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]

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Keep The Ravioli In Orbit, Folks!

Eris, goddess of discord, courtesy of SilverStar
ROBERT ANTON WILSON ~ "Secret Agent of Synchronicity"* (1932-2007)

Truth be told I'm not much of a joiner (and I'm a sorry excuse for a carpenter too). However, a few months ago I was prompted to join a Facebook Group that calls itself Keep The Ravioli In Orbit - inspired, no doubt, by Robert Anton Wilson's legendary throwaway credo: "Keep The Lasagna Flying, Folks!"

Watch this highly instructive video:

Some of you may want to know just who Robert Anton Wilson is - oops, he hated the word "is" so I'll rephrase that. You may want to know what Robert Anton Wilson apparently signified (the past tense is a minor concession to the popular notion that the Great Man discarded his hydrocarbon-protein spacesuit on 11 January 2007). I dedicated a blogpost in May 2007 to RAW that offers a brief overview of his colossal contributions to Consciousness and Cosmic Humor.

What about the Facebook Group, Keep The Ravioli In Orbit - A Tribute To Robert Anton Wilson? Well, I must confess that I was mighty chuffed to receive a notice from Steven Pratt, Dish Washer of the Group, that he had anointed me Artichoke Duke and Lord of Keep The Ravioli In Orbit.

An honor such as this does not come one's way every day. And so, to commemorate this entirely random event, I've chosen to publish a selection of juicy quotes borrowed from the homepage of the Group....

"The greatest of all crimes are the wars that are carried on by governments, to plunder, enslave, and destroy mankind. The next greatest crimes committed in the world are equally prompted by avarice and ambition; and are committed, not on sudden passion, but by men of calculation, who keep their heads cool and clear, and who have no thought whatever of going to prison for them. They are committed, not so much by men who violate the laws, as by men who, either by themselves or by their instruments, make the laws; by men who have combined to usurp arbitrary power, and to maintain it by force and fraud, and whose purpose in usurping and maintaining it is by unjust and unequal legislation, to secure to themselves such advantages and monopolies as will enable them to control and extort the labor and properties of other men, and thus impoverish them, in order to minister to their own wealth and aggrandizement. The robberies and wrongs thus committed by these men, in conformity with the laws, - that is, their own laws - are as mountains to molehills, compared with the crimes committed by all other criminals, in violation of the laws." - Lysander Spooner

"The normal is that which nobody quite is."
- Arlen Riley Wilson

"And the Beast said,
By their pee shall ye judge them
And by your pee shall ye be judged
And all shall be judged by their pee
And in the snow shall their names be written"

-Stun de Xim, Book of TSOG

"Is," "is," "is" — the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don't know what anything "is"; I only know how it seems to me at this moment."
- Sigismundo Celine, The Historical Illuminatus

"A change in language can transform our apprehension of the cosmos."
- Benjamin Lee Whorf

"Animals outline their territories with their excretions, humans outline their territories by ink excretions on paper." - RAW, Prometheus Rising

"Events which appear crude or offensive in the instant may become, with a change of perspective, somewhere between droll and riotously funny."
Hannibal Lecter, M.D.

"Do not pester people at home.
Do not annoy them at work.
Leave them alone,
or they will curse you.
- Dao De Jing, 72

"What amazes me most is the piss police. Even Kafka and Orwell - who wrote the craziest, most far out satires on totalitarianism that their wild surrealist imaginations could imagine - they did not include piss police. And yet we got them and the American public just gullibly and submissively accepts it." - RAW

"I used to be an atheist, until I realized I had nothing to shout during blowjobs. 'Oh Random Chance! Oh Random Chance!' just doesn't cut it." - RAW

[Interview extracted from

The Original Slacker: Wilson was the model and inspiration for the Church of the Subgenius and its iconic figurehead J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs.


Robert Anton Wilson, the iconoclastic genius behind the famed Illuminatus! Trilogy, has a few thousand things he'd like to teach you...

