Alan Watts: our most private thoughts and emotions…. were given to us by society

We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. We copy emotional reactions from our parents, learning from them that excrement is supposed to have a disgusting smell and that vomiting is supposed to be an unpleasant sensation. The dread of death is also learned from their anxieties about sickness and from their attitudes to funerals and corpses. Our social environment has this power just because we do not exist apart from a society. Society is our extended mind and body. Yet the very society from which the individual is inseparable is using its whole irresistible force to persuade the individual that he is indeed separate! Society as we now know it is therefore playing a game with self-contradictory rules.

– Alan Watts from The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Seeing this helps us take our thoughts and emotions less personally. It all comes from somewhere else.

We can go further and find that every single thing we take as most personal is given to us by the larger whole. Our thoughts, emotions, personality, preferences, likes, dislikes, insights, choices, consciousness, any sense of a separate self, and so on were all given to us by existence.

The most personal is not really personal at all.

It’s given to us by society, evolution, Earth, this Universe, and existence as a whole.

We can take something very simple in our life and find a cause for it, and then another, and then another, until it’s difficult to find anything personal there.

I am writing this here now. Did I – as this human self – cause it? I saw a partial quote on FB and looked up the full one. This brain and body writing it come from millions of years of evolution. The computer was put together by many people I don’t know, and all the parts and technology were developed by innumerable people I also don’t know who are. It’s the product of millennia of technological development and the work and insights of a great number of people.

I didn’t write the quote, it came from Alan Watts. And he, in turn, was probably inspired by innumerable people, who in turn were inspired by and learned from a great many people.

All of this is made possible by this living planet and this solar system and universe. It’s all, in a very real sense, the universe and this living planet that is taking the form of this evolution, this species, all the species we have co-evolved with and depend on, these people, these thoughts and feelings and insights, the technology making writing it here possible and for you to read it, and everything else. It’s all the local activity of the universe and this living planet, through and as us and our mind and consciousness.

Everything that’s part of me writing this here has innumerable causes going back to the beginning of time (if there is any) and out to the widest extent of existence (if there is a boundary).

The reason I was drawn to it and decided to put it here must have innumerable causes from society, culture, biology, personal history, and so on. That too is the local activity of the universe and this living planet through and as me.

I cannot find any room for an “I” here doing it or deciding to do it. It all comes from somewhere else.

And to me, there is an immense beauty in noticing this.

This post was brought to you courtesy of existence.

Infinite causes, but also inevitable?

When I examine even the simplest choice, action, or situation, I see it has infinite causes and that these stretch back to the beginning of time and out to the widest extent of the universe.

But does that mean that what’s happening is inevitable? Some make that jump, but it’s a step too far for me right now.

Yes, for anything I can find a great number of causes, and then one more, and one more. But I don’t see how that means what’s happening is inevitable.

We can also say that what’s happening, whatever it is, is divine will. It is, after all, happening within and as the divine. And that too doesn’t mean that what’s happening is inevitable.

I understand the temptation to see something as destiny, predetermined, or inevitable. If it’s an idea we hold onto as true, it can be used to medicate a sense of regret, or grief, shame, guilt, or fear of making decisions. But it doesn’t really work. It just temporary covers it up, at best, and the uncomfortable feelings and the thoughts creating them are still there.

Of course, it’s possible that someone can have a genuine recognition of something as inevitable, but I am not there yet and I don’t know if it’s really possible since I don’t know if it’s aligned with reality.

The most honest answer to this question is that, yes, I can always find one more cause for anything happening, so these causes seem innumerable or infinite. There is a peace in recognizing this. Going one step further and saying that what’s happening is inevitable is one step beyond what’s honest for me right now.

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I told a friend about something in my life the other day, and she said “it’s karma”.

What does the word mean for me now?

Karma – whatever ideas we have about it – is an idea. It’s a projection. An overlay of images and thoughts. It’s not inherent in the world or “out there” in the world. And the idea of a world is also an idea that’s right here.

