Alan Watts on What Reality Is and How to Become What You Are
By Maria Popova
This past holiday season, I attended a meditation retreat at a remote but renowned center for “deep change in self and society,” where I was struck — more sharply than I have been before — by our culture’s conflicting values of material success and self-transcendence. That disconnect was manifested on many levels — including in my own act of taking an airplane to go meditate — but one particular incident made the point more poignantly than others. A fellow retreat-goer casually shared with us the previous evening’s dilemma — whether or not to drive there in her Porsche or her other car. (She, a corporate coaching executive per her introduction, had decided against the Porsche, which is probably why she felt compelled to make it known that this invisible dilemma existed in her life in the first place.)
I am well aware, of course, that we are creatures of infinite contradiction and sanity-saving self-delusion — so to consider this woman’s disposition hypocritical would be to do an injustice to the dissonant desires of which the human condition is woven. I don’t doubt that part of the allure of such retreats comes from a genuine yearning, mine and hers and maybe yours, for “spiritual enlightenment” or refinement of the soul or whatever we might call that sincere longing for better communion with the universe within and without. But I was also struck, more viscerally than ever, by the other part of the modern psyche, the one that sees “spiritual enlightenment” as just another checklist item on the inventory of self-actualization and the Good Life.
Few people have contributed to both sides of this duality more than Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973), who popularized Eastern philosophy in the West — a radical proposition given the self-transcendence so central to the former and the self-enhancement that defines the latter — and seeded an enduring inquiry into such dichotomies as productivity vs. presence, belief vs. faith, hurrying vs. delaying, money vs. wealth, and ego-self vs. true being.
At the heart of these polarized tussles is always the question of what is real — what makes us real in our personhood, to ourselves and others, and what makes the world real to us. That’s precisely what Watts explores in a short essay titled “What Is Reality?,” found in his altogether excellent volume Become What You Are (public library). Writing in the early 1950s, Watts picks apart that elusive construct Philip K. Dick would come to define as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Watts begins, as he often does, with a short parable, already posing the reality-bending implicit question of whether this encounter is factual or fictional:
Some time ago a group of people were sitting in a restaurant, and one of them asked the others to say what they meant by Reality. There was much vague discussion, much talk of metaphysics and psychology, but one of those present, when asked his opinion, simply shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the saltshaker. He was amazed to find that no one understood him, yet he had intended to be neither clever nor obscure. His idea was just to give a commonsense answer to the question, on the ordinary assumption that Reality is whatever exists. He was not understood because his friends, in common with many others, regarded Reality as a special kind of existence and Life (with a capital L) as a particular way of living. Thus we often meet those who talk about the difference between being a mere clod, a mere “animated stomach,” and a real person; between those who simply exist and those who really live.
Channeling the Taoist philosophy of wu wei — the paradoxical art of “trying not to try” — Watts illuminates just what is at play in our collective Porsche pathology:
We have all met those who are trying very hard to be real persons, to give their lives Reality (or meaning) and to live as distinct from existing. These seekers are of many kinds, highbrow and lowbrow, ranging from students of arcane wisdom to the audiences of popular speakers on pep and personality, selling yourself and making your life a success. I have never yet met anyone who tried to become a real person with success. The result of such attempts is invariably loss of personality, for there is an ancient paradox of the spiritual life whereby those who try to make themselves great become small. The paradox is even a bit more complicated than this; it also means that if you try, indirectly, to make yourself great by making yourself small, you succeed only in remaining small. It is all a question of motive, of what you want. Motives may be subtly concealed, and we may not call the desire to be a real person the desire to be great; but that is just a matter of words.
So many modern religions and psychologies make this fundamental mistake of trying to make the tail wag the dog, which is what the quest for personality amounts to.
Admonishing against idol-worship and celebrity culture as particularly perilous ways in which we rob ourselves of realness, Watts considers our true touchpoints with reality:
When we revere real personality in others, we are liable to become mere imitators; when we revere it as an ideal for ourselves, here is the old trouble of wanting to make yourself great. It is all a question of pride, for if you revere Life and Reality only in particular types of personal living, you deny Life and Reality to such humble things as, for instance, saltshakers, specks of dust, worms, flowers, and the great unregenerate masses of the human race… But a Life, a Reality, a Tao that can be at once a Christ, a Buddha, a Lao-tzu, and an ignorant fool or a worm, this is something really mysterious and wonderful and really worth devotion if you consider it for a while… For Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others. They do not belong to particular persons any more than the sun, moon and stars.
Published January 6, 2015