Alan Watts

YouTube has an uncanny ability to monitor the kinds of subjects that are of interest to us and suggest relevant videos to watch. I have developed a prudent interest in Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, two men of the “greatest generation” who were to an extent at the origin of the 1960’s reaction against western conservatism. The former is much better known in terms of his phenomenal output of written work, and Alan Watts is more known for his lectures and “philosophical entertainment”.

I have listened to a few, and I feel quite overpowered by the volume of words and ideas, combined with an eastern culture of which I am completely ignorant. I have Perennialist leanings myself and have great respect for the world’s spiritual traditions. I am also of the sentiment that every great spiritual inspiration can be found in Christianity too, especially in its mystical dimension. One has only to think of Meister Eckhardt and Jakob Böhme among many other saints and mystics.

Watts lived from 1915 to 1973, his life shortened by heavy smoking and alcoholism. He married three times. These facts make us recoil and seek out information about his life and sincerity in his teachings. Some Asian spiritual teachers asked how he could teach so much about their philosophy without their degree of meditation and asceticism!

Here is his criticism of conservative western Christianity.

I find much of it highly cogent as I myself cannot identify with fundamentalism and literalist Catholicism. Some of his ideas about the Genesis narrative remind me of the Irishman Dave Allen’s jokes on his show in the 1970’s, particularly about the idea of a talking snake.

Underneath, these beings and events are of allegorical and symbolic value. Genesis is a simple myth that illustrates a history of the universe and humanity that is forgotten except in the parallel myths of every religion on this earth.

Watts came from the English public school tradition, as many of did. He exaggerated the role of stoicism and corporal punishment a tad, but he was not wrong in substance. Here, he gives an enormously long lecture on Aldous Huxley:

I have since ordered a copy of Huxley’s Island, and I will see how well I can relate to its ideas. We studied Brave New World in English literature at school, and our anxiety about some aspects of modern life are deeply inspired by Huxley and Orwell. Indeed, we often encounter the slogan “Make Orwell fiction again!” as if we were already in a fully dystopian world. I do believe that as the world population increases, we will inevitably move towards a world where humans will come under the control of technology, a hell on earth – unless something happens to change that prospect.

The 1960’s came from such thought as it laboured to burst the bubble of post-Victorian conservatism. I felt its influence at first-hand, especially around 1971 when I revolted against the idea of social order being determined by convention rather than a truly philosophical notion of a higher good. One difference between my parents was that my mother would tell me to do something. “Why?” I would ask. She would answer “Because I told you so“. It was an argument of authority. My father became aware that I needed answers, so if he told me to stop reading in bed by a certain time at night, it was in order to get enough sleep, stay healthy and be able to work at school. Such an answer was more satisfying than a mere argument of authority.

Similarly, the purpose of religion is to “re-link” the human with the divine. Obedience to authority is only a means to that end, an idea that is emphasised in most monastic rules. This question of the individual person in relation to authority has became a subject of criticism in the context of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism in the twentieth century. It seemed that authoritarianism had lost its intended meaning and became a tool for control by evil people.

These lectures might be a little difficult for those of us who are brought up on “realist” philosophy and materialistic “common sense”. There seem to be hundreds of them on YouTube on all kinds of subjects. After only one or two, I feel quite swamped, but you, my reader, might relate to them differently.

I wondered if he had been some kind of narcissist. Perhaps he was given his married life and other bizarre things about him. He didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. Though he claimed to be no more than an entertainer, he had a very deep knowledge of the world’s philosophical and spiritual traditions expressed in the various religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. Whether or not we remain within our own Christian tradition or try to embrace another, he encouraged his listeners to think freely and as individual persons, hardly the attitude of a sect guru.

Like Oscar Wilde, he loved paradoxes and ideas intended to shock. One was “The biggest ego trip going is getting rid of your ego.” It was something like Wilde’s solution for temptation – giving in to it.

