The Great Social Lie: How to Navigate Our World as a Liberated Man

great social lie

Alan Watts was one of the most influential philosophers throughout the 20th century. He was a huge force in bringing Buddhism and Eastern philosophy into the West during the 1950s and 1960s, and spent much of his life drawing lessons from Buddhism and applying them to modern life.

In his classic book Psychotherapy East and West, Watts compares the goals of Eastern philosophy to Western psychotherapy. He says that each is ultimately focused on the goal of “liberation” from societal conventions.

According to Watts, one of the core delusions that stands in the way of this liberation is the ever persistent “self/other” dichotomy – which he also describes as the “organism/environment” dichotomy.

This “organism/environment” dichotomy is the idea that you are ultimately a separate thing from your environment, and your environment is ultimately a separate thing from you. Watts sometimes call this the “great social lie.”

When we see ourselves as fully distinct from our environment, we fall into the trap of thinking that we are responsible for every choice and every action we make. But the truth is that we are often being heavily tugged in one direction or another depending on how our surroundings influence us.

Watts reconciles this “organism” vs. “environment” dichotomy by introducing field theory, which is the idea that both “organism” and “environment” are interdependent and constantly feeding off of each other.

In this sense, we are not fully distinct or separate from our environment, but highly intertwined. This is a key insight if we want to overcome what Watts calls the “great social lie.”

The rest of this article will elaborate on what this “great social lie” means and how we can live our lives without falling into this trap (including thought-provoking excerpts from Alan Watts’ Psychotherapy East and West).

The Great Social Lie

We are told that we are a separate “self,” while at the same time we are pressured to conform to many social conventions, including cultural norms, laws, traditions, and morality.

This divide between what we think we are vs. what society wants us to be creates a lot of unnecessary conflict, which strikes at the heart of what the “great social lie” is and why it can be a huge cause of our suffering.

According to Watts, the “great social lie” begins when we are only children. Our parents are often the first source of setting the rules we are meant to live by and pressuring us to conform to what society expects from us.

    “Society is persuading the individual to do what it wants by making it appear that its commands are the individual’s inmost self. What we want is what you want. And this is a double-bind, as when a mother says to her child, who is longing to slush around in a mud puddle, ‘Now, darling, you don’t WANT to get into that mud!’ This is misinformation, and this – if anything – is the ‘Great Social Lie.'” (pg. 79)

When the child sees the mud puddle, they feel like jumping in it and playing. But the parent will tell the child they shouldn’t want to do that – and the child, if disciplined, will adhere to the parent’s wishes and not follow through on their will.

This is a completely understandable scenario within a child/parent relationship. A child often doesn’t know what is best for his or her self, and it is certainly the duty of parents to discipline children and teach them important lessons that they can use later in life.

The real problem arises when the child is no longer a child, and they begin to have a more in-depth understanding of the divide between “what I want” vs. “what society wants.”

    “It has almost always been man’s custom to look for the authority for ethical standards outside ethics, to the laws of nature or the laws of God. We have never felt fully free to base our ethical principles simply upon what we would like to do and to have done to us. There is obvious sense, up to a point, in sticking to what has worked in the past (if, indeed, it has), but equally obvious nonsense in attributing past formulations to a wisdom greater than ours. It is all very well to believe that, ‘Mother is always right’ until you yourself are a mother.” (pg. 174)

The liberated man must eventually learn to navigate their world without needing to look toward an “outside authority” for instructions and guidance. This “outside authority” could be anything: a parent, a teacher, a priest, a therapist, a politician, etc.

All of these authorities represent social conventions that increase the divide between “how we see ourselves” vs. “what society expects from us,” highlighting the schism between the organism and its environment.

Of course, as Alan Watts points out in the above quote, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we abandon all laws, culture, and traditions from our past – especially if these traditions have shown to be fruitful. Blind disobedience to authority isn’t the goal, it’s just another way we get wrapped up in the “great social lie.”

