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The Ecstatic Adventure

  Reports of Chemical Explorations of the Inner World

    Chapter 9 — The Point Is That Life Is a Gesture

      by ALAN WATTS

ALAN WATTS IS that rare entity—a wise, happy, fun-loving man. Alan is a philosopher; an unacademic, unpedantic sort of philosopher. He is an old-fashioned sage. A lover of wisdom. A hard-working scholar who has mastered complex subject matters. A leading authority on Zen Buddhism and a beautiful example of the Zen ideal. One who can see the wisdom of the ages in the ecstatic flicker of the next moment.
    Alan Watts is also one of the most gifted word-choreographers writing in the English language. At the practical level, he is a reporter extraordinaire. He has a nose for news, for the next cosmic turn of events. He knows what's happening on the evolutionary scene and is there to cover the story. At the literary level, he is not so much a writer as a dancer-with-words. Alan Watts experiences in the transcendental mode and has a neural network so imprinted that he can report the flashing flow of ecstatic visions with an immediate accuracy which is reflex. As others breathe or blink their eyes, as dancers move to the beat, Alan Watts converts into shimmering prose.
    In the fall of 1960 Alan Watts came to New York on a lecture tour, and Timothy Leary gave him a bottle of psilocybin with the usual contract—to write a report on his experiences. Two weeks later Alan gave this return on our investment.

I DON'T KNOW what psilocybin does for other people, but for me it has been profoundly healing and illuminating.
    I took it yesterday at 10:30 A.M. The external circumstances were ideal, as we were spending the day in a kind of earthly paradise owned by some very dear friends, all of whom have experienced LSD. This made it easy for me to talk with others during the experience. Otherwise things were rather gloomy. I was tired after my trip east, suffering from a virus throat, harassed, needing a rest and quite disinclined to work!
    During the hour after taking the first five pills, I felt terrible—weak, rather sick at the stomach, no appetite for breakfast, throat feeling as if I were swallowing a billiard ball. I had the feeling that this medicine was no escape, no rest, but an intensification of reality, so I just lay down and waited.
    About 11:25 everything changed, and I decided to take the second dose. We were listening to music, and I was quite startled to realize as I listened that the music was pure nonsense. The singers did not seem to be singing words; they were playing with syllables (dit-da and bwa-wa-bwa stuff) and blowing their oboes just to make weird, delightful blathering. At the time I thought either that this was the usual LSD effect in which everything ceases to be serious or that my friend had just put on a record of some sort of jam session. But he said, "No, this is serious Hindu music." I asked to see the record envelope. It was: "Classical Music of India," edited for UNESCO by Alain Danielou, who is a very proper and meticulous scholar. Now the joke is that I listened to it again six hours later, and the nonsense was still there! These happen to be very unique records in which the human voice is often used as an instrument—lalling without words.
    I think you can see how this set a pattern for the rest of the experience. What is serious, classical and terribly important is at root nothing but play. It doesn't have to happen; it needn't go on. Life is not indebted to anyone. But, though under the influence of a chemical, I realized that this is what the record really was; my "sober" companions saw the same meaning in it and confirmed all my impressions.
    Next, I was looking at a non-objective painting and projecting images into it—an airplane view of Manhattan, my own face, a camshaft made of transparent cubes, all seen in vivid, photographic reality. Again, I pointed these out to my wife and my host, and they confirmed it: yes, the painting could very well be seen that way. My host made an even more elaborate description of the face in the picture.
    I guess it must have been about 12:30 by now. I was lying on my back on a divan, looking at the ceiling, which is made of rather thin slats of wood, beautifully grained. Again, I was projecting figures into the grain patterns and asking my wife if she could see them too. Yes, she could follow me so long as the projected figures were continued within a single slat and the natural grain pattern was continuous. But then I pointed out images running across several slats—vague limb and bodylike forms. These had the curious effect of making the ceiling appear to be transparent. One could look right through the socially real grain to a higher order of pattern. The higher pattern "captured" the lower, including it without destroying it.
    Thereupon I was somehow plunged immediately into the most vivid cosmic-consciousness experience I have ever had. It was so marvelous that I called everyone to come into the room. "I've got to explain this to you," I said, "but there's no reason why you have to understand. You're all divine, you're all Buddhas just as you are without having to know what I'm talking about. But the point is that life is a gesture—a gesture of motion, of color, of sound—and there isn't anyone making the gesture, or to whom or for whom it is happening. There is simply no problem of life; it is absolutely purposeless play. It doesn't have to continue; there is no reason whatever to explain it, for explanations are just another form of complexity, a new manifestation of life on top of life, gestures gesturing. If there is any problem at all, it is to find out how people come to think there is a problem, whatever made them imagine that life is serious. Basically there is the gesture. Time, space, multiplicity are all complications of it. Pain and suffering are very far-out forms of play, and there just isn't anything at all to be afraid of. There isn't any ego. The ego is a kind of flip, knowing that you know—like being afraid of being afraid. It's a curlicue, an extra jazz to things, a sort of double take or reverberation, a dithering of consciousness which is the same as anxiety."
    I don't know if I can say anything more about this experience. I realized at the time that I had made it perfectly clear in my books, and was only amazed that I didn't always understand what I was saying. But I saw that I didn't need any answer to the mystery of life because there is no question. I saw that the state of consciousness in which I was could, like the projected pattern in the ceiling, capture and include all other states. I felt almost identical with my wife, and remember saying that what people call the difference between us is about sixty-five steps down in the order of complexity!
    I spent the rest of the day just living in the glow of this experience. The surrounding world looked much more "natural" than with LSD or even mescaline; there was no distortion of any kind. But the world and people were just incomparably beautiful. We sat in the garden, drinking wine and eating homemade bread. it tasted vaguely mushroomy, and my friends thought I smelled a little of mushrooms. I found it easier to relate to people, to be very open and honest, than with LSD. As the sun went down, the garden began to be chilly, and it was suggested that we go indoors. I felt a bit regretful. It was so lovely out on the terrace that I thought I might feel depressed inside. But no; we went in and everything was just as delightful there. By this time, direct effects were wearing off. But even now, some twenty-four hours later, the fundamental tranquility remains. I still understand the basic principle of my "vision." It is quite lucidly explained in the last section of Wittgenstein's Tractatus! But I wonder if he knew what he was saying.

    Chapter 10

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