Friday, June 17, 2016

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]


Ah, the majestic Rainforests of Southeast Asia. The Equatorial region which has spawned millions of species of life forms which make the great living machine that is our earth run smoothly. From insects, fungus, reptiles, mammals, birds and plants in numbers you can't imagine, many species of which remain undiscovered.

Think about the above image for a moment. Listen to the river flowing over those rocks, hear the constant buzz of cicadas, insects, the songs of gibbons, the calls of the hornbills. Try and picture otters running along the banks, breathe in that pure air. Imagine that in that great forest, tigers prey on wild boar, elephants control the growth of saplings on their 3-month lap of the forest which they and their ancestors have trodden for centuries.

Termites are actively breaking down the fallen trees and foliage to ensure it doesn't build up. Birds and primates are feeding on fruits and depositing seeds to spread the growth of the jungle. Egrets and kingfishers taking their feed of fish from the rivers and streams. Deer feeding on small growth plants and ferns. Bears feeding on combs of honey, Geckos feeding off insects, tapir feeding on termites and anthills.

A fabulous never-ending cycle which has been on-going since before man arrived.


The system is rapidly failing. Forests are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. We have written this "postcard from the forest" to try and convey an understanding of the consequences behind the actions and decisions we as individuals make.

Here are some images I took yesterday (1st June 2008). We were supposed to go to this well-known forest reserve to look for a particular species of bird known to be present there, but when we arrived, we were greeted with this heart-stopping sight.

Sights like this are not uncommon in Malaysia. Much of the forest in South-east Asia, Africa and South America has already succumbed to such ill treatment to fuel our personal demands for timber products, and the use of products grown on the converted land. This timber is often used for:

Furniture (Tables, Chairs, Dining sets, beds, etc.)
Housing materials (Doors, Window frames, Flooring)
Construction materials (plywood, roofing, pallets, etc.)

Once denuded, the land is converted into agricultural based businesses. In the case of Malaysia/Indonesia/Thailand, the land will be converted into a monoculture (single species) by planting oil palm trees. Millions of hectares of oil palm plantations are now in operation throughout Southeast Asia, fueling the demand for edible oils and bio-fuels. The oil palm tree is not native to Southeast Asia, it is an introduced species. Therefore, no animals or plants can adapt to this environment. There is nothing that feeds or lives in these vast estates except for rats, snakes and domesticated livestock grazing on the grass.

Other forests around the world have been cleared for soya plantations, livestock pastures, sugar, coffee, tobacco farming, and so on. With over 6 billion mouths to feed, the demand for food has never been greater, and the land required to fulfill these requirements keeps increasing in area... to the detriment of the forests.

With the destruction of this particular forest, the direct sunlight has dried up the soil, killed off the insects and fungus which enable the soil to be so fertile. Birds now have no nesting sites, the mammals will most likely have been killed while the loggers were ripping through the land. In effect, the system has died.

I walked along this logging trail and the sound was eerily quiet. It was very disturbing, as one should be hearing the orchestral sounds of millions of living creatures - but, instead, I heard lone chirps from distant birds, perhaps wondering what the hell has just happened to their home.

You may ask why there are still trees standing when the loggers have already finished their job. Well, look at what remains. There is little economic value in what is left, as the loggers are mainly interested in the high value old growth, the trees that are hundreds of years old.

The job is not yet complete. While standing at this point, I faced a stretch of rubber plantation (those tall skinny trees in the distance) that had encroached upon the original jungle, and from beyond, back into the main jungle, I could hear the constant roaring of huge diesel engines at work. It's a really nasty sound - to hear the huge Caterpillars and chainsaws at work. The rate at which they can destroy swathes of forest is unimaginable.

So what will become of this land? Most probably, the Caterpillars will gather up all remaining trees and cuttings into huge piles, and the whole lot will be burnt, releasing thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and choking millions of people. It's illegal to do such things here in Malaysia, but it is still done, as is the case with our neighbor, Indonesia.

