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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.

Set the controls for the heart of happiness

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed there was no newsletter last weekend. Apologies. The reason for this is I have journeyed deep into the warm, pulsating heart of the happiness movement. Last Thursday I took part in a conference on Positive Psychology at Wellington College (the pioneer of well-being classes), and then I went down to Dartington, in Totnes, Devon, to take part in an Action for Happiness two-day happiness festival.  I left Dartington, I kid you not, while a choir stood on the misty lawn singing ‘happy, happy, happy clappy!’ I felt like a rehab patient leaving the Priory.

Anyway, abandoning my usual dour demeanour, I admit that both events were great fun, and encouraging. My sense is that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is becoming less positivistic (in other words, less dogmatic in its claims to objectivity and scientific truth) and more responsive to the role of philosophy and ethical reasoning in the search for the good life. (On that point, it’s sad that Christopher Peterson, one of the more philosophical voices within Positive Psychology, died this week. Here’s his beautiful last blog post).

I organised a philosophy discussion circle at Dartington – the first time I’ve facilitated one – and I think everyone involved really felt the benefit of that sort of open Socratic inquiry into what the good life means for us. As the Quakers well knew, there’s something very egalitarian and democratic about a discussion circle – there’s no expert or priest or higher authority ‘up there’ while the masses kneel beneath them. Everyone is equally at the front or at the centre. And facilitating a circle discussion seemed to involve letting go of control and letting silences happen – both quite difficult for me!

I also came away from the events hopeful that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is aware of the risk that, in deifying certain emotional states or personality types as ideal, you pathologise their opposites. If you say that happiness is ideal, there’s a risk that sadness becomes an unacceptable failure. If extroversion is absolutely good, then introversion could be deemed absolutely bad. If optimism is always healthy, then pessimism becomes toxic. That sort of thinking is far too black-and-white, and I believe it actually causes suffering rather than mitigating it, by making introverts or pessimists feel worse about themselves. After all, introverts and pessimists have important social roles to play too, particularly in chronically optimistic short-term societies like ours.

We have many different moods and dispositions, and sometimes the best way to transform the difficult ones is to accept them rather than demonise them. In the words of Rumi, in what I think might be my favourite poem:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know: the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief.

I’ve given a lot of talks in the last month or so on the relationship between ancient philosophy and CBT,  and often someone in the audience criticises CBT for being shallow, simplistic, mechanistic, capitalist and ‘not dealing with root causes’. Usually such critics are therapists or counsellors in other traditions, annoyed that they didn’t get any public money. My answer is typically that I expect other forms of therapy to get public funding in the future – it’s already happening for approaches like mindfulness therapy – but you can’t expect to get any government funding without a convincing evidence base. Anecdotal case studies by psychologists simply won’t cut it anymore. As Freud proved, they’re too easy to fake.

It is also clear to me, however, that CBT is not for everyone and the research still has a long way to go to work out how to help more people. But what saddens me is that some therapists fail to find anything to celebrate in the government’s new support for talking therapies. Nor do many lay-people see the young national mental health service as something to fight for. The Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT) policy is still very young, and vulnerable (as Paul Burstow MP, former minister for care services, recently emphasised). We shouldn’t assume it will stay in existence without our protection.

Richard Layard, the economist who more than anyone helped get IAPT funding, warned at Dartington that not all allocated funding is coming through and that as much as half of all children’s therapy services are being closed (I’ve asked him for stats to back up that claim). It is a very recent phenomenon for government to take mental illnesses like depression and anxiety seriously. If you believe in talking therapies, not just CBT but any talking therapies, then please support IAPT. I am all for expanding the range of therapies available on the NHS, as long as they are evidence-based.

Idealistic champions of adult education like RH Tawney are long gone.

Meanwhile, one thing that struck me as we discussed various ‘happiness policies’ at Dartington, was how little anyone spoke of adult education. Likewise, not one political party mentioned adult education at their conference. Schools, academies, universities – they’re all in the news constantly. But adult education is completely off the political radar at the moment. Adult education was a central part of the socialist vision for thinkers like RH Tawney. But no one in parliament cares about it now, none think it worth fighting for. At least Action for Happiness is trying to do something for adult education, albeit in a rather informal and unstructured way. It is a noble attempt to spread ideas about the good life and the good society – inspired, I believe, by Richard Layard’s experience of attending a Quaker reading group for many years.

The Octagon Room at Queen Mary, University of London

Talking of reviving adult education, we had a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London yesterday evening, in the beautiful Octagon Room, which was once a library for East End workers back in the 19th century when Queen Mary was known as the People’s Palace. We had a great group of participants come and talk about their work – including Philosophy Now, Philosophy In the Pub, Skeptics In the Pub, Pub Psychology, Sapere (a charity that does a lot of work with Philosophy 4 Children), Niki Barbery Bleyleben (good name!) who runs discussion groups for mums, and many others. We videoed the presentations and will put them up soon, along with the report I’m writing on philosophy clubs, and the website, thephilosophyhub.com, which will finally launch next week, I promise!

One of the things I suggest in the report is that the contemporary grassroots philosophy movement is in part a product of the 1960s, and that decade’s radical reformation of academia and demand that it ‘look beyond the campus’ (in the words of the Port Huron Statement). In that spirit, here is a 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary by Nick Fraser on ‘1968: Philosophy in the streets’, with contributions from philosophers including Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou.

One of the participants at our seminar was Paul Hains, who together with his wife Brigid recently launched the excellent online magazine Aeon. I’m not just saying that because he occasionally sponsors our philosophy club events – the essays it publishes are really very good. Check out this one by Ross Andersen (whose Atlantic articles on philosophy are typically excellent) on dendrochronology and the threats facing the oldest trees in the world

Here, from the Futility Closet blog, is some advice from 1820 on how to fight ‘low spirits’, in a letter from Sidney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth:

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith

Did you see the BBC 2 series on the history of the stiff upper lip? It was excellent, and managed to get the history of emotions onto mainstream TV. Well done to my supervisor, Thomas Dixon, for contributing to the programme (he’s now a leading historian of public crying, or a ‘sobbing guru’ as someone put it on Twitter). Check out the blog posts he wrote about the research behind the show.

Talking of stiff upper lips, a fortnight ago I participated in an excellent seminar on Stoicism and CBT at Exeter University. Here’s a blog on Stoicism and its uses today that came out of it – expect some very good posts in the future from some of the seminar participants.

I admire Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of the University of Roehampton for their pioneering work over the last decade on reading groups and book clubs. Their latest project is taking reading groups into prisons. They have expanded the number of such groups from 4 to 30. Great work.

Here’s a BBC radio programme about the fast-developing science of hallucinations.

From 3 Quarks Daily, here’s communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor in an hour-long discussion with Confucian philosopher Tu Weiming, asking if we’re leaving the secular age.

And here’s an essay with Tu Weiming explains why he thinks we’re moving beyond the Enlightenment and philosophy is taking a ‘spiritual turn’.

I’ve had some wonderful emails from people who have read the book over the last fortnight – thank you very much. It means a huge amount to me and makes me feel the hard work is worth it. You can help me in my work by buying the book for yourself or others, spreading the word, or writing a review on Amazon or Good Reads. We finally got an offer from the US (hooray! thanks for your support on that). There’s still a lot of work to be done, so your help in promoting the book is hugely appreciated.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the nominees for this year’s Booker Prize, with Will Self at the back showing how to do book promotion.

See you next week,

Jules