On Being Different by Alan Watts


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 they 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 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.

– Alan Watts