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

The Ephemera: A Fairytale from Benjamin Franklin on the Transience of Life & Our Smallness in the Universe

I have been reading an old book I found in a used bookstore. The book, A Treasury of the Essay moves chronologically, starting with, predictably, Michel de Montaigne, who is credited with popularizing the essay as a genre, and then through the centuries, including a whole host of European and American essayists, some to me fairly familiar, such as Jonathan Swift and Virginia Woolf, and others less so – William Cobbett and James Thurber for example.

benjamin franklinWe’re treated to excerpts of essays in a wide assortment of styles. I have enjoyed some and been bored by many.

And by a few, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. There is only one essay included by Benjamin Franklin. It is found in a letter to a lady – and reads a bit like a children’s story. I found it whimsical, captivating, and so very unexpected.

Find in the below a gentle reminder of one’s smallness in the universe, the shortness and transience of life, and the importance then of not taking ourselves and our own importance too seriously.


Benjamin Franklin to Madam Brillon de Jouy, 1778


You may remember, my dear friend, that when we lately spent that happy day in the delightful garden and sweet society of the Moulin Joly, I stopt a little in one of our walks, and staid some time behind the company. We had been shown numberless skeletons of a kind of little fly, called an ephemera, whose successive generations, we were told, were bred and expired within the day. I happened to see a living company of them on a leaf, who appeared to be engaged in conversation…I turned my head to an old grey-headed [fly], who was single on another leaf, and talking to himself. Being amused with his soliloquy, I put it down in writing

“It was,” said he, “the opinion of learned philosophers of our race, who lived and flourished long before my time, that this vast world, the Moulin Joly, could not itself subsist more than eighteen hours; and I think there was some foundation for that opinion, since, by the apparent motion of the great luminary that gives life to all nature, and which in my time has evidently declined considerably towards the ocean at the end of our earth, it must then finish its course, be extinguished in the waters that surround us, and leave the world in cold and darkness, necessarily producing universal death and destruction.

I have lived seven of those hours, a great age, being no less than four hundred and twenty minutes of time. How very few of us continue so long! I have seen generations born, flourish, and expire. My present friends are the children and grandchildren of the friends of my youth, who are now, alas no more! And I must soon follow them; for, by the course of nature, though still in health, I cannot expect to live above seven or eight minutes longer.

What now avails all my toil and labor, in amassing honey-dew on this leaf, which I cannot live to enjoy! What the political struggles I have been engaged in, for the good of my compatriot inhabitants of this bush, or my philosophical studies for the benefit of our race in general!…My friends would comfort me with the idea of a name they say, I shall leave behind me; and they tell me I have lived long enough to nature and to glory. But what will fame be to an ephemera who no longer exists? And what will become of all history in the eighteenth hour, when the world itself, even the whole Moulin Joly, shall come to its end, and be buried in universal ruin?”

To me, after all my eager pursuits, no solid pleasures now remain, but the reflection of a long life spent in meaning well, the sensible conversation of a few good lady ephemerae, and now and then a kind smile and a tune from the ever amiable Brilliante.


 

I found this a welcomed jolt of perspective that is just as useful to us now as it was in Benjamin Franklin’s day.

I was reminded while reading this of the classic Cosmos by Carl Sagan. In fact, in Cosmos is a line strikingly similar in sentiment, “We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.”

For some additional detail and the full text of Benjamin Franklin’s letter, click here.

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Hannah Arendt, Appearances, and the Meaning to be Found at the Surface

We have a complicated relationship, I think, with beauty. We hunt for it, within magazines, museums, in our travels. We document and collect beauty, in our photographs and belongings, and we attempt to create beauty, in our own art, in our homes, and of course out of ourselves, in the application of makeup, the tanning of the skin, the toning of the muscles. But yet, sometimes, we disparage beauty. Beauty must compete for its worth with usefulness, with pragmatism, and with things that have a cause, a reason for being beyond the appearance. In persons, we recognize that physical beauty is only skin deep. The real essence of the person must be something much deeper.

The beauty of things, the appearance of things can seem trivial compared to this essence of the thing or being. And of course, it is. But, as with anything else, we can also consider it differently.

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Philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book The Life of the Mind invites us to consider the significance and the gravity of Appearances.

She reminds us first of the relationship between being and appearing. Implicit in the “I exist” is the “I appear.” And a necessary follower to the “I appear” is “I appear to others.”

 

The world men are born into contains many things, natural and artificial, living and dead, transient and sempiternal, all of which have in common that they appear and hence are meant to be seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled, to be perceived by sentient creatures endowed with the appropriate sense organs.

