Thank you, Tim, for introducing me to Alan. Hello Alan.
Alan can’t hear me because he’s dead. Sorry, it’s true. He died in 1973. Yet his ideas are as fresh as a daisy, despite pushing up daises. I trust he won’t mind my irreverence as Alan Watts was a Buddhist and a philosopher. He also laughed a lot.
At some point (date unknown to me) he was recorded in conversation. Do listen here. It’s lovely to hear his humour and interesting how dated some of his language also seems to us now (more of that below).
In this recording he talks about a misconception we have of life. He believes we see it as a journey, whereas it is more of a dance. Yes, the ‘journey thing’ has been explored a lot recently, but let’s pause for a moment. He was talking about these things fifty years ago.
Alan was a British philosopher – born in 1915 in a tiny village in Kent, not far from where I live. He became our ‘interpreter in the West,’ helping us understand the ‘East,’ introducing us to Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. And whilst yoga, mindfulness and gong baths are very ‘now,’ think back to the world he inhabited then. He was clearly ahead of his time.
Alan believed life was essentially playful with no real destination as such. “You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room where you should arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.”
Most of us stubbornly cling to the idea that the end point is the point. But Alan would disagree. Take music, for example. If we follow our logic to its conclusion he says “the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts just to hear one crashing chord, because that’s the end.”
What we’ve been taught in school and in our work is that we must delay gratification… for most of our lives. We’ve been sold an untruth that in the future we will get our prize.
“All the time this thing is coming. That great thing, the success you’re working for,” says Alan. But we’ll wake up when we’re 40 “and say ‘my God I’ve arrived. I’m there.’ And we don’t feel very different… because we’ve simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line.”
“Alright then,” you say. “That’s all well and good, but what can we do about this whole end point vs. journey thing?” I can hear Alan tapping his pipe on the armrest of his chair. He wants to share an idea from afar. Go on then Alan, I’ll let you have the last word.
“We thought of life by analogy with a journey. With a pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end… but we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing. You were supposed to sing and dance while the music was being played.”
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan