The Value of Psychotic Experience by Alan Watts
Originally broadcast on KSAN radio, San Francisco.
I think most of you know from the announcement of this series of seminars and workshops during the summer, they’re entitled ‘The Value of Psychotic Experience.’ And many people who are interested in an entirely new approach to problems of what have hitherto been called mental health are participating in these seminars and workshops, and doing something 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, because no one takes religion seriously, 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 ressurection 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. Because psychiatry is taken seriously, and indeed, I would like to draw a parallel between today and the Middle Ages in the respect of this whole question.
When we go 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 Stanford Medical School. And you must bear in mind that this theologan, like the professor of pathology today, is a man of good will. Intensely interested in human welfare. He didn’t merely opine; that professor of theology KNEW that anybody who had heretical religious views would suffer everlasting agony of the most apalling kind. And some of you should read 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 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, the used the thumbscrew, the rack, the iron maiden, the leaded cat-of-nine-tails, and finally the stake to get these people to come to their senses, because nothing else seemed to be available.
The previously quoted paragraph: Today, serious heresy, and rather peculiarly in the United States, is a deviant state of consciousness. Not so much deviant opinions as having a kind of experience which is different from ‘regular’ experience. And as Ronald Lang, who is going to participate in this series, has so well pointed out, we are taught what experiences are permissable in the same way we are taught what gestures, what manners, what behavior is permissable and socially acceptable. And therefore, if a person has so-called ‘strange’ experiences, and endeavors to communicate these experiences–because naturally one talks about what one feels–and endeavors 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 feel distinctly uncomfortable when the realize they are in the presence of someone who is experiencing the world in a rather different way from themselves. They call in question as to whether this person is indeed human. They look like a human being, but because the state of psychotic 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?
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. And in rather the same way, in an every day kind of circumstance, when you are sitting in a bar drinking, and you find you have a drunk next to you. And he tells you, ‘undistinguishable drunken ranting’ and you sort of move your stool a little ways away from this man, because he’s become in some way what we mean by nonhuman. Now, we understand the drunk; we know what’s the matter with him, and it’ll wear off. But when quite unaccountably, a person gives 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 colors. 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. Very diffent 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 behavior, which is essentially in its first inception harmless, these people are talking what we regard to be nonsense. And to be experienced in 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 communciation. 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 gesture 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 feeligns, 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 communciation 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 whiffle 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 priesthoods have always had. They have a special vestment. Like the Catholic priest at mass wears a *, the mental doctor, like every physician, wears a long white coat, and may carry something that corresponds, shall we say, so a stole, which is a stethescope around his neck. He will then, under his authority, which is often in total defience of every conceivable civil liberty, will incarcerate this incomprehensible person, and as Lang has pointed out, he undergoes a ritual of dehumanization. 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.
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 offense 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 situation, 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 physician. 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. I talked with a psychiatrist in England just a few weeks ago. 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 ‘depersonalization,’ 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, of– You know that feeling of– The corridors of 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? 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 has been raised a great deal in the last few days on the television, as to whether this is a sick society. And I have listened to a perfectly beautiful pschoanalyst with a thick German accent. Oh, marvelous things! ‘Eet ees quite obvious dat society is quite hopeless, you zee.’ And I have listened to four red-blooded Americans saying ‘most people in this society are good people, and it’s a GOOD society, but we have a very sick minority.’
Now, what I want to do in–certainly this first part of the seminar–is to call in question, very fundamentally, all of our basic ideas about what is sickness, what is health, what is sanity, what is insanity. Because 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 occuring. 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.
I’m announcing not the date, but the intention of conducting a seminar for extremely rich people entitled ‘Are You Rich and Miserable?’ because you very 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 the war in Vietnam. I am against discrimination against colored people, or against any different race than the discolored race,’ and so on. Yeah, so what? But it’s not enough to feel like that; that’s nothing. You must have some completely concrete vision of what you would like, and therefore I’m making a serious proposition that everybody who goes into college should as an entrance examination have the task of writing an essay on his idea of heaven, in which he is asked to be absolutely specific. He is not allowed, for example, to say ‘I would like to have a very beautiful girl to live with.’ What do you mean by a beautiful girl? Exactly how, and in what way? Specifically. You know, down to the last wiggle of the hips, and down to every kind of expression of character and socialbility and her interests and all. Be specific! And about everything like that. ‘I would like a beautiful house to live in.’ Just what exactly do you mean by a beautiful house? Well you’ve suddenly got to study architecture. You see, and finally, this preliminary essay on ‘My Idea of Heaven’ turns into his doctoral dissertation. 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 nonhuman. We say they’re totally irrational. They’re totally stupid. People will say, ‘oh, those niggers, 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.’ The Birchers are saying the same sort of thing. Other people, the liberals are saying the same thing about the Birchers. ‘They’re stupid, get rid of them.’ The only result, then, the only thing anybody can think of in this sort of situation is ‘get your gun.’ And this sets up a vicious circle, because everybody else gets his gun. And 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.
