A Little History: The Development of a New Method of Psychotherapy

By Ron Kurtz

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
–Rainer Maria Rilke

Ron Kurtz with his daughter, Lily, (left) and wife, Teri (right).
Ron Kurtz with his daughter, Lily, (left) and wife, Teri (right).

I started doing psychotherapy in 1970. By 1979 I’d developed enough original techniques and ideas to justify calling the combination a new method. The Hakomi Institute started the same year. Eight years later, in 1987, Swami Rama told me that I had a mission: to create a new method of psychotherapy. When I think about Hakomi, I think: in what way is it a new method of psychotherapy?

My life as a psychotherapist began long before that meeting. It started in graduate school, in the early sixties when I was a student of experimental psychology. After graduate school, I taught at San Francisco State. My first real excitement about therapy and groups came from my experiences at a workshop led by Will Schutz. It was something totally new to me and I became very excited about what he was doing. One of my friends from graduate school, Stella Resnick, was teaching nearby, at San Jose State. She had studied clinical psychology and was on her way to becoming a well-known Gestalt therapist. She encouraged me and we started co-leading sensitivity groups. I also took more workshops. That is how I got involved with psychotherapy. Most of what I learned derived from Gestalt therapy.

For the next two years, I taught at San Francisco State and co-led groups with Stella. After that I went to Albany, New York, and started a private practice. I used mostly what I learned about Gestalt. Soon after starting private practice, I went into therapy myself, first with Ron Robbins and later with John Pierrakos, both bioenergetic therapists. I began to incorporate some Bioenergetics into my work. Before I had read Perls, now I read Reich and Lowen. I was also inspired by the work of Albert Pesso. Those experiences were the beginning of the Hakomi Method.

Two more things strongly influenced me. The first was eastern philosophy. I had been practicing yoga since 1959. In graduate school I got interested in Taoism and Buddhism. Awareness practices became part of my life. I started macrobiotics in 1972. My strong interest in Eastern philosophy and working with the body led me to Feldenkrais work. I took several workshops with Moshe and practiced the floor exercises. I also began being Rolfed at that time. All of this found its way into my thinking, my work and my writing.

The last strong influence on the work was my life-long interest in science. I was a math prodigy of sorts and always loved science. I minored in physics in undergraduate school and, for four years I worked as a technical writer in electronics. My passion has been systems theory, especially the branch that studies living systems.

These threads: eastern philosophy, psychotherapeutic technique, and systems theory are the foundations of Hakomi.

“These threads: eastern philosophy, psychotherapeutic technique, and systems theory are the foundations of Hakomi.”


From Force to Experiments in Mindfulness

The Bioenergetics techniques I was using seemed too forceful to me, at times even violent. In keeping with the eastern philosophies I’d studied, I wanted to be non-violent.

EvocationOfExperienceSo, I began to look for other ways to access and work with emotional material. Slowly I found ways to incorporate mindfulness and gentle interventions into my work. I began to use mindfulness this way: in the course of working with a person, I would get an idea about something the person believed that limited him or diminished his aliveness.

I slowly started doing more and more of these little experiments in mindfulness. The client and I would observe the reactions. Sometimes, the reaction would be intensely emotional. So here was a way of accessing deep feelings around significant issues, arrived at completely without force. Just what I’d been looking for. The statements I offered were always positive, supportive and potentially nourishing. The reaction was the result of the person’s not being able to accept this potential nourishment. As soon as I understood what some core issue was, I could usually bring it into awareness in an embodied, nonviolent way, using mindfulness.

So, when I think about what’s new about the Hakomi method, I think this is one of the main things: Hakomi is the evocation of experience in mindfulness. It uses mindfulness in this precise way. This is not just another technique. It is a fundamental difference in method. We evoke experiences while the client is in this particular state of consciousness. The experiences evoked tell us what kind of models the client is holding about herself and her world. More importantly, the models are often immediately clear to the client.

