Now — The Taoist Way

One fine day you realize to your astonishment [that] there is no way at all of having your mind anywhere else but in the present moment because even when you think about the past or future, you’re doing it now, aren’t you?!

Alan Watts — The Taoist Way
Alan Watts — The Taoist Way

Alan Watts lectured often about the concept of being present in the Now. Being in the now is a practice of Buddhism and Zen, which is a way to stay on the path of the inner Sage. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist path is release from the round of phenomenal existence with its inherent suffering. To achieve this goal is to attain nirvana, an enlightened state in which the fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance have been quenched.


In Carol Anthony’s book The Philosophy of the I Ching, she writes:

“Freeing out mind (what we focus on and listen to within) of the dominance of the ego and our inferiors [Note: the I Ching refers to our worst impulses and instincts as inferiors. It is plural because there are many troublesome instincts, attitudes, and rigid beliefs to contend with inside of ourselves.] is part of the work by which we re-attain our natural state of innocence. Through self-discipline, we keep our mind’s eye open, and our inner space free of the thoughts that our inferiors would introduce if we fail to resist them. In the time of youth we are automatically open-minded; it is unnecessary to make a conscious effort to be so. After we learn structured ways of dealing with the world, and listen to the urgings of our fears, our inner view becomes blocked and our inner space filled. We are no longer able to see or her within, but are attuned only to the external world and how we think we need to be to deal with it. Through self-development we de-structure our patterned ways of thinking: by conscious effort we keep our inner view and inner space empty. In this manner we reconstruct our original innocence. The only difference is that our new innocence is consciously maintained; it is not the unconscious innocence of childhood.”

Carol Anthony — The Philosophy of the I Ching

Indeed, if what Carol Anthony has come to understand through her own life and practice using the I Ching is right, then she is showing us how to heal our inner selves and how to bring forth our inner unconsciousness in gentle, constructive, non-violent ways. Without this conscious effort, we are bound to fall prey to our own karma and act in the world in ways that are harmful to others and that will bring great pain and sorrow onto ourselves as we try to make our way through and navigate our inner flow of consciousness, which is time.

Time is the great equalizer.

And, it is always happening Now.


Alan Watts continues saying:

"Even when you think about the past or the future you're doing it now, aren't you? And that results in a very curious transformation of consciousness you feel that you that the present moment is flowing along and carrying you with it all the time just like the flow of the Tao. The flow of the Tao is what we would call the flow of the present. Zhong Yong in his book The Unwobbling Pivot says the Tao is that from which one cannot deviate that from which one can deviate is not the Tao.
To put it into the form of a zen story, the Master Joshua said to Nansen what is the Tao? Nansen replied your everyday mind is the Tao. Joshua asked how do you get into accord with it? Nansen replied when you try to get into accord, you deviate."

Watts says there is no recipe for learning how to be in the present and in the flow of the Tao, which is the eternal Now. Every person must learn to feel it for themselves.

Alan Watts tells how Christian missionaries translate the Tao as logos.

"They took as their point of departure the opening passage of Saint John's gospel in the beginning was the word. Now if you look up a Chinese translation of the bible, it says in the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with god and the Tao was god. (...)  So they've substituted the Tao with God. Now, that make a very funny effect on a Chinese philosopher because the idea of things being made by the Tao is absurd. The Tao is not a manufacturer and it's not a governor. It doesn't rule as it were in the position of a king.  The Tao flows everywhere...both to the left and to the right. It loves and nourishes all things but does not lord it over them. And when good things are accomplished, it lays no claim to them. In other words, the Tao does not stand up and say: I have made all of you I have filled this Earth with its beauty and glory... now fall down before me and worship me."

Alan Watts goes on to discuss the idea of mutually arising. It is a very important Taoist expression that all things arise mutually together. Watts loved to says, “although the bees and flowers look different from each other, they are inseparable.” He talks about how bees and flowers coexist in the same way as high and low exist together, or back and front go together, or long and short define each other. He further explains how all of the opposites and things that look completely different from other things interdepend on each other for existence, this is the Tao. Mutual arising is one of the most important concepts to grasp in understanding the Tao, the eternal Now.

