The Wisdom of Insecurity


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. –Alan Watts

What I’ve been wondering is if there is such a thing as security. I mean, you know, the kind of feeling that you have that, number one, you feel safe and, number two, that prospect of safety is likely to continue.

I guess that most people here are familiar with the theory of Abraham Maslow that he expressed in 1943 as the “hierarchy of needs.” It’s a stage theory that states that in order to be healthy, well-functioning human beings, we all have get certain needs met. Those needs run from the most basic physiological needs for such things as food, water, and protection from the elements to “safety needs,” which include such things as a sense of personal security, financial security, health and well-being, some kind of safety net against such things as accidents and illness. And all of this makes sense.

If you don’t get your basic physiological needs met, you won’t survive. Once you get those needs met, certain other things need to be in place in order for you to thrive. And once those needs are met, you need other things– a sense of belonging, for example– belonging to a family, developing connections through intimacy, developing friendships. And then, a need for self-esteem, self-respect, a sense of who you are as a person of value, a value that you place upon yourself and that is felt.

If you lack this, you’ll find yourself scrambling for it all kinds of situations and never feeling comfortable in your own skin because you’re plagued with a sense of self-doubt that never leaves you. It’s like a kind of plague– inescapable. And once all that is in place, a person can be, as Maslow says, “self-actualized.” Which means– “being all that you can be;” reaching your full potential.

In later years, Maslow critiqued his own theory and added another stage called “self-transcendence,” in which the individual achieves self-actualization by giving himself or herself to some higher goal outside the individual self through altruistic actions. In this stage theory, the individual has to successfully negotiate each stage before moving on to the next, so achieving that second level of safety and security is a necessary stage of development.

So, if all that is true, what are we to make of quotes such as this one from Jiddu Krishnamurti, “Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay”? Or the whole text of the book by Alan Watts called The Wisdom of Insecurity? He says that “the craving for security is itself a pain and a contradiction, and the more we pursue it, the more painful it becomes.” (p. 78) It’s a question worth pursuing, and we’ll spend some time looking into it today.

We all want security, I expect. We want to feel certain that we will be able to eat when we feel the need– or the desire; we want to feel that we are relatively safe from the prospect of being robbed or mugged or the victim of a housebreaking. We want to avoid pain if at all possible, and we take measures to protect ourselves from it and we believe that it is wise to do so. We want our homes to be heated in the winter; some of us get a feeling of security when we are able to cool our homes in the summer with the flick of a switch on the wall. If we do suffer a medical emergency, we want to know that we can receive treatment relatively quickly and that the cost (most of it) will be covered by our health insurance policy. We want to be assured some measure of protection from all the things in life that can threaten us, physically or psychologically. We want to feel secure.

But the Buddha and Mr. Krishnamurti and especially the philosopher and writer Alan Watts, who devotes a whole book to the subject, counsel us to do something which seems counter-intuitive, to embrace the “wisdom of insecurity.” Okay, what can this mean?

We start out with the statement of Alan Watts that “The kind of security we are talking about here is primarily spiritual and psychological” (p. 77). So, he’s not speaking of physiological needs here. But, he is speaking of what it means to be human in a world not of our making, of making sense of mortality and of life, and of what it means to confront the essence of reality as we experience it, moment by moment which is the only way open to us to experience it. It’s what happens in those moments that concerns us, the moments of being alive.

The nature of the universe (big word, that) is “fluidity.” Everything is constantly in flux; nothing is ever still; nothing is static. And “There is a contradiction,” he says, “in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure” (p. 77).

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

It is in the nature of things that we are embedded in life, in space and in time. Everything changes, nothing is static. And yet, our yearning for security indicates that we deny this basic reality–that we want the world to stop or slow down or somehow alter its basic nature–because only in that kind of stability can we achieve the kind of security that we need to assure us of our sense of identity, our sense that the individual that goes by the name that has been given to us can be whole and protected and go on living more or less as we have in some kind of pattern of stability and continuity.

And yet, this yearning is in contradiction to the facts of an ever-changing, ever-moving reality in which we live our lives–which constitutes our lives. Where do we end, and where does the outside world begin? Is there a fundamental disjunct between the way things are and the way we want them to be? And in that contradiction, do we find one of the primary reasons that we cannot ever be truly at ease?

If you have ever done any committee work at this church, you know that we often start a meeting by lighting a chalice and articulating a statement that holds meaning for us, and then we have something called a “check-in.” This is a time when we say, usually in just a few sentences, how things are going, how we are feeling, what might be bothering us, what we are looking forward to.

When we do that, what we are also doing (though we don’t usually talk about it) is measuring–measuring how the world is treating us versus how we want the world to be treating us. We are talking about how we are doing measured against how we wish we were doing or how we might otherwise be doing. We’re giving a report of our relative satisfaction with the world. We expect certain things, and we measure our condition versus those expectations.

But, of course, those expectations are a creation of our minds. They don’t really exist anywhere except in our imaginations, but they are real enough to be our constant companions and constitute a vital aspect of who we believe ourselves to be.

Now, I’m not saying that we should discontinue our practice of “checking in” with one another. And I “expect” that we would find it odd if someone’s “check in” was comprised of just a smile, or a period of silence, though those responses might be quite accurate as statements of one’s state of being.

I’m just suggesting that we have some awareness of what we are doing, take a look at it, and be aware that in our measuring ourselves against a mythical state of being, we are placing ourselves outside of the actual present moment, which is the only moment we can live in, really.

Most of our lives are not spent in committee meetings (though it may feel that way for some of us), and I just give this as an example that might be something most of us can relate to. But, most of us, most of the time, travel through life in a kind of duality, residing at the same time in the present here-and-now and in the “how we wish or expect life to be.”

