Ireland, October 15, 2009
First I have to tell you that I’m a little under the weather but I’ll certainly do my best – I read your interview with Theo Dorgan this morning and it is just great – he just took off and started and he said great stuff. There are a couple of lines, that Louis Armstrong quote for sure – then he was talking about Dylan’s Visions of Johanna and that’s the exact line that I tell people Dylan should get the Nobel Prize for; The ghost of electricity Howls in the bones of her face... So you can tell Theo Dorgan that I really liked his interview with you. My wife liked it too.
That’s great, I’ll tell him and I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear that you enjoyed it. Well… I’m very happy to just go with this however you’d like – on behalf of myself and others, we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us in this way. Maybe if we begin from your early influences – who or what were your early influences? and what was your personal motivation and drive?
Okay – well I’ll have to think about the second one. The early influences, they go back to my high school years – my favourite teacher was my physics teacher and I was pretty good in math, so I really liked science and learned it easily. In fact, in my last year they had me teach some of the classes on spherical geometry. Science and physics, they always fascinated me. As a result, when I joined the navy they sent me to school for nine months to learn electronics – that kind of set me on a path.
After I got out of the navy I went to college and I tried to study psychology – I didn’t enjoy it at all. I took two courses and dropped out of both of them - and I took English as a major and physics as a minor but for the physics minor they just gave me credit for what I already knew. English. I actually studied. – As a senior, I was the head of the literary magazine. I really liked it and I wrote – and when I got out, I got a job as a technical writer. I got married after college, and worked as a technical writer for several years.
I travelled around the country a lot in those days, on contract as a technical writer. One time, I was visiting with a friend of mine who’d gone to Indiana University – we’d been in undergraduate school together. At the time I visited him he was in graduate school studying psychology at Indiana University. He suggested that I apply for an assistant-ship. I’d already used up my GI Bill. The psychology department gave me the assistant-ship because I knew a lot about electronics and could work with their laboratory equipment. I started studying psychology then as a graduate student in the psych department at Indiana University.
When I was a technical writer, one of the things I did was teach computer to civil servants who had to understand how their computers worked, so I had some computer background. In general, I was pretty much stuck in the science realm.
For a few years I studied experimental psychology, learning theory, physiology… and towards the end I became interested in psychotherapy. I didn’t do much about it at that point, except that I was in group therapy there for a while.
While I was there I made some really good friends, one of whom is dead now, but he introduced me to the Tao Te Ching. Another friend introduced me to yoga. So I was learning a little about those things and beginning to lean in that direction. Finally, I got very interested in Buddhism. So, I started to get into Eastern thought and religion. At one point I studied with Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche. He was the only Buddhist teacher I had personal contact with. I’d seen others, read others – I was in the oil exploration business with Trungpa. We lost some money together.
I left Indiana and got a job teaching statistics at San Francisco State. When I was there, Stella Resnick, a friend of mine from Graduate school, and I started doing workshops together. Stella introduced me to Gestalt Therapy. I decided to become a psychotherapist. It was the late 1960’s. We all experienced a kind of freedom and optimism then that allowed career choices like the one I made. I left San Francisco and moved to Albany, N.Y. I had a friend who was the psychological director of the locked ward at the Albany, N.Y. Medical Centre… That was Ken Lux. He set me up with an office and he sent me patients who were coming out of the hospital. So, having a background in science, experimental psych, Buddhism, Taoism, and a small taste of Gestalt, I decided to become a psychotherapist.
Oh, I know exactly where I’m going now!
Great – ’cause that’s going to help…
Stella introduced me to Gestalt Therapy. She was (and still is) a famous Gestalt therapist. She was just becoming well known when we did those workshops together. Finally she talked me into going to a workshop that was led by Will Schutz. I knew Will much better later, but in that first workshop. I was so impressed by what he did, that I decided that’s what I want to do with my life – and I have done it. He once told me; “behind every great man is a surprised mother-in-law!” He was joking of course.
So… that’s how my career started or should I say, that’s when I decided that I didn’t want to teach statistics the rest of my life. So I started travelling and doing workshops, little workshops – sometimes I do them for $6, you know. That’s all I’d make for the whole thing. But that’s what I wanted to do and I drove around in my van and did workshops. Over the years I met people and learned things. I settled in Albany. Ken Lux got me an office and I shared an apartment with him for a couple of years until I got my own apartment. That’s how I started doing psychotherapy. It was 1970 when I went to Albany and I left there in ’76 so, that’s where it all began.
