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The Human Mosaic of Beauty and Madness: Young Alan Watts on Inner Sanity Amid Outer Chaos

From the abyss of WWII, an elevating reminder that we each contain a universe within that contributes to the universe without.

The Human Mosaic of Beauty and Madness: Young Alan Watts on Inner Sanity Amid Outer Chaos

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to a friend on the first day of 1941. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Across the country, as WWII was engulfing the world, a young aspiring writer and budding philosopher by the name of Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) was making sense of the terror and the tragedy in a kindred manner, striving to maintain what we most need yet most easily relinquish in dark times — the telescopic perspective.

Watts had left his native England for New York City at age twenty-three to begin Zen training — a decision he had made two years earlier, after meeting the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki in London. In New York, he toiled to publish his American debut — The Meaning of Happiness, a pathbreaking book bridging modern Western psychology and ancient Eastern philosophy — and set about establishing himself as a public speaker, giving talks about Zen to both adults and children at Riverside Church, Harlem’s mecca of spiritual inquiry. (The year Watts decided to move to New York, an inquisitive little girl from Riverside Church invited Albert Einstein’s wonderful answer to her question about whether scientists pray.) But just as Watts was finding his footing in America, Europe lost ground and plummeted into WWII, dragging the whole of humanity into an unprecedented moral and spiritual abyss.

In a beautiful letter from the spring of 1941, found in the altogether revelatory Collected Letters of Alan Watts (public library), the young philosopher considers the larger meaning of the meaningless terror of war. Addressing his parents as “Dear Mummy & Daddy,” the twenty-five-year-old Watts reflects on how an awareness of the reticulated nature of reality and the interconnectedness of all human experience casts any one experience — even the most terrifying — in a wider frame of reference that makes it somehow more bearable. Decades before he formulated his ideas on how learning not to think in terms of gain or loss enlarges life, Watts tells his parents:

I have faith that something good will come out of this in the end like the phoenix out of the fire. But in the meantime it’s almost impossible to know how to plan for the future. Things here are as good as can be expected, but under such strains you never know when people are going to go crazy! Sometimes I get the queerest feeling that things going on in the world around one, are in some odd way reflections of things happening in the depths of one’s own mind. It is almost as if the world gets calm as you keep calm yourself, and vice versa. Yet it would be absurd to imagine that one could actually control the course of events in that way because this would imply the belief that oneself alone is real and all else a figment of thought. But it convinces me more and more that there is a universe inside one, which contains Hitler and all forms of human madness as well as love and beauty.

Complement The Collected Letters of Alan Watts, lovingly edited by his daughters Joan and Anne, with Watts on how to live with presence, the antidote to loneliness, and what makes us who we are, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on our grounds for hope in the dark and Albert Camus on strength of character through difficult times.

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Alan Watts on the Antidote to the Loneliness of the Divided Mind, Our Integration with the Universe, and How We Wrest Meaning from Reality

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

“All things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe,” the great theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler wrote in his influential It for Bit model of the nature of reality, adding: “Observer-participancy gives rise to information.”

Wheeler arrived at this notion that the universe doesn’t exist out there, independent of us, through the gateway of physics just as his British contemporary Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) was arriving at it through philosophy. In introducing Eastern thought into the West, Watts spoke and wrote with unparalleled lucidity about the way in which our self-referential awareness of an experience (or observer-participancy, in Wheeler’s words) shapes the experience itself, nowhere more elegantly than in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) — his timeless and increasingly timely treatise on how to live with presence.

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

Watts argues that as long as we divide life into interior self-awareness and exterior experience, into life in here and life out there, we split our psyches asunder and doom ourselves to never attaining the wholeness at the heart of human happiness. With an eye to the inherent interconnectedness of the universe, he writes:

There is a world of difference between an inference and a feeling. You can reason that the universe is a unity without feeling it to be so. You can establish the theory that your body is a movement in an unbroken process which includes all suns and stars, and yet continue to feel separate and lonely. For the feeling will not correspond to the theory until you have also discovered the unity of inner experience. Despite all theories, you will feel that you are isolated from life so long as you are divided within.

