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.