Reading Notes 10: Insecurity

The Wisdom of Insecurity

by Alan Watts

🎧 Podcast version

“To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet. We look for this security by fortifying and enclosing ourselves in innumerable ways. We want the protection of being “exclusive” and “special,” seeking to belong to the safest church, the best nation, the highest class, the right set, and the “nice” people. These defenses lead to divisions between us, and so to more insecurity demanding more defenses.”


Alan Watts wrote this small and very approachable book called The Wisdom of Insecurity and it is good and full of wisdom and I like it but also,

I still don’t like insecurity.

Insecurity is uncomfortable. More than uncomfortable. Insecurity is deeply unsettling, debilitating, sinister. Insecurity makes me question myself and every decision I’ve ever made. Insecurity says things that I don’t want to hear, and says them in my own voice.

In fact, I feel insecure right now.

“The more we try to live in the world of words, the more we feel isolated and alone, the more all the joy and liveliness of things is exchanged for mere certainty and security. On the other hand, the more we are forced to admit that we actually live in the real world, the more we feel ignorant, uncertain, and insecure about everything.”

I spend a lot of time in the world of words, slicing and dicing my experience of reality into categories and labels, analyzing and categorizing for myself and others. Words serve a purpose, of course. Many purposes, many of them good.

But words can be imprisoning. They give validity and substance to things that need to come and go. Words can provide substitutes we’d be better off not having: stringent accuracy instead of full open-hearted honesty, pale sickly consistent authenticity instead of passionate unpredictable messy and inconsistent emotion.

“Only words and conventions can isolate us from the entirely undefinable something which is everything.”

Words create a weird scenario in which we can be right without feeling right, and that messes us up in all sorts of ways.

“Your body does not eliminate poisons by knowing their names. To try to control fear or depression or boredom by calling them names is to resort to superstition of trust in curses and invocations. It is so easy to see why this does not work.”

So here I am feeling insecure, and of course I figure this is an ideal time to write about insecurity. Because apparently I enjoy pulling my emotions out—like some sort of alien creatures that’ve lodged in my chest—and picking them apart with words and definitions and metaphors, and then asking a bunch of other people to read what I’ve figured out (or tried to figure out) because, I guess, why the hell not?

(Maybe the first question I should ask myself is WHY?, and then move over to Why not? But it seems I also enjoy doing things backwards, leaping first and looking later, boldly striding into situations I know nothing about and probably cannot handle and then realizing, Oh fuck now I gotta handle this.)

“I feel cut off only because I am split within myself, because I try to be divided from my own feelings and sensations. What I feel and sense therefore seems foreign to me. And on being aware of the unreality of this division, the universe does not seem foreign any more.

For I am what I know; what I know is I. The sensation of a house across the street or of a star in outer space is no less I than an itch on the sole of my foot or an idea in my brain.”

Insecurity is a pervasive, deep-down feeling that we don’t notice until we do. Until we can’t help but notice.

Then we feel it in relationship to something or someone else, and because we’re short-sighted little humans, we think: “Oh, I feel insecure about this person or that experience or this other thing over here.”

But the reality is that when we feel insecure, we can feel insecure about absolutely anything. The root is deep. The expression looks for something convenient to attach to. Then we get stuck on the attachment rather than dealing with the root cause of the insecurity.

“We can hardly begin to consider this problem unless it is clear that the craving for security is itself a pain and a contradiction, and that the more we pursue it, the more painful it becomes. This is true in whatever form security may be conceived.”

WHY is a good question to begin with, as it turns out: WHY do we feel insecure in the first place, about anything? What are we so afraid of? What threatens us? Who judges us?

A big part of our problem is seeing ourselves as separate: separate from each other, separate from nature, separate from the rest of reality.

If there is separation, there is fear: fear of loss, of not having, of scarcity, of misunderstanding, of rejection, of hurt, of loneliness, of aggression. There is fear of all the bad experiences we would never choose to give to ourselves: we would choose the good for ourselves, always! But now there is separation: now there is Other—something outside of me, something standing apart—and if it is separate from me, perhaps it is not like me. That whole idea brings up all sorts of unpleasantness.

“As a mirror of our own inner division, we have fragmented the world into inner and outer experience. We embrace our separateness without realizing that there is only one reality. The universe is a single process occurring in consciousness (“the great stream”), and only by merging into that process can we discover who we really are.”

Because we are afraid of what is not like us—what is separate—we use words and conventions, definitions and labels—to try to understand it, categorize it, predict it. The more we do this, the more we see differences, which we creates a bigger sense of separation everywhere, between US and everything/everyone else.

The more separation we feel, the more we want to define and understand and predict, so the more we label and categorize and analyze, so the more differences we see, and on and on we go: creating more separation in our attempt to feel safe. And why do we need to feel safe? Because we feel separated.

God, what a messy loop.

“What we have to discover is that there is no safety, that seeking is painful, and that when we imagine that we have found it, we don’t like it.”

There is no safety, because there is no static point where everything stops, is fully understood, hold in a familiar form. Life is change. We are change.

No change, no growth, no movement? That means no life. Maybe the only place that feels safe is Death. Ironically, death seems to be what most of us are most afraid to experience. Yet in our search for safety, we build all sorts of little static prisons that hold us tight and still, mimicking death. Then we hate them.

Rightly so.

Life has no time for dying.

“…you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To “have” running water you must let go of it and let it run. The same is true of life and of God.”