Tag Archives: Mindfulness

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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Wisdom of Non-Manipulation

“A quiet mind is all you need. All else will happen rightly, once your mind is quiet. As the sun on rising makes the world active, so does self-awareness affect changes in the mind. In the light of calm and steady self-awareness, inner energies wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part.” ~Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That.

This quote from Nisargadatta is right in-line with something my friend and teacher, Kenneth Folk, recently posted in a discussion thread at his dharma forum:

“Advanced practice is about learning not to manipulate after spending a lifetime becoming a master manipulator. We all have to unlearn manipulation in order to reach our potential, counter-intuitive as that may seem.”

Spiritual paths run in cycles that are in many ways as natural and predictable as the seasons. There are times for effort, focus, discipline, and some degree of control as we learn to establish new habits of mindfulness in our otherwise chaotic lives. But I think the majority of one’s spiritual path is best traveled by refraining from manipulation. This does not mean that we shouldn’t practice. But it does mean that we can sit and simply pay attention to whatever arises in our experience, trusting that whatever development that occurs is unfolding naturally. The simple practice of attentiveness is our way of participating in the process of awakening. Simply paying attention is what allows these “inner energies” (as Nisargadatta put it) to  “wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part.”

The next time you sit to practice meditation, start out with a simple resolution to not manipulate your experience.  As Adyashanti teaches, simply “allow everything to be as it is.” You may be pleasantly surprised by how deep your practice may go when mindfulness is your only objective.

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Overcoming “Fight or Flight” in Meditation

We humans, over the span of millions of years, have evolved partly due to our ability to recognize harmful situations and either flee from them or eliminate them. Psychologists call this our “Fight or Flight” response. And while this is quite useful for staying alive and propagating our species, it has an adverse effect on making progress in meditation.

Running away from less than pleasurable experiences is precisely what NOT to do in meditation. Responding in such a way to feelings of aversion is part of what got us in to this mess of suffering in the first place*. It’s not that we should be like some unbalanced ascetic who goes looking for pain in order to purify our karma. That’s just as unskillful as running away from unsatisfactory experiences or chasing after pleasure. Rather, what we should learn to do is allow such experiences to come into our awareness and pay attention to what happens. In my experience, when an unsatisfactory thought or sensation arises there are three outcomes that may follow:

  1. It could go away. 
  2. It could persist.
  3. It could change.

Now, these three outcomes are true regardless of what I desire to occur. That is, unless I decide to change positions, or get up and stop meditating altogether. But then I’m right back where I started, running away from suffering as if in a game of cat and mouse (and of course, I’m the unlucky mouse). But if I resolve to infuse each and every unsatisfactory experience with mindfulness, I will make progress.

After coming to know this simple truth for myself, I made note of it in the form of a “rule” of meditation. The rule is: whatever is presenting itself in the present is exactly what needs my attention in order to make progress. If I ignore the discomfort and try to dwell on something else (e.g. what enlightenment will be like, or what stage comes next, what I want for lunch tomorrow, etc.), progress gets stunted.

My advice to you, oh reader, is to commit yourself to diving in to whatever experience arises in the moment. If you feel edgy, or tired, or angry, or painful, or anxious, or depressed, or lusty, or whatever else, you must continue to pay close attention to the experience in order to make progress. I know it seems counterintuitive to most every other situation you’ve ever found yourself in. Nonetheless, I sincerely encourage you to give it a try. Do not fight. Do not take flight. Stay right where you are give your fullest attention to what is actually occurring in the present and you will surely make progress.

*According to Buddhism, the three primary causes of suffering are greed, aversion, and delusion.

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Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Personal Development, Psychology