I am guessing most philosophy students are aware of Alan watts seminars and workshops entitled ‘The Value of Psychotic Experience.’ And many people who are interested in an entirely new approach to ‘mental health’ problems are participating in these seminars and workshops. What they may not realise is that by doing this they are partaking in a new line of philosophical questioning which is extremely dangerous and in a way revolutionary. For this reason:
We are living in a world where deviant opinions about religion are no longer dangerous. Why? Because no one takes religion seriously anymore, and therefore you can be like Bishop Pike and question the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the reality of the virgin birth, and the physical resurrection of Jesus, and still remain a bishop in good standing. But what you can’t get away with today, or at least you have great difficulty in getting away with is psychiatric heresy. This is because in our ‘modern’ world psychiatry is taken incredibly seriously, and indeed i say modern as i would like to draw a parallel between today and the Middle Ages in the respect of this whole question.
Going back to the days of the Spanish Inquisition, we must remember that the professor of theology at the University of Seville has the same kind of social prestige and intellectual standing that today would be enjoyed by the professor of pathology at only the finest of medical schools. And you must bear in mind that this theologian, like the professor of pathology today, is a man of good will. Intensely interested in human welfare. He didn’t merely stress an opinion, that professor of theology KNEW that anybody who had heretical religious views would suffer everlasting agony of the most appalling kind. It is worth reading the imaginative descriptions of the sufferings of Hell, written not only in the Middle Ages, but in quite recent times by men of intense intellectual acumen. And therefore out of what they believed to be real merciful motivation, the Inquisitors thought that it was the best thing they could do to torture heresy out of those who held it. Worse still, heresy was infectious, and would contaminate other people and put them in this immortal danger. And so with the best motivations imaginable, they used the thumbscrew, the rack, the iron maiden, the cat-of-nine-tails, and finally the stake to get these people to come to their senses, because nothing else seemed to be available.
Today, serious heresy, is a deviant state of consciousness. Not so much deviant opinions as having a kind of experience which is different from ‘regular’ experience. We are taught what experiences are permissible in the same way we are taught what gestures, what manners, what behaviour is permissible and socially acceptable. And therefore, if a person has so-called ‘strange’ experiences, and endeavours to communicate these experiences (because naturally we like to talk about how we feel) and endeavours to communicate these experiences to other people, he is looked at in a very odd way and asked ‘are you feeling all right?’ Because people tend to feel distinctly uncomfortable when the realise they are in the presence of someone who is experiencing the world in a rather different way from themselves.
Alan Watts says, “They call in question as to whether this person is indeed human. They look like a human being, but because the state of experience is so different, you wonder whether they really are. And you get the kind of–the same kind of queasy feeling inside as you would get if, for the sake of example, you were to encounter a very beautiful girl, very formally dressed, and you were introduced, and in order to shake hands, she removed her glove, and you found in your hand the claw of a large bird. That would be spooky, wouldn’t it?”
Indeed. But for me it would be a little more than merely ‘spooky’. He continues… “Or let’s suppose that you were looking at a rose. And you looked down in the middle where the petals are closed, and you suddenly saw them open like lips, and the rose addressed you and said ‘good morning.’ You would feel something uncanny was going on.”
I can also add that in rather the same way, in an every day kind of circumstance, when you are sitting in a pub drinking, and you find you have a drunk sat next to you. He tells you, ‘indistinguishable drunken ranting’ and you sort of move your chair away from him, because he’s become in some way what we mean by non-human. Now, we understand the drunk; we know what’s the matter with him, and it’ll wear off. But when out of the blue he is giving a representation that he’s suddenly got the feeling that he’s living in backwards time, or that everybody seems to be separated from him by a huge sheet of glass. Or that he’s suddenly seeing everything in unbelievably detailed moving colours. We say, ‘well that’s not normal. Therefore there must be something wrong with you.’ And the fact that we have such an enormous percentage of the population of this country in mental institutions is a thing we may have to look at from a very different point of view, not that there may be a high incidence of mental sickness, but that there may be a high incidence of intolerance of variations of consciousness.
Now in Arabic countries, where the Islamic religion prevails, a person whom we would define as mentally deranged is regarded with a certain respect. The village idiot is looked upon with reverence because it is said his soul is not with his body, it is with Allah. And because his soul is with Allah, you must respect this body and care for it, not as something that is to be sort of swept away and put out of sight, but as something of a reminder that a man can still be living on Earth while his soul is in Heaven. A very different point of view. Also in India, there is a certain difference in attitude to people who would be called nuts, because there is a poem (an ancient poem of the Hindus) which says ‘sometimes naked, sometimes mad, now’s a scholar, now’s a fool, thus they appear on Earth as free men.’
