Overweening Generalist

Monday, October 31, 2016

Promiscuous Neurotheologist, vol. 6 or 7-ish: Alan Watts

My brother has a Theology degree and seems so much more sophisticated about Christiantity than I am that I will always defer to his statements on any subject within that realm.

There was a time when we disagreed so strikingly about this version of the monotheisms that I'd end up being a wise-ass jerk and he'd get sick of even trying to talk to me. Things have gotten wildly better since then, thank-Goddess.

His interpretation of Christianity has evolved. I think in the Darwinian sense of "evolve": not toward some Ultimate Form, but simply: cybernetic feedback from society/continuous thinking about his faith/exposure to evermore innovative and nuanced thinkers/and an active neuroplasticity, all of this from within an ecological niche of politics, economics, and other factors. He has an open mind, and it's capacious.

As I perceive it, his faith (as some of you may know, my only faith is in some sort of change) seems avant-Left, and I never see or even hear Christians in electronic corporate media who sound like him: not on radio, or TV, or even in film. Suffice: even if you're an atheist, you might not be aware of the very many varieties of interpretations of Christianity out there, now. His - if indeed he still even categorizes himself as "Christian" - is marked by compassion for the poor, the sick, and anyone downtrodden. He renders unto Caesar what's Caesar's, and it's a nuisance. He's accepting of gays, muslims...anyone that might get picked on in today's Unistat. He's in this world and is a sensualist, with the most sophisticated beer palate I've ever known, and an inscrutably detailed sense of guitar-sound textures. There's a pained sense of alienation from previous allies and alliances in Christian faith, and, because he doesn't evangelize at all, I must infer many of his intellectual and emotional stances toward aspects of the Transcendent, much like an astrophysicist infers there must be moons around a recently detected exoplanet: secondary effects. People who constantly talk about their religion? We've all known one or a few. Those who we know have very deep, nuanced and extensive knowledge of a certain religion but hardly ever talk about it? These people will interest us, no?

                                       Alan Watts: artwork by Randal Roberts

So, his birthday comes along and I didn't know what to get him, so I thought of my favorite theology book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan Watts, which came out in 1951. I hope to learn something from my brother's comments, if he offers them. (He emailed me after receiving the book in the mail, "I hardly know anything about Buddhism. Cool!")

I read Watts's book every few years and it always seems "new" to me, although the part that seems "old" is the basic message: sciences are about knowledge of the past - observations and experiments - and its ability to predict the future; but "now" - this very moment - is religious, and we aren't in the now if we're thinking about being in the now. The core of true religion is experience, not citing chapter and verse. We know we've recently been in the moment, but now that we're thinking about that, we're probably not in It. The key is to just be in the moment. Watts never totally lets on, but this is stealth-zen. I love the idea of always being in the moment, but find it very difficult to accomplish.

(I find the idea of laughing at the idea that you're not in the moment precisely because you're thinking about "being in the moment" hilarious, and so: being-in-the-moment.)

And if you "try" that's not going to work. Trying seems one of the most counterproductive things to do if you want to be in my moment: 'tis far better to just go ahead and do or be.

As readers of the OG know: I have pronounced neurotic tendencies. Which have to do with worry (living in the future) and some regret (living in the past).

Still: I'm sure this book has somehow allowed me to have a higher quantity of "moments." Or at least it seems so. The book does seem to function reliably - por moi - as a short-term anti-anxiety Pill. The endgame (<---Ha!) does seem to set the bar fairly high, though. Which is cool...

It occurs to me that in our non-ordinary "realities" we seem to be more conducive to being-in-the-moment, possibly because our primary realities seem a tad too "well-known"?

It's for me an uncanny book: as I read it, I think, "Alan Watts is right about all this...how did he do it? How does he make it all sound so logically coherent?" (An olde classic: Wordworth's "The World Is Too Much With Us")

I also find myself thinking "This is one of the best Sophists ever," and I actually enjoy most of the Sophists we encounter in Plato. (Forget Thrasymachus, who seems to me the barking Id of every Pentagon Death Cult thinker we've ever had. Add to this "might makes right" dude: Callicles and Hippias. What a trio of a-holes.)

I know when we read Plato we're always supposed to be on Socrates's side, and I love the old pederast as much as the next Philosophy student, but some of his interlocutors are even more interesting. Gorgias the rhetorician must have seemed like a whigged-out weirdo thinker in his time, but he probably ends up as an underrated progenitor of trippy Neoplatonism. A case has been made that Gorgias is proto-Derrida.

