Posts Tagged ‘Alan Watts’

Chalk fall St Margaret's 2013

I’ve been an occasional reader of a second-hand book I purchased some time ago. It seems that these days all my reading is occasional, nearly always of second-hand books (thanks to Amazon 1 penny offers and Oxfam Books), but anyway…

This one is “Bruce Lee: Artist of Life” about martial artist, actor and philosopher Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973). It is is a compilation of writings and notes by Lee put together by his biographer, John Little. A voracious reader as well as tireless athlete, Bruce Lee had a remarkable eye for the simple essence of living.

This is an extract, from a section entitled “The Six Diseases”:

“1. The desire for victory.

2. The desire to resort to technical cunning.

3. The desire to display all that you have learned.

4. The desire to overawe the enemy.

5. The desire to play a passive role.

6. The desire to get rid of whatever disease you are likely to be infected with.

“To desire” is an attachment. “To desire not to desire” is also an attachment. To be unattached, then , means to be free at once from both statements, positive and negative. In other words, this is to be simultaneously both “yes” and “no”, which is intellectually absurd. However, not so in Zen!

The undifferentiated center of a circle that has no circumference: the jeet kune do man should be on the alert to meet the interchangeability of the opposites. But as soon as his mind “stops” with either of them, it loses its own fluidity. A jeet kune do man should keep his mind always in a state of emptiness so that his freedom in action will never be obstructed.”

This reminds me of the image used by Alan Watts to illustrate the spontaneity sought by those wishing to be in tune with the Tao, that of the archer releasing the arrow without first saying ‘now’.

How tricky it is for a manager to act in their own field of practice in this way!


Little, J, (1999), Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, Tuttle publishing (p. 196)

Jeet kune do was Lee’s term for the martial art process and philosophical approach (he did not call it a style) that he developed


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Hambleden valley

Hambleden valley

Two-thirds of the way through the MBA starter workshops, and I sometimes wonder how it must look to new programme members to kick-off with such a large dose of introspection and self-awareness (wrapped up in the stress of meeting lots of new people, enfolded in the enormity of a two or three year course of education). There’s so much potential ‘data’ in the room, how much of it is available to them as information? And how much of that information is going to be absorbed? And what do we want them to do with their thoughts (other than i) have them, ii) record them)? Do they see the bigger picture, “connect the dots” as recent one programme member put it, or are things being filed away? These thoughts are prompted by two things.

1. At the end of the packed, hectic starter workshop that has just finished at Henley, attended by 52 managers from four international locations (and, truthfully, from a great many different backgrounds and nationalities), I felt a mix of  fatigue, frustration and anticipation. Fatigue because unlike for some spending the day out “in front” managing a class drains my energy. For some it’s the opposite, but I need to stare at a wall for a while to re-charge. Frustrated because it’s so hard to make the event a proper conversation. We have so much to “get across”, or think we do, that we’re afraid of leaving any gaps, or inviting offers to go off into different directi0ns. PowerPoint doesn’t help, but neither does it excuse. And anticipation because I finally feel like I am working to a Personal Development idea that tells a good story, and that over the life of the MBA is saying something different. The workshop is rewarding partly because I know we don’t have to (in fact, shouldn’t) answer questions. We have time to consider the thing from many angles.

2. On the plane over to Denmark this afternoon I was reading more of Alan Watts “The Book” (Souvenir Press), and I got to the final chapter, which opens with this:

“JUST AS true humor is laughter at oneself, true humanity is knowledge of oneself. Other creatures may love and laugh, talk and think, but it seems to be the special peculiarity of human beings that they reflect: they think about thinking and know that they know. This, like other feedback systems, may lead to vicious circles and confusions if improperly managed, but self-awareness makes human experience resonant. It imparts that simultaneous “echo” to all that we think and feel as the box of a violin reverberates with the sound of the strings. It gives depth and volume to what would otherwise be shallow and flat.

