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Difficult Contacts

Lane Arye

Some people are hard to deal with. You try to relate with them normally, but they just will not or cannot do the same. They may be your clients, your co-workers, friends, enemies, members of your family or people you encounter on the street. They may be really depressed, psychotic, in altered states, near death, stubborn, dogmatic, aggressive or drunk. You try to make contact with them. But sometimes it is so difficult that you throw your hands into the air or roll your eyes to the back of your head or silently wish you could avoid them in the future.

The conventional way of thinking is that these people are somehow wrong and that they have to change. They need medication or psychotherapy. They need to be better socialized, or punished. But the process worker has a different attitude. She realizes that these supposedly difficult people are not the problem. The problem is that we do not know how to contact them. This article will present some of the methods and attitudes that can be helpful in such situations. I will use examples from my private practice as well as my private life in order to illustrate these process-oriented skills and metaskills. We will see that making contact is not really so difficult. And we will see that it can be challenging, fun and enriching to us, to others and maybe even the world.

The meditation master

Once I had a client who had the psychiatric diagnosis of manic-depression or bipolar disorder. She had other diagnoses as well, all coming from psychiatrists who could not “help” her. I will try to describe a typical interaction that used to take place when she was in her depressed phase. She would come in, sit down, look down and not speak. I would say, “Hi, Mary.” When she did not say hello I asked, “How are you doing?” And she just continued looking down without saying anything. I tried again: “So, did you do anything this week?” But she just sat there. “Would you like to work on anything today?” No response. Conventional psychology and psychiatry would say that she was wrong and I was right. She should have responded when I asked her a simple question. I have seen countless situations like this in psychiatric hospitals, with doctors, psychologists, nurses and social workers talking to the person in a totally “normal” manner and expecting the patient to react accordingly. When the patient does not relate the way the caregiver wants, he or she is diagnosed and medicated, but that often does not help either. My client had been on different kinds of medication for years. At this stage that I am describing, she was taking three or four different medications, in an ongoing series of attempts by her latest doctor to “cure” her or make her normal.

One typical sign of psychosis is the inability to adjust your thought or behavior to outer stimulus. In other words, someone thinks or feels or acts in a certain way independent of what happens around them. For instance, somebody is paranoid and says “Oh my God! You are gonna get me!” You say, “No, I like you.” But she says “No, you are gonna get me!” In process work we call this a missing feedback loop (Mindell, 1988: 38). The person does not pick up or adjust to outer signals. My client also had a missing or weak feedback loop. She did not react to my questions or adjust her behavior to the fact that I was sitting in front of her and trying to communicate. The funny or sad thing is that therapists often also lack feedback loops. We expect our clients to adapt their behavior to us, but we do not change what we are doing to match their communication styles (Mindell, 1988: 39-40). Conventional thinking is that my client was sick and needed to change. But as far as I am concerned, I am the one who was sick in this situation because I was not relating to her where she was. I was expecting her to relate where I was. Metaphorically, I was expecting her to speak my language, although repeated attempts showed that she would not or could not do so. But, like so many helpers, it was hard for me to change and communicate in her language. You could say that I was acting psychotic, in the sense of not noticing or adapting to her feedback.

This went on for many sessions, until finally I changed. One day when she came to my office, I just sat there with her. And we both sat there very quietly, looking down at the carpet. I had to change something in my head: I had to change the idea that she was supposed to communicate with me. I also changed my idea that she was somehow wrong or sick. I thought instead that I had to find value in what she was doing. That was what happened inside of me. And what happened between us was that we both just sat there together for a very long time. Out of the hour, we sat for about 45 minutes, looking at the carpet and being quiet together. During that time I had a wonderful meditation. It was a beautiful experience for me.

After a long time she looked up at me and said, “Yes, you understand.” Then after another long pause she said, “You know, I think you are Chinese.” It took me time to come out of my meditation and form my thoughts, so I did not respond immediately. After about five minutes I finally said, very slowly and softly, “What do you mean?” Slowly, she started talking about following the Tao, and not being so related to conventional, extroverted American society. Then the hour was over. We bowed to each other and she left.

The following week we just had tea together. Neither of us mentioned what had happened. She slowly came out of her depression. About four months later, when she came for her session she said, “Do you remember what happened a few months ago when we just sat there meditating together? That was really important for me.”

From the outside it looked as though nothing had happened. But let’s look closer and study what really happened. We can see that certain skills were useful. For instance, things went a lot further when I was able to follow my client’s feedback. At the beginning, I did not notice her negative feedback to my interventions. I just spoke with her and tried to get her to talk about herself. This got absolutely no feedback. In other words, she did not react one way or the other to my intervention. No feedback is negative feedback. Negative feedback means that you are on the wrong track, and should change your hypothesis and intervention if you want to follow the process. Finally, I followed her feedback, and stopped my active therapeutic style. This was the start of a big change.

Another useful skill was noticing the channel that she was in. Clearly, she was not communicating verbally or visually. She was also not interested at all in relationship. Nor was she making any movements, although her posture itself could be seen as a movement signal. The strongest channel seemed to be proprioception. Of course, it was hard to tell from the outside what her inner experience was. But it was easy to know which channels to stay out of. So I stopped trying to get her to relate to me verbally or visually.

Possibly more important than the skills which were utilized were the metaskills. The concept of metaskills was developed by Amy Mindell and written about eloquently in Metaskills: The Spiritual Art of Therapy (1995). Metaskills are the feeling attitudes that lie behind the interventions we use. They are our deepest beliefs about people and life, which are reflected in the work we do with clients. What allowed me to sit quietly with this woman was a deep belief that she was doing the right thing, and that it was up to me to find out what was right about it. This stems from something I had learned early on in my process work training, but was really only able to feel after many years of working on myself and with other people: that there is an exquisitely beautiful wisdom to the process, and it is only our normal identities that keeps us from recognizing it for what it truly is. So when I stopped talking, I was not merely trying a new intervention of following her in her channel. I was waiting for the mystery to reveal itself. And I did not know if it would be revealed in her, or in me. So I sat and I meditated. And I used the time to go deep into myself. I realized that my client was my teacher and that I had been trying to change her, to make her as I was. But really I needed to learn from her. I needed to stop the world, to stop the talk, to stop the trying. She became in that moment my spiritual master. And then she said, “Yes, you understand.”

A step to the unknown

Sometimes it is hard to understand someone, even if both of you are trying your best to make contact. For instance, I was sitting with my best friend just a few days before he died of AIDS. He could no longer stand or even sit up. As he lay in bed, his hands, arms, legs, face and head were in constant movement due to his neurological difficulties. AIDS had also affected the speech center of his brain. He was still able to speak, but his words were halting, stammering and difficult to understand. He would repeat the same words or sounds over and over, and I often did not know whether he was speaking English or Swiss German. In addition, he was in an extremely altered state. He was not eating, and drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he seemed lucid. At other times he was in a semi-comatose state. It was both painful and wonderful to be with him.

This particular day, as I sat with him, he said one word over and over again: “Dove… Dove… Dove.” I didn’t understand him, but I repeated this “Dove… Dove.” I did not even know which language he was speaking. I knew that in Swiss German “dov” means “stupid”. So I said; “Dov… dov…you mean–stupid?” And he just kept saying “Dove… dove… dove…” So I kept repeating his words, playing with the sound and trying to make little changes. I said “Dove? Dov? Dova? Dover?” His facial expression changed and he suddenly said louder “Dover, Dover!” I started to think “Dover? What is he trying to say?” And he just kept saying “Dover! Dover!” And I said “Dover? You mean–the white cliffs in England?” And he got very excited saying “Dover! Dover!” And I said “The white cliffs, the cliffs just before the sea.” By now he was almost screaming, “Dover! Dover!” And I said, “You are wondering if you should take that step?” And he ecstatically yelled, “Dover!”