Nothing could appear, the word “appearance” would make no sense, if recipients of appearances did not exist— living creatures able to acknowledge, recognize, and react to— in flight or desire, approval or disapproval, blame or praise— what is not merely there but appears to them and is meant for their perception.

In this world which we enter, appearing from a nowhere, and from which we disappear into a nowhere, Being and Appearing coincide…Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator. In other words, nothing that is, insofar as it appears, exists in the singular; everything that is is meant to be perceived by somebody. Not Man but men inhabit this planet.

 

In addition to this world of appearances is also the world of what is unseen. Traditionally, the unseen – whether material – the brain, the heart, the organs or immaterial, as in the self or the mind, is given more weight than appearance. She quotes Kant as exemplifying this tradition in thought when he said that appearances “must themselves have grounds which are not appearances.” Arendt believes that this belief that a cause should be of a higher rank than the effect is one of the oldest and most stubborn of fallacies.

 

What Meaning Can we Find in Appearances?

Arendt asks the provoking and astounding question,

“Could it not be that appearances are not there for the sake of the life process but, on the contrary, that the life process is there for the sake of appearances? Since we live in an appearing world, is it not much more plausible that the relevant and the meaningful in this world of ours should be located precisely on the surface?”

I love this line of inquiry, not because it is necessarily wholly true but because perhaps there is some truth in the answer and most importantly because it challenges so much we take for granted so very powerfully.

I am reminded of sentences I came across recently here, “Beauty comes beforprimrose-2082038_1920e reason. It demands you look for meaning. It announces meaning in an almost violent way.”

Beauty or the appearance announces meaning. Perhaps it is the meaning, announcing itself, provoking further inquiry.

In order to answer this question, that of if meaning can be found at the surface, Arendt references the work of the biologist and zoologist Adolf Portmann. In his work, Portmann distinguishes between the Authentic Appearance and the Inauthentic Appearance. The Authentic Appearances “come to light of their own accord” and Inauthentic Appearances “such as the roots of a plant or the inner organs of an animal” are “visible only through interference.” Leaning on some of Portmann’s work, Arendt provides two arguments:

 

First argument: There are significant and meaningful differences between how the external and the internal appear that reveal a beauty and distinction unique to the external

Portmann observed the fact that external appearances are “infinitely varied and highly differentiated.” From the external we can generally differentiate from one individual to another. External features are arranged in pleasing ways, according to symmetry. Think of the human face, of butterfly wings. The internal or the inauthentic by contrast, such as bodily organs, are not pleasing to the eye, are not generally symmetrical (in higher level organisms), and cannot be used to easily distinguish between individuals.

Portmann searched for the cause of these peculiarities, which he failed to find, and attributed the characteristics to mysterious “unknown powers of creation” (point of clarification – Portmann was not a creationist and in fact was an ardent fan of Darwin, whose work informed his writing). Arendt however is interested in the expression itself and less so the cause. The uniqueness of the external as opposed to the internal is perhaps itself evidence of the importance of the external. If the insides of us were what appeared to others, she writes, we would all look alike.

 

Second argument: Beings have the innate urge to self-display beyond the functional

Portmann writes of a natural “urge to self-display” that transcends the functional – that transcends what is deemed necessary for sexual attraction and adaptation.  Arendt elaborates,

Whatever can see wants to be seen, whatever can hear calls out to be heard, whatever can touch presents itself to be. It is indeed as though everything that is alive— in addition to the fact that its surface is made for appearance, fit to be seen and meant to appear to others— has an urge to appear, to fit itself into the world of appearances by displaying and showing, not its “inner self” but itself as an individual.

And what is being expressed? Yes, words and sounds, but even more so, even more often, it is the physical, the us, the body, the self in acts of appearing and being seen.

 

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Arendt concludes that the belief that our “inner life” is more relevant to what we “are” than what appears on the outside, is an illusion. Note that Arendt does not explicitly state that the outer life is more relevant and the inner life less relevant. Rather, I’ve come to think that the argument can be understood as a defense for an equal exploration of both cause and effect, of inner and outer. What is expressed, what appears, can be as important the cause of the expression or appearance. And in searching for the cause of the appearance, we cannot discount the importance and the meaning of the appearance itself.

Furthermore, for me, it lends additional possibilities as well as mystery to our conceptions of appearances as well as our conceptions of beauty and form, whether of ourselves or of our world, a mountain, a butterfly, a stone.