A Deeper Look at Theory and Practice


by Jamal Granick

[The following is excerpted from a talk that was presented at the Annual Sufism Symposium in 2005]

The subject of the relationship between theory and practice has been a central focus of psychology and psychotherapy, and has implications both for how psychotherapists are trained and for how they subsequently implement that training in the field. In spirituality, practice is also central, and though we don’t often use the term “theory” as such, the principles that guide practice, and the understandings about ourselves and about the world that we derive from practice, are nevertheless very near the heart of the matter.

So let us reflect a little on definitions. A theory is a model, or set of hypotheses or assumptions, about reality – a sort of mental map. It is an internal representation of the world. Theories can be explanatory, in that they are our attempts to make sense of our experience – and they can be predictive. We use them to help us anticipate the results of our actions and to make effective decisions. We represent predictive hypotheses as “if/then” relationships – “if I do x, y should be the result”, and these “if/then” relationships constitute principles which guide practice.

Practice, simply put, is what one does, though it can also mean the “way of doing what one does” as in, for example, professional practice. Practice also has the second meaning of “rehearsal”, as in preparation for performance. There is a way that these meanings converge when one practices psychotherapy from a spiritual perspective because practice is at once a way of being and the means by which one advances lifelong learning.

Theories can inform practice by providing direction for action and rationale for decision-making. In psychotherapy, for example, it is considered important to be able to account for one’s interventions. Similarly, practice can inform theory. If one is observant, the results of one’s actions can provide feedback that enables one to adapt one’s models to reflect lived experience. So there is a reciprocal relationship between theory and practice, as one continuously tests one’s hypotheses and infers new meanings from experience. In this way, the practitioner is also a researcher.

Ideally, then, there should be consistency between theory and practice. The social scientist, Kurt Lewin, said “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” But, of course, not every theory is a good one and, as someone humorously noted, “In theory, theory and practice should be consistent, but in practice they rarely are.”

We all know this. We commonly refer to this kind of consistency as “walking your talk”. It is when one’s actions are aligned with one’s intentions. When someone acts in a way that is consistent with his or her intention we perceive them as having integrity, and the failure to do so is commonly perceived as hypocrisy. (By the way, just as an aside, if you have any doubt about the degree to which you are or are not consistent, a sure way to find out is to ask a teenager.)

In psychotherapy, this kind of consistency between one’s intention and one’s action, is a part of what has been termed “congruence”. According to Carl Rogers, congruence is one of the necessary conditions of effective helping. It makes sense doesn’t it? If someone is congruent, and we perceive them as sincere, trustworthy, reliable, etc., we are much more likely to entrust them with the most private, vulnerable aspects of our experience and to have confidence in their responses.

Rogers and his colleagues did some interesting research about this back in the late ’60s with hospitalized schizophrenics. What they did was to audiotape their therapy sessions, and then, using a rating scale for congruence, asked raters to listen to the tapes and evaluate the therapists’ level of congruence. The therapists were also asked to rate themselves.

The results are pretty interesting, I think. There was a pretty wide variance in the level of agreement between the raters’ ratings of the therapists’ congruence, and the therapists’ ratings of their own congruence. In other words, some of the therapists agreed with the raters’ assessment of how congruent they were, and some disagreed. Now, who do you think was whom? The therapists who were highly congruent from the raters’ perspective tended to rate themselves as highly congruent as well. However, the therapists whom the raters perceived to be low on the congruence scale, also tended to rate themselves as high. What do you make of that?

Now, here is where it gets really interesting. They also asked the patients to rate the therapists and, guess what – they pretty consistently agreed with the raters. So, one thing we can infer from this, I think, is that even though people may be labeled as “crazy”, they may nevertheless be quite sensitively perceptive. By the way, of all the therapist variables they studied, “congruence” was the only one that seemed to have some significant positive effect on these patients – nothing else, not technique, not even level of empathy.

But, to come back to the therapists, the other significant inference that I make here is that there is a relationship between congruence and awareness. The highly congruent therapists were in touch, but the not so congruent therapists were pretty oblivious. So, this relationship between theory and practice, or intention and action, seems to be dependent, at least in part, on awareness. Not so surprising, right? But, also not so easily come by.

