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Alan Watts

Emptiness by Miss Gong via Flickr

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.

English: Group photo in front of Clark Univers...

Group photo in front of Clark University Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. Photo taken for Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts publication. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 51st week, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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.

Related Posts » Confucianism, Ego, Id, Superego, Taoism, Wu Wei, Yogi


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Wu Wei

Alan Watts The only way to make sense out of c...

Alan Watts The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance (Photo credit: symphony of love)

Wu Wei is an early Taoist term meaning non-action or effortless action. It is often misunderstood as being still, physically. But the idea is more about the belief that we’re in sync with the Tao by intuitively grasping when and when not to act.

Metaphors for this kind of lifestyle often sound like this: Be effortless as a bamboo shoot bending with the wind. Indeed, this is how wu wei has been depicted by Western pop spiritualists like Alan Watts

By way of contrast, some believe that simplified philosophies like this are nothing more than an attractive myth that help to cover up or turn a blind eye to unsavory realities. From a Christian perspective, for instance, we’re not out to avoid discomfort but rather to try to do God’s will. That doesn’t mean we should all behave as if we have a martyr complex. But it does mean that avoidance of responsibility cannot be justified by the idea of “going with the flow.”

Having said that, some Christians have their own clever ways of rationalizing sins. One of the popular recourses in Catholicism is the idea of personal “weakness.” Often in homily we hear how God loves us in our weakness, even though we may never overcome our particular weaknesses. So chain smoking, for instance, is okay because it’s a person’s “weakness.” Rather than taking steps to stop smoking, a chain smoker can just keep on killing themselves and nobody dares say anything. It’s their weakness…

To the general idea that we all have weaknesses, I’d agree. But I don’t think we should use that as an excuse to give up on trying to do better.

¹ Alan Watts was further popularized in the Spike Jonze film, Her. Watts (as a programmed simulation of the real Alan Watts) talks at hyper-speeds with Samantha (a female operating system) about deep things, contributing to Samantha’s growth as an Artificial Intelligence. See my audio review of Her.

Related Posts » Taoism




Confucius Temple at Tainan, Taiwan via

Confucianism  is a Chinese teaching of morality, right action and right education, based on the ethical teachings of Confucius. Up until 1382, statues of Confucius were common in public places. Every city had a shrine dedicated to Confucius and at least two state festivals were held in his honor during mid-spring and mid-autumn. The roots of Confucianism can be found in the ancient Chinese scholar class, the Ju. They were experts on rituals, sacrifices and the connection between heaven and earth.¹

Following Confucius’ death in 479 BCE, various schools of Confucianism arose. These Confucian schools are often contrasted with the more mystical aspects of Taoism. Confucianism is usually associated with precise rules of behavior and the State education that persisted in China early into this century. Taoism, on the other hand, is usually associated with the free-floating, unregulated ideas of Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, as popularized by Alan Watts and others.

But such a contrast is arguably overemphasized due to Western misunderstanding.

The rites of Confucianism (li) are meant to guide our natural and inherently good human potential (jen), they are not meant to oppress or stultify. Rules ideally are like stakes guiding a growing plant. Oppression arises when li are distorted or corrupted because a ruler is out of sync with the cosmic harmony (Tao). Notably, Confucius was not a snob. He believed that all people could attain ethical correctness and thus become noble (chun tzu).

These fundamental ideas belong to both Confucianism and Taoism. Differences were arguably not categorical but more about emphasis. The Neo-Confucian Mencius favored following personal intuition instead of adhering to external rules. But he certainly knew that one must calibrate one’s actions to one’s social circle, which, sociologists will tell us, always implies a kind of structure and rule. Mo Tzu highlighted the importance of universal love. Meanwhile, Mencius stressed the importance of love within one’s immediate circle, which, again, to be effective must take in to account socio-cultural rules and expectations.

Earlier Chinese religion practiced divination through oracle bones and the belief in a great cosmic being. But Confucianism generally tried to steer thinking away from the transcendent toward the humanistic. This trend is found in the main Confucian texts of the Analects, The Book of Rites, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean.

¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 203-205).