Today, pursuits such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness are familiar figures in our Western cultural landscape but this, of course, was not always so. In actuality, it has become possible through the efforts of open-minded, creative and – at the time – controversial free-thinkers, especially in the 1950s and 60s. One of those pioneers was Alan Watts, a British philosopher who popularised, lectured and published on what was then termed ‘Eastern’ spirituality (especially Buddhism) from the 1930s until his death in 1973.
Immersed in these teachings from childhood, Watts had a genius for taking the core principles of Zen, for instance, or Hinduism, and re-interpreting them in his own idiosyncratic style – a style which powerfully resonated with his mainly American and British audiences. After moving to the US from the UK in 1938 he became a leading figure of American counter-culture, living on a San Francisco houseboat and a secluded cabin in the bohemian community of Druid Heights. Crowds flocked to hear him talk, and he published prolifically. For more of Alan Watts’ ideas, you can visit or to listen to an extensive collection of his talks and lectures.
Watts’ 1966 book, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, was the subject of Stillpoint Spaces London’s first reading group, which met earlier this Summer. Amongst the lively, varied voices around the table one was conspicuous by its absence: Watts’ own. To remedy this, what follows is an excerpt of an imagined conversation with Alan Watts himself, as the final, but initiating voice in The Book reading group.
Interviewer (I): Alan, it’s a pleasure, a real honour, to meet you. Talking to you is especially remarkable as, of course, you passed away in 1973. I hope we can discuss The Book, but before we begin I hope you don’t mind me asking, what is it like after you die? I’ve always wanted to know…
Alan Watts (AW): You see it’s like this. Picture the ocean. You’re watching it from the shore. All those hundreds of thousands of waves are coming in, moving steadily, slowly. One particular wave rises, crests, then it falls. Where has it gone? When did it begin? In the same way therefore, a person is like a wave and reality the ocean bearing it. Waves cannot exist separately from the ocean but only as part of the greater whole, to which they ultimately return. And, never actually separated from in the first place, although we tend to forget this.
I: And forgetting this connection between the wave and the ocean, or the individual and the whole, is what you refer to as the “great conspiracy” - I forget it because I have the sensation, or illusion, that I am essentially a separate ego “enclosed in a bag of skin” existing independently from everything else?
AW: Precisely…the greatest hoax man has ever played, and he plays it on himself! I like to imagine it as God playing hide-and-seek. You are born with innate knowledge of who you really are, but then the illusion of being a separate ego hides you from your Self, only to catch glimpses of it again in what Psychologists call “peak experiences.”
I: But then how does this help? I mean, it’s all very well us thinking this way, but what about when the chips are down? When, for example, you lose a loved one, or experience depression? What then? Is there a danger that all this becomes just talking, just words?
AW: Oh, a great danger! All these words! Like ripples on the water’s surface, caused by a passing breeze, going this way and that. To use the order of words to explain life is really as clumsy an operation as trying to drink water with a fork. To get beyond them, we must dive in, under the surface, into the silence. We leave words and enter into experience, the body, sensation; closer to the vital currents that animate and connect us to ourselves, others, and nature.
is a Clinical Psychologist with further training in Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy, and is currently studying an MA in Jungian and Post-Jungian studies at Essex University. He is a Stillpoint Spaces London practitioner, and to date has contributed to a number of Stillpoint Spaces community activities, in particular running the Alan Watts Reading Group in May and June this year.