Peel the Potatoes
In 2016, the United States self improvement industry was valued to be somewhere around 10 billion dollars. Marketers purposefully try to make us feel inadequate, and that's because unhappy people buy things.
Being Homo Sapiens, a biological organism wired to constantly desire more, we aren’t built to be happy. If you were part of a tribe vying for survival thousands of years ago, and you spent your days picking flowers, whistling catchy tunes, and constantly celebrating what a wonder it is to be alive rather than hunting, foraging, and endlessly maintaining your social status, you wouldn’t last long.
John Frusciante, guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, evolved into one of the best players of his generation not because he was content with strumming a couple of chords by the campfire, but because he possessed a manic obsession with understanding the instrument. Kobe Bryant is now striving to become a business mogul because 5 NBA championships weren’t enough to satiate his appetite for achievement. Our inbuilt function to always crave more explains why so many chart topping musicians and bands descend into a fuzzy existential depression following their most successful moments. After being number one on the charts for so long, they’re left asking: What now?
Buddhism, Zen, and thinkers such as Alan Watts have always seemed intriguing to me because they appear to offer an alternative to the cyclical and unsatisfying patterns of thought even the most successful are victims of. Unlike the vast majority of school curriculum, they take time to address one of our greatest life challenges: how to cope with the ever changing, insecure, and bewildering nature of existence.
Alan Watts was a British philosopher with a voice smooth as coffee house jazz and wisdom piercing as death metal. He is accredited with interpreting Eastern philosophy and popularising it for a Western audience. Growing up, I often stumbled upon his books while sorting through my dad’s bookshelves, and his ideas ultimately are what inspired me to pursue a philosophy degree. He lectured on the interconnected nature of the world, the illusion of past and present, and the pitfalls of “spirituality”.
On self improvement, he said this:
“In this quest for self improvement there is the obvious difficulty that if I am in need of improvement, the person who is going to do the improving is the one who needs to be improved. And there, immediately, we have a vicious circle.”
An over zealous desire for self improvement can become the greatest obstacle to self improvement. He isn’t saying we can’t become better people, he is saying the way we think about ourselves is fundamentally flawed.
One of my favorite ideas from Watts is that the Earth “peoples” the same way an apple tree “apples”. Just as the flower produces colorful petals, our planet produces us. From this idea, Watts urges us to stop seeking some abstract meaning to life, and realize the meaning of life is what’s in front of us: the now. Watts described life as a dance, and the meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. The purpose of music is the music itself, and you would never fast forward to the very end of a song just to hear the final note.
Unfortunately, oftentimes the best advice is the most difficult to follow, and I can’t claim to have successfully integrated much of Watts’ wisdom. Regardless, his ideas have produced many “woah” moments in my life, and for that, I find them worth sharing.
“Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”
If you have any interest in reading any of Watts' books, I recommend “The Wisdom of Insecurity":
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