Process Work, Trauma, and Levels of Reality

Posted on May 11, 2011 in Featured Content, Reflections on Counseling

Golden week is just over in Japan. It is the first long national holiday since the earthquake and tens of thousands of volunteers have made their way north to assist with the clean-up following the tsunami. A number of my friends have been there cleaning out homes, preparing food for survivors or, in the case of one friend, on a team of 60 who picked up 18 tons of rotting fish (click) that were once on ice in the fish market but lay spread all over the thawing spring landscape by the tsunami.

On Friday, I spoke with a woman who had just returned from Minami-Sanriku, one of the towns most devastated by the disaster. It had been two weeks since her last trip yet in spite of the number of volunteers and the massive national effort, the need is so great that scarcely a dent had been made in the devastation. Another volunteer remarked, “The big picture overwhelms…you focus on the hour’s work, the day’s work and keep going”.

“One challenge of our adventure on earth is to rise above dead systems…wars, nations, destructions…to refuse to be a part of them, and express the highest selves we know how to be.”
Richard Bach (One)

The extreme power differential in such events as earthquakes, tsunamis, rape, torture, among others can dis-empower and disconnect those impacted and fragment the human psyche (Emetchi, 2011). It follows that over time (maybe even a lot of time), one of the primary tasks of recovery is to gradually rebuild agency and connection. To that end, in previous articles (click) on this topic I have shared pathways and processes that hopefully help others but have certainly helped us re-establish a locus of control and connection.

Practitioners of process oriented psychology (POP) or process work view experience across multiple levels of awareness. This can be a helpful way of cultivating a connected and empowered reality. It makes a lot of intuitive sense to me and I expect it will be accessible to others as well. I do not profess to be an expert in process work nor are process oriented practitioners the authority on many of the ideas that follow as they are far more ancient – some in excess of 4,000 years old.

The World as it Appears

Looking around us we may agree that daily reality occurs through the facts, things, people, identities, issues, beliefs, struggles, and challenges. At this level we experience stress, inflict harm, oppress, become oppressed, wage war, and make love. This is the level where we laugh. This is the level of experience where we suffer. As meaningful as this level of experience can feel at times, it is superficial when compared to deeper levels of connection, fluidity, and awareness. This level is called consensus reality (CR) in process work (Mindell & Mindell, 2006) or perhaps, Maya, from the Upanishads as the physical world of appearance. What is noteworthy about the world as it appears is that it presents as both polarized and hierarchical (Emetch, 2011). By polarized what is meant is that it is wrought with either/or identities, viewpoints and tensions which are to a degree static. By hierarchical, what is meant is unconscious or conscious use of power-over others (Mindell & Mindell, 2006)

The Dream-like State

While I expect the daily experience level to be pretty acceptable, the dream-like state is where this approach might challenge some people. I offer that it is worth overcoming whatever is difficult to explore possibilities. If in the end, it doesn’t resonate with you then that is useful information as well.

In both awake and sleep dream-like states our roles become, as Mindell and Mindell (2006) termed, “non-local” meaning ever-present throughout the universe without regard for space and time. For people that have had transcendental moments of connection this won’t seem foreign. For others who have not pushed beyond the boundaries of the world of appearances, this may be harder to access. In the case of the latter, dream experiences during sleep may be the most approachable as in the context of dreams our roles become less rigid and defined.

During dreams we can be one person and then another in an instant as contextual realities shift easily and seamlessly without regard for physical laws, social customs, or boundaries. Similarly, at a dream level whether asleep or awake, hierarchies and power dynamics are fleeting, unfixed, interchangeable, and nearly inconsequential. From a non-fixed dream level of awareness, the dualities and restrictions of the world of appearance begin to fade. Further we see that the permanence we previously held for the surface reality loosens.


At the essence level, dualities vanish, and power-over relationships become entirely inconsequential. At the essence level of awareness, we come into contact with a “non-dual” quality of experience. There is no separation of things at the essence level only “oneness” (Mindell & Mindell, 2006). A near equivalent can be found in another concept from the Upanishads – Brahman.

the irreducible ground of existence, the essence of everything – of the earth and sun and all creatures, of gods and human beings, of every power of life (Easwaran, 2009).

