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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.

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English: Conversion of St Paul

English: Conversion of St Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Conversion is a total and complete change of allegiance, belief and practice from a secular to a religious outlook, or from one religious belief system to another.

This is the textbook definition. In actual fact, conversion is usually an ongoing process in which old elements of the personality (and related attitudes and beliefs) diminish and possibly die out while being replaced by new ones.

Alternately, aspects of the old personality may endure but be transformed and applied within a new outlook. For instance, a musician may at one time play predominantly for the love of music and to please people, self-aggrandize and make money. After a conversion experience he or she may play music to glorify God.

The term also has more popular uses, such as “I converted from meat eating to vegetarianism.”

In the New Testament we hear of some conversion experiences that are sudden and powerful, such as the persecutor of Christians Saul falling off his horse and becoming St. Paul. But these are typically rare. The norm seems to be a gradual conversion, characterized by moments of grace and spiritual dryness. Or perhaps an initially powerful conversion experience is followed by periods of dryness and grace.

When someone has a powerful conversion experience they usually claim to “know” instead of “believe,” which arguably could be an interpretive mistake. And new converts are often overzealous and intolerant of other forms of belief. At least for a while. If they’re inherently sensible, the school of life usually balances them out over time. But if they’re not sensible about their beliefs, converts may continue to be fanatical and, perhaps, alienate more than inspire others.

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The Holy

English: Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) via Wikipedia

The German Lutheran scholar Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) describes The Holy in terms of a personal experience.

In The Idea of the Holy (1917) he borrows from the Latin word numen when introducing the term numinous, which refers to “deeply felt religious experience.”

Experience of the numinous may derive from a monotheistic God or from many pagan gods. When originating from God, Otto says the numinous is endowed with “rationality, purpose, personality and morality.” Pagan numinosity, he suggests, is somehow inferior.

Otto makes a similar distinction between magic and religion. Not trying to be non-judgmental or politically correct, he says magic manifests a “dimmed” numinous, in contrast to the experience of God, which he describes as an awe-filled encounter, a mysterium tremendum and a majestus.

For Otto, the experience of God is the highest type of numinosity. It’s a personal experience of an omnipotent, omniscient power that’s worthy of utmost respect and which inspires not just awe, but also a healthy kind of fear.

The individual is urgently attracted to this power, but the experience of the Godhead may also frighten, humble and purify.

In addition, Otto notes that one would experience a sense of creaturely unworthiness and perhaps wretchedness, standing naked, as it were, in the face of such a great, powerful and “wholly other” Godhead.

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