Knowing my power, burning my wood

Unconscious power

Last year I had a formative experience that deepened my understanding of the dynamics of racism through an interaction between myself who identifies as white, and a peer who identifies as a person of colour. Although painful in multiple ways and for all sides involved, I appreciate the experience as an opportunity for my awareness to grow and for me to do what I can to notice and take responsibility for my impact and actively contribute to a deeper collective awareness of this issue. Writing about the experience feels like an important process for metabolising what happened, and for engaging with the impact of my own unconscious centring of whiteness.

The experience happened in a study context, where a student on my training was practicing facilitating a relationship process in front of a small group of students and two of our teachers. Myself who is white and a fellow peer who is a person of colour volunteered to be the ‘clients’ for the process, to explore our relationship. We began to speak about recently getting to know one another. I felt increasingly uncomfortable and finally expressed my sense of inadequacy around my peer who has a lot of personal and professional experience and awareness in understanding racism. I was feeling a lot and shared how I admired my peer and felt insecure around them. The person facilitating us, who is also white, froze and had difficulty framing what was happening. The group around us started whispering and finally one of our teachers intervened, saying NO! to the continuation of a wider pattern that was repeating in the school, revolving around centring the experiences of white people when it comes to racism. The person I had addressed felt touched, noticing they had not yet experienced a teacher intervening in this way in this context when a racist dynamic was playing out.

I realised in the moment that I was othering my peer, relating to them only based on their race, rather than as a whole person. I was more concerned with my own awkwardness and lack of power, projecting the source of my discomfort onto the other person, than noticing the ways in which I was making myself the centre of the interaction, paying little attention to the power I held through being part of a majority group that centres itself all the time. I didn’t consider what it might be like on the other side as someone who is impacted by racism on a daily basis to be drawn into an unsolicited conversation about race without consent, and in front of a majority white group.

Sitting with shame

The following day I had a strong impulse to address the issue of unconscious racism more deeply both in myself and the student community, and to ensure this experience would lead to positive lasting change in the school. While I believe this impulse is useful and I have followed it up in various ways, it was only later that I realised I had not given space to my shame. Spending the last couple of years working on understanding my whiteness and building my resilience to be able to hold and stay in uncomfortable conversations, I’d been marginalising my feelings. In my desire to build resilience, I had internalised a belief system that said ‘don’t be fragile’, even in all-white contexts exploring with peers how the racist culture we have been socialised in lives in us.

White fragility, a term coined by white sociologist, Robin DiAngelo, describes common recognisable behaviours and reactions exhibited by white people when confronted with the discomfort of engaging with race and racism. While I find this framework useful for identifying behavioural phenomena that is often un/consciously weaponised by white people to maintain their control of a situation, I am also reflecting on the need and importance of giving space to the complex feelings that come up for white people when confronted with our part in personally and collectively perpetuating a dominant system of violence and oppression. When we have never been taught about this previously, (when we have been lucky enough to be born white and falsely taught that racism has nothing to do with us), it takes some getting used to and requires care and attention. This is not to say that those of us who are white should stay identified with the need for care or demand to be made to feel comfortable by those around us, especially people of colour. But acknowledging and giving space to our feelings and personal history, which are likely to be triggered when challenged and faced with discomfort, is an important piece in the process of building capacity and compassion for addressing racism.

I believe that marginalising my pain, grief and feelings of insecurity, stemming from difficult past experiences, contributed to my fragility taking over in the interaction with my peer. Not giving these feelings space in my own time led to them erupting unconsciously and becoming yet another racist burden for my peer to hold. Through this experience I’ve been learning that part of taking responsibility for my power – both where I identify with lacking and having it – entails tending to my historical wounds. Taking care of and consciously centring these parts of myself means I will be less likely to un/consciously expect to be taken care of and centred by others. This feels like a growing up process, developing an internal parent who can take care of an internal child. The intention is not to get rid of discomfort – discomfort is likely a needed and appropriate response that supports waking up to a collective reality that leaves many people of colour perpetually uncomfortable, at best. Instead, through tending to my vulnerability consciously I develop my muscle for holding difficulty and complexity, recognising I can be both vulnerable and responsible in how I hold and enact power.

