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.

Freedom From the Known, Krisnamurti

I hope you can tell I’m starting to dig spiritual books 😉

I place Krishnamurti in the same genre as Osho: both are Enlightened spiritual masters who present their material in provocative ways. Which is probably why these books are very popular among not-so-spiritual people.

Both authors deal with big societal problems in their books, saying how it’s a lack of consciousness that is the root of the world going to hell, and that the only way to fix it is for each individual to raise their consciousness.

Anyway, these parallels aside, let’s get into the meat of the book.

Krishnamurti is “trying to understand violence, not as an idea, as a fact which exists in the human being.”

He lays out how most people are violent, which, OK, are pretty obvious if you’ve looked into it: violence in jealousy, in greed, in relationships, and so on.

What I liked what how he even says labelling yourself as a Hindu or a Muslim is being violent. How? “Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind.” Any judgement, nationality, tradition breeds this kind of violence because it separates you from the world.

He lays out the state of humankind pretty blatantly: “We are afraid of the known and afraid of the unknown.”

In order to remedy the world, Krishnamurti, recommend knowing ourselves and becoming aware of all the stupid stuff we do in our lives.

How to do this? Simply look. Look at the processes, outer and inner, and come to the realization that they are one.

But, wait! Something I find very intriguing about Krishnamurti and Osho is that they both vehemently reject teachings and religions. In this book, Krishnamurti talks at length about why you cannot depend on ANY teacher to show you how to do this work, even the wisest old sage in the mountain you could possibly imagine. Why? Because outward authority cannot bring inward order. You need to know yourself for yourself.

Speaking of authority, he also makes a point about inward authority. Effectively, all the beliefs, dogmas, judgements, condemnations, justifications, ideas, and principles you hold will get in the way of clear seeing. To reject authority, outer and inner, will render your mind “always fresh, always innocent, full of vigor and passion.” In this clear state can we truly see.

The author makes a point about rebels, people that vilify tradition. In order to transcend society, we can’t reject it, because again what is it doing? Separating us from reality. So rejecting the world is not the answer, despite what many people wishing for a better world think.

I love what he has to say about this process: it’s an understanding, not an intellectual learning about this stuff. The difference is that understanding is always in the present, learned knowledge is the past. And coming from the past modifies how you see the present.

We also need a great deal of humility on this journey. We must start by accepting that we don’t know squat about ourselves.

The last point I’ll make about this book is that Krishnamurti’s point on the mind being conditioned.

The mind is a conditioned machine. It picks up ideas, beliefs, and never lets them go.

Have you noticed how robotic you are in life? Running the same patterns, most of them picked up from culture. Even the ones rejecting culture are just conditioned reactions against culture.

The point is to put less faith in the mind because the mind is of the past. What is past is past.

Awareness is now. It is looking as something in the present without any biases, beliefs, judgements, or pre-disposed emotional reactions.

Only with this tool, awareness, can we truly live from a place of wisdom, authenticity, and love.

So that’s all I’ll say about the content of this book. Just note that, like most spiritual books, it’s pretty abstract, but surprisingly practical at the same time if you let these ideas into your life. It doesn’t lay out the techniques, but just states that awareness is the only technique you need.

After all, what else do you have? 😉

The Verdict:

Pretty good book on spirituality. Provides a good basis for the work to follow.

Favorite quote:

“To understand yourself is the beginning of wisdom.”

Osho: The Book of Understanding

I’ve heard many great things about Osho. This is the first book I’ve read by him, and I found it full of surprises.

You could qualify this book as spiritual. I certainly looked at it from that point of view, because Eastern spirituality has become a great interest of mine. But you certainly don’t have to look at it through the lens of spirituality. I think what Osho has to say is pertinent to anyone in the personal development community.

There was one main thing that I wasn’t expecting. In this book, Osho talks a lot about the union of the East and the West, of consciousness and technology, of science and religion (he calls it “Zorba the Buddha”). Which I think is exactly what this world needs. The surprising part was the very extensive rant on religions as we know them: Christianity, Islam…

I wasn’t expecting such firm and critical views on religion from and Enlightened person. Probably my own projection, but I must say it took a while to get used to.

For that reason, it felt like this book was meant for deeply religious people. And I’m sure they could get a lot out of it. But, just for fun, I tried to replace the rant on religion for science, which is far overblown in our society. Osho talks about the difference between knowledge and beliefs. He has this great quote, “Doubt until the very end, until you know and feel and experience.” This goes for science as well as religion: don’t rely on beliefs: go with what is true for you. “If you think you know, you will never know,” because belief hinders investigation.

One concept that I absolutely loved from this book was trying to be ordinary.

Yes, that’s right. Try to be ordinary.

Doesn’t that feel good? Like a great burden has been lifted from your shoulders?

Don’t try to be extraordinary, that’s what everyone is doing. The ego likes to think it’s special, and because of this it creates suffering in your life. “Become ordinary and you will become extraordinary.” You will feel so complete, humble, simple, and free. Yet another piece of great counter-intuitive advice.

Another part I liked was the chapter on “response-ability” as opposed to reactions. Responsibility, if you break up the word, means the ability to respond in the moment, and is derived from present experience, as opposed to reactions, which are based on past experiences.

Like all spiritual teachers, Osho is big on living in the moment. Live as awareness, act like a mirror to the world, to your mind. You’ll see that the grass starts to grow on its own: the doer stops, but the doing continues. That is authentic living.

And now for the most exciting part of the book: sex. Yes, he talks about sex, and actually has some pretty interesting things to say about it. Sexual energy to him is the basis for all divine energy, and apparently you can achieve a meditative state which having an orgasm, and that will translate to growth (which I have yet to try). I don’t think he’s the first to propose this idea. His advice is to accept sex as a natural part of life, and to move with it, only with more consciousness.

Osho also talks about relationships. This part was kind of a big comfort to me while reading it, because that’s an area of life I’m far from mastering. He says that we have been conditioned to be afraid of the opposite sex, but there is nothing to be afraid of. When you think about it, it kind of makes sense: men are taught to fear rejection, women are taught to be wary of men.

But he comes back with this, which I’ll copy straight from the book: “they are just like you, just as much in need of love as you are, hankering just as much to join hands with you as you.”

It was very comforting to read that. 🙂

The last idea I liked from the book was his breaking down of the word “understanding.” It really is genius: when you meditate, everything “stands under” your awareness. Understanding happens on a different plane than the problem, than the intellect.

Which brings me to the core of Osho’s advice: meditation.

He says that meditation simply makes you aware that you are not your mind. Watch your thoughts, watch your mind, and that will make you realize that you aren’t them.

Keep in mind while meditating to:

  • drop repressions of any kind
  • don’t focus on a “God”
  • don’t think of it as something you do for 20 minutes a day, do it as a part of your being: make it natural, something you do as part of your waking life. Of course, make it a habit, do a set practice every day, but don’t think of it as such

I know that everyone will take something different from Osho, and that different people read him, from spiritual gurus to pick-up artists. It just depends on where you’re at. It probably makes more sense if you’re familiar with concepts like Enlightenment, but he has some very practical and easy mindsets to adopt that will work for anyone.

The Verdict:

Definitely good ideas in the book, which can be interpreted in different ways. Very interested to read more from Osho.

Favorite quote:

“If you express your being in your truest form, you will be rewarded immediately – not tomorrow but today, here and now.”