But you will cease to feel isolated when you recognize, for example, that you do not have a sensation of the sky: you are that sensation. For all purposes of feeling, your sensation of the sky is the sky, and there is no “you” apart from what you sense, feel, and know.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

Like the physicist who builds models of how the universe works but remains completely blind to her own interior world, we risk being only half-human when we worship at the altar of the outrospective intellect to the exclusion of our introspective intuition, the seedbed of belonging to the integrated wholeness of the universe — that is, when we approach the world as separate experiencers of it rather than as participatory parts of it. Watts admonishes:

The sense of unity with the “All” is not, however, a nebulous state of mind, a sort of trance, in which all form and distinction is abolished, as if man and the universe merged into a luminous mist of pale mauve. Just as process and form, energy and matter, myself and experience, are names for, and ways of looking at, the same thing — so one and many, unity and multiplicity, identity and difference, are not mutually exclusive opposites: they are each other, much as the body is its various organs. To discover that the many are the one, and that the one is the many, is to realize that both are words and noises representing what is at once obvious to sense and feeling, and an enigma to logic and description.

[…]

When you really understand that you are what you see and know, you do not run around the countryside thinking, “I am all this.” There is simply “all this.”

Art by Gabi Swiatkowska from Infinity and Me by Kate Hosford, an illustrated parable at the intersection of science and philosophy

More than half a century before physicist Sean Carroll held up the beautiful notion of “poetic naturalism” as a counterpoint to the scientific contention that the universe is inherently meaningless, Watts inverts that common charge and writes:

If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so. If this world is a vicious trap, so is its accuser, and the pot is calling the kettle black.

In the strictest sense, we cannot actually think about life and reality at all, because this would have to include thinking about thinking, thinking about thinking about thinking, and so ad infinitum. One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.

Watts argues that this impulse for description over experience, for attempting to make sense of reality by standing outside it rather than surrendering to it, is symptomatic of the divided mind — the mind that robs us of inner wholeness. He writes:

So long as the mind is split, life is perpetual conflict, tension, frustration, and disillusion. Suffering is piled on suffering, fear on fear, and boredom on boredom… But the undivided mind is free from this tension of trying always to stand outside oneself and to be elsewhere than here and now. Each moment is lived completely, and there is thus a sense of fulfillment and completeness.

[…]

When … you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.

The Wisdom of Insecurity remains an indispensable read. Complement this particular portion with trailblazing physicist David Bohm and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard on how we shape what we call reality, then revisit Watts on what makes us who we are, the difference between money and wealth, the art of timing, and learning not to think in terms of gain or loss.

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The Yin-Yang of Fortune and Misfortune: Alan Watts on the Art of Learning Not to Think in Terms of Gain and Loss

“The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad.”

The Yin-Yang of Fortune and Misfortune: Alan Watts on the Art of Learning Not to Think in Terms of Gain and Loss

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during his now-legendary lecture on the shapes of stories. But this idea was first articulated by British philosopher and writer Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973), who began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West during the 1950s and 1960s. Fusing ancient wisdom with the evolving insights of modern psychology, Watts’s enduring teachings addressed such concerns as how to live with presence, what makes us who we are, the difference between money and wealth, the art of timing, and how to find meaning in meaninglessness.

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

Although he wrote beautifully and authored a number of books, Watts was a remarkably charismatic speaker and delivered some of his most compelling ideas in lectures, the best which were eventually published as Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks 1960–1969 (public library).

In a talk titled “Swimming Headless,” Watts explores the psychological dimensions of Taoist philosophy and its emphasis on cultivating the mental discipline of not categorizing everything into gain and loss. Learning to live in such a way that nothing is experienced as either an advantage or a disadvantage, Watts argues, is the source of enormous empowerment and liberation.

He illustrates this notion with an ancient Chinese parable, brought to life in this lovely animation by Steve Agnos and the Sustainable Human project:

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

In the book adaptation, the parable makes the same point in slightly more refined language:

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The farmer steadfastly refrained from thinking of things in terms of gain or loss, advantage or disadvantage, because one never knows… In fact we never really know whether an event is fortune or misfortune, we only know our ever-changing reactions to ever-changing events.

Complement Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life with Watts on death, the difference between belief and faith, and what reality really is, then revisit philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and physicist David Bohm’s immensely stimulating East/West dialogue on love, intelligence, and how to transcend the wall of being.

HT Open Culture

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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.”

“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.

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