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Alan Watts is alive online: contradictions of a pop philosopher

Elliot Mintz is a veteran consultant in his late seventies with a modern, clean look, trimmed straw blond hair, and white teeth. But those old enough associate Mintz with the forefront voices of the counterculture.

As an underground radio DJ in the 1960s and 1970s, Mintz lived next door to Timothy Leary in Los Angeles and interviewed actors and musicians, from Salvador Dalí to Ray Bradbury. Also, Alan Watts, a self-defined British “philosophical entertainer” settled in California.

After befriending John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1971, Elliot Mintz became their spokesperson and entertained them in conversations, usually about topics unrelated to music. When driving from Ojai to Los Angeles, they would stop along the way and mingle with people they encountered. Mintz:

“The majority of our conversations were not about either me or them but the state of the world. Most of their time was spent talking about either current events or literature or history.”

When Lennon recorded on top of Alan Watts’ lectures

Such trips were an opportunity to listen to the radio and to play eight-track tapes and, later on, cassettes. Years later, after John Lennon’s assassination near his Dakota Building apartment in Manhattan, Yoko Ono asked Mintz to host The Lost Lennon Tapes, a weekly radio series that ran on Westwood One radio from 1988 to 1992, in which the friend of the mythical couple premiered hours of unreleased music and solo tracks with Lennon on the guitar or piano:

“So, I packed up the original recordings, and we FedEx’ed them to Los Angeles to Westwood One, and their staff — obviously, very gently — took the original recordings and made transfers of them digitally and created their own inventory. They had to be listened to carefully — John had a way of hiding a song five minutes into a tape recording of a lecture by [British philosopher] Alan Watts.”

Who was Alan Watts, and why did people like John Lennon listen to his speeches, recorded in tape, and sold like underground music? Why did his little, unimportant book, The Way of Zen become one of the gospels of beatniks and hippies?

50 years after his death, Alan Watts refuses to go gentle into that silent night

From a drafty boat in Sausalito and Druid Heights, a humble sanctuary at the bottom of Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, Alan Watts enlightened a generation of misfits and non-conformists but also reached the very top of the counterculture, equally revered by beginners and scholars. His ability to discuss Eastern and Western philosophy, explaining complex concepts with rigor and simplicity, earned him respect and, more shockingly, a popularity that has endured in the Internet age:

“I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not a Zen Buddhist, I am not advocating Zen Buddhism, I am not trying to convert anyone to it. I have nothing to sell. I’m an entertainer. That is to say, in the same sense, that when you go to a concert and you listen to someone play Mozart, he has nothing to sell except the sound of the music. He doesn’t want to convert you to anything. He doesn’t want you to join an organization in favor of Mozart’s music as opposed to, say, Beethoven’s. And I approach you in the same spirit as a musician with his piano or a violinist with his violin. I just want you to enjoy a point of view that I enjoy.”

Mount Tam Zen bum

Scholars never considered Alan Watts, a philosopher; neither did he claim to be one. But, although he was supposed to become a mere “footnote” in an era of confusion, pseudo-gurus, and cult-like arrangements that sometimes degenerated into horror (Charles Manson and the Tate murders, Jim Jones’ fanatics drinking the kool-aid), he was never considered a quack.

When archaeologist David Stuart published his authorized biography on Watts, who had died at age 58 on November 16, 1973, Herbert Gold was merciless with his review for the New York Times, accusing Stuart of indulging in a New Age pretense that Watts himself had avoided:

“Lacking the carnival barker’s charm of Timothy Leary, the weight of Herbert Marcuse, and the grain of originality of Marshall McLuhan, Alan Watts nevertheless deserves a footnote in the social history of the sixties because of his successful ride on the shoulders of Zen into certain renown and guruhood. This book would be that footnote if only it were less muddled, sharper of perception, less agonized in its efforts to link biographical data with interviews, perceptions, and judgments about the times.”

Gold had not enjoyed the biography, which he saw as a missed opportunity on a figure that had deserved more, yet it was going to be treated like a pop philosopher unable to reach posterity on cassette tapes and second-rate biographies:

“The author seems to rely on astrological readings for his understanding of Watts. Perhaps a mediocre thinker deserves a mediocre biographer, but Watts had at least the gift for popularization, for clear, inaccurate summary, for selling his subject. He introduced Zen to the suburbs, to kids and housewives and, it may be, to students who carried it further than he did.”

