I recently finished reading The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan W. Watts, and it’s one of those rare little gems of a book that I am going to re-read right away, before moving on to more of his works.
Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a London-born philosopher who, like one of my other favorite writers and thinkers, Pema Chödrön, focused on giving Western readers and listeners a deeper understanding of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. Although The Wisdom of Insecurity was first published in 1951, the intervening years only strengthen the power of its message, which is in part the value of relying less on words, on naming and remembering and planning, and more on learning to experience this moment fully.
He reminds us that we already know how to live in the moment during what we label “good” times:
“In times of happiness and pleasure, we are usually ready enough to be aware of the moment, and to let the experience be all. In such moments we ‘forget ourselves’, and the mind makes no attempt to divide itself from itself, to be separate from experience. But with the arrival of pain, whether physical or emotional, whether actual or anticipated, the split begins and the circles goes round and round.
As soon as it becomes clear that ‘I’ cannot possibly escape from the reality of the present, since ‘I’ is nothing other than what I know now, this inner turmoil must stop. No possibility remains but to be aware of pain, fear, boredom, or grief in the same complete way that one is aware of pleasure.” (pp. 88-90)
Most of us can remember a time when naming an experience we were enjoying—moving away from the absorption of the moment by thinking or saying “This is good” or “I am happy”—lessened the quality of the experience itself. We were suddenly aware of our own thoughts and words and all of the doubts and anxiety that come with them. Is this really good? Is it as good as it has been? Will I still be happy five minutes from now? Oh, no, what if I’m not?!
Interestingly, for moments that we find painful or stressful, the very naming of the experience similarly adds to our discomfort, If, instead, we can simply sit with the experience or feeling, be it without naming it, “the resistance ceases, the pain simply goes away or dwindles to an easily tolerable ache.” (Let’s take a moment fully to appreciate the irony of having to use words to explain the value of silent experience.”)
Watts is careful to remind us that “memory, thought, language, and logic are essential to human life.” However, most of us live far too much in that world and spend too little time fully being in and experiencing life through our bodies, right now, with all of their wisdom.
The next time we feel pressure that threatens to overwhelm our thoughts, our days, our hearts, we can try not thinking the word “pressure,” not thinking at all, not trying to escape through throught. The moment is what it is. See if it helps.
What do we have to lose?
Photo Credit: Jesse Therrien