Things and Thinks

                                                      Things and Thinks

quotes below from Alan Watts.

Absolutely central to Zenism is this apparently puzzling idea:

 There are no things.

 And there are no events.

What on earth can this mean?

Our whole world appears very obviously to be made up of things and events. To say they don’t exist sounds like madness, and one of the reasons Buddhism is easily dismissed is because the idea that the world is maya – often translated as ‘illusion’ – is popularly believed to mean that the world doesn’t actually exist in some way, that it’s really a kind of wispy nothingness, a pure product of the mind.

It is the annoying hippy after one toke too many informing you, sagely, that ‘the world is an illusion, man’.

That’s not what maya – a Sanskrit word – means at all.

“The root of the word maya is’ ma’ which is at the base of other words…matter, mata (mother), matrix, metric… ‘Ma’ means, ‘to measure’. That is the root.

 “The word ‘material’ means the metered world, the measurable world – matr, maya, illusion.

 “We measure, or ‘bit’ the world, then start to take it for granted that the world actually is a lot of bits, with everything separate. These make up the frail mesh of abstractions with which the human mind tries to grasp the world always, ultimately, in vain”

 “The material world is one of pure abstraction, a completely abstract creation, not concrete at all. How does a scientist treat the material world? He measures and numbers, representing nature in terms of abstract categories, metres, inches, seconds, degrees. All are as abstract as lines of latitude and longtitude.

 “The taste, the flavour, the meaning of life is the important thing, but they are not measurable. Abstraction divides everything into differences. Events are separated in the same way minutes are separated. In fact the lines between events are filmy and unreal.

“Don’t confuse units of measurement with what is being measured. The real world which can be seen and felt without abstraction is the world where you are not different from everything.

 Our determination to ‘bit’ the world became particularly acute during the industrial revolution, the age of machines.

 To understand a machine, you analyse the parts into original bits. So we have ‘bitted’ the cosmos. Everything is bits of information.

 “This is very fruitful for purposes of control. We develop the art of thinking that the universe – which is in fact like a Rorschach blot – is built along straight lines. We tell a story about the blot. . And we all agree on a lot of the stories/interpretations. They work for us so long as we agree on them.

“But this is maya.” 

How do we escape from our psychological habit that the world is just ‘bits’? Firstly one recognises that it is perfectly natural to think in such a way.

“Thinking in abstractions is part of nature, just as spider weaves web to catch flies, it’s a net to catch the universe. But there is something other than a net to catch universe in. In order to find it, you have to stop using the net, just as to listen you have to stop talking. You must be open to the real world in order to translate it.

 “Instead we think compulsively, as if conversation ceased, we would cease – and in a way, we would. Taoists speak of being thoughtless, of having an empty mind. Of seeing the world without dividing it into instants, or seeing it all as one instant (and one event)

 “You need to look without naming, then you can see world in a different way. You need to divest yourself of the interpretive system in which you grew up, in which you live like a strait jacket.

 “The world doesn’t happen one thing at a time. Everything is happening all at once.”

 “How many things there are depends on how you look at it. We break the world into things/thinks. Things and events are ways of breaking up complex world into a way we can think about it.”

Watts insistence that ‘things’ and ‘events’ are merely concepts, constructions of the mind, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. It just means that we tend to think about the world in a certain way that can be misleading.

There certainly appear to be ‘things’. The table I’m sitting at, the chair I’m sitting on, the computer I’m working at. But if we think about it carefully, it is easy to see that ‘things’ are actually hardly different at all from ‘events’.

“What do you mean by a ‘thing’? This is an unexamined supposition of our culture. What do you mean by an ‘event’? No one can say. A thing is a ‘think’. A ‘think’ is a unit of thought, like an inch is a unit of measurement.

 Even if you look closely enough inside a lump of rock, it is lively, dynamic, full of energy and movement.

Everything, ultimately, is process.

Physicists have abandoned the quest for ‘stuff’. The universe is entirely form. There is only pattern. When you turn up a microscope, all ‘stuff’ turns into form, – carpet, crystals, molecules, wavicles, you name it. But they’re not ‘made of’ anything. When you look closely enough, stuff vanishes. There is only form. Named form.

 “When physicists starting trying to find out what ‘stuff’ was – they couldn’t find anything. Not waves or particles even. They found wavicles. What ‘ stuff’ is, is a pattern seen out of focus. Never anything else.

