Monthly Archives: March 2019

The paradox of intention 5

The paradox of intention is then partly about letting go/letting be and being rather than acting. It is a universal human experience where by blocking what we have been seeking to attain our intention becomes modified and this shift can offer an unexpected fulfillment of its own.

As Martin Shaw puts it:

Experiences of impossibility force us to abandon our pretensions and our intensity, and in this we surprisingly achieve either what we sought or a kind of contentment that we thought could only follow the conquest of that which blocked us. In either case, we discover that the goal is reached by giving up the attempt to reach it.

When I decide that it doesn’t matter and I can’t succeed, success may well come, precisely because I am at peace about the outcome; the hyperintention of the desired result made its achievement impossible, and it is reached when this intensity is abandoned.

Or, if the desire outcome is not achieved, there is at least a sense of relief, of being reconciled, of returning to reality in having abandoned the pursuit of the impossible and the unreal; here the fulfillment we thought only came to those who win, comes from letting go.

So where does this striving for attainment come from – clearly it’s linked to the survival instinct and our continuous sense of the precariousness of our lives, our sense of meaning and indeed our own self-respect so we try for new ways to establish control and mastery, to keep hold of power and to manipulate what happens to us – perhaps even and especially in the smallest of ways.  Existential anxiety about our vulnerability remains no matter what we do, but as mystics and contemplatives have found, and from all traditions, if we accept the impossibility of escaping from this reality then we transcend it. Here is the religious theme of rebirth coming from despair, a complete conversion or reorientation to life through the experience of impossibility. It also opens us up to receptivity and acceptance of our ‘nothingness’ and also to a freedom in our actions where we are involved not in the end goal of attainment but in the action itself.

Here action is about being part of a larger whole – participation without defensiveness or coercion part of being itself and God’s grace.

‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ Philippians 2: 12-13

As humans we think something must be done but from the divine side God alone is the doer. The action needed is the cessation of doing but the awakening of responsiveness: the way to do is to be. It is the discovery of attentiveness.


The paradox of intention 4

For the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl healing and the fulfillment of the self came not through the strenuous attempts by the patient to take direct action to do so but rather through finding a sense of meaning or value outside the self. He wrote:

‘If we succeed in bringing the patient to the point where he ceases to flee from or fight his symptoms … then we may observe that the symptoms diminish and that the patient is no longer haunted by them’.

In other words, if we preoccupy ourselves with the pursuit of happiness or trying to find peace of mind the less chance there is that we can attain it. Incidentally, here Carl Jung would have pointed to the obvious, that there is then anyway an imbalance if consciously we are endlessly pursuing one aim, and that inevitably this would be compensated for through the unconscious.

For Frankl goodness can anyway only be a side effect of taking action which takes us out of ourselves otherwise we are merely serving our own egotism. His particular focus was though on the search for meaning which can only be found outside our desire for self-satisfaction; meaning is found in relation and commitment to something outside the self, and so self-preoccupation therefore must frustrate the will to meaning. One of the ways that he thought we find meaning is the stand we take towards suffering. [Here we remember that Frankl’s views about this grew out of his experiences of surviving in a concentration camp during the holocaust]. Our attention to physical and emotional satisfactions alone leads to the phenomenon of ‘despair despite success’, but if we can find meaning even in the most hopeless and painful situations we may find ‘fulfillment despite failure’.

In his therapeutic work Frankl used the paradox of intention so understanding that the more one fights symptoms such as fear of panic attacks, or acting oddly or coping with obsessions the stronger the feedback; so the problem becomes one of excessive intention, where in trying to avoid the fear or control the compulsion the effort becomes counterproductive and simply intensifying the problems. He also wrote about the hyperintention of pleasure found in sexual neurosis where the more the person tries to demonstrate their potency or their ability to achieve an orgasm, the less they are able to succeed: ‘Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.’

The treatment for hyperintention is to use paradoxical intention where the person is encouraged to do, or to wish to happen, the very thing that they fear. The inversion of intention in the case of a phobia removes the fear of fear, so that for example the fear of sweating in public is replaced by the wish to do so – the vicious circle is broken and the feedback mechanism is removed. … The person is encouraged to say: ‘I sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour out at least ten quarts!’

The fear is replaced by a paradoxical wish and all the emotional energy previous put into anticipatory anxiety has gone. The symptom of anxiety is accepted as part of oneself and what is feared is accepted.

The Paradox of Intention 3

Martin Shaw in his book The Paradox of Intention, Reaching the goal by giving up the attempt to reach it (published in 1988) refers to the experience of William James the psychologist of religion who was well schooled in the late 19th century philosophy of the ‘mechanistic materialist’ which, among other beliefs, included the idea that the mind is simply a by-product of the material and the universe devoid of any care for human hopes and aspirations.

