The Wisdom of Insecurity

Alan Watts, 1951

Written in 1951, this book is an attempt to look at the anxiety and insecurity which most of us have in life to varying degrees, and an attempt to guide the reader to find peace in his/her life.

Despite its age the book is still as relevant today as the day it was written, perhaps a stark reminder that despite massive technological advances like computers, mobile phones, jet aircraft, and the Internet, human nature remains the same through the ages.

The law of reversed effort:

The law of reversed effort is a major theme of the book.

When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. This book applies this principle to man's quest for psychological security. It makes the case that paradoxically, insecurity is the result of trying to be secure.

The age of anxiety

People have a difficult time living in the present and being happy in the now.

Human beings appear to be happy just so long as they have a future to which they can look forward - whether a "good time" tomorrow or an everlasting life beyond the grave. More and more people find it hard to believe in the latter. On the other hand, the former has the disadvantage that when the "good time" arrives it is hard to enjoy it to the full without some promise of more to come. If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o'-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp.

Atheism and the loss of myths:

People need something to believe in, something to center their lives around. This used to be religion but as the influence of religion wanes and it is no longer the main provider of purpose, people are left with a void in their lives.

What science has said, in sum, is this: We do not, and in all probability cannot. know whether God exists. Nothing that we do know suggests that he does, and all the arguments which claim to prove his existence are found to be without logical meaning. There is nothing. indeed, to prove that there is no god, but the burden of proof rests with those who propose the idea. If. the scientists would say, you believe in God. you must do so on purely emotional grounds, without basis in logic or facts. Practically speaking. this may amount to atheism. Theoretically, it is simple agnosticism. For it is of the essence of scientific honesty that you do not pretend to know what you do not know, and of the essence of scientific method that you do not employ hypotheses which cannot be tested. Once there is a suspicion a religion is a myth, it's power is gone.
The immediate results of this honesty have been deeply unsettling and depressing, for man seems to be unable to live without myth, without the belief that the routine and drudgery, the pain and the fear have some meaning and goal in the future.
Because belief in the eternal is impossible, men seek their happiness in the joys of time - but this leads to the anxiety that one is missing something, and the mind flits nervously and greedily from one pleasure to another. It leads also to the attitude of "what's the use, anyhow" from the frustration of having to pursue a future good in a tomorrow that never comes.

Having no life beyond the grave to look forward to as a reward for enduring the pain and struggle of life, people attempt to distract themselves instead.

We crave distraction - a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills, titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded, in as short a time as possible. To keep up this "standard" we put up with lives that consist of largely doing jobs that are a bore, earning the means to seek relief from the tedium with intervals of hectic and expensive pleasure - with these intervals supposed to be 'real' living. Or we imagine that the justification of such work is the rearing of a family to go on doing the same kind of thing.
Paradox as it may seem, we only find life meaningful when we have seen that it is without purpose, and we know the mysterity of the universe only when we are convinced we know nothing about it at all.

Pain and Time

We spend our lives in the pursuit of pleasure and the me avoidance of pain - yet this is futile because pleasure without pain loses effectiveness quickly - eating ice cream for every meal can get very old quickly.

Because consciousness must involve both pleasure and pain, to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is in effect to strive for the loss of consciousness.

People strive for meaning in life, because a life without a purpose to work towards seems like meaningless rote work.

However, the reason we want life to mean something is not merely because we are trying to get away from pain, but instead this arises from our powers of memory and foresight - in short from our consciousness of time. For an animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable. But man needs enjoyable memories and expectations. With these assured he can put up with a miserable present. Without these he can be miserable in the midst of immediate physical pleasure.
The power of memories and expectations is that for most human beings, the past and future are not as real, but more real than the present. The present cannot be lived happily unless the past has been "cleared up" and the future is bright with promise.
There is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain. By remembering the past we can plan for the future. but the ability to plan for pleasure is offset by the ability to dread pain and to fear the unknown. The growth of an acute sense of the past and future gives us a correspondingly dim sense of the present. Consciousness almost seems to be nature's ingenious mode of self-torture.

The Wisdom of the Body

We try and effect an adaptation to life by means of external gadgets and attempt to solve or problems by conscious thinking rather than unconscious know-how. This is much less to our advantage than we like to suppose.

