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

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


Donplaypuks® said...


I've yet to come across a better or more beautiful book on Zen than Osho's 'Zen - its history and teachings'.

Perhaps this is something you could review for the benefit of your blog regulars?

Starmandala said...

DPP - I'm sure Osho read heaps of Alan Watts before embarking on his own musings on Zen. As amatter of fact, I'm willing to bet Eckhard Tolle is also an Alan Watts fan! It so happened that Watts died relatively young, at 58, and that was 38 years ago! Well, I don't have a copy of Osho's Zen ~ its history and teachings. I'd certainly read it if you lend me a copy but I'm not sure I'd review it, since I've managed to resist turning this blog into a purely literary exercise :-)

Miriam said...

Hi Antares! I "saw" you deeply engaged in a philosophical exercise and left you to it knowing full well that there was gift in the making for us all. Thank you so much for introducing Alan Watts and for the sublime expressions you provide of the body-mind-soul-ego complex, down to the apt tempurong examples & more.. I look at the images on your sidebar and I know you have your river magic to moisten & protect more than your mere outer wrapping:) xxx

FastDart said...

Antares, You have nailed this old skin sack and opened doors long shut.

Starmandala said...

Miriam & FastDart - Thanks! Whenever I embark on this type of rambling, my visitor stats visibly plunge but who cares - it's quality that counts, not quantity! ;-)

masterymistery said...

Thank you for this post, and for reminding me that I really must get my act together and read his works.

Anonymous said...

the words and the intensity that Watts bring in his word is transforming ! Its Brilliant !
And I am in love affair with his works !

But, OSHO is talking about entirely different approach of ZEN ! Yes, he had read Watts, and he says that himself, in the book, "BOOKS THAT I HAVE LOVED".

What i want to say here is, The way Watts and Osho are being approached seems too much mechanistic and superficial. Too much of intellectual nonsense !

Drop that, come along, lets dance and try to find the beauty ! And that's meditation, living in now, living spontaneous !


Bane Lim said...

Alan Watts is still my favourite philosopher who had an incredible way with English words to explain the world around us. Such expressions as "We are apertures through which the Universe perceives itself!" still resonate in my mind after having read his succinct books and heard his tapes more than 3 decades ago. Thanks Antares for keeping his illuminating flame alive, especially for younger generations who are unaware of his immense contributions to mankind's understanding and celebration of life on Earth. A real cool Englishman indeed!

TitusL said...

Alan Watts is a wonderful inspiration, thank you.
Here's my animation of his' account of Nirvana as recorded in his Lectures on Buddhism: The Middle Way - Watts' Nirvana

Shamsul said...

My friend, I realize this is a way belated comment on this entry of your blog on Alan Watts, however allow me to share a little of my personal Alan watts trip. My blog Ramblings of the Cheeseburger Buddha was coined after having my 'Satori' while I was a security guard at a Maqdonald's while on my break eating a Cheeseburger and reading Watts's 'Way Of Zen". Outside it was piled with snow banks while inside the building it was toasty and i was sweating. A Muslim eating haram food and reading raptly about Buddhism in the Heart of Wisconsin. What do you get? A Cheeseburger Buddha! That was sometime in 1978-79. Place Main Street Green Bay Wisn,
Latter in 1984-86 I was a Zen Student at San Francisco Zen Ceter at their green Gulch farm in Sausalito where I also met Watts's son, Mark a mixed up kid then not anywhere near like his Dad. A few fellow Zen students and I used to sit around Watts Memorial grave and drink Sake and smoking a doobie while reading his works and pay our respects to the nearby grave of Chris, the young man son of the guy who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence, who was stabbed to death in alley in Downtown SF. At GTG I had the blessing of meeting many of Alan watts contemporary Zen Hippies and shared many of the unwritten tales of the Man.Skip Melcher one of his close buddies took me to visit the 'House Boat' parked at the Sausalito water front which used to be Alan Watts's.
Alan Watt's works was instrumental in opening my spiritual pursuits and I still every now and then go to You Tube to listen to him just to keep reminding myself of the wisdom of the , Divine Madman of Zen.

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