Alan Watts on the Meaning of Freedom, the Only Real Antidote to Fear, and the Deepest Wellspring of Love

“Valiancy is what like seeks,” Hannah Arendt composed in her superb 1929 meditation on love and how to live with the fundamental worry of loss. “Such fearlessness exists just in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future … Hence the only legitimate tense is today, the Now.”

The relationship in between freedom, fear, and love is what Alan Watts (January 6, 1915– November 16, 1973) explores in among the most insightful chapters of The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library)– his entirely revelatory 1951 traditional, which introduced Eastern approach to the West with its luminescent and lucid case for how to cope with existence.

That in love and in life, flexibility from fear– like all species of freedom– is only possible within the present minute has actually long been a core mentor of the most ancient Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions. It is one of the most elemental facts of existence, and one of those most hard to put into practice as we move through our day-to-day human lives, so repeatedly likely towards the next moment and the psychologically built universe of expected occasions– the parallel universe where anxiety dwells, where hope and worry for what may be eclipse what is, and where we cease to be free because we no longer in the direct light of truth.

Half a century before her, Leo Tolstoy– who befriended a Buddhist monk late in life and became deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy– echoed these ancient realities as he considered the paradoxical nature of love: “Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity just.”

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image thanks to Everett Collection) Drawing on his admonition versus the threats of the divided mind– the frame of mind that divides us into interior self-awareness and external truth, into ego and universe, which is the mindset the whole of Western culture has instilled in us– he composes:

The meaning of freedom can never be comprehended by the divided mind. If I feel separate from my experience, and from the world, flexibility will seem to be the extent to which I can press the world around, and fate the extent to which the world pushes me around. However to the entire mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world. There is simply one procedure acting, and it does everything that takes place. It raises my little finger and it develops earthquakes. Or, if you wish to put it that method, I raise my little finger and likewise make earthquakes. Nobody fates and no one is being fated.

This design of flexibility is orthogonal to our conditioned view that flexibility is a matter of flexing external reality to our will by the power of our options– managing what remains of nature once the “I” is separated out. Watts draws a subtle, essential distinction between flexibility and option:

What we normally mean by option is not liberty. Choices are usually decisions inspired by enjoyment and discomfort, and the divided mind acts with the sole purpose of getting “I” into pleasure and out of pain.

Art by Thomas Wright from his Original Theory or New Hypothesis of deep space, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.) Removed of the stuff of situation and analysis, our internal experience of being unfree stems from trying difficult things– things that resist reality and decline to accept the present moment on its own terms. Watts composes:

The sense of not being totally free originates from attempting to do things which are impossible and even meaningless. You are not “complimentary” to draw a square circle, to live without a head, or to stop specific reflex actions. These are not challenges to liberty; they are the conditions of flexibility. If perchance it ought to turn out to be a square circle, I am not complimentary to draw a circle. I am not, thank paradise, totally free to go out of doors and leave my head in the house. I am not free to live in any moment but this one, or to separate myself from my feelings.

Without the intention forces of pleasure and pain, it might in the beginning appear paradoxical to make any decisions at all– a contradiction that makes it impossible to select between options as we navigate even the many basic realities of life: Why choose to take the umbrella into the downpour, why select to consume this piece of mango and not this piece of cardboard? Watts observes that the only real contradiction is of our own making as we cede the present to a pictured future. More than half a century prior to psychologists pertained to study how your present self is undermining your future happiness, Watts offers the individual counterpart to Albert Camuss astute political observation that “genuine generosity toward the future lies in offering all to the present,” and writes:

I fall directly into contradiction when I attempt to act and decide in order to enjoy, when I make “being happy” my future goal. For the more my actions are directed towards future enjoyments, the more I am incapable of taking pleasure in any satisfaction at all. For all pleasures exist, and absolutely nothing conserve complete awareness of the present can even start to guarantee future happiness.
[…] You can only reside in one minute at a time, and you can not think at the same time about listening to the waves and whether you are delighting in listening to the waves. Contradictions of this kind are the only real types of action without flexibility.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitmans Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print) Only with such a recalibration of our reflexive view of freedom does James Baldwins persistence that “individuals are as free as they wish to be” begin to unfold its layered significance like a Zen koan, to be turned over in the mind until the stealthily basic shape unfolds its origami-folded scroll of deep fact.