That’s great – and in that time were you using Gestalt as your primary approach as you began to develop your own approach…
I started out with Gestalt and then I became a client, a patient in Bioenergetics, so I added some of that. Then I added some of my own stuff from a Buddhist point of view: mindfulness and non-violence. And that’s when I began to create Hakomi in my own private practice. I hadn’t taken a course, not an official one anyway and not doing so has served me well to this day, It allowed me to create. Anytime I wanted to I could always just change things. – I wasn’t trying to do someone else’s stuff.
Two things really helped keep me in line and helped the evolution of the work. I did a lot of my work in small groups, in workshops, so very often I had people watching me. To this day. I just did a workshop here, right in this hotel, last weekend and I must have done maybe ten sessions with people over the three days and there’s maybe twenty people watching so I’ve always gotten good feedback and it kept me grounded. The feedback was a good influence and added to the freedom I felt to try things. I also read extensively and also, I liked thinking up my own theories.
And here’s one significant thing that came out of that situation – bio- energetics which was created by two doctors who were in turn trained by Reich who was himself a doctor, they were all medical guys and so they had no trouble touching people, they were M.D.’s and M.D.’s, you know, can do whatever they want. They could put their hands on people and when I started doing Bioenergetics, I would do some of this hands-on stuff and I always had this sense of freedom about touching and because I worked in groups and had a lot of witnesses. There was never a case where I felt in danger of being sued or anything because I had witnesses and it never happened, nobody ever said anything.
And of course that’s a big issue for a lot of psychotherapists. My belief is that comforting touch is an essential part of the prototypic healing situation. In any good session, you get to a place where the person is re-experiencing some painful memory that didn’t get integrated. That’s why it’s so painful. You have to do something to bring that memory into consciousness. So, it’s not just a memory, it’s an experience, they’re re-experiencing something. Then what you have to do is give them whatever they should have gotten at that time to help them get through experience. Usually, that involves comforting and touch is part of that.
… what you describe as the missing experience?
Yes, the missing experience and that’s almost always got to do with comfort and the kind of comfort that is prototypic is touching and holding people. I don’t personally do that myself anymore. I did some in Germany last week, but I almost always have assistants do most of it. That’s another thing to mention, I work with assistants. When I work privately doing one-to-one therapy, I will ask the client to bring someone they trust to assist. I have one of my own assistants there or I ask the client to bring a friend.
So anyway, there is a lot of touch in my work. I’ve had one professional colleague who objected to that. When that happened, I was doing the session in front of 80 people.
It can raise a lot of questions. In coming to meet you I was remembering the last time we met, at a workshop maybe four or five years ago and the question of touch came up then. In trainings we encourage trainee psychotherapists to ask the permission of a client before touching them - and I have felt at times that this very attempt to respect the dignity and rights of a client could itself interrupt a process at a very key and organic stage if not responded to appropriately…
Well what you don’t want to do is to take the client into their thinking mind. I always ask my assistants to be very careful, to watch and to notice and sometimes we do ask but we don’t make a big deal out of it, you’re right, you just don’t want to interrupt the process.
There’s a wonderful interview with Salvador Minuchan – he was one of the pioneers of family therapy, he’s about 80 now – it was in the last issue of Psychotherapy Networker. It’s beautiful. I mean here’s a guy with about 50 years experience and he’s saying that there’s things he learned over those fifty years that are exactly the same as things I learned. I remember one paragraph in which he talks about being trained as a physician and in that training he was trained to take-over, to lead, to take responsibility and he had to learn not to do that. He had to learn not to be intrusive. That’s exactly what I had to learn and that’s exactly my criticism of a lot of people I’ve seen work. Many of my own students have to be trained to be less intrusive.
The New Yorker publishes some really nice stuff, there was an issue in which they had a paper (available in their archives) called The Eureka Hunt. It’s about Insight. As soon as you stop trying to solve something by thinking about it, that is verbally, and you let the whole brain participate, you can have an insight. So If you’re asking questions, or making comments, interrupting the client’s integration process, you’re being intrusive. Once a person becomes emotional and once they accept comfort, which can happen very quickly, it’s best to be silent. As soon as I see a client becoming sad, I’ll signal an assistant to put a hand on the person, without being intrusive, without distracting the person. So right from the beginning we’re offering comfort and as soon as we do that we remain silent. This is a big change from even four years ago…
Yes, I’ve noticed that you’ve made some changes, shifted the ground on some things…
Yes, the work has shifted a lot.
