Alan Watts: Who Am I?

(This multimedia presentation was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 23, 2014)

One of my first encounters with philosophy came when I was about 15 years old and was watching a PBS video featuring Alan Watts (1915 – 1973). I wasn’t philosophically sophisticated enough then to understand much of what he was saying, but I do remembering thinking he was cool. He had a beard, drank tea and seemed so … philosophical.

Alan Watts was a British born philosopher, and one of the first writers to popularize Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, for a Western audience. One of the first philosophy books I ever read as a teenager The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Watts. It asked one of the most fundamental questions we can ask: who am I? .

Now we may think we know the answer to this question. For example, we may believe that our individuality ends with our bodies. But Watts asked, why do we end where our bodies do? After all, our skin is porous and interacts with the environment. We can’t survive for more than a few minutes without the air, so why isn’t the air as much a part of us as our legs or arms?   And there is no breathable air without plants, so why aren’t they a part of us? In fact, our existence depends on the earth’s ecosystem and the sun. Following this line of thinking, we ultimately depend on the entire universe for our existence.

So perhaps we aren’t egos inside bags of skin, or even separate egos at all. Maybe we are like windows or apertures or vortexes through which the universe is conscious of itself for a brief moment. While we are fond of saying things like “I came into this world,” isn’t it more accurate to say, “I came out of the universe?” Don’t people come out of the universe like leaves come out of trees or waves come out of oceans? Or as Watts asks, doesn’t the universe just “people?”

And such questions are not merely academic. If we think we are separate from the world, then it is more likely to feel like something alien to us that we must confront. But if we see that we came out of the universe, then we are more likely to treat the universe as our home. We will see that the environment that surrounds our bodies is as much a part of us as our heart or lungs. If we despoil the environment, we despoil ourselves; if we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves. So perhaps we are the universe looking at itself from billions of perspectives. In fact, couldn’t we say that, in some sense, we are the universe?

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