James whilst accepting this intellectually, felt emotionally disconnected from it and following a personal crisis of depression and suicidal thoughts he went to search for a different belief and to find the meaning of life and a philosophy of free will and a belief in a God who might connect with us in our struggles. James was puzzled by what he called the ‘healthy minded’ who seemingly denied the reality of darkness and evil. He concluded that such an outlook is fine as long as it works, but it may easily break down in the face of tragedy. To him the most complete religions are those that admit the truth about the world, so Buddhism and Christianity are truest and deepest because they centre on despair and rebirth – in other words finding a way to overcome despair rather than deny it. The link to the paradox of intention is that in both religions there is the belief that effort is unnecessary because the solution is already present, either in Christianity in the form of God’s offer of forgiveness for sin, or, in Buddhism with the idea that the real self is perfect and only suffers due to its ignorance of this. Reaching peace and affirmation comes in both religions through letting go and surrender. In the everyday life James saw that sometimes when we struggle to remember a name we can’t but often when we stop trying so hard the name pops unbidden into our mind.

In his discussion of St Paul’s teachings Shaw notes that the very attempt to attain righteousness and to justify oneself by one’s own endeavours is an expression of sinful pride, whereas true life lived as a gift from God would be free from both pride and anxiety as one is living through God’s power and not one’s own efforts.

Shaw writes: ‘The right relation of creature to Creator cannot be a human achievement, but arises only when we set aside the attempt to achieve it by our own efforts and receive it as a gift.’ This is then true wisdom that our right relation to God is not achieved through attainment but by the paradoxically indirect method of not attempting this, instead this is faith and is received as God’s grace.

The Paradox of Intention 2

The idea of the paradox of intention is simple – you reach a goal by giving up the attempt to reach it. Initially this sounds illogical; after all we are brought up to believe that you can only get and achieve if you strive, and it seems to go against common sense too and sounds rather passive. Yet a number of mystics from different religions have advocated this as a way to find fulfilment in life; experience of God comes when received as a gift and it disappears when we try to grasp onto the experience and hold it for our self. A number of accounts in the Gospels confirm that Jesus taught the paradox of intention; speaking about the flowers of the field and the birds:

‘And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well’ (Luke 12: 28-31)

The more we struggle for security the less this can be attained; so here we have letting go of self-concern where the kingdom of God is the reverse of what the world rationally sees as ‘the way forward’: ‘Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted’ (Matthew 23: 12).

The message is that if we abandon our concern for security then another kind of security arises. Contemporary culture does not agree, indeed our current system only works on the basis of what Martin Shaw calls ‘the ethic of attainment’ where the good of human life, like any other goal is the outcome of human striving. He contrasts this with what can be called ‘the ethic of consolation’ which only begins with the despairing of all our attempts to achieve the good; this is ‘the law of the reversal of effort’ in other words the good of human life happens not through the direct and active attempt to achieve it, but rather by giving up the attempt to achieve it. Alan Watts writing in The Wisdom of Insecurity in 1951 puts it like this:

‘I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it ‘the backward law’. When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink you float. When you hold your breath you lose it – which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, “Whosoever would save their soul shall lose it.”’

The state of acceptance, trust, openness, a way of being at home in the universe – connected to all other life forms – this just doesn’t happen by effort. ‘The pond cannot be forced to be still but becomes still of its own accord when efforts cease’. Once again we are back at being and not doing – not passive and inert but open and receptive to what might come our way.

The Paradox of Intention

In a letter written in November 1951 Carl Jung explores the idea of the paradox of intention when he refers to Symeon the Theologian (949-1022) also known as Simeon the new Theologian, a mystic venerated by the Orthodox church who searched for God wherever he could in the world but was unable to find him, ‘until God rose like a little sun in his own heart’. Symeon has been called ‘the prophet of Christian experience’ with his life as a testimony of inner continuous conversion.

Jung’s comment is that God is contradiction and paradox so the only place where this can be transcended and become unity is in the human heart. The contradiction includes beliefs and conclusions that are each reasonable but these can then seem to cancel one another out. The classic contradiction or as Jung terms it ‘God’s antinomy’ is the assertion that God is love and yet as we all know and experience suffering is part of all life; so we are left with fundamental and apparently unresolvable dilemmas: a kind and loving God who allows us to suffer, similarly we see and experience beauty but also evil; freedom and slavery, and so on.

Jung in his letter to Hans Schar, a Swiss Protestant theologian, writes that God has prepared us for this purpose of holding these contradictions within ourselves – we are the ‘vessel’. However this cannot happen if we persist in turning to God as the Father and so seeing ourselves as ‘bad’ in contrast to the good God and in this sense remaining as children under the Father’s protection – and as Jung adds shunning ‘the problem of the opposites’. The aim says Jung is for each person to attain their own humanity and that is in fact God’s desire in us. He describes those who can separate in this way as having ‘the courage to stand on their own feet’.

This has clear similarities to Thomas Merton’s message (see December Bangkok talk 3 post) warning us not to rely on structures that in the end frustrate our own potential. Merton tells us that what is of supreme importance is that ‘everybody stands on their own feet.’ In other words don’t rely on structures – use them but don’t rely on them. The essence is rather that of inner transformation. Jung puts it like this: ‘By remaining with the Father, I deny him the human being in whom he could unify himself and become One, and how can I help him better than by becoming One myself?’ Merton too sees that it is only within ourselves that we can go beyond division to an inner liberty: ‘We accept the division, we work with the division, and we go beyond the division.’ For the moment any of us stand on our own two feet, the moment we find contemplative life at the root of our life, deep down in our own hearts, we go beyond division.