There’s a Turkish proverb that I like to quote: ‘He who sleeps on the floor cannot fall out of bed.’ Therefore, we should make it a beginning–a basic assumption about life that even supposing you could improve society, and you could improve yourself, you were never sure that the direction you moved it in would be an improvement.
A Chinese story, kind of a Taoistic story about a farmer. One day, his horse ran away, and all the neighbors 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 neighbors 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 genetecists, you know, because they think they are within some degree of controlling the DNA and RNA code, believe that it is really possible perhaps to breed the kind of human beings that we ought to have. And they say ‘hooray!’ But they think one moment and they think ‘ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, but what kind of human being?’ So they’re very worried. And just a little while ago, a national committee of graduate students and geneticists had a meeting at the University of California and the asked a group of psychologists, theologans and philosophers to come and reason with them about this and give them some insight. And I was included. That means that they are REALLY desperate. So I said ‘I’ll tell you what, the only thing you can do is to be quite sure that you keep a vast variety of different kinds of human beings, because you never know what’s going to happen next. And therefore we need an enormous, shall I say, varied battery of different kinds of human intelligence and resources and abilities. So that there will always be some kind of person available for any emergency that might turn up. So you see, there’s a total fallacy in the idea of preaching to people. This is why I abandoned the ministries, I’ve often said, not because the church didn’t practice what it preached, but because it preached. Because you cannot tell people what sort of pattern of life they ought to have, because if they followed your advice, you might have a breed of monsters. Look at it from the point of view that the human race is a breed of monsters.
I was thinking about it this afternoon, driving down from Monterey to here, and looking at the freeways, and all these little cars going along them, and 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 disorganized 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 phonograph records 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 professors, 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 proliferating all over the place–a 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. We 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 a time?
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 teenieest, weeniest little 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?
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 and better. Look at it the other way around, it might be quite different. Then there’s another thought. We know that the truth, the way theing are 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 elses 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 inseperable 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.
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 syphillis, or by brain tumors. But what about something not quite at that level, but at the level of the selectivities they imply which would correspond to what I 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 growning 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 recognize 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 Kipling’s story in the ‘Jungle Book’ called ‘Cause Hunting’ how the monkeys, the bandiloot 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 herein you see 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 realize that they’re getting a little narrow and that things aren’t going on, and suddenly somebody says one day ‘Old so-and-so, 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 screwballs. Every culture has to tolerate within its domain a lot of weird people. Now there’s no possibility that everybody in the United States is going to be a hippie. 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: negroes, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, and so forth. All this is exceedingly important, because as I said to the geneticists, this preserves variety. And a culture which is insecure in itself–I’m getting back to a sort of starting point–cannot tolerate this. Now in England as I remember it, they were much more secure. When I was a boy, 15 years old, in a very orthodox Church of England school, I announced that I was a Buddhist. Nobody turned a hair. Here, if somebody announces that he’s something strange, they have to go before the principal, and there’s a big problem, and the FBI is brought in, and this, that, and the other. But they said ‘Jolly wot, the man’s a buhddist!’ And positively encouraged me in my deviant interest, and gave me the first prize in the divinity class. Now exactly the same kind of relaxed attitude is necessary here.
Let’s ask a few questions that don’t need answers. Is the American family such a drag that a few kids living in free-love communes are a fundamental threat to it and will pervert all our nice boys and girls to live that way? Are American universities so boring that a few students who drop out and form their own univerisities are a threat to the total system and will pervert all the other nice children in there? Are a few kids going around in elegant beards and long hair going to turn all our boys into weirdos?
Say, I had a funny experience. When I was in England I attended services at Westminster Abbey. I took my wife there because I really wanted to her to see this thing, because it’s the heart and soul of British establishment. The dean of Westminster is like the Dali Lama almost. They had this very elegant victorian service–beautiful vestments, choir and everything–and as they were coming out in procession, the choir came first, which were little boys with proper haircuts and surplices ?A and red caps on, there were a number of older boys wearing surplices–the special kind of surplice that is worn by its color of a British public school. Y’know, the public schools are not public schools, they’re very private schools, very exclusive schools, and the school of Westminster is one of the top, like Eaton or Harrow. Suddenly, these boys in surplices turn up, with these enormous Beatles haircuts whishing all over the place. I couldn’t believe my eyes, because I used to be a King’s Scholar, and in our day, we were very proper and all wore mortarboards over short hair. And then behind these surpliced boys, there were the commoners of the school, who were not King’s Scholars and therefore didn’t wear surplices, but wore striped black pants, black coats, wing collars and black ties. And we always used to walk in procession as we came out, like this, but here were these boys with a similar hairdo coming out. apparent visual joke here that I guess you’d have to be there to get, but very funny, it would seem A My god, what’s going on? This is Westminster Abbey! But the dean of Westminster doesn’t turn a hair, he takes it all in stride. He’s perfectly secure. He knows he is who he is. He knows it’s ordained by Jesus Christ and everything else and it’s all right, and if you want to come in and do something different, it’s all right.
And that is the attitude we have 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. 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 to it, and it’s just the same with relationships to people all around.