Burning wood

Processwork has a term for this kind of work, ‘burning wood’. The term is a metaphor likening our emotional triggers and wounds to dry kindling. When this kindling builds up and remains untended it is more likely to catch fire when we become activated. The practice of burning wood is one of taking a deep interest in that which affects and touches us, getting to know ourselves, the depths of our personal history and tending to our strong emotions when they arise. In such moments, slowing down, witnessing and making space for safely exploring the rising and burning of our emotional undercurrents can support a process of expression and release. Sometimes it might be helpful to be supported in this by someone who loves and cares for us, even if they are an imagined figure or entity accompanying the process. Taking a deep interest in ourselves in this way supports us to develop a more humane relationship to ourselves, and by extension to others. Rather than burning up or disappearing our passions, this can actually support our access to personal power, freeing up energy which might otherwise be spent on containing, trying not to feel, or reacting to strong feelings. It makes sense to me that this power will also support me on my ongoing journey in understanding and owning my part in racism, and moving towards fundamentally interrupting and transforming this in myself and wider society.

Exercise for Burning Wood around Shame:

  • What do you feel ashamed about?
  • Feel it, give space to the sensations, notice what they are like, where and how you experience them in your body. What is their quality? Get curious about them, let them move through you.
  • When did you feel this in the past? When were you shamed? Was there a time when you experienced lack of compassion, no-one to support you?
  • Invite the personal or collective story that made this experience so hurtful. Practice compassion for the part in you that was hurt. Let it express what it needs to express through words, images, movement, or however else it wants to emerge.
  • Consider how bearing witness to this part in you is an antidote to oppressive dynamics within and without.

No-one left behind – Cultivating resilience for difficult work

“Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed.”1

bell hooks

I recently participated in a weekend workshop organised to examine our part in societal dynamics of privilege and oppression, with an emphasis on race, and to explore working towards collective liberation. Although difficult, the workshop was a big learning experience for me and I feel compelled to write about it. This too has come with its challenges as I am new to writing about social justice issues and making this process public. What follows are reflections that include concepts from Processwork and thoughts expressed by other workshop participants, to whom I am indebted for developing my learning from this experience.

One could say that the workshop fell apart, with several people of colour and one white person leaving midway. The absence of those who had chosen to leave greatly impacted the rest of the group. Although the experiences of the remaining (and absent) participants were diverse, there was general consensus around a sense of sadness and frustration that so often when people come together to address issues of social injustice, the same patterns inherent to those issues are repeated. Yet again we had not managed to create a safe and inclusive enough environment while engaging in these difficult but necessary conversations.

Trauma in the field

Working on themes of power, privilege and oppression is difficult work, and will trigger traumas in all of us, whatever the degree. Often in this kind of work, love and kindness become marginalised, both towards one another and ourselves. In Processwork terms, when doing this work the themes of external and internal oppression will be present within the shared ‘field’ and felt by those engaging with it.

As a person who is white, with many privileges and feeling like I still have so much to learn about social justice issues, I felt strongly impacted by a self-critical voice influencing my interactions with other participants and with what was happening between us. Following a Processwork understanding, this voice was not only internal, but also a manifestation of the wider dynamic of oppression within the field. This critical voice inhibited me from connecting with my feelings, which reduced my ability to relate to myself and others.

No-one left behind

The fear of ostracisation from the group often prohibits open and honest interaction. The tendency in a group to evaluate one another and project judgements onto individuals repeats the dynamics of a competitive society that isolates us from one another and sets us up for distrust and division. To project onto and scapegoat individuals can be shortsighted as this doesn’t take into account that we are in this together and that one person’s unconscious behaviour is symptomatic of a wider dynamic of which we are all a part.

This doesn’t mean that our experiences and responsibilities are equal or the same. Working towards collective liberation means that it is essential for those of us with more privileges to be held to account and develop tolerance for discomfort and self-questioning. One way of developing such tolerance is through practices of radical inner work, making time and space to connect with our experience, which can relieve others from having to take care of us. But it is also a myth that we can provide all the love and support that we need for ourselves.

When someone in a privileged position behaves unconsciously, a commonly repeating pattern is that the onus of awareness raising or compassion falls onto those who are most affected by structural oppressions. To counteract this pattern, it can help when others sharing the privileged position hold one another to account whilst remaining empathetic, aware that any one of us could be the one to behave or have behaved unconsciously at another moment. The question remains, however, of how we can facilitate deeper relationship to do this work across our differences and social positions.

Building a container

What emerged from the disintegration of the workshop was a shared recognition that feeling more connected to one another is essential for doing this work. This takes time and is difficult to achieve in a weekend-long workshop. Nevertheless, it is useful to reflect on what kinds of practices support this work to be sustainable in the long-term, even when our opportunities to come together are limited.