All of us living in the Western world have been taught that everything is separated. This is a very Newtonian philosophy of the world, as if it’s a huge amalgamation of billiard balls that don’t move unless they are struck by another ball or a queue (Watts describes). After explaining this, Watts loves to say, “But of course from the standpoint of 20th century science, we know perfectly well now that that’s not the way it works. We know enough about relationships to see that the mechanical model which Newton devised was all right for certain purposes but it breaks down now because we understand relativity and see how things go together in a kind of connected net.” [Note: See Indra’s Net.]

“Now figure a world in which everything happens by itself it doesn’t have to be controlled it’s allowed.”

Alan Watts — The Taoist Way

Watts says here, “This does not mean that everything is in chaos. It means that the more liberty you give the more love you give the more you allow things in yourself and in your surroundings to take place the more order you will have.”

This sounds very hard to allow in 2021 when the whole world seems to be besieged by polarized opposites. In the U.S., for example, you have the extreme Right and the extreme Left bombarding each other with word bombs that are blowing up into real life consequences such as the January 6 insurrection of the Capitol that left people dead and maimed and traumatized. Or the mistrust that has grown like a cancer in our country of one side or another side (or mistrust of doctors, scientists, anyone seen as other) that is contributing to hesitancy of the COVID-19 vaccine, a deadly virus that has killed more Americans in a year and a half than died in both WWI and WWII. Right here and now, COVID-19 (the Delta variant) is surging this summer. NPR reported recently that COVID-19 cases are particularly surging in areas of low vaccination. More than 97% of people entering hospitals right now are unvaccinated. This mistrust, this rampant partisanship is destroying the gentle, fragile fabric of democracy.


This is what Alan Watts was trying to warn us about more than 50 years ago. We know what to do, but we don’t do it. Why?

Watts goes on in this lecture to talk about karmic debt, which I find utterly fascinating, but that’s not what I have chosen to focus on here. I am pondering the point in this lecture when Watts comes to T.S. Elliot’s idea that the person who has settle down in the train to read the newspaper is not the sam person who stepped onto the train from the platform. Watts says to his audience, “Therefore also you who sit here are not the same people who came in at the door. These states are separate. Each in its own place. There was the coming in at the door person, but there is actually only the here and now sitting person, and the person sitting here and now is not the person who will die.”


Jerry Seinfeld talks about this idea too. He talks about Night Guy who likes to eat cookies at night and he is the guy who also likes to stay up late at night. He wants to live for the moment. But, then there’s Morning Guy who has to get up and go to work and has to deal with 5 hours of sleep and too many cookies. He feels awful! HiddenBrain did a spectacular episode on this too, the different phases of self in You, But Better.

Jerry Seinfeld: Night Guy vs. Morning Guy // SiriusXM // SiriusXM Indie JAN 2014

So, just what is Alan Watts getting at? Surely we are not a bunch of separated unconnected selves sleep walking through life. It is all a grand illusion of being? Or maybe we are?!

Now…now…now…now | Image made by Genolve

Watts tells us. He says, “We are all a constant flux and the continuity of the person from past through present to future is as illusory in its own way as the upward movement of the red lines on a revolving barber pole. You know it goes round and round and round and the whole thing seems to be going up or going down whichever the case may be but actually nothing is going up or down.”

Revolution | Animation by Genolve
"So when you throw a pebble into the pond and you make a concentric rings of waves there is an illusion that the water is flowing outwards and no water is flowing outwards at all water is only going up and down what appears to move outward is the wave not the water.  So this kind of philosophical argument says that our seeming to go along in a course of time doesn't really happen. The buddhists say: suffering exists but no one who suffers, deeds exist but no doers are found, a path there is but no one who follows it, and nirvana is but no one who attains it."

