Alan Watts: 'The Silent Mind' (Awareness Meditation) [1960 © KQED]

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Alan Watts: 'The Silent Mind' (Awareness Meditation) [1960 © KQED]

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life

In this early 1960 recording of his TV episode by the same name, Alan Watts gradually walks the talk of a silent mind through meditation. Using calligraphy and the abstraction models, Watts argues why meditation is considered essential for sanity by the traditions, highlighting why no-thought is required for [better] thoughts. Man's conditioning, especially in the West, of putting strain on the human senses impedes the clarity of them, he argues, since it is unnatural. Further, the constant thinking about the experiences in terms of coding them into words, this abstraction of thought, increasingly divorces us from the reality. Watts proposes that this is the reason why this attitude of having a quiet observation, without thoughts, at least some of the time during the day, has been developed in the East.

He clarifies that this is not to say that thinking is a disturbance, that it is something that the human being shouldn't do; on the contrary, it is a highly important acquisition of man. But thinking isn't of any real value to us, he argues, unless we can also practice non-thinking; unless we can have our minds silent and make immediate contact with the real world as distinct from the world of pure abstraction of thoughts. The logic Watts proposes is the saying, "talking to oneself all the time is a sign of madness", while arguing that one's thoughts are in effect a self-talk. He then postulates that this non-thinking is what is called meditation.

A side-note: Other scholars, especially of the 19th century such as T. W. Rhys Davids, seem to share the exact same view but who might be using a different, sometimes even opposite, terminology. For instance, while noting the categories, as found in Dittha Dhammika Nibbāna Vāda (Nirvana through the dharma of Drashti, i.e. seeing/ Awareness), of attaining the perfect bliss in the present world, Rhys Davids records the properties of the First Dhyāna as, "By an enquiring mental abstraction." Apparently, this is the author's scholarly interpretation, which seems to stem from the western empirical view that essentially "thoughts are reality," and hence to get rid of thoughts is to attain a level of abstraction. Alan Watts, on the other hand, is providing an as-is narration in this video as found in these philosophies where, "thought is an abstraction".

While it is not explicitly mentioned, the technique described by Watts here, including the analogy of vibrations, closely resembles the Awareness Meditation practice where, the ascent of the practice is simply to observe objectively, and not necessarily to cut out from the sense organs, but to let their experiences come forth without any obstructions, until the experiencer and the experience are united. As the knower and the known become one, it produces the experience of one's unity with the universe - which, as Alan Watts underscores, is the function of meditation.

The concluding quote of Lafcadio Hearn from the video above, describing the attitude potraid by the expressions on the face of a meditating buddha:

"Each idol shaped by human faith
remains the shell of truth eternally divine,
and even the shell itself may hold a ghostly power.
The soft serenity,
the passionless tenderness
of those Buddha faces
might yet give peace of soul
to a West weary of creeds,
transformed into conventions,
eager for the coming of another teacher to proclaim,
'I have the same feeling for the High as the Low,
for the moral as the immoral,
for the depraved as for the virtuous,
for those holding sectarian views and false opinions
as for those whose beliefs are good and true.'"

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