The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

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 we individual beings, or is that a false sense of identity? Is everything relative? What’s wrong with reductive science?

Many Westerners internalize the idea that each of us is an individual—separate from others and our surroundings. However, in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, British philosopher Alan Watts argues that the concept of humans as separate beings is an illusion: the ego trick.

Read more for an overview of this thought-provoking book.

Overview of The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

This concept of individualism is so foundational to Western society that most people never question it. However, in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts contends that it’s a false idea—the ego trick. According to Watts and the Vedanta Eastern spiritual philosophy, each of us is a manifestation of one Cosmic Being that encompasses everything in the universe. (Vedanta is a teaching from the Upanishads: a collection of Hindu texts composed around 800 BC.)

Watts asserts that the ego trick alienates people from the rest of creation and causes destructive tendencies. Ignorance of our interdependence puts Westerners in conflict with other people and nature, causes chronic dissatisfaction with the present, and makes them fear death as the endpoint of existence. His solution is for Westerners to release their ego and embrace the experience of unity with the universe.  

Alan Watts was an English scholar and philosopher who interpreted Eastern spiritual philosophies for a Western audience starting in the 1930s. His ideas in The Book—published in 1966—draw primarily on the Vedanta philosophy, but his writing is also based on principles from Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. 

Watts claims that his ideas aren’t meant to be moralistic or to encourage people to behave in a certain way, but rather to serve as a tool to help people experience their oneness with the universe—an especially pertinent philosophy in an era characterized by anxiety and competition. In the preface, he explains that he used the generic title The Book to represent a spiritual manual that he imagines all parents could give to their children to help them make sense of the world and their existence. He notes that the philosophy is a starting point for exploration rather than a specific doctrine to follow. 

To start, we’ll define the ego trick and what Watts believes is our true identity. Then, we’ll explain how Western society perpetuates the ego trick, its dangerous consequences for humankind, and how Westerners can release the ego and embrace the experience of cosmic unity.

The Ego Trick and Our True Nature

We’ll start by describing the ego, the ego trick, as well as how Watts defines our true identity as being one with the universe—which we’ll call the Cosmic Being. The ego is essentially feeling like an “I”—an individual consciousness contained in a body. Watts defines the ego trick as the false sense of being an individual who exists as an entity separate from other people and the environment. Watts argues that this is the fundamental assumption that guides Westerners’ relationship with the rest of the world, causing them to feel isolated and at odds with nature. 

Another aspect of the ego trick is the Western idea that we enter the material world when we are born and then later depart it when we die. Although people have different beliefs about an afterlife, there’s still an underlying assumption among Westerners that humans are individual entities who cease to exist on the earthly plane after death. For atheists, humans physically decompose, and that’s the end of their existence. For most Christians, people’s individual souls move on to the spiritual realms of heaven or hell.

Our True Nature

Despite this Western concept of individual identities, Watts argues that we’re not really isolated beings, and we don’t enter or leave the world because we’re all part of the Cosmic Being that has always existed. In fact, more than being part of the Cosmic Being, each of us is the Cosmic Being, taking different forms and playing pretend in different roles (different humans, animals, plants, and minerals). What we think of as “I” is just one expression of the Cosmic Being in a particular time and place, but our real identity is the entire collection of beings and their environments and their relationships to one another.

The Limitations of Language

Watts writes that the Cosmic Being transcends language, which is inherently limiting, so it’s impossible to adequately explain the concept with words. “Knowing” ourselves as the Cosmic Being is more of an experience than an intellectual understanding. He notes that because of the inadequacy of human languages, the Cosmic Being has many names, including “God,” “Ultimate Ground of Being,” and “Existence.” The Cosmic Being isn’t a supernatural, all-powerful being who controls everything, but rather is everything. 

The Cosmic Being Framework: Everything Is Relative

Watts elaborates on his Cosmic Being framework by explaining that everything in the universe exists in relationship to its environment and other beings. In other words, we can’t define anything except in relative terms. Everything is interconnected, and nothing can have an identity in isolation, including humans.

Watts also explains that organisms are really a process of interacting with their environment. This reinforces the idea that everything in existence depends on mutuality and relationships. 

What Perpetuates the Ego Trick?

Now that we’ve defined the ego trick as well as Watts’s concept of the Cosmic Being, we’ll explore what perpetuates the ego trick in Western society: How does an entire culture maintain this false idea about the nature of existence? Watts claims that the myth of the individual ego is reinforced by language and by having a narrow scope of attention that focuses on components rather than connections. Then, the ego trick manifests in Western society through paradoxical cultural expectations for each person to be an individual. 

Language and a Narrow Scope of Attention

First, Watts asserts that Westerners create the ego trick by putting boundaries on things that don’t really have them and by narrowing their field of view. For example, people create a false boundary when they refer to a river as one discrete object, even though it’s constantly changing in composition, shape, and size. 

In terms of humans, most languages use some sort of “I” pronoun and nouns that define organisms as separate entities that perform actions. However, as explained in the previous section, Watts says nothing exists in isolation, so when Westerners speak about the self, they’re actually narrowing their field of view to the human body and falsely referring to it as a separate ego. He notes that even human skin is highly dynamic and is more like a connection to the environment rather than a rigid boundary. 

Western Science Is Reductive

Watts uses Western science as another example of how Westerners narrow their scope of attention and create the illusion of separateness. Because science focuses on reducing things to their parts and analyzing how those parts work, Westerners imagine the phenomenon of cause and effect. Watts writes that the concept of cause and effect is another example of the ego trick since the Cosmic Being is one unified process with no cause and effect (similar to the way a circle has no beginning or end).

