Editorial Reviews. Review. “Reading Alan Watts challenges us to explore new avenues of thinking, inspires us to lead more fulfilling lives. His legacy lives on in . The Wisdom of Insecurity Summary, as the book's subtitle suggests, is Alan Watts' book-length message to the inhabitants of an age of anxiety. The wisdom of insecurity by Alan Watts; 5 editions; First published in ; Subjects: Security (Psychology), Religion, Philosophy, Mental.
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The Wisdom. Insecurity by ALAN W. WATTS. VINTAGE BOOKS. A Division of Random House maintains that this insecurity is the result of trying to be secure . Download full-text PDF. The Wisdom of Insecurity. by Alan Watts. The more one studies attempted solutions to problems in politics and. In this fascinating book, Alan Watts explores man's quest for The Wisdom of Insecurity underlines the importance of our search for stability in.
Alan Watts would not take it! And Why? Depressed and anxious people especially. With Allan Watts , they might find a way to slow down and smell the roses. Trained to become an Episcopal priest, Watts turned out to be a cult figure, almost a guru for millions of Americans even during his lifetime.
But then, evolution happened and the two world wars brought atrocities previously unimaginable to the human mind. And, suddenly, all was empty: According to Watts, the vacuum created by the absence of god was filled with a primitive consumeristic drive.
Suddenly everything from stealing to taking drugs to having casual sex with everybody was allowed. So, they either went into a state of depression or started overworking themselves to exhaustion. Because, constant stimulation leads to desensitizing.
We can be a bit blunter: As a matter of fact, Watts compares consumerism to addiction. You start with a beer or two, but you move on to several wines and then to hard liquors. And how you are aimlessly chasing happiness, while descending further and further down. A well-to-do photographer notices a poor fisherman napping in a fishing boat. He scolds him for not working. The fisherman explains that he is resting because he was fishing in the morning and he has already caught enough fish for two days.
The photographer objects: After a while, this should get the fisherman enough money to download him a factory, build a fish restaurant and even export fish and lobsters in Paris.
Just live your life with as little worry and anxiety as you can. And you can do this if you stop thinking about the future and live in the now. If you recognize pain as part of pleasure, and mind as part of your body.
In , German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed: Because, no god means no reason to be good. Some even believe that this is the fundamental problem with atheism. Nevertheless, Watts says: Have you ever been to a restaurant and taken a photo of your meal so as to post it on Facebook or Instagram?
After all, the meal might even have been bad. But, you wanted to show to the world beforehand how good it looks like. News flash: Because, their body tells them when they are full and when they are not.
Our bodies did that too — when there was scarcity of food. They may be wrong. It is not our purpose here to argue this point. We need only note that such scepticism has immense influence, and sets the prevailing mood of the age. What science has said, in sum, is this: We do not, and in all probability cannot, know whether God exists.
Nothing that we do know suggests that he does, and all the arguments which claim to prove his existence are found to be without logical meaning. There is nothing, indeed, to prove that there is no God, but the burden of proof rests with those who propose the idea.
If, the scientists would say, you believe in God, you must do so on purely emotional grounds, without basis in logic or fact. Practically speaking, this may amount to atheism. Theoretically, it is simple agnosticism. For it is of the essence of scientific honesty that you do not pretend to know what you do not know, and of the essence of scientific method that you do not employ hypotheses which cannot be tested. The immediate results of this honesty have been deeply unsettling and depressing.
For man seems to be unable to live without myth, without the belief that the routine and drudgery, the pain and fear of this life have some meaning and goal in the future.
At once new myths come into being—political and economic myths with extravagant promises of the best of futures in the present world. These myths give the individual a certain sense of meaning by making him part of a vast social effort, in which he loses something of his own emptiness and loneliness.
Yet the very violence of these political religions betrays the anxiety beneath them—for they are but men huddling together and shouting to give themselves courage in the dark.
Once there is the suspicion that a religion is a myth, its power has gone. It may be necessary for man to have a myth, but he cannot self-consciously prescribe one as he can mix a pill for a headache. Even the best modern apologists for religion seem to overlook this fact. For their most forceful arguments for some sort of return to orthodoxy are those which show the social and moral advantages of belief in God.
But this does not prove that God is a reality. It proves, at most, that believing in God is useful. But if the public has any suspicion that he does not exist, the invention is in vain. It is for this reason that most of the current return to orthodoxy in some intellectual circles has a rather hollow ring. So much of it is more a belief in believing than a belief in God. Therefore the views of the former are false, and of the latter true.
