Chapter 2




The breathiness coming from Sharon’s flute, that first, soft chord from Tomasz’s harmonica, were secrets waiting to be told. They were the white crests of waves, barely hinting at the depth and power that were driving them to the shore. To the musicians, they were disturbing or, at least, insignificant. But when given attention and permission, the processes implicit within those mundane signals began to show themselves, like buds opening into flowers in spring.

In order to help such buds to bloom, and to understand the rest of this book, it will be useful to know something about process work.



Process work is deeply rooted in Taoism. Unfortunately, the Tao itself is impossible to define. Lao Tsu, the ancient Chinese sage who is considered to be the father of Taoism, wrote in his immortal classic, the Tao Te Ching, that “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” So anything I say will be inadequate. Still, the Tao is so central to process work that I must try to describe it, knowing I will fail.

I think of the Tao as an unseen wind, a current that moves the 10,000 things along its path. What the Taoists call the 10,000 things — all the things we can perceive and experience — are always changing, and those changes go in a certain direction. That direction is what we call the Tao. It can be thought of as the order of Nature. It is not God, in the traditional sense of a ruler or architect who wills things to be. Rather, it is the dynamic order that structures the way things are.

The ideal of the Taoist is to be in harmony with the Tao, to move in the direction that it moves. In Chinese, this is called wu wei, which literally means “no action” or ”not doing.” But the Taoists are not suggesting we do nothing. Rather, wu wei means not doing anything that goes against the Tao. In other words, it is beneficial to do things if they go along with or further Nature.

Let that cursory and insufficient description suffice for the moment. We will return again and again to Taoism, and you will hopefully get more of a feeling for its beauty and wisdom. By the end of the book, it should be clear that process work with unintentional music is actually applied Taoism.



Most of us would like our plans to be fulfilled, our wishes granted, our prayers answered, our hopes and expectations met.

But things don’t always work out that way.

So we fight and scream and kick and scheme and rebel against fate and do everything in our power to alter the course of history in our favor.

Which is great. When it works.

Sometimes, though, we find that no matter how hard we try, the world is how it is.

Abandoning the struggle, we float downstream. The river carries us without effort.

As the piano teacher chided his student to play faster and faster, and the girl took all the time in the world to study the keyboard before striking the first chord, the Tao poked out its laughing head. “This time, play the piece faster!” the teacher cried.  And the student, with infinite patience, positioned her fingers over the keys, decided they were not quite right, and began the whole process anew.

The teacher finally realized the foolishness of trying to ride a snail like a stallion. Encouraging the girl to play as slowly as she could, he relaxed and listened with amazement to the depth of emotion and presence that was expressed in the simple melody, a tune he had heard hundreds of times in hundreds of lessons, but never like this. Transfixed by the power of the Tao, he was speechless.



Process work also stems from the work of C.G. Jung, who was interested in not only the cause of a problem but also its purpose, its final goal, the direction it is leading us in. Jung’s perspective differs from the causal thinking that is most clearly represented by Western medicine. When a person gets sick, the doctor looks for what caused the symptom to occur. Then she gets rid of the cause, if she can, thinking that the symptom should disappear as well. Someone thinking about purpose and final goals, on the other hand, would see the symptom as a signpost pointing toward potential growth and development. Her challenge would be to discover in which direction the symptom is pulling the person. Like the Taoist, the finalistic thinker does not try to change Nature but, rather, to follow it. She believes the things that happen are meaningful events.

Process work sees even disturbing or unwanted things as potentially meaningful. This, too, has its roots in Jungian psychology. Jung believed that dreams often compensate for a one-sided conscious attitude. To give an example from my own life, I spent much of my childhood and early adult life feeling small and weak and victimized by people whom I experienced as being bigger and more powerful. I often dreamed that huge men were running after me trying to catch me. These dreams made me feel even smaller and more terrified. I interpreted them as confirmations that I really was the miserable little thing I always thought I was.

According to Jung’s theory, though, these men represented a side of me that was far from my normal way of thinking about myself. They were a compensation for my one-sided attitude about myself and the world. When I started process work and saw those dream figures as my teachers, my life began to change. I slowly discovered my own power and stopped feeling like a victim. As my attitude changed, my dreams did as well.