It was so touching. In his altered state, he was on that cliff, just before the sea. He was waiting, wondering whether to take that step into the sea, into the unknown, into death. And he was trying to communicate this to me. But two things stood in the way of contact. One was his disturbed brain function that made normal verbal communication impossible. The other was my “normal” thinking. I used two skills there. First I played with the sounds, with him, repeating his sounds and slightly changing them, while noticing whether his feedback changed. When I said the wrong word, he did not react. Rather, he kept saying the same sounds in the same tone of voice and volume and the same facial expression. But when I said “Dover” he suddenly got excited and started to speak louder. That is when I knew I had the right word.1 The next skill was symbolic thinking. I realized that “Dover” must mean something and it was up to me to find out what that was. But just as important as these skills was my inner attitude. I felt that he was doing just fine and that the problem was my lack of understanding.

Writing about skills and metaskills does not do justice to the powerful effect that this contact had on me. This was different from other experiences I had had with people in altered states. I knew that he was on those cliffs. And his decision whether or not to take that step was a real life and death decision. I wondered what it was like there on the cliffs of Dover. I started to think about death, about the unknown, about the sea. I felt a tender closeness with him, and yet I knew that I could not really share this experience with him. But, for that moment of ecstasy, we were able to communicate about his life at the edge of the world.

The other side

I had a similar experience while sitting with another friend who was dying of AIDS. All of his friends and family were gathered in a room with him. Like most people in that situation, they were trying to relate to him normally. People forget or maybe never learned that people near death are no longer interested in so-called normal life. We act as though everything is as it always was, and talk as if the dying person were still in consensus reality. This is rarely the case. This particular man kept asking, “Where am I? Where am I?” His relatives would answer, “Well, you are in your home and this is your living room…” And he kept saying “But where am I? Where am I?” And they would say “Well, you are in Portland Oregon, on the northwest side of town.” This went on for a very long time. They were trying to relate to him as if he were in a normal state. Then he asked “Why am I on this side instead of on the other side?” And they said, “Well, this is northwest Portland, and in southeast Portland it is so and so, but you live in northwest Portland.” He repeated, “Why am I on this side? Why am I not on the other side?” The whole time his eyes were wandering aimlessly around the room, not settling or focusing on anything, almost like the eyes of a blind person.

From one perspective, you could say that this man had no feedback loop. He continued to ask the same questions even when he was given perfectly logical answers. He did not change his behavior or communication in relationship to the communication of the people around him. On the other hand, they also had no feedback loop. When he continued to ask the same questions regardless of their answers, they did not change their communication or thinking. This became a stalemate.

There is a certain wisdom in not having a feedback loop. It helps the person to complete whatever experience they are having without being disturbed by the outside world (Mindell, 1988: 39). Even though the lack of a feedback loop allows the person to stay in their inner world and go farther with their inner story, it can still be very helpful for someone on the outside to join that inner world momentarily. This can facilitate the completion of the process. It also helps to create contact. My depressed client was able to stay in her meditative state despite my repeated attempts to relate to her. But only after my joining her meditation was she able to complete her state and even talk about it. This man was clearly in the middle of some experience that was going on despite his relatives’ well-intentioned attempts to answer his strange questions. I felt it was necessary to join his inner world, rather than try to get him to join us.

So the next time he asked the question, I said to him, “What a question! Why are you on this side and not on the other side?” I meant, why are you on this side, living, and not on the other side, dead. Or, why are you on this side, in the world of the spirits, and not on the other side, in the world of consensus reality. I do not know what he meant, actually, but I thought it was an important question. So I said, “What an important question! Why are you on this side and not on the other side?” All of the sudden he turned his head toward me and looked me straight in the eyes, and asked, “What did you say?” I repeated his question. He kept looking at me for a long time, slowly nodding his head. That was contact.

