Allan Watts and the Story of the Chinese Farmer
A short article about Alan Watts and his analogy “The Chinese Farmer“
Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it.
I was sixteen years old when I read Hamlet and I still remember the big W.T.F that was written all over my face when I stumbled over the quote above.
I was overwhelmed.
If it is impossible to distinguish between good and bad events how the hell can we possibly calculate whether or not we move in the right direction?
Is there a purpose?
Is there an ideal way to go through life?
I didn’t understand…
Fifteen years have passed since that puzzling moment where I was utterly confused about the meaning structure of existence and while I still have no ultimate answer for this question I have come to peace with the chaotic randomness of life.
Did you ever experienced an event that you thought was catastrophic but later turned out to be a key moment for your journey of betterment?
I’ve certainly had some of them…
The Duality of Fortune and Misfortune
Without my depressive episodes, I would have never felt the need to study psychology and this very blog would not exist, and without that, I would have never met you.
Another story that comes to mind was where my father had a heart attack and was in danger of dying, again, catastrophic news, but it was that very event that ultimately got me and my back together.
I also remember the moment where I realized that my dream of becoming a professional basketball player isn’t happening, but only after that understanding did I became brave enough to drop everything in order to travel the world and investigate what I am.
So, were those events good news or bad news for me?
And honestly, who the fuck cares.
Over the years I’ve learned to come to peace with the fact that I’m not smart enough to understand the causality of life.
I’ve made the decision to enjoy my adventure under any circumstances and that I’m going to trust that the puzzle pieces are going to come together eventually.
There was one person who promoted the discovery of this psychological tranquility within me – the British philosopher and writer Alan Watts(January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973).
Watts became famous for fusing ancient Eastern philosophy with modern psychology.
He was a fantastic writer and wrote a great number of books but where he excelled was speaking.
There was just something zen about his voice that made me want to listen to more and more of his stories.
In my favorite talk “Swimming Headless,” Watts warns his students of the dangers of categorizing everything into gain or loss.
Watts believed that surrendering to the randomness of life can be curative and has the power to alleviate existential anxiety.
The Chinese Farmer
There is one particular analogy of this talk that I wanted to share with you: The Chinese Farmer.
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.” The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
Moral of the Story
Are you so sure that your current biggest struggle is a bad thing?
History has shown over and over that hardship is a precondition to success.
Human beings are goal orientated creatures, we articulate ideal future blueprint after ideal future blueprint without ever doubting whether or not we are going in the right direction.
If you go one hundred miles an hour in the wrong direction you still won’t find what you need to find.
Don’t be so quick to whine about your misfortune, there is always the possibility that this current challenge that you are struggling with is exactly what you need in order to grow into the person you need to become.
Thank you for reading,
A prolific author and speaker, Alan Watts was one of the first to interpret Eastern wisdom for a Western audience. Born outside London in 1915, he discovered the nearby Buddhist Lodge at a young age. After moving to the United States in 1938, Alan became an Episcopal priest for a time, and then relocated to Millbrook, New York, where he wrote his pivotal book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. In 1951 he moved to San Francisco where he began teaching Buddhist studies, and in 1956 began his popular radio show, “Way Beyond the West.” By the early sixties, Alan’s radio talks aired nationally and the counterculture movement adopted him as a spiritual spokesperson. He wrote and traveled regularly until his passing in 1973.
Call to Action
Hey there, grab a piece of paper and answer the questions below.
- What were the five most important decisions of your life?
- Pick one important decision you made in the last three years and think about what would have happened if you would have decided differently?
- Write down five bad events in your life that made you stronger, smarter or wiser.