Alan Watts, who died about 40 years ago, was one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century. He was best known as the leading Western interpreter of Eastern philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism. In 1971, Watts recorded a half-hour television program titled “A Conversation with Myself.”
The program features Watts wandering the hills and valleys of a remote region in California. He had been living there for some months, he says, to absorb an atmosphere different from the city, in order to discover the essential difference between the world of nature and the human world.
The difference between the two, he suggests, is one of style—like the difference between Picasso and Rembrandt. In a similar way, there is a difference of style between the things human beings do and the things nature does, even though human beings are themselves part of nature.
On the one hand, Watts says, nature is wiggly. Everything wiggles: the outline of the hills, the shape of the trees, the way the wind brushes the grass, the contour of the clouds, the track of streams—it all wiggles.
Human beings, on the other hand, find all this wiggliness too complicated. We want things to stop wiggling so we can measure them and map them. Keep still, we say; hold on. Let’s straighten things out; let’s get it ironed out; let’s get it squared away.
Wherever human beings have been around and done their thing, Watts observes, you find rectangles. We live in boxes; our streets are laid out in grid patterns. We think we understand things when we have translated them into straight lines and squares.
The problem, Watts says, is that we’re trying to translate something that is vastly complicated—the world of nature—into terms that are crude enough and simple enough that the human mind can comprehend them. In fact, human beings are just as wiggly as nature: our brains, for example, are an incredible mess of wiggles.
Yet by comparison with the world of nature, the human brain is relatively simple. The brain is a network of interconnected neurons; and each one of those neurons sends a simple signal: yes/no, on/off. But plants, birds, trees are all far more complicated than neurons; and there are billions upon billions of them.
Besides, all the elements of the natural world form a network. Flowers and bees, for example, are interdependent: where there are no flowers, there are no bees; and where there are no bees, there are no flowers. The natural world is really one organism, Watts insists. Everything in nature depends on everything else. The many patterns of interconnection lock together in a single unity.
But here’s the astounding element: I am part of the unity. In this vast and amazing universe, he says, I’m like a flower in a field. When you see a flower in a field, it’s actually like the whole field is flowering, because the flower couldn’t exist in that particular place without the rest of the field. You only find flowers in places where they have surroundings that will support them. In the same way, you only find human beings on a planet of this kind, with an atmosphere of this kind, and a temperature of this kind supplied by a convenient neighboring star.
Just as the flower is a flowering of the field, Watts says, I feel that I am a peopling of the whole universe. I seem to be a center at which the entire energy of the universe realizes itself, or comes alive: a sort of aperture through which the universe appears. In other words, he says, I am related to the universe as a center to a circumference. Each one of us—not only human beings, but every leaf, every weed, everything whatsoever—exists as it does only because everything around it exists as it does. Without the center, there is no circumference; without the circumference, there is no center. Each individual and its universe are inseparable.
Put differently, there is no center of the universe in general. There is only the particular universe of which you are the center, and the universe of which I am the center, and so on. There is no place where you can stand idly by while someone else stands at the center. You are the vortex where the entire energy of the universe comes alive. You are the focus of the universe that makes you possible.
The first principle of the universe, therefore, is utter dependence. As humans, we are utterly dependent upon the parents who conceived us, the plants and animals who daily give their lives for our nourishment, the trees that give us oxygen, and the sun that warms the atmosphere and lights our path. We depend upon governments to provide for the commonweal, upon teachers for education, upon friends for love and companionship, and so on. This principle applies to everything whatsoever. Nothing—not people, not flowers, not stars—is what it is strictly within itself.
The appropriate response to the reality of our utter dependence is gratitude. Gratitude links us to the past by revealing to us our identity: how the universe of which we are the center enabled us to become who we are. And it links us to the future by revealing to us our duty: what we owe back to the universe in return.
There is no greater gift than the gift of standing at the center of the universe that sustains us. And there is no greater calling than to care for our universe—not only its people and animals and plants, but also its air and its water, and even its rocks and its ruins. Life is good—wiggles and all.