A Brief Review of Recent Evolution in Process Theory
About six months ago, it dawned on me that the process theory that I had learned for so many years, and which has been so helpful to me in working with others, and myself, was in the midst of expansion. Even though I knew in my heart that the foundation of Process Work, its practice and theory, is in continual flux and growth, my linear mind has held fast to what I had learned and assumed that it would stay as it always had been.
However, over the past few years a significant expansion and deepening of process theory has arisen. I believe it began about five years ago when Arny returned to his studies of theoretical physics. (During the 1960s he received his master’s degree at MIT and then went on to study at the ETH, the technical institute in Zurich.) Recently, Arny focused most specifically on quantum physics, and particularly the ideas surrounding the quantum wave function—the basic pattern behind matter that can be formulated mathematically but cannot be seen directly. He discovered that the quantum wave is not only a mathematical construct but is something that can be experienced by becoming aware of our most subtle or sentient experiences. He developed these ideas in Quantum Mind and Dreaming While Awake and he and I have further developed these ideas experientially in our seminars over the past few years.1
In this article, I will attempt to outline some beginning thoughts about the way in which these recent studies have expanded process theory and how this new realm is linked with, and fundamental to, earlier theory and concepts.
Where Have We Been?
Until now, my understanding of process theory has involved the study of such elements as awareness, signals, sensory-oriented channels, primary and secondary processes, double signals, edges, the process of amplification and unfolding.2
I have understood signals to refer to bits of information such as body movements and gestures, images that we see, sounds that we hear, feelings in our bodies, and so on. These are signals that:
- tend to repeat;
- can be formulated in words;
- are dualistic, meaning that there are separate parts in relationship to other partsand polarities ;
- are channel-oriented—they are experienced through various sensory channels;
- are closer to, or further away from, our momentary identity.
Some of these signals are consensual and others are non-consensual.Consensual signals can be observed or spoken about, captured on a video or measured in a doctor’s office, and most people will agree or consent that they exist. They are “real” according to a given culture. Body gestures that can be seen and spoken about are aspects of this genre of signals as well as body symptoms and body experiences that can be measured or observed.
Non-consensual signals include the dreamlike aspects of our experiences that last long enough to be spoken about and described, yet will not be agreed or consented upon as “real” by others. Such signals include dream images, the subjective feeling of someone poking me in the stomach, the internal voice of a critic, etc.
An interesting situation occurs when we consider a double signal. A double signal refers to the situation when two divergent signals occur simultaneously. One signal I identify with and another signal, the double signal, I do not identify with. For example, in a relationship situation, I can turn toward you and tell you that I want to relate. My body signal of turning toward you and my spoken words are primary signals that are close to my momentary identity. At the same time, my eyes focus downward as I’m talking, indicating that another process is trying to happen. This signal is secondary, different from my primary intention, and therefore further from my momentary identity.
In this case, the consensual signals include my turning toward and talking to the other person, as well as my eyes looking downward (because we can observe and speak about all of these signals). However, there is a dreamlike, non-consensual aspect of the double signal. If I unfold this signal of my eyes looking downward, I might experience this as going into a cave and becoming very meditative. Others will not necessarily agree on this subjective description of my experience. Similarly, if I have a pain in my stomach, allopathic medicine can measure the amount of acid in my stomach and say that I have an acid stomach or gastro esophageal reflux. This is the consensual aspect of this signal. However, there is simultaneously a non-consensual, dreamlike aspect of that stomach pain that I might experience as an immense fire that is burning up everything that stops me from diving into my creativity!
The study of the types of signals just mentioned has been central to process theory over the years.
Now, let me turn to the expansion of process theory. Arny’s studies of the immeasurable quantum wave function that exists prior to matter pointed toward yet another type of signal. He began to wonder what type of signals we might experience before they become “material” or clearly defined: that is, before they persist and can be spoken about in words. His intuition led him to discover subtle signals or pre-signals.3
Pre-signals can be experienced as subtle tendencies that occur before they can be verbalized and include a slight tendency to move before actually moving, vague intuitions, and very subtle feelings. These pre-signals, or sentient experiences as he called them, are like seeds from which more overt signals and experiences arise. In other words, as these sentient experiences arise they begin to break up into parts and polarities and express themselves in more stable form and through the various channels. Generally, we notice these subtle signals only later when they have manifested in more overt and persistent signals.
The signals in this new realm are:
- non-consensual (people will not agree upon these experiences);
- cannot quite be verbalized;
- non-dualistic, meaning that there is an experience of oneness without polarities or parts;
- pre-channel oriented, meaning that they occur prior to expression through any sensory-oriented channel.