Again, the skill involved here was symbolic thinking. But more important was the background attitude or metaskill, the belief that he was doing the right thing. He was asking the right questions. It was up to us to understand him, to enter his world. We were having difficulty making contact because we wanted him to come to us. It became very easy once we went to him. It was also much more interesting. We already know what it is like to live in this world. But very few of us have experience of what it is like outside of consensus reality, on the border of life and death. Instead of trying to teach him to be normal (“This is your living room in northwest Portland…”) I decided to learn from his questions. This was a deep experience for me. What a question! Why am I on this side and not the other side? I pondered that one for days. Once again, someone who had been difficult to contact became my spiritual teacher.

The drunken waltz

Let’s move from the world of the dead to a time when I thought I might quickly enter that world myself. I was in a tram with a friend late one night when an extremely drunk man came in. The whole tram was empty except for us. This man came in, walked right up to us and stood over us aggressively, making a drunken sound: “Uuuuu!” I was scared. He was big, and I am little. He looked like he enjoyed fighting and it is not my favorite recreational activity. At that time I was researching my doctoral dissertation about process work with music. So I decided to try something strange. I listened to the sound of his voice when he went “Uuuuu!” And I made the same sound, just as loud. He got angry and screamed, “Yeeeh!” Instead of reacting to his violence, I reacted to the sound. I heard that his voice had gotten higher in pitch that time. So I made my voice higher too. And I went “Yeeeuuu” going even higher at the end of my cry. Strangely enough, his next sound was even higher in pitch, but much softer in volume: “Too-tooo- too-to.” So I made a very soft sound, but with a low pitch. Then something wonderful and irrational happened. He sat next to me and we started singing an improvised song together “Umm-pa-pa, umm-pa-pa,” with him singing the high part and me singing the low part. It was really fun! At the next tram stop, he got off, taking his hat off to say good-bye. I have to say, although at first I had had absolutely no desire to have contact with this man, I ended up enjoying him immensely and was sorry to see him go.

This is a true story, and a funny one. But it is also instructive. Encounters with difficult people can happen anywhere, at any time. I am sure most of us have been in situations where suddenly we are faced with a person who is aggressive or threatening and seemingly impossible to communicate with. At such a moment, the natural reaction, inherited from our animal ancestors, is to fight or run away. Or to put our tail between our legs, turn our soft belly upwards and hope for mercy. Although these instinctive reactions can be helpful and sometimes even life saving, it can be interesting to go beyond your fear and try something irrational. This is what I tried here.

What actually happened here? Although what I did seems strange, it is based squarely on process work methods. I noticed the channels in which he was communicating. He was standing over us ominously (movement) and making sounds (auditory). I made a decision to interact auditorily instead of with movement, partially because I was afraid that a movement interaction would turn bloody. Looking back, it seems that he identified with his movements: he intentionally walked over to us and stood threateningly above us. Those signals were pretty clear and easy to understand, whereas the noise he was making seemed strange and out of place, like it was just coming out of him autonomously. So, on a continuum, the auditory channel was less occupied than the movement channel. It is always good to try to work with the unoccupied channel, since most of the new information can be accessed there. So my snap decision to choose the auditory channel also landed us in the middle of his unoccupied channel.

I have to admit that I was not thinking about this at the time. I reacted to his auditory signals because I was at that time in the middle of my research about process work with music. So instead of interpreting his sound as threatening or drunk, I noticed the specific qualities of his sounds, and tried to echo and exaggerate these qualities. When his sounds changed, I exaggerated those changes and listened for his feedback. He unintentionally went to a higher pitch. Knowing that unintentional music is more secondary, I followed this signal. When I made a higher pitched sound, and went even higher at the end, I waited to hear whether he would react to this. He did, by making an even higher sound. But something else unintentional happened here. His sound became very soft. I noticed this change, and made a very soft sound as well. This opened the way for us to sing together, improvising a little waltz in two parts, like an old Germanic um-pa-pa song.

