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A Collection of Wisdom from Alan Watts

By Derek Beres on Tuesday December 11th, 2018

An Extraordinary Thinker

Shortly after Alan Watts‘ death in 1973, his eldest daughters, Joan and Anne, began collecting boxes of his letters and correspondences. Though it took decades to publish, The Collected Letters of Alan Watts adds yet another piece to the vibrant extant literature of the great British philosopher and orator. Having recently met Joan at a conference and picking up this latest book, I decided it was time to thumb through the rest of my collection.

Watts’ bibliography is extensive, with as many volumes published posthumously as during life, most based off his exhaustive catalog of talks. He was an early interpreter of Eastern texts for Western audiences, not only in offering simple translations. Watts captured the essence of mythologies and scriptural narratives, retelling them in a language rapt audiences could easily digest (and sometimes not so easily; he wasn’t a mere popularizer).

As interesting and penetrating as his books are, he truly shone on stage (often, incredibly, after enjoying a bottle of whiskey). Since I discovered his work a quarter-century ago, I’ve constantly turned back to him when I need a bit of insight, especially the type that arrives with a touch of humor.

Philosophy for Life

The below list are a few I picked out during a recent afternoon reminiscing on the man and his extraordinary life.

1. All our efforts at a spiritual life are prompted by self-interest. — Behold the Spirit (1947)

2. If we are citizens of this world, and if there can be no final satisfaction of the soul’s discontent, has not nature, in bringing forth man, made a serious mistake? — The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951)

3. The transience from which we seek liberation is the very liberator. — Nature, Man and Woman (1958)

Alan WattsPhilosopher, writer, public speaker and translator of Eastern philosophies for Western audiences.

4. Psychotherapy and liberation are completed in the moment when shame and guilt collapse, when the organism is no longer compelled to defend itself for being an organism, and when the individual is ready to own his unconscious behavior. — Psychotherapy East & West (1961)

5. We do not want to survive merely, or to survive so as to be tormented forever in hell. We want to survive interestingly, even elegantly. — Beyond Theology (1964)

6. To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency. — The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

7. Human life—and all life—does not work harmoniously when we try to force it to be other than what it is, for the very simple reason that this is based on the assumption that I, who would control things, am something apart from what I would control. — Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown (1968)

8. The world of myth is past, is ‘once upon a time,’ in a symbolic sense only—in the sense that it is behind us, not as time past is behind us, but as the brain which cannot be seen is behind the eyes which see, as behind memory is that which remembers and cannot be remembered. — Myth and Ritual in Christianity (1968)

9. The supposition that knowing requires a knower is based on a linguistic and not existential rule, as becomes obvious when we consider that raining needs no rainer and clouding no clouder. — Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975)

10. Very often it seems to me that faith and belief could be opposed. Belief comes from the Anglo-Saxon root lief, which means to ‘wish.’ Belief is the fervent hope that certain things are true. Whereas I rather feel that faith is an openness of attitude, a readiness to accept the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. It is a commitment of oneself to life, to the universe, to one’s own nature as it is, in the realization that we really have no alternative. — Zen and the Beat Way (1997)

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3 Responses to A Collection of Wisdom from Alan Watts

  1. Thank you Derek!

    I first heard Alan Watts on Pacifica radio station in Los Angeles in 1985.
    His talks laid the foundation of my understanding of life in the widest sense.
    With extraordinary clarity and humor he put into words a vision of reality that I could identify myself with. He articulated what I intuitively felt as true.

    I often wonder why his work is not mentioned or quoted when discussing how to overcome the shortsighted understanding of nature, human existence, of Life.
    In this times of rapid change that calls upon us to widen our perception of all there is
    the writings and talks of Alan Watts could be of great help to individuals and society.

    Thank you again for your effort to collect some of his thoughts and present them on Uplift.

  2. Alan Watts, is probably my favorite teacher on the Eastern philosophies, his humor and insights are fun to listen to but so profound! I was looking at his life, his biography and it seems he died of the effects of alcoholism. Not much was written about it that I could find. If anyone has any information about that I would love to hear it. Just of interest to me, is that he had 3 marriages (I think is what it said) something of an alcohol problem and died at 58. His picture speak to me of someone who struggled with some level of depression, there is a heaviness in his face and demeanor. I don’t think this takes anything away from this great teacher! Just something to ponder that these incredible truths, that can bring so much peace/ calm/ transcendence in life almost seem to have evaded him in some way. Of course in the eterneties of time he will be no less or more for that or for anything he did..just a message for us in our time (in my mind) that these truths don’t necessarily by themselves bring peace or calm. That there may need to be something else…possibly, not necessarily. That we always need to keep working at different things until we find the right mix of ingredients that works for us…like a tasty stew that we might make…experimenting until we find the right mix. That could include medications, therapy, psychedlics, christian teachings, network of support people in your life etc. Being an intellectual and teaching these truths could in some way actually create a disconnection from the truths themselves…intellectuallizing the ideas at some level..versus integration. Not saying that is what he did, but just maybe. A lesson for the ages perhaps, or perhaps not.

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