It is always foolish to oversimplify complex problems. Nonetheless from the viewpoint of the Dreaming, regardless of the complexity of your life, you can have only one problem – ignoring the Dreaming background to reality. Ignoring the Dreaming means marginalizing the deepest unformulated experiences that create your actions in everyday life. Every time you ignore the sentient, that is, generally unrecognized dreamlike perceptions, something inside of you goes into a mild form of shock because you have overlooked the spirit of life, your greatest potential power.
Arnold Mindell, Ph.D., Dreaming While Awake
I love this quote from Arnold Mindell, founder of process-oriented psychology also know as process work. .
It reminds me of the importance of awareness. It nudges me to be more curious and to open to the subtle disturbances I sometimes overlook. It helps me remember that, underneath my emotions, thoughts and beliefs, is an exquisitely responsive inner ecosystem. It reminds me that I too am an animal, a part of nature and that nature is moving through me. When I lose my connection to the deeper nature, when I step over my reactions or am lulled into the rhythm of my everyday experiences or identities, there may be a part of me that goes into a kind of altered state.
Learning how this happens specifically for me means, in part, learning what kinds of experiences I tend to marginalize, ignore or avoid. Discovering what kinds of events tend to pull me away from my awareness and what awareness I pull away from is a lifetime’s practice that I am only just beginning. But it is one that calls me forward.
What Is Process Work? In the late 1970’s, Arnold Mindell founded Process Work (otherwise known as Process-Oriented Psychology), which has its roots in Jungian psychology, physics, and Taoism. In very general terms, the practice of Process Work is one of understanding people’s “processes,” or said another way, the flow of experience as it unfolds in oneself and in the environment. “The Taoist view of life assumes that the way things are unfolding contains the basic elements necessary for solving human problems.” 1 In order to stay close to this “unfolding,” Process Work is focused on expanding personal awareness and “paying attention both to events that support your identity and to the disavowed aspects of life—to which you do not usually pay attention—that disturb.”2
Believing in My Path of Heart One of the greatest gifts that Process Work has given me is the ability to accept my wild, adventurous, intense, and outrageous nature with greater ease. As much as I knew I could never really deviate from my deepest self and path of heart, I was nonetheless intermittently conflicted about my relationship scene and wondered if something might be wrong with me, wrong with us. I had a tendency to pathologize my curiosity, my intensity, my sexual explorations, my counter-culture relationship, and my general out-of- the-boxness, but Process Work helped me to see the value in my own inner diversity. It offered a perspective that emphasized “the belief that inherent within even the most difficult problem lays the seed of its solution.” 3 In other words, Process Work suggests that what you doubt about yourself or what you think is wrong with you may in fact be the seed of something beautiful and useful that wants to unfold and be lived more completely. For me, the idea that my family’s polyamorous relationship might somehow be perfect and hold exactly what is needed was a radical and deeply relieving perspective.
Process Work does not rely on preconceived notions of what is right or wrong, “it follows experiences rather than holding fast to any culturally determined standards.” 4 According to Julie Diamond and Lee Spark Jones, “following the flow of process involves caring for the absurd and impossible and going against conventional beliefs and ways of seeing things. … [it] also involves going with what is happening in a given moment, rather than resisting it.” 5 This lack of judgment, attention to personal experience, and respect for the unconventional was liberating. As I began to unfold and follow the flow of my individual and relationship experiences, my internalized judgments and resistance began to slowly dissolve. This cleared the way for me to embrace my path of heart more fully.
In the words of Arnold Mindell:
The path of heart makes you feel strong and happy about your life because it follows your dreams, your dreaming body, your mythical task. … If you view the world from the path of heart, you understand it to be the place … that you need in order to grow. The world is awful and awesome; from the viewpoint of the path of heart, what happens is meant to be used, completely and fully … to find our entire selves.6
By bringing forth awareness of how polyamory is an aspect of my life myth (or the path of my life), Process Work has helped me to de-pathologize my view of myself and my relationships. It has kept me close to the dreaming and meaning that flows through this path, and it has paved the way for greater self-development and relationship growth.
