“When you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope; he goes away and works on what he has seen.”
One of Alan Watts’ most famous quotes is often used to dissuade explorers from spending too much time under the influence. You can find this quote used on things like rehab center advertising, or counseling groups. We believe this reading of Alan’s idea isn’t quite right. Let’s put the quote back into context and try to understand what he really meant by this.
“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. When you get the message, hang up the phone.”Alan Watts, The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness – 1970 revised edition
Before we have this discussion, it is important to first see the entire quote in context, and when it was added. When Alan wrote this book in 1962 it did not contain any part of this message. This was added years later after Alan had moved further along in his thinking, understanding that thinking is key to understanding the quote.
Who was Alan Watts?
Alan was formally trained in both Buddhism and Christianity. By age 16 he was the secretary for the London Buddhist Lodge, 10 years later he was on the cusp of being formally ordained as a Zen monk. But, like Siddhartha, he rejected those teachers and instead attained a masters degree in theology from a Christian Seminary. To Alan, meditation of all kinds was just second nature, this is what he dedicated his entire life to.
That dedication helps to explain this quote a bit more. Now we can start to understand what he was trying to say here. To Alan, who at this point had certainly attained some measure of enlightenment, “mystical insight” has a deeper meaning. To someone who is willing and able to meditate for days on end in a very literal sense, the “insights” provided by a dose of LSD must seem almost paltry, pedestrian.
How the Armor Forms
For most of us this level of dedication is simply not possible. Alan was fortunate to find a path through the world that supported his philosophical leanings, this is much harder to achieve when you are struggling to pay rent. Most of us will not have a series of patrons provide us with housing and food so we can focus on our meditation. Most of us will end up dealing directly with the world.
Dealing with the world is a difficult thing to do. The world is full of suffering. It can be an unfair place to exist, and other egos will constantly challenge and annoy us. To live here we end up developing a sort of extra “skin” of emotional armor. We need that in order to push through and not acknowledge all the suffering that we have to exist in. When you live this way it becomes very difficult to really see the beauty that is our universe.
Alan Watts was insulated from these effects, either by the Buddhist monastic life he led at first, or the academic one he later moved to. This is why his lectures are so enthralling, this is a person who does not have that armor on and is fully sober. This person can tell us about the real beauty that is the world, because that is how they see it. This person is anti-cynicism distilled to perfection.
How to take it off
Psychedelic chemicals can be a way to strip away that armor, the ego dissolution will likely force it to happen. Resisting this, trying to hold onto your emotional armor is in fact the primary driver of “bad trips”. We make a point to explicitly plan our journeys around this idea, the idea that we are purposefully trying to do it, we find this makes the whole process go more smoothly.
Once it is gone you can experience the world the way that Alan did for a little while. You can have his child-like exuberance for every experience, every taste, every smell. But the experience will end, in fact it will almost always last longer than you want it to. Your ego will draw you back and force you put the armor on again, to return to the world. But it will be lighter now, and you will have learned some things about it so maybe it won’t get so heavy as quickly this time.
Alan is right in saying that this glimpse is not enough to sustain a truly enlightened lifestyle. At the same time, these chemicals can give us regular people a way to experience what that could be like. For us, going back to take the armor off is a useful and important pursuit. Perhaps someday we too will reach the point that Alan reached and we won’t need our armor at all.