Alan Watts: Why Your Life Is Not A Journey

"Life is a journey" is a quote many have deeply resonated with early on in their seeking years. So it was a complete surprise to receive a compelling talk by Alan Watts titled quite the opposite stating: "Why your life is not a journey" which we share today. Hope you enjoy this week's Maitri Talk!

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Alan Watts was born in London in 1915, at the start of the first World War. At a young age he became fascinated with the Far East, and at fourteen he began to write and was published in the Journal of the London Buddhist Lodge before writing his first booklet on Zen in 1932. He moved to New York in 1938 and then to Chicago, where he served as an Episcopal priest for six years before leaving the Church.  

Alan Watts was profoundly influenced by the East Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Buddhism, and by Taoist thought, which is reflected in Zen poetry and the arts of China and Japan. After leaving the Church, he never became a member of another organized religion, and although he wrote and spoke extensively about Zen Buddhism, he was criticized by American Buddhist practicioners for not sitting regularly in zazen. Alan Watts responded simply by saying, "A cat sits until it is done sitting, and then gets up, stretches, and walks away."

On a related note to this week's talk, you may enjoy this essay "Life is not a journey" by Michael Neill

One of the recurring themes in my work with clients and groups is how differently people would approach their lives if they really saw that there's nothing additional needed in order to be happy and well. Well-being is our nature, yet we spend so much of our time chasing after it like a dog chasing it's own tail that we start to believe that the fact that we're doing it proves it's a good idea.

One example of this is the idea that "life is a journey." This has become so much a part of our cultural mythology that we forget it's just a metaphor, usually one offered up to counterbalance our overemphasis on goals and targets. The idea is that we become so obsessed with where we're headed that we don't notice where we are. So in order to have more fulfilling lives, we're supposed to stop and smell the roses along the way.

But why is the default setting directional movement? It's as though being on the move is what's natural and being where we are is a skill we have to learn. Yet my experience of life is the exact opposite.

Life is not a journey. Life just is.

And when we stop trying to turn it into something meaningful or productive, we have the opportunity to discover something true and wonderful:

There's nowhere for you to get to. You're just here.
While at first that might seem disconcerting and even disorienting, as you relax into it, you come to see the incredible freedom that comes with letting go of not just the addiction to destination but even the need to "be on a journey".

Here's how I wrote about it in Supercoach:

In any moment, we can decide that what we have is not enough and look around for something to fill in the gaps, or we can decide that what we have is exactly what we want. We can turn our "bone of happiness" into a bone of contention and throw it off into some imaginary future, or we can enjoy gnawing on it right here, right now.

This thought can be disturbing at first to people who feel like 'the next big thing' is continually just around the corner. But just because there's nowhere to get to doesn't mean you'll no longer travel -- just that you'll no longer travel in order to get somewhere better than right where you are sitting now. It doesn't mean that you can't upgrade your car, your job, your finances, or even your relationship. It just means that if you do, it will be because you want to, not because you think you have to or you should.

And in the quiet that comes with knowing that there's nowhere else you need to be, you may just hear the hum of life and notice the glorious experience of being alive.


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