You know we pick up shells – I always keep one around as sort of an example for many things – and say, “My goodness, isn’t that gorgeous? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere, it’s absolutely perfect.” Now I wonder, I wonder if these fish look at each other’s shells and say, “Don’t you think she’s kind of fat? Oh my, those markings aren’t really very well spaced. Pssshhh.” Cause’ that’s what we do, see we don’t realize that all of us in our various goings on and behaviors and so on are just as marvelous – more marvelous, much more complicated, much more interesting – all these gorgeous faces that I’m looking at, you know every one of them – some of them supposedly pretty, some are supposedly not so pretty, but they’re all absolutely gorgeous. And everybody’s eyes is a piece of jewelry beyond compare. Beautiful.
-Alan Watts, Every Incarnation is this One, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series
There is a cove north of the mouth of the Russian River at Jenner that is accessible by descending a steep trail along which lies a long rope that has been secured to a tree at the top of the cliff. From the beach you will see spotted monk seals perched on the rocks beyond the shore of the cove. The monk seals will perceive you as more of a curiosity than a threat if you slowly pick your way along the sand and rocks and tide pools (when you gaze into a healthy tide pool you will find a stirring galaxy of life), sometimes crawling on your hands and knees, looking for little treasures. These sundry treasures are generally common and consist simply of little rocks and shells and the remnants of dead sea creatures. Like all things, their significance is relative, and most people would consider these treasures worthless for they hold little to no monetary value. Yet for those humans who appreciate the perfection and beauty expressed and embodied in a tiny shell, a purple crab claw, an abalone shell, or a piece of calcified coralline seaweed, there is great value in such objects. The value is largely twofold: the first lies in the reward of making the effort to go out and find such wonderful natural curiosities. Though common in comparison to rare gems, rubies, and diamonds, finding a perfectly intact periwinkle turban snail shell, a bright pink chiton skeleton, or a preserved dead green urchin is a scarce event for even a daily beachcomber. (In the book The Unnatural History of the Seas, marine biologist Callum Roberts describes the drastic decline of the diversity and abundance of life in the oceans over the recent decades, and notes that when sailors arrived in Monterrey Bay in the 18th century they smelled the breath of whales that thrived in the bay and sea. I can only imagine what amazing sea creature remnants must have washed ashore prior to a century ago, especially during prehistoric eras.) Granted one is not excavating the earth or crawling through mines the find these seashells and rocks as is required to mine for diamond or gold, but the search for the perfect crab carapace can be more difficult than going to a jewelry store and picking out a ring. Secondly, these items hold value because, aside from the rocks, they were once living organisms or a part thereof. Life is sacred and transient, and these seashells and dead sea creatures which have washed up along the shore are mementos mori – symbolic reminders of our mortality - and in their preserved beauty and ongoing ecological role they demonstrate that even in the process of death lies purpose and absolute perfection.
The meaning as well as the existence of an individual person or organism is in relation to the context. You are what you are, sitting here at this moment in your particular kind of clothes and with the particular colors of your faces and your particular personalities, your family involvements, your business involvements, your neuroses and your everything – you are that precisely in relation to an extremely complex environment. So much so that if – let’s take for example this piece of wood that forms the support to the beam out here, now believe me this is true, you can that has little nubbles on it and so on – if it were not the way it is, you would not be the way you are. The line of connection between what it is and you are is very, very complicated. Also we could say that if a given star that we observe didn’t exist you would be different from what you are now. I don’t say you wouldn’t exist, but you would exist differently. But you might say that “the connection is very faint, it’s something that you don’t ordinarily have to think about, it’s not important,” but basically it is important, only you say, “I don’t have to think about it because it’s there all the time…” Our subtle interdependence with…the kind of existence we have is dependent on all these things. The fundamental things is that existence is relationship.
-Alan Watts, Understanding the Unitive World, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series
…So what I’m pointing out to you is that this basic seeing that it’s all “dat, dat, dat,” provides a possibility for you to become involved in it much more incautiously than you normally are; to express feeling, to love, to throw yourself at the mercy of the goings-on completely, you see. So that this very perception of the illusion makes it possible to live up the illusion! And so if someone therefore is always in his attitude to life detached and reserved, it indicates, you see, that there’s still a primordial fear of getting involved, and I must say that I can’t understand that very well. I don’t understand what people expect that a so-called enlightened person should not need this, that, and the other – it might beautiful surroundings, it might be the love of the opposite sex, it might be I don’t know what. Of course shouldn’t need that. Well in other words you should scrub everything down to basic basic, and the end of that is, you know, let’s scrub the planet, let’s get all this disease called life off it and have a nice clean rock. I believe in color! I believe if you’re going to do anything in the way of the illusory dance let’s live it up, let’s really do it, and let’s not take ourselves so damn seriously that we have to be scrubbed all the time of any ornamentation or frivolity.
-Alan Watts, This is the Game, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series
I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing – something to be condemned – to take your own individual life seriously in dead earnest, and to have all the problems that go with that. Do understand that being that way, that being a real mixed-up human being is a manifestation of nature that is something just like the patterns on the waves out here, or like a sea shell. You know we pick up shells – I always keep one around as sort of an example for many things – and say, “My goodness, isn’t that gorgeous? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere, it’s absolutely perfect.” Now I wonder, I wonder if these fish look at each other’s shells and say, “Don’t you think she’s kind of fat? Oh my, those markings aren’t really very well spaced. Pssshhh.” Cause’ that’s what we do, see we don’t realize that all of us in our various goings on and behaviors and so on are just as marvelous – more marvelous, much more complicated, much more interesting – all these gorgeous faces that I’m looking at, you know every one of them – some of them supposedly pretty, some are supposedly not so pretty, but they’re all absolutely gorgeous. And everybody’s eyes is a piece of jewelry beyond compare. Beautiful. But we have specialized in a certain kind of awareness that makes us neglectful of that. You see we specialize in more or less briefly concentrated, pin-point attention. We look at this and we look at that, and we select from all the things we might possible be aware of, only certain things. And as a result of that, we leave out of our everyday consciousness, generally speaking, two dimensions of experience; one: amazing beauty of experience that we never see at all, and on the other hand, a very deep thing: the sense of our basic identity, unity with, oneness with the total process of being. See, because we are staring, as it were, at certain features of the landscape, we don’t see the background. And because we get fascinated with – you know I could go into details of this shell, as I said, and put myself in the mind of a conch or whatever it is that lives in this thing and say, “Hmm, that’s not so not hot that one,” Like that you see? And so, I wouldn’t see the whole thing! But when I look at it like this, when anybody looks at it like that we say, “Oh my God isn’t that gorgeous?”
-Alan Watts, Every Incarnation is this One, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series
*Sometimes when I’m driving somewhere fun, I imagine that Martin Luther King is sitting shotgun and that Alan Watts, Ron Paul, and Carl Sagan are sitting in back, and we’re all just goofing around.