Book review: Watts still luminous after 46 years

84564Psychotherapy East & West, published in 1961, has been re-published by New World Library, looking refreshed and rather smart in an orange-is-the-new-seduction cover. Considering the social frame of The Sixties, one would expect Watts to have aged poorly into the 21st century with its dramatically different technology and psychological views. In fact, my aged and faded copy bought in the late ’60’s seems a strange throwback, though quite iconic.

However, like the eternal Dharma, Watts has not only aged well but also now serves as the “message in the bottle” from past wisdom, prescient and uncompromising. Of course, it’s hard to know if the impact of reading Watts today is an inevitable destination of being human or whether our journey was shaped by the thoughts and critiques of people like Watts and the Beat Generation he later influenced. In Psychotherapy East & West, Watts is clear that using this lens of duality only leads us astray and further into a socially-constructed blindness. The explicit theme throughout the book is the “inseparably interconnected patterns” of our bio-psycho-social-ecological systems. In effect, we do not and cannot be in any sense of the word outside this frame. The intention of the “East” is to make visible these interconnected patterns in the process of becoming liberated. The catch however, in Watts’s view, is that Eastern liberation as a shift in connectedness is different from Western “liberation” through psychotherapy – by which he mainly means Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis (and, ironically sets up a dualism).

Watts’s reliance on Freudian and Jungian psychology is consistent with his time. The cognitive therapies of Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, which grew from their disillusionment with the psychodynamic therapies, were still in the early days of their methodologies and psychoanalysis was to hold sway for at least another decade. Still, the concept is familiar to us now: we are blinded to our inherent inseparability, not from, as part of the vast intricate pattern of nature by a social structure that is best served through our ignorance. We become “disturbed” when we fall into the social control of organizational “brainwashing”.

The role of both Eastern and Western liberation practices is to experience being “disturbed” and to see it as a point where contradictions in the social frame break through. Although sharing some commonalities of liberation theory, psychotherapy (read psychoanalysis), according to Watts, is incomplete liberation, filled with potential to be social criticism but limited by the blindness of its equally-seduced practitioners. The disturbed individual then is only brought back into line with the oppression in the culture. This seems to parallel the conversations and debates around spiritual and secular mindfulness.WWAWD – what would Alan Watts do? Equally, though I hesitate to read back into his writings through the privilege of hindsight, Watts’s argument that ignoring the context of our lives is the very seed of ignorance, and the arising of being separate, forecasts the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and the socially engaged Buddhism of the next decades.

Watts is cautious about the power of psychotherapy to liberate and I suspect this has much to do with his enchantment with Buddhism in general and zen in particular. At one moment he is forgiving of psychotherapy, allowing it to be a partner in the mutual clarification of itself and Eastern liberation practices; in another, psychotherapies are at risk of becoming another insipid compromising version of the middle way. A messed-up Mādhyamika. It’s in his attempts to critique yet line up psychoanalysis with Buddhist liberation practices that he tends to spiral out into expansive thoughts (and run on sentences). And, much like psychodynamic concepts, the arguments become somewhat self-gratifying. Of course, throw in his foray with Jay Haley’s “prescribing the symptom” and “strategic therapy” and one loses both figure and ground. It would be generous to say that is what Watts intends, a psychotherapeutic dokusan, but Haley’s concepts can be a mental labyrinth of “who’s on first in the prefrontal cortex.” (Personally, I love Haley’s work but it’s sneaky and one has to be really good at the pretence of going with the symptom.)

Despite all the meanders, Watts offers much to consider, not the least being whether we’ve come any further along this path than we were in 1960. He ends with an appeal we are all familiar with by now: if true liberation is the overthrowing of a self-serving authority that blinds us to who we are (reiterated in The Book: On the taboo against knowing who you are), then it must come through the challenges to the ethical constructs that authority places on us. It begins with seeing ethics as the language by which we get to know each other. It is not only code law that points to the oughts; it is, perhaps more crucial to our relationships, the organic process of common law, an intuitive felt sense of what is needed beyond self-interest.

Although Watts addresses the ethics of survival, he doesn’t take it to the next step of the ethic of care. Psychotherapies, mindfulness or otherwise, are meant to unblind ourselves to who we have been told we must be, more about who we are becoming than who we want to be. They are relational practices with a moral arc of caring for each other and the world we inhabit, not stages of achievements for self-promotion.