One night I dreamed, as usual, that huge men were chasing me. Each of them was as big as a house. This time, though, I stopped running, turned around, and asked them what they wanted. They told me very politely that the professor had sent them to teach me about being a man. I dropped down on my knees and said, “Please teach me.” They proceeded to show me how to find precious stones and roots of trees inside of a huge mountain. They showed me the softness of a rose and how to twist its stem in order to avoid the sharpness of its thorns. Afterward, that series of dreams (which had lasted many years) stopped completely.

Rather than looking only for causes of my discomfort (abuse history, childhood trauma, oedipal complex, etc.), process work helped me to see that the dreams depicting this discomfort were inviting me to follow them in the direction of my wholeness. The dreams that had terrified me were really trying to show me a bigger picture than I was willing or able to see. Once my attitude changed, the dreams did as well. That which I had considered to be a problem was actually my teacher.

Jung said that we are always dreaming, not just when we sleep. Mindell takes this a step further by seeing body symptoms, relationship difficulties, even world conflicts — really, all of our experiences — as manifestations of a dreaming process that patterns our lives. This dreaming process has something to teach us about our wholeness, bringing to our attention (if we allow it) all that is peripheral, excluded, denied, rejected or despised. We can choose to become aware of this process and learn from it, or we can ignore or fight against it. In my experience — and in the experience of my friends, colleagues, clients, and students — following the dreaming process makes life richer, fuller, and more meaningful.



In order to go along with the Tao (or the dreaming process), we have to know the direction of its flow. Lao Tsu helps us understand how to do this.

The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao….

The unnamable is eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things….

Yet mystery and manifestations

arise from the same source.

There are two kinds of Tao. One is the Tao that can be told — that which we can name — the 10,000 things. The other is the unnamable, the mystery itself, the origin of heaven and earth. Yet both of these, mystery and manifestation, arise from the same source. Lao Tsu goes on to say:

In the beginning was the Tao.

All things issue from it;

all things return to it.

To find the origin,

trace back the manifestations.

When you recognize the children

and find the mother,

you will be free of sorrow.

In this fascinating passage, we learn that by tracing back its manifestations, we can find the Tao itself. The ancient Taoists studied Nature empirically (observing the manifestations) in order to discover the Tao, so they could live in harmony with it. It’s the same with process work. Everything we experience is a manifestation of the dreaming process. When we follow our experiences and unfold them, then we can trace them back to the process itself. Like the Taoist, the process worker studies phenomena in order to follow Nature. She learns to carefully observe herself and the people with whom she works so she can notice the direction in which the process is naturally flowing and help it to flow there.

Remember Sharon and Tomasz. By noticing and following what was naturally happening when they played, we found the direction that their music was trying to go. We traced the manifestations back to the process itself, to discover what Nature wanted them to play.

What is this Nature? Is it in us? Is it outside of us? Is it in the music itself? I honestly don’t know. I do know, though, after witnessing thousands of such experiences, that when people notice and follow what actually happens when they play, they get to something deeper, more real, and more exciting than their normal way of playing. The Taoists tell us to find the Tao, the force from which everything springs, and align ourselves with it. My guess is that by noticing and following what happens when we are creative, we find our way back to the creative source itself. When we step back and let it play, we align ourselves with that deeper creativity.

For me, Taoism is an attitude. It is about saying yes to what is, and discovering the amazing things that happen to our music and creativity when we do that. But what does it mean to say yes to what is? There are 10,000 things that occur when someone picks up an instrument, opens her mouth to sing, picks up a paintbrush, puts pen to paper, or does anything creative. In order to decide what part of your music, your art, or yourself to support, it will be useful to have a few more concepts under your belt. Please remember that this is not theory for its own sake. Rather, the ideas I am about to share will help you to follow and unfold the mystery.



Jung taught us that dreams point us toward our wholeness, pull us in directions that we may not otherwise go, and compensate our normal attitudes about ourselves and the world. Since, as he also said, we are always dreaming, it follows that many of our experiences have these same functions. How does this work? A diagram might help to clarify.


Chapter 2 Image 1


That is a picture of me. That box includes my entire identity as a man, singer, process worker, teacher, American, and on and on. Everything that I think of as me is inside that box. The x’s around the box are things that I consider to be “not me.”  For instance, those x’s might represent a dream that scared me, a body symptom I would rather get rid of, the elderly woman next door who screams at spirits in her apartment in the middle of the night, and the terrible things I read in the newspaper. Now let’s say that I take a different perspective and realize that the dream, like my dream of the menacing men, is actually an expression of a part of me that I was not aware of. Instead of being scared of it, instead of thinking that those huge men are not me, I expand my identity and embrace the dream and what it represents. Suddenly the picture changes.


