Saturday, February 24, 2018

Alan Watts and The Skin-Encapsulated Ego (reprise)

Several decades ago I stumbled upon the writings of a wry English theologian and philosopher named Alan Watts (1915-1973).

I owe Alan Wilson Watts a huge debt of gratitude for having provided me effortless access to the essence of Eastern mysticism as expressed in the Tao Te Ching and the basic tenets of Zen. Ironic, isn't it, that someone like me whose physical body can be categorized as "Asian" has to engage the timeless teachings of Eastern mystics through the medium of an Englishman's mind?

The most endearing - and enduring - quality of Alan Watts's writing is its elegant, poetic lucidity, and the tangible warmth of his exquisitely noble personality. Watts had the uncanny knack of drawing his readers gently into his private thought-streams and lofty musings minus the intellectual haughtiness of so many run-of-the-mill academics.

Brian Cameron

Picking up one of his books was akin to enjoying a leisurely walk in the woods with a totally affable and erudite friend. Alan Watts showed me the sheer joy of being alive and fully aware of the world around me. He was a shining example of someone perfectly comfortable with himself and his physical surroundings; whose laser-sharp, inquiring mind was ceaselessly probing the outer limits of thought and perception.

The insights Alan Watts gleaned from his own intense study of Eastern mystical traditions were refreshing, vigorous, transcendental. Oftentimes it takes an "outsider" to appreciate the essence of and to add contemporary value to a long-established cultural and philosophical system.

Much has been written about Zen consciousness but few can match the limpidity with which Watts explains the meaning of "Is-ness." Allow me to quote from The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts (published 1951):

What is the use of planning to be able to eat next week unless I can really enjoy the meals when they come? If I am so busy planning how to eat next week that I cannot fully enjoy what I am eating now, I will be in the same predicament when next week’s meals become “now.”

If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of this present. I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass. For I shall have formed a habit of looking behind and ahead, making it difficult for me to attend to the here and now. If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world.

After all, the future is quite meaningless and unimportant unless, sooner or later, it is going to become the present. Thus to plan for a future which is not going to become present is hardly more absurd than to plan for a future which, when it comes to me, will find me “absent,” looking fixedly over its shoulder instead of into its face.


Naked Maja by Francisco Goya

However, of all the unforgettable and profound gems of truth I gleaned from reading several books by Alan Watts, one that stands out above everything else is his description of the individuation process as the formation of the skin-encapsulated ego.

Watts observed that as babies we tend towards "polymorphous perversity" (an inspired phrase coined by the noted psychologist William James). This means the boundaries are vague that separate us as individuals from our external environment - and therefore the infant finds every sensation erotically charged. It doesn't matter what the baby is experiencing - the feel of its own soiled nappy, a puddle of warm piss, or an interesting found object like, for instance, a moist grain of fresh lizard shit.

As the child matures, the adults around it unconsciously encourage it to form definite ego boundaries until its sense of selfhood becomes confined within its own skin. Anything beyond the child's skin is automatically defined as "NOT ME" - and this is how each of us becomes "a skin-encapsulated ego" feeling distinctly separate from every other skin-encapsulated ego as well as everything we perceive as our physical environment.

In effect, the skin serves as the "official border" between what and who we believe ourselves to be and what we believe exists independently of and separately from ourselves. Close friends and family members are given citizenship status or granted permanent residence within our ego boundaries - while "strangers" are required to apply for an "entry visa" which occasionally gets cancelled or denied outright.

Obviously, these egoic patternings apply not only to human individuals but also to larger groupings of individuals which we identify as tribes and, on an even larger scale, nations. Apart from humans, it would appear that most vertebrate animals have sufficiently complex neural circuits to experience a rudimentary form of "individuality."


Occasionally, an individual experiences a spontaneous dilation of the ego membrane which temporarily takes him or her beyond the skin-encapsulated ego. When this occurs, the individual ceases to perceive itself as merely an isolated particle of awareness and begins to access an oceanic consciousness which seems to simultaneously ripple inwards and outwards, encompassing both inner and outer space. You could say that what exists outside the skin-encapsulated ego is the morphogenetic field of the species, which interlinks with the morphogenetic fields of all other species and, ultimately, with the entire spectrum of life.