Arny showed that this interpretation of the quantum wave function as a subtle layer of experience prior to the material world has been described by many peoples throughout time. For example, there is the Aboriginal Australian concept of the “Dreaming” which lies behind and gives birth to the physical world and the Taoist concept of “The Tao that can’t be said”which is the mother of all things. Spiritual traditions might call it the oneness, the spirit, the sense of wholeness. Arny called this whole realm of experience the Essence or Sentient Essence. Of course, because this sentient area cannot really be formulated in words, any description is not quite correct. At best, descriptions merely point toward these immeasurable experiences.
Precursors of the Sentient Essence
Before going further with theoretical connections, I would like to reflect on the possibility that the sentient realm has existed in Process Work previously but has not been directly delineated. I intuited that it must have been present in some form because my experience of sentience has felt so utterly fundamental to my understanding of process. Here are some beginning thoughts about possible precursors.
Process: The very concept of process means that there is a constant flow of experience, continual change. Process includes the flow between the Tao that can be said and the Tao that cannot be said. The Tao that cannot be said is the basis of all process, the creative well from which all things flow.
The Dreaming Process and the Dreambody: I believe that Arny’s original concept of the dreaming process is one early description of the essence. Though much of my training has focused on the signals that can be seen and spoken about, I have always known that they emanate from the deep and ever-creative dreaming process: a deep and mysterious pattern that ultimately manifests through various channels and signals that we can identify and experience. In addition, Arny’s concept of the Dreambody4 was a pioneering concept that pointed toward the subtle realm that lies behind physical experiences.
Irreducible Experience: Many years ago, Arny spoke of the “irreducible” experience (Mindell and Mindell, 1992: 68-70) as a moment when our primary and secondary experiences disappear or merge and we are simply in the flow of process. At that moment there are no longer polarities but instead an experience of oneness.
Arny said, “Something is irreducible when you can’t dissect it further into its parts without destroying it” (Mindell and Mindell, 1992: 68). This hinted toward the realm of the essence and non-duality. Many years ago, I developed a flow chart that alluded to this irreducible experience, showing that once we enter into a primary process, then a secondary one and so on, all differentiable processes collapse into a single, unified experience.
Spiritual Channel: There was a particular span of time in which we spoke about a “spiritual” channel. No one really knew exactly what that meant, but I think it was an early sense of the sentient realm. The spiritual channel referred to experiences people had that they could not easily formulate in words or in terms of any of the known sensory-oriented channels. People spoke of a connection with the spirit, of an allencompassing feeling of unity, which took them beyond polarities.
Coma Work: Though not directly spoken about until recently, Coma Work has always relied on the ability of the helper to connect to the sentient and deep trance state experiences of the comatose person. The helper focuses upon those signals that can be observed as well as the subtle tendencies that occur before the expression of facial grimaces, hand motions, images, etc. Since many people in coma, particularly those who have suffered from brain injury, do not have the internal connections to express themselves outwardly, connection with these earliest tendencies is crucial for communication, support, and rehabilitation.5
Ancestors in Psychology and Spirituality: Many of Process Work’s psychological ancestors hinted toward the sentient realm in such concepts as Jung’s unconscious and Freud’s subconscious. Later transpersonal psychology steered psychology toward the sentient realm as it attempted to focus on a person’s capacity to go beyond the ego and focus on a more spiritual or transcendent state.6 Authentic movement approached this realm by focusing on the sense of “being moved.”7
Many spiritual disciplines important to Process Work’s lineage also point toward the sentient realm, as in Zen’s focus on the realm of “no mind” or “creative mind,” Taoism’s focus on the “Tao that cannot be said,” and many meditation and mystical practices that focus on a sense of oneness and the origin and flow of experience. Shamanism is crucial to the sentient realm because of its focus on trance states and experiences extending beyond ordinary space and time.
Map of Realities
In order to place some of the new and earlier theoretical concepts together into a larger context, I will draw on Arny’s map (below) of the various levels of reality.8 This map helps us to see where the essence lies relative to other areas that we have focused upon until now.
Consensus Reality is, once again, the everyday reality that most people consent to, the doings of our world, the consensual aspect of body symptoms and the signals that can be spoken about and agreed upon. These experiences are consensual and dualistic.
Dreamland includes dreamlike experiences and signals that persist such as images from our dreams, our subjective experiences of our symptoms, like a feeling there is a vise pressing my head, the feeling of someone poking me in the stomach, and the subjective experiences of our double signals, such as eyes looking down being the beginning of going into a cave and meditating. These experiences are non-consensual and dualistic.
