Watts On Your Mind

All humane people should admit that they are jokers; that they are playing games and playing tricks. That I am doing it on you — I am most ready to admit this. I hoaxed you all into coming here to tell you . . . what? [laughs loudly, crowd laughs] — Alan Watts.

Last Monday was “Mindfulness Day”. My mind must have wandered, got tired and spent the day snoozing under a shady tree as Mindfulness Day slipped by completely unnoticed. But my esteemed and enlightened co-editor Neil mentioned it in a tweet.

I’ve always admired Brainpickings. Anyone who talks about Hannah Arendt and Kurt Vonnegut and Susan Sontag in a popular blog and makes people want to read gets my attention. Alan Watts too.

I’ve been reading Watts since I found a neat copy of The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are in Miles’ Antiquarian Bookshop while I was skiving double PE. Since then I’ve read pretty much everything he wrote, and more recently, thanks to Youtube, managed to listen to hundreds of lectures he gave in American colleges.

He’s a bit of a hero of mine.

Trouble is, if you read beyond the few saccharine quotes of Brainpickings, Alan Watts is not exactly the hippy-drippy, kaftan-cladded spouter of sententious psychobabble he’s made out to be. He’s quite a bit more disturbing.

It’s not difficult to find many of his books on the internet, as well as recent academic assessments, but I’d probably recommend this video of the book that first introduced me to his thinking as a place to begin.

And the last chapter especially.

Fundamentally, Watts believed life was play. And he took this thought to its most extreme conclusions. Conclusions that would have got him censored on social media, banned from many campuses, and shouted down if he ever dared to speak in public (there’s no way any of those youtube videos would have been recorded these days.)

It comes, then, to this: that to be “viable,” livable, or merely practical, life must be lived as a game—and the “must” here expresses a condition, not a commandment. It must be lived in the spirit of play rather than work, and the conflicts which it involves must be carried on in the realization that no species, or party to a game, can survive without its natural antagonists, its beloved enemies, its indispensable opponents. For to “love your enemies” is to love them as enemies; it is not necessarily a clever device for winning them over to your own side. The lion lies down with the lamb in paradise, but not on earth—”paradise” being the tacit, off-stage level where, behind the scenes, all conflicting parties recognize their interdependence, and, through this recognition, are able to keep their conflicts within bounds. This recognition is the absolutely essential chivalry which must set the limits within all warfare, with human and non-human enemies alike, for chivalry is the debonair spirit of the knight who “plays with his life” in the knowledge that even mortal combat is a game.

Imagine watching the news with Alan Watts:

The morality that goes with this understanding is, above all, the frank recognition of your dependence upon enemies, underlings, out-groups, and, indeed, upon all other forms of life whatsoever. Involved as you may be in the conflicts and competitive games of practical life, you will never again be able to indulge in the illusion that the “offensive other” is all in the wrong, and could or should be wiped out.[30] This will give you the priceless ability of being able to contain conflicts so that they do not get out-of-hand, of being willing to compromise and adapt, of playing, yes, but playing it cool. This is what is called “honor among thieves,” for the really dangerous people are those who do not recognize that they are thieves — the unfortunates who play the role of the “good guys” with such blind zeal that they are unconscious of any indebtedness to the “bad guys” who support their status.

As Watts meditates on this, he just keeps digging himself deeper into the argument of moral equivalence:

It is most important that this be understood by those concerned with civil rights, international peace, and the restraint of nuclear weapons. These are most undoubtedly causes to be backed with full vigor, but never in a spirit which fails to honor the opposition, or which regards it as entirely evil or insane. It is not without reason that the formal rules of boxing, judo, fencing, and even dueling require that the combatants salute each other before the engagement. In any foreseeable future there are going to be thousands and thousands of people who detest and abominate Negroes, communists, Russians, Chinese, Jews, Catholics, beatniks, homosexuals, and “dope-fiends.” These hatreds are not going to be healed, but only inflamed, by insulting those who feel them, and the abusive labels with which we plaster them — squares, fascists, rightists, know-nothings — may well become the proud badges and symbols around which they will rally and consolidate themselves. Nor will it do to confront the opposition in public with polite and nonviolent sit-ins and demonstrations, while boosting our collective ego by insulting them in private. If we want justice for minorities and cooled wars with our natural enemies, whether human or non-human, we must first come to terms with the minority and the enemy in ourselves and in our own hearts, for the rascal is there as much as anywhere in the “external” world — especially when you realize that the world outside your skin is as much yourself as the world inside. For want of this awareness, no one can be more belligerent than a pacifist on the rampage, or more militantly nationalistic than an anti-imperialist.

Watts analyzes the moral crusader in terms straight from the tweets of the rascal Donald Trump!:

I would never be able to know that I belong to the in-group of “nice” or “saved” people without the assistance of an out-group of “nasty” or “damned” people. How can any in-group maintain its collective ego without relishing dinnertable discussions about the ghastly conduct of outsiders? The very identity of racist Southerners depends upon contrasting themselves with those dirty black “nigras.” But, conversely, the out-groups feel that they are really and truly “in,” and nourish their collective ego with relishingly indignant conversation about squares, Ofays, WASPs, Philistines, and the blasted bourgeoisie.

Although Watts sees himself, and is, on the side of the Angels here, his refusal to turn this into a Battle in Heaven that the Angels must win against damnable devils marks him out, in contemporary terms, as a fascist, or at least a reactionary. In contemporary political ideological clashes, no matter what one’s intentions, if one cuts the “enemy” some slack, or mildly critiques one’s own side, one is “objectively” acting for the enemy.

Watts suggests this moral signaling is rooted in Protestantism:

Modern Protestantism in particular, in its liberal and progressive forms, is the religion most strongly influenced by the mythology of the world of objects, and of man as the separate ego. Man so defined and so experienced is, of course, incapable of pleasure and contentment, let alone creative power. Hoaxed into the illusion of being an independent, responsible source of actions, he cannot understand why what he does never comes up to what he should do, for a society which has defined him as separate cannot persuade him to behave as if he really belonged. Thus he feels chronic guilt and makes the most heroic efforts to placate his conscience.

From these efforts come social services, hospitals, peace movements, foreign-aid programs, free education, and the whole philosophy of the welfare state. Yet we are bedeviled by the fact that the more these heroic and admirable enterprises succeed, the more they provoke new and increasingly horrendous problems. For one thing, few of us have ever thought through the problem of what good such enterprises are ultimately supposed to achieve. When we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and housed the homeless, what then? Is the object to enable unfortunate people to help those still more unfortunate? To convert Hindus and Africans into a huge bourgeoisie, where every Bengali and every Zulu has the privilege of joining our special rat-race, buying appliances on time and a television set to keep him running?

I can’t imagine that last sentence on Brainpickings.

This last quote is so devastating I’ll not comment on it, just leave it here for you to ponder next time you are considering mindfulness…