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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

The Wisdom of Alan Watts

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Whenever I am feeling a little out of sorts or a little frustrated in life, I turn to any book written by Alan Watts and I find that it inevitably cheers me up. He had an eloquent means of bringing to the fore the simplest explanations for the most complicated questions in life. Today I happened to pick up Become What You Are and was reminded of the illusion of self-mastery in the process of self-discovery. By that I mean the idea that we can transcend ourselves by something our self actively does. As Watts points out, "the part of ourself that wants to change ourself is the very one that needs to be changed, but it is as inaccessible as a needle to the prick of its own point" (page 4). That may sounds a little odd but here's his further elucidation:

I have always found that the people who have quite genuinely died to themselves make no claims of any kind to their own part in the process. They think of themselves as lazy and lucky. If they did anything at all, it was so simple that anyone else could do the same - for all that they have done is to recognize a universal fact of life, something as true of the weak and foolish as of the wise and strong (Page 5).

I like to meditate and practice yoga among other activities that calm my mind and let me linger in a stillness, like walking in nature, painting, or sometimes when listening to music. Yet, I sometimes fall victim to the very illusion Watts discusses thinking if only I were to practice more, meditate more, live more calmly, that my actions would 'change' the undercurrent of anxious thinking frenzy that is also a part of me. When I find myself thinking that way, a little Watts wisdom always brings a smile to my face or a laugh out loud moment as he notes the inevitable repetition of this way of thinking wherein we lose ourselves only to find ourselves again and again. He likens it to a perpetual game of hide and seek.

The random moments of 'death' of the self or times of self-transcendence must seem to arise beyond oneself because they are by definition outside oneself (see previous post). Such moments may arise in a brush with death, in a moment of inspiration, amidst a mother-child interaction, on a summer's night along a wide-open beach, or perhaps when sitting in silence. We may practice exercises to enhance the likelihood of letting go of the self (the 'death' that Watts describes) but the arising of that experience is beyond our control.