Within the realm of ideas of images, karma can be said to be cause and effect. We have an image of something go before something else in time, and have another image saying one caused the other.

One basic image of how karma operates is beliefs. Mind takes an image or thought as true, and there is a perception as if it’s true, emotions come as if it’s true, and actions come as if it’s true.

Another basic image if karma is of infinite causes. Whatever happens, even the most simple thing, and even that which seems the most “personal” such as choices and intentions, has infinite causes. I can make a long list of what brought it about, and I can always find one more thing, and one more thing. The whole universe, the whole of existence – in it’s extent and history – is behind it.

The first view of karma – focusing on beliefs – can be quite helpful. And the second helps soften the idea that it is – or something is or can really be – personal.

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Free will

I came across a new blog called Freedom or Necessity, which is an exploration into the question of free will.

It is an eternal question for us humans, and interesting to explore in our own lives.

The first thing that comes up for me is a set of additional questions: what does free will mean? For whom may there be free will? Who or what is choosing, if there is free will? Is there an entity choosing? Someone or something somehow set apart from everything else? Is that possible? On what basis are these choices made? What are the influences on these choices? What are the restrictions on these choices? If there are influences and restrictions, to what extent is it free?

My take on it is very simple-minded, and not so different from what I have explored earlier in this journal.

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Let Your will be done

What are some of the ways of working with let Your will be done?

In general, it makes sense to do what needs to be done in a conventional sense. Acting in ways that seem appropriate to whatever situation we are in, with whatever kindness and insight is available to us.

And within this, nurture an attitude or orientation of let Your will be done, and also notice that it is already so.

I can use it as a prayer, in a sincere and heartfelt way.

And I can take it as a pointer, a starting point for inquiry, and maybe notice that it is already so. God’s will is already done, in everything that happens, including that which I take as initiated by a doer here.

I can notice that through the headless experiments or the Big Mind process.

I can inquire into causality, finding infinite causes to everything that seems initiated by a doer, leaving the doer as nothing at all.

I can explore the sense of a doer as it appears in the sense fields, maybe finding it as a gestalt made up of sensations and images. And finding only a story saying that this gestalt initiates anything.

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Another look at karma, and how it is and isn’t, and is personal and universal, belonging to the part and the whole.

As with any maps, models and stories, the story of karma is a practical tool only, a tool that helps our human self to orient and navigate in the world. A tool that can be more or less useful depending on what we want to use it for. There is no value or truth in it beyond that.

And we can say that karma is and isn’t.

It is, because there is, obviously, cause and effect in the conventional sense.

It isn’t, because there is only what is here now, the five sense fields and what appears in each one. Anything else comes from the inside of a story. Past, future, time, continuity, space, extent, causality, all that is only found on the inside of a story.

It is individual, because we can find, in a conventional sense, causality within the boundaries of this human self. We see how thoughts and decisions are followed by actions in the world, and so on. It is also individual as a practical ethical tool, inviting and helping the human self to live in a more ethical way and follow the golden rule more easily.

It is universal and of the whole, because everything has infinite causes and effects, reaching back to the beginning of the universe and out to its furthest reaches. What we see locally, including what appears as local causes and effects, are just the local effects of movements within the whole.

So karma, cause and effect, exists in a conventional and practical sense. If we look a little closer, we cannot find it in our immediate experience. It can only be found on the inside of a story.

It is individual, again in a practical and conventional sense. And it belongs to the whole of the world of form, in that everything happening locally has infinite causes and effects, and is a manifestation of the movements of the whole.

And we can find all of this here and now, in our own immediate experience. How is it true for me, here and now? What do I find when I look for myself?

Ripple effects

We usually have an idea of some effects of some of our actions, mostly on those in our daily life. But we rarely know the ripple effects, including the indirect ones on people we have never met. To be honest, I probably don’t know most of the effects on people in my daily life.

Just as anything I do seem to have infinite causes, anything I do have infinite effects. And I am only aware of a tiny fraction of both.

