EXTREME WISDOM: USING PROCESS WORK TO DISCOVER MEANING IN DIFFICULT STATES OF MIND
By Lane Arye, Ph.D.
Process Work is a strange and wonderful way of looking at and interacting with people and the world, developed by Arnold Mindell and his colleagues around the globe. Process Work can be applied to all aspects of human experience, including dreams, physical symptoms, relationships, music, creativity, extreme states of consciousness, death and dying, comas, conflict, group dynamics, and world issues. In this article, I’ll talk about a few Process Work ideas as I’ve applied them with folks diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my practice. These ideas could also be used by anyone interested in exploring her own process, or by individuals interested in supporting each other’s process of self-understanding and self-discovery.
When Mindell began developing Process Work, he was a teacher at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. Jung, a visionary Swiss psychiatrist, was interested in not only the cause of a problem, but also its purpose, its final goal, the direction it is leading us. He understood that the seed of a solution is contained within the problem itself.
Process Work continues in this tradition. Disturbances are found to be their own solutions, if only we can notice the pattern for change that is inherent in what is happening. When a problem is unfolded with accuracy and heart, a new way forward is discovered that is often surprising, creative and transformative.
So instead of thinking of bipolar disorder and other serious mental health issues as merely disturbances to be eradicated or illnesses to be healed, Process Work is also interested in the meaning of the symptoms, the pattern they are showing, and the direction they are heading.
This is similar to the ancient Chinese wisdom of Taoism. The Taoists teach us that there is a mystery in our lives and in our world, a hidden flow that we cannot point to directly; yet we can see and feel how it manifests within us and around us. This flow, “the Tao,” moves us in its path. (You may be more comfortable calling it Spirit, a Higher Power, the unknown, your deepest self, the ground of being, or the pattern inherent in the chaos.) The Taoist does her best to follow Nature. Process Work can be thought of as modern Taoism – it is a method of finding, supporting, and unfolding Nature.
Because our own desires and intentions are also a part of Nature, choosing this path does not require blindly following whatever happens to us without having any say about it. Someone may want to follow her mania or depression in order to find meaning in the extremes of her personality. She may want to take medication in order to better survive in the world, or in order to not be at the mercy of her extreme states of consciousness. She may even have both of these desires. Wrestling with these different impulses and parts of herself could be an important part of her journey.
Another root of Process Work is shamanism. There are many wonderful aspects of shamanism that can be useful to people in extreme states of consciousness. For the moment, let’s just talk about the concept of the “second attention.”
Our “first attention” is our normal way of paying attention. The “second attention” is a quality of attention that we need when strange or irrational experiences arise. It is a way of focusing on these irrational experiences without trying to explain them away or understand them immediately. Rather, we do our best to stay aware of what is happening to us so we can unfold our experience, and thereby discover what is meaningful there, what it is trying to teach us. But it is also important to not get lost in the experience. This means “remembering your whole self, no matter what state you are in: remembering your good-heartedness even when you are enraged, remembering the meaning of life even when you are depressed, remembering cold soberness even when you are drunk” (Mindell, Shaman’s Body, p. 84).
Often we try to repress or ignore strange and irrational experiences rather than learn from them. Jung coined the term “shadow” to describe a figure in a dream that “personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself” (Collected Works, vol. 9, Part 1, pp. 284-5). Mindell takes this idea a step further, saying that people with psychiatric diagnoses are “city shadows.” In other words, people with psychiatric diagnoses personify the parts of the culture that the mainstream refuses to acknowledge as being part of itself. Process Work, then, sees folks in extreme states of consciousness not just as clients to be helped, but also as potential teachers who can help us all to become more aware of who we are.
Let’s look at a couple of examples from my practice to explore how these ideas can be applied to real people in real situations.
