Alan Watts on the Hubris of Formal Spiritual Practice

Alan Watts

Motivations for taking up a spiritual practice are many, but most can probably be lumped into one of two categories:

  1. Those seeking a greater, more enduring source of well-being
  2. Those actively marveling at the nature of reality, or being, itself

But despite the purity of ones intentions, traps lurk deep within any system of spiritual practice. Racking up years of meditation/yoga practice, even when aimed at loosening the ego’s grip upon consciousness, may do nothing more than feed one’s hubris. It’s precisely that aiming at anything via spiritual disciplines that undermines the process. While this paradox of desiring to detach from desires is generally admitted as necessary in the beginnings of spiritual life, it’s just as susceptible — if not more so — to inflammation rather than dissolution as one continues their practice. It may just deepen the ego trip. And though Western culture is keenly opening up to the scientifically verified virtues of contemplative activities/passivities— from stress-reduction to enhanced creativity & productivity—approaching spirituality from a utilitarian perspective botches the whole thing.

This paradox is one that Alan Watts, interpreter of Eastern wisdom into Western culture, grappled with in a refreshing way. He presents the problem clearly:

This is why I am not overly enthusiastic about the various ‘spiritual exercises’ in meditation or yoga which some consider essential for release from the ego. For when practiced in order to ‘get’ some kind of spiritual illumination or awakening, they strengthen the fallacy that the ego can toss itself away by a tug at its own bootstraps. But there is nothing wrong with meditating just to meditate, in the same way that you listen to music just for the music. If you go to concerts to ‘get culture’ or to improve your mind, you will sit there as deaf as a doorpost.”

— Alan Watts, The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

Watts makes the contentious case that to meditate “for” something is to miss the point. That the presence of ulterior motives nullifies the potential value of the activity. To exercise dazzling willpower, and sit every morning for an entire hour over the course of a decade, or three, is not in itself a spiritual achievement, and may reflect nothing but a growing, haughty narcissism.

The emergent question, then, is whether or not some form of spiritual practice is required in order to experience enlightenment (read: unmask the real lowdown on life, or dislodge the illusion of separateness).

Watts’ life personifies this question. Though he played a significant role in popularizing meditation, he himself advocated against the necessity for sitting still and doing nothing in the traditional fashion, mocking what he called “the royal road to Buddhist enlightenment”:

…I could not do any systematic or formal meditation because I had pondered too long his [Krishnamurti’s] own reiterations of the point that methodical spiritual disciplines are merely highbrow ways of exalting the ego. Aiming at unselfishness is the most insidious form of selfishness.” 

— Alan Watts, In My Own Way (1972)

And yet, Watts does admit that in order to probe the mystic depths, one must take up some sort of intentional discipline:

…reading is still the fastest way of absorbing information, although to comprehend mysticism you must also follow some type of sadhana, or discipline in nonverbal perception — except that you have to do it without seeking any result in the future. You have to stop competing, justifying yourself, and just be/not-be. This requires that you stop, look, listen, abandon thoughts and theories, and feel directly whatever it is that is going on without asking questions — i.e., for translations into words of what is going on.”

Discipline in nonverbal perception” is thus Watts’ arbitrary term to replace spiritual practice, a label now riddled with dubious implications of acquisition, or future states as opposed to the contemplative emphasis on the present moment. He writes:

My point was, and has continued to be, that the Big Realization for which all these systems strive is not a future attainment but a present fact, that this now-moment is eternity, and that one must see it now or never.”

While this point is reiterated time and time again by sages across epochs and cultures — that everything the existentially curious person seeks is always available in the present moment — it is continually juxtaposed with the necessity for a lengthy & disciplined approach. As the British polymath G. Spencer-Brown wrote, a self-described “mathematician, consulting engineer, psychologist, educational consultant and practitioner, consulting psychotherapist, author, and poet” (with the credentials and experience to back most of it):

To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practised, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are being continually thrust upon them.”

— G. Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form (1969)

Let’s call this the bearing-in-mind approach. Is this a viable alternative to meditation, yoga, praying, etc.? Must there be a sadhana beyond the thoughtful distribution of attention? Or is to hold those deepest perplexities in mind, always keeping an eye on the prize, so to speak, just as potent a “discipline in nonverbal perception” so as to dislodge the pervasive illusion of separateness?

Indeed, cultivating a wise distribution of attentional awareness is emerging as a potent source of wellbeing even from the scientific community. Neuroscientist & philosopher Sam Harris reports:

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages — but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.” 

— Sam Harris, Waking Up

Of course, this bearing-in-mind approach is also attractive to those who simply lack the discipline to consistently partake in meditation, looking for a less demanding route to the laudable state of enlightenment. This, too, holds an insidious trap. For as inviting as simply bearing-in-mind may seem, it’s surely the most difficult “discipline in nonverbal perception”. Just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, most exploring this method will do nothing more than encourage a spiritually damning self-indulgence, postponing or totally doing away with more reliable forms of contemplative cultivation.

