Digesting Alan Watts

I heard once the following notion: it take almost no time or effort to listen to someone repeat a familiar perspective while a foreign perspective (of similar complexity) would require a great deal of time and effort to be processed.  (This is why you don’t hear much new in the news, it could demand too much of the viewer.)

Over the last couple days I’ve been listening to Alan Watts podcasts and youtube clips in my down time.  I enjoy his perspective, but it’s hard to immediately grasp, so I need to process the concepts (which is the reason for this virtual space anyhow).  I’ll try to log some of the nuggets that I want to remember.

Life as music: When you listen to an orchestra it’s almost absurd to ask what the point of it is.  You listen to the beautiful patterns without understanding or trying to wrestle with it.  Where as in western life we are continually pushing our way through school into jobs through life looking for a final destination of success/happiness (which would be like trying to conduct the orchestra with the objective of arriving at the end).  Dance and sing and enjoy along the way.

Past/present illusion, consciousness problems, meditation : Using the allegory of a boat’s wake he describes the past as this path behind which fades out the further back you look.  The ripples didn’t propel the boat, the past doesn’t create the present.  Our (over) attachment to the past is a way of making a continuous narrative so that we can define ourselves/make sense of things and perhaps box ourselves to present others with a concise bullet-point  version of who we are.  He often repeats the notion that the here and now is all there is and the common pairings of observer/observed, past/future, myself/my body are illusions.  These illusions are likely because of our spotlight consciousness grappling with a world which comes at us from all dimensions all the time (while our consciousness is trained to focus on one thing at a time, processing linearly, like reading a book line by line).  The act of meditating is a way to recognize that the stream of thoughts that we live in is not reality, but a string of symbols that give us some way to grasp it.  To think that we could conquer nature with this sort of perspective is a bit silly (but predominant in modern industrialist thinking), our mind is perpetually maintaining our blood chemistry, breathing, growing cells and hair, and maintaining the processes of life simultaneously and without thought.  Our consciousness couldn’t maintain a system that efficiently.  To meditate and turn off your thoughts, observe nature without comprehending, listen to sounds without processing, is a way to discourage the temptation to view conscious thought as all-important and to provide you raw source material for talking/thinking later (since talking is something we humans naturally dig anyhow).  Another aspect, which is perhaps beyond me at the moment, is that we are all expressions of the same creative impulse to be, and who I think I am is the universe playing at being an Andy for a bit.  So somehow the act of meditating is also a connection to that concept, that I am not separate from you or the desk or anything else.  I would make no sense without a background or environment against which to see me. In this way it’s an illusion to think of myself as separate from the world.

Hermits, outsiders, the game of government/society, forced volunteering: He compares the view of the poets/drop-outs/beatniks and the businessmen/administrators/ participants within the eastern and western perspectives.  In the west (actually he says in the least confident cultures) it is asserted that everyone must play the game.  He lists things which we are required to do but which only make sense or work when done voluntarily, which forces/creates a sense of duty.  Everyone must vote, a good child must love his mother, thou shalt love the LORD thy God (a joke?), etc.  In this environment those who drop out (because it all seems stupid or they just don’t want to play) are seen as threatening and/or outcasts.  In the east however, the outsiders, those who choose not to play, are revered.  It’s the holy man up on the hill, and people give him food and respect.  The reason is that the drop-out shows the people that what they are up to down in society is in fact just a game.  Having someone to remind you of this keeps you light-hearted about your approach to life.  (A bit like living in a different country and really seeing that social norms are not universal, thus they must be a bit arbitrary.)  Having some number of hermits is necessary to a healthy society.

Those were some of my favorite thoughts from the Watts weekend and I hope I can incorporate them into my daily perspective.  I often take things too seriously, feel guilty when my desires don’t match my social duties, see myself as an isolated (misunderstood) entity sitting at the controls of a sack of skin which is my body.  In those moments it would probably be a good thing to remember that life is at its best when playful and that I can’t exist in any other way than the society that I’m existing in now.  It’s wasted effort to see myself otherwise.  Consider this the seeds of a recasting of my youthful idealism/utopianism.

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