Structurally, this was no different than any other piece of process work with music. I noticed the unintentional auditory signal, realized it was taking place in the pitch subchannel2, and amplified it. This led to another unintentional signal, this time in the volume subchannel. When this signal was supported, an irrational change occurred. The secondary process peaked out its lovely head and said hello. [For more details about auditory subchannels and about noticing and working with unintentional music, see Arye (1991).]The only difference was that normally I practice process work with music in seminars or with musicians, singers or clients. Here I was doing it on a tram with a stranger. Why not?

We can look at the process from another perspective, and say that through amplifying his aggression, eventually there was an enantiodromia (change to its opposite) and the aggression deflated. Or we could see his sudden soft sound as a de-escalation signal. I think it is even better, though, not to call it aggression at all. That first signal was just a frozen state that needed to be unfolded. It looked like aggression. But in process work we know that it is not very useful to name or interpret a signal. It is more helpful and exciting to amplify the signal, to unfold it and follow wherever it leads. Then strange and wonderful things can happen that could not even be guessed at the start. Maybe his walking over to us and making strange sounds was an unconscious attempt to make some kind of contact.

This reminds me of a story retold by Amy Mindell (1995: 104) about an American aikido master who was riding in a subway in Japan (Dobson, 1980). A very drunk man started to accost the passengers. The aikido master braced himself for a fight. But before he could do anything, an old man asked the brute to come over and talk with him. He asked the drunkard if he had a wife at home. The man said no, that he was lonely and sad. Within minutes, the drunk man had his head on the lap of the old man, and was totally calm. Perhaps, like the drunk in Japan, my new friend was also lonely but did not know how to make contact. How sad it would have been to react only to his first signal and not unfold it to its conclusion.

Attacks and other fun signals

It is not only on trams that we meet people who seem aggressive and bent on our destruction. I was teaching a seminar about process work with music a few years ago. At the beginning of the morning on the first day, I greeted everyone, introduced myself and explained the schedule for the weekend. Then I asked, “Is there someone who would like to work on something musical?” One guy raised his hand so I said, “Great, let’s work together. What do you want to work on?” Out of the blue he said, “I want to criticize you.” My immediate reaction was to think, “Why am I in this profession? I just want to go back to bed. I didn’t even say anything yet. Why does he want to criticize me?”

But, like in the tram, first reactions are not always the most useful. I realized that, unpleasant as it now seemed, there was probably something wise or important in this process. So I listened to his criticism. He said I was too optimistic. He said I was making everything sound like it was so easy and forgetting about all the suffering of the world. Actually, I agreed with him. I was being overly cheery and a bit fake. In fact, at that time I was in considerable physical pain from a recent car accident, but I was trying to hide it and just teach. So I started to talk about my own suffering, and how difficult life is sometimes. This made me feel better, because I was able to be real instead of pretending I was feeling fine.

He just looked at me and said that he could not believe that he just has criticized me and I did not hit him or tell him to shut up. I said “No, I do not want to hit you, I want you to say more.” He said, “But you are the teacher.” And I said, “Please teach me.” He paused for a long time and said sadly, “But I do not have anything to say.” And I said, “Yes you do, go on and teach.” I left him in the middle and I went out and sat in the circle with everybody else. He did not know what to do. But he loved it. He stood in the middle of the group and finally said, “I am important. And I am more important than all of you.” Then he got very shy and asked me for help. While working further, we realized that his criticisms and slight inflation (“I am more important than all of you”) were a compensation for an inner figure that always put him down, saying that he is not important, hitting him and saying that he should just keep his mouth shut. He was projecting that figure onto me. He thought I would say “Shut up! You are not allowed to say anything! I am the teacher here.” As I listened to his story, my heart became more and more open to him. I felt that I really met him. Not just the brash critic, or the hurt child, but the whole person. We had a touching interaction. He thanked me for supporting him, and even apologized for attacking me. It was not the kind of work that I had expected in a seminar about music, but it was very real.

