Wellbeing

September 1, 2015

Life Skills: Self-Help for Skeptics

How Alan Watts inspired mindfulness in Steve Jobs, Spike Jonze and South Park

  • Written by Peter Lyle

Like most open-minded ‘progressive’ people, I cling to a whole heap of prejudices and taboos. Like most open-minded, ‘progressive’ people, I find it easy to ignore this fact. That’s partly because I spend so much time declaiming about what everybody else should do. It’s also because—like any middle-class pedagogue worthy of the name—I don’t really see my prejudices as prejudices. Deep down, I know they’re rational, enlightened objections to verifiably bad things.

Self-help used to come high on that list of objectionables. Amongst my people, self-help is right up there with bigotry, climate change denial, vaccine-dodging and belief in crystals and auras. According to my reasonable, sensible peers, self-help is bad because it’s a commodified, feelgood genre that sells losers pat slogans and impossible dreams of personal rebirth. It’s the payday loans branch of philosophy; it’s the patriarchy using a load of new age gibber to distract women into easy fantasy, so they can’t learn anything meaningful, anything that might help them in reality.

“When you actually think about it, self-help is what all worthwhile books are. It’s what reading is about.”

A few years ago, I chanced upon a copy of John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. I picked it up for a superior laugh, but I kept reading out of genuine, if embarrassed, interest. There was one passage in particular, about how men tend to calculate the value of time spent with partners and family that I really wanted some of my friends to read. Particularly those friends who were prone to launching into resentful rambles about their girlfriends every time they got tipsy. But whenever I mentioned Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, people snorted. Many of them trembled with admiration for John Gray, the British philosopher who writes neo-Nietzschean analyses of modern life designed to jolt smug middle-class people out of their assumptions. But none of them would even consider even glancing at the other John Gray’s book, the one that might help them be less hurtful, less oblivious dicks to their loved ones. Come on – it’s a self-help book!

But self-help, I came to accept, is not some inherently bad or fraudulent negative thing. When you actually think about it, self-help is what all worthwhile books are. It’s what reading is about. Pointing out that the Stoic philisophy of Ancient Rome provided the foundations of contemporary cognitive behavioural therapy, the psychoanalyst and much-admired writer Adam Phillips wrote recently that “all literature is self-help”, and always has been. We go to books for whatever it is we can’t get to or make sense of through spending time with other people.

I was glad that people like Phillips helped me find peace with the idea of self-help. It happened just in time for me to admit that I was becoming a fan of the genre – I kept returning to one particular exponent of the genre, whose words made more and more sense to me as the rest of the sensible, rational world came to seem more and more incoherent and absurd. That man was Alan Watts.

“Watts probably wouldn’t have been too fussed about being tagged a ‘self-help’ author. He made a point of not being pompous or grand about such things.”

Watts was a theologian, writer and broadcaster who was born a century ago a few miles outside London. He went from being a prodigious, clean-cut public schoolboy and theologian to being a hairy libertine who moved to California, hung out with Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg and Timothy Leary and became a forefather of the hippie movement. He died in 1973, partly because of his fondness for alcohol, but Watts seemed destined to remain a footnote in our times, a relic of the 60s counterculture like Jimi, Janis or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Watts probably wouldn’t have been too fussed about being tagged a “self-help” author. He made a point of not being pompous or grand about such things. He unpretentiously called himself a “philosophical entertainer,” and he both reveled in and ridiculed the modern cult of the spiritual guru, often characterizing his lectures as nothing more sacred than his own hustle.

I’d been aware of his name since my childhood, when a visiting uncle on the gap year spiritual trail had left his copy of Watts’ last book on Taoism at my parents’ house. I’d tried to read the book a few times in my pretentious teens, but my self-consciousness always got the better of me. It was only really when I started listening to his voice—his plummy, wry, private-schooled English voice—that he really clicked with me. When I started finding his old radio and TV shows on YouTube, I found them soothing and insightful. Sixties relic or not, his critique of ‘progressive’ modern attitudes to nature, work, money and spirituality really resonated. And the more I listened and followed search engine leads, the more I realised I was not alone. Watts had stealthily become the go-to self-help guru for people too smart to believe in self-help.

