There are many things in life that cannot be improved with greater effort. Sometimes, life requires that you step back.
You’re lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to cars go by. You have no idea how long you have been like this, but it must be a few hours, at least. Go to sleep, you tell yourself. Just close your eyes and: Go. To. Sleep. You shut your eyes tight, force your body to relax, and wait for the blissful slumber to come. But, nothing happens. More minutes pass and… nothing happens. It’s 3 a.m., and you’re still staring at the ceiling.
We have all been in this situation. Try as we might, it is nearly impossible to consciously will yourself to sleep. Sleep comes to those who let their mind wander and focus on anything other than sleep itself. Count sheep, control your breathing, listen to an audiobook, or whatever — so long as it turns your mind from wanting to sleep.
This is a common and familiar example of the “law of reversed effort.”
The law of reversed effort
The Law of Reversed Effort was first coined by the author Aldous Huxley, who wrote:
“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.”
It’s the idea that the more we try to do something, the worse we become at it. Suppose, for instance, that you are learning how to ride a bike for the first time. You are told to hold the handlebars a certain way, to push off with this foot, to pedal at that speed, to sit in a specific position, to hold your balance here, and so on. There is a small book’s worth of micro-instructions when learning to ride a bike. When we ride a bike, we know all these things, but we do not try to do them. They just happen. In Huxley’s words, it’s “combining relaxation with activity.”
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But, there’s a spiritual or holistic way of viewing the “law of reversed effort” as well. It’s something that has a much longer history than Aldous Huxley — it’s the Daoist idea of “Wu Wei.”
The word “surrender” comes laden with a negative connotation. Surrender is cowardly or weak. Heroes are ones who never back down, and no great story begins with the good guys just giving up. And yet, there is a lot of arrogance in this.
To surrender to a greater power — or a nobler, righteous one — is not an act of cowardice. It is an act of profound wisdom. There is nothing praiseworthy about swimming in a storm or punching a bear in the face. There is wisdom in knowing our limits, in embracing humility, and even in being pushed around.
This is the meaning of Wu Wei. It is not some lazy torpor, or an excuse for a duvet day and Netflix binge. In fact, it is often the very opposite. Wu Wei is to appreciate, recognize, and accept the pull of forces far greater than us. It is to walk the path that opens up and push the door that gives. Call it gut-feeling, intuition, fate, divine calling, or whatever, but Wu Wei is to stop doing what you think is right, and to let yourself be pulled by some other power.
Wu Wei is the reed bending in the wind. It’s the stick riding the current. It’s surrender and humility. It is, in short, the law of reversed effort — to recognize that some things need patience and space.
That’s nice, you might think, but how does that actually translate to real life? The problem with a lot of philosophy of this kind is that it rather leaves us no better off than before. How can Huxley’s law of reversed effort be seen not as an ideology but as a practical guide? The fact is that “not doing” is fundamental to the nature of many tasks. Here are just a few examples.
Writing: For an author, there is nothing so terrifying as the blank page. If you have been told you have to write something, especially on a deadline, the mind often can go into meltdown grasping for something — anything — to write. It’s much better to let ideas come and write them in a notebook so they don’t get lost.
Technical skills: When you are learning a new sport or skill, you have to learn the technique. You go through the motions, ticking off steps in your head, and eventually end up succeeding. But there comes a point when overthinking is detrimental. It’s probably why your favorite team are rubbish at penalty shoot-outs.
Stress and anxiety: We all get stressed about things. All jobs involve bottlenecks and crunch points. Life has good days and bad days. But when we obsessively run things over in our heads, we actually make anxiety worse. There is a reason why “mindfulness” is such a breakaway phenomenon, and why Headspace is a $250-million business. Stepping away, taking a breath, and doing nothing are good for you.
Conversations: When it comes to how we talk to people, less really is more. A bad conversation involves you talking too much and your “listening” consisting of simply waiting to talk again. Yet research shows that active listening gives more “conversational satisfaction” and leaves the partner feeling more understood.
You can’t force it
There are many moments in life when trying harder makes things worse. When you have a mosquito bite, a broken bone, or a nosebleed, you leave it be. Picking, prodding, and probing only exacerbate the problem. So, too, with a lot of life’s major moments.
Perhaps it is time to step away from what you are doing and enjoy Wu Wei or inaction. After all, if I tell you not to think of pink elephants, there’s only one way to do it.
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