Protagoras was the Clarence Darrow of his day: he said there's gotta be at least two versions of everything, and was really good at making the weaker account sound better than the stronger; he also said: you can have the gods, but I say they're unknowable and furthermore: humans are the measure of all things. Antiphon reminds me of a billionaire libertarian who wants unlimited pleasure, life, comfort...and pesky laws and other people's meddling just get in his way. Antiphon thought Protagoras was a dick. I don't like this Antiphon guy very much, but he's not boring and I feel like I know him: Antiphon Lives!

Socrates quite often pales (according to my own evaluations) when engaged in dialectic with these rock-star talkers and thinkers in Athens. Anyway...

Back to Alan Watts's The Wisdom of Insecurity: it's also Beatnik philosophy nonpareil. Watts was doing what Aldous Huxley was doing for open-minded Protestant and quasi-lapsed Catholic thinkers in the West at the time: arguing point after metaphysical point and then citing passages from the Bible juxtaposed with quotes from Buddhism, Taoism, and the Vedas and showing how much they had in common. That Old-Time Human Ecumenism. I go for that, as a person who really never went to church. I strongly suspect even the most rabid atheists out there desire transcendent experience. (Hell: I know they do.)

Watts has also always seemed fantastically entertaining to me: playful Trickster-Guru, erudite, absurd, wonderfully frank, heretical. With marvelous British elocution. This might be the key to a good theologian in the 21st century ("good" according to my own hierarchy of values): be a philosophical entertainer. (Aye: Philosophers could stand to be more "entertaining." Or, failing that, at least drop most of the post-1945 jargon. It's decadent!) Here's a decent line I just found in Watts's essay, "Psychotherapy and Eastern Religion":

Now, I'm a philosopher, and as a philosopher I am grateful to some of the great pioneers in psychotherapy like Freud, Jung and Adler for pointing out to us philosophers the unconscious emotional forces which underlie our opinions. In a way, I'm also a theologian, but not a partisan theologian. I don't belong to any particular religion because I don't consider that to be intellectually respectable.

20 years ago, when I read that, I realized, "Okay, I previously discounted all theologians as pernicious dinosaurs, but I must consider any that say such a thing as this!"

Later, when I stumbled onto my favorite writer, Robert Anton Wilson, I found that RAW's wife Arlen had turned him onto Watts. In turn, Watts became a sort of mentor to Wilson, telling him there were some very interesting Harvard professors investigating psychedelic drugs in the context of religious experience. (RAW and Leary became friends and intellectual collaborators from the mid-1960s to Leary's death in 1996.) At another meeting, Watts told RAW he'd just read a fantastic book by Israel Regardie, about Aleister Crowley. RAW went on to become one of the world's most erudite explainers of Crowley, and indeed an Adept himself. At another time, Watts said that the biggest error in history books is the idea that the Roman Empire "fell." It never ended. This became a riff repeated in RAW's and Philip K. Dick's books. Watts turned RAW on to zen, and even though Watts quit smoking cannabis by 1959, the notion of zen and being awake in-the-moment has always struck many of us lovers of Mary Jane Warner as an easy way in to a simulation of zen...for reasons I'll go into in some further blogspew...

Watts was alcoholic and a sensualist. He was an ordained Anglican priest, taught at Harvard, was an editor, broadcaster, a dean, a consultant at psychiatric hospitals, and one of the West's great exponents of Comparative Religion. He wrote one of the first books on psychedelics and religion, The Joyous Cosmology. By late 1959/early 1960s he'd found his calling as self-described "philosopher-entertainer," a religious virtuoso who was "in show biz" and was a "genuine fake." When RAW met him, Watts had left his wife Dorothy and their four kids, with a fifth on the way. He was not perfect.

I remember a talk Watts gave on Pacifica Radio in which he said the numbers for outcomes in traditional psychotherapy were: 1/3 get get better, 1/3 get worse, and 1/3 stay the same. That floored me. He foresaw a "Zerowork" society as far back as the 1950s. He was very well-read in the sciences, and in one of the few quotations from The Wisdom of Insecurity we get, in a footnote, a quote from the uber-cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, who seemed to be aware that our rationality and machines might kill us...in a book from 1951.

