THE BACKWARDS LAW
"When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it—which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, “Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.”"
- Alan Watts
The concept of the “Backwards Law” comes from East-Asian Taoist and Zen Buddhist philosophies. The term comes from the works of Alan Watts, a prominent teacher of eastern philosophies in the west. The idea is very simple: the pursuit of something is simultaneously the pleasure and pain of it. On the one hand, humans are historically and philosophically happiest when they are working from scratch. When humans are coming from a place of nothing and striving towards something. The journey toward the goal is what brings humans the pleasure of it; not the goal itself. Once we attain whatever goal we strive toward, we may experience fleeting, momentary happiness, but it quickly dissipates in favor of pursuit of some other goal. We are only happy when the carrot is on the stick, we absolutely hate when we actually get it. Evolutionarily speaking, it is easy to see why we operate this way. An organism that is constantly dissatisfied with its surroundings and works tirelessly to improve everything around it as though its very being depends on it (because it does) will always beat out an organism that does anything less. At the same time it is important to acknowledge that, as human beings who are inherently dissatisfied with their surroundings, we need the carrot to be on the stick. If there is no carrot, no thing to strive toward, humans become lost and depressed. This idea becomes more complex with every magnification of it.
So why even discuss this? What is the point of bringing any of this up? Within this concept lies the key to happiness and even, dare I say, a satiation with one’s surroundings. The pursuit of some great goal or reward is in itself the error that we make as humans. Author Mark Manson
argues that the pursuit of a positive is in itself a negative experience. By pursuing happiness, you inadvertently tell yourself that you lack it. The Taoists would argue that you have everything you need to be as happy as you want right now. The thing you must do is accept and appreciate what you already have around you. In other words, deny your programming. Take the carrot and the stick and throw them in the trash.
Desire itself can be seen as one of the basic reasons why humans suffer. According to Zen Buddhist ideology, every desire is an opportunity for suffering. If you desire something, you establish an expectation for it. Once you establish an expectation for something, all of the joy and positivity that could be had vanishes from it. The best example I can give for this can be seen in competition. When you compete, your desire is to win. Therefore, if you win, you won’t be happy, because you expected it to happen. Winning was what was supposed to happen. You prepared for it, you practiced for it, you spent hours, days, months, maybe even years training to achieve it. So when it happens, it isn’t perceived as a big, great thing. It’s perceived as the thing that was supposed to happen. However, when you lose you have violated all expectations. You have fallen short. You have failed. You weren’t good enough to achieve the thing. This is why, when we establish an expectation for something, you set a precedent for a situation in which there is no potential for happiness; only either what you expected, or something far worse. It is either a net 0 or a net negative. There is no chance for a net positive.
Think back to some of the best experiences you’ve ever had in your life. The most interesting experiences, the best stories you have to tell. I would be willing to bet that the majority of these stories involve a situation that did not go according to the plan. That is because we enjoy situations the most when we have no expectations for how we want them to go. When you have no expectation for an event, there is only a pure, genuine, natural version of yourself acting in the moment. You are not trying to do anything, you are not forcing anything. You are just doing. Alan Watts wrote: “when you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float”. The central idea here, is that things are already perfect the way they are. Do not zoom in. Do not try to dissect and pick apart the details. Accept things for what they are, as they are, who they are, and you will have set yourself up to have some very nice times ahead of you.