The Wisdom of Insecurity

Table of Contents


This series of talks is based on The Wisdom of Insecurity:  A Message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan W. Watts (Vintage Books 1951).  Although published over 65 years ago, this classic work still has relevance for us in today.  Watts’s views will be supplemented by my commentary, relevance to the Buddha’s teachings and other references (will be listed at the end).

“Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) was a British philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Born in Chislehurst, England, he moved to the United States in 1938 and began Zen training in New York. Pursuing a career, he attended Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, where he received a master’s degree in theology. Watts became an Episcopal priest in 1945, then left the ministry in 1950 and moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies.

Watts wrote more than 25 books and articles on subjects important to Eastern and Western religion, introducing the then-burgeoning youth culture to The Way of Zen (1957), one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism. In Psychotherapy East and West (1961), Watts proposed that Buddhism could be thought of as a form of psychotherapy and not a religion. He considered Nature, Man and Woman (1958) to be, “from a literary point of view—the best book I have ever written.”[2] He also explored human consciousness, in the essay “The New Alchemy” (1958), and in the book The Joyous Cosmology (1962).”  Adapted from Wikipedia

As Deepak Chopra notes in the Introduction (2011), at the time Watts wrote The Wisdom of Insecurity, he had just lost his vocation as an Episcopal priest and his wife in a divorce.  “He had been following a longtime fascination with Zen Buddhism leading him to spend his seminary years trying to fuse Eastern and Western mysticism.”  (p. 2)

The Problem with Life

January 10, 2018

The Wisdom of Insecurity:  A Message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan W. Watts 

“By all outward appearances our life is a spark of light between one eternal darkness and another. Nor is the interval between these two nights an unclouded day, for the more we are able to feel pleasure, the more we are vulnerable to pain—and, whether in background or foreground, the pain is always with us. We have been accustomed to make this existence worthwhile by the belief that there is more than the outward appearance—that we live for a future beyond this life here. For the outward appearance does not seem to make sense. If living is to end in pain, incompleteness, and nothingness, it seems a cruel and futile experience for beings who are born to reason, hope, create, and love. Man, as a being of sense, wants his life to make sense, and he has found it hard to believe that it does so unless there is more than what he sees—unless there is an eternal order and an eternal life behind the uncertain and momentary experience of life-and-death.”  Watts p. 13 

Whose Insanity?

Do not deem
Wu Hsin to be insane
Simply because you cannot hear
The music he dances to.
Man is the one who is insane:
His solution to his
Need for security is to
Lock himself away in a prison.
What could be more secure than
A prison?
He passes his time
In a solitary cell labeled “me”.
Believing he is now safe and that
No other can harm him,
He has exchanged freedom
For security.
What is outside
The walls of the prison is the unknown,
Possibly not secure,
Not safe,
Alien, at times hostile, and
Not at all predictable.
Yet what sane man would choose
Prison over freedom?
Man is the one who is insane:
He trades the experience of life,
Here and now,
For time and attention spent
On regretting the past,
Wishing for a better past and
Hoping for a brighter future,
For a future that will right
What is now deemed not right.
The fragrance of the apple blossoms,
The laughter of a child,
The blueness of the sky,
All sacrificed on the altar of
Mental preoccupations.
What a waste!
Man is the one who is insane:
Yet, quite normal
Within societal boundaries.
Numerous methods may lead one to
Being more comfortable.
But that is all you get:
One who is more comfortable in their prison,
Not one freed from their prison.
Nothing gets a person out of their prison
Because the person is the prison.

Wu Hsin

The Problem with Life

The problem with life is that we want to be happy, but it seems that we can never achieve it.

There are a number of barriers.  First, in order to be happy, we need to feel secure.  However, we are unsettled because we perceive that nothing ever seems to stay the same.  For example, we can’t count on what we have considered to be long established traditions.  These include:

  • Family and social life
  • Government
  • Economic order
  • Religious beliefs

In the Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius note that over time, our ancestors developed three strategies for security (survival and protection):

  • creating boundaries between themselves and the world,
  • maintaining stability, and
  • approaching opportunities and avoiding threats. (p. 26).

However, as we shall explore later, these strategies are contradictory and do not lead to lasting happiness.

So, Watts notes that our unconscious strategy is to live our lives in anticipation of a bright future of sensual pleasures and “an everlasting life beyond the grave.”  The problem here is that we don’t fully enjoy sensual pleasures because they are transient and we are always looking for more to come.  And because of the decline in religious belief, there seems to be a loss of ultimate hope as well.

Watts notes:  “When belief in the eternal becomes impossible, and there is only the poor substitute of belief in believing, men seek their happiness in the joys of time. However much they may try to bury it in the depths of their minds, they are well aware that these joys are both uncertain and brief. This has two results. On the one hand, there is the anxiety that one may be missing something, so that the mind flits nervously and greedily from one pleasure to another, without finding rest and satisfaction in any. On the other, the frustration of having always to pursue a future good in a tomorrow which never comes, and in a world where everything must disintegrate, gives men an attitude of “What’s the use anyhow?” (p. 21)

Consequently, our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to (what Watts calls) “dope.””

He defines dope as striving for a high standard of living, increasing stimulation of the senses, and craving distraction.  To achieve this, we put up with tedious boring work in order to pay for intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure.

We don’t know what else to do.  We are left with despair, grimly facing that life is a bummer and that we live with it as best we are able.

What if we were to adopt the strategy of taking life as it is and no more?

Watts notes that this is not mystical but just requires a “correction of the mind”  We will be exploring what the “no more” is.  Specifically, this reality (taking life as it is) is hindered rather than helped by belief which we will cover in the next talk.


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  How are you living your life?  What is required to take life as it is and no more?   How does belief hinder this?

Barriers to embracing life as it is and no more

January 31, 2018

Imagine your life as being bound by a circle.  Inside of the circle is our identity in terms of gender, profession, etc.  True freedom is outside of this circle.  We create this circle in order to be secure.  However, there is a price to pay. The problem with life inside the circle is that for all that we work and strive for, we feel the need to keep and protect.  We battle change, time, uncertainty, and death to no avail.  This takes energy and causes dissatisfaction and suffering.  True freedom is outside of this circle.

We will now explore what keeps us from true freedom, embracing life as it is and no more.

