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U-Turn Permitted: The Law of Reversed Effort

There is a Law of Reversed Effort. The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of doing and not doing, or combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent Unknown Quantity may take hold. We cannot make ourselves understand; the most we can do is to foster a state of mind, in which understanding may come to us.
Aldous Huxley

This rather long quote either seems obvious or doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, depending on what “state of mind” you’re in. If it’s the latter, then bear with me, for we are about to take a wild ride together.

Most of us, over our entire lives, have received teachings and conditioning leading us to believe that where there’s no pain, there’s no gain. The Law of Reversed Effort turns this on its head: no pain, much gain! So, at first our reaction may involve disbelief. We might say: “How can that be true? I’ve worked hard and had achievements! Didn’t you work hard to earn your psychology degree? If this Law is true, then how can I control what happens in my life? How can I ever get what I want?”

Excellent questions! To answer them, let’s take a look at the legitimacy of the “Law.” A classic metaphor involves something called “quicksand,” a substance you may have come across in movies or on television. It’s a liquefied soil that cannot support much weight. Our hapless movie/TV hero ventures along and suddenly steps in a pile of quicksand, finding himself slowly sinking into it. (Here’s the good part.) The more our hero struggles, in other words the more “effort” he makes, the quicker (hence the name) he sinks in and eventually gets swallowed up. Our hero has one of two choices to save himself: (1) hope that Lassie comes quickly enough to save the day, or (2) stop struggling and calmly lay down, letting his weight distribute across more quicksand, thus allowing him to crawl to safety. The Law of Reversed Effort in (in)action!

So, for those of you who encounter quicksand, now you’ll know what to do. Another example, one that might be more relevant to you, involves something called “mindfulness” (the Westernized word we use to market what the East calls “meditation”). One of the benefits of mindfulness comes from having a greater awareness of and less judgment about what goes on right in front of you. In this “state of mind,” you can then proceed with greater wisdom, accuracy, and appropriateness in whatever you’re doing at the moment. How great would that be?

Pretty great, you say? Well, how does that work? You see all these people on the covers of yoga magazines, books about Buddhism, flyers for mindfulness classes, and so on, and they appear to be doing nothing at all! Yet, these same people report tremendous increases in productivity and achievement, all by throttling back on effort and ramping up on being more aware, something that takes no effort at all (I claim). In fact, the less you do, the less distracted you are and thus become more able to concentrate and function better. This involves what those wacky Buddhists call “Effortless Effort.”

But, you say, if I don’t do anything, how does anything get done? That doesn’t make any sense! Seemingly so, from one state of mind. From a different state of mind, “effortless effort” involves getting out of your own way, so to speak. You stop jamming your mind with thoughts (a relatively slow, painful process) and allow your own intuition (yes, it’s a thing and a very fast thing) to essentially tell you what to do.

Don’t believe me? Please don’t! Try it out instead. Next time you have a decision to make (like whether or not to continue reading this nonsensical article), just try reminding yourself about the decision, and then allow it to leave your mind, just relaxing and doing something else. If you’re able to get out of your own way, you will probably find that an answer, or a few alternatives, appear out of the blue in your mind after a while.

Wait, you say, I can actually stop thinking and decisions will make themselves? Again, don’t believe me. Believe your own experience. Kind of woo-woo, I know. But that’s how your brain and mind work. This might sound crazy (again, from one state of mind), but the less you think, the more you’ll get done.

OK, if you’re still with me, then possibly you’ve already tried this, or you’re at least willing to entertain the possibilities here. You may be on your way to a different state of mind in which this whole thing about reversed effort starts to ring true. Yikes!! Have you just acquired a new super-power? Well, while it might seem that way, what you’ve really done is unlearn something that was holding you back and uncovered a power you’ve always had. It’s just been buried under all those thoughts you believed you needed to have.

Now you say, yes but (a favorite saying of people with less-than-open minds) what about all those times where I did make an effort and I did achieve something? Again, an excellent question. Can you tell me that you couldn’t have achieved that same thing, or possibly something even better, and quite likely with less pain, by trying the reversed effort process? But, I wouldn’t have done anything, you say! Well, actually, this is a rather black-and-white view of things. If you can venture into the “grey area” with me on this, you might find that you actually would do something based on the answers that appear out of the blue and those actions are the exact right thing to do.

Again, please do not believe me under any circumstances!! Try this at home on some decision that doesn’t matter that much. You don’t need a safety net. If it doesn’t work, you can go back to filling your head with notions and forcing an answer to come out. Just know that it’s no shame to “take the easy way out.” In fact, it’s highly recommended!

Copyright 2015 Daniel J. Metevier

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