48 pages • 1 hour readAlan W. Watts
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In 1951 Alan Watts published The Wisdom of Insecurity, a short volume on discovering oneself in the present moment. Half critique of modern life in the Western world and half advertisement for keen awareness of one’s present experience, The Wisdom of Insecurity continues to resonate with a wide audience.
As its title suggests, the book preaches the value of a life devoid of dogma, strict belief, and moral code. Instead, Watts emphasizes the wisdom that springs from a direct awareness of our existential position. Human beings, Watts argues, live as sparks of consciousness between an unfathomably ancient past and a fundamentally open and unknowable future. Thus, happiness and meaning are realized in the present moment, not in the recollection of memories or aspirations for future successes. Wisdom resides in the awareness of our creativity and fragility, as well as our fundamental unity with all the universe.
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For Watts, the ego, or “I” (as he calls it) is the source of grave suffering and endless anxiety. The I, which designates the part of the human mind dedicated to securing itself from outside harm, creates borders to separate itself from the rest of the world, hiding behind dogma, belief, moral code, and aspirations that it anxiously pursues with endless abandon. Watts hopes to replace dogma with openness, belief with faith, moral codes with moral creativity, and aspirations with joy in the present moment. He seeks nothing less than the fundamental transformation of life through visionary experiences leading to “the authentic warmth of love” (132).
This guide references the Second Vintage Books Edition printed in 2011. It includes a short introduction by Deepak Chopra, a popular New Age guru and advocate of alternative medicine.
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The Wisdom of Insecurity is divided into nine chapters. The first two detail Watts’s diagnosis of modern society’s pathological anxiety. Given the rapid transformation of the social landscape at the hands of science and technology, the modern individual is more insecure than ever. The old myths of religious tradition no longer hold the same grip; while science provides new insights for manipulating the world, but no direction on how to live. In the face of this insecurity, people flee from their existential position, their mortality, and the present moment. Watts believes that much of our suffering in this age of anxiety is due to future-oriented ambitions, desires for escapist entertainment, and the avoidance of change. Watts claims that there is a price to be had for the depth of consciousness humanity has attained. With greater powers of thought come greater capacities for suffering.
In Chapter III, “The Great Stream,” Watts shifts from cultural critique to a positive portrayal of his spiritual philosophy. He distinguishes between the conscious “I” and the natural “me,” noting a conflict between the two. The former he associates with the egoic tendency to individualize oneself, and the latter with our instinctual, animal nature. He discusses the limitations of explanation, definition, concepts, and words to isolate and delimit the nature of things. Reality, according to Watts, cannot be encompassed by any system of thought, scientific, religious, or otherwise. Instead, Watts envisions a “great stream” of the flowing universe (53): Trying to understand it is vain and impossible, like trying to hold the water of a surging river in the palm of one’s hands.
In the next chapter Watts discusses the human body’s instinctive understanding of natural, biological rhythms. He believes that the core of modern anxiety can be accounted for by the presumption of mind-body dualism, the view that the mind and body are separate and improperly integrated. He distinguishes between the cognition-heavy modern world (based on endless distraction and entertainment) and the natural, simple needs of human bodies, noting, again, a problematic schism. Watts believes that under the current situation we misuse our consciousness, the greatest of all devices, to escape the present moment.
Chapter V, “On Being Aware,” forms the crux of Watts’s argument. When we are aware of our present experience, Watts writes, we are freed from judgments. Though present experience is ineffable, close attention can reveal that there is no self behind the experience: There is only the event of the experience. Experiencing the present unavoidably entails pain and suffering. However, the attempt to flee from suffering into comfort and security will only “inflame the agony” (79). For Watts, wisdom rests in the understanding that security is impossible, that there is no individual self, and that everything is impermanent.
The final four chapters are Watts’s most positive. Chapter VI, “The Marvelous Moment,” is his impassioned stump for the novelty of every experience. For Watts the here and now, this present moment, “is alive, vibrant, vivid, and present, containing depths which we have hardly begun to explore” (104). He believes that through careful attention to present reality, we will receive a true understanding of our existential situation.
In Chapter VII, “The Transformation of Life,” Watts describes the visionary experience that makes life self-evidently worth living. For him, this consists of the unvarnished understanding that all of reality is an “organic unity” (107), that true separateness is an illusion. Watts describes the transformative power of understanding that we are not experiencers having sensations but, instead, are the sensations. No longer does the world feel like it needs some sort of external justification. Instead, one is content to merge into the eternal “dance” of reality (116).
Watts presents his original spin on moral philosophy in Chapter VIII by totally eschewing morality as a technical problem of the composition of rules. For Watts, morality ultimately resides in the free action of individuals who exist in unmediated relationships dictated by love, not duty or moral calculus. Creative morality is not concerned with the moral perfection of individuals, which is isolating and selfish, but rather takes an interested investment in the problems of one’s community.
The final chapter, “Religion Reviewed,” returns to the question of religion in light of the spiritual teachings developed over the preceding chapters. Watts refrains from supporting any single religious tradition. Instead, he emphasizes the right way and wrong way to practice religion, regardless of tradition. This involves wonder at the vastness of God and the universe and a diminishment of the I—interest in the world, not in oneself. He reiterates the value of insecurity, and our good fortune to live in an age in which science has reinvigorated the mysteriousness of our world.