This isn’t to say that our very real problems of consensus reality can be solved through transcendence to the essence state because that privileges one state over another.  Any accordance with the hierarchical structure of the world of appearances by definition is not part of oneness. Rather than supercede all other states of awareness, essence pervades all other states and embodies all possibilities simultaneously.

Back to Trauma, Empowerment, and Connection

From a position of multi-leveled awareness that is referred to in POP as “deep democracy”, we are able actively interact with all of the different parts of a problem or an issue (Emetchi, 2011). We are able to  work with the negative influence itself including the various forces that characterize it such as victimization, perpetration, observation, resiliency, among countless other possibilities. From a viewpoint of multi-leveled awareness, permission is facilitated to be a victim but not be seen as only a victim. I am struck by how critical this flexibility is for healing.

From a non-judgmental, non-hierarchical vantage-point, two experiences such as victimization and resiliency can be given permission to occur at the same time. Identities following trauma that Emetchi (2011) referred to as victim, survivor, and thriver can occur simultaneously in a non-linear fashion without pressure to progress or to place the traumatic experience in a context of growth or meaning. As a result of delicate use of deep democracy or “oneness”, people effected by traumatic experiences are not further violated by being restricted to any one stage, perspective, or place. Multi-leveled awareness allows us to go to a different vantage point and retrieve understanding and perspective to use in day to day reality (Emetchi, 2011). Through this process, power is not seen as a product that can be given (ie. disempowerment) but is cultivated from inside and supported to become stronger (empowerment).

Practically Speaking

From a integrated holistic view a problem can be considered both within and without daily hierarchical power structures. In this place we are able to tap into our indigenous intelligence to access answers regarding problem related questions and how to go about healing. Dropping in and out of different levels over time we experience a release of energy. During times when we are feeling half crazy or in conflict this inner-work activity can be of tremendous benefit (Emetchi, 2011).

Activity: Experience in Inner-Work.

Innerwork can be defined as the process of “noticing the most obvious body movements and signals, as well as subtler dreamlike experiences, and the most subtle, almost ineffable feelings and tendencies occurring within and around us” (Mindell, 2000).

Here is an example of an exercise that may help access dreamlike or essence levels of awareness about a problem or situation.

1) Think of a problem, question, or challenge you are facing and right it down. Since this article has been written in relationship to trauma, feel free to think of a problem, question or dilemma related to trauma and write it down.
2) Take some time to make yourself as comfortable as possible – Experiment with moving your feet, changing your position, and repositioning your arms until you are comfortable. Take several slow deep breaths. Scan your body from head to toe and ask yourself where in your body is the deepest part of yourself located, whatever that may mean to you – let your intuition answer.
3) What is it like there? What is the quality of feeling? Is there sound? Color? Movement? How does it connect to your breathing? How does it move you?
4) Associate that deepest inner part in your body to a physical spot on the earth and let yourself go there in your mind – shapeshift and become that spot with its sounds or silence, it’s movement or stillness. Are there aromas? What is the feeling quality there? Take time to really feel into that Earthspot so you become it. Draw a quick energy sketch of it and then write down a couple of words to describe it.
5) Now feel your self back into that Earthspot, and when you are there, look back at your everyday self who has the problem, question, or challenge and allow your response to emanate from your Earthspot mind. What does it have to say and how does it respond?

Adapted from Innerwork – Process Mind by Cathy Bernatt
(Please click here to see my drawing from the workshop on May 6, 2011)

Process work can enable us to recognize and utilize new connections and begin to proactively address our questions, problems and concerns by stepping outside of the normal (CR) framework to gain new freedom from polarization and paralyzation. The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Dhammapada are just a few of the ready resources that can help us see that there is more to life than our everyday sense experience and allow us to access multiple levels of reality for our own healing and well-being. – AC


Easwaran, E. (2009). The upanishads (Kindle Edition)

Emetchi (2011). Loosening the knot: A process work approach to working with trauma. Creating. Wellesley Center, Minami-Aoyama, Shibuya, Tokyo. 06 May 2011.

Mindell, A. (2000). Working on yourself alone. New York, NY: Penguin.

Mindell, A., & Mindell, A. (2006, March). Deep democracy. Retrieved from



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