I occasionally hear from people who changed something in their life because of something I said or did, and it is always touching to me. Sometimes, it is small. And sometimes, it is something bigger. (I recently met someone, by chance, who I had talked with briefly a few years back and had made a major life decision based on it, completely unexpectedly from my side.)

We never know the effects of what we do, which is why it is so important to engage in life even with small contributions. Maybe just a friendly interaction, or a sharing of information or something that has worked in our own life.

As Gandhi said, whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Of course, we never know the effects of what we do, and can never control it. Something well meaning can have undesirable effects, in a conventional view, and something that comes from reactivity and confusion may turn out to be of great benefit.

If that was the whole story, it wouldn’t matter what we did.

But even from a conventional view, it matters. Well intentioned actions are certainly more likely to benefit than those which are not.

And looking a little deeper, we see that the way we relate to the wider world reflects how we relate to ourselves. When my heart is open and my life engaged, it is so towards others and myself. Whatever the effects of my actions on the wider world, these actions benefit and nurture me in that – very important – way.

So I can realize that I will never know most of the effects of my actions. That each action has infinite causes, so there is nothing personal there in that sense. That acting with an open heart is more likely to benefit others in a conventional way. That no matter what the effects, I don’t know what the outcome really is, even in a conventional way. (As the Chinese story of the man and the horse illustrates.) That acting from an open heart benefits myself in an immediate way. And that I can always learn from my experiences and feedback from the world on my actions.

It all goes together, and I can explore each one more in depth, making it more alive for me.


There are several ways to use the word gift, for instance in the sense of given to us vs. our own doing, or as a blessing vs. a curse, or as a gift of invitation to awakening.

If we take ourselves as a portion of the content of awareness, it makes sense to see some things as gifts, or given to us, and other things as of our own doing.

I am responsible for my everyday activities, including the ways I work on improving myself and my position in the world, but not responsible for what life hands me such as opportunities, accidents, illness and so on. Of course, there are times when the boundary gets fuzzy and we then see our task as sorting out what goes where.

But as soon as we take even a casual look at this, it becomes clear that it is not quite this simple. Or rather, that it is far more simple.

It is all gifts. Any inner and outer resource is a gift…. where we are born, the families we grow up in, education, our personality traits, our ambition, our motivations, our experiences, our skills, all of it are pure gifts. It is all given to us, or rather given from existence and life to itself.

And looking a little closer, we see that the whole inner/outer boundary is hard to pin down, partly because there is a gray zone, but really because it is not there. It is merely an idea placed on top of the world, and not inherent in anything. Everything about this human self, and anything else in the world, has infinite causes, and these reach back to the beginning of time and stretch out to the limits of the universe.

Finally, also by looking a little closer, the conventional boundary between gifts and curses (whether miniature or bigger) breaks down. That too is not inherent in our life. Whatever happens is inherently neutral, and we filter it as one or the other through a set of ideas.

In a more conventional way, we can hold onto an idea of what is desirable for our human self, and interpret and make situations into a gift, whether it is illness or health, problems or ease, failure or success, getting what we want or not getting i. It all becomes fodder for growth, maturing and making lemonade out of lemons. If we cannot quite do this as it is happening, we can at least do it afterwards. Being able to do this is in itself a gift, within this context.

We can also see whatever happens as a gift in another way, as an invitation to wake up to what we already are. To notice ourselves as this awakeness that all experiences unfold within, to and as, already and always inherently free from any I with an Other, and anything else coming from thought.

In a very simple way, we can see this in how stress helps us notice beliefs and rigid attachment to stories and identities, which we can then explore to find what is already more true for us than the initial story.

Karma and infinite causes

Karma, as anything else, can be filtered through a sense of a separate self, or an absence of identification with stories, and so also a separate self.

When filtered through an unquestioned sense of separate self, it becomes what we see in popular culture: a focus on “my” or individual karma, or at most a group level karma (nations, humanity).

As usual, we can get a fuller picture if we include both the relative (the forms aspect overlaid with stories and boundaries) and the absolute (void, and form as awake void).

