Saint Valentines Day

“It is self-contradictory when a community says to a person, “You must be free,” or when members of a family say to each other, “You must love me; it’s your duty.” What a bunch of rot! If you say to your wife, “Darling, do you really love me?” and she replies, “I’m trying my very best to do so,” that will not be the answer you wanted. You wanted her to say, “Darling, I can’t help loving you. I love you so much I could eat your.” You do not want her to have to try to love you, and yet that is the burden you lay on people when you demand their love. In almost every marriage ceremony it is said that you must love your spouse. In Christianity it is said, “Thou shalt love the Lord, they God” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” These are all double binds. Anybody who lives under the dominance of a double bind is living in a state of chronic frustration. He is devoting his life to solving a problem that is meaningless and nonsensical precisely because it has no solution.”

Alan Watts – Buddhism as Dialogue

Why I celebrate Christmas

A lot of people who will celebrate Christmas this week are not Christians.

The Christian Church teaches that Jesus was the only son of God. Indeed, in the mystery of the trinity it is explained that he IS God. Christmas Day is to celebrate the miraculous birth of the son of God, who created the Universe. A lot of people who will celebrate Christmas this week do not believe this to be the case. A lot of them don’t believe Jesus existed at all.

Is this hypocrisy? I don’t think so. I used to. It means all that for a lot of people, but it also means a whole lot more. Its a time of rest, its a time to reunite families, its a time to celebrate many things.

I wouldn’t consider myself Christian any more, but I do love Christmas. You don’t have to be Christian to do so. But, I have found that the original story of Christmas might not be so irrelevant to those of us who might not go to Mass this weekend.

Alan Watts was a philosopher who studied all the world’s great religions, and helped introduce many Eastern philosophical ideas to the West. At one stage in his life he was also a Christian minister. He eventually left this path, not truly believing in the divinity of Jesus as the Christian Church believed it. But that’s not to say he did not believe in Jesus, nor his divinity. In later life he had a unique take on Christ

The real Good News is not simply that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, but that he was a powerful Son of God who came to open everybody’s eyes to the fact that you too are a powerful son or daughter of God. This is perfectly plain if you go to the tenth chapter of John, verse thirty where Jesus says, “I and the Father are One.”

Watts then explained that when Jesus said this, people threatened to stone him for blasphemy, to which Jesus replied:

“Is it not written in your law, ‘I have said you are Gods?’ If God called those to whom He gave His word Gods – and you cannot deny the scriptures – how can you say I blaspheme because I say I am a son of God?”

Watts continues

There is the whole thing in a nutshell. If you read the King James Bible – the version that descended with the angel – you will see that the words “I am the Son of God” are in italics. Most people think the italics are for emphasis, but they are not. The italics indicate words interpolated by the translators, and you will not find that in the Greek. It says “a son of God.” So here it seems to me perfectly plain that Jesus has it in the back of his mind that this is not something peculiar to himself when he says, “I am the way. No man comes to the Father but by me.” This “I am,” this “me,” is the divine us.

A central tenet of Watts philosophy, that he came to via a synthesis of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, was that the idea of people as individuals separate from the Universe, was a myth. He argued that when you really thought about it we were all connected with ourselves and the Universe, to a point where we can consider ourselves extensions of the Universe itself (I’ve pointed before to similar ideas from people like Carl Sagan and Bill Hicks).

And Watts found it in Christianity too.

We must see Christ as the great mystic, in the proper sense of the word. A mystic is not someone who has all sorts of magical powers and understands spirits and so on. A mystic is one who realizes union with God. This seems to me the crux and message of the gospel. It is summed up in the prayer Saint John records Jesus speaking over his disciples: “May you be one, even as the Father and I are one, that you may be all one.” May we all realize this divine sonship or daughtership or oneness, this basic identity with the eternal energy of the universe, the love that moves the sun and other stars

That’s why I celebrate Christmas. It is Jesus’s birthday, and he, like all of us, was a child of the Universe. He just knew it.

“The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Carl Sagan
The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean (1980) – Cosmos (Episode 1)

Alan Watt’s quotes from “Jesus – his religion, or the religion about him?” taken from “Myth and Religion”

Alan Watts Autotuned

I’m always on the lookout for good, short passages of Alan Watts that I can share with people to act as hooks into his work. I know soundbites may seem superficial, and people tend to groan a bit at the guru-ish quotes people fire out on Twitter and the likes, but I am interested in getting more people into Watts’ work. Truth be told, I have found it hard to find short quippy 140-character nuggets of Watts that help convey his ideas in a way that would make people want to explore more. The other thing I am always on the look out for is short clips of his work on YouTube. There is a kind of sub-culture of Alan Watts videos, clips, remixes etc, culled from the extensive collections of recordings he left behind. Watts’ son Mark actually encourages this kind of thing, as long as the author makes some kind of effort to add his or her own flavour to the clip.

Probably the best known of these are the short animations done by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. These excellent animations help illustrate some very well chosen/edited Watts talks. Nearly every day someone on Twitter shares “Music and Life“, probably the best of the bunch. I like to think that some of the people who retweet this on see it as more than a little self-help/spiritual pick-me-up and as a gateway into the thoughts of a fascinating philosophy. Inspired by these I am always listening to recordings of Watts with an ear to finding a good, short piece that has its own, self-contained thought, but also leads the way to more. In reality, the best way to get into Watts however is too dive right in to one of his 50-60 minute audio lectures, or one of his books. The more I read/listen I think he’s finest achievements were his hour-long lectures, which balanced showmanship, humour, reality and some intriguing and very deep thoughts in a way which was accessible and fun. Still, as I say, I do like to find smaller, shorter clips for sharing to try and hook more people!