These barriers to breaking out of the circle include:

  • Holding on to fixed views (beliefs)
  • Avoiding pain, loss, disgrace, criticism and seeking only pleasure, gain, praise, repute.
  • Living in pleasant memories (past) and expectations (future)
  • Not integrating our mind and body.
  • Mistaking concepts and words for reality.
  • Ignoring the wisdom of the body

Holding on to fixed views (beliefs)

Belief is defined by the Oxford dictionaries as “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.”  We create and/or adopt beliefs in order to feel secure, happy and peaceful.  Belief is defined by Watts as the insistence that truth is what one would wish it to be; that it must be compatible with our preconceived ideas and wishes   Watts characterizes having beliefs as grasping at life rather than just living life.  In other words, we live the belief not life.

We reinforce our beliefs through the behavior of confirmation bias.  “Confirmation bias …is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses… People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs….People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.  (Wikipedia)

In Through a Glass, Darkly:  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Quest to Solve the Greatest Mystery of All, Stefan Bechtel and Laurence Roy Stains explore the spiritualism movement in the 19th and 20th century where people were looking for life beyond death.

One famous psychic investigator from Europe came to a séance and, when he heard the voice of Walter, held his hands over Mina’s mouth and nose.

“Now, Doctor, isn’t that convincing?” the voice said.

“How do I know you don’t talk through your ears?” the skeptical investigator asked.

Mina later gleefully retold this story, to show “what amazing things people are willing to believe in order to avoid believing the things they don’t want to believe.”

As another example, we adopt beliefs about groups to feel secure.  Kristin Neff states: “We also compare the groups we belong to—Americans, Russians, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, and so on—to other groups.  That’s why we tend to wear the mantle of our group affiliations on our sleeves (or our car bumpers).  Our sense of self is imbued with social labels that define us and make us feel safe and accepted within clearly defined boundaries.  Although a sense of belongingness can be found within these group identities, it is still limited.  As long as we’re identifying with subsets of people rather than the entire human race, we’re creating divisions that separate us from our fellows….Sadly these divisions often lead to prejudice and hatred…..Group identity lies at the root of most violent conflicts—whether it’s a scuffle between two local high school football teams or a full-scale international war.”  Kristin Neff, Self Compassion, p. 67-68)

Watts later in the book adds, ““We look for this security by fortifying and enclosing ourselves in innumerable ways. We want the protection of being “exclusive” and “special,” seeking to belong to the safest church, the best nation, the highest class, the right set, and the “nice” people. These defenses lead to divisions between us, and so to more insecurity demanding more defenses.” (p. 78)

In relation to beliefs and the truth, Watts notes: “To discover the ultimate Reality of life—the Absolute, the eternal, God—you must cease to try to grasp it in the forms of idols. These idols are not just crude images, such as the mental picture of God as an old gentleman on a golden throne. They are our beliefs, our cherished preconceptions of the truth, which block the unreserved opening of mind and heart to reality. The legitimate use of images is to express the truth, not to possess it. This was always recognized in the great Oriental traditions such as Buddhism, Vedanta, and Taoism.” (Watts p. 26)

“…the incredible truth that what religion calls the vision of God is found in giving up any belief in the idea of God. By the same law of reversed effort, we discover the “infinite” and the “absolute,” not by straining to escape from the finite and relative world, but by the most complete acceptance of its limitations. Paradox as it may seem, we likewise find life meaningful only when we have seen that it is without purpose, and know the “mystery of the universe” only when we are convinced that we know nothing about it at all. The ordinary agnostic, relativist, or materialist fails to reach this point because he does not follow his line of thought consistently to its end—an end which would be the surprise of his life. All too soon he abandons faith, openness to reality, and lets his mind harden into doctrine (fixed principles). The discovery of the mystery, the wonder beyond all wonders, needs no belief, for we can only believe in what we have already known, preconceived, and imagined. But this is beyond any imagination. We have but to open the eyes of the mind wide enough, and “the truth will out.” (Watts p 27.)


Faith is defined by Watts as an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.  His definition differs from the conventional ones of “belief and trust in and loyalty to God or belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion.”  Merriam-Webster.  Faith as Watts defines it is embracing life as it is.

“Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”  (p. 24)

In other words, when we hold a belief, we stop being mindful and cease investigating.  With faith, we maintain our mindfulness in paying attention moment to moment to what is.

Beliefs and Buddhism

Is Buddhism just another belief system?   Stephan Bachelor in Buddhism Without Beliefs notes, “While “Buddhism” suggests another belief system, “dharma practice” suggests a course of action.  The four ennobling truths are not propositions to believe; they are challenges to act.” (p. 7)  “First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (“dharma practice”) rather than another “-ism.”  The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do.  The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe or not.  He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life.  The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable.” (p. 18)

Bachelor is describing the Four Noble Truths as actions to take. In a more recent book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, he describes that tasks of the Four Noble Truths as

  • Embrace life
  • Let go of what arises.
  • See its ceasing.
  • Act!

To do so, requires the kind of faith that Watts describes; to embrace life we must open our minds to the truth and not live the belief as we think we know it.

The Buddha expressed this faith as knowing for yourself in his teaching to the Kalamas:  “Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them”  Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas AN 3.65 translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Can you embrace life as it is without the use of beliefs?


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  What beliefs about life do you hold?  Can you open yourself up to just embracing life without creating beliefs that create artificial boundaries?  Can you have faith to keep open to the truth as it unfolds?

Avoidance of pain, loss, disgrace, criticism

January 31, 2018

In our unconscious goal to live our lives in anticipation of a bright future of sensual pleasures, we adopt the strategy of avoiding negative conditions of pain, loss, disgrace, and criticism.  This strategy only brings on more dissatisfaction and suffering because pleasure and pain, gain and loss, repute and disgrace, praise and criticism are inextricably linked.  We can’t have one without the other.

Watts explains that if we have intense feelings of happiness, we must also accept that we are vulnerable to intense feelings of pain.  “To the degree, then, that life is found good, death must be proportionately evil. The more we are able to love another person and to enjoy his company, the greater must be our grief at his death, or in separation. The further the power of consciousness ventures out into experience, the more is the price it must pay for its knowledge.” (p. 30)

One way often used to avoid pain is to isolate ourselves from life so that we are not hurt.  However, by doing this, we are committing a form of suicide.  We certainly are not alive and aware.

