The Psychedelic Adventures of Alan Watts
Stanley Krippner, Ph.D.
In 1962 I presented an extremely controversial paper at an international conference on general semantics at New York University. The presentation concerned LSD-type substances and how, if administered properly, they could help a person reestablish contact with what general semanticists call the “extensional world:” those aspects of nature that each culture filters and constructs through its own lenses and vocabularies.
Immediately after my talk, I noticed a tall woman wearing a large green hat with a floppy brim supported by a white cane, limping rapidly down the aisle. She wore a necklace of potbellied Buddhas, and earrings decorated with the same. Her first questions to me were, "Do you know Tim Leary? Do you know Alan Watts?" I acknowledged that I knew them both, having attended a reception for Watts when I was a volunteer participant in Leary’s Harvard University psilocybin research project earlier that year.
This colorful woman’s name was Virginia Glenn, and I discovered that she had been in the crowded room at the 1961 convention of the American Psychological Association when I first heard Leary discuss psychedelics. After attending the symposium, I had written Leary a letter volunteering my services as a research participant in his study. It was pure serendipity that I arrived the weekend of Watts’ reception and Leary graciously invited me to the event. At the sit-down pot-luck dinner Watts entertained the group by answering questions and giving short monologues on a variety of topics ranging from education in England (the land of his birth) to Eastern philosophy.
Watts was a key figure in the life of Virginia Glenn. Upon discovering that she had acute diabetes, she decided to commit suicide but changed her mind after hearing a taped lecture by Watts. In the early 1950s, she traveled between Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, and Washington, DC, playing her collection of Alan Watts’ tapes for anyone interested in hearing them. She first met Watts in 1957 while working as a waitress in New York City. By then her diabetes was critical, sending her into frequent comas, and resulting in an incurable infection in her right foot. In spite of her suffering Virginia never complained about her condition. She began to schedule talks and seminars for Watts who looked upon her as a Bodhisattva--a living Buddha. I was living in New York City at the time and helped Virginia arrange Watts’ lectures, an essential task because she was legally blind.
On July 3, 1970, Virginia, and I had dinner in Greenwich Village; she had just returned from Boston where the physicians had examined her thoroughly and, as she put it, had "readjusted my chemicals." She reached into her ever-present carrying bag to pull out a number of articles and announcements she knew would interest me. The next day, Virginia went into a coma, was rushed to a hospital, and died. Alan Watts was in Europe at the time, but on his return he wrote:
What always interested me was her discrimination and good taste in a dimension thronged with charlatans...Above all, Virginia's genius was to bring together people who...would fertilize each other's insight and imagination. She must have been the catalyst of hundreds of friendships. (Watts, 1970, pp. 1-2)
The lasting fruits of my relationship with Alan Watts are a testament to Virginia’s divine gift. Her talent of introduction would prove to be a lifelong benefit and the reason I can now write about Alan Watts with such personal perspective.
Watts’ Early Years
Alan Watts was born on January 6, 1915, in Kent, England. He once told me that his mother introduced him to the world of color, flowers, and design. In his autobiography, he wrote that she inhabited a “magical world of beauty” despite the “wretched fundamentalist Protestantism she had half-heartedly inherited from her parents” (Watts, 1973, p. 8). Watts’ father has been described as a gentle, tolerant, and humorous man (Furlong, 2001). The couple remained devoted to each other all their lives, settling in a cottage surrounded by a large garden. Watts wrote:
My mother and father brought me up in a garden flutant with the song of birds. They decided, however, that I should be educated as…an intellectual, directed toward the priestly, legal or literary professions. As soon as I was exposed…to these disciplines, which were studious and bookish, I lost interest and energy for the work of the garden, though I remained enchanted with the flowers and the fruit. (1973, p. 24)
The garden’s flora and fauna were allowed to grow wild into “an almost tropical swamp” rather than being tamed and manicured, as were other gardens of that era (p. 17).