To make a conscious effort to slow down, make space and cultivate a sense of togetherness helps to form a container for holding difficulty. Slowing down gives the opportunity to check in with our bodies and take care of our needs in the moment, which might include needing to step out and be alone. Interactions that mainly take place through conversation privilege the communication styles of those who find it easy to talk. Balancing these interactions with other shared activities – such as cooking, moving and visioning together – offers grounding and the chance to share and experience different aspects of ourselves.

Cultivating a container for being together is not about flattening difference or engendering a harmonious status quo. It supports the expression and valuing of our diversity of gifts and experiences, so that they can enhance one another. It emphasises the importance of relationship for being able to deepen this challenging work and facilitate more related interaction. I appreciate how the learning from this workshop reminded me of the value of creative processes in supporting this. Making space for creativity and relationship enriches our connection to our hearts, with much scope for cultivating our resilience to go deep, be challenged and lay the ground for honest conversation and community healing.

1hooks, b. (2008) Love as the Practice of Freedom, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, New York: Routledge, p. 243

Relating to the perspective of Nonviolent Communication


As part of my Processwork training, I recently took an exam relating to Worldwork, the application of Processwork to working with communities, conflict resolution and organisational change. In part, the exam involved demonstrating comparative knowledge of other conflict resolution paradigms. When I was asked what I had studied, I spoke about Nonviolent Communication (NVC), my experience of which consisted of attending one NVC practice group meeting several years ago. In my exam I admitted that I did not know much about NVC and that I felt critical of it, which is why I hadn’t invested more time into its study. My impression of NVC was that it feels restrictive and imposes a specific style of communication, which could lead to stifling more unpredictable or spontaneous forms of expression.

My examiner encouraged me to use my critique as a guide for future learning, suggesting I study what I am critical of. “What am I really against and not interested in? What if I enter it and try to understand it from its own perspective? How might it be needed?” Such an approach aligns with a Taoist principle that informs Processwork: follow and learn from what comes up in the moment. By doing so, one practices deep democracy, the philosophical underpinning of Processwork proposing that all voices are needed and in need of unfolding in order to reach deeper and more authentic forms of democracy. When we are feeling polarised, deep democracy supports us to become more related through developing greater awareness of all sides, bringing them into relationship and recognising how what we consider as other is also within us. This text is a product of my becoming more related with the perspective and practice of NVC.

Philosophy of NVC

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) was developed by American clinical psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 70s, informed by the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers, who asserts that humans are inherently good and striving towards self-actualisation. NVC can be defined as a communication tool, set of values, educational method, spiritual practice and philosophy designed to improve compassionate connections to others and support change on multiple interrelated levels: within the self, with others, with the collective and within social systems. 

NVC philosophy emphasises an innate human capacity for compassion, which it suggests is often obscured by learned violent behaviours that have been taught and perpetuated by a dominance-driven culture. NVC distinguishes between two modes of language: 

–       Jackal language, deriving from a paradigm of domination, alienates us from one another and from life and is characterised by blame, moralistic judgements and dualistic ‘either/or’ thinking. This is symbolised by the jackal who is said to be a vicious, competitive scavenger moving close to the ground. 

–       Giraffe language, deriving from a paradigm of partnership, serves what is alive in each of us, inspiring compassion, connection, community and speaking from the heart. This is symbolised by the giraffe, which has the largest heart of any land animal and the longest neck, affording it a wide overview of the world around it.

Based on the idea that mainstream culture has conditioned us to react to one another unskillfully and forget our compassionate nature, NVC stresses that we have the ability to develop new responses and reframe how we express ourselves and hear others. Rather than passing intra- or interpersonal value judgements, the approach encourages an understanding of all humans as multifaceted living beings with varying combinations of feelings and needs, including a universal need for respect and appreciation. When we have a reaction to a situation, NVC suggests we are not being made to feel something by a thing or a person. Rather, our response is based on whether or not our needs are being met. To be able to recognise these feelings and needs in ourselves and others, and express these needs in a non-judgmental and non-accusational way supports greater empathy, understanding and relationship on all sides.

