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An Appreciation of Alan Watts:
From the Joyous Cosmology to the Watercourse Way

Ralph Metzner, Ph.D. (2007) 

            By the time Alan Watts came into contact with psychedelics, in the early 1960s, he was enthusiastically engaged in a mid-life process of separating from the conventional forms of his early life. From a boyhood in strict English boarding schools, he had been Anglican priest, college professor, author of a dozen books in Eastern philosophy and the arts, dutiful husband and father, he had migrated first to New York and then to California, where “at the age of forty-five I broke out of this wall-to-wall trap, though it was a hard shock to myself…I discovered who were my real friends and became closer to them and indeed to friends in general, than had hitherto been possible for me.” (In My Own Way, p. 305). He had met the woman, Jano, who was to be his constant companion for the rest of his life. He found himself in the midst of the cultural flowering associated with the San Francisco Beat poets, the humanistic and Gestalt psychotherapy movements, the Esalen Institute with its personal growth seminars and the beginnings of what later became known as the New Age. In his autobiography, Watts speaks with fondness of his new-found friendship with “people who were not embarrassed to express their feelings, who were not ashamed to show warmth, exuberance, and earthy joie de vivre”(ibid.) Because of his deep knowledge of Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy in general, Watts found appreciative audiences among people searching for deeper understanding of the world and its mysteries than could be had from mainstream education. With scintillating eloquence and joyous humor he exposed the shortcomings of dualistic Western thinking, with its separation of body and mind, spirit and matter and the self-imposed isolation of a “skin-encapsulated ego”.

            As a participant in the Harvard University sponsored research project on psilocybin (the active principle of the sacred mushroom of pre-conquest Mexican culture), I felt delighted and inspired when Watts joined our project as a consultant and participant-observer. The Joyous Cosmology appeared in 1962, with a foreword by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. We had found the existing paradigms of psychoanalysis and behaviorism woefully inadequate for describing the profound expansions of consciousness triggered by psychedelics, and were searching for more comprehensive theories of consciousness. Aldous Huxley had, with his books The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, published a few years before, introduced the world to the mystic visionary potential of mescaline experiences, using the language of the perennial philosophy, and the concept of “Mind-at-Large”, on which the personal human mind operates with a kind of “reducing valve”. Watts went further, in that he applied his profound understanding of Eastern philosophy, to the deeper psychological and philosophical dimensions of psychedelic experience. “My own main interest in the study of comparative mysticism has been to … identify the essential psychological processes underlying those alterations of perception which enable us to see ourselves and the world in their basic unity.” (Joyous Cosmology, p. 11) Watts immediately recognized and confirmed the basic insight of previous researchers, including Huxley and Leary, that the psychedelic experience is neither hallucinogenic, nor narcotic escapist, but involves an enormous heightening of sense perception, and that therefore the content of one’s experience is entirely a function of the mind-set, preparation and social setting. “Despite the widespread and undiscriminating prejudice against drugs as such, and despite the claims of certain religious disciplines to be the sole means to genuine mystical insight, I can find no essential difference between the experiences induced, under favorable conditions, by these chemicals and the states of “cosmic consciousness” recorded by R.M. Bucke, William James… and other investigators of mysticism.” (Joyous Cosmology, p. 17).

            Alan Watts naturally approached psychedelic experiences as a philosopher interested in a deeper understanding of reality, rather than as a psychotherapist concerned with personal problem solving or an artist seeking evocation of fantastic and other-worldly imagery. He described his preferred “set and setting” as follows: “I usually start with some such theme as polarity, transformation (as of food into organism), competition for survival, the relation of the abstract to the concrete, or of Logos to Eros, and then allow my heightened perception to elucidate the theme in terms of certain works of art or music , or some such natural object as a fern, a flower, or a sea shell, of a religious or mythological archetype (it might be the Mass)…” (Joyous Cosmology, p. 22).

