the redundant ‘it’ of ‘it is raining’

Been reading more Alan Watts. No one I’ve read or listened to has more succintly and pithily summed up the core ideas of Buddhist Dharma for me. If you read one dharma talk then ‘Biting the Iron Bull’ is it. Unfortunately, I can’t find any transcripts of it on line – though there are MP3 versions of Watts reading it.

He talk so brilliantly about many things but I’ve not come across a more perfect description of the ego.

Now, an ego is not the same thing as a particular living organism. The organism is something real, though it is not a separate thing but a feature of the universe. On the other hand, what we call the ego is something abstract, it has the same order and kind of reality as an hour or an inch or pound or a line of longitude. It exists for purposes of discussion, for convenience.
…this image is not ourselves anymore than the idea of a tree is a tree, anymore than you can get wet in the word ‘water’.

So far so good. But what he says next is the key and core of practice. And that’s the idea of the unnecessary tension of ego. He compares the ego ‘I’ with the bodily ‘eye’. When the eye is working OK we don’t notice it, it doesn’t make us aware of the optical nerve and the lens or the retinal image being upside down. But the ego gets in the way and makes it’s presence known:

If my ego, my consciousness, is working, I ought not be aware of it; yet I am, as some sort of nuisance, the thing that sits in the middle of everything.

I think I have discovered that [the ego] is a chronic and habitual sense of muscular strain, which we were taught to do in the process of perfoming normally spontaneous things to order. When you are taking off in a jet plane, and the plane has gone rather further down the runway than you think it should have without getting up in the air, you may start pulling at your seatbelt to get off the ground. Of course, this is perfectly useless. A similar thing happens when somone tells us to look carefully, to listen or pay attention. We start st raining the muscles around our eyes, ears, jaws and hands. We try to use our muscles to make our nerves work which is, of course, futile and infact hinders the functioning of the nerves.

This chronic tension , which in Sanskrit is called sankoca meaning contraction, is the root of what we call the feeling of ego.

How brilliant. The redundant tension that we carry with us is completely unecessary since life goes on quite easily and wonderfully without all that huffing and puffing.

Watts goes on to explore this sense of effortless life as the universe proliferating itself. Like Shelley he notes that we are the eyes of the universe observing itself and finding that is is good – or at least interesting. This brings up the question, ‘Well, yes, but who is doing the observing?’ – which as Watts points out is fallacious question:

When you ask the question ‘who is doing the chasing?’ you are still working under the assumption that every verb has to have a subject, and that when there is an action there has to be a doer. This is merely a grammatical convention, leading to what Whitehead called the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ like the famous ‘it’ in ‘it is raining’. So when one declares that there cannot be a knowing without a knower, one is saying no more than there cannot be a verb without a subject; that, however, is a grammatical rule, not a law of nature.

The universe is just verbs not nouns. It’s a constant stream of patterns and processes and trying to perceive ‘stuff’ in it is just a trick of the eyes. “What we call stuff is simply pattern seen out of focus”.

All this totally ties in with the way I’m feeling right now in the first days of Spring. Spring is the seasonal embodiment of all that change. What was dead comes back to life. What was underground is resurrected into the air. No wonder Easter is when it is. But the illusion that something died in the first place is just another trick of the eyes. We just didn’t pay attention to the constant change.

Watt’s brilliance is to make clear and distinct things that are cloaked in high falutin’ spiritual gobbledegook. We’re taught that egolessness, enlightenment is nigh-on impossible but, actually, all we need to do is relax that tension. That seat-belting-pulling clench. The ego is a useful abstraction but we don’t need it all the time,

The ego cannot be transcended because it does not properly exist. You cannot do anything about a non-existent thing, anymore than you can cut a cheese with a line of longitude.

As Tilda said: ‘Less talk, more action. Less paralysis. More work.’

Enjoy that Spring thing.


  1. Emily

    March 22, 2008 at 7:54 pm

    It’s making me crazy, this photo! How how HOW did you get that effect on your hand? Or is it a Trade Secret? Doesn’t matter, I can’t even take a straight forward photo of a tree.

  2. Ginny

    March 22, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    I love to know how you achieved that effect on your hand!
    Please don’t worry about revealing trade secrets; I can’t
    even take simple photos…

  3. Emma

    March 22, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    How DID you do that??

  4. SR

    March 23, 2008 at 8:01 am

    Brilliant! I love Alan Watts and couldn’t
    agree with you more. He makes the unreal

  5. Jeff

    April 24, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Superb post. I just found your blog. I’ll be back and I’ll look for Watts. I had a spontaneous “moment of enlightenment” many years ago. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it so precisely, but it’s just as you say – the absence of ‘ego’. A broad, expansive, and completely connected feeling unfettered by the perception of “I.”

  6. Vicky

    June 26, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    …egO ?
    My (human) circle , round-trip within one other bigger
    circle (Uni verse = self rotating)
    “EgO” is what a pupil can focuse and be focused in.
    That energy ,light from which I came and I’ll get back
    (after this stay on Earth)is the reflection of egO(emEna),
    of ME.
    Sokrates thought that one human EXISTS only when
    the MIRROR tells him how to reflect back ONE glistering
    BEAM= one revealed reason!!!

  7. Vicky

    July 11, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    I wish you every happiness Al, you have an angelic heart.
    It seems that there are powers beyond mortal reason…
    It’s some other dimension now.. compared to the HEAT-period –
    yet.. in its very essence my attachment is just the same
    particular as it was back then. (You probably have no idea
    who am I ..why should you remember me… So strange can
    sometimes be: I visited your country a few years
    ago, I simply couldn’t restrain but feel .. I can’t really
    describe the feeling even to myself, it’ll be too week
    word to say .. the most melancholic creature in this whole
    universe. Even if I had the appropriate (for you) somatic
    shape it could’ve been just the same, but KNOWING THAT
    I can’t ever hope to be desired and the absurd strength
    within me which doesn’t give me any relief .. One thought
    I longed to exchange with you.. With YOU among all the
    stars. The Sky will stay one great secret after all.
    I think I’m gonna stay silent , I’ve already said too much.
    It hurts for me to remember my impression unique for its
    beauty, for its unparalleled authenticity!
    ..who knows w h y I had to choose you! And why the fate had to
    cause me all this pain.
    I adore you!!!

Leave a Reply