What if we’d try not to think of a pink elephant. This probably won’t work. Because as soon as the pink elephant appears in our minds, it’s impossible to get rid of it by consciously not thinking about it. And the more we try to get rid of it, the more it persists.
The elephant simile is commonly used to show how difficult it is to get rid of intrusive thoughts by force. But we could also use this simile as a metaphor for how we approach dissatisfaction with life. The pink elephant, in this case, represents our general dissatisfaction, which may manifest as negative emotions like sadness, stress, anger, or boredom.
Ironically, the more we try to be less dissatisfied, the more dissatisfied we become. So could it be that this inclination to be so invested in becoming free from dissatisfaction, trying to be happy, trying to be content, is exactly the reason we aren’t? Here we see the paradox of willpower, which is the basis of ‘the law of reversed effort’ also referred to as ‘the backwards law’ by philosopher Alan Watts.
The backwards law proposes that the more we pursue something, the more we achieve the opposite of what we truly want and the more disappointed we feel. Or simply put: the harder we try, the less likely we’ll succeed. On the flip side: when we stop trying, we’ll have what we want.
So, if we want to stop thinking about the pink elephant, in this case, giving up our struggle and letting our ‘desire to get rid of it’ dry out is the paradoxical solution. Instead of trying to remove the elephant from our thoughts forcefully, we let it dissipate by itself by leaving it alone.
Now, how exactly does this backwards law work in practice? Or more specifically: how exactly do we get what we want, by not trying to get what we want? This article explores the backwards law and its paradoxical nature, as well as the cause of our ongoing dissatisfaction in life, and how we can liberate ourselves from it.
What are we trying to get?
How can we get what we want without trying to get it? This seems like an impossible and absurd way to operate; especially in a world where we’re used to striving and putting effort into getting what we wish.
Willpower is a viable solution to obtain things in the external world. For example, if we want to get rich (in the monetary sense), it most likely takes effort to obtain a certain amount of money that’ll classify us as ‘rich’ (8). And if we wish to run a marathon, we’ll need to put in the necessary effort to build our stamina up to the point that we can run such a long distance (9).
But the backwards law isn’t so much not about worldly achievements – if anything, it transcends them. It’s about getting what we really, truly want. It’s the shortcut to the holy grail; the thing we’re all after; the goodie.
But what is it?
Is it wealth? Is it love? Is it friendship? Is it a long and healthy life? Even though such things are pleasurable; they’re just cheap imitations of the real thing. They are the things that we believe will lead us to what we seek. But, as the backwards law makes clear, the more we seek, the less we find. The more we chase these outside circumstances, the further we’ll be removed from what we truly desire.
So, what do we desire? Do we desire happiness? And if so, what is happiness? Is it something that we acquire through things like love and material possessions? According to Alan Watts, we don’t know what we truly want because we cannot define it. I quote:
Why don’t you really know what you want? Two reasons that you don’t really know what you want. Number one: you have it. Number two: you don’t know yourself, because you never can. The Godhead is never an object of its own knowledge, just as a knife doesn’t cut itself, fire doesn’t burn itself, light doesn’t illuminate itself.Alan Watts
So, could it be that what we seek is obscured by our search for it? And that we’re searching for something that we cannot define? But if that’s the case: why do we keep searching?
A sense of lack
The human predicament is a collective delusion which tells us that obtaining external things or changing external circumstances, from objects to money, to adjustments of the body to changes of scenery, will fundamentally release us from our sense of lack.
The backwards law shows us that the opposite is the case. We feel lacking because of our discontent with current circumstances. The greater our discontent, the more we suffer. The greater change we need to be content, the less content we are.
Imagine that you’ve set yourself a goal, which is that you want to become a millionaire, believing that this will make you happy (11).
