Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

July 7, 2019

Alan Watts, ‘Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal’ (1973)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 8:53 pm


Reading Alan Watts (1915-1973) today, in 2019, or listening to any of his many recorded 1950’s-1960’s talks and radio broadcasts, I’m struck by how timeless and how welcoming his approach is. Never a doctrinaire man, Watts was able to open the door to “the bigger picture” for hundreds of thousands by asking us questions we’d not stopped to ask before (or not stopped to ask recently) and by providing accessible metaphors and imagery to lead us into new territory, from which we could see ourselves as if we were observing someone else. In his talks, he was a master at what would today be called “discovery learning,” in that we would be the ones to come upon the enlightenment from the items we would put together for ourselves, provided in a seemingly casual and self-effacing way by Watts. His witty tone and perfect timing (like a comedian who knows how to “work a room” but still seem natural and spontaneous) certainly did not hurt his approach….neither did his exhaustive knowledge of comparative religions, art and literature and mythology, etc., always able to pull the perfect illuminating reference out of his endless storehouse of learning, without ever seeming pedantic.

He was never stuck in one particular school of Zen (in fact, he was not necessarily liked or appreciated by the powers-that-be in that area, which I suppose is to his credit),  nor was he necessarily an advocate of any particular “method” related to Zen, nor did his imagery come primarily from a Zen or even Buddhist pool. He was just as likely to find his imagery from the world of science or philosophy or psychology or other spiritual traditions, but most importantly, he was always rooted (as a poet should be) in the particulars of daily life.

If Watts is new to you, I would recommend you just find a random talk/lecture online and put it on while you are involved in some mindless activity around the house but are free to listen and to think. Let it wash over you. Don’t worry about “getting” anything. Then listen to another one in a few weeks.

I first discovered Watts in the early 70’s, perhaps in the year after his 1973 passing, when the local public radio station in Denver would play talks of his on Friday nights for a month or two (I discovered Krishnamurti the same way). Having already read Kerouac and Philip Whalen, I was ready for Alan Watts’ piece of the puzzle.

CLOUD-HIDDEN, WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN: A MOUNTAIN JOURNAL (1973) was the last Watts book published in his lifetime, a collection of 19 meditative pieces composed in the foothills of Mount Tamalpais, CA, ruminations on the nature around him and his realizations of his place within it and among it, one with it. I stumbled across the book in the 1980’s for a dollar or so used, but wasn’t really ready for it at the time. Looking back, I must have been impatient and more closed to “reading daily experience and detail” than I later became, because I felt in the 1980’s that it had too much nature writing in it—-a perfect example of the wisdom of the Dylan line “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now” (and Watts himself quotes another well-known Dylan line in one of these journals).

Speaking of Kerouac, Watts appears under a pseudonym as a character in two Kerouac books, THE DHARMA BUMS and DESOLATION ANGELS, and Watts also commented on Kerouac, not in a particularly favorable way, but one would not expect those two to get along….or even to see the value in each other’s approaches. I mention Kerouac here because as I was re-reading Watts’ CLOUD-HIDDEN, I was reminded of Kerouac’s BIG SUR and DESOLATION ANGELS. They are both set in similar areas and both contain detailed physical descriptions functioning as metaphors for greater truths. However, the approach to language and the method-of-communication is worlds apart. To use a jazz analogy, Kerouac would be someone along the lines of saxophonist Rev. Frank Wright (or maybe Albert Ayler, but I hear more Wright), while Watts would be coming from an angle not unlike pianist Paul Bley. I can’t imagine a duo album from those two. That’s fine, however. There are many roads to the palace of wisdom, each better suited to different people….and to the same person at different times in their lives, different days of the week.

The pieces in CLOUD-HIDDEN were originally published in magazines and distributed to private subscribers to Watts’ journal. Watts makes clear in the intro that there is  no particular running order to the pieces (though he does provide dates of composition for those who might want to read them in chronological order). If he walks to the west one morning, walks to the east one afternoon, investigates a dry creek bed one day and spends time among wild mushrooms the next, it’s not as if one experience leads into or provides a foundation for the next. You could even dip into the pieces at random and make a pencil mark on each one you read.

Let me share a passage from the book. As with the structure of a sonnet or a sermon, Watts tends to look at particulars first and then to apply those particulars and come to some kind of wisdom from their contemplation. My quote will be from the latter section of the pieces.

From “And The Mountain”: We are misled when we believe that our ideas represent or mirror nature, because that sets us outside nature as mere observers. The tree does not represent the fish, though both us light and water. The point is rather that our thoughts and ideas ARE nature, just as much as waves on the ocean and clouds in the sky. The mind grows thoughts as the field grow grass. If I think about thoughts, as if there were some “I,” some thinker watching them from outside, there arises the infinite regression of thinking about thinking, etc., because this “I” itself is a thought, and thoughts, like trees, grow of themselves. In solitude [in other words, in the remote rural area where Watts is located and pondering, coming to these epiphanies and writing these journals] it is easier for thoughts to leave themselves alone.

CLOUD-HIDDEN can still be found very inexpensively, and as a Vintage paperback, there were surely many copies in circulation. It’s actually still in print today. As the last book Watts published in his lifetime, it’s a fitting snapshot of what he had to offer. Looking up the book online, I see the following description from the publisher’s blurb: “Watts’s meditation on the art of feeling out and following the watercourse way of nature, known in Chinese as the Tao…. embracing a form of contemplative meditation that allows us to stop analyzing our experiences and start living in to them.” Yeah, that’s true, but this is not a book that uses jargon (as the blurb does), which is a big part of its value. Enlightenment can be found in the 1920’s blues 78’s I’m listening to while writing these comments, or in the alley behind my home, which I’m looking out the window at while writing. No special jargon is needed, no particular program need be consulted. After you read and think about a few of these pieces, Watts can move on down another road, and you go down your own road. They function like beneficial chance encounters….after one, you are focused on the new road you’re on, in front of you, around you, not in memory of  your previous encounter, though your vision and your sense impressions might be slighter sharper because of the encounter.

Back in the 1970’s, I remember travelling through the far western part of Kansas with a friend, who commented in a negative way, “there’s nothing out here!”

I responded, “no, there’s nothing here to get in the way.”

Pick this up when you see it, if you’re so inclined….or surf for one of Watts’ talks online and put it on while doing the dishes or paying your online bills….then, go down your own road, refreshed and senses opened….

Also, you might find this You Tube video a worthwhile use of 2:22 of your life today:


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