Our blueprints for the world form within our childhood bodies. Much like an elephant chained to a stake, we continue replaying lessons learned when we were small, helpless, when resources were limited.
Our brains expend only so much energy on taking in the present moment. For the sake of efficiency (or for safety, when new sensations become confusing/alarming), we often rely on old information—rules that applied to all the systems we learned to navigate as children.
The now-submissive elephant, during some early-life struggle, made a decision about Self and World: “I am too small … or the chain is too big.”
Hakomi therapy is about decisions like this.
“We are trying to get at beliefs, images, memories, decisions about who we are and what kind of world we’re a part of—pieces of the long ago that established patterns of perception, behavior, and systemic experience and still control what can be experienced, felt, thought, and expressed, to this day.” —Ron Kurtz, founder of Hakomi therapy
Our Physical Experience
We live in these bodies, looking out through these eyes.
Using sensory input to navigate, to take in, we organize and rationalize the information streaming into our bodies. Unique to each of us are our senses and our translation of those signals. (Green to my eyes may not be the same green you see.) As that translation happens, we incorporate the meaning of each signal into our already-present narrative of life, our blueprint, our historical template of experience.
In simple terms: first, we experience, and then we make sense of experience. We incorporate that created meaning—and all the strategies and perceptions that come with it—into our sense of Self, Other, and World.
Hakomi Therapy and Organization of Experience
Hakomi therapy, like many therapies, notices and makes use of experience. Unlike most therapies, Hakomi gives explicit attention to the individual’s organization of that experience. This includes all levels of experience, from initially subconscious sensory input, to emotional contact, to meaning-making and identity.
“Within that delicate, supportive environment, we are … able to initiate and further the processes by which the client first comes to know and then to change the habits which make some experiences unnecessarily painful, limiting, and destructive.” —Ron Kurtz
Like other somatic therapies, Hakomi therapy assumes a connection between the present moment and historical selves. Theses “selves” are habitual thought patterns or neural networks created during critical developmental stages, still triggered by and influencing one’s experience of the present moment. In Hakomi, these “selves” are considered a natural organization around core material. It is this core material, evoked by the present moment, that the Hakomi therapist seeks both to know and to influence.
“A careful observer can see the organizing effects of core material even in the most casual details of behavior.” —Ron Kurtz
At some point in each session, the therapy moves away from the content of any dialogue and moves into awareness of the body—its reactions to the present dialogue, its predictive motions, its initiated and halted impulses. Even if the noticing is held by the therapist, it provides the therapist information about associations (often subconscious) between the present topic of conversation and historical/patterned thoughts and emotions … to triggered neural networks … to meanings organized around this topic.
Examples of Core Material
- Let’s say you have always had small feet. You might not feel stable, and for some time your only reference point is your own body. There is no comparison. You may develop a personal narrative around instability or clumsiness. You may come to assume all people feel this, or you may look out and assess the reactions of others, eventually concluding you are the only one to experience life in this way. You may develop a part of self that judges your own feet, that forces you to compensate in some physical or social way. Some core material, in this case, might be accessed through the physical sensation of standing on your feet, and might include associations of instability, memories of judgment or ridicule, a belief that you are “different” or “not good enough,” and a choice to hide or compensate to fit into the world.
- Maybe you develop an allergy and struggle to breathe. Each breath you take reminds you of that struggle. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in on a regular basis. This may create a feedback loop that exacerbates the present allergy. Maybe you become irritable. Maybe you choose to avoid activities that increase your heart rate. You might develop a patient appreciation of yourself and others—an empathy for universal struggle. Core material, here, might be accessed through breathing. It might include a feeling of frustration or collapse, a belief that you are “weak” or “fragile,” a strategy of intellectualizing or distancing from parts of life. These are all just possibilities.
All this experience becomes “you”—your internal model of Self. Your personal ongoing (sometimes changing, sometimes looping) narrative is your organization of experience. This biopsychosocial experience shapes your identity.
We experience an event. We then, brilliantly, create some story to explain and make sense of the experience—often forming lasting conclusions or beliefs based on the rationale and perspective of a child.
As we tell ourselves these stories, we are also the listener. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves form our identity—our sense of Self in this world.
A More Complex Example of Core Material
A boy, feeling his father’s constant overwhelm as anger and hatred, began hiding. He would not share too much. He would speak when spoken to. He would spend most of his time outdoors or in his room, taking care of himself, not drawing attention. When his father left for work, he would feel giddy, excited, free.
Later in life, this boy would feel stuck, unable to make life choices, unable to commit to himself or others, seeking the freedom and safety of isolation while simultaneously yearning to be seen and known.
Core material here might be accessed through present bodily sensations in the therapy room, or through visualizations of childhood. The material might include the physical experience of expansion or contraction, anger, feelings of rejection, associations with safety, memories of interactions with his father, strategies used to self-regulate and find safety, belief that he is either insignificant or flawed, or that nothing he does in the world will make a difference.
Hakomi Studies the Flow of Information Within
“The rules of polite conversation are designed to expedite the flow of information between people, not within people.” —Ron Kurtz
Hakomi therapy, by its collaborative and explorative nature, draws all those involved to the internal experience of the present moment. While some may feel initially confused or insecure in the processing of present-moment experience, it is a skill to which most individuals adapt quickly, many finding the process both relaxing and engaging.
Long-held defenses drop away as we learn to observe with curiosity, noticing and “letting be” whatever judgments or discomforts arise, just allowing and exploring—contacting core material, interjecting corrective experience when possible, and reconsolidating previously painful memories with present-moment experience: safety, comfort, and connection in the therapy room.
- Gendlin, E. T. (1981). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.
- Kurtz, Ron. (1985). The organization of experience in Hakomi Therapy. Hakomi Forum Professional Journal, 3(1), 3-9. Retrieved from http://www.hakomiinstitute.com/Forum/Issue3/OrganizationExperience.pdf
- Lewis, T., Amini, F., and Lannon, R. (2000). A general theory of love. New York: Random House.
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