Don’t Cry for the Moon: Alan Watts Advice on Curing Anxiety, Pursuing Happiness and Being Present

Alan Wilson Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973), a British-born American philosopher, writer and speaker, believed, “The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” The pioneer of Eastern philosophy in the Western world had faith that happiness lies in the possibility of overcoming human frustrations and fears.

But to overcome something, it first must be embraced. It’s equally necessary to be aware of pain and joy. People have the power to manipulate their own emotions – it’s given to us by nature. Flowers make us less depressed and bring joy, reading helps to become wiser, kinder, and dressing in certain can affect our success… There are a lot of triggers, which affects our well-being, and pursuing happiness sometimes comes from being aware that we can actually attain it.

 © Pascal Treichler

© Pascal Treichler

Alan Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (originally published in 1951) explores man's quest for psychological credibility and spiritual certainty in religion and philosophy. “For the animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable”, author writes, but for a man it’s always more important to assure that the next moment will be enjoyable as well, which defeats the concept of living happily in this moment.

Philosopher states that the roots of frustrations, fears, depression and anxiety evolve in our tendency to live for the future:

Human beings appear to be happy just so long as they have a future to which they can look forward—whether it be a “good time” tomorrow or an everlasting life beyond the grave. For various reasons, more and more people find it hard to believe in the latter. On the other hand, the former has the disadvantage that when this “good time” arrives, it is difficult to enjoy it to the full without some promise of more to come. If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death

[…]

The present cannot be lived happily unless the past has been “cleared up” and the future is bright with promise.

There can be no doubt that the power to remember and predict, to make an ordered sequence out of a helter-skelter chaos of disconnected moments, is a wonderful development of sensitivity. In a way it is the achievement of the human brain, giving man the most extraordinary powers of survival and adaptation to life. But the way in which we generally use this power is apt to destroy all its advantages. For it is of little use to us to be able to remember and predict if it makes us unable to live fully in the present.

What is the use of planning to be able to eat next week unless I can really enjoy the meals when they come? If I am so busy planning how to eat next week that I cannot fully enjoy what I am eating now, I will be in the same predicament when next week’s meals become “now.”

If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of this present. I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass. For I shall have formed a habit of looking behind and ahead, making it difficult for me to attend to the here and now. If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world.

After all, the future is quite meaningless and unimportant unless, sooner or later, it is going to become the present.

 

The lack of understanding – the present matters most – is like the “cry for the moon”, observes Alan Watts. Author writers:

If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are “crying for the moon.” 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. If, then, we cannot live happily without an assured future, we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world where, despite the best plans, accidents will happen, and where death comes at the end.

 

It is our inability to be fully present that keeps us from being truly and sincerely happy. We create wall for light to come in, and our brain focuses on living for the future, rather than living now. Philosopher conveys this concern and analyzes connection between memories (past) and reality (what is happening now):

The brain is in pursuit of happiness, and because the brain is much more concerned about the future than the present, it conceives happiness as the guarantee of an indefinitely long future of pleasures. Yet the brain also knows that it does not have an indefinitely long future, so that, to be happy, it must try to crowd all the pleasures of Paradise and eternity into the span of a few years.

This is why modern civilization is in almost every respect a vicious circle. It is insatiably hungry because its way of life condemns it to perpetual frustration. As we have seen, the root of this frustration is that we live for the future, and the future is an abstraction, a rational inference from experience, which exists only for the brain. The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

“When light is brought, the darkness vanishes at once,” writes Alan Watts. Philosopher believes that the solution can be found in awareness and standing up for your own life and happiness.

Light, here, means awareness—to be aware of life, of experience as it is at this moment, without any judgments or ideas about it. In other words, you have to see and feel what you are experiencing as it is, and not as it is named. This very simple “opening of the eyes” brings about the most extraordinary transformation of understanding and living, and shows that many of our most baffling problems are pure illusion. This may sound like an over-simplification because most people imagine themselves to be fully enough aware of the present already, but we shall see that this is far from true.

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Understanding comes through awareness. Can we, then, approach our experience—our sensations, feelings, and thoughts—quite simply, as if we had never known them before, and, without prejudice, look at what is going on? You may ask, “Which experiences, which sensations and feelings, shall we look at?” I will answer, “Which ones can you look at?” The answer is that you must look at the ones you have now.

 

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety holds secrets on how to make life fulfilling and, generally, worth living, it’s a must read for conscious and curious psychological development and life’s improvement.

PhilosophyKind Anarchy