I mentioned in the previous post that my mind spun and spun while under the influence of five hits of acid. This type of experience is almost impossible to express in words. But there is one person I know who had the writing skills, the imagination, the word-smithing creativity to capture at least some facet of what such an experience is like.
Experience: Table of Contents
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As an interlude to this essay on experience, I wish to recall his words, to expose the Reader who may be unfamiliar with such things some small flavor of what was going through my mind that night. While these are his thoughts, mine were similar; different yes, but similar in essence.
This long quote is from Alan Watts wonderful book The Joyous Cosmology. For those who have never read this book, it is one of the best, most insightful books one can read. Note that a smaller quote below will be the basis for the next entry in this essay on experience, the paragraph beginning, “Life seems to resolve itself down…”. We will come back to this thought next time.
Without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen it is my pleasure to introduce Alan Watts:
I am listening to a priest chanting the Mass and a choir of nuns responding. His mature, cultivated voice rings with the serene authority of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and the nuns respond, naively it seems, with childlike, utterly innocent devotion. But, listening again, I can hear the priest “putting on” his voice, hear the inflated, pompous balloon, the studiedly unctuous tones of a master deceptionist who has the poor little nuns, kneeling in their stalls, completely cowed. Listen deeper. The nuns are not cowed at all. They are playing possum. With just a little stiffening, the limp gesture of bowing turns into the gesture of the closing claw. With too few men to go around, the nuns know what is good for them: how to bend and survive.
But this profoundly cynical view of things is only an intermediate stage. I begin to congratulate the priest on his gamesmanship, on the sheer courage of being able to put up such a performance of authority when he knows precisely nothing. Perhaps there is no other knowing than the mere competence of the act. If, at the heart of one’s being, there is no real self to which one ought to be true, sincerity is simply nerve; it lies in the unabashed vigor of the pretense.
But pretense is only pretense when it is assumed that the act is not true to the agent. Find the agent. In the priest’s voice I hear down at the root the primordial howl of the beast in the jungle, but it has been inflected, complicated, refined, and textured with centuries of culture. Every new twist, every additional subtlety, was a fresh gambit in the game of making the original howl more effective. At first, crude and unconcealed, the cry for food or mate, or just noise for the fun of it, making the rocks echo. Then rhythm to enchant. then changes of tone to plead or threaten. Then words to specify the need, to promise and bargain. And then, much later, the gambits of indirection. The feminine stratagem of stooping to conquer, the claim to superior worth in renouncing the world for the spirit, the cunning of weakness proving stronger than the might of muscle—and the meek inheriting the earth.
As I listen, then, I can hear in that one voice the simultaneous presence of all the levels of man’s history, as of all the stages of life before man. Every step in the game becomes as clear as the rings in a severed tree. But this is an ascending hierarchy of maneuvers, of stratagems capping stratagems, all symbolized in the overlays of refinement beneath which the original howl is still sounding. Sometimes the howl shifts from the mating call of the adult animal to the helpless crying of the baby, and I feel all man’s music—its pomp and circumstance, its gaiety, its awe, its confident solemnity—as just so much complication and concealment of baby wailing for mother. And as I want to cry with pity, I know I am sorry for myself. I, as an adult, am also back there alone in the dark, just as the primordial howl is still present beneath the sublime modulations of the chant.
You poor baby! And yet—you selfish little bastard! As I try to find the agent behind the act, the motivating force at the bottom of the whole thing, I seem to see only an endless ambivalence. Behind the mask of love I find my innate selfishness. What a predicament I am in if someone asks, “Do you really love me?” I can’t say yes without saying no, for the only answer that will really satisfy is, “Yes, I love you so much I could eat you! My love for you is identical with my love for myself. I love you with the purest selfishness.” No one wants to be loved out of a sense of duty.
So I will be very frank. “Yes, I am pure, selfish desire and I love you because you make me feel wonderful—at any rate for the time being.” But then I begin to wonder whether there isn’t something a bit cunning in this frankness. It is big of me to be so sincere, to make a play for her by not pretending to be more than I am—unlike the other guys who say they love her for herself. I see that there is always something insincere about trying to be sincere, as if I were to say openly, “The statement that I am now making is a lie.” There seems to be something phony about every attempt to define myself, to be totally honest. The trouble is that I can’t see the back, much less the inside, of my head. I can’t be honest because I don’t fully know what I am. Consciousness peers out from a center which it cannot see—and that is the root of the matter.
Life seems to resolve itself down to a tiny germ or nipple of sensitivity. I call it the Eenie-Weenie—a squiggling little nucleus that is trying to make love to itself and can never quite get there. The whole fabulous complexity of vegetable and animal life, as of human civilization, is just a colossal elaboration of the Eenie-Weenie trying to make the Eenie-Weenie. I am in love with myself, but cannot seek myself without hiding myself. As I pursue my own tail, it runs away from me. Does the amoeba split itself in two in an attempt to solve this problem?
I try to go deeper, sinking thought and feeling down and down to their ultimate beginnings. What do I mean by loving myself? In what form do I know myself? Always, it seems, in the form of something other, something strange. The landscape I am watching is also a state of myself, of the neurons in my head. I feel the rock in my hand in terms of my own fingers. And nothing is stranger than my own body—the sensation of the pulse, the eye seen through a magnifying glass in the mirror, the shock of realizing that oneself is something in the external world. At root, there is simply no way of separating self from other, self-love from other-love. All knowledge of self is knowledge of other, and all knowledge of other knowledge of self. I begin to see that self and other, the familiar and the strange, the internal and the external, the predictable and the unpredictable imply each other. One is seek and the other is hide, and the more I become aware of their implying each other, the more I feel them to be one with each other. I become curiously affectionate and intimate with all that seemed alien. In the features of everything foreign, threatening, terrifying, incomprehensible, and remote I begin to recognize myself. Yet this is a “myself” which I seem to be remembering from long, long ago—not at all my empirical ego of yesterday, not my specious personality.
The “myself” which I am beginning to recognize, which I had forgotten but actually know better than anything else, goes far back beyond my childhood, beyond the time when adults confused me and tried to tell me that I was someone else; when, because they were bigger and stronger, they could terrify me with their imaginary fears and bewilder and outface me in the complicated game that I had not yet learned. (The sadism of the teacher explaining the game and yet having to prove his superiority in it.) Long before all that, long before I was an embryo in my mother’s womb, there looms the ever-so-familiar stranger, the everything not me, which I recognize, with a joy immeasurably more intense than a meeting of lovers separated by centuries, to be my original self. The good old sonofabitch who got me involved in this whole game.