Tag Archives: Taoism

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

Three Models of the Universe

I once heard a recorded lecture by Alan Watts where he explained the two dominant Myths of Western culture involving the nature of the Universe. He then described a Chinese model of the Universe to contrast the other two. Here is a brief summary of each of the models…

1.) The Ceramic Model – The Universe as artifact.

This is the model that has carried over from the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this model, one sees the world as constructed or made- particularly by a supreme God, be it an Intelligent designer or Yahweh himself. The Biblical Narrative in the first few chapters of Genesis describes how the world came in to being. When God made man, he formed him out of the earth and breathed life ‘in’ to him. This idea has left many westerners with the idea that the world was manufactured by God, and our essential being (soul, spirit, atman, etc…) was brought ‘in to’ the world.

2.) The Fully-Automatic Model – The Universe as dumb energy and random cause & effect.

When science began to take precedence over religion, it became harder for people to believe in the God of the Ceramic Model. They saw no evidence of his craftsmanship, because the signs were pointing to natural selection and evolution. Intelligent design became too hard to believe. Charles Darwin, one of the key thinkers for this model of the Universe, had this to say about Intelligent design:

“I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design…. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their [larva] feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”(The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 8:224)

The fully-automatic model that Darwin endorsed suggests that the evolutionary process is push along by a dumb energy, not an intelligent designer.

3.) The Organic Model – The Universe as organism.

This is the view that Alan Watts pulled from a Chinese worldview. Watts usually starts his discussion on this model by saying that the Chinese don’t see their lives/souls as coming ‘in to’ the world, but rather ‘out of’ the world. For example, a common question that a western child will ask her parents is, “Mommy, how was I made?” A Chinese child would not ask, “How was I made?” But, she might as her mother, “How was I grown?” This is the view that I believe Alan Watts held for a majority of his later years.

Watts would say that the same way an apple tree “apples” (as a verb), the universe “peoples”. Everything we see, hear, touch and taste has come out of the world – not in to it. It is assumed that when people believe that their ‘self’ was cast in to a human body on this earth, they see the unsatisfactory events in life as being unfair. They didn’t choose this life. Nobody asked them if they wanted to be born. But when if we believe that we are in fact a part of the world, coming forth from it, we are motivated to work with the ways of the world (what the Taoist calls establishing Wu-Wei). Realizing the interdependence of the whole Universe, we are able to see where we fit in it and how to work with it.

Which, if any, of these models makes sense to you?

The above post first appeared on the blog ‘Seeing Through The Net,’ which is my old Alan Watts tribute blog.


Filed under Religion & Philosophy