In the first chapter, Stuart describes the mature Alan Watts looking “like a drunken Third Street San Francisco bum,” and it may have been a legit description. Watts lost indeed some of the gentle aloofness that had made his persona so attractive to those accustomed to listening to preachers and snake oil merchants of all sorts, and his legacy could have been resented because of constant mood changes and increasing health issues (he was both a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker).

The dream of a better humanity

By attacking Stuart and mocking Watts’ legacy, the New York Times critic had enjoyed writing a punctilious, derisive account of an unfortunate book and a thinker that had committed the sacrilege of being too popular, too accessible, too prone to venture into syncretic speculations on philosophy and religion, traveling from East to West, from philosophy to religion to art to physics, and across ages, in one same speech. Nobody remembers Herbert Gold now, and few had something to say about David Stuart and his fixation on the horoscope and other New Age artifacts. But Alan Watts is around us, now in digital flesh:

“If Christianity is wine and Islam coffee, Buddhism is most certainly tea.”

Suppose there is something clearcut about the social turmoil and counterculture of the late sixties and early seventies. In that case, it must be how ideologically confusing and cringe-extremist some of the events that shaped that era were —both then and now, in retrospect.

People have argued that some of that era’s excesses deterred the society of the time from taking bolder steps on things that never had the head start they deserved, like funding experimental trials on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, lost in the public scandal around Timothy Leary.

But substances weren’t the only means used in the 1960s and 1970s to expand human conscience and abilities, as shown by the influence that some of the counterculture figures had on the way personal computing and decentralized networks materialized out of the experimental labs that DARPA, Xerox, Lockheed Martin, and others maintained in the Bay Area.

Cultural expression and spirituality flourished along with all sorts of skillful charlatans, snake oil sellers, revolutionary groups, urban guerrillas, and cult gurus competing with the equally unhinged television preachers that rose to popularity at the same moment, peppered with the Moon landing, high-profile assassinations, and civil unrest, as well as an array of delusional characters immortalized by the New Journalism pundits.

Leaving masterpieces in conversation

Today’s centrifugal zeitgeist reminds us of the late-seventies battle of extremist ideas from left and right for a reason. But like today, when some people rise among the noise to express their valuable point of view, some thinkers figure from the noise and the ephemeral fad cycle to give meaning to contemporary phenomena. One of them was Alan Watts, as much of a bridge between the counterculture years and today as JimI Hendrix or the 1975 Pulitzer Prize —and TV persona later on— Carl Sagan.

Decades before online videos and podcasts were shared and mixed on social networks and appealing to any possible topic deserving vulgarization, a few cultivated men accepted the challenge of bringing complex topics to the masses, from science to spirituality. Watts was ripe for an era of contradictions and value questioning when the Esalen Institute was abandoning some of its most ambitious goals and entering the excesses of the New Age, exploring the human potential with a mismatch of Gestalt practices, pseudo-spiritual activities, and substance experimentation.

Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts had thought that the Esalen Institute was an opportunity to explore human consciousness but knew too well that its contradictions put the center in Big Sur too close to the wellness obsession symbolized by the “soma” substance in Huxley’s dystopia Brave New World. Watts had attempted to blend his own syncretic philosophy by mixing a heterogeneous view of Christianity with Asian philosophy but refused to bank on the incipient market simplified, mostly meaningless spirituality.

Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute and instrumental in the human potential movement reinvigorated by cybernetics, rememorated the figure of Watts in his account of the counterculture years:

“Alan is often criticized for this and that—too much drinking, or that he was a ‘mere’ popularizer. But give me a break! Yeats said of Oscar Wilde that he left at least half his work in conversation. I say the same thing about Alan. He was a brilliant talker. He took the Bay Area by storm, starting in the early 50s. We had a very liberal NPR radio station and television station, on both of which he became a star. He was as good an extemporaneous conversationalist as I’ve ever met. Endlessly charming, he could be very amusing. To say he’s nothing but a popularizer is an injustice. With DT Suzuki he was the most salient popularizer of Zen Buddhism in the 50s and 60s.

“Alan was a huge influence on Bay Area culture because he was so insightful, funny and witty. But not sarcastic. He was generous and very playful. His weaknesses were on the side of impulse control, not on the side of cruelty snark. He was fun and he was brilliant. Aesthetics were huge for Alan—he could have been a professor of aesthetics like John Ruskin. He was a great appreciator of beauty—costume, cooking, architecture, Feng Shui, clothes, costumes, poetry.”

