Alan Watts on society, identity and silence

English philosopher and speaker Alan Watts is considered one of the most influential mediators between Eastern and Western worldviews, and his views have fascinated me for years. I return to his lessons regularly. This little excerpt in particular has a lot of meaning for me. It may be short, but it shows very powerfully how much misunderstanding exists in our society about identity.

Alan Watts describes how we often misunderstandably identify with the roles we are given by our environment. So much more than just being a daughter or son, tailor or sailor. But in order to experience this, we must withdraw from social influence.

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):

Translation: The society, identity and silence

"...You see what happens is that a person who has played the social game all his life then says:

"Well, now I have done that. I have accepted this role. I identified with the profession of tinker, tailor, soldier or sailor, whatever it was.
But now: Who am I? Really.

To find out, you have to set out on your own. Why? Because you have a role model, a masked image of yourself. Because other people tell you who you are.

It is not surprising that Watts speaks of a kind of mask in this context, and it can be assumed that he is also referring to the persona of analytical psychology, which was founded by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, whom Watts held in high esteem and met personally in 1958. Jung uses the persona to describe the role we play in society and makes it clear that this is never our real identity. I can be. If you want to learn more about Jung's models you can find here a Articles about the collective unconscious.

In every social exchange, in the most everyday expressions, we are constantly telling other people who they are. The way I behave toward you, the way you behave toward me, tells me who I am and tells you who you are.

For example, if you sit here and listen to me talk.

So you are telling me that I am a kind of teacher and you are telling yourself that you are a kind of student. And that's just one thing, you see? One little incident. In business, at home, or at work, everyone around you tells you what you are and who you are by expecting certain behavior from you, which, if you are a reasonable and socially minded person, you will fulfill.
Because that is what is expected of you, so that you know who you are.

And when you have enough of it, then you realize: "Let's not listen to any more of that."
Therefore, one of the first things that the Śramaṇa or the Wanaprasta practices is silence. This is called mauna, and he can take a vow not to speak for a month or a year.

A sramaṇa (correctly Śramaṇa) is a wandering mendicant monk and ascetic who always strives to resist any kind of craving, which goes back to ancient traditions that were later incorporated into Buddhism and also into yoga. There is more than one definition of a sramana, but they all have in common renunciation and resistance to desire, which is necessary for the attainment of a higher or religious goal.

"After a month of mauna, you have not only stopped speaking, but also thinking in words, and that is a very strange experience.
Because all the senses take on a tremendous intensity. You see things you have never seen before because you have stopped codifying and classifying the world through your thinking.

Sunsets appear incredibly vivid and flowers are enchanting. The whole world comes alive for the Mauni."

Own thoughts about this monologue

One's own identity is something incredibly complex and I think that external influences belong to it and are allowed to shape one. Nevertheless, I think that nowadays we mostly have an extreme tendency towards an externally shaped identity in this respect and therefore often only identify ourselves on the basis of this.

As a result, when we lose our job or social position, we often experience an inner crisis that is difficult or, in extreme cases, impossible to overcome.

Counteracting this through silence and temporary isolation seems important to me and thus something we should all do from time to time. But what is definitely essential is to regularly realize that we are so much more than the roles that our environment gives us.

We invite you to reflect for a moment on whether you have ever had that of dissatisfaction when your environment had identified you particularly strongly with such a role. In such moments, thoughts often come to you - sometimes more and sometimes less clearly - whether that is all that others perceive you to be, or that you want to be (or are) more than the role in question.

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