Tag Archives: impermanence

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

The Three Characteristics: A Practical Introduction

[I wrote the following article as a submission to the Guest Writings section of the Kenneth Folk Dharma site. Kenneth teaches a model of meditation practice which he calls The Three Speed Transmission, and this article was written to fit that model (hence the references to various “Gears”).]

The Three Characteristics: A Practical Introduction

“Monks, [all phenomena are] impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees this thus as it really is with correct wisdom, the mind becomes dispassionate and is liberated from the taints by nonclinging.” ~The Buddha, from the Pali Canon*

The purpose of the Vipassana (Insight) side of the 1st Gear of the Three Speed Transmission is to directly apprehend the Three Characteristics of phenomena via one’s direct moment-to-moment experience. The Three Characteristics are Impermanence (Pali: anicca), Suffering (dukkha), and Nonself (anatta). It is easy to contemplate these characteristics in an intellectual way, but experiencing them directly is another thing entirely. The direct apprehension of these characteristics is what leads to swift progress along the path of insight.

What follows are some basic ways in which one may directly apprehend each of the Three Characteristics through the practice of Vipassana meditation:

Impermanence: When one looks at a candle flame, it appears as though it is a separate thing. In actuality, it is constantly burning itself away. There is not one flame that exists from moment to moment. The same is true of the sensations that make up the totality one’s phenomenal experience.

If we pay attention to the activity of breathing, we notice that one moment the belly is rising, and the next it is falling. If we pay close attention to our hands and feet, we notice the quick rise and fall of each tingling sensation (i.e. vibrations). Each pulse, flicker, itch, and subtle movement will be seen to arise and vanish completely many times during each second of observation. Thoughts and mental images suddenly appear, and then vanish as quickly as they came. Everything that can be observed will be seen to arise and then vanish. This is perhaps the simplest way to observe any of the Three Characteristics, so it’s a good place to start.

Suffering: Tere are two simple ways to observe the Suffering characteristic. First, Suffering is said to be concealed by changing in to different postures. For example, if one decides to sit for a long period, they will eventually have to use the bathroom. The discomfort of a full bladder causes one to get up. When we examine our experience we see that we are always changing position to relieve discomfort of some kind. Realizing this, we realize the Suffering Characteristic.

The second way the Suffering Characteristic is observed is to notice how nothing can be held on to. A pleasant mind state arises, and we think, “Yes, this is it! I could stay like this forever.” But the state changes, even if we don’t want it to. In each moment one is either visited by unpleasant circumstances or watching the pleasant circumstances fall away. As painful and frustrating this is to experience, directly apprehending the Suffering Characteristic in this way brings insight.

Nonself: There are two basic ways to observe the characteristic of Nonself. First, as one observes the characteristics of Impermanence and Suffering, the meditator will understand that there is no one in control of what occurs. Thoughts just come and go. Pains and discomforts just happen, without any prior authorization from an “I.” Even the recognition of these processes seems to arise naturally without any prompting. With the realization that no one is running the show, we observe the Nonself Characteristic.

The second way to observe the characteristic of Nonself is through the practice of self-inquiry** (one of my all-time favorite practices). After noticing that no observable phenomena seem to be controlled by a separate observer, the meditator may ask, “Then who/what am I?” By asking, “Who am I?” the meditator begins the active search for a self essence. But s/he will quickly discover that anything that can be observed is by definition NOT an observer. When the sensations of experience that lie previously hidden are revealed, the meditator will continue to apprehend thus: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” The Nonself Characteristic is perhaps the most of important of all three. In the words of the Burmese meditation teacher Sayadaw U Silananda, “No realization of Truth can occur without the knowledge of the anatta (no-soul) nature of things.”***

Conclusion: Working with the Three Characteristics involves more than just thinking about them. Rather, it is by direct apprehending these characteristics that one begins to gain insight into the Ultimate truth of things. In so doing, the meditator working on the 1st Gear of the Three Speed Transmission will make their way through the stages of the Progress of Insight**** which leads to the attainment of stream entry (sotapanna): the first stage of enlightenment in the Theravada tradition.

* (SN 22:45; III 44-45)

** Self-inquiry is also the practice of the 2nd Gear (Dwell as the “Witness.”).

*** Sayadaw U Silanadna, No Inner Core: An Introduction to the Doctrine of ANATTA (full PDF download).

**** For more information, see Kenneth’s pages on the Progress of Insight (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five).


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Theravada