Alan Watts: the Original Anglo Heideggerian?

I have always seen Alan Watts as a quintessentially philosophical teacher. His philosophical wisdom and dry humor have always been intermingled to such an extent that I am apt to agree with Wittgenstein when he said “a serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Watts would surely concur. But this is not to say that Watts engaged in sophomoric philosophy, only getting at the surface level of what “academic philosophers” have been digging at over the ages. Quite the contrary. The genius of Watts is that he manages to dig so deep while simultaneously not taking himself too seriously. While the form of his lecture style is wonderously entertaining, the content of his analysis is richly deep.

When I listen to podcasts of his lectures, or meditate on his exquisitely readable oeuvre, I am struck by the Heideggerian spirit of his philosophy. His emphasis on temporality, concrete facticity, and participation are largely Heideggerian themes. I am not sure the extent to which Watts was aware of this, but that would be an excellent research question. I don’t want to elaborate on this Heideggerian connection too much in this post, as I hope that this will come out naturally as you read his words. The lecture I transcribed is entitled “Sex in the church, part II”. If you can, I highly recommend going over to alanwattspodcast.com and listening to whatever lecture is currently available. All of them are beyond excellent, but this one in particular struck me as relevant to some of the Heideggerian research I have been doing lately. Enjoy!

So therefore hold yourself aloof. As in for example, in the advise of many Hindus in the  practice of Yoga, you are advised to look upon all sensory experiences as something “out there,” which you simply witness. You, yourself, identity yourself with the eternal, spiritual, unchanging self, the witness of all that goes on, but who is no more involved in it than say the smoothness or the color of the mirror is effected by the things it reflects. Keep your mind like a mirror. Pure and clean. Free from dust, free from flows, free from stain, and just reflect everything that goes on, but don’t be attached.

You will find this all over the place. But it has always seem to me, that – that attitude of essential detachment from the physical universe…has underlying it a very seriously problem. The problem being: why a physical world at all in that case? If God, is in some way responsible for the existence of a creation, and if this creation is basically a snare, why did he do it?And of course, according to some theologians, the physical universe is looked upon as a mistake – as a fall from the divine state – as if something went wrong in the heavenly domain, and causing spirits, such as we are, to fall from their highest state and to become involved with animal bodies.

And so there is an ancient analogy of man, which runs right through to the present time: that your relationship to your body is that of a rider to a horse. Saint Francis called his body [inaudible]. That you are a irrational soul in charge of an animal body. And therefore, if you belong to the old fashion school, you beat it into submission. As Saint Paul said, “I beat my body into submission.” Or if you are a Freudian, you treat your horse not with a whip, but with lumps of sugar, kindly, but it is still your horse. Even in Freud there is a very, very strong element of Puritanism. Read Philip Rieff’s book on freud, “The Mind of the Moralist.” And how he shows that how Freud, basically, thought that thought sex was degrading. But nevertheless something that is biologically unavoidable, something terribly necessary, which couldn’t just be swept aside, it had to be dealt with.

But there is you see is that heritage, of thinking of ourselves, as divided. The ego as the rational soul of spiritual origin, and the physical body as the animal component. And therefore, all success in life, spiritual success, requires the spiritualization of the animal component. The sublimation of its dirty and strange urges so that it is thoroughly cleaned up. I suppose the ideal sexual relationship of such persons would be held on an operating table, under disinfected sprays.

Now it is of course true, that the physical world, its beauty and so on, is transient. We are all falling apart, in some way or another, especially after you pass the peak of youth. But it has never struck me that that is something to gripe about. That the physical world is transient, seems to me, to be part of its splendor. I can imagine nothing more awful, than say, attaining to the age of 30, and suddenly being frozen, in that age, for always and always. We would all be a kind  a kind of animated wax works. And you would discover as a matter of fact, that people who had that physical permenence, would feel like plastic.

