The Book of Alan Watts

Alan Watts

(1915 – 1973)

When each moment becomes an expectation, life is deprived of fulfillment and death is dreaded for it seems that here expectation must come to an end…. Death is the epitome of the truth that in each moment we are thrust into the unknown. Here all clinging to security is compelled to cease, and wherever the past is dropped away and safety abandoned, life is renewed…. When a man knows this, he lives for the first time in his life.

Love is the organizing and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole…. There is no problem of how to love. We love. We are love and the only problem is the direction of love, whether it is to go straight out like sunlight, or try to turn back on itself like a “candle under a bushel”.


When you look and look and look into another person’s eyes you are looking at … the universe … looking at you. We are the eyes of the cosmos…. One energy playing myriads of different parts.

In the Preface (Jonathan Cape, London, 1973) to his description of the first fifty years of his life, Watts explains that his intended title was “Coincidence of Opposites” but the publishers, “rightly“, he says, asked him to find something “more simple and direct that would convey the spirit and style in which I have tried to live.” So he chose as the title the name of the song I DID IT MY WAY that Paul Anka wrote to symbolize Frank Sinatra’s life – both men, and we have a choice of metaphors here, walked what Robert Frost called “The Road less travelled” and Henry David Thoreau called “Marching to different drummers.” It takes a lot of courage to do that.

My vocation in life is to wonder about the nature of the universe.

I am committed to the view that the whole point and joy of human life is to integrate the spiritual with the material, the mystical with the sensuous, and the altruistic with a kind of proper self-love – since it is written that you must love your neighbour as yourself.

Much of the secret of life consists in knowing how to laugh, and also how to breathe.

I have realized that the past and the future are real illusions, that they exist only in the present, which is what there is and all that there is. From one point of view the present is shorter than a microsecond. From another, it embraces all eternity. But there isn’t anywhere, or anywhen, else to be.

In which connection, he quotes from J.P. de Caussade’s, “Abandonment to the Divine Providence, translated by Ella McMahon (New York, 1887):

If we knew how to greet each moment as the manifestation of the divine will, we would find in it all the heart could desire …. The present moment is always filled with infinite treasures: it contains more than you are capable of receiving…. The divine will is an abyss, of which the present moment is the entrance, plunge fearlessly therein and you will find it more boundless than your desire.

He continues with this remarkable commentary on the nature of “Nothingness“:

We can hardly doubt that – at a time not too distant – each one of us will simply cease to be. It won’t be like going into darkness forever, for there will be neither darkness, nor time, nor sense of futility, nor anyone to feel anything about it…. The universe will, supposedly, be going on as usual, but for each individual it will be as if it never happened at all; and even that is saying too much, because there won’t be anyone for whom it never happened. Make this prospect as real as possible: the one total certainty. You will be as if you never existed, which was, however, the way you were before you did exist – and not only you but everyone else. Nevertheless, with such an improbable past, here we are again. We begin in nothing and end in nothing. You can say that again. Think it over and over, and try to conceive the fact of coming to never having existed…. [and]… All of a sudden it will strike you that this nothingness is the most potent, magical, basic, and reliable thing you ever thought of, and that the reason you can’t form the slightest idea of it is that it’s yourself. But not the self you thought you were.

And somewhere in the book is a delightful piece of logic, to which I can find no come-back, to the effect that “The only reason we know we are alive is because we have been dead before!” This is the same idea that we can only know our Self through the Other; that without Unhappiness we wouldn’t know what Happiness was etc.

Finally, in the last Chapter, he writes about a conversation he had with a Zen Master, Morimoto-san, in Kyoto, in which the latter told him “The sound of rain needs no translation.” (It just is). And the same principle, he suggests, applies to music:

But if you just listen, relating yourself to the world entirely through the sense of hearing, you will find yourself in a universe where reality – pure sound – comes immediately out of silence and emptiness, echoing away as memory in the labyrinths of the brain. In this universe everything flows backward from the present and vanishes, like the wake of a ship; the present comes out of nothing, and you cannot hear any self that is listening. This can be done with all the senses, but most easily with the ears. Simply listen, then, to the rain…. For when you have really heard the sound of rain you can hear, and see and feel, everything else in the same way – as needing no translation, as being just what it is, though it may be impossible to say what. I have tried for years, as a philosopher, but in words it comes out all wrong: in black and white with no colour.

And his last words – in this book – are totally provocative:

When you say the music … [of life] … is abominable, listen to the sound of your complaint. Above all, simply listen, and I (for the time being) will be silent. 

Next, as an ordained Anglican Minister, here is what he would say to those he was about to marry:

What I am about to say may at first sound depressing and even cynical, but I think you will not find it so in practice. There are three things I would have you bear in mind. The first is that as you now behold one another, you are probably seeing each other at your best. All things disintegrate in time, and as the years go by you will tend to get worse rather than better. Do not, therefore, go into marriage with projects for improving each other. Growth may happen, but it cannot be forced. The second has to do with emotional honesty. Never pretend to a love which you do not actually feel, for love is not ours to command. For the same reason, do not require love from your partner as a duty, for love given in this spirit does not ring true, and gives no pleasure to the other. The third is that you do not so cling to each other as to commit mutual strangulation. You are not each other’s chattels, and you must so trust your partner as to allow full freedom to be the being that he and she is. If you observe these things your marriage will have surer ground than can be afforded by any formal contract or promise, however solemn and legally binding.

Following which, and this is typical Watts, he baldly writes:

A couple that would object to this discourse should not marry.

And then – he had three marriages – he adds this:

My first marriage came to an end from neglect of the third of these precepts, and my second from mutual neglect of the first.

