The principal thing is to understand that there is no safety or security.
I bought this book last April when I was in New York for work. It was a really unstable time and even though I would normally steer clear of this type of book (or any books I perceive as self-help ones) I picked it up. Maybe it was the colorful cover that did it.
At 152 pages it is not a long book, but it packs a punch. What I found most surprising is that even though it was first published in 1951, it resonates now as much as then. If the world felt uncertain and insecure place in 1951, it definitely is so now. And let’s be honest the human mind has not evolved that much, we still cannot deal with the world we’ve created.
Watts draws from the Eastern philosophy and religion in handfuls. And on the surface, his message is not unknown to us – focus on the present. He claims we spend too much time planning and obsessing about the future, which is completely intangible. Or worrying and lamenting the past, which has gone and unchangeable. So on the surface, you could almost take it as the next in a long line of mindfulness books.
But Watts gives us so much more. And his message in many places is a lot darker and more challenging than the smiley simplicity of mindfulness. Watts takes every starting point to its extreme logical conclusion. For example, if he starts with the sheer impossibility to grasp and understand the world around us he arrives at the absolute necessity of accepting the will not know, cannot know and therefore better accept that there is no such thing as safety or certainty.
Easier said than done. Watts argues that only the acceptance and submission to the world larger than we can understand can give us some semblance of contentment. Only once we stop fighting and trying to control it, we’ll be able to enjoy our lives. Since the only tangible moment is that we can influence is now, we should stop worrying about the past or the future and instead make the best of now. Give up the anxiety, it always comes from thinking about ‘not-now’. The current moment cannot give us anxiety, it can only give us experience.
When Watts analyzes the symbols we use in our daily lives, such as money or success, he treats them as conveniences. Necessary simplifications allowing us to communicate. The problem, according to him, starts when we take those symbols and conveniences for the real thing. When we forget money is purely symbolic we let it run our lives. When as forget the only thing we can impact is now, we obsess about the future.
Again there is nothing really new here. But the way Watts frames his message is not warm and cuddly, it is uncompromising. For as long as we keep on clinging to our old beliefs (for we have no faith) we will suffer. Because our mind knows a belief is superficial and tells us nothing about the reality of the ever-changing world. Our attempts at controlling the flow of reality are futile, and this futility is the cause of anxiety.
Only when we dare to face the problem in all its complexity and scale we’ll be freed. Only a full understanding of the problem can help us solve it. And part of this understanding is an admittance that it is bigger than any of us, that we are not as significant as we’d like to think. That world can live without us, but this does not mean we cannot live in it happily too.
I must say my mind resisted and still resists the thought. I am a bit of a control-freak, I like things to be planned, I like to foresee what may go wrong and be prepared. So I struggled with this book. Because the argument is logical and correct, we cannot control the world, no matter how much we try. But the flip side is admitting no control and my mind is not ready to do that, I could feel it twisting and writhing trying to find a way out of the argument. Anything that would allow me to keep at least the semblance of control.
And this is where it gets interesting because it is my mind at conflict with itself. Fascinated by the logical clarity of an argument made and yet unable to yield to it, for it would mean relinquishing of the power. Watts writes about this duality as well, how this split is also the source of our problems. Because we think we should be one thing, we know we are not it, and we’ll always keep on pushing rather than discover and accept who we are.
I know, it sounds like a pile of New Age mumbo-jumbo. Trust me I thought that too, all the way down to the last pages my mind would from time to time reach for that argument. But really Watt’s logic is difficult to rebuke. Just as its outcomes are difficult to accept and live by.
A book that still makes me think, four months after I read it. I’m pretty sure I will be coming back to it in times of crisis. Not for comfort, because there’s none of that, but for an honest, clear and unwavering look at the reality of life.
It is in vain that we can predict and control the course of events in the future, unless we know how to live in the present. It is in vain that doctors prolong life if we spend the extra time being anxious to live still longer. It is in vain that engineers devise faster and easier means of travel if the new sights that we see are merely sorted and understood in terms of the old prejudices. It is in vain that we get the power of the atom if we are just to continue in the rut of blowing people up.