A Tribute to Alan Watts

“I have tried for years, as a philosopher, [to say what reality is], but in words it comes out all wrong: in black and white with no colour. It comes out that life is a perfectly and absolutely meaningless happening —nothing but a display of endlessly variegated vibrations, neither good nor evil, right nor wrong—a display which, though marvelously woven together, is like a Rorschach blot upon which we are projecting the fantasies of personality, purpose, history, religion, law, science, evolution and even the basic instinct to survive. And this projection is, in turn, part of the happening. Thus, when you try to pin it down you get the banality of formal nihilism, wherein the universe is seen as a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

But this sense of “turning to ashes in one’s mouth” is the result of trying to grasp something which can only come to you of itself. Trying to catch the meaning of the universe in terms of some religious, philosophical or moral system is really like asking Bach or Ali Akbar Khan to explain their music in words. They can explain it only by continuing to play, and you must listen until you understand, get with it, and go with it— and the same is true of the music of the vibrations. The vibrations can go so high on the scale of pain that we have to go into zero, and the way can be made richly horrible by thinking to ourselves, “This ought not to happen”—“It was all that bastard’s fault”—“I am being punished for my sins”— “How could God let this happen to me?”

When you say the music is abominable, listen to the sound of your own complaint.

Above all, simply listen, and I (for the time being) will be silent.”

~ Alan Watts, final words of “In My Own Way,” his autobiography written a few months before his death in 1973

It is difficult to think about how and where and what the circumstances of my fascination with Alan Watts began. There is something about Alan that escapes easy classification, and naturally I suppose that experiences involving him would behave in somewhat the same way. A big part of it was hearing the words: “Now, I find it rather difficult to say what the subject matter of this talk is going to be…” This begins the day or so of recorded audio that makes up the “Out of Your Mind” series of lectures. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these lectures would become as familiar to me as the melodies of my favourite musicians.

Listening to Alan describe the two basic myths of Western civilisation, the ceramic and fully automatic models of the universe, was moment of satori after moment of satori, my own awakening to the taboos and unexamined fabrics of my culture. I laughed heartily along with him and began to feel myself as profoundly connected to this world; felt my “sensations and perceptions” falling in line with reality bit by bit, exchanging ideologies and systems of thought for simple, quiet awareness. My life has never quite been the same, and for the last few years, Alan has been chatting away in my ear almost wherever I go; as I drive to and from colourful and chaotic parties with young men and women who grin knowingly when we speak of the self, in the meditative pose at home in my garage, where I write and think and explore myself — even sitting in my local coffee shop, watching the great gesture unfold from behind a cappuccino.

Through all of this it is as though my vision has become clearer, that the mirror is being polished to a gorgeous shine, that the relationships between phenomena are becoming obvious and easy to comprehend. My goal herein is not to glorify the man, nor to treat him as a guru or a saint or even a philosopher. It is not to popularise Alan’s work, nor my own. Forgive the rambling nature of the piece, I could think to write it no other way. Here, I am simply writing in loving earnest about a man who I miss dearly, although we never met. Here, I am speaking freely of my own reactions, of my friends’ reactions; I am celebrating a curlicue of the great whole that is of particular fascination to what I call “I, myself.”

Alan Watts was born on the 6th of January (as was I), 1915, in Chislehurst, England, to middle class parents. His father was a representative for the London office of the Michelin Tyre Company, and his mother a housewife whose father had been a missionary to the Orient. They lived in rural, pastoral surroundings and Alan found himself playing at length in the fields and woods and by the side of creeks and brooks, where he, with the help of his father and often some acquaintances thereof, learned the names of the local butterflies and insects, fauna and flora. Taking a keen interest in the stories of Fu Manchu, of Chinese sorcerers and assassins, Alan wished one day to become one of these wandering and mysterious folk and would play games of intrigue and subterfuge while his school mates contented themselves with sport.

Many of the items gifted to his mother were of exotic design, including Chinese and Japanese weavings and embroideries and various knick-knacks from the Far East, and Alan recalls that he “was aesthetically fascinated with a certain clarity, transparency, and spaciousness in Chinese and Japanese art. It seemed to float…” I’ll be discussing this fascination later on.

He spent time in English boarding schools, which he found to be drab for the most part (with a few notable exceptions) and overall a poor place for an inquiring mind to thrive and develop to its fullest capacity. He soon became interested in Buddhism and at the age of fifteen wrote his first book, a pamphlet he presented to the London Buddhist Lodge. He was asked to deliver a talk on Buddhism after the submission of this piece and you can imagine the surprise when an adolescent walked into the Lodge to weigh in on the nature of Eastern thought. From here Alan went to play with the Episcopalian Church, where he spent five or so years studying esoteric Christian theology and attempting to bring some zest into their stale rituals and dry preaching.