In the form aspect, we see that anything happening locally has infinite effects, so karma is really the karma of the whole, or rather, the processes, patterns and movements of the fluid seamless whole of form. Looking at it from the level of the holarchy as a whole, karma is the karma of the holarchy itself.

At the same time, karma is personal or individual in a very limited sense. We can discern local causes and effects related to the individual human self: a thought (appears to) trigger an action, patterns of thoughts and beliefs trigger patterns of actions, he smiles and someone smiles back, she learns something which changes how she lives his life, he gains an insight into a belief so the belief falls away and with it certain mind-body patterns, and so on.

(Although this too is really the karma of the whole, the local expressions of the movement of the whole, the local effects of patterns within the whole of the world of form.)

From the “view” of void, or rather the absence of views here (which allows any views, although now with an absence of beliefs in them), all form just happens. It is the awake void as form, happening on its own. Karma – causes and effects – only comes from an overlay of stories.

And if we use that overlay (which is another form aspect of void, happening on its own), we see that karma is the karma of the fluid seamless whole of form, and also that it can appear as the karma of an individual.

We may also see that using the stories of it as individual can be helpful, in a limited way, in terms of motivation for change and practice. But, if taken as real, solid, absolute and final, it  can hold that belief in a separate self in place, making it more difficult to see it as a belief and discover what is on the other side of it.

Deep time & Big Mind

I have been reminded of deep time this last week, from attending the archeology film festival, reading an article about the life and death of the solar system, to watching some snippets from Cosmos online. It is a revisiting of an interest I have had since childhood in these themes which are, in some ways, next door to Big Mind.

Deep time, the long now, infinite causes and effects, evolutionary spirituality, the universe story, the epic of evolution, the great story… all of these are in many ways one step away from Big Mind, they can lead us into it from the form and emptiness sides.

From the form side, contemplating the evolution of the universe and our place in it, almost requires shifting into Big Mind to hold it all… And from the emptiness side, realizing the utter impermanence of it all is an invitation to a shift into emptiness, the void, which is what is left when everything else is gone.

To really grasp for instance the universe story requires a shift into Big Mind, and to really grasp the impermanence of it all requires finding ourselves as the void. At least to some extent. It requires dipping into it, tasting it. And is an invitation to explore it further.

I am actually surprised not more Buddhist teachers use the universe story (and deep time, the long now, etc.) in that way… as a nudge, an invitation into Big Mind and finding ourselves as the void. It seems like a perfect teaching vehicle.

I would have jumped on it right away if I was in their position, and I guess many will in the future… maybe through a combination of multimedia and experiential activities such as the practices to reconnect and the Big Mind process.

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Pearls on a string: infinite causes, nature and nurture, and beliefs

A practice I have found interesting (although it gets repetitive after a while!) is to explore the infinite causes to any simple activity I engage in, or even any belief or identity that comes up.

This morning, I did it on the belief that I need to be successful in the world, roughly as society defines it.

Following the trail of causality, I see that it comes from first an innocent thought (a question), which is then taken as true, which in turn may lead to certain behaviors. And this thought, and the tendency to take it as true, comes from my birth family and my upbringing, and that in turn comes from the larger society – which also whispers the same in my ear now, which in turn comes from our civilization, and going far enough back, I see that it (most likely) has to do with survival. To survive, as an individual and group, we need to be successful in specific ways, and the more successful, the better the chances to survive. And this in turn comes from the evolution of this planet, the universe as a whole, and the universe as it appears now – supporting everything happening locally.

This larger perspective helps me see how it is just a belief. It comes from a natural impulse for self-preservation, and is added onto it to support it.

Whatever I choose to explore in this way, and it can be in far more detail than this, reveals a similar pattern, going from thought, taking it as true and/or acting on it, my upbringing, to culture, to civilization, to survival and biology, to the evolution of Earth as a whole, and the evolution of the universe as a whole, and then the unfolding of the universe as a whole, and all of it as it is present now, supporting what is happening here locally.

This is of course just another story, but it does poke some holes in the sense of a separate self right here being in charge.