It is quite difficult to keep any awareness while under attack. It is also nearly impossible at such a moment to believe in the wisdom of the process. Everyone’s first reaction is to hit back or go into a trance. But if we can hold out for the first few minutes and allow the process to unfold, something beautiful usually comes out of it. But how can we trust in this? One way is to get into these situations again and again. Eventually, after surviving hundreds of attacks, we may be less afraid and more open to the process in the background. But what hope can we hold onto while gaining this hard-won experience? Two bits of theory help here.

First, criticisms almost always have a seed of truth in them. So if we are open to listening, we can use the attack as an opportunity to continue our personal development. The content of this man’s criticism helped me to be more real and not hide my own suffering. He had become my teacher. Second, as we saw above, the initial signal is only the beginning of a process that is waiting to unfold. A criticism, like any signal, is the calling card of a process whose name we do not yet know. He had said that I did not pay enough attention to suffering. That meant that he was also suffering, and someone was not paying attention to him. In addition, his shock at my not hitting him showed that there was a second figure around, the one who would hit him. Not merely reacting to the criticism, but instead unfolding it, brings much more interesting and meaningful results. If I had reacted defensively, I would have missed his suffering, and missed the figure who shuts him up and does not pay attention to him. Instead, I trusted the wisdom of the process, learned something about myself, and met him in a deep way. Even in extreme situations, or particularly in extreme situations, process work can help us to make contact with people in unexpected ways.

An enemy with a real face

In this world full of conflict and differences, one of the most difficult areas to make contact is in the political sphere. Many of us stay away from people with whom we do not agree politically. We read about the other side in the newspaper, complain about them, make coalitions with those people with whom we agree, or just try to ignore the whole thing. Very rarely are there face-to-face interactions between two sides of contentious political issues. The people on the other side do not even seem to be people like us. They seem different, strange, evil. Is contact possible in such a volatile environment?

In the United States, in Oregon and in other states, some political groups have tried to pass laws that legalize discrimination against homosexuals. Many people, including my friends and me, think that this is stupid, hurtful and dangerous. A few of us at The Process Work Center of Portland decided to organize a series of town meetings where the conflict could be processed. We invited the leaders and members of the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance (OCA: the anti-homosexual group), as well as radical homosexuals (like the Lesbian Avengers and the Bigot Busters) and others who oppose these discriminatory laws and made a forum where the two sides could interact with one another. We invited TV, radio and newspaper reporters. We also videotaped the meetings and showed them in their entirety on TV in order to provoke discussion in the community at large.

Just creating the meetings was a radically new idea. Here were people who had been battling in the courts, the media, and in elections for years. But most of them had never met each other face-to-face. I remember one interaction between a homosexual activist and an anti-homosexual activist. They were having a heated argument when suddenly one of them stopped and said, “What is your name?” When the other man told him, the first one said, “Oh, my name is so and so. I am the one who is suing you in court.” Both men started to laugh. They were fighting it out in the courts, but neither one knew what the other looked like.

Just getting these opposing groups into the same room was the beginning of contact. But I did not know how to really make contact with the people on the other side of the issue. Since I was not facilitating the process (Arny and Amy Mindell facilitated), I was free to be myself and interact as an individual. I did not have to be neutral. But I felt stuck. I felt the people from the OCA were so different from me that I could not relate with them at all. Discussing this with my friends, we realized that we should first try to contact the part of ourselves that is like the OCA. But this was difficult. They say, “The Bible says homosexuality is wrong. Homosexuals are disgusting and are against God. Therefore it should be legal to not hire them, not rent them apartments, etc.” In my opinion, people who think this way are totally dogmatic and closed in their views. Although I tried, I could not find those ideas inside of myself. But then I realized that I am as dogmatic as they are. I think they are against God. I think they are sick and aberrant. The same Bible that they quote also says that God is love, but they are being hateful; so they are, in my view, against God. Surprisingly, I found that I could relate to them. I found that I was actually very similar to them. I wanted to outlaw the OCA. And I realized that in my interaction with them I could use the same energy that they have. I could be as dogmatic and as totally convinced of my side as they are of theirs. In fact, I realized that being “like them” (in the sense of being totally convinced of the righteousness of my cause) would actually help me to be strong enough to fight against them directly. When it came time for the meeting, I was ready for real contact.

