Monthly Archives: May 2021

Spiritual pioneer on the edge – Alan Watts

The next spiritual pioneer I’ve chosen is Alan Watts, born in January 1915 in Chislehurst in Kent. There are mixed responses to his life and work – partly because of his careless and unconventional personal life, and, also because although writing brilliantly about the search for God and truth he tended not to ‘live it’. Interested in psychoanalysis and Jungian psychology he said that psychotherapy bored him, while he felt too much meditation ‘is apt to turn one into a stone Buddha’.

Watts by the age of 20 had published The Spirit of Zen; in it he introduces the ideas of Zen to the western reader. Later after moving to the US, he briefly trained and worked as an ordained Episcopalian priest and then immersed himself in Zen Buddhism, Taoism and a deep and life long preoccupation with the question of identity, and the search for the true self. He wrote extensively, gave endless talks and was a regular on TV and the radio. He wrote more than 25 books – and also had some interesting things to say about Christianity. He called himself a ‘genuine fake’, a ‘spiritual entertainer’ and was seen as a ‘counter-cultural mystic’. He turned on many in the west to meditation and Zen Buddhism. His books helped thousands of people and his you tube videos are apparently watched still by millions. Watts famously said that Zen does not confuse spirituality with peeling potatoes and thinking of God, but spirituality is the act of peeling the potatoes: the potato ‘is it’. Awareness of being present in the ordinary here and now is enlightenment.

Steeped from his youth in the Church of England Watts was way ahead of his time about where Christianity might be heading. Commenting on ‘the death of God’ movement in the 1960s he suggested that it was not God who was dying, but a particular way of thinking and talking about God that had died ‘by becoming implausible’. He suggested a return to the God of the theological mysteries, a God not limited by our concepts, or our pitiful need for security.

‘The highest image of God is the unseen behind the eyes – the blank space, the unknown, the intangible and the invisible. That is God! We have no image of this. We do not know what that is, but we have to trust it. There’s no alternative … That trust in a God whom one cannot conceive in any way is a far higher form of faith than fervent clinging to a God of whom you have a definite conception.’

The main trouble with Church religion is that people are taught to carry out spiritual exercises on a sort of imitative basis – because the saints did it – we do the same, but this means that leaves a terrible vacuum at the heart of piety.

Some other good quotes from Watts:

‘No one is more dangerously insane than one who is sane all the time: he is like a steel bridge without flexibility, and the order of his life is rigid and brittle.’

‘The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.’

‘Technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe.’




Etty Hillesum – spiritual pioneer

Etty Hillesum was born in January 1914 in the Netherlands – her father was Dutch and her mother Russian. She came from a highly cultured and talented Jewish family and she died in Auschwitz on 30th November 1943. Her spirituality is not church based but deeply reflective of and in touch with the secular trends – in 1941 when she begins her journal Amsterdam is already a deeply hostile place for Jewish people. Her inner journeying is greatly helped by the therapeutic work of Julius Spier who was also her lover. Unlike some others Etty understood what was happening to the Jewish people in the Netherlands where daily humiliations and deprivations led in spring 1942 to mass deportations to work camps and concentration camps. It is in this terrifyingly cruel and hostile environment that her increasingly intimate union with God comes into being.

Her spiritual pioneering is in the dependent and loving relationship with God that becomes increasingly central as everything else that previously offered certainty is stripped away.  On the death of Julius Spier, her friend and lover, in September 1942) she is able to write in her journal:

‘I now realise, God, how much You have given me. so much that was beautiful and so much that was hard to bear. Yet whenever I showed myself ready to bear it, the hard was transformed directly into the beautiful. And the beautiful was sometimes much harder to bear, so overpowering did it seem . . . With the passing of people. I feel a growing need to speak to You alone. I love people so terribly, because in every human being I love something of You.’

Her writings detail her gradual and growing awareness of surrender – letting attachments, fears, lack of direction and what she calls indolence go. And also letting go of the experiences of spiritual consolation which she sees as ambition: ‘In near-ecstatic moments I think myself capable of God knows what, only to sink back again into the deepest pit of uncertainty.’ She realises that the key to detachment, peace and creativity lies in living each moment fully, as the place in which God is present to us. And so where:

‘I now have the inner certainty that everything will be taken care of. Before, I always lived in anticipation, I had the feeling that nothing I did was the ‘real’ thing, that it was all a preparation for something else, something ‘greater’, more ‘genuine’. But that feeling has dropped away from me completely. I live here-and-now, this minute, this day, to the full. and life is worth living. And if I knew that I was going to die tomorrow, then I would say: it’s a great shame, but it’s been good while it lasted.’