Becoming Aware of Marginalization and Internalized Oppression Cindy, Tom, and I have always been aware that our non-monogamous relationship meant that we were outside the mainstream, but Process Work provided me with the additional framing of marginalization, which has helped tremendously. To realize that non-mainstream people are marginalized by the dominant culture in such a way that it leads to internalized oppression confirmed my experience and provided some relief. As Mindell points out, in addition to external forms of oppression, discrimination and bias, “many people from minority groups are plagued by self-doubt, self-hatred or hopelessness and think these feelings are only their own problems” 7, when in reality these people “suffer from different forms of internalized oppression picked up from the mainstream.” 8
It is often difficult to recognize internalized oppression because it can take on the form of an inner critic, a relationship argument, or some other personal manifestation, but Process Work helped me to de-personalize it and wake up to the ways in which our family’s difficulties and feelings of self-doubt were not entirely our own. Such pervasive forces can creep into a polyamorous relationship and have a huge impact on the interactions and atmosphere of the relationship. “You can exhaust yourself dealing with your personal pain and fighting, not only the mainstream, but members in your [relationship] who are unconscious of oppression’s effects.” 9 In addition, internalized oppression and inner criticism can enhance and reinforce marginalization that occurs within the relationship and between the members. Having some awareness of the internalized oppression goes a long way towards minimizing these effects, because “every time you free yourself from a sense of internal oppression, you begin to transform the cultures [and relationships] you live in.” 10
Read the remainder of this article and learn more about deep democracy and polyamory at the KPACT website.
Most people have had more conflict than they care to recall. Conflict is important to everyone and every relationship but when you are in a multi-partnered relationship good conflict skills become even more critical.
What is deep democracy?
Deep democracy is Arnold Mindell’s idea that all voices in relationships, families and communities are important and needed for the wholeness and well being of the of the larger group. Deep democracy “addresses the perennial conflict of marginalization by emphasizing the value of all viewpoints and the necessity for them each to find expression.” 1 In other words, deep democracy means being open to all viewpoints, experiences, and emotions, not just the ones that we agree with, but also those that are uncomfortable, unknown, or frightening. This is a difficult thing to achieve, but it is worth the effort because “if change occurs by devaluing one state and throwing it out in favor of another, the part that has been thrown out may come back to assert itself and sabotage what has already been accomplished.” 2 Ignoring one viewpoint in favor of another only polarizes the two sides and moves them farther apart, but deep democracy tries to honor “that special feeling of belief in the inherent importance of all parts of ourselves and all viewpoints in the world around us.” 3
Conflict in Everyday Life
Many of us notice that we fall into a pattern of response to relationship conflict that recycles again and again, without providing an opening to approach our partner(s) from a new perspective or with new feelings. Gaining a fresh awareness of ourselves and our partner(s) in conflictual situations helps relieve the tension and brings in new possibilities.
Mindell’s work with conflict has evolved overtime but central to his approach is the idea of finding momentary common ground and personal resonance with our partner(s). In his recent book, Conflict: Phases, Forums & Solutions, he describes four phases of conflict. The illustration below captures some of the thoughts or feelings we may have in different phases of conflict. (Read more about Arnold Mindell and Process Work.)
One way we commonly look at conflict is to think of it as a struggle between incompatible points of view, needs or wishes. We may have a tendency to focus on the issue instead of our experience and our partner’s experience. Or we may focus on our own or partner’s psychology instead of the experience we each may be having. These approaches can lead to polarization, trying to convince, compromise, cajole or argue our way to a conclusion or solution. And sometimes that satisfies us. But when these strategies don’t satisfy us, we need another way of thinking about conflict and new skills for creating resolution together.
The 4 Phases of Conflict
These phases don’t always follow each other sequentially and we may experience some only fleetingly.
PHASE 1 may be associated with being happy. This phase is often what our culture focuses most on attaining but it is only a temporary state. In Phase 1, we don’t seem to have problems, disagreements or tensions.
