Now and then I find myself thinking about all the possible and impossible paths I could take and all the narrow roads I could follow to get to that unique place I want to be. But where is that place and how do I get there? Is there a map I could use? Are there signposts along the way?
There are so many life-changing options I can imagine. I could become a fireman, a cowboy or an astronaut if I really wanted to. I could become a scientist, an athlete, an actor or even a writer if I had the desire to do the necessary things for becoming one. I could build castles of stone, sand and steel, if I wanted that sort of a thing. I could walk on hot coals and dance on a tightrope. I could read books on medieval alchemy, write diatribes and compose a haiku. I could wander around aimlessly, having no thought for the morrow. I could preach a non-dual sermon about the interdependence of life on a busy street and beg for food in the marketplace, if only I wanted to. I could even steal apples and strawberries from your garden and then lie and pretend that it never happened. I could speak with strangers and ask them to join my revolutionary army whose only member was me. I could travel around the world with empty pockets, meditate in a Benedictine monastery and visit a prostitute, only if I wanted to. I could drink a German Riesling and play chess with myself. I could go into the church and interrupt the service by proclaiming that the kingdom has arrived in me. I could, in this very moment, try something I have never done before like hugging people for no reason, giving away my possessions to those in need and helping a lonely kitten to survive the harsh climate of my country. I could also look into your eyes and say that I love you. Yes, that I could do as well. I could do so many things. I could change my life forever in one split second, only if I wanted to.
But what do I want? What do I really want in life? Are there goals I want to achieve? Are there targets I want to hit? Are there missions I want to complete? Are there balloons I want to blow up? Is there a treasure I want to find? Is there an ice I want to melt, a tree I want to plant? Is there a sea I want to cross, a mountain I want to climb? What do I want? Do I want anything at all?
More than forty years ago, in the spring of 1972, just a year before his death Alan Watts wrote these remarkable words:
I repeat the question, what do we want? I repeat it again and again wherever I go. I have suggested that the college entrance examination be the requirement that every student has to write a detailed paper of his idea of heaven, and that his professor or tutor criticize it for consistency, imagination, and feasibility. I have even suggested to an encounter group that we discuss what might be, here and now, the most delightful forms of relationship between each other, but people seem to want, instead, to worry over their discords. We do not know what we want because we are only dimly aware of anything wantable. We have taught ourselves to pursue such abstract and weakly perceived goals as happiness, love, goodness, service to others, fun, fame, fortune, power, peace, or God – but we have more words than experience for what we mean.
Watts finished his essay by saying what he wanted himself, and which he, “to a satisfactory degree” already had. Here is what he wrote:
I want to spend time sitting still, or walking slowly, wondering at and feeling the basic sense of existence, of being alive-dead, of watching my breath, of hearing all sounds in the air, and of letting clouds and stars caress my eyes. I want to let go of anxiety and turn it into laughter, and realize absolutely that life and death are two sides of the same coin. I want a female companion who will, alternatively, melt into me and wrestle with me, obey me and object to me, admire me and then suddenly show that she can do so many things much better than I. I want to write and talk for interested audiences, to charm them, and play with their questions, but also to listen to people who can tell me things I don’t know without being bores. I want to watch water which reflects many changing qualities of light and wind, and is visited by seagulls, pelicans, terns, grebes, and wild duck. I want to sit on some far-out rock or a lonely beach and listen to the waves and look at the Western sky at dawn. I want to shoot arrows so high into the sky they seem to turn into birds. I want to see mountains and prowl through their foothills and forests, listening at dusk, to unseen waterfalls. I want to sit at a typewriter, at certain times, carefully and meticulously putting into words what I feel – the challenge being that it cannot really be put into words at all. I want to go off to a colorful and spacious kitchen to experiment with some new kind of soup or stew, or method of steaming fish, or to see if I can cook with a wok in the manner of the Chinese. Reminding me that I also want to play with the finest Chinese writing brushes and sticks of incensed ink, which you rub into water, and then try out the various ways of dancing on paper which are their form of ideographic writing. I want to be able to allay pain and sickness with the touch of my hands. I want to make a fire of charcoal and burn cedar leaves or sandalwood, late in the evening, while listening or dancing to classical or rock music. I want to see the reflection of light in glass and crystal, and, lying on the ground, to look up at trees patterning a vivid blue sky. At night to go to sleep beneath them, and to wake just before dawn when stars can still be seen through their branches. I want to hear the bell of Nanzenji, a temple in Kyoto, at four in the morning – more of a gong than a bell. I want to go to Sikkim and Nepal to see the Himalayas, but not to climb them. I want to enjoy the company of certain friends, to eat Stilton cheese, melons, heavy black bread, and prosciutto, and to drink Gardner’s Old Strong, a British ale which is no longer available.
Earthy as it may be, that is a glimpse of my idea of heaven.