I do think that we can remain Christians but in a different way, and also differently from the “new orthodoxy” of the way most mainstream churches. Certainly, Christians and all others with a philosophy of life above materialism and nihilism have much to learn from this voice of challenge and contradiction. Now that he is no longer of this world, Watts can only be judged on his many constructive ideas. It is for us to read or hear his words and be critical and selective. One thing he did was to cut through the hypocrisy and claptrap of most institutional religions. His language was plain and accessible to ordinary people. We do need to remember that he was an ordained Episcopalian priest and had received classical theological training.

Many conservatives claim that the 1960’s are dead insofar as they represented a reaction against totalitarianism and the flowering of the human spirit – when the basic issues were understood rather than being imitated in their externals. Watt seems to be gaining in popularity in spite of his being dead for nearly fifty years. Rather than rejecting religions, he sought to extract their most profound truths and teach them.

I love this little quote I read on him that just about sums him up:

Alan was a pioneer, sweeping away the grey post-industrial hangover created by lingering Victorian values. He wedged open the door for the 60’s to come rolling in. He was a maverick, a rebel, he was one true voice amongst a sea of dulled mediocrity. He offered a glimpse of freedom from the woes of the Western mindset.

He hit the tobacco, alcohol and LSD quite hard. I have heard that in the right conditions, LSD can do a lot of good in the same way that hallucinogenic drugs were often used in some traditions for the initiation of shamans. To be frank, it would be wonderful to be able to have a trip under medical supervision (to make sure I didn’t jump out of the window thinking I could fly!). Many have found LSD trips to be life-changing experiences. Unfortunately, not only is it forbidden as a “recreational” substance, it is also forbidden to the medical profession. Perhaps it is too effective in helping people with mental illness! Aldous Huxley had LSD administered to him when he was about to die from cancer. None of us will ever know what that did for him in the afterlife.

I wrote in my recent book Romantic Christianity:

“The main hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960’s were LSD and “magic mushrooms” (psilocybin). The dangers of LSD are controversial, with some researchers doubting that this drug would cause permanent personality changes. In research by William H. McGlothin, all the subjects reverted to their normal selves and personalities when they were off the drug. There was no permanent damage. Dr McGlothin found that there was a change of values in those who were given a dose of LSD. Their system of values was changed from the conventions of family, corporate employment and material wealth to the desire for a contemplative style of life, broad-mindedness and creativity. The drug obviously lowered inhibitions to allow some persons to express innate feeling and talents which had been suppressed by ambient culture and conformity. Their philosophy was less dualistic and they came to believe in an essential unity to everything. They came to doubt notions of time and the ontology of evil.

It seems to me that LSD could be very useful in a properly supervised hospital context. The lives of some very unhappy people could be changed for the better. We find here a notion of the alteration of consciousness, which can also be obtained by special techniques of meditation, which are not illegal. This alteration seems to be an essential element of any “conversion” or life-changing experience. The ultimate of such experiences would be the near-death experience (when the brain was so low in activity that unconsciousness should have been total) and those who had mystical experiences.

The idea that LSD was made illegal, perhaps because it made persons who would become unpredictable and rebellious against the materialist and authoritarian order, might be the stuff of a conspiracy theory. You stop being politically correct when you take that stuff! Whether there is any truth in such an idea is anyone’s guess, but it is illegal and dangerous if used “recreationally”.”

I am of the mind that drugs should be decriminalised, removing the source of income from criminal organisations of dealers and mafias and, more particularly, teaching rather than punishing. Most “hard” drugs like heroin and methamphetamine are horrendous, and should not be taken without medical supervision or in some kind of special centre. Alcohol and tobacco are still sold freely, and addiction to both causes serious health problems. The Americans tried prohibition in the 1930’s and all it did was to provide a rich growth medium for the Mafia. It ought to be possible to have a medical prescription on medical or spiritual grounds for an LSD trip in a special clinic to ensure a correct dose and safe conditions.

