Alan Watts on the Past: The Boat Analogy

Even though we all live in the present, we often think we are driven by the past. Alan Watts addressed just that in his talk "Living In The Present" using a boat analogy.

Alan Watts would like to say with his boat analogy that just as a ship is not driven by its wake, we are not driven by the past. Or rather we should not be driven, because this is always only an attempt to shift the explanation in the now. If we keep this in mind in our everyday thinking, it can take some of the pressure off our shoulders, and lead to a more relaxed life.

Here is the video, of the entire talk by Alan Watts on this topic. I recommend you watch it before we get into exactly what he meant by it (if you don't understand English just skip the video):
Disclaimer : This post is not a word-for-word translation, however I have tried to convey the message as faithfully as possible.

As seen in the video, there are four sections that Alan Watts covers. I have listed them in exactly the same order as in the video.

In the first Part he compares the life of a human being, with a ship and its wake.

In the second part he goes into why it is difficult to explain things in the now with the past.

In the third part is about why we do things in the first place.

In the fourth and last part he touches on the subject of how to escape from the cycle of karma.

Some sections are translated more literally than others, such as the last one. But don't let that confuse you, as a guide there is always the video above.

Similarities between life and a ship

The course of time, is like the course of a ship in the ocean. If we look at a ship from above, we see it dragging a wake behind it. If we observe the wake a little more closely, we notice that it gets lost in the rest of the water surface over time. It tells us where the ship has been.

In exactly the same way that our past and our memory of the past, tells where we have been and what we have done.

However, if we go back in the past and back to the primeval times. Then, even with measuring instruments and scientific methods, we can only look so far into the past until we finally reach a point where all records fade away - like the wake of the ship.

Now, the thing to remember with this illustration is that the wake does not drive the ship, just as the tail does not wag the dog.

Explain things based on the past

Let's assume that there was a neurotic and difficult child and a school of thought (i.e. intellectual conviction) that believed that the child should be beaten to make him change.

Others have said that this is not fair to the child, after all, it is the fault of the parents. Which have not brought up the child properly. So they should be punished.

But now the parents say, "Sorry, but our parents were also neurotic and raised us badly. So we didn't know what to do ourselves."
Since the original parents are already dead, it will be difficult to prosecute them.

But in any case, you could trace all the guilt back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After all, they brought us the Fall and started this whole mess. But even then, Eve would say, "No, here's the serpent, he tempted me to eat the fruit," and so it would be the serpent's fault.

As we know, in the origin story (Genesis 3), God asked Eve, "Did you eat of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"
So Eve replied, "Oh, but the serpent tempted me, and so I ate."
Now God looked at the snake and the snake made no excuses. Probably it even winked at him.

For the serpent was an angel (of evil), and was clever enough to know when the present begins.

So feel free to insist that you are controlled by and at the mercy of the past.
Everyone has the right to see the world the way he or she wants to.

The fact is, however, that it all starts right now.

We like to connect with the past, though, because it gives other people the appearance of rationality.

Why we do things

When asked why he was giving this talk, Alan Watts could answer that this is how he earns his living. Or that it is about the message he wants to bring to us. But that is not the reason.

"I speak for the same reason that the birds sing and the stars shine:
Because I like it."

Why do I like it? Well, I could go on and answer all kinds of questions about human motivation and psychology. But they wouldn't explain it either.

Explaining things based on the past is really a refusal to explain them at all.
All you're doing with that is deferring the declaration.
You push it back and back and back and that explains NOTHING.

What explains things is the present.
Why are you doing it now.
Well, that's a bit of cheating, because it doesn't explain the "why" either.

If anything that happens now, like a sound comes out of silence, it comes out of nothing.
Like a hiccup.

This is related to something I said in another speech, about the Power of nothingness, explained.

All life suddenly appears out of the void BANG! Here and now.

And who now asks why it happens, asks a useless question.
Because the interesting thing is not why it happens, but what happens, not why it happens.

So I can say I do this now because I did that before.
And so I create a continuous train of thought for you, but which I actually create backwards.
I always start it from the now and connect it to what I have done.
So that you see a continuous story.

Liberation from Karma

"If I see myself as the whole field of events. Say my inner and outer worlds, which together form my real self; then all the things that happen to me can be called my actions.

This is the true meaning of karma.

Let us become independent of karma.
Free from being a puppet of the past, then all it takes is a change in your thinking.

You just have to get rid of the thought pattern in which you define yourself with what has already happened to you and instead, switch to the more plausible and reasonable thought pattern in which you define yourself with what you are doing now.

This is liberation from the absurd situation of being a dog that is 'wagged by its tail' - instead of a dog that wags its tail."

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