Wisdom of Insecurity, The
by Alan Watts
Toward the end of college a new acquaintance lent me Still the Mind, by a certain Alan Watts. I had never heard of the guy and was still pretty conventional (and thus alienated by a book with “meditation” in the title), but hey, I was in college so I gave it a try. It’s not exaggeration to say that reading it significantly altered the trajectory of my life.
In the years after, I devoured every Watts book I could find, probably eight or nine of them. They got repetitive after a while, but still, sitting down with Watts was like having a wine- (or weed-) fueled fireside chat that lasted well into the early hours of the morning. His style is beautifully comfortable, and his insights both familiar and astonishing. Even when one book sounds disappointingly like another, there are always at least a few new points that make it worth your time.
Out of those books, none surpass Still the Mind in my heart, in terms of revelatory ideas and intuitive ease; it’s essentially a beginner’s guide to Eastern thought, and I was in the right time of my life to be wide open to it. Two others have also lingered with me over the years: The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, and this one.
Re-reading it almost ten years later, it doesn’t feel quite as ground-breaking and it suffers from being repetitive. But still it is timeless, rather impressive considering it was written 60-some years ago. And I have never seen a more thorough or convincing argument for the “Here and Now” tenet of Eastern thought. You can read many books about why this is a good way to live, or why it will make you happy, but Watts takes a different approach — he patiently explains why it is absurd and ultimately impossible to attempt to live any other way.
One of Watts’s greatest talents is his use of analogy to explain his point. Here the metaphors, similes and images are in plentiful supply. One of my favorites comes early, when he talks about pleasure and pain, and how too much pleasure actually leads to pain (by desensitizing the taste buds, for example, or by rubbing with too much friction). His comparison of the pleasure of listening to music is also illustrative. If you try to arrest the flow of music, it loses the power to please you. You can’t hold onto pleasure, you can only appreciate it while it lasts.
One of the powerful points of the book is Watts’s idea that people who live for the future, eagerly awaiting what is to come, or live in the past, dwelling on fond memories, can never appreciate the present. By doing so, for example by being really excited about an upcoming vacation, you condition yourself to not be able to fully appreciate it when the time comes, because by that time you are so used to anticipation that you lose your ability to sit in the present.
There are many other important points in the book: us forgetting that words are merely conventions and not the actual thing they represent; the price of our consciousness being anxiety about our future; and the negligence of listening to our brains over our bodies. In one of the more important discussions, Watts elucidates how we are the same as our experiences — there is no “I” experiencing, there is only the experience. This is a strange concept to us Westerners, and one that would be popularized a couple of decades later by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (though he called it “Quality,” not “experience”).
I’ll stop summarizing. If you have read Alan Watts before, you more or less know what you’re in for here, though I will say this is one of the essential works of his canon, and one that is still timeless over 60 years later. If you haven’t read him, this is a pretty swell place to start. Though the concepts are esoteric, his style is accessible and it’s only 150 pages. If you’re unfamiliar with any Eastern thought, however, I wholeheartedly recommend you start as I did, with Still the Mind.