The Thought-Provoking Insights Of The Legend: Alan Watts
I am coming out of the closet. I’m a Wattsist. A what-ist? A Wattsist. After Alan Watts, the British-American philosopher, spiritual entertainer, and author. Alan Watts was a treasure to his generation and to ours, as his words continue to provide solace, humour, and understanding. His podcasts are increasingly well-known and his books seem to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity. His son, Mark Watts, has released a new documentary about his dad, so we can expect Alan’s popularity to keep rising even though it has been many decades since his death in 1973.
I’ve been sufficiently inspired by Watts’ work that I am writing a new biography of this great man. It’s been an interesting journey because I’m learning, as one must when traveling from the realm of pure concepts to details of a person’s life, that Watts was no angel. His wisdom is beautiful and profound, but he wasn’t a very good father and he wasn't a very good husband, at least not to his first two wives (he had three and died while living with his third wife). We shouldn’t, however, expect perfection from our spiritual leaders, particularly when the leader in question (Watts) was fond of talking about his own and all spiritual leaders’ “irreducible rascality.”
Watts was a British expat who spent most of his life in the U.S., with his later years in Marin County and the Bay Area. He died in 1973, apparently of natural causes, but no autopsy was completed. He was well-known to be an alcohol abuser later in his life so it is possible that alcohol had some role in his death.
He wrote a number of books, including The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are; The Way of Zen; The Meaning of Happiness; Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal; In My Own Way (an autobiography), and many others. A good selection of wonderful Alan Watts podcasts are available on iTunes - recordings of the many talks he gave, which are free and present 15 minutes of profound wisdom with wit and grace.
Watts’ worldview and spiritual views were shaped largely by Eastern traditions, in particular Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Vedanta Hinduism, but also by his Christian upbringing and training. He was an Episcopal priest for six years, serving at Northwestern University in Illinois, until he left the church after he and his first wife messily separated. Watts states in his autobiography: “If I am asked to define my personal tastes in religion I must say that they lie between Mahayana Buddhism [of which Zen is a type] and Taoism, with a certain leaning toward Vedanta and Catholicism, or rather the Orthodox Church of Eastern Europe.”
The constant themes in his talks and books are the perils of language tricking us into mistaken views about ourselves and reality, that mind is pervasive in all of reality, and – most importantly – knowing that we are, each of us, none other than God. Not “a” God, but “the” God. I’ll explore some of Watts’ key ideas further below.
The World Is God Playing Hide & Seek With Itself
There is no better way to describe Watts’ view of God and the universe than to quote him from his profound little book, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Really Are:
[T]here are times when the world is, and times when it isn’t, for if the world went on and on without rest for ever and ever, it would get horribly tired of itself. It comes and it goes. Now you see it; now you don’t. So because it doesn’t get tired of itself, it always comes back again after it disappears. It’s like your breath: it goes in and out, in and out, and if you try to hold it in all the time you feel terrible.
It’s also like the game of hide-and-seek, because it’s always fun to find new ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn’t always hide in the same place. God also likes to play hide- and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself.
In Fact, You Are God
So the universe is, to echo the comedian and philosopher Bill Hicks, just a big amusement ride. We can’t take ourselves too seriously in this grand game. At the same time, Watts time and time again returns to the theme of who we really are. Who am I really? Who are you really? Well, Watts makes the extraordinary case, rather convincingly, that you, yes, little old you, are none other than God. Not “a” God, but “the” God. You’re the boss. In fact, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Really Are, is all about this idea. This book was written for Watts’ children and all children who struggle to find their identity.
Mark Watts, Alan’s oldest child, was fourteen when his father sent him The Book. Mark told me over lunch at the Aroma Cafe in San Rafael in Marin County, that Alan had told him that he was thinking of Mark when he wrote the first chapter (Mark was living with his mother across the country from Alan at the time). While the book is accessible to teen readers, its wisdom is relevant and very enjoyable to adults too, including philosophically-sophisticated adults.
Watts states in The Book:
[B]ecause there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by pretending that he is not himself. This is his way of hiding from himself. He pretends that he is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars.
In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when he wakes up they will disappear.
Now when God plays hide and pretends that he is you and I, he does it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. But that’s the whole fun of it—just what he wanted to do. He doesn’t want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself. But when the game has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and remember that we are all one single Self—the God who is all that there is and who lives for ever and ever.
We Can’t Change Anything
Is there anything with which I might quibble about when it comes to Watts’ thinking? Surely. One issue in particular, however, may rise above the level of a mere quibble to an actual disagreement: the degree to which we, as conscious beings, should “go with the flow” or work actively to change things.
In his last book, Tao: The Watercourse Way, published shortly after his death, Watts presents his take on Taoist thinking. Taoism is one of two major strains of Chinese indigenous philosophy and spirituality (the other is Confucianism). Taoism is thought to have begun with Lao Tzu in the 4th Century BCE.
The Chinese term Tao may be translated many different ways but is generally translated as the “way.” By understanding the Tao and not working in opposition to the Tao we literally go with the flow that is the entire universe. The Tao may also be thought of as the ground or ocean of being, the substrate from which all stuff grows. How could we possibly act in opposition to the very ground of being and the flow that is the universe? Why would we want to? This is the case that Watts makes in his book and in some of his talks.
Well, many people might want to change things, for various reasons, including desires for social justice, environmental improvement, spiritual growth, political improvement, etc. Where I think we may improve upon Taoism and Watts’ own thinking is by recognizing first that the Tao itself may indeed change over time, and, second, that the manifest universe and the Tao itself is nothing but (literally) the sum total of all individual desires and actions. While the Tao is indeed eternal, it doesn’t have to be unchanging, and it is in fact very likely not unchanging. Rather, we,cas part of the Tao (of course we are part of the Tao because we are part of the universe and, in a very real sense, we are, each of us, the entire universe, as discussed above) are helping the universe to evolve over time.
What does this mean? To me, it means that every choice we make, every thought and every action, has repercussions in the entire actual universe as well as the Tao from which it grows. While the actual universe will likely grow in complexity for many trillions of years to come, it will eventually perish into complete stillness with the passage of additional trillions of years. But the Tao will not and cannot perish. Rather, it will continue to proceed blissfully and joyously for all eternity, birthing new universes, new games of hide and seek, forever and ever. The Tao, the ocean of being, contains the reverberations, the echoes, of each cycle of the actual universe within its calm depths, even as each actual universe dissipates back into the Tao from whence it came. And we are, each of us, part of that unimaginably long process.
In closing, I have been tremendously appreciative of Watts’ wisdom and wit and I hope that many others will take the time to learn more about this underappreciated philosopher and sage. His website, run by Mark Watts, is www.alanwatts.com and many of his books are still widely available. Read, listen, enjoy! Who knows, maybe you’ll become a Wattsist too.
As I mentioned above, I’m working on a new biography of Watts and I am looking to talk with people who knew Watts. If you or someone you know knew him well and are interested in discussing your experiences, please let me know (I can be reached at tam dot hunt at gmail).
n Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and Hilo, Hawaii.