“If you cannot swim and grab hold of the water to try to stay afloat desperately and full of angst, naturally fearful because of your not swimming, the more you wiggle, the more you shake, the faster you will sink and drown. The theory of the conscious effort says simply to relax instead, to think that if you are quiet and you have filled your lungs with air, you will float and not drown.”

ALAN WATTS, in ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’.


Alan Watts was both a lucid and a provocative British philosopher of the counterculture and one of the most important popularizers of Zen in the West. A prolific and highly stimulating author, his work deals with issues such as the development of consciousness, the construction of identity, the nature of reality, or the search for personal meaning and fulfillment.

With his theory of the conscious effort, Watts reminds us that although very often in life we must strive to learn, grow and introduce new skills, it is also true that on certain occasions, in order to work things out, we should keep calm, to contemplate from the outside the complexity of the issues that we have to address, and that quiet, warm and thoughtful attitude can be a much better companion and adviser to the hectic and hasty action without reflection.

We cannot stop the river, we cannot block the tide, we often cannot stop what it is and whose leading or management challenges our capabilities and skills. But this conscious effort is not tantamount to resignation. The Theory of the conscious effort has to do with awareness, and not with resignation. I mean, if I am aware that I cannot handle it and I accept that fact, this will allow me to address the situation in a different way, thanks to the poise which comes out of serenity and temperance -perhaps two of our best allies when doing something.

Marco Aurelio, the wise emperor, very rightly said that wisdom is the art of differentiating what we can change from what we cannot, and the metaphor Watts used to explain his theory is very direct: if you move a lot and desperately once you have fallen into the water and you cannot swim, not even you won’t stay afloat but you will empty your lungs off air, losing buoyancy, getting physically exhausted and making it easier to sink and drown. However, if you still try and keep some air in your lungs, you will stay afloat.

The over-excitation, agitation, precipitation or suddenness are not good companions for a necessary reflection, while serenity is always a good counselor to connect with our bright minds, to understand and to envision scenarios, possibilities and actions out of uncertainty. Serenity, reflection, understanding, action; that’s the chain of values.

Prior to any coherent action step is understanding. If we shake, if we rush, if we take action that dissipate our energy without rhyme or reason, we will not have time to understand what we have to manage or how to respond, and what is worse, the fruit of our actions can backfire.

Therefore, the Theory of the conscious effort does not mean calling for unconsciousness; rather than that, it is a call for awareness, responsibility, a lucid action that emanates serenity. And from there, then yes, we can make the effort (to learn to swim, for example, and the next time we fall into the water we effectively know how to get out of it).

Alan Watts is another necessary author, a rebellious, provocative one, whom I had the pleasure of sharing some thoughts on other posts on this website, and who I heartily recommend reading. He makes a difference.


I wish you a pleasant week.




Alex Rovira