10 pieces of wisdom from Alan Watts

With his collected letters recently being published, it's time to revisit this extraordinary thinker.

  • Though the British philosopher died in 1973, his work continues to make an impact.
  • A recently published collection, The Collected Letters Alan Watts, is a deep dive into his personal correspondences.
  • Watts was an early proponent for spreading Eastern philosophy to Western culture.

Shortly after Alan Watts's death in 1973, his eldest daughters, Joan and Anne, began collecting boxes of his letters and correspondences. Though it took decades to publish, The Collected Letters of Alan Watts adds yet another piece to the vibrant extant literature of the great British philosopher and orator. Having recently met Joan at a conference and picking up this latest book, I decided it was time to thumb through the rest of my collection.

Watts's bibliography is extensive, with as many volumes published posthumously as during life, most based off his exhaustive catalog of talks. He was an early interpreter of Eastern texts for Western audiences, not only in offering simple translations. Watts captured the essence of mythologies and scriptural narratives, retelling them in a language rapt audiences could easily digest (and sometimes not so easily; he wasn't a mere popularizer).

As interesting and penetrating as his books are, he truly shone on stage (often, incredibly, after enjoying a bottle of whiskey). Since I discovered his work a quarter-century ago I've constantly turned back to him when I need a bit of insight, especially the type that arrives with a touch of humor. The below list are a few I picked out during a recent afternoon reminiscing on the man and his extraordinary life.

All our efforts at a spiritual life are prompted by self-interest. — Behold the Spirit (1947)

If we are citizens of this world, and if there can be no final satisfaction of the soul's discontent, has not nature, in bringing forth man, made a serious mistake? — The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951)

The transience from which we seek liberation is the very liberator. — Nature, Man and Woman (1958)

Psychotherapy and liberation are completed in the moment when shame and guilt collapse, when the organism is no longer compelled to defend itself for being an organism, and when the individual is ready to own his unconscious behavior. — Psychotherapy East & West (1961)

We do not want to survive merely, or to survive so as to be tormented forever in hell. We want to survive interestingly, even elegantly. — Beyond Theology (1964)

Mark Watts browsing the Alan Watts Archives (2017). c/o Alan Watts Organization

To idolize scriptures is like eating paper currency. — The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

Human life—and all life—does not work harmoniously when we try to force it to be other than what it is, for the very simple reason that this is based on the assumption that I, who would control things, am something apart from what I would control. — Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown (1968)

The world of myth is past, is "once upon a time," in a symbolic sense only—in the sense that it is behind us, not as time past is behind us, but as the brain which cannot be seen is behind the eyes which see, as behind memory is that which remembers and cannot be remembered. — Myth and Ritual in Christianity (1968)

The supposition that knowing requires a knower is based on a linguistic and not existential rule, as becomes obvious when we consider that raining needs no rainer and clouding no clouder. — Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975)

Very often it seems to me that faith and belief could be opposed. Belief comes from the Anglo-Saxon root lief, which means to "wish." Belief is the fervent hope that certain things are true. Whereas I rather feel that faith is an openness of attitude, a readiness to accept the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. It is a commitment of oneself to life, to the universe, to one's own nature as it is, in the realization that we really have no alternative. — Zen and the Beat Way (1997)

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less
Videos

New study finds strength of imagination not associated with creative ability or achievement

If you have a strong imagination, this won't help you with academic study.

Mind & Brain

Imagination is sometimes claimed to be a uniquely human ability, and it has long intrigued psychologists. "Nevertheless, our understanding of the benefits and risks that individual differences in imagination hold for psychological outcomes is currently limited," note two researchers who have created a new psychometric test – the Imaginative Behaviour Engagement Scale (IBES) – for measuring how much imagination a person has, and then used it to investigate whether, as some earlier work hinted, having a stronger imagination might aid learning and creativity.

Keep reading Show less

7 common traits of self-transcended people

Maslow's highest level on the hierarchy of needs.

Shutterstock/Big Think
Personal Growth
  • Self-transcendence is the final and oft forgotten peak of Maslow's pyramid.
  • Before transcending yourself, however, you need to be self-actualized.
  • The foundation of self-transcended people is caring for others and higher ideals.
Keep reading Show less

Why are conservatives healthier than liberals? Personal responsibility, study suggests.

An emphasis on personal responsibility might explain why conservatives tend to be in better physical health than liberals.

Pixabay
Personal Growth
  • A growing body of research suggests there's some relationship between our measurable personality traits and our political beliefs.
  • A recent study examined the relationship between political beliefs, personal responsibility and overall health.
  • The results suggest that an emphasis on responsibility might explain health differences between liberals and conservatives.
Keep reading Show less