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Unwind the mind with these thought-provoking Alan Watts quotes.
13 March, 2019
Photo courtesy of the Alan Watts Foundation
- Quotes on the immediacy of experience and life.
- Learn a Zen Koan or two and scramble rationalist thought.
- Ponder on the meaning of life with Alan Watts.
<p>To this day, Alan Watts's impactful and wise words circulate through the culture. We find them in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/personal-growth/alan-watts-books" target="_self">many books he left behind</a>, countless lectures and pop-culture references galore. Renowned scholar and teacher, <a href="https://bigthink.com/personal-growth/how-to-find-your-own-truth-according-to-joseph-campbell-alan-watts" target="_self">Joseph Campbell once said of him</a>: </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The pomposities of prodigious learning could be undone by him with a turn of phrase. One stood before him, disarmed — and laughed at what had just been oneself."</p><p>While it is no easy feat to distill the many whimsical phrases and knowledge Watts left behind, these quotes attempt to paint a broad picture of the Eastern scholar and philosopher-entertainer. </p><p>Here are some of the best Alan Watts quotes.<span></span></p>
Alan Watts and Zen philosophy<p>What is Zen? Better to ask what isn't Zen. Watts was one of a kind when it came to articulating what cannot be said. The ineffable comes down to an Earthly speakable form when Watts wanted to probe into the peculiarities of paradox. </p><blockquote><em>Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.</em></blockquote><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Zen… does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I prefer not to translate the word Tao at all because to us Tao is a sort of nonsense syllable, indicating the mystery that we can never understand — the unity that underlies the opposites."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"A proper exposition of Zen should tease us out of thought, and leave the mind like an open window instead of a panel of stained glass."</p><blockquote><em>Nirvana is right where you are, provided that you don't object to it.</em></blockquote>
Alan Watts on God<p>Having obtained both a master's degree in theology and becoming an Episcopal priest, Watts had a thoroughly rounded Christian education on the concept of God. With his boundless knowledge of Eastern traditions, mysticism and ancient history — Watts had a refreshingly comparative and unique take on the word and concept.</p><blockquote><em>Buddhism has in it no idea of there being a moral law laid down by some kind of cosmic lawgiver.</em></blockquote><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"So in this idea, then, everybody is fundamentally the ultimate reality. Not God in a politically kingly sense, but God in the sense of being the self, the deep-down basic whatever there is. And you're all that, only you're pretending you're not. And it's perfectly O.K. to pretend you're not, to be perfectly convinced, because this is the whole notion of drama."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself anything less than a god."</p><blockquote><em>Few of us have ever met an angel, and probably would not recognize it if we saw one, and our images of an impersonal or suprapersonal God are hopelessly subhuman — Jell-O, featureless light, homogenized space, or a whopping jolt of electricity.</em></blockquote>
Alan Watts on the meaning of life<p>Watts wasn't afraid to tackle one of the great philosophical questions that has faced all of humankind since time immemorial. He answers it with irreverent wit and a life-affirming answer that'll swing the worst of nihilists among us.</p> <blockquote><em>The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.</em></blockquote> <p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The physical universe is basically playful. There's no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn't going anywhere; that is to say, it doesn't have a destination that it ought to arrive at. But it is best understood by analogy to music, because music as an art form is essentially playful."</p> <p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What happens if you know that there is nothing you can do to be better? It's kind of a relief isn't it? You say 'Well, now what do I do?' When you are freed from being out to improve yourself, your own nature will begin to take over."</p> <blockquote><em>I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.</em></blockquote>
Alan Watts on Love<p>Love ranks up there with the other mysteries of life. There are many degrees of love that we float and flounder through each day. Whether it's the whirlwind romantic kind, the love of god, country or self – Alan Watts sets the record straight.</p> <blockquote><em>There is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind. </em></blockquote> <p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Everyone has love, but it can only come out when he is convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love himself. This conviction will not come through condemnations, through hating oneself, through calling self love bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love."</p> <p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The greater part of human activity is designed to make permanent those experiences and joys which are only lovable because they are changing."</p> <p style="margin-left: 20px;">"And so when the essential idea of love is lost there comes talk of fidelity. Actually, the only possible basis for two beings, male and female, to relate to each other is to grant each other total freedom."</p> <blockquote><em>No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now."</em></blockquote>
