“When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float, and that insecurity is the result of trying to be secure.”
— Alan Watts
English writer, theologian and speaker Alan Wilson Watts is known for spreading the ideologies of Eastern philosophies — such as Buddhism, Taoism and Advaita Vedanta — to the West.
One of Watts’s most notable observations is the “backwards law.” Although the backwards law comes directly from Tao Te Ching or Zen Buddhism, Watt takes credit for spreading its principles to the Western audience.
This law states, “The more you try and grab a hold of something, the more it slips through your fingers.”
This law applies to tapping into the energy flow of our efforts and focus. When we stop trying, we’ll get what we want. How is this possible? For example, how can we get rich if we do not constantly remind ourselves that we need to work towards getting a high-paying job?
The backwards law transcends worldly achievements, pushing us to think about what we truly want and the deeper meaning behind why we want it. Watts states, “We don’t know what we truly want because we cannot define it.”
Thus, the backwards law doesn’t tell us what we should focus less upon but instead instructs us to direct our energy to what we truly desire. It pushes us to dissect our goals and desires until we reach an understanding of what makes us want them.
The backwards law strives to help us understand why we want something. In implementing its principles into my own life, I have been able to gain a few key takeaways that have fostered a more fulfilling, stress-free life.
Firstly, happiness comes to you if you stop constantly seeking it. The backwards law combats the wrongful mindset that we can only be happy if we achieve a certain objective. Perpetual seeking leads us to be less happy than we would be if we just let go and felt happiness without motive.
Secondly, anxiety is mainly driven by what we try to control. Often forgetting how much is out of our control, we try to directly command our feelings and the things around us, which causes more anxiety to accumulate. By letting go, we give ourselves self-acceptance – bringing ourselves one step closer to gaining peace of mind.
Thirdly, wealth is deprived when you remind yourself that you want to be rich. The more you try to be wealthy, the poorer you will feel regardless of how much money you actually have. True wealth is a mental state.
Finally, love flows to those who stop running after it and start focusing on themselves. Once we understand ourselves and our values, we will naturally recognize what kind of love we want.
When I was first introduced to this law, I thought it was nonsense; I did not want to change the way I perceived my life and my values. I felt like I had a strong grasp of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to accomplish in my life. However, I realized that the “values” I previously held onto (such as being wealthy, well-known, constantly productive, etc.) were not developed to benefit me, but rather, they hindered my self-development.
Since the backwards law encourages us to focus on the deeper, underlying meaning behind our goals, I was forced to reevaluate where my values came from and why they were important — pushing me to intentionally let go of objectives that added no true value to my life. This deeper analysis, stripped of superficial and materialistic pressures, encouraged me to view life through a simpler, more meaningful lens — one that propels me forward rather than sinking me backward in the face of setbacks.
“The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.”
— Alan Watts
Haley Qin is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]