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Tuesday, 2 July 2013

What's your style?

I recently came across this talk by the philosopher and populariser of eastern mysticism, Alan Watts, about the choices we make in our lives (via the superb Brain Pickings). He asks, "what would you do if money were no object?"

Watts was my first intellectual hero.  He had discovered Buddhism as a child, and later moved to San Francisco a decade before the 60s' embrace of Eastern philosophies. Many scholars are quite sniffy about Watts' writings.  I suspect that their disregard is partly because his writing is clear and rather beautiful: an unforgivable sin for most academics.

I can't quite remember why I suddenly decided to read his "Way of Zen", but the effect was profound.  I had just left school, and the source of its influence was not so much in the content in as in the implicit insistence that there are alternative ways to thinking to those with which we had grown up and become accustomed. Like many people, my schooling had been more about compliance than education, in any meaningful sense.  Watts (and other heroes like Jiddo Krishnamurti, Bertrand Russell, and Robert Pirsig) insisted that each of us had a choice about the paths we followed. Nothing was determined.

Like most very important question, Watts' is beguilingly simple. And, of course, some may say that the question is pointless or ridiculous because money is an object.  Very few of us can do exactly as we please. We have responsibilities, bills to pay, people to look after. And if money was no object, I probably wouldn't be speaking to the likes of you!

But that misses the point.

Remember Alice stumbling through Wonderland, when she came across a strange cat?

‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly … ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’  ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.  ‘I don’t much care where,’ said Alice.  ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.  ‘So long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.  ‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

I understand Watts to be saying much the same thing: "it all depends on where you want to get to".

Which reminds me of a comment from the splendid old queer Quentin Crisp:
'It's no good running a pig farm badly to 30 years while saying, "really I was meant to be a ballet dancer."  By then, pigs will be your style.'