On Being a Portal

By Ron Kurtz

Portal (noun) An entrance or a means of entrance: the local library, a portal of knowledge. (1)

He who wants to do good, knocks at the gate; he who loves finds the gates open.
—Sir Rabindranath Tagore Thakur (1861-1941)

Where love rules, there is no will to power and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other. —Carl Jung

The detection of a person as safe or dangerous triggers neurobiologically deter­mined prosocial or defensive behaviors.
—Stephen Porges (2)

Porges uses music, played through headphones and limited in frequency range to the range of the human voice, to trigger what he has named as The Social Engagement System (SES). In normal, everyday situations, the SES functions to enhance human-to-human communication. This complex neurobiological system activates when the situation calls for such communication and when the situation is perceived as being safe. The reason the SES can be triggered by range limited music is that listening to such music causes the middle ear to narrow a person’s range of hearing to those same frequencies. This action of the middle ear is just one of the functions of the (SES). (Others include smiling and looking directly at someone, regulation of the larger nervous system in support of all prosocial behaviors.) Porges talks about the middle ear function as “a portal to the system.” It is a gateway to a state of mind, based upon a specific configuration of the entire nervous system, a state of mind that is prosocial and not defensive. Porges treats autistic children by triggering their social engagement systems through stimulation of the middle ear. Often, in only a few sessions of forty-five minutes each, the SES is activated, and the child’s behavior changes from distant and defensive to more relaxed and social.

I watched as Porges worked with a woman who was being stimulated by range limited music equipment. I saw the changes that could happen in a half hour. When the woman was done, I put the headphones on and listened to the same music she had. I felt the changes it produced in me: I felt very loving towards everyone in the room. After about ten minutes, I took the headphones off and did some work with that same woman Porges had worked with, using typical Hakomi work. After about ten or fifteen minutes, which included some intense moments between us, her feelings changed from a baseline of sadness, isolation, loneliness, anger and hopelessness to a feeling of connection with me—a warm, appreciative and nourishing state: social engagement. In this state, she was able to experience what for her were new, positive feelings and hopes. Porges, who’d been watching me work, said to me afterwards, something like, “You’re a portal.” I must have looked puzzled, because he elaborated, “Just like the music.”

He meant that my behavior brought the woman’s SES on line. My behaviors: tone of voice, facial expressions, pace, attitude, my entire presence with her, the fact that my attention never wavered, the constant kindness that I felt and demonstrated—all these were such that she changed her state of mind. I like to call this kind of engagement: loving presence. Something in me, a deliberate, constant feeling of compassion for the person before me makes me a trigger for the SES, a gateway for others to go from one state of mind to another. A portal.

It’s nothing new that we trigger one another, that emotions are communicable. Fear or rage can spread through a crowd or escalate in an exchange between two people. There’s nothing new about this. Nor is it new that we can be portals for each other’s loving, prosocial states. What is new and important to recognize is that loving presence can be a powerful force for change as a part of psychotherapy. A therapist whose state of mind is loving presence offers his clients a portal, through which their perceptions, moods and self-knowledge can change in highly positive ways. The important thing is not “the power to change” people. It’s not technique or method, not confrontation or reason, cognition or conditioning. The important thing is just what it has always been, an opening of oneself to include the being and well being of another. The important thing, the effective thing, is to open yourself, to become a gateway, through which the love that is present can welcome the love that has been waiting.

Smile at each other; smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other—it doesn’t matter who it is—and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other.
—Mother Teresa

I want to start with the most importing thing I have to say: The essence of working with another person is to be present as a living being. And this is lucky, because if we had to be smart, or good, or mature, or wise, then we would probably be in trouble. But, what matters is not that. What matters is to be a human being with another human being, to recognize the other person as another being in there. Even if it is a cat or a bird, if you are trying to help a wounded bird, the first thing you have to know is that there is somebody in there, and that you have to wait for that “person”, that being in there, to be in contact with you. That seems to me to be the most important thing.
The Primacy of Human Presence by E. T. Gendlin


  1. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.
  2. Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety.

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