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Process Work Research at the Crossroads

Joe Goodbread

I am often asked, “Please translate Process Work into the terms of ‘X’ (where X is some other psychological paradigm) so that we can understand what you are doing.” My attempt often fails, either because something essential is lost in translation, or because I find myself wound up in a long dissertation on just why a secondary process is not simply the unconscious, or why an edge is not simply a resistance process.

The difficulty goes beyond a matter of terms. Behind terms lie concepts, which form the backbone of any system of thought. The attempt to translate terms is but the surface of a much larger, more complex project of explaining the entirety of the conceptual system that stands behind Process Work. And to explain such a system, we need first to understand it, coherently and comprehensively.

While it is tempting to think at such moments that “others” don’t understand Process Work, I have come to believe that my difficulties explaining it to others come from my own incomplete understanding. And far from being a deterrent to explanation, I believe that this very incompleteness is what makes research in Process Work both exciting and potentially enlightening. It is potentially enlightening because in satisfying my own curiosity within the formalized framework of research, I stand to reconcile the split between the old and the new in myself, and to thereby become a more open and generous colleague and teacher.

Research, Understanding and Self-reflection

Understanding a system is an important function of research. Unless we can formulate questions, search for the answers, understand the answers in terms of the complete system, and finally communicate our findings to others, we are far from completely understanding what we are doing.

Complete understanding of Process Work is impossible, because the system itself is, fortunately, incomplete. One thing that makes Process Work so engaging is that it is still growing, still showing the depth and breadth of human experience that can be grasped and unfolded starting with its basic conceptual framework. Were Process Work complete, it would become a routine method. Research in Process Work would be reduced to statistical studies of its efficacy in this or that practical situation.

Physics, in the early 20th century, underwent a transformation similar to the one in which psychology now finds itself. Stodgy old classical physics was challenged by those mysterious upstarts, relativity and quantum mechanics. Looking at the contrast between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ physics helps us reflect on the current situation in psychology.

Quantum physics, despite its daunting complexity, has found an enthusiastic reception in the informed public. There is something, well, sexy about it. There are new avenues and intriguing alleys to be explored. It invites the best minds to seek unifying viewpoints that make quantum physics coherent in itself as well as a coherent building block in the edifice of physics as a whole. It is so fresh in its difference from the Newtonian approach that to call something ‘Newtonian’ has become something of a put-down.

Newtonian physics is far from dead. You can’t build a space ship or use a screwdriver without Newton’s help. But there is very little sexy mystery left in Newton. Newtonian mechanics, to paraphrase a teacher of mine, is like a lemon out of which most of the juice has been squeezed. To get an extra drop of juice requires an enormous research effort.

You cannot explain quantum theory or relativity by translating their terms into Newtonian terminology. That is because the concepts behind the terms are not directly translatable.

Newtonian physics allows for particles and waves as things that are clearly distinct from one another. Quantum physics has neither particles nor waves, but a single entity with properties of both. To try to reduce quantum particle-waves to Newtonian terms results only in paradox and confusion.

Time and space are distinct and separate concepts in Newtonian physics. In relativity, it is the speed of light that is fixed and basic, while time and space become relative and interdependent, no longer the fixed base on which the universe stands.

Thomas Kuhn, in his groundbreaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, introduced the concept of conceptual paradigms, as we now apply it to physics and to Process Work. In Kuhn’s view, differing paradigms were so incompatible with one another that translation was all but hopeless. Representatives of the old paradigm seldom if ever jumped the gap to understand the new way of thinking about things. The new paradigm was instead transmitted to the students of its discoverer, who then, through their research activity, tested it and gradually turned it into the new “mainstream” view.

The very difficulty of translating Process Work terms into those of mainstream psychology suggests that Process Work is indeed a new paradigm, that our terminology is unique because our conceptual system is fundamentally different from academic, clinical and folk psychology.

Kuhn’s view helps to explain why it is difficult to present Process Work to “the mainstream”. If we see the mainstream as a unified body of knowledge and practice that is superseded by the Process Work paradigm, then we are setting up a system that, by its very nature, will never embrace Process Work. We are defining “the mainstream” as ‘that which is not us’.

No wonder that the prospect of doing research that would be relevant and accessible to mainstream perspectives often seems to me like a daunting, perhaps impossible project. As long as we define the mainstream as that which we are not, the mainstream will by definition never accept our paradigm!

In effect, the so-called mainstream view is a projection of the conservative and state-oriented aspects of my own approach to life in general and psychology in particular. To present Process Work to the mainstream would mean to reconcile my own internal split between what appear to be two modes of experiencing the world.

The Watershed: Between Two Paradigms

Realizing that the mainstream is as much an internal role as an outside reality helps us to re-read Kuhn from a more process-oriented perspective. Perhaps the radical shift from one paradigm to another is only a matter of temporary expedience. Perhaps the two are not as far apart as one might think. For instance, the formulaters of the new paradigm must have made the shift in themselves. Someone needs to take the first leap, leaving the old system behind and creating the new from its rubble.

Paradigm shifts are sometimes abrupt, flowing from the insight of a single person into new ways to view existing data. Perhaps more typically, there is a period of wildly proliferating but incoherent theories that prepare the ground for those who finally supply the unifying insight that makes beautiful order out of enthralling chaos.