“If, then, we are to be fully human and fully alive and aware, it seems that we must be willing to suffer for our pleasures.”  But we are usually not willing because we don’t want to put up with the pain.  “Under these circumstances, the life that we live is a contradiction and a conflict. Because consciousness must involve both pleasure and pain, to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is, in effect, to strive for the loss of consciousness. Because such a loss is in principle the same as death, this means that the more we struggle for life (as pleasure), the more we are actually killing what we love.” (p. 31)

“For it would seem that, in man, life is in hopeless conflict with itself…..  Of course we do not want to think that this is true. But it would be easy to show that most reasoning to the contrary is but wishful thinking—nature’s method of putting off suicide so that the idiocy can continue. Reasoning, then, is not enough. We must go deeper. We must look into this life, this nature, which has become aware within us, and find out whether it is really in conflict with itself, whether it actually desires the security and the painlessness which its individual forms can never enjoy.” (pp 37-8)

The Buddha explained the problem with avoiding painful conditions in the Lokavipatti Sutta: The Failings of the World:

The painful conditions:  “Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight? Pleasure, pain, gain, loss, repute, disgrace, praise, criticism.

These conditions arise in everyone.  However, there is a difference on how it is perceived and dealt with depending on who you are, an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person or a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones.

“For an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person there arise pleasure, pain, gain, loss, repute, disgrace, praise, and criticism. For a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones there also pleasure, pain, gain, loss, repute, disgrace, praise, and criticism.  So what difference, what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there between the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person?”

The Buddha gives an example of how gain is perceived and dealt with by these two different kinds of people:  The Blessed One said, “Gain arises for an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person. He does not reflect, ‘Gain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.’ He does not discern it as it actually is.  He welcomes the arisen gain and rebels against the arisen loss. He welcomes the arisen status and rebels against the arisen disgrace.  As he is thus engaged in welcoming & rebelling, he is not released from birth, aging, or death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, or despairs. He is not released, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

“Now, gain arises for a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones. He reflects, ‘Gain has arisen for me. It is inconstant, stressful, & subject to change.’ He discerns it as it actually is.  His mind does not remain consumed with the gain. His mind does not remain consumed with the loss  He does not welcome the arisen gain, or rebel against the arisen loss. As he thus abandons welcoming & rebelling, he is released from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is released, I tell you, from suffering & stress.”

In summary:  With pleasure/pain, gain/loss, repute/disgrace, praise/criticism, these conditions among human beings are inconstant, impermanent, and subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.
AN 8.6 adapted from the translation from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

No matter how tightly we construct our circle of security, we cannot avoid pain, loss, disgrace, or criticism.  We can, however, develop a different relationship to it by embracing life as it is and ending the no more of avoidance.


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  How do you relate to the eight mundane conditions?  Do the welcome the positives (pleasure, gain, repute, praise,) and rebel against the negatives (pain, loss, disgrace, criticism) or do you discern it as it actually is and don’t let the positives charm the mind and don’t resist the negatives?

Living in pleasant memories and expectations: Clinging to the past and future

February 14, 2018

Another strategy we unconsciously employ to live our lives in anticipation of a bright future of sensual pleasures is to reside or abide in pleasant memories and expectations.  In other words, living in the past and the future to feel happy and secure.

However, losing ourselves in the past and future can also mean that we often find ourselves abiding in the unpleasant rather than the pleasant.  As an example, Watts notes: “Here is a person who knows that in two weeks’ time he has to undergo a surgical operation. In the meantime, he is feeling no physical pain; he has plenty to eat; he is surrounded by friends and human affection; he is doing work that is normally of great interest to him. But his power to enjoy these things is taken away by constant dread. He is insensitive to the immediate realities around him. His mind is preoccupied with something that is not yet here. It is not as if he were thinking about it in a practical way, trying to decide whether he should have the operation or not, or making plans to take care of his family and his affairs if he should die. These decisions have already been made. Rather, he is thinking about the operation in an entirely futile way, which both ruins his present enjoyment of life and contributes nothing to the solution of any problem. But he cannot help himself.” (p. 33)

“The power of memories and expectations is such that for most human beings the past and the future are not as real, but more real than the present. The present cannot be lived happily unless the past has been “cleared up” and the future is bright with promise.”  (p. 34) Thus our awareness of the present is dulled.

“What is the use of planning to be able to eat next week unless I can really enjoy the meals when they come? If I am so busy planning how to eat next week that I cannot fully enjoy what I am eating now, I will be in the same predicament when next week’s meals become “now.”  If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of this present. I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass. For I shall have formed a habit of looking behind and ahead, making it difficult for me to attend to the here and now. If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world.” (p. 34)

“This kind of living in the fantasy of expectation rather than the reality of the present is the special trouble of those business men who live entirely to make money. So many people of wealth understand much more about making and saving money than about using and enjoying it. They fail to live because they are always preparing to live. Instead of earning a living they are mostly earning an earning, and thus when the time comes to relax they are unable to do so. Many a “successful” man is bored and miserable when he retires and returns to his work only to prevent a younger man from taking his place.” (p.35)

The Buddha commented on dwelling on the past and present in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta: The Discourse on the Ideal Lover of Solitude:

“Let one not trace back the past
Or yearn for the future-yet-to-come.
That which is past is left behind
Unattained is the “yet-to-come.”
But that which is present he discerns —
With insight as and when it comes.
The Immovable — the-non-irritable.
In that state should the wise one grow
Today itself should one bestir
Tomorrow death may come — who knows?
For no bargain can we strike
With Death who has his mighty hosts.
But one who dwells thus ardently
By day, by night, untiringly
Him the Tranquil Sage has called
The Ideal Lover of Solitude.

“And how, monks, does one trace back the past? He thinks: ‘I was of such form in the past’ and brings delight to bear on it. He thinks: ‘I was of such feeling in the past’ and brings delight to bear on it. He thinks: ‘I was of such perception in the past’ and brings delight to bear on it. He thinks: ‘I was of such formations in the past’ and brings delight to bear on them. He thinks: ‘I was of such consciousness in the past’ and brings delight to bear on it. That is how, monks, one traces back the past.

(here and below, the Buddha is referring to the five ways in which reality is experienced: form, feelings, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.)

“And how, monks, does one not trace back the past? He thinks: ‘I was of such form in the past’ but brings no delight to bear on it. He thinks: ‘I was of such feeling… of such perception… of such formations…’… He thinks: ‘I was of such consciousness in the past’ but brings no delight to bear on it. That is how, monks, one does not trace back the past.