You are upset about it. Because you are upset, there is obviously no fire. However much they may try to bury it in the depths of their minds, they are well aware that these joys are both uncertain and brief. This has two results. On the one hand, there is the anxiety that one may be missing something, so that the mind flits nervously and greedily from one pleasure to another, without finding rest and satisfaction in any.
We crave distraction—a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills, and titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded in the shortest possible time. These intervals are supposed to be the real living, the real purpose served by the necessary evil of work. Or we imagine that the justification of such work is the rearing of a family to go on doing the same kind of thing, in order to rear another family … and so ad infinitum.
This is no caricature. It is the simple reality of millions of lives, so commonplace that we need hardly dwell upon the details, save to note the anxiety and frustration of those who put up with it, not knowing what else to do. But what are we to do? The alternatives seem to be two.
The first is, somehow or other, to discover a new myth, or convincingly resuscitate an old one. If science cannot prove there is no God, we can try to live and act on the bare chance that he may exist after all.
There seems to be nothing to lose in such a gamble, for if death is the end, we shall never know that we have lost. Yet these are not the only solutions. We may begin by granting all the agnosticism of a critical science. We may admit, frankly, that we have no scientific grounds for belief in God, in personal immortality, or in any absolutes. We may refrain altogether from trying to believe, taking life just as it is, and no more. From this point of departure there is yet another way of life that requires neither myth nor despair.
But it requires a complete revolution in our ordinary, habitual ways of thinking and feeling. The extraordinary thing about this revolution is that it reveals the truth behind the so-called myths of traditional religion and metaphysics.
It reveals, not beliefs, but actual realities corresponding—in an unexpected way—to the ideas of God and of eternal life. There are reasons for supposing that a revolution of this kind was the original source of some of the main religious ideas, standing in relation to them as reality to symbol and cause to effect.
The common error of ordinary religious practice is to mistake the symbol for the reality, to look at the finger pointing the way and then to suck it for comfort rather than follow it. Religious ideas are like words—of little use, and often misleading, unless you know the concrete realities to which they refer. But the seeing requires a correction of mind, just as clear vision sometimes requires a correction of the eyes.
The discovery of this reality is hindered rather than helped by belief, whether one believes in God or believes in atheism. We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.
Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown.
Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception. Most of us believe in order to feel secure, in order to make our individual lives seem valuable and meaningful.
But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run.
The same is true of life and of God. From a point of view strictly, if strangely, in accord with certain religious traditions, this disappearance of the old rocks and absolutes is no calamity, but rather a blessing. It almost compels us to face reality with open minds, and you can only know God through an open mind just as you can only see the sky through a clear window. You will not see the sky if you have covered the glass with blue paint.
Surely it is old news that salvation comes only through the death of the human form of God. These idols are not just crude images, such as the mental picture of God as an old gentleman on a golden throne. They are our beliefs, our cherished preconceptions of the truth, which block the unreserved opening of mind and heart to reality.
The legitimate use of images is to express the truth, not to possess it. This was always recognized in the great Oriental traditions such as Buddhism, Vedanta, and Taoism.
The principle has not been unknown to Christians, for it was implicit in the whole story and teaching of Christ. His life was from the beginning a complete acceptance and embracing of insecurity.
But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit. For we have never actually understood the revolutionary sense beneath them—the incredible truth that what religion calls the vision of God is found in giving up any belief in the idea of God. The ordinary agnostic, relativist, or materialist fails to reach this point because he does not follow his line of thought consistently to its end—an end which would be the surprise of his life.
All too soon he abandons faith, openness to reality, and lets his mind harden into doctrine. The discovery of the mystery, the wonder beyond all wonders, needs no belief, for we can only believe in what we have already known, preconceived, and imagined.
But this is beyond any imagination. Their lives seem to have so few complications. They eat when they are hungry and sleep when they are tired, and instinct rather than anxiety seems to govern their few preparations for the future. As far as we can judge, every animal is so busy with what he is doing at the moment that it never enters his head to ask whether life has a meaning or a future.
For the animal, happiness consists in enjoying life in the immediate present—not in the assurance that there is a whole future of joys ahead of him.
This is not just because the animal is a relatively insensitive clod. Often enough his eyesight, his sense of hearing and smell, are far more acute than ours, and one can hardly doubt that he enjoys his food and sleep immensely. Despite his acute senses, he has, however, a somewhat insensitive brain. It is more specialized than ours, for which reason he is a creature of habit; he is unable to reason and make abstractions, and has extremely limited powers of memory and prediction.
