Alan Watts: Anxiety and the Self

A few days ago I wrote a post about the thought of Alan Watts, and yesterday I wrote about depression and anxiety. These posts reminded me that Watts wrote about anxiety too.

Watts believed that Western culture as a whole was neurotic. (A theme in Freud as well.) The primary reason for this, Watts argued, was that in Western cultures many people work which bring little happiness. They often do work they don’t like for money but, “If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing — which is stupid!”

But A primary source of anxiety is the ego. We want to buttress and hang on to the ego, but we can’t hang on to an illusion. For, as we pointed out in a previous post, for Watts there is no enduring self or ego, an idea promulgated by the empiricist David Hume as well:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him.

Watts said that most of us think our self exists between our ears and behind our eyes in the middle of our head, and is encased by our bodies. But Watts asked, why do we end where our bodies do? After all, our skin is porous and interacts with the environment. We can’t survive for more than a few minutes without the air, so why isn’t the air as much a part of us as our legs or arms?   And there is no breathable air without plants, so why aren’t they a part of us? In fact, our existence depends on the earth’s ecosystem and the sun. Following this line of thinking, we ultimately depend on the entire universe for our existence.

So perhaps we aren’t egos inside bags of skin, or even separate egos at all. Maybe we are like windows or apertures or vortexes through which the universe is conscious of itself for a brief moment. While we are fond of saying things like “I came into this world,” isn’t it more accurate to say, “I came out of the universe?” Don’t people come out of the universe like leaves come out of trees or waves come out of oceans? Or as Watts asks, doesn’t the universe just “people?”

Watts believed that letting go of the illusion of the self, we will eliminate much anxiety. We would no longer be concerned with puffing up our egos, or worry about their destruction. Here the great philosopher Bertrand Russell expressed a similar idea when talking about death:

[T]he fear of death is somewhat abject and ignoble. The best way to overcome it –so at least it seems to me– is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river –small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will be not unwelcome.

I think Watts is right. We suffer from anxiety for many reasons but we would do better if we less concerned with our little egos—which are illusory anyway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *