Still the Mind

by Alan Watts

Still-the-Mind-ImageMeditation Happens
What I am really saying is that you
don’t need to do anything,
because if you see yourself in the correct way,
you are all as much extraordinary phenomenon
of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns
in running water, the flickering of fire,
the arrangement of the stars,
and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that,
and there is nothing wrong with you at all.
Alan Watts

FOR A LONG TIME, the kind of religious celebrations that we have conducted in the West have been filled with the spoken word and impossibly didactic. Almost all our religious observances are nothing but talk and consist of telling God what to do, as if He or She did not already know, and telling the people what to do, as if they were able or even willing to change. All of this is throwing the book at people, and telling them the Word, and I think we have had enough of it.

The history of religion in the West is nearly equiv­alent to the history of the failure of preaching. By and large, preaching is a kind of moral violence that excites people’s sense of guilt, and there is no less creative sense than that. You cannot love and feel guilty at the same time, any more than you can be afraid and angry at the same time.

A Spiritual Experience
What seems to me to be lacking in our Western reli­gious observances is some sort of ritual that gives us an opportunity for spiritual experience. By a spiritual expe­rience I am referring to a transformation of the individ­ual consciousness so that, in one way or another, the individual is able to realize his oneness with the eternal energy behind this universe, which some people call God and others prefer not to name or to conceive.

When Western people hear that an Asian practices meditation, they ask, “What do you meditate on?” But that question puzzles a Buddhist or a Hindu, because you do not meditate on anything, any more than you breathe on anything. You breathe, and in the same way, you meditate. The verb is in a way intransitive. Meditation is the act of allowing one’s thoughts to cease.

Coming Into Touch With Reality
In the beginning of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali described yoga—which means union—as sponta­neously stopping the agitation of thinking. Thinking is talking to yourself, or figuring to yourself, and it is habit­ual for most of us. If I talk all the time, however, I do not hear what anyone else has to say. Equally, if I talk to myself all the time, I will not have anything to think about except thoughts.

There is no interval between thoughts during which I can come into touch with reality—that is to say, the world my thoughts represent, in the way words repre­sent events, or money represents wealth. If I am never silent in my head, I will find myself living in a world of total abstraction divorced from reality altogether.

You may ask, “What is reality?” People have various theories about what it is, but it is important to remem­ber that they are all theories. Those who believe that reality is material are projecting upon the world a cer­tain philosophical theory about it, and those who say that it is mental, or spiritual, are doing likewise.

Reality itself is neither mental nor spiritual, nor any other concept that we can have of it; reality is simply the present moment.

You Cannot Meditate
Words are reality insofar as they are noises, but even that is saying too much. To meditate, you might think that you should attempt to suppress thought, but you don’t do that because you cannot meditate. Let me repeat that emphatically: you cannot meditate. You, your ego image, can only chatter, because when it stops, it isn’t there.

When you are not thinking, you have no ego, because your ego is nothing more than a habitual con­cept. The thinker behind the thoughts and the feeler behind the feelings are only thoughts; each of these is an idea of some reference point to which all our expe­riences happen. That thought, however, cuts us off from what we experience and creates the illusion of a gap or gulf between the knower and the known.

This in turn is responsible for the feeling of alien­ation we have from the world, and as a result we suffer from conflict and hatred. The spirit of domination arises from that basic division that has been constructed in thought, and modern societies are typically obsessed with this highly destructive illusion.

When you come to an end of thought, you don’t know how to meditate, and you don’t know what to do with your mind, and nobody can tell you. But still, thinking comes to an end naturally, and you just watch.

You don’t have to ask who watches because that question merely arises from the fact that in grammar every verb has to have a subject by rule—but that is not a rule of nature, it is a rule of grammar. In nature there can be watching without a separate watcher.

And So You Begin To Meditate
When you realize that you have come to your wit’s end, you can begin meditation. Or meditation happens, and that happening is simply the watching of what is, of all the information conveyed to you by your exterior and interior senses, and even the thoughts that keep chattering on about it all.

You don’t try to stop those thoughts, you just let them run as if they were birds twittering outside, and they will eventually become tired and stop.

But don’t worry about whether they do or don’t. Just simply watch whatever it is that you are feeling, think­ing, or experiencing—that’s it. Just watch it, and don’t go out of your way to put any names on it. This is really what meditation is.

You are in meditation in an eternal present, and you are not expecting any result. You are not doing it to improve yourself, because you found that you can’t. Your ego can’t possibly improve you because it is what’s in need of improvement, and your ego can’t let go of itself because it is a complex of thoughts called “cling­ing to one’s self.” When it is finally understood that it is unable to achieve a transformation of consciousness, or the vivid sense of union of individual and cosmos, it just evaporates.

One Of The Easiest Ways To Enter In
One of the easiest ways to enter into the state of meditation, therefore, is listening to what is, and experi­encing the qualities of sound.

Curiously enough, sound is a sense that bores us less easily than sight. When you hear it, just listen to the ran­dom sounds that you know are going on in the room, or in the street. Listen as if you were listening to music, without trying to identify its source, to name it, or to put any label on it at all. Just enjoy whatever sound may be going on, whether it is outside or in the area where you are sitting. That is part of the ritual: just listen.

Alan Watts was profoundly influenced by the East Indian philosophies of Vedanta, Buddhism, and Taoism, which was reflected in his Zen poetry. After teaching at the Academy of Asian Studies, in San Francisco, he became Dean of the organization, and began giving regular radio talks on KPFA—the Berkeley free radio station.

By the early seventies, Alan Watts had become a foremost interpreter of Eastern thought for the West, and was widely published in mainstream periodicals. He was also featured on various TV shows. Alan Watts developed an extensive audio library that comprises nearly 400 talks. He also wrote more than 25 books during his lifetime, including his final volume, Tao; the Watercourse Way.

From Still the Mind, by Alan Watts. Copyright © 2000 by Mark Watts. Published by New World Library, Novato, California.