THE MEDITATION MASTER
I once had a client who had been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. She had other diagnoses as well, all coming from psychiatrists who could not “help” her. I will try to describe a typical interaction that used to take place when she was in her depressed phase. She would come in, sit down, look down and not speak. I would say, “Hi, Mary.” When she did not say hello I asked, “How are you doing?” She just continued looking down without saying anything. I tried again: “So, did you do anything this week?” But she just sat there. “Would you like to work on anything today?” No response. Conventional psychology and psychiatry would say that she was wrong and I was right. She should have responded when I asked her a simple question. I have seen countless situations like this in mental hospitals, with doctors, psychologists, nurses and social workers talking to the person in a “normal” manner, and expecting the patient to react accordingly. When the patient does not relate the way the caregiver wants, he or she is diagnosed and medicated, Often that does not help either. My client had been on different kinds of medication for years. At the time that I am describing, she was taking three or four different kinds of medication in an ongoing series of attempts by her latest doctor to “cure” her or make her normal.
One typical sign of what psychiatrists call psychosis is the inability to adjust your thoughts or behavior to outer stimulus. In other words, someone thinks or feels or acts in a certain way, independently of what happens around them. Someone who is paranoid might say, “Oh my God! You are gonna get me!” You could smile and say, “No, I like you.” But she says, “No, you are gonna get me!” In Process Work we call this a missing feedback loop (Mindell, 1988, p. 38). The person does not pick up or adjust to outer signals. My client had a missing or weak feedback loop. She did not react to my questions or adjust her behavior to the fact that I was sitting in front of her and trying to communicate. The funny or sad thing is that therapists often also lack feedback loops. We expect our clients to adapt their behavior to us, but we do not change what we are doing to match their communication styles (Ibid, p. 39-40). Conventional thinking is that my client was sick and needed to change. But as far as I am concerned, I am the one who was sick in this situation because I was not relating to her where she was. I was expecting her to relate where I was. Metaphorically, I was expecting her to speak my language, although repeated attempts showed that she would not or could not do so. But, like so many helpers, it was hard for me to change and communicate in her language. You could say that I was acting psychotic, in the sense of not noticing or adapting to her feedback.
This went on for many sessions, until finally I changed. One day when she came to my office, I just sat there with her. And we both sat there very quietly, looking down at the carpet. I had to change something in my head: I had to change the idea that she was supposed to communicate with me. I also changed my idea that she was somehow wrong or sick. I thought instead that I had to find value in what she was doing. That was what happened inside of me. And what happened between us was that we both just sat there together for a very, very long time. Out of the hour, we sat for about 45 minutes, looking at the carpet and being quiet together. During that time I had wonderful meditation. It was beautiful.
After a long time she looked up at me and said, “Yes, you understand.” Then after another long pause she said, “You know, I think you are Chinese”. It took me long time to come out of my meditation and form my thoughts, so I did not respond immediately. After about five minutes I finally said very slowly and softly, “What do you mean?” Slowly, she started talking about following the Tao, and not being so related to conventional, extroverted American society. Then the hour was over. We bowed to each other and she left.
The following week we just had tea together. Neither of us mentioned what had happened. She slowly came out of her depression. About four months later when she came for her session she said, “Do you remember what happened a few months ago when we just sat there meditating together? That was really important for me”.
There is a certain kind of wisdom in not having a feedback loop. It helps the person to complete whatever experience she is having without being disturbed by the outside world (Mindell, 1988, p.39). Even though the lack of a feedback loop allows the person to stay in her inner world and go farther with her inner story, it can still be very helpful for someone on the outside to join that inner world momentarily. This can facilitate the completion of the process. It also helps to create contact. My client was able to stay in her meditative state despite my repeated attempts to relate to her. But only after my joining her meditation was she able to complete her state and even talk about it.
One useful thing I did was to notice the “channel” that she was in. A channel is a mode of experience. We experience things by seeing them (visual), by hearing them (auditory), by feeling them with our bodies (proprioception). We also experience things in movement, in relationship, and in the world. Noticing what channel you are in, or what channel someone else is in, can be very helpful. Clearly, my client was not communicating verbally or visually. She was also not interested at all in relationship or the world around her. Nor was she making any movements. The strongest channel seemed to be proprioception (body feeling). When I noticed this, and stopped trying to get her to relate to me verbally or visually, she was able to go deeper into her own experience.