Watts became interested in Eastern culture at the age of twelve after he had won a scholarship to King's School in Canterbury, one of the oldest schools in England. Here, feeling that he did not fit in either, one of his biographers has noted that he developed an armor of bravado and superiority that remained with him the rest of his life. He made rapid progress through the academic curriculum and became gifted at Greek and Latin verse. He became deeply involved in Anglo-Catholic ritual, launched into what was soon to become wide reading in Asian philosophy, and also showed the first signs of what became a lifelong addiction to tobacco.
As his oriental interests became a veritable passion, he began to question his Anglican upbringing more and more. He began studying Japanese culture, found in the writings of the eminent English interpreter of Buddhism, Christmas Humphries, and to the shock of his teenage classmates, declared himself a Buddhist in 1931. From these endeavors he was led to begin correspondence with Humphries, who ran the Buddhist Lodge in London and he began reading Vivekananda, Suzuki, Lao Tzu, Bergson, and Jung, and the basic Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.
The episode proved a turning point, as he was on the academic track to Oxford from Canterbury. His misgivings about the Western view of reality and his rapidly developing boredom with the established curriculum turned him away from the normal track and led him to compose nonsensical answers to the university entrance examinations, foreclosing on any opportunity to advance to a graduate degree.
As the doorway to the university closed, he became actively involved with the Buddhist Lodge, convinced his mother to visit their services, and talked his father into becoming a practicing Buddhist and eventually treasurer of the Lodge. Under Humphries's influence, Watts became involved in the martial arts and was introduced to London cultural life of the l930s. He haunted the esoteric bookshops, started reading Freud and Adler, and he soon fell under the influence of several eccentric spiritual teachers who introduced him to the occult arts. Here, he also met for the first time, Frederick Spiegelberg, whom he would later encounter in California, and the orientalist, D. T. Suzuki, who was soon to become the foremost interpreter of Zen in the West.
While working at a job raising money for the city hospitals, Watts also found time to write. At twenty, he published his first book, The Spirit of Zen (1936). This he followed with a more in-depth study of Hindu and Buddhist ideas, The Legacy of Asia and Western Man (1938) and The Meaning of Happiness (1940). From 1934 to 1938 he also edited the magazine The Middle Way, a literary periodical with Buddhist leanings, and between 1937 and 1941 co-edited a collection of volumes called the Wisdom of the East series, which appeared in New York and London.
The Asia Connection
In his autobiography, Watts dates his fascination with Asia to the age of eleven, when he began filling his bedroom with Chinese and Japanese ornaments. His mother reinforced this connection, even presenting him with a copy of the New Testament in Chinese. At the age of fourteen, Watts chose as a debate topic “The Romance of Japanese Culture,” using the occasion to discuss Zen Buddhism, a topic that was to become a lifelong interest. A few years later, he told his parents that he had become a Buddhist and began a serious regimen of meditation.
In 1932, while meditating, he pictured all the theories he had been studying snapping around his heels like dogs:
Suddenly, I shouted at all of them to go away. I annihilated and bawled out every theory and concept to what should be my properly spiritual state of mind, or of what should be meant by ME. And instantly my weight vanished. I owned nothing. All hang-ups disappeared. I walked on air. (Furlong, 2001, p. 83)
Early in 1951, Watts and his family moved to California and Alan became involved with the circle around Swami Akhilananda, which included Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and Christopher Isherwood. But he was not able to stay with this group for very long. As but one lone example of their differences, the Swami advocated practices of asceticism and sexual continence, while Watts, perhaps mischievously, let it be known that he thought the orgasm was identical to yogic samadhi.
Watts ended up in San Francisco and there he found his old acquaintance Frederick Spiegelberg, the Asian scholar. In 1952 Watts also took over the directorship of the Spiegelberg's Institute of Asian Studies. He added to the faculty and brought in distinguished speakers such as D. T. Suzuki. But financial troubles finally got the best of him and he resigned from the organization in 1957. He had families to support (two of his three marriages ended in divorce) and he had not yet become a literary icon. He found a way to enter the Anglican priesthood using “short cuts” that sympathetic priests made available to him. In fact, he was the Episcopalian chaplain at Northwestern University a few years before I began my graduate studies there in 1956. He chose this particular denomination because of the ritual involved in the Anglican/Episcopalian Mass. However, his ability to emphasize with communicants was limited and was probably as important a reason for him to leave the priesthood as the inevitable doctrinal dissensions, including those regarding his polyamorous sexual practices.
