Alan Watts Dispenses Wit & Wisdom on the Meaning of Life in Three Animated Videos

Since his death in 1973, the pop­u­lar British philoso­pher, writer, speak­er, and one­time-Epis­co­pal-priest-turned-stu­dent-of-Zen-and-wild­ly-eclec­tic-coun­ter­cul­tur­al-spir­i­tu­al-thinker Alan Watts has become a cot­tage indus­try of sorts. And if you were unfa­mil­iar with his work, you might think—given this descrip­tion and the men­tion of the word “industry”—that Watts found­ed some sort of self-help sem­i­nar series, the kind in which peo­ple make a con­sid­er­able invest­ment of time and mon­ey.

In a sense, he did: the Alan Watts Orga­ni­za­tion (pre­vi­ous­ly known as the Alan Watts Elec­tron­ic Uni­ver­si­ty, the Alan Watts Cen­ter, or the Alan Watts Project) main­tains Watts’ pro­lif­ic audio and video archives. Found­ed in the last year of his life by Watts and his son Mark, the Orga­ni­za­tion charges for access to most of his work. The col­lec­tions are pricey. Albums of talks on such sub­jects as Bud­dhism and Com­par­a­tive Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gion are exten­sive, but come at a cost.

Though the orga­ni­za­tion offers free con­tent, you could find your­self spend­ing sev­er­al hun­dred dol­lars to hear the col­lect­ed Watts lec­tures. It’s mon­ey the Mark Watts sug­gests cov­ers the “sub­stan­tial under­tak­ing” of dig­i­tiz­ing hun­dreds of hours of record­ings on lac­quered disks and mag­net­ic reels. These are noble and nec­es­sary efforts, but fans of Watts will know that hun­dreds of selec­tions from his deeply engag­ing talks are also freely avail­able on YouTube, many of them with nifty ani­ma­tions and musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment, like the videos here from After Skool.

Watts would like­ly have been pleased with this situation—he loved to give out wis­dom wide­ly and kept no eso­teric trade secrets. But he was also, by his own admis­sion, “a spiritual/philosophical enter­tain­er,” who made a liv­ing telling peo­ple some of the most unset­tling, coun­ter­in­tu­itive meta­phys­i­cal truths there are. He did it with humor, eru­di­tion and com­pas­sion, with intel­lec­tu­al clar­i­ty and rhetor­i­cal aplomb.

So what did he have to tell us? That we should join the church of Alan Watts? Attend his next lec­ture and buy his book? Shape our lives into an emu­la­tion of Alan Watts? Though he wore the trap­pings of a West­ern expos­i­tor of East­ern thought, and embraced all kinds of non-tra­di­tion­al beliefs and prac­tices, Watts was too iron­i­cal and detached to be a guru. He couldn’t take him­self seri­ous­ly enough for that.

If there’s any one thread that runs through the incred­i­bly broad range of sub­jects he cov­ered, it’s that we should nev­er take our­selves too seri­ous­ly either. We buy into sto­ries and ideas and think of them as con­crete enti­ties that form the bound­aries of iden­ti­ty and exis­tence: sto­ries like think­ing of life as a “jour­ney” on the way to some spe­cif­ic denoue­ment. Not so, as Watts says in the ani­mat­ed video at the top. Life is an art, a form of play: “the whole point of the danc­ing is the dance.”

But what about the mean­ing of life? Is Alan Watts going to reveal it in the last course of his ten-week ses­sion (payable in install­ments)? Will we dis­cov­er it in a series of self-improve­ment pack­ages? No. The mean­ing of life he says, is life. “The sit­u­a­tion of life is opti­mal.” But how is any­one sup­posed to judge what’s good with­out unchang­ing exter­nal stan­dards? A clas­sic Zen sto­ry about a Chi­nese farmer offers a con­cise illus­tra­tion of why we may have no need—and no real ability—to make any judg­ments at all.

You’ll find many more free excerpts of Watts’ lectures—of vary­ing lengths and with or with­out ani­ma­tions, on YouTube. To get a fur­ther taste of his spir­i­tu­al and philo­soph­i­cal dis­til­la­tions, see the links below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Wis­dom of Alan Watts in Four Thought-Pro­vok­ing Ani­ma­tions

Zen Mas­ter Alan Watts Explains What Made Carl Jung Such an Influ­en­tial Thinker

Take a Break from Your Fran­tic Day & Let Alan Watts Intro­duce You to the Calm­ing Ways of Zen

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Sandra says:

    I’m very con­fused about the mean­ing of life .…

  • K says:

    My under­stand­ing is that the mean­ing of life is sim­ply to live it. Take things as they come with great open­ness. Eas­i­er said than done. I found med­i­ta­tion to have helped.

  • Mike Mckellar says:

    What oth­ers find true I often find absurd. They hold their belief so dear­ly. I might be wrong. I can’t be as sure as they seem to be. No revealed truth for me. It’s lone­ly.

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