A Book Review

By Claude Whitmyer

IN MY OWN WAY: An autobiography 1915-1965 by Alan Watts (New World Library, 2007).

Reviewed by Claude Whitmyer for AHP Perspectives.

“The reason…I became a philosopher is that ever since I was a little boy I always felt that existence as such was weird! I mean, here we are. Isn’t that odd!”

Alan Watts

Alan Watts is, arguably, the most influential philosopher of the 20th century.  When I make such a statement to my friends who contemplate these things, the question most frequently proffered in opposition is “What about Ken Wilber?”

Granted, they are both autodidacts with impressive spans of knowledge about philosophies both east and west. Among their many similarities, they both refused to allow school to interfere with their educations and each has authored an extensive body of articles and books to share their learnings and to pay their bills. They both founded alternative graduate schools, Watts the American Academy of Asian Studies (now California Institute of Integral Studies) and Wilber the Integral University. Each is more a storyteller than a scholar, which has led to them both being largely ignored by traditional academia or angrily criticized by those with territorial claims to the knowledge bases in question.

While Watts is less didactic than Wilber, had he lived to be 100 he would surely have been either a member of Wilber’s Integral Institute think tank or one of its major constructive critics.

But Wilber’s work is only now beginning to be applied in practical ways by others. His Integral University in Colorado is only a few years old and only a handful have referred to Wilber’s work as an underpinning for their own. Wilber will likely have his day, but it will be located in the 21st century.

Watts’ 1972 autobiography In My Own Way, re-released this summer, provides a renewed opportunity to examine the contributions he made to the cultural transformations so many take for granted today.  The writing, teaching, and institutional experimentation that he engaged in during his life have served as an inspiration for millions worldwide.

For more than forty years, Watts earned a reputation as a foremost interpreter of Eastern philosophies for the West. At age sixteen he wrote an essay for the journal of the Buddhist Lodge in London and by 21 he published his first book The Spirit of Zen. His cumulative works developed an audience of millions and continue to inspire to this day. In his lifetime, he wrote 25 books and entertained thousands through radio and television broadcasts, public lectures and workshops, and audio recordings of these.

His works present an evolving world view of a personal philosophy of individuality and self-expression that can be matched by few and which he shared with all in complete candor and joy.

Since his death in 1973 his eldest son Mark Watts has acted as curator of his works keeping many of them in print and bringing forth new compilations from Alan’s lecture notes and workshop recordings. Many can be found on the Alan Watts website (www.alanwatts.com) or on YouTube.

In My Own Way exhibits the same personal and engaging style of most of his writing. He tells the story of a free thinker who gradually becomes unencumbered by traditional world views and, thus, over time, becomes an increasingly mind-expanding teacher and exemplar challenging his readers to work out their own salvation as well. Watts was a philosophical renegade with equally joyful engagement with his fans and exuberance towards his critics.

Watts’ autobiography speaks of many things, personal and public. His account of gurus, celebrities, and psychedelic drug experiences make for colorful reading. He had a wry sense of humor, oftentimes ironic in context.

The list of thinkers and influencers he engaged within his lifetime is extensive, including . . .

  • Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass)
  • Jerome Bruner
  • Carl Jung
  • Mircea Eliade
  • Gia-fu Feng
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Lama Anagorinka Govinda
  • Douglas Harding
  • Aldous Huxley
  • Christopher Isherwood
  • Clyde Kluckohn
  • Stanley Krippner
  • R.D. Laing
  • Timothy Leary
  • John Lilly
  • David McClelland
  • Ralph Metzner
  • Claudio Naranjo
  • Fritz Perls
  • Bishop James Pike
  • Nancy Wilson Ross
  • Theodore Roszak
  • Ruth Fuller Sasaki
  • Charlotte Selver
  • B.F. Skinner
  • Huston Smith
  • D.T. Suzuki
  • Shunryu Suzuki
  • Chogyam Trungpa

. . . to name only a few of the most famous.

He reviews with engaging insight his thoughts on Christianity, Islam, Vedanta, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and other religions and philosophical approaches as well as his thoughts on more secular issues such as food, householding, child-rearing, and relationships with the opposite sex. There are fifteen chapters plus an index for quick reference.

The presentation is mostly chronological, illustrating the gradual unfolding of his “follow your own weird” approach to philosophy and life. Each page leads to another encounter, another story, another adventure replete with philosophical and personal observations taken from the perspective of time passed.

Alan Watt’s life story is a real page-turner. For the more scholarly inclined, it can act as a good guide to his writing and thinking. It would make a great central text for a graduate course on his contributions to 20th-century thinking. 

CLAUDE WHITMYER is founder and director of The Center for Good Work, offering career guidance to individuals, businesses, and nonprofits who aspire to right livelihood; Co-Founder of The University of the Future; and author of several books on work and community.

Copyright © 2000 by Claude Whitmyer. All rights reserved.

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