The Myth of ‘Change-Based’ Therapies

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The Myth

We’re all very familiar with ‘change-based’ therapies of one sort or another – therapeutic models that hold as their basic premise the idea that it’s possible for us to change ourselves, change our thinking and belief-systems, by learning and enacting the appropriate approved method. This is in itself a system of belief – a belief which constitutes ‘the myth of change-based therapies’!

The basic assumption behind this type of therapy is easy to understand, even if the details are complicated: first comes the motivation to change, second comes the learning of certain key skills or techniques and then – with the help of these all-important skills or techniques – we’re able to channel this motivation in a practically effective way. Normally we want to change alright (the implication is) but we just don’t go about it in the right way.

The-Myth-2This basic premise sounds great, of course. Most of us want to change ourselves to some degree or other. If we happen to be suffering from anxiety, low self-esteem, addictions, OCD, depression, etc then the motivation to change ourselves is very strong; it’s more than just an interest in self-development at this stage – it’s an urgent need. At times like this therefore therapies that promise the possibility of changing ourselves from the unhappy way that we are become incredibly attractive!

The only problem is, these therapies don’t actually work! The reason they don’t (and can’t) work is because, as Alan Watts  says in one of his lectures, “The part of you which is supposed to improve you is exactly the same as that part of you which needs to be improved!”

Jiddu Krishnamurti,  who has been called the ‘Einstein of mystics’, explains this point by saying that we live in something he calls psychological time. Psychological time, according to Krishnamurti, is the distance between us and our goals, the distance between ‘where we are’ and ‘where we’d like to be’. Actually, Krishnamurti says, there isn’t any distance between us and our goals because our goals are an extension of our current state of mind!

This is a point that makes perfect sense once we hear it. Surely, if I were to genuinely change, this would mean that I would outgrow my goals rather than keep them firmly in the cross-hairs? Personal growth means moving beyond our horizons, not staying firmly within them. Really, my goals are inseparable from me – they are me! Changing therefore doesn’t mean trying as hard as I can to obtain my goals, it means gaining the wisdom and strength to let them go. Genuine change is an act of letting go, not an extension and exacerbation of my will, not the stubborn insistence of that ‘same old mind’ upon always getting what it wants. That ‘same old mind’ only ever wants to stay the same, when it comes right down to it! It fears the new and cherishes the safe, the old, the predictable…

The hidden problem is that I want to change, and yet at the same time I want to stay the same, I want to ‘hang on to what I know’. Real change would mean that I would change – it would mean that my way of looking at things would change, which means that everything would change! This is a pretty big deal. Israel Regardie  says that ‘When the magician arrives at the summit of the mountain, it is no longer the same magician that set off on the journey!’ According to Mooji – “The one who begins the inquiry will not finish the inquiry, but will be finished by the inquiry.”

The type of change we’re talking about here therefore is discontinuous (or ‘non-linear’) change, which is ‘change that goes beyond its own basis’. Discontinuous change cannot occur as a result of a formula, a recipe, an algorithm – the type of change that is driven by a formula cannot go beyond that formula, obviously! Linear or rule-based change cannot ever depart from the formula that guides it – in fact it is the formula, it is the rule! There is no formula for non-linear change – change that leaves its own starting point behind! This type of change cannot be deliberately orchestrated because it involves what we might call the mathematical equivalent of ‘letting go’…

This is so clear in mathematics, and yet we don’t seem to be able to apply this insight to psychological change, which we insist on thinking must be ‘rule-based’ and therefore ‘manageable’. Culturally, we’re stuck on the idea that there must be a handy formula for change, a ‘model’ for change, a reproducible ‘method’ for change. Yet as Krishnamurti says time and time again, in many different ways, there is no method for change…

The idea that there must be a method for change – a way of changing and yet having the security of a method to cling to – is obviously preposterous, and yet we go on investing time and resources into it, in the fond belief that one day we’ll hit upon the ‘right’ method – the one that will finally deliver us to the promised land. And yet what we’re doing here is looking for a handy rule for us to obey that will – despite it being a rule – somehow set us free.

What’s causing us to be so blind to the irony in this is our love of control, which is a love we don’t seem able to question. Control is our god – everything’s about control! And yet control is all about ‘holding on’ and holding on is cause of our problems, not the cure. It is a basic principle in psychotherapy that ‘the more we risk, the more are’ (and conversely, that ‘the less we risk the less we are’); so if we are steadfastly unwilling to take a risk (and this unwillingness is generally known as ‘fear’!) our lives become constrained, petty and inherently miserable as a result. We get caught in a trap of our own making. And when we learn to renounce the sterile security of always ‘being in control’, and embrace the inherent uncertainty (or openness) of life, then we grow as a result…

Change-based therapies are all about control. The way they work is that we instruct ourselves how to change, direct ourselves how to change. What we’re in essence doing is directing ourselves every step of the way, and it isn’t possible to imagine a worse jail than this, a tighter-fitting straight-jacket than this! This is a truly horrific scenario, although somehow we seem incapable of appreciating the horror that is implicit in it.

Something happens and I think about this in a certain way, and I’m required to think about it in a different way. I react in a certain way to my situation and I’m required to change this way. I think about the way that I’m thinking, and I change the way that I am thinking (which is my old thinking) in accordance with my new thinking! And then everything is supposedly rosy. Surely there can be no better recipe for tying ourselves up in tight knots than this? Using the thinking mind to free us from the thinking mind just increases our identification with that mind, which is the very root of all our problems.

The basic assumption in all change-based therapies (as opposed to acceptance-based therapies) is that where I am right now isn’t the advantageous place, isn’t the helpful place, and therefore what I need to do is to get somewhere that is advantageous, that is the helpful place to be. This core message is jinxed however. It cannot do us any good. This is after all exactly how we normally think and if the way we normally think hasn’t helped us up to this point then how is it supposed to help us now? The only difference is that the therapy protocol which we’ve learned supposedly offers us a mechanism that is vastly more effective than our usual hopeless struggling!

But whether we’re talking about our usual ineffective attempt to get out of the hole we’re in, or whether we’re talking about the new, improved way of getting out of the hole (which someone is selling to us!) it all comes down to the same thing, which is what Alan Watts calls ‘trying to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps’. This corresponds to what Carl Jung refers to as the via erratum, the ‘way of error’. The via erratum means trying to save ourselves with our own cleverness, with our own minds…According to Jung when we try to change by straining to be different (by what he calls ‘a convulsive effort of will’) it only ever rebounds on us later on.

The other possibility (other than ‘straining to change’) is the via veritas, the way of truth, in which there is no straining. The via veritas means ‘not trying to be somewhere else’, not trying to escape one’s predicament. It means allowing ourselves the freedom to be where we actually are. It is the ancient way of ‘relating fearlessly to what is’,the way of ‘accepting what is’ and thereby allowing ‘what is’ the freedom to change all by itself….

By Nick Williams | TNP