Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alan Watts: A Short Introduction

Alan Watts has been a cornerstone of my spiritual development for several years. He died in 1973, but not before leaving a vast library of video, audio, papers and books that make accessible his philosophies and points of view on Eastern and Western cultures, Zen, Taoism, and Christianity.

In one of his simplest videos, “A Conversation with Myself,” Alan gives a masterful presentation of our current culture. It is an excellent introduction for a man who has over the last few decades amassed a growing following. Most of those who know of Alan Watts have learned of him in the four decades since his death. Many of his current students are young, in their twenties, thirties, and forties, born shortly before or long after his passing. Most did not discover Watts until the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s, often through Sunday radio programs airing out of San Francisco, random books given by friends, or, as in my case, through Youtube.

What is it about Alan Watts that his followers find so interesting? Why do his words contain so much meaning even in our present age? The world is very different from what it was in the 1950s and 1960s, so how can his message continue to change people?

Alan Watts took what was very old, very timeless, and spun it into the fabric of the twentieth century. Because he was able to understand and communicate to the American youth of his day, he was able to pass on knowledge better than any guru of the last hundred years.

Other intellectuals knew more of Chinese and Japanese history, culture, and mysticism, but they could not communicate what they knew as well as Alan Watts could communicate what he knew. They were either too academic (too stuffy), or they had been born and raised in Asia and could not connect in the way Watts could, and so attracted a very different type of person than the hippie youth. Some came very close, but Alan Watts's ability to understand what people wanted in the West enabled him to shape his message and direct it specifically toward the current need of youthful curiosity.

Spirituality and mysticism—often connected with religion—was culturally an old person's deal. Scholars such as D. T. Suzuki and Huston Smith were, and still are, well-known in their circles and very influential, but not as popular or as far-reaching as Alan Watts has been. 

Alan Watts got right down in the “muck” with young people. He sat with them. He even did drugs with them, going so far as to experiment with LSD under the guidance of Timothy Leary. He understood their needs, and could relate well-spoken solutions to their metaphysical challenges. Challenges which we still face today.

Times have changed, but the message, and the needs of people lost, have not. Many still grasp for their place in this technological world, a topic Watts touched on numerous times. If anything, the challenges which faced those in the 1960s are even larger now. We are buried even deeper in technology, more separated from the natural world, and as clueless as ever as to which way to turn.

Alan Watts has his detractors of course, but few launch attacks against his philosophies, aiming instead at his character flaws. He was a drinker, an aloof father and husband, and was the first to admit that he was not perfect. Those expecting Watts to tower over mankind like Jesus Christ have always been disappointed to discover the truth—that he was always one of us. His alcoholism finally destroyed him at the still relatively young age of 57, which makes me wonder what Watts would have thought of the 1970s, -80s, and -90s. He would have been 97 this year.

A Conversation with Myself
by Alan Watts


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Zhan Zhuang

I went through a stage three years ago where I was deeply interested in Qigong training. I found much of what I read interesting and motivating and though my interest didn't last for more than a year, or go very deep into these ancient Chinese art forms, there was one thing I took away from what I had learned, and still practice today.

Zhan Zhuang is often translated as “standing like a tree.”

Trees offer an excellent analogy for meditation, for they grow very still for many years, and yet their lives are extended by this stillness, while humans are very active and die much sooner. The “logic” behind the analogy is that if we are more like trees, a little stiller, a little more centered, we may live longer than we would have if we went about as wild men and women.

A key principle of Qigong is that qi is lost by excessive movement. So to sit still, to slow and deepen the breath, and to conserve sexual energy (for men) is to keep more of our natural qi and to reinvigorate both body and mind.

So to practice Zhan Zhuang is to stand like a tree, a bit rigid in that the body does not move, but in a state of relaxation so that the muscles do not tense up and the arms, legs, and core can maintain the pose for more than a few minutes.

I have not personally encountered a more powerful meditation. Ten minutes of standing in Zhan Zhuang is as good, if not better, for clearing my mind, relaxing my body, and instilling in me confidence, than sitting for an hour in Zazen (seated meditation).

Zhan Zhuang is a very challenging exercise. It is not passive like sitting meditation. It is active like Yoga, but Zhan Zhuang requires a greater mental fortitude. To stand seemingly against the body which wants to quit, ignoring shaking limbs and the bored mind.

Because of this, I have always found a greater focus and concentration while practicing Zhan Zhuang than I have had practicing Zazen or Yoga. The pain is a catalyst for the spiritual and mystical mind. I have flirted with great clarity and deep insights after only twenty or thirty minutes of standing, and yet the practice takes an incredible will-power to maintain day after day.

