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Process Oriented Psychology refers to a body of theory and practice that encompasses a broad range of psychotherapeutic, personal growth, and group process applications. It is more commonly called Process Work in the United States, the longer name being used in Europe and Asia.
Process Work was founded by Arnold Mindell, then a Jungian analyst, in the late 1970’s. It has its origin in Mindell’s observation that nighttime dreams both mirrored and were mirrored in his clients’ somatic experiences, particularly physical symptoms. He generalized the term “dreaming” to include any aspect of experience that, while possibly differing from consensus views of reality, was coherent with a person’s dreams, fantasies, and somatic experience, as well as the unintentional but meaningful signals that form the background to interpersonal relationships.
Mindell’s training in physics encouraged him to view the unconscious phenomenologically as well as symbolically, leading him to apply information theory concepts to the observation of his clients’ behavior. In this light, the concept of the ‘unconscious’ expanded to include a whole range of unintentional verbal and non-verbal signals, on the one hand, and of perceptions, beliefs and ideas with which the individual does not identify, on the other.
In order to help his clients integrate these forms of unconscious material, Mindell expanded upon the Jungian techniques of “amplification” such as active imagination and dream interpretation, by adding methods for working directly with non-verbal, body-level experience.
Building upon patterns of awareness found in sources ranging from Taoism and shamanism through modern physics, Mindell developed a framework for encouraging clients to identify with unconscious experience through a process he called ‘unfolding’. This unfolding process is a deconstruction of the client’s named experiences that relies not only on verbal material and imagery but also on movement, deep somatic experience, interpersonal relationship, and social context.
In the early 1980’s together with his process work colleagues, Mindell began to apply the conceptual framework he had been using with individuals, couples and families, to facilitation of conflict resolution in large groups. He coined the term “Worldwork” to describe this new discipline.
In the late 1990’s Mindell turned once again to his earlier interest in physics and began to explore a framework for understanding the common root of human experience that gives rise to psychology, on the one hand, and quantum and relativistic physics on the other.
Core Ideas of Process Work
Although Process Work has been applied both to therapeutic situations and to others, such as conflict resolution, that are not generally considered therapeutic, the core ideas of Process Work can be understood most clearly from a psychotherapeutic perspective.
Process Work emphasizes awareness – both the client’s and the therapist’s – rather than any specific set of interventions. The “process” in Process Work originally took its name from several sources. One was Jung’s concept of the individuation process – the process by which a psychotherapeutic client integrates contents of the unconscious that are presented to him or her through dreams, fantasies and synchronicities. Another came from physics, particularly David Bohm’s formulation of the flux behind all events. Yet another comes from the therapist’s observation of the ebb and flow of signals and communications between therapist and client.
Experience is found to be of two kinds: that with which the client identifies, and that which is experienced as “other” or alien to the client. Experiences with which the client identifies are called “primary process”, to emphasize their place in the foreground of awareness. Experiences which the client marginalizes as “other” are called “secondary process”, to emphasize their place in the background of awareness. Furthermore, when a client is encouraged to embrace or identify with a secondary process experience, he or she is generally reluctant or even unable to do so, as though a boundary separates the primary from the secondary processes. This boundary is called the “edge”. It is, quite literally, the edge of the person’s identity.
Edges may be categorized according to the source of the particular identity that they define:
- Personal: Someone who has an edge to his or her intelligence may project high intelligence onto others while seeing themselves as stupid or ignorant. Such an edge may have its origins in the person’s early experience with family or school.
- Family: A family system may have a prejudice or rule against a particular type of experience, which the individual family member must violate in order to embrace that experience. For instance, a family that identifies itself as peaceful or friendly may punish or marginalize aggressive or competitive behavior of a particular member. That person may develop an edge to his or her own more aggressive, competitive tendencies, projecting this on others and being disturbed by them.
- Social: Gender, religious, ethnic or other social groups frequently have behavioral and experiential norms that may make it difficult for members to express contrasting experiences. For instance, a man who comes from a culture that emphasizes roughness and insensitivity as desired masculine traits may be severely troubled by his own gentle, sensitive tendencies. He may project these experiences on other men, who he views as “weak” or perhaps homosexual. This is one of the mechanisms that drives homophobia.
- Human: There is a certain range of experience that is commonly thought to be “human nature”, while those experiences that fall outside this range are “inhuman”, “animal” or perhaps “other worldly”. Those individuals with tendencies toward strongly altered states of consciousness and spiritual experience often have an edge to these experiences, thinking them to be inhuman. This view is also supported by social consensus reality. Such experiences may give rise to extreme states of consciousness, that are then treated by psychiatric means.
Process Work seeks to identify the client’s primary and secondary processes, as well as the edges that separate them. It then facilitates the enrichment of the client’s identity by amplifying and unfolding the secondary process experiences until they make sense – on both a cognitive and somatic level – and become part of the client’s experiential world.
Levels of Experience
Viewing experience on the primary-secondary axis tends to emphasize the polarities in the client’s experience, rather than its unity. On this level, which Process Work refers to as “dreaming”, secondary process experience intrudes into the client’s primary process, threatening its integrity and appearing as “problems” that need to be solved.
Closer examination of a client’s world of experience reveals a deeper, pre-verbal, pre-conceptual level that unifies experiences that conflict on the dreaming level. This level of experience has been referred to by Arnold Mindell as the level of “sentient essence”. Working with sentient essences can be very helpful to clients who have struggled with strongly polarized dreaming processes over many years who have managed to resolve their polarities on a practical level but still feel divisions and tensions in their worlds of experience.
Arnold Mindell, his wife Amy Mindell, and their colleagues have explored the application of process work concepts and methods to a great variety of human situations, including some that are considered beyond the scope of more verbally based, insight-oriented psychotherapies. To cite a few examples:
- Working with physical symptoms as expressions of a dreaming process. By attending to the subjective experience of an illness, the experience of the “symptom maker” often reveals an important and potentially useful range of secondary process experiences. When the client can integrate these experiences, there may be a beneficial effect on the physical symptom.
- Clients in comatose and near-death states of consciousness. Such individuals are commonly thought to have insufficient awareness to be accessible to more verbally-oriented means of communication and therapy.
- People in extreme states of consciousness who have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders.
- Conflict facilitation in small and large groups. A group is similar to an individual in that it has an identity, or primary process, as well as secondary process experiences that disturb its identity. Helping a group to integrate its disturbances enriches its identity and helps it to become more deeply democratic.
Process Work Links
Global Process Institute
Process Work publications
Arny and Amy Mindell's site
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