May 5, 2014
Whenever I read over some of the content I post here, it occurs to me that I frequently fail to follow my own best advice. But any teacher or pundit or writer worth his salt should be able to make that admission; and those who don’t are to be given a wide berth, sparse trust, and definitely no cash. For they are, very likely, the same charlatans labeled as the typical new agers by the positivists, atheists, and skeptics of our culture.
We all waver. Sometimes we stride into darkness against the direction of our own light, as if led by some demon like the little devil sitting on the left shoulder of a character in an old cartoon. Those of us who pretend to teach this sort of thing are perhaps especially vulnerable: the more successful such a teacher becomes, the greater the pressure on him to live the teachings. Perhaps in a reaction to that pressure, few do.
My own favorite among these is Alan Watts, the “stand-up philosopher” of the 50’s and 60’s whose life and career were cut short by a slide into the bottle amid a furious schedule of worldwide travel and lecturing. He was also a smoker at a time when that habit was still fairly fashionable. He would chain-smoke during his lectures, with scarcely any effect on that resonant, lyric British tenor of his; and even use his lit cigarette as a prop on occasion to illustrate a point about the fluid and even illusory nature of perception.
Still, he died as he had lived, with a genuine mystic’s vibrant peace. He returned home to California from a long tour of Asia, probably had a nightcap or two, went to bed, and woke up on the other side. The wonderful embrace of contradiction symbolized by such a death is revealed in his own talks on this very matter, as in the snippet below.
We tend as a culture to make a sugary pabulum of both sleep and peace; we imagine them to be essentially passive experiences. Thus we imagine that to die in one’s sleep is to “die peacefully.” Well, have you ever watched someone sleep? It really is an extraordinary experience, and I highly recommend it. The body can be seen to create movement, action, and sound that it is quite incapable of matching in its waking state. Dreams, semi-conscious visions, and even somnambulist performances can visit us in the night. Sleep is anything but a passive state of being.
The same is true of peace. Peace is, or should be, a rollicking affair: noisy, active, diverse, even dissonant, and certainly vibrant. This is something that politicians and other authority figures so easily forget or deny, especially in dealing with protest movements: that peace is naturally a ringing realm of exuberance, dissent, and passion. Yet we tend to imagine it otherwise: as an essentially dull, passive state whose main virtue is in absence: no war.
So both sleep and peace are not what we tend to assume. Thus, to die in one’s sleep may indeed be a peaceful death, but not in the way we imagine it. For a man like Watts, who did so much to awaken us to the beauty of what is beneath and beyond ordinary consciousness, a death amid circumstances that both embraced and surpassed these contradictions between our beliefs and our reality was a final celebration of the mysteries that he sought to explore and to clarify.
For an excellent, extended introduction to the thought, oratory, and teaching of Watts, I recommend his Four Ways to the Center presentation, which was delivered over the course of a weekend seminar.*
*The original link to that lecture was on the Grooveshark platform, which appeared to have fallen through one of those litigious rabbit holes that have multiplied like…well…rabbits on the modern corporate web. If you’re interested in their story, here it is.