Does Behavior Change Gradually or Immediately?

I just finished listening to a marvelous audiobook by psychotherapist Bruce Tift from Sounds TrueAlready Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation. One thing that I appreciate about Tift is his “big sky mind”—his willingness to see contradictory ideas from a wider perspective that embraces all of them.

Case in point: Buddhism and psychotherapy.

Both Buddhism and psychotherapy aim to help us stop suffering. And, they propose different means to get there.

“Buddhist practice helps us awaken to a well-being that is independent of our circumstances,” Tift says, “while Western psychotherapy helps us bring our disowned experience into awareness in order to live in a more skillful and satisfying way.”

Two Paths to Change

Put another way, Buddhist practice changes us by helping us see things as they are in this moment—without the filters imposed by our concepts and judgments. We can call this the immediate path.

Psychotherapy, too, is about seeing things as they are. But therapy takes place in stages. We accumulate insights. We clarify intentions. We plan new behaviors and perhaps change our circumstances. This valuable process takes place over time. Call it the gradual path.

So which do we choose? Immediate or gradual?

Tift’s answer—both.

“These two approaches sometimes contradict and sometimes support each other,” Tift explains. “When used together, they can help us open to all of life in all its richness, its disturbances, and its inherent completeness.”

More About the Immediate Path

In Western cultures, most of us are familiar with the gradual path. It fits with our conventional ideas about setting goals and taking action to achieve them. So, l’d like to describe the immediate path in more detail.

When taking this path, we see that effortless action flows from clear seeing. Awareness itself brings change. Doing flows from being—the way we see things before we take any action.

When we see the world without the distortions imposed by attachment and aversion, our behavior changes naturally. We can find many examples of this:

When we stop seeing people as enemies, we treat them kindly.

When we see that a personal habit inevitably makes us suffer, we’re free to drop it.

Simply by noticing that you’re slumping in your chair, you naturally assume a posture that is both more erect and more comfortable.

During meditation, simply noticing points of tension in your body allows you to relax.

Embracing Both Paths

So when you’re faced with a behavior that you want to change, Tift says, you always have two options.

One option is the gradual path. Take the time to learn new skills, one at a time, and practice them until they become habits. List the steps needed to achieve a goal and complete those steps one at a time.

Make the effort and welcome the change. It works.

Another option is the immediate path. Instead of planning to change the behavior, just shine the light of awareness on it and notice what happens.

Make no effort and welcome the change. It works.

Isn’t it great that we get to live with paradox?

One comment

  1. Yes, and I love the idea of using both. They sound very complementary and quite comprehensive when we are able to take both paths at the same time. Cool!


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