The other day I came across my first encounter with an Alan Watts Autotune video. Autotuning (that little piece of techo-trickery that turns average singers into average robotic singers) has taken on its own alternative life on YouTube. Of course, the masters are Auto-tuning The News, but there’s also the equally inspiring/entertaining Carl Sagan numbers, which pit his monologues to strange, uplifting dance music. I suppose it was only time, then, that someone did the same to Watts. The clip I found is taken from “Conversation With Myself” a programme Watts did in the 1970s. (The original is available online, and I highly recommend you watch it all). I’m not sure how I feel about it. It certainly encapsulates some central Watts ideas, but I always think of the Autotune thing as more of a goof on something. I don’t think it trivialises Sagan, but for some reason it felt a bit jarring here. Still on the whole, its a well put together clip, and I hope it will intrigue enough people to explore the ideas in more detail.

Footnote:
This particular Symphony of Science “We Are All Connected” echoes nicely the same thoughts Watts promotes in “The Real You”, but here being espoused from a different angle by some of the greatest scientific minds of our era. Food for thought.

“The art of government is to fill that void beyond death with threats of a rather unspecified nature”

I saw Chris Morris’s “Four Lions” last night. Very, very funny film, but also clever, quite moving, and thought-provoking. Don’t want to say too much beyond that, other than “Go see it!”. Its a comedy about Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers, so Morris has to juggle the dual balls of laugh-a-minute comedy, and well, suicide bombing. Although the film is mainly just about the suicide bombers, and the act of suicide bombing with very little in the way of political commentary, it also features a subtle context relating to the states reaction to terrorism. As the sun sets on New Labour’s reign in the UK, the post-mortems are kicking in. One of their legacies, no doubt, will be one of promoting a paranoid, Big Brother-esque nanny state in response, they say, to the threat of terrorism. The death of Jean Charles De Menezes is referenced briefly in “Four Lions” as well as the looming spectre of state surveillance. As I digested all of it this morning, I thought of the following quote:

Alan Watts:

At anytime the world is full of threats, mostly from other people. And there are monsters. There are all sorts of things that scare you, but beyond every monster is death. Dissolution is the end of it all.

And by and large the art of government is to fill that void beyond death with threats of a rather unspecified nature, so that we can rule people by saying if you don’t do as I tell you, i’ll kill you. Or you’ll kill yourself. And so long as we can be scared of that, and so long as we can be made to think of death as a bad thing we can be ruled.

Not sure which lecture this was taken from, I’m getting two books of his transcribed lectures this weekend, I think its in there. I found it via this clip, which is the longer quote set to Godspeed You! Black Emperor…

On Day-Light Saving Time

As the clocks go-forward this weekend, I was thinking about the role of the time-piece in our lives.

In a lecture to IBM Engineers in 1969 the philosopher Alan Watts was discussing the difference in thought between the Judeo-Christian West and the Ancient Chinese. One of these differences was the basic nature of man. The Judeo-Christian view, Watts claimed, is that man is essentially sinful and evil, whilst the ancient Chinese saw man as essentially good. Thus, if we see ourselves as being essentially selfish and untrustworthy we develop systems of authority and control to impose on ourselves.

[…] Therefore we need law and order. We need a control system to put us in order. We thereby project these control systems into the Church or into the police or into somebody, who are really ourselves disguised.

You see it’s like day-light saving time.

Everybody could simply get up an hour earlier, but instead of doing that we alter the clock, because a clock has a kind of authority and I would say “the Clock says its time for you to get up”. The Amer-Indians laugh at the pale-faces because they say “Paleface, he doesn’t know he’s hungry until he looks at his watch”

And so in this way we become clock-dominated, and the abstract system takes over from the physical, organic situation.

I remember Tommy Tiernan expressing a similar sentiment in a show once, that we have become slaves to our clocks, whereas in our agricultural past there was simply daylight and things to be done. Now, we have imposed this system of timekeeping on ourselves, which whilst obviously helpful in the day to day running of things, exposes its own arbitrariness via its ability to be manipulated.

British Museum
Photo owned by LaurenKates (cc)

The Clock has allowed us to commoditize even the Sun itself. Therein, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez can order that all the clocks are turned back 30 minutes, so, ever the Socialist, they can allow “a more fair distribution of the sunrise”. Venezuela plans more such measures, according to the Science and Technology Minister, to “make more effective use of time”.

Thus, it is as Watts had said, instead of simply changing our habits to meet with the reality of the situation, we bow to the authority of the Clock and change it instead. It’s kind of odd when you think about it.

Alan Watts on Universities

Mr. Watts on the age old battle between the faculty and administration.

[…] Everybody is busy keeping records of everything. It’s much more important to record what happens, then what happens. This is already eating us up. It’s much more important you have your books right, then that you conduct your business in a good way.

In Universities it’s much more important that the registrar’s records be in order then that the library be well stocked. After all do you know that your grades are all locked up in safes and they’re protected from thievery and pilfering? And they’re the most valuable property that the University has? The library can go hang.

Then further more the main function of the University is, a sensible person would imagine, to teach students and to do research. So the faculty should be the most important thing in the University. On the contrary, the administration is the most important thing. The people who keep the records, who make the game rules up. And so the faculty are always being obstructed by the administration and being forced to attend irrelevant meetings and to do everything but scholarship.

From the lecture “Man in Nature”

Shunryu Suzuki on Alan Watts

As a huge fan of both Alan Watts and Shunryu Suzuki I was fascinated by this passage from Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick’s great biography of Suzuki. A student had just remarked of Watts that “we used to think he was profound until we found the real thing”.

“You completely miss the point about Alan Watts!” Suzuki fumed with a sudden intensity. “You should notice what he has done. He is a great bodhisattva”