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.

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2 thoughts on “Alan Watts: Anxiety and the Self

  1. Yes, Alan Watts is one of the most amazing teachers, some of my writing is also inspired by his work.

    Cheers! ☺️

  2. The egocentric mind leads the individual on a path of self-seeking desires. The ego attaches it being to its desires, or even sometimes becomes the servant of desires. Ego desire is linked to ego’s wellbeing and its fear. One’s fear of death, pain, failure and the worry of their unknown future makes one seek to acquire things in the hope that these desired – thing will protect them from the abovementioned fears. Ego creates the perfect milieu for anxiety as it uses it energy to seek out what it thinks it need from the world and stands guard from losing what it has. The ego – mind views the world as a cold indifferent place and others individuals as rivals, they thus see threats everywhere. This environment of opposition and struggles with the world and others creates an attitude of egoism. Human’s egoism creates metal tension, distress, leads to fear, and anxiety. The ego -mind creates and encourages our desires and self-indulgence, which ultimately leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Human’s hedonistic stance and its acquired desires has become the medium of measuring the failure and success of lives. The unmet desires of the ego create negative feelings such as jealousy, anger, self-absorption and depression and finally it all leads to suffering. Attachment and desires to the delusional egocentric mind – frame creates a particular internal focus and removes consciousness from the here and now of life. Conscious confinement to self – absorption creates endless cycles of desires and suffering. As human ego clinging to sense pleasures and wish thinking they causes unsuccessful and unfulfilled lives that lead to psychological distress, which lead into neurotic thinking and behavior. Ego desiring bonds individuals to carnal pleasure seeking, material goods, and leads minds and lives into depravity. This mind -folly is liken to a dog chasing its tail – carnal desires can never be fulfill, satisfied, and sadly lead individuals to spend a lifetime in the blind pursuit of carnal stuff. As a result, ego based lives become consumed in feeling unsatisfied, cultivates unfulfilled wants, become anxious, depression and thus descend into suffer. Individuals caught up in desires develop live consumed in self – absorption and thus subsisting in discrete and self – absorbed mentality. When the mind is self – consumed it becomes disconnected from one’s sense of humanity, love and the universal whole – thus experience a deep sense of emptiness or aloneness. Humans have become lost in its ego-based delusions and thus believe and feel their subjective self-consciousness is a more credible reality than the actuality of immanent reality. Consequently ego consciousness has become the means of how one’s life is experienced and structured; hence any threat to human’s ego’s temporal beliefs system becomes an attack on one’s cognitive reality and sense of self. This attack creates the greatest of fear within one’s psyche because any treat to an individual’s cognitive ego sense of being produces a state of panic psychosis. Therefore when human’s egos are put in jeopardy, threaten or upset humans experience incoherence, distorted perceptions, stress, fear, suffering, and depression. The human species has programmed a false reality and have bonded their consciousness and lives to this discrete optical delusion of mind. The ego is nothing other than the focus of conscious attention – Alan Watts
    Any breach or crack in ego delusion generates a quagmire of emotional neurotic turmoil within the human condition.

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