Man is as much attached to nature as a tree, and though he walks freely on two legs and is not rooted in the soil, he is by no means a self-sufficient, self-moving, and self-directing entity. For his life he depends absolutely on the same factors as the tree, the worm, and the fly, on the universal powers of nature, life, God, or whatever it may be. From some mysterious source life flows through him unceasingly; it does not just go in at birth and come out at death—he is the channel for an ever moving stream, a stream that carries the blood through his veins, that moves his lungs and brings him air to breathe, that raises his food from the earth and bears the light of the sun to his face. If we look into a single cell of his body we find the universe, for sun, moon, and stars are ceaselessly maintaining it; we find it again if we plumb into the depths of his mind, for there are all the archaic urges of primeval life, both human and animal, and could we look deeper we might find kinship with the plants and rocks. For man is a meeting place for the interplay of forces from all quarters of the universe, swept through him in a stream which is the power behind all his thoughts and actions, which is indeed more truly man’s self than his body or mind, its instruments. This was known to almost all the ancient peoples of the world whose sages taught that all the actions of man were as much expressions of nature’s unceasing movement as the sun and the wind—a fact that would be obvious to anyone not born and bred in a place where there was little more to see than human handiwork.

The isolation of the human soul from nature is, generally speaking, a phenomenon of civilization. This isolation is more apparent than real, because the more nature is held back by brick, concrete, and machines, the more it reasserts itself in the human mind, usually as an unwanted, violent, and troublesome visitor. But actually the creations of man, his art, his literature, his buildings, differ only in quality, not in kind, from such creations of nature as birds’ nests and honeycombs. Man’s creations are infinitely more numerous and ingenious, but this very ingenuity, together with his fear, aggravates his feeling of isolation, persuading him that he is a creator in his own right, separate from nature. For once again it would go against his self-esteem to have to admit that his superb faculty of reason and all its works do not make him the master of nature rather than its servant. Bewitched by his power of reason and urged on through fright of his fear, man seeks his freedom in isolation from and not in union with nature—“whose service is perfect freedom.”

Related: Turning to Nature to Find Our True Selves

Man’s struggle for mastery is magnificent and tragic; but it does not work. And the difficulty is not so much in what he does as in what he thinks. If he were to seek union instead of isolation this would not involve what is generally called “getting back to nature”; he would not have to give up his machines and cities and retire to the forests and live in wigwams. He would only have to change his attitude, for the penalties he pays for his isolation are only indirectly on the physical plane. They originate from and are most severe in his mind.

The Technique of Acceptance

If you sit still for a while, completely relaxed, and let your thoughts run on, let your mind think of whatever it likes, without interfering, without making suggestions and without raising any kind of obstacle to the free flow of thought, you will soon discover that mental processes have a life of their own. They will call one another to the surface of consciousness by association, and if you raise no barriers, you will soon find yourself thinking all manner of things both fantastic and terrible which you ordinarily keep out of consciousness. Over a period of time this exercise will show you that you have in yourself the potentiality of countless different beings—the animal, the demon, the satyr, the thief, the murderer—so that in time you will be able to feel that no aspect of human life is strange to you—humani nihil a me alienum puto [“I think nothing human is alien to me,” from the Roman playwright known as Terance]. In the ordinary way, consciousness is forever interfering with the waters of the mind, which are dark and turbulent, concealing the depths. But when, for a while, you let them take care of themselves, the mud settles and with growing clarity you see the foundations of life and all the denizens of the deep. You may see other things as well. “Two men looked into a pond. Said the one: ‘I see a quantity of mud, a shoe and an old can.’ Said the other: ‘I see all these, but I also see the glorious reflection of the sky.’” For the unconscious is not, as some imagine, a mental refuse-pit; it is simply unfettered nature, demonic and divine, painful and pleasant, hideous and lovely, cruel and compassionate, destructive and creative. It is the source of heroism, love, and inspiration as well as of fear, hatred, and crime. Indeed, it is as if we carried inside of us an exact duplicate of the world we see around us, for the world is a mirror of the soul, and the soul a mirror of the world. Therefore when you learn to feel the unconscious you begin to understand not only yourself but others as well, and when you look upon human crime and stupidity, you can say with real feeling, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”

Related: Alan Watts Reconsidered

Excerpted from the book The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East. Copyright ©2018 by Joan Watts and Anne Watts. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.

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