There is no person to whom I owe more of my philosophical education (uneducation?) than Alan Watts. A commenter on YouTube said that, while he died almost 40 years ago, his simple words are still influencing our lives today and we might call this a form of reincarnation. I agree.
Today I want to share some of my favorite works by him: two books and two videos, with excerpts I have extracted myself. But please, don’t listen to too much Alan Watts or you’ll learn that I steal most of my thoughts from him
Video: The Way of Waking Up
- There is the central self and it is all of us. It’s playing all the parts of all beings everywhere and anywhere. And it’s playing the game of hide and seek with itself. It gets lost, it gets involved in the farthest out adventures, but in the end it always wakes up and comes back to itself. And if you’re ready, you’re going to wake up.
- I may at last admit to myself who I really am, and draw aside the veil and realize after all, when all is said and done, I Am That I Am. And when it comes down to it, that is really rather funny. They say in Zen, when you attain satori, nothing is left to you at that moment but to have a good laugh.
- So it is a question fundamentally – do you define yourself as a victim of the world, or as the world?
Book: Tao: The Watercourse Way
Alan Watt’s last book, Tao: The Watercourse Way, is my favorite. If you liked my post on Wu Wei, you’ll love this book. Taoism is about working with the flow of nature rather than against it. This, to me, makes incredible sense and I think more people in the west would benefit from an understanding of these concepts. Here are a few of my favorite passages:
- The Tao belongs neither to knowing nor not knowing. Knowing is false understanding; not knowing is blind ignorance. If you really understand the Tao beyond doubt, it’s like the empty sky.
- Lao-tzu says, “The scholar learns something every day, the man of tao unlearns something every day…” Just simply, without comment, without an idea in your head, be aware. What else can you do? You don’t try to be aware; you are. You will find, of course, that you can not stop the commentary going on inside your head, but at least you can regard it as interior noise. Listen to your chattering thoughts as you would listen to the singing of a kettle.
- ‘You’ cannot get along with ‘things’ unless there is an understanding that there is, in truth, no alternative since you and the things are the same process – the now-streaming Tao. The feeling that there is a difference is also the process. There is nothing to do about it. There is nothing to not do about it. There is only the stream and its myriad convolutions…
Video: The “Quaking Mess” (The Ego)
- What can I do to transform the quaking mess? Well if you are the quaking mess, there is obviously nothing you can do to transform yourself. The you that you imagine to be capable of transforming yourself doesn’t exist. In other words, an ego separate from emotions, thoughts, feelings, experiences who is supposed to be in control of them cannot control them because it isn’t there. And as soon as you understand that, things will be vastly improved.
- If you discover a blind alley, it tells you something. Watch water and you will see that it puts out fingers. Some of them stop and the water doesn’t pursue that course. And then it finds a way it can go. But it never uses any effort and eventually finds a course. The land is telling the water, this isn’t the way to go.
- An organism doesn’t exist as an isolated thing anymore than a flower exists without earth. So in the same way, even though we are not stalked on the ground, we are nevertheless inseparable from a huge social context. Yet, the image we have of “ourselves” does not include those relationships
- So then, who are you? The organism is inseparable from its environment, so you are the organism-environment. You are no less than the whole universe. Each one of you is the universe expressed in the place you feel as here and now. So when you feel that you are a lonely, isolated, little stranger confronting all this, you have an illusory feeling because the truth is the reverse. You are the whole works.
Book: The Wisdom of Insecurity
Towards the beginning of his career, Alan was dealing with many life changes: he had given up his life as an Episcopalian minister and gotten divorced. In a trait that he would become known for, he wrote The Wisdom of Insecurity using logic to prove spiritual insights. Namely, that we cannot be anxious if we understand the true nature of our reality and ourselves. Don’t be surprised if this book seems like it was heavily influenced from The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, except, given that it was written 60 years earlier, maybe it’s the other way around… Here’s a few excerpts:
- Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.
- The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.
- What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously. A convention is a social convenience, as, for example, money … but it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth … In somewhat the same way, thoughts, ideas and words are “coins” for real things.