The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is a book by Alan Watts, which tackles psychological security. This topic is even more important than ever before with how quickly our world is changing and evolving. This can cause an increase in anxiety as we find ourselves to be insecure. Watts argues that this is just the reality of life. It is not in finding security, but in acceptance, where we might find salvation from anxiety and insecurity.
Two Kinds of Anxiety
On the one hand, there is the anxiety that one may be missing something, so that the mind flits nervously and greedily from one pleasure to another, without finding rest and satisfaction in any. On the other, the frustration of having always to pursue a future good in a tomorrow which never comes, and in a world where everything must disintegrate, gives men an attitude of “What’s the use anyhow?”
Both these anxieties cheapen the present experience. We are constantly jumping from one pleasure to the next, trying to fill our pleasure quota, hence not appreciating each individual pleasure or we are ignoring the goodness in the present because we think our future will bring us even greater pleasure. This comparison with the future boon then makes it impossible for the present worthwhile.
Both these anxieties leave us unsatisfied.
We crave distraction—a panorama of sights, sounds, thrills, and titillations into which as much as possible must be crowded in the shortest possible time.
The Dichotomy of Pain & Pleasure
If we are to have intense pleasures, we must also be liable to intense pains. The pleasure we love, and the pain we hate, but it seems impossible to have the former without the latter. Indeed, it looks as if the two must in some way alternate, for continuous pleasure is a stimulus that must either pall or be increased. And the increase will either harden the sense buds with its friction, or turn into pain. A consistent diet of rich food either destroys the appetite or makes one sick.
If then we are to be fully human and fully alive and aware, we must suffer for our pleasures. Without such willingness, there can be no growth in the intensity of consciousness.
Pain and pleasure are related to one another. In order to have the highest sense of pleasure, we have to be open to the highest sense of pain. For example, often the highest form of pleasure comes after something we have poured our heart and soul into achieving. However, the pain related to the failure of such a venture is also extreme. But, if we have suffered enough disappointments and failures in life, then we lower our hopes and goals and with it, we lower our potential pleasure and pain feedback. However, this is then dimming the experience of life. In order to fully and vividly experience life, we have to accept the possibility of the highest form of pain, so its equal pleasure is also available to us.
Why It’s Hard To Be Happy
The real problem does not come from any momentary sensitivity to pain, but from our marvellous powers of memory and foresight—in short from our consciousness of time. For the animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable. But man is hardly satisfied with this at all. He is much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations—especially the latter.
Again, it is our sense of past and future that can make it difficult to be happy. Our past disappointments and failures haunt us and follow our present actions. Once more, our present goals suffer because of the memory of pain attached to us. Likewise, our sense of the future makes us always look forward to the next thing. The next goal. The next moment of pleasure or happiness makes it difficult to be happy in the present.
This, then, is the human problem: there is a price to be paid for every increase in consciousness. We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain. By remembering the past we can plan for the future. But the ability to plan for pleasure is offset by the “ability” to dread pain and to fear the unknown. Furthermore, the growth of an acute sense of the past and the future gives us a correspondingly dim sense of the present.
What to do then? Often, to make progress in life, we have to sacrifice pleasures in the present moment for some future gain. However, it is the quality of the pleasure we sacrifice and the type of pleasure we hope to gain which matters most. Cheap pleasures like immediate satisfaction can cause one to fall into the previously mentioned trap of seeking one pleasure after the next. So, sacrificing cheap pleasures in order to satisfy a larger pleasure makes sense. But again, to chase a larger pleasure also means to open yourself up to a larger pain. Future happiness can be trap. A constant run where the goal line keeps moving with each stride you take.
To pursue it (the future) is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you share it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.
Awareness is one way to appreciate the present moment and, with it, happiness.
