What Alan Watts means by “trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth”

Gabe Kwakyi
8 min readAug 9, 2021

Alan Watts was one of the most entertaining, intelligent, illuminating, and all around fascinating western philosophers of the 20th century, who passed on wisdom as a prolific researcher, writer, teacher, and speaker. Throughout his career, Alan Watts did a tremendous service to the collective spiritual health of humanity as a whole by discovering pearls containing eternal truths found in Eastern philosophy and educating Westerners, who were largely in the dark of such wisdom, about what he learned.

There are, of course, hundreds or thousands of enjoyable quotes that come from the pearls of truth that Alan Watts discovered in his exploration of the eternal and spiritual truths in life. One of the most popular and one of my personal favorites is a comment that comes across as eccentric axioms:

“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.” — Alan Watts

I was quite puzzled when I first heard this quote. What in the world did Alan Watts mean by this paradoxical mind twister?

Westerners or others who see knowledge as power are trained to distill everything we encounter into clarified answers and to attempt to firmly nail down what we find into place. Hence, when we find that a baffling and paradoxical comment such as this slips between our fingers as we attempt to grasp it, we are left feeling confused, mentally warped, and devilishly frustrated. This is because the knowledge that we refer to in the phrase “knowledge is power,” is not the knowledge that is equivalent to the truth that the profound quote above points to; no amount of grasping will transform a truth into the “knowing” knowledge that we seek.

Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity was my first read

Slowly, haltingly, as I read more works by Alan Watts and others in the Buddhism sphere, I started to feel my way towards the place of truth that the comment pointed to.

Eventually, I caught a glimpse of this truth, and in this glimpse I realized that due to its almost kitsch obviousness, this comment does indeed reveal the way to a profound universal truth; so…

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Gabe Kwakyi

A curious mind and a passionate personal development coach, specializing in life, career, and business coaching for people in the technology and business fields