Alan Watts on Security, Illusion and Becoming Aware

In a chilly tea house in the Himalayas at around three and a half thousand meters above sea level I found myself revisiting Alan Watts’ masterful book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety.

Watts begins quite frankly:

By all outward appearances our life is a spark of light between one eternal darkness and another. Nor is the interval between these two nights an unclouded day, for the more we are able to feel pleasure, the more we are vulnerable to pain—and, whether in background or foreground, the pain is always with us.

[…]

There is then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down—traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief. As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things which we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time.

dsc07060
Sparks fly into the night from a bonfire in Romania.

He wrote those lines 65 years ago. It was an observation, as Deepak Chopra seems to suggest in the book’s foreword, that perhaps reflected more than just the 1951 world that surrounded him:

He had just lost his vocation as an Episcopal priest, along with his young wife in a divorce…Watts was alone in the wilderness back then.

“Human beings,” continues Watts, “appear to be happy just so long as they have a future to which they can look forward—whether it be a ‘good time’ tomorrow or an everlasting life beyond the grave.”

But as much as we may try to bury it in our minds, he claims, we are well aware that these “joys of time” are both uncertain and brief. This leads to an anxious mind “that flits nervously and greedily from one pleasure to another, without finding rest and satisfaction in any” — a mind that suffers the “frustration of having always to pursue a future good in tomorrow which never comes.”

In an observation I find uncanny, he shares with us his diagnosis.

Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation, and addiction to “dope.” Somehow we must grab what we can while we can, and drown out the realization that the whole thing is futile and meaningless. This “dope” we call our high standard of living, a violent complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation. We crave distraction—a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills and titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded in the shortest possible time.

To keep up this “standard” most of us are willing to put up with lives that consist largely in doing jobs that are a bore, earning the means to seek relief from the tedium by intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure. These intervals are supposed to be the real living, the real purpose served by the necessary evil of work. Or we imagine that the justification of such work is the rearing of a family to go on doing the same kind of thing, in order to rear another family…and so ad infinitum.

There is a cure however and it’s “honest, above-board, plain, and open for all to see” claims Watts. It just requires a correction of mind, and in classic Alan Watts style, quite a few entertaining anecdotes and mind-bending insights.

WHERE THE PROBLEM STARTS

Intense pleasures are inseparable from intense pains and the only way we can become less vulnerable to the latter is by reducing our sensitivity, by becoming “more of a stone and less of a man”, explains Watts.

He observes (which yours truly learned via other methods in college) that “because consciousness must involve both pleasure and pain, to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is, in effect, to strive for the loss of consciousness.”

It appears we must be willing to suffer for our pleasures he observes. This doesn’t take us to the heart of the problem however, which appears when we are dreading next week’s dentist appointment today. The real culprit, points Watts, is “our marvelous powers of memory and foresight—in short from our consciousness of time.”

By remembering the past we can plan for the future. But the ability to plan for pleasure is offset by the “ability” to dread pain and to fear the unknown. Furthermore, the growth of an acute sense of the past and the future gives us a correspondingly dim sense of the present. In other words, we seem to reach a point where the advantages of being conscious are outweighed by its disadvantages, where extreme sensitivity makes us unadaptable.

When we dread next week’s dentist appointment, when we forget to enjoy the lunch we are eating because we’re already planning the dinner to come, our powers to remember and predict do us a disservice.

If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of this present. I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass. For I shall have formed a habit of looking behind and ahead, making it difficult for me to attend to the here and now. If, then my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world.

[…]

Consciousness seems to be nature’s ingenious mode of self-torture.

So what are we to do about this?

We must look into this life, this nature, which has become aware within us, and find out whether it is really in conflict with itself, whether it actually desires the security and the painlessness which its individual forms can never enjoy.

THE WORLD OF WORDS

Like the student who has mistaken the finger for the moon it’s pointing to, we constantly confuse the world of symbols and measures for the real world. In the same way that money is an imperfect measure of wealth (try eating your money says Watts), “so with thoughts and things: ideas and words are more or less fixed, whereas real things change.”

