Alan Watts is a British author and philosopher that made his name during the height of the counter-culture movement of the 20th century. Aside from providing post-mortem spiritual guidance through inspirational videos and quotes fit for anyone’s wallpaper or coffee mug, he is responsible for the popularization of Zen Buddhism in Western culture. Anyone exposed to a recording of Watts will be immediately struck by his charming wit and soothing voice caressing with timeless wisdom.
His specific way of articulating the core concepts of Zen Buddhism massages the mind into a fertile soil, upon which the cosmological ideas of the East are planted and cultivated. Watts is the perfect representation of the prototypical sage figure – a bearded man in the autumn of his life, with eyes full of humor and kindness, and a voice capable of hypnotizing just about anything in sight. This boat-inhabiting, beads-wearing spiritual entertainer even liked to smoke his tobacco from a pipe!
But what caused Watts’ initial popularity during the counter-culture revolution and subsequent resurgence in the Internet age? First, both time periods emphasized the individual’s responsibility to act, albeit based on different motivations. The leitmotif of Generation X was liberation from the conservative boundaries imposed by obsolete tradition. Intellectual and spiritual independence was sought through the exploration of alternative lifestyles and ideas. The contemporary zeitgeist preaches the same DIY approach, but the focus is instead placed on creating a personal brand representing the individual. Entrepreneurship, social media presence and self-promotion are viewed as the essential tools for carving an impression on an information-drowned and jaded world.
Second, despite the changes in society and morals, our personal search for meaning remains as crucial to our identity as ever. While the rebellious youth of the past was ready to accept just about any idea or philosophy, if it flipped off the Man, in today’s world cultivating and sustaining a balanced internal world is seen as just another box you’re supposed to tick. The emergence of individual spirituality as a replacement for state-governed religion has yielded interesting results. On one hand, people can soul-search on their own and forge a connection/conviction that accurately responds to their personal beliefs. On the other hand, the unrestricted dissemination of ideas has proven to be a fertile hunting ground for hungry opportunists looking to prey upon the vulnerable. New Age gurus, TV evangelists and reiki healers will all gladly guide your benevolent soul on its path to the heavens…for a (not so) small donation, of course.
So was Alan Watts just another charlatan looking to make a living out of giving lectures and selling books or is there actual substance to what he’s saying?
Rather than watching random videos on YouTube, I wanted to pick something with more context and chose the Out of Your Mind audiobook. It’s divided into seperate lectures, covering topics such as the governing models of the world, nature of consciousness, etc. This series will focus on presenting Watts’ main ideas and philosophy, mixed with my own thoughts and interpretations. This material specifically only focuses on the basic outlines of the first couple of lectures and contains a juicy amount of personal opinion.
It can in no way transmit the quality and abundance of the lectures within the audiobook, which are a must-listen. Anyone looking for the complete picture can purchase the audiobook online or listen to it on YouTube.
In the first couple of lectures Watts sketches out summaries of the two most widespread cosmic myths within Western religious tradition and intellectual thought. He identifies these as 1) the Ceramic model and 2) the Automatic (Mechanical) model. From a historical perspective, the Ceramic model was the first to appear and serves as the foundation of the three major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Mechanical model is more recent, emerging from the ruins of the Christian church. Once seen as the de-jure moral compass of society, the church eventually lost its dominant role amid incessant attacks from philosophical circles, coupled with the expansive development of the modern intellectual movement.
While these models convey a different perspective on the world and humanity, they share the common theme of solitude, or more appropriately – isolation. Additionally, Alan Watts introduces a third concept, i.e. the Dramatical model, as the audiobook progresses into its middle and later chapters.
To keep things simple, I’ll follow the structure of the audiobook.
The Ceramic Model
The cornerstone of this model is the establishment of a divine dominance hierarchy to serve as the blueprint for the ordinary mortal world. This basic premise is that God is a technician, a maker. He is the one that created the Universe, the world and humanity all from nothingness and gave them shape. As mentioned before, this cosmological axiom is embedded within all three major monotheistic religions, each of which is centered around a single omnipotent being. God took something plain and insubstantial (mud) and infused it with divine essence to bring it to life.
