Monday, February 02, 2009

Book Blink -- In My Own Way: An Autobiography 1915-1965 by Alan Watts

Somewhere in my psyche, there is a sense that book reviews should be something substantive, something constructive, something profound.

Somewhere else in my psyche, there is a recognition that I'm never going to write such a thing.

So here in the blog part of my psyche, I'll try out something else: when I finish reading a book, I'll post a Book Blink. Nothing as substantive as a book review. More like a thought upon finishing a book.

So here's tonight's:

In My Own Way: An Autobiography, 1915-1965, Alan Watts, New World Library: Novato, CA; 1972. 384 pgs.

I picked up the book because I love Alan Watts' exquisite articulation of Buddhist experience that I've found and followed in podcast form during the past several months. It took unexpected effort, though, to finish the autobiography.

Reading it, I realized two things. First, Watts' exquisite descriptions of satori and karma and impermanence and discrimination and interconnectedness and identity are as much an artistic rendering as an oil painting of a sunset. While the painting can remind me of a memory of an experience of a sunset, I usually admire the painting less for what it depicts and more for its intrinsic existence and the mind to which it provides a face. And while I love verbal expression above almost any other art form, I usually don't mistake the art for the thing. But maybe I have done so with dharma books, which I consume in large quantities. Watts' words, a bit like sirens' songs, are beautiful enough that I'm almost willing to lay aside the journey and retire to the island of his descriptions, instead.

Which leads me to the second realization I had while reading In My Own Way: Watts seems to talk a lot about rejecting spiritual discipline. At a couple of different places in the autobiography, he speaks warmly of Jiddu Krishnamurti's "no path, no approach" approach.

Was I practicing yoga? If so, why? I replied that this was my problem: I could not do any systematic or formal meditation because I had pondered too long his own reiterations of the point that methodical spiritual disciplines are merely highbrow ways of exalting the ego. Aiming at unselfishness is the most insidious form of selfishness

Thereupon Krishnaji picked up two cushions from the couch and said, "Look. On the one hand there must be the understanding that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing you can do to improve, transform, or better yourself. If you understand this completely you will realize that there is no such entity as 'you.'" He then moved his hands from the first cushion to the second, and went on, "Then, if you have totally abandoned this ambition, you will be in the state of true meditation which comes over you spontaneously in wave after wave after wave of amazing light and bliss."

p. 112

This, of course, is a path of "no path," which is definitely a path, albeit a pathless one.

Get it?

Throughout the book, Watts seems to acknowledge (but only tacitly) that discipline actually does matter -- not because it produces insight so much as because it prepares the disciple by eliminating all of the other obstacles to insight -- including the disciple's own belief in discipline as a path.

A criticism: the book might have benefited from a stronger editorial hand. Apart from the dharma aspects of this relatively non-dharma book, as a memoir, it seems a bit more self-indulgent than historical. It's a very fine line to walk, presenting the style of a life and the stories of a life from the hand of the one living it. But the reason I had to work to finish the read was to convince myself that there was value to plowing through a fair amount of Watts' self-congratulatory "I'm not like the poor run-of-the-mill fools out there" musings.

Apart from that, though, I found the content of the book valuable. First, it connected a number of dots that I'd picked up from odd podcasts with respect to Watts' extensive knowledge of not only Eastern philosophy, but also Christianity (turns out he was an ordained Episcopal priest for a time); his discussion of Christianity as an outsider (his letter resigning his ordination and separating himself from Christianity is included in the book, together with some poignant correspondence that resulted from that letter). Second, the book tells of his interactions with the apparently very small world of the first Western flowering of the dharma in the 1950s and early 60s in the US -- from Krishnamurti at Ojai to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard to Shunryu Suzuki and Aldous Huxley in California to the founding of Esalen near Big Sur. Learning enough to put them in order makes it easier to remember who fits where and how their ideas relate and differ.

So I'm glad I've read the book. With Watts' historical framework, I have a better sense of order and relationships from an era that ended shortly after I was born. With his account of his attempts to fit a traditional religion's model, I have a different perspective on my own related struggles. With his sirenic renderings of satori, I have a kind of beauty that I instinctively want, even if it is one that, like Odysseus, I both desire and resist, tied to the mast with unstopped ears.

* * *

He gets all of this, of course:

My own work, though it may seem at times to be a system of ideas, is basically an attempt to describe mystical experience – not of formal visions and supernatural beings, but of reality as seen and felt directly in a silence of words and mindings. In this I set myself the same impossible task as the poet: to say what cannot be said.

p. 5