Author David Bramwell is starting a positive revolution by podcast
Like many people, I was first introduced to the self-styled “entertainer-philosopher” Alan Watts through his recorded lectures (on cassette) rather than his writing. Beyond the cheesy pan pipe music and hushed introduction by an earnest Californian lay rich rewards. Watts’ warm English tones and throaty laugh were easy on the ears.
He seemed fearless of tackling, head-on, the big questions that our contemporary philosophers seem far too timid to discuss: Why are we here? Why is there suffering in the world? Do we have a soul? What is consciousness? Why do we feel so alone? And – Watts’ favourite – Who am I?
By examining his own culture through the lens of Eastern philosophy, Watts’ even laid bare the gremlins in our Western mindset and established the foundations for a paradigm shift. We are not “at two with nature” as Woody Allen once quipped of himself, but each and every one of us interdependent with nature and each other.
To Watts, our exploitation of and destruction of the environment was not the cause of our great unhappiness but a symptom. The roots of our existential anxieties lay in the persistence of what he called “a fashionable theory” – “that we are alone in an unintelligent, blind and mechanical universe, each of us a globule of consciousness trapped in a bag of skin”.
To Watts it was crystal clear that “the whole world outside your skin is just as much you as the world inside” and that, “an intelligent organism cannot be the product of an unintelligent environment”. “As a tree ‘apples’,” he liked to say, “so a planet ‘peoples’! You didn’t come into this world, you came out of it!”
In a nutshell, everything depends on – and is indivisible from – everything else. Symbiosis is not the exception to the rule as we were once taught, it is the rule. Scientists like Carlo Rovelli are beginning to champion this way of thinking, as is mycologist Merlin Sheldrake, who spells it out in his brilliant book Entangled Life.
And yet the predominant political, economic and scientific models of the past hundred-odd years that we prevail as our common sense see things somewhat differently. We have been taught to think about mountains and space as things to be “conquered”, of nature and ourselves as selfish, ruthless combative machines. The biologist Richard Dawkins goes so far as to denigrate his own species as “little more than lumbering robots”.
But maybe that’s just how Dawkins comes across on the dance floor.
Watts saw things differently. He taught that we are like waves on the ocean, each a unique expression of it, yet indivisible from it too. He reminded us that what appears to be in opposition is also in harmony: a wave can’t exist without a trough, left-wing politics are only possible with the continuing existence of right-wing politics. We take sides in the mistaken belief that the world is divided into “us” and “them” when there is, in fact, only us. To quote Edward de Bono, “In a positive revolution there is no enemy.”
Watts’ way of relating to the world changed my life enormously and was part-inspiration in the making of Adventures in Nutopia, a new six-part documentary podcast series exploring new movements, myths and ideas that just might steer us into a more inclusive, networked and ecological future.
In the spirit of Watts it uses humour and, I hope, a lightness of touch in tackling some big themes: the origins of the myths that shaped Western thinking, the concept of reality tunnels, agro-ecology, pioneering work with VR for mental health, precision fermentation, social prescription, narrative-based medicine, ecological civilisation, the Commons, the Eightfold Wheel of the Year and the resurgence of interest in pilgrimage and ritual.
Guests range from KLF/Beatles author John Higgs and journalist George Monbiot to mythologist Sharon Blackie and Farmerama podcast host Abby Rose. And yes, Uncle Alan makes a guest appearance from beyond the grave in Episode One, explaining how two big myths of science and religion came to shape and dominate our way of thinking in the West.
In the spirit of idling, find some time in your busy day to put your feet up, light a pipe and join us on a life-affirming journey into Nutopia.
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