Theoretically, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you may be projecting something onto that person. That means that I was not identifying with something inside myself, but instead I saw it in the OCA. By studying them, I could learn things about myself that had been unconscious. Until that point, I had merely thought that they were stupid. I had to change something inside of myself in order to be open to learning from them. That shift in attitude, that belief in the value of the thing disturbing me, was the metaskill that allowed me to work on this as a projection. And then I could see that not only was I similar to them in some ways, but I could benefit from being like them more consciously.

Too many intense things happened to relate in this article. But one interaction was particularly touching. Each side accused the other of being like Nazis. The homosexuals said that the OCA was acting like Nazis by trying to outlaw a class of people. Also, there had been some terrible hate crimes, including a fire bombing by skinheads which caused a fire in which two homosexuals died and an incident where two lesbians were shot at while driving in their car. While no one could prove that the OCA had anything to do with these crimes, some people felt that their anti-gay campaign contributed to an atmosphere which encouraged such acts. On the other side, the gay rights activists were accused of using Nazi-like tactics of vilifying the OCA and making a propaganda campaign that portrayed the OCA as evil. Arny and Amy Mindell held the tension between these two sides and helped them both to express the feelings behind these accusations. At one point, one of the top leaders of the OCA stood up in tears. He said that his parents had been hunted by the Nazis, and had suffered incredibly during the war. He said he could not stand any longer to be called a Nazi, because that went against every fiber of his being. It was incredible to watch this man speak with so much feeling. I had seen him countless times on the news, stating very rationally this or that point of what I consider to be a hateful campaign against homosexuals. I had really hated this man. But as I watched him talking about his own feelings, suffering because of the conflict we were all in together, I felt moved and shaken. My heart started to open toward him as a human being. I still hated his ideas and what he was trying to do politically. But I saw him as a real person, not as a monster. My family had also suffered from the Nazis. Many of them were killed. Slowly, I saw that this man really is like me. He has his own feelings, his own past, his own inner psychology. I still will fight against him. But I will see him as a man, not as a faceless enemy. As a result of expressing all of the aggression and processing the difficult feelings, there was real contact.

There are many ways to look at this complex interaction. One could say that each side was projecting its own “Nazi” or repressed shadow of violence and hatred, on the other. Another perspective is that there were two sides in a struggle, and neither side would back down. Each had its arguments for why it was correct and the other side was wrong. This is a typical standoff situation that can be seen around the world in relationships, politics, and national and ethnic conflicts. Typically, either the two sides stay separated and wage a war through the media, the ballot box and the courts (as was the case here) or they really go to war and start to kill each other. Since almost everyone is afraid of the potential escalation, mediators often try to defuse the situation and talk rationally about the issues or try to find areas of common interest. What happened here was categorically different. Arny and Amy Mindell allowed and even encouraged an escalation to occur in a controlled environment. They did this by continually going back and forth between the sides and asking them to continue talking about their feelings. The facilitators were able to hold the tension between the sides, validating what was said by everyone present. This created an atmosphere where something new could arise. This is similar to the idea of the transcendent function. Jung wrote that when we hold the tension between the opposites, then a third (new) thing can arise out of the conflict (Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche: page number). Of course, Jung was speaking about a process that happens within an individual. But here we saw it happen in a group. By holding the tension between the warring parties, a space was created for something new to arise: an expression of pain and with it, an awareness of the “enemy’s” humanity.