“And how, monks, does one yearn for the future? He thinks: ‘I may have such form in the future’ and brings delight to bear on it. He thinks: ‘I may have such feeling… such perception… such formations…’… He thinks: ‘I may have such consciousness in the future’ and brings delight to bear on it. That is how, monks, one yearns for the future.

“And how, monks, does one not yearn for the future? He thinks: ‘I may have such form in the future’ but brings no delight to bear on it. He thinks: ‘I may have such feeling… such perception… such formations…’… He thinks: ‘I may have such consciousness in the future’ but brings no delight to bear on it. That is how, monks, one does not yearn for the future.

“And how is one drawn into present things? Herein, monks, an uninstructed ordinary man who takes no account of the Noble Ones, is unskilled in the Dhamma of the Noble Ones, untrained in the Dhamma of the Noble Ones, taking no account of the good men, unskilled in the Dhamma of the good men, untrained in the Dhamma of the good men, looks upon form as self, or self as possessed of form, or form as in self, or self as in form. He looks upon feeling as self, or self as possessed of feeling, or feeling as in self, or self as in feeling. He looks upon perception as self, or self as possessed of perception, or perception as in self, or self as in perception. He looks upon formations as self, or self as possessed of formations, or formations as in self, or self as in formations. He looks upon consciousness as self, or self as possessed of consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That is how, monks, one is drawn into present things.

“And how, monks, is one not drawn into present things? Herein, monks, an instructed Noble disciple who takes into account the Noble Ones, skilled in the Dhamma of the Noble Ones, trained in the Dhamma of the Noble Ones, taking into account the good men, skilled in the Dhamma of the good men, trained in the Dhamma of the good men, does not look upon form as self, or self as possessed of form, or form as in self, or self as in form. He does not look upon feeling as self… He does not look upon perception as self… He does not look upon formations as self… He does not look upon consciousness as self, or self as possessed of consciousness, or consciousness as in self, or self as in consciousness. That is how, monks, one is not drawn into present things.

Thus spoke the Exalted One, Delighted, those monks rejoiced in what the Exalted One had said.

MN 131 translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Ñanananda

In summary, the difference between how the uninstructed persona and the noble person view these experiences is the absence of attachment and self in the latter.  Experiences are impermanent, there is no self to attach to them.

We cannot control pleasant or unpleasant memories and expectations from arising.  We can, however, be mindful of their arising and chose not to live in them but return to the present no matter what pain might await us.  And when we are in the present, we are mindful of not clinging to any of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness.   As the Buddha noted in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness:   “Mindfulness……is established in one to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And one abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world.”


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  Can you be mindful and aware to know when you are trying to feel happy and secure in your thoughts of the past and future?  Can you be aware if you are not “abiding independent, not clinging to anything in the world”?

Not Integrating Our Mind and Body

February 21, 2018

The conflict of “I” and “Me”
The Conflict between Permanence and Change

When we conceive of our mind (the “I”) and our body (the “me”) as separate entities, we set up an internal conflict.  As Watts puts it, it is a conflict between ourselves and ourselves.  What does this mean?

“It is as if we were divided into two parts. On the one hand there is the conscious “I,” at once intrigued and baffled, the creature who is caught in the trap. On the other hand, there is “me,” and “me” is a part of nature—the wayward flesh with all its concurrently beautiful and frustrating limitations.  “I” fancies itself as a reasonable fellow, and is forever criticizing “me” for its perversity—for having passions which get “I” into trouble, for being so easily subject to painful and irritating diseases, for having organs that wear out, and for having appetites which can never be satisfied—so designed that if you try to allay them finally and fully in one big “bust,” you get sick. Perhaps the most exasperating thing about “me,” about nature and the universe, is that it will never “stay put.”  It is like a beautiful woman who will never be caught, and whose very flightiness is her charm. For the perishability and changefulness of the world is part and parcel of its liveliness and loveliness.”  (p. 40)

“For the poets have seen the truth that life, change, movement, and insecurity are so many names for the same thing. Here, if anywhere, truth is beauty, for movement and rhythm are of the essence of all things lovable. In sculpture, architecture, and painting the finished form stands still, but even so the eye finds pleasure in the form only when it contains a certain lack of symmetry, when, frozen in stone as it may be, it looks as if it were in the midst of motion. (p. 40)s it not, then, a strange inconsistency and an unnatural paradox that “I” resists change in “me” and in the surrounding universe? For change is not merely a force of destruction. Every form is really a pattern of movement, and every living thing is like the river, which, if it did not flow out, would never have been able to flow in. Life and death are not two opposed forces; they are simply two ways of looking at the same force, for the movement of change is as much the builder as the destroyer. The human body lives because it is a complex of motions, of circulation, respiration, and digestion. To resist change, to try to cling to life, is therefore like holding your breath: if you persist you kill yourself.”  (p. 41)

“In thinking of ourselves as divided into “I” and “me,” we easily forget that consciousness also lives because it is moving. It is as much a part and product of the stream of change as the body (“me”) and the whole natural world. If you look at it carefully, you will see that consciousness—the thing you call “I”—is really a stream of experiences, of sensations, thoughts, and feelings in constant motion. But because these experiences include memories, we have the impression that “I” is something solid and still, like a tablet upon which life is writing a record.” (p. 41)

“Yet the “tablet” moves with the writing finger as the river flows along with the ripples, so that memory is like a record written on water—a record, not of graven characters, but of waves stirred into motion by other waves which are called sensations and facts. The difference between “I” and “me” is largely an illusion of memory. In truth, “I” is of the same nature as “me.” It is part of our whole being, just as the head is part of the body. But if this is not realized, “I” and “me,” the head and the body, will feel at odds with each other. “I,” not understanding that it too is part of the stream of change, will try to make sense of the world and experience by attempting to fix it. (p.42) Fix it means trying to freeze it in space and time.  This is impossible to do!

