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Playing Hide and Seek With Alan Watts

Updated: May 10

(Almost) Everything You Need to Know about Yourself and the World in Seven Delightful Lessons by Alan Watts

A short introduction to this blog post by Filip Van Kerckhoven

“You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.”

Alan Watts

“If we came to our senses, we would be aware of ourselves not as only on the inside of our skins… But we would be aware that the outside is us too.”

Alan Watts

Alan Watts (1915 - 1973)

The audio version of this blog post

In this fourth installment of the 'Old News' series of blog posts, I take great pleasure in introducing you to the brilliant and inimitable Alan Watts, whom I briefly mentioned in the first installment of this series. In seven recordings of Alan Watts' 'narrations' you will be introduced to the thoughts of this revolutionary visionary/ wise man/ philosopher/ religious scholar/ ecological pioneer. I prefer to use the word 'narrations' rather than the word 'lectures', because 'lectures' sounds somewhat too dry or boring for what Alan Watts did - he was a witty performer blessed with a special sense of humor.

So mostly audio material in this episode, and if you don't feel like reading much you can scroll right down to the seven video clips that are actually sound clips. In case you go straight to the recordings now: ENJOY and take your time! Also to let REALLY sink in what is being made clear in these delightful performances

One of the goals that is most important for me in A Biosphere Project is this: to help spread new proposals for a different worldview, since the ecological and other crises we are in the midst of are primarily a result of our way of thinking about the world and ourselves, a way of thinking that already long ago has ushered in a course that is currently leading us straight into the abyss.

It is fundamentally a crisis in our worldview: our Old Story is coming to an end, and a New Story is still in the making. And many thinkers, scientists, therapists, activists and artists have already done a great deal of work in providing elements for a new worldview that can lead to a sustainable and harmonious presence of our species on this planet. Alan Watts was one of those people, and his thinking has had a major impact on new ways of thinking and feeling about the ecological challenges we face in the second half of the last century. They are often unaware of it, but many of our ecological activists, artists, as well as scientists have been influenced by Alan Watts' thinking. High time this extraordinary visionary is brought into the spotlight once again, as we quite urgently need to take the next step: our current trajectory is still headed straight toward the abyss. Below is a brief introduction to the life and work of Alan Watts, but as mentioned, feel free to scroll right down to the seven audio fragments of Alan Watts' 'talks'. You need not have read the following introduction first, because no one can say it better than Alan Watts himself. I have selected these seven clips of Alan Watts' ‘talks’ from the dozens or hundreds available on Youtube.

You can leave your favorite Netflix series aside for a moment and choose for the extraordinary tales of Alan Watts, Wise Man par excellence of the second half of the 20th century. You can find more of these recordings through the Alan Watts Organization website, and official podcast, as well as on their official YouTube channel and the Be Here Now Network

Take your time to enjoy this. Alan Watts also takes his time to articulate his vision slowly but clearly, leaving plenty of room for silences and pauses - and for humor, which is always present. The silences sometimes say as much as the words, and the humor is as important as the ‘message’. Each of these 'talks' also deserves more than one listening session. I have listened to some of them many many times, but each time I discover new aspects, or something becomes clear in a different way. It is old wine aged in extraordinary barrels, and not suitable for hasty consumption. Enjoy!

Note: the title says "almost' everything you need to know..." The reason it says "almost" is for another time. In a nutshell, Alan Watts' philosophy and worldview originated within a certain context, and also have their limitations. Nobody has all the wisdom of the universe. Another time I will highlight what I see as possible gaps in Alan Watts' worldview and the historical currents in Eastern philosophy and religion from which it springs. No, Alan Watts is one voice among many that can show us the way, but his voice is one of particular depth, humanity, poetry, erudition, humor, and a great heart for the world.

Ancient (and at times hilarious) wisdom for hopeless (but not serious) situations: a brief introduction to the life and work of Alan Watts, and also something about playing hide-and-seek.

Alan Watts was born in London in 1915. His father, a businessman, took Alan to the ‘Buddhist Lodge’ in London already as a child, which was not evident in 1920s London. At the age of seventeen, Alan Watts published his first booklet, a summary of the writings of the great D.T. Suzuki. In 1938, Alan moved to the U.S. to study Zen in New York. Equally versed in Western philosophy, he studied at Seabury-Western theological seminary and was also a priest in the Episcopal Church for six years. After leaving the church, he retreated to rural Upstate New York and wrote his first book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety’, which would be followed by many other books on Eastern and Western philosophy and the nature of consciousness and self in the world.

