The "Backwards Law": Stop Trying to Get What You Want!
How a homicidal giant taught me to do everything the wrong way round
We went to see the wise giant who lived on the mountain.
‘I wonder what he’s going to rant about this time,’ I said.
‘Better be pretty damn entertaining after this trek,’ replied my companion.
We got to the top of the mountain. No sight nor sound of the giant. He was normally quite a noisy guy — stomping around, yelling obscenities, causing minor landslides, generally making his presence felt. I threw a few pebbles against the door — actually, the correct term would be “implacable boulder” — guarding his cave. Nothing.
Tentatively, so discreetly, so utterly softly, my companion tiptoed up and tapped on the boulder. We waited. We’d done all we could.
After half an hour of shivering, breathing into our cupped hands and stamping our feet to keep warm, we heard a series of thunderous crashes from inside the cave. I turned to my companion. ‘He’s coming! Brace yourself!’
The boulder smashed in two as the giant exited his dwelling in one bound. ‘What the hell do you WANT??’ he screamed. ‘Don’t you realise I was meditating?!?? Kinda hard to concentrate when people are flinging rocks at you and banging on your door every two seconds, doncha think?!’
‘Large one’, I said, concealing my fear with a smirk, ‘Doesn’t Thich Nhat Hanh tell us that mindfulness involves accepting every sound that enters our field of consciousness?’
‘He’s not a mountain giant,’ the giant grumbled. ‘We don’t tolerate noise, we make it. Now what do you want?’
I cleared my throat. ‘Sir, we’ve heard that you are wise. We’ve also heard that you tend to give people the wrong advice on everything. That you have a habit of getting everything backwards. We didn’t see how people who gave bad advice could be wise, so we decided to find out for ourselves.’
The giant turned a whiter shade of pale. ‘Who’s belching all this drivel? Clearly people who don’t recognise that backwards is the new forwards. Upside’s down and inside’s out, dig? John Lennon showed us the way fifty years ago when he wrote “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”. I wasn’t aware you hadn’t heard.’
‘Bit of a hippy, are we?’ said my companion drily. She was a stockbroker who supported mandatory minimum sentencing.
‘I prefer not to label myself,’ the giant sniffed.
‘Whatever. Mind if we ask you a few questions?’
‘What, are you a reporter now? You can’t prove I caused that last avalanche. Oh, go on. It’s not like I have anything better to do.’ The giant sat on a pointed rock and grimaced in pain. I could see that only his legendary giant pride prevented him from shifting position.
‘Thank you sir,’ I said. I cleared my throat again. ‘Sir, we want our actions to be blameless and our endeavours to be successful. How do we achieve this?’
‘Fools! You achieve it by not aiming for it. Don’t you realise that you need to focus on who you are first and foremost, and that what you do is just a byproduct? That beam in your eye stops you seeing anything clearly, and if you don’t see clearly you don’t walk straight. If you don’t walk straight how are you going to get anywhere?’
I considered for a second. ‘OK, let me rephrase that. I want to be perfectly wise, so that my actions will be perfect.’
‘Fool! Don’t you realise that wisdom isn’t learned with the head but with action? You have to get out there, try things out, make mistakes and learn from them. A lot of the lessons you learn will be difficult, but they’ll be real lessons. The worst thing you can do is shield yourself from the world and say “I’m not coming out of my room until I’ve achieved perfect wisdom”.’
A pause while my companion and I looked at each other. My companion said, ‘You do realise it’s kind of hard to follow both those last pieces of advice?’
The giant glared. ‘And that’s my problem how?’
‘The surprise here is that you expect your life not to be “kind of hard”. Next question please.’
‘Sir,’ I said, ‘Sometimes I feel empty. What’s the best way to feel full?’
‘Emptying yourself, of course! What, you want people to go around saying “Look at her, she’s so full of herself”? Aren’t there better things to be full of?’
‘I’ll try to bear that in mind. I was also wondering how to get myself to sleep at night.’
‘By not trying to! You accept your insomnia and lie there. Just relax and focus on your breath, and you’ll rest nearly as deeply as if you were asleep anyway. If you panic about how little sleep you’re getting, do you think that’ll make you more or less likely to nod off?’
‘That sounds suspiciously like some advice I read in Thich Nhat Hanh.’
