Process Work

Below you can find explanation of what Process Work is and what are its basic concepts. Most of the text is taken from my PW diploma dissertation that you can read here. Also, have a look at my blog posts, as most of them illustrate PW approach in real world and therapeutic contexts.

Process Work (PW in short, also known as process oriented psychology or POP) is a framework applied to work with individuals, families and organisations, created and developed by Arnold Mindell and his colleagues. In the 1970s Mindell, a jungian analyst at the time, noticed parallels and connections between what people experienced in their night-dreams, physical symptoms, relationships and other areas of life. Initially, he called this phenomenon a “dreambody”. His ideas, models and terminology evolved with time, however the fundamental philosophy and approach stays the same. Unlike some other contemporary psychological approaches, PW does not have ideas about what is “normal” or “healthy” nor does it have ready-made protocols what to do to help people feel better. Rather, it assumes that what people perceive as “problems” or “obstacles” carry information about a solution best for given individual or group. That solution can be found by applying awareness to the moment to moment experience and helping unfold it using various techniques of working with dreams, body symptoms, emotions, thoughts and other elements of the experience. Instead of “fixing” problematic states, behaviours or experiences, PW encourages deeper understanding of what is happening, believing in an inherent wisdom and purpose of what may seem “disturbing”* – having respect and compassion towards the pain and trouble a “disturbance” causes nonetheless.

The Process

The process is what happens, what is in the movement (literally and figuratively), what is changing, what is alive, what flows. We can call it the current of life, the tao, the natural unfolding of things. Paradoxically, the flow of life also includes pause, stagnation, stillness and death. Look at the natural world, these are all parts of it too. Nature comes in cycles, there is a time of light and thriving life and there is a time of darkness and decay. This also relates to our psyche, however, we have a tendency to prefer one over the other. Such preference often hinders what “wants” and “needs” to happen.

Process oriented psychology strives to facilitate the unfolding of this inner process, through the unveiling of what is being blocked and what blocks the process.

When the process is being blocked, it tries to “push through” in different ways. People experience this often as “problems”. We thus see problems (psychological, physical, relational) as message carriers, which need to be listened to. By doing so, we promote change, growth, and deep understanding of one’s life.

Identity: the primary, the secondary and the edge

The concept of primary and secondary process is one that classifies the contents of one’s psyche according to whether the individual “identifies” with them or not. Thus, the primary process is what the person accepts as “this is me”, “I’m like this”, and the secondary is what that person sees as “this is not me”. “I am/I am not” is, however, only one of the criteria that helps classify something as primary/secondary. There are the following four dimensions of the identity:

– awareness (do I know about this?)
– intention (am I intentionally behaving like this?)
– identification (does it feel like this is how I am?)
– agency (am I the one doing this or is this happening to me?)

These dimensions are independent, so for example a feeling/behaviour of being attracted to someone might be at the same time non-intentional (I don’t want to do that), without agency (this is happening to me), not identified with (I am not like that) but aware of (I know that this is happening). In this case, being attracted is a secondary process. In a different example, a person very kind to others, is fully aware of it, is kind intentionally, thinks about herself/himself as being kind, and feels in control of her/his kind actions. This would be a “full” primary identification.

Our identity structure acts as a filter through which we perceive the world, so our primary/secondary configuration will affect how we react to what we encounter in the world. If, for example, being flirtatious is secondary to me, I might have strong feelings towards people which I perceive as such. They might seem “frivolous” or “immoral” to me and I would make comments that it is “stupid” or “too much”. On the other hand, I might not see myself as flirtatious, but (secretly or directly) envy others this ability and wish I could be more like them. Either way, the fact that this particular quality/behaviour is secondary to me, makes me pay attention to it, acting like a psychological magnet. It does not, however, automatically imply a negative or positive attitude, it can evoke both attraction or repulsion.

The concept of primary and secondary identification is very useful to see and understand inner constellation of different aspects of the psyche. Even more important however, is to see how those aspects relate to each other. In his more recent works, Mindell introduced the concept of “u” and “X energy” which shifts the attention to the relational aspect between the identity (the u) and the disturbing quality (X energy). This helps to avoid the pitfall of thinking about the primary process as something lesser (old, useless) than the secondary (something better that needs to be integrated) – or, the other way around. Finding a way to let those two sides communicate and (ideally) find a way for them to co-exist and embrace the marginalised parts.

What stands in the way of communication between the primary and the secondary is what we call edges. Mindell defines an edge as an experience related to the boundary of awareness, the edge of our identity. So “edge” means being on the edge of what one identifies with. As Mindell explains, “going over an edge is always an immense experience; you feel that your identity is changing, confused, lost or challenged” (1995, p. 71). Edges create a division between primary and secondary processes. Edge is what makes it difficult to embrace what is on the other side. It is what makes it hard to accept, be willing to discover and act out that which is secondary.

