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Process Oriented Psychotherapy

by Brid Commins

Process oriented Psychotherapy, also known as Process Work, is innovative within modern psychology. It was developed by Dr. Arnold Mindell in Zurich, Switzerland, in the early 1970s and has continued to develop under his guidance and the work of an International Association of Process Workers (IAPOP) engaged in ongoing research and practice worldwide.

It is innovative in its understanding of the connectedness between the individual and the world. It sees the individual, the family, community, organisation, society and the world as ‘one’, each system mirroring the other and each containing the whole. It focuses on the individual’s personal psychology and moves beyond that to social and world change. Process Work is founded on the principles of Jungian psychology, quantum physics, Taoism, systems thinking, anthropomorphic concepts, holographic theory and indigenous cultures. Although it has grown out of a therapeutic setting, what makes it such a dynamic and exciting tool is its ability to work with a variety of situations beyond a therapeutic setting, such as groups and businesses, large corporations, as well as world conflict situations. It is also used to assist those in extreme states of consciousness, such as comatose states, near-death experiences, psychiatric disorders, physical symptoms and addictions.

In this paper, I would like to reflect on the philosophical underpinnings that influence this core concept within the Process Work paradigm, the inextricable connection between the individual and society. I would like to reflect on its implications for the development of psychotherapy and psychotherapists as facilitators of not just individual change and growth, but also as agents for social and world change.

Mindell broadened Carl Jung’s work with night dreams when he first discovered that the information which comes to us through dreams is mirrored in our body experiences. This discovery suggested that it is not only in sleep that we dream. our body symptoms are a way in which our bodies are dreaming all the time. This is known as the concept of the Dreambody. He later discovered that the dreaming not only manifests through body symptoms but also through relationships, family, groups, accidents, random incidents and collective phenomena. For example, I was facilitating a group in a centre which is situated at a busy junction in Dublin City. I was disturbed by a bus revving up outside the window making it hard for me to hear the participants. I decided that somehow this outside interference, that noisy bus, was part of my dreaming, wanting to bring something which was unknown to me in that moment to my awareness. I worked on myself, started to imagine the energy of the bus inside me revving up and was interested in the change in my attitude. I realised then that I had been feeling a little timid and tentative in my role and needed to be more ‘bus-like’ to drive the session.

This event happening in the world outside was the carrier of new awareness or change that I needed in that moment. There is no separation between this outer event and my own personal psychology. Invariably, we experience these dream-like experiences as disturbing because they go against our conscious intent in the moment. However, when unfolded, they have the potential to transform us and connect us to parts of our identity that are unknown or inaccessible in that moment.

It is as though there is a universal dreaming pattern in the background which Mindell calls the global dreambody. This is constantly finding different means to manifest itself to us, be it through random disturbances, relationships, body sensations or symptoms, visions, group experiences and others.

C.G. Jung, Roberto Assagioli, and other depth psychologists speak of a collective unconscious, the transpersonal self, or some type of transcendent or unitive consciousness

(Mindell, 2010: 4)

In more recent times Mindell uses the term “processmind” meaning “an organizing – perhaps the organizing factor – that operates both in our personal lives and in the universe” (4). He goes on to say that “the processmind is both inside of you and, at the same time, apparently connected to everything you notice” (4). Carl Jung used the term Unus Mundus, a term used by European alchemists, to describe the one world from which everything has come. Jung used this term to describe “the hypothetical source behind all events in everyday reality” (Mindell, 2010: 25). He called “events that connected without an identifiable cause meaningful coincidences or synchronicities” (25).

The early Chinese, when pondering the mysterious field out of which all change emerges, spoke of the Tao that can’t be said” (Mindell, 2010: 25). The development of Process Work has been greatly influenced by Taoist principles. Following the Tao requires us to believe that everything that’s happening, even though it may be disturbing, has potential to be meaningful and is part of nature unfolding as it should. Every experience is directly connected to that mysterious field, the Unus Mundus, the processmind, the Tao that can’t be said. The seeds of resolution for the disturbance can be found within the experience. The ancient Chinese Taoists also teach us that working on oneself means working on the whole world. In Mindell’s words:

when we work on ourselves, on a client’s individual problem or a family difficulty, we are doing, in our own individual way, world politics. Inversely, the personal body problems and relationship difficulties that we have are…influenced, perhaps even organised by the development of the larger anthropos in which we live. This anthropos then is not really outside of us; it is a part of our psychology. The world is a channel for us, a dream figure, a part of our personal story.

(Mindell, 1987: 120)

Process Work has been influenced by ancient anthropomorphic concepts. In other words, in the myths of ancient civilisations the earth is seen as an anthropos, a God-like figure, and various parts of the earth are considered to represent different parts of this figure which together form the whole. Implicit in this is the belief that there is some organised background pattern which influences each one of us. It suggests that we are not separate disconnected parts of a system acting independently of one another but a unified whole consisting of inter-dependent parts.

