Spontaneous Occurrence

by Alan Watts

The biggest ego trip is getting rid of your ego, and of course the joke of it all is that your ego does not exist.

In pursuing spiritual disciplines such as yoga, Zen, and also psychotherapy, there arises a difficulty. This difficulty lies in wanting to find a method whereby I can change my conscious­ness and improve myself. But the self that needs to be improved is the one that is doing the improving, and so I am rather stuck. I find out that the reason I think I believe in God is that I hope that some­how God will rescue me. In other words, I want to hang onto my own existence and feel rather shaky about doing that for myself, so I hope there is a God who will take care of it. Or I may think that if only I could be loving, I would have a better opinion of myself. I could face myself if I were more loving. So by some gimmickry the unloving me has to turn itself into a loving me. This is just like try­ing to lift yourself off the ground with your own bootstraps; it can­not be done. That is why religion, in practice, mainly produces hypocrisy and guilt, due to the constant failure of these enterprises.

People study Zen, and they say that getting rid of your ego is a superhuman task. I assure you it is very, very difficult to get rid of your ego. You have to sit for a long time, and you are going to get the sorest legs. The biggest ego trip is getting rid of your ego, and of course the joke of it all is that your ego does not exist. There is nothing to get rid of. It is an illusion, but still you ask how to stop the illusion. But who is asking? In the ordinary sense in which we use the word “I,” how can I stop iden­tifying myself with the wrong me? The answer is simply that you cannot.

The Christians acknowledge this by saying that mystical expe­rience is a gift of divine grace. Man, as such, cannot achieve this experience; it is a gift of God, and if God does not give it to you there is no way of getting it. That is solidly true, since you cannot do anything about it because you do not exist. You might say that is pretty depressing news, but the whole point is that it is not depress­ing news. It is joyous news. There is a Zen poem that talks about “it,” meaning the mystical experience, satori, the realization that you are, as Jesus was, the eternal energy of the universe. The poem says, “You cannot catch hold of it, nor can you get rid of it. In not being able to get it, you get it. When you speak, it is silent. When you are silent, it speaks.”

This phrase—not being able to get it, you get it—is the feel­ing Krishnamurti tries to convey to people when he says, “Why do you ask for a method? There is no method. All methods are simply gimmicks for strengthening your ego.” How do we not ask for a method? He answers, “In asking that you are still asking for a method.” There is no method. If you really understand what your “I” is, you will see there is no method. We think this is so sad, but it is not. This is the gospel, the good news, because if you cannot achieve it, if you cannot transform yourself, that means that, the main obstacle to mystical vision has collapsed. That obstacle was you. What happens next? By now you are at your wit’s end, but what are you going to do—commit suicide? Suppose you just put that off for a little while, and wait and see what happens. You can­not control your thoughts, and you cannot control your feelings, because there is no controller. You are your thoughts and your feel­ings, and they are running along, running along, running along. Just sit and watch them. There they go. You are still breathing, aren’t you? Still growing your hair; still seeing and hearing. Are you doing that? Is breathing something that you do? Do you see? Do you organize the operations of your eyes, and know exactly how to work those rods and cones in the retina? Do you do that? It happens, and it is a happening. Your breathing is happening. Your thinking is happening. Your feeling is happening. Your hearing, your seeing, the clouds are happening across the sky. The sky is happening blue; the sun is happening shining. There it is: all this happening.

May I introduce you? This is yourself. This is a vision of who you really are, and the way you really function. You function by happening, that is to say, by spontaneous occurrence. This is not a state of affairs that you should realize. I cannot possibly preach about it to you, because the minute you start thinking, “I should understand that,” the stupid notion that “I” should bring it about arises again, when there is no “you” to bring it about. That is why I am not preaching. You can only preach to egos. All I can do is talk about what is. It amuses me to talk about what is because it is wonderful. I love it, and therefore I like to talk about it. If I get paid for it, it is because sensible people get paid for doing what they enjoy doing. My whole approach is not to convert you, not to make you over, not to improve you, but for you to discover that if you really knew the way you were, things would be sane. However, you cannot do that. You cannot make that discovery because you are in your own way so long as you think “I” am “I,” so long as that hallucination blocks it. The hallucination disappears only in the realization of its own futility, when at last you see that you can­not make yourself over.

From Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks 1960-1969, by Alan Watts. Copyright © 1994-2006 by Alan Watts. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with New World Library, Novato, California.