Here’s some stories related to the paradox of efforting (trying) and non-efforting (the absence of trying) in kendo and life. On how efforting can sometimes lead to so called failure and how non-efforting, to unintended success. It is also referred to as The Law of Reverse(d) Effort (or Effect) [InnerDilation LORE] [Mindfulword LORE], The Backwards Law [Gummer BackwardsLaw] or The Way of Non-Forcing or Non-Striving (Wu Wei 無為) [Slingerland WuWei] [Watts NotForcing] and summed up by:
The harder we work at something, the less effective we are. [Lifehack LORE]
Have you ever noticed that “wanting” something (or someone) excessively can sometimes backfire and push that something further away? And where the absence of that strong wanting can counter-intuitively attract that something. For example, how…
- In courtship, trying to win the affection of the other may backfire.
- In relationships, trying to change a person tends to spur resistance and resentment.
- In negotiations, the person who can walk away from the negotiating table is said to be in the most powerful position (as illustrated in Jim Collins’ personal story on the value of “F-you money” [Collins_F-you_Money]).
- In the story of “The Samurai and the Tea Master”, the tea master manages to live by letting go of his efforting to live and by accepting death in a duel with a samurai.
I present additional examples of this paradox in kendo and outside of kendo and quotes on the Law of Reversed Effort.
Updates: July 18, 2021 – Added many more examples. July 19, 2021 – Added quotes and references on the Law of Reversed Effect.
Efforting and Non-Efforting in Kendo
Example 1. I recently resumed attending indoor practices and noticed a student trying to hit my men with much effort, power and speed. His arms and shoulders seemed very tight. After I made a few suggestions including a jumping up and down to relax the shoulders, he gradually started to tone down the “efforting”. His swings became slower and more relaxed. After a while, he started hitting my men with a nice snap and “pop”. Like cracking a whip with minimal tension except at the instant of the flick of the wrist and hand. His face began to beam with a wide smile. I think he discovered the joy of a sweet strike with sae.
I applied the same principle for my men-uchi. I swung slowly with less power, speed and effort and noticed a similar sweetness in my strikes as well when making contacting with another person’s men. It felt good and it felt right. Perhaps the time away from the physical dojo due to COVID had a silver lining: an opportunity to replace any tightness in my swings with softness and develop the sae.
Example 2. In matches where time is running out, I’ve noticed how some competitors (including myself), who are down a point, start to get desperate, rush and sometimes inadvertently lose a second point. The opponent can take advantage of my harried state. On the other hand, I’ve noticed how some competitors, despite the limited time and need to get back a point, retain their composure and remain calm (不動心 – fudoushin). As if nothing changed. Remaining in the zone. Furthermore, they sometimes come back with two points and win from behind.
I notice a similar tendency towards tension and efforting in myself when in a shiai or shinsa vs. keiko.
Example 3. Have you encountered an opponent who seems impatient to strike, nervous or rigid with tensed muscles? Have you encountered an opponent who is still, calm, composed and completely relaxed? I tend to have an easier time with the former and much more challenging time with the latter (who are often advanced people and sensei’s).
Efforting and Non-Efforting Outside of Kendo
Example 1. A sensei in Toronto and his wife told me a story of a very successful salesperson “S”. Whenever S saw the sensei and his wife, S would make sure to approach them and greet them with attention and kindness. S apparently did this with everybody he met. I expressed the takeaway message for me which was the importance of being kind and of greeting others (aisatsu). However, the sensei‘s wife made it a point to emphasize that “It has to be natural.” That it had to come from the heart, had to be genuine – neither faked nor forced.
Example 2. A good friend has become a professional photographer. To take photos of people with warm, natural smiles, he apparently does not ask them to relax or smile. That direct approach could result in forced smiles. Instead, he uses an indirect approach. He tells them a joke and then takes their photos. People are then more apt to display their natural state with real smiles.
Example 3. Have you had the experience of wanting to date someone to such an extent that you became a nervous wreck in front of that person? I have. Or, in contrast, had the experience of talking with someone casually without any expectation and then becoming close friends, a boyfriend or girlfriend?
In the world of pickup artists, making someone an all-consuming target or the highest priority is apparently a no-no. It seems to relate to the (well-intentioned but perhaps misguided) courtship advice of staying cool, playing “hard to get” and acting disinterested in the other party as portrayed in many romantic comedies.
Example 4. When doing something that you enjoy or love, have you noticed that the experience seems effortless? Playing games and immersing myself in hobbies comes to mind. On the other hand, when doing something that you may hate doing, have you noticed that the experience seems distasteful – requiring energy, effort and discipline?
Example 5. Have you noticed how being with some people can be enjoyable and with others, less so? For the former, babies, dogs and people who tend to be accepting, non-judging, non-controlling, respectful and caring come to mind. For the latter, judging, critical, self-indulgent, controlling, disrespectful, anxious and/or stressed-out people come to mind.
It is interesting to note how the “I” can also adopt one of the two aforementioned postures towards my “self” also (in the absence of others). How the inner voice can be a tough critic or a gentle, encouraging one.
