The Paradoxical Theory of Change

One of my graduate school professors is a long-time Gestalt therapist. In our Group Dynamics class last night, he spent some time demonstrating how he would lead a counseling group on the topic of grief. At one point the classmates acting as clients were sharing their feelings of guilt, one by one, as though to communicate to the others that “I feel that, too.” Afterward, a student that was watching it all unfold said to the professor, “I noticed that at one time many of the clients were expressing their grief,” and then asked, “Now, isn’t that something we don’t want them to feel?” It seemed that he was worried that allowing other group members to validate the feelings of grief would reinforce the grief, making it worse. My professor replied something like, “Well, as a Gestalt therapist, I more or less subscribe to what might be called the Paradoxical Theory of Change, which says that in order for change to occur one must first be allowed to truly be who they are.”

His words really ‘rang a bell’ within me. I know from my meditation practice that progress occurs only when I fully recognize and accept my present moment experience (or, as I prefer to call present experiencing). I can see why the Gestalt community would speak of this process in terms of paradox, in that at first glance it seems contradictory for change to occur when one simply does nothing but allow experience to ‘be’. However, from a Buddhist perspective, we know of a little thing called impermanence. The truth is that experience changes on its own from moment to moment. It doesn’t need “my” help to change. The energy involved in trying to change is usually put to waste, in that it affects the natural flow of change in ways that result in changes unlike those which are most beneficial.

So, in most cases the best kind of action for change is non-action; the best path is a non-path; the best way to change is to stop trying to change. The Daoist teaching of wu-wei comes to mind, as well as Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teaching to be as you are. And it would appear that this is not only the case with meditation practice, but also within various areas of human psychology and even sociology (as there is also a Paradoxical Theory of Social Change).

For more information on the paradoxical theory of change from the Gestalt perspective, you may want to read The Paradoxical Theory of Change by Arnold Beisser, M.D.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

“I will call it the paradoxical theory of change, for reasons that shall become obvious. Briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.”


“The Gestalt therapist further believes that the natural state of man is as a single, whole being — not fragmented into two or more opposing parts. In the natural state, there is constant change based on the dynamic transaction between the self and the environment”



Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

7 responses to “The Paradoxical Theory of Change

  1. Mike Monson

    All this reminds me so much of certain teachings of Krishnamurti. He talked about “intelligence” as something we all have access to if we, in essence, stop everything and just look very carefully (choiceless awareness).
    I do this practice and I believe that he is right. That there is a natural tendancy toward healing, toward knowing just the right next positive action, if one just gets out of the way and opens themselves up to all that is actually going on.
    It’s the same reason that “faith” works so well for people with a devotional/religlious practice.

  2. Kate Gowen

    “Faith” is an appropriate word, on multiple levels:
    Seng-Ts’an begins the ‘Faith in Mind Sutra’ with a declaration that is radically challenging even today:

    “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
    When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
    Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

    If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything.
    To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.

    When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

    The Way is perfect like vast space when nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.

    Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things…

    To live in this faith is the road to non-duality,
    because the non-dual is one with trusting mind.”

    Like any brilliant dharma, it is something for each of us to discover and experience the fresh shock of recognition.

  3. Ian


    I am slowly catching up on my internet reading (the Refugee Camp is being saved for all day tomorrow) but I just read your post after reading this post:

    And puling this quote from it onto FB:
    “At one moment, for example, I may experience a wish to indulge a pleasure like smoking or eating. Either I immediately give in to the idea and have no contact with the desire, or I refuse and create conflict, again without contact because I have dismissed the desire. And everything that arises in me proceeds like this. The desire is life is life itself in me, extraordinarily beautiful, but because I do not know it and do not understand it, I experience frustration, a certain pain, in giving in or in repressing it. So, the struggle is to live with the desire, not refusing it or losing myself in it, until the mechanism of the thinking no longer has an action on me, and the attention is free.”
    – Madame de Salzmann

    To have posted that an immediately turned to your post here was too priceless not to share! I did link here from FB, but as I doubt you have as much time as I do to wander through the non-local recent past that is the FB newsfeed, I wanted to bring this to your attention here well. Just hilarious.

  4. Chris

    Jackson, that’s a theme that gets a lot of play in addiction related therapy. It’s also deeply embedded in the 12 steps from AA and similar programs. You have to be honest first with yourself, find your baseline, your truth. Only then can you move past it and make changes. Until that time you are in denial or, very simply, actively fighting the truth.

    And that plays out in our lichees every day, in both big and little ways. Being able to see it happening moment to moment is a major steep in the process of waking up, methinks.

  5. Jackson

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Chris, the point you make about acceptance in the context of addiction recovery groups brings to light a very important issue with regard to the way psychological suffering is often understood (or rather, misunderstood). So often it seems that people want to treat psychological suffering as if it were like a headache. We want to know what we can “take” to make it go away. But I think there is a categorical error at work in that line of thinking. To heal psychological issues, we can’t just walk into a clinic and say, “Fix me, doc!”, get a Rx, and leave, anymore than we can visit an auto mechanic for a heart transplant.

    All this to say that the process is quite different from many other health related services. And that’s why I think it seems contradictory or paradoxical to suggest the first step toward psychological change is to simply recognize and accept the very thing we want to change. It goes against our “fight or flight” programming, for sure. But it also conflicts with some other well known step-by-step ways of fixing certain problems outside of the field of psychology. Not that step-by-step procedures can’t be implemented at some point, it’s just not usually the best way to start.

  6. Chris

    That and apparently I can’t type as evidenced by the second paragraph in my comment 😉

    But yes, Jackson. There are people in my immediate family that I’ve watched go through exactly this process — learn to acknowledge the truth, accept exactly what is, and only then make baby steps out of that place, leading to real, measurable and what appears to be lasting progress out of a living hell.

  7. ClaytonL

    I really like this post Jackson. A refreshing read.

    For those interested this is a of’t quoted section of the Alcoholics Anonymous primary text,

    “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.
    Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.”

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