But you see, we in our attitude to this sort of behaviour, which is essentially in its first instance harmless, these people are talking what we regard to be nonsense. We feel threatened by that, because we are not secure in ourselves. A very secure person can adapt himself with amazing speed to different kinds of communication. In foreign countries, for example, where you don’t speak the language of the people you are staying with, if you don’t feel ashamed of this, you can set up an enormous degree of communication with other people through gesticulation and even something most surprising, people can communicate with each other by simply talking. You can get a lot across to people by talking intelligent nonsense, by, as it were, imitating a foreign language; speaking like it sounds. You can communicate feelings, emotions, like and dislike of this, that and the other; very simply. But if you are rigid and are not willing to do this type of playing, then you feel threatened by anybody who communicates with you in a funny way. And so this rigidity sets up a kind of vicious circle. The minute, in other words, someone makes an unusual communication to you about an unusual state of consciousness, and you back off, the individual wonders ‘is there something wrong with me? I don’t seem to be understood by anyone.’ Or he may wonder ‘what’s going on? Has everybody else suddenly gone crazy?’ And then if he feels that he gets frightened, and to the degree that he gets more frightened, he gets more defensive, and eventually land up with being catatonic, which is a person who simply doesn’t move. And so then what we do is we send him off to an institution, where he is captured by the inquisitors. This is a very special priesthood. And they have all the special marks that priesthood’s have always had. They have a special vestment. Like the Catholic priest at mass wears a stole (a long silk or linen scarf) and gown, the mental doctor, like every physician, wears a long white coat, and may carry something that corresponds, shall we say, to a stole, which is a stethoscope around his neck. He will then, under his authority, which is often in total defiance of every conceivable civil liberty, will incarcerate this incomprehensible person, he undergoes a ritual of dehumanisation. And he’s put away. And because the hospitals are so crowded with people of this kind, he’s going to get very little attention. And it’s very difficult to know, when you get attention, how to work with it.
Alan Watts gives his thoughts on the disguise of Mental health prisons as other seemingly harmless institutions.
“You get into this Kafka-esque situation which you get, say, in the state of California, if you are sent to such an institute as Vacaville prison, which is as you drive on the highway from San Francisco to Sacramento, you will encounter Vacaville about halfway between. You will see a great sign which will say ‘California State Medical Facility.’ The state of California is famous for circumlocution. When you go underneath a low bridge, instead of saying ‘Low Bridge,’ it says ‘Impaired Vertical Clearance.’ Or when you’re going to cross a toll bridge, instead of saying, plainly, ‘Toll Bridge,’ it says ‘Entering Vehicular Crossing.’ And when it should be saying, plainly, ‘Prison,’ it says either ‘California State Medical Facility,’ or ‘California State Correctional Facility,’ as it does as Soledad. Now Vacaville is a place where people get sent on what they call a one- to ten-year sentence. And there is a supervising psychiatric medical sort of social service staff there, who examine the inmates once in a while because they have such a large number. It’s a maximum security prison, much more ringed around with defences than even San Quentin. I went there to lecture to the inmates some time ago. They wanted someone to talk to them about meditation and yoga, and one of the inmates took me aside–a very clean-cut all-American boy. And he had been put in there probably for smoking pot; I’m not absolutely sure in my memory what the offence was. He said ‘You know, I am very puzzled about this place. I really want to go straight and get out and get a job and live like an ordinary person.’ He said ‘I think they don’t know how to go about it. I’ve just been refused release; I went up before the committee; I talked to them. But I don’t know what the rules of the game are. And incidentally, the members of the committee don’t either.'”
So we have these situations, you see, of confusion. So that when a person goes into a mental hospital and feels first of all perhaps that he should try to sort himself out and talk reasonably with the doctors. There is introduced into the communications system between them a fundamental element of fear and mistrust. Because I could talk to any individual if I were malicious and interpret every sane remark you make as something deeply sinister; that would simply exhibit my own paranoia. And the psychiatrist can very easily get paranoid, because the system he is asked to represent, officially is paranoid.
In the 1970’s Alan Watts talked with a psychiatrist in England….