Until recently, process theory has focused mainly on these two realms.
The Essence level is the realm of subtle tendencies that occur before they can be verbalized such as a tendency to move before moving. Experiences here are the seed, or core, of an experience from which the other realms of Consensus Reality and Dreamland arise. This is a non-consensual area and experiences here are subtle, fleeting, and cannot be verbalized.
Arny speaks about experiences in this realm as being beyond ordinary space and time and “non-local.” When we experience this sentient realm it takes us out of the world of duality and brings us to a deep, eternal, or cosmic aspect of ourselves that we frequently only experience in deep meditation, during ecstatic states, in near death experiences, or sometimes through the use of drugs or addictive substances.
Just above the Essence level we find the area of flirts. Flirts are the first way in which the essence world arises. The essence world appears as quick, flickering nonverbal sensations, visual flirts, moods, and hunches. Such experiences occur very rapidly, for example, when our attention is caught for a split second by the brilliant color of a flower. These flirt-like experiences are of such brief duration that we normally do not hold on to them long enough to help them unfold and come into consciousness. They are fleeting and non-consensual.
Flirts lie between the dual and non-dual worlds. They are dualistic because we see them. However, when we get close to them and reflect upon them, we have the experience of becoming one with them (non-dualistic).9
Edges and Marginalization
Another concept that has been crucial to process theory is the edge. The edge refers to the boundary of our known world, the gateway between our primary and secondary processes. The edge therefore is allied with the world of duality and its various parts in the lands of Consensus Reality and Dreamland.
Once we enter the realms of the essence and flirts we need an additional term. Arny introduced the concept of marginalization referring to the very subtle process of marginalizing sentient and flirt-like experiences before they arise in everyday awareness.10
The addition of the flirt and essence levels of experience necessitates further differentiation and expansion of the concept of “attention” which refers to the realm that we focus upon. There are three types of attention that accompany the above map.
- The first attention focuses on consensus reality, the doings of our world and consensual signals.
- The second attention, as described by Don Juan in the Castaneda books, focuses on dreamland, i.e., non-consensual phenomena. Until now, Process Work has focused on these two aspects of our attention, which together constitute what Arny calls “Consciousness.” Consciousness requires a certain amount of clarity and exactness in order to notice signals, to differentiate parts, and help these experiences unfold.
- The third attention has to do with what Arny calls “lucid attention,” which means the ability to notice subtle tendencies and presignals in the flirt and essence realms. Lucid attention requires a foggy or empty mind that is cloudy enough to notice and nurture subtle experiences.
Parallel Worlds and Hyperspaces
There are a few other concepts from quantum physics that are crucial to understand these various levels of experience. A most helpful concept is parallel worlds. Simply stated, the parallel worlds concept means that a multiplicity of worlds exist simultaneously, but that we generally tend to focus only on one while overlooking the rest.
Parallel worlds theory implies that we can move from any of these levels of experience to the others. For example, if we start with an experience in Consensus Reality, we can ask ourselves about the essence of that experience. If we begin with early sentient experiences in Essence realm we can observe how these tendencies naturally unfold creativity into Dreamland and Consensus Reality.
The concept of hyperspaces in physics is very closely associated with parallel worlds. A hyperspace is a dimension. Quantum physics tells us that if we are stuck in one dimension, we can go to another dimension to find the solution. If we cannot untie a knot in three dimensions, add a fourth. Psychologically, if we are stuck in Consensus Reality with a problem, go to Dreamland. If that doesn’t help, we can always go to the Essence.
The Intentional Field
During the past few years, Arny and I have explored many aspects of the Essence and Flirt realms in our seminars on Lucid Dreaming, Stone Songs, Quantum Medicine and most recently, Big Medicine. When we started to explore this realm experientially, I felt like I was coming home. It was as if I had always lived very close to this sentient world but had never had the words to identify or understand it. Yet, I know now that it has always been the ground from which I understood my world as a child and now in my adulthood and has been the basis of my creativity in, and love for, music, art and dance. I have always felt moved by invisible forces and feelings that I could not identify but which surrounded and propelled me.
In our Big Medicine seminar we focused on a specific aspect of the Essence world called the intentional field. The intentional field is a term Arny used to re-interpret the quantum wave function.11 Simply stated, the intentional field is like a mysterious field that is moving us, like a magnetic field that organizes and guides us through life; a guiding wave that is invisible and immeasurable. We often experience this intentional field near death when it expresses itself most fully, though this intentional field has always been there, subtly moving and influencing our lives. The intentional field can be understood as our immortal self that influences, yet goes beyond, our personal lifetimes.
