If the West is now experiencing a meditation and Eastern philosophy fad rush, it has Alan Watts to thank for it.
Centuries before Alan Watts and his meditation guidelines popularized Eastern thought for western audiences, throngs of mystics and ascetics had been practicing numerous meditative paths on their way to enlightenment and self-realization.
The West was more focused on the esoteric thought that found its roots in Neo-platonic currents of thought reigning some Christian thinkers and denominations during the Middle Ages. Thus, the western world was actually late to the meditation party, until Alan Watts presented his meditation studies.
One may attribute this phenomenon to the fundamental differences between western and eastern culture and their values and perception of the world. The West relies more on material attachment and has a leaning towards individualism.
The West is also a younger civilization compared to other continents like Asia. Chinese and Indian civilizations are much older and have a larger legacy of thinkers, philosophers, and mystics.
But what is the relationship between Alan Watts and meditation?
Well, let’s begin with the practice itself. What’s the real definition of meditation?
The English meditation is derived from the Old French meditacioun and the Latin meditatio. It originates from the verb meditari, meaning “to think, contemplate, devise, ponder”. The use of the term meditatio as part of a formal, stepwise process of meditation goes back to the 12th-century monk Guigo II.
Apart from its historical usage, the term meditation was a translation for Eastern spiritual practices. Texts refer to it as dhyāna in Hinduism and Buddhism. This stems from the Sanskrit root dhyai, meaning to contemplate or meditate.
The term “meditation” in English may also refer to practices from Islamic Sufism or other traditions such as the Jewish Kabbalah and Christian Hesychasm.
Aside from this purely etymological definition, however, there is no single interpretation or substantial definition on the nature of meditation.
The general popularized idea is that it is a practice of mindfulness and contemplation involving certain steps that one should follow in order to “make it work”. If “done correctly”, it can be beneficial to the training of the spirit, to attaining wisdom, internal clarity and peace, or even reaching nirvana.
There are as many ways to meditate out there as individuals; some use certain postures, chants, mantras, or prayer beads. Others can only meditate in a particular setting. Otherwise, they struggle to maintain their concentration.
Meditation can have massively beneficial effects on a person, from psychological wellness to physical health benefits. Some examples include reduced anxiety and risks of depression and other mental afflictions, to an amelioration of sleep patterns, to a general sense of wellness.
But is that the point of it? Does it even have a point? Should it have a point?
This is where Alan Watts comes in, declaring this particular notion of meditation as hubris.
Alan Watts on meditation
Born on the 9th of January 1915 in Chislehurst, England, Alan Watts spent most of his early childhood in boarding schools. This is where he received a Christian catechism he later described as “grim and maudlin”.
He went on to move to America, entrenching himself in religious studies, philosophy, theology and Buddhist thought. Thus, it was the start of the tremendous legacy he left behind.
The true beginning of that legacy was his 1957 seminal work, “The Way of Zen”, introducing the idea of Zen Buddhism to millions in the West. His book appealed massively to the younger generations. They would later go on to form the bulk of the 60’s “flower-power’ counter-culture.
Regarding Alan Watts’ views on meditation, one might best illustrate it using one of his most well-known quotes:
“You will feel like an onion: skin after skin, subterfuge after subterfuge, is pulled off to find no kernel at the center. Which is the whole point: to find out that the ego is indeed a fake -a wall of defense around a wall of defense […] around nothing. You can’t even want to get rid of it, nor yet want to want to. Understanding this, you will see that the ego is exactly what it pretends it isn’t”.
When it comes to meditation, Alan Watts does not support the concept of meditation as a task or a practice that one “does”. To meditate in order to attain a purpose defeats the purpose of meditating, which is that… it has no particular purpose, and it ought not to have one.
For, if one hypothesizes that to meditate is to let go of earthly concerns and be able to let themselves reenter the flow of creation and energy they are part of, then to look to the future instead of submerging in the moment, in being, nullifies the practice.
Meditation, for Alan Watts, does not have to follow the stereotype of the reclusive yogi who simply sits still under some waterfall. One can meditate while making coffee, or walking to buy the morning paper. His point is best illustrated in this video regarding guided meditation:
Here’s the summary of Alan Watts’ approach to meditation, as per the video:
One only has to listen.
Not hear, not categorize, but listen. Let the sounds happen around you. Once you close your eyes, your ears will become more sensitive. You will be flooded by the minuscule sounds of everyday commotion.
At first, you will want to put a name on them. But as time goes on and the sounds ebb and flow, they stop having an individuality.
They are part of a flow that happens whether “you” are there to experience it or not. Same with your breath. You never make a conscious effort to breathe. Only when you begin to focus on it does it preoccupy you. They also happen as part of your being, as part of your nature.
Which brings us to the thoughts. The key secret to meditation, as Alan Watts kindly mapped out, is to let one’s thoughts flow as natural parts of their existence.
You could compare this to the flow of a river. One does not try to stop the river and put it through a sieve. One simply lets the river flow, and we must do the same with our thoughts.
Thoughts are not bigger or smaller, important or unimportant; they simply are, and so are you. And without even realizing it, you exist and operate within a fabric that we can perceive but never see.
This approach to meditation can help you finally live in the present moment as the whole of creation develops. And just like that, every moment is part of the mosaic of moments we inherently belong in.
Everything flows and exists, with no subjective value. And that realization in itself is liberating.
- Featured image: Mural by Levi Ponce, design by Peter Moriarty, conceived by Perry Rod., CC BY-SA 4.0
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