Alan Watts and the Eternal Present

Alan Watts
Alan Watts. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)

In 1950, both the world and Alan Watts were at a pivotal point. Russia had recently detonated its first atomic weapon, ushering in an age of global anxiety.

By the spring, Watts himself was undergoing a jarring transformation: his first wife had their marriage annulled because of an affair, and he resigned his position as an Episcopalian minister. Watts left the church, he later remembered, “not because it doesn’t practice what it preaches, but because it preaches.”

And so, the newly single Alan Watts — practitioner of Zen Buddhism, student of Taoism, authority on comparative philosophy, ex-priest and prolific author — began hobnobbing with the likes of Joseph Campbell and John Cage. He moved to a little farmhouse in upstate New York and began writing The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. Given the circumstances, the book was aptly named. What it contains is timeless.

A central thesis of The Wisdom of Insecurity is that the present moment is all we have. Without being doctrinaire, Watts takes us radically beyond “eat when you’re eating, walk when you’re walking” mindfulness: the present is truly the only place we exist. What we call the past is a construct of memory, the recollection of which constitutes a present experience.

To illustrate, Watts asks us to remember a time we saw a friend walking down the street. We’re not witnessing the actual event, he points out, because we can’t shake our friend’s hand or ask him a question. “You’re looking,” Watts says, describing the scene, “at a present trace of the past.”

Understanding this concept changed me: the past ceased to be a tormentor. If recalling past events is a present experience, and doing so (in my case) often involved things that were embarrassing or painful, I simply stopped. The past is no longer needed to provide periodic mortification.

According to Watts, the future is likewise a construct, “and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present.”

Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements—inferences, guesses, deductions—it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead…Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

So, to know happiness in the future, we must be happy now. Delaying enjoyment of your life is to always live in Christmas Eve, with the many gifts around you staying securely wrapped.

Moreover, to participate in the moment — to be fully aware, is to be unified with the experience, and free from the separating identity of being the experiencer.

To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening. To understand joy or fear, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it. So long as you are calling it names and saying, “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it.

Not only are you not being aware of it, you are creating the “I” who is afraid, and thus, by this separation, guaranteeing fear’s constant threat.

“This is not a psychological or spiritual discipline for self-improvement,” Watts writes. “It is simply being aware of this present experience, and realizing that you can neither define it nor divide yourself from it. There is no rule but ‘Look!’”

Centuries of Occidental society and culture have made grasping, much less embodying, this revolution in thinking very difficult. We are hardened materialists, fully beholden to identity and addicted to distraction. We evade pain and crave security, and doing so assures us painful, insecure lives. The imminent unknown is not to be avoided, but embraced. Our resilience, our adaptability, is reliant upon us being completely sensitive to the moment, and understanding it as being a new, unique experience. We live in a series of infinite nows, which are always dying, and always being reborn. To be immersed in this reality is to be transformed, for it is there that eternity is available.

“For the perfect accomplishment of any art,” Watts tells us, “you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

If it’s possible, we live in an even more anxious, insecure age than when Alan Watts published his extraordinary little book. We have exchanged the magic of the present moment for the immediacy of social media. We have inherited a government which is no longer a capable agent of securing the future. We watch the latest in a series of superhero movies before putting our noses back in our phone.

Alan Watts lived the rest of his life as a committed philosophical polymath. He lectured, wrote books, directed television, and became a lodestone for the Baby Boomers’ emerging spirituality. He married three times, claiming to be “an unrepentant sensualist, an immoderate lover of women and the delights of sexuality.” When questioned too sharply by students, he called himself a “spiritual entertainer.” He died in 1973 at age 58, confirming his friends’ fears of excessive alcohol consumption. But decades before all that, even as he emerged from a frightful midlife metamorphosis, Alan Watts gifted us the music of the eternal. It is up to us to begin the dance.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.