»The Wisdom of Insecurity« by Alan Watts

Wisdom of Insecurity

2016-12-15
Rating 9/10
ISBN 978-0804140836

Goodreads page for details and reviews


I’ve first heard from Alan Watts via a video on Vimeo. The essential message of this video was, that life is a dance and when you are dancing you’re not intent on getting somewhere. The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. What a wonderful way of putting it! In this book, Alan Watts elaborates on this idea in a very clear and structured way. This makes concepts, that somehow don’t fit so well in a dualistic interpretation of life, more accessible and simply enjoyable to read. It’s a book packed with insights that often seem obvious on first sight, but are then challenging some core assumptions when I’ve walked with them through life. There is no rule but “Look!”

My notes from the book

I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the “backwards law.” When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink you float. When you hold your breath you lose it.

For if all is relative, if life is a torrent without form or goal in whose flood absolutely nothing save change itself can last, it seems to be something in which there is “no future” and thus no hope.

Human beings appear to be happy just so long as they have a future to which they can look forward—whether it be a “good time” tomorrow or an everlasting life beyond the grave.

As a matter of fact, our age is no more insecure than any other.

Logic, intelligence, and reason are satisfied, but the heart goes hungry. For the heart has learned to feel that we live for the future.

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 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.

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.

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 we are to have intense pleasures, we must also be liable to intense pains.

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.

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.

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. The present cannot be lived happily unless the past has been “cleared up” and the future is bright with promise.

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.

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.

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.

The difference between “I” and “me” is largely an illusion of memory. In truth, “I” is of the same nature as “me.” It is part of our whole being, just as the head is part of the body.

We have become accustomed to the idea that wisdom — that is, knowledge, advice, and information — can be expressed in verbal statements consisting of specific directions.

Most of the wisdom which we employ in everyday life never came to us as verbal information. It was not through statements that we learned how to breathe, swallow, see, circulate the blood, digest food, or resist diseases.

This is real wisdom—but our brains have little to do with it.

The brain can only assume its proper behaviour when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it.

To stand face to face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it, you must not face it but be it.

You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.” But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience.

There is simply experience. There is not something or someone experiencing experience!

The human organism has the most wonderful powers of adaptation to both physical and psychological pain. But these can only come into full play when the pain is not being constantly restimulated by this inner effort to get away from it, to separate the “I” from the feeling. The effort creates a state of tension in which the pain thrives. But when the tension ceases, mind and body begin to absorb the pain as water reacts to a blow or cut.

Obviously, we try to know, name, and define fear in order to make it “objective,” that is, separate from “I.” But why are we trying to be separate from fear? Because we are afraid. In other words, fear is trying to separate itself from fear, as if one could fight fire with fire.

If, on the other hand, you are aware of fear, you realize that, because this feeling is now yourself, escape is impossible. You see that calling it “fear” tells you little or nothing about it, for the comparison and the naming is based, not on past experience, but on memory. You have then no choice but to be aware of it with your whole being as an entirely new experience.

Indeed, every experience is in this sense new, and at every moment of our lives we are in the midst of the new and the unknown.

The principle of the thing is clearly something like judo, the gentle (ju) way (do) of mastering an opposing force by giving in to it.

To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know that you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain. The thinker has no other form than his thought. There is no escape. But so long as you are not aware of the inseparability of thinker and thought, you will try to escape.

This, however, is not an experiment to be held in reserve, as a trick, for moments of crisis. It is a way of life. It means being aware, alert, and sensitive to the present moment always, in all actions and relations whatsoever, beginning at this instant.

This is not a psychological or spiritual discipline for self-improvement. It is simply being aware of this present experience, and realizing that you can neither define it nor divide yourself from it. There is no rule but “Look!”

If you do not agree with the capitalists, they call you a communist, and vice versa. A person who agrees with neither point of view is fast becoming unintelligible.

That there is a way of looking at life apart from all conceptions, beliefs, opinions, and theories is the remotest of all possibilities from the modern mind.

“the mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

But vision in this sense does not mean dreams and ideals for the future. It means understanding of life as it is, of what we are, and what we are doing. Without such understanding it is simply ridiculous to talk of being practical and getting results. It is like walking busily in a fog; you just go round and round. You do not know where you are going, nor what results you really want.

Nevertheless, the physical reality is that my body exists only in relation to this universe, and in fact I am as attached to it and dependent on it as a leaf on a tree. I feel cut off only because I am split within myself, because I try to be divided from my own feelings and sensations. What I feel and sense therefore seems foreign to me. And on being aware of the unreality of this division, the universe does not seem foreign any more.

You can establish the theory that your body is a movement in an unbroken process which includes all suns and stars, and yet continue to feel separate and lonely. For the feeling will not correspond to the theory until you have also discovered the unity of inner experience. Despite all theories, you will feel that you are isolated from life so long as you are divided within.

You do not have a sensation of the sky: you are that sensation.

For all purposes of feeling, your sensation of the sky is the sky, and there is no “you” apart from what you sense, feel, and know.

One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.

Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere.

The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. Like music, also, it is fulfilled in each moment of its course. You do not play a sonata in order to reach the final chord, and if the meanings of things were simply in ends, composers would write nothing but finales.

When each moment becomes an expectation life is deprived of fulfilment, and death is dreadful for it seems that here expectation must come to an end.

Nothing is more creative than death, since it is the whole secret of life.

Und so lang du das nicht hast, Dieses: stirb und werde, Bist du nur ein trüber Gast Auf der dunklen Erde.

You can only live in one moment at a time, and you cannot think simultaneously about listening to the waves and whether you are enjoying listening to the waves.

So long as there is the motive to become something, so long as the mind believes in the possibility of escape from what it is at this moment, there can be no freedom.

The feeling no longer perpetuates itself by creating the feeler behind it.

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 all the bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.