“The world strikes us as being material until we examine it closely. In other words, a distant nebula in the heavens looks like a solid star until you turn a giant telescope on it and you make out the clear pattern of a spiral nebula. Or to the naked eye, a lump of wood looks like a solid impenetrable mass of continuous matter. But look at it through a microscope. It’s a whirring mass of electrical charges going on in enormous space.

 “The concept of ‘stuff’ is something we get when we haven’t imagined things sufficiently closely. Or when our instruments are not fine enough to penetrate what we are observing. But when the instruments are fine enough, what we get instead , what we get is moving pattern. And pattern is simply a form of behavior. Of activity.

The idea we get that there are ‘things’ is partly due to the limitations of our nervous systems, and partly because of the logical construction of our language, which insists on nouns and verbs.

We also resist the idea that everything is process, because it brings us closer to the uncomfortable truth, which is right at the heart of Buddhism that everything is transitory and at the heart of everything is void.

 The idea that we are substantial and real and solid is an idea that we cherish dearly, because it makes us feel secure. But in that need for security, we lose sight of reality.

“Transience is the basic condition of life. Nothing can be possessed. We are all dissolving smoke. Life, despite its appearance of being solid, is immaterial. Going away, dissolving is the same thing as living. To dissolve is the heart of beauty and the heart of life.

 “Everything disappears into nothing at all but out of that nothing at all come all the new things, for ever and ever. Everything comes and goes. Everything is waves – sound, light, all forms of energy. Life itself is a ‘wave’, or vibration – a pulsing of life/death. (see Rhythms, Waves, Vibrations, Polarities, and Mutual Arisings) There is nothing we can hold on to. Everything is becoming – and be-going.

 “The search for security is like jumping of a cliff holding tightly onto a rock. I and all other things now present will vanish. The world is as flowing and diaphanous as filmy patterns of blue smoke in the air. There is nothing to clutch and no one to clutch it.

 “The world is a mirage. Everything is forever falling apart and there is no way of fixing it. The more strenuously you clutch the airy nothingness, the more swiftly it collapses in your hands.”

 However, it goes deeper than this. For if everything is an event, who’s to say where one event starts and another event ends?   If you are not a person, but an event, where did you start? As parturition? At conception? At birth? At the moment your mother and father met one another?

It is arbitrary.

The human desire to encapsulate the world into neat packages is responsible for us seeing the world as things and events.   But there are no things. And THERE IS ONLY ONE EVENT – everything that is happening now, everywhere in the universe.

When you state it thus, again, it seems fairly obvious. All the universe is ‘made of’ the same elements (not that anybody ‘’made’ them) and all those elements are in fact active processes. We separate those processes with our minds, but these divisions are in our minds, not out there in the world.

As Teildhard de Chardin put it in ‘The Phenomenon of Man’

‘Considered in its physical, concrete reality, the stuff of the universe cannot divide itself but, as a kind of gigantic ‘atom’, it forms its totality…the only real indivisible. The farther and more deeply we penetrate into matter by means of increasingly powerful methods the more we are confounded by the interdependence of its parts…it is impossible to cut into this network, to isolate a portion without it becoming frayed and unravelled at the edges’.

 One concept that Watts came back to time and time in his writing is that, as he puts it, ‘the universe is wiggly’.

This simply means that ‘the regularities, sharp angles, definitions and precision that appeal to the rational, mathematical mind do not exist in nature. Nature is all over the place – flowing, changing, coming and going. This makes us uncomfortable, since it’s hard to keep track of nature, so we try and put it into boxes.’

We measure nature, and break it down, analyse it into bits. This is extremely useful for the purposes of control, and this activity has led to the tremendous technological success of modern man.

“We develop the art of thinking that the universe, which is in fact all wiggles, is built along straight lines. We are always trying to straighten things out. But nature itself is wiggly. This is a bit of a nuisance for humans because we want to figure it out.

 “We are living in a box, the great symbol of classification. What box are you in? Animal, vegetable, mineral? Solid or gas? Republican or Democrat? They are all boxes.

 “We think in boxes, and we live in boxes. You don’t get reality by naming it and classifying it and analysing it. You get it by looking at it. If you put everything in boxes you can’t see it any more”

 “Our concentration picks out features in environment which we say are noteworthy, that is to say, notated with words and numbers.

 “Each individual experiences himself as separate, that the world is a lot of things. People think of themselves as a thing. But why do you think you are a thing?

 “We ‘thing’ the world, in order to talk about it. It’s one grasp of the spotlight. This reduces infinite wiggliness to bits, to grasps of thought.”

