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Last Updated on January 9, 2023

Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a British philosopher, writer, and theologian. Throughout his life, he studied Eastern and Western belief systems. He wrote more than 25 books and had nearly 400 recorded talks in relation to Eastern religion and philosophy. He was a huge factor in the rise in popularity of Eastern beliefs in the West—specifically, Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Early Life

Alan Watts was born on January 6, 1915. He and his parents lived in south-east London, then known as Chislehurst, Kent. His father was a Michelin Tyre Company representative, and his mother was a housewife. They lived a modest life. Young Alan was the only child in his family, and so he would often wander the pasture by himself, learning the names of the animals and plants that he found.

At home, he would listen to storybook fables, which he grew quite fond of. More than the fables, he found great joy in reading and listening to romantic tales of the mysterious Far East. His mother often received gifts from missionaries coming from Asia. These gifts included paintings and embroideries with Japanese and Chinese art. He was fascinated by the art style’s clarity and spaciousness. This fondness for the Far East and storybooks became a central theme in Watts’ life.

Education and Exploration

Watts was sent to various Muscular Christian boarding schools when he was young. He generally had a rough time in these schools because he didn’t like being forced into accepting the Anglican Christianity belief systems. He eventually settled at King’s School in Canterbury, Kent, where he became a scholar and the top of his classes.

As a teenager, Watts spent several holidays in France. During his visits, he was accompanied by Francis Croshaw, who was a rich fellow and a man of peculiar tastes. He believed in Epicureanism, where life is about satisfying pleasures. He liked smoking Burmese cigars, and drinking fine wine. In fact, he introduced Watts to his first alcoholic drink in one of their meetings. Croshaw also had an extensive library because he enjoyed reading about culture and philosophy. Upon noticing Watt’s interest in Asian philosophy, he started lending him texts on Buddhism. They would engage in long conversations about these topics, over red wine and cheap cigars.

Watts eventually surprised his parents and classmates when he rejected Christianity and declared himself a Buddhist. He felt that the Christian God was too authoritative and impeded joy.  Regardless, he was given an opportunity for a scholarship in Oxford, which he failed to secure because of a “presumptuous and capricious” essay. He never achieved a university degree, despite his brilliance.

After secondary school, Watts found a job at a printing house. Wanting to know more about Buddhism, Watts joined the London Buddhist Lodge—a registered Buddhist society in the UK—and explored different styles of meditation. At the age of 16, he became the secretary of this society. He spent most of his time reading about many topics, such as philosophy, history, and Eastern wisdom. As a member of the society, he was able to talk to many spiritual authors, which helped him greatly in his learning.

Books, Marriage, and the US

In 1936, at the age of 21, Watts had already published his second book: The Spirit of Zen. The book was heavily inspired by a Japanese author and Buddhist professor named Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki.

In 1938, Watts married Eleanor Everett. They left England in the same year and lived in the US.

In the US, Watts tried to get formal Zen training to officially become a Zen Monk. He soon left because he felt that the teacher’s method wasn’t for him. This led him to the Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, a Christian school in Illinois. Here, he earned a master’s degree in theology.

In 1945, at the age of 30, he served as a priest for five years and later resigned. He couldn’t find harmony between Christianity and his Buddhist beliefs. Also, during this time, his marriage with Eleanor was annulled.

In 1951, Watts went to California and taught at the American Academy of Asian Studies. In 1953, he began a weekly radio program at Pacifica Radio Station KPFA. He was a volunteer speaker, and talked about his knowledge and experiences. While doing the program, he also started and completed multiple books, including his most popular book The Way of Zen (1957). The broadcast lasted for 9 years, where he gained a legion of followers.

Later Years

Watts would continue writing and recording audio. He would talk about Zen and its influences in the Far East. He would also talk about various topics, such as arts, food, and education. He spent most of his time in his houseboat and cabin in California.

