The Meaning of Alan Watts in 2020: A Conversation with Mark Watts

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Photo by Getty Images/Anna_Isaeva.

From the editor:

Just So: Money, Materialism, and the Ineffable, Intelligent Universe, (Sounds True, 2020) is the latest book from philosopher Alan Watts. With its release, we were able to speak with Mark Watts, who has been transcribing and editing his father’s work for many years. Read an excerpt from Just So here: “Wiggles, Seriousness, and the Fear of Pleasure.”

Utne Reader: Given that the source content for Just So was recorded decades ago, what kind of updates were necessary to acclimate the book for the world of 2020? Did you encounter any notable challenges? Similarly, do you feel that the messages of the book are readily applicable to specific contemporary issues? 

Mark Watts: Inevitably in transcribing vintage recordings like these, one comes across colloquialisms and historic references that have become dated. An early example is found in the section on Ecological Awareness (p.34) where at the start my father referenced a law that was “recently” passed to ban burning of the flag in the 60s. However, his message, which is that we can make a pious fuss about the symbols for the country while we are destroying those things for which the symbols stand—and the country itself—is more than ever relevant, and will not be lost on anyone looking at the American landscape today. So although historic in origins, the actual message and core intent is as timely today as ever.

In his day, father was in many ways a visionary, and what he saw and spoke about was considered socially and politically radical, and yet many of his observations have become common sense today. We talk about going with the flow, and working with a situation, which he talks about in the idea of ‘wu wei’ or ‘without forcing,’ the sensitivity to see through a situation and find the path that will be effective with minimal disruption.

This is also closely related to the idea of ‘upaya,’ which referred originally to the ferryman’s positioning of his raft at the head of a rapids, and today we recognize both technologies and practices’ skillful means. In great measure, the Far Eastern explorations or ‘upayas’ of the counter-culture have come of age, and as their popularity rises and westerners enjoy wider access to the wisdoms of the Far East, these practices also run the risks that come with the mass commodification of any true tradition.

Yet throughout the book, his interpretations are offered in an authentic and accessible way directly applicable to the issues we face today, and even in such longstanding debates as vegetarianism or not, his words offer a fresh voice around the fire. In that discussion he goes directly to the core issue of reverence, and in a very accessible manner reminds the reader, whether with animal or vegetable, to honor the principle of reciprocity in practice as well as in spirit, and taps into the most ancient ways of living in harmony with nature, as well as to the blueprint for a rebalanced way forward.  

Utne Reader: In the chapter “Civilizing Technology,” Watts predicts that “Everything we’d ever wish to know or learn will be available on a screen right in front of us,” but that we will need to “Embrace the organic model of the universe” and seek out “orderly anarchy.” Is it fair to apply this type of thought directly to a phenomenon like current social media?

Mark Watts: Elsewhere in the conversation my father points out that knowing and learning is not everything, and even urges people to get out of their minds once a day. And as a photographer and a novice videographer I shared much of my father’s enthusiasm for budding technologies in the early ‘70s, and he loved it when video came along because if he made a mistake while being recorded, the crew could simply rewind the tape and he hadn’t wasted expensive film and processing time, or found out later that a filmmaker needed to reshoot a segment. 

Overall, he had an optimistic outlook toward these futuristic technologies and what he described as an exo-nervous system that the planet might grow to facilitate communications and eliminate the need for massive and wasteful commuting by automobile.  Of course we still have the commute and people pursuing status for appearances, but much of what he imagined has come to be (he even predicted ‘ghosting’ in a humorous way). 

We are effectively able to work remotely, connect with knowledgeable like minds all over the world, and interact and shop at a great distances. And yes, this creates a new form of orderly anarchy online, but I think the key to keeping it organic is not to take it seriously, and as he wrote, “Man suffers because he takes seriously what the god’s intended as play.”

And there’s something that he said in his talks about meditation, specifically about thinking all the time, which today he might apply to mobile technology and to being connected all the time as well, since for the most part being connected tends to be an extension of thinking:

“A person who thinks all the time” he said, “has nothing to think about except thoughts, and so they lose touch with reality, and live in a world of illusions.  By thoughts I mean specifically, chatter in the skull, the endless repetition of words, signs, and symbols.”

And he went on to say of thinking generally that it was “a good tool, but a poor master”—which is highly instructive when it comes to the technological powers we have gained. My father would’ve loved to have had a portable phone to take pictures and write down ideas that popped into his head, but I can almost hear him saying that he’d discovered the real use for an automobile glove box, and it wasn’t for gloves! 

My wife Tia compares the use of technology to swimming—and points out that we can select our stroke, and we can choose our cadence.  Just as my father enjoyed the dial phone for its enhancement of productivity and the freedom it offered from workplaces, my mobile phone allows me great flexibility in my work, but some of the time it invariably sits turned off in a backpack or the bottom of a bicycle bag. 

So in a sense, due to the great flexibility of these devices, they enable us to better embrace the organic aspects the universe directly, and to create in a playful form of orderly anarchy we choose for ourselves.  And our younger associates have shown me why they prefer the varied and loose constraints of an expected email response time to insistent texts. 

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