Process Work has also drawn from holographic theories indicating that the world is like a hologram which is made up of all the individual parts but that each individual part has the blueprint of the whole within itself. The quantum physicist, David Bohm (1980), suggests an unbroken wholeness or implicate order, an indefinable and immeasurable undivided totality. In Bohm’s theory both conscious and unconscious realms belong to an undivided whole and the explicit is a physical or conscious manifestation of a background patterning. Mindell has incorporated anthropomorphic, quantum principles and the concept of a force field, developed by Kurt Lewin in the 1920s, into the theory of the global dreambody:

the global dreambody, including field, hologram, dreambody and anthropos theories, helps organise what we see, feel, hear from individuals, groups, couples, families…It is an anthropos figure with a process, life and death of its own.

The global dreambody operates like an individual dreambody by organizing the patterns, dreams and fantasies of the individual parts…In addition, the global dreambody operates like a hologram insofar as its individual parts reflect the same patterns as all the other parts and of the whole.

(Mindell 1987: 105, cited in Dworkin, 1989: 75)

If we apply these concepts to groups, communities and organisations we realise that the group is not just a collection of independent individuals. Each of us is organised by some background intelligence which uses the individual to express one role, one part of that system in any given moment. on the other hand, each individual is the whole system containing all of the roles or parts. This implies that in our totality we are all the same, we are all one and we express different separate parts in order to create the whole together.

We all have experience of returning to our families of origin, or other significant group, after a period of separation and being amazed to find ourselves stepping back into ways of behaving and feeling which we understood we had outgrown! There is a background pattern in the group or the family which influences our behaviour and uses us as channels to express its personality. Likewise, the team, group or organisation is influenced by the wider field in which it operates, in other words, the team is influenced by the organisation’s process which in turn is reflecting the social and world situation. For example, at a recent committee meeting, the topic of absenteeism in the workplace was discussed and the challenge for managers to facilitate the underlying issues that give rise to this ongoing problem. During the meeting a conflict arose between two members; one member, feeling excluded by the other, expressed her feelings and challenged the other member. After many courageous attempts by both to reach some understanding were unsuccessful, the member who was being challenged said it was too much and he had to leave the meeting. The other member also expressed how difficult it was for her to stay and support her experience. We realised that the issue of absenteeism was happening between us in the moment. It is incredibly difficult to bring in those hurt feelings and equally to say ‘it’s too much’ and to have those experiences heard in most organisations and in society. The two parties spoke after the meeting. The one who had left was feeling liberated because he had been able to say ‘it’s too much’, and spoke of a relative who had died by suicide the previous week because she had not been able to say ‘it’s too much’. The other member felt empowered because she had not marginalised her experience as was her pattern. Both felt supported by the group and a deeper understanding and connection emerged. These two big social issues, absenteeism and suicide, had been processed by the committee and the outcome was a period of great productivity by that group. The actual work of the committee was enhanced by the unfolding of those processes in the background.

This leads us to the concept of Deep Democracy, developed by Dr. Mindell, which emerges directly from this understanding of the global dreambody or processmind, the Unus Mundus or organising principle which connects every individual, group, team or organisation with the outer world. Deep Democracy invites us to welcome and value every part within the system as essential to the whole. The vision of Deep Democracy is one of an equality which does not just favour the majority but that also hears and is inclusive of minority positions. We live in a society where minority groups are at best tolerated, but very often oppressed and certainly not considered to be a valued or essential part of the system. Exclusion and discrimination is often subtle, like a glass ceiling that only those who are discriminated against are aware of. Mindell writes:

Democracy functions through distribution or balance of power. But power is not something which can be balanced with rules. Democracy requires awareness. Without awareness of hidden signals, no one notices how many individuals and subgroups are marginalized and disenfranchised. Laws are meant to protect the rights of individuals and groups, but they are almost useless for dealing with subtle forms of prejudice and the way powerful people oppress others.

(Mindell, 1995: 21)

Deep Democracy requires that we develop an acute awareness of those hidden signals, those subtle ways in which individuals and groups, which do not appear to conform to the consensus culture of the majority group, are oppressed. It is as though cultural norms, consensus reality, puts us into a trance state where we become unconscious, or block out, any person or experience which conflicts with our consensus view.

Everyone internalises the culture’s ranking system, permitting external oppression to extend as a subjective force in personal life. Many people from minority groups are plagued by self-doubt, self-hatred or hopelessness and think these feelings are only their own problems….they may be unaware that it is the mainstream culture that is troubling them.

(Mindell, 1995: 37)

Deep Democracy also requires awareness of those parts within ourselves which we marginalise. As I have already suggested, what is happening in the outer system or culture is mirrored within each individual. Very few of us are able to meet the challenge of expressing and welcoming all parts of ourselves, indeed are even aware of all of those parts. There are parts of us with which we are comfortable and very often they reflect cultural norms, aspects of ourselves which the culture we live in supports. Then there are other parts of us, for example, our wild crazy states or angry outbursts, which we tend to suppress, to marginalise, because these states are culturally unacceptable. All families, teams, organisations and community groups have an inbuilt culture, most often not explicit, which supports some behaviours and attitudes and rejects others. As individuals we internalise the outer system and become oppressive towards ourselves, which can often lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety and sometimes to more extreme psychiatric states.

