A Dead Philosopher Makes New Connections on YouTube
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because spiritual reincarnation is often just a technological leap away.
Alan Watts was a walking TED Talk. The British Zen Buddhist philosopher and self-described “spiritual entertainer” could hold a room in the thrall of his engaging personality, prophetic voice and seemingly endless extemporaneous wisdom. Aldous Huxley once called Watts, who carried a silver cane for “pure swank,” “half monk and half racecourse operator.” Watts could talk for hours without notes, entertaining large audiences with his charm and a steady smorgasbord of easily digestible spiritual wisdom.
So it’s rather fitting that Watts, who died in 1973, is presently enjoying a second life on YouTube, where decades-old recordings of his lectures — invariably accompanied by classical music and video montages of scenic splendor — garner millions of views. Watts wrote more than 25 books and countless essays, helping popularize Eastern philosophy among Western audiences. But the charismatic guru has never had more eyes and ears than he enjoys now in a chaotic online universe where the prepackaged mini-lectures of his wisdom provide a rare digital sanctuary for reflection and contemplation.
Watts’ lyrical evocations of Zen-like concepts are brilliantly tailored to the egocentric curiosity of educated Westerners.
Born in Kent in 1915, Alan Watts began earthly life in suburban England, where the boarding school prodigy and son of a Michelin tire salesman converted to Buddhism at age 13. Watts never earned a college degree, but the autodidact published his first book at 20 and studied as a Zen monk before pivoting to become an Episcopalian priest in the U.S. before falling out with the church and his first wife over his unorthodox lifestyle (i.e., living in a polyamorous relationship).
Ultimately, Watts ended up where most consciousness-seeking, free-love hippies of his era wound up: the Bay Area. There he preached a grab-bag Zen philosophy that embraced subjects like the eternal present, the wisdom of the body and the pursuit of one’s passions. And somehow, despite peddling an Eastern philosophical tradition that largely rejects words and labels, Watts’ lyrical evocations of Zen-like concepts are brilliantly tailored to the egocentric curiosity of educated Westerners — something that comes through in his greatest YouTube hits. Two of the more impressive compositions:
Let It Happen: This lecture fragment reflects a favorite theme of Watts’ — the idea that life is not a journey, but rather “musical in nature,” and therefore we must let go and trust it to happen by itself.
Falling in Love: Set to a montage of haunting scenes from the Spike Jonze movie Her (in which Watts makes a posthumous artificial intelligence cameo) and poignant composition by the brilliant young Mexican composer Jorge Méndez, this Watts gem explores the nature of love, which entails taking a “ghastly risk” and surrendering entirely to another person.
Watts paved the way for the self-help New Age philosophy of today, and it’s not surprising that, in the YouTube generation, his easy spiritualism has a particular appeal to millennials. Sure, there are pitfalls to Watts’ brand of oversimplified mass education, says Jules Evans, a British philosopher and the author of Holiday From the Self: An Accidental Ayahuasca Adventure, but his writings and lectures continue to help those struggling to find meaning in their lives. “The general tendency of our culture is to ignore the mystical altogether,” observes Evans, “so it’s wonderful when a popularizer like Watts manages to inject some hint of spiritual wisdom into mass culture.”
The life Watts led outside his lectures was often removed from the enlightened one he preached. He was an alcoholic, a failed father and husband and a rampant philanderer — one who often took a different woman home after every lecture. By the time of his death, at age 58, Watts was drinking a bottle of vodka a day, and much of his lecturing income went to paying alimony and child support for his two ex-wives and seven children. Still, he was generous and widely loved. “He was a kind man, flawed, but he knew his own flaws,” says Evans. “He just couldn’t change them.”
And whatever his flaws, Watts made the most out of life and has inspired thousands of others to do the same. He undoubtedly would have loved to hear his own voice crying out from the YouTube wilderness and wholeheartedly embraced the technology for reaching a whole new generation of disciples. As Watts himself put it: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it and join the dance.”