            In a verbal tour-de-force, Watts described the expanding and deepening layers of associations in listening to a recording of the priest chanting the Mass: at first he hears the priest’s voice of “serene authority” and the “innocent devotion” of the nuns response; then, listening deeper, the priest’s “inflated…unctuous tones”, and the nuns “cowed, ..but playing possum.. to survive.” Deeper again, “I congratulate the priest on his gamesmanship, on the sheer courage of...such a performance of authority when he knows precisely nothing. Perhaps there is no other knowing than the mere competence of the act.” Below this level, where there is no “real self” and thus “sincerity is simply nerve, … “the unabashed vigor of the pretense”, he hears in the priest’s voice “the primordial howl of the beast in the jungle, ...inflected, complicated, refined and textured with centuries of culture.” Like Tim Leary describing the evolutionary remembering in his first experience with the Mexican sacred mushroom, Watts now hears “in that one voice the simultaneous presence of all the levels of man’s history, as of all the stages of life before man.” Then again, the shift to the personal history – “I, as an adult, am also back there alone in the dark, just as the primordial howl is still present beneath the sublime modulations of the chant.” Trying to find the agent behind the act, the motivating force, “I see only an endless ambivalence – behind the mask of love my innate selfishness”. And yet this posture too has “something phony about every attempt to define myself…since I don’t know fully what I am.”

The philosopher’s solipsistic conundrum is now resolved in the trickster’s joke. “Life seems to resolve itself down to a tiny germ or nipple of sensitivity. I call it the Eenie-Weenie – a squiggling little nucleus that is trying to make love to itself and can never quite get there. The whole fabulous complexity of vegetable and animal life, as of human civilization, is just a colossal elaboration of the Eenie-Weenie trying to make the Eenie-Weenie.” Going deeper still, he finds that every seeming knowing of self is really the knowing of “something other, something strange. The landscape I am watching is also a state of myself… and all knowledge of other knowledge of self.” Then again, following the chain of personal history, going far beyond childhood, “long before I was an embryo in my mother’s womb, there seems the ever-so-familiar stranger, the everything not me, with a joy immeasurably more intense than a meeting of lovers separated by centuries, to be my original self. The good old sonofabitch who got me involved in this whole game.” (Joyous Cosmology, p. 44)

Now, as he sits in the garden, the erstwhile solipsist revels in the sacredness of the other. He sees his companions as no longer the “harassed little personalities with names... the mortals we are all pretending to be, ...but rather as immortal archetypes of themselves.” One could also call this “seeing” the essence behind the personality, and it is a classic psychedelic vision. I remember from my own first experience with psilocybin, when in looking at my companions I saw them beyond the persona mask in the form of archangels, freed from all pretense and dissimulation. Watts goes on to describe the woman, Ella, his hostess who had planted the garden they were sitting in, as a “beneficent Circe – sorceress, daughter of the moon, familiar of cats and snakes, herbalist and healer – with the youngest old face one has ever seen.” This kind of seeing into the mythic archetypes of others, filled with affectionate humor and compassion, is a gift Alan Watts carried with him from his psychedelic explorations. I remember one time I came to visit him when he was living in a house boat in Sausalito, I brought with me a girl I was dating at the time – and he described her, with a friendly chuckle, as an “Irish witch”. Immediately I felt I understood something deeper about my friend, that lifted me out of a confused tangle of attractions and doubts.

            The key philosophical teachings of the interdependent unity of self and world, which Watts had already absorbed, on the intellectual level, from his study of Vedanta and Zen, were reinforced, confirmed and extended in his psychedelic vision. “It is this vivid realization of the reciprocity of will and world, active and passive, inside and outside, self and not-self, which evokes the aspect of these experiences that is most puzzling from the standpoint of ordinary consciousness: the strange and seemingly unholy conviction that “I” am God. In Western culture this sensation is seen as the very signature of insanity. But in India is is simply a matter of course that the deepest center of man, atman, is the deepest center of the universe, Brahman. Why not? Surely a continuous view of the world is more whole, more holy, more healthy, than one in which there is a yawning emptiness between the Cause and its effects…the feeling of self is no longer confined to the inside of the skin. Instead, my individual being seems to grow out from the rest of the universe like a hair from a head or a limb from a body, so that my center is also the center of the whole.” (Joyous Cosmology, p. 63-65).

