Below is a quotation from Alan Watts that someone emailed to me, asking what I thought of it. I've shared my response after the quotation, but I want to add on a few additional thoughts that came to mind after re-reading what Watts said.
I completely agree with Watts that there's a time and place for fully immersing ourselves in the lush sensuality of the world without putting on unnecessary coverings of thoughts, concepts, abstract ideas, and such.
Likewise, a warm bath or hot sauna feels best when completely naked.
But note my use of the word "unnecessary." Sometimes it makes sense to think while we're engaged in sensing the world. And sometimes it doesn't. Also, there are gradations of thinking, from mild to intense.
So it depends. There's no way to specify what "it" and "depends" refer to, because people are different; situations are different; so many other things can be different.
In the first paragraph, Watts speaks of "giving up the attempt to make sense of the world in terms of any fixed idea or intellectual system."
YES! On this I heartily agree with Alan Watts.
Which means that what Watts says below can't be taken in any fixed way, nor can what I say in this blog post, nor can anyone else's ideas about anything. All we can do is do our best in any given situation.
As one of my elementary school teachers, Eleanor Marshall, liked to say: Do your best. Angels can do no better.
Here's the quote from Watts:
Atheism in the name of God is an abandonment of all religious beliefs, including atheism, which in practice is the stubbornly held idea that the world is a mindless mechanism. Atheism in the name of God is giving up the attempt to make sense of the world in terms of any fixed idea or intellectual system.
It is becoming again as a child and laying oneself open to reality as it is actually and directly felt, experiencing it without trying to categorize, identify or name it. This can be most easily begun by listening to the world with closed eyes, in the same way that one can listen to music without asking what it says or means.
This is actually a turn-on, a state of consciousness in which the past and future vanish (because they cannot be heard) and in which there is no audible difference between yourself and what you are hearing. There is simply universe, an always present happening in which there is no perceptible difference between self and other, or, as in breathing, between what you do and what happens to you.
Without losing command of civilized behavior, you have temporarily "regressed" to what Freud called the oceanic feeling of the baby, the feeling that we all lost in learning to make distinctions, but that we should have retained as their necessary background, just as there must be empty white paper under this print if you are to read it.
When you listen to the world in this way, you have begun to practice what Hindus and Buddhists call meditation, a re-entry to the real world, as distinct from the abstract world of words and ideas.
If you find that you can't stop naming the various sounds and thinking in words, just listen to yourself doing that as another form of noise, a meaningless murmur like the sound of traffic. I won't argue for this experiment. Just try it and see what happens, because this is the basic act of faith of being unreservedly open and vulnerable to what is true and real. ~Alan Watts
And here's what I said in my email reply.
I sort of understand what Watts is saying here, but it doesn’t make much sense to me.
We adults are not babies. We can’t regress ourselves back into a baby-like state where we lack words, concepts, and such. I can’t look at my coffee mug without thinking, “I just drank coffee out of it.” Viewing it simply as a blueish object with a semi-circular thingie on one side seems exceedingly backward and counter-productive.
It’s a coffee mug with a handle.
Sure, I enjoy going on dog walks and doing Tai Chi with minimal thinking. But minimal doesn’t mean non-existent. In the back of my mind there’s an awareness of where I am and what I’m doing that involves words and concepts. I see no problem with this.
I read a lot of books about neuroscience. There’s no such thing as “pure awareness.” The brain is actively engaged in making sense of the senses, so to speak. Our past experiences with something inform how we view that something now. This isn’t a problem. It’s a feature of how the human brain makes sense of reality.
In my view, we shouldn’t be trying to regress ourselves into an infantile state. Instead, we should use our current adult consciousness as a springboard to become wiser, more compassionate, kinder, more caring.
That said, I should have noted in my response that Watts spoke of listening to our verbal inner dialogue "as another form of noise, a meaningless murmur like the sound of traffic."
This is close to my understanding of what mindfulness practices teach, though Watts is more extreme in his disavowal of concepts and thoughts. There's nothing wrong with thoughts. There's nothing wrong with concepts. There's nothing wrong with the words we speak inside our head.
(Most people do this. However, I've read that some people lack inner speech, substituting images, intuitions, and such for words spoken to ourself.)
My problem with what Watts said in the quotation above is that while he claims that his goal is to be "open to reality as it is actually and directly felt," seemingly he wants to ignore the reality of thoughts, concepts, and abstract ideas when they are directly felt within one's brain.
Mindfulness means being open to everything we experience. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Thoughts and thoughtlessness. Emotions. Sensory impressions. And so much more. Our goal is to be as non-judgmentally aware as possible of what is within and without us.
This leads to living life more vividly. It doesn't mean that we welcome everything that happens, or give up our hopes for our life to change in certain ways. It simply means that, as Watts correctly said, we open ourself to reality as it is.