Watts, Alan (1915-1973)
No one really knows just who the British-born Alan Watts was. Scholar, writer, Tantric yogi, ex-Catholic synthesizer of Eastern and Western beliefs–all would apply.
An innovate teacher, Watts mastered the art of spontaneity. His wit and enthusiasm made him one of the leading advocates of mystical introspection.
His abundant charms, however, may have been garnered at the expense of rigorous thought.
For example, one of his arguments about the West “not getting it” is developed from simplistic assumptions.
In his video, Time: The More it Changes, Watts says that Western psychologists used to explain human behavior in terms of instinct, and now – 1972 – people tend to speak of “drives.” He then provides counterexamples to suggest the opposite, saying that he’s not “driven” to eat or have sex, but rather chooses to “identify” with these activities.
The problem with this argument is that not all psychologists see human behavior as solely motivated by “drives.” Even Freud, whose idea of the libido is often viewed as excessively instinctual, recognized the importance of social forces in regulating biological drives.
Meanwhile, twentieth-century existentialists argue that what makes a human truly human (and free) is the “gap of nothingness” that stands between drives and actions (or inaction). And religious people speak of “grace” that may override drives.
But Watts did popularize and provoke. In 1968 he admitted to taking five different types of psychedelic drugs to learn about mysticism.
I myself have experimented with five of the principal psychedelics: LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT), and cannabis. I have done so, as William James tried nitrous oxide, to see if they could help me in identifying what might be called the “essential” or “active” ingredients of the mystical experience.
Alan Watts, “Psychedelics and Religious Experience,” California Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1968:74-85), p. 75.
As the following demonstrates, Nordstrom and Pilgrim take an extremely dim view of his ideas.
Watts’ mysticism is deviant because it seeks perversely to undo mystical experience. This is done by inferring from the fact that mystical experience is not ineffable, that there is no separation between the spiritual and the physical, which eventually is transformed into the view that the spiritual and the physical are virtually the same thing, which Watts calls his “spiritual materialism”…[this] both precludes the possibility and obviates the necessity of mystical experience. What is perverse about Watts’ mysticism, in a word, is that it is antimystical.
This would not be so perverse were it not for the fact that Watts considered himself to be a mystic, as remarks like “I am a shameless mystic” and “a mystic in spite of myself” make clear.
Watts is a strange and confusing combination of a man-of-letters and a mystic, who used his extraordinary articulateness and literary ability to undermine mystical experience by rejecting the sense in which such experience is ineffable. What one is left with, unfortunately, is, as Zen master Rinzai once put it, “words and phrases, however excellent.”
Louis Nordstrom and Richard Pilgrim, “The Wayward Mysticism of Alan Watts,” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jul., 1980: 381-401), pp. 381-382.
Love or hate him, according to legend Watts predicted a flash of lightning which would accompany his death. At the moment he died, a local Druid’s bell apparently rang out in town, off schedule. Later, a lightning flash hit the cable leading to the bell.
Similar paranormal phenomena are said to have accompanied the death of Carl Jung, another prominent innovator and advocate of an East-West synthesis. » Confucianism, Ego, Id, Superego, Taoism, Wu Wei, Yogi
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Posted on July 4, 2008, in W and tagged Alan Watts, Asia, asian, asian philosophy, asian religion, belief, bell, Britain, cannabis, catholic, drugs, druid, east, East-West, existentialism, fallen away Catholic, freud, God, guide, hippie, hippies, instinct, jung, lightning, LSD, materialism, mysticism, pantheism, Philosophy, psychology, religion, seekers, self actualization, synthesis, tantra, tantric, teacher, time, UK, United Kingdom, watts, west, writers, yogi. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.