largely defined as a separate person caught up in a mindless and alien universe, his principal task is to get one-up on the universe and to conquer nature.
This is palpably absurd, and since the task is never achieved, the individual is taught to live and work for some future in which the impossible will at last happen, if not for him, then at least for his children. We are thus breeding a type of human being incapable of living in the present—that is, of really living.

For unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, "Now, I've arrived!" Your entire education has deprived you of this capacity because it was preparing you for the future, instead of showing you how to be alive now. In other words, you have been hypnotized or conditioned by an educational processing-system arranged in grades or steps, supposedly leading to some ultimate Success. First nursery school or kindergarten, then the grades or forms of elementary school, preparing you for the great moment of secondary school! But then more steps, up and up to the coveted goal of the university. Here, if you are clever, you can stay on indefinitely by getting into graduate school and becoming a permanent student. Otherwise, you are headed step by step for the great Outside World of family-raising, business, and profession. Yet graduation day is a very temporary fulfillment, for with your first sales- promotion meeting you are back in the same old system, being urged to make that quota (and if you do, they'll give you a higher quota) and so progress up the ladder to sales manager, vice-president, and, at last,
president of your own show (about forty to forty-five years old). In the meantime, the insurance and investment people have been interesting you in plans for Retirement—that really ultimate goal of being able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of all your labors. But when that day comes, your anxieties and exertions will have left you with a weak heart, false teeth, prostate trouble, sexual impotence, fuzzy eyesight, and a vile digestion.

All this might have been wonderful if, at every stage, you had been able to play it as a game, finding your work as fascinating as poker, chess, or fishing. But for most of us the day is divided into work-time and play-time, the work consisting largely of tasks which others pay us to do because they are abysmally uninteresting. We therefore work, not for the work's sake, but for money—and money is supposed to get us what we really want in our hours of leisure and play. In the United States even poor people have lots of money compared with the wretched and skinny millions of India, Africa, and China, while our middle and upper classes (or should we say "income groups") are as prosperous as princes. Yet, by and large, they have but slight taste for pleasure. Money alone cannot buy pleasure, though it can help. For enjoyment is an art and a skill for which we have little talent or energy.

Alan Watts ~ The Book on the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are (pp.59-62)

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