In the Joyous Cosmology experience, Alan Watts returned to philosophical themes he had explored in Nature, Man and Woman, and presaged the Taoist nature mysticism, which became more prominent in his later years. “A journey into this new mode of consciousness gives one a marvelously enhanced appreciation of patterning in nature, a fascination deeper than ever with the structure of ferns, the formation of crystals, the markings upon sea shells…”  The ordering of nature as an art akin to music, its swirling complexity “like smoke in sunbeams or the rippling networks of sunlight in shallow water. Transforming endlessly into itself, the pattern alone remains.” (Joyous Cosmology, p 55).

Pattern perception across sense modalities is known as synaesthesia and it is also classically characteristic of psychedelic experience. The multi-sensory pattern perception then also can extend into the cognitive realm, as sight becomes insight and hearing leads to understanding. Listening, eyes closed, to the music of “Bach in his most exultant mood”, Watts writes of his experience that day, “in wave after wave and from all directions of the mind’s compass, there has repeatedly come upon me the sense of my original identity as one with the very fountain of the universe. I have seen, too, that the fountain is its own source and motive, and that its spirit is an unbounded playfulness which is the many-dimensioned dance of life.” (Joyous Cosmology, p. 77) This is the classic mystic vision of the Upanishadic seers: behind the endless display of forms, ceaselessly transforming, disappearing and appearing, the maya magic-show of the phenomenal world, lies no other motive than exuberant play, lila, the dance of life.

            Triggered by listening to the rhythm chants of Indian musicians, Watts expounds the key insight of maya-lila. “Life is basically a gesture, but no one, no thing is making it. There is no necessity for it to happen, and no necessity for it to go on happening. It just happens freely of itself. It’s a gesture of motion, of sound, of color…completely purposeless play – exuberance which is its own end. Basically there is the gesture. Time, space, and multiplicity are complications of it. There is no reason whatever to explain it, for explanations are just another form of complexity…of gestures gesturing…pain and suffering are simply extreme forms of play...there isn’t any substantial ego at all. The ego is a kind of flip, a knowing of knowing, a fearing of fearing. It’s a curlicue, an extra jazz to experiencee, a sort of double-take or reverberation, a dithering of consciousness which is the same as anxiety.” (Joyous Cosmology, p. 72).

            Watts’ delight in the aesthetic beauty of natural forms and appreciation of the dynamic patterns revealed by music, no doubt already present in his earlier life, was enormously heightened by his psychedelic experiences and he carried this over into his modes of teaching in the later years. When he was living in the houseboat in Sausalito, friends and students would assemble to listen to him philosophize, tell Zen stories, expound on difficult questions of Eastern philosophy and religion, and sometimes laugh uproariously, as he delighted in the absurdity of the cosmic game of “hide-and-seek” that we play with ourselves. I was able to bring him a large hemisphere of tempered steel, salvaged by a friend from an industrial yard, which had a marvelously long resonant tone when struck. He incorporated this instrument into his meditation sessions, much as resonant brass bowls are found in Buddhist temples throughout Japan. In these sessions there would be periods of silent meditation, marked by the sound of gongs or bells. But Watts would have no patience with what he called “the aching legs school of Buddhism”, whose practicioners were prideful of their long, silent sittings. When the legs start to ache, he would say slyly, I prefer to get up and dance. And he made a number of appearances, at Esalen and elsewhere, with the Chinese tai chi master and dancer, Al Chung-Liang Huang, with whom he also collaborated on his last book, on Taoism.

            In his autobiography In My Own Way, Watts relates how, following his first experiences with LSD, under the auspices of UCLA psychiatrist Keith Ditman and then with Sterling Bunnell at the Langley-Porter clinic in San Francisco, “set me off on a series of experiments which I have recorded in The Joyous Cosmology, and in the course of which I was reluctantly compelled to admit that – in my own case – LSD had brought me into an undeniably mystical state of consciousness. But oddly, considering my absorption in Zen at the time, the flavor of these experiences was Hindu rather than Chinese. Somehow the atmosphere of Hindu mythology and imagery slid into them, suggesting … Hindu philosophy was a local form of a sort of undercover wisdom, inconceivably ancient, which everyone knows at the back of his mind but will not admit. This wisdom was simultaneously holy and disreputable, and therefore necessarily esoteric...”  He goes on to say that, in sum, psychedelics “confer polar vision, by which I mean that the basic pairs of opposites, the positive and negative, are seen as the different poles of a single magnet or circuit” (In My Own Way, p. 344).

            Watts writes that he hesitated a long time before writing The Joyous Cosmology, “considering the dangers of letting the general public be further aware of this potent alchemy”. But because Huxley had already “let the cat out of the bag” and mindful of discussions of the drugs that were already taking place in psychiatric journals and the press, he wanted “mainly to soothe public alarm and to do what I could to forestall the disasters that would follow from legal repression.” (In My Own Way. p. 346). He was alarmed by the prospect of prohibitionist policies leading to wide-spread ingestion of impure bootlegged psychedelics, in inappropriate settings without guidance … prospects that turned out to be all to realistic, as we now know. During those years, the early 1960s, Watts contributed significantly to the professional, academic and public discussion, speaking at various conferences and symposia, about the significance, potential benefits and cautions around psychedelics. Astonished at the rigid shallowness and “actual terror of unusual states of consciousness” that he found in the professional literature of psychiatry, he wrote and published Psychotherapy East and West, to help open the ruling psychological paradigms; much as he had written Beyond Theology, to broaden the prevailing paradigms in religious thought. He joined the Harvard project as a consultant, and contributed an article entitled “The Individual as Man/World” to the first issue of The Psychedelic Review (of which I was co-editor). In this article, he argued that even behaviorist psychology, with its concept of “organism-environment field”, was in fact implicitly transcending the dualisms of subject-object, as Eastern philosophy had taught for centuries, and as psychedelic experiences made an obvious fact of common sense perception.

            After our initial personal connections in the psychedelic sixties, I maintained my friendship with Alan and occasional visits, and then surprisingly, reconnected with a legacy of his in a different way. Alan Watts had, in the early 1950s, founded the Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, together with Stanford University Sanskrit scholar Frederic Spiegelberg and Haridas Chaudhuri and with the help of wealthy supporters, as a place where Westerners could study Asian philosophies and cultures with teachers from Japan or India, both intellectually and experientially in meditative disciplines. Studies were organized, not by the usual separate academic departments, but by the converging interests of teachers and students. “In retrospect one can see that the Academy of Asian Studies was a transitional institution emerging from the failure of universities and churches to satisfy important spiritual needs. It was a bridge between the idea of a graduate school and the idea of a “growth center”, such as the Esalen Institute.” (In My Own Way, p. 272). For a while, Alan became an academic administrator, though he found he had no head or stomach for the business aspects of running an educational institution. “By the end of 1956 it was becoming clear that I was as much out of place in the groves of academe as in the Church, that I was never, never going to be an organizational man.” (ibid. p. 276). Spiegelberg, Chaudhuri and others at the Academy were enthusiasts for the teachings and writings of Aurobindo, the sage of Pondicherry, though Watts found “for my taste (his writing was) unreadable and as sober and sound as it was boring.” When Watts resigned from the Academy of Asian Studies, Haridas Chaudhuri, together with Spiegelberg, as well as Michael Murphy and Richard Price, founders of the Esalen Institue, went on to found the California Institute of Asian Studies (CIAS) , which continued as a kind of “alternative graduate school” at the edge of culture and counterculture – and still continues, to this day, now with the new name California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). This was the place where, in 1975, I started teaching, East-West Psychology and Agni Yoga meditation, and eventually became the Academic Dean for ten years, during the 1980s.