Setting such a goal not only means that it takes a lot of effort to reach contentment; it also means that being so far removed from that goal makes you unhappy because you realize how inadequate you are compared to what you want to be. Or how bestselling author Mark Manson put it:
[..] pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place. The more you desperately want to be rich, the more poor and unworthy you feel, regardless of how much money you actually make.Mark Manson (on “the backwards law”), The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck
So, if you’d increase the amount of money necessary to be happy, you’ll feel even more inadequate and subsequently more miserable. But if you’d significantly lower the threshold, your feeling of inadequacy will decrease, as the goalpost is moved much closer to where you are. Nevertheless, we still choose to set the bar high; oftentimes far above our current position, and by doing so our feeling of inadequacy is deep and persisting.
The human tendency to continually pursue more as a cure for the itch, while simultaneously maintaining that itch by that very pursuit, seems illogical. And that’s precisely the case according to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer concluded that we want what we want because, like anything else in the universe, we are representations of the will-to-live or, simply, the will.
Schopenhauer argued that the ‘will’ is an illogical, directionless, continual striving that causes us to live a life of suffering that cannot be ended by anything that the world has to offer. Because of this, we pathologically want more than we need, driven by an incessant sense of lack.
The mind perceives lack because it believes that the present moment is not enough; something is missing, but it doesn’t know what. And thus, we keep escaping what is, into situations that we perceive as more pleasurable. But when we get there, we eventually find ourselves in the same dissatisfied state that we tried to escape. Schopenhauer stated, and I quote:
Thus also every keen pleasure is an error and an illusion, for no attained wish can give lasting satisfaction.Arthur Schopenhauer, Works
According to Schopenhauer, the will is why we strive; the will is why we seek. But following it never satisfies, because the will itself is the very thing that keeps us from getting what we want. Schopenhauer argued that the only way to be truly content is the negation of the will, which leads to a blissful, empty state, free of striving.
In other words: stop trying to get it and you’ll have it.
How to have what we want
He does not store, and therefore he has a superabundance; he looks solitary, but has a multitude around him. In his conducting of himself he is easy and leisurely and wastes nothing. He does nothing, and laughs at the clever and ingenious. Men all seek for happiness, but he feels complete in his imperfect condition.Lao Dan (Lao Tzu), Zhuangzi, Tian Xia, 5
Accept imperfection and you feel perfect. Accept loneliness and you feel content alone. Try to be perfect and you’re imperfect. Try not to be lonely, and you’re miserable by yourself. Accepting a negative experience is a positive experience. But fighting a negative experience means that you suffer twice.
“When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink (12); but when you try to sink, you float,” Alan Watts stated. In the same way, when you try to fall asleep, your effort will keep you awake. Only when you stop trying, you’ll doze off. And when you hold your breath, you’ll lose it. But when you let it go, it continues on its own.
When we stop trying to be happy, we’ll be happy because there’s nothing we need beyond what is. When we stop trying to be rich, we’ll live in abundance because we’re content with what we have and anything on top of that is a bonus. Thus, the only way to have what we want is not to want it. And that’s what the backwards law teaches us. There’s a Zen-story that illustrates this paradoxical idea by explaining how we can clear cloudy water.
Imagine there’s a pond with cloudy water and we want to see its floor. We can stir the water or try to remove the cloudiness with our hands, but this won’t work. The only way to see its floor is by doing nothing until the cloudiness subsides and the water is clear. The cloudiness represents our desires, our thoughts, our dissatisfaction. The stirring in the water and attempts to remove the cloudiness represent our grasping for happiness. ‘Seeing the floor’ represents contentment, which only happens when we leave the water alone and let the cloudiness subside by itself. Hence, stop trying to get it and you’ll have it.
Being aware of the workings of the backwards law doesn’t mean that we should never set goals, never have ambitions, or never pursue change. There’s probably an endless amount of reasons why we should make a change, and shouldn’t accept the status quo.
However, the backwards law does teach us not to be fooled by the idea that the pursuit of happiness leads to happiness. It’s quite the opposite. And with that knowledge, we’re able to enter that blissful state of ‘not wanting’ a bit more often. Because, as Alan Watts stated: “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.”
Thank you for watching.