In 1973, he died in his sleep. To this day, a number of radio stations would broadcast the lectures of Alan Watts every week.

Here are 94 quotes from Alan Watts:

Alan Watts Quotes

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts

“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.” – Alan Watts

“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead, you relax and float.” – Alan Watts

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“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.” – Alan Watts

“We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.” – Alan Watts

“We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.” – Alan Watts

“You don’t look out there for God, something in the sky, you look in you.” – Alan Watts

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” – Alan Watts

“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.” – Alan Watts

“But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts

“The ego is nothing other than the focus of conscious attention.” – Alan Watts

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” – Alan Watts

“How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself anything less than a god.” – Alan Watts

“Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” – Alan Watts

“I owe my solitude to other people.” – Alan Watts

“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the Gods made for fun.” – Alan Watts

“What I am really saying is that you don’t need to do anything, because if you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomenon of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that, and there is nothing wrong with you at all. ” – Alan Watts

“Just as true humor is laughter at oneself, true humanity is knowledge of oneself.” – Alan Watts

“But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts

“If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid.” – Alan Watts

“You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.” – Alan Watts

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to. ” – Alan Watts

“Every intelligent individual wants to know what makes him tick, and yet is at once fascinated and frustrated by the fact that oneself is the most difficult of all things to know. ” – Alan Watts

“Philosophy is man’s expression of curiosity about everything and his attempt to make sense of the world primarily through his intellect.” – Alan Watts

“A scholar tries to learn something every day; a student of Buddhism tries to unlearn something daily.” – Alan Watts

“No one is more dangerously insane than one who is sane all the time: he is like a steel bridge without flexibility, and the order of his life is rigid and brittle.” – Alan Watts

“The menu is not the meal.” – Alan Watts

“Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.” – Alan Watts

“When we attempt to exercise power or control over someone else, we cannot avoid giving that person the very same power or control over us.” – Alan Watts

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“You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.” – Alan Watts

“One is a great deal less anxious if one feels perfectly free to be anxious, and the same may be said of guilt.” – Alan Watts

“The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.” – Alan Watts

“The world is filled with love-play, from animal lust to sublime compassion.” – Alan Watts

“Try to imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up… now try to imagine what it was like to wake up having never gone to sleep.” – Alan Watts

“What we have to discover is that there is no safety, that seeking is painful, and that when we imagine that we have found it, we don’t like it.” – Alan Watts

“Our pleasures are not material pleasures, but symbols of pleasure – attractively packaged but inferior in content.” – Alan Watts

“Never pretend to a love which you do not actually feel, for love is not ours to command.” – Alan Watts

“It is hard indeed to notice anything for which the languages available to us have no description.” – Alan Watts

“It’s better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.” – Alan Watts

“Society is our extended mind and body.” – Alan Watts

“Love is not something that is a sort of rare commodity, everybody has it.” – Alan Watts

“Everyone has love, but it can only come out when he is convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love himself.” – Alan Watts

“Everything that happens, everything that I have ever done, everything that anybody else has ever done is part of a harmonious design, that there is no error at all.” – Alan Watts

“You can only be on them in relation to something that is out.” – Alan Watts

“The positive cannot exist without the negative.” – Alan Watts

“We notice only what we think noteworthy, and therefore our visions highly selective.” – Alan Watts

“To be free from convention is not to spurn it but not to be deceived by it.” – Alan Watts

“I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.” – Alan Watts

“Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations. ” – Alan Watts

“Words can be communicative only between those who share similar experiences.” – Alan Watts

“If you cannot trust yourself, you cannot even trust your mistrust of yourself – so that without this underlying trust in the whole system of nature you are simply paralyzed.” – Alan Watts

“Technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe.” – Alan Watts

“But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.” – Alan Watts

“Hospitals should be arranged in such a way as to make being sick an interesting experience. One learns a great deal sometimes from being sick. ” – Alan Watts

