Alan Watts was the foremost interpreter of Eastern thought, in particular Zen Buddhism, to the West. His books on the philosophy and psychology of religion have been in great demand over the last thirty years.
So says a small biography of Watts on the back of his seminal book The Wisdom of Insecurity, first published in 1954. I have read the book. Twice. It's 136 pages long. More than that, I have listened to and tried to digest the multitude of spoken word recordings made when he was still alive. Alan died in his sleep in 1973.
When I was young, up until the page of about twelve, I prayed to God. I remember how my prayers ended every night:
“I love you God. Please make that love last until the day I die.”
I don't know why, or where, I stopped believing. I was raised in the archetypal Irish Catholic tradition. God was not just something to believe in, it was omnipresent in school, Sundays and society in general. I was often told that God loved me more than I could possibly imagine. It left a mark.
But somewhere around my mid-teens, I stopped believing. Not by decision, just by happening. There was perhaps, an occasion or two, when I deduced that it simply wasn't possible that God existed. But generally, it felt like an encroaching truth instead of a revelation. Clearly, there was no God.
And then came rebellion. I turned against religion. It made me angry. There was ample outlet for such expression. The fevered nihilism of hardcore punk was a soundtrack to the reasoned atheism of philosophers and science. But in University, it really hit me in the emotional gut. Horrible things are perfectly capable of happening to the people I love. And there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Argh!!
Godlessness started to shape who I was. I came to believe in secularism. I didn't want religion or God anywhere near my life, my liberty or the pursuit of my happiness. This probably still describes my view of the world. Religion should be available for all, but in no kind of way that forces others to go along.
Of course there was some kind of void. Not because everyone needs spirituality or religion; rather, because it was undeniable part of my childhood experience. God started to appear again. I was spellbound by the concept of rehabilitation of addicts through the twelve-step programme. The serenity prayer is one of the most profound things I've come across.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change to things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Is that really just for people who believe in God? I know more atheists than I count who could benefit from it. And religious people too!
In the last few years, I've discovered the new age form of spirituality commonly known as mindfulness. The Power Of Now by Eckhart Tolle is a book that I will never forget reading. It offered up the kind of content I thought impossible.
And then came Alan Watts. A well-spoken Englishman who found himself transfixed by Eastern spirituality. Having come to recognise the ego and its folly through Tolle, Watts seemed to suggest that discarding it was as possible as using an ashtray on a motorbike. He spoke about the Middle Way and made me wonder what Buddhism and Hinduism were all about. .
I try to meditate. And therein is the problem. I try too hard. But there have been some profound moments. One day, while walking by the river, I went over Watts' words and started to feel like I had gone to another planet. I tried to tell a friend once and saw her drift away into thoughts of: “Oh my God, are you okay?”
Watts' biggest impression on me is his emphasis of duality. You cannot be happy if you are not sometimes sad. As soon as you struggle with the Universe, you are in conflict with it. And you are going to lose. Yes, you're an individual. But you are just a small part of something indescribably bigger. So remember to take it easy. Each good and bad moment at a time.
Note: That is not a satisfactory analysis of Alan Watts and his philosophy. Please don't let me turn you off!
I don't know much about Alan Watts as a person. I've read that he struggled with alcoholism. In a very strange way, this is some sort of comfort. He often spoke about the fallacy of idolatry. However, it does trouble me that he may have been a victim of malignant thoughts and behaviours he seemed so easily to dismantle. But I think that's confusing the messenger for the message. I like that he was human.
Maybe this kind of thing makes sense to some people more than others. I wondered whether or not something like this was worth writing. Part of me wants to keep such things personal. But the larger part of me wants to say something about it. And there it is.