NVC contends that in a culture where Jackal language prevails, concepts of good/bad, competent/incompetent, etc. categorise people into fixed states and values dictated by an authority, which promotes submission. Rosenberg refers to this as a manifestation of staticlanguage, which induces a lifeless conception of ourselves and others. In contrast, through asking “what is alive right now?” NVC defines itself as a processlanguage. In process language, valuing still occurs but comes from a different intention and is based on transient moments in process guided by the questions “What is alive in me, what is alive in you and how can we work together to make life richer and more beautiful?” Rosenberg calls this a language of life. The key to applying this language is empathy – empathy for one’s rage, for one’s needs, for what is

Practicing NVC

In the application of NVC, two aspects of empathic communication are given emphasis: (1) Honest self-expression, which involves expressing one’s feelings and needs in a way that will inspire empathy, and (2) Empathetic listening, which involves listening with deep compassion, both for oneself and for the other person. In order to identify and clearly express one’s feelings and needs – informed by the exploration of what is, without blame, judgement or analysis – NVC proposes four components: Observation, Feeling, Need, and Request.

Observation relates to observing the conditions that have led you to feel the need to say something. It is important to distinguish this from judgement, diagnosis, evaluation, opinion, etc. Stating an observable fact, “it’s 2am and I hear your music playing”, provides a common ground for communication, whereas, “what are you doing making such a racket?! It’s much too late!” can lead to disagreement because people value things differently. 

–       “When I see/hear/notice…”

Feeling relates to the experience the observation triggers in you. NVC involves avoiding moral judgement and differentiating between what you think and what you feel. Thoughts such as “I feel like…” or “I feel that…” are not the same as identifying how something affects us. An initially angry reaction such as, “you reckless idiot should learn how to drive!” might actually be brought on by fear, “when you changed lanes right in front of me I got really scared and felt in danger.”

–       “… I feel…” 

Need relates to stating, or empathetically guessing in another person, the need that is the cause of the feeling. Doing so provides clarity about what is alive in you or the other person. Positive unmet needs in NVC are defined as universal and common to all people, and not tied to a specific means for fulfilling them. For example, wanting to do something with another person is not itself a need but might be a strategy for fulfilling a need for companionship. This need could be met in many different ways. NVC claims that all underlying needs are compatible and never in conflict. Conflict arises when there is a clash between strategies for meeting needs.

–       “… because I need/value …”

Request relates to asking for an action to meet the identified need in the present moment. This does not mean demanding or attempting to force somebody to do something we want them to do, nor does it mean stating what you don’t want. A request differs from a demand when we are open for the other person to say no or propose an alternative and only fulfil our request if they are truly ready. “I don’t want you to work so much”, has a different quality to “I’d like you to tell me whether you’re willing to spend one evening a week with me.” The second statement keeps the request open and enables both sides to take responsibility for getting their own needs met.

–       “Would you be willing to …?”

Challenges of NVC

Simple in its essence, Rosenberg states NVC can be difficult to put into practice because we are so conditioned to interact based on the dynamics of criticism, blame and demand-making. Even when we apply the sequence of steps relating to our honest self-expression, the other person is still likely to hear disapproval. Rosenberg suggests that one way of addressing this is to incorporate the following requests “Would you be able to tell me what you heard me say? How could I share my needs with you, without you hearing blame?” This contributes to both sides becoming more differentiated in how they express themselves and receive what is expressed. 

A further challenge to the application of NVC is that the formulation “When you do this, this happens in me. I feel this and need this. This is what I’d like to request from you”, is not enough to address and transform the underlying culture of Jackal language. If the intention behind our formulation of needs and feelings is still to control or get the other person to do what we want, nothing has really changed. The underlying principle of NVC is not to follow a formula or technique but to cultivate a culture of relating based on being honest and keeping everyone’s needs in perspective. It proposes a fundamental shift in attitude from which a new culture can arise.

Becoming precise about our own experience and hearing the experience of others requires courage. Rosenberg claims that most people don’t know what they feel, need and want and many find it difficult to make a request. It means you need to be aware of what you want. According to Rosenberg, asking for something simple can transform the world but many people are scared to ask. It means taking responsibility and co-creating the world in which one wants to live. 

Reflections on NVC

In the process of studying and writing about NVC I am becoming aware of my own reluctance to identify and express my needs. I notice how this is partly influenced by a judgement I have towards ‘neediness’ and admitting that I have needs. Something underlying this relates to wanting to protect and avoid exposing myself, thus minimising the risk of being hurt. I wonder whether, from a NVC perspective, this instinct to protect myself correlates with living in a culture dominated by Jackal language. It makes me realise that expressing and connecting with needs requires trust. How do we foster the conditions to feel safe enough to express our needs? I imagine Rosenberg might say that we can support this in the wider culture by being more real with ourselves.

