Wiggles, Seriousness, and the Fear of Pleasure

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Photo by Getty Images/Valerii Evlakhov.

The box is our great symbol of classification. What box are you in? All words are boxes: animal, vegetable, mineral, solid, gas, liquid, Republican, Democrat, capitalist, communist, Christian, heathen, male, female, and so on. All boxes. And because we think in boxes, we live in boxes — poorly made, identical boxes. Instead, consider the types of fish who make homes in beautiful shells with glorious spirally wiggles on them and lovely colors. But we want everything straightened out, and that rigidity is always in contrast with the fluidity that surrounds us. We are landlubbers, as opposed to people of the waves, although we Brits have always made a great deal of associating freedom with the ocean.

{ The art of faith is not in taking a stand but in learning how to swim. }

We think of the sea as fluid and the land as solid, but nothing could be further from the truth. Where I live, in Sausalito, a lot of land was reclaimed along the waterfront, and they dredged out mud to make the marina, not realizing that land, too, is liquid. So the land adjoining the water is sinking because it’s filling up the hole made by the excavation. People don’t think of things like this, because they conceive of land as purely solid.

Even in religion we are seemingly looking for solids, for somewhere we can take our stand — a firm foundation, the rock of ages, even Paul Tillich’s “ground of being.” But that’s not the sort of universe we live in. Our universe is fluid, and so the art of faith is not in taking a stand but in learning how to swim. You don’t cling to water; you don’t try to stand on it. You breathe, relax, and learn to trust that the water will support you. This is also true for flying, gliding, and sailing — all of these arts have adapted to the fluid. And that’s what we must learn if we want to survive as a species and survive happily.

Instead, we cling to what we think is solid. Even more, we demand more and more solidity. Nothing ruins pleasure more than the anxiety to go on having it — more, more, and more. That just shows that you aren’t having it now; you always think it’s something that’s on its way. You’d rather have jam tomorrow than jam today. When we think that something is useless, we say it has no future, and that’s the most awful thing you could say about something. It would be better to say that it has no present. A future is just a promise, just as we write checks as a promise to pay. Promises, promises . . .

Learning to wiggle is fundamental to pleasure. We should let go and relax. But that doesn’t mean that we become droopy — relaxing means becoming supple. It means learning your weight, how to use it, and how to flow with gravity. Water always takes the course of least resistance — it flows and wiggles with gravity — and yet it possesses tremendous strength. For most of us, especially white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and Irish Catholics, taking the path of least resistance is somehow considered cowardly and despicable. You’ve got to get there the fastest way possible, which is again in a straight line, the supposed shortest distance between two points.

That’s why jogging isn’t the right way to run. The right way to run is by dancing. You should dance across the countryside, and anyone who does so will outwit and out-time the jogger. I watched the Brazilian team win the World Cup in soccer, and I’ve never seen anything like it — it certainly isn’t how they taught us to play soccer in school. As one of the sportswriters at the London Times put it, the Brazilians danced their way to victory. It was like watching the most beautiful form of basketball — instead of this tough, pushing form of ball control, they engaged in the most incredible teamwork with subtle passing and bounced the ball off every part of their bodies — backs, shoulders, hips, heads, everything. It was a beautiful and magnificent spectacle.

We are not taught to do things like that. We are taught that life is serious, and therefore life must be done in an efficient way. In ancient times, people sang while they worked, but hardly anybody sings anymore unless it’s part of an official performance. Imagine a bank teller singing as they counted out your money. If that happened, you’d probably complain to management. “This money is quite serious — no one should be singing about it!” Can you imagine a stockbroker’s work song? I once had my shoes shined in a New York subway, and the man who did it sang and gave the most extraordinary performance. He was swinging.

When most people drive a bus through city traffic, they’re fighting the clock, cursing and sweating, and they’re often quite angry. Imagine instead that driving a bus wasn’t about getting from here to there but just about going. You could just dance that bus through the streets, dodge traffic skillfully and gracefully, and when you did stop at a light or get into a jam, you’d just play a little tune on the horn, pass jokes to the cab driver next to you, play with the passengers, and so on.

People don’t usually perform their jobs that way because work is supposed to be serious business — not pleasant at all. You get paid for it, after all, and you’re not supposed to get paid for enjoying yourself. For the West, the curse of work arose in the story of Genesis. The tree of knowledge wasn’t about the knowledge of good and evil in the ordinary sense but about the knowledge of what is advantageous and disadvantageous. What’s advantageous in life when it comes to work is swinging it.

That’s what I try to do. I think I’m smart, I talk and write about all of these things, but I don’t do so because I think I’m doing you any good — I just do so because I like it. And if I get paid for it, then it’s how I make my living. It’s as simple as that. I’m just a philosophical entertainer.

In fact, I’ve been trying for a long time to sell the idea of a television show called Delight from Asia, but so far I’ve had no takers. It’s meant to expose Westerners to some of the pleasurable refinements of the various cultures of Asia and at the same time gently twit the American public for not really knowing how to spend their money.

One of the most curious things about Westerners is our fear of pleasure and our incapacity for indulging in it as a consequence of this fear. I constantly marvel that the richest nation on earth — money-wise, that is — takes such dreary pleasures when it could afford much more elaborate ones. It’s said that the French eat with gusto and the British eat apologetically. I guess it’s because we believe we shouldn’t enjoy or think too much about what we’re eating, whereas French people love to celebrate and talk about food. There’s something slightly vulgar about that to us — eating is, after all, a bit animalistic. We consider it highly impolite to smack our lips and burp, whereas other cultures do so naturally as a sign of appreciation.

Most Westerners eat out of duty. We eat only because it is nutritious — it’s good for us. As Henry Miller writes, we “throw something down the hatch” and swallow a dozen vitamins. There are probably various complex reasons for our odd reluctance to enjoy life with gusto, but one of them is the fact that we believe that God may be watching. There’s a feeling that we’re not supposed to get too involved in pleasure, and if we enjoy ourselves thoroughly and become too boisterous, then someone’s going to punish us. Or maybe it’s because we’re afraid that pleasure will in some way suck us in and beguile us, turning us into helpless addicts to something or the other.

That explains why we’re so standoffish about the whole thing. Of course, there’s some sense to this attitude. It was once quite difficult to feed and clothe the vast majority of human beings. We lived in an age of scarcity, which made it understandably wicked to waste any food or materials whatsoever. When I first moved to the United States, my mother came to visit us and was appalled at the fact that my wife poured some milk down the drain — she wanted us to put it to use in some way, to make a custard out of it or something. That’s how the world was, but today — at least for most of us living in the United States — we’re living in an economy of waste.

The fact of the matter is that we are moving into a period of economic development in which it is genuinely possible to adequately feed and clothe every human being on the planet. All that the sovereign nations of the world have spent on waging war in the past century could have gone instead toward supplying everybody on earth with a decent, independent income. But, you see, politicians and businesspeople are not practical. They might say they’re hardheaded and realistic, but as a matter of fact they’re just shortsighted and only look to attain immediate objectives. They’re incapable of comparing the costs.

Alan Watts (1915–1973): For spiritual seekers of many generations, Alan Watts earned a reputation as one of the most accessible—and entertaining—interpreters of Eastern philosophy in the West. Beginning at age 16, when he wrote an article for the journal of the Buddhist Lodge in London, Watts would develop an audience of millions who were enriched through his books, recordings, radio broadcasts, and public talks. In all, Alan Watts wrote more than 25 books, including such classics as The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are and This Is It: and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience

Excerpted from JUST SO: Money, Materialism, and the Ineffable, Intelligent Universe, by Alan Watts. Sounds True, February 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

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