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)
Jonathan Zimmerman explains why teachers should invite, not censor, tough classroom debates.
- During times of war or national crisis in the U.S., school boards and officials are much more wary about allowing teachers and kids to say what they think.
- If our teachers avoid controversial questions in the classroom, kids won't get the experience they need to know how to engage with difficult questions and with criticism.
- Jonathan Zimmerman argues that controversial issues should be taught in schools as they naturally arise. Otherwise kids will learn from TV news what politics looks like – which is more often a rant than a healthy debate.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.
- Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
- Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
- Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.
Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.
- "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
- New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
- It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.
At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.
As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.
But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.
Just as sharp as the whippersnappers
To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.
First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.
The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.
The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.
An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.
How to ensure brain health in old age
While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."
To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.
Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.
For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.
We have a new range of skills coming to Big Think Edge this week, including communication, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.
- At Big Think Edge this week, we delve into ways you can make your conversations sing. So to speak.
- Learn a valuable lesson about psychopaths, from diagnosed psychopath (and neuroscientsit) James Fallon.
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