For any number of reasons Watts’ life was punctuated with periods of transience, traveling, studying, working, and lecturing. On one of his longer gambits to New York, on which he also met one of his future companions “Jano,”
Watts wrote one of the most important and influential books of his career, Psychotherapy East and West (1961). It introduced the post-war generation of clinicians to a completely new dimension of the therapeutic process--the appeal to spiritual experience as the crux of personality change. Modern scientific psychotherapy could be informed by Asian religious disciplines, with potential results on consciousness dramatically different than that produced by orthodox psychoanalysis. Watts lectured on this and other topics at Columbia, Yale, Cornell, Chicago and elsewhere. In 1962 he received a two-year travel and study fellowship from the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University, where he began to see a great deal of Timothy Leary.
In 1958, Watts had been invited to take part in an experiment involving the ingestion of LSD under the direction of Dr. Keith Ditman, then in charge of LSD research at the Department of Neuropsychiatry at UCLA. During the ensuing year, Watts experimented with the drug again a half dozen times. The beauty, the visions, the sense of mystical unity made him conclude that such chemicals were to be approached with much care and on the order of a religious sacrament. Watts's accounts of his early experiences with LSD and his thoughts about its possibilities, as well as its potential misuse, were often cited in his books, tapes, and lectures.
Watts on Behaviorism
While at Harvard, Watts inevitably ran into B.F. Skinner, the noted behaviorist. Watts often spoke of “the skin encapsulated ego” that is transcended during mystical experience, drug induced or not. This perspective allowed him to discover what he felt was “the flaw” in B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist system during his stint at Harvard. He explained this in a lecture (which Skinner did not attend). Watts observed:
I saw that his reasoning was still haunted by the ghost of man as a something--presumably a conscious ego--determined by environmental and other forces, for it makes no sense to speak of a determinism unless there is some passive object which is determined. But his own reasoning made it clear, not so much that human behavior was determined by other forces, but rather that it could not be described apart from those forces and was, indeed, inseparable from them. It did not seem to have occurred to him that "cause" and "effect" are simply two phases of, or two ways of looking at, one and the same event. It is not, then, that effects (in this case human behaviors) are determined by their causes. The point is that when events are fully and properly described they will be found to involve and contain processes which were at first thought separate from them, and were thus called causes as distinct from effects. Taken to this logical conclusion, Skinner is not saying that man is determined by nature, as something external to him; he is actually saying that man is nature, and is describing a process which is neither determined nor determining. He simply provides reason for the essentially mystical view that man and universe are inseparable. (Watts, 1973, pp. 404-405)
Watts’ integrated outlook on notions of the “self,” cultivated through his peculiar upbringing, his interest in various Asian beliefs, and the randomized series of personal collisions that marked his life, laid a sturdy groundwork for his exploration of psychedelic matters. Undoubtedly, his overweening attachment to material explanations was at odds with his beliefs about mysticism, but he levied novel and profound attacks on accepted wisdom that served as a prologue to later developments. While rife with contradiction, the complex intervention of his life in his work and vice versa, was partially responsible for the fertility of his thought.
