Sunday Snippet: Alan Watts (1915-1973)

“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 like to think that each of us is independent. We like to think that we are unique and original and special, but the fact of the matter is that we really are the product of our upbringing. Our views and perspectives on the world are naturally colored by society. If you grew up in a culture where all meat had to be fully cooked, then you may be disgusted by a medium-rare steak. If you grew up in a very conservative culture, you may be shocked when you see a girl in a two-piece bikini.

And that’s one of the ideas that philosopher Alan Watts discussed during his many lectures and presentations. This isn’t to say that we can’t all be unique, but we do have to realize that purely by using a pre-existing language, we are inherently involving certain biases and pre-conceived notions. This is true for food, weather, family relations, religion and the rest of it. And we tend to go through life following the paths of those before us.

You might remember the video I posted several years ago about how we are all chasing a dangling carrot. We go through years of school, because we’re told that’s how you’ll get a good job. We get that entry-level job, because we’re told that’s how you’ll move up the corporate ladder and finally grab that carrot. We go through this process, because it is what is expected of us, only to realize that it was never about the carrot. It was about the journey along the way. It was about the song and the expression.

“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.”

Known for interpreting and popularizing Eastern philosophy (particularly Zen Buddhism) for more of a Western sensibility, Alan Watts understandably endorsed a philosophy of simplicity and calm. While there is certainly a lot of value in that line of thought, since it abolishes the angst of materialism and want, I feel that our ultimate goal is that we should try to achieve something greater than ourselves.

Most of us won’t get there and most of us will feel the weight of an existential void as a result, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. You want what you do to make a difference. You want it to matter. You want to leave the world a better place for future generations and one way to do that is through the written word. Apparently, Watts agrees. But what if you don’t know what to write or where to begin?

“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.”

Just relax. Just write. Just live your life the way you want to live it and accept that the pieces will fall where they will.