Alan Watts on the ego

As a young adult, I loved the writing of Alan Watts. I felt he opened up new dimensions in my understanding of myself and my relationship to the universe. Reading him now as an adult simply reinforces the feeling of wonder at his insight and skill with words.

The root of the matter is the way in which we feel and conceive ourselves as human
beings, our sensation of being alive, of individual existence and identity. We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body—a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole
realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.



You were there then, you are there now, and you are there at all times. The three states (sleep, waking and dream) come and go, but you are always there. It is like a cinema. The screen is always there but several types of pictures appear on the screen and then disappear. Nothing sticks to the screen, it remains a screen. Similarly, you remain your own Self in all the three states. If you know that, the three states will not trouble you, just as the pictures which appear on the screen do not stick to it.

On the screen, you sometimes see a huge ocean with endless waves; that disappears. Another time, you see fire spreading all around; that too disappears. The screen is there on both occasions. Did the screen get wet with the water or did it get burned by the fire? Nothing affected the screen. In the same way, the things that happen during the wakeful, dream and sleep states do not affect you at all; you remain your own Self. Ramana Maharshi

The notion that what we conceive of as reality is actually constructed upon a foundation of pure being is so fascinating, so powerful, that it has the capacity to draw the mind beyond its own frontiers.

The play of the self, the ego must subside for us to understand this foundational reality.

Pure, detached watchfulness in daily life.



When I wake up in the morning, I am immediately conscious of being myself, quite unique and distinct from everything else.

I am obviously separate from the bed I sleep on. I feel very separate from the birdcall outside my window and the sounds of traffic on the distant highway.

Extending further, I feel separate from my friends, my partner, my parents. In theory, I could feel separate from people outside “my” culture, “my” nationality, “my” religion. I can, in effect, feel divided from the rest of the world.

What emotions does the feeling of separation engender? I want to control everything in the world, and I am upset and angry if the rest of creation does not follow my wishes. As control is seldom possible, I seem to be setting myself up for frustration.

When I feel separate, I also look to “others” to fulfil me and give me happiness and pleasure. I depend on the other to complete me, having divided myself in the first place. This dependence keeps me on edge, keeps me hunting for what is in effect a fleeting sense of happiness and peace.

In all this complex chaos, it is important for us humans to explore the sense of being separate in the first place. The premise of meditation is that the sense of being a distinct individual is itself imaginary, a construct.

Watching the sense of the separate “me” closely, unswervingly, during the day, giving all our energy to observing its activities, might be the key to deconstructing the self.







Thought (contd)

I would like to explore, again, why I feel that the quote with which I began my earlier post is intimately connected to meditation.

Here is the quote, a sentence by David Bohm from his book Thought as a System:

Thought is always doing a great deal, but it tends to say that it hasn’t done anything, that it is just telling you the way things are.

For me, meditation is not about controlling thoughts, or about chanting a mantra or controlling breath. It is about a subtle awareness of how thought and emotion paint a picture of a world “out there,” and also simultaneously paint a picture of an individual ego “in here” observing that world.

The deep awareness of this painting of our worlds is in my view absolutely essential as a “way” of being free of our psychological worlds. Otherwise we simply repeat the emotion patterns of our egos, whether they are patterns of fear or pleasure or jealousy or anything else.

Freedom may lie in deep awareness, nourished moment to moment in the present.



Death contd

I have somehow always been conscious of death, the temporariness of things. This awareness goes back as far as I can recall. I remember pulling out a small red copy of the New Testament from my father’s book case (I must have been around seven at the time) and checking the contents and index for the word death. I don’t remember what that particular search revealed!

And yet this awareness or consciousness has  never been a morbid one. There was fear, certainly, around the question, but gradually that fear became focussed as a kind of curiosity, a determination to “understand” the process of death, to try to be fully present when it happened, to figure out what exactly dying while living might mean, an idea many mystics have explored.

Ramana’s description conveys a kind of focussed purity, a consequence of staying with the idea of the dissolution of mind and body without any compromise. I think most of us compromise when it comes to meditating on death; the excuses, the shying away come very naturally. Ramana’s experience reveals, by contrast, a fantastic level of clarity and insight.


I find this account of Ramana’s self-realisation tremendously moving and urgent. 


It was in 1896, about 6 weeks before I left Madurai for good that this
great change in my life took place. I was sitting alone in a room on
the first floor of my uncle’s house. I seldom had any sickness and on
that day there was nothing wrong with my health, but a sudden violent
fear of death overtook me. There was nothing in my state of health to
account for it nor was there any urge in me to find out whether there
was any account for the fear. I just felt I was going to die and began
thinking what to do about it. It did not occur to me to consult a
doctor or any elders or friends. I felt I had to solve the problem
myself then and there. The shock of the fear of death drove my mind
inwards and I said to myself mentally, without actually framing the
words: ‘Now death has come; what does it mean? What is it that is
dying? This body dies.’ And at once I dramatized the occurrence of
death. I lay with my limbs stretched out still as though rigor mortis
has set in, and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the
enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no
sound could escape, and that neither the word ‘I’ nor any word could
be uttered. ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘this body is dead. It will
be carried stiff to the burning ground and there burn and reduced to
ashes. But with the death of the body, am I dead? Is the body I? It is
silent and inert, but I feel the full force of my personality and even
the voice of ‘I’ within me, apart from it. So I am the Spirit
transcending the body. The body dies but the spirit transcending it
cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless Spirit.’ All
this was not dull thought; it flashed through me vividly as living
truths which I perceived directly almost without thought process. ‘I’
was something real, the only real thing about my present state, and
all the conscious activity connected with the body was centered on
that ‘I’. From that moment onwards, the I or Self focused attention on
itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death vanished once and for
all. The ego was lost in the flood of Self-awareness. Absorption in
the Self continued unbroken from that time. Other thoughts might come
and go like the various notes of music, but the ‘I’ continued like the
fundamental sruti note which underlies and blends with all other

(In Indian classical music, “sruti” refers to a musical note, as Ramana explains).

The Basics: Nisargadatta (contd)

“You give no attention to your self. Your mind is all with things, people and ideas, never with your self. Bring your self into focus, become aware of your own existence. See how you function, watch the motives and results of your actions. Study the prison you have built around yourself, by inadvertence. By knowing what you are not, you come to know yourself.”  I Am That, p4, Ch2

I return often to the quote above, even though I am very familiar with it. It structures so much of what I define as “meditation,” or awareness of inner and outer worlds.

Your mind is all with things, people and ideas. I am humbled by the day by day, hour by hour, indeed minute to minute processes of identification that take place in our minds and bodies.  Our consciousness seems to be spread out, like a drop of water on fine paper, over vastness in space and time. I can identify with my coffee cup, and insist that I drink only from that favourite cup because it gives me some intangible, fleeting comfort. I can pass by a landscape, a road, a house, and find my consciousness imprinted upon it because this particular spot arouses such a wealth of complex feelings in my mind and body: peace, desire, regret, shame. I can look at the moon, 360,000 kilometers away, and feel attached to its beauty and the memories it arouses. And so on all the way, I presume, to the edge of the known universe! Creation seems soaked with my identity; both penetrate and mingle with each other.

And it is this exact process of deep deep identification that the mystics are challenging. Focus on the “I” that identifies, they say, rather than the thing that it is identified with. Strip away all identification so that only the “I” remains. And then see what happens. Impossible, we exclaim. And the masters calmly reply: Who is this who proclaims that it is impossible? And the cycle begins again. . .