I’m one of those people who spends a significant number of hours each week surfing the web. Primarily, it’s my curiosity that drives me. I like to explore ideas, spot trends, and just in general see what’ going on out there.
This week my travels brought me face-to-face with more insanity than usual. By week’s end, I concluded that it’s an absolute marvel that the world functions at all.
But it brought insights, too. And it took me back a few decades to the wisdom of zen philosopher Alan Watts. I first encountered his work when I was living in San Francisco during the infamous “Summer of Love,” the cresting of the so-called Hippie era. Contrary to popular conceptions of the time, many of the people who gathered there that summer were young and ardent intellectuals searching for new solutions for society’s ills.
On Sunday nights, the local radio station carried a program called “The Transcendental, Multi-Lingual Two-Ton Mustard Seed,” which featured in-depth conversations with people like poet Alan Ginsberg and philosopher Alan Watts. Watts’ philosophy intrigued me. It seemed a natural extension of the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau that had captured my mind the previous autumn. I bought a few of his books and read them while I sat on a platform of a light house in San Francisco Bay.
Now here I was, encountering him again. Just in time. He rescued me from a slide into despair over the sheer madness I was seeing unfold in the world.
I had a partial grasp on understanding the conflict and the willingness to latch onto any passing idea that promised safety from chaos. Jordan Peterson had explained that people form and use their beliefs as a way of protecting themselves from the unknown, which appears to them as a potential threat. The more frightened they are, the more overwhelming the world seems, the tighter their hold on their beliefs. So we end up in imprisoning beliefs that set us at odds with those whose beliefs differ from our own.
But Watts went deeper. In his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, he says this:
“To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet. We look for this security by fortifying and enclosing ourselves in innumerable ways. . . These defenses lead to divisions between us, and so to more insecurity demanding more defenses.”
The answer is to keep breathing, to recognize that life is an endless, every-changing flow. If you try to put running water in a bucket, he says, you won’t succeed because the bucket traps it and it can no longer run. And you can’t encase life in a belief system either. Because life is an infinite flow. The best you can do is to engage with life fully, to be fully present in this very Now, which is all there really is.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Our minds are chattering monkeys. But you can practice and get better at it and stay present for longer and longer periods of time. And when you do, you get glimpses of how exquisite it all is, and how much you truly are one with it.
I heard a story once where a child asked her grandmother, “Is everyone like this?” The grandmother asked her what she meant. And the child replied, “So much bigger on the inside than on the outside.”
Qigong master Chunyi Lin leads students in a meditation where the key phrase is, “I am in the Universe; the Universe is in me.” Practice being fully present in the Now, and the inside and outside become one, as the two sides of a coin.
You don’t have to believe it. It’s not a matter of belief. Just be the river, and let life flow on.