An Introduction to HAKOMI Psychotherapy

By Rachel Sweetman

The word ‘Hakomi’ is a hopi Indian word, meaning “who am I?”, or more directly “where do I stand in relation to the many realms?”. The Hakomi Institute was founded by Ron Kurtz and others in Boulder, Colorado in 1980. The first training in Ireland took place in Galway between 1992 – 94, and the next one begins in Dublin in September 1995 (see ad in this issue).

Presence and Spirit

Hakomi is powerful and deep through its ability to be slow and gentle and rooted in the present moment. The essence of Hakomi lies in its ability to be present. The quality of presence and of spirit in Hakomi make it feel special. A nurturing atmosphere and a safe context for healing is established through the embodiment of the five principles of Hakomi. I am going to write here of the principles to give a sense of the presence of Hakomi, and leave aside more of the theory and technique. The five principles arc:

• Mindfulness    • Organicity    • Non-violence

•Mind-body-spirit-holism    • Unity


Mindfulness the first principle and it is also a key tool in the practice of Hakomi, it is borrowed from Buddhism and it involves expanding our aware­ness of and our consciousness of ourselves in the present moment, from the perspective of the non-judgemental, compassionate witness inside us. Mind­fulness involves slowing down, lowering the noise level, focusing our awareness on the present moment and making contact with whatever is going on inside us, with what is normally on the edges of our consciousness, or un­consciousness. With non-judgemental compassion present in the therapist and growing in ourselves, we can develop a sense of safety which enables us to reveal ourselves to ourselves and to the other.

Core Beliefs

Hakomi works with the understanding that each of us organises our experi­ences of life. Through mindfulness we can become aware of our individual core beliefs and core organisers which determine the particular patterns of experience we will have of life. Most of our core beliefs are unconscious. The beliefs we formed as children to protect us against painful experiences may be severely limiting to us as adults.

Deepest Needs

As we bring to light and heal the hurt and fear behind these beliefs, the beliefs naturally move from being contracted to becoming more expansive, thus freeing us to open up the possibility of having our deepest needs met in life. For example, an unconscious contracted belief “if I explore my vulnerability I will be humiliated” to a more expanded one “sometimes it’s safe to explore my vulnerability and I may even receive support”, or from “life is a hard struggle” to “life supports me in my needs”. It is not so much that “seeing is believing” but that “believing is seeing” .


Beyond therapy, Hakomi can be seen as a way of learning to live in mind­fulness. Through developing the non-judgemental, compassionate witness in ourselves, we are learning to identify with a self or a presence beyond the ego, and beyond our fears and limitations. We begin to expand the space in our­selves which simply watches and learns to trust all that is. As we move more deeply inside ourselves and contact the wisdom within, so do we move more deeply beyond ourselves towards a deeper understanding of life and a greater trust. Through connecting with the present, we connect with presence and with the power of all that is. As we open up and our trust expands, we begin to see the rich and deep meaning and coherence in the “positive” and “negative” webs of our lives.


The second principle of Hakomi is organicity. This is the recognition of the natural movement of any living system towards healing and growth, given the right environment. In therapy the context for healing is the therapeutic relationship, within that context we don’t push or force or control as these inhibit, rather we follow and support and facilitate the natural unfolding movement towards healing. ‘The best leader follows” (Lao Tzu.).


The wisdom of our own healing and growth lies within each one of us. Living systems cannot be fixed or solved like machines. Healing is an act of self recreation. One being cannot heal another. A doctor cannot heal a patient, he can only support him in healing himself, for example by placing a supportive plaster on a broken bone and seeing if it will heal.


It is not the therapist’s job to know what the client needs, or to have the answers but rather to create the right environment wherein the client can contact his own wisdom and follow his own process with the support and guidance of the therapist.


The sensitivity cycle is a Hakomi map for exploring where we have become stuck in the cycle of experience, blocking growth and movement. Four barriers or blocks to the integration of experience are named as the insight barrier, the response barrier, the nourishment barrier and the completion barrier.


To facilitate the healing relationship, the therapist needs to be real and true to herself. A degree of self acceptance must be reached so that the therapist is prepared to show who she really is, including her vulnerability, mistakes, limitations and other aspects of her shadow self. Hence the emphasis on the therapist’s ongoing work on her own being. When I, as client, can see who you are as therapist, as person, then I can see for myself how safe it is for me to open up to you.


The third principle is non-violence. There are so many subtle (as well as blatant!) ways in which one person does violence to another in relationship. To work within the principle of non-violence, we need as therapists to be continually mindful of the agendas which will arise in us in relation to our clients, and to either let go of them or at least not be ruled by them. It means being mindful of the subtle ways in which we violate our clients’ space, or use them to protect or boost our sense of ourselves.


Violence breeds resistance in the unconscious. For example, when the therap­ist thinks she knows what is best for the client, or when she fails to accept the whole person who is client, or when she is too intense or over-focused, something inside the client takes offense and begins to resist, although he may still be going through the motions, the depth and openness will be lost.


When we are non violent we gain the cooperation of the unconscious. When we support the client where he is at, without judgement, and follow his own pace and process, we create a situation of safety, so that he can risk moving forward, so that the healing experiences which need and want to happen will find they have a place.


