The Wisdom Of Insecurity Book Review | The Futility Of Living For The Future

The Wisdom of Insecurity
Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

When you’re listening to a song, do you skip the middle part because you’re desperate to hear the end? Or when you’re eating a meal, do you wolf it down because you can’t wait to reach the final bite?

Me neither. It’s sacrificing the joy of the experience. Living with the end in mind. But according to British philosopher Alan Watts, this is exactly how many of us live.

In 1951, while Watts was teaching comparative philosophy and psychology in San Francisco, he published a short 150 page book called The Wisdom of Insecurity, which was a distillation of his philosophical views up until that point. As a lifelong lover of Eastern philosophy, Watts’s views are heavily influenced by Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which he eventually helped to popularise in the west, and which form the essence of his wonderful little book.

According to Watts, many of us fail to live in the present moment. We’re constantly focusing on future goals or ruminating about the past, at the expense of the only thing that actually exists—this moment, right now. When we forgo the present moment to brood on a long-dead past, or an ethereal future that doesn’t yet exist, we miss the splendour of the world in front of us. We live with our eyes closed, our ears and noses blocked, our touch numbed, and our taste dulled. The plans that we obsessively make for ourselves are useless, because when they finally arrive, we’re not experiencing them because we’re busy making new plans. As long as we continue to live inside our own heads, always planning and hoping for something better, we’re mere spectators; sitting in the bleachers while our life is played out in front of us, lacking the courage to join the game.

“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”

Alan Watts

Humanity’s obsession with forward-thinking has cheapened the present moment—the only thing that actually exists. To use another of Watts’s genius analogies: it’s like eating the menu instead of the meal. We obsess over concepts, ideas, and plans that we think will make us happy, while forgoing the very thing that will make us happy: the real world.

“If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death.”

Alan Watts

For Watts, our obsession with the future comes from our sense of insecurity. We know that the universe constantly changes; that nothing lasts forever, including ourselves. And it terrifies us. So to gain a morsel of control, and to make our future feel a little more secure, we plan, plan, plan, desperately trying to stifle a truth that we cannot bear to hear: you have little control, and one day, you’re going to die.

It’s futile, of course. And as with many of life’s troubles, the answer is devilishly simple yet difficult in practice—acceptance. You cannot make yourself secure in a world that is based on insecurity and change. So there’s nothing for you to do but accept your inevitable death, and then start paying attention.

“To put is still more plainly: 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.”

Alan Watts

At its core, The Wisdom of Insecurity is a book about mindfulness, which is a dime a dozen these days. But Watts is a wordsmith of such exceptional class, that when I chance on such a writer, the ubiquity of the subject no longer bores me into a lull, but instead hypnotises me, having been explained with captivating vigour and lucidity. This is the only book that I’ve finished and then restarted immediately. It was that good. 

Watts teaches us about mindfulness in a way that few other people can, and the result is 150-pages of fascinating, funny, and enriching philosophy.

Life is easier if you embrace change

Colourful universe

greg-rakozy-38802-unsplashPhoto by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Our universe has an insatiable tendency to change. Since the moment of its spectacular inception, in which a singularity of unfathomable density and temperature exploded with the strength of a million gods, the cosmos has undergone endless, beautiful revision.

The formation of subatomic particles – the tiniest specks known to us – went on to form larger atoms, raging stars, colossal planets, and expansive, glittering galaxies, all vacillating from one state to another, without purpose or need for reason. The horizon-spanning landmasses that support our species are constantly shifting back and forth, forging snow-laden mountains that soar into the luminous sky, or deep subterranean trenches that lay forever hidden in the impenetrable darkness. 99 percent of the species to have existed on planet Earth – over 5 billion unique groups – have found themselves extinct, subject to the relentlessly changing nature of our universe, in which each organism plays their short role before relinquishing their atoms to another venture.