What allowed me to sit quietly with this woman was a deep belief that she was doing the right thing, and that it was up to me to find out what was right about it. This stems from a trust that there is an exquisitely beautiful wisdom to the process. So when I stopped talking, I was not merely trying to follow her in her channel. I was waiting for the mystery to reveal itself. So I sat and I meditated. As I used the time to go deep into myself, I realized that my client was my teacher. I had been trying to change her, to make her as I was. But really I needed to learn from her. I needed to stop the world, to stop the talk, to stop the trying. She became in that moment my spiritual master. And then she said, “Yes, you understand.”
WRESTLING WITH BIG ENERGY
Years ago a man came to work with me on his “big energy.” At certain times in his life he did not need to sleep, in fact, could not sleep. He felt euphoric and powerful, connected to something that was more than human. And yet he also suffered during these times, feeling isolated from people who did not understand or appreciate his energy or his late night phone calls. And so he felt these manic episodes were a blessing and a curse.
One day we met in my office for a session. He had been up for days and was buzzing with energy. He did not sit down to work. Instead he moved like a martial artist in the middle of the room, spinning slowly on slightly bent legs and moving his arms in repetitive, arching, flowing motions. He talked non-stop, although I could not make out much of what he was saying.
I thought to myself that there was wisdom in his seemingly irrational behavior, if only I could find it. It was clear that trying to reason with him or even interact verbally was useless and foolish. (That day my feedback loop was in tact.) So I decided to work with his movement.
When someone says the same thing again and again, it is often because her message has not been heard. It is the same thing with repetitive movements. There is usually information being expressed through the body, a message that has not yet been received or understood. It can be helpful to follow and amplify the details of the movement so it can complete itself. Then its message will become clear.
I mirrored my client’s movements, bending my knees, spinning, and slicing the air with my arms. He became more intent and concentrated as I joined him in his process. I encouraged him to pay close attention to what he was doing, and to go even further with his movement. His knees bent more as his speed increased. Then something unexpected happened. He spun around very quickly and with a single fluid motion sat cross-legged on the ground. He sat in perfect stillness.
After a while, he began to speak. His words were much different than before. He talked about the still point in the midst of the whirlwind. He said that true martial art happens within. It was wonderful to have big energy, he went on, but he needed to learn to ground it, to focus it, to use it rather than be used by it.
When I asked how he could integrate this experience, he suggested that he try larger doses of his medication, as his psychiatrist had been suggesting and that he had until now been reluctant to take. He thought it might help him focus, and to be more of an inner martial artist.
What happened here? His strange behavior was pointing him in the direction of his wholeness, a wholeness that included both energy and stillness. Instead of trying to inhibit his movements, it was more helpful to follow them in the direction they were trying to lead him. But he needed to use his second attention to become aware of the details of his movements and let them complete themselves. Amazingly, once he did his final spin into the lotus position, his repetitive movements stopped. They were no longer needed. The message had been received.
We worked together for a few years, finding his still point more and more, unfolding other messages from his big energies and his low moments. He is now a much valued therapist and teacher. He has a wonderful relationship, and is still a poet, as he always was.
I sent him an early draft of this article, asking permission to tell his story. He wrote back to say that Process Work’s way of not pathologizing his experiences elevated his struggles and gave them meaning, which in turn helped him tap into his own spiritual power and creativity. He said in a succinct way what I have been trying to express in many words. “Even as the power threatens to take my feet from under me, that same power gives me the energy to wrestle with it. The experiences in the states show the way through.”
Arye, L. “Difficult contacts.” In The Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, Volume 8, Number 1. 2001. Lao Tse Press: Portland, Oregon.
Arye, L. (2001) Unintentional Music: Releasing Your Deepest Creativity. Charlottesville, Virginia: Hampton Roads Publishing Company.
Jung, C.G. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. 2nd ed. Volume 9. Edited by G. Adler, et al., and translated by C Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1969.
Mindell, A. City Shadows: Psychological Interventions in Psychiatry. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.
Mindell, A. The Shaman’s Body: A New Shamanism for Transforming Health, Relationships, and the Community. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
 This section, The Meditation Master,” was taken from my article “Difficult contacts.” In The Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, Volume 8, Number 1. 2001. Lao Tse Press: Portland, Oregon.