Alan Watts: The essential introduction to his life and ideas

Alan Watts has completely changed my life, and he’s not even alive.

He was a philosopher, writer, poet, radical thinker, teacher and critic of society who popularized Eastern wisdom, interpreting it for a Western audience. Alan Watts was prolific in the 1950s and 1960s, eventually passing away in 1973.

Watts’ ideas have become widely popular in recent years. He was a particularly charismatic speaker, managing to simplify complex philosophical subjects in highly accessible ways.

I have found so much inspiration in Watts’ words. I really appreciate his elegant simplicity combined with a self-deprecating approach. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is essential when approaching such deep concepts about the nature of self and reality.

In this article, I’ll share a brief overview of his life, followed by four key videos to watch and 27 of his most powerful quotes.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a basic understanding of Alan Watts and his key ideas.

The life of Alan Watts: A brief overview

Before I share the 4 key videos and 27 essential quotes by Alan Watts, I’ll first share a brief overview of his life.

Alan Watts was one of the earliest philosophers to interpret Eastern wisdom for a Western audience. He was born close to London in 1915, discovering a Buddhist Lodge early in his life.

He moved to the United States in 1938 and became an Episcopal priest from Millbrook, New York. This is where he wrote his most influential book, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety.

In 1951 he moved to San Francisco to teach Buddhist studies. In 1956 he began a popular radio show, “Way Beyond the West”. By the early 1960s his radio talks were being broadcast throughout the United States, with the counterculture movement adopting him as a spiritual spokesperson. He was a prolific writer and speaker until his passing in 1973.

Here’s the LA Times summary of the life of Alan Watts:

“Perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, Alan Watts had the rare gift of ‘writing beautifully the un-writable’. Watts begins with scholarship and intellect and proceeds with art and eloquence to the frontiers of the spirit. A fascinating entry into the deepest ways of knowing.”

I’ll now share the four key videos to watch right away to be introduced to his key ideas, followed by his 27 most influential quotes. If you can’t watch the videos right now, you can scroll straight down to the quotes which are categorized by topic to make for easy reading.

4 of the most mind-opening Alan Watts videos

These 4 videos are very special to me, as each one has shifted me in a profound way. I explain the lesson I learned from each one below.

1) The real you. Who are you, really?

This is a 4 minute video capturing Alan Watts at his most elegant best.

In this video, Watts ask the important question: who are you, really?

YouTube video

He suggests that at a fundamental level, we are all “I”. When you start to see yourself as connected to the whole cosmos, you break down the illusion of being separate from other people around you.

For me, this video makes an important point at the end. He asks:

“Doesn’t it really astonish you that you are this fantastically complex thing, and you’re doing all of this without ever having had an education in how to do it?”

We tend to overthink many things, yet most of our behavior comes effortlessly.

2) How to make yourself a better person

This is the lesson that has had the biggest impact on me.

Alan Watts asks whether there is any way in which one can transform one’s own mind. Or is this nothing more than a vicious circle?

Instead, it’s much better to just accept how you are right now, with all of your anxieties and so-called “shadow emotions”. Check out the video below where Watts explains why it’s so important to adopt this approach.

As Watts says:

“Human beings are largely engaged in wasting enormous amounts of psychic energy in attempting to do things that are quite impossible… All sensible people therefore begin, in life with two fundamental presuppositions. You are not going to improve the world, and you are not going to improve yourself. You are, just what you are. And once you have accepted that situation, you have an enormous amount of energy available to do things that can be done. And everybody else looking at you from an external point of view will say, “My god, how much so-and-so has improved!”

3) A simple trick to meditation

Not many people know that Alan Watts adopted a simple approach to meditation based on what he learned from Eastern wisdom.

Last year I wrote an article sharing the simple trick to meditation I learned from Alan Watts. You can read about it here and also watch the video I created about it. I’ve surprisingly had many people reach out to me asking for help with meditation since creating this video.

Watts’ approach to meditation is based on his insight that we are all completely connected to each other and the cosmos. He helps people to get into a meditative state by dissolving the boundaries between the perceiving self and the supposed world external to your body and mind.

Here’s the video I created about Alan Watts’ approach to meditation. In the video I share a guided meditation created by Watts himself.

YouTube video

4) The relationship between you and your mind

This has been the greatest lesson I have learned from Alan Watts.

I used to think that I was my mind. That my thoughts defined who I am.

Then I watched this video by Alan Watts and it changed how I see the relationships between me and my mind:

YouTube video

I realized that I have become addicted to my thoughts. I was a compulsive thinker.

He helped me to see that it was time to let go of my thoughts. This video helped me to develop 3 simple hacks to finally stop overthinking.

By leaving the mind alone, I learned that over time it starts to quiet itself.

Alan Watts quotes to understand his key ideas

This is an expanded collection of the most powerful Alan Watts quotes, originally published here.

I’ve broken this into sections to categorize his key ideas.

By the end of these quotes, you’ll have gone through the essential introduction to Alan Watts. Let me know in the comments below what you think!

Why man suffers

“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.”

On the present moment

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”

“I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.”

“The art of living… is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past on the other. It consists in being sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”

“We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.”

On the meaning of life

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

“You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.”

“If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing thing you don’t like doing, which is stupid.”

On anxiety

“One is a great deal less anxious if one feels perfectly free to be anxious, and the same may be said of guilt.”

“To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know that you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain. The thinker has no other form than his thought. There is no escape.”

On the mind

“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”

On letting go

“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.”

“If we cling to belief in God, we cannot likewise have faith, since faith is not clinging but letting go.”

Potent advice for any creatives

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.”

On change

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

“The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.”

Why your thoughts aren’t really your own

“We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. We copy emotional reactions from our parents, learning from them thatexcrement is supposed to have a disgusting smell and that vomiting is supposed to be an unpleasant sensation. The dread of death is also learned from their anxieties about sickness and from their attitudes to funerals and corpses. Our social environment has this power just because we do not exist apart from a society. Society is our extended mind and body. Yet the very society from which the individual is inseparable is using its whole irresistible force to persuade the individual that he is indeed separate! Society as we now know it is therefore playing a game with self-contradictory rules.”

On the universe

“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

“Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.”

“We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”

On who you truly are

“Jesus Christ knew he was God. So wake up and find out eventually who you really are. In our culture, of course, they’ll say you’re crazy and you’re blasphemous, and they’ll either put you in jail or in a nut house (which is pretty much the same thing). However if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations, ‘My goodness, I’ve just discovered that I’m God,’ they’ll laugh and say, ‘Oh, congratulations, at last you found out.”

“Every intelligent individual wants to know what makes him tick, and yet is at once fascinated and frustrated by the fact that oneself is the most difficult of all things to know.”

“And people get all fouled up because they want the world to have meaning as if it were words… As if you had a meaning, as if you were a mere word, as if you were something that could be looked up in a dictionary. You are meaning.”

“How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself anything less than a god.”

“What I am really saying is that you don’t need to do anything, because if you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomenon of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that, and there is nothing wrong with you at all.”

Learn about who you truly are according to Alan Watts by getting his book, The Book:On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, which discusses the underlying misunderstanding of who we truly are.

On death

“Try to imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up… now try to imagine what it was like to wake up having never gone to sleep.”

On love

“Never pretend to a love which you do not actually feel, for love is not ours to command.”

On music

“Life is like music for its own sake. We are living in an eternal now, and when we listen to music we are not listening to the past, we are not listening to the future, we are listening to an expanded present.”

On meditation

“We could say that meditation doesn’t have a reason or doesn’t have a purpose. In this respect it’s unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing. When we make music we don’t do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.”

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Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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