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.Stop Trying to Get It And You’ll Have It | The Backwards Law – Einzelgänger
Ironically, the more we try to be less dissatisfied, the more dissatisfied we become.
… 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.
On the flip side: when we stop trying, we’ll have what we want.
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.
According to Alan Watts, we don’t know what we truly want because we cannot define it.
“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.”
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.
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.
According to Schopenhauer, the will is why we strive; the will is why we seek. But following it never isatisfies, 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.
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
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.”