‘What can I say, I contain multitudes.’
‘Hmm. Well, then there’s the daylight hours. I find it difficult to be productive sometimes. How do I work harder?’
‘By not trying to, fool! Has no-one told you that stillness is the basis of all genuine activity? So first off, you meditate. Only when you’ve detached from the day’s demands will you be in a position to meet them. Only when you’ve completely let go of the thought “I need to be productive” will you fully relax — and the more relaxed you are, the more productive you’ll get. Why? Because you have a natural energy that likes to work. The more you superimpose guilt on it, the more you create resentment that stifles it.’
‘Never thought of it that way.’
‘Yes you have. Never forget the Beautiful Formula: notice guilty thoughts like “What if I don’t get through everything today”, remind yourself it’s fine if you don’t, let the relief sink in, rediscover the part of you that actually wants to do the important things, do them.’
‘And reward myself afterwards.’
‘No, reward yourself first! Nothing more motivating than a bit of self-kindness just before getting to work. Are you your own best friend or not?’
‘OK, but what if I’ve lost my motivation? My passion for what I do?’
‘Then you’re not doing what you have a passion for! Or you’re doing it wrong, which is even worse! Take a look at how you’re approaching what you do — are you too focused on the result? Worried about how the work will be received? Censoring yourself? Trying to show off? Worried you’re revealing too much? Overthinking it? Being perfectionistic? Too thorough? Telling yourself the work isn’t legitimate unless you do it a certain way, like so-and-so? Why not do it like yourself? Why do you think this piece is in the form of a story anyway?’
‘Ahem. Way to break the fourth wall there.’
‘Hey, I can break a boulder in half, I can break the fourth wall.’
‘So you’re saying you arrive at your passion by taking habits away, not adding them.’
‘You can’t manufacture passion. It’s already there. Which means relaxing into it. The more chill you are, the more passionate you get.’ To emphasise his point he pounded his massive fist against the cliff face, shaking loose a heap of debris that narrowly missed my just-say-no-to-drugs friend.
I ducked under a flying piece of dolomite. ‘Chill you say.’
‘Do as I say, not as I do.’
I straightened up and looked the giant square in the eye. ‘While we’re on the subject of doing, someone once told me you’d instructed them to “do without doing”. Having talked to you for five minutes, I find this very easy to believe.’
‘Nice to know I haven’t been misquoted for once. Well, you don’t want to do with doing, do you? Do you realise how much effort doing things is? Rivers don’t try to flow, they just flow. If you try to block ’em up, they just flow around the obstruction. Look at some of the best writers, musicians and athletes: they do their best work in a state of flow, often at the last minute. That doesn’t mean they’re at their peak all the time — success is showing up and all that — but it’s a state to aspire to isn’t it? Nothing good comes from blockage, from resentment, from expectation, from grasping, from owning, from “I should”, from trying to be someone else or pretending to be a better person than you are. The less you do, the more you’ll get done.’
‘What if what I’m doing isn’t worthwhile though? I want my every thought and action to be pure.’
‘I…hadn’t thought of it like that?’
‘That you need to get some bacteria into them to boost their immunity? That vaccines infect them with the very germs you don’t want anywhere near them?’
‘So you’re saying — ’
‘I’ll say what I’m saying! If you want to live a good life, then forget about being pure! Good people are the ones who have the serenity to do the things they should, the courage to try the things they shouldn’t and the wisdom to know the difference! And that wisdom mostly comes after the fact.’
‘So where do you stand on good works then?’
‘Don’t come at me with your “good works”! Don’t you realise that if you try to help the people around you, you end up making yourself resentful and closing yourself off from them? How can you help people you’ve started to hate? True love consists of being at peace with yourself and approaching others with a sense of emptiness and clarity. The clearer you see people, the more you know what they need. And the clearer you see yourself, the clearer you see what you’re prepared to give.’
‘Doesn’t sound very charitable.’
‘Charity is giving starving people money. I’m talking about your family and friends. You don’t want to spend your life being over-responsible for them and bowed down by their miseries — or what you imagine their miseries to be — do you? Help that comes from the wrong place doesn’t do anything for you and it doesn’t help them either. Start from good works and you end up taking on so many burdens that you withdraw into yourself out of self-protection and become selfish. Start with yourself and you approach the other with exactly the kind of cheerful, spontaneous attitude that gives to them in a way that doesn’t take from yourself.’