He was friends with Huxley and an influence on Leary. All three of those men and Wilson influenced me to learn to use my own brain, to think for myself, to acknowledge that I might be one of those weirdo-thinkers who may have to do it outside of The Academy. Against "rugged" American egotist individualism, we as a culture need as complement: transpersonal intersubjectivity and a non-intellectual public meeting of limbic minds.

Watts's most famous abode was probably his houseboat at Sausalito just north of San Francisco. It was on his boat that a much-written-about meeting ("Houseboat Summit"of 1967) of 1960s guru-minds was held. The problem? Do we forget about politics - because it's hopeless - and "drop out" and continue to "turn on" to our own thing? Or do we engage in politics, trying to bring what we've learned from esoterica and psychedelia to the table? Or something in-between? On the boat that day: Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Leary. In this same year, Watts began championing Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan. The Summer of Love was happening (or is it capital aitch Happening?) a few minutes down the way, in the Haight-Ashbury district.

In his Introduction to Dark Destiny: Proprietors of Fate, a book of short stories about the "world of darkness" which is an apt title to happen upon as I write this, nearing the Witching Hour on Halloween, RAW, in an eldritch mood, writes:

Emerson's Brahma, who says"I am the slayer and the slain," presumably enjoys the slaying even if He-She-It also suffers the pain of the victim. This view really implies a cosmos consisting only of a god playing with itself (Transcendental Masturbation) or playing hide-and-seek with itself (the view of Alan Watts and all Gnostic conspiracy buffs in the Phil Dick tradition). 

When I first read this passage, I had never thought Watts a gnostic, but then realized: that's probably right. The idea that Rome never fell seems one of the main riffs in modern gnosticism. Further: one easily gets the feeling, reading or listening to Watts, that he had "sight of Proteus rising from the sea." And besides: RAW knew Alan Watts.

                                                  कलाकार: बॉब कैम्पबेल


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

This is a very good summary of Watts' influence on RAW.

Is the book you refer to this one?


I listened to an audiobook of Watts explaining Zen, "The Way of Zen," and I still didn't think I understood zen! Although if I understood Watts, zen is more about experience than something that can be explained. I need to try the book you gave your brother. And I admit, I want to find out more about Antiphon!

michael said...

Tom- Yea, that's the one. Edited by Kramer. RAW's intro covers some territory he went over in CT2: how horror films affected his childhood, etc. It's worth reading.

RAW often quoted Yoshitani Roshi, who taught him zen. Buddha-mind is when you're cold at night and automatically pull the covers up without thinking. RAW's line from his zen teacher: there's nothing special about zen mind; you do it every night in your sleep. Zen is a way of doing it while you're awake.

Watts likes to say that defining zen is missing the point, like biting your own teeth.

Whenever I dig into Buddhism I get the feeling that my neural pathways have been rutted into Western assumptions about "reality" and so: lots of work to overcome that and internalize other ways of "Being."

Even if I don't "get" it: a major value of it is that it fills me with wonder for other brain states that might be "normal" for people in other cultures. And ours is probably like learning another language for them.

In the 1960s, Eastern philosophy seemed like it was really catching on in a big way in the West (it has in Berkeley, CA, but I'm not sure about most parts of Unistat), and one of our intellectuals (it may have been Alan Watts, I don't remember) quipped that the Japanese were "doing" "Western" applied technology better than we were; indeed: they were "becoming" more "Western" in rationality than us, while many of us were becoming more "Eastern" in our (ahem) orientations.

And so a Japanese businessman would approach a Westerner steeped in zen and tell him this new electronic gadget would save him time. And the Westerner would slowly exhale and say, "Very interesting...what is this 'saving time' you speak of?"

But it seems culture and probably the structure of languages makes us more rooted than we'd thought.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I think part of the reason I struggle with Zen is that I got interested in Buddhism through Theravada, which emphasizes studying the philosophy: Learning the Fourth Noble Truths, learning the Eightfold Path and how it relates to the Four Truths, etc. Zen is a very different approach. I went to a Vippasana meditation camp once (basically Western Theravada), and there was a guy there who had studied Zen, and he talked about how the different approach had thrown him off a little bit, as normally he'd be working on a koan, etc.

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I particularly like the phrase "uber-cyberneticist Norbert Wiener". I imagine this service where you can order a cyberneticist to come to your door. I only have a three star rating at Uber-cyberneticist. My last pilot found me "cranky".