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The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety Paperback – 8 February 2011
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—Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea
“Perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, Watts had the rare gift of ‘writing beautifully the unwritable.’”
—Los Angeles Times
“The wisdom of insecurity is not a way of evasion, but of carrying on wherever we happen to be stationed—carrying on, however, without imagining that the burden of the world, or even of the next moment, is ours. It is a philosophy not of nihilism but of the reality of the present—always remembering that to be of the present is to be, and candidly know ourselves to be, on the crest of a breaking wave.”
—Philip Wheelwright, Arts and Letters
“This book proposes a complete reversal of all ordinary thinking about the present state of man. The critical condition of the world compels us to face this problem: how is man to live in a world in which he can never be secure, deprived, as many are, of the consolations of religious belief? The author shows that this problem contains its own solution—that the highest happiness, the supreme spiritual insight and certitude are found only in our awareness that impermanence and insecurity are inescapable and inseparable from life. Written in a simple and lucid style, it is a timely message.”
—Book Exchange (London)
About the Author
Alan W. Watts, who held both a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate of divinity, is best remembered as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism in particular, and of Indian and Chinese philosophy in general. Standing apart, however, from sectarian membership, he has earned the reputation of being one of the most original and “unrutted” philosophers of the twentieth century. Watts was the author of some twenty books on the philosophy and psychology of religion that have been published in many languages throughout the world, including the bestselling The Way of Zen. An avid lecturer, Watts appeared regularly on the radio and hosted the popular television series, Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life, in the 1960s. He died in 1973.
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However, the problem is more deep seated. We are anxious not only because we are not living in the eternal now but because we think there is a separate I. We are not certain where this I lives: in our heads, our bodies but we are certain there is a I and everybody else is you. But Watts believes there is just one of us and this one includes the flowers, plants, animals and everything. I've comes across this idea before but Watts has a new spin: we 'reach a point where what is unknown is not a mere blank space in a web of words but a window in the mind, a window whose name is not ignorance but wonder.'
Unfortunately. most of us are too timid to open the window, we close ourselves down with repetition. distraction and addiction. But once we open up to wonder, see the connections between everything, we will no longer be the anxious I desperately trying to feel OK.
At least this is what I think is Watts case, I certainly buy the beauty of the eternal now. This book filled me with wonder. I guess I am just too trapped in I (but love the few moments when the division has melted away).
Again, reading other parts, I got the impression of listening to a patronizing elderly privileged white man from the 1950s who had been growing up in, and been influenced by the views of, the first half of the last century. To that point I had just started reading unbiased without having informed myself about the author or the book's publication date prior to reading but I was not surprised after finding out that my impression was just right.
I couldn't even enjoy the read linguistically since the language and expressions were not even carefully composed and on point. It was rather a lot of hot air with very little substance.
What bothered me the most overall was the fact that in his book Watts constantly states hypotheses and presents them as facts without ever questioning, checking or further investigating them. Of course I am aware that this is not supposed to be a scientific read but nevertheless it really upsets me that he presents his random thoughts as the ultimate truth especially in fields where there is so much evidence against his points of view by current or even older research done by researchers who have been working on these specific topics their entire lives, be it in the field of psychology, medicine, biology, history or other sciences.
While on the one hand he naively romanticizes and idealizes non-human animals, at the same time he presents them as inferior to the human species, which is definitely anachronistic. Nowadays it is commonly known that also other animals can suffer basically from all the psychiatric diseases that affect us humans, like depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. Furthermore it is also flat-out wrong that other animals stop eating when they are full - every dog owner can second that and you just have to take a look around outside to see all the obese little dogs.
Throughout his book, Watts fuels the myth that in "former times" (whenever that is supposed to be) "everything" was better and we that we simply "unlearned" being happy, a claim that is devoid of any foundation. Obviously it does not take a genius to realize that probably the human race overall was not much happier in the middle ages e.g. compared to now or the 1950s if you will. They were probably mostly rather busy surviving instead of having the luxury of wondering if they were happy. Or a Van Gogh back in the days probably was also depressed and neurotic even though the industrialization had just started and he didn't have to put off with today's "rat race" as so many of us do. The higher incidence and prevalence of psychiatric disorders seen nowadays that Watts mentions can be mainly attributed to the fact that there is less stigma now and there is a lower diagnostic threshold, which is actually a good thing because this way more individuals can receive help.
I also don't like Watt's point of view depicting labor in general as something negative that everyone of us dreads. Work and employment aren't necessarily but can be fulfilling and meaningful, giving your life purpose. I think it is just wrong to overgeneralize in this context. What Watts describes is more or less a so-called burnout syndrome, and although not uncommon and to be taken seriously, it is not the rule. Watts also describes it as something negative when he talks about the case of someone who still looks to find some job when already being retired because he wants to work. But it is common knowledge nowadays that employment (either paid or unpaid) is important psychologically as it makes us a part of a social network and makes us feel needed and useful. That is why many times unemployed or retired individuals fall into depression.
What I find especially overbearing and arrogant is the author judging about giving birth, being a man and also apparently a medically totally uninformed and unqualified person. Giving birth wasn't easier in "former times" as it was supposedly more "natural", as he depicts it. Childbirth was and still is one of the most fatal situations any woman can find herself in and still nowadays many women and/or their newborns die or are severely harmed during the process especially in regions where there is no proper medical assistance and care available.
What's interesting about these kind of books and teachings and why it fits so well into our time is the fact that there is a retreat to the private sphere, focusing on your own little world instead of questioning the whole system (e.g. political, societal rules and systems). The message is "if you are unhappy it is your fault and you just have to correct your own views on yourself and on the world." In that respect those eastern teachings fit very well in our current neoliberal society and maybe this fact is also partly responsible for their success and their popularity here and now.
Finally, probably some of the very few positive things that I could take from this book: I like the general advice to approach life in a more relaxed way (as if we didn't know that before, but still it is true). What I also appreciate about the buddhist teachings is the principle of non-judgmental awareness which the author also mentions in this book.
Our brains are evolutionary wired to pursue pleasant stimuli that activate the reward system in our brain(like food, sex, feeling of belonging etc) and to avoid negative stimuli (pain, feeling excluded etc.). Evolutionary it is actually not "planned" for us to be happy because this would not provide an advantage in surviving. On the contrary, those of our ancestors who were more neurotic and worried and did not live carelessly in the here and now and instead anxiously planned ahead had an advantage in surviving and reproducing. The "collateral damage" to this is that now we are stuck with those brains that refuse to just relax and live in the present and almost automatically worry and ponder although nowadays, at least if you live in an area where there is no war or famine, we are objectively better off than ever and would not need to worry but still our brains are "running on overdrive" although there is no need. In this respect I think buddhist teachings can help us a lot. But maybe not this specific book.