150 p. About philosophy, religion and science.
I am not often a consumer of esoteric, metaphysical or religious writing, but this book was whole-heartedly recommended to me and I decided to take a look. I googled the author Alan Watts and learned that he was very popular in this particular field, and was known for explaining ideas of Eastern religion to Western audiences. Now, a few weeks ago I read The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, which was also a very popular work that tried to explain Taoism through Winnie-the-Pooh. I was a bit disillusioned by that book because I thought that the author was too convinced of the truth in Taoism and too dismissive of everything else, and in addition I thought that his lessons were conflicting and at a distance with regular daily life. This book by Alan Watts promised to address those issues.
To explain this book requires explaining who Alan Watts was. An Englishman fascinated by eastern religions, who moved to America to study theology, became a priest, and then left the church. He held conversations with Joseph Campbell, an influential figure who made comparative mythology his business. In the end Alan Watts felt disillusioned with all religions and ideologies, but felt that there were important lessons underneath the surface that both science and religion were not addressing, and were very useful for today’s modern world. Watts advocates an open-minded look, similar to the acceptance of uncertainty in science, to let go of the surface features of religion, the buildings, the icons, the hierarchies, the dogmas, for focusing on them obfuscates more useful messages underneath. Something supported by both science and religion. The specifics of religions are like a finger, and people attach themselves to the finger, instead of look at where it is pointing. Like a window that is painted blue, but to see the actual sky you need to scrape the paint away.
After reading the first two chapters I am immediately struck by the eloquence of Watts’ writing. He deals with some really complex ideas, but manages to lead the reader step by step, from idea to idea, naturally to the point that he wishes to make. He starts out with describing the difference between belief and faith, saying that belief is akin to holding on to things, while faith is akin to letting go of things. In a world where science doesn’t have any need for religious theories to explain how the universe works, an anxious holding on to ideologies such as religions or political theories indicates an anxiety to believe in something while science undermines the foundations. The louder people shout their beliefs, the more they feel like a little group of people huddling in the dark, surrounded by an uncertain, uncaring universe.
So much anxiety. What to do?
If the answer was easy, I would have given it right here. Watts spends the rest of the book trying to explain it, mainly by hacking away all sorts of illusions that we maintain. He talks about the illusion of chasing pleasure while avoiding pain, about the illusion of an “I” separated from sensations and about coping mechanisms to remove the self from painful situations. Like a sculptor he hacks away at a block of stone to approach the shape of a way of seeing, until all that remains is the shape of uncertainty and our direct human experience of it.
At this point in the book, confusion arises. Watts advocates that we should never run away from painful feelings, because as you truly feel them in the moment, you absorb and incorporate them. But he doesn’t believe that there is any method to help people with this, but happens as an instantaneous revelation once you understand the problem. I disagree, because a number of psychotherapeutic tools are precisely designed and often necessary to help people bring up and incorporate painful feelings, which is a process that the mind and body needs to develop confidence in over time. Watts essentially approaches the problem via a philosophical argument, while in reality it is also a problem of developmental psychology. The very reason that this book exists is because the revelation Watts describes is often absent, because it asks people to work through a blockade in the mind to release pain, a blockade that is even hard to be aware of. Understanding the problem as a trigger for the release only works when the rest of the mind is ready for it, after the mind and body are filled to the brim with locked-away pain and ready for release.
In the end, in an effort to explain what is left when all philosophy ends, is a kind of mindfulness that reconnects us with the world of experience and sensations, so that we feel a part again of the universe. If self-consciousness has given us a feeling of removal, a separation of the “I” from the rest of the universe, then we need to reconnect that “I” in a sort of second animal innocence.
In a mere 150 pages, he sure gives a lot to think about, and discusses how his ideas relate positively to love, morality and religion. It is dense stuff and you’ll need peaceful surroundings to think about it properly. And I’m not done yet thinking about it after merely finishing the book.