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Anxiety

The lazy mysticism of Alan Watts

Alan Watts, cartoon guru

The only thinker whose popularity on YouTube comes close to prophet-of-rage Jordan Peterson is Alan Watts, the British popularizer of Eastern wisdom. Watts’ talks from the 50s, 60s and early 70s have millions of views on YouTube, and are often edited to the accompaniment of orchestral or ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and jazzy collages of modern life. He’s the favourite guru of Jarvis Cocker, Spike Jonze and Jonny Depp, and – pinnacle of pinnacles – even made the intro to Cheryl Cole’s last album. He’s become a guiding voice for the internet age – indeed, in Jonze’s film Her, Watts has been resurrected as a hyper-intelligent operating system.

It’s poignant that a restless nomad who never found a home in traditional institutions should find digital immortality on the Net. Watts was the only child of a suburban English couple. He won a scholarship to the oldest boarding school in the country – Kings Canterbury – and there announced his conversion to Buddhism aged 13. At 16, Watts became secretary of the Buddhist Lodge, then the leading (or only) Buddhist organization in the UK. At 20 he published his first book on Zen. He struck adults, back then, as an angelic prodigy, like the child Jesus lecturing in the temple.

He then moved to the US in the 1930s, and surprised everyone by becoming an Episcopalian priest (his daughter suggests he may have done this to avoid the draft). Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’ (Huxley, Heard and Isherwood), he was really a perennialist, a prophet of contemporary pick n’ mix spirituality. He wrote in his autobiography: ‘If I am asked to define my personal tastes in religion I must say that they lie between Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, with a certain leaning toward Vedanta and Catholicism, or rather the Orthodox Church of Eastern Europe.’

He foresaw, in the 1930s, that Western Christianity could do with a contemplative and mystical revival,  but split from the church when facing ejection for his unconventional views and lifestyle – he lived in a threesome, preached free love, and was finally divorced by his wife for being a ‘sexual pervert’ (boarding school had apparently given him a taste for flogging).

He moved to California, and helped to set up the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, which introduced Zen to the 50s beats and the 60s hippies. It was a new type of higher education institution –participatory, open to the mystical, seeking consciousness-transformation rather than abstract knowledge. In this, it was a forerunner of alternative colleges like Schumacher, the Garrison Institute and Esalen. Watts later wrote: ‘The Academy of Asian Studies was a transitional institution emerging from the failure of universities and churches to satisfy important spiritual needs.’ How wonderful to think of university in terms of ‘spiritual needs’.

But eventually he left there too, and became a freelance ‘philosopher-entertainer’, living in the Bay area, writing books and giving talks to rapt college audiences. He could talk for hours, without notes, weaving in arcane references with hip terms like ‘grooving on the Eternal Now’, all delivered with a slightly-plummy musicality and skilful use of the dramatic pause. I personally find his lectures a bit pompous and repetitive – as I do the YouTube sermons of Jordan Peterson – but the kids love it. Like Peterson, he speaks with such authority and drama that one can switch off the critical mind and let it all wash over you, and still feel a hell of a lot wiser by the end. It’s not analysis so much as rhapsody. That’s why his talks goes so well with ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and collages of images. Light a joint and drop the Watts!

 

 

But what does Watts actually have to say? What is the What, Watts?

Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’, Watts was a prophet of the perennial philosophy, and the idea we can – and even should – seek our spiritual fulfilment outside of traditional religious commitments and communities. He said of himself: ‘since the age of forty-two I have been a freelance, a rolling stone, and a shaman, as distinct from an apostolically-successed priest’. He preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ – not clinging to any particular religion. Like the other expats, he was a nomad-prophet for our uprooted age.  Like them, he preached the wisdom of the body, the spirituality of sex, the validity of psychedelics as a spiritual technique, the superiority of Asian wisdom to Christianity, and the possibility of escaping history by focusing on ‘the Eternal Now’.

But his main message, which he repeated over and over throughout his career, was that there is no separate self, that there is just IT, the Tao, the Brahman, and you are inescapably part of it, so relax and let go, rather than trying to pull yourself up by your spiritual boot-straps. Over-strenuous spiritual practice will actually just reinforce your ego. You are already perfect, already enlightened, you don’t need to do or change anything. There is no ‘you’, just IT.