And if life is not stable and reality is not constant, don’t we risk being constantly maladjusted if we expect that it should be? And is that not what we do when we carry our expectations into every encounter with another?

Every form is really a pattern of movement, and every living thing is like the river, which, if it did not flow out, would never have been able to flow in,” Alan Watts says. (p. 41). “The human body lives because it is a complex of motions, of circulation, of respiration, and digestion. To resist change, to try to cling to life, is therefore like holding your breath: if you persist you kill yourself (p. 41-42).

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

In thinking of ourselves as divided into ‘I’ and ‘me,’ we easily forget that consciousness also lives because it is moving. It is as much a part and product of the stream of change as the body and the whole natural world. If you look at it carefully, you will see that consciousness– the thing you call ‘I’– is really a stream of experiences, of sensations, thoughts, and feelings in constant motion. But because these experiences include memories, we have the impression that ‘I’ is something solid and still, like a tablet upon which life is writing a record (p. 42).

But, the thing is, the memories that we bring to any particular encounter are not real except in so much as we allow our thoughts to linger on them. They are creatures of the past that we have resurrected because they continue to have a kind of reality, a reality that we have ascribed to them. If we did not resurrect them, they would not be taking the place of the actual encounter in the present moment.

The practice of mindfulness allows us to be aware of these memories as memories, phantoms of the past that pretend to constitute the present. Mindfulness allows us to recognize them for what they are, to gently place them aside and to return to the present moment. The problem occurs when we are not aware of what is happening in our own consciousness. We carry a sense of who we are with us, a sense made up of memories and associations, wishes and dreams and regrets, all of it unreal, all of it made up to convince us that the person we once were is the person that we continue to be.

The wisdom of insecurity consists of our ability and willingness to set aside the image and to allow the freshness of the present moment to provide all the stimulus that is necessary. To drop the self-image that we have carefully constructed over time is no small thing. That image is the thing (or one of the things) that provides us with security, the security that in this world where things can change in an instant, one thing is constant, at least, that person that I call Peter Connolly or that you call by your given name, a constant and reliable presence– except it’s not.

In the dynamic quality of what we call life, there is no permanence to the nature of the individual except the one that we have assigned to it. The wisdom of insecurity means that one is willing to confront life by plunging into it, moving with it, “joining the dance” as Watts says.

We have a desire for permanence, and the reality is that life is flux. We can live forever in the contradiction and be forever caught in conflict, or we can be aware of our apparent need to believe in permanence and take a risk– drop it– and see where that sense of insecurity leaves us.

Words, concepts, and philosophies all strive to capture something moving and elusive, the river of life, and to preserve it, “fix” it, make it something, some thing, tangible, objectified, turned into a noun; something we can talk about as if it had a reality outside of our experience of it. And religion, for most of us, is a prime culprit.

Alan Watts has this to say:

Religion, as most of us have known it, has quite obviously tried to make sense out of life by fixation. It has tried to give this passing world a meaning by relating it to an unchanging God, and by seeing its goal and purpose as an immortal life in which the individual becomes one with the changeless deity.

We have developed the power of thinking so rapidly and one-sidedly that we have forgotten the proper relation between thoughts and events, words and things. Conscious thinking has gone ahead and created its own world, and when this is found to conflict with the real world, we have the sense of a profound discord between ‘I,’ the conscious thinker, and nature (pp. 43-44).

Thoughts, ideas, and concepts represent real things but are not real things. Definitions are useful to point at realities, but when we confuse them with realities, we create a parallel world where the shadow takes the place of the real. More to the point, the noun takes the place of the verb. There is nothing more characteristic of life than fluidity and movement, and nothing more static than terms, concepts, definitions. To stand face to face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it, you must not face it but be it (p. 80).

This may be the hardest thing to understand. That image that we have of ourselves, the one that we’ve built up over years and decades, the one subject to hurt feelings and projected self-importance, calm assurance or nervous self-deprecation, whoever it is, whatever its face, it’s a mask, in the end, something made up, something not real.

If you follow the argument made by Alan Watts to its logical end, you’ll end up where the Buddhists live: the self is an illusion. We are so much of the interdependent web of existence, that we cannot and do not exist without it. We don’t have a separate reality. All that is a creation of the mind.

How can such a “mind-blowing” statement be justified? By understanding the reality of something called “undivided mind.” Here’s how Alan Watts illustrates it:

 As a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.

There is simply experience.   There is not something or someone experiencing experience! You do not feel feelings, think thoughts, or sense sensations any more than you hear hearing, see sight, or smell smelling. ‘I feel fine’ means that a fine feeling is present.

It does not mean that there is one thing called an ‘I’ and another separate thing called a feeling, so that when you bring them together this ‘I’ feels the fine feeling. There are no feelings but present feelings, and whatever feeling is present is ‘I.’ No one ever found an ‘I’ apart from some present experience, or some experience apart from an ‘I’– which is only to say that they are the same thing (p. 86).

Got it? This is not meant to be an intellectual exercise or an ontological conundrum. It’s meant to introduce a way to look at the dynamism of life, the impermanence of experience, the reality of the present moment, the illusory quality of what we call the separate self. As Alan Watts says,

Life is entirely momentary… there is neither permanence nor security… there is no ‘I’ which can be protected. Understanding requires a single and undivided mind (pp. 86-87).

So, as we enter into a period of reflection and response, who is it who is reflecting and responding?

 “To stay with that shakiness– to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge– that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic– this is the spiritual path.”     –Pema Chodron


  • The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan W. Watts. Pantheon Books, NY, NY. 1951.
  • “Alan Watts;” “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”
  • www. brainy “Security;” “Insecurity”
  • www. “The Search for Security” by Bikkhu Bodhi

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on April 12, 2015

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