“We shall then have a war between consciousness and nature, between the desire for permanence and the fact of flux. This war must be utterly futile and frustrating—a vicious circle—because it is a conflict between two parts of the same thing. It must lead thought and action into circles which go nowhere faster and faster. For when we fail to see that our life is change, we set ourselves against ourselves and become like Ouroboros, the misguided snake, who tries to eat his own tail. Ouroboros is the perennial symbol of all vicious circles, of every attempt to split our being asunder and make one part conquer the other.”(p.42)

As Bhante G. notes in Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness:  “Thus the more you focus on mind itself, the less solid it seems.  Like everything else that exists, it is always changing.  Moreover, you discover, there is no permanent entity; no one is running the movie projector.  All is flux, all is flow, all is process.  In reality, who you are is simply this constant flow of changing moments of mind.  Since you cannot control this process, you have no choice but to let go. In letting go, you experience joy and you taste for an instant the freedom and happiness that is the goal of the Buddha’s path.  Then you know that this mind can be used to gain wisdom.”  (Page 216)

Watts and Bhante G. are saying the same thing.  The war between the “I” who seeks permanence and the “me” who is in a constant state of flux is an artificial conflict because there is no permanence.  We are fooled because what we perceive to be permanence is only temporary.  Just as we cannot understand love without hate, we cannot understand flux without the concept of permanence.  The problem lies in our concepts which is the subject of the next talk.


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  Can you be mindful and aware of the artificial conflict between the “I” and the “me”?  Can you see that there is no permanence?  That what we perceive as permanence is temporary?

Mistaking Concepts and Words for Reality

The perceived differences between the “I” and the “me” are caused by the “I’s” misusing concepts and language and the “me” expressing the non-verbal instinctual wisdom.    Watts puts it this way:  “…we have allowed brain thinking to develop and dominate our lives out of all proportion to “instinctual wisdom,” which we are allowing to slump into atrophy. As a consequence, we are at war within ourselves—the brain desiring things which the body does not want, and the body desiring things which the brain does not allow; the brain giving directions which the body will not follow, and the body giving impulses which the brain cannot understand.

To elaborate further on the “I’s” use of concepts and language:  the “I” tries to understand the nature of reality with fixed concepts.  This is similar to developing fixed views (beliefs) as noted earlier.  “We have thus made a problem for ourselves by confusing the intelligible with the fixed.  We think that making sense out of life is impossible unless the flow of events can somehow be fitted into a framework of rigid forms. To be meaningful, life must be understandable in terms of fixed ideas and laws, and these in turn must correspond to unchanging and eternal realities behind the shifting scene. But if this is what “making sense out of life: means, we have set our selves the impossible task of making fixity out of flux.” (p. 43).

What we have forgotten and don’t realize is that thoughts and words are conventions, symbols, which cannot adequately describe changing reality.  For example, once we have a memory of something such as “man”, we compare any future experiences of human encounters with our concept of “man” that we have fixed in our mind.”  This is the classic stereotype:  a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

“You do not define this real, living “something” by associating it with the noise man. When we say, “This (pointing with the finger) is a man,” the thing to which we point is not man. To be clearer we should have said, “This is symbolized by the noise man.” What, then, is this? We do not know. That is to say, we cannot define it in any fixed way, though, in another sense, we know it as our immediate experience—a flowing process without definable beginning or end. It is convention alone which persuades me that I am simply this body bounded by a skin in space, and by birth and death in time. Where do I begin and end in space?  I have relations to the sun and air which are just as vital parts of my existence as my heart. The movement in which I am a pattern or convolution began incalculable ages before the (conventionally isolated) event called birth and will continue long after the event called death.” (p. 48)  Douglas Harding in his meditation, Beyond Beliefs, illustrates the point about boundaries very well.

We seek security by living in a world of words  “The more we try to live in the world of words, the more we feel isolated and alone, the more all the joy and liveliness of things is exchanged for mere certainty and security.” (p. 50)  We close ourselves to possibility.  We mentally isolating ourselves from life, pursuing a form of suicide that was mentioned earlier.

We need to be constantly mindful of the difference between words and reality.  When we live in the future and the past, we are living in the world of word and concepts.  “But it is just this reality of the present, this moving, vital now which eludes all the definitions and descriptions. Here is the mysterious real world which words and ideas can never pin down. Living always for the future, we are out of touch with this source and center of life, and as a result all the magic of naming and thinking has come to something of a temporary breakdown.” (p. 51)

“The miracles of technology cause us to live in a hectic, clockwork world that does violence to human biology, enabling us to do nothing but pursue the future faster and faster. Deliberate thought finds itself unable to control the upsurge of the beast in man—a beast more “beastly” than any creature of the wild, maddened and exasperated by the pursuit of illusions. Specialization in verbiage, classification, and mechanized thinking has put man out of touch with many of the marvelous powers of “instinct” which govern his body. It has, furthermore, made him feel utterly separate from the universe and his own “me.”  (p. 51)

This applies to our concept of God, ultimate reality, and freedom as well.  “This vision is, then, the unclouded awareness of this undefinable “something” which we call life, present reality, the great stream, the eternal now—an awareness without the sense of separation from it. The moment I name it, it is no longer God; it is man, tree, green, black, red, soft, hard, long, short, atom, universe. One would readily agree with any theologian who deplores pantheism that these denizens of the world of verbiage and convention, these sundry “things” conceived as fixed and distinct entities, are not God. If you ask me to show you God, I will point to the sun, or a tree, or a worm. But if you say, “You mean, then, that God is the sun, the tree, the worm, and all other things?”—I shall have to say that you have missed the point entirely.” (p. 53)

Huang Po (d. 850 A.D.) in The Zen Teachings of Huang Po: On The Transmission Of Mind mentions the spiritual misuse of concepts:  “Regarding this Zen Doctrine of ours, since it was first transmitted, it has never taught that men should seek for learning or form concepts. ‘Studying the Way’ is just a figure of speech. It is a method of arousing people’s interest in the early stages of their development. In fact, the Way is not something which can be studied. Study leads to the retention of concepts and so the Way is entirely misunderstood. Moreover, the Way is not something specially existing; it is called the Mahāyāna Mind—Mind which is not to be found inside, outside or in the middle. Truly it is not located anywhere. The first step is to refrain from knowledge-based concepts. This implies that if you were to follow the empirical method to the utmost limit, on reaching that limit you would still be unable to locate Mind. The way is spiritual Truth and was originally without name or title. It was only because people ignorantly sought for it empirically that the Buddhas appeared and taught them to eradicate this method of approach. Fearing that nobody would understand, they selected the name ‘Way’. You must not allow this name to lead you into forming a mental concept of a road. So it is said ‘When the fish is caught we pay no more attention to the trap.’ When body and mind achieve spontaneity, the Way is reached and Mind is understood. A śramana{45} is so called because he has penetrated to the original source of all things. The fruit of attaining the śramana stage is gained by putting an end to all anxiety; it does not come from book-learning.  (p. 55)

In summary, we need to constantly be mindful of the limitations of concepts and words and know that they do not represent the whole of experience and reality.


