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Hakomi: Mindful Self-Observation

By Nina Cherry

The Hakomi Method is a gentle and highly focused form of psychotherapy developed by Ron Kurtz. Offered through both individual sessions and workshops, its aim is to help people discover, study, and revise limiting beliefs about themselves and the world. By proceeding slowly and by accepting the wholeness of the client – both their need to grow as well as their need to resist and defend against pain – an atmosphere of respect and safety is created in which client and therapist cooperate in exploration.

“I know you did your best,” Ron Kurtz says gently. It’s something she’s waited all her life to hear. Hearing it now, in a quiet, attentive state, she’s deeply touched. The woman begins crying and then dissolves into sobbing. As her head sinks down and her shoulders turn inward, he moves to help her curl up. He stays with her, neither trying to comfort her, nor telling her how to do better next time. After the sobbing quiets down, the processing continues, and she discovers a level of acceptance of herself that wasn’t possible before. The light in her eyes and the fullness of her breathing reflect the sense of new awareness.

The Hakomi therapist avoids giving advice or solving problems. Clients are assisted in discovering that guidance and understanding are inside themselves. Faith in each person’s ability to find the necessary answers and tools within is very empowering. Since much of this potential is unused and out of awareness, the Hakomi therapist’s job is to befriend the client’s unconscious and create a setting where this potential can emerge and unfold. Much of this work is done in a special state of
consciousness called mindfulness.

Mindfulness fosters open communication between the unconscious and the conscious. It is a state in which one not only has experiences but is able to observe the ongoing contents of the experiences without interfering. It is non-judgmental, self-reflective consciousness in action. Mindfulness is a place of deep knowing. In therapy strong emotions are sometimes felt and early memories come back with intensity and clarity. In mindfulness these experiences can be examined and used to free us from the painful unconscious compulsion to repeat them again and again. Mindfulness is attention to present experience. When we examine the fine grain of physical sensation or habitual gesture right now in the session, we can discover in them the very roots of who we are and how we got that way.

In a therapy session Ron Kurtz is working with a woman who says she doesn’t have any particular issues up to work on this day. He says, “I notice that when you talk to me your head is turned away and you don’t look at me directly. “She is very surprised as she becomes aware of this. Ron leads her into mindfulness and gives her an opportunity to study a felt experience of what he has observed. He says, “Let’s do an experiment. Turn your attention inward to the quiet, watchful place . . . and see what happens inside you as you slowly turn your head towards me. “She reports an intense panicky feeling accompanied by a pounding heart. A very powerful session follows, in which she uncovers a
life-long distrust of people and childhood memories of physical abuse.

A Hakomi therapist finds little value in having a client talk about the past or about a memory or experience. Instead, the emphasis is on the structure of experiences in this moment.

A client is curious about the anxiety and fear she feels when she’s around men. The therapist asks her, “Can you feel any of that fear right now?” She nods and he says, “Stay with it and see what you can find out about it. How do you experience it? Do you feel it in your body . . . do you see an image?”

The client has an opportunity to discover how she creates her world around the fear of men. She may discover that her body contracts and she has a feeling of getting smaller. She may find meaning in that physical response: “My body is saying. ‘Hide and he won’t see me.'”

The deliberate study of “the organization of experience” is the heart of the Hakomi Method. Ron Kurtz says, “What are we trying to get at when we do core psychotherapy? We are trying to get at beliefs, images, memories, decisions about who we are and what kind of world we’re part of — pieces of the long ago that established patterns of perception, behavior and systemic experience and still control what can be experienced, felt, thought, and expressed, to this day.”

The organizers of experience are full of learned beliefs, emotionally intense events and important relationships. These are core material. Ron says, “That’s what psychotherapy is all about – bringing these powerful memories and images out of the shadows and into consciousness.” The Hakomi therapist evokes experiences in the client that lead to this core material, and then assists the client in processing the experience. These creative experiments can only be done effectively in the state of

The therapist, a man, says to the woman who is afraid of men: “Let’s study this fear and see what we can learn about it. Why don’t you turn inward and from that place of awareness, notice what happens in you when I begin to walk slowly towards you.”

It is the slowness of the experiment, the client’s self-observation, her focus on her present experience, and the openness to whatever response emerges from the experiment that makes it a powerful catalyst. The client has a felt experience which can be processed. In the processing there is emotional release and often work with the inner child that relives the memories that created the core beliefs.

As the therapist walked towards her, the client felt a familiar anxiousness. In studying it further, she suddenly remembered an important memory of a time when she was mistreated by her father. The
emerging memory gives rise to understanding about why she has been afraid of men all her life. It gives her a deep compassion for herself instead of putting herself down or blaming herself for wanting to withdraw and hide from men.

The Hakomi therapist does not try to evoke memories. Some events may be best left unremembered. Neither is there exploration of only negative experiences or limiting beliefs. Often it is important to explore one’s strengths, talents, resources, or divinity. For instance, the therapist
might invite a study of a positive inner state: “What is it like to hang out in this place of simply being? This place where you know who you are and which has nothing to do with your accomplishments and possessions. Just let yourself feel it. What is it like to view the world from here?”

The process of Hakomi offers the client or group participant new options, creative options, where none existed before. By “updating the files” (seeing how limiting beliefs are no longer necessary in a world that is not dangerous or confining now) new choices become apparent. They can be tried out in the session and integrated into daily life. Transformation naturally happens.