Eastern and Middle Eastern mystics call this transcendental state by various names: satori in Japanese; samadhi in Sanskrit; and baraka in Arabic.

Western esotericists have used terms like beatitude, ecstasy and divine grace to describe this blissful state of being.

Adventurous psychoanalysts and clinical psychiatrists like Ronald Laing and Stanislav Grof call these transcendental "altered states" by various names: ego death, OOBE (out-of-body experiences), psychedelic (mind-revealing) or entheogenic (connecting with the divine) episodes.

Whatever one chooses to label these transcendental, transpersonal, peak experiences, there is no doubt whatsoever that those who have had them are forever changed. They can no longer be confined to thinking and feeling within their own skin-encapsulated egos. This is the point where empathy kicks in, along with compassion.

When empathy becomes an integral aspect of an individual's perceptions and thoughts, one can access a telepathic dimension wherein the body-mind-soul complex can consciously fuse with whatever it encounters - whether it appears as a rock, plant, animal, another human, the physical landscape, a whole planet, an entire galaxy, or the greater universe "out there."

Alan Watts's skin-encapsulated ego is, in effect, the proverbial coconut shell beneath which the frog resides, as in the popular Malay saying, katak di bawah tempurung. Unless the creature emerges from under the protective cover of the coconut shell, it can't begin to explore and experience increasingly greater realities. However, the skin-encapsulated ego is vital to the process of individuation without which nothing would be unique, and there would be hardly any distinct texture to reality itself.

In other words, the skin-encapsulated ego isn't necessarily a negative thing, for it is what defines our precious individuality. However, we would do well to learn how to dilate our ego membrane at will, so that we can shift effortlessly in and out of a specific perspective or paradigm.

Individuals and cities that have acquired this skill are called "cosmopolitan." Those that have yet to do so are called "provincial."


Within certain cults, cultures and tribes, local ruling elites have deliberately ensured that the skin-encapsulated ego is only partially formed - so that their subjects will remain loyal to their tribal leaders and not become overly individualistic. In such instances, the skin may be viewed as an artificially generated sense of kinship amongst members of a specific tribe or racial grouping.


Those who desire to control large sections of the population will invariably attempt to emphasize trivial differences while downplaying truly significant similarities.

This explains why in Malaysia, for example, a vast majority of Malay-Muslims cling ferociously to antiquated and absurd taboos such as the injunction against eating the flesh of pigs or being licked by dogs - even when there is no longer any logical or reasonable basis to such fears (since the contextual origins of the taboos - a widespread outbreak of trichinosis and rabies - no longer apply).

It is the abject fear itself of breaking tribal taboos that reinforces the social cohesion of the tribe, so that a feeling of Us-versus-Them can be perpetrated as a psychologically insurmountable barrier.

As one who has repeatedly experienced transcendental states, I have learned how to maintain a healthy balance between cherishing my own individuality while remaining constantly open to feeling a sense of unity with all life. Even when I consciously opt to play the role of adversary to certain political figures, I never forget that in the final analysis it's all just a joyous dance of energy - what Hindu mystics call lila, the Divine Play - and that whatever antagonism and hostility I may temporarily experience while engaged in the political game will rinse off the moment I step into the cleansing waters of the river.

In short, political entities like Henry Kissinger, Karl Rove, Hillary Clinton, Mahathir Mohamad, Robert Mugabe, Najib Razak, Rosmah Mansor and Zahid Hamidi may trigger instinctive revulsion at the level of my skin-encapsulated ego - but the moment they get off the political stage and give up the artificial power they have abused, they potentially become befriendable human beings. Well, in theory, at least...

In any case, skin is truly a delightful substance and the ego is infinitely wise to have chosen it as its preferred form of outer wrapping, don't you think?







A 1971 television recording with Alan Watts walking in the mountains and talking about the limitations of technology and the problem of trying to keep track of an infinite universe with a single tracked mind. Video posted by Alan's son, Mark watts, courtesy of alanwatts.com.


[First published 10 June 2009. Reposted 26 September 2013 & 3 April 2015 & 17 June 2015]


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