Process Oriented Psychology

14.04.2020 |

Episode #8 of the course 10 tools for change by Kate Sutherland


Hurrah that you’re here!

Only three more lessons, and I’ve saved the boldest ones for last!

Today’s tool, Process Oriented Psychology, is for when you need insight into the moment-by-moment dynamics unfolding in a group.



Since the mid-1970s, Arnold Mindell has been charting the territory of individual, group, and societal processes, especially the dynamics of power, marginalization, and change. His framework, often called Process Work, is rooted in Taoism, physics, Jungian psychology, and more recently, Shamanism.

Mindell’s central focus is on process, defined as the constant flow of information. What’s emerging in this moment? What new element or elements are unfolding? What dynamics are in play?


Primary and Secondary Process 

The most important distinction is between “primary process” and “secondary process.” The primary process is what we identify with and how we want others to see us. The secondary process, moment by moment, is that which we experience as “other,” what we don’t want to see in ourselves or have others see in us.

The natural tendency, individually and in groups, is to bolster our primary process: We resist or marginalize what is secondary, since by definition, what’s secondary challenges or disturbs us.


For Example

Take this scenario of “turning a blind eye”:

• Individuals in a group politely raise a disturbing issue, expressing a “secondary process.”

• When others ignore the issue, it is marginalized by the group’s “primary process.”

• Individuals politely raise the secondary process issue again. The primary process again ignores the issue.

• The secondary process raises the issue more forcefully. The primary process can no longer ignore the issue but turns a blind eye.

• The secondary process stridently raises the issue. The primary process says that it will only listen to the secondary process if it presents the issue in a “reasonable” manner—that is, politely.

• If the secondary process raises the issue politely, the primary process ignores it.

• It goes on like this until individuals continue to escalate, amplifying the secondary disturbance to the point where there is a shift in the system.

Sound familiar? Where’s this very human dynamic in your life? Can you see how it plays out in all the nooks and crannies of society and at all levels—within you, relationships, groups, organizations, societies, and the whole human field?


So What?

A key goal of Process Work is to help individuals and human systems to be more aware of and open to their secondary processes because that puts us in the flow of what is most vital and life-sustaining.

Doing so takes us to “the edge”: the boundary between the primary and secondary processes. When I am well inside the edge on the side of the primary process, I am in the familiar territory of what I consciously identify with as being me.

At the edge, I am likely to exhibit what Mindell calls “edge behavior.”



People have different responses to the edge (and the same people have different responses at different times). Some go silent and withdraw, while others talk incessantly or joke around. Some get irritable, blaming, and aggressive, and others get weepy, hysterical, or spacey. The constant is a degree of discomfort, often with a “hot potato” dynamic: energy looking for an outlet.

It is powerful, both personally and when working with others, to be more aware of the edge and the patterns of edge behavior. Being able to name the dynamic—“I think we are at an edge”—can help us ride the waves of awkward silence, high emotion, or swirling thoughts.



The main way to be aware of secondary processes and edges in yourself or a group is to pick up on what Mindell calls “signals.” Signals convey information about a process. They draw our attention away from the comfort zone of the primary process and indicate that there is something else going on. They may occur internally in the form of gut feelings, intuitions, inner voices, or the body’s sensations and spontaneous movements. They may occur externally in the form of body language, tone of voice, synchronicities, and relationship dynamics. There can also be signals from the wider field: a phone ringing, a bird at the window, a snippet on the radio, a passing siren, etc.

Signals are often subtle and easy to miss. However, when we choose to pay closer attention, it gets easier to notice them.

I hope this dip into Process Work inspires you to look further. There are many other powerful concepts in this versatile framework.

Tomorrow, we’ll dive into another way to reveal hidden dynamics: Systemic Constellations. It shares three key relationship dimensions that need attention if your group or system is to be healthy and that unlock potential for non-linear change!

Till then!



Recommended book

A Path Made by Walking: Process Work in Practice by Julie Diamond and Lee Spark Jones


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