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  Can you see how concepts and words can never completely describe reality and, in fact, can distort our experiences because of the comparisons with past concepts, ideas, images and words?

Ignoring the Wisdom of the Body

We have seen how concepts and words are a barrier to embracing life as it is.  So how do we get wisdom if not from words? Watts notes, :”The answer to this, and many similar questions, is that we have been taught to neglect, despise, and violate our bodies, and to put all faith in our brains.” (p. 57

There is unconscious “know how” which emanates from our body.  Watt notes:  “When we compare human with animal desire we find many extraordinary differences. The animal tends to eat with his stomach, and the man with his brain. When the animal’s stomach is full, he stops eating, but the man is never sure when to stop. When he has eaten as much as his belly can take, he still feels empty, he still feels an urge for further gratification. This is largely due to anxiety, to the knowledge that a constant supply of food is uncertain. Therefore eat as much as you can while you can.” (p. 59)

“Human desire tends to be insatiable. We are so anxious for pleasure that we can never get enough of it. We stimulate our sense organs until they become insensitive, so that if pleasure is to continue they must have stronger and stronger stimulants. In self-defense the body gets ill from the strain, but the brain wants to go on and on. The brain is in pursuit of happiness, and because the brain is much more concerned about the future than the present, it conceives happiness as the guarantee of an indefinitely long future of pleasures. Yet the brain also knows that it does not have an indefinitely long future, so that, to be happy, it must try to crowd all the pleasures of Paradise and eternity into the span of a few years.”  This is not unlike keeping a bucket list, pleasures to partake of before death. (p. 59)

The Buddha commented on ignoring the body in the Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka (MN36):

“Then there are some brahmans & contemplatives who live committed to the development of the mind but not to the development of the body…The Blessed One said, “And how is one undeveloped in body and undeveloped in mind? There is the case where a pleasant feeling arises in an uneducated run-of-the-mill person. On being touched by the pleasant feeling, he becomes impassioned with pleasure, and is reduced to being impassioned with pleasure. His pleasant feeling ceases. With the cessation of the pleasant feeling there arises a painful feeling. On being touched with the painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. When that pleasant feeling had arisen in him, it invaded his mind and remained because of his lack of development of the body. When that painful feeling had arisen in him, it invaded his mind and remained because of his lack of development of the mind. This is how one is undeveloped in body and undeveloped in mind.

“And how is one developed in body and developed in mind? There is the case where a pleasant feeling arises in a well-educated disciple of the noble ones. On being touched by the pleasant feeling, he doesn’t become impassioned with pleasure, and is not reduced to being impassioned with pleasure. His pleasant feeling ceases. With the cessation of the pleasant feeling there arises a painful feeling. On being touched with the painful feeling, he doesn’t sorrow, grieve, or lament, beat his breast or becomes distraught. When that pleasant feeling had arisen in him, it didn’t invade his mind and remain because of his development of the body. When that painful feeling had arisen in him, it didn’t invade his mind and remain because of his development of the mind. This is how one is developed in body and developed in mind.”  translated from the Pali byThanissaro Bhikkhu (

It is all about our attachment to desire (one of the five hindrances).  Since we look to the future for these pleasures, we can’t enjoy the present. Thus, a vicious circle is created.  Watts notes, “Thus the “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse—providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect “subject” for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. His eyes flit without rest from television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-with-out-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity—shock treatments—as “human interest” shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes along with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire. For this stream of stimulants is designed to produce cravings for more and more of the same, though louder and faster, and these cravings drive us to do work which is of no interest save for the money it pays—to buy more lavish radios, sleeker automobiles, glossier magazines, and better television sets, all of which will somehow conspire to persuade us that happiness lies just around the corner if we will buy one more.” (p. 61)

Another problem is time.  Time should be kept in its place.  “A particularly significant example of brain against body, or measures against matter, is urban man’s total slavery to clocks.  A clock is a convenient device for arranging to meet a friend, or for helping people to do things together, although things of this kind happened long before they were invented.  Clocks should not be smashed; they should simply be kept in their place.  And they are very much out of place when we try to adapt our biological rhythms of eating, sleeping, evacuation, working, and relaxing to their uniform circular rotation.”  (p. 66)  For example, sleeping patterns in the past consisted of sleeping for several hours, waking for a period of time and perhaps eating and then sleeping for several more.  The current sleep pattern was adopted more than being a biological one.

We don’t pay attention to our bodies in dying.  We depend on our brain to tell us when to die rather than our body.  And our brain does not want to give up until it is tired as well.  “I am sure, however, that the body dies because it wants to.  It finds it beyond its power to resist the disease or to mend the injury, and so, tired out with the struggle, turns to death.  If the consciousness were more sensitive to the feelings and impulses of the whole organism, it would share this desire, and, indeed, sometimes does so.  We come close to it when, in serious sickness, we would just as soon die, though sometimes we survive, either because medical treatment reinvigorates the body, or because there are still unconscious force in the organism which are able to heal.”  (p. 66)

We worry and cannot help ourselves.  “The brain is clever enough to see the vicious circle which it has made for itself. But it can do nothing about it. Seeing that it is unreasonable to worry does not stop worrying; rather, you worry the more at being unreasonable. “  (p. 69)

“After all this, the brain deserves a word for itself! For the brain, including its reasoning and calculating centers, is a part and product of the body. It is as natural as the heart and stomach, and, rightly used, is anything but an enemy of man. But to be used rightly it must be put in its place, for the brain is made for man, not man for his brain. In other words, the function of the brain is to serve the present and the real, not to send man chasing wildly after the phantom of the future.”  (p. 71)

“Working rightly, the brain is the highest form of “instinctual wisdom.”  The brain can only assume its proper behavior when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it.” (p. 74)


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  Try integrating your mind and body by being aware of your thoughts and noting if the mind is with the present experience and not “chasing wildly after the phantom of the future.”  Be aware of the body and what it is telling you.

