Brain Pickings

Page 7

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.”

BP

The Peace of Wild Things: Wendell Berry’s Poetic Antidote to Despair, Animated

On where to seek refuge from the forethought of grief.

The Peace of Wild Things: Wendell Berry’s Poetic Antidote to Despair, Animated

Two hundred years ago, in a prophetic book envisioning a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, Mary Shelley considered what makes life worth living, insisting that in the midst of widespread death and despair, we must seek peace in the “murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies.” A century later, Willa Cather — another immensely talented, immensely underappreciated novelist and poet laureate of the human spirit — contemplated the deepest wellspring of happiness and located it in those moments when, immersed in nature, we find ourselves “dissolved into something complete and great” — a line now emblazoned on Cather’s tombstone by her partner.

In another half-century, Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) — one of the great poets and wisest elders of our time — arrived at this elemental truth, a truth we so easily lose sight of in those times of despair when we most need it, articulating it with his uncommon tenderness and clarity of vision in the title poem of his 1968 collection The Peace of Wild Things (public library), composed under a thick cultural cloudscape of despair — at the peak of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, after the successive assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. King, in the wake of Silent Spring and its disquieting wakeup call for our broken relationship with nature.

Art from The Blue Hour by Isabelle Simler

Berry — a rare seer into those subterranean landscapes of being where nature meets human nature and a rare voice of our collective ecological conscience — reads the poem in this breathtaking short film, produced by On Being and illustrated by English artist Charlotte Ager.

THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

At the last Universe in Verse — my charitable celebration of science and the natural world through poetry — On Being creator and host Krista Tippett read Berry’s poem with a lovely prefatory meditation on how poetry gives us the language to remember our creaturely nature, which in turn reroots us in the larger web of belonging as “creatures among creatures”:

Complement with Wendell Berry on delight as a force of resistance, how to be a poet and a complete human being, his conscience-clarifying poem “Questionnaire,” and Krista’s soul-salving OnBeing conversation with him, then revisit two kindred-spirited animated poems: Marie Howe’s “Singularity” and Linda France’s “Murmuration.”

BP

Proximity: A Meditative Visual Poem for Those Reaching for Something They Can’t Quite Grasp, Inspired by Trees

Soulful sylvan consolation partway between David Byrne, Bill T. Jones, and the Buddha.

Proximity: A Meditative Visual Poem for Those Reaching for Something They Can’t Quite Grasp, Inspired by Trees

When I am sad, I like to imagine myself becoming a tree. Branches that bend without breaking, fractal with possibility, reaching resolutely toward the light. Roots touching the web of belonging beneath the surface of the world, that majestic mycelial network succoring and nurturing and connecting tree to tree — connection so effortless, so imperturbable, so free from the fragility of human relationships.

After writing about wintering trees as supreme teachers in resilience, I received a lovely note from a reader in England — theater artist, movement director, and Hatha Yoga teacher Andrew Dawson, a former student of Merce Cunningham’s. He shared a kindred-spirited film he had made, in his words, “for those who are reaching for something more but can’t quite grasp it, for those on their journey, not yet at their destination.”

It salved me profoundly, this meditative visual poem — part David Byrne, part Bill T. Jones, and part Buddha — radiating Hermann Hesse’s century-old wisdom that “whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree [but] wants to be nothing except what he is.”

Commissioned by the London International Mime Festival, filmed by Dawson’s son, Roman Sheppard Dawson, and featuring music by composer Jonny Pilcher, the film was inspired by a line from a short lyrical essay titled “Close” from poet and philosopher David Whyte’s superb collection Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a book of lyrical reanimations of language that touched me deeply when I first read it several years ago (and for the recent English edition of which I had the honor and joy of composing the introduction).

We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity.

Here is Whyte’s original mycelium of inspiration for Dawson’s Proximity:

CLOSE

is what we almost always are: close to happiness, close to another, close to leaving, close to tears, close to God, close to losing faith, close to being done, close to saying something, or close to success, and even, with the greatest sense of satisfaction, close to giving the whole thing up.

Our human essence lies not in arrival, but in being almost there, we are creatures who are on the way, our journey a series of impending anticipated arrivals. We live by unconsciously measuring the inverse distances of our proximity: an intimacy calibrated by the vulnerability we feel in giving up our sense of separation.

To go beyond our normal identities and become closer than close is to lose our sense of self in temporary joy, a form of arrival that only opens us to deeper forms of intimacy that blur our fixed, controlling, surface identity.

To consciously become close is a courageous form of unilateral disarmament, a chancing of our arm and our love, a willingness to hazard our affections and an unconscious declaration that we might be equal to the inevitable loss that the vulnerability of being close will bring.

Human beings do not find their essence through fulfillment or eventual arrival but by staying close to the way they like to travel, to the way they hold the conversation between the ground on which they stand and the horizon to which they go. What makes the rainbow beautiful, is not the pot of gold at its end, but the arc of its journey between here and there, between now and then, between where we are now and where we want to go, illustrated above our unconscious heads in primary colour.

We are in effect, always, close; always close to the ultimate secret: that we are more real in our simple wish to find a way than any destination we could reach: the step between not understanding that and understanding that, is as close as we get to happiness.

Complement Dawson’s poetic short film with Dylan Thomas’s cinematic poem about how trees illuminate the wonder of our humanity and Robert Macfarlane’s reflection on how trees embody the secret to healthy relationships, then revisit Whyte’s lyrical rerooting of the meanings of courage, vulnerability, forgiveness, and love.

BP

Dorothy Lathrop’s Dreamscapes: Haunting Century-Old Illustrations of Fairy-Poems by the Woman Who Became the First to Win the Caldecott Medal

Poetic enchantments in pen, ink, and imagination.

Dorothy Lathrop’s Dreamscapes: Haunting Century-Old Illustrations of Fairy-Poems by the Woman Who Became the First to Win the Caldecott Medal

In the final stretch of World War I, having earned a degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in an era when under 4% of women graduated college, Dorothy Pulis Lathrop (April 16, 1891–December 30, 1980) was commissioned to illustrate a book of experimental imagist poems by a young American poet who would win the Pulitzer Prize two decades later. She never received her commission — the publisher went bankrupt. But her art captured the attentive imagination of the prolific English poet and novelist Walter de la Mare, who asked her to illustrate a fairy tale he had written a decade earlier. So began a lifelong friendship and Lathrop’s own prolific career. In her nine decades of life, she illustrated nearly forty books for children and wrote several, most of them celebrating her love of animals and the subtle beauties of the natural world. She become the first person to win the Caldecott Medal — the Nobel Prize of illustration.

In 1922, Lathrop illustrated De la Mare’s Down-Adown-Derry (public library | public domain) — a collection of fairy poems for children, to which she brought her uncommon imagination and her delicate, scrumptiously detailed pen.

Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.

While the artwork radiates the aesthetic of the Golden Age of Illustration that Arthur Rackham had ushered in fifteen years earlier with his revolutionary edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it also radiates Lathrop’s singular sensibility — lines as consummate as Rackham’s, but with a greater and more dreamlike elegance of movement; stunning dramas in black and white, evocative of Aubrey Beardsley but unfolding with greater subtlety and tenderness.

Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.

Complement with Arthur Rackham’s stunning illustrations for The Tempest and a starker dreamscape in Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination from the same era, then revisit another take on enchantment in the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s superb short meditation on fairy tales and the importance of being scared.

BP

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