While studying in New York, he began his life as a public speaker in the cafes and bookstores of New York City and later San Francisco, and became known for the radio programs he started on the West Coast in the 1950s and 1960s. Alan Watts gave lectures, seminars and 'talks' throughout his life, including at various American Universities, as well as at other public venues and events, and also on the old ferry boat 'Vallejo' which was his home in San Francisco Bay in his later years. He explored his vision in several other books like ’The Way Of Zen’ and ‘On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are’.

At first the word 'lectures' may cause some resistance. A 'lecture' by a 'philosopher' might be associated with a kind of boring academic and over-intellectual discourse on which might be hard to keep your attention. Alan Watts' 'talks' are different. Here is someone who was not only an intellectual, but also a visionary, a joker and a masterful storyteller.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Alan Watts had a particularly busy schedule of lectures and seminars in leading universities and other institutions throughout the U.S. At one point Alan was given a Swiss tape recorder by a friend. Since then, Alan Watts enthusiastically began carefully recording his talks and lectures, with the help of his son Mark Watts. This tape recorder was a sophisticated instrument for its time, but nonetheless the recordings are of a refreshing simplicity: constantly there are sounds in the background, ranging from a squeaking door, a car horn honking, a crackling fireplace in his old ferry called ‘Vallejo’,.. but these sounds are part of the warmth and charm of these recordings, and along with Alan Watts' voice and his 'very British' accent, they are imbued with a glowing humanheartedness and warmth.

So defining Alan Watts as a 'philosopher' does not do him justice, for he was so much more than what we generally understand today by the term 'philosopher'. He was a kind of 'Elder,' a man in a community who possesses a knowledge and wisdom that is an anchor, grounding and compass for the community, a knowledge that reaches beyond and deeper than mere mental or intellectual knowledge. He was almost like a shaman, whose deep voice seemed to tap into a channel that seemed to come from a source very different from the mind. These qualities therefore made him an icon of a time when great, social changes were initiated and all fixed values were questioned: the sixties and seventies. Together with writers, philosophers, artists and activists such as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder or Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts helped shape a revolution in ideas that continue to influence social evolutions such as ecological awareness and criticism of our consumer society to this day.

But it would be equally incorrect to characterize Alan Watts as a kind of ‘hippie philosopher’. He was a scholar of religion and an erudite expert in Eastern religions and philosophy with which he came into contact already as a child while growing up in London. (Note: Eastern philosophies of life are actually neither philosophy nor religion in the Western sense of the word, but I use these terms now for convenience.) He was also well informed of the latest developments in science, particularly quantum physics and biology, and he explored the similarities between those scientific findings and the Eastern philosophy of life. Jeremy Lent, author of ‘The Web Of Meaning’, is also searching for those similarities 50 years after Watts, and he is one of the prominent contemporary scientists and authors bringing Alan Watts back to attention.

So Alan Watts seemed destined to form a kind of bridge between the worlds of East and West, and for an entire lifetime he did just that. Along with D.T. Suzuki, he was one of the first to translate Eastern thought and make it understandable to a Western audience. He integrated elements from the views of Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, and Western philosophy into a worldview that constantly unmasks our usual patterns of thinking about reality, the universe, and our place in it as an illusion (as both Eastern ancient intuitions and contemporary Western quantum physics teach us).

A very important aspect of this is the ever-present humor and sense of perspective. Watts always introduces laughter into his reasoning, and the analogies and comparisons he uses to make difficult concepts accessible to a wide audience are often laced with a form of humor that is the best medicine against too much sérieux or intellectual or religious dramatics. He continually points out that one of our problems is that we take it all too seriously: "Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun." Humor is therefore a common thread in his lectures, which sometimes had something of performances.

Nor did Watts confess himself to any one particular religion or ideology. Although he was an Episcopal priest for six years, his worldview is primarily one of openness to all possible modes of consciousness, thought and feeling. As he himself put it, "Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, openness - an act of trust in the unknown."

His own worldview, then, can be described as a synthesis. In his lectures he often talks about Hindu cosmology, but just as often he clarifies the Taoist view of nature or the concept of emptiness in Zen. He can jump from Western philosophy to the Vedanta or the Tao in one sentence.

One aspect of Hindu cosmology that originated millennia ago in what is today East India does seem to have been very important in Alan Watts' worldview: the idea of reality as a kind of dream of Universal Consciousness (Brahman or Atman) playing hide-and-seek with itself.

In this view, the world and the entire universe is a way of the Universal Consciousness to ‘experience something’, like us when we are watching an exciting movie. To really experience something, we have to forget that we are watching a movie, and be completely absorbed by the story. Something similar happens for Hindu cosmology on a cosmic scale: there is only one consciousness, the Self, which in different cycles makes itself experience something and is completely absorbed by the action, which seems just like the real thing. In this vision, each one of us is a manifestation and expression of the Universal Consciousness, of Brahman, of God. We have forgotten it only because we are so absorbed by the story, like an exciting movie.

If you have read my previous blog post, you know that I am very interested in the intersections between ancient cosmologies and contemporary science. And this ancient Hindu view of awareness and world does indeed have an analogy in contemporary science as well. A major new viewpoint in quantum physics assumes that consciousness is fundamental, and that everything we call material reality arises from consciousness. To illustrate this point you will find at the end of this post a fascinating lecture by Neil Theise, a New York physician and liver pathologist who gives a brief account from his perspective, and clarifies the same view as Alan Watts: we do not live in the universe, we ARE the universe. Consciousness is the ground of reality and not matter.

How a physician and scientific researcher comes to that same conclusion is an extremely interesting addition to Alan Watts' lectures, and Neil Theise is not the only scientist coming to that conclusion today.

Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, put it this way a century ago, "The total number of minds in the universe is one. Consciousness is a singularity phasing within all beings."

Nobel laureate Max Planck, also one of the founders of quantum physics, put it this way (and is quoted by Neil Theise in his talk):

"I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness."

And Alan Watts, with his typical sense of humor, put it this way: "Jesus Christ knew he was God. So wake up and find out eventually who you really are. In our culture, of course, they'll say you're crazy and you're blasphemous, and they'll either put you in jail or in a nut house (which is pretty much the same thing). However if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations, 'My goodness, I've just discovered that I'm God,' they'll laugh and say, 'Oh, congratulations, at last you found out.'"

Or also by Watts: "What I am really saying is that you don't need to do anything, because if you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomenon of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that, and there is nothing wrong with you at all."

"Your real self, the real you, is everything there is ... but concentrated and expressing itself at the point called your physical organism."

I will return often to this particular perspective and similar ideas in other ancient cosmologies, and the various analogous ideas gaining ground in 'cutting edge science', as those ideas are central to my project: helping to spread new perspectives on our situation in our small, fragile and endangered biosphere, the living being of which we are a part. The aforementioned worldview is a viewpoint that is particularly difficult for us Westerners to adopt, accustomed as we are to seeing the world as an inanimate, mechanistic thing that came into being purely by chance and has no meaning or purpose. Therefore, it cannot really be understood from the cognitive, the mind alone, it can only really be felt and lived as an experience, as Satori (sudden enlightenment) is in the practice of Zen Buddhism. But that experience is also possible for us Westerners who are addicted to thinking and cognition. To do so, however, we must go ‘out of our minds’, go outside of thinking. So Alan Watts said, "To go out of your mind at least once a day is tremendously important, because by going out of your mind you come to your senses."

And that is true: we are going to have to go ‘out of our minds’ if we really want to change course. Therefore, one of the intentions in my future project is also to not only share information at the mind level, but also to develop some kind of 'exercises' or 'practice' that can make you experience these other perspectives more deeply than just as 'information' for our minds. It is one of the ways my project is a continuation of my path as a visual artist: art can also give us access to an experience on a much deeper level than the cognitive, and I hope to pursue that in my future travel project as well. It is also one of the things that makes Alan Watts different from many philosophers in the Western tradition. Somehow he takes us into his lectures in a way that already gives us a glimpse of that experience, of the transformation, of the life-changing shift in perspective. This is also why I wouldn't call Alan Watts a "philosopher. He was a visionary, a shaman, an ‘elder’.

