Process Work

Evolving from Jungian psychology, systems theory, and Gestalt therapy, Process Work, or Process Oriented Psychology as it is called in Europe, was developed primarily by Arnold Mindell, a physicist who went on to become a Jungian analyst. Mindell began to research body symptoms and their relationship to dreams, which led him to expand Jung and embrace body-oriented and present moment methods. Where Jung discussed and contemplated the psyche, Mindell enters into its constantly changing energetic flow with curiosity, creativity, and dynamism.

Process Work finds the meaning and purpose in aspects of self we tend to disavow or become estranged from. Deeply informed by the study of natural systems and self-organizing complexity, Process Work approaches all human experience as containing within it emerging experiential solutions. People are seen as fundamentally creative and in a constant flux through time: parts of us are always moving towards positive change. As in many spiritual traditions, for Process Work our separate individuality is not the horizon of being; we are instead aspects of a single field that is constantly in motion. Our inner worlds reflect outer observation; our imaginal and dreaming selves resonate with ordinary daytime experience; and our identities shift and take on roles with each other as the greater field we are part of moves.

Process Work does not prescribe any diagnostic or formulaic program of change. Instead, it carefully attends to the details of the communicative and imaginal signals present in any interaction.  By close study and engagement with what is actually happening now, rather than reliance on interpreting what is happening, new information and experience can emerge from the creative self. This is a holistic, dialogical, and experiential approach that may put as much focus on body sensations and movement patterns as it does on verbal descriptions. It relies strongly on imaginal experience — such as dreams, altered states of consciousness, and synchronicities — usually exiled to the margins of consciousness.

For example, when a client says they have difficulties with “depression,” I do not assume I know what that means for them. Rather I notice closely how they describe their depression, and begin an exploration of how that experience is actually uniquely their own, watching carefully for how it emerges in the present moment. By making space for the experience usually labeled “depression” and avoided, the creative aspect of the person can come forth. For one person it may be a struggle with personal wellness and caretaking; for another a conflict with the family; for another buried emotions such as anger or sadness that have not been welcomed in their life. I allow the person’s uniqueness to guide the work, rather than my interpretation. Our usual habit is to avoid exploration of what distresses us, but with curiosity and openness our distress can be met as potential for change and growth.

Like many meditation-based therapies, Process Work cultivates the capacity to slow down and notice what is actually happening, in the smallest detail, as a way of discovering the present moment. Similar to Gestalt therapy, Process Work takes meditation further by trusting and stepping into the energies we observe when we bring our attention to bear. It is an ecological psychology, and approaches mind, consciousness, and emotional experience as the natural and purposeful expressions of an unfolding Earth, and challenges us to participate in this unfolding rather than only assume the stance of observor.

In the tradition of process and pragmatic thinkers such as James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Bateson, Process Work assumes everything is connected and participating in change through time, rather than separate pieces with fixed definitions arrived at by outside observation. Following Foucault and Laing, Process Work asks how mental health interpretations and stories are used in their social contexts, not whether they can achieve status of reflecting absolute truth.

While other approaches view a problem as a symptom or a pathology to be eliminated, Process Work shares with Jung the assumption that all aspects of human experience, like all aspects of nature, are teleological — they move towards some meaningful purpose. Problems have meaning and show us deeper parts we have not yet considered, leading us to greater richness, complexity, and fullness of expression. Depression might, for example, be a part of the individual pushing for a more meditative approach to life, greater freedom to express anger or sadness, a rebellion against oppression, or need for more sensitivity to the body. Because of this openness, Process Work sessions can take widely different forms depending on the kind of interaction taking place, from a role play between parts of awareness not usually in dialog, to inner meditative awareness of subtle feelings and sensations, to expressive movement, artmaking, and storytelling.

Above all Process Work shares with the Taoist and Zen traditions an appreciation for the self-regulating capacity of natural organic systems, including the human mind, and looks to that self-regulation for direction on ways to respond. Nature has a way of expressing itself even in the most difficult moments of human suffering, and  by following and trusting nature — not our preconceived view — healing and empowerment can emerge.

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