You Tube works in mysterious ways. After I started listening on my iPhone to a video of Robert Sapolsky talking with an interviewer about how the brain constructs emotions, I noticed that an Alan Watts talk had popped up in a list of supposedly related videos.
Okay, I thought, I like Alan Watts, and the title sounds intriguing, "Alan Watts: Live Without Worry or Fear." Wow, all I have to do is spend 53 minutes listening to an Alan Watts talk, and I'll be worry and fear free.
Of course, that didn't happen, unless there's a delayed reaction after hearing what Watts said. But I really didn't expect anything different. I just hoped to enjoy the talk and get some fresh insights into the philosophy Watts espoused with such clarity and wisdom.
That did happen.
Watts gives away the secret to living without worry and fear early on in the talk. Basically it is to not fight life but to flow with life. Hard to argue with that, for we make life more difficult when we strain and struggle to control the uncontrollable.
Problems always will be with us. However, we make matters worse when we view life itself as a problem to be solved, as opposed to dealing with problems that arise within a nonproblematic life.
Religion, mysticism, and many forms of spirituality are all about viewing life itself as a problem. When we go along with this, Watts says that we fall prey to a trap. We create an illusory problem, then we want that problem solved.
There are lots of religious leaders, gurus, masters, and such who are happy to help with this. Salvation, enlightenment, God realization -- these and other wares are offered in the religious/spiritual marketplace as solutions to the illusory problem of life not being what life actually is.
Actually, we die. Actually, our knowledge of the cosmos is limited. Actually, happiness doesn't exist without sadness. But not being content with the actual nature of life, many people seek out a "guru" who will fix them by making their life into something that isn't an actual life.
Zen, says Watts, attracts some of these people. Traditionally, it was difficult to be accepted as a student by a Zen master. They'd tell the would-be student, "I have nothing to offer you. Go away."
Viewing that brushoff as an invitation to try harder, the person who wants to be fixed by Zen makes an even stronger effort to be accepted as a Zen student. Sure, the Zen master knows that there is nothing wrong with the person that needs to be fixed. However, the only way to lead the person to that realization is by playing along with their illusion.
Watts likens this to someone who believes the Earth is flat. They can't be reasoned out of this false belief. So a wiser person says to them, "Lets go together to the edge of the world and peer over it."
Moving in a single direction along a certain latitude, eventually they will return to the place from which they started, demonstrating that the Earth is circular in two dimensions. If they repeated this exercise by traveling along a certain longitude, they'd experience Earth as the globe that it is.
Watts shares a William Blake quote: "The fool who persists in his folly will become wise."
Likewise, a teacher of Zen indulges a student by pressing them to find the nature of themselves that is having the problem they want fixed by Zen. Typically this is done rather indirectly through statements such as "Show me the face that you possessed before you were born."
Of course, being steeped in the Zen form of Buddhism, the Zen teacher knows that the student doesn't have a self that is separate from the life they are living now. But just as a flat-earth believer needs to experience the roundness of our planet to break free of their illusion, so does a Zen student need to expend much time and energy searching for the illusory self, or ego, or soul, that doesn't exist.
Eventually they will recognize that the search is useless, because there is nothing to be found but the life they're already living. A Donovan song comes to mind: "First there is a mountain, then there isn't, then there is." Wikipedia explains:
The lyrics refer to a Buddhist saying originally formulated by Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D. T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism, one of the first books to popularize Buddhism in Europe and the US:
Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters.
Now, this paraphrase of the talk by Watts doesn't do justice to what he said. It's simply my way of expressing some key points that I recall from the talk.
Near the end of the talk Watts says that a Zen student is brought to the realization that the ego is phoney, not genuine, so it is impossible for the student to either act or to not act, since who they think they are isn't the reality of who they are.
For another way of expressing what I've said here, check out my 2014 post, "Watts: Wanting to clean up the messiness of life IS the mess." It includes a quotation from one of Watts' books on the same theme as the talk I've trued to describe. The quotation ends with:
Sometimes life is telling you that the course you are on is not the way to go, and the message underlying all of this is that you cannot transform yourself. Life is giving you the message that the "you" that you imagine to be capable of transforming yourself does not exist.
In other words, as an ego, I am separate from my emotions, my thoughts, my feelings, my experiences. So the one who is supposed to be in control of them cannot control them because it isn't there.
And as soon as you understand that, things will be greatly improved.