Book Reviews

Review: The Wisdom of Insecurity

This week I’m reading The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts – a classic and essential reading in the Age of Anxiety. This was the first of Alan Watts’ books that I read so it has a special place on my bookshelves. I’ve returned to it many times and always find it illuminating and entertaining – a practical demonstration of Zen mind in action.

The Wisdom of Insecurity explores our doomed quest for psychological security and demonstrates, through many examples, the impossibility of ever achieving it. We search for security through all kinds of certainty, but our minds deceive us every step of the way. Our insecurity arises directly out of our belief in the separate self which needs, more than anything else, to feel secure.

“There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. … If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the ‘I’, but it is just the feeling of being an isolated ‘I’ which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want. … The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”

The only way to free ourselves is to recognise we will never achieve security. That may sound depressing, but to see reality as it is – always changing and never certain – frees the mind from grasping at false hopes and leaves us free to really live:

“Of course it sounds as if it were the most abject fatalism to have to admit that I am what I am, and that no escape or division is possible. It seems that if I am afraid, then I am ‘stuck’ with fear. But in fact I am chained to the fear only so long as I am trying to get away from it. On the other hand, when I do not try to get away I discover that there is nothing ‘stuck’ or fixed about the reality of the moment. When I am aware of this feeling without naming it, without calling it ‘fear’, ‘bad’, ‘negative’, etc. it changes instantly into something else and life moves freely ahead. The feeling no longer perpetuates itself by creating the feeler behind it.”

The ‘feeler’ being ‘the self’, which is a total illusion. This sense of separation lies at the bottom of all our troubles and makes us look for meaning in all the wrong places:

“…absurdities arise when we think that the kind of language we use or the kind of logic with which we reason can really define or explain the ‘physical’ world. Part of man’s frustration is that he has become accustomed to expect language and thought to offer explanations which they cannot give. To want life to be ‘intelligible’ in this sense is to want it to be something other than life. It is to prefer a motion-picture film to a real, running man. To feel that life is meaningless unless ‘I’ can be permanent is like having fallen desperately in love with an inch.”

The problem isn’t the thoughts we have about life, but the fact that we believe in the self we think is having these thoughts. The ‘I’ is the problem:

“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the ‘I’ out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realisation that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate ‘I’ or mind can be found.”

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