Life Lessons I Learned from Alan Watts

Alan Watts was a British philosopher best known for popularizing Eastern philosophy in the Western world. He writes largely on the subject of Zen Buddhism. He propagated Buddhism’s ideas as more of a psychotherapy than a religion. Much like Steve Jobs, Watts experimented with the use of psychedelic drugs, insinuating that “If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with the eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.” He believed that with various ways of meditation, the drugs would no longer be necessary or useful because you’d reach this genuine mystical insight on your own.

For Watts, experimenting with these drugs caused him to experience “ego death and communion with the universe.” From here arose several of his greatest insights of our universe and here and some of my favorites:

 

“Jesus Christ knew he was God. So, wake up and find out eventually who you really are. In our culture, of course, they’ll say you’re crazy and you’re blasphemous, and they’ll either put you in jail or in a nut house (which is pretty much the same thing). However, if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations, ‘My goodness, I’ve just discovered that I’m God,’ they’ll laugh and say ‘Oh, congratulations, at last, you found out.'” 

I think many of us are blinded by what we want to become. Haven’t you noticed most kids go to college undecided? I think it’s because, as Watts explains, in our culture it is ridiculed to paint, to make music, and to backpack across the country because it doesn’t get you money. Money is wealth and prosperity in our society. Though, society is merely an abstract concept — it is a term for the collection of individuals.

When thinking of the self as part of society we tend to turn its thoughts into our thoughts and its beliefs into our beliefs. You must go to college after high school. You must eat dessert after your meal. You must take courses that are required for your major even if you have no interest in them whatsoever. You must get a job after you earn your degree. You must pay off your student debt and your insurance bills and your house rent and your groceries and your transportation and your light and your water and your pets and dammit… sometimes you have to pay to take a goddamn piss. There are steps you must take in order fit into society and those steps require a significant amount of money that takes a significant amount of time to acquire (perhaps even your entire life)…

So, I guess the point of the quote is do what you love now. Be God. Find out what you want to be. Go out into the wilderness or meditate and find out what it is. Wouldn’t you rather live a life of grand experiences in the moment than endlessly chasing a green shabby slip of paper? Just a thought. 

 

“Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.”

I used to be terrified of death… It was so bad that when I was a young kid I’d wake up in the middle of the night crying at the thought of it. Whenever someone brought it up, I’d walk away. I couldn’t even stand to hear it being mentioned. When I went to college, I began listening to a lot of Alan Watts podcasts and reading his books. He spoke of death in a way I had never thought of before. He explained that, incorrectly, our culture has taught us concepts in a sort of ‘start to finish’ sort of way. They’ve projected life as a means of getting from point A to point B. Though, existence doesn’t work that way. To paraphrase Watts, we are the fabric and structure of existence itself… very much like a wave is something of the ocean itself. We tend to see ourselves separate from our external environment, but ironically enough that is where we came from. He tries to explain death isn’t point B, it’s a transformation. 

 

“The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.”

This is an ideology that is seen in many Eastern philosophies — the fact that life’s essence is constantly changing. Nothing lasts forever. Life is simply energy in motion at all times. Cells are multiplying, plants are growing, the clouds are precipitating…  all these wonders are constantly occurring… have you ever stopped and just marveled at the intricacies of the earth, bountiful they are?And perhaps this spontaneity in life is why we love the chase. It’s why chasing a boy who doesn’t like you is more enticing than one that already does. Someone who’s supposedly ungraspable and indescribable is so much interesting to explore. It’s impermanent. It’s wild. It’s free. It’s alive. It’s temporary, just like everything else, and the thrill is that fighting for it — whatever or whoever it is — will be the most worthwhile adventure.

 

“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.”

In our culture, there is a grand separation between man and nature. One of the greatest problems in society is that humans tend to see themselves as aliens that came to Earth when in fact we came from Earth. It’s quite ironic because we are constantly trying to destroy and manipulate nature, when in fact, nature is our roots. We are nature. 

 

“Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.”

Watts makes it a point to note that without white, black wouldn’t exist. Without wrong, there is no right. In other words, without contrast, there would be nothing. Ultimately, everything is one. Therefore, we must live life fully and understand that any experience isn’t good or bad — an experience is just an experience. It is a learning process like everything else in life. But if we focus too heavily on it being either great or terrible, we will never see life as it truly is. See, we sometimes try to define the undefinable. The more we do this and label things, the more we distance ourselves from the real experience. The river in front of you isn’t a separate entity from yourself — you’ve got water running through your veins. Our very ancestors were molecular organisms swimming in the same water as that said river. We have to live experiences instead of persistently trying to define them. Words and conventions only take us further from reality.

 

“I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.”

I cannot stress enough the fact of fleeting life. People often say “I can’t wait for Friday," “I can’t wait for Winter Break,” “I can’t wait to have a job." But why wait? Friday, in regards to the quote, is an illusion. It is a perception in the brain that you have come up with. Perhaps you don’t even make it to Friday. Accidents happen all the time, don’t they? I don’t mean to make this painstakingly grim, though you must admit to some degree it somehow helps it become more enlightening.

 

Alan Watts was imaginative and talkative. He wrote illuminating books such as, “Become What You Are,” “The Way of Zen,” and “Out of Your Mind.” Many of his podcasts (which I highly recommend) can be found on YouTube. My favorites include “Choices” and “Music and Life.” If you liked these quotes, you should continue to further read his work/listen to his speeches because they have the extraordinary power of changing how you think. I’ll end with one of his quotes,

 

“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” 

 

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About The Author

My name is Isabella Elwaw and I'm a Sophmore at Boston University. Life is wild and I guess that's why I love writing...It puts some order into the chaos I'm living in. I hope my writing helps with whatever chaos you're going through too. Some of my interests (other than writing) include: reading, photography, entrepeneurship, exploring, cycling, snowboarding, icecream, and anything nautical related. I always love making new connections, so if you like my writing or just wanna say hi, go for it. You can reach me at my email ([email protected]) or my instagram (isaelwaw).