He expressed this radical Zen view when he met Huxley, Heard and Isherwood in the company of their guru, Swami Prabhavananda:

‘But this is ridiculous,’ the Swami objected. ‘That amounts to saying that an ordinary ignorant and deluded person is just as good, or just as realized, as an advanced yogi.’ ‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘And what advanced yogi would deny it? Doesn’t he see the Brahman everywhere, and in all people, all beings?’ ‘You are saying,’ said the Swami, ‘that you yourself, or just any other person, can realize that you are the Brahman just as you are, without any spiritual effort or discipline at all!’ ‘Just so. After all, one’s very not realizing is, in its turn, also the Brahman. According to your own doctrine, what else is there, what else is real other than the Brahman?’

The Swami retorted that if Watts was really enlightened, he would feel no suffering, not even a pinch. Watts, resisting the urge to pinch the Swami, fell silent. But this remained his central idea, and it had a big influence on the ‘beat Zen’ of Jack Kerouac and others, and then on the antinomian flower children of the 1960s. Go with it, follow the law of your nature, be true to who you are, you’re beautiful.

What is the value of this idea?

It’s true that Buddhism, and particularly Zen Buddhism, teaches that we are perfect just as we are, we have merely forgotten our true nature. We find this joyful teaching in many mystical traditions – in Plato, in Thomas Traherne, in Rumi. One often finds it expressed through the metaphor of a prince or heir who forgets their natural inheritance and goes begging for pennies outside his palace, as in the Zen song of Hakuin:

From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice, without water no ice, outside us no Buddhas.
How near the truth, yet how far we seek.
Like one in water crying, “I thirst!”
Like the son of a rich man wand’ring poor on this earth we endlessly circle the six worlds…

Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes.
This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land!
And this very body, the body of Buddha.

The intuition that we have an indestructible and priceless jewel of loving wisdom within us, which is also the nature of the universe, can be incredibly inspiring and healing, particularly if we’re prone to anxious low self-esteem. It is precisely what I felt during and after my near-death experience – I woke up from a nightmare of my ego’s brokenness and rottenness, and realized how blessed we all naturally are. I felt an incredible lightness and pleasure at existence. I would repeat to myself a mantra: ‘nothing to change, nothing to improve, no-one to impress, nothing to win, nothing to lose, nowhere to go’, and so on. Just resting in the garden within.

However, it is difficult to stay in that realization, without practice. In my own case, the spiritual high lasted a few weeks, then the old neurotic habits came back with a vengeance. I realized I needed to practice, systematically, to weed out the old habits and let my heart open. That’s why I got into CBT, ancient Greek philosophy, and Buddhism.

Tenzin Palmo, a British Buddhist nun

Last night I saw the Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo speak. A remarkable lady, who moved from Bethnal Green to spend 12 years meditating in a Himalayan cave. She said:  ‘The good news is your true nature is sane. And it’s quite easy to get a glimpse of that true nature. But that doesn’t mean you’re enlightened. You still need to practice, otherwise it’s like taking a cake out of the oven after it’s started to rise – it will just collapse, and taste disgusting.’

The risk of Watts’ philosophy is it leads to a lazy and complacent egotism: ‘I am what I am, I’m part of the Brahman, we’re all perfect, so why bother trying to change?’ He wrote: ‘every willful effort to improve the world or oneself is futile’:

self-improvement is a dangerous form of vanity. By the age of thirty-five one’s character is firmly formed, and has to be regarded as an instrument to be used rather than changed…To avoid being a serious disappointment to others you must accept and respect your own limitations…As a Zen master has said, ‘Act as you will. Go on as you feel. This is the incomparable way’…I am aware of the futility of myself trying not to be selfish, of the contradiction of myself even desiring or asking not to be selfish…

The problem is, you can be a perfect Buddha on the ultimate level, and still suffer a lot and cause a lot of suffering to others on the relative plain, where most of us are most of the time. And this is what happened to Watts. His friend, the Zen poet Gary Snyder, remarked: ‘He was one who sowed trouble wherever he went.’

He failed as a husband, marrying three times, and driving his third wife to the bottle with his philandering – he would pick up a different college girl after most talks (‘I don’t like to sleep alone’). He failed as a father to his seven children: ‘By all the standards of this society I have been a terrible father’, although some of his children still remember him fondly as a kind man, a weaver of magic, who initiated each of his children into LSD on their 18th birthday. He was vain and boastful, ‘immoderately infatuated with the sound of my own voice’ – although, like Ram Dass, he wasn’t a hypocrite, and did try to constantly warn his young audience he wasn’t a saint – not that they listened.

