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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.


35 Odd Jobs Celebrated Painter Agnes Martin Held Before She Became an Artist

From butcher to ice cream scooper to elevator operator, “also raised rabbits and ducks.”

35 Odd Jobs Celebrated Painter Agnes Martin Held Before She Became an Artist

Beloved Canadian-born artist Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) endures as an enchantress of solitude, whose sparse and serene paintings radiate a largehearted devotion to what is best and purest in the human spirit. Out of seeming contradiction she has wrested beautiful complementarity — in her meticulously gridded lines, absolute control unlocks absolute freedom. Even to the most prepared viewer of her paintings, transcendence comes like a sunrise — known yet wholly new, irrepressibly astonishing. “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees,” Martin recalled, and this longing for innocence, for giving shape to happiness, became the animating force of her art and life.

Agnes Martin (public library) — the beautiful companion book to the Guggenheim Museum’s retrospective — celebrates the work and life of the beloved artist, a life more difficult and complex than her tranquil paintings and her composed sagacity belie.

Agnes Martin in her studio, 1954. (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)
Agnes Martin in her studio, 1954. (Photograph: Mildred Tolbert)

A formidable swimmer, Martin qualified for the Canadian Olympic swim team at sixteen, but did not attend the games. After graduating high school at the age of twenty-one, she received a swimming scholarship to the University of Southern California. But she soon found herself unable to relate to her peers and dropped out. This sense of outsiderdom — a sense familiar to many artists and central to the genius of Blake and Beethoven, both of whom Martin admired greatly — would never leave her. Homosexual and schizophrenic in an era when both weighed one down with leaden stigma, Martin grew increasingly reclusive as she grew older. But while such peerlessness is a place of great loneliness, it is also a place of great artistic opportunity.

Martin eventually attended Teachers College at New York’s Columbia University and it was there, at the age of thirty, that she decided to become an artist. In the decade she spent in New York, her art began attracting significant attention — a double-edged sword onto which she was unwilling to lacerate herself. After the death of her dear friend and mentor Ad Reinhardt the destruction of the building where she lived and painted, Martin abruptly left New York. In a testament to the nuanced relationship between creativity and mental illness, she had a mental vision of an adobe brick — likely a hallucination induced by her illness — and moved to New Mexico, where she built an adobe herself and disappeared into solitude.

Under the Taoist tenet of egolessness, she considered pride the gravest moral failing. Her exodus from New York was in part a response to her revulsion to celebrity culture and to what she considered the corruption of the artist’s soul by critical acclaim and commercial success — something she had come to fear greatly as her own work was garnering increasing veneration.

Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997
Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997

Unlike other women artists of the era like Frida Kahlo and Giorgia O’Keeffe, whose personal lives were dragged into the spotlight as inseparable from the public interest in their art, Martin led a solitary life away from the public eye. Contrary to certain cynical interpretations, which have argued that Martin wished to hide her homosexuality, I am apt to believe that her deliberate privacy sprang from the same source as her art: A desire to strip away everything unnecessary, of which Martin considered the ego the most unnecessary, and a continual quest for serenity and selfless happiness. She considered her paintings to be “about freedom from the cares of this world, from worldliness,” and she lived her life accordingly.

In her sixtieth year, Martin articulated this ethos beautifully in a set of lecture notes resembling a philosophical prose poem, titled “The Untroubled Mind,” in which she writes:

People get what they need from a painting
The painter need not die because of responsibility
When you have inspiration and represent inspiration
The observer makes the painting
The painter has no responsibility to stimulate his needs
It’s all an enormous process
No suffering is necessary
All of it is only enlightening, this is life

Agnes Martin, Self Portrait, c. 1947. (Collection of Christa Martin)
Agnes Martin, Self Portrait, c. 1947. (Collection of Christa Martin)

But as much as Martin sought to shed the self, she — like all of us — was an incremental accumulation of all her past selves, many of which utterly surprising and utterly endearing in their unexpectedness in the context of her legacy as a revered artist.

Toward the end of her long life, Martin consented, somewhat reluctantly, to a biography. She enlisted the help of her longtime friend and Pace Gallery founder Arnold Glimcher, who represented her and would later assemble her unpublished writings. In a letter to Glimcher about the biographical details of her life, Martin winks at how she feels about the whole project:

I read yesterday [about] a scholar who discovered that a Chinese painter died in 1256 not 1257. I can’t understand scholarship, just didn’t get the point.

Nonetheless, she goes on to provide, under the dictate “Please publish all or none,” a list of thirty-five odd jobs she held in her life before becoming an artist at the age of thirty — a list equal parts amusing and poignant given Martin’s late-life assertion that “doing what you were born to do” is the way to be happy.

