Where is the I? Alan Watts on memory and knowing the self
By Alan Watts
“While you are watching this present experience, are you aware of someone watching it? Can you find, in addition to the experience itself, an experiencer? Can you, at the same time, read this sentence and think about yourself reading it? You will find that, to think about yourself reading it, you must for a brief second stop reading. The first experience is reading. The second experience is the thought, ‘I am reading.’ Can you find any thinker, who is thinking the thought, I am reading?’ In other words, when present experience is the thought, ‘I am reading,’ can you think about yourself thinking this thought?
Once again, you must stop thinking just, ‘I am reading.’ You pass to a third experience, which is the thought, ‘I am thinking that I am reading.’ Do not let the rapidity with which these thoughts can change deceive you into the feeling that you think them all at once.
In each present experience you were only aware of that experience. You were never aware of being aware. You were never able to separate the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known. All you ever found was a new thought, a new experience.
The notion of a separate thinker, of an ‘I’ distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences. You reason, ‘I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.
But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.
To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no ‘I’ which can be protected.”
Excerpts of The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety by Alan Watts
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