Michael Murphy, Michael Murphy on Esalen and the mystical expats, December 4, 2019

Pop culture entertainer

The counterculture explosion around the Bay Area found Alan Watts collaborating in independent radio shows in Berkeley, and once his reputation grew beyond his circle, he insisted on recording his audio talks on philosophy and Eastern spirituality in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like Aldous Huxley, Watts understood the importance of mass media early as information became more sensorial and fragmentary, right when the potential of virtual learning through multimedia was in its infancy.

In that respect, Alan Watts wasn’t only a learned and learning “influencer” before personal computing was even born but also pioneered a way of communicating scholarly topics with clarity and ease, much like the best expressions of pop culture had accomplished with art, from Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas to Norman Mailer and Andy Warhol. Much like the counterculture rising stars, he considered himself an “entertainer,” only a philosophical one.

However, he wasn’t obsessed with defining himself. In an interview for Life magazine in 1961, Watts attested:

“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.”

His old recordings have blended into the contemporary memetics with ease, and users refactoring the legacy of Alan Watts do it with little hesitation under usernames such as “Alan Watts Wisdom,” “Alan Watts Philosophy & Timeless Wisdom,” and even a crypto-meme of the autodidact philosopher smoking his pipe and “laser eyes,” under the username Alan “Bitcoin sign” Watts “high voltage sign.”

Not sure what Watts would think about the cult-level meme, which would seem out of place for Grateful Dead lyricist and self-proclaimed cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one of the early proponents of decentralized digital currencies.

Understanding memetics

Other protagonists of Haight-Ashbury’s heyday as intellectual influencers never escaped its excesses and demise, but Watts’ accessible, comprehensible, and inspiring content is trounced and remixed to appear in today’s language of minimum viable “units of culture” or repurposed messages designed to spread with ease in between the cracks of today’s algorithms.

Alan Watts speeches were given by somebody conscious of the power of repackaging bits of wisdom from different traditions into an attractive spiritual toolbox comprehensible to those yearning for a spiritual connection in an era of existential angst. In that way, he was more a sane, honest, and wholesome pop guru than an intellectual philosopher, somebody with the intuition that, in the future, recorded messages would be shared at ease. Or, as the Whole Earth Catalog collaborator and Wired founder Kevin Kelly explains in The Inevitable:

“Remixing- the arrangement and reuse of existing pieces- plays havoc with traditional notions of property and ownership. If a melody is a piece of property you own, like your house, then my right to use it without permission or compensation is very limited.”

Whether memetics and neural networks feeding new artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT find Alan Watts meaningful or not is another story. Still, he seems to stick around thanks to the accessibility of his thoughts (a Reddit post from a few weeks ago shows the outcome of a ChatGPT query: “Imagine a conversation between Jerry Garcia and Alan Watts”). YT and Tiktok videos, Instagram messages, podcast specials on him remix music, images and fragments of his speeches (often so minimized and out of context that they blend ideally in the new social streams).

Watts was also a good storyteller capable of bringing to the masses metaphysical concepts of different traditions and, despite the hippy allure of his late years spared between Sausalito and Druid Heights (his learning sanctuary in the then hippy enclave near Mount Tamalpais north of San Francisco) the English “pop philosopher” was far from a charlatan, as anybody can attest by exploring some of his lectures (Thusness is a good place to start) and essays.

Fit for countercultural California

Showing a premature interest in scholastic philosophy, Watts (born in South-East London in 1915) didn’t get a scholarship he deserved in Oxford; later in life, he considered this early development as the reason why he decided to take “education” on his own hands by becoming a “disciplined autodidact.” After attending The King’s School in Canterbury, Watts ended up working at a printing house, then at a bank, though he began attending the Buddhist Lodge in his spare time and read widely.

Watts biography is far from conventional. Unlike his compatriot and acquaintance in California Aldous Huxley, issued from a cultivated and hyper-achieving upper-class English family, Alan Watts lacked the connections and social respectability by birth that could have shaped a more conventional scholar life in other circumstances.

He married young before leaving Britain for the US. Eleanor Everett, whom he had met at the Buddhist Lodge in 1936, became his wife in 1938 and remained so in 1949, though Watts continued his epistolary relation with his former mother-in-law after that date. He married Dorothy DeWitt in 1950 before moving to California in 1951 and had five children (he had two daughters from his first marriage). Things deteriorated with Dorothy, and they divorced in the early 1960s. When he married Jane Yates King in 1964, Watts embarked on building a recorded legacy, but it was the poet Jean Burden who inspired the book Nature, Man and Woman (1958).