Self-knowledge leads to wonder, and wonder to curiosity and investigation, so that nothing interests people more than people, even if only one’s own person. Every intelligent individual wants to know what makes him tick, and yet is at once fascinated and frustrated by the fact that oneself is the most difficult of all things to know. For the human organism is, apparently, the most complex of all organisms, and while one has the advantage of knowing one’s own organism so intimately— from the inside—there is also the disadvantage of being so close to it that one can never quite get at it. Nothing so eludes conscious inspection as consciousness itself. This is why the root of consciousness has been called, paradoxically, the unconscious. The people we are tempted to call clods and boors are just those who seem to find nothing fascinating in being human; their humanity is incomplete, for it has never astonished them. There is also something incomplete about those who find nothing fascinating in being. You may say that this is a philosopher’s professional prejudice—that people are defective who lack a sense of the metaphysical. But anyone who thinks at all must be a philosopher—a good one or a bad one—because it is impossible to think without premises, without basic (and in this sense, metaphysical) assumptions about what is sensible, what is the good life, what is beauty, and what is pleasure.” (Watts, 1966, pp 139-140)

Curious, but this is pretty much what I had on my mind in the closing session of the workshop on Sunday. Reflection, wonder, curiosity and not knowing.

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Edinburgh 20062005-02-07


I wish I knew! But…

I’ve been contributing to a discussion thread in a LinkedIn group. For a change, it’s NOT a Henley group, but one of those with a lot of members, where it seems no-one can start a discussion thread if it doesn’t have a number in the title, such as “7 Horrific Mistakes in Your Job Application Cover Letter”, “Overcome the Top 10 Causes of Workplace Stress”, or “21 tips for email etiquette”, you get the banal idea… 

The topic there was a thread begun in someone’s posting of their own list of “tips for Networking”. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, and I might agree with you. Except that they had labelled this as ‘the most basic missing MBA skill’. I had to question this, and so I asked what assumptions lay behind the assertion. This prompted the original poster to concede that networking was just a skill among many, but in the course of the reply he asked me what I thought the most basic missing MBA skill was. That didn’t take too much thought, if I’m honest. This was my reply:

“It’s true that it is often said that “it’s not what you know, it’s who”, but i think this becomes a game when reduced to equating the quality of an MBA graduate with their gregarious credentials.

I would say that as a manger(or a leader) the key person to know is yourself, and therefore the most basic MBA skill is Self-awareness.”

Well, as usual, I was off, and then got into a lengthy discussion with others on what the hell I meant by that. But, why self-awareness? I know I go on about this ad nauseam in the Personal Development workshops at Henley, but my correspondent in the Linkedin discussion thread was of the view that Self-Awareness is pretty much sorted by the time you finish your first degreee. I couldn’t disagree more. In my experience, self-awareness is often the thing that has been shelved, put away, ignored or assumed to be finished with by people starting the Henley MBA (though paradoxically it is the thing that makes most sense about why they are choosing to return to school). Self-awareness is something that matures with you through life, and actually becomes more, not less, important the more you go through life. What other question is there?

I was reminded of this the other day listening to another Alan Watts audio recording on YouTube, this time part of a tribute to Carl Jung, who at the time of the recording had been dead for just a few weeks. Watts speaks in his usual eloquent way about what he thought was remarkable about Jung, and in so doing quotes verbatim the following passage about self-awareness and about the illusion of the idea that there is an absolute good and an absolute evil that is separate from us (which is not to say that one cannot take sides). Jung wrote (and don’t be fooled into thinking that Jung is arguing for a religious belief here, he is master of metaphor):

“The truly religious person . . . knows that God has brought all sorts of strange and inconceivable things to pass and seeks in the most curious ways to enter a [person’s] heart. He therefore senses in everything the unseen presence of the divine will. This is what I mean by “unprejudiced objectivity.” It is a oral achievement on the part of the doctor who ought not to let himself be repelled by sickness and corruption. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not  liberate; it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow sufferer. I do not mean in the least to say that we must never pass judgment when we desire to help and improve. But if the doctor wishes to help a human being, he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he  is.

Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the  most difficult. In actual life it requires the greatest art to be simple, and so acceptance of oneself is the essence of the moral problem and the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life. That I feed the beggar, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yea the very fiend himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of my own kindness, that I
myself am the enemy who must be loved – what then? Then, as a rule, the whole truth of Christianity is reversed: there is no more talk of love and long-suffering; we say to the brother within us, “Raca,” and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide him from the world; we deny ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves, and had it been God himself who drew near to us in this despicable form, we should have denied him a thousand times before a single cock had crowed.”

(C.G. Jung, CW 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East, Chapter V, “Psychotherapy or the Clergy,” § 519-520)

What I took from this is a lesson in what an enormous task it is to find “acceptance of oneself”, which is the aim of self-awareness.

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The philosopher Alan Watts was adept at stating certain truths that would otherwise remain just beyond our grasp (at best), or deliberately hidden from us (at worst). Because Personal Development is often seen as a process of understanding oneself through study of the self, in many people’s minds it is just a type of introspection. And though people may or may not think that they like to introspect, they are frequently willing to subscribe to the idea that the personality is just the set of qualities which one possesses (or doesn’t) and a pre-set series of potentials which one does (or doesn’t) live up to.

This belief has spawned an industry of self-help literature and know-how guides and gurus, and their proliferation is either evidence that the world is really like that, or that it is not. I take the latter view, and I think there is a serious flaw in the idea we hold in our minds when we are thinking about how we come to be what we are.

“Trying to define yourself is like biting your own teeth”, said Watts. And the point is, surely, that we cannot define ourselves in relation only to ourselves;  it’s an impossibility. What we need, in order to find our own outline, are other people’s outlines (and they need ours). So the first point I wanted to make is that our existence and consideration of “self” is entirely a matter of our relations with ‘the other’.  This is true for individuals and it’s also true for organisations, and it’s true for nations… for any concept which is imbued with identity and culture.

The second issue is that we do not seem to be able to talk our way out of this easily. When we come to attach meaning to ideas as if they were “things” with definable qualities, we are caught up in doing what the Polish-born philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski famously referred to as confusing the map with the territory. The truth is that our beliefs and values have no physical reality, neither in personal nor in business life.

This week I have been working with MBAs on their Personal Development. As part of this we looked at the process of learning, through the lens of Kolb’s experiential cycle, and then through the secondary lens of Honey and Mumford’s learning styles (Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist). We also used the labels developed by Belbin to indicate behavioral preferences when working in a group or team (Plant, Shaper, Co-ordinator and so on…). How easy it was to begin to label oneself as being one or other of these “things” (and someone else, by implication, as not). What one is tempted to do is then to identify oneself as these things. When someones says “I’m a Teamworker” or “I’m an Activist”, they are in fact jumping across several levels of abstraction without knowing it. There is “me” and there is my “description of me”, and they are not the same ‘thing’ at all.  Our problem, in short, is our addiction to nouns. We love giving names to things to separate them from the background mess of not-things, and this is so that we can analyse them and, perhaps, infer from that one, tiny part something about the limitless, unknowable rest.

My assertion that we should be very wary of substance does not accord with much of what one will meet inside an MBAprogramme. Subject Matter Experts like to perpetuate the concrete and the measurable over any system of abstractions. To them, their subject “matters”, is material in fact, and any kind of musing which suggests otherwise is a bit of an anathema. I know this because often I notice that this is how I see it, too. Why not? We’re not only very good at it (at imposing order on the world), we have been able to become incredibly productive as a result. And yet I can’t help being drawn to the idea that the aim of education should be to leave everyone involved (faculty and student alike) in a state of some confusion and flux about what it is they are studying, and what it means to “study” at all, and so on.

This may just be one of those “out there” blog postings that hints at something under the surface but does not capture it, and having kicked the idea around a bit then just carries on in the ordinary, day-to-day life – until there is another glimpse, where it resurfaces in another way.

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