Skip to content

Christianity

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.

Should I go on a retreat, and how do I choose one?

San Marco monastery in Florence

A friend emailed me asking about retreats, whether they’re useful, and how one goes about picking one.

It’s an interesting question, and a good one for Lent. Sixty years ago, before the spiritual revolution of the 1960s, you’d be hard-pressed to find any retreats in the West, unless you were Catholic. The Reformation attacked the whole idea of sitting in silent contemplation of God, you should be out there doing stuff (or if not, reading the Bible). The closest British Protestant culture got to retreats, before recently, was the health holiday – the spa or mountain sanatorium, or the hiking / bicycling holiday. 

Then came the Sixties, that ‘spiritual supernova’ of ‘galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane’, as philosopher Charles Taylor put it. Suddenly, retreats and transformational workshops were back with a bang, in large part thanks to the influence of a place called Esalen, on the coast of Monterey, where hip Californians would go for massage, hot-tubs, Gestalt workshops and the occasional orgy.

Today, there are a bewildering array of retreats on offer in the spiritual supermarket, as wellness tourism and spiritual tourism become bigger and more profitable trends. Wealthy Westerners don’t just want to sun-bathe and down Sangrias anymore. They want some yoga, massage, meditation and gong baths thrown in. They want some fine-tuning of their soul, then the Pina Coladas.

Would you like to see our menu? You could go on a yoga retreat, a surf-and-yoga retreat, a pet retreat, an ayurvedic retreat, a meditation retreat (Buddhist / Christian / Law of Attraction), a Ramadan retreat, a pilgrimage, a transformational workshop, a tantra or conscious sexuality retreat, a men’s retreat, women’s retreat, LGBTQ retreat, couples retreat, family retreat, a writers’ retreat, an entrepreneurs’ retreat, a plant medicine or chocolate healing retreat, a vision quest, a wild retreat…Or, like Dominos pizza, you can combine any of the above. LGBTQ surf n’ yoga retreat? You got it!

The sheer variety of retreats may put you off. It may feel a little bullshit, this combination of tourist consumerism and spirituality, particularly considering the ludicrous price-tag of some of these spiritual retreats.  $8,000 for a week’s ayurvedic retreat in India? $11,000 for a 10-day ‘entrepreneur’s retreat’ on ayahuasca? $5000 for a ‘digital detox’ week in the Algarve? Mate for £20 I’ll smash your phone and give you a Vicks inhaler, how about that.

Plenty of recent films and TV shows have had a laugh at this mash-up of the spiritual and the consumerist, from Fleabag doing a runner from her luxury silent retreat, to Don Draper coming up with the Pepsi slogan at Esalen in the final scene of Mad Men.

But this cocktail of the sacred and profane is not necessarily new: in the middle ages, monasteries were incredibly plush – exquisite gardens, gorgeous libraries, elegant chapels, and kitchens described as ‘the most distinguished temple of gluttony in all of Europe’. They made a fortune welcoming wealthy aristocrats for pampering weekends of spiritual guidance, to squeeze out the big donations. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to wind down on a pampered retreat. If you want to go to eat some delicious healthy food, drink a bit, swim, hang out with some cool new people, and also do a bit of yoga or surfing, why the hell not! 

Can retreats be useful if you’re trying to develop spiritually? Can they help if your ultimate goal is moksha, liberation from the ego? Yes, definitely so. Most religious traditions emphasize the importance of occasional retreats. They can help to:

  • settle the mind from its furious planning and ruminating
  • resist some of our usual habits of distraction, like booze, the internet, TV, chitter-chatter. This resistance of usual habits sharpens our awareness, wakes us up, and can help us develop our powers of focus, insight and self-control. 
  • turn our attention to our inner world and begin to get to know the mind better – not just the surface rolling news, but also the deeper levels of awareness.
  • learn to make friends with ourselves, to accept aspects of the psyche we usually run away from
  • discover inner resources of peace, courage, acceptance, kindness and insight, and take these resources back into our usual life
  • meet friends and guides on the spiritual path

Retreats can be challenging. We may go with the spiritual tourist mindset and be in for a rude awakening. I remember one lady at a Vipassana retreat complaining to the teacher: ‘I thought this was meant to be relaxing!’ And another guy, at an ayahuasca retreat in the jungle, who told us at the start that he didn’t really have any problems and was just there to optimize himself. Ayahuasca gave him a kicking, and he bailed out of the third ceremony, declaring he just wanted to ‘chillax with a movie’.

