Philosopher as an artist—In this article, I will be expanding upon the essay Instinct, Intelligence, and Anxiety by Alan Watts. This essay came into my life when I was having an internal debate of impulse vs. rational thought. How much of our experience is due to an excess of one or the other? Can we ever fully master our desires, or will they possess us and make free will obsolete?
I recommend that you read Watts’s essay after finishing this article. Lastly, I would like to note my awareness of anxiety being a severe plague to our mental health. I am by no means trying to downplay its effects or claim that it can be cured by switching one’s point of view.
After running into numerous people from my adolescence, I’ve noted that many of us suffer from chronic anxiety. If it is not the media instilling fear, it is the brain’s affinity for overthinking. I’ve seen drug-induced cases, various substances causing paranoia which is only amplified once sobriety returns. The substance of choice is utilized to combat anxiety and replace it with euphoria. If it is not the drugs causing panic it seems to be the unexpected reality of adulthood. Many of my peers felt unprepared, deceived even, with what it means to be an adult.
One comrade compared it to the similar sensation of being deposited in the desert with no map or supplies for survival, leaving us with a dependency on God or Universal pull to solve all our problems. I’ve often looked to nature for guidance. Observing the animals has always lead me to believe we are a bit foolish. We tend to over-complicate our reality and take ourself out of the experience of living.
When a bear is hungry, it hunts. It does not contemplate if the fish or deer will be kinder to its figure. Birds have an instinct to fly. It is within them; they do not need to soul search, but do. Survival being their end goal. Humans do not do. They require a mastery of thought, learning, and choice. According to Watts, this takes up a quarter of our life!
We are living between the ears rather than in the external. To act on instinct means surrendering to spontaneity. To act on intellect requires analysis, prediction, and a decision. The result of the intellect process is often chronic anxiety. We are too rational for our own good. Watts states that intelligent thinking works by dividing the world of experience into separate facts and events. Simple enough for consciousness attention to focus upon them one at a time.
When an individual must choose, the brain begins to panic: What if I did not weigh out my options and am making the wrong decision? Anxiety is not exempt from major or minor decisions. I can get just as anxious choosing the proper yogurt brand in the grocery store as I could choosing what state or country to live in for work. We fear having overlooked all outcomes.
By taking on this structure of thought, it almost becomes impossible ever to trust pure instinct or succumb to spontaneity without experiencing fear or uneasiness. When it comes to the mind, I often played the part of the prisoner, forgetting that I am also the warden and administrate the shackles.
My sense of confinement and isolation was due to no one other than myself. The sensation of being lost in the world seems impossible to evade. I often thought I was permanently condemned to feeling like an outsider. We have cluttered our mind and grown attached to always thinking towards the future. Time often seems like the enemy. It's as if we are too intelligent for our wellbeing.
Mystics, self-help gurus, spiritualists, and entrepreneurs can be heard speaking of the NOW, or experiencing the present moment. I used to remind myself this daily, until I realized there is no escaping the now! Even when I am on my phone or dwelling on a euthanized love, I am still in the now.
I am missing out on my external world, failing to see the minute beauties that surround me or the movements that constitute the day. I am choosing solitude over human interaction. If logic is what we desire, life can be simplified to a formula: desires and choice—or acting upon those desires.
The humor in it all is intelligence can’t trust itself. For intelligence at its core is systematic doubt, its opposition being instinctual faith. Watts summed this up best by stating lack of self-confidence is the peculiar neurosis of civilized man.
We are at constant battle with the self. The rational mind will remind us that overt confidence will lead to a false outlook.
I tend to have bursts of self-belief. Until I begin to tell myself, easy old boy, you aren’t God, you’re not on that level of creation! I’m sure I could be given a Pulitzer and still doubt my abilities. But what if I am God and humanity is meant to become God?
Fate may have a play in our outcome, but what is stopping us from forging our own path? We are a miracle, an embodiment of the Universe. I’d place that on the same scale of miracility as transforming water into wine. This belief alone helps combat negative thought patterns.
Too much of structure and rational thinking can lead to revolt. If we blindly follow logic, we will not always think for self but follow what we are programmed to believe. As Watts states: It is through impatience and exasperation with such snorts that democracies vote themselves into dictatorships. It is in protest against laborious unmanageability of vast technical knowledge in literature, painting, and music that writers and artist go berserk and break every rule in the name of sheer instinctual exuberance.
I’ve experienced this first hand when It comes to poetry. I was so set on learning the “rules” of poetry that it drove me to insanity. I ended up following my intuition and wrote from the heart. I gravitated towards free verse were I could create an organic cadence and structure constructed by my consciousness. Or above when I used a self-created word miracility!
The best artists have molded the medium to fit their vision rather than become a slave to the medium. If we fall into repetitive patterns or organizations, we relinquish our humanity and intrust in the machine. As a result, revolt is inevitable. Anxiety and the sensation of hopelessness seem to stem from our inability to see the multiple interdependencies of contraries. Good and evil, life and death, happiness and sorrow, are often seen as separate entities. But we can not have one without the other.
They are all codependents. Watts claims that the neglection of this realization is why we often react to situations one of two ways: we obey—sacrificing the pride of intelligence or we act on impulse ignoring free will and reason. Is there a way to experience a balance?
He says that all action and existence is in accordance with nature. I have trust in Mother Earth; without her, we would have no life source. What is a point of view but a state of mind? When we begin to see the interdependencies of the world, we can begin to live experiential rather than by a set of ideas. To quote Jimi Hendrix, “Are you experienced?”
When we see the relation to one another, and with the components of existence, one can conclude that there are no real events or reality. Our experience with the outside world is dependent on our inherent existence. Therefore, it does not matter what you do but how you do it!
The feeling of helplessness is just that: a feeling. The world we so desperately wish to control is what gives us the power to control anything. When that feeling of oppression sets in we must remember that it is our consciousness bringing that world into being. We can change our perception and mold the outcome to be beneficial.
Once we realize our conscious and cease to ignore it, as Watts describes, we discover two things: 1. That it controls itself only very slightly, and is thoroughly dependent on other things and 2. That there is no little man inside, no “I” who owns this consciousness. And if that is so, If I do not own my consciousness and if there is even no me to receive it, or to put up with it, who on earth is there to either be a victim of fate or the master of nature?
By relinquishing self, this leaves us to identify with all. In the grand scheme, all of existence is connected and unified. No self does not mean lack of self-worth or love of spirit, but the opposite. If you see yourself in all, one will have sympathy and affinity for life! All that is divided in this world is inseparable. I’ve heard this notion echoed by those considered “good”—such as philosophers or spiritual deities, as well as from those considered “evil” such as Charles Manson who responded with “I am nobody” when asked to define who he was.
Even in the most common contradictory relationship, good and evil their is common ground just as Heaven and Hell are intertwined. Instinct and intelligence are meant to work in tandem, for if we sway to one side of the spectrum, self-destruction is inevitable. Each of us possesses different traits, but we are the same when you get to the root of it all. Universe, God, Infinite creation, whatever you wish to call it, always resides within us. We are the face of God. The dream within the dream.