How could the facilitators do this? Most people would probably cringe from all of the bad feelings, fear the escalation or worry that nothing good could possibly come from so many accusations. I believe that the facilitators were able to sit with and contain so much heat and tension because they had done so before in other terribly difficult situations. This is what Arny Mindell (1995) calls “sitting in the fire.” After we have sat in the heat of extreme conflicts, tension no longer seems so horrible. After many experiences like this one, where something beautiful comes out of something seemingly impossible, one begins to develop a belief in the wisdom of the process.

At other moments during these town meetings, there were similar revelations and moments of coming together, from both sides. Possibly no one’s mind was changed about the issue. But I think many people’s minds were opened to the humanity on the other side. That is important if we are to live in the world together. Maybe we cannot always agree. But if we can meet as people, we might not have to kill each other. Maybe we can be not merely enemies, but worthy opponents, learning from the conflict and from each other. But this can only happen if we try, with all our might, to make contact with those people we cannot stand, with those people who are the most difficult and impossible, the ones who are most different from us. Maybe we will find out that we are not so different after all.

Final Musings

So what have we learned here? We saw that in order to make contact, it may sometimes be necessary to give up our own ideas of what contact means and follow the process of the other person. We may have to give up our normal or consensus reality view of what communication is, or how people should interact with one another. We may have to change channels and find ways of making contact that are strange or unusual in our society. We also learned that people who are difficult to contact may not be the ones with the problem. It may be our inhibitions and closed minds that keep us from contacting them. If we could be free and creative, if we could follow the moment and adapt ourselves to the process of the person in front of us, then contact could be not only easy but also exciting and fun. We may even learn from these supposedly impossible people, instead of trying to teach them the correct way to be. Maybe they are our teachers. They can teach us about new ways of relating, about new ways of being, about spirit, about other realities outside the one we normally inhabit.

Doing all of these things takes certain skills, certain tools. But just as important as the tools are the feeling attitudes that open our hearts and minds to people, states, and processes that seem so different from what we already know. Trusting in the wisdom of the process is not something that can be learned, but it comes with experience of the awesomeness that unfolds as you follow that process.

Making contact with people who are usually difficult to contact is not just important in work with clients, although it surely can be useful there. Making difficult contacts can enrich our personal lives as well. And, if I may sound too optimistic here for a moment, having a lifestyle of making impossible contacts might actually help the world that we live in. Because let’s face it, there is a lot of suffering out there. Homosexuals, people with AIDS, and people who are diagnosed as mentally ill are ostracized, forced out of our society. They feel they cannot tell “who they are” or else people will avoid them, fear them, ridicule them or beat them. This modern-day persecution is as painful as it is subtle. And while we are speaking of suffering: racism, sexism, nationalism, anti-Semitism and ethnic as well as religious conflicts are just some of the problems that result at least partially from not having real contact with, respect for and understanding of people who are different. If we all were interested in making contact, if we all made a priority of seeking out those different from ourselves and trying to learn from them and learn about them, then perhaps this planet would not be such a dangerous place. Of course, this is too simplistic and optimistic. But why not try anyway? Why are we on this side and not on the other side? Why do we live the way we always have, and not try something new? Dover. Take that step.


  1. For details on picking up minimal cues, see Mindell (1989: 64).
  2. For details about working with auditory signals and the sounds of speech, see Arye (1991).


Lane Arye, Ph.D. is an internationally known process-oriented therapist and teacher. He developed Unintentional Music, a way of using process work with musicians (and non-musicians) as they play or sing to help them transform their music and themselves. A long-time colleague of Dr. Arnold Mindell, Lane teaches process work, Unintentional Music, creativity, and conflict resolution throughout the US and around the world. In the Former Yugoslavia, he co-leads an on-going United Nations funded project that brings together mixed groups of Croats, Serbs and Muslims to work on ethnic tensions, democracy building and human rights. His book, Unintentional Music: Playing with Your Deepest Creativity, will be published by Hampton Roads Publishing Company in 2001. Lane has a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is also a singer and songwriter.