The Psychedelic Adventures Begin
While conversing with the writers Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard, he observed a change in their spiritual attitudes, one they attributed to their ingestion of mescaline and LSD. Watts (1973) wrote:
Their vision of the divine now included nature, and they had become more relaxed and humane…Yet it struck me as highly improbable that a true spiritual experience could follow from ingesting a particular chemical. Visions and ecstasies, yes. A taste of the mystical like swimming with waterwings, perhaps. And perhaps a reawakening for someone who had made the journey before, or an insight for a person well practiced in something like Yoga or Zen. Nevertheless…I am of an adventurous nature, and am willing to give most things a try. (pp. 396-397)
Watts’ initial experience was aesthetic rather than mystical, but he allowed two psychiatrists to administer LSD in San Francisco and [he], …was reluctantly compelled to admit that—at least in my own case—LSD had brought me into an undeniably mystical state of consciousness. But sadly, considering my absorption in Zen at the time, the flavor of these experiences was Hindu rather than Chinese. (p. 399)
In 1962, Watts wrote The Joyous Cosmology, one of the most vivid phenomenological accounts of psychedelic experience in print. The actor, Shirley MacLaine, was an admirer of the book and the 9-hour conversation that resulted from their personal encounter is a fascinating contrast between the two public figures. MacLaine spoke with insight about love, while Watts spoke eloquently about sex. Watts discussed individual enterprises, such as cooking, while MacLaine emphasized group and communal efforts, for example, families, education in the United States and Japan, the entertainment industry, and various social issues. MacLaine asked more questions of Watts than Watts asked of MacLaine, presumably due to his commanding air as an intellectual and spiritual icon. Both of them were concerned with ecological issues, a topic rarely mentioned at that time (MacLaine & Watts, 1966). LSD was not one of the foci of the dialogue, probably in deference to Redbook Magazine’s readers and advertisers, although his connection to that world of study and intrigue was well known.
Watts was “seriously alarmed at the prospect of psychedelic equivalents of bathtub gin, and of the possibility that these chemicals, uncontrolled in dosage and content, could be bootlegged for use in inappropriate settings “without any competent supervision whatsoever” (1973, pp. 400-401). When asked how long one should take psychedelics, Watts frequently remarked, “Once you get the message, you should hang up the telephone.”
Life on the S.S. Vallejo
Once I moved from New York City to San Francisco, I maintained my relationship with Watts, attending parties on the Sausalito houseboat he shared with an artist friend since 1961, and assisting at his seminars. I became friends with his third wife, Mary “Jano” Jane, but developed a growing concern about their incredible consumption of alcohol. On one occasion, Watts greeted me at his houseboat with the news, “Jano and I have given up booze, but come in and have some sparkling cider with us.” I was delighted with the news and told them how much I enjoyed their newly discovered beverage. However, on my next visit, the apple concoction had disappeared and the “demon rum” had triumphed once again.
I remember attending an elegant social gathering with Watts shortly after his relapse. His hostess was a society matron in Sausalito, and he had fortified himself for the event with at least two bottles of wine. When we arrived at her door, I had to support Watts because he was completely unable to stand upright. I guided him to the nearest chair where he sat, resplendent in an Oriental gown, affecting an enigmatic smile that passed for deep wisdom. People asked him questions and he gave short answers, few of them to the point of the query. But the questioners would often remark, “I have never heard such wise comments put in so few words.” I refrained from telling them that those few words were all that Watts was capable of delivering in his condition.
For me, it was ironic that he would enjoy a lunch replete with healthy fruits, fish, and vegetables, and then negate much of the nutritional benefit with copious amounts of alcohol while chain-smoking cigarettes. Once I dared to ask him about these addictions and he blithely replied, “Well, I’m a very oral being – I like to drink, smoke, talk, and kiss.” I suggested that he might emphasize the talking and kissing. After laughing at the suggestion, he commented that those two pastimes required a partner or audience while smoking and drinking did not.
Because I had met Watts through Timothy Leary (but owed our friendship to the ministrations of Virginia Glenn), we discussed Leary’s projects on several occasions. We both began to be concerned at the direction of what Watts called Leary’s “enthusiasm, for to his own circle of friends and students he had become a charismatic religious leader who, well trained as he was in psychology, knew very little about religion and mysticism and their pitfalls.” Watts continued:
The uninstructed adventurer with psychedelics, as with Zen or yoga or any other mystical discipline, is an easy victim of what Jung calls "inflation", of the messianic megalomania that comes from misunderstanding the experience of union with God. It leads to the initial mistake of casting pearls before swine, and, as time went on, I was dismayed to see Timothy converting himself into a popular store-front messiah with his name in lights, advocating psychedelic experience as a new world-religion.