A retreat can feel like a little death, coming down from the usual buzz of coffee-sugar-internet-gossip-ego-planning, and just sitting there…The ego may scream for distractions, for the first day or two. Don’t just sit there, do something! But then things do settle down. And we discover a mind beyond the usual ego-chatter.

That’s the whole point – we’re not who we think we are. We think we’re our ego, and the whole game of life is to bolster the ego and gratify it, with achievements and compliments and security and so forth. Build a really good sand castle, and get everyone else on the beach to admire it. Everything in our culture supports us in this view. But there is a Great Mind around the little castle, which is free from fear and suffering, and we can sometimes discover it, get to know it bit by bit, make friends with it, and rest in in its luminosity. 

The modern ego is like 24-hour rolling news. So absorbing, so distracting! Constant headlines of triumph and catastrophe, And we’re always in the news! Like Trump, we’re fascinated by anything in which our name appears.

You see that? That’s you.

But you can look deeper than the endless clickbait headlines and ask….what is the screen on which this news is appearing? What is the TV channel? What is the light that makes the screen light up? Can you not chase the headlines but rest in the light? 

OK, how to choose a retreat. The main thing is to get over your awkwardness and embarrassment at taking your spiritual development seriously, and putting a bit of time and work into it. Don’t be embarrassed, it’s totally normal and healthy. It’s weird not to think about it or do anything about it. Think of it like a spiritual pension – you’re going to die soon, and the occasional retreat is putting a little effort into preparing for that transition. 

As with finding a therapist, you may not find the perfect retreat first time. You may do a runner a few times. I first went on retreat to a Russian monastery in my late 20s. It was such a beautiful, mysterious place, but I only lasted one night. I couldn’t handle the long, standing, Orthodox services, or the abbot’s incessant efforts to convert me (luckily I couldn’t understand a word he said). Some years later, I went to a Benedictine monastery, where there was no real programme, just regular services in Latin. I was bored and depressed. Finally, in 2016, I found Buddhist retreats which had more of a directed programme of meditation, which is what I was looking for. Very, very slow progress, but that’s OK. 

If you’re a beginner, like me, directed programmes of meditation can be really useful. If you’re not religious, perhaps try a Buddhist retreat – you could start off by finding a local Buddhist organization which offers drop-in weekday sessions, then try a weekend retreat, and then try a week-long retreat. Or you could go kamikaze and try a 10-day Vipassana retreat, which is a great crash-course, but remember, it’s not a sprint. The aim is gradual progress over the years.

If sitting meditation is not your thing, you could try a pilgrimage, or a yoga retreat, or even a week’s surfing or cycling. Or you could go on a transformational workshop, like the Path with Heart, or the Way of Nature, or a plant medicine retreat. These are much more social, and might be useful if your issues are around intimacy and interpersonal relations. But do your research first, they can be quite full-on. As I said, retreats can bring you face-to-face with your deeper issues, and for me, that sometimes involves my issues with other people, my feeling of being judged and my tendency to judge others in return. All that sh*t can come up. It’s good sh*t. It’s the manure in which your soul can grow.

Anything can be a retreat, if you bring the right intention to it. This day at the office can be a retreat, if you do it with the intention to focus, practice, and serve all beings. Washing the dishes can be a retreat. The commute home can be a retreat. A Sunday where you choose to go offline can be a retreat. The retreat is merely an artificial bracket we use to set aside a time as sacred, to sharpen our intention and help us focus on higher goals rather than the day-to-day headlines. And the true goal is to have no distinction between your level of awareness on retreat, and your level of awareness in ordinary life.

Don’t be embarrassed. Take your spiritual development seriously…while retaining the ability to laugh at yourself and the general ridiculousness of life in general, and the spiritual supermarket in particular. Accept the imperfection of all spiritual communities, there’s always a bit of bullshit, which you can use as an excuse not to work. It’s not ultimately their job to do the work for you – you’re in charge, you need to do the work. Accept whatever arises in your mind…but don’t get hung up on spiritual highs, don’t chase the fireworks. Remember, it’s just a holiday unless you bring what you learn back home and practice it there too. I’ll end with this great quote from Yuval Noah Harari.