Alan Watts on what he thought was the root of human anxiety

image of Alan Watts

We live in an age of unprecedented anxiety. The future holds too many uncertainties like a roller coaster coming to an apex where the track splits into too many unpredictable possibilities.

Will we survive climate change? What are we going to do when robots take over our jobs? How will our children find meaning in a life that offers them nothing to strive for? When will we have leaders that we can trust?

So many questions mar this present moment.

And this is precisely the fly in the ointment; the blotch on the white damask tablecloth; the plastic mount on a pristine beach.

British philosopher and writer Alan Watts writes in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety that the root of our human frustration and daily anxiety is our tendency to live for the future – in order to have an enjoyable present, we must have the assurance of a happy future, he writes.

“We have no such assurance. The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge every one of us is going to suffer and die.”

Our insistence on security in a world of constant change and unpredictability brings about existential anxiety. Keep on reaching for a better future when we will feel better and safer. But that future is just an abstraction. It doesn’t exist.

How do we resolve this obsession with the future?

Watts says we must be fully present to the present. He makes the obvious point that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change.

“If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure.”

Watts explains that to be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes us feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security we can get, the more we shall want.

What are we to do then with this pervasive feeling of insecurity that eats away at our sense of wellbeing?

Watts reminds us that “…life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected.

He writes:

“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.”

We will set ourselves free once we realize that we are one.

Here’s a brilliant video of Alan Watts speaking about being in the present moment.

Clifton Kopp

Welcome to my writings on Hack Spirit! I'm a bit of a "polymath" in that I like writing about many different things. Often I'm learning from the process of writing. I hope you enjoy, and please leave a comment on one of my articles.

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