We can appreciate or reject this man and his works. That is our free choice. Was he a sage or a charlatan? Now he is dead, we can judge only his words. I see the parallel with Oscar Wilde as he committed homosexual acts that were severely punished in the Victorian era. As he languished in prison faced with the prospect of dying painfully and in obscurity in a Parisian hovel, he wrote:

“People point to Reading Gaol and say, ‘That is where the artistic life leads a man.’ Well, it might lead to worse places. The more mechanical people to whom life is a shrewd speculation depending on a careful calculation of ways and means, always know where they are going, and go there. They start with the ideal desire of being the parish beadle, and in whatever sphere they are placed they succeed in being the parish beadle and no more. A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it.”

Naturally, his use of the word “mask” was in the meaning of a false personality rather than the precaution we have presently to take against Covid-19. Wilde left England for the country where I am living. Huxley and Watts went to live in California. I don’t think they would like the place if they were alive today! The system breaks a number of us, something that gives us a sense of foreboding about that mortally boring subject of the no-deal Brexit, a country that has drunk and will drink again. Those of us on the outside wait and are ready to observe what changes will come about in the years ahead.

Scoundrels? Charlatans? Fools for Christ? L’enfer, c’est les autres! We live in a tempest of words and ideas, all meaning different things to different people. I think his essential message was – Let us be ourselves and let others think as they believe to be right. There really is nothing else to say.

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5 Responses to Alan Watts

  1. Stephen K says:

    I haven’t read anything of Aldous Huxley – a lack which this post prompts me to remedy. But I am familiar with Alan Watts, and engagingly so, through his various recorded presentations available on Youtube and books like “What is Tao?” and “The Way of Zen”. He presents ideas of these spiritual ways, as well as of Jesus and Christianity, in digestible form. What he says can be found in some form in others’ writings and I have never doubted his intellectual and attitudinal sincerity. His life experiences were his own as each of ours is ours and are not an issue for me in the way he has helped my thinking about things. He is included in a list of thinkers from whose words I have found, in small steps at different times, liberating spiritual insights.

    • The most famous work of Huxley is Brave New World, the technological dystopia enhanced by people taking a drug called Soma, which ensured perfect happiness and conformity to the system. Orwell’s vision was different, more inspired by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. I have just bought his Perennial Philosophy. There are also some interviews like this one.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Somebody interesting in this context, is R.C. Zaehner, and his book, Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (OUP, 1957) – a word search of his Wikipedia article (which seems to have been expanded enormously since I last referred to it!) does not find any reference to Watts, but does mention his attention to Huxley in that book – and give a sense of what a lot he has written, included one book based on three BBC radio talks. One would think recorded talks of various sorts might survive, but, if so, YouTube is not showing me it has any…

      • I am presently reading Alan Watts, Behold the Spirit, a study in the necessity of mystical religion, New York 1947. This book is available in its 2nd edition of 1972. He mentions Zaehner in passing. I don’t know whether Zaehner knew about Watts. I find that this book resonates with me very closely, but I am more of the position that consists in remaining a Christian and a priest in an institutional church, rather than his position of embracing Zen Buddhism. We do need to learn more about comparative religion and Perennialism that sees all spiritual experience at a single revelatory source before it diversified according to the evolution and decline of different local cultures. I find his criticism of institutional churches very enlightening: if a church is not about consciousness of God and self, but rather concerned with political, moral and social issues, it is simply not fit for purpose, let alone a “one true church”.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Someone else very interesting in this context, is Dom Illtyd Trethowan – though I have only read his Mysticism and Theology: An Essay in Christian Metaphysics (1975), so far. (What is apparently his first book, Certainty, Philosophical and Theological (published in 1948 by the in itself interesting Dacre Press), is scanned in the Internet Archive – but I have never yet had a proper look at it, to see how it relates to his Mysticism and Theology.) His brief Wikipedia article notes that, among other books, he translated Louis Bouyer’s Mysterion (1986) as The Christian Mystery: from pagan myth to Christian mysticism (1989).

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