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

This is my first book by Alan Watts. And it didn’t disappoint.

The subtitle of this book is “On the taboo against knowing who you are.” Which is an appropriate name for it.

What’s the taboo he’s talking about? Non-duality!

This book is a great introduction to non-duality from a rather academic standpoint. More on that later.

Basically, what this book shows you is that we live in a black-and-white world: the world of duality. Good/bad, left/right, male/female, me/you… The list goes on.

Thus, because we feel separate from the world, thinking we are little egos inside our heads, we are able to inflict massive harm on the world. Look at global warming. If there is an “outside world”, then that outside world has to be “conquered.” That’s a very Western attitude, of man vs. nature.

Another result of thinking I’m an ego is the creation of in-groups and out-groups. This is the case of every religion, sect, political party, even science. If everyone thinks they’re right, they’re willing to harm others to prove their point. Which leads to war, genocide, hostility, racial tensions, etc…

So, Watts presents the universal notion of God, aka the Universe, Reality, Truth, the Self. You know how the story goes. And guess what, you’re IT!

Of course, he emphasizes that you can’t understand this intellectually nor see or feel God. It’s above all the experience.

The main part of the book talks about duality, and particularly how opposites are dependent on each other. There can be no “left” without “right”.

But we most often play the game of Black-versus-White. We think that white has to triumph over black, forgetting to acknowledge that neither can exist without the other. If this is the case, neither can win. It’s impossible. In this way, it is all just a cosmic game. A game we’ve taken way too seriously. As Watts, says, it’s “as crazy as trying to keep the mountains and get rid of the valleys.”

Another point he makes is the complete paradox that society gives its citizens: “Be yourself, but play a consistent and acceptable role.” Or put another way “Control yourself and be natural,” or “Try to be sincere.” This is the double-bind societal game. No wonder most teenagers these days are confused, and most people in general frustrated. So now we go about fulfilling self-contradictory goals.

One thing that I kind of disagree with Watts about is what to do after having come into contact with this information. He says that trying to become egoless is just another egoic act. It reaffirms itself all the time. Which is true ONLY AFTER you’ve had an awakening. Once you see your true nature, THEN you know that getting rid of an ego is egoic. But the initial seeking and seeing is paramount.

Yes, seeking your true nature through spirituality is ultimately egoic. But you must do that in order to know who you truly are. Then you will see that trying to get rid of your ego is a) egoic and b) impossible because your ego simply doesn’t exist in the first place.

This part comes in the last part of the book. I highly recommend it, and if you’ve had an awakening, you know exactly what he’s talking about, that spiritual exercises for Enlightenment are egoic in nature. That’s ultimately true, but don’t forget that they’re necessary in order to know the Self in the first place.

I said earlier that this book is pretty academic, and it is. There aren’t any exercises or anything like that in here. But it’s very relatable and will give you a great conceptual understanding of this big illusion we live in.

Watts also has a few interesting parts about philosophy, namely his famous “prickly” and “gooey” philosophers.

By the way, you can get a free PDF of this book here:

https://terebess.hu/english/AlanWatts-On%20The%20Taboo%20Against%20Knowing%20Who%20You%20Are.pdf

The Verdict:

Great far-reaching book for a secular introduction to non-duality and philosophy.

Favorite quote:

For enjoyment is an art and a skill for which we have little talent or energy.

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The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell

Who knew all the ancients had similar myths and stories?

Apparently, Joseph Campbell.

The Power of Myth is a nice book that discusses all the parallels that exist between the myths of many different cultures throughout the world. It’s quite a fascinating read if you’re into stories, culture or religion / spirituality.

What’s surprising is that so many cultures have similar myths and motifs in these myths. Those folks knew some stuff about the human psyche.

One important aspect of the book is how new life is made. Campbell states that “Somebody has to die in order for life to emerge,” and this has been common to most cultures throughout history: human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, sacrificing oneself for one’s children… you get the idea.

Basically, it’s a fact of growth that something has to die first. In PD, one could say this means dying to your old self: forget who you were yesterday, that’s not you now.

Another thing that some of you might be familiar with is the motif of the Hero’s Journey.

Here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Starts by being seen in ordinary existence.
  2. Presented with call to action, opportunity.
  3. Rejection of the call.
  4. Forced to accept call because it is imposed upon him.
  5. Ventures into unknown territory, faces threshold guardian (first obstacle).
  6. If fails, goes to find mentor (=hero from past generation).
  7. Returns to fight threshold guardians.
  8. Faces more guardians until final boss which guards Holy Grail.
  9. Enters the belly of the whale: has to face himself, rethink his approach, look at his inner demons.
  10. When he gets Holy Grail, there is a 180 degree reversal of understanding of grail -> journey was not about the grail but about the development required to reach the grail -> finds peace and happiness in who he has become => journey to FIND himself.
  11. Tribe cannot comprehend his lessons because have not gone on journey.
  12. Hero retires as mentor.

How to be a hero 101 😉

This is the journey that all the great heroes throughout history and culture have taken: Jesus, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins… the list goes on.

Campbell defines a hero as “someone who has given her life to something bigger than oneself.” He even argues that motherhood can be seen as a heroic act, because in the past it was essentially devoting one’s life to one’s children, and sometimes even dying in the act of giving birth.

The interpretation I like is that the Hero’s Journey is really just a metaphor for Enlightenment. This is the Hero’s Journey we’re all called to go on in the end. That’s what giving our lives over to something bigger than ourselves is truly about.

Most people don’t realize that all these stories of heroes are really just metaphors for Enlightenment (which is what religion is). But that’s ultimately what it’s about.

Campbell says that all spiritual masters have undertaken this Hero’s Journey.

He also says that for you to have a Hero’s Journey of you own, they must “follow your bliss,” which I like as a substitute for Life Purpose. Find what best “fosters the flowering of your humanity.”

But don’t get distracted by the sexy life purpose journey: the real one is still Oneness.

Another point that is important in any journey: the TRIALS on a metaphorical Hero’s Journey and REVELATIONS on a spiritual Hero’s Journey both contribute to the raising of the hero’s consciousness. Muy importante.

At some point in any journey, you will need to descend into the belly of the whale, a notion that I really like. It’s that dark psychological place into which a hero MUST descend.

That’s where the real growth happens. Go the the very root of the thing.

Ok, enough with the Hero’s Journey. Campbell also discusses the universal notion of love, which he distinguishes into 3 types:

Eros = lust

Agape = spiritual love

Amor = romantic love

I love those names! Sounds so much better than simply “love.”

He also reminds us that compassion literally means “suffering with.” Being compassionate means voluntarily participating the the sorrows of the world.

Hopefully, he points out in the case of the Bodhisattva, you complete your Hero’s Journey to Enlightenment and then come back and live with and help the rest of the world. That’s what a Bodhisattva is.

Lastly, about the book itself: I really enjoyed it. It’s in the form of a dialogue between Campbell and a journalist named Bill Moyers, who is actually a pretty smart guy in the book. It’s a really pleasant read, and full of cultural juice.

Favorite quote:

“The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life’s joy.”

The Verdict:

And excellent read for understanding the origins of myth and the universally-known truths of the human psyche.