‘You mentioned being like a river earlier. I read once that a river only nourishes others by accident — as a byproduct of getting where it’s going.’
‘Finally you’re talking some sense! I was just about to give up on you.’
‘But what about fixing my flaws? How do I do that?’
‘By NOT TRYING TO! Do you think your “Here are ten things that are horribly wrong with me and I won’t be an acceptable sentient organism until I’ve eradicated them” is doing you any good? How about sitting down, becoming perfectly still, breathing deep and looking at everything about yourself that springs to mind with complete impassivity? Don’t you think seeing your weak spots in the context of your totality is more fair-minded than focusing on them to the exclusion of all else?’
‘So focusing less on my flaws makes it easier to fix them?’
‘Or maybe it makes you feel so free and contented that you bypass them entirely as you go about your day. Or their chattering becomes easier to ignore. Or you start to realise that most of your worst traits are the flipsides of potentially great qualities. Some problems aren’t “fixed” so much as transmuted. Can’t get a St. Paul without a Saul.’
‘All this “impassivity” stuff makes it sound like I wouldn’t even be particularly trying to love myself. Just — see myself.’
‘Right! Well, what did you think love was?’
It seemed like a good note to end on. My companion and I turned to each other again. ‘I think that’s it for me,’ I said.
‘Yeah, I’ve gotta get back to the office,’ my companion replied. ‘I’m always telling myself to stop spending my lunch breaks tramping up mountains.’
We turned around and trudged down the precarious slope. Suddenly we heard the sound of a great rumbling behind us. We turned around to see a massive avalanche coming our way. It was hard to hear through the pounding snow, but I thought I could faintly distinguish a giant-esque voice bellowing ‘WHAT, NO THANK YOU? AND A LITTLE FINANCIAL CONSIDERATION WOULDA BEEN NICE!!!!’
We ran as fast as our frostbitten legs could carry us. As we dodged a craggy precipice here and slipped on a treacherous slab of ice there I heard the giant ranting on and on above our heads, somehow getting louder the farther down the mountain we got. I’ll never be sure I heard his ramblings correctly, but they sounded something like this:
‘“I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED BY THE LAW OF REVERSED EFFORT. SOMETIMES I CALL IT 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…[OUR] INSECURITY IS THE RESULT OF TRYING TO BE SECURE, AND…SALVATION AND SANITY CONSIST IN THE MOST RADICAL RECOGNITION THAT WE HAVE NO WAY OF SAVING OURSELVES.”’
‘“THE DESIRE FOR MORE POSITIVE EXPERIENCE IS ITSELF A NEGATIVE EXPERIENCE. AND, PARADOXICALLY, THE ACCEPTANCE OF ONE’S NEGATIVE EXPERIENCE IS ITSELF A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE…IT’S WHAT THE PHILOSOPHER ALAN WATTS USED TO REFER TO AS ‘THE BACKWARDS LAW’ — THE IDEA THAT THE MORE YOU PURSUE FEELING BETTER ALL THE TIME, THE LESS SATISFIED YOU BECOME, AS 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. THE MORE YOU DESPERATELY WANT TO BE SEXY AND DESIRED, THE UGLIER YOU COME TO SEE YOURSELF, REGARDLESS OF YOUR ACTUAL PHYSICAL APPEARANCE. THE MORE YOU DESPERATELY WANT TO BE HAPPY AND LOVED, THE LONELIER AND MORE AFRAID YOU BECOME, REGARDLESS OF THOSE WHO SURROUND YOU. THE MORE YOU WANT TO BE SPIRITUALLY ENLIGHTENED, THE MORE SELF-CENTERED AND SHALLOW YOU BECOME IN TRYING TO GET THERE.”’
To this day I’m not convinced that the giant came up with all these paradoxical pieces of life advice himself, but he’d probably justify himself by saying ‘To be original you must steal all your material’ or whatever. Anyway, I still have some things I’d like to ask the guy, but I’ll give him a while to cool off before I venture up there again. Shouldn’t Be Too Hard With All That Snow Around Amirite!!! (I’m still not convinced the “backwards law” applies to humour.)
Anyway, think I’ll stick on “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” again. That giant may be weird, but his music taste is alright.