Today I'll be talking about a recently read book, Om by Alan Watts, published in 1980. I found this old and mint copy on eBay for 3.99 (with free shipping). The book deals with some fundamental metaphysical discussions in a very light and easy to digest language.
Although presented in book form, Om: Creative Meditations is actually transcribed speeches from Alan Watts rather than his usual direct writing. The book was released after his death by son Mark Watts and perfectly captures his father's wisdom and wit with the playful attitude of "Don't you see how obvious it is?? All the secrets to the universe are right in front of you!!"
Each chapter coming from a different speech, Watts deconstructs our ideas of identity, conscious and sub-conscious, the perspective of other and self, and much more metaphysical goodness. Drawing from both ancient wisdom and modern thought Watts is able to reference 2,000 year old Chinese texts as well as modern art and futuristic science to illustrate his points.
Rather than leave a book review or summation that could never do the book justice, I've written on two specific areas that have stayed in my mind since finishing the book. The first in on Art & Convention, and the second on God...
ON Art & Convention:
One chapter that stuck with me as a creator was Landscape, Soundscape, and the Watercourse Way, dealing mostly with conventional thought, which is just the common and widely accepted view of something at any given point in time. This goes for everything from the idea of god, to what makes a good piece of art, to a proper hairstyle... everything is relative to the times and what other people believe. So to follow convention makes you by definition "normal", and the vast majority of people will seek to be normal so as not to stick out too much and be talked about.
But we've also come to a point where people have started to blindly go against convention just to prove a point. To see this, look at the countless counter-culture movements of the past 75 years or so. Sure some of them started with a pure purpose or artistic vision, but once the thing is a real movement people join for the sheer sake of rebellion!
Watts argues that this blind non-convention is just as bad as the blind convention. For artists such as Van Gogh, Mozart, and Pollock surely went far against convention, but it was not merely to defy it. Their goal was more subtle and at the same time more profound. These artists were all rather reaching within to discover and display something pure that existed within themselves. This course of expression is often painful, thankless and misunderstood, as can be seen by the fact that none of these artistic "icons" mentioned saw very much success while they were creating. There was no masses waiting for their next work, cheering them on, and offering money for commissions. They created instead out of a place of necessity, almost as a therapy, which can be found with almost all groundbreaking and perspective shattering artists.
"Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is."
And the true irony here is that over the course of time all of their styles become their own sort of convention, as now Van Gogh's "style" is looked at as something that can be taught and learned in school. But only a small and hollow part of being an artist can be learned, or else there would be successors to these artistic styles popping up all over the place amazing audiences.
For all of this Watts warned the artist...
"Beware of phony spontaneity, merely going against convention.This is not the way.And we must be very sensitive to discover what the way is.But once we have done so, then we are able to flow."
In the closing chapter titled She is Black, Watts shares his philosophy of "atheists for god". Advocating for an experience, contact, and relationship with god that is not expressed through any specific image or diety. He notes that theologians are always trying to define god to you, telling you all about his nature and what type of temperament he has as a governor of things, almost like you would describe a human. The problem with this is that "to define is to limit, and god is limitless". Watts rather likens god to the black emptiness of outer space, or "the darkness from where the light shines", the source of things. This leaves much more room for us to have faith in god rather than an externally structured belief in god. "Leaving us with more room to feel free and put our energy into glorious things."
Disclaimer: The book explores many more ideas and topics, these are merely some takeaways that struck me so I explored a little further in my mind.
As with any book from Alan Watts, I highly recommend this read. As the title suggests, each chapter can be read, absorbed, and put down to contemplate rather than read quickly as a linear narrative. Even upon writing my thoughts on it I'm tempted to start from the beginning again.
If you are unfamiliar with Alan Watts I would recommend listening to some of his stuff on YouTube, where he has endless wisdom from quick 2 minute soundbites to full 2 hour lectures...
To think or not to think? That is the question.
To question or not to question. That is to think.
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