This book by Alan Watts is one of those philosophical page-turners that actually makes sense.
In essence, the book describes the “reverse-theory,” in that everything we are used to believing and thinking is true and right, is actually quite the opposite.
Watts discusses how security has never been real, only temporary, and that we take comfort in knowing our future, although this is just as futile as trying to find the answers in death. Science has replaced religion, but although we crave facts in order to know what is real, this way of thinking has led to “logic, intelligence and reason (being) satisfied, but the heart (going) hungry.” Although it can’t be proven that God exists except on purely emotional grounds (scientifically,) this same thought also depresses us, since “life is pain,” and without God, and the promise of a fair afterlife, what is the point of living?
It also points out the contrast between the old-fashioned Catholic believer, living contently and happily in an image of falsehood, and the modern, educated but unbelieving man, who is miserable but more knowledgeable- Who is the better man?
According to Watts, the first step to a spiritual life is to let go. We should not turn to images and symbols as a means of truth, but only as a means to express truth. To understand God, we must give up our belief in him. And instead of escaping the real world, we should try to understand its limits.
As humans, we are forced to worry about the past and future essentially because there can’t be pleasure without pain. The more we become more sensitive to pleasure the more we become sensitive and vulnerable to pain. We are never in the moment when we are thinking about the past or the future, and this is detrimental to our experience on Earth as we can never truly plan what happens in the future, nor fix the past. To be “in the moment,” one has to abandon these thoughts or else even temporary moments of bliss can be ruined by thinking about what’s going to happen in the future. Essentially, human memory is considered a blessing, yet it is also a curse.
We also do not recognize that our brains have desires, and these desires change; we may fear death now, but we may welcome it in the future when our circumstances have changed. We also need to see our brain not as separate but as one with our body; “the brain is made for man, not man for his brain.” Every experience is new, no matter how similar it may seem to the past.
Most of all, Watts tries to tell us how to truly be in the moment, and to lose the “ego/I” portion of ourselves. To truly be in the moment, we cannot be thinking of what we’re doing at the current moment. This theory I likened to being on a psychedelic drug, which makes one study a certain object for hours on end, without giving much thought as to the purpose of this object or what this object will be in the future. You absorb everything around you because what is around you IS you; it’s connected to you and you are not separate from it.
Here are some quotes from the book:
“As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things which we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time… To some this is a welcome release from the restraints of moral, social and spiritual dogma. To others it is a dangerous and terrifying breach with reason and sanity, tending to plunge human life into hopeless chaos. To most, perhaps, the immediate sense of release has given a brief exhilaration, to be followed by the deepest anxiety.”
“Human beings appear to be happy just so long as they have a future to which they can look forward…”
“The modern scientist is not so naïve as to deny God because he cannot be found with a telescope, or the soul because it is not revealed by the scalpel. He has merely noted that the idea of God is logically unnecessary… He argues that if everything which happens us is said to be under the providence and control if God, this actually amounts to saying nothing.”
“Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation and addiction to ‘dope.’…This ‘dope’ we call our high standard of living, a violent and complex stimulation of the senses, which makes them progressively less sensitive and thus in need of yet more violent stimulation.”
“Music is a delight because of its rhythm and flow. Yet the moment you arrest the flow and prolong a note or chord beyond its time, the rhythm is destroyed. Because life is likewise a flowing process, change and death are its necessary parts. To work for their exclusion is to work against life.”
“What is the use of planning to be able to eat next week unless I can really enjoy the meals when they come (now)?”
“…If our desires are out of accord with anything that the finite world can offer, it might seem that our nature is not of this world, that our hearts are made, not for the finite, but for infinity. The discontent of our souls would appear to be the sign and seal of their divinity.”
“Consciousness seems to be nature’s ingenious mode of self-torture.”
“Ouroboros is the perennial symbol of all vicious circles, of every attempt to split our being asunder and make one part conquer the other.”
“…’Fixing’ will never make sense out of change. The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
“Religion wants to assure the future beyond death, and science wants to assure it until death, and to postpone death.”
“The truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light.”
“The more we accustom ourselves to understanding the present in terms of memory, the unknown by the known, the living by the dead, the more desiccated and embalmed, the more joyless and frustrated life becomes.”
“You will cease to feel isolated when you recognize, for example, that you do not have a sensation of the sky; you are that sensation.”