He was moving to a head-on collision with the established religions of biblical theocracy and scientific mechanism, and simply asking for martyrdom. (pp. 407-409)
Life with Leary, as we both saw it in his communes at Newton Center and Millbrook was never dull, even though, as Watts (1973) noted:
It was hard to understand how people who had witnessed the splendors of psychedelic vision could be so aesthetically blind as to live in relative squalor, with perpetually unmade beds, unswept floors, and hideously decrepit furnishings. (p. 408)
I recall having dinner at Millbrook when half a dozen dogs rushed into the room. Instead of shooing them away, our hosts simply held the food above their heads, commenting, “They have as much right to this space as we do.” Yet, I agreed with Watts:
Through all this, Timothy himself remained an essentially humorous, kindly, lovable, and (in some directions) intellectually brilliant person, and therefore it was utterly incongruous--however predictable--to become aware of the grim watchfulness of police in the background. Now nothing so easily deranges people using psychedelics as a paranoid atmosphere, so that by their intervention the police created the very evils from which they were supposed to be protecting us. (1973, p. 408)
The publication of Watts’ Psychotherapy East and West (1961), The Two Hands of God (1963), and similar books brought him into public and private discussion with many leading members of the psychiatric profession, and, he wrote:
I was astonished at what seemed to be their actual terror of unusual states of consciousness. I had though that psychiatrists should have been as familiar with these wildernesses and unexplored territories of the mind as Indian guides, but I perused something like the two huge volumes of The American Handbook of Psychiatry, I found only maps of the soul as primitive as ancient maps of the world…accompanied with little more solid information than “Here be dragons…’” (1973, p. 413)
Watts was familiar with the sophisticated models of consciousness described in Buddhist and Hindu texts, models that encompassed altered states of consciousness in a more positive and more comprehensive fashion than the psychiatric jargon of that time. In the 21st century, thanks in part to the impact of Eastern thought and psychedelic drugs, psychology and psychiatry have a panoply of spectrums, models, and typologies of consciousness – something virtually absent in the 1960s.
It is impossible to discern whether the sense of divination, polarity, and contradiction that governed Watts’ life from childhood is the result of reminiscence or that which makes it important. Watts (1973) wrote:
I carry over from childhood the vague but persistent impression of being exposed to hints of an archaic and underground culture whose values were lost to the Protestant religion and the industrial bourgeoisie, indeed to the modern West in general. This may be nothing but fantasy, but I seem to have been in touch with lingering links to a world both magical and mystical that was still understood among birds, trees, and flowers and was known--just a little--to my mother and perhaps to one or two of my nursemaids. (p. 37)
In 1973 I had a telephone call from Joan Tabernik, Watts’ daughter. She wanted to discuss alternatives to stimulant drugs as a treatment for children with learning disabilities, an area that I had worked in for many years. We made an appointment to see each other on November 16 at Sonoma State University, where I was scheduled to give a seminar. Tabernik was unable to keep our appointment; her father died in his sleep the previous night. It was my sad duty to tell the university community of Watts’ death before I began the seminar.
Michael Murphy (personal communication, 1974), co-founder of the Esalen Institute, wrote an appropriate eulogy:
If you wanted a marriage performed, a building or a bathtub blessed, a Mass celebrated (in the High Episcopalian manner, with Roman and Orthodox touches added), a Buddhist prayer invoked for the New Year, or a grace said at meals, he was usually the first person we asked. Sometimes when he came to lead a seminar, we would find him in the kitchen, preparing one of his well-known dishes or admiring the latest vegetable from the Big Sur garden or letting us know that the cooking wasn’t up to our usual standards. So he taught us by who he was. We leaned from his infectious, outrageous laughter, from his virtues and his faults, from his sense of play and his eye for the binds we would get ourselves into. He was our gentlest and most joyous teacher.
Watts’ final European lecture tour apparently exhausted him, and he died upon his return to California. But disturbing news reached me from one of the seminar participants. “Alan was drunk most of the time, and both during the seminar and at meals made lewd comments about the women in the group. Some women were flattered, but others were disgusted.” I knew that Watts was quite aware of his alcoholism, and later I was told by a psychiatrist, Walter Pahnke, that Watts had registered for the experimental LSD psychotherapy program at Spring Grove Hospital in Maryland, a program known to have helped many alcoholics initiate their recovery. But his request came too late, an unfortunate circumstance, because LSD psychotherapy was an intervention that he could have appreciated and accepted.