PHASE 2 is what many people identify as conflict. In Phase 2, the tension surfaces. arguments, disagreements, frustrations, etc… arise here. We tend to lose sight of the phases that precede and follow this phase of tension and upset. When you are stuck in Phase 2, you may want to get some help or support (i.e therapy) but you could also work on the situation yourself (see exercise below).
We often sense that “role switching” of PHASE 3 is needed or wanted but have trouble being able to deeply understand and feel into others’ experiences of the conflict we are in. Role switching is imagining or feeling how another sees and experiences the problem and embracing (even if briefly) their point of view. This often relieves the tension momentarily and allows us to find common ground or approach the other from a less polarized point of view. We sometimes need outside help or support (therapy, counseling, meditation) to reach this phase but there are tools and skills we can learn and develop to help ourselves into this phase (the exercise below is one way).
PHASE 4, the feelings of relaxed detachment and sensing how the universe moves you, is not only a phase but also the background of openness and acceptance behind all the phases.
Why 4 Phases?
Recognizing all the phases of conflict is especially important to people in non-monogamous relationships for at least 3 reasons:
1. It helps us recognize that each of our relationships are in different phases. One relationship is not better or worse than another.
2. It reminds us that these are fluid states or phases. They are changing, not fixed. This can reduce tension and frustration and give us a sense of what to expect.
3. If you are providing support to others in Phase 2, knowing there are phases may help you remain neutral and facilitate all parties.
So, the next time you find yourself in Phase 2 conflict and tension, try remembering it is a part of bigger process and then practice role switching or use the exercise below to try to find a new perspective.
Exercise: 5-Minute Communing Practice
To reduce and resolve conflict in your relationship(s), practice this process alone or with a partner.
A. Choose a conflict and ask yourself, or your partner, coach your partner on how to play the “disturbing one” — the person with whom you have conflict. What do they do or say that upsets you? What is it that bothers you about the situation or relationship?
B. Now, identify and appreciate the real-world differences between you. How are you different from the “disturbing one”? Imagine defending yourself and/or getting encouragement to defend your viewpoint.
C. Now “commune”; feel and dream into the other (the disturbing one) until you can be them, until you understand the other’s feelings as feelings you recognize in yourself. Sense how you are “disturbing one.”
D. Remembering this “communing” experience, commune-icate with the “disturbing one” (or your partner playing them), sharing your similarity to them and understanding of where feelings come from.
E. Finally, ask your partner to give you feedback about your ability to “commune-icate.”
With practice, this 5-minute process can reduce relationship conflict. If this process takes more than 5 minutes, repeat the exercise until you can do it more easily, and more quickly.
As therapists, we recognize our ethical obligations to know and acknowledge the limits of our training and skills. We know that our expertise grows over time with experience and supervision, training, reading, dialogue and further training. These activities contribute to our mastery of specialized areas, methods or skills. But what about cultural competence? How do we become culturally competent? Does it just happen naturally or is there something we need to do?
I think of cultural competence as an evolving set of attitudes, knowledge, skills and awareness that supports my ability to relate to “other-ness” or the unknown in myself and those around me. Other-ness can also be thought of as experiences, ideas, practices, beliefs, and so on that I do not identify with, believe, do practice, or endorse. In thinking about cultural competence, I focus on my connection to other-ness. For me, it is less about achieving a level of proficiency as measured or defined by someone else and more about an ongoing process of refining the skills, attitudes and awareness practices that support my capacity to relate to and work with other-ness in myself and others.
In developing expertise in an area of practice, I might study, write and do research to deepen my knowledge base. In mastering a particular treatment model, I study concepts, clinical vignettes and research. I also practice basic skills (or interventions), learn to identify particular patterns or signals and seek out supervision to help me perceive and respond to what I can not yet completely behold, understand and articulate.