It seems that with it I can approach the door of the mysterious, only to be turned away by my own distractions. I never give up, even if I don't practice for weeks at a time. I always return, spurred on by my initial interest in Qigong to discover something more than myself.

So I continue toward mastery of one of the most difficult meditations.

There are some very interesting and informative resources across the internet concerning Zhan Zhuang. Just Googling it reveals a growing interest in this meditation. Martial artists seem especially fond of it because of the promise of strength.

Master Lam Kam Chuen has a series on Youtube called “Stand Still, Be Fit.” He details Zhan Zhuang over the course of a ten videos, each around 11 minutes long. His book “The Way of Energy” is an excellent compliment to the video series.

Stand Still, Be Fit

Below are three informative articles detailing different points of view of Zhan Zhuang.

Try it. Incorporate Zhan Zhuang into your current practice. Use it to discover God, strength, or inner peace. See what happens; even if it's just to see if you can!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Genuine or Fake?

The above article on is about Imposter Syndrome, that feeling that we're not good enough, that we don't deserve what we have, and shouldn't be doing what we're doing. That is not entirely what I discuss below, and yet it is very pertinent to many of the questions I ask. More than anything I'm trying to get to the bottom of human interaction, and what it means to be genuine or fake. There are many aspects to this deep subject, and I do not intend to grasp everything here, but perhaps begin a search.


What does it mean to be fake? Perhaps many define this as doing something to gain popularity or to please others, though it's not who they really are. Is it the opposite to be genuine: someone who does something because it is who they are, not because they seek to have something because of it?

How do we know which is which? How do we know the motives of a man within his heart? Is it genuine or fake to accuse someone of being fake or praising someone for being genuine?

I would wager that it's not necessary to conclude whether someone is genuine or fake. We are all genuinely fake. If someone is fake (trying to be what they are not to gain the praise of peers), is it not his nature to be so? Isn't he acting upon his inner feelings? If someone is genuine, doesn't he still want something from others, be it love or affection or friendship? Aren't we all motivated by something else than the way we act?

Aren't those who accuse others of being fake themselves acting upon their own need for security, their lack of trust in others? The accuser and accused are opposite faces of one coin. One, from her insecurity, is trying to be something she is not. The other, from her insecurity, is projecting her own fears upon others.

Aren't both accuser and accused fakes, and aren't they both genuine? Aren't we all?

This may be the prime struggle of human beings within a society. The constant balancing act of peer to peer relationships. We see it in preschools, with children first learning how to make friends. We see it in national and international politics, when world leaders try to gain high ground through diplomacy or deception.

And yet the worst thing to be, it seems, is to be a fake. To be “real,” to be a real person, a real friend, a real leader, is the highest compliment an individual can receive.

This is very prominent in American gang culture, where thousands of people are on unsteady ground, where a single word can lead to violence, a misunderstanding can be death. The last thing a gang member wants to be perceived as is dishonest—to be a snitch or a buster. In ancient times, a man was only as good as his word.

But why is it that we are so concerned with what is real and unreal? Honest and dishonest? Genuine and fake? Is this a cultural trapping? Is it a personal need? Is it inherent to human beings to know who is with us and who is against us?

Or is it a sign that we have lost faith in our fellow humans? In the world itself.

The question of genuine or fake implies a certain level of trust; trust in human beings and in ourselves. Are we to get caught up in life's drama, in the social popularity contest, or are we to decide for ourselves that life is not a drama, that there is no contest?

I Can't Wait by The Real People


The Grand Illusion by Styx

The Stranger by Billy Joel
(Thanks Brenda!)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Yoga: Satanism or Compliment to Christ?

There are misunderstandings related to Yoga. Some minor ones (it's only a physical exercise) and some major ones (it's a demonic cult hell-bent on taking down Christianity).

A year and a half ago I went out to eat with my girlfriend and sat in a booth beside three women in their seventies. It was in the middle of the morning and the restaurant was quiet, and quite empty, so I got to enjoy the conversation between the three women.

One of the women, I'll call her the leader, dominated the discussion. One of them asked about Yoga.

“Can Christians practice Yoga?”
The leader replied, “I think Yoga is satanic.”

If I wasn't trying so hard to hide my laughter, I may have thrown myself into their conversation. I practice Yoga, and have yet to find sulfur burns on my rug, though I do occasionally get a nice rug burn on my skin.

Not only is Yoga not satanic in nature, but it is a practice that can compliment other religious practices.

Yoga is what I would call a side dish to an amazing main course. Christianity and Yoga is probably not as smooth as Martin and Lewis, but like eggs and ketchup, for those who can appreciate it, the combination is delicious.

Those open-minded enough to express an interest in other religions can find many useful aspects within Yoga. Yoga is not a belief system in and of itself, with its own rules and dogma. It will not contradict the teachings of Christianity, or even Islam and Judaism (or satanism).


Below I've included two videos. If you have the time and are interested, I recommend watching both. You don't have to watch them in any order and you can continue reading to the end before viewing (or watch them now if you like).

The first video is against Yoga, the second video is for Yoga.

Can Yoga ever be Christian? 

This is an example of the misconceptions, half-truths, and flat out lies told about Yoga in order to further one's own personal agenda (prejudiced fear). It's interesting to watch Caryl Matrisciana twist the positive truths of Yoga by her own dogma and worldview into something it's not.

I won't get bogged down arguing against this video's every point. I think she actually hurts her own cause several times by painting Hinduism and Yoga pleasantly, only to later tear it down: “You mustn't have a low self esteem of yourself in Hinduism.” As if it's bad because it sounds helpful.

But she has made the mistake of thinking all Yogis are alike, as some would think all Christians are alike. She's an example of a dogmatic and prejudiced person, which is not an accurate representation of Christianity, just as her talk is not an accurate representation of Yoga.

Yoga has its origins in Hinduism, but it is distinctly not Hinduism. It has evolved into its own thing. Having read Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and researched the opinions of many practicing Yogis, I've yet to see a contradiction between the compassionate beliefs of Christianity and Yoga. In fact, Yogis such as Paramahansa Yogananda have spearheaded attempts to combine the two, and I believe have effectively done so. 

There are Christians doing the same, coming at it from the other direction.

Should Christians Practice Yoga?

This video does a much better job explaining an inclusive and logical reason why Christians can benefit from Yoga, and why it's not inherently sinful to practice.

You can see the vastly different opinions shared on the topic of Yoga. Some think it's evil. Others good. The fact is, Yoga, and any other religion or spiritual practice, is what the practitioner makes of it. These are tools, after all, and any tool is only as good as the worker.

If the above videos show anything for certain, they show that we are either limited or set free by our personal beliefs. You can hold the world as an enemy, seeing in it many things to be afraid of and run from, or you can see the world as a friend, and take what it offers as a tool to grow closer to God, or yourself, or anything you wish.

The debate of whether or not Christianity and Yoga belong together is really a debate of whether or not we should live inclusively or exclusively. Should we build walls to keep the world out (or to keep ourselves in) or should we tear down these walls to discover what life outside of our comfort zone has to offer?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


This blog will showcase spirituality and mysticism from around the web, sharing the interesting discoveries I've made in articles, websites, audios and videos. I will use this as a platform to explore the deep and rich meaning and value within Christian mysticism, atheist mysticism, and Eastern mysticism (Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Yoga, etc.).

What is “mysticism”? Wikipedia defines mysticism as “the knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, i.e. levels of being, beyond normal human perception, including experience of and even communion with a supreme being.”

As a pantheist I take “supreme being” to mean the oneness of the Cosmos. A worldview maintaining that all things are united together on a material and spiritual (energy) level. This worldview can be found in Taoism, in Zen, in Yoga, in certain sects of Christianity, and especially in physics.

This does not maintain a belief in the supernatural: Gods, angels, devils, miracles, evil. But a belief in the supernatural does not exclude one from mysticism. I personally do not believe in the supernatural, but believe reality is up for any interpretation.

Mysticism is a “personal” experience. It is not objective, but subject. Those who have tried to make mysticism objective have often only ended up ruining the experience or making a vast religion out of the event.

Judaism is an example of a religion formed from Abraham's mystical experience with God, Christianity formed from followers' mystical experience with Jesus Christ, Islam formed from Mohammed's mystical experience with God, and Buddhism formed from Buddha's mystical experience with meditation. On and on it goes, each religion losing much of the essence held in the original experience.

Spirituality is a bit harder for me to define. It's even more subjective, yet maintains at least some objective laws. Compassion and wholeness are premises of spirituality.

Wikipedia defines spirituality as: “an ultimate or alleged immaterial reality, an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the 'deepest values by which people live.'”

Spirituality, in my opinion, does not mean “spirit” in the sense of a soul, a supernatural phenomenon within the body. To me it means “self” in that the self is a being of energy, as well as a physical manifestation. On a scientific level, I'm speaking of the electric impulses and chemical reactions within the human body which propel us to life.

Spirituality is often more of an ideal than an experience, as mysticism is. Both are important and compliment one another. It is the way in which we reach out and touch the self, and the selves of others, and the Cosmos as a whole. If mysticism is a personal practice, spirituality is the personal law which guides the practice.

Christianity, Islam, Judaism, atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, paganism, Buddhism, Yoga, Hinduism, and Taoism all have deep levels of spirituality other than their usual religious or secular natures.

In coming posts I will discuss different examples of both mysticism and spirituality, showing differences and commonalities of various belief systems and personal experiences.