The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

@July 19, 2020


The Wisdom of Insecurity was published in 1951, but the problem Watts describes is timeless. The book is about the lingering feelings that prevent us from enjoying the present moment because we’re worrying about the future or regretting the past.

The power of memories and expectations is such that for most human beings the past and future are not as real, but more real than the present. The present cannot be lived happily until the past has been “cleared up” and the future is bright with promise.

Unfortunately, Watts argues, this sense of dread comes naturally, as a byproduct of evolution. Our ability to plan came with the consequence of worrying about the future.

To pursue [the future] is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

Watts’ remarks about how much effort we put into signaling social status were likely ahead of his time. Something I’ve thought about a lot lately, after looking for a new apartment, is how culture has influenced interior design. As we move from the 1950s to the 2000s, the kitchen opens up and becomes more central, connected to the living room. Similarly, cooking for oneself and others has become celebrated, and I think this is a sign of cultural progress.

The brainy modern loves not matter but measures, no solids but surfaces… Therefore he tends to put up structures which appear from the outside to be baronial mansions but are inwardly warrens. The individual living-units in these warrens are designed less for living as for creating an impression… such essential spaces for living (rather than mere “entertaining”) as the kitchen are reduced to small closets where one can hardly move—much less cook.

Watts is cautious to offer a clear solution to worry about the future and past. Rather, he suggests it’s more about recognizing the problem is there in the first place. It’s less doing something new, and more about no longer trying to escape the present moment.

So long as there is the motive to become something, so long as the mind believes in the possibility of escape from what is at this moment, there can be no freedom.

The one piece of “practical” advice Watts gives is to “Look!”. And to be more specific, to look with wonder. This feeling of wonder is very personal. Many people find it in nature, some in math or physics. In any case, I found this book helpful when it comes to noticing this feeling and embracing the present.