It seems so instinctual with you Ron, you see something, intuit something and you’re not afraid to respond, to take a risk…
I do take risks…
One of the risks I take is to introduce humour. I’ve noticed that the Irish really enjoy that. In the last workshop I did, just yesterday, we laughed and laughed and we still processed a lot and still managed to study the method. Sometimes, I’ll introduce something funny right in the middle of a therapy session. There’s something about humour creating safety and connection and the kind of atmosphere that’s activated. Ken Wilbur calls this kind of thinking, trans-logical. It doesn’t make sense logically, it surprises and makes sense in a whole other way. Mark Twain said of Ricard Wagner’s music: “It’s not as bad as it sounds.”
For example, I have a collection of cartoons that the New Yorker rejected, called the rejection collection. In one of them, a guy sitting at his desk and he’s got the phone up to his ear. He looks very sour and the voice on the phone is saying, “If you’d like to go back to the original menu say God damn son of a bitch.” I told that one in class a couple of days ago.
Humour, we can forget how important this is, the need to lighten a moment…
Another thing which is especially important when you’re suddenly working with trauma: stay calm! I can be working with someone and not know right away that they are a trauma victim. They can look perfectly normal when they sit down for therapy. For example, I was working in Tokyo with a woman and her hand started shaking. I just pointed that out and she went into a traumatic state. She was terrified and kept saying, “He’s coming up the stairs!” In reality, there were no stairs. So I did what I typically do is that kind of situation. I asked her to look right in my eyes, which she did. I want her looking in my eyes because I stay really calm and she’ll see that and have something to anchor. She’d been “hijacked”, a term Dick Schwartz uses, and was lost in a memory of some scary person “coming up the stairs”. The memory had taken over her physiology. So I had her look in my eyes and I said something like; “in another part of your mind you know there’s nobody coming up the stairs, don’t you. You know there are no stairs here.” That helped her make a little bit of a shift, she wasn’t totally stuck in the memory. Then some people assisting, her classmates, sat very close to her, touching her and holding her hands. I talked in a very slow, calm voice telling her she was safe now, no one will hurt her and words like that. She finally calmed down and cried a little while two people just sat with her and held her. They sat with her for an hour in another part of the room while the class went on.
For trauma work, those are the two key elements: I have the person look in my eyes and just let them know that they’re responding to a memory and not to what’s real. I stay very calm and help them release the memory and begin to feel safe again. There may be several steps like this in getting them to release, they may have to push you away, they may need to scream or to struggle. But eventually, they will settle down and be comforted.
I did group therapy in Silicon Valley for a year or so. The participants were significant people in their fields. I worked on this one person who had a lot of anger with his business partner in the room sitting behind me during the whole process. When the process was finished, I looked around and saw that the partner was traumatised. He was frozen in fear. I got up and sat next to him. I put my arms around him to contain him. I realised that that wasn’t enough, so I threw my legs around him and I held him as tight as I could with both my legs and arms and I whispered to him, too. Then I said his name and told him, “Go for it!” I was holding him as tight as I could and he was holding himself as tight as he could. With me holding him he had the opportunity to really let go and boy, did he. We fell off the couch. We rolled on the floor. He was thrashing about and screaming, struggling like crazy. All the energy he’d been using to hold himself together, he now used to express his need to be free. It was what he needed to do. And it took all my strength to contain him so he could feel safe enough to let go. We both had a great time and it was a breakthrough for him.
That’s another aspect of the method I developed. I take over what are called defenses, like my taking over his containment, so the impulses being withheld have a chance to be expressed. I don’t try to break down defenses. I support them. Only I don’t call them “defenses”. I call them management behaviors. They manage what can be experienced.
Can I ask Ron, what’s behind the name Hakomi, where did it come from…
Here is how it happened. After I’d been doing workshops for a while, a colleague who travelled with me, a man named Dirian Bentz, said to me that we should start an Institute. I said; “Okay” and I told him, “You’re the president.” I definitely didn’t want to be the president. Soon after that was decided, we gathered a group of people and started the Hakomi Institute. Pat Ogden was one of the co-leaders and Dirian Bentz was the other and we trained about twenty people for a couple of months. A few of the people who are now senior trainers for the Institute were in that training.
In a series of meetings, we came up with the name, “Hakomi”. It’s a Hopi Indian word meaning “Who are you or who you are.” You know Woody Allen said; I only have one regret… that I wasn’t somebody else. Well. I regret that I didn’t call the method, The Ron Kurtz Method. I didn’t and it’s been a problem ever since.
But let me tell you how we got the name Hakomi. We would have these discussions about a name and it wouldn’t be fifteen seconds before the meeting would deteriorate into laughter. We did this two or three times and finally we were pretty sure it wasn’t going to work. The Kurtz Institute didn’t sound good and I wanted to be generous with the work, not just keep it as mine. So one day this guy came in, David Winters, he was in the training, in those meetings and he said that he had dreamt that I had handed him a piece of paper that said Hakomi Therapy. We all discussed this but no one knew what Hakomi meant. It sounded too new age, so David said that he’d find out what it meant. He was gone for about a week. When he came back, he told us that it was a Hopi Indian word. I liked that. And he said that it meant, who are you – in ancient Hopi it meant “how do you stand in relation to these many realms” Well that fit. At the time I was doing a lot of body reading – how do you stand in relation to these many realms, I loved it. So, we took the name Hakomi. The only place I’ve ever read about it again is in some books about Hopi, part of their Kivas ceremony is, there is a knock on the door and the guy running the Kivas says, “Who’s there?” And the word is: Hakomi.
Let me discuss the problem I now have with the word. We took it on back in 1980 or ’81. It’s thirty years later. Twenty years ago, I left the Institute. I’ve changed. My work has changed. The Institute has changed. In twenty years the way I work has evolved tremendously. For example, I don’t teach Character Theory any more and the Institute still does. I don’t teach a lot of the stuff I used to teach. And I teach a lot of new stuff which the Institute doesn’t. So am I teaching Hakomi or what? Some people have said I don’t anymore. I don’t think of it that way. Hakomi came out of me, my brain, my guts. If it’s still coming, I think of it as still Hakomi.
The Institute kept the name. They trademarked it. They have their own way of teaching it which I no longer have anything to do with. I’m not there any more. But we’re both still using the name. It’s confusing.
And what do you want Ron…
I’d like the work that I do now to be recognised as independent and different from what the Institute teaches. I’d like that to be recognised. There are some elements that are still the same, the ones I developed originally, but the vision and a lot of details are different. I don’t want my version to be confused with other versions. The differences are significant. A lot of people study and use my version of the work. I’ve trained lots of people since 1990. Many are now teachers and trainers and they like using the word Hakomi, since it’s got a reputation and some visibility. I think the Institute would like to be seen as “the” Hakomi.
I now use the phrase assisted self study to describe the method. I shy away from calling it “psychotherapy”. If you want to study yourself, if you want to know why you do what you do, I can help you with that. I can help you understand yourself. In doing that, I can help you evoke the internal power you have to heal the emotional memories and beliefs that trouble you. I know how to evoke and support your healing process. I don’t take credit for healing. I just assist.
Another thing is this: I still teach anyone I judge has the stuff to learn and do this work. I judge on the basis of personality. It’s not just that students have to learn something, they have to become something. They have to become the right kind of person. And, they have to already be a certain kind of right already. It’s not just academics, it’s skills. You have to build up a full set of skills, but you won’t be able to build up those skills unless you already have the personality that can do it. Without the inherent capacity, you just won’t ever be capable.
It’s about intelligence, curiosity, warm heartedness and humour. Remember Carl Rogers did that experiment where he had people work with psychotherapists and what they thought were psychotherapists but were really secretaries. The clients preferred the secretaries, because they were warmer, more empathetic. I look for those qualities and I can spot them in a minute sometimes. I usually know who’ll be good at the work.
So it’s not complicated, we can try to complicate it as much as we like but the truth is, it’s not complicated…
Keeping it simple, I lecture on that. You know Murray Gell-Man? He got the Nobel Prize for Physics. He gave a lecture which can be viewed on Ted Talks. He talked about simplicity in physics, he talked about beauty or elegance. He said it’s a reliable criterion for truth. Simplicity is exactly what makes the work artful. It’s a matter of dropping what’s unnecessary. There are some things that are necessary to evoke a healing process. And there are just as many ways to screw it up. The doing part is simple. The rest is not doing.