Unquestionably the sensitive human brain adds immeasurably to the richness of life. Yet for this we pay dearly, because the increase in over-all sensitivity makes us peculiarly vulnerable. One can be less vulnerable by becoming less sensitive—more of a stone and less of a man—and so less capable of enjoyment. Sensitivity requires a high degree of softness and fragility—eyeballs, eardrums, taste buds, and nerve ends culminating in the highly delicate organism of the brain.
These are not only soft and fragile, but also perishable. There seems to be no effective way of decreasing the delicacy and perishability of living tissue without also decreasing its vitality and sensitivity. If we are to have intense pleasures, we must also be liable to intense pains. The pleasure we love, and the pain we hate, but it seems impossible to have the former without the latter. Indeed, it looks as if the two must in some way alternate, for continuous pleasure is a stimulus that must either pall or be increased.
And the increase will either harden the sense buds with its friction, or turn into pain. A consistent diet of rich food either destroys the appetite or makes one sick. To the degree, then, that life is found good, death must be proportionately evil.
The more we are able to love another person and to enjoy his company, the greater must be our grief at his death, or in separation. The further the power of consciousness ventures out into experience, the more is the price it must pay for its knowledge. Something of this kind is often attempted. There is the woman who, having suffered some deep emotional injury in love or marriage, vows never to let another man play on her feelings, assuming the role of the hard and bitter spinster.
The hard-bitten kind of person is always, as it were, a partial suicide; some of himself is already dead. If, then, we are to be fully human and fully alive and aware, it seems that we must be willing to suffer for our pleasures.
Without such willingness there can be no growth in the intensity of consciousness. Yet, generally speaking, we are not willing, and it may be thought strange to suppose that we can be.
Under these circumstances, the life that we live is a contradiction and a conflict. Because consciousness must involve both pleasure and pain, to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is, in effect, to strive for the loss of consciousness.
Because such a loss is in principle the same as death, this means that the more we struggle for life as pleasure , the more we are actually killing what we love. Indeed, this is the common attitude of man to so much that he loves. For the greater part of human activity is designed to make permanent those experiences and joys which are only lovable because they are changing.
Music is a delight because of its rhythm and flow. Yet the moment you arrest the flow and prolong a note or chord beyond its time, the rhythm is destroyed.
Because life is likewise a flowing process, change and death are its necessary parts. To work for their exclusion is to work against life. However, the simple experiencing of alternating pain and pleasure is by no means the heart of the human problem.
The reason that we want life to mean something, that we seek God or eternal life, is not merely that we are trying to get away from an immediate experience of pain. Nor is it for any such reason that we assume attitudes and roles as habits of perpetual self-defense.
The real problem does not come from any momentary sensitivity to pain, but from our marvelous powers of memory and foresight—in short from our consciousness of time. For the animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable.
But man is hardly satisfied with this at all. He is much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations — especially the latter. With these assured, he can put up with an extremely miserable present. Without this assurance, he can be extremely miserable in the midst of immediate physical pleasure. In the meantime he is feeling no physical pain; he has plenty to eat; he is surrounded by friends and human affection; he is doing work that is normally of great interest to him. But his power to enjoy these things is taken away by constant dread.
He is insensitive to the immediate realities around him. His mind is preoccupied with something that is not yet here. It is not as if he were thinking about it in a practical way, trying to decide whether he should have the operation or not, or making plans to take care of his family and his affairs if he should die. These decisions have already been made. Rather, he is thinking about the operation in an entirely futile way, which both ruins his present enjoyment of life and contributes nothing to the solution of any problem.
But he cannot help himself. This is the typical human problem. The object of dread may not be an operation in the immediate future. It may be something out of the past, some memory of an injury, some crime or indiscretion, which haunts the present with a sense of resentment or guilt. The power of memories and expectations is such that for most human beings the past and the future are not as real, but more real than the present.
There can be no doubt that the power to remember and predict, to make an ordered sequence out of a helter-skelter chaos of disconnected moments, is a wonderful development of sensitivity. In a way it is the achievement of the human brain, giving man the most extraordinary powers of survival and adaptation to life. But the way in which we generally use this power is apt to destroy all its advantages. For it is of little use to us to be able to remember and predict if it makes us unable to live fully in the present.
What is the use of planning to be able to eat next week unless I can really enjoy the meals when they come? I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass.
For I shall have formed a habit of looking behind and ahead, making it difficult for me to attend to the here and now. If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world. After all, the future is quite meaningless and unimportant unless, sooner or later, it is going to become the present.
This kind of living in the fantasy of expectation rather than the reality of the present is the special trouble of those business men who live entirely to make money. So many people of wealth understand much more about making and saving money than about using and enjoying it.
They fail to live because they are always preparing to live. Instead of earning a living they are mostly earning an earning, and thus when the time comes to relax they are unable to do so. From still another point of view the way in which we use memory and prediction makes us less, rather than more, adaptable to life.
The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge every one of us is going to suffer and die. If, then, we cannot live happily without an assured future, we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world where, despite the best plans, accidents will happen, and where death comes at the end. This, then, is the human problem: there is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.
By remembering the past we can plan for the future. Furthermore, the growth of an acute sense of the past and the future gives us a correspondingly dim sense of the present.
In other words, we seem to reach a point where the advantages of being conscious are outweighed by its disadvantages, where extreme sensitivity makes us unadaptable. The discontent of our souls would appear to be the sign and seal of their divinity. But does the desire for something prove that the thing exists?
We know that it does not necessarily do so at all. For it would seem that, in man, life is in hopeless conflict with itself. To be happy, we must have what we cannot have. In man, nature has conceived desires which it is impossible to satisfy. To drink more fully of the fountain of pleasure, it has brought forth capacities which make man the more susceptible to pain. It has given us the power to control the future but a little—the price of which is the frustration of knowing that we must at last go down in defeat.
If we find this absurd, this is only to say that nature has conceived intelligence in us to berate itself for absurdity.
Of course we do not want to think that this is true. Reasoning, then, is not enough. We must go deeper. We must look into this life, this nature, which has become aware within us, and find out whether it is really in conflict with itself, whether it actually desires the security and the painlessness which its individual forms can never enjoy.
Because life is sweet we do not want to give it up, and yet the more we become involved in it, the more we are trapped, limited, and frustrated. We love it and hate it at the same time. We fall in love with people and possessions only to be tortured by anxiety for them. The conflict is not only between ourselves and the surrounding universe; it is between ourselves and ourselves.
For intractable nature is both around and within us. It is as if we were divided into two parts. For the perishability and changefulness of the world is part and parcel of its liveliness and loveliness.
Our revels now are ended.
There is more in this beauty than the succession of melodious images, and the theme of dissolution does not simply borrow its splendor from the things dissolved. The truth is rather that the images, though beautiful in themselves, come to life in the act of vanishing. The poet takes away their static solidity, and turns a beauty which would otherwise be only statuesque and architectural into music, which, no sooner than it is sounded, dies away.
The towers, palaces, and temples become vibrant, and break from the excess of life within them. To be passing is to live; to remain and continue is to die.
Here, if anywhere, truth is beauty, for movement and rhythm are of the essence of all things lovable. In sculpture, architecture, and painting the finished form stands still, but even so the eye finds pleasure in the form only when it contains a certain lack of symmetry, when, frozen in stone as it may be, it looks as if it were in the midst of motion.
For change is not merely a force of destruction. Every form is really a pattern of movement, and every living thing is like the river, which, if it did not flow out, would never have been able to flow in. Life and death are not two opposed forces; they are simply two ways of looking at the same force, for the movement of change is as much the builder as the destroyer.
The human body lives because it is a complex of motions, of circulation, respiration, and digestion. To resist change, to try to cling to life, is therefore like holding your breath: if you persist you kill yourself. It is as much a part and product of the stream of change as the body and the whole natural world. We shall then have a war between consciousness and nature, between the desire for permanence and the fact of flux. This war must be utterly futile and frustrating—a vicious circle—because it is a conflict between two parts of the same thing.
It must lead thought and action into circles which go nowhere faster and faster. For when we fail to see that our life is change, we set ourselves against ourselves and become like Ouroboros, the misguided snake, who tries to eat his own tail.
Ouroboros is the perennial symbol of all vicious circles, of every attempt to split our being asunder and make one part conquer the other. The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance. Religion, as most of us have known it, has quite obviously tried to make sense out of life by fixation. It has tried to give this passing world a meaning by relating it to an unchanging God, and by seeing its goal and purpose as an immortal life in which the individual becomes one with the changeless nature of the deity.
We think that making sense out of life is impossible unless the flow of events can somehow be fitted into a framework of rigid forms. To be meaningful, life must be understandable in terms of fixed ideas and laws, and these in turn must correspond to unchanging and eternal realities behind the shifting scene.
The root of the difficulty is that we have developed the power of thinking so rapidly and one-sidedly that we have forgotten the proper relation between thoughts and events, words and things. What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously.
A convention is a social convenience, as, for example, money. Money gets rid of the inconveniences of barter. But it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth, because it will do you no good to eat it or wear it for clothing. But real wealth, such as food, is perishable. Thus a community may possess all the gold in the world, but if it does not farm its crops it will starve. They are not those things, and though they represent them, there are many ways in which they do not correspond at all.
