Most of our actions and thoughts are habitual. That is they are not planned or deliberate. We may have some goal in mind, like driving to work. Once we start, our habits will do better than 90% of what it takes to get there. And while we’re driving, we can be listening to music, talking on a cell phone, or just having a long conversation in our minds with someone, either rehearsing what we’re going to say, or redoing something we did or did not say, yesterday. When you think about all the things we do without thinking or planning, you may wonder who’s in charge, really.
Let’s take some especially important habits, the ones that strongly influence the choices we make. These habits involve beliefs (habitual thoughts) and convictions, which are thoughts that have strong feelings associated with them. We all have convictions about who we are and what kind of situation living is; and how much we can trust people in general and what we can expect from people, life and ourselves. We all have convictions about what’s true and real and valuable. We act these out habitually, without questioning them, often without even knowing what they are.
Most of these habits were learned the same way we learned to speak within the language and grammar of our native tongue: we did it by imitation and through interacting with others. We established these habits without using critical thought to examine them. We tried things out and kept what worked, long before we had the maturity to understand what we were doing.
Some of these habits are not useful anymore. We’re not the child who needed them. Our situation has changed radically. Still, they persist. Habits this deep are part of our way of being in the world. And that in turn has a stabilizing effect on what kind of world we create for ourselves. Habitual convictions create stable systems of living for the people who carry them where and when such stability is possible.
As clients, to change some of these old, deep habits, we first need to know what they are. We need to examine them and understand them. Then we need to try something different. All of that requires real courage, intelligent support and an emotionally safe setting. The therapist (1) creates a calm, caring relationship in which we do the work we have to do; (2) helps us understand who we are at those deep levels; (3) provides a way to initiate new actions which are based on more realistic beliefs and lead to more nourishing experiences. That’s what this method is designed to do.
As therapists, we have important things to practice. We must practice being loving. We train our minds to be continuously present. We learn to cultivate a state of mind called loving presence. We also learn to recognize the external signs of the client’s present experience and long-term, deep beliefs, especially the non-verbal, habitual expressions of those beliefs. We use these skills to help clients discover who they are. We also have some unique methods. One is a practice called mindfulness. In mindfulness one simply notices the changes in one’s experience, without interfering. Clients learn to be in that state of mind for brief periods. While they are in that state, we do “little experiments” that are designed to evoke reactions which help clients become aware of their deep beliefs. The experiments are always voluntary, safe and offer positive, emotionally nourishing ideas and/or actions. The effect is to bring into awareness any resistance to what’s offered. In mindfulness, clients easily notice any resistance.
An example: let’s say a client has a physical habit of always (or almost always) looking at the therapist with a skeptical tilt of the head and a sideways glance of the eyes. Hakomi therapists would more than likely read those habits as signs of a belief that people can’t be trusted. To test that idea, the therapist would first ask the client to become mindful. (This would be a client who already knows how to do that and feels safe enough and curious enough to do it. And it would be after therapist and client have established a good working relationship.) Then the therapist would say, in a soft, neutral voice, something like, “You can trust me.” Or, “I won’t hurt you.” In reaction to that, the client might notice a spontaneous thought like, “No I can’t!” Or, to the second statement, “Yes, you will!” Or, the client may not have thoughts at all, he or she may simply feel fear. Or, he or she may have a memory of betrayal by a significant person. Awareness of reactions like these begin to bring awareness, clarity and understanding. This is how the method makes the unconscious, conscious. This is how the freedom to change begins.
Once these reactions come into consciousness, we work to have them stated clearly in words. This part of the process is called, going for meaning. We want clients to examine these memories with their conceptual minds. Deep beliefs and habits are emotionally based and often very out of date. Just examining them in consciousness can start the process of changing them. Often, our little experiments trigger painful emotions, sometimes very strong ones. When these arise, we offer comfort, by doing something like offering a hand or sitting close by. When clients can accept this kind of physical comfort, they relax and can manage the feelings they’re having more easily. As a result, without effort, they have insights. In this way, we provide the emotional support that very likely was missing in those early situations that created the client’s core issues.
The first experiment doesn’t always evoke strong emotions or deep beliefs. Usually, the first few experiments just help the client and therapist gain some insight. Eventually (which can be as short as a few minutes or as long as a few sessions) the process leads to an experiment that triggers a powerful reaction, one that reveals deep issues and/or evokes strong emotions. Again, we offer emotional support. At this stage we’re looking for relief and understanding for the client. We want to help clients find meaning in it all.
By doing this, we have already begun creating an experience that was missing in the original situations. The emotional support and the understanding that loving, intelligent adults can provide weren’t there. Something painful, frightening or demeaning was there instead. Because of the beliefs and habits that resulted, certain nourishing experiences have never been possible. If the early situations created a habit of mistrust, being comfortable in an intimate situation will be impossible. Trust is a missing experience. After all that becomes clear for the client, new experiences become possible. Old ways of being and ideas can be challenged. We offer clients a chance to experience what has been missing all their lives. When they do it is life changing. A new world opens up. It has been said “each act of knowing brings forth a world.” This is surely what happens in at this point in the therapy process.
After that, the client needs support to continue exercising the new beliefs and building the new habits. The client also needs to practice the new nourishing behaviors in his or her everyday world. The client needs both therapeutic and everyday support for that, until these new behaviors become habits themselves and drift once more out of consciousness. At that point, the job is done.