The list, untroubled by grammar and punctuation, offers potent encouragement to aspiring artists in deconditioning the myth of a straight upward trajectory along one’s chosen path of purpose — especially since Martin herself liked to say that she painted for twenty years before she made a painting that she liked. It also attests to the complexity and richness of experience animating an artist whose paintings invite meaning through simplicity, and offers an endearing glimpse of Martin’s character — so many of these jobs are devoted to service and social work, so many demand hard menial labor, and so many entail swaths of boredom, that seedbed of creativity.


I have worked:

  1. as a play ground Director
  2. as a tennis coach
  3. started two successful businesses
  4. on a farm — milking
  5. three times at the wheat harvest
  6. managed cherry pickers
  7. for a mining Co. managed Indians horse packing supplies
  8. taught three years in country schools
  9. as a cashier
  10. in a factory
  11. in a hamburger stand
  12. as a receptionist
  13. in a butcher shop
  14. in a nursery
  15. in a cafeteria
  16. as a bakers helper
  17. as a waitress many times
  18. as a dishwasher three times
  19. as a janitor once
  20. as a cook once
  21. during the War

  22. helping Spanish and Indian get in touch with relatives in the Army (Red Cross)
  23. visited spruce logging operation for government
  24. at Swan Island (liberty ships) child care center
  25. running an elevator
  26. in a parking garage
  27. packing ice cream
  28. managed five Hindus, baling straw
  29. As a disciplinarian
    worked with deprived boys
  30. on school buses
  31. with 60 boy waiters
  32. house mother on campus
  33. chaperone traveling University Students
  34. with criminal boys
  35. individual child care
    2 girls and one boy age 4-5-6
  36. also raised rabbits and ducks

Complement the Guggenheim’s Agnes Martin with the beloved artist on art, happiness, pride, and failure and her abiding wisdom on inspiration, interruptions, and how to cultivate a creative atmosphere, then revisit the story of how Van Gogh found his purpose.


I Regard With Compassion, Therefore I Am: Descartes on How We Acquire Nobility of Soul and the Crucial Difference Between Confidence and Pride

“Pride … is always a serious fault, the seriousness of which is greater in proportion as the justification for one’s self-esteem is less.”

I Regard With Compassion, Therefore I Am: Descartes on How We Acquire Nobility of Soul and the Crucial Difference Between Confidence and Pride

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in her abiding meditation on self-respect. But how do we master that vital, immensely difficult willingness?

That’s what the great French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) considered three centuries earlier in contemplating the wellspring of character — or what he called “nobility of soul” — in his final published work, The Passions of the Soul (public library), penned in 1649 and dedicated to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, regarded by Descartes as a woman “whose intelligence is so far above the common run that she grasps with ease what our scholars find most difficult.”

Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648
Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648

A quarter century after he devised his twelve timeless tenets for critical thinking, Descartes considers the most important quality of spirit, which supersedes mere reason as the defining feature of human goodness:

True nobility of soul, in virtue of which a man esteems himself as highly as he may legitimately do, consist in two things and two only: first, he recognizes that there is nothing that legitimately belongs to him, save this freedom to direct his acts of will, and that there is no reason why he should be praised or blamed except for his good or bad use of it; secondly, he feels in himself a firm and constant resolution to make good use of it, that is, never to lack the willpower to undertake and execute whatever he judges to be best.

In a sentiment which psychologist-turned-artist Anne Truitt would come to echo three centuries later in her beautiful reflections on compassion, humility, and the cure for our chronic self-righteousness, Descartes argues that such introspective awareness deconditions this self-righteousness and renders us compassionate to those who slip morally because they’ve used their own acts of will poorly. He calls this quality of character “virtuous humility” and writes:

Those who have this knowledge and awareness of themselves convince themselves readily that all other human beings can have the same knowledge and awareness of themselves: because there is nothing in all this that depends on anybody other than oneself. This is why they never despise anybody; and although they often see other people committing wrongful acts that betray their weakness, they are, nonetheless, more inclined to excuse than to blame them, and to believe that these acts are due more to lack of knowledge than to lack of good will. And since they do not think themselves much inferior to those who have more wealth and honours, or even more intelligence, more learning, or more beauty than themselves, or who in general surpass them in respect of some other perfections, so, likewise, they do not think themselves much superior to those whom they themselves surpass, since all these things seem to them of very little importance, compared to good will, in respect of which alone they esteem themselves, and which they suppose is possessed, or at least could be possessed, by all other human beings.

