Friday, March 6, 2009

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan W. Watts

One of my friends wanted me to read this book. He pointed to it as one of the things responsible for a sea change in his religious thinking. It doesn't seem that the book had as profound an effect on me as it did my friend, but had I read it five or six years ago it may well have.

Watts was a British philosopher, who focused on comparative religions. He was a prolific writer, publishing countless books, the first in 1936 when he was only 21 years old. He is best known as an interpreter of Indian and Chinese philosophy for a Western audience. More specifically, he is known as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism. I knew nothing about the man before I started this book, but it was easy to see the influence Eastern thought had on him. Not only does Watts quote from the Buddha and various Eastern philosophers, but his own words are often informed and shaped by this approach to philosophy.

I found it difficult to find the central thesis of the book. The best I can do is: We must live in the moment, for it is the only moment we've got. Watts convincingly argues that looking toward the future for happiness is an endless and unfulfilling cycle, asserting that those who do so fail to live because they are always preparing to live. As he says, to pursue the future is "to pursue a constantly retreating phantom." One of my favorite quotes from the book has at its heart this notion of living fully in the moment: "One of the highest pleasures is to be more or less unconscious of one's own existence , to be absorbed in interesting sights, sounds, places, and people. Conversely, one of the greatest pains is to be self-conscious to feel unabsorbed and cut off from the community and the surrounding world."

While this book was not responsible for a sea change in my thinking, it did reaffirm many of my personal philosophies and beliefs and push them in new directions. It gave words to some of the ideas that have been bouncing around my head and refined my thinking. I have thought quite a lot about the book since I finished it. I even picked it back up a few times to look at some of the portions that I highlighted. I have a feeling The Wisdom of Insecurity will be one of the books that sticks with me for a while.