I value my relationship with Alan Watts, and learned a great deal from his seminars, his writings, and our conversations (Krippner, 1975). He often described himself as “an entertainer” and predicted “fifty years after I am dead, nobody will remember me.” But Saybrook Graduate School has established an Alan Watts professorship (that I currently hold) and has awarded several Alan Watts scholarships. I was one of several speakers at two memorial celebrations of Watts’ life and work arranged in San Francisco by our mutual friend, Robert Shapiro, who was instrumental in establishing the Alan Watts professorship at Saybrook. At one of these events I described Watts’ personality typology; people are either “prickles” or “goos.” However, most people were either “prickly goos” or “gooey prickles.” I also noted that the God that made most sense to Watts was a "two-handed God," a “hide-and-seek God,” a deity that I described as a “now you see Her, now you don’t” God. "God" may be a word we use to describe transcendent trickery, the ultimate deconstructing of boundaries, and paradoxically the unifying of all divisions. This is the God of fluidity, of change, of transcendence--- the very Tao itself.
Watts’ autobiography describes the end of his psychedelic adventures with these words:
"In sum I would say that LSD, and such other psychedelic substances as mescaline, psilocybin, and hashish, confer polar vision; by which I mean that the basic pairs of opposites, the positive and the negative, are seen as the different poles of a single magnet or circuit. This knowledge is repressed in any culture that accentuates the positive, and is thus a strict taboo. It carries Gestalt psychology, which insists on the mutual interdependence of figure and background, to its logical conclusion in every aspect of life and thought; so that the voluntary and the involuntary, knowing and the known, birth and decay, good and evil, outline and inline, self and other, solid and space, motion and rest, light and darkness, are seen as aspects of a single and completely perfect process. The implication of this may be that there is nothing in life to be gained or attained that is not already here and now. …Polar vision is thus undoubtedly dangerous-but so is electricity, so are knives, and so is language." (1973, pp. 399-400)
Watts once translated “Tao” as “not forcing,” and this statement characterized his life. I doubt that Watts had a rigorous, well-developed meditative regimen that he practiced faithfully. Indeed, in our discussions it seemed to me that he had gained much of his knowledge of meditation though extensive reading and informal conversations with such spiritual teachers as Christmas Humphries and D.T. Suzuki rather than through long-term instruction. Nonetheless, perhaps more than any other writer Watts brought the spiritual wisdom of the East to the United States and other Western countries. Watts’ books, tapes, articles, and lectures initiated both scholarly dialogue and personal transformation that affected hundreds of thousands of men and women, including me and my circle of friends. Like all of us, he had his shortcomings, inconsistencies, and personal demons. Yet what he accomplished is an admirable record for one lifetime and, in one form or another, his legacy continues.
Furlong, M. (2001). Zen effects: The life of Alan Watts. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths.
Krippner, S. (1975). Song of the siren: A parapsychological odyssey. New York: Harper & Row.
MacLaine, S., & Watts, A. (1966, May). A Redbook dialogue: Shirley MacLaine and Alan Watts, pp. 52-53, 98, 100-103.
Watts, A. (1936). The spirit of Zen. London: J. Murray.
Watts, A. (1938). The legacy of Asia and Western man: A study of the middle way. London: J. Murray.
Watts, A. (1940). The meaning of happiness. New York: Harper & Row.
Watts, A. (1961). Psychotherapy East and West. New York: Pantheon.
Watts, A. (1962). The joyous cosmology: Adventures in the chemistry of consciousness. New York: Pantheon.
Watts, A. (1963). The two hands of God: The myths of polarity. New York: George Brazilier.
Watts, A. (1970, November). Virginia Glenn—1931-1970. Bulletin of the Society for Comparative Philosophy, pp. 1-2.
Watts, A. (1973). In my own way: An autobiography. New York: Vintage.
This paper was presented at a residential colloquium, Saybrook Graduate School, San Francisco, CA, June 2006.