In My Own Way by Alan Watts | Book Report

In My Own Way by Alan Watts

Watts' way of storytelling and philosophizing is hilarious and smart. He discusses noetic ideas in a lighthearted way that invites everyone, from all walks of life, to feel welcomed into a conversation. His playful inquisitiveness allowed me to sift through some major existential questions from a posture like that of a curious child rather than a serious intellect.

In reading this autobiography, it's clear that Watts' life was driven by relentless introspection paired with an indulgent quest after the essence of existence – he was an Anglican priest, a professor, a prolific writer and lecturer on Zen Buddhism, and a self-proclaimed shaman – yet as he recalled the many characters who played major roles in his own formation – many of whom were famous artists, writers, and philosophers, like Aldous Huxley, Krishnamurti, and Carl Jung – I was reminded that the journey into love and an expansive understanding of existence is always informed by our relationship with others.

Since I'm currently a resident of San Francisco, I found his description of the city during the counter-cultural 60s particularly interesting. The divisive spirit that fueled clashes between groups from different schools of thought in Watts' time (conservatives versus hippies) is still prevalent here now (long-time residents versus newly-arrived techies). His reflections are time-capsuled social commentaries from the perspective of one who helped shape the spiritually and socially liberal perspectives that are still evidenced in the character of the city today. The fact that he stimulated and facilitated so many progressive conversations in the Bay Area, and most certainly beyond, has caused me to look at my surroundings with a more empathetic and invested concern. We make the worlds we live in, for better or worse. 

Favorite quotes

"...I sometimes suspect that taking a scholarly attitude to a subject is a lame excuse for doing what you secretly enjoy for no good reason."

"I am what I am only in relation to what everything else is."

"For this is a land destroying its wealth with money, and will end up with nothing to eat but numbers."

"But we would understand the sense of life if we would sing more and say less."

"One of the curses of Western industrial culture is the proliferation of "nice residential areas" where no shops or small businesses are permitted, and which require, as their counterparts, business districts for unrelieved commerce, to which one must commute for several miles to ply one's trade or buy groceries — there to find parking impossible and, in transit, to clog the air with unnecessary gasoline fumes. These "nice residential areas" establish an aesthetic standard of the good life which — though millions buy it — is for me a dreary wasteland in which people are trying to divorce pleasure and leisure from work, so that the pleasure becomes vapid and the work drudgery. Unless I am to live far out in the country, give me a place where a grocery, a laundry, a smithy, and a pub are within easy walking distance."

"Now it is curious that wherever there flourishes what may loosely be called a bohemian style of life, the affluent bourgeoisie are filled with envy and want to move in, so that the land values go up and the artists, writers, hippies, and other weird characters who gave the place its color can no longer afford to live there." - speaking of Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, 1972

"To this day it remains beyond my comprehension why so many people who are neither sick nor starving cultivate drabness as a way of life, and feel embarrassed for those who come out in vermilion trousers or dance in the streets."

"...the highest form of religion was to transcend religion. He called it the religion of non-religion. I call it atheism in the name of God..."

"The which than which there is no whicher." - Watts referring to what religious-minded people would more simply call God

"So often I wonder why, instead of drinking in pubs, Americans put up with dark and lugubrious saloons, glimmering with the phosphorescent light of jukeboxes. Presumably, so as to be invisible to their guilty consciences."

"No literate, inquisitive, and imaginative person needs to go to college unless in need of a union card, or degree, as a certified physician, lawyer, or teacher, or unless he requires access to certain heavy and expensive equipment for scientific research which he himself cannot afford, such as a cyclotron."

"....real religion is the transformation of anxiety into laughter."

New vocabulary 

  • Bucolic: of or relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life.
  • Treacle: something that is annoying because it is too sentimental, or molasses 
  • Beneficent: (of a person) generous or doing good.
  • Avuncular: of or relating to the relationship between men and their siblings' children.
  • Obsolescence: the condition of no longer being used or useful : the condition of being obsolete
  • Maudlin: self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental, often through drunkenness.
  • Bombastic: high-sounding but with little meaning; inflated.
  • Genuflect: lower one's body briefly by bending one knee to the ground, typically in worship or as a sign of respect.
  • Incunabula: an early printed book, especially one printed before 1501.
  • Urbane: (of a person, especially a man) suave, courteous, and refined in manner.
  • Fastidious: very attentive to and concerned about accuracy and detail.
  • Suffuse: gradually spread through or over.
  • Virile: (of a man) having strength, energy, and a strong sex drive.
  • Arcane: understood by few; mysterious or secret.
  • Prestidigitation: magic tricks performed as entertainment.
  • Lugubrious: looking or sounding sad and dismal.
  • Cogent: (of an argument or case) clear, logical, and convincing.
  • Paramour: a lover, especially the illicit partner of a married person.
  • Impudent: not showing due respect for another person; impertinent.
  • Invariably: in every case or on every occasion; always.
  • Dilettante: a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.
  • Sinological: the academic study of China primarily through Chinese language, literature, and history, and often refers to Western scholarship. Its origin "may be traced to the examination which Chinese scholars made of their own civilization."
  • Adamantine: unbreakable.
  • Ribald: referring to sexual matters in an amusingly rude or irreverent way.
  • Sophistry: the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.
  • Vapid: offering nothing that is stimulating or challenging.
  • Milieu: a person's social environment.
  • Pedant: a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning.
  • Aphorism: a pithy observation that contains a general truth, such as, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
  • Prurient: having or encouraging an excessive interest in sexual matters.
  • Heuristic: enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves.

Dane Johnson

Ramble with a Plan, 542 Brannan Street, South of Market, CA, 94107

Writer | Explorer | Pilgrim