Alan Watts, the psychonaut and philosopher from the 1950s, on what life is about.
What if I told you that life is like music and we are meant to play our way through it, not work?
It’s almost like we’ve created a construct that life in itself is one big journey geared towards a final purpose, through which the only way to get there is to work until your stress hospitalizes you.
According to Alan Watts, a philosopher, and explorer of consciousness, life is indeed like music, and we’ve missed the whole point of it. Alan Watts can simply be described as a lover of life and a great spiritual and philosophical teacher of the 1950s and 60s.
Born in South-East London in 1915, Watts turned down a scholarship from Oxford to study and went on to become an Episcopal Priest. He then migrated to California where he lived the rest of his years. He ditched Christianity and when asked by his students what he actually was, he settled for “spiritual entertainer.”
In recent years, Alan Watts has been going through a digital resurrection. His work was forgotten and buried under the carpet for decades, but with the emergence of Youtube and social media, this all changed. Watts thankfully recorded every single one of his lectures during the 50s and 60s, and people have been captivated by his words in the last decade specifically.
He was heavily influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen philosophy, popularising them in the West. He had a talent for explaining complex things in simple and eloquent language. He was a great orator and a true poet. Watts published 25 books, and his unique mysticism continues to influence millions of people to this day.
Music Composers Don’t Only Compose Finales
Life is best understood as an analogy with music. There is no purpose for all of this, we don’t exist to reach an end. The point is to enjoy life for what it is in the moment, and most of all, be playful with it. In Alan’s words:
“The physical universe is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever, it isn't going anywhere.” — Alan Watts
Music as an action is playful. No one works the piano, they play it. Watts always seemed to reinforce this point that we need to seek joy out of playing the chords of life.
If life was geared towards a final purpose with an end goal of whatever you want it to be — maybe success or even an afterlife — that would be like having music composers who only compose finales.
What kind of world would that be? Can you imagine if all music was produced for its end purpose only, completely disregarding the beauty of the process? The truth is that a song or a composition is only beautiful and effective if there is an equal application of effort throughout.
But guess what? We are living in a way where we only focus on composing finales. We live our life more along the lines of an analogy of travel: Travel is fixed on a destination and we have geared ourselves up to journey towards the end goal.
Music is different from travel, and we should live according to the analogy of music.
The Main Problem Is the Schooling System
Alan Watts had a perfect answer as to why we live in a manner that is focused on a final purpose, his answer was the schooling system. For a quarter of our lives, we are chucked into this system that prepares us for an end goal; to get a job in the real world.
From the age of 3/4, we are chucked into Kindergarten with this “come on kitty kitty kitty” attitude as Alan Watts explains. The idea that life is a journey with a destination is drilled into us for nearly 25 years.
We start in Kindergarten, then the big moment comes when we enter elementary school, then there's the big and scary high school. Before we know it we’ve graduated and we find ourselves moving through the college system, where the intensity is higher than ever and the gears only keep revving up.
Then there is grad school, and finally, after close to twenty years, we’ve only just started the true journey. We have earned the privilege of getting to join the real world and getting a real job. Pfft, what a privilege!?
Don’t you see the problem here? It’s all a big long journey for nothing. Do we do all of this just so we can go on to sell insurance to people over the phone whilst we chase numbers to make a certain quota? When you look at it like this it seems absurd that we are all partaking in this system, in one way or another.
We are so focused on moving through this journey that we never just stop to play the music, to hear and feel the beauty of it all.
The Giant Misconception of Life
“The human being sometimes becomes an organism for self-frustration.” — Alan Watts
Alan Watts stands by his one basic metaphysical assumption: That existence is musical in nature. It is not serious in the slightest.
We haven't yet seemed to realize that we have cheated ourselves all through life. Why are we working towards retirement? The whole concept of retirement, where one day at 65 years old, you can take all that money you slaved away for, and finally be ‘free’, is a flawed concept.
You will be impotent, with a lack of energy, and a lot of the time your loved ones will place you into a ‘senior citizens community’ to rot away. Yes, I know, I’ve just said that in the bleakest way possible, because it's true.
Our greatest misconception was thinking of life as a journey, with the special reward of freedom at the end. I’ll leave you with Alan's words, for I don’t think anyone can ever explain it as well as him:
“We missed the point the whole way along. It [life] was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played.” — Alan Watts
A Singular Final Thought
Usually, I’d wrap up an article with a summary of everything in it, just so the reader can maybe go along and try to ‘self-improve’ somehow. But what for? To improve so they can be better prepared for this ‘end of the journey’?
Life has no purpose, it is one big old beautiful song, with angelic notes ringing in your ears and beats coursing through your body. How incompetent does one have to be to ignore the music? The very thing that sustains our happiness.
Don’t slave away just so you can hear the finale in your last years, where life is slipping from your grip. Dance and sing along to the musical composition that is life. Enjoy it.