“When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.” - Alan Watts
To float is to acknowledge that existence is bigger than your worries and problems. Life, if you let it, will assimilate you into its cycles and larger ongoing story, no matter your circumstance. It will carry you, just as you are, today.
But we don’t believe this when we’re overwhelmed. Our boots are sunk deep in the swamp of circumstance. Our best selves know we should get above it, float over and gain perspective, but, in the moment, we are mired, and often triggered into a cycle of despair, awfulizing and rumination. And if we’re not careful, this mindset can define too many of our days -- a cycle of depression and rumination as negative thinking leads to more negativity.
Philosopher Alan Watts, used the analogy of floating on water to deliver us. He said: “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.”
Yet often, grabbing hold and thrashing is our first reaction to bad experiences. We hold on to our fears, lash out at anyone nearby, cling to comforts that don’t serve us, and then emerge injured -- resolved to avoid all further suffering at great personal cost.
Watts believed part of what keeps us sinking is our misunderstanding of the very nature of life. He believed our biggest albatross was our false, dichotomous thinking about what is good or bad in our experiences. We rarely know, in the moment, where any experience will lead us, yet we are wired by default to think only of loss and gain. Is winning the lottery good? You’d think, but you never know.
So how can we manage to lighten ourselves and float above; see our spot in the swamp for what it is -- a tiny mud patch in the sweeping, vast and varied terrain of life?
Watts tells us to fix our good vs. bad thinking in our pursuit of floating, but there is another key element. Practicing mindfulness. We’re told to “practice” it because we do not naturally or easily make space for it in daily life, but if we practice daily -- through hikes in nature, yoga, or meditation -- than mindfulness becomes more accessible.
This accessibility matters because when you’re in the muck, it can seem impossible to make space for impartial stillness in that moment. When we actively prioritize mindfulness, it’s easier to tap into it when we most need to float and rise above. It lends stillness so we might sit with our muck, consider the times we’ve been freed and watch the world around us unfold in its regular and rhythmic way.
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Sonnets to Orpheus, said floating was our denied birthright: “Everything wants to float. And yet we move about like weights, attaching ourselves to everything, in thrall to gravity.”
Ultimately it is about seeing and detaching ourselves from all that doesn’t matter in our long term journey toward purpose and well being. Floating is being part of that greater “something” that carries you above. Let yourself be the feather and float on.