Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago.
In my high school creative-writing class, one day a week was set aside for reading, our choice of material. The hippieish teacher guided those choices, but almost anything worked. It was here, because of her, that I first encountered Alan Watts, specifically his essay collection This Is It. All I remember about the book itself is my teacher dreamily commenting on the title. I picked up a copy because it was short, and because the subtitle—and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience—spoke to me. The idea seemed “cool”—Watts was a forerunner of the counterculture movement—but I must have been too busy with the eternity of high school to focus my attention.
I was in college when I was in a car accident that tore a nerve in my shoulder. A botched surgery to repair it severed an artery and released a blood clot that, a week later, caused a massive stroke that left me locked inside my body. I couldn’t move or speak, and the doctors said I would be paralyzed from the eyes down for the rest of my life.
Something happened to me in the hospital those first days after the stroke—a sudden unexpected clarity and lightness that occurred in what I later described, in my book, Will & I, as “a liberating flash.” In a geologic instant, my borders fell away to where there was no longer anything—my skin, other surfaces, the distance between them—separating me from everything else. Despite my physical state, it felt like I’d bloomed.
Eventually, I gained some movement, and after a year of rehab I returned to college and graduated a few years later. I took a fiction-writing class when I went back to school and decided to turn my experience into a story. I would write a novel about it. I wanted to fictionalize all that had happened to me because it seemed like the only way to understand the sense of unity I continued to feel after leaving the hospital, a sense of wholeness that good fiction also possesses and that I couldn’t account for otherwise. Because of my altered body and weak voice, my last years at college were for the most part miserable, but the sense of being at the center of a living world made me care a little less. But all I found myself writing down was an account of the facts.
A few years later, I went to lunch with a childhood friend visiting Alabama from D.C. He began talking about an Alan Watts book, said it was the best thing he’d read in a while, and I recalled the author’s name. At the time, I was living in the lake cabin our family rented a couple of hours south of Birmingham, and when I got back, I decided to give This Is It another try.
The title essay is about a spiritual but concrete experience that Watts calls “cosmic consciousness,” something that has happened in varying degrees to people since the beginning of time. It’s basically a “vivid and overwhelming certainty that the universe, precisely as it is at this moment, as a whole and in every one of its parts, is so completely right as to need no explanation or justification beyond what it simply is … The experience has a tendency to arise in situations of total extremity or despair, when the individual finds himself without any alternative but to surrender himself entirely.” I felt an actual tingling in my spine when I read that and immediately recognized it as what had happened to me in the hospital.
Watt’s first experience with cosmic consciousness occurred right after he’d begun to study Indian and Chinese philosophy, in which meditation is a key practice. He was trying to get in what he thought was the right frame of mind to meditate in, but he couldn’t do it. “In sheer disgust” he decided to reject all frames of mind. “In the force of throwing them away,” he writes, “it seemed I threw myself away as well … and ‘the problem of life’ simply ceased to exist.” Watts also gives an account of another experience, which he prefaces by describing a fever dream he had when he was eight years old. In the dream, Watts was attached facedown to a steel ball spinning about the earth. He knew with complete certainty he was doomed to spin in this whirl forever, and realizing he had no control, he gave up. “But the moment when I surrendered, the ball seemed to strike against a mountain and disintegrate, and the next thing I knew was that I was sitting on a stretch of warm sand.” Release in extremity, he explains, lies through and not away from a problem.
In retrospect, I had also surrendered entirely (though I couldn’t have said this at the time). The “sense of intense relief, freedom, and lightness” that Watts goes on to describe is what I think allowed me to begin moving again. Then it was like someone patting a loose pile of playing cards into a neat deck. I finally had words for an experience I had thought was ineffable, and I’d found the hinge around which everything else in my book revolves.
Clay Byars attended the Sewanee School of Letters and is an assistant editor of Narrative magazine. He is the author of Will & I: A Memoir, out this summer from FSG Originals.