The entire universe is, and always has been, in a state of flux. If the cosmos were a sentient being, one might assume that it behaves this way in order to keep things interesting. After all, nothing induces boredom quicker than a stale, changeless situation, lacking freshness and surprise. Variety is what makes our planet so intoxicating, and yet, as a species we have a foolish, unremitting desire to cling onto positive experiences, in an attempt to prevent their escape. We wail and squirm when a period of delight transforms into mediocrity, as if the cosmos will heed our complaints and alter its immutable proclivity for change. We frantically try to grasp onto every morsel of happiness that befalls us, praying that our kitten-like grip will somehow hold on, but failing every single time. We revolt against the inevitably of change, and it makes us depressed.

Two religions of the mysterious East – Buddhism and Taoism – can help us with this problem. Alan Watts – an influential figure who helped popularise Eastern philosophy in the West – called Buddhism the religion of no religion, due to its non-dogmatic, practical, and philosophical nature. Taoism has similar qualities. You won’t find a single prayer-receiving god in Buddhism or Taoism.

Buddhists believe that personal suffering is caused by our implacable tendency to become attached to what we desire, whether it be a pleasant emotion, removal of death, freedom from pain, or anything else that we crave. Surrendering our attachments leads to Nirvana, a state of blissful peace and liberation. When you consider the flux-like, constantly changing nature of the universe, this makes a hell of a lot of sense. It’s impossible to become attached to anything because it’ll soon change into something else, and by foolishly trying to lengthen the experience by clinging onto it – as though our grasping will prevent its transformation – we’re condemning ourselves to disappointment.

What is required is an unrelenting acceptance of our universe’s fluidity, in which we must enthusiastically immerse ourselves. We can no longer live under the foolish assumption that we can trap our positive experiences in a large jar and climb in with them whenever we’re feeling blue. Agreeable situations will emerge, be enjoyed, and then naturally transform into something else. We suffer needlessly because we revolt against the universe’s love of change.

“Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.” — Alan Watts

“If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.”
― Lao Tzu

Life is transition – you can’t pause the show and fix things into place, however much you’d like to. Things come and go naturally – resisting this fact pollutes our souls with misery.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” —Alan Watts

Our existence can be considered a glorious, dynamic adventure, brimming with experiences both light and dark, and constantly exciting. We make our way through a chapter and look back over our exploits, perhaps with a tinge of regret that things have to change, until we’re ready to move onto something provocatively brand new.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” — Jack Kerouac

The ultimate change that we resist is our own death. We desperately want to step outside the confines of our changing universe, so that we may dodge its brutal laws and become eternal gods. Our capacity for memory and prediction allow us to delve into the past and future, which are incredible tools for survival, but curse us with the desire to live everlastingly. Before we developed these skills, the only thing that existed for us was this moment. We had no concept of eternity, nor any desire to become acquainted with it. We were free to live in the forever changing now – a perfectly mindful existence. Mental time-hopping may have helped to escalate our species to the top of the food chain, but it’s instilled a debilitating fear of our eventual demise. Funnily enough, most of us have already died many times over. Our cells are constantly croaking and being replaced anew, including the parts of ourselves that we personally identify with – our consciousness-creating brain cells.

“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.” — Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Memory cleverly pulls the wool over our eyes, creating an ongoing impression of your own identity. But on an atomic level, you are not the same person that you were when you started reading this article.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus

The atoms that make up our bodies are so copious, durable and replaceable that there’s a good chance of us containing a little bit of past genius:

“Atoms, in short, are very abundant. They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms– up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested– probably once belonged to Shakespeare.”
― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

On an atomic level, we’re all eternal – the atoms that make up our bodies will eventually depart, to become part of a chunky brown baobab tree on the plains of Africa, a humble poo-pushing dung beetle, or perhaps a future tyrannical politician. Though our consciousness expires, we survive. Humans are simply an insignificant expression of our ferociously dynamic universe; a cosmos that shakes and jives, splattering atoms across the face of gleaming galaxies, mixing and merging until something chimp-like emerges.

Change and variation is what makes our world endlessly breathtaking, and by realising that life would become monotonously stagnant without it, we can start to come to terms with our long and imperfect journey. Fear, sorrow and desperation are equally as important as courage, joy and contentment. Without death, we cannot hope to experience an exhilarating, spirited life. Change is what paints the world with luminous, spine-tingling colour; the dark hues are what make the light so gorgeously prevalent. All we need to do is take a deep breath, and plunge into it.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching