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Alan Watts on Love, the Meaning of Freedom, and the Only Real Antidote to Fear

“You cannot think simultaneously about listening to the waves and whether you are enjoying listening to the waves.”

Alan Watts on Love, the Meaning of Freedom, and the Only Real Antidote to Fear

“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her superb 1929 meditation on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”

Half a century before her, Leo Tolstoy — who befriended a Buddhist monk late in life and became deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy — echoed these ancient truths as he contemplated the paradoxical nature of love: “Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity only.”

That in love and in life, freedom from fear — like all species of freedom — is only possible within the present moment has long been a core teaching of the most ancient Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions. It is one of the most elemental truths of existence, and one of those most difficult to put into practice as we move through our daily human lives, so habitually inclined toward the next moment and the mentally constructed universe of expected events — the parallel universe where anxiety dwells, where hope and fear for what might be eclipse what is, and where we cease to be free because we are no longer in the direct light of reality.

The relationship between freedom, fear, and love is what Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) explores in one of the most insightful chapters of The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) — his altogether revelatory 1951 classic, which introduced Eastern philosophy to the West with its lucid and luminous case for how to live with presence.

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

Drawing on his admonition against the dangers of the divided mind — the mindset that divides us into interior self-awareness and external reality, into ego and universe, which is the mindset the whole of Western culture has instilled in us — he writes:

The meaning of freedom can never be grasped by the divided mind. If I feel separate from my experience, and from the world, freedom will seem to be the extent to which I can push the world around, and fate the extent to which the world pushes me around. But to the whole mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world. There is just one process acting, and it does everything that happens. It raises my little finger and it creates earthquakes. Or, if you want to put it that way, I raise my little finger and also make earthquakes. No one fates and no one is being fated.

This model of freedom is orthogonal to our conditioned view that freedom is a matter of bending external reality to our will by the power of our choices — controlling what remains of nature once the “I” is separated out. Watts draws a subtle, crucial distinction between freedom and choice:

What we ordinarily mean by choice is not freedom. Choices are usually decisions motivated by pleasure and pain, and the divided mind acts with the sole purpose of getting “I” into pleasure and out of pain. But the best pleasures are those for which we do not plan, and the worst part of pain is expecting it and trying to get away from it when it has come. You cannot plan to be happy. You can plan to exist, but in themselves existence and non-existence are neither pleasurable nor painful.

Art by Thomas Wright from his Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Stripped of the paraphernalia of circumstance and interpretation, our internal experience of being unfree stems from attempting impossible things — things that resist reality and refuse to accept the present moment on its own terms. Watts writes:

The sense of not being free comes from trying to do things which are impossible and even meaningless. You are not “free” to draw a square circle, to live without a head, or to stop certain reflex actions. These are not obstacles to freedom; they are the conditions of freedom. I am not free to draw a circle if perchance it should turn out to be a square circle. I am not, thank heaven, free to walk out of doors and leave my head at home. Likewise I am not free to live in any moment but this one, or to separate myself from my feelings.

Without the motive forces of pleasure and pain, it might at first appear paradoxical to make any decisions at all — a contradiction that makes it impossible to choose between options as we navigate even the most basic realities of life: Why choose to take the umbrella into the downpour, why choose to eat this piece of mango and not this piece of cardboard? But Watts observes that the only real contradiction is of our own making as we cede the present to an imagined future. More than half a century before psychologists came to study how your present self is sabotaging your future happiness, Watts offers the personal counterpart to Albert Camus’s astute political observation that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” and writes:

I fall straight into contradiction when I try to act and decide in order to be happy, when I make “being pleased” my future goal. For the more my actions are directed towards future pleasures, the more I am incapable of enjoying any pleasures at all. For all pleasures are present, and nothing save complete awareness of the present can even begin to guarantee future happiness.

[…]

You can only live in one moment at a time, and you cannot think simultaneously about listening to the waves and whether you are enjoying listening to the waves. Contradictions of this kind are the only real types of action without freedom.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Only with such a recalibration of our reflexive view of freedom does James Baldwin’s insistence that “people are as free as they want to be” begin to unfold its layered meaning like a Zen koan, to be turned over in the mind until the deceptively simple shape unfolds its origami-folded scroll of deep truth.

In what may be the most elegant refutation of the particular strain of hubris that embraces determinism in order to wring from it the self-permission for living with delirious freedom from responsibility, Watts writes:

There is another theory of determinism which states that all our actions are motivated by “unconscious mental mechanisms,” and that for this reason even the most spontaneous decisions are not free. This is but another example of split-mindedness, for what is the difference between “me” and “mental mechanisms” whether conscious or unconscious? Who is being moved by these processes? The notion that anyone is being motivated comes from the persisting illusion of “I.” The real man*, the organism-in-relation-to-the-universe, is this unconscious motivation. And because he is it, he is not being moved by it.

[…]

Events look inevitable in retrospect because when they have happened, nothing can change them. Yet the fact that I can make safe bets could prove equally well that events are not determined but consistent. In other words, the universal process acts freely and spontaneously at every moment, but tends to throw out events in regular, and so predictable, sequences.

Only by such a misapprehension of freedom, Watts observes, do we ever feel unfree: When we enter a state that causes us psychological pain, our immediate impulse is to get the “I” out of the pain, which is invariably a resistance to the present moment as it is; because we cannot will a different psychological state, we reach for an easy escape: a drink, a drug, a compulsive scroll through an Instagram feed. All the ways in which we try to abate our feelings of abject loneliness and boredom and inadequacy by escaping from the present moment where they unfold are motivated by the fear that those intolerable feelings will subsume us. And yet the instant we become motivated by fear, we become unfree — we are prisoners of fear. We are only free within the bounds of the present moment, with all of its disquieting feelings, because only in that moment can they dissipate into the totality of integrated reality, leaving no divide between us as feelers and the feelings being felt, and therefore no painful contrast between preferred state and actual state. Watts writes:

So long as the mind believes in the possibility of escape from what it is at this moment, there can be no freedom.

[…]

It sounds as if it were the most abject fatalism to have to admit that I am what I am, and that no escape or division is possible. It seems that if I am afraid, then I am “stuck” with fear. But in fact I am chained to the fear only so long as I am trying to get away from it. On the other hand, when I do not try to get away I discover that there is nothing “stuck” or fixed about the reality of the moment. When I am aware of this feeling without naming it, without calling it “fear,” “bad,” “negative,” etc., it changes instantly into something else, and life moves freely ahead. The feeling no longer perpetuates itself by creating the feeler behind it.

Art by Thomas Wright from his Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

To dissolve into this total reality of the moment is the crucible of freedom, which is in turn the crucible of love. In consonance with Toni Morrison’s insistence that the deepest measure of freedom is loving anything and anyone you choose to love and with that classic, exquisite Adrienne Rich sonnet line — “no one’s fated or doomed to love anyone” — Watts considers the ultimate reward of this undivided mind:

The further truth that the undivided mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would usually be called love… Love is the organizing and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole… This, rather than any mere emotion, is the power and principle of free action.

Complement this fragment of the timelessly rewarding The Wisdom of Insecurity with Watts on learning not to think in terms of gain and loss and finding meaning by accepting the meaninglessness of life, then revisit Seneca on the antidote to anxiety and astronomer Rebecca Elson’s almost unbearably beautiful poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

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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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