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Posts Tagged ‘Alan Watts’

27 JUNE, 2014

Alan Watts on the Difference Between Belief and Faith

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How to master the delicate dance of unconditional openness to the truth.

A century and a half before Carl Sagan explored the relationship between science and religion, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, contemplated the subject in a beautiful letter. Two centuries later, Alan Lightman crafted an enchanting definition of secular spirituality. This question has also been addressed by Albert Einstein in answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, Flannery O’Connor in considering dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, and Jane Goodall in her exquisite conversation with Bill Moyers on science and spirituality — and yet the question is, and perhaps is bound to remain, an open one.

One of the most articulate and lucid attempts to answer it comes from Alan Watts, who popularized Eastern philosophy in the West, in his fantastic 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) — the same treasure trove of insight that gave us Watts on happiness and how to live a full life and his prescient admonition about our modern media gluttony.

Watts writes:

We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.

[…]

The present phase of human thought and history … almost compels us to face reality with open minds, and you can only know God through an open mind just as you can only see the sky through a clear window. You will not see the sky if you have covered the glass with blue paint.

But “religious” people who resist the scraping of the paint from the glass, who regard the scientific attitude with fear and mistrust, and confuse faith with clinging to certain ideas, are curiously ignorant of laws of the spiritual life which they might find in their own traditional records. A careful study of comparative religion and spiritual philosophy reveals that abandonment of belief, of any clinging to a future life for one’s own, and of any attempt to escape from finitude and mortality, is a regular and normal stage in the way of the spirit. Indeed, this is actually such a “first principle” of the spiritual life that it should have been obvious from the beginning, and it seems, after all, surprising that learned theologians should adopt anything but a cooperative attitude towards the critical philosophy of science.

The Wisdom of Insecurity is the kind of book that stays with you for life. Complement it with Watts on money vs. wealth and your ego, the universe, and becoming who you really are.

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29 MAY, 2014

Alan Watts on Money vs. Wealth

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“The moral challenge and the grim problem we face is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination.”

“What would you do if money was no object?” pioneering British philosopher Alan Watts, who popularized Zen teachings in the West, asked in one of his most memorable lectures. And yet, despite our best efforts not to worry about it, money is an object — so much so that it renders the question all the more urgent and pressing today, in our age of growing corporate greed coupled with increasing income inequality. Watts revisits the issue in greater depth in an essay titled “Wealth Versus Money,” found in the altogether fantastic 1970 anthology Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality (public library) — a poignant exploration of our tendency to confuse money with wealth, a manifestation of our more general inclination to mistake symbol for reality, which Watts considers “the peculiar and perhaps fatal fallacy of civilization.”

Watts writes:

Civilization, comprising all the achievements of art and science, technology and industry, is the result of man’s invention and manipulation of symbols — of words, letters, numbers, formulas and concepts, and of such social institutions as universally accepted clocks and rulers, scales and timetables, schedules and laws. By these means, we measure, predict, and control the behavior of the human and natural worlds — and with such startling apparent success that the trick goes to our heads. All too easily, we confuse the world as we symbolize it with the world as it is.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Among our most toxic symbol-as-reality tricks springs from the concept, use, and pursuit of money:

Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion. But this ingrained and archaic confusion of money with wealth is now the main reason we are not going ahead full tilt with the development of our technological genius for the production of more than adequate food, clothing, housing, and utilities for every person on earth.

Watts goes on to make a prediction — idealistic at the time, bittersweetly naive in retrospect — that “if we get our heads straight about money,” by the year 2000 “no one will pay taxes, no one will carry cash, utilities will be free, and everyone will carry a general credit card.” It’s worth noting that while some of it came true, and some might soon as we shift away from traditional currency, we have simply replaced one monetary currency with another, rather than evolving to embody Watts’s vision of redefining wealth altogether. He returns to the vital distinction:

Money is a measure of wealth, and we invent money as we invent the Fahrenheit scale of temperature or the avoirdupois measure of weight… By contrast with money, true wealth is the sum of energy, technical intelligence, and raw materials.

