Do you recognise the above quote?

A classic of the ‘psychedelic wisdom’ genre, it is from The Joyous Cosmology, a book published in 1962 by the philosopher Alan Watts. However, notice how it sounds like something that could have been said just yesterday, in relation to the growing success of psychedelic therapy.

Alan Watts (via Wikipedia)

You see, despite his flaws, Alan Watts was a man with the rare skill of being able to articulate concepts of spirituality and psychedelics in a disarmingly beautiful way that few others could manage. He was a philosopher, writer, and speaker, renowned for his interpretation and popularization of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. His life, filled with exploration, teaching, and the pursuit of wisdom, left a significant impact on contemporary thought.

So today, we are going to look at his legacy of wisdom and ideas that still sound as fresh today as they did half a century ago. 

The Early Life of Alan Watts

Alan Watts was born on January 6, 1915, in sleepy Chislehurst, Kent, England. His father, Laurence Wilson Watts, was a representative for the London office of the Michelin tire company, and his mother, Emily Mary Buchan, was a housewife. From an early age, Watts exhibited a keen interest in literature and philosophy, influenced by the mystical stories his mother shared and the intellectual environment his father fostered.

Watts attended The King’s School in Canterbury, where he demonstrated a propensity for academics but felt constrained by the rigid school environment. His early fascination with Eastern philosophy began during his teenage years when he discovered the works of Lafcadio Hearn and Sir Edwin Arnold, as well as the Zen writings of D.T. Suzuki. Aged 15 he declared himself a Buddhist. At age 19 he published his first book The Spirit of Zen. 

In 1938, at the age of 23 (wishing to dodge the war draft), Watts moved to the United States with his first wife. He attended Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, where he earned a master’s degree in theology. Watts was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1945 and served as the chaplain at Northwestern University, hoping to reconcile his Christian upbringing with his new Buddhist beliefs. However, he became increasingly disillusioned with traditional Christian doctrines, seeking a more expansive understanding of spirituality.

Zen Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy

Watts’s quest for deeper spiritual knowledge led him to study Zen Buddhism intensely. In 1951, he left the Episcopal ministry and moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. It was here that Watts immersed himself in the study of Asian philosophies, particularly Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. 

His 1957 book, The Way of Zen, became one of the first best-selling introductions to Zen for Western audiences. Watts’s writing and lectures distilled complex Eastern ideas into accessible and engaging narratives, drawing comparisons between Eastern and Western thought. The Zen idea that we are all already ‘perfect’, already ‘buddha’ was an important tenet for Watts. It certainly chimed for the hordes of hippies who were keen to devour a new way of being, without necessarily having to do the spiritual work.

Critics of Watts dubbed it an oversimplification of Zen practices that could lead to spiritual laziness, with Eastern philosophies being painted with broad brush strokes so as to be digestible to the Western mind. Either way, for many people, the words of the charismatic Watts were their first steps onto a path of deeper study and enlightenment. 

A Prominent Figure in the Counterculture

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Watts became a prominent figure in the counterculture movement. He lectured widely, wrote numerous books, and hosted radio programs, including a weekly show on KPFA, a Berkeley-based radio station. His charismatic and eloquent style attracted a large following.

Watts’s prolific output included more than 25 books and numerous articles. Some of his notable works include:

  • “The Wisdom of Insecurity” (1951): An exploration of living fully in the present moment.
  • Nature, Man, and Woman” (1958): A study of the relationship between nature and humanity.
  • “This Is It” (1960): A collection of essays on mysticism and philosophy.
  • “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are” (1966): A reflection on the self and the nature of reality.
  • “Tao: The Watercourse Way” (published posthumously in 1975): An introduction to Taoism co-authored with Al Chung-liang Huang.

Alan Watts passed away in his sleep on November 16, 1973, at the age of 58, after years of alcohol abuse. Despite his relatively short life, his influence has endured. Watts left behind a rich legacy through his writings and recorded lectures, which continue to inspire new generations interested in Eastern philosophy and the intersection of spirituality and modern life.

An Alan Watts mural in California (via Wikimedia Commons)

Here are some ideas popularized by Watts that are still extremely resonant today:

The Interconnectedness of All Things

Watts believed that everything in the universe is interconnected and interdependent. This line of thought has inspired many groups, including the environmental movement, which emphasizes the need to protect the planet and its ecosystems, as we are all part of the same whole. 

The Concept of the “Eternal Now” 

Watts believed that the past and future are illusions. He posited that the only reality is the present moment, and described his realization of the idea thusly; 

“Quite suddenly the weight of my own body disappeared. I felt that I owned nothing, not even a self, and that nothing owned me. The whole world became as transparent and unobstructed as my own mind; the “problem of life” simply ceased to exist, and for about eighteen hours I and everything around me felt like the wind blowing leaves across a field on an autumn day.”

This concept has influenced popular culture in various ways, notably the mindfulness movement, which emphasizes the importance of being fully present in the moment.


Watts preached the concept of non-dualism, which is the idea that there is no real distinction or separation, between the divine, the self, and the rest of the universe. It is an idea that transcends dualities or binaries, such as sacred-profane, self-other, and subject-object. A key Watts quote on this topic goes;

“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

This perspective has been adopted by many different New Age and spiritual communities. 

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
The Importance of Living in the Present

Watts believed that people in general focus too much on the past or the future, and as a result, they miss out on the wonder and magic of the present moment. Watts himself said;

“The point is seeing that THIS – the immediate, everyday and present experience – is IT, the entire and ultimate point for the existence of a universe. I believe that if this state of consciousness could become more universal, the pretentious nonsense which passes for the serious business of the world would dissolve in laughter.” 

(In other words — YOLO.)

The “Individual Self” is an Illusion

Watts believed that the “individual self” is a social construct, and that we are all connected to, and part of, the larger universe. This idea has influenced popular culture in various ways, and chimes with Eastern philosophy as well as psychonautic exploration. It suggests that the ego must be transcended for us to truly awaken. Reflecting this, Watts wrote;

“What you do is what the whole universe is doing, at the place you call “here and now,” and you are something the whole universe is doing, in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing… The real you is not a puppet which life pushes around. The real deep-down you is the whole universe.”

The Legacy of Alan Watts

Alan Watts’s work bridged cultural and philosophical divides, making Eastern spiritual traditions accessible to the Western world. His teachings emphasized the importance of the present moment, the illusion of the separate self, and the interconnectedness of all life. Watts’s ability to translate profound philosophical concepts into clear, relatable language has cemented his place as a pivotal figure in the popularization of Eastern thought in the 20th century. Additionally, his clear-eyed understanding of psychedelics, and the way in which they can be used as tools, is just as pertinent today as it was when he said it, all those years ago.  

Finally, there are few philosophers whose lectures hit quite as hard when paired with a gentle musical backdrop, and maybe a magic mushroom or two…