Becoming A Better Self | Alan Watts

Becoming A Better Self | Alan Watts

So it all comes down to this basic question, that human beings have for a long long time been concerned about transforming their minds.
Is there any way in which one’s mind can be transformed or is it simply a process which is nothing more than a vicious circle?

I could ask ‘Why have you come here this afternoon, what were you looking for?’
Would it be too presumptuous of me to say that you were looking for help?
That you hoped you would hear somebody who had something to say that would be of help and relevance to you as members of a world which is running into the most intense difficulty.
A world beset by a complex of problems, any one of which would be bad enough, but when you add together all the great political, social, and ecological problems with which we are faced, they are appalling.
And one naturally says ‘The reason why we are in such a mess is not simply that we have wrong systems for doing things whether they be technological, political or religious, but we have the wrong people.’
The systems may be alright, but they are in the wrong hands because we are all in various ways self-seeking, lacking in wisdom, lacking in courage, afraid of death, afraid of pain, unwilling really to cooperate with others, unwilling to be open to others.
And we all think ‘That’s too bad. It’s me that’s wrong, and if only I could be the right person. Is this man going to tell me something that will help me to change myself so that I would be a more creative and cooperative member of the human race? I would like to improve.’

So in so many people’s minds and from so many different angles, there is this urgent feeling that ‘I must improve me’.
And this is critically important because it’s obvious, at least it’s superficially obvious, that the way things are, we are going to hell fast.
Now in this question ‘Can I improve me?’ there is the obvious difficulty, that if I am in need of improvement, the person who’s going to do the improving, is the one who needs to be improved.
And there immediately we have a vicious circle.

Alright, you want grace.
Well ask God, maybe he’ll give it to you.
And the theologian will tell you ‘Yes, God gives his grace free, he gives it to all because he loves all. It’s here like the air, all you have to do is receive it.’
Or a more Orthodox, a Catholic Christian would say, ‘All you have to do is to be baptised. To take the holy sacrament at the altar, the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, and there is the grace, right there!’
And it is given by these simple physical means so that it’s very easily and readily available.
Well a lot of people got baptised, and it doesn’t always take.
People fall from grace. ‘Why do they?’

See, we’re just talking about the same old problem, but we put it a step up.
But it’s the same problem.
‘How can I improve myself?’ was the first problem.
The second problem is ‘How can I accept grace?’
They’re both the same problem, because you’ve got to make a move, which will put yourself out of your own control, into the control of a better.

If you don’t believe in the Christian kind of a God, you can believe in the Hindu kind of God, who is your inner self.
You see, you’ve got a lower self which you can call your ego.
That’s that little scandalous fellow, that’s always out for “me”.
But behind the ego, there is the atman, the inner self, the inward light as Quakers would call it.
The real self, the spirit, which is substantially identical with God.

So you’ve got to meditate in such a way that you identify with your higher self.
‘How do you do that?’
Well, you start by watching all your thoughts, very carefully, watching your feelings, watching your emotions, so that you begin to build up a sense of separation between the watcher and what is watched.
So that you are, as it were, no longer carried away by your own stream of consciousness.
You remain the witness, impassively, impartially, suspending judgment and watching it all go on.

That seems to be something like progress.
At least you’re taking an objective view of what is going on.
You are beginning to be in a position to control it.
But just wait a minute! Who is this self, behind the self, the watching self?
Can you watch that one?
It’s interesting if you do, because you find out, of course, that this is, just as the problem of grace, is nothing more than a transposition of the first problem, ‘How am I to be unselfish by my own power?’, it becomes ‘How am I to get grace by my own power?’
So in the same way, we find that the watching self, or the observing self, behind all our thoughts and feelings, is itself a thought.
That is to say, when the police enter a house in which are thieves, the thieves go up from the ground floor to the first floor.
When the police arrive on the first floor, the thieves have gone up to the second, and so to the third and finally out to the roof.
So when the ego is about to be unmasked, it immediately identifies with a higher self.
It goes up a level.
Because the religious game is simply a refined and highbrow version of the ordinary game ‘How can I outwit me, how can I one-up me?’

