Out of Your Mind

I just finished reading Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts. I really liked this one. This book is a distillation of Watts’s best talks and ideas, pulling the practical out of Eastern philosophy into an easy digestible form even if you’re not familiar with Buddhism or Hinduism. He asks some big questions like “what is the universe? How do we change the past? What are you going to buy with your money? And most importantly, how do we take ourselves less seriously?”

Here’s some tough-love advice from the book:

“… [a] Zen saying has it that whoever wants to study Zen should be beaten with a stick, because he or she was stupid enough to pretend that they had a problem in the first place. But you don’t have a problem. You are the problem. You put yourself in this situation.”

I’ve been meditating for 3 years almost daily and also had the opportunity to attend a very challenging 10 day Vipassana retreat in India. I meditated for 10 hours a day from 5 am every morning. I had breakfast and lunch, no dinner, as per Buddhist tradition. Talking, reading and writing were not allowed. Eye contact was forbidden. While it was difficult, it was mostly an incredible experience. I found myself falling into bouts of extreme happiness, actually, and not the least bit bored even though I was just sitting for hours on end.

After the retreat I found this experience paradoxical and hard to reconcile. On one hand, it was clear that we could be very happy with nothing, so why not retreat into the mountains like monks and get away from the rat race? On the other hand, even though this would bring happiness, it seemed like a form of escapism. I couldn’t understand how these monks could, with the alleged wisdom gained over years of silence, come back to society and help make the world a better place.

Watts brings up this very same dilemma and is irreverent in his analysis. Perhaps retreating to the mountains or to the church is not the answer.

Almost all spiritual disciplines—meditations, prayers, and so on—are ways of persisting in folly. They’re methods of resolutely and consistently doing what you’re already doing.


 It is not unaffected and natural for us to assume the lotus posture and go through all sorts of spiritual gymnastics. So many Westerners who do this kind of thing are so self-conscious about it, so preoccupied with the idea of doing it that they never really do it at all. For the same reason, I am rather leery of too much Zen – especially when it means importing all the purely incidental apparatus of Zen from Japan, all the strictly technical formalities, and all the endless and pointless discussion about who has or hasn’t attained satori, or about how many koans one has solved, or how many hours a day one sits in zazen, or meditation. This sort of thing is not Zen or yoga; it is just a fad, just religiosity, and it is precisely self-consciousness and affection rather than unselfconscious and naturalness. If, however, you really can do the thing itself – that is, if you can learn to wake up and concentrate at the drop of a hat – you can take or leave the trimmings as you will.

He explains this further with the concept of the “finger pointing at the moon,” but, problematically, many people mistake the finger for the moon.  This concept really hit it home for me. Religion, philosophy, or whatever principle you choose to adhere to is essentially a path to greater character, happiness and ultimately a better life. It’s the finger pointing you in the right direction.

But it’s easy to get distracted. We can meditate for meditation’s sake, or pray for praying sake, but those activities are not the be all end all. They’re simply a means to an end. We can fall into a form of routine and complacency doing these activities. We’ll likely see our lives improve, but only to a certain point.

There will be a time when action is important and necessary. When we’ve reached a certain point of understanding or insight –whatever that might mean for you — we then have to do something with it. That’s the point. Action. We have to do something with the tools and methods we’re using, not simply use the tools!

This doesn’t mean we have to have specific goals for whatever spiritual practice we have. We can still meditate every day or practice gratitude or pray, or whatever. But what’s the point of these things if we’re not using them in our daily lives? We should use them to become better at what we are already doing. 

Even something completely devoid of so-called dogma can fall into this category. Take reading non-fiction books, for example. Many people read to broaden their knowledge and ultimately want to apply this to their lives to increase their health and wealth. Reading, though, is a great form of procrastination. You could read all day and do nothing, and get nowhere. Again, the point is to take action.

People ask me for book recommendations all the time…If you’re looking for a witty and no-BS self-help book that isn’t full of itself, this is it. Read one chapter at the start of each day and it’ll make your day better — just try it.

Notable quotes and ideas from the book:

Destroy beliefs

If you say what it is that you see, you erect an image and an idol, and you misdirect people. So it’s better to destroy people’s beliefs than to give them beliefs. I know it hurts, but it’s true. It’s what cracks the eggshell and lets out the chick.

The interconnectedness of things

If you say what it is that you see, you erect an image and an idol, and you misdirect people. So it’s better to destroy people’s beliefs than to give them beliefs. I know it hurts, but it’s true. It’s what cracks the eggshell and lets out the chick.


There’s a famous Zen story of a monk sitting in meditation. The master comes along and asks, “What are you doing?” And the monk replies, “Oh, I’m meditating so I can become a Buddha.” Well, the master sits down nearby, picks up a brick, and starts rubbing it. And the monk asks, “What are you doing?” The master says, “Oh, I’m rubbing this brick to make it into a mirror.” And the monk says, “No amount of rubbing a brick can turn it into a mirror.” To which the master replies, “And no amount of zazen will turn you into a Buddha.” They don’t like this story very much in modern-day Japan

Controlled Accidents

So a thing happens of itself. You don’t have to tell a fart it ought to happen—that puts it in a bind. It’s just like telling a child to come and play its game in front of a crowded audience of relatives on Thanksgiving. It absolutely bugs children when you do that. This is the problem for every artist—dancers, musicians, painters, and so on—because artists make their living by playing. And playing on demand, particularly in public at such and such a time, is not an easy thing to learn. My friend Saburo Hasegawa refers to this contrivance as a “controlled accident.”

Out of Your Mind_ Tricksters_ Interdependence_ and the Cosmic Game of Hide and Seek (English Edition-Notebook)

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