This is a confusing concept. When a person rushes to understand something that has happened to them or a new concept, the person is bound not to understand the thing at all. Watts explains that it is a matter of getting to a position where you no longer feel the symbol the thought the idea the word as a block to life, no longer feel it and something you are using as a means of escape. He says: “liberation of the mind from identifying itself with symbols is the same process exactly as breaking up the links between the successive moments the illusion of a self continuing self that travels from moment to moment and picks them all up corresponding to the illusion of the moving water in the wave.”

We are more like a melody being played, Watts describes. We must select the notes in relationship to the places we exist–that means in relationship to everything around us and rising inside of us. If we are not discerning and select everything, the music becomes a jumble and does not make sense. So it is as human beings that we have the capacity to focus in on certain things, to see the symbol of these things in our minds, and select how to arrange these symbols in our mind and how it flows in our never-ending stream of consciousness (i.e., our inner story about what has happened to us during our journey through time and space). When we become more attached to the symbol in our mind rather than to how we are in relationship to each other, with our inner Sage and inferior, and with the whole of nature (indeed the universe), then this is where and when we get into the trouble of bad karma and the cycle of suffering.

Consciousness is a rare and precious gift. It does create problems such as present self and future self and the natural conflict between them.

Yesterday, Jeff Bezos blasted off with his brother and Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen. You’ve already seen the headlines: Lefty Democrats hit Jeff Bezos over space trip, want him to pay ‘fair share’ of taxes. The dividing and the othering and the criticism goes on and on. If it’s not Bezos, it’s Dr. Fauci or a scientists working on climate change or a researcher working on viruses. It seems recently that this is all human beings are really good at doing, othering and dividing things up so they don’t go together any more.

But we can put the pieces back together again because we did this all inside our minds. We got attached to the symbols we created to explain to ourselves what is happening to us. When we get attached to symbols created inside our minds, we divide things… cut them up into little pieces and stand on sides lobbing bombs at the other side opposite our points of view. But, don’t you see… it all goes together?

I really like something Bezos said in an interview with Anderson Cooper when he was asked about this criticism he was getting about this all being a race to space by billionaires. Anderson asked, “Don’t you think it is better to spend you money here, now to take care of all the problems we are facing on Earth?” Bezos replied, after a moment of consideration, “We have to do both. We have to work on the Here and Now. And we have to work on the future. That is what humanity has always done.”

He is right. Because we can see the Present Self (the Here and Now), but also the Future Self (a brighter, better future on the horizon). Men and women throughout human history have taken care of their needs in the here and now and ventured boldly into the unknown. That is what Homo sapiens does. We are a species who originated in Africa, and then we boldly voyaged far and wide until we filled every niche of our beloved planet. We used to live caves or congregated grass huts, but we used our abilities to take care of our needs in the here and now as well as envision a bigger, brighter future and build it. Often such envisioning is seen only by a few individuals of any particular time. Those who cultivate their minds to see distant inner horizons of being. Not all future possibilities are possible, but all visioning of such future possibilities cause conflict for a tribe or group of people of any time because such seeing into the future means change. But it is precisely these abilities that have allowed Homo sapiens, sapiens to build great cities with towers made of glass and to fly around the world in a day inside airplanes. We are able to see ourselves in the Here and Now (like Jerry Seinfeld’s Nighttime Guy), and we can see our future self. Using nothing more than our minds, we can play out inside our minds what the future consequences of the choices we make in the Now (or do not make), which then inform the actions we take in the Now (or do not take).

Bezos told Anderson Cooper his vision is to create the infrastructure so that future humans can move toxic and polluting industries off Earth, so we can protect our beautiful and fragile planet. This is a beautiful vision, and he is right to hold it and to start something small that will grow into something big. And he can also take care of the here and now and did with $100 million gift each to Van Jones and chef Jose Andres. Sure he could pay more in taxes and probably should. But we do this together, moment by moment… we all create reality.

What will you do with your plot of consciousness today? How will you step into the flow of the Now without a train of burdensome thought cars following you into it?

Have a great day!

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