Through the development of NVC, Rosenberg’s aim has been to radically change what he deems destructive thinking and power structures based on blame and judgement. Rosenberg speaks about the need to unlearn these structures, also in relation to ourselves. When we make a mistake, we immediately beat ourselves up about it with thoughts such as “you idiot!” Rosenberg suggests that a more realistic understanding of mistakes would be to see them as part of a process of practicing and learning. I notice in myself how automatically my inner dialogue of blame occurs. It is eye opening for me to realise the extent of this internalised criticism and to consider how a more compassionate attitude towards myself is part of a broader political challenge to an in- and external culture of oppression. 

The skepticism I expressed towards NVC in the introduction of this text related to my sense of the approach as formulaic and emotionally stifling. Since learning more about NVC and its philosophical intention, I recognise that prevalent everyday forms of interaction too follow an unconscious formula of blame and judgement, which goes unnoticed because it is so habitual. However, without having experienced the approach more deeply, it is still difficult for me to imagine how NVC is applied in relation to spontaneous emotional reactions without suppressing experiences that have validity and are in need of expression. 

Upon researching NVC’s approach to anger, I have come to consider that if a NVC practitioner prescribes a neutral or unemotional communication style, this is a misunderstanding of the approach. NVC is not about losing emotional intensity but transforming it through accessing and using it in an intentional way. According to Rosenberg, anger arises from the story we tell ourselves about the trigger of our experience, the belief we hold about the event that happened. Identifying this belief points us towards distinguishing what we need to have happened instead, providing us with more clarity to clearly and directly express this. Through this process of differentiation NVC proposes that we are able to express our anger more fully, precisely, and consciously.


NVC suggests that needs aren’t being met because we are not making clear and concrete requests. Returning to the context of conflict resolution and community work, I wonder how this relates to broader social issues and imbalances of power where the experiences of discriminated and oppressed groups, for example, are not being heard or acknowledged by the mainstream. Surely it is too simplistic to attribute this to an imprecision of needs and requests? Perhaps a NVC practitioner would suggest that more conversations are needed where the experiences on both sides are given the space to be empathically expressed and heard.[1]

I still wonder whether it is possible to reduce the complex facets of experience to the four components Rosenberg suggests, or whether other information or contextual dynamics are lost in this process. NVC focuses specifically on verbal language but it is commonly agreed that communication takes place on many other, often unintended non-verbal levels, which is something Processwork explores, for example. Does change take place on a deeper level when I restructure how I formulate my experience after feeling deeply affected by what another party has done? Perhaps I am reverting back to my former understanding of NVC when I focus on the linguistic aspect of the approach, rather than the underlying attitude of empathy it promotes.

In the NVC communication process, I recognise the value of slowing down and becoming more conscious about our triggers and the feelings and needs behind our own and other’s reactions. It makes sense to me that an increased capacity for empathy towards myself and others, and a deeper understanding of my needs and ability to express these cultivates more direct and honest forms of relating. Through relating to NVC in more depth, I have observed how untrained and unsupported we are in mainstream culture to identify and express what is alive in us. Not only can connecting with this support us emotionally, it also has a political dimension in challenging the power structures that disconnect us from ourselves and one another.

[1]For further reading on recent developments in the NVC community regarding engagement with issues of power and privilege I found this article by Dian Killian to be useful:

Staying with the trouble of the personal experience

14.03.17, 15.03.17

Daily drawing practice registering body sensations 2016 – 2018

Edited extract from thesis I completed in 2017 entitled “PRACTICING RELATIONALITY: How to put theory into practice through the encounter with process work, practice-led research and an enquiry into feminist epistemologies”:

Donna Haraway asserts that to ‘stay with the trouble’, staying with complexity and difficulty, which can often be disturbing, is necessary in order to develop the ability to respond during these troubling and mixed-up times. Entangled matters are complicated and troubling and take time and practice to understand, especially when fundamentally unentangled conceptualisations of being have become such a habit. … [T]he intellectual rigour involved in developing the capacity for a relational outlook calls for practices with which to embody and experience on a personal level, the entanglement of being, so as to explore in further depth the implications and possibilities of an entangled conception of ‘the world’.