Through practising mindfulness we can expand our awareness of the subtle ways in which we violate others. To embody non-violence is an ideal, it is not that we can ever say we have fully achieved it, is something to develop and practise infinitely. The degree to which we have accepted ourselves in all our shadow parts, is the degree to which we will be non violent and non judgemental of the other. Again, complete self acceptance is an ideal we move towards not a point we have arrived at.

Character Strategies

Another useful map in Hakomi is that of the character strategies, developed in us during the developmental stages from 0 to five. These are named as sensitive/withdrawn, dependent/endearing, self reliant, charming/seductive, tough/generous, burdened/enduring, expressive/clinging and industrious/ over-focused. Our characters are formed as protective strategies, developed around missing experiences as children.

Each of us will draw to some extent from all of the strategies, and each of us will draw from some more than others. Of course, as people we are far more than our strategies, and through healing we can free ourselves towards choice in our responses to life, beyond the unconscious, automatic behaviour of our strategies.


Developing an awareness of our strategies in relation to the other, and taking responsibility for them, frees us in our ability to be non-violent. The more self acceptance we achieve, the less we will feel the need to judge, manipulate or play subtle power games with one another.


The fourth principle is mind/body/spirit holism. This principle recognises that mind/body/spirit is one system in constant interaction. We experience life through our bodies, our minds and our spirits all at once, and events affecting one will affect the other. Where an emotional issue has been blocked from integration by not moving through the cycle of experience, it will be held in the body, in the cells and in the tissues. ‘The issues are in the tissues”.

Different parts of the body hold or express different issues, for example kidney trouble may relate to fear, or trouble with the liver may relate to a difficulty in the expression of anger. The body expresses through diseases, what a person feels unable or unsafe to experience directly.

Key Tool

Hakomi uses the body as a key tool in therapy. We make contact with the unconscious through mindfulness and tracking of the sensations in the body. Unlike our conscious minds, the body never lies. Hakomi uses creative means to track and explore sensations in the body.

Shut Down

We can make contact with experiences that have been held or managed, sometimes for as long as thirty years or more. When we block ourselves from experiencing, we shut down aspects of ourselves and limit our openness and potential in our lives.


‘Taking over” is a Hakomi technique involving hands-on support of the body’s defenses. Instead of trying to break through a person’s defenses, we offer them the support of having us take over the management work which they have been doing for themselves. For example, when there is tension, pressure or twitching we may offer a hand to match the tension or pressure or movement guided by the client as to how to get it right. We thus create a situation of safety and support so that the client is free to experience whatever has been blocked or held.


The fifth principle is the principle of unity – this is the recognition that the universe is a web of relationships, that all parts belong to a whole, and that nothing exists in isolation. This is the vision of the mystical traditions of the world and it is reflected in the discoveries of quantum physics. Our Western Culture has been based on the mechanistic world view of newtonian physics, where in everything was seen to be made up of fixed, separate indivisible little pieces, and it has bred in us a sense of alienation, isolation and separateness.


The unity principle recognises that healing is about integration, harmony and the move towards a sense of belonging and wholeness. We work in therapy to develop communication between the parts, so that there is a chance for unity and healing. Our woundedness can be seen to relate to our sense of being split off or separate. We have become split or divided on many levels.

Within ourselves we have splits between the parts that we own as “me” and the parts that we hide or deny, in the world we feel split in our woundedness between our sense of belonging or being part of, and our sense of being outside, alienated and unacceptable.

“Self” is a Myth

Whilst we are separated in our physical form, on a deeper level the notion of a separate “self” is a myth. In Hakomi we attend to our experiences of separation and the forms they have taken, for example of violence, of conflict, of abuse, and of neglect. When we have been hurt we experience our vulner­ability in relation to others, if we feel unsafe we shut down inside and withdraw, increasing our inner sense of isolation, separateness and low self esteem.

Develop Trust

Through creating a safe relationship in therapy, we create the opportunity to connect on a deep level, to develop trust, and to open up and explore loving and being loved and our fears and blocks around this issue of intimacy and connectedness.

Light in the Darkness

To summarise with my own experience of Hakomi since 1991, it has been a process like shining a light in to the darkness. I have had to recognise and acknowledge many parts of myself which I would not have identified with before – my pain, my shame, my fear, my manipulations and my ability to abuse. With these coming to light, they have begun to be transformed, they don’t take up as much space or block me in the same way, I find myself freer to act with choice and awareness, rather than being stuck in reactive patterns. And there is so much more light, my sense of peace, of love, of belonging, of self acceptance of intimacy and of joy are ever-increasing. I no longer accept situations I used to accept, I have opened to receiving more and more wonder and beauty and support and gifts in my life. I feel more alive, more alert and more present to the moment.

I accept the whole range of my emotions more easily, allowing the anger, the tears and the fears. I feel safer and freer in allowing the real me to be seen by myself and others, rather than playing to expectations.

Most importantly for me, my spiritual path has been supported. I have developed a deep trust in the process of life and a sense of the coherence and meaning of it all.

Rachel Sweetman has been practising as a psychotherapist in the Rock Road Psychotherapy Centre since 1988, when she completed her training in Constructivist Psychotherapy. She trained in Hakomi in Galway 1992 – 1994. She now lives by the sea in Ballina, Co. Mayo and continues to work part-time in the Rock Road Centre, 110 Rock Road, Booterstown, Co. Dublin. (01-2882749).