And that is, as matter of fact, going to be done by us, by technology, in order to attain perpetual youth. All the parts of us that decay and fold up, are going to be replaced by very skillfully made plastic parts. And so that in the end, we will be made of very, very sophistacted plastic. And we will feel like that. And everyone will be utterly bored of each other. Because, the very fact you see, that the world, is, always, decaying, and always falling away, is the same thing as its vilality. Vitality is change. Life is death. It is always falling apart. And so there are certain supreme moments, you see, at which in the body, we attain superb vitality. And THAT is the time. Make it then. That is the moment.

Just as like when the orchestra is playing, the conductor wants to get a certain group of say, violens, to come in at a certain moment, and he is conduting and then he is like “NOW make it”, and then they all have to go “pfoosh!” , right now you see! Of course! That is the whole art of life. To do it at the right time. To do it in time, like you dance or play. In time. So in the same way, when it comes to love, sexuality, or equally so, in all the pleasures of gastronomy, timing is of the essence. And then it has happened and you’ve had it. But that is not something that one should look upon with regret. It is only something regrettable if you didn’t know how to take it when it was timely.

And this is really the essence of what I want to talk to you about. Because, you see, to be detached from the world, in the sense Buddhists, Taoists, and Hindus will often talk about detachment, does not mean to be non participative. You can have a sexual life, very rich and very full, and yet all the time be detached. By that I dont mean that you just go through it mechanically and have your thoughts elsewhere. I mean a complete participation but still detached.  And the difference of the two attitudes is this. On the one hand, there is a way of being so anxious about physical pleasure, so afraid that you won’t make it, that you grab it too hard. That you just have to have that thing! And if you do that, you destroy it completely. And therefore after ever attempt to get it, you feel disappointed,  you feel empty, you feel something was lost. And therefore you want it again. And you have to keep repeating,repeating, repeating – because you never really got there and it is this that is the hang up. This is what is meant by attachment to the world, in an evil sense.

But on the other hand, Pleasure in its fullness, cannot be experienced when one is grasping it. I knew a little girl to whom someone gave a bunny rabbit. She was so delighted by the bunny rabbit, and so afraid of losing it, that taking it home in the car,  she squeezed it to death with love. And lots of parents do that to their children. And lots of spouses do it to each other. They hold on too hard, and so take the life out of this transient, beautifully fragile  thing that life is.

To have it, to have life, and to have its pleasure, you must at the same time let go of it. And then, you can feel perfectly free to have that pleasure in the most gutsy, earthy, frolicking, liplicking way. Ones whole being taken over by a kind of undulating, convulsive ripple, that is like the very pulse of life itself. This can only happen if you let go. If you are willing to be abandoned. It is funny that word, abandoned. We speak of people who are dissolute as  abandoned, but we  can also use abandon as the characteristic of a saint. A great spiritual book by a Jesuit father is called “Abandonment To the Divine Providence. “There are people like that, who just aren’t hung up. They are the poor in spirit. That is to say, they are spiritually poor in the sense of they don’t cling on to any property, don’t carry any burdens around; they are free. Well, just that sort of spiritual poverty, that let-go-ness, is quite essential for the enjoyment of any kind of pleasure at all, and particularly sexual pleasure…

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4 responses to “Alan Watts: the Original Anglo Heideggerian?

  1. Pingback: Alan Watts and Das Man | Minds and Brains

  2. I am currently listening to the podcast and very much enjoying it. There is a part of CD4 of ‘Out of your mind’ where Alan Watts says words to the effect of ‘some existential philosophers will even have you believe that the state of guilt is fundamentally ontological’. Of course much of his discourse is very Heideggerian but the odds that someone would speak those words having not read Being & Time are too small. Also, interesting that he disagrees with MH viz guilt as ontological structure, in the more general context of the web of life as game/playful. Alan Watts is MH with sense of humour (no hard feat!)

  3. Guillermo Vicéns Riqué

    It seems to me that the supposedly “inaudible” part is not so inaudible. In fact it is quite audible and clear: “brother ass”. In other words, “brother donkey”.

    If you don’t mind my saying so, mister Williams, I find it rather funny that you felt the need to censor that.

  4. Guillermo Vicéns Riqué

    Watts says one’s mind should be free of flaws, not flows.

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