What you do
is what the whole
universe is doing
at the place you call
here and now.
You are something
the whole universe
in the same way that
the wave is something
that the whole ocean
— Alan Watts
Alan Watts made an appearance here a couple of week ago, in a post I wrote about walking the dog. Whenever Alan Watts appears, a philosophical wormhole is soon to follow.
I had no intention of ever writing about something so mundane and unimportant as walking the dog. But the words started to come when the dog and I arrived back at the front gate. (I don’t rely on inspiration as a writing method. I normally use the “put butt in seat” writing method. But sometimes a bus comes. And if it comes, take the bus, even down a wormhole.)
I wasn’t quite done with that post. I left something out because it was too much to get into, what with Constable, Goethe, Vaughan Williams, and all. What I left out was the above quotation–vintage Alan Watts–which had been going through my mind the whole way around the block. The words seemed to illuminate everything I was experiencing that morning.
You are something the whole universe is doing. At the place you call here and now.
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me it doesn’t get any better than that. No better news, no better explanation, no better joy.
Here’s one more example of vintage Alan Watts, then I’ll stop:
Where do I begin and end . . . ? I have relations to the sun and air which are just as vital parts of my existence as my heart. The movements in which I am a pattern or convolution began incalculable ages before the (conventionally isolated) event called birth, and will continue long after the event called death.
Is it any wonder the dog walked me?
Do you know about Alan Watts? Well, you should. He was an Episcopal priest who called himself a “philosophical entertainer,” and he made a decent living in the middle of the last century introducing western audiences to eastern spirituality.
He was no saint; he had many bad habits involving women, smoking, and alcohol. But he had that delicious British accent and a way of playing cat’s cradle with words and spinning gorgeous philosophical webs thereby.
He had a radio show and wrote 25 or so books and hundreds of his lectures have been cannily preserved by his heirs–there’s even an Alan Watts app now.
He’s sort of the hero of a new book I sort of admire called The Antidote, by journalist Oliver Burkeman, which is a takedown of the happiness industry. Burkeman argues that happiness can’t happen until we stop struggling against our vulnerabilities, an idea he borrowed from Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity.
(I’m not doing Burkeman’s book justice. There’s much else in it–and any book that includes Seneca and Epictetus can’t be all bad.)
WORDS WORDS WORDS
Sometimes I get so tangled up in thinking about what I’m supposed to be doing in order to be happy that I end up living in my head. I start confusing words and experience.
Alan Watts, who was very skeptical of himself, warned about the problem of using words to describe experiences. We impute a solidity and permanence to words, he said, that isn’t appropriate to the underlying reality that words are trying to describe. The underlying reality, especially the sort of reality that Watts tended to talk about, is fluid and ungraspable.
Do I really have any idea what it means, for example, to say that “you are something that the universe is doing?”
Well, no. But it makes me feel good, in the way a poem does. Isn’t poetry the art of saying in words a thing that can’t possibly be said in words? And isn’t poetry the third part of Goethe’s triad? (Again:)
A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
THIS IS NOT AN OPINION
I like stories and poems because they use language to connect us. I mistrust my opinions because words of opinion tend to carry me away.
Avoid adjectives of scale. You will love the world more and desire it less. — Basho
For the longest time, I’ve wanted to do a post called, “Doesn’t anybody read S.I. Hayakawa anymore?” Hayakawa wrote a book called Language in Thought and Action that is as good an explanation of words as it’s possible to give. I’ll probably never get around to writing that post, so let me sum up the book in one sentence:
The word is not the thing.
Alan Watts would say that words are maps of reality, not reality. It’s unwholesome to confuse map with territory. Especially when the map is made by tourists:
Why are there nations you don’t like? That’s a fiction you’re responding to. A label put on to millions of varied individuals. Your feeling has been created and created by interests whom you might do well to analyze.
– William Stafford
I’m not sure how William Stafford got here but I’m always glad to see him. The thing about wormholes is you never know where you’re going to pop out.
Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right and it lands on the left.
I ride after a deer and find myself chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others and fall in.
I should be suspicious of what I want.
What do I know? I should be walking the dog.
This is the second of a two-part post. Part 1: The Hay Wain
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
The video below is a nine-minute potpourri of vintage Alan Watts. The further you get into it the better it gets. If you listen entirely it will clear up your metaphysical perplexities and ensure you a happy life.
ONE MORE THING
This week, Kyle Bradford (of Chopper Papa) and I had a forty-minute conversation about manhood and mindful fathering at Kyle’s new program, Fatherhood Wide Open. Kyle himself embodies a developed and principled masculinity and his new venture promises to add fresh perspective to the dialogue about fathers. You can find the podcast on iTunes or listen at the link below:
Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
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