Alan Watts: No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along

No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along or that the whole object of playing it is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.

– Alan Watts, This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience

Yet another beautiful quote from the weird and wonderful Alan Watts.

QUALITATIVELY BETTER?

Why do we get sometimes caught up in ideas of progress and improvement? I suspect it’s largely because of our Western culture. At another level, it’s often because we try to compensate for a sense of lack.

There is nothing wrong with aiming to change our life or the world. That’s a natural and healthy impulse. There is not even anything wrong with the ideas of progress and improvement. And yet, it’s good to examine our thoughts about it.

Do I assume that when I label something progress or improvement, it’s anything else than my own label? Do I assume that what I label progress or improvement is qualitatively better? Do I assume it will somehow give me what I really want? If I explore what I really want, what do I find? What’s the essence of it?

IDEAS OF IMPROVEMENT

We have this idea that we or our lives should improve in quality over time. To us, improvement in quality may mean that… We should be more mature. More healed. More perfect. More awake. More evolved. More embodied. Our lives should be more together. We should have more in place. We should achieve more of our dreams.

We often have an idea of a finishing line. If only this happens, then I will have arrived. I will be loved. Saved. Understood.

We think that our life has to have some significance or meaning apart from just living it as it is.

These are ideas inherent in our Western culture and some religions. We need to improve to be worthy of love, safety, acknowledgment, and so on. We often learn this in childhood. Our parents give us love and approval if we improve in certain ways.

QUESTIONING THESE IDEAS

It’s good to notice and examine these ideas and dynamics.

Does progress and improvement mean an improvement in quality? Does it mean I am better? More lovable? More acceptable? More safe?

Does it give me what I really want? Does it give me the essential universals I really want? Love? Acceptance? Safety? Being seen and understood?

Can I find progress and improvement outside of my ideas?

What if (what my mind calls) progress or improvement is not inherently or essentially better or worse?

Ideas of improvement and progress are mind-created. They are not inherent in life or existence.

THE UPSIDES

Of course, it’s understandable if we wish to find more healing or change certain aspects of our lives. That’s natural and even healthy. It can help us to find some peace or healing or a more comfortable life. It can make us a little easier to be around.

It’s also easy to see how these dynamics have fueled much of the art, science, and what we think of as progress in our society and civilization. They are not bad. They have upsides. They can help us achieve and find some kind of success in society.

It’s important to acknowledge this. I love much of what we think of as progress in our society. I am grateful for whatever healing and maturing has happened with me. (Difficult to tell what’s actually happening though.)

THE DOWNSIDES

These dynamics also come with downsides, and it’s good to notice.

If we get caught up in some kind of improvement project, it’s often in response to a sense of lack. We feel we are not enough, so we want to improve ourselves or our lives until we are enough. That won’t happen. As long as we try to compensate for the wound in us, nothing will ever be enough. Our only choice is to examine the sense of not being enough and find some healing for how we relate to it, and perhaps even find healing for that “not enough” part of us.

Also, what we think of as progress in society and our Western civilization comes with downsides. In our case, it has meant ecocide and massive destruction of nature. It has meant occupation and theft around the globe. It has meant massive suffering for women, children, non-Europeans, and non-human beings. (And also for the ones doing all of this.) It has meant abuse of nature and destructive extraction of natural resources around the world.

MY STORY

In my case, life placed me in a position where I had to face this part of me. I have the “not enough” wound in me. I did a lot to try to compensate for it. (I often excelled in academics and got top grades. I was at the University library and poured over articles when others were out partying. I put my heart and soul into art and even, for a little while, became a kind of art star in my teens. I threw myself into meditation and several forms of spiritual practice and did it for hours a day. (I even found a way to do it 24/7 through the heart prayer/Jesus prayer). I went to therapists. I worked to improve my local community and help make it more sustainable. I did a lot more than what was expected of me in whatever I was doing.) Then it all came crashing down with my health. I no longer could do these things. I could not read books anymore. I could hardly express myself coherently verbally. My memory was shot. The awakening shift from long ago was not anything “I” could take credit for since it was so obvious that “I” did nothing to make it happen. I had nothing in my life to help me feel better about the “not enough” part of me. So I had to find more peace with it. What if I am not enough? What if this, my life as it is in all its mundane lack of glory, is enough?

That’s a key too. I have found a little more peace with it because all other avenues seemed impossible.

Image by me and Midjourney


DRAFT FRAGMENTS

These are our human-created ideas and they are not even universal among humans. It’s easy to find and imagine cultures that don’t have or don’t emphasize these ideas. These ideas are not inherent in life or existence.

….

If we do get caught up in some kind of improvement project, it’s often in response to a sense of lack. We feel we are not enough, so we want to improve ourselves or our lives until we are enough. That won’t happen. Nothing will ever be enough. Our only choice is to examine the sense of not being enough and find some healing for how we relate to it, and perhaps even find healing for that “not enough” part of us.

….

INITIAL DRAFT

Yet another beautiful quote from the weird and wonderful Alan Watts.

We have this idea that we or our lives should progress or improve over time. We should be more mature. More healed. More perfect. More awake. More evolved. More embodied. Our lives should be more together. We should have more in place. We should achieve our dreams.

We often have an idea of a finishing line. If only this happens, then I will have arrived.

We think that our life has to have some significance or meaning apart from just living it as it is.

More importantly, we think that progress or improvement – as we see it – is somehow better, or means that we are better. What if progress and improvement are labels? What if progress or improvement is not inherently better or worse?

These are our human-created ideas. It’s easy to find and imagine cultures that don’t invest much in these kinds of ideas. These ideas are not inherent in life or existence.

Of course, it’s understandable if we wish to find more healing or change certain aspects of our lives. That’s natural and even healthy. And yet, that’s not the point of our life.

It’s also easy to see how these dynamics have fueled a lot of the art, science, and what we think of as progress in our society and civilization. They are not bad. They have upsides. They can help us achieve and find some kind of success in society. They also come with downsides, and it’s good to notice.

If we get caught up in some kind of improvement project, it’s often in response to a sense of lack. We feel we are not enough, so we want to improve ourselves or our lives until we are enough. That won’t happen. As long as we try to compensate for the wound in us, nothing will ever be enough. Our only choice is to examine the sense of not being enough and find some healing for how we relate to it, and perhaps even find healing for that “not enough” part of us.

In my case, life placed me in a position where I had to face this part of me. I have the “not enough” wound in me. I did a lot to try to compensate for it. (I often excelled in academics and got top grades. I was at the University library and poured over articles when others were out partying. I put my heart and soul into art and even, for a little while, became a kind of art star in my teens. I threw myself into meditation and several forms of spiritual practice and did it for hours a day. (I even found a way to do it 24/7 through the heart prayer/Jesus prayer). I went to therapists. I worked to improve my local community and help make it more sustainable. I did a lot more than what was expected of me in whatever I was doing.) Then it all came crashing down with my health. I no longer could do these things. I could not read books anymore. I could hardly express myself coherently verbally. My memory was shot. The awakening shift from long ago was not anything “I” could take credit for since it was so obvious that “I” did nothing to make it happen. I had nothing in my life to help me feel better about the “not enough” part of me. So I had to find more peace with it. What if I am not enough? What if this, my life as it is in all its mundane lack of glory, is enough?

That’s a key too. I have found a little more peace with it because all other avenues seemed impossible.

“No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along or that the whole object of playing it is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.”

Why do we get caught in ideas of progress and improvement? I suspect it’s largely because of our Western culture. At another level, it’s often because we try to compensate for a sense of lack.

There is nothing wrong with aiming to change our life or the world. And yet, it’s good to examine our thoughts about it. Do I assume that when I label something progress or improvement, it’s anything else than my own label? Do I assume that what I label progress or improvement is qualitatively better? Do I assume it will somehow give me what I really want? If I explore what I really want, what do I find? What’s the essence of it?

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