So what causes the gap? If one adheres to one’s theory, without observing and incorporating the data from practice – in other words, if one censors discrepant feedback – one does not invite the kind of awareness that one needs in order to align theory with practice. Remember, a theory is a representation – a kind of inner map – of experience, and, of course, as Marshall McLuhan said, “the map is not the territory”. In other words, it is important not to confuse our internal representations with that which is represented.

This wisdom is transmitted in a famous Zen koan in which the student asks the master “What is Zen?”. The master points at the moon and says, “Do not take the finger for the moon.”

A theory is like a lens through which one observes experience, and any lens has its focal strength and its areas of distortion. Recognition of the relative strengths and limitations of various theories has engendered the movement toward integrative psychotherapies that synthesize multi-theoretical perspectives.

But no theoretical perspective guarantees that one’s theory and practice will be aligned. It has been observed in psychotherapy, for example, that therapists with the same theoretical orientations often do very different kinds of things in practice – and, conversely, therapists do very similar things in practice (for better and for worse) despite very different ways of explaining them theoretically, as was demonstrated back in the 60s by Robert Carkhuff and his colleagues.

One way of understanding this gap is in examining the difference between one’s espoused theory – what one says one believes – and one’s “theory-in-use” – a phrase coined by Chris Argyris and Don Schon, which refers to the beliefs, often unconscious, that actually guide one’s actions. Just for example, many of say we believe in God. Now consider, if one actually believed that there was an originating conscious Unity that was the source of all manifestation and everything created, including ourselves, which at once completely encompassed and permeated everything, and was at the same time beyond, but not separate from the entire Universe, from the beginning before time to the end after time, and was utterly aware of us to the core of our being at this very moment – if we actually believed that – how might that be reflected in our action? As it says in the Holy Qur’an, “Even if we do not see Him, still He sees us.” Now, in light of that, what does it mean to say, “I believe in God?”

So, when there is a gap between one’s actions and one’s espoused theory, there is an opportunity for learning, but it depends on one’s capacity and willingness to reflect. This requires one to, first of all, notice the discrepancy, be open to the feedback, and to be willing to self-observe, and adapt one’s responses.

As was illustrated by the research I mentioned earlier, this depends on awareness. Now, awareness is the subject of spirituality and cultivating awareness is the substance of spiritual practice. So, here we have a one major point of convergence between psychology and spirituality, as both strive to fulfill the Socratic injunction to “know thyself”. The second part of that formula is that self-knowledge is the key to knowledge of reality, and here I think we come to a difference between the way the ancient spiritual traditions and the way the contemporary Western psychology have approached the subject, at least until recently.

When we speak of theory, in Western terms we are talking about a set of hypotheses, based on inferences drawn from observations, and subject to validation by testing. Depending on one’s philosophical orientation, the field of observation may be relatively more objective or subjective, and the criteria for validation more quantitative or qualitative. But in either case, one is deriving one’s theory from experience and returning to one’s experience to confirm one’s theory.

It is a cycle of learning. Theory guides practice, practice tests theory. In spirituality, in a way, it is similar. We do not talk so much in terms of “theory” per say, but rather look to the idea of Teachings to guide our practice.

Teachings also draw on experience to derive principles of practice. But here, I think we need to recognize that we are talking about a very different kind of experience, a different domain of experience, and a kind of research that depends on very different kinds of experiments, using different “equipment”, so to speak. It is not simply a matter of epistemology, meaning a different cognitive framework or a different approach to knowledge, but a completely different kind of knowing using completely different faculties within ourselves.

The great Teachers of humanity have done this “inner research”, acquired this ability to know in a different way, and discovered a Reality that reaches way beyond our limited models and the theories-in-use that guide our daily lives. I am reminded of the Zen master pointing at the moon. In Islam, we speak of “ayat” (sign), which is the Arabic word that denotes the verses of the Holy Qur’an, but which also applies to every manifestation we perceive in the apparent multiplicity which also alludes to a hidden Reality, of which it is only a shadow.

Based on their inner research, the great Teachers have also suggested “if/then” practices which, if we follow carefully, can potentially enable us to peek beneath the surface of the apparent to catch glimpse of that hidden Reality. Still, we must acknowledge that until we have tested these Teachings within our own experience, they remain for us highly theoretical.

-Jamal Lawrence Granick, LMFT

For more information, or if you have comments or suggestions, please contact us at spf@ias.org. Copyright © 2010 Sufism and Psychology Forum. All Rights Reserved.

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