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An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence, by Brain Pickings

Stashed in: #happiness, Best PandaWhale Posts, Zen, Focus!, Attention, Awesome, life, Gandhi, Be here now., @brainpicker, Anxiety, Mindfulness, Breathe., Alan Watts

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Watts argues that our primary mode of relinquishing presence is by leaving the body and retreating into the mind — that ever-calculating, self-evaluating, seething cauldron of thoughts, predictions, anxieties, judgments, and incessant meta-experiences about experience itself. Writing more than half a century before our age of computers, touch-screens, and the quantified self, Watts admonishes:

The brainy modern loves not matter but measures, no solids but surfaces.


The working inhabitants of a modern city are people who live inside a machine to be batted around by its wheels. They spend their days in activities which largely boil down to counting and measuring, living in a world of rationalized abstraction which has little relation to or harmony with the great biological rhythms and processes. As a matter of fact, mental activities of this kind can now be done far more efficiently by machines than by men — so much so that in a not too distant future the human brain may be an obsolete mechanism for logical calculation. Already the human computer is widely displaced by mechanical and electrical computers of far greater speed and efficiency. If, then, man’s principal asset and value is his brain and his ability to calculate, he will become an unsaleable commodity in an era when the mechanical operation of reasoning can be done more effectively by machines.

Not just ability to calculate. Ability to focus attention is very important!

And upon what we focus.

What keeps us from happiness, Watts argues, is our inability to fully inhabit the present:

The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it 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.

Smartphones keep us from fully inhabiting the present.

They give so much but they do take that away.

Makes me think.

Alan Watts was one of the earlier westerners that really understood but it is very much zen, biased to awareness of basic human activities. However these basic activities are anchored to a pre-industrial past. 

While camping is enjoyable I don't think I want to encourage people to live in tents. 

You and your smart phone are in the present moment depending on your state of mind.  If I write this thinking deeply about who might read this and how can I help.  That is an aware act.  If I think, oh wil anyone read this, I hope they like me for it and maybe I will have a friend, not so much. 

Tibetan are different, they can be seen with phones, cameras and computers all the time.  I have received teachings via PowerPoint and video chat. 

If wandering around begging for food and meditating was an effective path should we encourage homelessness ?

The smartphone takes me out of my physical location and plugs me into the global hive mind.

If wandering around begging and meditating was effective then yes we should encourage it.

That's a big if.

I think the 2000 billionaires should wander around begging but that is about it. 

Plugging into the hive without a phone is better but you work with what you can do. 

Yes, you work with what you can do.

Billionaires do beg for something. They beg for those less well off than them to not come after them.

i love this.

Our physical body is always in the present moment.  

Reclaim your own body awareness and you'll gain a reliable foundation that reveals your basic mind in the present...

How do you reclaim body awareness?

Drop in to a yoga class with a great mindful teacher - it's that first step!

Any way that works for your imagination.  

If you're anxious about starting in a seemingly totally subjective frame, then you can start in good company where the ancients did and so many current esoteric practices might begin:

Your breathing.

Listen to it.

Feel it.

I believe this is why many people advocate yoga. For the breathing.

The breathing is just the start of it. Once you get into the Tantric aspects of it, the adepts are able to control nature, not just experience it. I think this is truly the next huge hack for our world, beyond hardware, beyond the body, beyond the brain even. Check out Dean Radin:   - and create your own custom universe. Beats 3-d printers :-)

I like the idea of creating my own custom universe. 

The thing about mindfulness is you do far less than you would normally do. Challenge is to undo the conditioning of decades of habits which forces you into perennial activity. As Gandhi once said, on normal days he meditates for one hour, on busy days he meditates for two :-)

Srini, I like that:

gandhi meditate quote

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