By the end of his life he was having to do several talks a week to make enough money to pay his alimony and child support. And he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day to be able to do that. He died, exhausted, at 58. Snyder remembers:

he had to keep working, and as you keep working, you know, you got to play these roles, and you also keep drinking ’cause there’s always these parties and so forth, so that doesn’t help you slow it down. So he just wore himself out. It was out of his control, that was my feeling. The dynamics of his life had gotten beyond his control, and he didn’t know what to do about it.

One of his lovers, the therapist June Singer, visited him in hospital when he was admitted with delirium tremens. Why didn’t he stop drinking, she asked. ‘That’s how I am,’ he said to her sadly. ‘I can’t change.’

Ultimately, it is not fair to say that Watts was lazy – he seems to have worked incredibly hard. But he worked incredibly hard at his career, at his public profile, at the endless talks he gave on campuses, on radio and on TV. And he worked very little on himself – psychotherapy bored him, while he felt too much meditation ‘is apt to turn one into a stone Buddha’.

Still, you could hardly call his life a tragedy. It sounds incredibly interesting, and often incredibly fun. And the consequence of his egoistical drive to self-promote was the flowering of Asian wisdom in western culture, albeit in a rather bastardized form. That more than balances out his personal failings, and no doubt he will be all the wiser in his next incarnation. Near the end of his life, he told his daughter Joan: ‘After I’m dead, I’m coming back as your child. Next time round I’m going to be a beautiful red-haired woman.’ Sure enough, after he died, his daughter gave birth to a red-headed girl, called Laura. We await your teachings Laura. No pressure.

Mental illness: shedding the stigma around India’s big secret

From the 2016 movie Dear Zindagi, about a young woman seeking therapy for depression

Yesterday, I was at a panel on mental health in India, at a conference in Goa organized by UCL. One of the speakers – Ratnaboli Ray, who runs a mental health NGO called Anjali in West Bengal – asked for anyone in the audience who’d ever had mental illness or been on psychiatric drugs to raise their hands. For a few seconds, no one did. And then about 10 of us did, in a room of around 100.

It felt strange to me, raising my hand, in a way I’m not sure it would anymore in the UK – like I was risking my status, pushing against a wall of shame and secrecy. Like having had a mental illness was a big deal (which it isn’t). In fact, I only raised my hand because the lady next to me did first.

This is the paradox: that a culture with such a huge focus on health, well-being and spiritual wisdom should see mental illness as so taboo. If Prince Siddhartha hadn’t had a breakdown, India would have never given the world Buddhism, yet this is a country where mental illness is simply not discussed.

Why? My tentative initial answer is that India (like the UK) is a country obsessed with status and hierarchy. Mental illness is still seen as a terrible blot on one’s status, and therefore a risk to one’s career advancement, one’s marriage prospects, one’s place on the social scale, and to your family’s social prospects. India is the country that gave us Snakes and Ladders, and mental illness is seen as one big snake down to the bottom of the social hierarchy. (I might be wrong in this assessment – let me know in the comments!)

It’s also a threat to your rights. If you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, it can affect your ability to open a bank account, to get a driving license, to maintain custody of your children. Until 1976, it was accepted as grounds for divorce.

To protect the family status, the mentally ill are often abandoned in over-crowded psychiatric care facilities, where they can be ‘treated worse than animals’, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Mental illness is also hiding in plain sight in India. According to two recent surveys, between 130 million and 150 million Indians are suffering from a mental illness, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse. I’ve met successful young Indians on my travels who are clearly stressed, over-worked, and in need of support. But mental illness is seen as a terrible curse, not something that pretty much happens to everyone in varying degrees of intensity.

As the Buddha put it, life is suffering – having a mind means you sometimes experience mental distress, and there are techniques we can learn to mitigate that, both psychological and pharmaceutical. India invented many of these techniques – indeed, Buddhism is one of the major influences on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which the NHS has put over one billion pounds into providing.

Yet in India, 90% of those with mental illness receive no treatment at all. India has 0.3 psychiatrists per 100,000, one of the lowest figures in the world. And they’re almost entirely in big cities.

Even among the urban affluent, very few seek therapy because of the stigma attached. I sat next to one lady on a plane and said I wrote about mental health. She told me of her ex-husband, who refused to admit he had depression. I didn’t like to ask if they had divorced or he was one of the 250,000 Indians who kill themselves each year.

Soumitra Pathare, an academic who drafted a new Mental Health Act, says: ‘There is institutionalized discrimination against the mentally ill. If they were a caste or women, we would be doing something for them, but we do nothing.’

Things are finally beginning to change. The new Mental Health Act is due to be made law this parliament, and will legally guarantee Indians’ right to treatment, and also to refuse treatment if they don’t want it (many inmates are in asylums and given Electro-Shock Therapy without consent). There are new initiatives to train community health workers to give brief psychological therapies.

There are several new apps and websites that offer counseling and therapy online. In Chennai, India’s third biggest city, I saw adverts for private counsellors and a wall painted with a big sign: Depression Is Treatable. There’s even a sex therapist in Bangalore (something so unusual it was written up in the media).

There are signs of a new openness around mental illness – last year, there was even a Bollywood film, Dear Zindagi, about a young woman seeking therapy for depression from a hot therapist. Imagine if one of India’s cricket superheroes opened up about mental illness – something several western sports stars have begun to do.

At the UCL conference, I spoke to Vikram Patel, a Wellcome-funded psychiatrist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has pioneered training rural community care workers in India and Africa in the delivery of brief psychological therapies. He was voted one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world (he points out the leader of Boko Haram is also on the list).

Why are there so few psychiatrists in India?

There’s a bottleneck problem in training – only accredited teachers can train new psychiatrists and there are very few accredited teachers. There’s also a stigma around being a psychiatrist, compared to say a neuroscientist. And there’s a huge distribution problem too – most psychiatrists work privately in big cities. In rural India, there could be a region with 10 million inhabitants and no psychiatrists.

Your approach is to train community ‘health visitors’ to give brief therapy?

Yes, we’ve trained health workers to give specific treatments for specific conditions. We found it worked very well when they were trained just for that, in controlled conditions. We now need to see how it works out in the field, in frontline primary care, where health workers treat not just mental but physical illness. The treatment of both in fact uses similar skills – lifestyle support, behavioural change support, the promotion of self-care.

And they give similar sorts of psychological therapies to western psychotherapy? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, interpersonal counseling etc?

Yes, similar therapies, but briefer and simpler. The most profound discovery for me is that the theory of psychological mechanisms is universal. Cultural factors play a role in the metaphors you might use. Say you train people to use meditation and yoga in the treatment of anxiety. You could train them to breathe in, and then breathe out saying ‘om’, or a prayer to Jesus if they’re Christian. Those cultural factors make a difference because you’re tapping into hope, which is a very powerful healer.

Is depression and anxiety treated here?

Hardly at all. I thought the ‘worried well’ was a Western phenomenon but it exists here too. The majority could recover with some form of self-care, but some need more clinical interventions. But depression and anxiety are not even seen as illnesses. It’s just your social situation. It gets somatized, as fatigue or insomnia for example. And doctors would also not recognize they’re actually treating depression, they would treat it with painkillers or sleeping pills. People criticize me for medicalizing people’s experience, but these people are already in clinics, they’re just not getting the right treatment.

So nothing like the NHS’ psychotherapy service exists here?

Nothing remotely like it. We recently published a trial of psychotherapy in the Lancet- that was the first ever trial of psychotherapy in India. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the NHS’ therapy service, which was too professionalized. We want more self-care and community care – my dream is to be able to train someone off the street to treat someone else for depression.

Do you think computerized-CBT apps could be a way of getting therapy to more people?

Yes, I’m bullish on technology, it will transform healthcare in general. But there are limits on access to the internet, particularly for the poor and women. But we’re beginning to see things like Facebook pages for people with schizophrenia.

Are there charities and NGOs lobbying for improved mental healthcare?

There are, but they’re small, very local, and not yet working effectively together in the way we’ve seen, for example, in the treatment of HIV.

Could online media – blogs etc – play a role in opening up the conversation and getting rid of stigma?

Definitely. In fact, we’re launching a website in April which will encourage people to share their experiences online through various social media.

You can watch Vikram’s TED talk here: