If all the world is a stage and we are only actors here, then there is nothing to fear and we should all be laughing more. But we don’t laugh enough, at ourselves or the things we do and think, which may be how we end up with what is now dubbed Resting Bitchy Face. This, by the way, does not only happen to ladies or to faces -- our seriousness ends up shaping our bodies, our minds, and our lives. And as the years go by, we completely identify with what are merely roles that are imposed by others at first and adopted by us because they seem real and solid.
In The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts gives us the goods on being human and the keys to liberation. The book has been around for decades and yet it is not — as he had hoped — given to children coming of age like an ancient Japanese pillow book with sexual secrets. Because scary. Although it need not be.
According to Watts, what society does not want us to know is that, despite a cultivated feeling of individuality, we are not just separate sacks of skin. We are in and of the universe, no more or less important than a blade of grass or a leaf on a tree. And the only meaning behind it is that it is. However your life goes, whatever is happening, that is perfect for the purposes of the universe (or multiverse). Whether it’s working for you is another matter.
You are not necessarily stuck in the circumstances, or your patterns, nor is there any real reason to worry. In fact, Watts says, it is the worrying that is the problem, a sign you are over-identifying with a role. You are not — although it can certainly feel that way — your name, your gender, your religion, your race, your nationality, your profession, your familial affiliations. These are notions imposed by humans to organize, to name, to label.
But just like the word table does not say much about the qualities of a particular table — is it wood or plastic? artfully designed or slapped together? large or small and relative to what? — the labels you use to situate yourself in the world are limited and limiting.
Now you may say, that’s all fine and good if you’re a rich white dude but I, personally, have been assigned a very difficult role. Maybe so. But learning to let these things go doesn’t mean that you stop being who you are. It means that you finally start.
Studies on mice (and men) have shown that we carry traumas from generations past. So, grandchildren of mice taught to fear a certain smell will carry that fear with them instinctually with no experience of the trauma that created that sensation. The same has been shown with PTSD survivors — parents’ psychologies shape kids, and kids grow up to make more kids and so we pass on our damage along with the family recipes for generations, through nature and nurturing.
And if you really are a rich white dude from a Mayflower family, then lucky for you, your inheritance is one of confidence, so, swell. But you are not spared your hell, a prison of the mind in which you reside and that makes it difficult for you to understand why others are not sashaying around this earth with quite the same cheer and verve.
In other words, whatever you happen to “be," you still need the secret to get free. And the secret, again, is just that those things that feel so real to us and define us are externals, or internals that are not always applicable to our actual situations because they are outdated fears. Because the labels you wear do not really describe you. They describe aspects of an identity.
But what does all of this mean practically? What use this understanding of labels as limiters if you live in a world of labelers and have to carry around fears that aren't even technically yours?
The use is that gaining a better sense of self (or, more precisely no-self) can improve your life and health, making the experience of being, however fleeting, more enjoyable. It means that when you fuck up, you can admit mistakes and laugh after you cry, and try again and not assume that the various roles you play are serious and important.
For Watts, humanity’s great failure is the inability to understand that this is a game. The game is by being played through all of us — the leaves, the trees, the people, the animals, and there is no desired outcome. It’s just fun.
That said, the universe doesn’t care if you’re having a good time (or a God time for that matter). It’s really all good since it’s just what is happening and the happening is the point and the happening is also existent always ever only in relation to the not happening. That is to say, you can only be your label if someone else has a label too — like two schmucks at a conference wearing stickers with their names, you and the other can now know what to call each other when you play games.
Of course this does not mean that people are not suffering or oppressed or that you don’t need to do your best to understand their experience. But the more you do that, the more you will see there is no fundamental difference between you and me, and there is no fundamental you or me. What we are is an expression of life and what we do is just whatever we do. But your activities are also not you.
I write this because of my own accidents of birth, of course, a confusing set of circumstances that forced me from the start to question identifications even within my family — I have three nationalities and no official native tongue. I am not allied with anyone in particular and find binary formulations of us and them tough. They make no sense to me. Like much of the cultural messaging.
Perhaps I do react to life like a typical female Franco-Israeli-American-Ashkenazi-Sephardic-Berber-Jew who studied Islam and married a Catholic and has worked worldwide, spilling ink and sweat for rich and poor, cutthroats and do-gooders alike. But the more diluted my identification, the fewer generalizations I can make about myself or others. And the less I understand society's demands.
Taking that a little further, this results in me making more mistakes of politesse than other people. I don’t always know which social coding applies to which situation, which of the cultural messages are being sent my way, why others don’t respond well to what I say. As a result, I have spent much time questioning basics of communication, the assumptions that underlie exchanges and don’t always apply, and I have come to the conclusion that I give up.
According to Alan Watts, giving up is where freedom starts. When we realize we are in a double bind created by the mind and perpetuated by society, we loosen our grip on knowing and start being, observing the ups and downs, the mistakes and misunderstandings, the successes and failures, as all more of the same. These are just aspects of a game and freedom is the realization that we are playing.