Human desire tends to be insatiable, because of anxiety in the knowledge that in an insecure world, pleasure is uncertain. We simulate our sense organs till they become insensitive, so if pleasure is to continue we must have stronger and stronger stimulants. The brain is in pursuit of happiness, and because the brain is much more concerned about the future rather than the present, it conceives of happiness as the guarantee of an indefinitely long future of pleasures. Therefore hardly anyone enjoys what they have, and is forever seeking more and more.
Happiness will therefore consist not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.
The brainy economy designed to produce happiness is a vicious circle which must either manufacture more pleasures or collapse - providing constant titillation of the eyes, ears, and nerve ending s with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. Despite the immense hubbub and nervous strain we are convinced that sleep is a waste of valuable time and continue to chase these fantasies far into the night. Because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest amount of consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.
Generally speaking, the civilized man does not know what he wants - he works for success, fame, a happy marriage, fun, to help other people, or to be a "real person." But these are not real wants because they are not real things, they are by-products, the flavours and atmospheres of real things. Money is the perfect symbol of all such desires.

The brain is clever enough to see the vicious circle it has made for itself, but can still do nothing about it. Seeing it is unreasonable to worry does not stop worrying, rather it causes even more worrying.

On Being Aware

Awareness is a view of reality free from ideas and judgements. Because of this, it is impossible to write down what it reveals - anything that can be described is an idea. Therefore it is only possible to talk about the false impressions awareness removes, rather than the truth it reveals.

To be psychologically secure, all people must first have a minimum livelihood in terms of food, drink, clothing - however, the reason this does not transfer to psychological security is because we want much more than the minimum necessities.

There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.
If I want to be secure - i.e., protected from the flux of life - then I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet this very sense of separation makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to fortify the "I" yet it is the feeling of being an isolated "I" that makes me lonely and afraid. The more security I can get, the more I shall want.
We want the protection of being "exclusive" and "special," seeking to belong to the safest church, the best nation, the highest class, the right set, and the "nice" people.
I can only think of living up to an ideal, of improving myself, if I allow that I am split in two pieces - the good "I" who has the best intentions and is going to improve the wayward, bad "me". The tussle between the two will stress the difference between them and the "I" will feel more separate than ever, increasing the lonely and cut-off feelings that make the "me" behave so badly.
The craving for security is itself a pain and a contradiction, and the more we pursue it the more painful it becomes.
We worry because we feel unsafe and want to be safe, yet it is perfectly useless to say that we should not want to be safe. Calling a desire bad names will not get rid of it. What we have to discover is that there is no safety, that seeking it is painful, and that when we imagine that we have found it, we don;t like it. When we understand that safety is isolation, and when we understand what we do to ourselves looking for it - then we will understand that we don't want it at all.
The principal thing is to understand that there is no safety or security.
To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change. The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent and endures through all the days and changes of life. We are struggling to make sure of the permanence, continuity, and safety of this enduring core, this centre and soul of our being which we shall call "I". For we think this to be the real man - the thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, the knower of our knowledge. We do not understand that there is no security till we realise that this "I" does not exist.
While the notion that I am separate from my experience remains, there is confusion and turmoil. To understand this moment I must not try to be divided from it, I must be aware of it with my whole being. This is not just something I should do, in reality it is the only thing I can do.

The Transformation of Life

You can establish the theory that your body is a movement in an unbroken process which includes all suns and start, and yet continue to feel separate and lonely.
The feeling will not correspond to the theory until you have also discovered the unity of inner experience.Despite all theories you will feel isolated from life as long as you are divided within (I vs me).
You cease to feel isolated when you recognise that for example, you don't have a sensation of the sky but are that sensation - and there is no "you" apart from what you sense, feel, and know.
The divided mind comes to the dinner table and pecks at one dish after another, rushing on without digesting anything to find one better than the last. It finds nothing good, because there is nothing it really tastes. When you realise that you live in, and indeed you are his moment now and no other, and apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste it to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain.
When each moment becomes an expectation life is deprived of fulfilment, and death is dreaded for it seems here that expectation must come to an end.