Without the divine intervention of God, there is no life, there is no matter, there is no Universe. Everything that is and isn’t is defined by him. Everything we see, experience, fear and love is a direct result of the will of God. He is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-pervasive. This leads to several conclusions:
- God is omnipotent → Because God is omnipotent, he created the Universe → Since the Universe is solely God’s creation, he decides all that happens within it → God has no equivalent or opposite, he is a singular entity → God is responsible of everything there is and everything that occurs God is both and Architect and a King → God is within all and all is within God The role of the monarch and hierarchical are symptomatic of the basic of order of things;
- The Universe exists solely because God decided to create it → God can unwill the Universe at any moment, because he’s omnipotent → We exist as a favor, an idiosyncrasy of God, the King-Architect → God can decide to remove us from existence at any time → Everything that occurs is within the limits created by God → Since God is omnipotent, all-knowing and exists outside time, everything we are and do is all ready known to him → We are puppets on strings putting a performance in God’s sandbox.
Since God is the King-Architect of everything in existence, naturally we humans are put in the role subjects, along with the rest of Nature. The noteworthy difference, however, is the existence of consciousness and the ensuing awareness of our role. What is the principal obligation of all subjects? To tolerate. Tolerate the whims of the monarch, regardless of their nature, be it an exhibition of providence, wrath or benevolence. Such attachment to a mortal figure of higher hierarchical stature, such as a monarch or feudal lord can be burdensome, but still afford the necessary space for personal life. If one manages to avoid the perils at the very top or very bottom of the social hierarchy, personal serenity might be possible. People can fulfil their obligations or scheme their way around things and manage to carve a nice little niche of comfortable existence.
However, comfort is not a concept often associated with the Almighty. In the capacity of subjects of an omnipotent and omnipresent being, we are constantly under surveillance. Our deeds, thoughts and character are always watched, measured, and judged against one another. Yet, these are already known to God and are the direct result of him setting up the mise-en-scène. Holding mortals accountable as such is indeed a display of divine proportions – of divine hypocrisy, cynicism and misanthropy. Enforcing punishment in the form of eternal damnation or retribution for the unavoidable orchestrated actions of your subjects is cruel, sadistic and customary of a tyrant. Allowing the torture to continue throughout multiple generations of the human race means that God either doesn’t care or that he willingly allows it.
Which is scarier?
Hierarchical relationships are defined by the roles of dominance and submission. Since God is omnipotent, humanity is obviously resigned to dancing to whatever music is being played. As subjects and creations, we do not have or own anything that is truly ours. Family, friends, material possessions, lifespan, health, all of these have been created by God and loaned out to us so we can play our part. It can be taken back at any moment.
We are powerless, like toys that can be thrown around, bent, broken, painted or destroyed for entertainment. There is no safety, no security and no privacy, we are at the perennial mercy of the God-Architect. We are hamsters on a wheel and all we can really do is fulfil or designated role as subjects or die. There is no escape and rebellion is impossible, for God is omnipotent. As creations and subjects, all we can really do is live, pray and fear God, and hope he doesn’t get angry or bored and reduce us to dust.
As Above, So Below
To summarize, the God-to-Man relationship is defined by the roles of dominance and submission. What about the Man-to-Man relationship?
For starters, it serves as the perfect foundation for supporting or establishing a monarchical state. God is the ultimate omnipotent being, the creator and undisputed ruler of everything in existence. What is left for Man to do except to try and emulate him and create a kingdom of his own? After all, Man is the only creation possessing the ability to create by itself. Pursuing your own ambitions for absolute power over a personal dominion becomes an act of spirituality and worship, because it’s a mirror image of the celestial order.
Consequently, kings and other monarchs claim to be manifestations or agents of the all-powerful motherfucker in the sky, and demand to be treated as such. Since everything belongs to God, it’s logical that the whole of the world (or at least the civilized parts of it) should belong to his representatives. Rulers and monarchs spend their lives trying to obtain the holy grail and become the mirror image of God on Earth. This ambition also trickles down to the lower social classes of society, albeit in a more indirect way. Everyone strives to become the master of their own reality, and if that goal is achieved – progress further up the pyramid.
Progression is realized not through mere ascension to a higher hierarchical position, but through replacement. One person’s gain is another loss. Success within the hierarchical structure implies the downfall of others and appeals to the predatory tendencies that reside within all of us. The combination of the conscious goal of success with the unconscious instinct for survival suppresses empathy and fuels selfish tendencies. The ambition to achieve dominion is manifested through the desire for possession. The bigger the dominion, the smaller the distance between Man and God.
The Ceramic model condemns the world is to a state of bellum omnia contra omnes. It’s not seen as an object of revelation or appreciation, but as something to be taken and conquered. If you do not move quickly enough and get what you can, others will do it and get ahead of you in life. This model appeals to the most primal human survival instinct. So, you hurl yourself with divine rage and try to expand your personal kingdom as much as possible, simultaneously satisfying the basic survival instinct and appeasing God by mirroring him.