Deep Democracy also invites us to embrace different levels of reality, not just consensus everyday reality, which is generally influenced by the culture we live in. We are invited to value the dreamworld, which is a space-like world of subjective feeling experiences, such as dreams, and also the sentient or essence level of reality where there is no duality, which appears to give rise to everything. The concept of parallel or overlapping worlds is crucial to understanding these three levels of reality, consensus, dreamland and essence. Just as we see all of the different parts of the system constantly mirroring one another, individual, group, community and world, we are also aware that each of these levels of reality is present in every moment. Having the idea of parallel worlds gives us a fluidity to move between different levels of experience.

Process Work’s emphasis on valuing the dreaming dimension of reality makes it more than a way of working on problems. It is also a spiritual direction, a way of living life.

(Diamond & Jones, 2004: 164, cited in Walsh, 2010: 12)

What are the implications of the above concepts for those of us working in the field of psychotherapy? Do we need to widen our lens and move, in line with modern physics, beyond a world view of separate disconnected parts to a world that is inextricably entangled? Can we work with the understanding of a world of interconnected parts that cannot be considered independently of one another no matter how separated they are in time or space? Can we broaden our perspectives, to hold an overview of the wider society and world that we are manifesting in every moment? Is it our responsibility to be aware of how rank abuse, oppression and marginalisation, the sources of such suffering in our everyday world, can be present in our therapeutic relationships, our therapy and supervision groups, our teamwork and committee meetings and in our training and accrediting institutions? Do we need more awareness of the outer culture that we have internalised and that influences our perception of the client’s process? Do we run the risk of pathologising our clients because they do not fit into the mainstream culture, because they disturb the status quo and our comfort zones? Can we be more aware of how we can unconsciously collude with that culture which oppresses minorities? Do we believe that if we name these experiences, work on them on personal, relationship and group levels that we are in fact changing the world we live in? Do we dare to take the risk, to sit in the pain of conflict and confusion, knowing that we are part of it, that we are not just objective observers?

We are more in danger of this type of unconscious collusion when we work from the perspective of right and wrong, good and bad, as opposed to diverse manifestations of the Unus Mundus or processmind. Can we be deeply democratic, embrace all parts of the system, knowing that they are all of them in each one of us and all valuable and potentially meaningful for the whole? This is a world that cannot be measured or understood in consensus reality only. It needs us to be able to unfold those subtle dreamlike signals, doorways into the dreaming and sentient levels of reality. I am sure that we have each of us, at various times in our practice, been surprised by the depth of mysterious beauty that emerges between ourselves and our clients, when we feel like we’ve entered another world. Those experiences are hard to name, the Tao that can’t be said or the transcendent, but for sure we know they come from some outer consciousness, something bigger than either one of us present. These experiences can lead to profound insight and consciousness shifts. Do we have the skills and the awareness to navigate the dreaming and sentient levels of reality so that these occurrences are not just rare moments that surprise and inspire us?

Do we dream about building teams, organisations, communities and a society that can follow its dreaming, embrace all its conflicting parts and enter into profound experiences of oneness? Like the quantum wave, this is not a once-off or static goal but an unfolding natural cycle in which we can engage. Is this what each one of us is ultimately longing for in ourselves, our relationships, our world ‒ to embrace all of our diversity and enter into that profound experience of being, where there is no duality?

Rumi expresses it beautifully:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field.
I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about language, ideas,
even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.

(Barks et al., 1995: 36)

Brid Commins, MA in Supervisory Practice, MIAHIP, SIAHIP, Process Work Diplomate; works with individuals, couples and groups in Dunboyne, Co. Meath. She also supervises individuals and groups. She is a member of a team of Process Workers delivering ongoing training for psychotherapists in 2015.

Barks, C., Arberry, A.J., Moyne, J. & Nicholson. R. (1995). The essential Rumi translations. San Francisco: Harper.

Bohm, D. (1980). Wholeness and the implicate order. London: Routledge.

Diamond, J. & Jones, L.S. (2004). A path made by walking: Process work in practice. Oregon: Lao Tse Press.

Dworkin, J. (1989). Group process work: A stage for personal and global development. Unpublished doctoral thesis, The Union Institute, Zurich, Switzerland.

Mindell, A. (1987). The dreambody in relationships. London: Arkana.

Mindell, A. (1995). Sitting in the fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Oregon: Lao Tse Press.

Mindell, A. (2010). Process mind: A user’s guide to connecting with the mind of God. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Walsh, G. (2010). Process oriented psychology: Life is a process not just a state.
Unpublished research project for diploma in Process oriented Psychotherapy, School for Process oriented Psychotherapy, Dublin.

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