Research that is done in this watershed period—before, during and immediately after the paradigm shift—will look a lot less orderly than the ‘mopping up’ operation of ‘normal’ or ‘mainstream’ research that fleshes out the details of an already-accepted paradigm. Watershed research may at times look more mystical than scientific. It is only after the paradigm shift is widely accepted that we can look back on the transitional research and find the orderly bits that helped the shift to complete itself.

My favorite example of such a period concerns the research of Johannes Kepler, who is responsible for definitively proving that the earth goes around the sun.

Patience with the Paradigm

Johannes Kepler was an astronomer, an astrologer, a dabbler in cosmology. He lived from 1571 to 1630, AD, during which time he wrote books comprising many thousands of pages on various aspects of natural philosophy. Most of it was broad-ranging, mostly mystical speculation on the nature of things. Very little of this is now studied, or taken seriously by today’s scientists. However, buried in this monumental work are three accurate laws of planetary motion that Kepler derived from his direct observations of the planets, despite a series of errors of thought and observation that fortuitously cancelled one another out. But these three laws of planetary motion were sufficient stimulus for Isaac Newton to not only explain the detailed mechanics of how the planets moved as they did, but to derive his law of universal gravitation, one of the cornerstones of modern quantitative physics.

Arthur Koestler has called this period in the development of modern physics the “watershed”, the time before which citizen-philosophers did casual research to satisfy their curiosity about the natural world, and after which a coherent, mathematically consistent model of reality was built up of studies which have the character of modern scientific inquiry.

Koestler referred to Kepler as a “sleepwalker”, someone who wanders wherever the spirit moves him, without the guidance of a concrete vision or coherent system of thought.

This period before a paradigm becomes thoroughly coherent, when it is still fraught with more mystery than fact, more dreaming than sober calculation, can be one of intense excitement and creative fervor. The transition from pre-paradigmatic sleepwalking to “normal science”, to use Kuhn’s phrase, is a bittersweet moment that risks losing more than is gained.

Along with the transition from sleepwalking to science comes a streamlining of communication in an effort to present the new ideas to a wider community of interested colleagues. To present Process Work to “the mainstream” is nothing less than the desire to widen the community of Process Work to include our colleagues from a great diversity of social, scientific and therapeutic disciplines.

We are, like Kepler in the late 16th century, on the cusp of a modern watershed. As we bring process ideas into a greater variety of mainstream applications and situations, the job of communicating our ideas and results in a coherent form may be compared with Kepler’s and Newton’s formalizing and abstraction of a host of empirical observations into a coherent science of mechanics.

And the very first step of this project may be to remember that we, ourselves, are the hardest sell of all. As long as we project skepticism and conservatism on an external mainstream, we risk getting stuck on the very edge we are in the midst of crossing.

Would Quantitative Research Be the Death of Process Work?

I believe there is a covert fear in the Process Work community that doing quantitative research on the efficacy of Process Work would kill something essential in the vision that stands behind Process Work.

Physical symptoms are a case in point. We may view the emergence of a symptom as a dreaming process that expresses experience that, because of edges or other marginalization processes, can only emerge in a relatively unoccupied channel. This suggests strongly that “picking up” the information, energy or essence of that experience makes it more accessible, and relieves it from having to express itself as an autonomous symptom.

Does processing our edges make us healthier in a medical or consensus-reality sense? It seems to me to be a simple matter to check out whether or not this is the case. And yet, in the more than quarter-century since the formulation of the Dreambody theory, very few quantitative studies of this sort have been done. Perhaps there is a fear that something essential would be lost in this process.

The last chapter of the I Ching in the Wilhelm edition, is called, “Before Completion”. It points to a time of great creative potential, when things aren’t quite coherent yet, but show great promise of reaching a successful conclusion. It is like being on the cusp of a breaking wave.

The next to the last chapter is called “After completion”. It describes a dismal time, when the stasis of complete coherence has been achieved.

I pray that each act of discovery for me will be like tantric sex… squeezing one more drop of anticipation out of an impending but never-arriving climax.

My first profession was mechanical engineering. Nothing can beat the the thrill of seeing the successful completion of an engineering project. Yet the moment when you plug in the widget and it functions perfectly is a sweetly melancholy time. You can package the thing up and send it out to the public, where it will be built into somebody’s soap-making process, reliably improving its yield by a few percent and freshening up a sagging bottom line. But the widget itself will be forgotten to the degree that it is successful. Its users will never be as excited about it as I was before it was complete.

Are we on the brink of a similar transition in Process Work research? Do we fear that doing quantitative research oriented toward verifying or disproving various aspects of the theory might boot us out of the paradise of a wide-open system bursting with creative energy into a sterile hell of “normal science” where truth and reality hinge on a couple of percentage points on a scale of efficacy?

I, for one, believe it is worth the risk. I believe that if we remain in touch with our own excitement, no amount of quantitative research will ever dry up the well of curiosity and creativity that drives current inquiry into Process Work. I believe that projecting our own skepticism on an outer, stereotypical “mainstream” poses a far greater risk to our project, by discouraging communication and healthy skeptical inquiry.

Zurich, Switzerland
April, 2004