Alan Watts On Why Our Minds And Technology Can’t Grasp Reality

“The world is a marvelous system of wiggles,” says Alan Watts in a series of lectures I keep on my iPod at all times. He means that the world, as it really exists, does not comprise all the lines, angles, and hard edges that our various systems of words, symbols, and numbers do. Were I to distill a single overarching argument from all I’ve read and heard of the body of work Watts produced on Zen Buddhist thought, I would do so as follows: humanity has made astounding progress by creating and reading “maps” of reality out of language, numbers, and images, but we run an ever more dangerous risk of mistaking these maps for the land. In this 1971 National Educational Television program, A Conversation With Myself (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4), Watts claims that our comparatively simple minds and the simple technologies they’ve produced have proven desperately inadequate to handle reality’s actual complexity. But what to do about it?

Using an aesthetic now rarely seen on television, A Conversation With Myself captures, in only two unbroken shots, an informal “lecture” delivered by Watts straight to the viewer. Speaking first amid the abundant greenery surrounding his Mount Tamalpais cabin and then over a cup of ceremonial Japanese green tea (“good on a cold day”), he explains why he thinks we have thus far failed to comprehend the world and our interference with it. In part, we’ve failed because our “one-track” minds operating in this “multi-track” world insist on calling it interference at all, not realizing that the boundaries between us, one another, our technology, and nature don’t actually exist. They’re only artifacts of the methods we’ve used to look at the world, just like the distortions you get when digitizing a piece of analog sight or sound. Like early digitization systems, the crude tools we’ve been thinking with have, in Watts’ view, forced all of reality’s “wiggles” into unhelpful “lines and rows.” He sums up the problem with a memorable dash of Buddha-by-way-of-Britain wit: “You’re trying to straighten out a wiggly world, and now you’re really in trouble.”