The practices within process work constitute an approach that deems the ideas of entanglement and interrelation as fundamentally inseparable from the complex, diverse and multi-layered dynamics of being that constitute experience. Staying with the personal experience, particularly when tensions arise, is often uncomfortable, unpredictable, confusing and can be very troubling indeed. But, according to the process work approach, these complex dynamics provide important information on the movement of processes within an individual or a group, which is imperative for developing a multifaceted understanding based on thinking through, experiencing and being confronted with the interrelation between the domains of the personal and the systemic. Such an understanding has the potential to support the development of sustainable relationships and to bring the diversity of modes of being into awareness and dialogue. Bringing this way of thinking into conversation with Haraway, process work practices can be seen as demonstrating and supporting the task of “learning to be truly present” and “making kin lines of inventive connection.”1

Process work is one example of a methodological framework taking on the task of becoming capable in engaging with the affective realm that, according to [Gilbert] Simondon, mediates between the levels of preindividual and transindividual experience. Taking seriously modes of being that have long been deemed irrelevant and unreliable in the context of Western knowledge-practices, this approach is akin to feminist discourses that advocate for embodied strategies expressing the “unity of thinking and being, the indivisible connection of mind and body,” asserting that “all knowledge rests on libidinal, that is to say affective and corporeal grounds.”2 Rosi Braidotti describes this as a project with the philosophical premise of developing a different kind of subjectivity, not one of individualism, but that of the multiple.

Adrienne Rich writes:

“Masculine intellectual systems are inadequate because they lack the wholeness that female consciousness, excluded from contributing to them, could provide. In taking the “otherness” of the “second” sex for granted, these systems are erected on an essential intellectual fault. Truly to liberate women, then, means to change thinking itself: to reintegrate what has been named the unconscious, the subjective, the emotional with the structural, the rational, the intellectual.”3

I would extend this statement to include intersectional knowledge-practices and modes of being that are not only defined by conceptions of gender although it is important to acknowledge the suppression of women through the historical institutionalisation of sexual difference.

Staying with the trouble of the personal experience and learning to engage with diversity and the unpredictability of process, including conflict, disturbances and emotions, challenges the logic of classical Cartesian thought, founded on the distinction between emotions or ‘un-reason’ and rational judgement. Reinforced by secularity, modern reason has been premised on the rejection of madness, error, dreams and passions, as well as spirituality, constructing a dualistic scheme condemning anyone other than the white European man as signifying the antithesis of philosophical reason, thus legitimating Man’s hierarchical position of dominance. Within this scheme, Braidotti describes Woman as the metaphor for non-order, akin to the image of chaos, which in the patriarchal imaginary embodies the “disquieting possibility of the absence of the law, of its decomposition.” What if it was precisely the ability to engage with chaos, on its own terms, that is needed to develop a relational understanding of being, the capacity for complexity, uncertainty and decomposition?

1Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press, p. 1.
2Braidotti, R. (1991) Patterns of Dissonance: A Study of Women and Contemporary Philosophy, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 165.
3Rich, A. (1986) Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, New York & London: W. W. Norton, p. 81.

Learning about Processwork: A Radical Paradigm for working with Disturbance

What would it look like to be part of a society capable of studying itself and drawing from its issues increased awareness, wisdom, creativity and the seeds for positive social change? Searching for practical tools and ways of thinking to support me in exploring this question led me to the study of Process-oriented psychology, or Processwork, a radical method informed by a creative and embodied approach towards thinking about and working with problems and disturbances. My interest in Processwork emerged from a number of frustrating experiences I encountered in groups, organisations and institutions working towards social change, which guided me to ask, how to acknowledge our part in repeating the societal dynamics we criticise and how do we work with and learn from this?

Processwork is a multifaceted paradigm, simultaneously simple and complex, which can take both a day or a lifetime to grasp and put into practice. It is an evolving paradigm, borrowing from many different approaches and practices. Founded on a philosophy of process, and an understanding of continuous change as a fundamental property of the world, its practitioners are encouraged to develop and combine the approach with other methods and fields, should their process move them to do so. The approach itself has developed over time and is informed by Jungian psychology, physics, Taoism, Systems Theory and Shamanic practices.

Three main aspects originally drew me to the study of Processwork, relating to my interest in the idea that the personal and societal realms are inextricably interrelated and expressions of one another:

– Working with the disturbance

In Processwork, whatever we encounter or experience is understood as information that is part of a greater field and system of which we are a part and which simultaneously is part of us. What we encounter as disturbing indicates something about those qualities or ways of being with which we identify and those which we reject. If we are part of the field and the field is a part of us, we can assume that the disturbing quality is related to an aspect of ourselves that we are less familiar with, have negative preconceptions about, and/or which we disavow. Understanding all interactions within a system as parts of a process in which the system is ‘trying to know itself’, a process work-informed approach to a disturbance, such as a conflict within a group for example, will involve supporting increased awareness of the different roles, experiences and verbal and nonverbal signals attempting to find expression within that particular conflict dynamic.