“No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now. ” – Alan Watts

“Normally, we do not so much look at things as overlook them.” – Alan Watts

“So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.” – Alan Watts

“The problem is to overcome the ingrained disbelief in the power of winning nature by love, in the gentle(ju) way(do) of turning with the skid, of controlling ourselves by cooperating with ourselves. ” – Alan Watts

“What you are basically, deep, deep down, far, far in, is simply the fabric and structure of existence itself.” – Alan Watts

“Much of the secret of life consists in knowing how to laugh, and also how to breathe.” – Alan Watts

“In the more intimate sphere of personal life, the problem is the pain of trying to avoid suffering and the fear of trying not to be afraid.” – Alan Watts

“People who exude love are apt to give things away. They are in every way like rivers; they stream. And so when they collect possessions and things they like, they are apt to give them to other people. Because, have you ever noticed that when you start giving things away, you keep getting more? ” – Alan Watts

“Your soul is not in your body; your body is in your soul. ” – Alan Watts

“Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” – Alan Watts

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“We do not come into this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean waves, the universe peoples. Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. ” – Alan Watts

“Only words and conventions can isolate us from the entirely undefinable something which is everything. ” – Alan Watts

“There is always something taboo, something repressed, un-admitted, or just glimpsed quickly out of the corner of one’s eye because a direct look is too unsettling. Taboos lie within taboos, like the skin of an onion. ” – Alan Watts

“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now. I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is. ” – Alan Watts

“If you really understand Zen… you can use any book. You could use the Bible. You could use Alice in Wonderland. You could use the dictionary, because… the sound of the rain needs no translation. ” – Alan Watts

“The sense of wrong is simply a failure to see where something fits into a pattern, to be confused as to the hierarchical level upon which an event belongs. ” – Alan Watts

“The only Zen you’ll find on mountain tops is the Zen you bring up there with you.” – Alan Watts

“You didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.” – Alan Watts

“What the devil is the point of surviving, going on living when it’s a drag? But you see, that’s what people do.” – Alan Watts

“You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.” – Alan Watts

“The greater part of human activity is designed to make permanent those experiences and joys which are only lovable because they are changing.” – Alan Watts

“Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” – Alan Watts

“Don’t hurry anything. Don’t worry about the future. Don’t worry about what progress you’re making. Just me entirely content to be aware of what is.” – Alan Watts

“The only zen you’ll find on the mountain tops is the zen you bring up there with you.” – Alan Watts

“Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.” – Alan Watts

“To have faith is to trust yourself.” – Alan Watts

“Don’t make a distinction between work and play. Regard everything that you’re doing as play, and don’t regard for one minute that you have to be serious about it.” – Alan Watts

“You don’t look out there, you look in you.” – Alan Watts

“If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” – Alan Watts

“The real you is the whole universe.” – Alan Watts

“There is nothing at all that can be talked about adequately, and the whole art of poetry is to say what can’t be said.” – Alan Watts

“When you look out of your eyes, at nature happening out there, you’re looking at you. That’s the real you. The you that goes on of itself.” – Alan Watts

“To put is still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath.” – Alan Watts

“We’re living in a fluid universe, in which the art of faith is not in taking one’s stand, but in learning to swim.” – Alan Watts

“Your skin does not separate you from the world. It’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you. And you flow into it.” – Alan Watts

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so. If this world is a vicious trap, so is its accuser, and the pot is calling the kettle black.” – Alan Watts

“The source of all light is in the eye.” – Alan Watts

“Life exists only at this very moment, and at this moment it is infinite and eternal, for the present moment is infinitely small; before we can measure it, it has gone, and yet it exists forever….”– Alan Watts

“There will always be suffering. But we must not suffer over the suffering.” – Alan Watts

“Zen is a liberation from time. For if we open our eyes and see clearly, it becomes obvious that there is no other time than this instant, and that the past and the future are abstractions without any concrete reality.” – Alan Watts