On the Ethics of Eros
by Craig Green

"The joyous task which confronts an ethic of spontaneity, however difficult it may be, is quite literally to woo people out of their armed shells."

-Alan Watts

 Sometimes when reading, I come across a passage that sparks a flurry of exciting insights. I'm moved to share the inspiration with others, but often when I share the passage with another, they are unmoved by it. This can cause me to wonder if the insights are really so profound.

At such times I feel as if I'm living in a village near the edge of the Grand Canyon. It's as if most people in the community were oblivious to the canyon. We live a mile or two from the rim and rarely walk out to gaze over the edge or journey into the canyon. Perhaps living so close to such grandeur causes one to take it for granted. Or perhaps there is an unspoken fear of going to the canyon's edge, of confronting that vast mystery.

OK, let me get more specific here: here's a passage from "Invitation to the Dance", the final chapter in Alan Watts'  Psychotherapy East and West. I find it quite thrilling. Yet I've found that  most people are left untouched by it:

"When cultural disciplines are in the service of Eros, ethics are transformed from the rules of repression into the technique of expression, and morality becomes the aesthetics of behavior."

I feel my life's purpose in these words! But a voice in me says, "It sounds so intellectual and dry, especially taken out of context. If I want folks to understand why these words are so galvanizing, I need to elaborate on what Watts is saying." This essay is an attempt to hold this passage up to the light, beginning by defining a few key terms (hopefully in a way that Watt's own use of them).

"Cultural Disciplines" are codes, practices, games, institutions: forms and activities through which people embody and affirm a way of being, a pattern of life, an understanding of the world. Baseball, judo, jazz, physics, architecture, Buddhism, marriage, warfare and juggling... These are all examples of cultural disciplines.

"Eros" is a form of Love, a movement towards union/communion, towards rapture and rapport and joyful interpenetration. (Here's a dictionary definition of Eros that matches the sense in which Watts use the term: "Eros- a type of love that seeks fulfillment without injury or violation of some other." The dictionary even includes this interesting example of this use of Eros: "Many contemporary anarchists look to Eros as the solution to modern problems.")

"Ethics" are the rules, agreements and guidelines we abide by as we play the games (the cultural disciplines) that make up our lives. We're free to break the rules if we so choose. (Of course this may end the game and the relationships that the game makes possible). An ethical limit must involve a voluntary choice. (There is no ethic of gravity.) In another book, Watts has written: "All questions of religion and ethics are really questions as to what are optimal game rules."

Ethics as the "rules of repression" is the long list of "thou shalt not"s that runs through most societies and religions.

Ethics as "the technique of expression"- this evokes, for me, the body of wisdom that is passed on in the arts and crafts. In another passage from "Invitation to the Dance", Watts writes: "...The function of ethics is not directive, but advisory and suggestive. Their creative use can no more be prescribed than we can write down simple instructions for making masterpieces of poetry or painting."

Thus, the ethic of a woodworker might entail keeping one’s tools sharp and well oiled, keeping the shop floor clean, making the most efficient use of lumber, working with the wood’s grain when carving, etc. Living by this ethic helps assure a more wonderful expression of spirit through one's woodwork.

Ethics can also be understood as the priorities and rules of thumb that guide both our momentous and trivial choices in life. For example: an organic gardener practices an ethic of returning all organic "wastes" to the soil, and of working in cooperation with Nature instead of dominating Her.

An "aesthetic" is a quality of taste, of sensibility, that shapes what each person perceives/believes to be good, true, and beautiful. One's aesthetic is central to one's personality and way of life. While we human beings unconsciously inherit the aesthetics of the cultures we are born within, it is possible to deliberately develop an aesthetic. This attitude of self-creation is underlies the Enlightenment vision of the liberal arts education. Alan Watts often pointed out that it is impossible for us to live a truly human existence without some mythology or paradigm that gives us a framework with which to make sense of this dizzyingly complex world. Our mythologies lets us clarify our priorities in the infinite ocean of possibilities we swim in. Similarly, one cannot really live a human life without having an aesthetic, an assessment of what is good, true, beautiful and worth going for in the brief span of one's life.

When cultural disciplines are in the service of Eros... i.e., when we live in a society that generates love and compassion with the focus and driven that we now summon to build empires and manufacture baubles to pacify ourselves.... Putting cultural disciplines in service to Eros is the key to creating a society that values connection and communion over control and amusement. This is one way of describing the work of the Healing Carnival: we are developing, and proliferating cultural disciplines in the service of Eros. Our mission is to disseminate cultural disciplines of compassion intimacy and aliveness.

...Ethics are transformed from the rules of repression into the technique of expression... I love this perspective on ethics! It reveals the potential inherent in a group building a common ethic. The ethics of the Healing Carnival are the optimal techniques for generating healing, ecstasy, flow, empassionment, etc. These are the ethics of eros! And after we've talked about the ethics of ecstasy, then the real work begins: walking the talk by practicing the ethics of Eros.

When cultural disciplines are in the service of Eros, ethics are transformed from the rules of repression into the technique of expression, and morality becomes the aesthetics of behavior.

The Floating Monastery is an attempt at creating a fellowship dedicated to developing the ethics of Eros and practicing the yoga of enlivenment--wooing people out of their armed shells (starting with ourselves.) Our central work at this stage is developing cultural disciplines that embody our ethics and serve as right livelihood. Our Juggledancing project is the first of what will eventually be an interwoven tapestry of forms and practices.  We seek to convene a "congress" of like minded folks who are ready to engage towards the further realization of this preposterous project!

Here's a few more quotes from Psychotherapy East and West that illuminate this theme. I've used brackets to insert a few clarifying notes. All these quotes are from the book's final chapter--"Invitation to the Dance":

"The idealisms which civilization produces are strivings of the alienated soul against death, and because their appeal is to hostility, to fear, to pity (which is also fear) or to duty, they can never arouse the energy of life itself-- Eros -- which alone has the power to put reason into practice [in service to life].

"If there is anything to be learned from history, it is that scoldings, warnings, and preachings are a complete ethical failure. [i.e., they are not effective in bringing about a society based on justice, love and beauty.] ....The only way [to bring such a society about] is to appeal to Eros, without which Logos-- the sense of duty and reason -- has no life."

"The liberative artist plays the part of Orpheus by living in the mode of music instead of the mode of language. His entire activity is dancing, rhythm for its own sake, and in this way he becomes a vortex which draws others into its pattern. He charms their attention from then to now, absorbing them into a rhythm in which survival ceases to be the criterion of value. It is by this attraction, and not by direction or commandment, that he is sought out as a teacher in the way of liberation. It is easy enough to become a martyr by throwing open challenges and judgments at the ways of the world. It is all too simple to indulge the sense of being in the right by flaunting one's lack of inhibition and scandalizing a
repressed society. But the high art, the upaya [skillful means], of a true Bodhisattva is possible only for him who has gone beyond all need for self-justification, for so long as there is something to prove, some ax to grind, there is no dance."