No one really knows just who the British-born Alan Watts (1915-1973) really was. Scholar, writer, Tantric yogi, ex-Catholic synthesizer of Eastern and Western beliefs—all would apply.
He had such a powerful presence when I was an undergraduate student that he seemed alive when I read his books in the 1980s. We didn’t have the internet back then, so I didn’t know he’d passed.¹
Although I don’t agree with everything he says, Watts was an innovate teacher who mastered the art of spontaneity. And his wit and enthusiasm made him one of the leading advocates of mystical introspection.
Now that I’ve had more time to assess his work, it seems that his abundant charms may have arisen at the expense of rigorous thought. For example, one of his arguments about the West “not getting it” rests on simplistic assumptions and stereotypes. And some proponents of alleged Asian wisdom continue to perpetuate these assumptions and stereotypes today, which I find really boring and sometimes bordering on racism or national discrimination.
In the 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 gives counterexamples to suggest the opposite. Watts is not driven to eat or have sex, but rather chooses to identify with these activities.
However, not all psychologists see human behavior as entirely motivated by drives. Even Sigmund Freud, whose idea of the libido is often taken as excessively instinctual, recognized the importance of social forces in regulating biological drives.
Moreover, 20th century existentialists say that what makes us truly human (and free) is a “gap of nothingness” that stands between drives and actions (or inaction). And many Christians speak of “grace” that can override instinctual drives.
So Watts wasn’t perfect. But he did popularize and provoke. And he spoke to an individualistic inner life for those who didn’t feel comfortable with organized religion.
How did he get there?
In 1968 Watts 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.²
Nordstrom and Pilgrim take an extremely dim view of Watts’ 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.”³
Love him or hate him, according to legend Watts predicted a flash of lightning that accompanied his death. And when 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 apparently accompanied the death of Carl Jung, another prominent innovator and advocate of an East-West synthesis. And when Hollywood actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS, a rainbow appeared. So if these stories are true, it seems that God has his ways of letting us know who the real movers and shakers are.
¹ Watts lives on as a computer program who helps to lure Samantha (an OS) away from the protagonist in the film Her. See my audio review http://epages.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/her-review-by-mc/
² Alan Watts, “Psychedelics and Religious Experience,” California Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1968:74-85), p. 75.
³ 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.