A Brief Overview of Hakomi

By Ron Kurtz

Hakomi deals with the organization of experience. For people having experiences — that’s you, me and everyone else — an experience just happens, full blown and immediate. We see what we see without feeling or sensing how the brain creates images. (1) We see the shapes and colors, we speak words and sentences, we make hundreds of movements with our eyes, all without experiencing how our brains do these things. All experience is the outcome of complex organizing processes of the brain, processes which take place outside of consciousness.

For vision, there are fifty or so different centers in the brain that contribute to the final visual experience. (2) These centers handle things like color, depth and sequence. Their functions become obvious only when they cease to function normally. There are some unconscious organizers that exert a very strong influence on our whole way of being. As Hakomi therapists, these are the organizers we’re interested in. They are emotions, beliefs, attitudes, early learning, adaptations and memories. We call these organizers core material. Often, they are as inaccessible to the ordinary consciousness as are the circuits in the brain that create vision.

However, using this method, some of them can be made conscious. The method makes core material conscious. Some core material causes unnecessary suffering and the method provides a way to reduce it. Some suffering is unnecessary because the core material that organizes it, is no longer applicable. Some beliefs, adaptations, etc. developed in early life situations no longer pertain, but are still active. Though the current situation has changed, the old adaptations are still automatically applied. Outdated or not, they go on organizing experience, causing problems and unnecessary suffering. (3) So, we work to bring core material into consciousness. Doing so offers the person a chance to reduce that kind of suffering. Once in consciousness, core material can be examined and revised and its influence eliminated or greatly diminished. The way we do this is unique.

We do something that no other therapy that I know of does. We do “experiments” with clients while they are in a mindful state. These experiments are brief and evocative. They are created on the basis of what we have observed about the individual and they are designed to evoke reactions that will lead directly to emotional release and/or insight. And mindfulness is essential. When mindful, attention is on the flow of moment-to-moment experience. The person in a mindful state is letting things happen without trying to control them. The quality of attention is very different from ordinary attention. Attention is turned inward and just observing. In that state of being, the usual mechanisms that prevent certain thoughts and emotions are suspended. Evocative interventions at such times can produce strong, significant reactions.

Here’s an example. A person who habitually talks rapidly while carefully watching his listener, may be being influenced by an core belief that people do not have time for him. Speaking rapidly is often an indicator of such a belief. One experiment the practitioner could do—with the person in a mindful state—would be to say something like this: “Please notice what happens when you hear me say, ‘I have time for you.’”

That kind of statement could get a reaction, like the immediate thought, “No one ever does!” Or, the reaction could be a sudden feeling of sadness. It could be a memory of not being heard by a significant person. A whole scene like that may appear. Not just the belief is made clear. For the person noticing the reaction, the feelings and memories that arise bring with them the knowledge that this issue is still a source of emotional pain.

At this point in the process, there are things to do that will ease the hurt and modify the core material and the behaviors it is organizing. Getting to this point is what experiments in a mindful state are designed to accomplish.

Experiments in mindfulness aren’t done until several other important things have happened. As a session begins, the practitioner puts him or herself into a loving state of being. Loving presence is created by focusing on those qualities of the other person that inspire and support it. It is a form of attention. As we practice the method, over time this way of paying attention becomes habit. With loving presence setting the general mood, the person usually responds to it, either consciously or unconsciously, by feeling safer and calmer. The practitioner then begins to gather a particular kind of information. This information comes from observing the person’s nonverbal behaviors, the kind of behaviors that are not usually focused noticed.

The reality of the other person is not in what he reveals to you, but in what he cannot reveal to you. —Kahlil Gibran

The information needed for experiments is not normally gotten by asking questions or from the conversation. It’s gotten by observing behavior. At this early stage, the behaviors we’re especially looking for are the signs of the person’s present experience. These signs are found in posture, gestures, facial expressions and tones of voice, things like a shrug of the shoulders or a slight redness starting in the nostrils. Paying constant attention to these signs requires a kind of present awareness that needs as much practice as loving presence.

Information like this allows the practitioner to let the person know she is paying attention and is aware of what the person is feeling. It allows the practitioner to respond to the person’s moods and needs before they’re spoken about or even noticed by the person himself. Knowing and responding to these things without having to ask about them seems the very best way to establish intimacy and safety.

Once these are established—and it can happen within minutes—the practitioner concentrates on looking and listening not just for the signs of present experience, but for habitual nonverbal behaviors that might be the external expressions of core material, like speaking rapidly or a constant facial expression of disbelief. We call these kinds of habits indicators. Indicators are usually nonconscious, meaning that they happen automatically and without conscious awareness. They are the most fruitful subjects of experiments. Hakomi therapists are trained extensively in “reading” nonverbal behaviors for indicators.

When the practitioner finds an indicator to work with, she draws the person’s attention to it and together they set up and do an experiment designed to bring the nonconscious organizer of that indicator into consciousness. With the person in mindfulness, the practitioner does something designed to evoke a reaction. This process brings the unconscious material organizing indicator closer to or into consciousness. If the practitioner has chosen a good experiment and it’s done carefully with the full cooperation of the person, then a telling reaction results. The reaction itself is in consciousness because the person is in mindfulness. It is telling, because it is immediate, experiential and its connection to core material is suggested or totally obvious.

Experiments in mindfulness often evoke emotions. Emotions, when they’re not interrupted, have the power to draw into consciousness, the memories and other associations that make sense of them. (4) Once core material is in consciousness, the work becomes supporting the expression of emotion, allowing time for the spontaneous integration that usually follows and creating new, more realistic, and satisfying experiences and habits around the revised material. This is easier than it may sound.

To become good at this work, students and practitioners have some important things to practice. We must learn to cultivate loving presence. We must practice being loving. We must train our attention to be continuously focused on the present moment. We must learn to recognize indicators of core material. We must become good experimenters. So, we have to learn to make good guesses about what the various indicators indicate. And, we have to create experiments that will test our guesses and bring core material into consciousness. Finally, we have to be good at helping people through the painful moments that arise after experiments and to help them discover new and better ways to organize their experiences.


Footnotes:

  1. Frith, Chris (2007) Making Up The Mind, How the Brain Creates our Mental World Wiley. ISBN-10: 1405160225, ISBN-13: 978-1405160223
  2. Crick, F. & Koch, C. 1995. Are we aware of neural activity in primary visual cortex? Nature 375: 121-23.
  3. Of course, some suffering is normal and perhaps, necessary. Grief over a death might be an example.
  4. For more about this, see Damasio, Antonio. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. New York: Harcourt.

Reprinted with permission, excerpts from writings of Ron Kurtz.
© 2007 Ron Kurtz Trainings, Inc.