Alan Watts: Life is Not a Journey

River going through the foothills

Back in 2009, before the internet felt like a giant advertisement created by a faceless corporation, I used to use a site called StumbleUpon. It no longer exists, but is now a site called “Mix,” which just isn’t the same.

On Stumble Upon, you would click a button, and the site would deliver an awesome webpage. I found beautiful photographs from around the world & open-minded articles from unique perspectives, including one that changed the way I thought about life.

Alan Watts’ Philosophy on Life: It’s Musical

At 17 years old, I heard words which sent me on a journey toward living my life in the present moment. I wasn’t able to find the animated video that I originally saw on StumbleUpon, but I tracked down the audio file, which you can listen to below:

I’ve also transcribed the full text:

“Existence, the physical universe, is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere. That is to say, it doesn’t have some destination that it ought to arrive at. But it is best understood by analogy with music. Because music, as an art form, is essentially playful. We say you play the piano. You don’t work the piano. Why? Music differs from, say, travel.

When you travel, you are trying to get somewhere. And of course, we because being a very compulsive and purposive culture, are busy getting everywhere faster and faster and faster until we eliminate the distance between places. I mean, with modern jet travel you can arrive, almost instantaneously. What happens as a result of that is that the two ends of your journey become the same place. So you eliminate the distance, and you eliminate the journey. Because the fun of the journey is to travel, not to obliterate travel.

So then, in music though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. If that were so, 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 cord, because that’s the end. Say when dancing, you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room, that’s where you should arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.

Now, but we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded. And what we do, is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system, with a kind of ‘come on kitty kitty kitty!’ And now you go to kindergarten you know, and that’s a great thing, because when you finish that, you’ll get into first grade. And then come on, first grade leads to second grade, and so on, and then you get out of grade school and you go to high school, and it’s revving up, the thing is coming! Then you’re going to go to college, by Joe, then you’ll get into graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school, you’ll go out to join the world.

And then you’ll get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make. And you’re going to make that, and all the time, the thing is coming! It’s coming! It’s coming! That great thing, the success you’re working for. Then when you wake up one day about 40-years-old, you say “my God, I’ve arrived. I’m there.” And you don’t feel very different from what you’ve always felt.

And there’s a slight let down, because you feel there’s a hoax. And there was a hoax. A dreadful hoax. They made you miss everything. By expectation.

Look at the people who lived to retire, and put those savings away. And then when they’re 65, they don’t have any energy left, they’re more or less impotent, and they go and rot in an old people’s senior citizens community.

Because we’ve simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.”

After hearing this, I realized that I was living my life a step ahead, always looking at the goal of success and neglecting what I was experiencing in the present moment. Often, my mind would turn to regrets from the past, and I’d be consumed by the grief they would bring to me.

This quote inspired me to stop viewing life as a grandiose pilgrimage with a set destination, but as something that is happening right now, which I could easily miss out on if I wasn’t careful.

In order to fully experience life, I wanted to start staying focused on what I was doing at the present time, which is called mindfullness.

Working Toward Mindfullness

I will never be finished with journeying toward mindfullness, but over the years I’ve made strides in living mentally in the present. I learned that it’s easiest to be mindful while doing things I enjoy, no matter how simple & routine.

A year out of college, I was going through a challenging time. When my memories of the past weren’t tormenting me, I was overwhelmed with worry about my future. I thought I would never be happy again.

What really helped me out of this rut was creating a list of 20 self-soothing items in my immediate environment. Burning a candle, dancing, cooking, painting my nails, or even just looking at a flower bush outside of my apartment. While my life was in turmoil, I was pleasantly surprised at how taking part in these basic, accessible activities could bring me joy, if I did them mindfully.

Mindfullness Meditation

Next, I started getting help from a therapist who is also teaches meditation. Today, I meditate for 10 minutes every morning, using the mindfullness/contemplative meditation. The practice involves sitting in an intentional posture, with my eyes open. Each time a thought enters my head, I label it as thinking, and shift my awareness back to my breath. Doing this has increased my focus and made me aware of my thoughts and their relation to my feelings. Both of those things greatly aid me in making friends with myself and being present for life every day.

Mindfullness doesn’t mean always being happy, though it can bring great happiness. It means living fully, through the good and the bad, and welcoming whatever life brings. One of my goals in life is to have meaningful experiences. But what joy would these bring me if I never get to experience them fully?

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