Watts illustrates this idea with the example of looking through a narrow gap in a fence and watching a cat walk by. If you saw the head first, followed shortly after by the tail, you might assume that the head caused the tail when they’re actually parts of one whole.

Watts explains that, just like the head and tail of a cat are interlinked, all events and organisms exist mutually, with no singular cause or effect

Despite the tendency in science to focus on individual components, we can only understand things in context. For example, if scientists are studying how the human heart works, they’re not just studying the heart in isolation—they’re observing what it does inside the human body when connected to other organs under very specific conditions. 

Watts emphasizes that things can only be separated in linguistic terms, and Westerners confuse the name for the true identity of something. For example, if you call one thing “back” and another the “front,” they have different names, but they’re just two different sides of the same thing. In this way, language is constantly reinforcing a concept of separateness that doesn’t exist. 

Societal Conditioning

After explaining how the ego trick arises from language and reductive tendencies, Watts explains how Western society perpetuates the ego trick through underlying community expectations for each person to be independent. Society reinforces the mandate for individuality by using expressions like “Be yourself,” or “That’s not like you.” Watts writes that everything about a person is transferred to them from society—our genetics, our cultural beliefs, our language—and yet Western society tells people they’re separate individuals. 

This creates a paradox where society demands that everyone be an individual, but the fact that the mandate comes from society means that people are inherently linked to society and defined by it. When Westerners go along with society’s idea that everyone is an individual, they become simply a product of society and thus not fully independent agents. Therefore, Western society is based on a contradiction—a situation Watts refers to as the “double-bind.”

This situation is like when people tell you, “Don’t care what other people think of you—do what you want.” It’s a paradox because if you follow the advice, then you’re actually doing what someone else wants and showing that you do care what other people think.  

Consequences of the Ego Trick

After explaining the ego trick and how Westerners fall into the trap of the ego trick, Watts explores what all of this means for people practically. Watts writes that ignorance of interdependence and the Cosmic Being makes Westerners feel alienated from the rest of the world and constantly in competition with others.

Because Westerners feel alienated from others, they try to destroy nature and their human enemies, experience dissatisfaction with the present, and fear death as the ultimate endpoint of their existence.

Destroying Nature and Enemies

Watts claims that the ego trick is a driving force for environmental destruction. When Westerners believe they’re separate from all other beings, it fosters a sense of hostility and competition that justifies relentlessly extracting resources, destroying animal habitats, and killing other organisms for the sake of advancing the human race. Since we are all one Cosmic Being, this unknowingly causes harm to all of existence. 

Even within the human community, Watts argues that people define themselves in contrast to others. This, he argues, is an inherent aspect of existence. Humans designate certain people as outsiders to bolster their own position as part of a superior community. However, when people ignore the interdependent nature of the Cosmic Being and conflict is taken to the extreme, this leads to war and the destruction of the Cosmic Being in its various forms. 

Watts writes that Westerners irrationally try to destroy the enemies that their community fundamentally depends on. For example, Christians might reinforce their identity by disparaging the behavior of non-Christians. However, if they violently eliminated all non-Christians, people would feel compelled to make a new distinction to define themselves in comparison to others. If those new groups then fight to the death, this pattern of destruction would continue endlessly until nothing is left.  

As an alternative to the destructive, competitive model of conflict, Watts proposes the idea of de-escalating conflicts so that people can still have opposing views without wanting to kill each other. In this paradigm, groups can (and should) fight with each other while keeping in mind that both groups depend on each other, and all conflict is a game of push and pull where no one group should ultimately win or destroy the other. He also suggests that a deep sense of interconnectedness will naturally lead to more harmony with others—a love that comes from knowledge and not from guilt or duty. 

Dissatisfaction With the Present

In addition to the destructive tendencies associated with the ego trick, Watts explains that it also causes Westerners to experience a constant sense of dissatisfaction because they’re always trying to advance their own ego and emphasize practicality over simply being. He argues that only children in the West can fully enjoy the bliss and magic of every moment before they’re indoctrinated into the ego trick. But, if Westerners embrace the idea that they’re one with the Cosmic Being, they can then appreciate the miracle of existence without feeling anxious about the future or comparing themselves to others.

Fear of Death

Lastly, Watts claims that the ego trick causes Westerners to fear death because they’re so attached to their ego and the seemingly finite time each precious ego has to live. By observing the way that Western adults react to death and behave during funerals, children internalize the idea of dreading death. 

However, Watts argues that if Westerners truly embrace the idea of the Cosmic Being, they would realize that there’s no entering or leaving the world because we are one with all of creation. He suggests that death is a spiritual opportunity for a person to finally release their attachment to the ego and remember that there’s no “self” and no beginning or end of life.

Path to Abandoning the Ego

Now that we’ve explored why the ego trick causes so much destruction and hardship in Western society, we’ll discuss Watts’s recommendation for how people can escape from the ego trick. Watts claims that there’s no surefire way to experience cosmic unity, but people can get closer to it by steering clear of rigid religious doctrines, doing more things for pure enjoyment, and increasing their own self-awareness around their egos. 

Organized Religion Reinforces the Ego

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. 

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 trick, Westerners have to expand their mind in order to reject the basic assumptions that society tells them about their existence. 

Increased 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.

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. 

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

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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, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks 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 book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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