Alan Watts (1915-1973)

Alan Watts in seven delightful sessions:

1 ‘What is reality?’ (52:55)

If you were to listen to only one 'talk' by Alan Watts in your lifetime, let it be this one: ‘What Is Reality?’

Any attempt to summarize the content of this talk would do injustice to the brilliant simplicity, clarity and also humor with which Alan Watts, in a mere 45 minutes, paints a picture of the unconscious collective beliefs that help shape our society. He starts out from two myths that largely determine our thinking, although we usually do not realize it: the myth of the universe as something ‘made’, and the myth of the universe as a kind of machine. He shows how these myths are mental constructs that limit us to the point where we can no longer perceive what the universe really is, and what we ourselves really are.

For some reason, the Alan Watts organization has chosen to provide this ‘talk’ with soft background music and a ‘real time’ sunset, something that I think is completely unnecessary. But after a minute or two you forget those things and are swept up in the wonderful reasoning of a brilliant mind with a very big heart.

Enjoy this at times extremely funny immersion in a different view of what reality is! Highly recommended. I would also highly recommend listening more than once, and taking the time to let sink in what actually becomes clear here.

2 ‘The Benefit of Living With No Purpose’ (15:00)

This is a short and very funny introduction to some ideas that recur very often in the work of Alan Watts: life as a process that is one with the whole universe, nature as the infinite organism of which we are a part, and the choice to trust that nature and exist in harmony with it rather than try to control it, and also the need not to take it all too seriously. This 15-minute excerpt is part of the lecture called "Man And Nature," which you can also listen to in its entirety further on. A fine intro and ‘teaser’.

3 ‘Just Trust The Universe’ (1:11:10)

This at times hilarious account begins with the impossibility of being sure we are making correct decisions. For any given choice, there are endless data to consider, and we can never be sure if we have thought everything through. Consequently, most of our choices are based more on intuition or ‘gut feeling a’,nd there is nothing wrong with that, quite the contrary. But what exactly is intuition?

Alan Watts advises trusting the universe, and gives many good reasons to do so rather than trying to control what happens. From there, he takes us on a fascinating journey through the historical backgrounds of our view of the universe, and outlines various schools of thought that, independent of religion, or any form of dogma, point a way to a fundamental trust in ourselves as well as the world. Wonderful and at times particularly funny, but also haunting and penetrating. Enjoy!

4 ‘Man and Nature (58:20)

In this exceptional talk on ecology and our relationship with nature, Alan Watts sketches in a very accessible way - and at times comical as is his habit- three important ideas about nature that have played an important role in human history. He starts with the Western myth of nature as something ‘made’, and the image that followed from that as nature as a kind of fully automatic machine, both conceptions that were also addressed in the lecture ‘What is Reality’? He contrasts this predominantly Western view with the view of nature that emerged in Hinduism as a kind of 'drama': the deity who imagines reality in order to make Herself experience something, and who thus manifests Herself in all that is but in the process forgets that She is God. And as a third worldview about nature, he introduces the Tao, the ancient Chinese vision articulated in the ‘Tao Te Ching’ by Lao Tze. In this view, nature is seen as ‘everything that happens by itself’, the inherent self-governing order in everything that is, ranging from a flower to a human being to a solar system. And it becomes clear that our Western worldview, in its drive for dominance and control, will have much to learn from the other worldviews that originated in India and China thousands of years ago. A fascinating talk, and very humorous. In the last ten minutes, Alan Watts also treats us to the most hilarious ‘debunking’ ever of the idea of evolution as just blind ‘survival of the fittest’. Inimitable.

5 ‘Individual and the World Pt 1 Full Lecture’ (47:28)

In this wonderful narrative, Alan Watts takes us through a particularly lucid and accessible exploration of what we think of as ‘I’ or ‘myself’. It remains one of the great questions: 'who am I', or 'what am I'. He quickly dismantles our usual way of thinking about what 'I' is, and what the 'outside world' is. He shows that the separation between ourselves and that outside world is an illusion, a construct that is symbolic rather than factual. And playfully and idiosyncratically, he shows us how, through the assumptions of nineteenth-century ‘naturalism’, we have come to see ourselves as strangers in this world, a world that, according to that nineteenth-century view, is dead, mechanical, unconscious and meaningless. And because of this view of ourselves and the world, we are acting against nature rather than in harmony with it. In contrast, he highlights how we are inseparable from the larger organism of Nature; we ARE that organism, it is in no way possible to separate ourselves from our environment. It is one continuous process, and a beautiful dance. A wonderful and so enlightening talk, and an urgent and lasting wake-up call: we need to get away from this nineteenth-century view that still determines our worldview in the West, and we need to start seeing ourselves again as what we really are.