Alan Watts and humankind<p>Humans are an interesting and humorous species. Watts loved to riff and pick apart the hypocrisy and idiocy endemic to culture and mankind's perception of itself. Whether it was ripping apart the <a href="https://bigthink.com/personal-growth/alan-watts-education" target="_self">nonsensical education system</a> or<a href="https://bigthink.com/personal-growth/alan-watts-and-the-art-of-meditation" target="_self"> ersatz self-help meditation</a> — Watts was an expert in the takedown of such mendacity.</p><blockquote><em>We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.</em></blockquote><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em></em>"When you tell a girl how beautiful she is, she will say, 'Now isn't that just like a man! All you men think about is bodies. O.K., so I'm beautiful, but I got my body from my parents and it was just luck. I prefer to be admired for myself, not my chassis.' Poor little chauffeur! All she is saying is that she has lost touch with her own astonishing wisdom and ingenuity, and wants to be admired for some trivial tricks that she can perform with her conscious attention. And we are all in the same situation, having dissociated ourselves from our bodies and from the whole network of forces in which bodies can come to birth and live."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is not a materialistic civilization at all. It is a civilization devoted to the hatred and destruction of material, its conversion into junk and poison gas. And therefore, one of the most sacred missions to be imposed upon those who would be liberated from this culture is that they shall love material, that they shall love color, that they shall dress beautifully, that they shall cook well, that they shall live in lovely houses, and that they shall preserve the face of nature." </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The word 'person' comes from the latin word 'persona' which referred to the masks worn by actors in which sound would come through. The 'person' is the mask — the role you're playing. And all of your friends and relations and teachers are busy telling you who you are and what your role in life is."</p><blockquote><em>We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.</em></blockquote>
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- Stop and reflect on what nature meant for some of the greatest scientists and artists.
- Explore philosopher, Alan Watts' take on the interconnectedness of the world.
- Nature is known to evoke sublime literature and imagery.
<p><span></span>Nature in its unbounded glory and awe-inspiring beauty has been a preeminent muse for humans for as long as we've existed. Revered, feared and idealized, we cannot escape its ever present grasp on anything we do. For many, the word nature usually conjures up visions of vast green pastures, forested grooves and a more simpler and idealistic way of life. While this clichéd view does have its place in the literature on nature, the subject has been explored in many deeper and more fascinating ways.</p><p>We all interpret the world through a unique lens of cultural upbringing, varying mental and physical dispositions and knowledge of reality. It is through this diverse opinion of experience that we shine light on our truth and the deeper meaning of existence. Nowhere is this more beautifully done than when great artists and poets muse on the motherseed of life itself – nature.</p><p>Here are some singular quotes and passages on nature from a wide perspective of greats throughout the ages.</p>
On the interconnectedness of all<blockquote><em>We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. – </em>Alan Watts</blockquote><p>Alan Watts, philosopher and early popularizer of Eastern philosophy <a href="https://bigthink.com/personal-growth/alan-watts-books" target="_self">spent much of life</a> stressing this point of existence. The inescapable fact that all nature is one and together. Separation is merely an illusion.</p>
The sanctity of nature<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTEwNTExOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDYxNTk3NH0.ioQBs_5-r3VI4EuKqVRdlfFnYllDcku_EDjqVSMp0C4/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C413%2C283%2C2321&height=700" id="40b40" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c7b93e0e64880de86c1526966bf5fa1b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Aldous Huxley. Image source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images<blockquote><em>Modern man no longer regards nature as in any sense divine and feels perfectly free to behave toward her as an overweening conqueror and tyrant. </em><em>– Aldous Huxley</em></blockquote><p>Aldous Huxley saw the immensity of nature overwhelming. He also lamented in the fact that it's superior and all-encompassing being was overlooked, which made it much easier to diminish its significance for all.</p>
Cutting to the core of life<blockquote><em>After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains.</em><em><br></em><em>– Walt Whitman </em></blockquote><p>Walt Whitman was the quintessential man of the groove. <em>Leaves of Grass</em>, his 19th-century poetic epic, traversed far and wide on the trascendental meaning of it all. </p>
How we view nature through science<blockquote><em>Here, then, is the genesis of two of the most important historical premises of Western science. The first is that there is a law of nature, an order of things and events awaiting our discovery, and that this order can be formulated in thought, that is, in words or in some type of notation. The second is that the law of nature is universal, a premise deriving from monotheism, from the idea of one God ruling the whole world.</em><br><em>― Alan W. Watts</em></blockquote><p>Alan Watts was fascinated in the way in which we delude ourselves through language and complicate what he believed was a simple fact of being.</p>
