Alan Watts – Brain Pickings

Posted: June 2, 2015 at 1:42 pm


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by Maria Popova

The cause of and cure for the illusion of separateness that keeps us from embracing the richness of life.

During the 1950s and 1960s, British philosopher and writer Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, offering a wholly different perspective on inner wholeness in the age of anxiety and what it really means to live a life of purpose. We owe much of todays mainstream adoption of practices like yoga and meditation to Wattss influence. His 1966 masterwork The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (public library) builds upon his indispensable earlier work as Watts argues with equal parts conviction and compassion that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East. He explores the cause and cure of that illusion in a way that flows from profound unease as we confront our cultural conditioning into a deep sense of lightness as we surrender to the comforting mystery and interconnectedness of the universe.

Envisioned as a packet of essential advice a parent might hand down to his child on the brink of adulthood as initiation into the central mystery of life, this existential manual is rooted in what Watts calls a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Though strictly nonreligious, the book explores many of the core inquiries which religions have historically tried to address the problems of life and love, death and sorrow, the universe and our place in it, what it means to have an I at the center of our experience, and what the meaning of existence might be. In fact, Watts begins by pulling into question how well-equipped traditional religions might be to answer those questions:

The standard-brand religions, whether Jewish, Christian, Mohammedan, Hindu, or Buddhist, are as now practiced like exhausted mines: very hard to dig. With some exceptions not too easily found, their ideas about man and the world, their imagery, their rites, and their notions of the good life dont seem to fit in with the universe as we now know it, or with a human world that is changing so rapidly that much of what one learns in school is already obsolete on graduation day.

Watts considers the singular anxiety of the age, perhaps even more resonant today, half a century and a manic increase of pace later:

There is a growing apprehension that existence is a rat-race in a trap: living organisms, including people, are merely tubes which put things in at one end and let them out at the other, which both keeps them doing it and in the long run wears them out.

He weighs how philosophy might alleviate this central concern by contributing a beautiful addition to the definitions of what philosophy is and recognizing the essential role of wonder in the human experience:

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Alan Watts - Brain Pickings

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June 2nd, 2015 at 1:42 pm

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