Within hierarchies, there can be no friends or allies. A king cannot be close to his subjects, because he sees the Damoclean sword perpetually hanging menacingly from above. God cannot be a comrade, a friend or even a parent for his creations, because a parent always acts with awareness that they’re is expendable and will be succeeded by their children. This is the hierarchical God’s greatest fear – that his creations may come to surpass or overtake him. God may be omnipotent, but even he is subject to the law of hierarchy and must fight to preserve his place at the top. All of his creations are mortal enemies. Conversely, God is our mortal enemy, because he sits on the summit of the pyramid we’re programmed to chase. It’s an all out war.
The Universe is a place of abject solitude. God lives in perpetual fear that he will be usurped and is torn between propagating life and creating struggles for his creations. He sits alone on top of the pyramid. In turn, Man is crushed between the abandonment of God, who he can never truly reach and the eternal conflict with his kind, who will tear him down at first signs of weakness. Rather than some Ubermensch-type individual, the ultimate result of the perpetual suffering of humanity is a lonely hamster who spends his life running on the wheel in vain.
The Mechanical Model
Sometime during the 18th century, after the risk of being alive at the stake due to bad breath had subsided somewhat, someone somewhere dared to ask the question: “OK, but what if God didn’t exist?”
At that point science was fast replacing religion as the primary source of explanation for the behavior of the birds, bees and trees. Systematic experimentation had already led to the formation of scientific laws and the scientific method in general. Knives had been sharpened and the air brimmed with change. If it’s been already established that reality can be quantified and is based upon fundamental laws of nature, why do we keep God on top of the pyramid? If we topple him over and accept that instead of controlling everything, he doesn’t even exist, would it change in any way our lives? Do we melt or start dissipating into thin air? Obviously not. So where does the absence of an omnipotent architect leave us?
If there’s no summit, then there’s no hierarchy and no driver behind the wheel. This is where the fully automatic model comes in to fill the gap. Without a grand mastermind everything we see is just the result of random chance. The magnificence of Nature, the abundance of life, the depth of human emotions and the boldness of human intelligence – it’s all a fluke. A random occurrence that has been produced by the combination of innumerable factors of all magnitudes. Nature is filled with such curious examples, like the rock formations on Mars that were mistaken for a face or ironically, the Prohodna cave that is home to, fittingly” the eyes of God.
The power vacuum left by the abolition of God determines the totality of our existence as one of constant struggle. Once again, it is bellum omnia contra omnes, but fueled by the embers of spontaneous chaos as the driving force of all things. There’s a further twist to the tale as well. Reality has been chiseled into its familiar form, but can change drastically at any second. Without an overlord-protector, all we are really doing is standing in quicksand. Nature too is our enemy, because it impedes us at every step – it hinders industrialization and technological development, it propagates diseases, it breaks down our bodies. Whether it’s an environmental disaster, a new virus, a solar storm or perhaps an alien invasion, it aims to absorb us back into primal energy.
The Universe is cold and impersonal. It’s not malevolent or specifically going out of its way to get us somehow. It doesn’t have a consciousness or an agenda. It simply doesn’t give a fuck. It is equally divided between the forces of creation and destruction, who are locked in a game of cosmic hide-and-seek. There’s no method to the madness, madness is the method. There’s no guiding higher purpose that can provide a universal explanation for all of our existential questions. There are events, probably some fixed physical limits, and endless possibilities. Quasar tsunamis, flowers and computer chips are all spelled out within the same alphabet soup and there’s an infinite number of things that remain unknown due to our limited perception. For every graceful butterfly, there’s a spider weaving its web and a frog stalking the spider in the bushes. Impossible forces are constantly hurling towards immovable objects.
There is no safety.
There is nothing special about the human species and all our civilizational achievements are the result of beneficial circumstances in fortuitous breaks. But as any gambler knows, induvial luck eventually runs out. From the onset of our emergence as separate species, nature and the Universe have been trying to deconstruct us. Chaos is eternal, while the human body is fragile, the senses limited, our intelligence and understanding of things – laughable. Our mission as a species is to avoid the inevitable for as long as possible, so we that we can experience the magnanimous blessings of the same forces trying to destroy us.