Chapter 2 Image 2


The box around my identity has grown. I have taken a step in the direction of my wholeness. You can see that there is still a box around me. I still experience that symptom and my neighbor as not me. But wait. As I write here alone in my apartment, day after day and night after night, I catch myself laughing aloud, squealing with delight, or shouting questions to no one in particular. Perhaps I am not so different from my neighbor, after all. Whoops! That box just got bigger again.



In process work, my sense of “me” is called the primary process and all the things that I consider to be “not-me” are called secondary processes. The primary process is defined not only by my identity but also by my awareness, by the things I do, and by my intention. That means that the things I experience as not-me are secondary, as are things that I have less awareness of, things that happen to me, and those that happen unintentionally.

Why do we need to differentiate between primary and secondary experiences? Because we are trying to get in touch with the dreaming process, which is continually pulling us towards change and development. If we want to know the direction it is moving, we first have to know where we are. Then we can notice which experiences challenge our identity and intentions, learn from those experiences, and align ourselves with the flow of process. Let’s see what this has to do with music.

A huge banging from a construction site outside the window disturbed my work with a classical pianist. He wanted help with his interpretation of a piece, but it was nearly impossible to hear what he was playing. We were both exasperated. Then I remembered that the not-me is an indication of a secondary process. The sledgehammers were as far from the pianist’s identity as could be. So he was shy when I suggested that he incorporate the quality of that crashing in his music. He was used to playing smoothly, at an even volume. But as he banged on the keys in time with the workers outside, the piece became not only louder, but more dynamic, rhythmic, energetic, powerful. He started to enjoy this way of playing, and eventually got swept up in the tidal wave of music that rushed through him. He had found his interpretation, and was no longer in the least bit distracted by the continued banging outside.

A guitar player sat with me in the middle of the circle during a seminar. As we waited for the other participants to settle down so that we could begin, I noticed him gently pressing and releasing the strings of his guitar with the fingers of his left hand, producing an almost inaudible chord. When we officially started working, he played quite loudly, strumming vigorously with his right hand. I called his attention to what had happened before he played. He had not been aware of doing that (which indicated that it was secondary).

I asked him to play the same song without using his right hand at all, just by pressing the chords on the strings with his left hand. Where there had been a room full of continuous, loud sound, there were now soft chords with pauses between them. He said that he could feel the music in his belly, which stirred up many emotions. This quiet feeling state was a new experience for him. When he played again, this time using both hands, he was touched by the music’s sensitivity.

A singer could not reach hit the high note of an aria. As the melody rose, she felt a pressure in her chest, constricting her and cutting off the sound. (She was not creating the pressure on purpose. Rather, she was the “victim” of it, meaning that it was secondary.) I asked her to make that same pressure on my chest. She pushed me hard with her hands, digging her feet into the ground and using all of her strength. I had to really struggle to hold my ground. I suggested that she sing the difficult passage while pushing me in this way. For some reason, she was able to hit the high note without a problem. Then she pushed against the wall and sang, also successfully.

Soon it was possible to feel that same power, and reach the same note, simply standing still and feeling her feet pressing into the ground. Finally, she was able to sing the whole aria without tension or undue strain, just by remembering and trusting the power inside herself. After the session, she told me that she also needed to use that inner strength when her boyfriend acted domineering, rather than letting herself be pushed around.

Another pianist had a problem with a complicated, very fast passage in a piece by Chopin. He said that his playing sounded unclear and messy. (This messiness happened against his wishes, and so was a secondary process.) I recommended that he play it even less clearly. When he did, he realized that his whole arm was shaking. When he then shook his arm intentionally, he found that it was easier to play the passage. He had been trying to play with his fingers, but could not move them so quickly. When he shook his entire arm, he could play the rhythm without difficulty, and it freed his fingers to merely be in position for the correct notes. They did not have to raise and lower themselves, since this was accomplished by his arm. Paradoxically, the pianist had to let himself be messy in order to learn play clearly. Like Lao Tsu would say:

If you want to become straight,

Let yourself be crooked…

If you want to get rid of something,

you must first allow it to flourish.



