Alan Watts on How Our Anxieties Are Born Out of Our Desire for Security

My first introduction to Alan Watts was through the plethora of inspirational videos based on his writing that are out there on YouTube. Back when I was quitting my job, it seemed like every other person I told sent a Alan Watts link my way. And there are a lot of them out there. Spiritual Mind, the YouTube channel I was directed to most, seems to put out a new one almost every day. The videos, as a side note, are pretty good. They’re simple, but persuasive messages of encouragement to live according to one’s own standards, ambitions, and dreams. To do what you want with your one life.

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Watts, (1915 – 1973), a British philosopher, was well known for having been able to convey and interpret ancient Eastern teachings in ways that are understandable to and palatable by Western society. His writing addressed complex ideas, explained simply. He tackled, among other subjects, human consciousness, happiness, human identity, religion, contemplation, and anxiety – topics that are timeless and still as relevant as ever today.

In 1951, Watts published The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message For An Age of Anxiety.  A few years prior, in 1947, W.H. Auden had declared the period an “Age of Anxiety” with his epic poem of the same title. In the first pages of his book, Watts writes,

“[S]cience and industry have so increased both the tempo and violence of living…There is, then, the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years so many long-established traditions have broken down – traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order, and of religious belief. As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things which we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time.”

But set aside some of the specific phrasing and Watts could easily be describing our time. In fact, I would venture to guess that every generation perhaps before and certainly since Watts has also thought themselves very anxious, having of course to deal with exceptional never before seen challenges affecting their particular times. And so it goes forever and ever, each generation feeling that they face new challenges and so are – of course, unavoidably, painfully anxious. We are anxious and anxious about being anxious.

A lot of books and articles addressing anxiety do so by identifying causes of anxiety. A quick google search led me to material explaining how our current anxiety is a result of social media and the comparisons it encourages, the election of Donald Trump, drug use, economic recessions, more people living further away from relatives, as well as a general decrease in ‘opportunities to make real connections with others.’

Watts, however, takes a different approach.

He too identifies causes of anxiety – but inner causes of anxiety. Watts identifies patterns of thinking and mental constructions that are widespread today that, almost regardless of the state of the world or individual circumstances, create anxiety. Naturally, it also follows then that awareness of and identification of these patterns can help to ease anxiety – regardless of the state of the world or of our individual circumstances.

There’s a lot of great material in the book – and there’s a reason that, together in volume, it amounts to a book rather than an article – and in paraphrasing, much is of course lost.

But the meat of Watt’s point – evident too in his title – is that a desire for security contributes to anxiety. Of course, it’s natural to want to feel secure. We want to have money in the bank to protect ourselves for emergencies, we do go and take out various insurance policies on our home, our car, our life, we do solicit advice and conduct research before making big decisions, we do look after our health, we do invest, we do strive for high paying jobs. All of these and many other actions help to provide structure and stability in our lives and are good and proper things to do and strive for.

The challenge comes though in the fact that – really, there is no such thing as real stability and security. And that, despite whatever preventative, precautionary measures we can undertake or stress about taking, we are always left with insecurity. You never know what can happen, and to a certain extent it is impossible to anticipate everything. We have to become comfortable with insecurity.

Insecurity is a part of being alive, of being. To protest against this insecurity is to struggle against – everything – life. And being in the state of struggling and anxiety makes us feel more insecure, and so on. Watts states it as such,

“It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated ‘I’ which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.

To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath.”

And similarly,

“For most of us this conflict is ever gnawing within us because our lives are one long effort to resist the unknown, the real present in which we live, which is the unknown in the midst of coming into being. Living thus, we never really learn to live with it. At every moment we are cautious, hesitant, and on the defensive. And all to no avail, for life thrusts us into the unknown willy-nilly, and resistance is as futile and exasperating as trying to swim against a roaring torrent.”

An answer – or a way we can respond to the inclination to feel insecure – is to be better at being present. Feelings of insecurity are born out of a fixation on the possibilities of the future and also on comparisons to the past. Therefore, a clearer focus on each individual moment will make it impossible to be as insecure. You cannot truly be present in an activity AND be anxious about some insecurity. If you are present in an activity – that’s it. If there’s anxiety there too, then you’re not really being present.

“The art of living in this ‘predicament’ is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past and the known on the other. It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”

And at this, we are notoriously bad.

“For the animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable. But man is hardly satisfied with this at all. He is much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations – especially the latter. With these assured, he can put up with an extremely miserable present. Without this assurance, he can be extremely miserable in the midst of immediate physical pleasure.”