*By Bill Forman

Decades before the crossover cult film What the Bleep Do We Know!? popularized the idea that the principles of quantum mechanics could be applied to the world at large, Robert Anton Wilson had laid out much the same theory in his book, Prometheus Rising. Venture further into Wilson's oeuvre and you'll find equally prescient material on longevity research; you'll likely even stumble across source materials that inspired Dan Brown to write The Da Vinci Code.

"I think I'm the most ripped-off artist of our time," says Wilson, seated in the living room of a modest Capitola apartment adorned with an array of pookahs, Buddhas and at least one Loch Ness monster. "People keep coming out with books 30 years after - books on things I wrote about - and they all become bestsellers.

"I wrote about them too early," says Wilson, raising a thin arm and shaking his finger to emphasize his point: "Don't be premature."

Lance Bauscher agrees. "This whole Da Vinci Code thing with Dan Brown, I mean, that's all Bob's material," says Bauscher, who directed a film about Wilson called Maybe Logic and also runs an academy through which Wilson's online course, "Tale of the Tribe," begins on August 14. "Dan Brown has read all of Bob's books. But Bob doesn't really compromise his storytelling - not that Dan Brown does - but it's for a general audience, and Bob just doesn't go there."

Maybe that's because Wilson can't helping throwing his audiences so many curve balls, mixing esoteric facts with wild flights of imagination - and rarely revealing which is which. From self-destructing mynah birds to world domination enterprises determined to grant immortality to Adolf Hitler, the irascible Wilson's Illuminatus! Trilogy (written in the 1970s with co-author Robert Shea) is a fun-house ride through every conspiracy theory under the sun - as well as a few that appear to have been hatched in some far distant solar system.

At age 73, Wilson's body and voice have both been weakened by post-polio syndrome, but his brain and his humor are as sharp as ever.

"His humor is constant and people are never sure if he's being serious," says Bauscher of Wilson's intellectual gymnastics. "I mean, the Illuminati: is it a joke or serious? And Discordianism: is it a joke disguised as a religion, or a religion disguised as a joke?"

All of which helps explain why Wilson's name doesn't frequent bestseller lists, nor is he routinely credited for the insights that are beginning to capture the public imagination decades later.

In fact, one day this past spring, after Santa Cruz moviegoers had lined up to see What the Bleep Do We Know!? in sufficient numbers to justify its three-month run, Robert Anton Wilson was lying alone, conscious but unable to move, on the floor of this one-bedroom Capitola apartment for 30 hours.

"It really didn't seem that long," says Wilson of his collapse, which ended when his daughter arrived and broke down the door. "And I remember thinking, as I'm lying there trying to move and unable to move: Hey, I may be dying now. And it didn't frighten me or bother me at all."

Wilson's subsequent trip to the hospital, the first of his adult life, was a different story altogether.

"The worst thing about hospitals," says Wilson, who was rescued when his daughter managed to break into the apartment, "is that all the rights guaranteed in the first 10 amendments are immediately canceled. You have no civil rights whatsoever. And the second thing is, all the ordinary rules no longer apply - you are no longer a person deserving of kindness, you're a disobedient child who has to be reprimanded and herded around. My God, I don't know why people put up with such treatment." Wilson, we can presume, doesn't particularly like being told what to do.

"Not by people who treat me like an idiot. Not when I'm 73 years old, I have 35 books in print, I supported a wife and four kids for most of my life. I do not appreciate being treated like a disobedient 4-year-old, the way they treat everybody in the hospital."

Of course, you don't have to go to a hospital to be treated like that, but Wilson's on a roll ...

"I was an editor of Playboy, for chrissake," he cries, as though that, if nothing else, should carry some weight in this culture. "I've had plays performed in England, Germany and the United States; my books are in print in a dozen countries. Why the hell do they treat me like a child? I refuse to tolerate it. If they won't treat me with dignity, I won't go anywhere near them, especially with all the goddamned germs they got floating around there. CNN did a report on it - the number of people who are killed by diseases picked up in hospitals is much greater than the number who are killed by cars.