Rather than trying to suppress or fix the disturbing quality, an attitude of curiosity informs the process of unfolding different aspects of the disturbance: What are the specific experiential qualities of the disturbance? What are the beliefs and preconceptions held by a group or individual in relation to the disturbance? What are the roles and positions inherent to the disturbance and how and why might they be reacting towards one another? How are societal and historical narratives, also part of the system, influencing the experience of those involved?

Fundamental to a Processwork attitude towards disturbance is that it is understood as inherently creative and indicative of its own solution. A disturbance, such as in the case of conflict, contains vital information that is relevant to a system’s process of change. What interests me in particular about this way of thinking is that it implies that important information is contained in what we usually understand as a problem, opening up a radically different way of relating to and working with disturbing things that we might conventionally wish to eradicate. This does not imply seeking out conflict, or having to compromise or settle for unacceptable behaviours. It suggests that when disturbances arise, refraining from assuming we know all there is to know and keeping an open and exploratory mind can support a deeper awareness and appreciation of the intricacies of the disturbance, leading to different ways of interacting with it.

– Working with the felt sense

Subjective experience is considered an important source of information in Processwork. As the individual is understood as part of a wider field, which is also part of the individual, whatever is personally felt is understood as expressive of the wider system. Emotional responses, feeling activated, dreaming, distraction, boredom, physical sensations, unintended movements and shifts in atmosphere are useful signals for understanding the emergent dynamics of a process. A Processwork facilitator does not think of themself as a neutral observer but a participant-facilitator who inevitably activates and is activated by the unfolding process. Whatever the facilitator feels is understood as not only theirs but recognised as having relevance to the group or individual they are working with.

My interest in the felt sense as a source of knowledge is further informed by feminist discourses challenging the traditional Western division between the body and mind. Understanding all points of view as situated in a specific context of relations, physicality and experience – which impact how and what is seen – feminists such as Elizabeth Grosz assert that: 

“The body and the modes of sensual perception which take place through it are not mere physcial/physiological phenomena; nor are they simply psychological results of physical causes. Rather, they affirm the necessary connectedness of consciousness as it is incarnated; mind… is always embodied, always based on corporeal and sensory relations.”1 

What Processwork provides is a framework for valuing and working with the multi-layered and oftentimes subtle experiential dynamics composing individual and group experience, which are not customarily acknowledged or deemed relevant in a discussion, particularly in formal contexts.

– Deep Democracy

Deep Democracy is the philosophical basis informing Processwork. It is defined by the idea that true democracy cannot be possible without deeper awareness of the multiple forms of experience making up a system and the interactions between its parts. From a deep democracy perspective, all views, states of experience, levels of reality and modes of expression have validity and are deemed as relevant information that is in need of unfolding and bringing into awareness. Developing this awareness means becoming more conscious of the overt and subtle signals, power dynamics and belief systems structuring our interactions, which includes noticing the ways of being that are accepted and those which are marginalised within a given moment and context.

Informed by the Taoist idea that what we deem negative and positive is interrelated and contextual, deep democracy as a philosophical approach encourages an outlook that takes note of but is not driven by preconceived ideas about what is right/wrong or real/not real. Rather than trying to make something specific happen, a deeply democratic approach entails ‘following the nature’ of an emergent process, and noticing the different interacting parts attempting to find expression. This process is supported through the dialogue between parts, which catalyses their unfolding.

Deep democracy as an underlying principle highlights process work’s emphasis on diversity and awareness. As a practitioner of the approach, a deeply democratic attitude towards one’s own internal diversity is understood as necessary in order to support one’s ability to be fluid and not stay overly identified with specific ways of being, which opens up one’s ability to notice and become aware of the different forms of experience structuring external contexts and interactions. Without awareness of the ways in which I suppress myself, for example, I am more likely to overlook the ways in which suppression is happening in general and how I am contributing to this.

As a systemic paradigm, process work echoes the philosophies of Eastern, spiritual and indigenous traditions that understand the individual as part of a unified system. Often we will assume that such unity implies harmony, which is unrealistic and fails to acknowledge the reality of chaotic and conflictual dynamics constituting life. What I like about process work is that it stays with the trouble2 of disturbing dynamics and understands these as containing wisdom with the potential to support a deeper and more meaningful level of understanding and conversation. Processwork as a paradigm encourages becoming more conscious of the ways in which we influence one another from moment to moment. Without this awareness, the risk of perpetuating the behaviours against which we struggle seems more likely.

