I'd thought that I'd read, or at least heard about, every book by Alan Watts -- one of my favorite authors. But then I saw a comment on this blog where someone recommended The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East.
So I ordered it, as the commenter said that Watts had interesting observations about free will, one of my favorite subjects. Sweet! Favorite author plus favorite subject equals enjoyable reading.
Watts wrote The Meaning of Happiness in 1940, when he was just 24 years old. Though I'm just a few chapters into the book, it's clearly the product of an intellect wise beyond his years. In a preface written in 1952, Watts says that his ideas have gone far beyond the philosophy of the book.
I'm sure that's true. However, The Meaning of Happiness contains themes that continued on through the rest of Watts' life, such as the folly of viewing reality as being divided into material and supernatural spheres.
I haven't come across specific mentions of free will yet, but a section where Watts talks about the nature of spirituality implies rather strongly that what we call "our" will actually is the will of the entire universe, a view that I find both scientifically correct and emotionally inspiring.
Here's some excerpts that resonated with me.
In itself, spirituality is purely an inner experience; it has no necessary effect whatsoever on one's outward behavior judged from the standards of efficiency and worldly wisdom. This is not to say, however, that it is something absolutely private and personal, finding no expression that others can see.
For spirituality is a deep sense of inner freedom based on the realization that one's self is in complete union and harmony with life, with God, with the Self of the universe or whatever that principle may be called. It is the realization that that union has existed from all time, even though one did not know it, and that nothing in all the world nor anything that oneself can do is able to destroy it.
It is thus the sense that the whole might of the universe is at work in one's every thought and action, however trivial and small.
...In one sense you feel that your life is not lived by you at all; the power of the universe, fate and destiny, God Himself, are directing all your motions and all your responsibilities are blown to the winds. In another sense you feel free to move as you wish; you seem to be moving life with the same vast power with which life moves you, and your littlest acts become filled with gigantic possibilities.
Indeed, physicists tell us that the stars are affected when we lift a single finger.
The result of these two feelings is that you no longer distinguish between what you do to life and what life does to you; it is as if two dancers moved in such perfect accord that the distinction between lead and response vanished, as if the two became one and the same motion.
By the whirling, ever-changing movement of this dance you are carried along without pause, but not like a drunken man in a torrent, for you as much as life are the source of the movement. And this is real freedom; it includes both freedom to move and to be moved; action and passivity are merged, and in spirituality as well as in marriage this is the fulfillment of love.
All this, however, does not take place in the ecstasy of trance, in some abstract state of consciousness where all shapes and substances have become merged into a single infinite essence.
The spiritual man does not perform his ordinary activities as one in a dream, letting his surface thoughts and deeds run on mechanically. He can become just as absorbed in the usual affairs of the world as anyone else, but in a certain way he sanctifies them for under his hands sharpening a pencil becomes as much a religious act as prayer or meditation.
Indeed, he can afford to become absorbed in everyday affairs almost more than others, and he can do so with a certain zest and abandon for to him ordinary human thoughts and activities are as much included in the dance of the spirit as is anything else.
This, indeed, is much of his secret, for he knows that spirituality does not consist in thinking always about the spiritual as such. His world is not divided into "watertight compartments" and his religion is not a special form of thought and activity, for the spiritual and the material are not separated.
...Those who cannot feel that man's principal concern should lie outside this world, who feel that salvation has nothing to do with removal to another realm of experience or with mere obedience to a moral law -- such people can find little assistance from religion as usually taught, and today they constitute a very large proportion of intelligent men and women.
For the nineteenth-century conflict between religion and science was, for those whose eyes were open, a stripping off of nonessentials from religion, but unfortunately official religion seldom saw it in this way. It clung to supernaturalism, which, rightly or wrongly, rationalist science has discredited, and continued to make it the keystone of spirituality.
But that kind of religion does not encourage the type of love upon which spirituality is founded. We have seen that its technique is imitative and thus unlikely to produce genuine, firsthand religious experience; we have also seen that its contempt of this world and its concentration on the world hereafter has little to do with the essentials of religion.
...In this sense, religion is union with life; whether that life is this present life of physical form, of thought and feeling with brain and soul, or whether it is a life of purely psychic substance is beside the point.
These are only different grades of existence; they are not different grades of spirituality, for the same spiritual laws apply in every grade of existence, and when one has learned union with one of them, one has discovered the secret of union with any of them.
We have suggested that the secret of this union lies in a positive attitude toward the world in which we live.
To repeat the question which religion has to answer, we want to discover how we can learn to be united with life in all its expressions, in living and dying, in love and fear, in the outer world of circumstance, and in the inner world of thought and feeling, so that in union with it we may find freedom and happiness.
To be united with life in all its expressions may seem a large demand to make on oneself, for those expressions include disease, pain, death, madness, and all the horrors which man can devise, wittingly or unwittingly, for his fellow creatures.
In fact the "nub" of the whole problem is the acceptance of the dark side of life, for this is the very occasion of our unhappiness. "Acceptance" may seem a weak word for a positive attitude of love, but it is used because the type of love in question is relaxed.
It is positive but not aggressive; it grows in its own way and is not forced. Therefore we may say that it is not enough to tolerate the dark side of life; acceptance in this sense is much more than a "let it be" with a resigned shrug of the shoulders.
Let us call it "creative acceptance," though because this phrase smacks overmuch of philosophical jargon we will write the noun and only remember its qualifying adjective. This is perhaps wise in another way, for a truth oddly comes out of a play on words: to be genuine, acceptance must be unqualified.