“One of the most charming women I’ve come across, an older woman, very intelligent, quite beautiful, very reasonable. And she was discussing with me the problem of the LSD psychosis. I asked her what sort of treatments they were using, and all sorts of questions about that, and she appeared at first to be a little on the defensive about it. We got onto the subject of the experience of what is officially called ‘depersonalisation,’ where you feel that you and your experience–your sensory experience–that is to say all that you do experience: the people, the things, the animals, the buildings around you–that it’s all one. I said ‘do you call this a hallucination? After all,’ I said, ‘it fits the facts of science, of biophysics, of ecology, of biology, and much better than our ordinary normal experience fits it.’ She said ‘that’s not my problem.’ She said ‘that may be true, but I am employed by a society which feels that it ought to maintain a certain average kind of normal experience, and my job is to restore people to what society considers normal consciousness. I have no alternative but to leave it at that.'”
So, then. When someone is introduced into this situation, and it’s very difficult to get attention, you feel terrified. The mental hospital, often in its very architecture, suggests some of the great visions of madness, corridors in the mind. If you got lost in a maze and you couldn’t get back. You’re not quite sure who you are, or whether your father and mother are your real father and mother, or whether in the next ten minutes you’re still going to remember how to speak English. You feel very lost. And the mental hospital in its architecture and everything represents that situation. Endless corridors, all the same. Which one are you in? Where are you? Will you ever get out? And it goes on monotonously, day after day after day after day after day. And someone who talks to you occasionally doesn’t have a straight look in his eye. He doesn’t see you as quite human. He looks at you as if you’re weird. What are you to do? If you were to take society’s angle the best thing to do is get violent, if you really want to get out. Well then they say that’s proof that you’re crazy. And then as you get more violent, they put you off by yourself, and the only alternative you have, the only way of expressing yourself is to throw shit at the walls. Then they say, ‘well, that’s conclusive. The person isn’t human.’
Well, the question is always being raised on tv and in the press as to whether this is a sick society. Listening to the throngs psychoanalysts out there the Europeans will tell you that society is hopeless and the Americans say, ‘Most people in this society are good people, and it’s a GOOD society, but we have a very sick minority.’
Now, I understand it has been done since the dawn of thought, but I would like to call to question, very fundamentally, all of our basic ideas about what is sickness, what is health, what is sanity, what is insanity. I think we have to begin from this position of humility; that we really don’t know. It’s reported that shortly before he died, Robert Oppenheimer, looking at the picture of technology, especially nuclear technology, said ‘I’m afraid it’s perfectly obvious that the world is going to hell.’ It’s going to destroy itself, it’s on collision course. The only way in which it might not go to hell is that we do not try to prevent it from doing so. Think that one over. Because it can well be argued that the major troublemakers in the world today are those people with good intentions. Like the professor of theology, University of Seville, professor of psychiatry at wherever you will. The idea that we know who is sick, who is wrong. Now, we are living in a political situation right now where a most fantastic thing is occurring. Everybody knows what they’re against; nobody knows what they’re for. Because nobody is thinking in terms anymore of what would be a great style of life. The reason we have poverty is that we have no imagination. There’s no earthly reason; there’s no physical, technical reason for there being any poverty at all anywhere. But you see, there are a great many people accumulating what they think is vast wealth, but it’s only money. They don’t know how to use it, they don’t know how to enjoy it, because they have no imagination.
If you want to be rich it’s easy.. Just be the first to write the book ‘Are You Rich and Miserable?’ because so many probably are. Some aren’t, but most are. Now the thing is that we are living in this situation where everybody knows what they’re against, even if they say ‘I’m against war. I am against discrimination against coloured people and so on. Yeah, so what? But it’s not enough to feel like that; that’s nothing. People have no idea what it is they really want. You must have some completely concrete vision of what you would like.
Before anyone is allowed to leave school they must be answer one question. “What is your idea of Heaven?” The answer given has to be absolutely specific. They are not allowed, for example, to say ‘I would like to live with a very beautiful girl.’ What do you mean by a beautiful girl? Exactly how, and in what way? Specifically. You know, down to the way she moves, talks, every kind of expression of character and sociability and her interests, everything. Be specific! And all answers like that… ‘I would like to live in a beautiful house.’ Just what exactly do you mean by a beautiful house? Well you’ve suddenly got to study architecture for a start. You see how it works. It would take years to answer. With his research, the travel, the reading, studying the ways of girls, finding out what makes them beautiful, the tracking down of happy people, the meeting with great and happy minds. Before he knows it, he hasn’t even had a chance to decide whether going to university is the path for him and he is finding this simple question is turning into his doctoral dissertation. (Much like this.)