The next half of this article will be about how to see beyond this “great social lie” and how it influences our daily living.


Psychotherapy East and West is a classic book by the legendary philosopher Alan Watts. It dives into the parallels between Eastern philosophy and Western psychotherapy and how each one sheds some light on how one can become “liberated” in the modern world. A very thought-provoking read that is certain to change your perspective on yourself and the world around you.

Playing the Game Without Getting Played

According to Alan Watts, when a student begins studying with a guru in Eastern philosophy or when a patient sees a therapist in Western psychotherapy, the individual often falls into the trap of thinking they need to “one up” their environment in some way.

This is known as the trap of “oneupmanship,” the idea that we just need to get a leg up on our environment before it gets a leg up on us, and we can thus overcome our environment. However, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the organism’s relationship to its environment.

The individual feels that they are bound to their environment and culture, but also feels that they must surpass this binding if they want to be their true self. This creates a “double bind” and it’s one of the biggest causes of conflict and suffering in one’s life.

    “Buddhism sees the fully liberated man as a bodhisattva, as one completely free to take part in the cosmic and social game. When it is said that he is in the world but not of it, that he returns to join in all its activities without attachment, this means that he no longer confuses his identity with his social role – that he plays his role instead of taking it seriously. He is a joker or “wild” man who can play any card in the pack.” (pg. 65)

They key insight here is the difference between one’s “role” and one’s “identity.” A liberated man can still play their various social roles without mistaking those social roles as the whole of their identity.

When it is time to teach, the liberated man becomes a teacher. When it is time to parent, the liberated man becomes a parent. And when it is time to work, the liberated man becomes a worker.

How does the liberated man “play” in these conventional roles, while still recognizing they are not his true nature?

    “It cannot be stressed too strongly that liberation does not involve the loss or destruction of such conventional concepts…it means seeing through them – in the same way that we can use the idea of the equator without confusing it with a physical mark upon the surface of the earth. Instead of falling below the ego, liberation surpasses it.” (pg. 17)

The concept of a “teacher,” or “parent,” or “worker,” (our many social roles) is an abstraction that doesn’t accurately describe what we really are.

These social roles are just conventional concepts we use to navigate our world for practical purposes, in the same way that the concept of the “equator” is something we use to navigate our world for practical purposes, but not something that actually exists.

In this way, the liberated man can fulfill all of his social roles and social duties without losing sight of his true self. The liberated man “plays the game” of life instead of being “played by the game.”

One doesn’t need to over-think the social roles they play in life and how they define us, one just needs to play the social game without questioning the many ways it tugs you from one direction to another.

This concept of “playing the game” is central to Alan Watt’s philosophy. It makes life’s never ending tug-of-war much less serious than we often make it out to be. All that is required of the liberated man is that they recognize they are just “playing.”

One of the best ways Watts describes this process is through the analogy of music and dance.

    “Music, dancing, rhythm – all of these are art forms which have no goal other than themselves, and to participate in them fully is to lay aside all thought of a necessary future; to say ‘must’ to rhythm is to stop it dead. In the moment when he is anxious to play the correct notes, the musician is blocked. In both senses, he stops playing. He can perfect his art only by continuing to play, practicing without trying until the moment comes when he finds that the correct rhythm plays itself.” (pg. 184)

The liberated man “plays” the social roles in life in the same way a jazz musician “plays” an improvisational solo. Neither one worries about hitting the wrong notes, they just focus on the act of “playing.”


Psychotherapy East and West is a really fantastic and thought-provoking book on what it means to be a “liberated” man in the context of both Eastern philosophy and Western psychotherapy.

There’s a lot to meditate and think about on every page of this book. I found myself constantly putting it down to take a step back and digest what was being said.

While I tried my best to summarize some of the key ideas, this article really only touches the surface of Alan Watts’ wisdom. I highly recommend you check it out if you’re looking for a new way to view yourself and your relationship to the world.

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