After many years being out-of-print, Alan Watts’ classic account of the psychedelic experience, The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, is being reissued by New World Library. What follows is an introduction to the new edition by Daniel Pinchbeck, followed by Alan Watts’ prologue.
Introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck
The Joyous Cosmology inevitably sends me into a state of poetic euphoria and anarchistic delight. Alan Watts wrote this wonderful little book in the early 1960s: that long-lost moment of innocence when psychedelic substances like LSD and psilocybin were starting to permeate the culture of the modern West but no final decision had yet been made on their utility or fate-or their legality. It was a time when a handful of philosopher-poets had the chance to muse on the power of these compounds — “to give some impression of the new world of consciousness which these substances reveal,” Watts wrote.
Reading it again, I can’t help but recall my first forays into the soul-unfolding and mind-opening qualities of the visionary plants and chemical catalysts. Those first trips unmasked the brittle delusions of our current culture and revealed that deeper dimensions of psychic reality were available for us to explore. Watts is such a fluid stylist — such a master of evanescent, evocative, pitch-perfect prose — that it is easy to gloss over or to entirely miss the explosive, radical, even revolutionary core of his message and meaning: the Western ego, the primacy of self that our entire civilization is intricately designed to shore up and protect, simply does not exist.
When one uses the magnifying glass or microscope provided by one of a number of chemical compounds that, Watts cannily noted, do not impart wisdom in itself but provide “the raw materials of wisdom,” one finds nothing fixed, stable, permanent — no essence. Only relationship, pattern, flow. Watts’s psychedelic journeys provided experiential confirmation of the core teachings of Eastern metaphysics: that the Tao is all, that consciousness is “one without a second,” that there is no doing, only infinite reciprocity and divine play.
This book retains the freshness of precocious notebook jottings. It also, almost accidentally, gives a beautiful sense of life in the dawn of the psychedelic era on the West Coast, when groups of friends would gather in backyards beside eucalyptus groves to explore together, with the gentle humor of wise children, the infinite within. “All of us look at each other knowingly, for the feeling that we knew each other in that most distant past conceals something else — tacit, awesome, almost unmentionable — the realization that at the deep center of a time perpendicular to ordinary time we are, and always have been, one,” Watts wrote. “We acknowledge the marvelously hidden plot, the master illusion, whereby we appear to be different.”
Over the past forty or so years, we have suffered from the cultural delusion — put forth by a corporate media and government working overtime to keep consciousness locked up, as our industries suck the lifeblood from our planet — that the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s was a failure. Revisiting Watts’s Joyous Cosmology reminds me that the psychedelic revolution has barely begun. The journey inward is the great adventure that remains for humanity to take together. As long as we refuse to turn our attention to the vast interior dimensions of the Psyche — “The Kingdom of God is within” — we will continue to exhaust the physical resources of the planet, cook the atmosphere, and mindlessly exterminate the myriad plant, animal, and insect species who weave the web of life with us.
When on psychedelics, we tend to find that each moment takes on archetypal, timeless, mythological significance. At one point, Watts and his friends enter into a garage full of trash, where they collapse with helpless laughter. “The culmination of civilization in monumental heaps of junk is seen, not as thoughtless ugliness, but as self-caricature — as the creation of phenomenally absurd collages and abstract sculptures in deliberate but kindly mockery of our own pretensions.” Our civilization mirrors the “defended defensiveness” of the individual ego, which fortifies itself against the revelation of interdependence and interconnectivity, the plenitude and emptiness of the void.
We are lucky to have Watts’s testament of his encounters: The Joyous Cosmology is a carrier wave of information and insight, which has lost none of its subtlety, suppleness, or zest. It is also an expression of a larger culture process, one that is unfolding over the course of decades, through a “War on Drugs” that is secretly a war on consciousness.
Dr. Thomas B. Roberts, author of The Psychedelic Future of the Mind, among other works, has proposed that the rediscovery of entheogens by the modern West in the mid-twentieth century was the beginning of a “second Reformation,” destined to have repercussions at least as profound as those of the first one. In the first Reformation, the Bible was translated into the common vernacular, printed, and mass-produced, providing direct access to the “word of God,” which had previously been protected by the priests. With psychedelics, many people now have direct and unmediated access to the mystical and visionary experience, instead of reading about it in musty old tomes. As Watts’s scintillating prose makes clear-and all appearances to the contrary-the future will be psychedelic, or it will not be.
—Daniel Pinchbeck, author of
Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey
into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. New York City, 2013
Prologue by Alan W. Watts
Slowly it becomes clear that one of the greatest of all superstitions is the separation of the mind from the body. This does not mean that we are being forced to admit that we are only bodies; it means that we are forming an altogether new idea of the body. For the body considered as separate from the mind is one thing — an animated corpse. But the body considered as inseparable from the mind is another, and as yet we have no proper word for a reality which is simultaneously mental and physical. To call it mental-physical will not do at all, for this is the very unsatisfactory joining of two concepts which have both been impoverished by long separation and opposition. But we are at least within sight of being able to discard altogether ideas of a stuff which is mental and a stuff which is material.
