Image by Christine Sponchia
Those who search for happiness do not find it because they do not understand that the object of their search is the seeker. We say that they are happy who have “found themselves” for the secret of happiness lies in the ancient saying, “Become what you are.”
We must speak in paradox because we think we are divided from life and, to be happy, must unite ourselves with it. But we are already united, and all our doings are its doings. Life lives us; we do not live life. Yet in fact there is no “us” apart from life that life can so “live.”
It is not that we are passive tools of life, as fatalists believe, for we could only be passive tools if we were something other than life. When you imagine yourself to be divided from and at war with life, you imagine yourself to be its passive tool and so are unhappy, feeling with Omar Khayyám—
Oh, Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And who with Eden didst devize the Snake;
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give—and take!
But in truth action and passivity are one and the same act, and life and yourself are one and the same being. This truth of ancient philosophy is beyond our logic, but he who understands it is a sage and he who does not is a fool.
But, curiously enough, the fool becomes a sage by letting himself be free to be a fool; then his joy knows no bounds and he “walks freely throughout the universe.” One might call this the complexity of the very simple. And this, without the use of technical terms, is the answer of Oriental wisdom to the toughest problem of Western thought—the problem of fate and free will.
Fate and Free Will
Inevitably, the search for spiritual freedom brings us to this time-honored conundrum. For, it will be asked, is not the total acceptance of life as we have described it simply the most thoroughgoing fatalism? Does it not mean just the huge sense of irresponsibility which arises from the knowledge that not only your deeds and circumstances, but also your very thoughts and feelings, are the acts of life or fate—and you may as well cease to be worried by them? If this is true, does it not also imply that those who persist in the apparent bondage and very real misery of refusal to accept, believing in free will and taking pride in their egoistic powers, are in fact unable to experience that acceptance, fate having decreed their belief in free will?
When Oriental philosophy says that all things are Brahman, Western intellectualism cannot resist applying the label of fatalism. The reason is that we have not been able to resolve the problem of the vicious circle, for determinism or fatalism is its philosophic description. The vicious circle is the impotence of man; it is not resolved until the realization of our impotence as men can be complemented by our omnipotence as God. This is the point where fatalism bursts into freedom.
Curiously enough, few philosophers have ever dared to be consistent fatalists because the doctrine contains an odd paradox. Fatalism is the doctrine of man’s utter subservience to destiny, but one strange objection is always raised to it—“If everyone believed that all their thoughts and deeds were inevitably foreordained by fate, then people would behave just exactly as they pleased.” In other words, they would become dangerously free!
Total acceptance as we have described it is very nearly this carrying of fatalism to the point where it becomes absolute liberty. But it contains an additional factor which guards the process against its dangers and makes it something much more than a mere proposition in philosophy. But first we must consider the problem of fatalism in its purely philosophical sense.
Logically, the position of the fatalists is unassailable; they reason that a given cause can have only one effect and that there can be no activity of the human mind which is not the effect of a cause. Thus whenever a choice of actions is presented to us, our decision is determined not by a free act of will but by the untold number of factors which make up our being at that moment—hereditary impulses, instinctive reflexes, moral upbringing, and a thousand other tendencies which incline us to a particular choice as inevitably as a magnet draws a needle lying within its field. An act of choice could not be free unless it were done without motive, for our motives are the result of past conditioning.
But motive is only another name for cause, and an action without any kind of cause is impossible. Thus we have a chain of cause and effect, in which each cause is an effect and each effect a cause; each link in this chain can only have two particular links on either side of it, before as cause and after as effect. Therefore the last link in the chain is predetermined by the first.
With Earth’s first Clay They did the Last Man’s knead,
And then of the Last Harvest sow’d the Seed:
Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.
The Freedom of Fate
Yet, strictly speaking, this amounts in the end to a proof of free will, but a more tremendous free will than the advocates of that doctrine ever contemplated. For if each one of our acts is determined by the entire previous history of the universe, if sun, moon, planets, and stars are at work in the winking of an eyelid, this means that we in our turn are using their power in all our doings. For the doctrine of fatalism, from one point of view, amounts almost to God’s giving man carte blanche to use His power in whatever way He pleases.
