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Alan Watts: The Vicious Circle of Worry and the Monkey Mind

Philosopher and orator Alan Watts was one of the leading mediators between Eastern and Western philosophy. His works are still very popular today, as his way of expression makes it easy to get started, especially for philosophy beginners. This passage from one of his lectures deals with the concept of the vicious circle of worry and how we escape it.

Watts' describes worry as potentially dangerous because people have a tendency to slip deeper and deeper into it. In his works he describes this as "worrying about worry". As an escape from this thought prison, the philosopher calls acceptance: one should accept the condition and the mind will calm down.

Here is the video, of the monologue. I recommend you watch it before we get into exactly what he meant by it (if you don't understand English just skip the video):

Translation: The vicious circle of worry

So let us first consider what is a mind that is in a vicious circle.
Well, one of the most obvious examples that we all know is the phenomenon of the Concern.

In this monologue, Alan Watts addresses worry and specifically the vicious cycle of worry and the problems that come with it.

Definition: concern
oppressive feeling of uneasiness, caused by an unpleasant and/or dangerous situation

He illustrates the phenomenon with an example:

The doctor tells you that you have to undergo surgery. And as a result, everyone is automatically worried.
But since worrying robs you of your appetite and sleep, it's not good for you. But you can't stop worrying, and so you worry in addition to worrying. And because that's completely absurd and you're mad at yourself for doing it, you're also worrying because you're worrying.

It's a vicious cycle.

So can you allow your mind to be quiet? Isn't that difficult? Because the mind seems to be like a monkey, constantly jumping up and down and chattering.

It is not particularly surprising that Watts draws the comparison with a monkey. In Zen Buddhism, meditation is often described in terms of the Monkey Mind explained. Here, the restless mind, plagued by thoughts, is symbolized as a monkey, which one should not try to suppress, but instead to occupy (you can find here a 2-minute explanation of the monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche).

These parallels continue throughout the monologue. For example, in the following statement:

Once you learn to think, you can't stop. And very many people devote their lives to occupying their minds and are extremely uncomfortable in silence.

When you're alone, nobody says anything, there's nothing to do, there's just this brooding, this lack of distraction.
"I'm alone with myself and I want to get away from myself, I always want to get away from myself. That's why I go to the movies, that's why I go to the cookie stores,
so I go after the girls or get drunk or whatever. I don't want to be with myself. I feel strange.

So why do you want to run away from yourself? What is so bad about that?
Why do you want to forget that? Why do you want to become yourself?
Because you are addicted to thoughts. That is a drug, a very dangerous drug.

Compulsive thinking, on and on and on.
It is a habit.

So the reason why many people have such a hard time being alone with themselves is that they have never learned to be alone with themselves. Monkey Mind and thus to achieve inner peace.

"So it's difficult to stop this activity.
And you really need to stop doing that if you want to be healthy.

Because if I talk all the time, I don't hear what the others have to say.
Then I end up with nothing to talk about except my own talk.
In the same way, if I think all the time, I have nothing to think about except my thoughts.
So to have something to think about, sometimes you just have to stop thinking.

But how do you do it?

The first rule is: don't try.
Because if you do, you're like someone trying to smooth rough water with an iron.
This will only stir it up.

Just as a muddy, troubled pond calms itself if left alone, you must know how to leave your mind alone.

He'll calm down on his own."

My thoughts

For a long time I had extreme problems with the chaos of my thoughts. In extreme moments, the voices in my head literally rolled over and all I felt was restlessness. Not a particularly nice state.

Maybe you know this about yourself, too. Whether less or equally strong, you probably feel the need to change something about your situation. And I can only encourage you:

It has brought me a lot of inner peace to learn how to deal with my thoughts. Of course, it doesn't always work out perfectly, but it's getting better and better - and it's always good for you. Try it out 🙂

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