‘Kindly let me help you or you will drown’, said the monkey, putting the fish up a tree
Here’s my transcript of philosopher Alan Watts‘ (1915-1973) talk on how to improve yourself:
“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 no more than a vicious circle?
I could ask what have you come for 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 apalling 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 hey 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 will 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 that or at least it is 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.
All right, you want grace, well, ask God maybe he will give it to you, and the theologian will say ‘Yes, God goves his grace freely, 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 , Catholic Christian would say: ‘All you have to do is to be baptised, to take the holy sacrament of the altar, the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ and there is the grace, right there, and it’s given by this simple, physical means so 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? You 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 are both the same problem, because you 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 a God, who is your inner self. You see, you’ve got a lower self which you can call yor ego, thats that little scoundrelous fellow, who is 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. Now, 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 judgement 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?’ 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 there are thieves, the thieves go up from the ground floor to the first floor, then the police arrive on the first floor and the thieves have gone up to the second. And so to the third, and finally out to the roof. And so, when the ego is about to be unmasked, it immediately identifies with the higher self: it goes up a level. Because the religious game is simply a refined and high-brow 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 find out that’s not the answer. I go to religion. But I am still seeking what I was seeking when I wanted candy bars. ‘I wanna get that goodie!’ Only I see now that of course it’s not gonna be a material goodie – all material goodies fall apart, maybe there’s a spiritual goodie that’s not gonna fall apart. But in that quest, the quest is not different from the quest for the candy bar: same old story, only you’ve refined the candy bar and 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 intensions. Because all the do-gooders in the world, whether they’re doing good for others or doing it for themselves are troublemakers, on the basis of ‘kindly let me help you or you will 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’s full of conceit. How do you know what’s good for others people? How do you know what’s good for you?
If you say you wanna improve, then you ought to know what is 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. They’re just eyes, you don’t account it to 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: a strength, as when we talk about the healing virtue of a plant. That’s real virtue. So in a way, the moral, or immoral, of these considerations is that if you are really aware of your own inner workings, you will realise 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 any revolution that ever set anything 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. Let’s suppose that we can’t do anything to change ourselves. Suppose that 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: 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 that we can do to improve ourselves or to improve the world, if we realise that that is so, it gives us a breather. In the course in which we may simply watch what is going on. Watch what happens. Nobody ever does this, you know. Therefore, it sounds terribly simple. It sounds so simple that it’s almost – looksas if it isn’t worth doing. But if you ever just watch, watch 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 (…?) is the material world. Well, that is 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 – [clap] – 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, ’cause 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.”
Youtube.com. ‘Alan Watts on How to make Yourself a Better Person‘ Available from URL: https://youtu.be/yj4Yfdg4Nfw. [Accessed 2016-05-02].