Historical Integral Thinkers: Alan Watts through the “Integral” lens

by editor

Considered from a superficial point of view, Alan Watts is not related to the Integral movement. He has not said much about the Integral movement, the levels of consciousness or for that matter, even used the term “Integral” in the sense in which we use it now. Alan Watts is basically a philosopher, thinker and speaker who was instrumental in bridging the East and the West. He did what anyone would call “popularization of Eastern philosophy to a Western audience”. Though apparently Alan Watts was nothing but an East-West philosopher who talked about mysticism, consciousness, stages of awareness, meditation etc., looking at him through the “Integral” lens would reveal his contribution to the Integral way of thought. As a reader of both Watts and Ken Wilber puts it on the blog Shamansun.wordpress.com, “Wilber taught himself to write by copying all of Watts’ books in longhand.”

Alan Watts’ Life and Works: Alan Watts was a British philosopher who migrated from England to the United States, bringing his love for Eastern Thought to a Western, materialistic audience. A speaker, writer and Zen Buddhist (in the ideological sense), Alan Watts has written more than 25 books, essays, articles on the nature of reality, consciousness, meaning of life, Zen, meaning and concept of God etc. An expert in comparative religion, Watts’ books The Spirit of Zen, The Way of Zen etc. brought an entire Western audience to the threshold of enlightenment through the Oriental way of life and thought.  But the question is, what did Alan Watts exactly contribute to Integralism?

Alan Watts’ Integralism: In one of his explanations on who is an individual in this Kosmos, Alan Watts opines an individual to be a “vortex in a river that can stay there for a long time.” The individual’s life can exist in the Kosmos and develop a sense of “unique and separate existence” as long as it is there, but once it dissolves, everything ends and a new vortex forms in some other place. Considered as a whole, it is simply water whirling in a particular way. This “integral” concept of the Individual as a part of the Whole (Universe) is found throughout Alan Watts’ works.

In much the same way, Watts insists on integration of everything in the Universe. According to him, every other view/idea/concept is both right and wrong, positive and negative. Nothing is absolutely the right way or the wrong way. Hence, what is required is an “integration” of ideas, an acceptance that can bring in an “integration”.  In his work This Is It, Watts states: “Psychologists with a slant to materialism therefore argue that mysticism is nothing more but sublimate sexuality and frustrated fleshliness, whereas the spiritists maintain that the love-imagery is nothing but allegory and symbolism never to be taken in its gross and animal sense. But is it not possible that both parties are right and wrong, and that the love of nature and the love of spirit are paths upon a circle which meet at their extremes? Perhaps the meeting is discovered only by those who follow both at once. Such a course seems impossible and inconsistent only if it can be held that love is a matter between alternatives, if, in other words, love is an exclusive attitude of mind which cleaves to on object and rejects all others. If so, it must be quite other than what is said to be God’s own love, ‘who maketh his sun to shine upon the evil and the good, and sendeth his rain upon the just and the unjust.’ Love is surely a disposition of the heart which radiates on all sides like light.” The line “But is it not possible that both parties are right and wrong…” is very “Integral” in spirit.

Alan Watts has contributed to the development of Buddhism in America. This has, in turn, influenced Wilber’s evolutionism in Up From Eden. “Wilber managed to elevate his two major contemplative interests (Vajrayana and Zen) to a unique evolutionary status. American Buddhism thus gained transpersonal qualifications which tended to glorify the roles of Chogyam Trungpa and Alan Watts…”, opines Shepherd in his Minds and Sociocultures (Vol. One).

Much of Watts’ “Integral” thinking was rooted in what is said to be his belief in the intimate connection between man and nature. In his work Psychedelics and Religious Experience, he says “Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and hallucination. For in a civilization equipped with immense technological power, the sense of alienation between man and nature leads to the use of technology in a hostile spirit – to the conquest of nature instead of intelligent co-operation with nature.” This is indeed the core thought pattern of the “Integral” consciousness. Like every other Integral philosopher, Watts believed that a change is coming and we need to open up for it. Watts’ ideology of peaceful co-existence with Nature can be useful in this climate of global warming and nuclear power.

Reference Links:

1. Alan Watts and his works

2. Alan Watts’ detailed biography

3. Alan Watts as a philosopher

4. Alan Watts on the “Integral” in his This Is It

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