Example 6. For those interested in investing, many are in search of approaches or algorithms that maximize returns for a certain acceptable level of risk and volatility. One could spend much effort in searching, testing, applying and/or maintaining an approach (which can be a fun and worthwhile experience). On the other hand, one could settle upon one of the simplest, near effortless approaches to investing that beats most approaches and fund managers. It goes by many names such as “Lazy Portfolios” with many variants as described in detail and in many threads in bogleheads.org (a forum inspired by Jack Bogle) and in [Collins_Simple] (I enjoy reading Jim Collins’ articles).
The application of the Law of Reversed Effort in investing is described in further detail in [DPEgan_LORE].
Example 7. Have you noticed how some drivers race to reach the next red light or switch lanes to get ahead? That may incur additional effort, more wear to the vehicle (engine and brakes), reduced gas/electric efficiency and, in the end, may not be worth the payoff (or increased stress).
Example 8. There are times when I want peace of mind and calmness when anxious. The more I want this, the more anxious I sometimes get. However, the more I surrender that desire, the more I can realize that peace of mind and calmness. What a mystery!
Dr. Les Fehmi’s recounts a related story in [Fehmi] summarized in [KendoNotes_OpenFocus]. He had tried for many weeks to reproduce alpha brainwaves generated initially by accident from a biofeedback sensor. Try as he might, he couldn’t. However, when he finally gave up, guess what happened. Success. Like magic, he generated the desired alpha waves and realized a relaxed “Open Focus” state.
Example 9. There are times when I want attention and love from my significant other. The more I want this, the harder it is for me to experience that sometimes. In fact, it can attract the polar opposite in myself and her: resentment, dissatisfaction, anger,… However, the more that I acknowledge, surrender and accept that desire, the more that “I” disappear and the more that I become awareness, capacity, space and love for her (and my “self” the “I”), the more love I experience. Again, what a mystery!
Example 10. Perhaps the best for the last. If you are unfamiliar with the riveting story of “Lancelot and the Witch“, I’d strongly recommend reading it. It provides an incredible lesson in the value of letting go.
Quotes on the Law of Reversed Effort
The quotes are organized by the sections: Alan Watts, Examples, Speed, Principles and Psychology. They are, for me, quite profound and enlightening.
- When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float.
- Insecurity is the result of trying to be secure.
- 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.
- Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.
- Wanting a positive experience is a negative experience, accepting a negative experience is a positive experience.
- From [Watts_NotForcing]
- Wu Wei (無為) is the principle of not forcing in anything that you do (0:34)
- Wu Wei is the art of sailing rather than the art of rowing. (2:05)
- Superior virtue has no intention to be virtuous and thus is virtue. Inferior virtue cannot let go of virtuosity and thus is not virtue. (2:25)
- So one could also say that the real Wu Wei is not intentionally Wu Wei and so is Wu Wei. But inferior Wu Wei so tries to be Wu Wei that it isn’t. (2:40)
- When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float.
- It seems to me, that the less I care about something, the better I am at it. When I don’t care if the beautiful woman is into me, I’m more authentic and conversations are effortless. … When I’m not concerned about messing up during a musical performance and just let it rip, I play better than I thought possible. – James Gummer [Gummer_BackwardsLaw].
- The more I was driven by pleasure or wanting to feel better all the time, the more unsatisfied I became. – Sion Evans [Evans_BackwardsLaw]
- The backwards law [is] 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. – Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k
- Happiness is strange; it comes when you are not seeking it. When you are not making an effort to be happy, then unexpectedly, mysteriously, happiness is there, born of purity, of a loveliness of being. – Jiddu Krishnamurti
- The harder you search your brain for the answers, the less you can remember. What happens when you walk out of the room? An hour later, when the pressure is off and you are relaxed, you remember everything. – Glenn Killey [Lifehack_LORE]
- Your fastest laps will feel like the slowest to you, the key is being as smooth as possible. – Race Car Instructor [Hurrell_LORE]
- Over the long run, you’re quicker slowing down. – Andrew Hurrell [Hurrell_LORE]
- The harder one consciously tries to do something, the more difficult it is to succeed. – Contributing Writer [Mindfulword_LORE]
- Ten Backwards Laws are listed in [Keiralexa_BackwardsLaw]
- 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…” – Aldous Huxley
- When the imagination and will power are in conflict, are antagonistic, it is always the imagination which wins, without any exception. – Emile Coue
- “The greater the conscious effort, the less the subconscious response” or understood another way “Whenever the will (conscious mind) and imagination (subconscious) are in conflict, the imagination (subconscious) always wins.” [ZoeClews_LORE]
As reminded by Michael (in the comments section below), I close with the immortal words of Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” May we all continue to experience the mystery, joy and love of non-efforting 🙂
[Fehmi] Les Fehmi, Jim Robbins, The Open-Focus Brain – Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body, Trumpeter Books, 2007.
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Keywords: Embracing, Accepting, Allowing, Surrender, Yielding