c.a. davis

// filmmaker | editor | storyteller \\

Quora Answers: Alan Watts and many great philosophers say that "you are the universe." What do you understand that to mean, literally?

Have you ever lay awake at night, unable to fall asleep, and have the thought of death creep into your mind? Not necessarily the fear of it, but the act of trying to understand it conceptually: What does it feel like? What does the mind do? Is it like sleeping? Is it discernible from the reality you’re aware of now?

The act of trying to conceptualize something so outside the mind’s—thus the ego’s—perception is, for all practical purposes, impossible. Analogy is the only tool which helps us see what is otherwise invisible, yet indirectly so. That said, the phrase, “You are the universe,” is exceptional at detailing an incredibly grandiose thought that is implied from the sciences, theologies, and humanities alike.

Alan’s talks were rife with etymologic discourse, so let’s go that route to better interpret the meaning behind this phrase. Uni and versus (the past participle of vertere, to turn) are Latin terms that mean one and turned, respectively. Interestingly, the past participle of the origin verb has become a familiar term we often use today—versus indicates two sides against one another, which makes sense given the root, to turn, would indicate an opposition that has solidified into two diametrically opposed groups. When the root words were combined to form universus—then universum—the implication was the action of being combined into one whole.

Great. So, now enter the French term univers whose translation to English means more or less world—usually combined with other words to create a larger thought, such as univers familial (family circle) or univers de rêve (dreamworld)—which is a derivation of the Latin root universum.

It’s pretty easy to see the jump from universum and univers into universe in its modern use when regarding cosmology. The term itself implies a simplification of an otherwise larger process of one being formed from many, which turns out to be the perfect analogy in regards to all the starstuff within which everything exists.

This is where the analogy gets really interesting. The word itself implies one turning into itself—itself here being used to imply its larger whole—and the larger action of the Universe is that of many coming from One, and One born into many—the Big Bang being the foremost scientific theory. Furthermore, just as one can look out there and notice this cyclical nature, one can look within and see the same thing happening on atomic and subatomic scales.

The atom’s structure is such that each part consists of other parts—er, rather, wavicles—which imply the upper levels of the structure. In other words, the atom engages in a process not entirely dissimilar to the Universe—smaller energies forming larger structures/energies which form the whole itself. I’d even go so far as to say one could phrase the analogy as, “The atom is the universe.”

Two things to notice in the Atom / Universe analogy are:

  1. Dependent arising / transactional processes imply larger events
  2. Singular structures within the whole are inseparable from the whole itself

The implications here are vast, which is why the analogy exists in the first place. We are parts of a larger structure in the same way that our atoms, cells and organs are parts of our larger structures. This begs the question, where does one draw the line? Where does the self stop? Humans are such an interesting outlier from nature because we have, somehow, been imbued with / have evolved such an extreme self-realizing consciousness that we are able to discern me from you mentally. This discerning of what is within and without of our immediate awareness is called I or Ego, which is just a fancy way of summing up our brains’ tracking of sensory input and emotional awareness within larger contexts of immediate surroundings.

Practically speaking, the Ego has not evolved itself to pay attention to the larger whole. At least so it seems, given the constraints of our self-awareness. As such, it is unable to see past its own immediacy. It shouldn’t have to see anything beyond the confines of what keeps it alive, which is the body. Thus the Ego is a large driving force of our consciousness—it wants to stay alive and the body is the only way it can ensure its survival. So, the thought that the Ego doesn’t really exist never comes to it, which is the same as saying it can’t realize that it is in a larger context of the Universe. To do so detracts from the Ego’s importance thus would nullify its need for survival.

The phrase, “You are the universe,” is meant to break the Ego’s inward focus. Cleverly by using the ‘u’ alliteration, this is a poetic trick to make the Ego look at itself in the mirror. Universe. YOU. Same? Not same?

The phrase is an invitation for the mind to engage in itself on a higher level outside of the Ego’s bubble. By contemplating the differences of the all the stuff—including yourself—in the Universe, one begins to see that the boundaries between things are illusory. Sure, physical things will happen if, say, you threw yourself outside the ISS without a spacesuit on—namely, you’d explode and freeze instantly—but what is that, really? It’s just a reaction of wavicles in a certain environment. What happens TO YOU? Nothing. Because nothing ever does happen to you. Nothing ever did. YOU as you have known yourself to be is the Ego. But, the Ego is no more than Narcissus fixated on the image of himself instead of himself—he fell in love with his image, not his actual body, which really is the same as separating himself from his actual presence in the world, which requires the world as much as his body, entirely so.

So, literally, what does is mean when I say, “You are the universe”? Nothing. It means nothing. And that’s really the best way to point at it.