“Stuff” is a word which describes the formless mush that we perceive when sense is not keen enough to make out its pattern. The notion of material or mental stuff is based on the false analogy that trees are made of wood, mountains of stone, and minds of spirit in the same way that pots are made of clay. “Inert” matter seems to require an external and intelligent energy to give it form. But now we know that matter is not inert. Whether it is organic or inorganic, we are learning to see matter as patterns of energy — not of energy as if energy were a stuff, but as energetic pattern, moving order, active intelligence.
The realization that mind and body, form and matter, are one is blocked, however, by ages of semantic confusion and psychological prejudice. For it is common sense that every pattern, shape, or structure is a form of something as pots are forms of clay. It is hard to see that this “something” is as dispensable as the ether in which light was once supposed to travel, or as the fabulous tortoise upon which the earth was once thought to be supported. Anyone who can really grasp this point will experience a curiously exhilarating liberation, for the burden of stuff will drop from him and he will walk less heavily.
The dualism of mind and body arose, perhaps, as a clumsy way of describing the power of an intelligent organism to control itself. It seemed reasonable to think of the part controlled as one thing and the part controlling as another. In this way the conscious will was opposed to the involuntary appetites and reason to instinct. In due course we learned to center our identity, our selfhood, in the controlling part — the mind — and increasingly to disown as a mere vehicle the part controlled. It thus escaped our attention that the organism as a whole, largely unconscious, was using consciousness and reason to inform and control itself. We thought of our conscious intelligence as descending from a higher realm to take possession of a physical vehicle. We therefore failed to see it as an operation of the same formative process as the structure of nerves, muscles, veins, and bones — a structure so subtly ordered (that is, intelligent) that conscious thought is as yet far from being able to describe it.
This radical separation of the part controlling from the part controlled changed man from a self-controlling to a self-frustrating organism, to the embodied conflict and self-contradiction that he has been throughout his known history. Once the split occurred conscious intelligence began to serve its own ends instead of those of the organism that produced it. More exactly, it became the intention of the conscious intelligence to work for its own, dissociated, purposes. But, as we shall see, just as the separation of mind from body is an illusion, so also is the subjection of the body to the independent schemes of the mind.
Meanwhile, however, the illusion is as real as the hallucinations of hypnosis, and the organism of man is indeed frustrating itself by patterns of behavior which move in the most complex vicious circles. The culmination is a culture which ever more serves the ends of mechanical order as distinct from those of organic enjoyment, and which is bent on self-destruction against the instinct of every one of its members.
We believe, then, that the mind controls the body, not that the body controls itself through the mind. Hence the ingrained prejudice that the mind should be independent of all physical aids to its working — despite microscopes, telescopes, cameras, scales, computers, books, works of art, alphabets, and all those physical tools apart from which it is doubtful whether there would be any mental life at all.
At the same time there has always been at least an obscure awareness that in feeling oneself to be a separate mind, soul, or ego there is something wrong. Naturally, for a person who finds his identity in something other than his full organism is less than half a man. He is cut off from complete participation in nature. Instead of being a body he “has” a body. Instead of living and loving he “has” instincts for survival and copulation. Disowned, they drive him as if they were blind furies or demons that possessed him.
The feeling that there is something wrong in all this revolves around a contradiction characteristic of all civilizations. This is the simultaneous compulsion to preserve oneself and to forget oneself. Here is the vicious circle: if you feel separate from your organic life, you feel driven to survive; survival — going on living — thus becomes a duty and also a drag because you are not fully with it; because it does not quite come up to expectations, you continue to hope that it will, to crave for more time, to feel driven all the more to go on. What we call self-consciousness is thus the sensation of the organism obstructing itself, of not being with itself, of driving, so to say, with accelerator and brake on at once. Naturally, this is a highly unpleasant sensation, which most people want to forget.
The lowbrow way of forgetting oneself is to get drunk, to be diverted with entertainments, or to exploit such natural means of self-transcendence as sexual intercourse. The highbrow way is to throw oneself into the pursuit of the arts, of social service, or of religious mysticism. These measures are rarely successful because they do not disclose the basic error of the split self. The highbrow ways even aggravate the error to the extent that those who follow them take pride in forgetting themselves by purely mental means — even though the artist uses paints or sounds, the social idealist distributes material wealth, and the religionist uses sacraments and rituals, or such other physical means as fasting, yoga breathing, or dervish dancing. And there is a sound instinct in the use of these physical aids, as in the repeated insistence of mystics that to know about God is not enough: transformation of the self is only through realizing or feeling God. The hidden point is that man cannot function properly through changing anything so superficial as the order of his thoughts, of his dissociated mind. What has to change is the behavior of his organism; it has to become self-controlling instead of self-frustrating.
Excerpted from The Joyous Cosmology ©2013 by Alan W. Watts. Published with permission of New World Library.
Alan Watts (1915-1973) was the author of more than twenty books, including The Way of Zen, The Wisdom of Insecurity, and The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. An acclaimed writer, philosopher, and student of Buddhism, he was also an Episcopalian minister, a professor, and a research fellow at Harvard University.