A mental health moment: Alan Watts’ views give a new meaning to life

Editor’s column: A mental health moment

Emerson Sutow is the A&E Editor at Ethic News


Alan Watts was one of the first european philosophers to integrate buddhist and taoist beliefs into his teachings. He focused on the concepts of life and death, self worth and self image and a higher power not strictly related to any god. His teachings today are able to be applied to most beliefs as it allows for many perspectives to be taken and understood.

According to The Buddhist Centre, Buddhism is “a path of practice and spiritual development leading to Insight into the true nature of reality. Buddhist practices like meditation are means of changing yourself in order to develop the qualities of awareness, kindness and wisdom.”

On the other hand, according to National Geographic, Taoism is “a religion and a philosophy from ancient China that has influenced the belief that humans and animals should live in balance with the Tao, or the universe. Taoists believe in spiritual immortality, where the spirit of the body joins the universe after death.” 

Watts took these ideas to challenge the common beliefs of European culture and question what lies beyond Earth on a spiritual level. While searching for answers, he followed the “zen boom,” a period in which a new generation of Buddhists expanded their influence and beliefs, in the 1960s and 1970s in order to find like-minded people who also searched for enlightenment and liberation. 

Photo made using WordArt.com, an online word cloud art creator, focusing on key topics of Alan Watts beliefs and teachings. While Buddhism and Taoism have many differences, both ultimately believe in reincarnation (Emerson Sutow/ Ethic News Photo).

Watts has many notable quotes expressing his ideas, such as “If you awaken from this illusion and you understand that black implies life, self implies others, life implies death (or shall i say death implies life)” from his speech The Dream Of Life, which expresses his belief that there is always a good and an evil; a yin and a yang. 

Additionally, Watts challenges the idea of life and what happens after death, saying, “Try and imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up… What was it like to wake up after having never gone to sleep?”

Watts lived from Jan 6, 1915 to Nov 16, 1973, but his speeches have been very well preserved and can be enjoyed by all on many platforms today. He began by writing and eventually publishing The Meaning of Happiness in 1940, later moving on to have a radio show called Way Beyond the West in 1956. 

He also wrote many more books, such as The Way of Zen and Tao: The Watercourse Way and had a documentary series about his ideology titled The Essential Lectures of Alan Watts, filmed from 1971 to 1972. The documentary includes 48 episodes, each covering a different topic equalling 21 hours of speeches. 

Other topics such as The Meditative Series, which included 12 lectures, and The Seminar Series with 16 lectures are very helpful for those searching for inner peace and those who enjoy questioning the world around them as well as how people fit into this big world. 

His teaching can commonly be seen in fields like meditation, addiction recovery and mental health care and can be heard in some of today’s music such as The Boom by Palaye Royale and in the albums Listen, Dream by Superposition and Boreta.

Although Alan Watts was from a very different time, his theories still hold strong and help many people today. Try to listen to at least one of his speeches and really sit and think, you may realize something you may have never thought possible before.

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