An Interview with Ron Kurtz

By Donna Martin

The USABP (United States Association of Body Psychotherapists) has awarded their lifetime achievement award to Ron Kurtz who created the Hakomi Method. Hakomi began as body-centered psychotherapy (a term that Kurtz coined in his book of that title), meaning primarily that the practitioner pays attention first to nonverbal indicators rather than to the content of a client’s story.

The essence of the Hakomi Method has always been, and continues to be, simple experiments in a state of mindfulness to reveal how someone’s experience is organized. A tradition in Buddhism and some other spiritual practices, mindfulness is a way of paying attention to present experience, without interfering with or controlling what happens.

Kurtz talks about the need in psychotherapy to access what has been referred to as the “adaptive unconscious”–those underlying.implicit ideas, attitudes and beliefs that organize our experience, especially our experience of unnecessary suffering. These implicit beliefs are outside awareness and so we cannot talk easily about them, at least in ordinary consciousness.

Rather, these implicit beliefs are revealed in how we express ourselves, in our posture and gestures, in habitual behaviors, in our ways of perceiving and making meaning of events. The Hakomi method involves the evocation of a reaction that, when studied in mindfulness, points toward a “missing experience”–some kind of emotionally nourishing experience that the person is missing out on because of how he or she is organizing experience.

Strongly influenced by Gestalt, with its focus on present experience, and by Bioenergetics, with its focus on the mind-body connection, Hakomi as a method also evolved from Kurtz’s interest in Taoism, yoga, and Buddhism. Other major influences have included research in neuroscience and such books as Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves, Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain, Llinas’ “I” of the Vortex, Daniel Siegel’s The Mindful Brain and Chris Frith’s Making Up the Mind.

While some writers believe it is impossible to access the adaptive unconscious, Hakomi has discovered a way to use mindfulness, and several simple experiments, to assist clients to quickly become conscious of the most basic attitudes and habits that cause what Buddhists call unnecessary suffering. Years ago, during a demonstration of Kurtz’s work at Naropa University, the head of Buddhist studies there described Hakomi as “applied Buddhism.”

For about the past 15 years Kurtz has emphasized “the practice of loving presence.” This state of mind and being of the practitioner creates the field or context in which the rest of the method takes place. It has thus become the focus of the training, supported by research, as reported in the APA’s Heart and Soul of Change: What Works in Therapy, in studies by Stephen Porges, and in such groundbreaking books as A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis and his colleagues. (Both Porges and Lewis were keynote speakers at the last Hakomi conference held in Boulder in August 2005. The next Hakomi conference will be held in August 2008 in Boulder.)

Hakomi is now being taught by dozens of trainers all over North America, as well as in Central and South America, Japan, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Kurtz continues to teach and practice at home in Oregon, as well as at other centers, including a training in Austin, Texas, “Hakomi for the Buddhist-minded”.

In addition to its use in psychotherapy, Hakomi is being practiced by helping professionals in such settings as medicine, teaching, life coaching, social work, spiritual workshops, parenting, and support groups.

What follows is brief interview the author had recently with Kurtz:

D: Before anyone was really talking about mindfulness, especially in psychotherapy, you came up with the idea of using it in combination with simple experiments for self-study. What gave you the idea to do that?

R: It was in the early 70’s. I was working with a woman who had very negative ideas about her value as a person. She didn’t say so, but she “acted that way”.  I imagined that telling her she was okay would only evoke an argument or nothing at all.  So, I asked her just to pay attention to what she experienced when I said the next thing to her. I waited until she looked ready and I told her, “You’re a good person.”  Something like that.  I remember that she started crying and we took it from there.  So, that was the beginning. “Pay attention to your experience” was really my way of asking for mindfulness.  With my background in Buddhism, I quickly recognized it as such. Using mindfulness this way has become a central part of my work.

D: If you could refer to one major change in how you understand the point of psychotherapy now, compared with say 20 years ago, what would you point at?

R: I’d point at the greater freedom I have now in relating to clients as whole, complex people rather than examples of disease categories or character patterns.  The point of psychotherapy for me has become this: “If you are ready and have the courage to take a deep and honest look at yourself, I’ll assist you. In doing this, you will bring into consciousness – and be able to make new choices about – the normally automatic, nonconscious implicit beliefs which organize your behavior and run your life.”

I have also found that when using the Hakomi Method, clients who are ready to do this move very quickly into deep, emotionally painful material that may have remained unconscious for many years. So, my beliefs about how long psychotherapy has to take have changed radically.

D: When you talk about the importance of the state of mind of the therapist, what exactly do you mean?

R: When we meet another in an intimate way – as we do in therapy and assisted self-discovery – our very beings influence each other. My moods, my thoughts, my way of being will interact, emotionally, neurologically, even philosophically, with yours. If we are congruent, we will reinforce each other.  Where we are not congruent, there will be tension between us and perhaps one of us will change to meet the other.  If I am in “loving presence” – that is feeling love and compassion towards you – and can maintain my awareness of what is transpiring in the present, I will be creating an emotional context that will noticeably affect your state of being.

The power of these two – love and presence – have been celebrated for centuries.

Feeling love and being in the now: when these are parts of the therapist’s way of being, the influence will be positive and powerful.

D: What inspires you to take this new direction in calling the method “assisted self-discovery”?

R: Two things: one, changing my view of myself as the “cause” of change. As a therapist, I am only a participant, a helper.  I’m not the controller of the therapy process.  I am part of the client’s healing process.  Like all healing processes, it is the organism’s own resources, will and power to heal that are most important. Yes, I can assist, but I am not the cause.  This might seem obvious to some people, but when I am supervising students, I see them working too hard and doing too much. I don’t see them leaving enough room for the client’s own resources to come into play. And that’s the second thing: recognizing clients’ resources, their own power to contribute, their courage and their strength. When I see these, I remember, “I am only assisting, only a helper here.” I don’t feel as self-important as I once did.

D: You are going as strong as ever in terms of creativity, and don’t seem to be slowing down much, other than physically. I know you are thinking more and more about the legacy you want to leave the world. How would you describe that today?

R: There is a growing group of skilled people who carry the knowledge and spirit of the work wholly within their beings. Besides the body of work, the writings about theory and techniques, the DVDs and training handbooks, I will be leaving a host of excellent and devoted trainers, teachers, therapists and students. I believe I am leaving a method that is true to our best nature, one that is effective and heartfelt and which is in agreement with the universal human longing for peace, happiness and spiritual wisdom. That, I hope, will be my legacy.

The author, Donna Martin, is an international trainer in the Hakomi Method of mindfulness-based assisted self-discovery. The co-author with Ron Kurtz of a forthcoming book on the practice of loving presence, she maintains a website at www.hakomi.ca.