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  • 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 video 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.

  • 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'.

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • End quote.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • End quote.

  • 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.”

  • End quote.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • End quote.

  • 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; 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.

What if we'd try not to think of a pink elephant.

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Stop Trying to Get It And You'll Have It | The Backwards Law

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    Max Li posted on 2021/04/10
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