So in a situation where we all know what we’re against, and we don’t know what we’re for, then we know WHO we’re against. We’re defining all sorts of people as non-human. We say they’re totally irrational. They’re totally stupid. People will say, ‘oh, those peasants, they’re completely uneducated, they’ll never learn a thing, there’s nothing you can do about it, they’re hopeless, get rid of them.’ It a case of pass it on and before you know it the ‘gossip’ has spread and ‘other’ people are saying the same thing a vicious circle of people misinforming one another till the point from which we have to begin, then, is that we don’t know who is healthy and who is sick. Who is right and who is wrong. And furthermore, we have to start, I think, from the assumption that because we don’t know, there isn’t anything we can do about it.
I’d like to quote a Chinese story, kind of a Taoistic story about a farmer. One day, his horse ran away, and all the neighbours gathered in the evening and said ‘that’s too bad.’ He said ‘maybe.’ Next day, the horse came back and brought with it seven wild horses. ‘Wow!’ they said, ‘Aren’t you lucky!’ He said ‘maybe.’ He next day, his son grappled with one of these wild horses and tried to break it in, and he got thrown and broke his leg. And all the neighbours said ‘oh, that’s too bad that your son broke his leg.’ He said, ‘maybe.’ The next day, the conscription officers came around, gathering young men for the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And the visitors all came around and said ‘Isn’t that great! Your son got out.’ He said, ‘maybe.’
You see, you never really know in which direction progress lies. And this is today a fantastic problem for geneticists. They are called geneticists, you know, because they think have some degree of controlling the DNA and RNA code. With this they believe that it is really possible to breed the kind of human beings that we ought to have. And they say ‘hooray!’ But they think one moment and they think ‘eeerrrrrmm, but what kind of human being?’ So they are as we should be, slightly worried.
I was thinking about this not so long ago, standing on a busy Bangkok highway, looking at the main roads, and all these little cars going along them, I was wondering if I considered that the planet was a physical body like my own, whether I might not feel that this was some sort of an invasion of weird bacteria that were eating me up. Whether it may be that the birds and the bees and the flowers (animals in general) were a kind of healthy bacteria. You know, bees and birds sort of wander about, generally mix in with the forest and the fields and carry on a rather disorganised but very interesting pattern of life, whereas human beings cut straight lines across everything. Railways. They cover themselves with junk. A bird may have a little nest, but it doesn’t have to surround itself with automobiles and books and buildings and CD’s and universities and clutter up the whole landscape with a lot of bric- a-brac. Human beings pride themselves on this. ‘You see, this is culture!’ This is a great achievement. Build a building, you know? It’s all you can get money for. You can’t get money for teachers, but you can get them for new buildings. So we cover the Earth with clutter. And so the Earth might feel as if we might feel if suddenly we got a disease which instead of leaving us soft-skinned, covered us with crystalline scabs, and this would be coming out all over the place with pox! Are we a pox on the planet? Don’t be too sure that we’re not. Consider simply this:
There is a good argument (keep in mind I’m saying these things to provoke you, to make you a little insane by being in doubt of all the assumptions which you think are firmly true.) It is quite possible, you see, that the whole enterprise of man to control events on the Earth by his conscious intelligence, by his language, by his mathematics, and by his science is a disaster. You may say, look at his successes, look how much disease we have cured. Look how much hunger has been abolished. Look how we have raised the standard of living. Yeah. But in how long has it taken us to get this far?
Well, even if we say this started with the dawn of known history, it’s a tiny little fragment of time, as compared with the time in which the human species has existed. And if it’s the Industrial Revolution, it narrows down to the teeniest, weeniest tiny bit of time. How do we know this is progress? How do we know that this is a success? It may be a disaster of unimaginable proportions. It may be. But the truth is, we don’t know. Of course, it could be possible, that every star in the heavens was once a planet, and that planet developed intelligent life, which in due course discovered the secrets of atomic energy, blew itself up into a chain reaction, and as it exploded throughout various masses which began in due course to spin around it, became planets, and after a while developed intelligent life. After millions of years, as the central star started to cool off, they blew themselves up in turn, and that’s the way the thing goes on. That’s of course the theory of the Hindus. Not literally, but they do have the theory, you see, that life, every manifestation of the universe, begins in a glorious way, and then it deteriorates. But then everything does. Isn’t everything always falling apart and getting older and fading out? Why shouldn’t various species, why shouldn’t various planets, why shouldn’t various universes be going through the same course?
