An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence

Watts, AlanHere is an excerpt from an article by Maria Popova in which she shares her thoughts about Alan Watts and one of his most valuable works, The Wisdom of Insecurity. To read the complete article, check out other treasures, and sign up for email alerts, please click here to visit Maria’s website, Brain Pickings.

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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timeless reflection on presence over productivity – a timely antidote to the central anxiety of our productivity-obsessed age. Indeed, my own New Year’s resolution has been to stop measuring my days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence. But what, exactly, makes that possible?

This concept of presence is rooted in Eastern notions of mindfulness – the ability to go through life with crystalline awareness and fully inhabit our experience – largely popularized in the West by British philosopher and writer Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973), who also gave us this fantastic meditation on the life of purpose. In the altogether excellent 1951 volume The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library), Watts argues that the root of our human frustration and daily anxiety is our tendency to live for the future, which is an abstraction. He writes:

“If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are “crying for the moon.” We have no such assurance. The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge every one of us is going to suffer and die. If, then, we cannot live happily without an assured future, we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world where, despite the best plans, accidents will happen, and where death comes at the end.”

What keeps us from happiness, Watts argues, is our inability to fully inhabit the present:

“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 argues that our primary mode of relinquishing presence is by leaving the body and retreating into the mind – that ever-calculating, self-evaluating, seething cauldron of thoughts, predictions, anxieties, judgments, and incessant meta-experiences about experience itself.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

PopovaTo learn more about Maria and her websites, please click here.

To read my review of The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, please click here.

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