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Alan W. Watts, who held both a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate of divinity, is best remembered as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism in particular, and of Indian and Chinese philosophy in general. Standing apart, however, from sectarian membership, he has earned the reputation of being one of the most original and “unrutted” philosophers of the twentieth century. Watts was the author of some twenty books on the philosophy and psychology of religion that have been published in many languages throughout the world, including the bestselling The Way of Zen. An avid lecturer, Watts appeared regularly on the radio and hosted the popular television series, Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life, in the 1960s. He died in 1973.
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- Publisher : Vintage Books; First Thus edition (September 12, 1968)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 160 pages
- International Standard Book Number-10 : 0394704681
- International Standard Book Number-13 : 978-0394704685
- Item Weight : 3.81 ounces
- Dimensions : 4.3 x 0.43 x 7.23 inches
August 23, 2019
July 14, 2016
I know that had Alan Watts been live, and had he seen the title of this review, he would have possible stomped his foot on the ground or even slapped me into my senses while saying: “BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT.”
And I understand why he would say that. I understood (albeit not perfectly) the message that he is trying to pass on. Watts is the most Eastern Westerner I know. His philosophies, particularly in this book, can lead into a metaphysical web that could leave you stuck indefinitely. At this same time, if you peel back the philosophical layers, which he helps you do at times, you will notice that the message, at its core, is always simple. He is begging the reader not to eliminate the ego, but to come to a full realization, a hyper awareness of sorts, that there is NO ego – that the ego, or the “I,” is simply a figment of imagination. There is no method to achieve this hyper-awareness, no guide, no set of instructions, but only this imperative: “Look!”
I may be just a tad bit too simplistic to fully grasp the significance of this, but I believe that at times I caught a glimpse of the implications of Watt’s message. To live perfectly in the moment, to understand that the experience and the “experiencer” are one in the same just as a wave is not part of the ocean, but is the ocean, all of it – I can begin to fathom how one would be able to shed so much pretense and predispositions. Or not, I don’t know.
My personal opinion is that there are gems in this book, but as it is with all things, anything in excess is harmful. This book sells Eastern thought in its entirety, and I believe that no, Alan Watt’s does not have the answer to the meaning of life (which he would probably agree to me saying) and I don’t think you’ll find in this book all the answers to your questions. It is a refreshing read though, at least it was for me. I really had to break down my mind, my prejudices, my perceptions and realize that my reality is truly the product of my own mind – and that I can change that, if I want to.
In any case, a worthy read, but definitely not a book if you’re looking for “10 Ways to Reduce Anxiety.” It is rather an exhortation to awareness.
March 22, 2020
Alan Watts writes with simple, lucid logic that is nearly impossible for me to summarize. His argument holds together like a long string of connected puzzle pieces and to take any out is to lose the impact of his philosophy. I would thoroughly recommend reading Watts’ work, but would recommend against trusting me to accurately convey his system of thought aside from this one major point: live in the present.
Watts begins right at the heart of the matter by emphasizing why it is illogical to live for the future or to dwell on the past. He writes, “If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death” (15). He takes time to explore how the modern western mind is plagued by anxiety and hope for the future while forgetting that the future is an eternally moving goalpost. While some of his ideas certainly buck the prevailing mindset–especially that held by wide swaths of Christians–Watts proceeds graciously and with respect to the difficulty some will have with digesting the idea that we ought not be fixated on heaven but experience the eternal in the present moment alone.The Wisdom of Insecurity PDF
Watts continues with some linguistically based logical arguments exploring the concepts of faith, belief, God. He peppers in difficult concepts and then immediately explains them with such clarity that his system of thought is obviously in concert with the workings of the universe. Watts’ next chapter argues for the need of accepting both pleasure and pain in the present moment and to avoid chasing the future as it invalidates the present. In writing about the pursuit of financial stability, he notes, “Instead of earning a living [many people] are mostly earning an earning and thus when the time comes to relax they are unable to do so” (36).
Change, Watts proclaims in his next chapter, is an unchanging reality of life. Everything changes and “when we fail to see that our life is change, we set ourselves against ourselves and become like the Ouroboros” (43). Watts argues that words cannot capture reality, but are only symbols representing parts of the infinitely complex, interconnected universe. He takes time to explore the inadequacy of both science and religion in grasping reality through defining it–a slippery and unsatisfying pursuit. So, what is reality? It is “this ultimate something which cannot be defined or fixed [and] can be represented by the word God” (55).
Some more interesting ideas:
“Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements–inferences, guesses, deductions–it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead” (60-61).
“The brain can only assume its proper behavior when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it” (73).
“A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet” (78).
“The craving for security is itself a pain and a contradiction…the more we pursue it, the more painful it becomes” (78).
“To be aware of reality, of the living present, is to discover that each moment the experience is all. There is nothing else beside it–no experience of ‘you’ experiencing the experience” (89).
On being the present moment (Watts says we are not to live in the present moment so much as to realize that we inescapably are the present moment) and experiencing pain: “Seeing that there is no escape from the pain, the mind yields to it, absorbs it, and becomes conscious of just pain without any ‘I’ feeling it or resisting it. It experiences pain in the same complete, unselfconscious way in which it experiences pleasure. Pain is the nature of this present moment, and I can only live in this moment…pain and the effort to be separate from it are the same thing” (97-98).
“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” (115-116). While some of these notions may seem so abstract, Watts takes time and care to illustrate how Western religions have put forward the same ideas couched in different language and distorted by time.
If I keep writing quotations, you’ll eventually read the whole book. Much of the power of Watts’ thought, I’m realizing, cannot be captured in soundbytes, but must be considered in context. I would encourage any reader seeking to find simple fulfillment in the present moment to give Watts a chance. I will certainly return to this book in the future and I look forward to reading more of what Watts has to say.
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