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

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

That in love and in life, flexibility from worry– like all types of freedom– is just possible within today minute has actually long been a core mentor of the most ancient Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions. It is among the most essential facts of presence, and among those most challenging to implement as we move through our day-to-day human lives, so repeatedly inclined towards the next minute and the psychologically built universe of anticipated events– the parallel universe where stress and anxiety dwells, where hope and fear for what might be eclipse what is, and where we stop to be complimentary because we are no longer in the direct light of reality.

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

“Valiancy is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt composed in her superb 1929 meditation on love and how to cope with the essential worry of loss. “Such valiancy exists just in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by occasions anticipated of the future … For this reason the only legitimate tense is today, the Now.”

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

The meaning of flexibility can never ever be grasped by the divided mind. If I feel separate from my experience, and from the world, liberty will appear to be the extent to which I can press the world around, and fate the degree to which the world pushes me around. To the whole mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world. There is just one process acting, and it does whatever that occurs. It raises my little finger and it produces earthquakes. Or, if you want to put it that method, I raise my little finger and also make earthquakes. No one fates and no one is being fated.

This model of flexibility is orthogonal to our conditioned view that liberty refers bending external truth to our will by the power of our options– controlling what remains of nature once the “I” is separated out. Watts draws a subtle, important difference between freedom and choice:

What we generally indicate by option is not freedom. Choices are usually choices inspired by pleasure and discomfort, and the divided mind acts with the sole purpose of getting “I” into satisfaction and out of discomfort.

Art by Thomas Wright from his Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.) Removed of the stuff of circumstance and analysis, our internal experience of being unfree comes from attempting difficult things– things that resist truth and refuse to accept today moment by itself terms. Watts writes:

The sense of not being totally free comes from attempting to do things which are even meaningless and impossible. You are not “free” to draw a square circle, to live without a head, or to stop specific reflex actions. These are not obstacles to freedom; they are the conditions of freedom. I am not complimentary to draw a circle if perchance it should end up being a square circle. I am not, thank paradise, totally free to walk out of doors and leave my head at home. I am not complimentary to live in any minute but this one, or to separate myself from my sensations.

Without the motive forces of pleasure and discomfort, it might initially appear paradoxical to make any decisions at all– a contradiction that makes it impossible to select between choices as we browse even the most standard truths of life: Why choose to take the umbrella into the rainstorm, why choose to eat this piece of mango and not this piece of cardboard? Watts observes that the only genuine contradiction is of our own making as we deliver the present to an imagined future. Over half a century before psychologists concerned study how your present self is undermining your future happiness, Watts offers the personal equivalent to Albert Camuss astute political observation that “real kindness toward the future depend on giving all to today,” and composes:

Art by Margaret C. Cook from an uncommon 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 insistence that “people are as free as they want to be” begin to unfold its layered meaning like a Zen koan, to be turned over in the mind until the stealthily easy shape unfolds its origami-folded scroll of deep truth.

I fall directly into contradiction when I try to act and decide in order to more than happy, when I make “being delighted” my future goal. For the more my actions are directed towards future pleasures, the more I am incapable of enjoying any satisfaction at all. For all pleasures are present, and absolutely nothing save complete awareness of today can even start to ensure future joy.
[…] You can only reside in one moment 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 kinds of action without freedom.

In what might be the most stylish refutation of the specific strain of hubris that welcomes determinism in order to wring from it the self-permission for dealing with delirious flexibility from duty, Watts composes:

There is another theory of determinism which specifies that all our actions are motivated by “unconscious mental systems,” and that for this reason even the most spontaneous decisions are not free. The idea that anybody is being inspired comes from the persisting impression of “I.” The genuine guy *, the organism-in-relation-to-the-universe, is this unconscious motivation.
[…] Events look inescapable in retrospect since when they have actually taken place, absolutely nothing can alter them. Yet the reality that I can ensure bets could show similarly well that occasions are not determined however consistent. In other words, the universal process acts easily and spontaneously at every moment, however tends to toss out occasions in routine, therefore foreseeable, series.

Only by such a misapprehension of liberty, Watts observes, do we ever feel unfree: When we enter a state that triggers us psychological pain, our instant impulse is to get the “I” out of the pain, which is invariably a resistance to the present minute as it is; due to the fact that we can not will a different mental state, we reach for a simple escape: a drink, a drug, a compulsive scroll through an Instagram feed. All the ways in which we try to abate our feelings of abject solitude and boredom and inadequacy by leaving from the present minute where they unfold are motivated by the worry that those excruciating sensations will subsume us. And yet the instant we end up being motivated by fear, we end up being unfree– we are detainees of worry. We are only complimentary within the bounds of the present moment, with all of its disquieting feelings, since just in that minute can they dissipate into the totality of integrated reality, leaving no divide between us as feelers and the feelings being felt, and therefore no uncomfortable contrast in between preferred state and actual state. Watts composes:

So long as the mind thinks in the possibility of escape from what it is at this moment, there can be no liberty.
[…] It sounds as if it were the most abject fatalism to need to admit that I am what I am, and that no escape or division is possible. It appears that if I hesitate, then I am “stuck” with fear. In fact I am chained to the worry just so long as I am attempting to get away from it. On the other hand, when I do not try to escape I find that there is nothing “stuck” or fixed about the truth of the moment. When I am aware of this sensation without calling it, without calling it “fear,” “bad,” “unfavorable,” and so on, it changes quickly into something else, and life moves easily ahead. The sensation no longer perpetuates itself by creating 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 reality of the minute is the crucible of liberty, which is in turn the crucible of love. In consonance with Toni Morrisons insistence that the inmost step of flexibility is loving anything and anyone you select to enjoy and with that traditional, splendid Adrienne Rich sonnet line– “nobodys fated or destined like anybody”– Watts considers the supreme benefit of this undistracted mind:

The more fact that the undistracted mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the entire nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it understands, recommends a state that would generally be called love … Love is the arranging and unifying principle that makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a neighborhood. It is the extremely essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole … This, rather than any mere emotion, is the power and principle of totally free action.

Enhance this piece of the timelessly rewarding The Wisdom of Insecurity with Watts on discovering not to believe in regards to gain and loss and finding significance by accepting the meaninglessness of life, then revisit Seneca on the antidote to anxiety and astronomer Rebecca Elsons almost unbearably lovely poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

The significance of flexibility can never ever be comprehended by the divided mind. These are not barriers to freedom; 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 pain, our immediate impulse is to get the “I” out of the discomfort, which is inevitably a resistance to the present moment as it is; since we can not will a different mental state, we reach for an easy escape: a beverage, a drug, a compulsive scroll through an Instagram feed. To dissolve into this total reality of the minute is the crucible of liberty, which is in turn the crucible of love. In consonance with Toni Morrisons insistence that the inmost step of freedom is caring anything and anyone you select to enjoy and with that timeless, beautiful Adrienne Rich sonnet line– “no ones fated or doomed to like anyone”– Watts thinks about the supreme benefit of this undivided mind: