Non-acting Books for Actors: The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan W. Watts

I first learned of this book auditing a scene study class in Los Angeles. While giving a couple of actors notes the teacher suddenly blurted out to the group that every actor needed to read “The Wisdom of Insecurity“, written by an amazing thinker named Alan Watts. I picked up a copy shortly after. It’s become one of my favourite non-acting books for acting.


Alan Watts was a prominent figure in the rise of Eastern spirituality in the West in the mid twentieth century. I imagine he didn’t see himself as a monk or new-age guru, but more as, to quote George Bernard Shaw, “a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way.” He wrote prolifically, and his genius was in relating Eastern philosophical concepts – from Buddhism, Taoism, and Vedanta – to the Western world in a more graspable manner. Some have commented a few of his explanations and descriptions read a little dated now. What shines through for me is his dynamic intellect crossed with a sharp humour in such pithy imagery like, “Yet trying to know and define it is like trying to make a knife cut itself.”


The book’s premise is we live in an “age of anxiety,” where many long-established traditions found in family life, religious belief, social cohesion, and career have eroded. While the release of such dogmas can feel freeing, there is often mixed in a feeling of instability as “there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold” in order to “make the insecurity of human life supportable by belief in unchanging things beyond the reach of calamity.”


Watts explores where this anxiety originates. Primarily, it’s our pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, and how this ties in with time. We try to control the future to be pleasurable when it arrives. Or we dwell in the past as a refuge. He also looks at our use of language, that in its power of defining and labelling what we experience it narrows the completeness of direct experience itself.


The result of these strivings and over-identifications is a feeling of “I” as separate from unity with the present moment. Watts puts it: “By trying to understand everything in terms of memory, the past, and words, we have, as it were, had our noses in the guidebook for most of our lives, and have never looked at the view.” With this disconnect anxiety follows.


Watts’s solution, distilled from Eastern teachings, is this: “The art of living in this ‘predicament’ is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past and the known on the other. It consists in being completely sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive…It is a way of life. It means being aware, alert, and sensitive to the present moment always, in all actions and relations whatsoever, beginning this instant.”


Living the present moment is inspiringly described by more recent writers, such as Eckhart Tolle in “The Power of Now”, and in many books in the burgeoning Mindfulness Movement. Watts, to me, has a wonderfully precise and passioned manner of elucidating it.


“So long as the mind is split, life is perpetual conflict, tension, frustration, and disillusion. Suffering is piled on suffering, fear on fear, and boredom on boredom…When, on the other hand, you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere….The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance…You do not play a sonata in order to reach the final chord…”


It’s a message that benefits people on the deepest personal level, but I wondered why was this book recommended specifically for actors?


The separation of the “I” from the present experience echoes an acting trap – when one’s mind monitors their performance while it’s happening. “How good is my acting here? Did I hit that line well enough? Am I feeling this?”


An actor can’t help being aware that they are in a performance. Even Aristotle described acting as “an imitation of an action”. It’s not just the level of action itself but an “imitation” – the fact a story is being performed in a particular medium and is not real. It sounds obvious, but acting is a mysterious conjunction of inhabiting a character in a story while being aware of it being performed and witnessed.


Yet falling into thinking about one’s performance in the act of performing, or trying to control the future result of the performance distracts from being in the present moment. Or as Watts puts it, “To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, ‘I am listening to this music,’ you are not listening.”


The most exciting acting is alive and spontaneous, which can only be in the present. It is aware, and in a seeming paradox, without thinking. Watts, in his book, does not say to discard memory and language as they are incredible tools for planning and providing context. Applying this to acting, once the staging parameters are set, the preparatory work and rehearsals are completed, there comes the moment the actor steps on stage into the story and they need to be the direct experience of it happening now. “For the feeling will not correspond to the theory until you have also discovered the unity of inner experience. Despite all theories, you will feel that you are isolated from life so long as you are divided within. But you will cease to feel isolated when you recognize, for example, that you do not have a sensation of the sky: you are that sensation.”


The book also speaks to the actor’s career, an occupation fraught with insecurity –  the uncertainty of finding work, the uncontrollable nature of the audition process, the unsettled and at times frustrating way the industry operates. Watts’ description of life’s anxieties being transmuted to strength with the awareness of “unified experience” benefits an actor, anyone, to be open, vulnerable, and present. “The principal thing is to understand that there is no safety or security…Herein lies the crux of the matter. To stand face to face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it, you must not face it but be it.”


Maria Popova writes a wonderful appreciation of the book  – and other great articles on Alan Watts – on her site Brain Pickings. Many of his books are easily available. If you want to see and hear the man himself here’s a fun video of Watts talking about
work as play.


Finally, my favourite passage from the book:

“The further truth that the undivided mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would usually be called love. For the love that expresses itself in creative actions is something much more than an emotion. It is not something which you can ‘feel’ and ‘know,’ remember and define. Love is the organising and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole…There is no problem of how to love. We love. We are love…This, rather than any emotion, is the power and principle of free action and creative morality.”