At the edge we usually encounter a variety of beliefs or belief systems, norms, dos and don’ts, and warnings, that stem out of personal experiences, family, society and culture. This is why often the configuration of primary-edge-secondary in an individual is a reflection of the macro-structure of the surrounding world/culture/society. We can look at phenomena such as homophobia or racism as macro-scale cultural edges that are an effect of a minority becoming an object of a collective projection of majority’s secondary processes. At the same time, all that is present locally in each individual psyche – a holographic structure containing the whole image in each of it is parts.

To be clear, edges and edge figures are not “bad” things. They are a natural feature of the inner world, where it is important that some things are kept constant and/or contained, at least at times. They have a conservative function, preventing change so that the identity is protected. The same goes for cultural norms in general – they play an important role in keeping our everyday world predictable and stable. An edge and its surroundings can be a scary place full of uncomfortable feelings. Thus, it is usually some form of crisis (relational, emotional, physical) that calls for edge work and demands better communication between primary and secondary processes, and a more inclusive inner approach. Edges that are too rigid make dealing with any change that shakes up the primary identity very difficult. Additionally they can potentially create tension between people, leading to marginalisation, discrimination or violence.

Deep democracy and marginalisation

According to Mindell, there are two main problems with the concept of democracy in our world. Firstly, even though it is based on ideals of freedom and liberty, it is not concerned with individual issues and awareness at all. An average human can be truly democratic only for a while and most of the time, most of us act like tyrants – lacking awareness we tend to take sides, whether we deal with different aspects of ourselves or others. Secondly, democracy is a concept of power (of the people) not of awareness. As a result, democratic procedures let people pursue their interest (according to their values, norms, and needs) and it is usually their number that is most helpful in achieving that. It would be ideal if the majority also considered the interest of those who do not have enough “voting power” to fulfil their needs. In the real world, most often than not, the majority lacks awareness that would enable it to truly consider minority’s position. The minority is usually simply “outvoted”.

Deep democracy is a concept that adds awareness to the equation. Building awareness is crucial to being able to empathise with the minority and understand that “having fewer votes” is not a reason good enough to ignore one’s needs. Deep democracy recognises that even within the most democratic approach there is a big risk of a minority being marginalised – discriminated, superficially treated, not being fully heard, etc. It focuses on deepening the connection with even the smallest fraction of that which is being different than the mainstream. It is both a practical approach with its set of tools and, fundamentally, a philosophical stance, that informs the entirety of the Process Work approach.

Marginalisation and exclusion have two aspects – external and internal. External marginalisation refers to groups of people being excluded by the majority. This can happen overtly (racial segregation, gay marriage not being legal, gay relationships being criminalised) or in subtle ways (“glass ceiling”, erasure from public discourse, microagression). There is systemic discrimination on big scale (racial profiling, criminalisation of same-sex relationships or lack of marriage equality), but it also can happen on a very local, small scale (a group of friends looks for a place to go out and the more well-off do not consider those among them who cannot afford to go to a certain place). Depending on the context, certain people are being ignored, not heard, not considered, explicitly or implicitly denied their rights, erased from the public discourse, belittled, dismissed or threatened and endangered.

Inner marginalisation is a similar phenomenon that happens in our inner psychological worlds. There are parts of our self that are not being treated equally and with respect by other parts. If my main tendency is to be always agreeable, I ignore my anger or individuality. If I see myself as someone strong and independent, I might be marginalising my vulnerability.

Inner and outer marginalisation are not separate things, they are more like two sides of the same coin. Inner marginalisation eventually leads to outer – it is difficult to accept something outside if it is not being accepted inside. Often, lack of acceptance of a certain behaviour or quality is a direct reflection (a projection) of not being able to include that quality in one’s own psyche. How we see the world and how we react to it is a direct consequence of the way one’s self/identity is organised.

Deep democracy is both an ideal worth striving for and a very practical path of working with people and ourselves. It is often challenging, as we meet people and groups in the social environment that we do not necessarily agree with or like, we might find similarly “unlikeable” parts in ourselves. Ideally, we should not push them away, ignore or slight, but attend to with kindness and respect. This requires almost constant awareness and skills to “orchestrate” all that we deal with.

The practice

Another way to simply put process work is that it help to see where change is needed and what blocks it. Change might mean literal life changes or (but often and) inner changes – new attitude, opening up to new ways of being, behaving, relating with the inner and outer worlds. There’s no norm, no pattern of what is “normal”, each individual has their own path in life and process work respects that.

How do we do it?

Process workers have a vast array of tools. We work with dreams, body symptoms, relationship stories – basically anything that seems important, significant, emotion-evoking for the client. Anything that is seen as problematic usually turns out to be a great resource of information what kind of change is needed. We use a lot of role-play, active imagination, drawing, movement but also, just simply conversation. Compared to other schools of psychotherapy, you as a client might be asked to get up from your chair with quite a high probability. Or at least get in touch with your body. There’s also room for more subtle experiences and fleeting sensations which may lead into deeper and more spiritual inner realms.