6 ‘On Being God’ (1:20:31)

This brilliant lecture (‘performance’ is perhaps a better word) was recorded in New York City in 1971, at a conference on Western psychotherapy and Eastern religions.

This narrative/ performance, delivered to a large audience, is an exploration of how Western religions and Western psychotherapy deal with the fact of the mystical experiences that form the basis of Eastern religions and worldview. Alan Watts makes clear that in the West there is no adequate way to interpret these experiences, and those who report a mystical experience are quickly categorized as ‘sick’. In Hinduism it is normal to experience being God, since in the Hindu worldview everyone is an emanation and expression of the Universal Deity. In the West, you are more likely to be put on a straitjacket, and medicated into better thoughts. At one point during this reading/storytelling/performance, Alan Watts introduces a role-play: those present are asked to play that they are therapists, and Alan Watts plays a patient who informs the therapist that he is God. The ‘therapists’ are allowed to ask any question of God/ Alan Watts, and the result is an at times hilarious dialogue and playful performance by a masterful storyteller/ philosopher/ word artist/ visionary, who notwithstanding the playfulness also provides enlightening clarity on the limitations of our beliefs that put limitations on our possible experiences as well, and on the way Western Religions and various forms of therapy can also form a cage within which important insights are being discouraged or taboo. Wonderful, funny and inspiring, ‘On Being God’.

7 ‘Inevitable Ecstasy’ (1:00:35)

This lecture was recorded in 1969, as part of a series of seminars he gave that year on the old ferry ‘Vallejo’, his home in San Francisco Bay.

In this lecture, Alan Watts explores the phenomenon of suffering, a concept the Buddha was so concerned with. But as might be expected, Alan Watts again does so in his own quirky, playful and contrarian way, with the erudition and wisdom we know him for.

Watts begins by taking a closer look at what we think of as ‘ego’, and how that ego is a construct formed in part by well-intentioned reactions and actions of parents and other adults as a way to function socially, but is actually a drastic curtailment of our potential and true nature. Awareness is unlimited at first, but gradually we begin to differentiate ourselves from our environment. Which in itself is good and necessary, as long as we do not lose our grounding and our connection with all-that-is. And that's where it goes wrong. Our personality becomes a cramped and much too constricted separation from a much greater whole , the awareness of which we repress. We have staked everything on our narrow functional cognitive consciousness and, as a result, our connection to the universe has become so much weaker or dormant that we are condemned to neurosis and anxiety. Or are we? Again, a wonderful narrative that can thoroughly shift our view of who or what we are.

8 ‘We ARE the Universe: Neil Theise’ (21:13)

As a bonus, this short lecture by Neil Theise, Professor of Pathology at Mount Sinai University, liver pathologist and stem cell researcher.

In a very compact and accessible 20-minute summary, Neil Theise makes clear how his work as a stem cell researcher has led him (and more and more other scientists) to the conclusion that not what we call ‘matter’ but consciousness is fundamental as the ground of existence. In this lecture, which I would call nothing short of brilliant in its simplicity and clarity, Neil Theise also recounts, almost verbatim, many of the things that keep coming back in the lectures of Alan Watts: the idea that we are one with all that is and that any separation between ourselves and our environment is a case of mistaken identity, the idea that the separate existence of ‘things’ is also an illusion, the idea that consciousness is the ground from which matter and the entire universe emerges, and the idea that everything emerges from non-dual awareness that became aware of itself, almost literally the idea proposed in ancient cosmologies such as Hinduism and clarified repeatedly by Alan Watts.

The similarities between "cutting edge science" and the oldest cosmologies ever created by man will become one of the recurring topics of my project and blog, and this short but fascinating and witty lecture can therefore be considered a foretaste of what will follow in A Biosphere Project. Enjoy!


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