So, if I find, for example, that in the quest for pleasure, the ordinary pleasures of the world: food, sex, power, possessions, all this becomes a drag.
And I think ‘No, it isn’t there’.
So I go in for the arts, literature, poetry, music, and I absorb myself in those pleasures, and after a while, ‘They aren’t the answer’.
So I go to psychoanalysis, and then I found out ‘That’s not the answer.’
I go to religion, but I’m still seeking what I was seeking when I wanted candy bars.
I want to get that goody.
Only I see now that it’s not going to be a material goody.
All material goodies fall apart.
And maybe there’s a spiritual goody, that’s not going to fall apart.
But in that quest, the quest is not different from the quest for the candy bar.
Same old story, only you refined the candy bar, made it abstract and holy and blessed and so on.

You see, the reason you want to be better, is the reason why you aren’t. Shall I put it like that?
We aren’t better, because we want to be.
Because the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Because all the do-gooders in the world, whether they are doing good for others or doing it for themselves, are trouble makers, on the basis of ‘Kindly let me help you or you’ll drown’, said the monkey putting the fish safely up a tree.
Because sometimes doing good to others, and even doing good to oneself is amazingly destructive.
Because it is full of conceit.
How do you know what’s good for other people, how do you know what’s good for you?
If you say you want to improve, then you ought to know what’s good for you, but obviously you don’t, because if you did, you would be improved.
So we don’t know.

So you see here again, the problem comes out in genetics.
We do not really know how to interfere with the way the world is.
The way the world actually is, is an enormously complex interrelated organism.
When you come out with beautiful eyes, blue or brown or green, as the case may be, you don’t congratulate yourself for having grown one of the most fabulous jewels on earth.
‘It’s just eyes.’
You don’t count it a virtue to see, to entertain the miracles of colour and form.
But that’s real virtue!
Virtue in the sense, in the old sense of the word.
Strength, as when we talk about the healing virtue of a plant.
That’s real virtue!

So, in a way, the moral, or the immoral, of these considerations, is that if you are really aware of your own inner workings, you will realize that there’s nothing you can do to improve yourself.
And this also goes for society.
We can change society.
We can get enormous enthusiasm going out of the idea that there is a revolution afoot, and that this revolution is going to set everything to right.
Do you know a revolution that ever set everything to right?
Whether the revolution came from the left wing or from the right wing?

So, let’s look at this thing from another point of view, which you will first think highly depressing.
That’s supposing we can’t do anything to change ourselves.
Supposing we are stuck with it.
Now that is the worst thing an American audience can hear ‘There’s no way of improving yourself!’
Because every kind of culture in this country is dedicated to self-improvement.
So here’s the situation.
You see, there is no…
The whole idea of self-improvement is a will-o’-the-wisp and a hoax.
That’s not what it’s about.
Let’s begin where we are.

What happens if you know, if you know beyond any shadow of doubt, that there is nothing you can do to be better?
Well it’s kind of a relief, isn’t it?
Seeing that there isn’t really anything we can do to improve ourselves or to improve the world, if we realize that that is so, it gives us a breather, in the course of which we may simply watch what is going on, watch what happens.
Nobody ever does this you know.
Therefore it sounds terribly simple.
Sounds so simple that it almost looks as if it isn’t worth doing.
But have you ever just watched, watched what’s happening?
And watch what you are doing by way of reaction to it.
Just watch it happen.
And don’t be in a hurry to think you know what it is.
You think this is the material world.
Well that somebody’s philosophical idea.
Or maybe you think it’s spiritual.
That too is somebody’s philosophical idea.
This real world is not spiritual, it is not material, the real world is simply TSH!
So could we look at things in that way? Without as it were, fixing labels and names and gradations and judgements on everything, but watch what happens.
Watch what we do.

Now you see, if you do that, you do at least give yourself a chance.
And it may be that when you are in this way, freed from busy bodiness, and being out to improve everything, that your own nature will begin to take care of itself, because you’re not getting in the way of yourself all the time.

You will begin to find out that the great things that you do are really happening.

 

 

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