"I'm never going to a hospital again. Never, never, never, never! I will lie on the floor and die before I go back to a hospital."

Some of It Has Got to Be True

The opening of the American mind, or at least the one belonging to Robert Anton Wilson, continued more-or-less unabated throughout the '50s and '60s. In 1958, he married Arlen Riley - who had worked as a scriptwriter for an Orson Welles radio show - and she went on to introduce Wilson to the work of Alan Watts. Friendship and collaborations with Timothy Leary followed, as well as experimentation with an array of drugs and mystic traditions. But it was in the decidedly secular surroundings of the Playboy editorial office, back in the late '60s, that two associate editors would hatch the idea of the Illuminatus! Trilogy, which remains Wilson's best-known work to this day.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you, but it was much like working at any other magazine," says Wilson, who never even got to visit Hef's grotto. "I mean, you went into the office, you did your job and you went home. The difference is that all the girls were good-looking. Of course, I was happily married and not fucking all the secretaries, I'm sorry to say."

Wilson and co-conspirator Robert Shea did borrow a few ideas from letters to the editor they received at Playboy, but most of the influence on their collaboration came from the broader gestalt of an era that was obsessed with esoteric arcana and increasingly paranoid about all manner of conspiracies.

"He and I were talking one night over bloody marys and peanuts," recalls Wilson, "and he says, 'What if every conspiracy theory is true?' It began as satire, but a lot of people were really scared by it. Which makes sense, because some of it has got to be true."

Careening wildly from detective story to first-person rant, from twisted history to apocryphal speculation, the Illuminatus works continue to influence the oddest assortment of young minds. Camper Van Beethoven were outspoken fans, as were the Seattle Posies, who paid tribute to Wilson on their first album. (Wilson says Guns 'N' Roses were also fans, but it's probably unfair to hold him responsible for them,) Author Tom Robbins is a Wilson devotee, as is Bay Area author R.U. Sirius, who took his name from Wilson's book, Cosmic Triggers, and went on to found Wired magazine precursor Mondo 2000. (Sirius is also one of the instructors at the Maybe Logic online academy, as are Dice Man author Luke Rhinehart; chaos magic godfather Peter Carroll; DePaul professor Patricia Monahan, who is also Robert Shea's widow; and several others.)

Wilson has also inspired at least two religions, or send-ups thereof: Discordianism took root in the immediate wake of the trilogy, while the Church of the Subgenius enshrined Wilson - in the form of pipe-clenching icon Bob Dobbs - as its figurehead some two decades later.

While introducing him at a convention, Subgenius founder and high priest Ivor Stang called Wilson "the Carl Sagan of religion, the Jerry Falwell of quantum physics, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of feminism" and "the James Joyce of swingset assembly manuals."

As the years went on, Wilson continued to write and speak with relentless energy. After he and his wife moved up to Capitola in the early '90s, he used an early incident here as a way to explain quantum physics.

"When I moved from Los Angeles I moved into what I thought was Santa Cruz," Wilson told a European audience during footage included in Bauscher's film. "Then we had something stolen from our car and we called the police, and it turned out we didn't live in Santa Cruz, we lived in a town called Capitola. The post office thought we lived in Santa Cruz, the police thought we lived in Capitola. I started investigating this and a reporter at the local newspaper told me we didn't live in Santa Cruz or Capitola, we lived in a unincorporated area called Live Oak."

"Now quantum mechanics is just like that," Wilson continues, "except that in the case of Santa Cruz, Capitola and Live Oak, we don't get too confused because we remember we invented the lines on the map. But quantum physics seems confusing because a lot of people think we didn't invent the lines, so it seems hard to understand how a particle can be in three places at the same time and not be anywhere at all."


[First posted 24 December 2007]