Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Biting My Own Teeth

Laura Michael, Calistoga, California, USA

January 27, 2015

"Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth." ... Alan Watts

This essay, Biting My Own Teeth, is the sequel to Alan.

I love Alan Watts.

Alan W ("Wilson") Watts, the erstwhile Episcopal priest who discontiguously  became the west's foremost exponent of Zen, left the church to which he had dedicated his life, not out of make-wrong nor because of a change of heart in his calling, but rather because as a result of his ongoing personal searching and private inquiry, he could no longer reconcile the teachings of the church with his experience of Life  ... or as I prefer to say, he could no longer reconcile the teachings of the church with his direct  experience of Life.

Essentially that's what endears him to me. In my opinion, when he parted ways with the church, he was the little child in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes" calling out "But he hasn't got anything on!". The church, he was saying in effect, hasn't got anything on. In hipper parlance, he might have said the church hasn't got anything down. Either way, make no error: I love the church - in particular, I love the possibility  of the church. I would go as far as saying if only the church was more effective  in bringing forth the distinctions it purports to bring forth, it would have rendered the work of transformation redundant a long, long time ago. What Alan did was distance himself not so much from the church per se, but rather from its unexamined doctrines which blur with "The Truth". Instead he began to articulate, in the form of an authentic inquiry, direct experience as a possibility for and as an access to Life for everyone.

In what was to become his seminal work titled The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (written for his son Mark to prepare him for life), Alan fleshes out and eloquently reveals it's not only the church which blurs unexamined doctrines with "The Truth"  but rather it's a condition which has all of us ie all of humanity at large  including the church, in the absence of anything truly transformative, remain rooted in it and deeply invested in it, while strongly resisting being who we really are, and while ongoingly perpetuating the taboo. So, to be clear, there's no selective finger-pointing here: it's not only the church: it's all  of us.

Then later, when Alan masterfully avers "Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth", it's like his riff  on a Zen koan  I imagine could go something like "What's the sound of biting your own teeth?". Of course no one can bite their own teeth - any more than anyone can grasp their right hand with their right hand. But that's typical of Zen koans: they're never logical and they're even less seldom rational. Zen's power is in neither of those domains. You could, I suppose, clench  your own teeth ... which would bring you present to the experience of yourself like your physicality. But touting clenching your teeth in response to the koan borders on an attempt to explain  the koan. And an explanation of a Zen koan is as useless to you as a bicycle is to a fish (as Patricia Irene "Irina" Dunn may have said). In any case, any attempt to explain the koan doesn't bring you present to the experience of yourself like who you really  are. That's a lot more elusive, and that's the bailiwick of the koan. It's the point Alan is making ... and  ... it's a particularly telling point, especially given he made it long before Werner's breakthroughs in language.
Werner acknowledges Alan for pointing him towards the distinction between Self and mind. In this most profound exposition which was the sub-text of a seminar Alan delivered with Werner attending aboard Alan's houseboat, the SS Vallejo  moored in the Sausalito houseboat harbor in Sausalito, California, Alan made an essential  contribution to Werner. One of the things Werner distinguished from it, riding down this trail Alan blazed, is a new access to defining yourself - which is to say a new access to defining who you really are. By itself, if that was all it was, that would make it amazing. But what's more than amazing about it is this new access actually isn't even elusive like trying to bite your own teeth. That's what makes it awesome.

Here's what I mean by that:

There's defining yourself as what  you are. Then there's defining yourself as who  you are. I suspect when Alan avers "Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth", he's talking about trying to define yourself as what  you are. Listen: we live in an illusion that we can define what a human being is, how we're made up, how we work etc. But the truth, beyond a certain point, is we simply don't know. Even if you could define yourself as what you are, it's already in the past, yes?. Just notice not being able to define what you are ie not knowing what a human being really is, how you're made up, and how it all works, doesn't stop you from taking action. Arguably it's not necessary to define yourself as what you are (the truth is we have very little control over what we are), before you can live a productive and creative life.

It's also possible to define yourself as who  you are like a stand  by speaking it ie by saying so. The truth is we have almost total control  over what we say ie we have almost total control over our speaking. Defining yourself as who you are by speaking what you stand for, which is to say defining yourself as who you are by speaking the possibilities you are, is a lot easier than trying to bite your own teeth, yes?

Who I am (that is to say, the way I define myself) is the possibility of communication, transformation, and freedom. That's what opened up for me in the space of Werner's distinction between Self and mind. It's a conversation I would love to have had with Alan in Sausalito.

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