Alan Watts and the problem of “self-love”

You often hear the idea being bandied about that

“You cannot begin to love others, until you first love yourself”

I’ve never really given it much thought, but have always been vaguely suspicious of it. I guess I can see some logic in it – like the principle of tending to your own oxygen mask before helping others, but was always troubled by the idea of “loving yourself”, which seems self-indulgent and egotistical.

It also solidifies and centralises the self first and foremost, which perversely is what creates the ‘other’ that we must then choose to love or hate. But if we were to remove the self, we could undo the entire equation. No self = no other.

Alan Watts hit upon this towards the end of “The Wisdom of Insecurity”. The entire book is, like most of his work, a treatise on the Eastern concepts of what is the self, and how a solidified “I” is the cause of much of our suffering (Go read it. Now.) When he is talking about the implications for morality of such a world view he begins to untangle the equation.

The undivided mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would usually be called love. For the love that expresses itself in creative action is something much more than an emotion. It is not something which you can “feel” and “know,” remember and define. Love is the organizing and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole.

(By “the undivided mind” or “the mind as whole”, he means when we realise our unity with the present moment and cease trying to fortify an “I” as opposed to reality).

There is no problem of how to love. We love. We are love, and the only problem is the direction of love, whether it is to go straight out like sunlight, or try to turn back on itself like a “candle under a bushel.”

Released from the circle of attempted self-love, the mind of a human draws the whole universe into its own unity as a single dewdrop seems to contain the entire sky.

A mind that is single and sincere is not interested in being good, in conducting relations with other people so as to live up to a rule. Its interest is not in itself, but in the people and problems of which it is aware; there are “itself”.

Everyone has love, but it can only come out when they are convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love themselves.

[..]

It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.

(Edited slightly to make it gender neutral)