The Illusion of Self | Alan Watts’ Philosophy

This article is based on a video titled “The False Idea of Who You Are – Alan Watts” by After Skool. The video delves into the complex subject of self-identity and the arbitrary lines we draw between what we consider to be voluntary and involuntary actions. Alan Watts, a renowned British philosopher, challenges conventional wisdom by questioning the very notion of the ‘self’ and its relation to the universe.


The Arbitrary Line Between Voluntary and Involuntary Actions

Alan Watts begins by questioning the distinction we make between voluntary and involuntary actions, using the example of moving one’s hand or breathing. He points out that the line we draw between what we control and what we don’t is arbitrary and not as clear-cut as we might think (it’s fascinating to consider that we often overlook this simple yet profound aspect of our existence). For instance, do you decide to decide when you open your hand? And if you don’t know how you make that decision, is it truly voluntary?

The Self as a Continuum with the Universe

Watts argues that if you truly understand yourself, you’ll realize that you are not separate from the universe but rather a part of it. Your body, including its so-called involuntary functions like blood circulation, is a continuous process with the cosmos. This realization can lead to a sense of unity and harmony, as you understand that even the stars shining in the sky are a part of the same energy system that you are.

The Ego

The concept of the ego is dissected as being merely a focus of conscious attention, akin to a radar on a ship that scans for problems. If you identify solely with this troubleshooter function, you’re likely to find yourself in a perpetual state of anxiety. Watts suggests that this identification is a form of illusion, and breaking free from it can lead to a more harmonious existence (this is where the philosophy really challenges our everyday perceptions).

Harmony in Discord

Watts introduces the idea that what may seem like discord or conflict at one level of existence can actually be harmony at a higher level. For example, the microorganisms fighting within your bloodstream contribute to your overall health. This perspective allows you to see the discords in your life as part of a larger, harmonious system, which can be both liberating and enlightening.

The Fundamental Nature of Existence

In the final thoughts of the video, Watts posits that everyone is fundamentally the ultimate reality, not in a religious sense but as the very fabric and structure of existence. This idea encourages you to see your existence as not just a random occurrence or a probationary period on Earth, but as an integral part of the universe.

The video by Alan Watts and After Skool serves as a compelling invitation to reconsider the way we view ourselves and our place in the cosmos, urging us to shed the illusions that keep us from recognizing our true nature.

The video

The Triviality of Modern Woes Through the Lens of Alan Watts

Alan Watts, a philosopher who often questioned the very fabric of our existence and the illusions that cloud our judgment, would likely have a unique perspective on the rising rates of depression over seemingly trivial issues. He might argue that the root of such emotional turmoil lies in our misplaced focus on the ego, a construct that serves merely as a radar for problems, scanning the environment and often magnifying minor issues into existential crises.

The Ego as the Amplifier of Trivial Concerns

In a world where social media and constant comparison have become the norm, Watts would probably point out that our egos are working overtime, identifying with every like, comment, or lack thereof as a measure of our worth (it’s as if we’ve forgotten that our value isn’t determined by external validation). This hyper-focus on trivial matters, he might say, is a symptom of identifying too closely with this egoic radar, which was never meant to define us but merely to alert us to potential challenges.

The Illusion of Separateness and Its Emotional Toll

Watts would likely emphasize that the feeling of depression over minor issues is exacerbated by the illusion of separateness, the false belief that we are isolated entities disconnected from the rest, and the rest of the universe. This illusion fosters a sense of vulnerability and defensiveness, making us susceptible to emotional upheaval over matters that, in the grand scheme of things, are inconsequential (it’s intriguing to think that our emotional well-being could be so influenced by a mere illusion).

The Perspective of Cosmic Insignificance

Drawing from his teachings about our interconnectedness with the universe, Watts might encourage us to adopt a perspective of cosmic insignificance to alleviate our depressive tendencies. In recognizing that we are part of a much larger, harmonious system, the trivial problems that plague us lose their weight. This isn’t to belittle genuine struggles but to offer a broader viewpoint that can bring emotional relief (sometimes, a shift in perspective is all it takes to lighten our emotional load).

The Ultimate Reality as an Antidote to Modern Malaise

Finally, Watts would likely suggest that understanding our true nature as the ultimate reality could serve as an antidote to the depression arising from trivial concerns. By realizing that we are not just isolated egos but the very fabric of existence, we can liberate ourselves from the petty worries that consume us. This realization has the power not only to alleviate depression but also to enrich our lives with a sense of purpose and interconnectedness.

In the teachings of Alan Watts, we find a compelling framework for understanding why modern society is plagued by depression over seemingly minor issues. By shifting our focus away from the ego and towards a more universal understanding of existence, we can begin to free ourselves from the emotional traps set by trivial concerns.


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