Creative Morality

Morals are for avoiding an unfair distribution of pleasure and pain.
One of the highest pleasures is to be more or less unconscious of one's existence and be absorbed in interesting sights, sounds, places, and people. Conversely, one of the greatest pains is to be self-conscious, to feel unabsorbed and cut-off from the community and the surrounding world. The meaning of freedom can never be grasped by the divided mind.
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.
I am depressed and want to get "I" out of this depression. The opposite of depression is elation, but because depression is not elation, I cannot force myself to be elated. I can, however, get drunk. This makes me wonderfully elated, and so when the next depression arrives I have a quick cure. The subsequent depressions get deeper and blacker, because I am not digesting the depressed state and eliminating its poisons so I need to get even drunker to drown them. Very soon I begin to hate myself for getting so drunk, which makes me still more depressed and so it goes.
The conventional moralist has nothing to contribute to these problems. He can point out the frightful effects of alcoholism and gambling, but that is simply more fuel for depression and worry. He can paint glowing pictures of the virtues and encourage others to find strength in the example of great men. Beside the examples of saints and heroes I feel ashamed that I amount to nothing, so I begin to practice humility because of my wounded pride, and charity because of my self-love. The urge is ever to make "I" amount to something. I must be right, good, a real person, heroic, loving, self-effacing. I efface myself in order to assert myself and give myself away to keep myself.
If I am afraid my efforts to feel and act bravely are moved by fear. For I am afraid of fear.

The Marvellous Moment

To be aware of reality, of the living present, is to discover that at each moment, the experience is all. There is nothing else beside it. No experience of "you" experiencing the experience.
In times of happiness and pleasure, we are usually aware of the moment and allow the experience to be all we don't pause to think "this is joy" unless the joy is past its peak or there is some anxiety it will go away. But when pain arrives - whether physical or emotional, real or anticipated, the split begins and the circle goes around.
There are two ways of understanding an experience - one way is to compare it with the memories of other experiences, name it, and define it. The other way is to be aware of it as is, just like when in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future and let present be all, not even stopping to think "I am happy."
When we try to understand the present by comparing it with memories, we do not understand it as deeply as when we are aware of it without comparison. This however is the way in which we approach unpleasant experiences - instead of being aware of them as they are, we try to deal with them in terms of the past.
The frightened or lonely person begins at once to think "I'm afraid," or "I'm so lonely" in an attempt to avoid the experience because we don't want to be aware of this present yet the only way to escape is into the safe ground of memories which are fixed and known. To try to control fear or depression or boredom by calling them names is to resort to superstition of trust in curses and invocations.
On the other hand, if you are aware of fear then you realise that because this fear is yourself, escape is impossible. You then have no choice but to be aware of it as an entirely new experience.
Our lives are one long effort to resist the unknown, the real present in which we live, which is the unknown in the midst of coming into being. At every moment we are cautious, hesitant, and on the defensive. And to no avail because life thrusts us into the unknown willy nilly.
The art of living in this "predicament" is being completely sensitive to each moment and regarding it as completely new and unique. This is not a philosophical theory but an experiment. One has to make the experiment to understand that it brings into play altogether new powers of adaptation to life, of literally absorbing pain and insecurity.
Nervous and frustrated people are always busy, even in being idle, such idleness being the "laziness" of fear not of reset.
To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared.
If the mind is in pain, the mind is in pain. There is no escape. Sometimes when resistance ceases, the pain simply goes away or dwindles to an easily tolerable ache. When you see that you are the pain, pain ceases to be a motive, and you realise that it hurts - period. This is not an experiment to be held in reserve, but a way of life. It means being aware, alert, and sensitive to the present moment always, in all actions and relations whatsoever, beginning this instant. There really is no alternative because you cannot separate yourself from the present and you cannot define it. This is not a psychological or spiritual discipline for self improvement. It is simply being aware that you can neither define it nor divide yourself from it.
The revolutionary thinker must go beyond thought. He knows that all his best ideas come to him when thinking has stopped.When thought stops from exhaustion, te mind is open to see the problem as it is - not as it is verbalised, and at once the problem is understood.
It is in vain that we can predict and control the course of events in the future unless we know how to live in the present. It is in vain that doctors prolong life if we spend the extra time being anxious to live still longer. Tools such as these are only useful to men if they are awake and not lost in the dreamland of the past and future but are in the closest touch with that point of experience where reality can alone be discovered - this moment.