How to Become One With the Universe: 3 Steps to Cosmic Unity

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Book" by Alan Watts. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you trapped by religious dogma? Do you think more in terms of “I” than “we”? How often do you do things just for fun?

Philosopher Alan Watts argues that the ego illusion—the false sense of being an individual separate from everyone and everything else—causes destruction and hardship in Western society. He provides recommendations for how people can escape from the ego illusion and achieve cosmic unity.

Continue reading to learn how to become one with the universe, according to Watts.

How to Become One With the Universe

Watts says that there’s no surefire method, but he does offer advice on how to become one with the universe. He claims that people can get closer to cosmic unity by steering clear of rigid religious doctrines, increasing their self-awareness around their egos, and doing more things for pure enjoyment.

#1: Escape Religious Dogma

First, Watts advises against organized religion as a pathway to releasing the ego. This is because religions reaffirm a person’s sense of self rather than allowing them to reject it. Religions, or even specific techniques like yoga meditation, tend to make people feel like they’re part of an in-group. This hinders the experience of feeling unified with the Cosmic Being because the group is defined in contrast to outsiders. 

(Shortform note: One research study supports Watts’s idea that yoga meditation actually enhances the ego. Researchers followed yoga students for four months and found that people had higher self-esteem and a greater sense of superiority immediately after practicing yoga. However, the researchers also noted that modern forms of yoga often intentionally aim to help people feel more confident and worthy, so the results may have been impacted by people’s motivations for doing yoga. Based on this analysis, doing yoga with the goal of disassociating from the ego might lead to a different outcome.)

In addition, Watts asserts that specific religious doctrines make people narrow-minded about what they should be doing and how they should act. To experience the Cosmic Being and escape the ego illusion, Westerners have to expand their mind in order to reject the basic assumptions that society tells them about their existence. 

(Shortform note: Despite Watts’s insistence that religion can get in the way of the ego release, some Zen Buddhists criticize Watts’s idea that you can achieve spiritual transcendence without disciplined practice—specifically the Zen practice of meditation called “zazen.” Watts studied with a Zen teacher until he decided he disagreed with the strict teaching style. He said that he rejected zazen because “A cat sits until he is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away,” perhaps implying that disciplined meditation is unnatural or unnecessary.) 

#2: Increase Your Self-Consciousness

In addition to organized religion, Watts asserts that wanting to release the ego is yet another way that people inadvertently reinforce it. He suggests that the only way for Westerners to get closer to experiencing the Cosmic Being is to increase their awareness of their own ego attachment. Every time a person notices their sense of self—their feeling of being an “I”— they should embrace that sensation and examine it so closely that eventually, it starts to dissipate. The more Westerners recognize their tendency to advance their own ego and fight outsiders, the more they’ll realize they need enemies to prop up their sense of self and the fact that they’re parts of one whole.  

(Shortform note: In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle recommends a more specific technique for releasing the ego. He says to think, “I wonder what my next thought will be,” and then wait and observe what it feels like to disconnect from your own mind. He recommends observing your mind as an outsider, even if it’s only for a moment. However, Watts would likely argue that at that point, you still need to acknowledge that the “outside observer” is a non-existent ego form as well. This aspect of Watts’s argument is a bit nebulous since he’s essentially saying that you can’t desire to release your ego, and you can’t do it by sheer force of will, but the only way to get there is to try anyway.)

#3: Do Things for No Reason

Lastly, Watts suggests the simple practice of doing things for pure enjoyment, for no practical reason at all. Paradoxically, he says that doing things for no reason actually does help us survive, but only if we don’t intentionally do it for survival. But if Westerners do things that bring them joy, just for the sake of their own happiness, they’ll incidentally focus less on advancing their sense of self. He claims that people will get closer to experiencing the Cosmic Being when they have a sense of humor with regard to the world and recognize it as a game with only one player and no beginning or end.

(Shortform note: Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project makes a similar recommendation to seek out leisurely and playful activities simply because you enjoy them and not because you think you should do them. Although the goal isn’t necessarily to part with the ego, this strategy is meant to add joy and gratitude to your life by making small changes. She suggests identifying activities that you genuinely look forward to and that make you feel energized and then making time for those activities regularly. She also suggests keeping a notebook to jot down anything that sparks your interest and could be a new area to explore.)

Exercise: Release Your Ego

Watts acknowledges that releasing the ego isn’t a process that you can achieve simply by wanting to release it. However, he recommends that you increase your self-consciousness regarding your ego and do more activities for pure enjoyment.

  • Write down a few activities that tend to enhance your ego or sense of identity. For example, attending gatherings for a club, participating in a sport, performing, or introducing yourself to new people. When you’re in those scenarios, try reflecting on your ego for a few moments and observe whether the ego feeling dissipates. 
  • Write down the activities that you genuinely enjoy doing for no practical reason at all. This could include doing art, playing a game, or even just sitting outside and doing nothing. 
  • Make a plan to do these activities regularly to distract yourself from the ego feeling and keep yourself present in the moment. How will you prioritize your just-for-fun activities over practicality? For example, you might schedule a weekly art class or commit to sitting outside and doing nothing for 30 minutes before breakfast every morning.
How to Become One With the Universe: 3 Steps to Cosmic Unity

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Alan Watts's "The Book" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Book summary:

  • Why the concept of humans as separate beings is an illusion
  • Why Westerners must release their egos to end some of society's biggest problems
  • How people can escape from the ego illusion

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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