Alan Watts is one of my favourite philosophers. What I love about his work is the humour and playfulness with which he views life. His words are alchemical – turning anxiety into laughter and serious problems into nothings. I have found antidotes to many a situation by delving into his books or listening to his lectures! In hope that you too may find value in them, here are 30 pearls of wisdom gathered from his work!
On the Present Moment
1. Don’t hurry anything. Don’t worry about the future. Don’t worry about what progress you’re making. Just be entirely content to be aware of what is.
2. After all, the future is quite meaningless and unimportant unless, sooner or later, it is going to become the present. Thus to plan for a future which is not going to become present is hardly more absurd than to plan for a future which, when it comes to me, will find me “absent,” looking fixedly over its shoulder instead of into its face.
3. The art of living … is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past on the other. It consists in being sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive
4. It’s a kind of digging the present, it’s a kind of grooving with the eternal now, and brings us into a state of peace where we can understand that the point of life — the place where it’s at — is simply here and now.
5. Therefore, the important thing is simply to begin—anywhere, wherever you are. If you happen to be sitting, just sit. If you are smoking a pipe, just smoke it. If you are thinking out a problem, just think. But don’t think and reflect unnecessarily, compulsively, from sheer force of nervous habit.
6. The only zen you’ll find on mountain tops is the zen you bring up there with you.
On Work and Play
7. If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing thing you don’t like doing, which is stupid.
8. All this might have been wonderful if, at every stage, you had been able to play it as a game, finding your work as fascinating as poker, chess, or fishing. But for most of us the day is divided into work-time and play-time, the work consisting largely of tasks which others pay us to do because they are abysmally uninteresting. We therefore work, not for the work’s sake, but for money—and money is supposed to get us what we really want in our hours of leisure and play.
9. 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.
10. Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the Gods made for fun.
11. People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.
12. The real problem does not come from any momentary sensitivity to pain, but from our marvelous powers of memory and foresight—in short from our consciousness of time . For the animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable. But man is hardly satisfied with this at all. He is much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations — especially the latter. With these assured, he can put up with an extremely miserable present. Without this assurance, he can be extremely miserable in the midst of immediate physical pleasure.
On facing change and making decisions
13. The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
14. Regard yourself as a cloud. Clouds never make mistakes. Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave? No, they always do the right thing. And if you will treat yourself for a while as a cloud or wave, you’ll realize that you can’t make a mistake whatever you do. Because even if you do something that appears totally bizarre, it will all come out in the wash somehow or another. Then through this capacity you will develop a kind of confidence. And through confidence you will be able to trust your own intuition.
15. Taking this ghastly risk is the condition of there being life. You see, for all life is an act of faith and an act of gamble. The moment you take a step, you do so on an act of faith because you don’t really know that the floor’s not going to give under your feet … so, actually, therefore, the course of wisdom, what is really sensible, is to let go, is to commit oneself, to give oneself up and that’s quite mad. So we come to the strange conclusion that in madness lies sanity.
On Achievement and Improvement
17. Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.
18. What I am really saying is that you don’t need to do anything, because if you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomenon of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that, and there is nothing wrong with you at all.
19. If we are unduly absorbed in improving our lives we may forget altogether to live them.
20. If we begin to think about our goals in life as destinations, as points to which we must arrive, this thinking begins to cut out all that makes a point worth having. It is as if instead of giving you a full banana to eat, I have you just two tiny ends of the banana – and that would not be, in any sense, a satisfactory meal.
On Good and Bad
21. Detachment means to have neither regrets for the past nor fears for the future; to let life take its course without attempting to interfere with its movement and change, neither trying to prolong the stay of things pleasant nor to hasten the departure of things unpleasant. To do this is to move in time with life, to be in perfect accord with its changing music.
22. But just as the hour-hand of the watch goes up to twelve and down to six, so, too, there is day and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying, summer and winter. You can’t have any one of these without the other, because you wouldn’t be able to know what black is unless you had seen it side-by-side with white, or white unless side-by-side with black
On the existence of a separate self
23. Your heart beats “self-so,” and, if you would give it half a chance, your mind can function “self-so”—though most of us are much too afraid of ourselves to try the experiment.
25. It’s like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spread. And in the middle, it’s dense, isn’t it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets get finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it
26. We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”
This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.
27. Most of the wisdom which we employ in everyday life never came to us as verbal information. It was not through statements that we learned how to breathe, swallow, see, circulate the blood, digest food, or resist diseases. Yet these things are performed by the most complex and marvelous processes which no amount of book-learning and technical skill can reproduce. This is real wisdom—but our brains have little to do with it. This is the kind of wisdom which we need in solving the real, practical problems of human life. It has done wonders for us already, and there is no reason why it should not do much more
28. The timid mind shuts this window with a bang, and is silent and thoughtless about what it does not know in order to chatter the more about what it thinks it knows. It fills up the uncharted spaces with mere repetition of what has already been explored.
The following passages aren’t by Alan Watts as such but words quoted in his work.
29. Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
William Shakespeare From The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1
30. A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.
Books Used in this Article
- The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
- Become What You Are
- The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety
- The Way of Zen
Some quotes are from lectures, recordings of which can be found online including on youtube!