Arny gave me an analogy to understand the relationship between the Essence and the intentional field and the other realms of experience. He said the Essence is the name for the general area of sentient experiences. It can be envisaged as the moon in the sky. The intentional field, then, can be imagined as the gravitational field that pulls on the waves of the ocean. We see its effect on the water but we cannot see it directly. It is invisible yet palpable. The waves symbolize the way in which the intentional field arises in Dreamland, and Consensus Reality could be understood as a boat sailing on top of the water.
One of the best ways to experience the force and intention of the intentional field is to sit on the end of your chair. Notice the slightest tendency to move, but don’t move yet. Notice that tendency, stay close to it. Finally let this tendency unfold through your body into movement and begin to express itself in images, sounds or words; perhaps it will spontaneously explain its meaning to you.
Obviously, there is a great deal to explore about this sentient realm and the expansion of process theory. I hope these initial thoughts inspire all of us to learn ever more about this fascinating body of theory. In summary, I have offered the chart above to draw some of these ideas and concepts together.12 I hope it will be useful to you in connecting the past with the present, and evolving future.
- Arnold Mindell, Quantum Mind, 2000 and Dreaming While Awake, 2001.
- See Arny’s Working with the Dreaming Body and River’s Way, my Metaskills, and Joe Goodbread’s Dreambody Toolkit.
- See Quantum Mind, Dreaming While Awake and The Dreammaker’s Apprentice.
- Dreambody: The Body’s Role in Revealing the Self.
- See my Coma: A Healing Journey and Arny’s, Coma: The Dreambody Near Death.
- See Roger Walsh and Frances Vaughan’s Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Dimensions in Psychology.
- See for example Authentic Movement: Essays by Marty Starks-Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow.
- For much more on this map and following concepts, see Arny’s Dreaming While Awake and Quantum Mind on hyperspaces and parallel worlds.
- Arny describes this process of reflection (which can also be found mathematically in the quantum wave formula) in Quantum Mind Chapter 8, Dreaming While Awake Chapter 6, and The Dreammaker’s Apprentice, 74-76.
- See Arny’s discussion on Buddhism in Dreaming While Awake, Chapter 4.
- See Arny’s upcoming book, The Force of Dreaming.
- This chart expands upon Arny’s chart in The Dreammaker’s Apprentice 39.
- Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. New York: Penguin, 1968.
- Mindell, Amy. Alternative to Therapy: A Few Basic Process Work Principles. Newport, OR: Zero Publication, 2002.
- ———. Coma, A Healing Journey, a Guide for Family Friends and Helpers. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press, 2000.
- ———. Metaskills: The Spiritual Art of Therapy.
- Tempe, AZ: New Falcon, 1995.
- Mindell, Arnold. (forthcoming) The Force of Silence. 2003.
- ———. The Dreammaker’s Apprentice: The Psychological and Spiritual Interpretation of Dreams. Charlottesville, N.C.: Hampton Roads, 2001.
- ———. Dreaming While Awake: Techniques For 24 Hour Lucid Dreaming. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, 2001
- ———. The Quantum Mind: The Edge Between Physics and Psychology. Portland OR: Lao Tse Press, 2000.
- ———. Coma, Key to Awakening: Working with the Dreambody near Death. New York and London. Penguin-Arkana: 1994.
- ———. River’s Way: The Process Science of the Dreambody. London and Boston: Penguin, 1985.
- ———. Working with the Dreaming Body. London, England. Penguin-Arkana, 1984, Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press, 2000.
- ———. Dreambody: The Body’s Role in Revealing the Self. Sigo Press, 1982, Portland OR: Lao Tse Press, 2000.
- Mindell, Arnold and Amy. Riding the Horse Backwards: Process Work in Theory and Practice. London: Penguin-Arkana, 1992.
- Pallaro, Patrizia, ed. Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999.
- Walsh, Roger N., Vaughan, Frances (eds). Beyond Ego: Transpersonal Dimensions in Psychology. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1980.
Dr. Amy Mindell is in private therapeutic practice in Portland, Oregon and teaches in over thirty countries in the world. She helped developed process-oriented psychology in the areas of ethics, coma, and dance and music. She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology and is a diplomate of the Process Oriented Psychology Center of Zurich. She wrote Metaskills, The Spiritual Art of Therapy; Riding the Horse Backwards with Arny, Coma, a Healing Journey, and An Alternative to Therapy as well as many papers in professional journals. Her studies of the feeling skills in therapy, or “metaskills,” are at the core of much of her work. She is presently doing research on creativity and making puppets. Members of scientific and Aboriginal communities have applauded Arny and Amy’s trans-disciplinary work.