Understanding Pure Awareness

In order to do something about the barriers to true freedom, we need to understand awareness.  Being deeply aware brings a transformation of understanding.  Awareness is to be aware of life, of experience as it is at this moment, without any judgments or ideas about it.  However, as noted before, what we are truly aware of we cannot describe or write down.  With awareness we come to know that our most baffling problems are pure illusion.

The barriers to embracing life as it is and no more prevent us from achieving spiritual and psychological security.  It is the “I”’s attempt to fix or make things permanent.  What we discover through awareness is that there is no permanence.  Permanence is the illusion that creates the baffling problems.  There can be no safety or security because these concepts are dependent on permanence, which, as we have seen, doesn’t exist.

“To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change, more even than to observe the transitoriness of life. The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life. We are struggling to make sure of the permanence, continuity, and safety of this enduring core, this center and soul of our being which we call “I.” For this we think to be the real man—the thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the knower of our knowledge. We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realize that this “I” does not exist. Understanding comes through awareness. Can we, then, approach our experience—our sensations, feelings, and thoughts—quite simply, as if we had never known them before, and, without prejudice, look at what is going on? You may ask, “Which experiences, which sensations and feelings, shall we look at?” I will answer, “Which ones can you look at?” The answer is that you must look at the ones you have now.” (p. 80)

As Watts noted earlier with the conflict of the “I” and “me”:  “If you look at it carefully, you will see that consciousness—the thing you call “I”—is really a stream of experiences, of sensations, thoughts, and feelings in constant motion. But because these experiences include memories, we have the impression that “I” is something solid and still, like a tablet upon which life is writing a record.” (p. 41)

“The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes.”

But what are memories?  We tend to think of them as past experiences that are a permanent part of the “I” and validate its existence.  When memories arise, they are not past but present experiences because we cannot experience anything other than in the present.

The only experiences that you can truly be aware of are the ones you have now.  The experience of our memories are not the actual past because:

  • Memories are distorted.
  • Memories as with experiences can’t be accurately described in words or thoughts
  • Memories are just a trace of the past. For example, “The memory of your deceased grandmother can only repeat what your grandmother was.  But the real present grandmother could always do or say something new, and you were never absolutely sure what she would do next.” (p.92))

You are always in the now.  The “I” is just another experience, not a permanent entity.

We cannot separate the “I”  from experience.  Take for example, the experience of reading.  “When you were thinking, “I am reading this sentence” you were not reading it. In other words, in each present experience you were only aware of that experience. You were never aware of being aware. You were never able to separate the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known. All you ever found was a new thought, a new experience.”  (p. 83)  In other words, there is no one experiencing experience.

As an example, with your eyes closed, touch something and be aware of the sensation.  Is there an awareness of being aware of the touching or is there just the touching?  When you try to be aware of who might be aware of the touching, you lose the awareness of the touching.  In other words, you are experiencing a different experience than the touching.  You cannot experience two things at the same time.  The mind switches back and from so rapidly that you may think that you can but this is an illusion of memory.

“While the notion that I am separate from my experience remains, there is confusion and turmoil. Because of this, there is neither awareness nor understanding of experience, and thus no real possibility of assimilating it. To understand this moment I must not try to be divided from it; I must be aware of it with my whole being. This, like refraining from holding my breath for ten minutes, is not something I should do. In reality, it is the only thing I can do. Everything else is the insanity of attempting the impossible. To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening. To understand joy or fear, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it. So long as you are calling it names and saying, “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it. Fear, pain, sorrow, and boredom must remain problems if we do not understand them, but understanding requires a single and undivided mind.” (p. 88)

As Benjamin Hoffman states in The Tao of Pooh, “An empty sort of mind is valuable for finding pearls and tails and things because it can see what’s in front of it.  An Overstuffed mind is unable to.  While the Clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of Knowledge-and Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing.  The more Stuffed Up it is, the less it can hear through its own ears and see through its own eyes.  Knowledge and Cleverness tend to concern themselves with the wrong sort of things, and a mind confused by Knowledge, Cleverness, and Abstract Ideas tends to go chasing off after things that don’t matter, or that don’t even exist, instead of seeing, appreciating, and making use of what is right in front of it.”  (p. 146)

In summary, when we categorize an experience, we had switched to experience the category, not the actual experience. For example, let’s say you wake up in the morning feeling unpleasant sensations or thoughts.  Rather than staying with it, you categorize your experience as being depressed.  Unless you go back to the original experience, you will never understand them and they will remain problems.


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  Be aware of the problem with categorization (labeling).  Notice when you do this and go back to the original experience.  See it for what it is, an impermanent illusion.

Understanding Experience


Pure awareness is to be aware of life, of experience as it is at this moment, without any judgments or ideas about it.  Watts notes that ”For to be aware of reality, of the living present, is to discover that at each moment the experience is all.  There is nothing else beside it – no experience of “you” experiencing the experience.” (p. 89)

So, then, what is the concept of the self, the “I,” if there is no experience of “you” experiencing the experience?

  • The concept of the self is who you were but not who you are.
  • The self that we are conscious of is always some experience (feeling or sensation).
  • There is no sensing of a self that is sensing.
  • The sense of self most often arises when we are experiencing unpleasantness or pain.

When this sense of self arises in an unpleasant experience, the only thing we can do is go back to awareness of the present experience as painful as it may be at the moment.

There are two ways of experiencing an experience.  The first is to name and define it by comparing it with the memories of other experiences.  This has its uses such as when planning but doesn’t work well to deal with unpleasant emotions.  When we name and define an unpleasant experience, it is a way to avoid that experience.  Take for example, the unpleasant emotion of fear.  To absorb fear, the mind takes the path of least resistance and escapes through the “I” labeling process (“I am afraid”).  The “I am afraid” fixes it in terms of memory and what is already known.  The fear then being experienced is a memory and there is no resolution of the fear.

The second way to experience an experience is just remain aware of the experience and go back to it if a shift to the “I” occurs.  For example, it is easy when experiencing something pleasant such as joy.  When experiencing joy, shifts to thoughts of the past, the future and the self happen rarely.  It is easy to stay with this experience.  With unpleasant experiences, shifts to other experiences such as the past, future fantasies and the “I” more easily occur.    Other shifts that include the “I” are include thoughts of judgements, commentary, and decision making.  All of these shifts are providing distractions from the original experience and make it impossible to resolve the unpleasantness.  This can be prevented by being mindful, noticing any shifts and going back to the experience.