Watts, by his own admission, indulged himself until the day he died. He was a sensuous mystic. He referred to himself not as a teacher, certainly not as a guru, but a “spiritual entertainer”. And yet, anyone deeply familiar with his life and work would be hard pressed to deny that he was on to something, or embodied something of value.

Ironically, though he was a speaker by nature, he recognized the inability of words, or any contrived forms, to get at that particular something he was onto, the elusive eternal Now that we must see “now or never”:

…the philosophical people wanted to know just exactly what I meant by the eternal now, and why it should be of any significance. If they were told that it meant nothing because it was not a word, and signified nothing because it was not a sign, they would shrug their shoulders and change the subject, because all they really wanted was a construct of words.”

No grasp of the primal muse, Nirvana, Satori, Tao, whatever, can be explained, or crammed into any conceptual word-containers. In a sentiment shared by both Wittgenstein and David Foster Wallace, Alan Watts reiterated that it’s not in words, but in experience that such insatiable curiosities are quelled, or rather, dissolve.

People who share Watts’ socratic wonder, which he nicely conveys,

“I wanted to plumb and understand being itself, the very heart and ground of the universe, not to control it, but simply to wonder at it, for I was — and still am — amazed at my own existence”

will not find the proverbial Now-experience in any convenient, conceptual packaging. Books cannot transmit it. As the Tao Te Ching states:

“The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao”

Of course, it’s easier to negate than affirm. Debating the “right” way to the Tao, or whether its possible to experience enlightenment in this way or that, is ultimately a fool’s errand. Watts reminds us of this by invoking the ancient Chinese Hsin Hsin Ming poem:

The ways to the One are as many as the lives of men”. 

Some may meditate by sitting cross-legged, some may fixate and constantly bear the Tao in mind, and some may just be assholes. There’s no changing what one is, only distilling acquired conditionings to uncover whatever the expression of that embodied essence may be. Reminiscent of Carl Jung’s dictum:

“In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.” 

~ Carl Jung, Memories Dreams, Reflections

In recounting his meeting with Jung, Watts notes that, like himself, Jung wasn’t the least bit interested in forms or techniques, but in plumbing the first-person landscape of intuition and subjective experience itself:

“[Jung] was careful to explain that he himself was not a Jungian and that he had no intention of promulgating a particular system of psychotherapy. He had simply followed his intuition and written down his findings as they came along, never intending that his concepts should be more than heuristic devices in a work where the living individual counts for more than any technique.”

~Alan Watts, In My Own Way

The irony is undeniable given the proliferation of ‘Jungians’ carrying on today. But this may just be the point. Both Jung and Watts were concerned with the original experience, not the wake left behind from their assimilation into the conceptual world. Forms and methods are nothing more than the aftermath of contemplative intuition. While probing & critiquing Watts’ form and observable life (as with Jung’s), it becomes far too easy to conflate our own opinions of the dust left behind by their experience with their experience itself.

Critiquing theory or form misses the point, especially when applied to judge the contemplative quality of its person of origin. As previously discussed, form cannot, by definition, fully embody or convey the intuitive experience it comes from. Watts had no interest in his form, but in his experience. And that is something that we simply cannot evaluate.

For example, critiquing Jungian analysis in an effort to write off Jung’s work itself is a non sequitur. Jung’s work was not the forms he left behind, nor the catalog of mythology his method employs, but the first-person path he blazed into intuition, the depths of human subjectivity.

Frustratingly, this is not something that we can objectively assess. We can deem a particular form wrong for ourselves, to assert that its particular shape will not groove well with our own idiosyncratic contours. Perhaps walking meditation works better for this person, or Japanese tea ceremonies do the trick for that one. But to generalize our own judgment so as to declare a particular form of sadhana — spiritual practice — universally impotent is dubious, at best.

 

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In concluding this meandering look into Alan Watts and spiritual practice, it’s pleasantly fitting to use the concluding paragraph from his autobiography:

“Trying to catch the meaning of the universe in terms of some religious, philosophical, or moral system is really like asking Bach or Ali Akbar to explain their music in words. They can explain it only by continuing to play, and you must listen until you understand, get with it, and go with it…When you say the music is abominable, listen to the sound of your own complaint.” 

~ Alan Watts, In My Own Way

Even when anticipating those who’d call Watts’ own music “abominable”, he defiantly tries to provoke us into that reflective stillness where we may begin to catch the scent of our own Way. As with Jung, as with all the great voyagers into subjective experience, the point was never the form left behind, but the call to go investigate for ourselves.

 

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