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



  1. Oh how I wish Watts was still here to lend us his timeless wisdom! He was an amazing spiritual teacher, writer, speaker. I could listen to his youtube videos all day! My favorite book of his so far has been The Wisdom of Insecurity. Right now I'm listening through his "Still the Mind Lectures".

    Great post JR!

    1. I'll always wonder what he would have said if he had lived on even a couple more decades!

  2. I find it fascinating how he compares the world to a brain...especially because of the similarity in the shapes of trees and neurons in the brain...thought provoking! But, of course, "the Universe" is wiser than we are,after all, we are just creations...

    1. I see many repeating patterns in the Cosmos. Neurons resemble star clusters and dust balls, etc. We're all wrapped up in this world and Watts reminds us of that, and calms us by insisting that it's okay :)