Dukkha and the paradoxical theory of change: A guided meditation

Feb 26, 2021

I practice zen in the tradition of the Ordinary Mind Zen School. My teacher, Dr. Andrew Tootell, is encouraging me to present some guided meditations to a small group of practitioners who sit together on Zoom on Tuesday mornings. Below is the transcript of my first guided meditation, which I presented on Tuesday 23 February 2021. In this meditation, I highlight some of the similarities between zazen and what in gestalt therapy is called the paradoxical theory of change. In future guided meditations, I hope to continue exploring the intersections and resonances between zen and gestalt therapy.

In this guided meditation, I’m going to talk about dukkha, which is often translated as “suffering” or “unsatisfactoriness”. I’ll talk about sitting with dukkha in our meditation, and about the paradoxical way in which dukkha can become a source of healing, and growth, and wisdom in our lives, if we let it.

So, please sit comfortably. Find your seat. Settle into whatever posture works best for you. Settle into the breath. Settle into the body. Be aware of the body breathing in and out on its own for a couple of minutes.

Sometimes when we sit in meditation we might find ourselves feeling centred, feeling present to the world around us, feeling settled, and at peace with how things are. If your experience is like this this morning, then please enjoy that, and go with it, and just let my words wash over you.

Other times when we sit we might become aware of some form of contraction, of resistance, of tension, of dissatisfaction. We’ll be aware of the ways in which we’re cut off from being with life as it is. And if you’re anything like me, this will be what most of your sitting practice is about. This is dukkha. We don’t have to look far for dukkha. To be human is to experience dukkha. And very often when we sit, sit in meditation, our meditation is to sit with dukkha.

So, as we sit with some awareness of this body and this breath, let’s also try bring awareness to any tension or contraction or dissatisfaction. Where are we resisting? Where are we tightening? Where are we holding on? It might be obvious, or it might be subtle.

Dukkha, tension, dissatisfaction might be manifesting in thoughts. “I’m not doing it right”. “I’m ready to finish”. “I wish I didn’t think so much”. Whatever variety of dukkha comes up for you in your thoughts. A lot of our thinking can be a kind of resistance, in one way or another.

Tension or contraction might be showing up in our feeling tone. We might just have a basic feeling of wanting to move way from something, wanting to move away from where we are. Or a sense of wanting to move towards something. Sometimes that sense can be very free-floating or nebulous.

It’s likely that tension or contraction is in some way manifesting in the body. I’ve always liked what Joko Beck said about the “icy couch”—I’m imagine some, or many, of you will have read that part of her book—about how dukkha gets lodged in the very fabric of our bodies. About forms of contraction and holding on that are so close to us and so pervasive that we easily miss them; it’s just what our bodies feel like most of the time.

So, I encourage you to just be aware for a few minutes of any kind of holding on in the body: any tension, any pain, no matter how subtle or familiar it feels. What would it be like for you to rest into the icy couch right now?

Let your attention move around the body, if that feels like the right thing to do. There might be places where tension often shows up: maybe the belly, or the jaw, shoulders, neck, maybe in the face. Wherever tension shows up for you. There’s no need to release the tension, if you find it. Just allow it to be.

We’re just sitting with our dukkha, however coarse it is, however subtle it is. If we can just sit with our dukkha, just letting it be, not trying to change it, creating a space of acceptance for it, then maybe we can create the conditions for growth and change in our lives.

I practise gestalt therapy, and in gestalt therapy the theory of change—which is like the explanation for how psychotherapy actually helps people—is called the paradoxical theory of change. The paradoxical theory of change says that change occurs when we become what we are, not when we try to become something we aren’t.

I’ll now read you a quote by Arnold Beisser, who first articulated the paradoxical theory of change (and please excuse the old-fashioned gendered pronouns in this quote). He said,

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.

By rejecting the role of change agent, we make change possible.

Arnold Beisser, the man who wrote this quote, knew about staying with dukkha. He was in his mid-twenties, he’d just finished his medical training, he was a nationally ranked tennis player the US, when he was suddenly paralysed from the neck down by polio. He lived for years in an iron lung. That’s a very tough way to learn about the paradoxical path of embracing dukkha. None of us are in iron lungs, but I’m sure we’ve all walked tough paths at times in our lives as well. We’re all presented with dukkha in our lives. We’re all presented with dukkha in our meditation practice.

Change occurs when we become what we are, not when we try to become something we aren’t. There are obvious parallels between the paradoxical theory of change and our zen practice. Becoming what we are when we practice often means making space for dukkha, or becoming dukkha. When we encounter tension and contraction in our sitting, we can try to escape it, we can try to change it, or transcend it in some way, and maybe we’d have some success in doing that. But then, ultimately, we’d be trying to be something that we’re not in that moment. We’d be dividing against ourselves. Dividing the whole.

Or, we can become more fully ourselves. We can reject the role of change agent. I like that line, maybe that’s why I’m repeating it a bit. I like to think about it in terms of my psychotherapy practice, and I like to think about it in terms of my zen practice: rejecting the role of change agent. We can let the dukkha be. We can become the dukkha. We can rest back on the icy couch, to use that metaphor again.

So, let’s sit in silence for a few more minutes and just let ourselves be. If there’s resistance, let the resistance be there as part of the whole. If there’s tension or contraction, welcome it in, let it be there as part of the whole that is you, in this moment, this morning.