As I have just finished reading Alan Watts’ autobiography, I must share with you the section that struck me the most:
Nevertheless, as I look back I could be inclined to feel that I have lived a sloppy, inconsiderate, wasteful, cowardly, and undisciplined life, only getting away with it by having a certain charm and a big gift of the gab. Yet what am I supposed to do, now, about that! A realistic look at myself, aged fifty-seven, tells me that if I am that, that’s what I am, and shall doubtless continue to be. I myself and my friends and my family are going to have to put up with it, just as they put up with the rain. I could, of course, tell myself that in so feeling I am casting away my humanity, the only thing which makes me different from a machine, which is supposedly the effort of will to take control of myself and change.
This might be fine if one knew precisely what would be a change for the better. If I would become more Christlike, I should remember that the Crusades and the Holy Inquisition were conducted in his name. If I would practice asceticism, I should bear in mind that Hitler was quite an ascetic. If I would cultivate bravery, I should consider that Dillinger was brave. If I would observe sobriety, I should recall that Bertrand Russell put down a fifth of whiskey daily, and if I would find it in myself to be chaste, I should meditate upon Sri Hari Krishna and the Gopi maidens, and twit myself that I once had the privilege of sharing a mistress with one of the holiest men in the land. The difficulty is that our waking and attentive consciousness scans the world myopically, one thing, one bit, one fragment after another, so that our impressions of life are strung out in a thin, scrawny thread, lining up small beads of information; whereas nature itself is a stupendously complex pattern where everything is happening altogether everywhere at once. What we know of it is only what we can laboriously line up and review along the thread of this watchfulness. Better not to interfere with myself: it could set off an earthquake. (Alan Watts, In My Own Way, p. 343f.)
Living true to his philosophy, Alan Watts went the path of radical self-acceptance: always content with who he was, dancing with the flow of life without much resistance of the will. While we may look up with awe to his ability to be perfectly accepting of his destiny, we also have to consider the soft, sheltered, supportive environment in which he grew up.
How would most men develop if they innocently decided to go with the flow of life? In some environments, they would become crackheads or violent criminals; in others, they would be playing video games and watching YouTube videos all day long while inflaming their bodies with sugar.
Having pristine mental health, good habits, and great talents in an environment that fosters these talents and compromises neither one’s habits nor mental health seems to be a requisite privilege of whoever can flourish in (or despite) our Western society without much effort of will.
According to Taoism, the good life is in harmony with the flow of nature. But what if the nature we are and live in has been radically manipulated by pharmacists and technocapitalists? Even mindfulness practice is something that does not come naturally; it requires self-discipline, which is built upon a strong will that persists in spite of distraction, stress, and discomfort. Sure, technological development and willpower can also be seen as natural processes, but does this not undermine the pragmatic value of Taoism?
Alan Watts, who loved to emphasize the effortless dance of enlightenment over the rigorous discipline of zazen (sitting meditation), died as an alcoholic in his 50s. Now, we may find fault with his unsaintly death, or we may praise the lightness of his joyful spirit and his compelling all-accepting attitude, or we may withhold judgment altogether. But howsoever we choose to look at it, one truth seems to remain unaltered: that the best we can do is to live true to our own nature, rather than trying to emulate someone else’s life.
If we devote ourselves and our fullest attention to the mission of becoming who we are, we will be able to do what we truly want to do in a way that allows us to thrive in whatever environment we find ourselves in—be it a strict way of self-discipline, a playful way of free-flowing joy, a balanced way through the golden middle, or a flowing way that undulates between both (which would actually be a Taoist principle after all).
This is the essence of my faith, which is the only faith I have: if my will is true, everything will be good. Amor fati!
- Willpower Condensed
- Is Self-Control Natural? On the Dilemma of Discipline Vs. Spontaneity
- Solving the Problem of Acceptance
- Taoism and Martial Arts: On Non-Doing and Fighting
- How to Do Your True Will
- Will Vs. Flow: Can You Force Yourself to Do Something?
- Having Discipline Vs. Having Fun
- Alan Watts on Sexual Asceticism and NoFap
- Why Every Life Philosophy Is A “Feel Good” Philosophy
- What Are Your Core Values? (Find Out Here!)