 What does Watts mean by ‘one grasp of the spotlight’?

He believes one of the reasons we have such trouble seeing reality accurately – and understanding ourselves comprehensively – is the discriminatory nature of consciousness.

Watts talks about two essential forms of consciousness, ‘Spotlight’ consciousness and ‘Floodlight’ consciousness. ‘Spotlight’ consciousness is what we are used to, what we are taught from childhood onwards, when we are told to ‘concentrate’.

It roughly translates into ‘conscious attention’, which Watts sees as analogous to the ‘ego feeling’.

The floodlight, on the other hand, is the unconscious mind, which we tend to distrust, as a kind of remnant of our animal selves, but which Watts and many Eastern philosophies look to as the source of authentic selfhood.

“The narrow form of consciousness is called scanning, or dividing experience into bits. It’s like sweeping a radar beam over the environment. You intensely concentrate light on restricted areas.

 “The floodlight is less intense, but it gives the big picture. You can drive for miles, using spotlight consciousness and talking to a friend but floodlight consciousness is driving the car.

 “We specialise in spotlight consciousness and identify with it. We think ‘I am my conscious attention, that is me’. But we ignore the floodlight, which is working all the time.

 “We are taught to ‘concentrate’. So we have developed a sense of ourselves as just the spotlight, and we ignore the vast extent of our being. That which you are fundamentally and forever.   All that there is.”

 What is the unconscious mind, ultimately? What is the floodlight’? It is the energy that created the universe – is creating the universe, Watts would say.

It is the universe becoming conscious of itself. It is the real you, you at your deepest level. The conscious mind, the spotlight, is useful, but it is not you. It is, as Jung put it, ‘ a neurosis of the unconscious’, a concept, not a concrete reality.

The unconscious mind is ultimately more efficient – a concept that is not unique to Buddhism, but has been suggested repeatedly in the West, most recently in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’

“Conscious attention fails. Because it all is too complicated to manage, especially during the information explosion. But what about the floodlight? There exists the power of human nervous system to comprehend situations without analysis. It is a kind of pattern recognition. Technology leaves out our strongest suit, the brain itself.

 “You can’t figure you out. It would be like biting your own teeth. You have to trust your own brain. This permits the brain to operate at an optimal level. Life comes at you from all sides all everywhere at once and rationality is too slow, calculation is too slow.

 “I’m not against technology, you have to use both left and right foot, that is, technology and instinct.   But we are too ‘heady’.

The essential point about the floodlight is that it is not only our unconscious – it is all the self-governing forces that run your body, without your conscious mind having anything to do with it.

Your sense of self is a tiny, virtual dot of awareness in the midst of a vast process with which we are absolutely intertwined and at the centre of.

Your eye shapes itself, and you don’t know how it happened. You don’t know how to breathe your breath, but you do it all the time. Your unconscious is part of this same automatic process.

This force, if you want to call it that, is everywhere, and it is dynamic and creative, but you can never put your finger on it. Why? Because it would be like trying to see your own eyeball.

 “We don’t know how we do all sorts of things like grow your hair and beat your heart. You can’t pin down you, because it’s you.””

 “You can’t see your own head. You never get at it. You can’t bite your own teeth or hear your own ears. That which is the knower is never itself the object of knowledge, just as fire doesn’t burn itself.”

 The conscious mind, the spotlight, sees ‘stuff’, discriminated and separated into categories. In reality, however…

 “We think of world as a pattern of something, something that we call substance. But the world is not made.

 “What are stars ‘made of’? What are mountains ‘made of’? What are trees ‘made of’? This is an unnecessary notion. All there is, is complex and subtle pattern. Dancing energy from standpoint of a physicist.

 “We have the illusion that we are a ‘thing’ in the way we think a flame on a candle is a ‘thing’, but in fact it is a stream of energy, flowing upwards and disappearing. A flame is actually a flaming. A person is actually a person-ing.

 “We also are a streaming, the (by-product of) turning of air and water and food and minerals into shit. We are the flowing vibration through which all this goes. We are never the same from one moment to the next, any more than a flame is. You will never die, because you were never born. Someone else was born. Someone else will die.”

The world doesn’t happen one thing at a time. Everything is happening at once. Furthermore that happening did not spring out of the past, and it is not stretching into the future. It is, and always has been, happening NOW.