And suffer greatly for it.

“After all, the future is quite meaningless and unimportant unless, sooner or later, it is going to become the present. Thus to plan for a future which is not going to become present is hardly more absurd than to plan for a future which, when it comes to me, will find me ‘absent,’ looking fixedly over its shoulder instead of into its face.”

I have to reiterate – the above doesn’t do the book justice and any meaningful gains can only be taken by reading the book itself. Or, for some ‘samplings’ of Watts, the YouTube channel Spiritual Mind is still a great starting place.

Other similar books I’ve enjoyed recently: The Tao of Pooh, A New Earth

“Gastronomy is the Art of Using Food to Create Happiness”

“Gastronomy is the art of using food to create happiness,” writes Theodore Zeldin.

Zeldin, both a philosopher and a historian has dedicated much of his life to discovering what it means to be human and what it means to be happy. One of his books, An Intimate History of Humanity, is a treasure. Each chapter explores a different theme, emotion, or element of the human life. Examples of chapter titles include, “How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations” and “Why the crisis in the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity.”

Underlying all his writing, regardless of the subject, is the common thread of pleasure and happiness – and it is no different in his exploration of our relationship with food.

Eating is one of the most basic ways by which we experience pleasure. Zeldin posits that our approach to eating and receiving pleasure from eating mirrors our broader approaches to pursuing other types of pleasure in life.

 

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According Zeldin, there are Three Ways of Eating and each corresponds to a different way of searching for happiness.

Zeldin’s Three Ways of Eating:

1) Eating until one is full

“The first and most traditional way, putting faith in old recipes and well-tried methods. The aim is to be contented, to be comforted, to feel cozy, to purr. This is the cautious approach to pleasure, with the motto ‘Protect yourself from foreign bodies.’”

This is a search for contentment, for satiation, in a way that is safe and without risk or danger (and excitement).

2) Eating as amusement

A second way of eating is, “treating food as an amusement, a form of permissiveness, a caress of the senses,” “creating conviviality around delicious odours.”

This variety of a search for happiness is for temporary relief from ordinary hardship, in the one who “yearns for distractions and surprises, who seeks a different kind of happiness in frivolity in being jokey, cynical, ironical, refusing to be made permanently miserable by the big problems, like starvation and stupidity.”

3) Food as a means of exercising creativity

“When peace and quiet, or wit and detachment, began to pall, a different yearning was born, to make a personal, original contribution to life. The search for a third kind of happiness – which moderns call creativity – demanded a way of eating which corresponded…

Creative cooks found qualities in food that nobody suspected were there, uniting ingredients that never used to mix. Creative diners are constantly engaged in losing their fear of strange foods, and of foreign bodies.”

With this third way of eating, cooking and eating become forms of art. Cooking is another medium for expression and our food, the canvas and materials through which we can create.

“Every time a recipe is not strictly followed, every time a risk is taken with changed ingredients or proportions, the resulting food is a creative work, good or bad, into which humans have put a little of themselves.”

 

His point with these three ways of eating, he is careful to note, is not to categorize us into “three different kinds of people, each of them stuck with their habits.” No, rather, it’s to suggest that there may be more to the way we cook and eat than may appear at surface level.

Zeldin likely hopes for more of the third way of eating. I direct you to this final paragraph from the text, which (with an idealism that appears in most of Zeldin’s work) expresses well his belief that there is much more to learn from how we eat and also his hope for further “exploration on the whole of nature” and “ever-widening horizons of pleasure and understanding.”

Hunger is still being satisfied without full awareness of what it is one is hungry for. Some delicious foods have no nutritional value, others are disagreeable until a taste for them is acquired, others still do not stop one feeling hungry but stimulate one to eat yet more, to prolong the pleasure of eating, like a lover seeking to prolong an embrace. Trying to make sense of such behavior can clarify a lot more than one’s taste in food – for example, how far one is interested by new sorts of pleasure, or innovation and creativity in general, whether one is willing to risk disappointment or failure, whether one wants to be brave and free more than to be applauded, whether one likes to discuss one’s pleasures, whether one enjoys giving pleasure to others. Gastronomy is a branch of knowledge in its infancy, focusing not just on self-indulgence but on exploration, not just on self-exploration but on the exploration of the whole of nature. It can look forward to ever-widening horizons of pleasure and understanding, even though it has its dark side, for it has done little to deal with the obscenities of famine and cruelty, and it will perhaps only receive proper recognition when it does. Nevertheless, forks and spoons have probably done more to reconcile people who cannot agree than guns and bombs ever did.