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The Book – On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are Summary (8/10)

The Book – On Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is a book about the latest societal taboo. Sexuality and religion were the previous taboos. The biggest danger today is self-knowledge – a state of wonder at who we are and where we came from.

Watts admits that there are subversive secrets in the Bible but they are so muddled in complex symbols and archaic ways of thinking, that Christianity has become inaccessible to a modern person, unless you water it down to being good and imitating Christ.

But no one knows how to achieve that. We are only told that you must have a gift from God called “Grace,” which seems to be given to people in an arbitrary manner.

The Wonder Disease

The big taboo then, is the act of wonder, it is looking around and wondering why things are the way they are, and why they aren’t different. In the pragmatic world that we live, such questions are unforgivably useless, and anyone who considers them seriously must be out of touch with reality, or insane. Yet there are many who fear that existence is nothing but a rat-race in a trap.

A World of Tubes

Watts, in his attempt to articulate what he observes when he wonders, says that people and animals are merely tubes that put things in one end and let them out at the other. This will wear them out in the long run, but the cyclical process keeps them motivated in the meantime.

To propagate the farce to greater proportions, the tubes use their ingenuity to create new tubes, which also put things in from one end and out from another. The brains and eyes that people possess are aids that help them discover new things to swallow, make strange noises and engage in conflict with other tubes.

As this goes on for long enough, the tubes are no longer recognized as mere tubes, and there is competition as to who is going to become the top tube. In other words, this self-organizing system eventually culminates in a dominance hierarchy where some tubes are more important than other tubes.

One can react to all of this either in disgust, at the futility of it all, or marvel at its brilliance, and its oddity. The “logical” philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, refuse to wonder about why such a complex universe exists, that has given rise to such strange and wonderful life forms.

Their answer is simple that life has no meaning. The question “Why this universe?” is nothing but a form of intellectual neurosis. And the task of philosophy is to cure people from such nonsense.

But Watts insists that wonder is not a disease.

Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish men from other animals and intelligent and sensitive people from morons.

Alan Watts, The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Faith is Openness

The problem with religions is that they are divisive, they are a form of one-upmanship because their legitimacy depends on separating the “saved” from the “damned.” Irrevocable commitment to a religion is intellectual suicide, but it is worse, it is positive unfaith because it prevents the mind from learning about new visions about the world.

Faith is, above all, openness -an act of trust in the unknown.

Alan Watts, The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

The Illusion of Separateness

The biggest taboo is knowing who you really are, behind the veneer of being an independent ego. This is different from Freud’s id or unconscious. Watts notes that Freud was influenced by “reductionism” – the nineteenth century fashion that felt the need to put down all human intelligence and culture by calling it an arbitrary by-product of blind forces.

Yet humans have hypnotized themselves into believing in the hoax of egocentricity.

And this ego-fiction is not essential to the individual. Each person is a branch of the tree of humanity, but differentiation is not separation. But man is conditioned to believe in the ego fiction, which creates in him a sense of alienation from everything else. This implants in him the desire to get one up on nature, to conquer it and to defeat everything that is separate from his individual body.

But this is absurd. The individual works for a vision that will never be fulfilled. He works for the promise of tomorrow, a future in which the impossible will happen. So, he lives always in the future, incapable of living in the present. There is never a point where you can say, “Now, I have arrived.” Formal education precludes this possibility by robbing you of the ability to be alive now.

Education consists of a series of steps, where each step prepares you for the next great moment, until finally, you get into university. And if you are clever, you manage to stay on indefinitely by going to graduate school and becoming a permanent student.

Otherwise, you join the outside world of family-raising, business, and profession. But even at work, each stage is another step, which promises to carry you towards a great moment. But by the time you get there, to the final point, towards retirement, to enjoy the fruits of your labor, your life of anxiety and emotions have left you with a “weak heart, false teeth, prostate trouble, sexual impotence, fuzzy eyesight, and a vile digestion.”

How to be a Genuine Fake?

Through technology, man tries to control life. But this strength and skill may be self-destructive.

In the past, recognition of life’s impermanence led to withdrawal. Monks, ascetics, and hermits tried to exorcise their desires, to regard the world with benign resignation, or to try to draw back into the depths of consciousness to unite with the Self. Others saw the world was a state of probation, where material goods were to be used as if they were loans from the Almighty, where the point of life was loving devotion to God and to man.

Yet both these responses are based on the initial supposition that the individual is the separate ego, and because this supposition is the work of a double­ bind any task undertaken on this basis including religion-will be sell-defeating. Just because it is a hoax from the beginning, the personal ego can make only a phony response to life. For the world is an ever elusive and ever-disappointing mirage only from the standpoint of someone standing aside from it as if it were quite other than himself and then trying to grasp it.