On his lack of asceticism or absence of Zen rigor, he acknowledged his personal contradictions nonchalantly, as a reader of Nietzsche would have done, defining himself as:

“an intellectual, a Brahmin, a mystic and also somewhat of a disreputable epicurean who has three wives, seven children and five grandchildren.”

However, this lack of a predefined life career opened to him a world of adventure and learning mixed with life experiences closer to those of a Jack London character than to a Cambridge philosopher: when he left Europe for the US in 1938, he was already reading copiously on Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism, and it was in New York City when he studied Zen (he’d introduce the school to the post-war nonconformists with his 1957 book The Way of Zen), then entered an Anglican theological seminary in Illinois in which he studied the Christian scriptures, theology, and church history.

Bruce Lee was a devotee of Alan Watts

By the time World War Two ended in 1945, Watts was an Episcopal priest, and one very particular one for that matter, cultivating his interest (and writing copiously on it) in Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism, but also read anthropological studies on Native American shamanism:

“A shaman is the holy man in a culture that is still hunting, it isn’t settled, it isn’t agrarian. There is a very strong and important difference between a shaman and a priest. A priest receives his ordination from his superiors. He receives something from a tradition which is handed down.”

Later in his life, he would declare in a characteristic syncretic fashion:

“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.”

“A shaman doesn’t. He receives his enlightenment by going off into the forest by himself to be completely alone. In other words, a shaman is a man who has undergone solitariness. He has gone away into the forest to find out who he really is, because it’s very difficult to find that out while you’re with other people, and the reason is that other people are busy all the time telling you who you are, in many many ways, by the laws they impose on you, by the behavior ruts they set on you, by the things they tell you, by the fact that they always call you by your name, and by the fact that when you live among people you have to be in a state of ceaseless chatter.”

“But if you want to find out who you are before your father and mother conceived you, who you really are, you almost have to go off by yourself. You go into the forest, and stop talking, and even stop thinking words, and be absolutely alone, and listen to the great silences. And then if you’re lucky you recover from the illusion, that your just little me that is so and so, and you reach the state of Nirvana.”

American post-war affluence and cultural dominance in a world divided into two Cold War civilization models spread thanks to the soft power of pop culture and its influence in what people already called “cybernetics” before the arrival of personal computing.

It wasn’t a coincidence that fringe ideologies, non-conformism, and social experimentation influenced culture the way they did, as some protagonists from the sixties and seventies could personally talk on a given day with Ken Kesey, Gregory Bateson, Stewart Brand, and Alan Watts.

Limits of pop culture: beyond memetics?

Like the science fiction writer Aldous Huxley and the anthropologist and early explorer of cybernetics Gregory Bateson, Alan Watts had arrived in California after acquiring a solid education in the humanities in the United Kingdom and was poised to influence the ideas about openness and content sharing that would later explode with the Internet.

Watts many books, lectures, interviews, recorded classes, and conversations influenced thousands of people at a time, especially those prone to embrace Eastern thought. A certain type of non-conformist from the Western world ended up imitating the generational idols and their spiritual and substance experimentation, as well as their preferred introductory books: Hermann Hesse, the Bhagavad Gita, Carlos Castaneda, New Journalism novels and stories, and Watts’ books, especially The Way of Zen.

Watts deserved respect and a coherent study. With all his contradictions and shortcomings, he knew a good deal of Eastern philosophy and Western theology, addressing his subjects in a way no charlatan could ever accomplish. But, as a popular interpreter of Zen in the West, he could never contradict his critics when they argued that anybody who’s never been to the Far East, nor studied for long periods with a Zen master (the latter may be a fallacy after all; he was only 21 when he met Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki, causing an impression on him) could become an interpreter of Eastern thought.

In October 1973, Watts returned from a lecture tour across Europe; he had become a pop star in his own right. He died a month later in his cabin in Druid Heights, under circumstances never clarified by those who were with him near the Mandala House in Druid Heights. He had planned his death meticulously, according to his son Mark Watts.

Watts died 50 years ago this year. Most scholars from his generation who mocked and despised him have been forgotten, but Watts sticks around as an organic and ever-evolving part of pop culture. He spoke in aphorisms, and his literateness, wit, and lucidity are difficult-to-resist evergreens.