There are three phases I talk about; preparation, self study, and healing. First, you build a good working relationship, a healing relationship. Then you do some things that support the client’s self studying. If that phase goes well, for example, once someone starts feeling sad, then you’re at the start of the healing process. At that point, the painful event is coming into consciousness, and the painful memories come right behind that. To assist in self-study, you have to be able to make some good guesses about what will evoke a healing process. That kind of skill takes a lot of experience and practice.
Looking for indicators and doing experiments in mindfulness are the keys to self-study. Experimenting with the little habits that clients have is the way we bring painful, unconscious material into consciousness. That was the very first thing that made hakomi unique.
I’m aware that you may not be returning to Ireland again and in speaking with you I’m able to thank you and to tell you that you and your work have left an indelible imprint – and in my limited experience of you, you are as you speak and you embody the approach you created and nourished as it evolved and continues to evolve within you still. And I’m wondering, though fumbling in the asking; I’m curious to hear what is it that you would like to leave behind.
I’d like to leave my work to the world. I have made over 500 videos, talks and sessions. I have written a few thousand pages. I want to write another book, the last word on the method. I’ve trained hundreds of people, some of whom have trained hundreds more. When I started this process many years ago, in the late 1960’s, I was visiting some friends in Astoria, Oregon. I was in the library there, which was left to the city by John Jacob Astor, one of the super rich at the time. Astoria is a very little town but Astor built them a beautiful library. I was back in the stacks looking at the wooden shelves and the old books, and I said to myself, I wish that a 100 years from now a book I have written will be shelved here in this library. I wanted to leave something worthwhile, something that would last a hundred years. It all started with that thought. I mean it came to me then that I could have a purpose. That gave me a direction. I knew where I was headed. I’d still like to write the definitive book about this method, my method, my version of Hakomi. It’s not just the book anymore. I’m going to publish a lot of those sessions I did and the workshop designs and the training manuals. Stuff that people who can recognise the work for what it is, can find it and start using it and teaching it as so many of my students are already doing.
I was thinking of this, this morning. I visited some friends in Germany a few weeks ago. Their daughter is being trained to do energy work with horses. The pratitioner simply places his or her hands on a horse and shifts the horse’s pelvis, for example. The practitioner doesn’t use any force, just ”intention”. The man who teaches this has trained only 3 people in 40 years. My friends’ daughter is one of them. That’s so special!
Me, I’ve taught hundreds of people. Some of them are special. Five of them, Donna Martin, Bob Malone, Georgia Marvin, Flint Sparks and Marcia Burton lead trainings in Ireland. Another special guy is my training partner, Adama Hamilton. He’s just a miracle of a human being. Anyway, I’d like another dozen.
Almost everyone who is attracted to work with me personally has a loving personality and a quick, open mind. J.P. Morgan said; “All other things being equal, I choose the man who tastes his food before he salts it.” I choose people who do what needs to be done without being asked. Those are the people that I like to work with.
I’m still working hard at 75. I probably don’t have to work so hard. I do it because I love what I’m doing. Did you ever see the movie Patton? Do you remember the scene where, talking about war, he said; “God help me! I love it!” That’s how I feel about the work I do. Almost every day, I get up at five in the morning and, if I’m not teaching that day, I sit down at my desk and write. I have ideas. I would love to have time to write today. I have an idea for a paper; comfort and integration, tying them together and I’ll probably get ideas for more papers. Just during this trip I gave at least eight talks that I’m going to have transcribe, edit and publish.
There is an expression in Zen Buddhism. “Not even the 1,000 eyes of 500 Buddha’s could discern in him any particular quality.” Everybody’s got some quality you can discern in him. If you look and don’t find one, then you either have to call an ambulance or bow down in reverence. I’d like to leave an invitation: Come learn! Come find the joy of connecting with others and helping to heal the suffering that need not be!
Ron Kurtz is the originator of the Hakomi Method and a preeminent influence in progressive psychotherapy. Ron has led hundreds of trainings and workshops around the world over the last quarter of a century and continues to teach internationally. Ron is a master therapist, gifted teacher and author of Body-Centered Psychotherapy: The Hakomi Method, and co- author of The Body Reveals and Grace Unfolding.