Alan Watts, The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

But there is a third response which we are conditioned to ignore, it is not withdrawal, but the fullest collaboration with the world, and knowing that the only real “I” is the endless process. Our bodies and senses know this, but our thin ray of conscious attention has been taught so well to ignore it. That is why we are genuine fakes.

The Denial of the Shadow

The mere understanding of the necessity of opposing poles can be substitute for psychotherapy.

There is an inevitable conflict that results from a lack of understanding of polarities – Prickles versus Gooeys.

I have sometimes thought that all philosophical disputes could be reduced to an argument between the partisans of ”prickles” and the partisans of “goo.” The prickly people are tough-minded, rigorous, and precise, and like to stress differences and divisions between things. They prefer particles to waves, and dis­continuity to continuity. The gooey people are tenderminded romanticists who love wide generalizations and grand syntheses.

Alan Watts, The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

This is like the dichotomy between the right-brain versus the left-brain, at least metaphorically.

Yet both types are hopelessly lost without the other because there would be nothing to argue about if one went missing.

Philosophy, within academia in the US and England, has been reduced to Mathematics and Linguistics. The Prickly have won the battle there.

The professional journals are now satisfactorily unreadable… But their sweeping victory over
the gooey people has almost abolished philosophy as a discipline.

But by a process Jung called ”enantiodromia”, the attainment of any extreme position is the point where it starts to turn to its opposite.

When you have realized this, then no matter how involved you will be in the games of practical life, you will never again indulge in the illusion that the “other” Is completely wrong and should be wiped out. This is what is called “honor among thieves.” The dangerous people are those who do not notice that they are thieves. With blind zeal, they play the role of the “good guy”, and they are unconscious of their indebtedness to the “bad guy.”

To paraphrase the Gospel, ”Love your competition, and pray for those who undercut your prices.” You would be nowhere at all without them.

Do not be an angel or a devil. When the would-be angels succeed, they unleash a hoard of devils to keep the balance. The prohibition taught us the lesson that the attempt to enforce purely angelic behavior will never succeed.  

The Future of Man

Travel, in the modern world, means to move form one place to another in the fastest speed, but most reachable points are cluttered with people and cars, so not worth going to. Real travel requires unscheduled wandering, for there is no other way for discovering surprises and marvels.

And this fast intercommunication between points renders all points the same point. Increasing efficiency of communication and of controlling human behavior can, instead of liberating us, fix us to the ground.

Writing in 1966 and influenced by authors like Huxley, Watts predicts:

All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself   anywhere without moving his body even to distant regions of space. But this will be a new kind of individual – an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity. And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experience There may be specialized types, just as there are specialized cells and organs in our bodies. For the tendency will be for all individuals to coalesce into a single bioelectronic body.

Alan Watts, The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

In that time, snooping technology existed, and communication was in the form of mail or telephone. The trend, however, could be seen to be pointing towards the end of individual privacy, where to conceal one’s thoughts would become impossible. In them end no one is left with a mind of their own. There is only a vast, complex community-mind with the power to control and predict the future for years to come.

But when the outcome of the game is certain, then you have already played it, the fun is gone. Eventually, man will transform from a biological flesh and blood creature into a plastic, synthetic, electronic reproduction. The next step of evolution is to create a man who is nothing more than electric patterns.

Power Is Not Wisdom

But the problem of cybernetics is its inability to control the process of control itself. Power is not necessarily wisdom. A government that has omnipotence may still commit acts of folly and error. Geneticists and neurologists may be able to produce any type of human character, but which character will be needed? A pioneer culture requires tough and aggressive individualists, but an urban industrial culture needs sociable team workers. As social change accelerates, how will geneticists foresee adaptations in taste and temperament that will be necessary in the decades ahead?

The Father Figure in Industrial Society

University students in Watts’ time had an aversion of the clumsy, clownish, money-making tool popularly portrayed as the father figure. The home in industrial society is essentially a dormitory, the father does not work there, and the wife and child have no part in his vocation. He is the character the brings in money, and when he finishes work, he is supposed to forget about his job and enjoy what the world of entertainment can promise him.

Dad, in media, is portrayed as an incompetent clown. The children do not get educated about their father’s work, instead, they join a school that is understaffed, run mostly by women who provide them with an education that teaches them about everything but prepares them for nothing.