What we are left with are imperfect tools that make it “extremely hard to describe the most important characteristic of life—its movement and fluidity.” This is where the rift opens up:

For to define is to isolate, to separate some complex of forms from the stream of life and say, “This is I.” When man can name and define himself, he feels that he has an identity. Thus he begins to feel, like the word, separate and static, as over against the real, fluid world of nature.

dsc08489
Trekking through Upper Mustang in the Nepalese Himalayas.

Watts reminds us that words are indeed useful as long as we consider them conventions. It’s when we mistake the map for the territory, when we “try to live in the world of words” that we feel isolated and alone and trade the joy and liveliness of things for cold, hard certainty and security. And when we live for the future, we lose touch with life, the result being that “all the magic of naming and thinking has come to something of a temporary breakdown.”

But this predicament is hardly new he admits. What is new however, is it “is now social rather than individual; it is widely felt, not confined to the few.” Our advances in technology have delivered us into “a hectic, clockwork world that does violence to human biology, enabling us to do nothing but pursue the future faster and faster.” In other words, we live in a world created by our divided minds.

MIND OVER MATTER?

We have stopped developing the instruments of the body warns Watts, and instead we rely more and more on external gadgets to adapt to life. We are attempting “to solve our problems by conscious thinking rather than unconscious ‘know-how.’”

With this emphasis on the mind and negligence of the body, the two remain in constant conflict:

We are so anxious for pleasure that we can never get enough of it. We stimulate our sense organs until they become insensitive, so that if pleasure is to continue they must have stronger and stronger stimulants. In self-defense the body gets ill from the strain, but the brain wants to go on and on.

Before the age of the internet and smart phones, Watts already sees where this maniacal pursuit of the futures is leading us (emphasis mine):

To pursue [the future] is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

Thus the “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse —providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect “subject” for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places.

dsc08506
Entrance to a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in the sacred Muktinath Valley in Upper Mustang, Nepal.

We chase these cravings for more and more far into the night, forgoing sleep for “work which is of no interest save for the money it pays.” In effect it seems we have become enslaved to time and to it’s relentless henchman, the clock —adapting “our biological rhythms of eating, sleeping, evacuation, working, and relaxing to their uniform circular rotation.”

In an observation that reminds me of Hermann Hesse’s tragic novel Beneath the Wheel, Watts describes modern city-dwellers as “people who live inside a machine to be batted around by its wheels. They spend their days in activities which largely boil down to counting and measuring, living in a world of rationalized abstraction which has little relation to or harmony with the great biological rhythms and processes.”

In a shrewdly imagines a not too distant future where “the human brain may be an obsolete mechanism for logical calculation” and prophetically warns that if “man’s principle asset and value is his brain and his ability to calculate, he will become an unsaleable commodity in an era when the mechanical operation of reasoning can be done more effectively by machines.”

He then looks beyond to a future, which, thankfully, has not yet come to pass (but in some ways we might be fast approaching):

Already man uses innumerable gadgets to displace the work done by bodily organs in the animals, and it would surely be in line with this tendency to externalize the reasoning functions of the brain—and thus hand over the government of life to electromagnetic monsters. In other words, the interests and goals of rationality are not those of man as a whole organism. If we are to continue to live for the future, and to make the chief work of the mind prediction and calculation, man must eventually become a parasitic appendage to a mass of clockwork.

It was not through gadgets, thoughts and words “that we learned how to breathe, swallow, see, circulate the blood, digest food, or resist diseases. This is the real wisdom says Watts, “the kind of wisdom which we need in solving the real, practical problems of human life.”

There is hope believes Watts. We can “again become sensitive to the wisdom of the body, to the hidden depths of its own substance”. However, the brain can only return to its true purpose to “serve the present and the real, not to send man chasing wildly after the phantom of the future” when consciousness is not “writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it.”

WHERE ARE YOU?

When light is brought into a dark room, the dark vanishes. So, says Watts, it is when awareness is brought to our illusion of “I”:

There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid.

Watts continues pulling on the thread:

Our notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life.

And then unravels our illusory antagonist entirely:

The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experience […] If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.

But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience […] There is simply experience […] You do not feel feelings, think thoughts, or sense sensations any more than you hear hearing, see sight, or smell smelling.

[…]

To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected.

THERE IS NO RULE BUT “LOOK!”