Consider every large tree felled. A fraction of those trees can support the nesting requirements for Malaysia's prized hornbills. And while the numbers of these great birds still appears to be quite healthy, we will see in a short period the numbers falling to grossly endangered levels. These birds are capable of living up to 30+ years old, so today's destruction of forests will result in a drop in numbers of these birds in the coming years, where less reproduction has taken place.

Believe it or not, but this area, known as Bukit Sepang is actually a forest reserve. But in Malaysia, as you can see, this holds no meaning in terms of conservation. The only form of protection a forest can gain here, is to be raised to the status of a National Park.

Malaysia has few such parks, and whilst one can visit them, one can feel that they span for miles upon miles, the truth is that on the whole scale of things, they're actually quite small islands of rainforests which have been granted protection, surrounded by much larger areas of oil palm plantations.

For those living in the West, you may not know how much forest remains in South-east Asia. You may think that there's still plenty of it, and we should start being concerned in a few more decades. Well, I'm sorry to say that the world's richest and oldest forests have just about gone.

Take Borneo for instance (synonymous with pristine virgin jungle), where vast areas of wonderful forests have disappeared and been replaced with oil palm plantations. It's irreversible (in our lifetime and many generations to follow), I'm sorry to say.

So why am I writing this?

1. To get it off my chest, as it's still a fresh open wound.

2. To try and raise awareness among those who do not witness the savagery of man on a daily basis.

3. To try and provide an understanding of the consequences of buying products which come from such environmental destruction.

I'm not sure how this will leave you feeling, having read thus far, but it must be understood that the countries playing host to the world's richest natural resources are often some of the poorest, so you must appreciate that what appears to be their "savagery" is no more than a means to an end when it comes to economic growth.

I often feel like blaming the Malaysian government for permitting such destruction, but ultimately, a demand is present, and that demand can be supplied. Take away that demand, and the supply will have to stop too. Whether it be demand for timber products or palm oil products.

So, think twice about that nice hardwood flooring, think again about whether you need that garden furniture, that lovely teak dining set, that lovely mahogany dining table. The pictures show exactly where the wood has come from. "But the shop says it's from sustainable sources," you might say.

Rainforests can't be planted, they're not planned or designed by man. You can't match the perfection of nature or replicate its complexity.

You NEVER see a plantation of hardwood trees. It takes hundreds of years for them to mature, so it is not an investment many would be willing to make. Some forests are set aside for regenerative purposes, so that trees can be pulled out once matured, but as I have just highlighted, rainforests can't tolerate any interference from man.

Take the above photos as an example. If the government were to set aside this land for regenerative purposes, you can see already that the majority of living organisms have vanished, therefore, the rainforest will not operate as a living organism such as those few precious primary forests remaining, those that support the millions of lifeforms I mentioned in the first paragraph.

So, sustainable sources are a myth when it comes to tropical timbers, and you should be cautious about buying into such notions.

Thanks for reading this, and I hope it has raised at least some awareness of what the timber trade and edible oils business is doing to our environment here in Malaysia. Don't let this information stop you from visiting Malaysia. Eco-tourism is on the increase, and with enough pressure placed in the right places, we may be able to turn this mess around as the economy gains from the increased interest in the amazing diversity of this wonderful place.

Jas & John

[First posted 6 June 2008]

Monday, June 13, 2016

Cutting Edge: The Political Art of David Dees (repost)

I found David Dees's cutting edge political art totally by accident - if you believe in accidents! Browsing through one night I was riveted by this multi-talented young man's technical mastery of digital photo manipulation combined with his eagle-eyed insight into geopolitical absurdities and obscenities during the Bush & Cheney era (which have only worsened since!).


"If one sins against the laws of proportion and gives something too big to something too small to carry it - too big sails to too small a ship, too big meals to too small a body, too big powers to too small a soul - the result is bound to be a complete upset. In an outburst of hubris the overfed body will rush into sickness, while the jack-in-office will rush into the unrighteousness that hubris always breeds." - Plato (427-347 BCE)
[First posted 29 November 2007]