Considering the question of the national debt — “a roundabout piece of semantic obscurantism” — Watts argues that we go into debt, as individuals and as nations, precisely because we confuse money with wealth, the worst symptom of which is war:

No one goes into debt except in emergency; and therefore, prosperity depends on maintaining the perpetual emergency of war. We are reduced, then, to the suicidal expedient of inventing wars when, instead, we could simply have invented money — provided that the amount invented was always proportionate to the real wealth being produced…

If we shift from the gold standard to the wealth standard, prices must stay more or less where they are at the time of the shift and — miraculously — everyone will discover that he has enough or more than enough to wear, eat, drink, and otherwise survive with affluence and merriment.

Illustration from 'How People Earn and Use Money,' 1968. Click image for details.

And yet, Watts recognizes, there is enormous cultural resistance to such an awareness, one reinforced by our material monoculture:

It is not going to be at all easy to explain this to the world at large, because mankind has existed for perhaps one million years with relative material scarcity, and it is now roughly a mere one hundred years since the beginning of the industrial revolution. As it was once very difficult to persuade people that the earth is round and that it is in orbit around the sun, or to make it clear that the universe exists in a curved space-time continuum, it may be just as hard to get it through to “common sense” that the virtues of making and saving money are obsolete.

Understanding the distinction between money and wealth, Watts argues, would help us realize that “there are limits to the real wealth that any individual can consume” — that we can’t really “drive four cars at once, live simultaneously in six homes, take three tours at the same time, or devour twelve roasts of beef at one meal.” Acknowledging the semi-serious facetiousness of this picture, he writes:

I am trying to make the deadly serious point that, as of today, an economic utopia is not wishful thinking but, in some substantial degree, the necessary alternative to self-destruction.

The moral challenge and the grim problem we face is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination.

Illustration from 'How People Earn and Use Money,' 1968. Click image for details.

Reflecting on how easily we become habituated to comfort, affluence, and pleasure, Watts echoes Bertrand Russell’s lament — “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” — and notes:

Affluent people in the United States have seldom shown much imagination in cultivating the arts of pleasure.

He paints an alternative picture for cultivating the art of leisure in its proper form — an idea glimmers of which we begin to see in the groundswell of today’s maker culture:

A leisure economy will provide opportunity to develop the frustrated craftsman, painter, sculptor, poet, composer, yachtsman, explorer, or potter that is in us all — if only we could earn a living that way. Certainly, there will be a plethora of bad and indifferent productions from so many unleashed amateurs, but the general long-term effect should be a tremendous enrichment of the quality and variety of fine art, music, food, furniture, clothing, gardens, and even homes — created largely on a do-it-yourself basis.

And yet what prevents us from truly cultivating such an economy is a fundamental disconnect. He admonishes:

Here’s the nub of the problem. We cannot proceed with a fully productive technology if it must inevitably Los Angelesize the whole earth, poison the elements, destroy all wildlife, and sicken the bloodstream with the promiscuous use of antibiotics and insecticides. Yet this will be the certain result of the technological enterprise conducted in the hostile spirit of a conquest of nature with the main object of making money.

Illustration from 'How People Earn and Use Money,' 1968. Click image for details.

While this problem has been tragically exacerbated since Watts’s day, it’s worth remembering that our choices — our individual, everyday choices — matter. But equally important, Watts points out, are the choices made by those who hold power in the world, both commercial and political. Noting that “many corporations — and even more so their shareholders — are unbelievably blind to their own material interests,” Watts writes:

It is an oversimplification to say that this is the result of business valuing profit rather than product, for no one should be expected to do business without the incentive of profit. The actual trouble is that profit is identified entirely with money, as distinct from the real profit of living with dignity and elegance in beautiful surroundings…

To try to correct this irresponsibility by passing laws (e.g., against absentee ownership) would be wide of the point, for most of the law has as little relation to life as money to wealth. On the contrary, problems of this kind are aggravated rather than solved by the paperwork of politics and law. What is necessary is at once simpler and more difficult: only that financiers, bankers, and stockholders must turn themselves into real people and ask themselves exactly what they want out of life — in the realization that this strictly practical and hard–nosed question might lead to far more delightful styles of living than those they now pursue. Quite simply and literally, they must come to their senses — for their own personal profit and pleasure.

What it takes to return to our senses, Watts argues, is to reconsider our illusion of the separate ego and acknowledge our interconnectedness with the world in all its material and metaphysical manifestations:

Coming to our senses must, above all, be the experience of our own existence as living organisms rather than “personalities,” like characters in a play or a novel acting out some artificial plot in which the persons are simply masks for a conflict of abstract ideas or principles. Man as an organism is to the world outside like a whirlpool is to a river: man and world are a single natural process, but we are behaving as if we were invaders and plunderers in a foreign territory. For when the individual is defined and felt as the separate personality or ego, he remains unaware that his actual body is a dancing pattern of energy that simply does not happen by itself. It happens only in concert with myriads of other patterns — called animals, plants, insects, bacteria, minerals, liquids, and gases. The definition of a person and the normal feeling of “I” do not effectively include these relationships. You say, “I came into this world.” You didn’t; you came out of it, as a branch from a tree.

It all comes full circle as we begin to see that this notion of the artificial ego is at the root of our mistaking money for wealth and symbol for reality:

The greatest illusion of the abstract ego is that it can do anything to bring about radical improvement either in itself or in the world. This is as impossible, physically, as trying to lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps. Furthermore, the ego is (like money) a concept, a symbol, even a delusion — not a biological process or physical reality.

Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality is a wonderful and soul-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Watts on happiness and how to live with presence, our media gluttony, and how the ego keeps us from becoming who we really are.

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11 MARCH, 2014

Orgasm Without Release: Alan Watts Presages Our Modern Media Gluttony in 1951

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A prescient admonition from the pioneer of Eastern philosophy in the West.

“If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss,” Saul Bellow wrote in his poignant 1990 essay “The Distracted Public.” Nearly a century earlier, in his funny and wise reflection on feeding the mind, Lewis Carroll admonished that “mental gluttony, or over-reading, is a dangerous propensity, tending to weakness of digestive power, and in some cases to loss of appetite.” And yet, cut off from both our bodies and our brains, we constantly oscillate between distraction and mental gluttony, seething in a cauldron of our own making, unwilling or unable to still our minds long enough for the truly meaningful to settle and coalesce.

This, of course, is far from a modern concern. In his altogether superb 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library), which gave us his invaluable meditation on happiness and how to live with presence, pioneering British Zen philosopher Alan Watts considers how our perilous compulsion for planning the future, coupled with our voracious appetite for distraction and escapism from the present, stifles our capacity to truly live.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Watts writes:

The root of [our] frustration is that we live for the future, and the future is an abstraction… The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

In language reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s admonition about the moving image, Watts — who, ironically, had a cameo in Spike Jonze’s Siri-centric movie Her — presages the modern mesmerism of screens, devices, and feeds, which, when used mindlessly, take us away from the present moment and become a “moronic inferno.” More than half a century before the technologies that most entice and entrance us today — especially the tyranny of perpetually flashing videos and animated GIFs — Watts observes the same worrisome effect in their then-modern predecessors:

The “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse –providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect “subject” for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. His eyes flit without rest from television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity — shock treatments — as “human interest” shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes along with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire.

And as if to seal the deal on his remarkable prescience, he adds a remark that applies with striking precision to our age of screens, data, and the quantified self:

The brainy modern loves not matter but measures, no solids but surfaces.

Watts, of course, was the opposite of a techno-dystopian — he was a champion of the human spirit and its capacity for freedom. His lament, all the timelier today, was thus not a curmudgeonly complaint but an expression of honest concern about the choices we’re making daily, and a gentle reminder that, as Annie Dillard put it, “how we spend our days … is how we spend our lives.” The rest of The Wisdom of Insecurity, which remains a must-read, explores how we can transcend our futile strategies for controlling life and surrender to its living essence. Sample some of it here, then see Watts on the ego and the universe.

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