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To Strive Or Not To Strive: Reflecting on Mark Manson’s “The Disease of More.”

A friend of mine from graduate school recently shared a blog post by Mark Manson titled, The Disease of More. I’ve enjoyed Manson in the past, so I gave it a read. As much as I feel it is generally more valuable to create new material to share, I think it might be beneficial for others to share my reactions to this piece (which are largely positive).

The article starts out with the following:

“Success is often the first step toward disaster. The idea of progress is often the enemy of progress.”

I immediately had a gut level reaction to the concept he was pointing to, and that has a lot to do with my experience participating in various online forums dedicated to the practice of different forms contemplative spiritual practice. Among contemplative types, there is a perennial argument between the developmental camp and the always-already-THAT camp. (I suppose it isn’t much different than the “salvation through works” vs “salvation through faith” camps within Christian traditions.) I have generally leaned more toward the developmental camp, given that there appears to be an undeniable progression of both skills development AND consciousness development that occurs over the lifespan, sometimes with or without deliberate effort. The idea that the only thing getting in one’s way is the drive to be better has at times created a near insurmountable roadblock to progress for many an aspiring yogi.

At the same time, I’ve also witnessed countless individuals discover, through practice, profound decreases in psychological suffering resulting from practice, which only briefly quells the powerful drive to suffer even LESS. From the perspective of the always-already-THAT camp, the drive to suffer less is itself a form of suffering. If the point of all this is to suffer less, why not abandon the drive to improve one’s self and simply be who you are already. “You are already enlightened. Just stop trying to get enlightened, and you’ll realize your true Self.”

As you’re reading this, I hope you’re starting to see how both of these concepts, or rather stances (as David Chapman would describe them in his online book, Meaningness), are incomplete. In both cases, what is being treated as a truth about reality would be better viewed as a way of looking, or a seeing that freesViews such as these can be an instruction, or method, which can be used to ever deepen (development camp) the experiential knowledge of how things truly are (always-already-THAT camp). In other words, I don’t believe it’s helpful to view either stance as being ontologically true, but that sometimes it may be helpful to view either or both as pragmatically true. When taken up as a way of seeing one’s self, life, or experience, either can lead to life transforming insight.

Without diving fully into the remaining contents of Manson’s article, it does appear he is using his chosen stance as a kind of method with regard to the man with whom he worked on this issue:

“What if there is no ‘next level?’ What if it’s just an idea you made up in your head? What if you’re already there and not only are you not recognizing it, but by constantly pursuing something more, you’re preventing yourself from appreciating it and enjoying where you are now?”

I don’t know if Mark understands his view as a being more of a method than a truth (I’d love the opportunity to ask him someday). If he does, I’d love it if he came out and said so. And maybe he has. My favorite professor in graduate school (R.I.P.), while education me and my fellow therapists-to-be, often told us he didn’t believe in magic. He believed in science, and for him that meant if something works, there should be a way to explain how and why it works. He took this a step further with his therapy clients, and made every effort to explain what he was doing with them and why, at every step. I was deeply inspired by his way of working with clients, and I do the same for the clients with whom I have the privilege to work. My insistence on both transparency and a pragmatic truth criterion is what inspired me to base much of my therapeutic approach on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). But I digress…

I suppose the point of this long and rambling post is the ideas I read in Mark’s post are only helpful in context. There are times when “stop trying so hard” is helpful, and times when it stunts growth. The development of wisdom requires the ability to determine which approach is more helpful at any given moment. So go, and be wiser. (Or perhaps you’re already wise enough. Stop trying… Just kidding.)

What is your experience of striving to grow? What happens for you when you relax that drive? Does it work in some conditions but not in others? I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially those which differ from mine.

P.S. I mentioned a few posts back that I’m trying to get back into the swing of writing. I consider my writing skills to be pretty rusty lately, and I’m open to feedback in that area as well. In the interests of becoming evermore comfortable stepping into vulnerability, please feel free to share whatever constructive criticism you may have. Thank you!

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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”

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