Working rightly, the brain is the highest form of “instinctual wisdom.” Thus it should work like the homing instinct of pigeons and the formation of the foetus in the womb—without verbalizing the process or knowing “how” it does it. The self-conscious brain, like the self-conscious heart, is a disorder, and manifests itself in the actor feeling of separation between “I” and my experience. The brain can only assume its proper behaviour when consciousness is doing what it is desired for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it.
Listen To The Body
[…] we have been taught to neglect, despise, and violate our bodies, and to put all faith in our brains. Indeed, the special disease of civilized man might be described as a block or schism between his brain (specially, the cortex) and the rest of his body […] we have allowed brain thinking to develop and dominate your lives out of all proportion to “instinctual wisdom,” which we are allowing to slump into atrophy. As a consequence, we are at war within ourselves—the brain desiring things which the body does not want, and the body desiring things which the brain does not allow; the brain giving directions which the body will not follow, and the body giving impulses which the brain cannot understand.
Our body often craves simple and necessary pleasures. The body wishes to move, to feel, to exercise its senses. It is made to explore and experience life. But our brain can fill our mind with more wants and needs than necessary. It can make us lazy when our body desires to exercise. It can make us gorge on food when our body has already had enough. It can make us overlook the simple, everyday pleasures of life when our body simply wishes to take in the sunlight, or feel the wind as we go for a pleasant walk.
Human desire tends to be insatiable. We are so anxious for pleasure that we can never get enough of it. We stimulate our sense organs until they become insensitive, so that if pleasure is to continue they must have stronger and stronger stimulants. In self dense the body gets ill from the strain, but the brains wants to go on and on.
Because we are always looking for greater pleasure, the smaller, mere regular pleasure goes unnoticed. The instinct to live in the present is ignored.
But to be used rightly it (brain) must be put in its place, for the brain is made for man, not man for his brain. In other words, the function of the brain is to serve the present and the real, not to send man chasing wildly after the phantom of the future.
Awareness Without Judgement
To be aware of life, of experience as it is at this moment, without any judgement or ideas about it. In other words, You have to see and feel what you’re experiencing as it is, and not as it is named. This very simple “opening of the yes” brings about the most extraordinary transformation of understanding and living, and shows that many of our most baffling problems are pure illusions.
Instead of seeking something, what we might actually need is to let go and be aware of what is happening to us and around us. And do it in a way where we don’t bring our past judgements and baggage with us.
The truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light, an art not unlike sculpture, in which the artist creates, not by building, but by hacking away.
This is what it means to be present in the moment. To allow the experience of the now to wash over you without trying to dissect it, analyze it, or make sense of it.
To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening. To understand joy or fear, you must be wholly and undivided aware of it. So long as you are calling it names and saying, “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you’re not being aware of it. Fear, pain, sorrow, and boredom must remain problems if we do not understand them, but understanding requires a single and undivided mind. This, surely, is the meaning of that strange saying, “If thine eye be single, they whole body shall be full of light.”
Art of Living
The art of living in this “predicament” is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past and the known on the other. It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.
The art of living also requires an acceptance of change. Everything, including us, is in a state of flux. By accepting this, you aren’t married to one single idea about life or about yourself. You allow yourself to be flexible and adapt as the world, and yourself, change.
Struggle as we may, “fixing” will never make sense out of change. The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
Often, the beauty of life is in the fact that everything is dying. That the present moment will soon become the past. This phase in life will soon be over. This pleasure you are feeling will soon end. When you know everything is changing and hence, dying, you come to appreciate the momentarily understanding that you gain.
The truth is rather that the images, though beautiful in themselves, come to life in the act of vanishing.
We must repeat: memory, thought, language, and logic are essential to human life. They are one half of sanity. But a person, a society which is only half sane is insane. To look at life without words is not to lose the ability to form words—to think, remember, and plan. To be silent is not to lose your tongue. On the contrary, it is only thought silence that one can discover something new to talk about. One who talked incessantly, without stopping to look and listen, would repeat himself ad nauseam.