You see, that’s a totally upside-down view in respect to our common sense. We think everything ought to be growing and improving and getting better and better and better and better and better. Look at it the other way around, it might be quite different. Then there’s another thought. We know that in truth, the way being is an interaction, or better, transaction between the physical world and our sense organs, and that therefore, what we know as existence is a relationship. It is the way certain what we will call for the moment electrical vibrations make impression upon sense organs of a certain structure. Now that’s a limited way of talking about it, but it will do for the moment. Therefore, according to the structure of the sense organs, the vibrations will appear of be manifested in different ways. In other words, I can move my finger like this, and if it happens to pluck the string of a violin, it will go ‘plunk!’ In which case my finger and its motion will be manifested as ‘plunk!’ But if it should so happen that I should strike the string of a bass fiddle, it will go, ‘bunggggg’ and so the finger will be ‘bunggggg’ But if the same motion should strike the skin of a drum, ‘thunk,’ so the finger will be ‘thunk,’ now what is that motion truly? It’s whatever it interacts with. If it goes across somebody else’s skin, it’ll be something I can’t make a noise about. It’d be a feeling. If it does it in front of an eye, it will be a motion.
So depending on the structure of shall we say for the moment the receptor organs, so will the reality be. Now behind the receptor organs (the senses are not at all simple) behind the senses they are inseparable from an extraordinarily complex neurological structure. And not only that, but a system of cultural standards as to what events are to be noticed and what events are to be ignored. What is important for a certain reason such as survival, and what is unimportant, and therefore we further modify the selectivity of the sense organs and of the nervous system as a whole with a selective system of what is culturally accepted as real or unreal, important or unimportant. (This is all sounding a lot more complicated that i originally intended.) I am sure you follow.
So we end up you see, with the possibility that so complex a selective system may have a great many variations, and that people that we call crazy have a different system of evaluation. They may have a difference of neural structure, as would obviously be the case if there were lesions caused by syphilis, or by brain tumours. But what about something not quite at that level, but at the level of the selectivities they imply which would correspond to what we call social conditioning. Now we know the proverb that genius is to madness ‘cross the line. And how do we know whether a certain modification in the structure of the whole sensory system is a sickness or whether it is a growing edge (some kind of improvement in the human being.) Well we have certain very, very rough standards which we apply to this, but we can never be quite sure because what we call sanity is mob rule.
Sanity is simply the vote or organisms that recognise themselves to be humans and they get together and say ‘Well, the way we see it is the way it is.’ And you will remember in the ‘Jungle Book’ how the monkeys, are laughed at because every once in a while they get together in a meeting and shout ‘We all say so, so it must be true!’
But here lie the deepest political problems. How is the majority to tolerate, to absorb, to evaluate a minority? It’s an academic problem. We have standards as to who are sound scholars, reliable scientists (we give them a PhD;) And they all get together and uphold the standards. But then they suddenly realise that they’re getting a little narrow and that things aren’t going on, and suddenly somebody says one day ‘Old whats-his-name, who we always thought was quite mad and very, very unorthodox has suddenly come up with an idea that we’ve all got to think about.’ So one would say that every university faculty has to include in its membership at least five percent crazies or eccentrics. Every culture has to tolerate within its domain a lot of weird people. Now there’s no possibility that everybody in Europe is going to be a hippy. But the fact that a large number of young people are hippies should be a matter of congratulations, even if you don’t want to live that way yourself. Not to mention the various racial variations that we have among us: African, Asian, Chinese, Japanese, and so forth. All this is exceedingly important, this preserves variety. And a culture which is insecure in itself cannot tolerate this.
Now in England i think things are a little more secure than the world at large. When at school (not a very religious one i might add) and I announced that I was a Buddhist, nobody seemed to bother at all. But if i was to mention the same statement to my Italian and very Roman Catholic Grandmother i was looked upon as some sort of devil worshipper. It was a big problem and almost a case for the local exorcist.
A few individuals wishing to grow their hair and sport a beard is not going to disrupt the fabric of our society. A few students dropping out of Uni to undertake further education whilst travelling won’t collapse our fine education system any more than a few parents that wish to take their children out of school to educate them at home will.
And that is the attitude the general populous needs to have in regard to everything deviant, psychotic, and weird. Because we are not sure what’s right, who’s sane, which end is up. As Alan Watts says, “In a relativistic universe, you don’t cling to anything, you learn to swim. And you know what swimming is. It’s a kind of relaxed attitude to the water, in which you don’t keep yourself afloat by holding the water, but by a certain giving in to it.” And it’s just the same with relationships to people all around.