The Wisdom of Alan Watts: Improve Your Life and Creativity
I first became interested in Alan Watts after a conversation with Matt Cardin on the This Is Horror Podcast where he recommended reading The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. It wasn’t until years later, during a particularly turbulent time filled with despair, that I properly dissected the text. It provided me with a lot of comfort, as well as tools to pursue life in a way that would minimise obsessing over exaggerated hypotheticals and help me concentrate on living in the now—for the now is all we have, have had, and ever will have. If you, too, are plagued with anxiety and find yourself deviating from the present moment, I can think of no better triad of books than Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the latter of which really shows just how much we can endure and overcome.
So, who was Alan Watts? Watts was a British writer, speaker, and philosopher best known for popularising and interpreting Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. He could take the most obscure and complex of concepts and simplify them in a way easy for all to understand. In addition to The Wisdom of Insecurity, readers may wish to seek out his other books including The Way of Zen, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, and Psychotherapy East and West. I would also urge you to listen to the many audio and video lectures and interviews available to get a greater sense of the remarkable man himself. It is, of course, impossible to do him justice in a piece with some select quotes, but I hope these will whet your appetite for further discovery, and that they may indeed provide you with some immediate inspiration to apply to your own way of life, writing, and creating.
“This is one of the peculiar problems of our culture: that we are terrified of our feelings.”
As creatives and human beings, we must not cower and hide from our feelings. We must not invalidate our feelings and emotions by deciding there are wrong and right feelings. Actually, we must do the opposite. We should embrace our feelings, so that we really feel them. Dallas Mayr (Jack Ketchum) often spoke about ‘writing from the wound,’ and that is precisely what we must do. If we feel a reluctance to truly feel or write about something, to suppress and conceal, then it is a good indication that this feeling or emotion must be fully explored and uncovered. Indeed, for many it is in wholly experiencing these feelings that we can find a release from the pain and the trauma, so that we can exorcise and work through it in such a way that—rather than defining it as a positive or a negative, or as right or wrong—it simply is. So, write about and feel everything fully and do not suppress these feelings or attach guilt or shame or negativity to them.
“Most problems that are solved in a rush are solved in the wrong way.”
The quote continues “especially emotional problems between people,” and that certainly does seem to be the case. It’s important to give yourself some distance so that you can approach problems as objectively as possible, whilst, of course, admitting true objectivity is impossible. This is also the case for writing problems. We can get to a certain point in the story process where we want to solve a problem quickly more than we want to solve a problem in the right way. If we receive feedback from beta readers and a common problem is revealed it can be tempting to look for the ‘quick fix’ solution because we’ve already invested so much into the story, and at this point we’d rather draw a line underneath it and move onto the next story which is oh so flashy and alluring. Resist the temptation to take the easy way out. Make sure you are doing the story and the characters justice. Often the right path is not the easy path, so stand your ground and put in the work required to get things right. For if a problem is solved poorly, is it really solved at all?
“The positive cannot exist without the negative.”
This is at the heart of many of Alan Watts’s lectures and teachings. It’s useful to keep this in mind when approaching setbacks both in life and as a creative. If we did not have to endure the negative, then there would be no reference point for the truly great. The positive and negative are simply two extremes on the same spectrum. So, when you receive a negative review or it feels as if external forces are being unbearably cruel, remember that the positive cannot exist without the negative, and the positive is on its way or perhaps it’s already arrived and you just haven’t found it yet.
“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”
This speaks of the reverse effort principle in which doing nothing can often lead to the best outcome. One should let things play out and occur organically rather than trying to contrive a desired outcome. Applied to one’s writing: do not force things. Let the words and actions of your characters flow naturally. If your narrative or character goes in an unexpected direction or deviates from the outline, do not seek to stop it. Simply let the story play out the way it wants to. When you stubbornly try to put a character or plot point into a box it is most obvious and unnatural. It is contrived and makes for both bad writing and reading. You are going against the natural order of the story. Let the story be not only what it wants to be, but what it needs to be.
And so, to round off with wisdom that requires no explanation or commentary, but rather unlocks one of the most fundamental truths and secrets to a successful and happy personal and creative life:
“This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realise it’s play.”
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