Alan Watts on the Meaning of Freedom, the Only Real Antidote to Fear, and the Deepest Wellspring of Love – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her great 1929 meditation on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only correct tense is the present, the Now.”

Half a century before her, Leo Tolstoy — who befriended a Buddhist monk late in life and became deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy — echoed these ancient truths as he contemplated the paradoxical nature of love: “Future love does not exist. Love is a present activity only.”

Alan Watts on the Meaning of Freedom, the Only Real Antidote to Fear, and the Deepest Wellspring of Love

In love and life, freedom from fear — like all species of space — is only possible within the present moment has long been a core teaching of the most ancient Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions. It is one of the most elemental truths of existence, and one of those most challenging to put into practice as we move through our daily human lives, so habitually inclined toward the next moment and the mentally constructed universe of anticipated events — the parallel universe where anxiety dwells, where hope and fear for what might be eclipse what is, and where we cease to be free because we no longer in the direct light of reality.

The relationship between freedom, fear, and love is what Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) explores in one of the most insightful chapters of The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) — his altogether revelatory 1951 classic, which introduced Eastern philosophy to the West with its lucid and luminous case for how to live with presence.

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Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Drawing on his warning against the dangers of the divided mind — the mindset that divides us into interior self-awareness and external reality, ego and universe, which is the mindset the whole of Western culture has instilled in us — he writes:

The meaning of freedom can never be grasped by the divided mind. If I feel separate from my experience, and from the world, freedom will seem to be the extent to which I can push the world around, and fate the extent to which the world pushes me around. But to the whole mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world. There is just one process acting, and it does everything that happens. It raises my little finger and it creates earthquakes. Or, if you want to put it that way, I raise my little finger and also make earthquakes. No one fates and no one is being fated.

This model of freedom is orthogonal to our conditioned view that freedom is a matter of bending external reality to our will by the power of our choices — controlling what remains of nature once the “I” is separated. Watts draws a subtle, crucial distinction between freedom and choice:

What we ordinarily mean by choice is not freedom. Choices are usually decisions motivated by pleasure and pain, and the divided mind acts with the sole purpose of getting “I” into pleasure and out of pain. But the best pleasures are those for which we do not plan, and the worst part of pain is expecting it and trying to get away from it when it has come. You cannot plan to be happy. You can plan to exist, but in themselves existence and non-existence are neither pleasurable nor painful.

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Art by Thomas Wright from his Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Stripped of the paraphernalia of circumstance and interpretation, our internal experience of being unfree stems from attempting impossible things — things that resist reality and refuse to accept the present moment on its terms. Watts writes:

The sense of not being free comes from trying to do things which are impossible and even meaningless. You are not “free” to draw a square circle, to live without a head, or to stop certain reflex actions. These are not obstacles to freedom; they are the conditions of freedom. I am not free to draw a circle if perchance it should turn out to be a square circle. I am not, thank heaven, free to walk out of doors and leave my head at home. Likewise I am not free to live in any moment but this one, or to separate myself from my feelings.

Without the motive forces of pleasure and pain, it might at first appear paradoxical to make any decisions at all — a contradiction that makes it impossible to choose between options as we navigate even the most basic realities of life: Why decide to take the umbrella into the downpour, why choose to eat this piece of mango and not this piece of cardboard? But Watts observes that the only fundamental contradiction is our own making as we cede the present to an imagined future. More than half a century before psychologists came to study how your present self is sabotaging your future happiness; Watts offers the personal counterpart to Albert Camus’s astute political observation that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present,” and writes.

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