Tag Archives: paradox

Psychological Mechanisms of Clinging and Release

[This is an adapted version of an email I sent to some of the other members of the Dharma Forum Refugee Camp community prior to its founding.]

Hey guys. I just finished up a sit and thought I’d share some of the things that I reflected upon afterward. It could make for an interesting discussion. If not, that’s OK.

In a message I sent you all not long ago, I wrote:

“This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that… [m]odels suck most of the time. It’s always better to approach this moment with openness and curiosity, and to ask, “Am I suffering? If so, how? What’s causing it?” When you notice the cause, and stick with it, the mind will eventually let it go. I think it’s much the same way as when your brain tells you to move your hand of the hot stove that is burning you. There’s isn’t much you need to actually do other than to let the wisdom of the dharma speak for itself.” (emphasis added)

There seem to be impersonal processes at work that lie beyond the reach of “doing.” “Doing” is what gets us into the mess we’re in (i.e. suffering). And yet, meditation is itself an activity of sorts; a “doing.” But it is a very special variety of activity. The only activity of its kind. It is the activity of engaging with phenomena in a way which reveals a deeper truth. And when that deeper truth is revealed and comprehended (which we can’t do by choice), the impersonal processes – the psychological ‘mechanisms’ of clinging and release – do something. Or rather, they stop doing something. They stop clinging. They release their grip.

This is fascinating to me. It’s such a paradox. There are intentional actions which will lead to a release that is totally beyond intention. Neither you nor I can simply decide to wake up, and then just do it. Nor can we simply decide to stop doing anything. For, it takes some degree of intention to set up the conditions that will eventually result in awakening/release.

In practice, this is exactly how it works. You practice noting, or choiceless awareness, or any other effective meditative technology. You recognize the deep features of present experiencing. You stop doing by allowing the context you’ve intended to create perpetuate itself with no further intention (which culminates in the Equanimity ñana, or “non-fashioning,” etc.). It hums along until awakening – be it cessation or realization of Emptiness – happens of its own accord.

I know this is just one way describe the process of what happens in meditation. But once again, I am struck by the notion that the Middle Path must include both doing and non-doing, effort and non-effort, intention and non-intention. It’s easy to see how classical Buddhist teachings like “non-attachment” can be so misunderstood in the present day, particularly in Western culture. On one level, non-attachment can be practiced on purpose. But at another, deeper level, non-attachment occurs through the result of practice, though of its own accord. To suggest that one should refrain from practice because they are “too attached,” is bad advice most of the time. If one does not utilize their free will as a human being to cultivate the appropriate setting, how and when will awakening occur?

I guess I’m saying that intention plays an important role on the path to awakening. But, awakening itself is not achieved through conscious intention alone. The mechanisms of awakening are impersonal, transcending the reach of human action. And yet, somehow what we choose to do right now can aid in cracking the code; or rather, the code cracking itself. Paradox at its best.

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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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Being open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.

“Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

– Alan Watts On FAITH

This simple passage meant the world to me when I first read it nearly five years ago. Defining faith as trust was not a new idea for me, as that is how it is often conveyed within the Christian communities I took part in for most of my life. The difference between the faith I learned from the Church and the faith Alan Watts describes is not a matter of definition so much as it is about the object of one’s faith. In what (or in Whom) are we to place our trust?

In the Christian communities I was a part of, one’s faith was placed primarily in the Bible as Truth. Sure, it is God or Christ to which one is to have faith, but the Bible is the “word of God.” The Bible was that which all else is to be measured; the final authority. But this is inherently problematic, as it causes one to place their faith in a set of ideas. If one’s experience differs from that of the object of one’s faith, the object must be grasped against all adversity in order for faith to remain intact. When this happens, faith no longer feels like trust. In fact, it ends up feeling more like a burden (somebody say “Amen!”). I should say that Christianity is in no way the only religion of which dogmatic adherence to faith in ideas is commonplace.  Truth be told, all religious traditions have some type of dogmatic sect.

The kind of faith of which Watts endorsed – the faith of letting go – resonates strongly with the reason why I started this blog in the first place: to discover truth – however paradoxical it may turn out to be. Anyone who holds tightly to a set of beliefs long enough is sure to notice when they no longer stand up to serious reality testing. It is for this reason, I believe, that many young would-be-Bible scholars and ministers go off to Bible college only to lose their faith (i.e. apostatize) as soon as a year or two later. One is forced to take one of three routes: adhere, adapt, or abandon. Unfortunately for some, many religious communities are not all that flexible, making choice #2 (adapt) as equally damning as making choice #3 (abandon).*

To make choice #2 or #3 is to venture out in to the unknown. This isn’t all bad. For what was known is found via one’s experience to be untrue, which means the truth has yet to be discovered and lies within the unknown.  One casts off the security that is felt within the confines of dogmatism and legalism, trading bondage and safety for freedom and risk (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?). By casting one’s self in to the Void, they come to realize that they have everything to lose, with only the Truth to gain (you might recognize this as Stage Four of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth). From that point on, progress on the journey toward the discovery of Truth will occur only if one is willing to fully, completely let go. You must, as Watts says, “trust yourself to the water.”

And that’s the paradox of it all – if you hold on to anything, you will sink and drown. If you surrender, you will float and live. For me, surrendering started in the form of studying the world’s great spiritual traditions from their own perspective. In doing so, I discovered the teachings of the Buddha and of Lao Tzu and took up the practice of meditation. This path is the opposite of blind faith. In blind faith, one clings tightly to their sacred ideas and shuts their eyes tightly closed, so as not to see anything that might discredit the object of their clinging. The path of surrender, of giving one’s self to the Void, is one of letting go and keeping their eyes wide open – seeing everything, clinging to nothing.

Speaking of this process as a journey or quest for Truth is a useful metaphor, but it can also be misleading. Jack Kornfield writes, “We need to remember that where we are going is here – that any practice is simply a means to open our hearts to what is in front of us. Where we already are is the path an the goal.”** By opening our eyes and letting go we come to discover not some distant or hidden truth, but rather that which is ever already the case.

In conclusion, I encourage (or even challenge) each and every person who reads this to trust yourself to the water. “[B]ecome open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

*(This certainly isn’t the case for ALL communities of faith. Marylhurst University, my alma mater, is a fine example of a truly ecumenical/inter-religious communion of enquiring minds and hearts.)

** from After the Ecstacy, The Laundry.

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