Alan Watts – Being in the Way – Ep. 14 – Aesthetics and Mystical Vision

In this recording from 1972, Alan Watts lectures on mystical vision via art, aesthetics, and Buddhist and Daoist philosophy.

This series is brought to you by the Alan Watts Organization and Ram Dass’ Love Serve Remember Foundation. Visit for full talks from Alan Watts.

Functional Art

We begin this talk by considering the functionality that art once held. Painting and sculpture, especially, were used for religious or ceremonial purposes. The artworks were typically representations of human or divine animal figures. All art has a landscape in which the subject exists. In a painting, it is a background created by the artist. In a sculpture, the living reality is the background. Landscape in itself is interesting because we see it every day and think of it as ordinary. However, it is actually very un-ordinary and un-symmetrical compared to man-made objects. Still, we find patterns in nature. For example, Alan Watts says that abstract art has origins in replicating the pattern of water. Humans are reminiscent of these patterns as well because we are representations of the universe.

“You and I have all conspired with ourselves to pretend that we are not really God, but of course we are. That is perfectly obvious. We are all apertures through which the universe is looking at itself. Only it is so arranged that we don’t know that in exactly the same way as we don’t look at our own eyes.” – Alan Watts

If you are interested in hearing an artist’s perspective on spirituality, check out Ep. 377 of Mindrolling: Personally Accessed Wisdom with Allyson and Alex Grey
Creating Works of Nature (23:49)

Artists like Jackson Pollock and Gordon Onslow Ford experimented with acting out nature in art instead of trying to just copy an image of it. They used methods such as dripping or pouring paint or other mediums directly onto a canvas. In essence, they were re-creating the same actions that water does. There is a big difference between artists who were challenging the idea of art and smashing typewriters or drawing a bunch of triangles and artists who were creating art with a different state of mind. Artists who were creating mystical visions and acting out nature were spontaneously and meditatively rendering their pieces. This type of art is impossible to learn, it is a state of mind. Music, too, is like this. 

“In the same way as you can move your fingers without knowing any physiology, you just do it, so in the same way the artist manages to create the beautiful.” – Alan Watts

Meaning and Insanity (48:43)

We assign meaning to things in order to understand them. Insanity is when things may have an alternate meaning to someone which does not fit the mold of society. Although, when we study art or music, doesn’t everyone have a different experience and interpretation? Alan describes how in Chinese art there are always two vantage points. This is not so in other cultures. In western music, the rhythms sound strange and militant to those in the east. We are permitted to have different perspectives when it comes to creative subjects, so why not in all areas of life? Alan tells us about visiting someone who was categorically insane and talking nonsense with her; she truly enjoyed the experience and as did he. Perhaps rather than always trying to assign meaning to everything, we should spend more time enjoying our unique experience of it.

“If you just close your eyes and listen to all the sound that’s going on and you stop naming it, you don’t call it anything, you don’t identify it, you just listen to this buzz, it’s fantastic.” – Alan Watts

Ready for some practice? Tune into Ep. 99 of the BHNN Guest Podcast for a guided meditation on being aware of passing phenomena without imposing any opinions: JoAnna Hardy – BHNN Guest Podcast – Ep. 99 – Choiceless Awareness