Book Excerpts

Alan Watts’ Pain and Time

Alan Watts was one of the foremost interpreters of Eastern philosophy in Europe and the United States in the mid 20th century. This extract from his book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ talks about our tendency to reject pain in the service of pleasure, and how in doing so we are ultimately shying from the full potential of our lives.

 

If we are to be fully human and fully alive and aware, it seems that we must be willing to suffer for our pleasures. Without such willingness, there can be no growth in the intensity of consciousness. Yet, generally speaking, we are not willing, and it may be thought strange that we can be. For “nature in us” so rebels against pain that the very notion of “willingness” to put up with it beyond a certain point may appear possible and meaningless.

Under these circumstances the life that we live is a contradiction and a conflict. Because consciousness must involve both pleasure and pain, to strive for pleasure to the exclusion of pain is, in effect, to strive for the loss of consciousness. Because such a loss is in principle the same as death, this means that the more we struggle for life (as pleasure), the more we are actually killing what we love.

Indeed, this is the common attitude of man to so much that he loves. For the greater part of human activity is designed to make permanent those experiences and joys which are only lovable because they are changing. Music is a delight because of its rhythm and flow. Yet the moment you arrest the flow or prolong a note or chord beyond its time, the rhythm is destroyed. Because life is likewise a flowing process, change and death are its necessary parts. To work for their exclusion is to work against life.

 

Alan Watts (1915-1973)
From: The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety