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Tomi Ungerer, from the Underground Sketchbook (1964).

Do You Lead a Stressful and Worrisome Life? Alan Watts Has Something to Tell You


The society we live in today configures us to live in a state of perpetual worry, but this is, by far, not the best way to experience our present.

One of the solutions for anxiety set forth both Buddhism and metaphysical thinking is paying attention to the current moment (mindfulness); that is, meditation as a tool to discover, just like Kierkegaard wanted, that it is in the present instant where the world emerges once again.

In 1951, Alan Watts, one of the first men that introduced the teachings of Buddhism to the West, published The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, a book where he exposed the latter notion in order to understand it and find a place for it in our modern life, our quotidian becoming. Watts writes:

The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.   

But the future is still not here, 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. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

Watts’ analysis is lucid and accurate because in a way it is also surgical. He clearly points out the elements that appear simple but which give rise to anxiety, and he builds a model where said recurring simplicity becomes more complex until it becomes an idea of ‘happiness’, enriched by equivocal attributes, distracting factors that make us believe that this state can be calculated and measured, molded to fit patterns and formulas.

“There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity,” writes Watts in another passage of the book, where he goes on to say:

To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.

To say it crudely, this is the life that many choose to lead. But is this really the life you want?

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