Almost two years ago I ditched all my worldly goods, except for a backpack and a laptop, and went travelling. I suspect many people would assume an experience of that kind would be a little scary and make them feel rather insecure. But for me, the opposite is true. Getting rid of the physical possessions that most people rely on for a sense of security has made me feel much happier. But why?
Alan Watts was very close to my age of 37 when he published The Wisdom of Insecurity, the book that first brought him to widespread public attention. Today Watt’s philosophy of Zen buddhism and Eastern wisdom is more familiar, but in the first half of the 20th century, before the counter culture, his worldview was radically different from mainstream society.
Most of us believe that we become more secure by protecting our self. The world, we believe, is an aggressive place, so the more we can separate our self from the world, the safer we will become. So we walls and houses, make laws, employ police and security guards and imprison people who break the rules. We separate ourselves from nature, and panic when dirt or insect life invade our artificial spaces. And we hoard things, we fill our houses with stuff because it makes us feel secure. And most of all, we crave money. We live our entire lives in relation to financial calculations of what will make us richer or poorer.
The irony, as Watt’s adroitly points out, is that the very things that make us feel secure, actually increase the risks and problems in our life. Cut off in our houses, watching our tvs, we lose the community, family and friendships that actually make us secure. Divorced from the natural world we plunge in to depression and behaviours like overeating, which create so many of the health problems from heart disease to cancer that cripple our lives. We pursue money, but lose sight of real wealth. Our bank balances swell, but we miss all the experiences that make life valuable.
“the working inhabitants of a modern city are people who live inside a machine to be batted around by its wheels”
The wise alternative, as the title of Watt’s short book make clear, is to actively choose insecurity. We’re actually more secure with fewer material possessions, because we are more flexible and better able to adapt to change. We are more secure living in a community than walled away from other people in our houses. We are more secure if money is distributed around the community, rather than hoarded by the most fearful individuals, so that no one is hungry or has reason to steal. These things seem obvious when considered openly. And yet we continue to repeat the same mistaken drive for security over and over again.
The Wisdom of Insecurity is a wonderful expression of Zen buddhist philosophy, addressed to the modern desire for security and the plague of anxiety that dogs modern life. Our material circumstances seem better than ever, and yet we live in states of anxiety that are barely comprehensible. Watt’s makes the cause of that anxiety blindingly clear, and his book is an essential read for anyone attempting to unpick their terror in the machinery of modern life.
“The externalised symbol of this way of thinking is that almost entirely rational and inorganic object, the machine, which gives us the sense of being able to approach infinity. For the machine can submit to strains far beyond the capacity of the human body. and to monotonous rhythms which the human being could never stand. Useful as it would be as a tool and a servant, we worship its rationality, its efficiency, and its power to abolish limitations of time and space, and thus permit it to regulate our ives. Thus 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 rationalised abstraction which has little relation to or harmony with the great biological rhythms and processes.”
If you recognise yourself, batted around by the machine’s wheels and pushed in to action by your iPhone status alerts, the The Wisdom of Insecurity is one step towards finding a different way of being.