Sense of Nonsense: Alan Watts on How We Find Meaning by Surrendering to Meaninglessness
“It is in this kind of meaninglessness that we come to the profoundest meaning.”
By Maria Popova
“It’s all so meaningless, we may as well be extraordinary,” artist Francis Bacon famously proclaimed — a sentiment at which Leo Tolstoy arrived obliquely a century earlier in his existential search for meaning. But the most articulate case for this eternal dance between meaninglessness and meaning comes from philosopher Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973).
In his early thirties, Watts walked away from a career as an Episcopal priest and set out to popularize Zen teachings in the West. His singular fusion of secular philosophy and Eastern spirituality guided, and continues to guide, the openhearted and openminded toward figuring out how to live with presence, make sense of reality, master the art of timing, and become who we really are.
Between 1965 and 1972, Watts delivered a series of talks exploring various facets of Zen. The transcripts of eight of them were posthumously published as The Tao of Philosophy (public library). In the sixth lecture, titled “Sense of Nonsense,” Watts explores how we arrive at meaning by surrendering to meaninglessness — an inquiry that has rattled some of humanity’s greatest minds, from Margaret Mead in her dream about the essence of life to Chinua Achebe in his creative struggle against meaninglessness.
Here is the original recording of Watts’s talk, found in the comprehensive compilation Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives — please enjoy:
Why do we love nonsense? Why do we love Lewis Carroll with his “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe, all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”? Why is it that all those old English songs are full of “Fal-de-riddle-eye-do” and “Hey-nonny-nonny” and all those babbling choruses? Why is it that when we get “hep” with jazz we just go “Boody-boody-boop-de-boo” and so on, and enjoy ourselves swinging with it? It is this participation in the essential glorious nonsense that is at the heart of the world, not necessarily going anywhere. It seems that only in moments of unusual insight and illumination that we get the point of this, and find that the true meaning of life is no meaning, that its purpose is no purpose, and that its sense is non-sense. Still, we want to use the word “significant.” Is this significant nonsense? Is this a kind of nonsense that is not just chaos, that is not just blathering balderdash, but rather has in it rhythm, fascinating complexity, and a kind of artistry? It is in this kind of meaninglessness that we come to the profoundest meaning.
Complement The Tao of Philosophy, which is mind-bending and soul-stretching in its totality, with Watts on true happiness, the ego and the universe, and the vital difference between money and wealth, then revisit D.T. Suzuki — who was a major influence for Watts — on how Zen can help us cultivate our character.
Published March 25, 2015