 It’s not just a matter of us measuring the world and then going on to believe that our measurements are the reality, but of us looking for sharp lines and clear logical delineations in our own head. But since the brain, part of nature , is also wiggly, this is doomed to failure.

Our determination to ‘bit’ the world is partly the result of the mindset of what Watts calls ‘prickly’ people.

Watts believed the world could be divided into two kinds of people – prickly and gooey.

“There are people out of touch with wiggliness of things. We call them ‘straights’ and ‘squares’.

There are prickles and goo. Prickly people have a certain attitude, they want a precise answer to everything. These are people who are always edgy and accuse other people of being disgustingly vague. Gooey people think prickly people are skeletons. They can read the notes but they can’t hear the tune. The problem for rigid people is, how do I stop getting uptight? Because it’s useless.

 “It’s all a visualisation of particles and waves, classicist and romanticist, nominalist and realist. But it’s neither – it’s prickly goo. Is the world basically stuff or structure? There is never any basic stuff.

 “It is as if a fisherman held up his net and looked at world through a net. We calculate by breaking down wiggliness into units. This is very successful up to a point so we imagine that is the way the physical world is, discrete and discontinuous. But this is a prejudice of a certain personality types – the prickly types.”

 Watts then goes on to point out that the Western ‘prickly’ way of looking at things – analysing, measuring, putting things into boxes – is culture specific and somewhat alien in the Chinese tradition.

“The Chinese do not believe in the ‘laws of nature’, but they do believe in order, li, organic patterns in which nature plays. In West, that which cannot be written down and discussed in academic way does not matter. This is a very limited point of view.

 “The world that can be described is never the same as the world that exists. The described world and real world are incommensurable. People are hypnotised and bewitched by words. You must never lose sight of that. Or you eat the menu instead of the dinner, or swallow the money.

 We have started to believe that our measurements which represent the world actually are the world.   It is as if we think we could tie a parcel up with a bit of the equator. We have mistaken the menu for the food or the ‘map for the territory’, as the philosopher and General Semanticist Alfred Korzybski put it

( Korzybiski was often quoted by Watts) 

Watts mentions an event that happened in England in 1752 that illustrates the point precisely.

The troubles begin when fictions are taken as facts. Thus in 1752 the British government instituted a calendar reform which required that September 2 of that year be dated September 14, with the result that many people imagined that eleven days had been taken off their lives and rushed to Westminster, screaming ‘Give us back our eleven days!’.


 In the West, we have found the techniques of analysis and conscious attention hugely useful in terms of building a technical and scientifically efficient society. This way of thinking has tremendous payoffs that are too obvious and too numerous to catalogue. Watts has no problem with this way of thinking – but he insists that it is only that – one way of thinking.

It is not necessarily the best way for navigating life, or finding some kind of inner equilibrium.

“In religion we are looking for solids, upon which I can ‘take my stand’, rock of ages, the ‘ground’ of being. But we don’t live in that sort of universe. We live in fluid universe. Don’t ‘take your stand’ – swim. You have to trust the water to support you”.

We want everything straightened out. Rigidity seem to be always in a fight with the surrounding fluidity. We act like landlubbers rather then men of the waves. We think of sea is fluid and land as solid, but nothing further than truth. Earth is not solid. It flows. Land is liquid.  

It is fundamental to pleasure that we learn to wiggle. Let go. Relax. Don’t become droopy – become supple. Learn to flow with gravity. In our culture, to take line of least resistance is seen to be cowardly and despicable. We feel we have got to get there in straight line, to take the fastest distance between two points. We are taught life is serious, and it must be done according to Euclidian ideas of efficiency.”

 “But in ancient times, when people worked, they sang. Imagine a bank teller singing. Why not? Imagine stockbroker’s working song. Once I had my shoe shined in a New York subway, and, man, he was swinging.

Christianity conceives heaven as city, not a garden. But if you resist the wiggliness of life, you can’t live life. “

 Further Information

“Picture Without a Frame” –‘Talking Zen’ Chapter One. Lecture at Buddhist Lodge 1933 EARLIEST KNOWN WATTS LECTURE.

‘Things and Thinks’ – Alan Watts DVD available from

One thought on “Things and Thinks

  1. Alan Watts has an expansive sense of humour …. Eckhart Tolle has a different style but the same spirit.
    I live on the east coast of Australia.
    ” The Wisdom Of Insecurity ” is essential reading. All of the KQED episodes are great. I own 8 books by Alan plus the biography by Monica Furlong. He is a lovable man and lives on forever. Thanks Tim !


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