Objectively it may be true that in a determined universe fatalism gives you anything but the power to do as you please, but purely objective matters have little or no direct meaning for human beings when it comes to the really important things of life, and it is a truism that cold facts have no meaning apart from that which we give to them. As a rule, fatalists are those who try to understand life in terms of strictly rational and objective values. (“Objective values” have probably as much reality as cubic colors.) But if determinism is a cold fact its meaning depends entirely on the subjective attitude we take toward it, and it is seldom that the rationalist has either the courage to accept its power to liberate or sufficiently abject pessimism to take the other attitude and say with Andreyev
I curse the day on which I was born. I curse the day on which I shall die. I curse the whole of my life. I fling everything back at your cruel face, senseless Fate! Be accursed, be forever accursed! With my curses I conquer you. What else can you do to me?...With my last thought I will shout into your asinine ears: Be accursed, be accursed!
But even on the objective plane it does not follow that determinism deprives us of all freedom, because no Western metaphysician or scientist has yet decided what is the precise difference between the soul of man and fate itself.
The Fate–Free Will Problem
Now Oriental philosophy is quite clear on this point, and for this reason has never found any stumbling block in the fate–free will problem. Vedanta says that the soul of man is Brahman, which means that our own deepest self is that First Cause which set the wheels of fate in motion. But then Vedanta does not share our commonsense view of time, for only from the standpoint of maya was the First Cause a thing of the past.
In reality the First Cause is forever now. We speak of the beginning and the end of the universe in terms of eons, kalpas, and ages simply because human intellect cannot grasp the nature of eternity unless it is spread out upon the measuring rod of time. But to the Oriental philosopher the creation and destruction of the universe are taking place in this moment, and for him this is true from both the metaphysical and the psychological standpoints. It is not our purpose to enter into the former because it is quite outside everyday experience, and has no more to give to the solution of immediate human problems than the scientific or objective view.
Passive or Active?
In terms of practical psychology I would say that this metaphysical concept of the East is a state of mind in which the relation between oneself and life, fate, or destiny is no longer a question of moved and mover, passive agent and active power. Therefore it involves a change from the view of life in which man is an isolated being without any sense of union or positive relationship between himself and the rest of the universe as it exists both externally and within the soul. Spiritual freedom is not apparent in this state because man as an isolated unit has no meaning, just as the finger is meaningless without the hand, and the hand without the whole body.
A life without meaning is unhappiness, and we have this lack of meaning whenever man’s view of life is not whole, whenever man sees himself as a creature whose desires and whose very human nature have no positive relation to the universe.
Whims of Fate?
In this view we are the merest whims of fate who can only find salvation in letting ourselves drift on the sea of chaos or in fighting for everything that we can hold. Man can never understand his freedom while he regards himself as the mere instrument of fate or while he limits his freedom to whatever his ego can do to snatch from life the prizes which it desires.
To be free man must see himself and life as a whole, not as active power and passive instrument but as two aspects of a single activity. Between those two aspects there may be harmony or conflict, but conflict itself may also proceed from that single activity. Thus man’s experience becomes whole when he sees the activity of life as a whole in himself as he is now, when he realizes that there is no difference between his own thoughts and actions as they are at this moment and the nature of the universe.
It is not that life is making him think and move as you pull the strings of a marionette; it is rather that man’s thoughts and deeds are at once his own creations and the creations of impersonal nature. Man’s volition and nature’s activity are two names for one and the same thing, for the doings of life are the doings of man, and the doings of man are the doings of life.
Copyright ©2018 by Joan Watts and Anne Watts.
Printed with permission from New World Library
The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East
by Alan Watts
Deep down, most people think that happiness comes from having or doing something. Here, in Alan Watts’s groundbreaking third book (originally published in 1940), he offers a more challenging thesis: authentic happiness comes from embracing life as a whole in all its contradictions and paradoxes, an attitude that Watts calls the “way of acceptance.” Drawing on Eastern philosophy, Western mysticism, and analytic psychology, Watts demonstrates that happiness comes from accepting both the outer world around us and the inner world inside us — the unconscious mind, with its irrational desires, lurking beyond the awareness of the ego.
About the Author
Alan Watts (January 6, 1915 – November 16, 1973) was a British-born American philosopher, writer, speaker, and counterculture hero, best known as an interpreter of Asian philosophies for a Western audience. He wrote over 25 books and numerous articles applying the teachings of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy to our everyday lives.