Alan Watts on the Tao

“To understand what follows the reader must…allow himself to be in a proper state of mind.

“You are asked – temporarily, of course – to lay aside all your philosophical, religious, and political opinions, and to become almost like an infant, knowing nothing. Nothing, that is, except what you actually hear, see, feel, and smell.

“Take it that you are not going anywhere but here, and that there never was, is, or will be any other time than now. Simply be aware of actuality without giving it names and without judging it, for you are now feeling out reality itself instead of ideas and opinions about it.

“There is no point in trying to suppress the babble of words and ideas that goes on in most adult brains, so if it won’t stop, let it go on as it will, and listen to it as if it were the sound of traffic or the clucking of hens.”  


What perfect guidance for mindful attention, coming from the inimitable Alan Watts in his last book, published posthumously and completed by Chungliang Al Huang, Tao: The Watercourse Way.  

Another quote from the book, clarifying the difference between linear and non-linear comprehension: 

“Conscious attention scans the cycle sequentially, but existentially the whole clock is present while the hand moves.” 

And another, introducing the unifying substance behind the evident polarity of this or that, black or white, win or lose, etc.: 

“The yin yang principle is not, therefore, what we would ordinarily call a dualism, but rather an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity.” 

What am I getting at? 

I’m thinking about the way I try to understand things. I attempt to break things down into component parts, then pick up one piece at a time to examine it from all sides. If I can break the piece down further, so be it.

It seems things could break down in this way forever. For example, my interest in trauma led me to study neurons and neurotransmitters. Was I honing in on my path or veering off course? Recall, I teach yoga. I have no aspirations to become a neuroscientist.  

At some point I remember to zoom back out and realize that the thing I’m understanding isn’t a tower made of Legos that can be fully comprehended (and healed) by identifying each of its colorful plastic parts. I’m looking at a still snapshot of the hour:minute:second on a clock trying to understand the nature of time. It’s useful to a degree but ultimately distracting.  

Each Lego is needed to become a tower, each second to add up to time. The piece and the whole are mutually arising, co-occurring. Interdependent and intrinsic. Each finger is differentiated but not separate from the hand; the thing is, there is no hand without fingers.  

This reminds me of teaching yoga. If you take my active classes you know how much I love to break things down into specific focus. Sometimes I’ll show you a picture of one single muscle and we’ll practice for an hour to sense and feel it, strengthen and lengthen it, and relax it. I try to be clear – there is no way to truly isolate movement in your body to only one muscle or only one joint. The whole body is connected. The whole thing moves when you breathe. Your being is made to work as a team. All the pieces, as a whole. 

In an OAY active class, the conclusion to the conscious attention we cultivate is savasana, the final resting pose. Where you lie still, soften your focus, and instead rest with the intention to allow your body to integrate all you’ve done in your practice. In an OAY passive class like yin or restorative, this inclusive and general mindfulness is typically the aim of the whole thing.

The mind is released from the request to concentrate on one point and instead left alone to feel out “reality itself instead of ideas and opinions about it”. There’s a usefulness in practicing both. After all, in the yin yang symbol there’s a spot of black in the white and a spot of white in the black. Each is needed to define the other, existing in relationship. In fact, only existing in relationship. Otherwise, what is there?

I think Alan would answer: the Tao.