The final verdict once again is desperate solitude. Torn between preying on others for personal survival and beating down the attempts of nature to absorb us back, we are left utterly alone. Technology and the understanding of science become the primary focus of the species, because they delay the end. Dynamic categories such as ethical values, philosophy and artistic expression gradually lose their importance, because individuals really are just a brick humanity’s wall against the forces of chaos and entropy. Personal relationship and fraternity fade as the human spirit is squeezed out.
We are as the stars in the night sky – seemingly infinite and close, but in reality alone against the clutching darkness.
The Middle Way
The preceding models represent some of the major developments in Western intellectual thought during the last 2000 years. Of course, they don’t reflect the depth of philosophical variety and discourse that’s emerged in this period, but rather the psychological common ground of our society. Religious dogma used to be the measure of all things, until it was replaced by science. Through different means, both approaches seem to produce the same result – a nihilistic, lonely existence, where humanity is juxtaposed against the rest of reality. Why is that? And where do we go from here?
There are clues hidden within the two existing models, specifically their common outcome. How can seemingly contrasting approaches produce the same end result? Despite our advancement as a species and planetary dominance, we are far from perfect. We talk, behave and think like humans and as products of our environment. If we’re in the woods and see a cave with light coming from the inside, we investigate, because we’re human and curiosity is embedded in our genome. We possess qualities and traits that are intrinsic to our species. In the past when people experienced rain or an earthquake, these were associated with respective human emotions, be it joy, sadness or anger, because anthropomorphism is also deeply rooted in our genes. We draw from our existing pool of knowledge and the information from our senses to create a mental concept of the surrounding world, which represents only a fraction of it.
Accordingly, we choose to appoint God as the architect of the Universe or deny his existence altogether. The choice doesn’t really matter, because either way the individual is left to suffer in isolation throughout their existence. To battle and claw something out of this life, before God, the Universe or whomever eventually takes it back. In both models the world is made up of struggle and pain.
At this apparent impasse Alan Watts introduces the concept of his so-called Dramatical model of the world. Besides the basic outlines of the two preceding cosmological models, the majority of this text contains very little of what Watts actually has to say. Most of it reflects my personal thoughts that came to mind while I was listening to the book and I wanted to use it as contrast to his own vision.
Instead of subscribing to anthropomorphism and personal conquest, Watts introduces the ideas of Zen Buddhism and oneness. Everything is interconnected within the common web of life. We are all actors playing this or that person in a grand-scale cosmic game. The ego i.e. our conscious awareness does not reflect our whole being, but a fragment of it. However, due to our confusion and ignorance of these fundamental principles, we identify with our ego and become slaves to its neuroticism. Disappointment, pain and suffering all result from our inability to truly understand ourselves and what we are.
But there’s a way out!
The most important message gifted by our spiritual entertainer is this: The situation of life is optimal and intelligence and love are symptomatic of the Universe as a fundamental principle.
This alternative view is expanded into the middle and later chapters of the audiobook. My idea is to summarize the most important themes and concepts in one post, then follow those up with another containing my personal thoughts to keep things clean and avoid confusion.
Regardless of how things turn out however, it’s impossible to accurately convey the brilliance of the man. My words will always fall stiff and bleak compared to the humor, richness and magnetic appeal of the actual lectures. It’s no exaggeration for me to say that the audiobook has changed my life and my outlook on things, so I can’t recommend it enough!
Besides this obvious benefit, the recordings are littered with fascinating details that I didn’t include, such as the resemblance of interior church architecture to monarchical throne rooms and courts of law. There’s an abundance of allegories, metaphors and bits of insight that strike like lightning and stay with you forever. The excerpts are meant to give a basic idea of the charisma and style of Alan Watts’ lectures and spark your interest. In order to get the full context and meaning, you need to hear the full recording.
So do yourself a favor and listen to the audiobook already!
See you soon!
Particularly within the USA. ↑
As well as Hinduism to an extent. ↑
Full title: Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives. ↑
This recording contains silence gaps and pauses to avoid YT’s Content ID system. ↑
Coinciding with the Enlightenment movement in Western civilization. ↑
Case in point – Michelangelo’s famous work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel ↑
Although the first line describes a hostile Universe, as opposed to a neutral one, it seemed fitting to include. For me, the trinity of Disposition-Reflection-Triad is a great example for the diversity of life. ↑
As the chosen children of God made in his image or as the chosen agents of reason and science per the mechanical model; ↑
N.B. The included excerpts of the audiobook are explicitly meant for personal, non-commercial use. In order to hear the lectures in full, please listen to the audiobook from Youtube via the provided link or obtain it legally.