The Mind That Perceives

And scientists, for their part, make human beings feel insignificant when compared to the vast cosmos. But your body is part of the cosmos. Society has forced upon you this idea that you are confined by the limitations of your conscious attention. Everything outside your conscious attention is alien to you and separate from you. But Watts says that this is nothing more than a cognitive illusion. You are an extension of the great unknown, and a part of what you find so magnificent. Your conscious attention is a miniscule part of your identity.

While the vastness and beauty of the universe is awe-inspiring, it should go without saying then, that if you are in awe of the universe, you should be more in awe of your brain, since it can perceive the universe in all its wonder.  

The Double-Blind Game

Watts does what is in his nature to do, to philosophize and to preach. But in society, there is a double-blind game that is being played. A double-blind game is a game with self-contradictory rules – a game doomed to self-destruction.

The first rule of this game is that it is not a game.
Everyone must play.
You must love us.
You must go on living.
Be yourself, but play a consistent and acceptable role.
Control yourself and be natural
Try to be sincere.

This game demands for spontaneous behavior, such as loving and being natural and sincere. They happen naturally like growing hair. As soon as they are forced, they become contrived and phony.

Life and love generate effort, but effort will not generate them. Watts is making the point that these attributes are what is necessary to live a good life, but the way society forces them down people’s throats will backfire. There must be an element of risk involved, otherwise, it does not work. Dead certainty can only function in a totalitarian police state.

A society that only focuses on necessities such as food and shelter is an impoverished. Although, paradoxically, music, on the surface seems like a completely useless activity. When one listens to music, they are consciously choosing to devote valuable time and attention to simply appreciate a subjectively agreeable pattern of notes.

Self-Knowledge is the greatest form of knowledge. Laughing at oneself is the greatest form of laughter. Humor as an antidote to suffering. Just as true humor is laughter at oneself, true humanity is knowledge of oneself.

The Futility of Perfection

Near the end of the book, Watts writes about what can only be interpreted as the Jungian shadow. He says that the more it is clear that to be is to quarrel and to pursue self-interest, the more you recognize your need for enemies to support you. And if you think long enough about the question, “Who or what am I?” the more you realize that you are nothing at all apart from everything else.

And yet, if you strive for moral perfection or mastery, you will see that you are playing rarified form of the old ego game, and that you achievement of any height is clear to you and to others only when contrasted with someone else’s failure.  

This understanding is paralyzing at first, because it seems there is no way out of the trap – the worst of all double-blinds. Any direction you take will imply and evoke its opposite.

Decide to be Christ and there will be a Judas to betray you and a mob to crucify you. Decide to be a devil and men will unite against you in the closest brotherly love. Your first reaction may be simply “To hell with it!” The only course may seem to be to forget the whole effort and become absorbed in trivialities, or to check out of the game by suicide or psychosis, and spend the rest of your days blabbering in an asylum.

Alan Watts, The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

But Watts says that there is another possibility, and that is to ask what the trap means. What does it mean to be paralyzed? To be in a game where all of the moves are self-defeating? This is like the double-blind that society placed you in as an infant, when it told you that you must be free, responsible, and loving.

The sense of paralysis is the dawning realization that this is nonsense and that your independent ego is a fiction. It does not exist, either to do anything or to be pushed around to do anything. The sense of “I” which you have identified with was cut off and isolated as a detached observer of that universe.

Watts, in a preceding chapter, makes the point that the organism and environment are unified. But to know for sure that your separate ego is a fiction, you will feel yourself as the whole process and pattern of life.

But there is no practical way of doing this.

Acts such as meditation, like music, ought to be done for their own sake, or not done at all. Once you meditate to detach for your ego, or any other goal, you ruin the project altogether.


Many of the convictions of Watts, ironically, result from his need for certainty, and for consistency. It is because he recognizes in the human experience, a blatant inconsistency (the double-blind game), that he is forced to concede that the ego cannot be real. But such a concession is not logically necessary. As Jung, and Nietzsche before him pointed out, man is a bundle of contradictory impulses, yet this does not mean that the ego does not exist, only that the ego is very complex. The fact that it changes or that it consists of many parts does not mean that it does not exist.

But what I found compelling was Watts’ discussion of the future. His vision of where mankind was headed, and how, absent mystery and strangeness and novelty, we were condemned to living in a state of constant repetition, where to be one place was to be in all places. Smartphones have indeed made this a reality, and more than that, they have allowed us to fulfill the second prediction put forward by Watts, that man will become a part of a vast machine, where on the one hand, he will lose his ability to think freely, and on the other hand, will become nothing more than an electronic pattern.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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