Starting several years ago, inexplicably and without any identifiable cause, I became chronically fearful of death.
I would wake multiple times each night for more than a year. The nights were abysmal.
In the day time, I could see people rushing to the subway, cars streaking down the highway below my window, see all the things constructed and carved out of the earth by man, and my fears would evaporate.
But when all this activity was veiled by the darkness of night, I would fly awake with a sense of impending doom. It came as an intense guilt, as if I’d killed a man during the day and was finally realizing the gravity of my situation.
Of course, I’d killed no one. For years, I felt as if I had.
This all soon vanished when I did two things: I bought a motorcycle and started the study Zen Buddhism (you’ll note a couple other reviews already on this blog dealing with the subject, and certainly there are more to come if my book shelves are any indication).
Slowly, I began to feel alive again, like when Marcus the vampire king is resurrected in Underworld – the blood slowly started to flow through my veins again. It was a long road, and every day I feel better than the last. The only person I’d killed, it seemed, was myself.
If you’ve ever tried to remove a fragment of egg shell from uncooked egg, you know more about yourself than Alan Watts can possibly teach you through the series of essays that comprise Become What You Are.
Watts would happily admit as much.
Leveraging his vast knowledge of eastern religions and philosophies, and Buddhism in particular, Watts attempts to show us The Way (the path, Tao, Brahman, “suchness”, Reality, non-duality, or what have you).
But Watts’ musings are not enough to get the job done, and more than a few essays concern this very fact. A finger pointing at the moon is not to be confused with moon itself, he writes.
The moment man is born, he views himself as both a member of the universe and a distinct and personal item existing apart from it. He immediately invents an ego, a form (maya) that is something like an actor on a stage.
How often do we find ourselves watching our ego like an Olympic ice skating judge – scoring the ego’s behaviors, measuring the things he says, the way he sits, the meter of his laugh, the rhythm of his pace down the street?
Yet, this ego we watch so intently is not anything but our own invention – a figment of our imagination only. He is not us. What more, no one else sees him.
In our striving to be a vision of greatness, we enact a cheap mimicry of what personal success looks like. The harder we try to match it, the more greatly we diminish our true, uninhibited selves. Our efforts become exceedingly brute, devoid of any artfulness. We become desperate, and we suffer greatly.
In an essay near the end of the collection, called The Second Immortal, a cakeseller in the second half of his life is convinced to leave his store, his sons, and his habits and possessions to find wisdom, or “Immortality” as Watts puts it.
The Immortals who know the secrets of Immortality are easy to find – their eyes are the moon and sun, their breath is the wind, their shouting is powered by the thunder.
The cakeseller finds many wizened sages who look like they might be Immortals. One teaches him the 48 laws of obsequiousness and the 91 indiscretions that shall be avoided to achieve enlightenment.
Another has him drop his habit of eating watermelon seeds and says he must consume only one grain of rice and one cup of water each day to achieve the requisite state of discipline.
Twenty years go by, and for all his discipline and new knowledge, the cakeseller feels no closer to Immortality. Then he meets a trader on a road who claims to have seen two such Immortals on that very road.
The cakeseller and the trader travel through the night, hoping to catch up with the Immortals, but when day breaks, no one stands on the road besides themselves. The cakeseller believes they must have overtaken the Immortals, or perhaps the Immortals broke from the path.
No, no, says the trader. One of the Immortals on the road is perhaps just invisible. The cakeseller retorts that there are neither one nor two men anywhere to be seen on the road…besides the trader himself.
The trader then casually reveals that he is one of the Immortals. As for the second Immortal, he will become visible when he returns to eating watermelon seeds and selling cakes at his shop.
Though most of Watts’ essays are not parables, and occasionally dive into the technicalities of various Buddhist cults (Pure Land, Mahayana, Zen, etc.), you will find that his main lesson is let life live you “instead of trying to make yourself live life.”
P.S. To easily remove a piece of egg shell from an egg, don’t prod at it with your finger – simply use one half of the divided shell to scoop out the fragment. It will slide right into the cup.