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker created an animated short featuring some of their favourite the nuggets of Alan Watts wisdom.”

As I type, there’s a Kickstarter-funded film called Zen Dog in postproduction that met its target by outlining a film in which a young man makes a road trip guided by tapes of Watts lectures. There’s a Fall Out Boy tour in progress in which, between songs, Watts’ words boom out from a giant screen. Earlier in the summer, a Brooklyn indie label put out a vinyl record of his voice over a new track. Late last year, a congenitally uncool British reality show judge and former girl band member made a Watts speech the first track of her latest would-be comeback album, explaining that he’d helped her find serenity in her life.

Back in 2013, Alan Watts’s voice was the virtual lover for whom the disembodied, Siri-like Scarlett Johanssen left Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s Her. A few years before that, Jarvis Cocker guest-edited a BBC radio news show and asked for the voice Watts to fill its spiritual slot. Around the same time, for the general wellbeing of the human race, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker created an animated short featuring some of their favourite the nuggets of Alan Watts wisdom.

Two decades earlier, in his very last book, the notoriously prophetic sci-fi author Philip K. Dick paid tribute to what he saw as Watts’ sincere interest in helping people by creating a fictional equivalent who saved the life of Dick’s narrator merely by offering a sandwich. Before that, the young Steve Jobs was inspired to travel and explore Eastern cultures through his familiarity with Watts’ work. Along the way, tens of millions of people like me watched and heard the hundreds of Watts lectures that have been uploaded to YouTube, and clearly found something in them they didn’t find elsewhere.

I can only guess what such sensible, skeptical, unsentimental people found in Watts, but I like to think it’s something like what I found: a voice that made more and more sense in a world that made less and less. A person who wanted to reach out and build bridges in a world of adversarial clickbait, tribal rage and virtual witch-hunts. A Russell Brand, but with a plan. Watts felt that Western thought was fundamentally confused, and that it would benefit if it swapped its binary, religiously-rooted intellectual concepts for the older, wider understandings of Eastern philosophy. Like a Richard Dawkins acolyte, he railed against religious dogma and literalism; but, like a woolly new-age apologist, he insisted that the human animal had a primal need for spiritual experience and transcendence. He traced the roots of our cultural obsessions with technology and money, and the incoherence of putting these manmade values above the wellbeing of the natural world that makes the human one possible. He reminded us that our narrow, vainglorious measurements of ‘progress’—cheaper food, longer life, greater ‘growth’—defined us by our productivity, thus reducing humans to the status of livestock.

“Watts felt that Western thought was fundamentally confused, and that it would benefit if it swapped its binary, religiously-rooted intellectual concepts for the older, wider understandings of Eastern philosophy.”

You could dismiss Watts’ ideas as hippie claptrap, but then you’d have to deal with the way his insights into the limitations of human psychology prefigured modern pop-science bestsellers like Thinking Fast & Slow. You’d also have to contend with observations he made half a century ago that sound like the latest steps on theoretical physics; or the way his insistence on the value of doing ‘nothing’ anticipated a major neurological research project currently underway at the Wellcome Institute in London.

His ideas have aged so well—certainly compared to the right-thinking assumptions of his times—that they make you believe something Marshall McLuhan told Playboy in 1969: “Mysticism is just tomorrow’s science dreamed today.” Between checking your smartphone and having deep ‘n’ meaningful conversations about the latest must-see HBO drama, you’d also have to deal with the unnerving prescient way in which Watts pities people who work at jobs they don’t like all day long, just to earn the reward of staring at fantasies on a screen.

That’s my real self-help shame: I’m not even ashamed anymore. Alan Watts’s lovely voice and riddle-like bons mots make more sense than any of the sensible, rational grown-ups I see spouting off. Anyway, the scorn right-thinking, rational people have for ‘Mindfulness’ and those who market it seems to have taken the critical heat off fuddy-duddy old ‘self-help’ for now. Alan Watts had plenty of sharp, smart things to say about mindfulness too, but since so much of his ouvre is uploaded and available to us all, whenever it’s required, there’s no need to worry about that now. As far as I’m concerned, he’s most likely to be helpful if you feel an itch to go out and find him for yourself.

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Images courtesy of Mark Watts

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  • Thomas Walsh

    Good article, thanks.

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