She becomes increasingly conscious of the indwelling presence of God and open to what Jung called ‘extended compassion’ and the suffering world, believing that her presence and availability would benefit others. She writes: ‘God, take me by Your hand … I shall follow you wherever your hand lead me and shall try not to be afraid. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go. … I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfil its promise.’

Her pioneering spirituality brings an inner freedom and increasing ability to face and absorb the external horrors around her without being destroyed by them. ‘True peace will come only when every individual finds peace within themselves …’

Spiritual pioneers on the edge

The next few posts will be about a current interest of mine which is reading about those who became pioneers of spiritual discovery. Perhaps it is rather about spiritual recovery – recovery of the soul and to recover that from which each person is estranged – namely one’s essential truth. Generally, the people I am going to look at came to believe that we can have an experience of oneself as divinely grounded where there is an experience of divine immanence as a universal power underlying all that is.

This aspect of universality means that the pioneers take us out of the constraints of what Jung called confessional religion which is caught in a ‘dead system’ – a matter of the head and not the heart, a matter of doctrine rather than experience. Marginality to formal religion can in itself be utilised as a spiritual resource, after all history shows us that inside ecclesiastical authority the pioneer can become assimilated or controlled or even eliminated as a threat

So, these pioneers are on a personal search for a truth, and to experientially relate to their need for a more than intellectual meaning in life. Paradoxically what begins as a personal search leads to an intensified sense of one’s affinity with all that is. A greater resonance with what has been called ‘the Source of the all’ within can only generate a compassion with all that participates in the same source. Carl Jung called this extended compassion and saw it as endemic to his study of individuation – in other words the more we approach our essential self the more open we are to be alongside others. In recovering our soul, we recover our connections and unity with all of creation – to all that exists beyond the individual.

There are many of these contemporary pioneers. Why? There has been a disconnection from what Jung called ‘the spirit of the depths’ – the deeper we go the less solipsistic we become and so individual soul recovery through the examples and teachings of these pioneers has a much wider consequence in providing access to ‘the ruler of the depths of world affairs’. Their influence is great.

The experience of one’s essential self as divinely grounded is always ambiguous and cannot be held onto or possessed but it is a yearning, a longing for enchantment which is sometimes rewarded. Jung records one experience when he dreamt of a dark night in Liverpool (the pool of life). In this dream Jung and a number of Swiss companions are in Liverpool. It is night, dark, winter, raining and sooty, all very unpleasant. His party moves up to a higher part of the city and there Jung perceives a small island of pure light shining on a single budding magnolia tree that is illuminated both by the light and also by its source. Jung wrote that he had had a vision of unearthly beauty ‘and that was why I was able to live at all. Liverpool is “the pool of life”.  ‘I saw that here the goal had been revealed …everything is directed towards that centre … The dream depicted the climax of the whole process of the development of consciousness.’

The Quest for Home and Self 2

Looking further at this search Paul Tillich sees that our essential nature as grounded in God cannot be forgotten – our memory of God is the basis of our sense of God and sense of exclusion from being home with God. Carl Jung takes this sense of God further when he writes: ‘God is the circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’ God or the numinous is ever present Jung writes about the numinous as that which ‘controls the human subject, who is always rather its victim than its creator.’

For both Tillich and Jung make the point that the process of the quest for home and self cannot be exhausted in the course of a lifetime where realization can only ever be partially realized. The fullness of the quest belongs to eternity but the quest is the basic demand of life and what actually makes life worth living. The goal of the journey is unity with the ground of being. Interestingly and John P. Dourley comments audaciously Jung sees that in the deepest part of the psyche the unconscious unites what the Church has divided – namely the human and the divine – the goal of each person’s life is the experience of the natural divinity of one’s humanity … For Jung there is a natural presence of God in the human psyche:

‘It is therefore psychologically quite unthinkable for God to be simply the “wholly other”, for a “wholly other” could never be one of the soul’s deepest and closest intimacies – which is precisely what God is.’ The Western bias of making God totally transcendent and out there means that too few people have ‘experienced the divine image as the innermost possession of their souls.’

Dourley concludes his article by assessing that Jung provides us with a more detailed map of the way of the quest with a more accurate description of the powers to be met en route, ‘and with gripping premonitory image of the final homecoming’. He sees both theology and psychology as able to throw light on each other’s sense of exile and search for home and some sort of acceptance and assimilation of both ‘be truly able to help each other to go home together.’