The idea of the paradox of intention is simple – you reach a goal by giving up the attempt to reach it. Initially this sounds illogical; after all we are brought up to believe that you can only get and achieve if you strive, and it seems to go against common sense too and sounds rather passive. Yet a number of mystics from different religions have advocated this as a way to find fulfilment in life; experience of God comes when received as a gift and it disappears when we try to grasp onto the experience and hold it for our self. A number of accounts in the Gospels confirm that Jesus taught the paradox of intention; speaking about the flowers of the field and the birds:
‘And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well’ (Luke 12: 28-31)
The more we struggle for security the less this can be attained; so here we have letting go of self-concern where the kingdom of God is the reverse of what the world rationally sees as ‘the way forward’: ‘Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted’ (Matthew 23: 12).
The message is that if we abandon our concern for security then another kind of security arises. Contemporary culture does not agree, indeed our current system only works on the basis of what Martin Shaw calls ‘the ethic of attainment’ where the good of human life, like any other goal is the outcome of human striving. He contrasts this with what can be called ‘the ethic of consolation’ which only begins with the despairing of all our attempts to achieve the good; this is ‘the law of the reversal of effort’ in other words the good of human life happens not through the direct and active attempt to achieve it, but rather by giving up the attempt to achieve it. Alan Watts writing in The Wisdom of Insecurity in 1951 puts it like this:
‘I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it ‘the backward 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 – which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, “Whosoever would save their soul shall lose it.”’
The state of acceptance, trust, openness, a way of being at home in the universe – connected to all other life forms – this just doesn’t happen by effort. ‘The pond cannot be forced to be still but becomes still of its own accord when efforts cease’. Once again we are back at being and not doing – not passive and inert but open and receptive to what might come our way.