This method can often release emotions that might be hard to approach any other way. I think this is because the client knows what’s happening. There are no tricks or manipulations here. Going into a state of mindfulness is a deliberate choice and not always easy. The client chooses it, chooses to be vulnerable. Clients relax their defenses when they become mindful. They choose to take what comes. If they feel painful emotions in this process, it is because they believe it is worth it in order to understand themselves. They are willing to bring painful material into consciousness. There is no violence here, only the courage to face what is. Amazingly, this method accesses feelings and memories much more quickly than any other I have used.

Amazingly, this method accesses feelings and memories much more quickly than any other I have used.


Non Violence and Taking Over

I eventually de-emphasized Gestalt and Bioenergetics. I used mindfulness to evoke emotions, insights, and memories. I also started to process emotional reactions in a different way. I started “taking them over”.

That’s the second thing that makes Hakomi unique, our way of working with “defenses”, what we call taking over. When an emotional experience is evoked, the habits that manage that experience are also evoked. These management reactions are usually called defense mechanisms. I don’t like the disease/war model implications of that terminology. For me, it’s management. For example, sadness is often managed by covering the face, tightening the muscles of the diaphragm, chest, throat and eyes, bowing ones head and folding forward. Those reactions manage emotional experience; they contain it, minimize what was once too much. Often, they avoid it completely. I do not oppose these management habits or in any way try to force them to break down. I do exactly the opposite. I support all spontaneous management behavior. If a person tightens his shoulders or covers his face, I might use my hands to help him keep his shoulders together or to cover his face. That’s taking over. Of course, I first ask permission. And I introduce mindfulness where I can.

Management behaviorTaking over can also be done verbally. It could happen like this: I offer somebody a probe such as, “Your feelings are okay”, and she hears a voice inside say, “No! They’re not!”. Then I might take that inside voice over. I tell the person what I’d like to try and ask if that seems okay to them. Then, with the help of another person, we take over the inside voice and repeat the whole exchange a few times, with me saying, “Your feelings are okay” and whoever is assisting saying, “No! They’re not!” All the while, the client is again in mindfulness.

That “No! They’re not!” voice the client hears in her head is also management behavior. It tell me that, in her model of life, there is something wrong with believing that you feelings are okay. Perhaps she was punished for feeling sexual or too happy. It’s not safe to have those feelings, so it’s not okay. That’s the model. That’s the belief system. So, we take over the voice that manages this.

The usual results of taking over are these: the person relaxes a bit and gets some distance and a wider perspective on the management behavior. Listening to the dialog that usually takes place inside while in a state of mindfulness allows new reactions to appear, from parts of the self that have not been heard from before. Memories of significant events related to the core belief come into consciousness when a therapist covers a client’s eyes or while voices are being taking over. Strong bodily experiences, pain and intense feelings can be evoked.

“Supporting management behaviors leads to feelings of safety, relaxation, feeling, expression, insight, and movement of the emotional process through to a helpful completion.”

There are important messages in what the therapist is doing. If you are managing your sadness by tightening your shoulders and I begin to help you with that, the messages are: you’re not alone in your sadness; you have an ally. Someone is on your side, accepting what you yourself have not yet accepted. It may be the first time you’ve gotten these messages about your sadness. And, you don’t have to work as hard. You’re being supported. It’s possible to let go a little. It’s not that you have to let go. Nobody is forcing you to let go. You’ve simply been offered the opportunity. Letting go is up to you. And you can do it at your own pace. You can allow the feelings you are managing to come forth and be expressed. This is another way that the method is nonviolent.

Typically, supporting management behaviors leads to feelings of safety, relaxation, feeling, expression, insight, and movement of the emotional process through to a helpful completion. These results seem paradoxical. A part of the person is trying to manage her experience, to hold it back or minimize it. The therapist offers support for that and the person’s experience deepens and moves on.

These two aspects of the method, evoked experiences in mindfulness and the nonviolent taking over the management of the experiences evoked, are the elements that make Hakomi a “new method of psychotherapy”. And with that, I’m straight with the Swami.

“Supporting management behaviors leads to feelings of safety, relaxation, feeling, expression, insight, and movement of the emotional process through to a helpful completion.”

Source: Readings in the Hakomi Method of Mindfulness-Based Assisted Self-Study, Ron Kurtz, 2010