Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Theory and Practice

--by Vincent Horn (Jan 16, 2017)

If we look at what theory is, it’s essentially an abstraction, or representation, of direct experience. It’s a way for us to take our understanding and transmit, through the medium of ideas, the same understanding to another person. Language is such an important innovation, because it allows us to do this.

Because theory is an abstraction or representation, without directly experiencing, or really understanding what these things are pointing to, abstractions can remain just that. We all know people who confuse concepts about reality with reality itself. One need only bring to mind a know-it-all scholar or nerd to see living examples of what happens when we emphasize theory over practice.

The flip side of emphasizing theory over practice, is in emphasizing practice over theory. Many people conclude that all you need to do is practice and you’ll figure out everything by yourself. But how do you understand why you’re practicing or learn to practice?

If you emphasize practice too much you can get what Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa called “dumb meditators”—people who don’t understand what they’re doing or why. They never really got what they were supposed to be looking for, so they spin out endlessly doing a practice, which leads to something interesting, but not to what was intended.

Another pitfall of leaving out theory is that we find it difficult to integrate the experiences we’ve had into their lives. We have trouble because we are rejecting the importance of the thinking mind. Our complex mental abilities and highly developed brains are what make us distinctly human. Without complex thought it’s unlikely that we’d even be able to ask ourselves the important spiritual questions. Homo sapien is latin for “knowing man” or “wise man.” It can be a disaster if we throw out the “wise” part of our evolutionary heritage.

What’s encouraging is that if we can put these helpful theories into practice, using them as maps to help us find our way, then we get into the business of having direct experiences ourselves. Through doing this we become internal scientists, and can begin to confirm, reject, and even build upon the theories we’ve been handed. Theories are alive and open-ended when we can test their validity. They are not the end point but rather the starting point for an incredible journey.

by Vincent Horn, excerpted from this page.

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Previous Reflections:

On Jan 12, 2017 Rajesh wrote:

This passage feels so relevant. As someone who has read a lot of J.Krishnamurti, whose work is considered abstract by many, I know that its easy to go off into abstraction, without the slightest idea of what a particular concept might mean in practice in one's own daily life. In this context, direct experience of what is being communicated is key to learning. Without it, all the theory is just that.
I think a robust theoretical framework is very useful in spiritual endeavors. Given that there are so many teachers and practices out there, without a good understanding of the overall scheme of things, we are either likely to hang on to one practice or view and potentially become pedantic about it. With a robust framework that is malleable, flexible and open, one is free to examine new ideas, teachers and practices that one might come across. In fact, in my experience, the beauty of it is that you being to see the common foundation and threads across a spectrum of teachings.

On Jan 14, 2017 david doane wrote:

A theory is an idea, a possibility, a speculation.  Practice is action.  Theory encourages action to try out or test the theory, and practice provides action to support or dispute the theory.  They work together well.  My theory was that I could play basketball adequately well at 70 -- not as well as at 30, but still well.  Long story short, I got into a basketball game with some guys in their 20s.  After clumsily moving around on the court, missing passes and shots, falling over myself and injuring and probably breaking my big toe which still isn't completely healed after 6 months, data indicated clearly that my theory was inaccurate.  Theory got me out on the court and got me playing.  Practice put the theory to the test and woke me up to the reality that I'm not 30.  I don't know whether my theories are true or false until I take action to test them.  I can hear what others believe or learned, but I don't know for myself until I test the validity of my theories for myself.  There is no teacher like personal experience/practice/action, even, maybe especially, when it hurts.

On Jan 14, 2017 Jagdish P Dave wrote:

 According to my understanding theory and practice are two wings of the bird of living. Our thinking mind asks questions about what and why.Such explorations provide a theoretical  foundations for application, action and practice. Without practice and experience, only theoretical knowledge or information does not have the taste of life.

I am very particular and careful about what I am putting into my mouth. I know food is medicine. I need to know and want to know what is good, nutritional and wholesome food. And I want to know the benefits of such food. But unless I put such information in practice, what good does it do? My grandson and I took an online course on Plant-based nutritional whole food course. The course offered very valuable scientific information. We were convinced and made a few changes in our diet.The action  has sharpened our appetite to know more about diet and nutrition.

I am taking another online course on Science of Happiness. What is happiness? Why should we know about happiness? What are the benefits of living happily? It is up to me and others like me taking this course to apply what we learn from this course.

May we cultivate wisdom to live a fulfilling and growing life!


Jagdish P Dave

On Jan 17, 2017 Kristin Pedemonti wrote:

 I love what Jagdish P Dave said, 'theory and practice are two wings of the bird of living."  I agree we need both and that one is thought and one is action; we need them to move forward in understanding. However I would also point out there is a potential pitfall for many to become so attached to theory the action never comes or an action comes but without truly understanding human impact. I have witnessed this is my work at the World Bank where economists become so enraptured with their data and what they think the theory is that they do not always listen to the humans their work impacts to understand in *practice* what the outcome may be of their *theory* on paper. I hope this makes sense. In my own volunteer work in Belize, I leaped in without having all the theory behind what I was doing in training teachers to use their own cultural legends in their classrooms, this not knowing all the theory was a blessing in disguise as I was unaware that in theory it should not have worked as it did. So, there can be blessings too. I do believe we need both and not to become bogged down in either one. As always, balance is key. I hope this made sense. <3

On Jan 17, 2017 Kate Sutherland wrote:

I'm very grateful for this wonderfully articulate statement about the importance of both theory and practice. I have loved the quote from Kurt Lewin: "There is nothing so practical as a good theory." I personally amend this to say, "There is nothing so practical as the interplay of several good theories." We get a more complete picture when the blind spots in one framework are illuminated by the different perspectives of other frameworks. In my work I share the gems from Appreciative Inquiry, Trust Theory, Chaordic Design, Integral Theory, Theory U, Process Oriented Psychology and many others "lenses". The theories help others to see more dimensions and nuances in any given situation, and therefore to navigate better. I also think exposure to these theories is a potent way to grow consciousness: Our perception can shift profoundly and quickly thanks to the pointers that are at the heart of any good theory: As in, "This distinction is important/helpful." "Look here."

On Jan 17, 2017 Cynthia wrote:

I had trouble with this passage.  After reading it a few times, I realize I must be one of those "dumb meditators."  Feeling, observing, and moving through initial shame, I see it as a jumping-off point to learn more.  As a result, I find a very helpful article at titled "Are You Practicing Stupid Meditation?"  Much to chew on. Thank you. 

On Jan 19, 2017 me wrote:

 Amen and thank you for your thoughts! 

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