So, you might ask, once I notice the secondary process, realize it is also me and start to live my life — or play music — in a way that embraces this new way of being, I’m done, right? No, because the process is always changing. The moment I embrace the secondary process, I have created a new identity. Other experiences arise that are not a part of that new identity, experiences of which I am not yet fully aware, or which disturb me or go against my intentions. The picture really looks something like this.

Chapter 2 Image 3

Of course, none of these drawings is really accurate. To paraphrase Lao Tsu, the process that can be drawn is not the true process. There are infinite ways in which processes can flow and change. But this is supposed to be a picture of a dynamically changing identity, constantly in flux between primary and secondary, continually growing and transforming and discovering new parts of itself. This is the Taoist who follows Nature wherever it leads her. She is a leaf blown by the wind. Then she becomes the wind itself and blows to her heart’s content until she comes to a wall that stops her. So she becomes the wall and enjoys its stability for a while. She is not disturbed by anything for long, because everything that disturbs her becomes her teacher. She is fluid between her different parts, open to discovering new vistas or revisiting places she had once called home but are now foreign to her. She has discarded the boat and become the river.



The dreaming process expresses itself in many different ways. Movement was an important part of the messy pianist’s process. If we had worked just with the sound of his music, we would have missed his shaking arms. The feelings in the guitarist’s belly were key to his process. The singer’s process started with the feeling of pressure and shifted to movement as she pushed against me. By helping us be aware of how we perceive, the idea of channels helps us to notice where the dreaming process is expressing itself in each moment.

As I look at the screen of my computer, I am using the visual channel. My fingers move (movement channel) across the keys. The tips of my fingers feel (body-feeling channel) the hardness of the keys while my stomach feels (also body-feeling channel) full from the meal I have just eaten. I hear (auditory channel) the clicks of the keys. Words and sentences (verbal channel) form in my mind and on the screen. I am writing to you, dear reader (relationship channel), and hoping that this book makes an impact on the world (world channel).

Like our experiences, the ways in which we perceive are also structured by our identity and intentions. An example: I see a tree outside my window. I hear the rustle of its leaves and I see its branches swaying in the wind. Aha! I am seeing and hearing, but the tree is moving. I don’t want to move now. I want to write this chapter. I am identified with the visual, auditory, and verbal channels. I am not identified with the movement channel. Another way of saying this is that my visual, auditory and verbal channels are momentarily occupied, while my movement channel is now unoccupied.

What does it really mean if a channel is occupied or not? For instance, I am sitting in a chair. That means my chair is now occupied. When I stand up, the chair is unoccupied, right? Well, if you were here, you would see that my chair is still occupied — by a cushion. It is the same with channel occupation. When “I” am not occupying a channel, that channel is not necessarily empty. It is occupied by something that is not-me.

For instance, my movement channel is unoccupied in the moment, but that does not mean it is empty. The tree is there, in the movement channel, swaying in the wind. The fact that a channel is unoccupied often means that something interesting and unknown is happening there. The juicy stuff almost always happens in unoccupied channels. That is where our secondary processes hang out. As a result, entering the unoccupied channel and allowing it to express itself is usually a sure-fire way to follow the dreaming process.

Now I am standing. My body starts to move with the tree, gently rocking, straightening and yet again swaying. I love the combination of stillness in movement. The tree – or is it me? – is rooted in the Earth yet always dancing.



  1. How would you describe yourself? Focus on your qualities, not the things you do. What are you like? Write down some key words that you can readily identify with.
  2. What or who disturbs you? You might want to think about people you know, or something you dreamed, or a body problem that you would like to get rid of. Write them down.
  3. Choose one of the things you wrote in #2. Write down some key words that describe that person or thing. Try to notice the qualities of that person or thing, rather than your personal feelings and reactions. (For instance, instead of writing that my neighbor is crazy and always wakes me up in the middle of the night with her screams, I would write that she is loud, sudden, seemingly irrational, and does not conform to societal rules.) Try to be as specific as possible with your description.
  4. Just for a moment, try to identify with the qualities in #3. This does not mean that you have to become exactly like the person or thing that disturbs you. Rather, take on and identify with those qualities.

Experiment with making music or doing something creative with those qualities. Let them play or create. Keep doing it until you find something you like about that music or art.