Alan Watts – Being in the Way – Ep. 17 – Learning the Human Game

Alan Watts pulls back the veil of ‘the human game,’ digging into language, ethics, finding balance, and the art of the controlled accident. 

In this episode, Mark Watts introduces Alan Watts in ‘Learning the Human Game’ – originally recorded at a seminar at the University of Michigan. In this lecture, Alan explores the connection between language and ethics, helping us understand why the perfect balance between randomness and order is the optimal middle-ground for experiencing life.

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.

Language & Ethics

Exploring ethics and behavior through the lens of how we relate to the rules of language, Alan explains why the word “dig” holds more in-group resonance than “appreciate” or “enjoy.” Next, he describes the difference between a dead language and a living language, and expresses language’s need for a healthy balance between sticking to past rules and inventing new words and forms of expression. From here, he shares how we can apply this style of present-moment creativity to ethics.

“We should be creative in ethics—we should make new patterns of ethical behavior just as we make new patterns of language in our effort to describe new experiences.” – Alan Watts

Listen to Alan in Part 1 of ‘Learning the Human Game,’ on Ep. 16 of Being in the Way
The Game of Balance (13:33)

Using the metaphor of three games—tic-tac-toe, chess, & 3D chess—Alan describes how when a game is too predictable it becomes boring (tic-tac-toe), how when it is too complicated it overwhelms (3D Chess), but how a middle-way blending of chance and skill (chess) is a beautiful situation for humans. Applying metaphors of the night sky and crashing waves, he shares how the optimal middle-ground for life is comfortable and orderly, yet contains elements of excitement and unpredictability.

“What would you think of the heavens were the stars were all arranged at even intervals and concentric circles? Would you like to go out at night a see that? No. We like the stars scattered as they are. We also like to see when the waves break on the shore, the patterns of foam. The funny thing is you can look at those patterns hour after hour and realize that they never make an aesthetic mistake. They never do anything inelegant; just like a cat, it never makes a bad move.” – Alan Watts

Ram Dass plays the ‘Hollow Bamboo Game,’ on Ep. 190 of Here & Now
Culture, Control & Spontaneity // The Art of the Controlled Accident (24:20)

Speaking to how our culture believes that the random elements of life can-and-should be controlled, Alan illuminates how the most ideal system and way of being keeps a balance between liberty and license, between control and spontaneity. Using the example of a disciplined calligrapher who aesthetically allows accidents to happen, he describes the ‘art of the controlled accident.’ Through this lens, he explores mental health as a game of balance between randomness and order.

“Mental health is a good game—and a good game is what keeps a certain balance between randomness and order. And a healthy society, therefore, is one which keeps a proper balance between law and whimsy.” – Alan Watts

JoAnna Hardy explores the ‘Great Balancing Act’ of ethics & karma, on Ep. 88 of Here & Now