            After leaving the Academy of Asian Studies, in 1957. Alan had completely and finally disengaged from any academic institutions, even countercultural or alternative ones, and was living the life of the independent scholar, philosopher, itinerant teacher, guru to the flower-children, story-teller and bon vivant, settling with his wife Jano in a houseboat in Sausalito, where he entertained, delighted and taught friends, collaborators and students from all over the world – with occasional lecture and study tours, including one to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1961, where he came into contact with our psychedelic research project. So Alan Watts has been my mentor in two different phases of his, and my, life. First, in the psychedelic early sixties, he offered us his deep knowledge of Asian philosophies as a historical and cultural context for the mystical experiences sometimes induced by these unusual substances. In the seventies (after Watts’ death in 1973), when Leary had become an international countercultural prisoner, fugitive and exile, and Alpert, as Baba Ram Dass the devoted follower of an Indian bhakti yogi and folk-guru to millions of hippies, I came across an educational institution, that Alan had had a hand in founding, two decades earlier, that provided me with a framework, again focused on the integration of Eastern and Western philosophies and psychologies, for my teaching work for the next thirty years. As he and I also shared a certain affinity stemming from the fact that we were both brought up in the peculiarly stifling educational milieu of British boarding schools. I will always be grateful for the light-hearted and clear-sighted life-wisdom that he imparted.

            His last written work, on Tao – The Watercourse Way, published posthumously, was co-authored with tai-chi dance-master Al Chung-Liang Huang, who provided ink-brush calligraphy to go with Alan’s text. Watts had planned to write two more chapters, so it was incomplete, but Al Huang completed it and added a tribute and biographical reminiscences of their teaching adventures together. In the Foreword, Al Huang writes that, in the final two chapters, “Alan hoped to let it be seen how the ancient, timeless Chinese wisdom was medicine for the ills of the West. Yet, paradoxically, it must not be taken as medicine, an intellectually swallowed ‘pill’, but allowed joyously to infuse out total being and so transform our individual lives and through them our society.” Al Huang quotes Elsa Gidlow, Alan’s long-time friend and neighbor, who said that in the writing of this, his final book, the Way of the Tao “transformed him as he allowed it to permeate his being, so that the reserved, somewhat uptight young Englishman, living overmuch in his head, in his mature years became an outgoing, spontaneously playful, joyous world sage.” Not that the joyousness and playfulness came to him without cost and without strain. “But I don’t like myself when I am sober,” he confessed once to Al Huang, noting his penchant for drinking too much.

            Alan Watts expressed the integration of Eastern and Western worldviews in his writings, and embodied their synergy in the transformations of his life. As Al Huang wrote, in an epilog to their book, Alan had “a rare and wonderful ability to be both Occidental and Oriental… when he allowed it, he could be both at once, easily bridging the gaps within his own learning and experience.” (The Watercourse Way, p. 126.) Huan called him a “philosophical entertainer…(whose) foremost concern was enjoyment for himself and for his audience.”

            I like to think of him as the laughing philosopher, affirming both the highs and lows of existence, knowing the “wisdom of insecurity” (in one of his most inspired book-titles), and like the “true men of old”, that Chuang-tzu wrote about, “exit (from life) awakened no resistance. Carefree they came and carefree they went. They did not forget what their beginning had been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted their life and rejoiced in it.” On the evening of his last day, Alan Watts reportedly was happily playing with balloons. As he watched the seemingly weightless, floating balloons, he remarked “oh, if I could only figure out how to do this without my body”.

Works Cited

Watts, Alan. 1962. The Joyous Cosmology – Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. (Foreword by Timothy Leary, Ph.D. and Richard Alpert, Ph.D.) N.Y.: Vintage Books – Random House.

Watts, Alan. 1972. In My Own Way – An Autobiography 1915-1965. N.Y.: Pantheon Books – Random House.

Watts, Alan. TAO: The Watercourse Way. with Al Chung-Liang Huang. N.Y.: Pantheon Books – Random House.

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