The process of experiencing pleasant, neutral and unpleasant experiences arising is through the five aggregates of clinging, our gateway to all experiences.   As noted in the diagram below, our internal sense bases make contact with an external sense object (form) and once our consciousness is aware of this, a pleasant, neutral or unpleasant feeling arises.  We identify the situation (perception) and then emotions (mental objects) such as frustration, hostility, and anger arise.  This cycle repeats itself with mental proliferation (more thoughts) occurring.   This leads to the intensification of emotions and reaction.  The gray area is what our mind does to process the initial experience.  Feelings, perceptions and mental formations are all created in the mind.  This is why others making contact with the same sense object may not have the same feeling, perception or mental formations.


You come to understand that in order to live fully, your only choice is to be aware with your own being as an entirely new experience.  In this way, you eliminate the distracting and avoiding “I.” and other shifts mentioned above.  This method “consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.” (p. 94)  So when pain or unpleasant thoughts occur, the mind can experience “the same complete unselfconscious way in which it experiences pleasure.”  P. 97  When resistance ceases the pain may simply go away or diminish in intensity. Or it can be no longer problematic -you can be with it without an urge to get rid of it.

The key is understanding.  “There is no rule but “Look!” (p. 99)  As Krishnamurti said, “The seeing is the doing.”  We look into a new world.  “By trying to understand everything in terms of memory, the past, and words, we have, as it were, had our noses in the guidebook for most of our lives and have never looked at the view.”  (p. 99)  “To name is to interpret experience by the past, to translate it in terms of memory, to bind the unknown into the system of the known.”   “That there is a way of looking at life apart from all conceptions, beliefs, opinions, and theories is the remotest of all possibilities from the modern mind.” (p. 100)

Memory, thought, language and logic are essential to human life.  But to discover something new, there must be silence.  “The revolutionary thinker…knows that almost all his best ideas come to him when thinking has stopped.”  (p. 101)


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  When an unpleasant experience arises, try to be with it.  It the “I” arises and labels the experience, go back to the unpleasant experience and be with it again.  Experience the body sensations and notice their impermanence.

The Transformation of Life

How do we gain the vision of understanding life as it is, of what we are, and what we are doing?  If we gain the vision, will it be beneficial?  For example, will it make us better and happier?  Will it result in peace, cooperation and prosperity?

“The answer to these questions depends entirely on what we are and what we actually want now.  If, for example, we want at the same time both peace and isolation, brotherhood and security for “I,” happiness and permanence, our wants are contradictory.”  (p. 106)  We have to make up our minds as to what we want: the “I” or the experience.  Or as it might be better put, the experience of “I” or all of the experiences.

The transformation of life means that we discover that everything we sense including our “I” and “me” (body) is part of “an inextricably interwoven process called the real world.” (p. 107)  “The physical reality is that my body exists only in relationship to this universe”  (p. 107).  We are what we know and what we don’t know.

Everything that we experience comes from within.  We feel isolated unless we can feel that “unity of inner experience” …“But you will cease to feel isolated when you recognize, for example, that you do not have a sensation of the sky; you are that sensation. For all purposes of feeling, your sensation of the sky is the sky, and there is no “you” apart from what you sense, feel, and know.”  (p. 109)

“To discover that the many are the one, and that the one is the many, is to realize that both are words and noises representing what is at once obvious to sense and feeling, and an enigma to logic and description.” (p.111)

“Plucking chrysanthemums along the East fence;
Gazing in silence at the southern hills;
The birds flying home in pairs
Through the soft mountain air of dusk—
In these things there is a deep meaning,
But when we are about to express it,
We suddenly forget the words.”
T’ao Ch’ien (365-427) (p.112)

Or as Mary Frye’s poem (1932) states:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there; I did not die.

Note that Frye’s poem must use the word, “I,” to express the unity as this is the only way it can be expressed in words.  The poem does not have meaning until we truly understand that the “I” is only a concept.  “For when, you really understand that you are what you see and know, you do not run around the countryside thinking, “I am all this.”  There is simply ‘all this.”  The undivided mind does not separate the “I” from the rest of the universe.  It does not try “to stand outside of itself be elsewhere than here and now.”  (p. 112)

“The feeling that we stand face-to-face with the world, cut off and set apart, has the greatest influence on thought and action.“  (p. 113  “…..if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it. “ (p. 114)

“So long as the mind is split, life is perpetual conflict, tension, frustration, and disillusion.”  (p. 114) “The divided mind comes to the dinner table and pecks at one dish after another, rushing on without digesting anything to find one better than the last.  If finds nothing good, because there is nothing which it really tastes (experiences).  (p. 115)  “When each moment becomes an expectation, life is deprived of fulfillment, and death is dreaded for it seems that here expectation must come to an end.”  P. 115)


“But the undivided mind is free from this tension of trying always to stand outside oneself and to be elsewhere than here and now.  Each moment is lived completely and there is thus a sense of fulfillment and completeness.  “…”you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain…..  It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere.  You go round and round, but not under the illusion that you are pursuing something, or fleeing from the jaws of hell.” (p. 115)  “The meaning and the purpose of dancing is the dance. Like music, also, it is fulfilled in each moment of its course.  You do not play a sonata in order to reach the final chord, and if the meaning were ends, composers would write nothing but finales.”  (p.115)

“While there is life, there is hope—and if one lives on hope, death is indeed the end.  But to the undivided mind, death is another moment, complete like every moment, and cannot yield its secret unless lived to the full.” (p. 117)

Death is the epitome of the truth that in each moment we are thrust into the unknown. Here all clinging to security is compelled to cease, and wherever the past is dropped away, and safety abandoned, life is renewed. Death is the unknown in which all of us lived before birth. Nothing is more creative than death, since it is the whole secret of life. It means that the past must be abandoned, that the unknown cannot be avoided, that “I” cannot continue, and that nothing can be ultimately fixed. When a man knows this, he lives for the first time in his life. By holding his breath, he loses it. By letting it go he finds it. (p. 116)


  • Reread and reflect on this talk daily.  The transformation of life requires a deep understand of the “I” and the divided mind.  Mindfulness of the “I” is the only way to unite the mind.  Can you be mindful of this?