For most of us, our lives are “one long effort to resist the unknown” Watts argues. However, “life thrusts us into the unknown willy-nilly, and resistance is as futile and exasperating as trying to swim against a roaring torrent.”

Watts breathes new life into the old platitude that life is change, advising us that all we can do is “plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Living in such a completely momentary experience consists “in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”

When the mind truly discovers that the pain “is inescapable, and resistance as a defense only makes it worse,” something remarkable happens, says Watts. 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.” When the mind surrenders to current experience, he explains, our whole sense of conflict between “I” and the present reality must vanish and the mind “must act according to its nature—remain stable and absorb.”

Of course 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.

And it is here, when man is fully awake, that our technologies —including the technology of thought and language—are of real use. When we are “not lost in the dreamland of past and future, but in the closest touch with that point of experience where reality can alone be discovered: this moment. Here life is alive, vibrant, vivid, and present, containing depths which we have hardly begun to explore.”

dsc08374
View along the Annapurna Circuit: Manang Valley in the Nepalese Himalayas.
WHERE TO NOW?
“If there is any problem at all, it is to see that in this instant you have no “I” to surrender. You are completely free to do this at any moment, and nothing whatever is stopping you. This is our freedom.”
Watts admits that this may seem like a strange view of freedom:

We are accustomed to think that, if there is any freedom at all, it resides, not in nature, but in the separate human will and its power of choice.

But 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.

The undivided mind is free from this tension. Then “each moment is lived completely, and there is thus a sense of fulfillment and completeness.” It’s here that we find love.

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. For the love that expresses itself in creative action is something much more than an emotion. It is not something which you can “feel” and “know,” remember and define. 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.

For the mind must be interested or absorbed in something, just as a mirror must always be reflecting something. When it is not trying to be interested in itself—as if a mirror would reflect itself—it must be interested, or absorbed, in other people and things. There is no problem of how to love. We love. We are love, and the only problem is the direction of love, whether it is to go straight out like sunlight, or to try to turn back on itself like a “candle under a bushel.

Released from the circle of attempted self-love, the mind of man draws the whole universe into its own unity as a single dewdrop seems to contain the entire sky.

[…]

Its interest is not in itself, but in the people and problems of which it is aware; these are “itself.” It acts, not according to the rules, but according to the circumstances of the moment, and the “well” it wishes to others is not security but liberty.

“But there is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love” and although we all have it, says Watts, it “can only come out when [man] is convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love himself…It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.”
Whereas the timid mind “is silent and thoughtless about what it does not know in order to chatter the more about what it thinks it knows,” the open mind “knows that the most minutely explored territories have not really been known at all, but only marked and measured a thousand times over.”
We are, then, most fortunate to be living in a time when human knowledge has gone so far that it begins to be at a loss for words, not at the strange and marvelous alone, but at the most ordinary things. The dust on the shelves has become as much a mystery as the remotest stars; we know enough of both to know we know nothing.

Watts concludes:

In such wonder there is not hunger but fulfillment. Almost everyone has known it, but only in rare instants when the startling beauty or strangeness of a scene drew the mind away from its self-pursuit, and for a moment made it unable to find words for the feeling.

[…]

In such feeling, seeing, and thinking life requires no future to complete itself nor explanation to justify itself. In this moment it is finished.

The message that Watts —a man who spent much of his life working to bring the West closer to the East— shares with us reminds me of a similar message from a man who approached the West from the East. In Life’s Mysteries: An Introduction to the Teachings of Osho, Osho, who describes love as “a shadow of alertness, of consciousness” shares the following belief:
There is so much to create, so much to discover, such a vast universe standing there as a challenge to explore […] Once humanity learns both things together—meditativeness and a scientific approach about the world—we will have entered into a new phase, into a totally new phase discontinuous with the ugly, unhealthy, sick and insane past.

Perhaps we’re closer than we think.

dsc08218
An young Nepali in the village of Braga.

 

Subscribe to "Links That Made Me Think"
Once a month I share a peek into my travels and a short list of links exploring the question: How are we to live our lives?
I spend hours putting it together and it only takes minutes to read.

There are no comments

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Site Footer

Sliding Sidebar

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.