In what may be the most sophisticated refutation of the particular stress of hubris that embraces determinism in order to wring from it the self-permission for coping with delirious freedom from obligation, Watts writes:

There is another theory of determinism which specifies that all our actions are encouraged by “unconscious mental systems,” and that for this reason even the most spontaneous decisions are not free. This is but another example of split-mindedness, for what is the distinction between “me” and “psychological mechanisms” whether conscious or unconscious? Who is being moved by these procedures? The notion that anybody is being inspired comes from the continuing impression of “I.” The real male *, the organism-in-relation-to-the-universe, is this unconscious motivation. And due to the fact that he is it, he is not being moved by it.
[…] Events look unavoidable in retrospect since when they have taken place, absolutely nothing can change them. The reality that I can make safe bets might prove similarly well that occasions are not figured out however constant. To put it simply, the universal procedure acts easily and spontaneously at every moment, but tends to toss out events in regular, and so predictable, series.

Only by such a misapprehension of liberty, Watts observes, do we ever feel unfree: When we go into a state that causes us psychological discomfort, our instant impulse is to get the “I” out of the pain, which is usually a resistance to today moment as it is; since we can not will a different psychological state, we reach for an easy escape: a drink, a drug, a compulsive scroll through an Instagram feed. All the methods in which we try to abate our feelings of abject isolation and monotony and inadequacy by getting away from today minute where they unfold are encouraged by the worry that those intolerable sensations will subsume us. And yet the instant we end up being motivated by fear, we end up being unfree– we are prisoners of worry. We are just totally free within the bounds of the present moment, with all of its disquieting feelings, due to the fact that only in that moment can they dissipate into the totality of integrated reality, leaving no divide between us as feelers and the sensations being felt, and therefore no uncomfortable contrast in between preferred state and real state. Watts composes:

Long as the mind thinks in the possibility of escape from what it is at this moment, there can be no flexibility.
[…] It sounds as if it were the most abject fatalism to need to confess that I am what I am, and that no escape or department is possible. It appears that if I hesitate, then I am “stuck” with fear. In reality I am chained to the fear only so long as I am attempting to get away from it. On the other hand, when I do not attempt to get away I find that there is absolutely nothing “stuck” or fixed about the truth of the moment. When I know this sensation without naming it, without calling it “fear,” “bad,” “unfavorable,” etc., it alters quickly into something else, and life relocations freely ahead. The feeling no longer perpetuates itself by developing the feeler behind it.

Art by Thomas Wright from his Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.) To dissolve into this total truth of the moment is the crucible of liberty, which is in turn the crucible of love. In consonance with Toni Morrisons persistence that the inmost procedure of liberty is loving anything and anybody you select to like and with that classic, charming Adrienne Rich sonnet line– “no ones fated or destined like anyone”– Watts thinks about the supreme reward of this undivided mind:

Complement this fragment of the timelessly gratifying The Wisdom of Insecurity with Watts on discovering not to believe in terms of gain and loss and finding significance by accepting the meaninglessness of life, then revisit Seneca on the remedy to anxiety and astronomer Rebecca Elsons nearly unbearably beautiful poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

The more reality that the undivided mind is conscious of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would normally be called love … Love is the organizing and unifying concept which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a neighborhood. It is the really essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole … This, instead of any simple feeling, is the power and principle of complimentary action.

The significance of freedom can never be grasped by the divided mind. These are not barriers to liberty; they are the conditions of liberty. Only by such a misapprehension of freedom, Watts observes, do we ever feel unfree: When we go into a state that triggers us mental discomfort, our instant impulse is to get the “I” out of the discomfort, which is inevitably a resistance to the present minute as it is; because we can not will a different psychological state, we reach for a simple escape: a beverage, a drug, a compulsive scroll through an Instagram feed. To liquify into this total truth of the minute is the crucible of liberty, which is in turn the crucible of love. In consonance with Toni Morrisons persistence that the inmost procedure of liberty is loving anything and anyone you choose to like and with that traditional, elegant Adrienne Rich sonnet line– “no ones fated or doomed to enjoy anyone”– Watts thinks about the ultimate benefit of this undivided mind: