What is Hakomi?

by Donna Martin (edited by Ron Kurtz)

The Hakomi Method is an experiential method of bodymind therapy based on using a state of mind known as mindfulness for assisted self-study. The method is founded on the idea that “consciousness is choice” and that habitual behaviours are generated by beliefs, attitudes, and past experiences that are mostly outside of consciousness. By bringing into awareness the ideas that inform how we live and how we relate to others, it becomes possible to make changes in the direction of healthier living and happier relationships. The point of the method is to reduce unnecessary suffering.

Hakomi was developed by Ron Kurtz, an American psychotherapist and author of Body-Centered Psychotherapy: the Hakomi Method, and co-author of the Body Reveals, and Grace Unfolding: Psychotherapy in the Spirit of the Tao Te Ching. Hakomi is taught in many countries around the world, including North and South America, Asia, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico, and is widely recognized as the “cutting edge of psychotherapy” (in the words of John Bradshaw).

What Hakomi is interested in studying is the organization of experience. To do this, Hakomi uses mindfulness – a kind of quiet, non-interfering attention to present moment experience – and little experiments to evoke experiences to study. The attention in Hakomi is on present experience.

The Hakomi practitioner is trained to pay attention to two things about present experience: first, what it is (i.e. what is happening now); and second, how it is being organized. We call this way of paying attention “tracking”. First, we are tracking signs of the client’s present experience. Secondly, we are tracking for indicators (that may be signs) of how the client is organizing present experience.
Yes! We’re tracking for nonconscious habits which may be indicators of foundational experiences, which resulted in implicit beliefs that organize experience into actions and emotions that create unnecessary suffering.

Experience is organized by habits. Some habits create experiences of suffering, suffering which is, in effect, unnecessary. This is the kind of experience that we can actually help the client with. We can also help with the kind of suffering that is normal, like grief for the loss of a loved one. If the client’s present experience is painful because of difficult life events happening in present time, we can offer compassion and comfort. We also offer comfort when the client is experiencing emotional pain related to some past experience that has been brought to consciousness by the therapeutic work. Many of these painful past experiences were overwhelming and were not completely integrated. This leaves an ‘irritation’ to the system which requires energy and habits to keep the painful experience away from consciousness. We are also very interested in helping the client become awake in the present moment and aware of the possibility that some kind of nourishing experience, formally unavailable, is available right now.

So, in Hakomi, we are not working on the person’s history. We are, after all, only able to guess at someone’s history. Even someone’s memory is not a reliable source of information about their history. Remembering, however, is a present time experience and, as such, it can reveal how experience is organized, unconsciously and automatically. It is the habitual organization of experience that we want to address as this is what causes unnecessary suffering in present time.

The Hakomi Way is grounded in spiritual understandings gathered from Taoism and Buddhism. Buddhism teaches that the world is always changing. Taoism teaches that these changes are spontaneous, natural, appropriate and do not need to be controlled by humans – “Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.”

Taoism teaches us that what happens is what happens. There is no should or should not about what happens … or what has happened. We learn to rest into things as they are and as they are unfolding. Buddhism teaches us about wisdom and compassion. In Buddhism, we understand that the only reality is the present. The past is a dream. The future is a dream. Only the present moment is real. This is wisdom. However, many of us continue to experience the present as if in a dream. We are dreamers. But, this power to dream also makes us great planners with a great capacity to anticipate and to remember. So our minds are filled with imaginings, many full of fear and hurt that do not match the present state of things. This ignorance and delusion causes unnecessary suffering. We are not fully awake to life as it is.

Experience is organized by habits and ideas. When the ideas that organize our experience are operating outside of consciousness, they are called implicit beliefs. When our actions are organized by behaviors that are on automatic, outside of conscious awareness, they are called reactions.

In Hakomi we want to assist clients to study present experience for clues about their implicit beliefs and the reactions that influence how they organize life experience. We want to help clients discover nourishing experiences that they are not having in present time because of how they are organizing their experience.

There is some misunderstanding about what is meant by the “missing experience” in Hakomi. Let me try to clarify.

Since Hakomi is a method that focuses on present experience, even what we mean by the missing experience is something happening (or not happening) in present time. This might be related to childhood experiences, but those are outside our sphere of influence (unless we are working with an actual child). The only place where we can realistically intervene is in present time. We can ask, how does the person seem to be organizing his or her experience based on behaviors or ideas that are outside of conscious awareness?

And what positive or nourishing experience is missing for the person, right now, because of how she or he is organizing experience? There is this very significant connection between implicit beliefs, habits and the inability to receive certain kinds of emotional nourishment. Implicit beliefs and the habits associated with them, inhibit those perceptions and actions that would create positive experiences. One good reason to bring such beliefs into consciousness is it provides an opportunity to realize how such beliefs actually do that. So, one kind of missing experience is missing because of the habits that keep it from happening.

A second important type of missing experience is one that would have supported the integration of a painful event at the time it first happened. When an old emotional hurt comes into present consciousness, it can be met with a kind of emotional support that was missing during the original event. With kindness and understanding there to meet it now, emotions may flow freely and come to a natural completion spontaneously.

With genuine emotional support, the old pain and its negative effects on the organization of experience have a good chance of dissolving. This kind of unintegrated painful experience is very common. Providing the emotional support that was missing can be very effective.

Talking about past events is only one source of information about how someone is organizing experience. Nonverbal behavior is perhaps a more accurate source. Memory is a very unreliable source of accurate information about the past, but it can be a source of information about beliefs, especially when we pay attention to the person’s unspoken assumptions. A better source is paying attention to non- verbal behavior, searching for indicators of those habits and beliefs connected to the narrative elicited by the memory.

Hakomi was originally referred to as “body-centered” psychotherapy because the information about someone’s present experience and how someone is organizing experience is more available from nonverbal expression than from what the person can or does say in words. So we track nonverbal signs of present experience and indicators of how experience is organised.

In Hakomi, we are accompanying the client on a journey. We are constantly following signs of his or her present experience and where it is going.

The Hakomi Way has four distinguishing characteristics as a therapy method. Two have been with the method from the beginning; two have evolved more recently. From the beginning, there was a focus on present experience and the use of little experiments in mindfulness for the purpose of self-discovery.

What has evolved since is the movement toward a nourishing missing experience. This evolution has been two-fold: First, there is now more understanding of the missing experience as a present experience. We are looking for what kind of nourishing experience the person needs now and is ready for, one that is missing only because the person’s own habits and beliefs make them so. And we will supply it, if we can.

Second, we have more understanding now of how important experience is in shaping the brain, and how important the new nourishing experience is in changing how the mind perceives and responds to life. So we want to spend more time on creating the nourishing experience and less time on the old painful experience. Painful emotions are evoked only long enough to give us the information about what kind of nourishing experience is needed. The focus of attention and time in the therapy session is now on providing the nourishing experience needed and of making sure it is taken in.

One way of doing this, throughout the whole therapy session, relates to the final key ingredient of Hakomi as it has evolved. There has always been an awareness of the importance of what we call the healing relationship. In the past ten years, we have realized that the key to the healing relationship is the state of mind of the therapist. We are calling the particular state of mind that creates the best possibility of a healing relationship loving presence.

Loving Presence is now seen as the key to the whole method.

Previously, in psychotherapy generally, the therapist was supposed to be in a neutral state, somewhat emotionally detached from the client. Now the latest research shows that the successful therapist needs to be loving – emotionally connected with the client, full of compassion (without sympathy), and skilfully responsive to the client in a way that is felt as caring.

In Hakomi, we call this way of being “loving presence.” It means, first and foremost, that we see the client as a source of inspiration and nourishment. We are receiving the client as a gift. This receptive and appreciative state is felt by the client as a reminder of their own personal strength and wholeness.

As Hakomi therapists, we see ourselves, not as professional experts who will heal the client, but as a kind of skilful spiritual friend who will accompany the client on a healing journey. The quality of relationship that this state of mind creates is tangible to the client and to observers. The therapist is relating to the client as a person with another person.

So the four characteristics of the Hakomi way are:

  1. the practice of loving presence and all that entails;
  2. a constant focus on present experience (both the what and the how, using nonverbal expression, emotion, memory, etc as sources of information about present experience and indicators of habits);
  3. the use of little experiments in mindfulness for assisted self-study;
  4. and a movement as soon as possible in the direction of the nourishing missing experience.

It is possible to set up a specific pattern of interaction between two or more people which enhances the probability of healing. When healing is possible, it is a spontaneous unfolding from within the person who heals. A significant influence on any healing process is the context in which it happens. When one person sets the context for another person’s healing, the most significant aspect of that context is the state of mind of the person creating it. Ron Kurtz