The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts

I was in the UK sitting on my friend’s sofa at 5am listening to Tibetan Buddhist chanting when I came to the realisation that I am God. Naturally, the next thing I did was log in to Reddit (a website hailed as ‘The Front Page Of The Internet’) to share my revelation. I loaded up the philosophy page and posted the good news:

Hey guys. We are all God and we are all the Universe. By loving ourselves we’re actually loving the Universe. By loving each other, we’re really loving God (and each other, which is awesome).”

The response was swift. And brutal.

Why does the quality of this page always bomb after 9pm???”

After this, my post was deleted. I can only guess that I had broken the rule that prohibited ‘idle musings’ from being submitted, but in my mind there was nothing ‘idle’ about what I’d wanted to share. Quite the opposite in fact, I thought I’d hit upon some cardinal truth that was going to make life better for everybody.

I sat back in puzzlement and tried to figure out just what it was that prevented my fellow Redditors from embracing the easy elegance of the truth I’d just shared. And while I didn’t recognise it at the time, the answer should’ve been obvious to me. Those Redditors and I differed in one small but vitally important detail; they probably didn’t have significant quantities of LSA and THC soaring through their nervous systems at the time.

Occurring naturally in a variety of plants across the world LSA and THC are psychedelic chemicals which when consumed by human beings bring about changes in the way they feel, see and think about themselves and the world around them. Exploring the potential benefits of this kind of chemically-induced altered insight is what prompted Alan Watts to write his book The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, a slender volume that takes all of a lazy Sunday afternoon to read and can best be described as half scientific report, half visionary memoir.

We see in this book Watts trying to follow in the footsteps of The Doors Of Perception, spurred on by his conviction that it was his duty ‘to encourage a positive, above-board, fearless and intelligent approach to what are now known as psychedelic chemicals.’ This conviction is robust and firmly fortified in a scientific rigour which Watts goes to great lengths to ensure the readers are aware of. He writes in his introduction that ‘if [drugs] are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear.’ Psychedelic drugs, as Watts sees them, are instruments which can be used to enhance our consciousness in the same way the telephone enhances our hearing.

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Anticipating that too few people will be able to experiment with the drugs themselves (pointing a finger at the ‘fantastically punitive laws against marijuana’ in the USA), Watts has written his account with the intention of exemplifying the value of these ‘sacraments of the religion of science’ via recording the ways in which they enhanced his own consciousness. Because many of Watts’ audience were unlikely to have had similar experiences I keep thinking the attempt to record them must’ve been something like trying to explain colours to a blind person, or the nuances of a symphony to a deaf person – words just can’t cut it. This is all to say that Watts is writing about experiences which language is incapable of accurately imparting. Yet, even though we lack a specific vocabulary with which to explain the sensations and visions of psychedelic experiences (even more so to describe the subtle shifts in consciousness and awareness which occur), Watts fearlessly dives in to give it a try.

The narrative takes place in a single day and sees Watts engaging in ordinary activities (such as listening to music, walking through a garden and relaxing with friends) while under the influence of psychedelic chemicals. Through the filter of Watts’ tinctured state of mind the unremarkable events are experienced in a singularly remarkable way and the resulting text is dense with memorable one-liners, vivid imagery, benevolent humour and profound philosophical insight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWatts writes ‘I begin to feel that the world is at once inside my head and outside it’ and we wonder at the nature of this odd sensation. Conveniently, one of my favourite quotes from the book provides us with further insight, ‘light is an inseparable trinity of sun, object and eye.’ This deceivingly simple sentence has bold implications. Namely the idea that our traditional understanding of reality – where we as individuals feel inexorably separate from what is outside our body – is total nonsense. Watts is recognising the fundamental truth that there can’t be the world of objects ‘out there’ without the ‘in here’ of bodily organs and a nervous system to experience it. The outer and inner are two sides of the same coin and as one implies the other they can never be separated. This leads us to the realisation that ourselves and our environment go together like front and back and are in fact all part of the same happening. Underneath the apparent dichotomy of ‘in’ and ‘out’ is the incontrovertible unity of ‘all’.

This touches on one of Watts’ core concerns which is the way in which the grammatical conventions of language prevent us from being able to feel our connectedness with everything. We are compelled from a young age to label the ‘in’ as distinct from the ‘out’ which naturally leads us to consider them as unrelated, separate things. Perhaps as a response to this imposition of language, Watts is often seen to be playfully stretching and testing its limits.

The Joyous Cosmology is no exception and sees Watts creatively redeploying language in a way that stays loyal to logic. He writes of his experience that the ‘tables are tabling, pots are potting, walls are walling, fixtures are fixturing.’ Here, I think Watts is trying to embody the essence of the things he’s looking at as opposed to simply listing them. He takes a bunch of common nouns (table, pot, wall, fixture) and makes continuous verbs from them (tabling, potting, walling, fixturing). Watts turns the label-name we give objects into presently occurring action. He doesn’t merely see an inanimate, inactive object with four legs made of wood, he sees a cosmic convergence of matter and energy expressing itself in the present moment as a table. And that’s what the present moment is, the fantastic, rolling coagulation of energy at the glorious climax of everything that ever happened. Through the lens of his altered consciousness Watts recognises the table as part of ‘a world of events instead of things’. And although the individual events are temporary and will one day disappear, Watts sees how they are all part of the same flow of life which will go on for eternity.

Pictured: the glorious, incomprehensible, fantastic culmination of everything that ever happened.

Pictured: the glorious, incomprehensible, fantastic culmination of everything that ever happened.

This vision of reality is summed up by Watts when he writes ‘instead of knowers and knowns there are simply knowings, and instead of doers and deeds there are simply doings.’ He perceives that the agent of the action and the action itself are in fact one and the same process; the illusion of duality gives way to the reality of unity. Watts undercuts grammatical convention in order to evolve our language into a tool which can free us from the ‘separative consciousness [that] normally ignores the world as an interrelated whole.’

An escape from this separative consciousness, I now realise, is what I had achieved that night sitting on the sofa when only words like ‘God’ and ‘Universe’ seemed powerful and all-encompassing enough to relay the enormity of what I had come to understand. Ultimately, those words had failed me because words simply can’t convey the profundity of the experience or the conviction of the insight. When I read in The Joyous Cosmology of Watts experiencing ‘the strange and unholy conviction that “I” am God’ my mind went straight back to that night on the sofa and I felt at once in the presence of a kindred spirit. As for the idea itself, I think it’s worth remembering the words of another eminent scientific enquirer, Albert Einstein, who said:

“If at first an idea isn’t absurd, there’s no hope for it.”

Einstein - providing profound outros since 1879

Einstein – making outros profound since 1879

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