My experience with Christianity has been somewhat similar, although I was never introduced to religion at a young age. I grew up in an agnostic family that had almost nothing to do with religious activity. My mother was resolutely against me attending mandatory religious teaching in a state school, and so very early on I remember thinking to myself that the whole idea must be some adult mumbo jumbo and that the kind of God these people were talking about seemed implausible at best. I couldn’t understand why so many of my young friends held a belief in religion. To me it was as silly as not being able to say certain words because they were “naughty” and everyone obviously cared far less about it than they professed anyhow. When I managed to get a look inside a church, I found that the furnishings on average were impossibly drab and uninteresting and the atmosphere even more uninteresting to a child my age than the community hall where my mother facilitated workshops in painting and drumming and other esoteric learning irrelevant to me at the time.

I wondered to myself as I got older, if there really was some joyous and awe-inspiring truth at the heart of the Christian faith, then why all the brown, straight lines and sombre faces? Why the hard seats and boring recitals? Why was no one dancing or laughing? Alan answers, “most people feel themselves oriented towards basic reality as a subject to a king; at the front of the church you have the throne where the king sits, back to the wall, surrounded by his guards and before him, he has his subjects kneel to make sure they can’t use any weapons. Because you see the ruler of you all is the biggest crook in the bunch.” And of course if one sees God, or Ultimate Reality, in this way, it is any wonder that he doesn’t feel like dancing, and that he cultivates straight lines rather than wiggles.

In the early 1950s, Alan moved to California, where he joined the Academy for Asian Studies and met his longtime friend Saburo Hasegawa, a painter, calligraphist and mentor in Japanese customs and attitudes to nature. Soon after, he left the faculty and began to conduct radio talks at KPFA and WBAI. These talks continued until the early sixties, by which time he had a sizeable audience. It was during the sixties that Alan began to become a fixture of the counterculture movement and around this time he moved to Sausalito, where he lived on the ferryboat Vallejo with Jean Varda, an eccentric who he would become close friends with. Alan also had a cabin in Druid Heights, a community of bohemians, artists, architects and creatives whose members included “a surgeon who cured people by doing nothing… two cats named Sol and Shakti, who would go for walks with the locals like dogs and who responded to commands in fake declamatory Japanese… a psychiatrist who healed his patients with astronomy, by showing them their position in the cosmos.”

As I was reading the chapter of Alan’s autobiography about his time on Mount Tamalpais at Druid Heights, I was filled with that odd sensation the Japanese call yugen: “watching wild geese fly and being hidden in the clouds; watching a ship vanish behind the distant island.” I feel in some sense that I have lived on this mountain, that the experiences, the meetings, the goodbyes, the smell of food wafting through the trees, encountering wandering mystics on the many wiggly paths to the summit are all a fundamental and basic part of my makeup, which, in a certain sense of the word “me,” they are. When I close my eyes I see faint images of light through the leaves, of cabins and their interiors full of Aztec hangings, singing bowls, prayer rattles, Eastern art, dresses and instruments and strange furnishings. There are some places that seem to, through a collective upsurging in creative joy, find their way to a spot outside of time and from there send waves rippling up against the shores of our own slices of the here and now.

Along the coast was Big Sur and the Esalen Institute where Alan, Aldous Huxley, Gregory Bateson and later Terence McKenna and Stanislav Grof, all gave seminars on their fields of study and probed deeply into the nature of being. Esalen is still alive and kicking and Alan’s daughter Anne Watts regularly gives workshops on healing the inner child and the spirit of love. It seems to be a mecca for all things counterculture and bizarre, from Grof’s holotropic breath work to rare forms of meditative practice and even more ‘grounded’ forms of play such as permaculture and sustainable living. It strikes me that this kind of education is far better suited to carrying the human person through life than our current rigid and stratified systems of coaxing a desirable measure of conformity and “right thinking” out of one another. If we are to teach each other, it seems to me that first we should get out of the way the fundamental problems of living, our questions of identity, of purpose and of how exactly we’re going to wiggle in this lifetime by addressing them directly and with reference not to commissioned textbooks written by people with only a financial interest in the subject, but to works of great ambition and clarity and above all with reference to the great ambition and clarity present in every mind.