1 Grosz, E. (1991) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, p.86.
2 Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press, p. 1.

Early questions, or, the phenomenon of perpetuating what we fight against

“there may be a dimension of social resistance by a group against exploitation, against alienation, and against any kind of oppression, while at the same time, within the problems of the group, there may be microfascist processes on a molecular level.”1
— Félix Guattari

Theory and Practice

Since being introduced to critical cultural theory and political ideas relating to anti-oppression, a key phenomenon shaping my learning interests has related to how a group perpetuates the very behaviours it defines itself against.

My deepened engagement with critical theoretical ideas took place during my MFA. The course I studied puts high emphasis on theory within an educational framework questioning the role of art in society. In the context of an institution that prides itself for its radical critical approach, I felt affected by what I deemed as the limitations of theory to provide sufficient tools for practically engaging and dealing with concrete situations.

In Molecular Revolution in Brazil, Félix Guattari describes social dynamics as consisting of flows, assemblages and stratifications, a metaphor that might be likened to shifting interacting geological forces and states. In this philosophical model, the idea of the ‘molecular’ is used to describe political bodies and phenomena that individuate, evolve and deviate from authoritative ‘molar’ processes regulating and standardising the social sphere.

We studied this model and its social manifestations for a year in a class where, due to various factors, we came into conflict with our teacher. Not knowing how to address this conflict directly, we voiced our dissatisfaction to a higher authority. Our teacher reacted defensively and although a collective discussion took place, many of us, our teacher included, were left with unaddressed feelings that impacted the subsequent iterations of our class.

What struck me in this particular instance was the correlation between the concepts we had been studying and the manifestation of these concepts in ‘real-life’. When it came to dealing with the complexities of molecular and molar forces in our own experience and relationships, we lacked the practical tools to handle and study what was happening. Despite the all round discomfort, it was my intuition that this troubling situation contained something valuable, an opportunity for us to deepen our understanding and anchor our philosophical learning from the previous year. The question that followed for me was how to do this?

The Personal and the Political

The conflict with our teacher is a relatively harmless example along with other instances I experienced in this institution and beyond where, despite a high level of intellectual rigour or good intentions, the tools for addressing and acknowledging underlying dynamics amongst those working together were decidedly lacking. In these cases, I got the sense that this wasn’t unique to my personal context, but a more general condition that is recognisable across Western society. The dominant attitude towards difficult situations is to deny, pacify, remove, move on and/or divert from the troubling issue at hand.

My impression of academic circles practicing critical theory has been that it is commonplace to engage with trouble from a distance, analysing and speculating about it ‘out there’, rather than acknowledging its presence in our midst. I empathise with this approach in many ways, I too am guilty of it. The inevitable conflict that would arise from addressing something real is much more complex and confronting than theorising about something in abstract terms. But since learning more about political discourse, I have also experienced an increasing urgency and demand building in me for the development of tools and means for putting theory into practice. Particularly from organisations and people who define themselves as challenging normative standards and advocating for expressions of difference I ask, how do you apply and model in practice what you talk about in theory? I ask this of myself too.

Guattari defines both the molecular and molar as consisting of assemblages of processes comprised of different orders such as the biological, the social and the imaginary. It would be misleading to understand them as separate oppositional states because “they intersect completely”.2 Molecular and molar are co-dependent dimensions, aspects of which are simultaneously present in all relational interactions, whether on an intimate or mass scale. This suggests that analysing and critiquing what is politically ‘out there’ does not take into account the molar dynamics of situations we are personally involved with. Acknowledging our part in social dynamics of oppression brings together and makes inextricable the relation between the personal and the political. It implies that whatever is happening ‘out there’ is also happening in here in the ways in which I relate to myself and others.

This might shed more light on why I am likely to repeat what I fight against. It doesn’t excuse it but perhaps acknowledging it is the first step to bringing more awareness to this prevalent multi-dimensional phenomenon. It makes me realise that looking either outwards or inwards isn’t enough, both are needed. And it inevitably leads to further practical questions: how can I develop awareness of and acknowledge my part in social dynamics of oppression? Can my personal experience be explored as a resource in relation to these dynamics? What forms of knowing and doing are needed to become more congruent in what I say and do? How can a more just society, one that has the capacity to welcome difference and engage with diverse needs, be supported? What kinds of tools, attitudes and approaches are needed? What kinds of approaches engage with the personal and the political and understand them as expressions of one another?

1 Guattari, F. & Rolnik, S. (2007) Molecular Revolution in Brazil, Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), p. 185
2 Ibid.