If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy. . . .
The main resemblance between these Eastern ways of life and Western psychotherapy is in the concern of both with bringing about changes of consciousness, changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation to human society and the natural world. The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people. But it is increasingly apparent to psychotherapists that the normal state of consciousness in our culture is both the context and the breeding ground of mental disease. A complex of societies of vast material wealth bent on mutual destruction is anything but a condition of social health. . . .
Alan W. Watts
Seeing this, the psychotherapist must realize that his science, or art, is misnamed, for he is dealing with something far more extensive than a psyche and its private troubles.
This is just what so many psychotherapists are recognizing and what, at the same time, makes the Eastern ways of liberation so pertinent to their work. For they are dealing with people whose distress arises from what may be termed maya, to use the Hindu-Buddhist word whose exact meaning is not merely “illusion” but the entire world-conception of a culture, considered as illusion in the strict etymological sense of a play (Latin, ludere). The aim of a way of liberation is not the destruction of maya but seeing it for what it is, or seeing through it. Play is not to be taken seriously, or, in other words, ideas of the world and of oneself which are social conventions and institutions are not to be confused with reality. The rules of communication are not necessarily the rules of the universe, and man is not the role or identity which society thrusts upon him. For when a man no longer confuses himself with the definition of himself that others have given him, he is at once universal and unique. He is universal by virtue of the inseparability of his organism from the cosmos. He is unique in that he is just this organism and not any stereotype of role, class, or identity assumed for the convenience of social communication. . . .
It is of course a common misapprehension that the change of personal consciousness effected in the Eastern ways of liberation is “depersonalization” in the sense of regression to a primitive or infantile type of awareness. Indeed, Freud designated the longing for return to the oceanic consciousness of the womb as the nirvana-principle, and his followers have persistently confused all ideas of transcending the ego with mere loss of “ego strength.” This attitude flows, perhaps, from the imperialism of Western Europe in the nineteenth century, when it became convenient to regard Indians and Chinese as backward and benighted heathens desperately in need of improvement by colonization.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that liberation does not involve the loss or destruction of such conventional concepts as the ego; it means seeing through them—in the same way that we can use the idea of the equator without confusing it with a physical mark upon the surface of the earth. Instead of falling below the ego, liberation surpasses it. . . .
However various [the] doctrines [of the ways of liberation] and however different their formal techniques, all seem to culminate in the same state or mode of consciousness in which the duality of the ego and the world is overcome. Call it “cosmic consciousness” or “mystical experience,” or what you will, it seems to me to be the felt realization of the physical world as a field. But because language is divisive rather than relational, not only is the feeling hard to describe but our attempted descriptions may also seem to be opposed.
Buddhism emphasizes the unreality of the ego, whereas Vedanta emphasizes the unity of the field. Thus in describing liberation the former seems to be saying simply that the egocentric viewpoint evaporates, and the latter that we discover our true self to be the Self of the universe. However pundits may argue the fine points, it comes to the same thing in practical experience.
There is, then, nothing occult or supernatural in this state of consciousness, and yet the traditional methods for attaining it are complex, divergent, obscure, and, for the most part, extremely arduous. Confronted with such a tangle, one asks what is common to these methods, what is their essential ingredient, and if this can be found the result will be a practical and theoretical simplification of the whole problem. . . .
We must start from the well-recognized fact that all the ways of liberation, Buddhism, Vedanta, Yoga, and Taoism,1 assert that our ordinary egocentric consciousness is a limited and impoverished consciousness without foundation in “reality.”
Whether its basis is physical or social, biological or cultural, remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that release from this particular limitation is the aim of all four ways. In every case the method involves some form of meditation which may take the form of concentrated attention upon some particular object, problem, or aspect of consciousness, or simply of the relaxed and detached observation of whatever comes into mind. It may take the form of trying to suppress all verbal thinking, or the form of a dialectic in which the most rigorous thinking is carried to its full conclusions. It may be an attempt to be directly aware of the perceiving self, or it may follow out the idea that the self is not anything that can be known, not the body, not the sensations, not the thoughts, not even consciousness. In some instances the student is simply asked to find out, exhaustively and relentlessly, why he wants liberation, or who it is that wants to be liberated. Methods vary not only among the differing schools and teachers, but also in accordance with the needs and temperaments of their disciples. . . .
With their differing methods, Vedanta, Buddhism, and Taoism all involve the realization that life ceases to seem problematic when it is understood that the ego is a social fiction.
Sickness and death may be painful, indeed, but what makes them problematic is that they are shameful to the ego. This is the same shame that we feel when caught out of role, as when a bishop is discovered picking his nose or a policeman weeping.
For the ego is the role, the “act,” that one’s inmost self is permanent, that it is in control of the organism, and that while it “has” experiences it is not involved in them. Pain and death expose this pretense, and this is why suffering is almost always attended by a feeling of guilt, a feeling that is all the more difficult to explain when the pretense is unconscious.
Hence the obscure but powerful feeling that one ought not to suffer or die. . . .
The state of consciousness which follows upon liberation from the ego fiction is quite easily intelligible in neuropsychiatric terms. One of the important physical facts that socialization represses is that all our sensory experiences are states of the nervous system. The field of vision, which we take to be outside the organism, is in fact inside it because it is a translation of the external world into the form of the eye and the optical nerves.
What we see is therefore a state of the organism, a state of ourselves. Yet to say even this is to say too much. There is not the external world, and then the state of the nervous system, and then something which sees that state. The seeing is precisely that particular state of the nervous system, a state which for that moment is an integral part of the organism. Similarly, one does not hear a sound. The sound is the hearing, apart from which it is simply a vibration in the air. The states of the nervous system need not, as we suppose, be watched by something else, by a little man inside the head who registers them all. Wouldn’t he have to have another nervous system, and another little man inside his head, and so ad infinitum? When we get an infinite regression of this kind we should always suspect that we have made an unnecessary step in our reasoning. It is the same kind of oscillation that happens when the earpiece of a telephone is placed against the mouthpiece. It “howls.”
So, too, when we posit what is in effect a second nervous system watching the first, we are turning the nervous system back upon itself, and thereupon our thoughts oscillate. We become an infinite series of echoes, of selves behind selves behind selves. Now indeed there is a sense in which the cortex is a second nervous system over and above the primary system of the thalamus. Oversimplifying things considerably, we could say that the cortex works as an elaborate feedback system for the thalamus by means of which the organism can to some extent be aware of itself. Because of the cortex, the nervous system can know that it knows; it can record and recognize its own states.
But this is just one “echo,” not an infinite series. Furthermore, the cortex is just another neural pattern, and its states are neural patterns; it is not something other than neural pattern as the ego agent is supposed to be, in the organism but not of it.
How can the cortex observe and control the cortex? Perhaps there will come a day when the human brain will fold back on itself again and develop a higher cortex, but until then the only feedback which the cortex has about its own states comes through other people.
“Psychotherapy and Liberation” by Alan W. Watts is an extract from The Highest State of Consciousness edited by John W. White, published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.
www.whitecrowbooks.com/the highest state of consciousness