In cultivating cultural competence, I rely heavily on my ever-changing ability to develop new attitudes and relationships as well as the capacity to use my awareness in new ways to relate to ideas, practices, identities and other information I may not yet fully understand. I challenge myself to identify places where I am blocked from understanding or relating, instead of glossing over them and using my privilege to ignore or forget the experiences of others I do not in that moment connect to. Developing attitudes and growing awareness sometimes means exposing myself to and relating to people, practices and ideas that may feel foreign to me. It may mean looking at deeply held beliefs and subtle biases that are not easy to identify or that are embarrassing or troubling. This can be a very difficult process!
Everyone Has Bias One of the reasons the process of cultivating cultural competence is so difficult is bias.None of us want to have prejudices or biases but they are inevitable. In our work at LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center supervising and training therapists, we begin with the premise that every therapist, and in fact everyone, has bias. Bias starts with our experiences and the information we gather in life and gets filtered thru our identity and culture. Some of our biases are known to us, while others may be unknown or hidden.
Every therapist, no matter their identity or background, has bias. We define bias as anything (for example, any idea, belief, opinion, reaction or emotion) that limits one’s capacity to relate to another as whole and equal, or that which creates a tendency to marginalize aspects of another’s experience.
Therapeutic bias, if unexamined, can hinder or even endanger the therapeutic relationship but it can also be a looking glass into experience that can enlighten, deepen and transform our connections to our clients.
Observations from Our Practice In our practice, at LifeWorks, we work with diverse clients, who identify across a variety of religions, genders, sexualities and relationship constellations, including: lesbian, gay & bisexual (39% of clients); trans, queer and genderqueer (13%); non-monogamous and polyamorous (40%), and clients who are kink and/or BDSM-identified (23%). And many clients endorse more than one of these identities.
A recent informal sampling of therapists in our practice revealed that approximately 25% of their clients had explicitly indicated that they had had previous therapy experiences where their therapist’s bias regarding kink or non-monogamy was an obstacle to their care, or hindered their experience in therapy. In our recently reported research (See: “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Henrich & Trawinski, 2016), 50% of clients identifying as polyamorous had seen therapists that they felt lacked cultural competency or were biased. Participants in that study reported that therapists were uninformed about polyamory, or biased toward monogamy.
Even therapists who themselves identify as marginalized in some way – for example, those who are LGBTQ, kinky, non-monogamous or polyamorous – may have subtle or not so subtle biases about the groups with which they identify. These biases may show up in therapists as reservations, judgments, concerns, worries about their clients or as strident beliefs, one-sidedness and even extreme positive regard. Neither being inside or outside a given community offers immunity from bias towards that community (or towards any other). Our experience and research confimrs that bias affects us all.
Emphasizing Wholeness Our work on bias is shaped by the concepts and methods known as process-oriented psychology or processwork. Developed by Arnold Mindell and others, processwork is both a depth psychotherapy paradigm and a phenomenological approach to working with human problems that emphasizes wholeness, the flow of experience and awareness and the importance of all points of view Mindell coined the term “deep democracy” to describe the idea that all voices are important to the well-being of the whole.
Using process-oriented methods and awareness, we have been teaching psychotherapists — and learning ourselves — to detect and identify bias, unfold its meaning, and learn to relate to aspects, attitudes and behaviors of clients that they may find difficult, disturbing or troubling. In our experience, therapist bias is often a reflection or expression of some quality or trait that the therapist has a tendency to marginalize or overemphasize in themselves. Something important, and often subtle or outside of awareness, may need to be known or understood better, and can be uncovered by looking closely at spontaneous or troubling reactions and perceptions.
From our perspective, it is probably impossible to get rid of bias entirely but we have found that it is possible to embrace and transform therapist bias into something that enhances the capacity to experience and support clients’ wholeness. It takes time and practice to develop the skills, awareness and attitudes that support the capacity to learn and grow from our bias — and in so doing, to increase our ability to understand, relate to our clients and to support their process of change.
There is no quick fix that we are aware of. In our experience, the awareness and transformation of therapist bias is more like a lifelong endeavor.