In 1953, when Watts was an internationally known figure, he had, in his words, “a long heart-to-heart conversation” with Krishnamurti at the latter’s home in the Ojai Valley near Santa Barbara. Watts writes:

We discussed the art of meditation. Was I practicing yoga? If so, why? I replied that this was my problem: I could not do any systematic or formal meditation because I had pondered too long his own reiterations of the point that methodical spiritual disciplines are merely highbrow ways of exalting the ego. Aiming at unselfishness is the most insidious form of selfishness.

Thereupon Krishnaji picked up two cushions from the couch and said, “Look. On the one hand there must be the understanding that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing that you can do to improve, transform, or better yourself. If you understand this completely you will realize that there is no such entity as ‘you’.” He then moved his hands from the first cushion to the second, and went on“Then, if you have totally abandoned this ambition, you will be in the state of true meditation which comes over you spontaneously in wave after wave of amazing light and bliss.”

Why did he continue to use the word “you”? Merely because he was speaking English and was therefore conforming to the grammatical rule that a verb must have a subject, and that processes are mysteriously initiated by pronouns and nouns. We say, for example, “It rains.” But there is no “It” that is raining. The rain just is.

Unfortunately, I neglected to make note of the title of the 1960 pocket book from which these next quotes come:

The spiritual is not to be separated from the material, nor the wonderful from the ordinary. We need above all to disentangle ourselves from habits of speech and thought which set the two apart, making it impossible for us to see that this – the immediate, everyday, and present experience – is IT, the entire and ultimate point for the existence of a universe.

Spiritual awakening is the difficult process whereby the increasing realization that everything is as wrong as it can be flips suddenly into the realization that everything is as right as it can be. Or, better, everything is as It can be.

The most impressive fact in man’s  spiritual, intellectual, and poetic experience has always been for me, the universal prevalence of those astounding moments of insight which Richard Bucke called “cosmic consciousness….[which] …. is a release from self-consciousness, that is to say from the fixed belief and feeling that one’s organism is an absolute and separate thing, as distinct from a convenient unit of perception…. The central core of the experience seems to be the conviction, or insight, that the immediate now, whatever its nature, is the goal and fulfillment of all living.

These final quotations come from Nature, Man and Woman, (Vintage Books, New York, 1991). But, first, here is the Dedication:

To the beloved company of the stars , the moon, and the sun;
to ocean, air, and the silence of space;
to jungle, glacier, and desert,
soft earth, clear water and fire on the hearth.
To a certain waterfall in a high forest;
to night rain upon the roof and the wide leaves,
grass in the wind, tumult of sparrows in a bush,
and eyes which give light to the day.

And now the quotes:

If the ego were to disappear, or rather, be seen as a useful fiction, there would no longer be the duality of subject and object, of experiencer and experience. There would simply be a continuous, self-moving stream of experiencing, without the sense of an active subject who controls it or of a passive subject who suffers it. The thinker would be seen as no more than the series of thoughts, and the feeler no more than the feelings.

…If political health consists in realizing that legal restraint is freely imposed by the people, philosophical health consists in realizing that our true self is the natural man, the spontaneous Tao, from which we can never deviate. In psychological terms this realization is a total self-acceptance standing, like political freedom, as the constant background of every thought, feeling, and action – however restricted. Such acceptance of oneself is the condition of that underlying integrity, sincerity, and peace of heart which, in the sage, endures beneath every disturbance. It is, in short, a deeply inward consent to be just exactly what we are and to feel just exactly what we are feeling at every moment, even before what we are has been changed, however slightly, by accepting it…. Stated boldly, if crudely, it is the insight that whatever we are just now, that is what we should ideally be. This is the sense of the Zen Buddhist saying, “Your ordinary mind is the Tao”, the “ordinary mind” being the present, given state of consciousness, whatever its nature.

To act or grow creatively we must begin from where we are, but we cannot begin at all if we are not “all here” without reservation, or regret. Lacking self-acceptance, we are always at odds with our point of departure, always doubting the ground on which we stand, always so divided against ourselves that we cannot act with sincerity. Apart from self-acceptance as the ground-work of thought and action, every attempt at spiritual or moral discipline is the fruitless struggle of a mind that is split asunder and insincere. It is the freedom which is the essential basis of self-restraint.

To the extent that we do not yet know what man is, we do not know what human sexuality is….What man is, and what human sexuality is, will come to be known only as we lay ourselves open to experience with the full sensitivity of feeling which does not grasp.

The experience of sexual love is therefore no longer to be sought as the repetition of a familiar ecstasy, prejudiced by the experience of what we already know. It will be the exploration of our relationship with an ever-changing, ever unknown partner, unknown because he or she is not in truth the abstract role or person, the set of conditioned reflexes which society has imposed, the stereotyped male or female which education has led us to expect. All these are Maya, and the love of these is fantasy. What is not Maya is mystery, what cannot be described or measured, and it is this sense – symbolized by the veil of modesty – that woman is always a mystery to man, and man to woman.. It is in this sense that we must understand, van der Leeuw’s remarkable saying that “the mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”

Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.

The meaning of life is just to be alive.

You are a function of what the universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the universe is doing… [So]… in looking out upon the world we forget that the world is looking at itself.

You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.

The art of living… consists in being sensitive of each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind totally open and receptive.

The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.

Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.

Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.

Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.

Every individual is a unique manifestation of the Whole, as every branch is a particular outreaching of the tree…. The point, which can hardly be repeated too often, is that differentiation is not separation.

The ultimate mystery is this: that for every outside there is an inside and for every inside there is an outside, and although they are different, they go together.

People get all fouled up because they want the world to have meaning as if it were words… as if you were something that could be looked up in a dictionary. You are meaning.