As with money and wealth, so with thoughts and things: ideas and words are more or less fixed, whereas real things change. It is also convenient to agree to use the same words for the same things, and to keep these words unchanged, even though the things we are indicating are in constant motion.
In the beginning, the power of words must have seemed magical, and, indeed, the miracles which verbal thinking has wrought have justified the impression. What a marvel it must have been to get rid of the nuisances of sign-language and summon a friend simply by making a short noise—his name! It is no wonder that names have been considered uncanny manifestations of supernatural power, and that men have identified their names with their souls or used them to invoke spiritual forces.
To define has come to mean almost the same thing as to understand. Thus he begins to feel, like the word, separate and static, as over against the real, fluid world of nature. Feeling separate, the sense of conflict between man, on the one hand, and nature, on the other, begins.
Language and thought grapple with the conflict, and the magic which can summon a man by naming him is applied to the universe. Its powers are named, personalized, and invoked in mythology and religion. Natural processes are made intelligible, because all regular processes—such as the rotation of the stars and seasons—can be fitted to words and ascribed to the activity of the gods or God, the eternal Word. At a later time science employs the same process, studying every kind of regularity in the universe, naming, classifying, and making use of them in ways still more miraculous.
But because it is the use and nature of words and thoughts to be fixed, definite, isolated, it is extremely hard to describe the most important characteristic of life—its movement and fluidity.
Just as money does not represent the perishability and edibility of food, so words and thoughts do not represent the vitality of life. But this is not quite true. You can only say that the moving train actually is i. But infinitely small points and fixed moments are always imaginary points, being denizens of mathematical theory rather than the real world. It is most convenient for scientific calculation to think of a movement as a series of very small jerks or stills.
But confusion arises when the world described and measured by such conventions is identified with the world of experience. A series of stills does not, unless rapidly moved before our eyes, convey the essential vitality and beauty of movement. The definition, the description, leaves out the most important thing. It is to prefer a motion-picture film to a real, running man. Words and measures do not give life; they merely symbolize it. The dictionary itself is circular.
It defines words in terms of other words. The dictionary comes a little closer to life when, alongside some word, it gives you a picture. But it will be noted that all dictionary pictures are attached to nouns rather than verbs. An illustration of the verb to run would have to be a series of stills like a comic strip, for words and static pictures can neither define nor explain a motion. Even the nouns are conventions. We do not know.
That is to say, we cannot define it in any fixed way, though, in another sense, we know it as our immediate experience—a flowing process without definable beginning or end. It is convention alone which persuades me that I am simply this body bounded by a skin in space, and by birth and death in time. Where do I begin and end in space? I have relations to the sun and air which are just as vital parts of my existence as my heart.
The movement in which I am a pattern or convolution began incalculable ages before the conventionally isolated event called birth, and will continue long after the event called death. Only words and conventions can isolate us from the entirely undefinable something which is everything.
Now these are useful words, so long as we treat them as conventions and use them like the imaginary lines of latitude and longitude which are drawn upon maps, but are not actually found upon the face of the earth.
But in practice we are all bewitched by words. We confuse them with the real world, and try to live in the real world as if it were the world of words. As a consequence, we are dismayed and dumbfounded when they do not fit. The more we try to live in the world of words, the more we feel isolated and alone, the more all the joy and liveliness of things is exchanged for mere certainty and security.
On the other hand, the more we are forced to admit that we actually live in the real world, the more we feel ignorant, uncertain, and insecure about everything. But there can be no sanity unless the difference between these two worlds is recognized. The scope and purposes of science are woefully misunderstood when the universe which it describes is confused with the universe in which man lives.
Science is talking about a symbol of the real universe, and this symbol has much the same use as money. It is a convenient timesaver for making practical arrangements. But when money and wealth, reality and science are confused, the symbol becomes a burden.
Similarly, the universe described in formal, dogmatic religion is nothing more than a symbol of the real world, being likewise constructed out of verbal and conventional distinctions.
We hunger for the perpetuity of something which never existed. It depends on what you want to do with them. The clash between science and religion has not shown that religion is false and science is true. But in the process of symbolizing the universe in this way or that for this purpose or that we seem to have lost the actual joy and meaning of life itself. All the various definitions of the universe have had ulterior motives, being concerned with the future rather than the present.
Religion wants to assure the future beyond death, and science wants to assure it until death, and to postpone death. But tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.
But it is just this reality of the present, this moving, vital now which eludes all the definitions and descriptions. Here is the mysterious real world which words and ideas can never pin down.