Binding contrast into paradox, Alan takes us on a journey through the psychology of mystical experience in relation to life and death, followed by a jaunt through the power of nothingness.
In this episode of Being in the Way, Mark Watts opens the door to the vault, introducing two rare recordings from his father, Alan Watts. The first lecture, entitled Psychology of Mystical Experience, stems from March 5th, 1972 at San Jose State exploring the paradox of life and death. Recorded on Alan’s infamous houseboat in Sausalito, the second talk, Nothingness, highlights the inseparable oneness of contrasts, like form and formlessness.
Opening the session by harkening himself as a disciple of William James—one of the leading philosophers and psychologists of the time—Alan Watts applies insight and inquiry around the psychology of mystical experiences. Speaking to the various visions individuals have of God and their place in the universe, he binds together the paradox of form and void, peeling back the veil to uncover the inner workings of life, death, and the ineffable.
“I’m now 57 years old, and a lot of people are dead at 57. I look at this problem with complete fascination. You all have to face it. We’re all going to evaporate and turn into bones and dust. Instead of avoiding that, instead of looking the other way, instead of saying, ‘Oh, well, later…’ Let’s look at it! What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up?” – Alan Watts
Ram Dass offers perspective on the confusion of paradox, on Ep. 69 of Here & Now
The Paradox of Life & Death // Nature & the Anxiety to Survive (13:00)
Diving into the mystery of life and death, Alan sheds light on the various contrasts we live within—like sleep and wakefulness, and male and female—in order to highlight how one can’t arise without the other – that opposites truly go together in the end. Providing clarity to the paradoxical Buddhist statement, “Emptiness is form; form is emptiness,” he shares how humanity can stop its destructive, anxious conquest against nature by recognizing there is truly no separation of self and other.
“We can see by a very simple process that when you’re dead you go into the negative dimension of unconsciousness like you do when you go to sleep every night. Now, sleep refreshes you. Isn’t that curious? Sleep is a very little understood phenomenon by psychologists. But being unconscious for a while, or being nowhere, brings you back to life. Of course it does! Because you wouldn’t know you were alive unless you had once been dead, or unless you occasionally went to sleep, you wouldn’t have the feeling of reality, of here-ness, nowness.” – Alan Watts
“We are so frantic to survive and so terrified of the night of death that we are going to destroy the planet out of our anxiety to survive.” – Alan Watts
Alan Watts explores mutual arising, polarity, and nature, on Ep. 1 of Being in the Way
Nothingness // Contrast as Oneness (33:00)
Tuning in from his houseboat in Sausalito and sharing his unbridled joy for all things weird, Alan offers an insightful talk exploring the idea of nothing. Sharing the on the true power of nothing, Alan expresses the completely necessary codependent arising of somethingness and nothingness inseparably as one.
“We always know what we mean by contrasts—we know what we mean by white in comparison with black, we know life in comparison with death, we know pleasure in comparison with pain, up in comparison with down. But you will notice with all these things that they must come into being together. You don’t have first something and then nothing, or first nothing and then something – something and nothing are two sides of the same coin. And as you know, if you take a coin and you file away the tail side of it, and you file that side of the way of it completely, the head side will disappear as well.” – Alan Watts
“Nothing is what brings something into focus.” – Alan Watts