So it is that the most noble of soul are customarily the most humble; and virtuous humility consists purely in this: in the light of our reflection on the infirmity of our nature, and on the wrongful acts we may have committed in the past, or which we are capable of committing, which are no less serious than those that may be committed by other people, we do not rate ourselves higher than anyone else, and we suppose that, since other people have free will no less than we do, they can make as good use of it as we.

In a sense, Descartes, at the end of his life, revises his famous dictum “I think, therefore I am” into “I regard with compassion, therefore I am.”

Such nobility of soul, he argues, imbues its possessor with true confidence — a quality decidedly different from its spiritually corrosive impostor, pride. Three centuries before Bruce Lee drew his sage distinction between pride and self-esteem, Descartes considers the seedbed of authentic confidence:

Those who are noble in this way are naturally inclined to do great things, and yet to undertake nothing of which they do not feel themselves capable. And because they value nothing more highly than doing good to other human beings, for the sake of which they regard their own interests as unimportant, they are always perfectly courteous, affable, and helpful towards one and all. Moreover, they are entirely in control of their passions: especially of desires, jealousy, and envy, since there is nothing the acquisition of which is not in their control that they think of sufficient value to warrant being greatly desired; and of hatred, since they esteem all human beings; and of terror, because they are fortified by confidence in their own virtue; and, finally, of anger, since, valuing, as they do, very little whatever is in the control of others, they never give their enemies the satisfaction of acknowledging that they are put out by such things.

He contrasts this with the counterfeit of confidence, pride:

All those who form a good opinion of themselves on some other grounds, whatever it may be, have no true nobility of soul, but only pride, which is always a serious fault, the seriousness of which is greater in proportion as the justification for one’s self-esteem is less. Self-esteem is least justified when a person has no specific grounds for pride; that is to say, when he does not think he has some merit in himself for which he should be valued by others, but, setting no store by merit, imagines that glory is something to which one simply lays claim, so that those who credit themselves with it most actually possess it most.

What deludes us into mistaking pride for confidence, Descartes admonishes, is a spiritual substance on which all of us are apt to get drunk easily and gladly: flattery. When we take our fill of it, we tend to find ourselves “esteemed for things that are not at all praiseworthy, and are even blameworthy.” The more ignorant the person, Descartes argues, the more susceptible to the poison of flattery; the more noble of soul, the more capable of deriving confidence from the true value of their own actions, particularly from their magnanimity toward others.

Whereas pride is predicated on making oneself feel big by making another feel small, Descartes insists that the confidence derived from nobility of soul is predicated on enlarging the wellbeing of others through kindness and magnanimous action. He writes:

Whatever the reason for one’s self-esteem, if it is other than the intention one feels in oneself always to make good use of one’s free will, which is … the source of nobility of soul, it always produces a very blameworthy pride, so different from true nobility of soul that it has entirely opposite effects. For since all other goods, such as intelligence, beauty, wealth, honour, etc., are generally more highly valued the fewer people possess them, and are such, indeed, for the most part that they cannot be shared by many people, it follows that the proud seek to degrade all other human beings, and that, being slaves to their desires, their soul is continually troubled by hatred, envy, jealousy, or anger.

Descartes considers the root of low self-esteem, or what he calls “baseness or bad humility”:

It consists chiefly in feeling that one is weak or lacking in resolution, and that — as if one did not have full use of one’s free will — one cannot help doing things that one knows one will subsequently regret; and also in the belief that one cannot be self-sufficient or do without several things one’s acquisition of which is in other people’s control. It is thus directly opposed to nobility of soul.

Two millennia after the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu’s astute observation about how the see-saw of hubris and humility reveals one’s depth of character — “Who knows doesn’t talk. Who talks doesn’t know.” — Descartes adds:

It often happens that those whose mind is basest are the most arrogant and haughty of people, just as the most noble of soul are the most modest and humble. But, whereas those with the strongest and noblest minds do not allow prosperity or adversity to affect their mood, those whose minds are weak and abject are governed entirely by fortune, and no less conceited in prosperity than humbled by adversity.

He considers the key to acquiring nobility of soul, which is “the key to all the other virtues, and a universal remedy for all the disorders of the passions”:

If one regularly sets oneself to consider what free will is, and what great advantages follow from abiding by a firm resolution to make the best use of it, and likewise, on the other side, how futile and pointless are all the cares by which the ambitious are beset, one can arouse in oneself the passion and in due course the virtue of nobility of soul.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly ennobling The Passions of the Soul with the great Stoic philosophers’ timeless wisdom on character and the art of living, then revisit Susan Sontag on how to be a moral human being.


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