The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

“The collective egoic mind is the most dangerously insane and destructive entity ever to inhabit this planet. What do you think will happen on this planet if human consciousness remains unchanged?” – Eckhart Tolle

In 1966, Alan Watts, the great British-born American-transplant, San Francisco-beat-guru, imp-genius Orientalist philosopher wrote a book entitled simply, The Book. It carried a sub-title: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Its Preface begins with the words: “This book explores an unrecognized but mighty taboo – our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are. Briefly, the thesis is that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East… This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction.”

Watts went on to say: “We are therefore in urgent need of a sense of our own existence which is in accord with the physical facts and which overcomes our feeling of alienation from the Universe.”

As Watts outlined his thesis as based in both Western science and the philosophy-religions of the East, he was pointing to another taboo which is the realization that true spirituality must be a confirmation of experienced reality. He was saying that there is a taboo against individuals and the institutions of society holding as their highest motivation the search for the truth and the nature of reality. He was saying that society conditions into us a delusional preference for dogmas of separateness and specialness, of ego as the prime reality, with, as he pointed out, devastating consequences that create a kind of spiritual insanity, that lead to the full plethora of insanities that infect our society on the personal and collective levels.

More than a decade prior to Watts’ assertion, Albert Einstein stated a similarly prophetic insight into the notion of humanity as caught in a delusional state and offered a vision of how humanity can evolve so as to escape Watts’ apocalyptic warning of “eventual destruction.”

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Einstein also said, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels,” and, “Problems cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness that created the problems,” while being quite clear that the necessary consciousness must be of widening circles of compassion into the undeniable realization of, not only all peoples, but of all life as connected, interdependent and worthy of caring relationship.

As Watts is being diagnostic, Einstein is being prescriptive in his statement. They are also opening a conversation that is taboo – meaning none of the major institutions of our society – not government, not education, not economics, not religion, not medicine, not psychology, nor journalism – are willing to address this issue with any of the urgency that both Watts and Einstein clearly believed is warranted. As a scientist, Einstein knew that Western civilization’s enamorment with technological fixes was symptomatic of the consciousness leading us deeper and deeper into what Watts called “the misuse of technology.” He understood completely how dualistic consciousness that experiences human-beings, individually and collectively, as separate from the wholeness and interconnectedness of the natural Universe, from each other and the ecosystem of this planet Earth, was at the root of what both he and Watts were describing as an inevitable catastrophe of inestimable proportions for humanity and Nature.

Over half a century later, any reasonable assessment of the condition of humanity and Nature can only conclude these warnings remain unaddressed on any meaningful level. There is an inescapable sense that the situation is crazier than ever, and the need for a path out of the morass isn’t even being seriously considered. The predictions are plainly proving true. In reminiscence of the old wisdom that insanity is marked by obliviousness to being insane, modern humanity seemingly hasn’t a clue. As Watts and Einstein, along with so many others in the scientific, consciousness, and progressive political communities, are offering a true description of the dire state of human civilization and what needs to be done, and nothing of any great significance is being done to address this undeniable failure of consciousness, this delusional state, we have to be left with the conclusion that humanity, in its current collective expression, is insane.

While in recent years a growing number of people certainly have significantly evolved their consciousness of the problems created by the existing socio-cultural and psycho-spiritual paradigms, most of our population, and all of our institutions, remain mired in variations of regressive egocentric, materialistic, competitive, dualistic consciousness based in irrational dogmas incapable of seeing clearly and responding appropriately. We are locked into belief systems quite divorced from reality. Little if anything has changed in the approach to solutions that, as Einstein articulated, represents a prison of consciousness completely inadequate to address these problems. We remain mired in what Watts called the taboo against knowing who we are, that is, in knowing what a human-being on the planet Earth needs to know so as to shape our institutions and society towards the establishment of a truly flowering world that can take humanity and its fellow life-forms into a worthy and inspiring future.

Importantly, it is not as if we have to invent the consciousness necessary to answer the questions of who we are and what is needed. The necessary consciousness has existed since the beginning of the human journey. Out of the ancient past, meditative, contemplative traditions have fully understood the interdependence and interconnectedness of all life and the destructive delusional aspect of human ego. Buddhism, in particular, has managed to hold coherently into the modern age a message of infinite interconnection that when applied and examined through meditation, contemplation, and action gives rise to the natural experience of interconnection and its principle effect of compassion in the world, just as Einstein called for. It is incredibly exciting and hopeful that from Einstein forward, those at the cutting edge of science are realizing these truths. The question remains, why is general science, and why is society, ignoring what the leaders in science are telling us? Here is where we are confronted with the taboo.

In the contemporary world, many in the science, consciousness and progressive political realms all have in common their intention to awaken the evolutionary consciousness necessary for humanity to enter a new era of sanity marked by the application of consciousness and technology to harmony, peace, justice and sustainable civilization. What is needed that is new, that is evolutionary, is the application of these ancient philosophies of unity melded with modern quantum science as the guiding inspiration that can turn modern technology from “the violent subjugation of man’s natural environment” to the support, protection and preservation of that environment in the realization that the environment is who we are. What is needed is a psychology, a spirituality, an application of science, and new vision of human society that can guide us into expanded sanity that rescinds the taboo against knowing who we are in the vastness and balance of the Universe.

We must break free of the taboos. We must be willing to break free of lazy dogmatic thinking, to follow the lead of modern quantum science and ancient philosophies such as Buddhism, constructed around asking questions you may or may not have thought, but should have, to ask utopian questions, to ask how humanity can evolve into undreamed of peace, harmony, wisdom, and yes, sanity into a future at least as far reaching as humanity’s past. Why isn’t science and religion, hand-in-hand forging such a vision that is as natural for every young person to be considering as what career path they should follow? And it must be realized that these ancient teachings are not entirely sufficient, for they come out of cultures radically different from modern human culture. We must look at these old ways with new eyes, to find a new old way – one that remembers ancient wisdoms and brings them into modern context and vocabulary. Watts did that. Eckhart Tolle has more recently done it, as are many authors, speakers and teachers, but more people, all people, need to pay attention. This is not esoteric philosophy. It is an issue of the quality of life, even survival, for generations to come.

We must break the taboo against asking such questions so that a new era of human expression and sanity can flourish. Delusion will no longer do. We need to be awake, honest and courageous. We must find and actualize the truth of humanity’s place in the Universe or the future for the generations to come will only be even more desperately insane.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at

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