The reason for being<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTEwNTA5Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNDMxNTYxMn0.gYIFiftBDNZDWzdqzBfMmSDeCG0-58gpxdvfcMxOVD0/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=449%2C184%2C107%2C573&height=700" id="18130" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7c5d1b7f9467881ad2df1988360e994e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Whitman And Brown Attend Womens Conference 2010<p>Mary Oliver was an incredible contemporary force of poetry. Her simple yet poignant observations of the wild world around her won lots of praise from many readers and the poetic community at large. Ms. Oliver stands with many of the great American Transcendentalists and their mystical pronunciations of the natural world around them.</p><p><span></span><em>"Snow was falling,<br>so much like stars<br>filling the dark trees<br>that one could easily imagine<br>its reason for being was nothing more<br>than prettiness." </em><br><strong>By Mary Oliver</strong></p>
Nature as the ultimate teacher<blockquote><em>Nature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own laws. She has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity.</em><br><em>– Leonardo da vinci</em></blockquote><p>One of the greatest artists of all times was humbled by this undeniable fact. All stems from the well of nature. There is no greater artist than nature herself.</p>
Science’s assault on the mystery of nature<p>Edgar Allan Poe is probably more well-known for his macabre gothic fiction. But this sonnet, a passage from his collected works explores what it means to unravel the mysteries of nature through science. </p><p><strong>Sonnet — To Science</strong></p><p style="text-align: center;"><em>Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art! <br> Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes. <br>Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart, <br> Vulture, whose wings are dull realities? <br>How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise, <br> Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering <br>To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies, <br> Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing? <br>Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car, <br> And driven the Hamadryad from the wood <br>To seek a shelter in some happier star? <br> Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood, <br>The Elfin from the green grass, and from me <br>The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?</em></p><p><strong>By Edgar Allan Poe</strong></p>
Humanity's place in the great chain of being<p>Jane Goodall changed the way we view ourselves in this world. She is by and large the world's premier expert on chimpanzees. Goodall has spent her entire life and a good 55-year study on the social and natural dynamics of wild chimpanzees. Throughout the years she's given us knowledge that has humbled and dignified our place with the rest of the great apes. </p><p>Remarking on her time with the chimpanzees, Goodall found it an eye opening experience for herself spiritually. </p><blockquote>I became totally absorbed into this forest existence. It was an unparalleled period when aloneness was a way of life; a perfect opportunity, it might seem, for meditating on the meaning of existence and my role in it all. But I was far too busy learning about the chimpanzees' lives to worry about the meaning of my own….<br><br> All the time I was getting closer to animals and nature, and as a result, closer to myself and more and more in tune with the spiritual power that I felt all around. For those who have experienced the joy of being alone with nature there is really little need for me to say much more; for those who have not, no words of mine can even describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected.</blockquote>
Human intelligence emerging from nature<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTEwNTA5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDEzOTQ1M30.9kYXUjvplhsyInDPfHHXRng2J98TmWkNzwOd_X91gVU/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=400%2C572%2C-3%2C1333&height=700" id="2a9a4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a79378fb0e137dfbaca18d6c30adffe1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Artur Schopenhauer. Image source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images<blockquote><em>Nature shows that with the growth of intelligence comes increased capacity for pain, and it is only with the highest degree of intelligence that suffering reaches its supreme point. – Arthur Schopenhauer</em></blockquote><p>Arthur Schopenhauer, always a pessimist stickler for the inherently bad in life seemed to view intelligence as a paradoxical curse gifted from nature.</p>
Peace in the silence<p style="text-align: center;"><em>"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,</em></p><p style="text-align: center;"><em></em><em>There is a rapture on the lonely shore,</em></p><p style="text-align: center;"><em>There is society, where none intrudes,</em><em><br></em><em>By the deep sea, and music in its roar:</em><em><br></em><em>I love not man the less, but Nature more" </em><em><br></em><em>― Lord Byron</em></p><p>The eponymous Byronic Hero himself found solace in the silence away from man and alone in the depths. Taken from Byron's<em> Childe Harold's Pilgrimag</em>e, this is a beautiful quote on the sanctity of being alone.</p>
A cure for civilization<blockquote><em>We need the tonic of wildness... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature." </em><br><em>― Henry David Thoreau</em><br> </blockquote><p>Thoreau knew what spending time outdoors could do for the body and soul. His advice is more relevant than ever.</p>
Ignorance in the face of nature<blockquote style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us. – Albert Einstein</em></blockquote> <p>Another genius humbled before nature. Einstein understood that all of our combined knowledge barely scratched the surface on the nature of being.</p>
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