ON HEALTH, ILNESS AND DREAMING. Interview with Max Schupbach

Bogna Szymkiewicz: Process-oriented psychology was developed when Arnold Mindell extended Jungian psychology to the realm of the body. He described his ideas in the book „Dreambody: The Body’s Role in Revealing the Self”.[1] What is the „dreambody” and how was it discovered?

Max Schupbach: The beginning of the Dreambody concept was when Arnold Mindell made a connection between body symptoms and dreams. One of Arny’s first stories is about working with a person with cancer. He was a Jungian analyst at that time, using Jungian methodology to work with dreams, and he wasn’t getting as far as he wanted in understanding the disease process using only dream images. Then he watched his son, who had fallen down and had a scab. The son picked at the scab and reopened the wound. Because his son so naturally amplified his symptom, Arny had the idea to amplify symptoms.  It’s a big question: why was his son driven to reopen his wound?  Then Arny found, while working with his clients’ breathing problems, that when people subtly amplify their body symptoms, they have experiences that closely resemble their dream experiences at night. He called that connection the dreambody. The body is not only sick, it is dreaming, it is in dreamtime.

Bogna: In your opinion, what are the basic parallels and the basic differences between process work and Jungian psychology?

Max:  Historically, we are connected to Jung, as you know. When we look at the theoretical and emotional relationships, we see that Jung is one among many different ancestors of process work. [In that sense, the question could be misleading, as it suggests a closer theoretical and emotional bond to Jung, than we have in my view] I think that Jung’s greatest contribution to psychology was the idea that psychological problems, dreams and complexes were not only pathological occurrences that needed fixing, but also expression of a person’s journey toward self-realization. In this respect, we process workers are still Jungian. Our main goal is to follow the process, meaning that we facilitate and enhance the stream of experiences that a person, a couple, or a group might go through. Meaning is one of the paths that is taken on that journey, but it is not necessarily always the path. In this respect, I resonate with the ideas of the original Taoist meditators, or aspects of Zen Buddhism, which I feel closer to than to Jung. Many process workers would say that Lao-Tse, the Taoist sage, is the most important theoretical and emotional ancestor of process work. The Taoists say that experience itself is enough, without any further explanation or meaning attached to it; following the pure uninterpreted impulses of the creative mind creates a state of enlightenment or feeling one with all.

Also, many process workers have a great interest in relationships and community life and the application of our paradigm in different cultures. For example, I work among the Australian Aboriginal community, and I feel more connected to their paradigm and practice of dreamtime than to Jungian thinking, which is more focused on the individual and is very European in its outlook. Process work amplifies in all experiential modes, which we call channels, and works with the movement, relationships, body sensations, and world situations of the client. From this perspective, some see us closer to Gestalt than to Jungian Psychology.

Bogna: I would like to focus on body symptoms now. You are well known all over the world as a process worker who works with body symptoms. After years of meeting with people who are sick and suffering from various body problems, what does the concept of „illness” or „disease” mean to you?

Max: I am very interested in body symptoms and love working with them. Illness can be excruciatingly painful and difficult and we hope to be spared some of its pain. But at the same time, illness can be the great illuminator, an express train to enlightenment. The experiences you find in your own sickness, if over time you are able to make space for them and go deeper into them, catapult you into another reality. A common cold, like the one I have now, if followed in its details, can bring experiences of a place of tranquility and peace, away from the hectic happenings of everyday life.  It’s another time-space consciousness that contains a balancing energy to your everyday attitude.

Illness also can create deeper, more creative and more interesting lifestyles. I know many people whose sickness was their reason for connecting to God in a new and direct way. Many people who become ill rethink and revitalize their relationships, or find new and unbelievable creativity or social action projects. Many are guided into a life in which fun and joy play bigger roles. Of course, all of us who live in consensus reality like our bodies to allow us to do certain things, to give us some minimal degree of comfort, or absence of pain, or whatever you want to call health. Nobody looks forward to being ill. But living too much in consensus reality, pretending that it is the only reality that counts, is some sort of sickness too. By living in consensus reality, I mean that we accept the world we live in as the governing reality in which our lives should take place. We then focus on that consensus life span of 80 or 50 or 20 years. During this time, we are constantly showered with ideas about how to best spend these years—by our upbringing, our environment, the media, and so on. Illness not only challenges these concepts but actually brings in alternative values and experiences.

This morning I worked with a woman who has a tumor in her colon. The tumor cells turned out to be „evil”, because the person was too „good” and made no room for evil in her life. For her, being more evil meant that she would live more instinctively and be more connected to her body. She would sweat more, develop more relaxed relationships to natural functions like burping and farting, and allow herself to admit to herself that she at times likes sex. This attitude counteracts an ethics from a puritanical European Catholic upbringing. Living more in her body would show this woman how to know when something feels good and when not. It would allow her to lead her life, profession and relationship based more on the passion of the heart than on what is considered appropriate for her role. We can see that a simple thing like being more in touch with your body energies can have far-reaching consequences.

Many of us often start with an attitude of „Let’s forget what is happening in the body. Just show me how my body can be made better so that it will go along with how I am planning to live my life.” Of course, this attitude is valid and normal and also beautiful. But it does not come from the dream-reality where body symptoms happen. Body symptoms occur in a reality that is beyond health, beyond life and death and short-lived social values. Symptoms happen in eternity. The part of you that has these experiences lives in eternity, or timelessness. From that viewpoint the ideas of health and illness are meaningless. Dreambody work helps bring these two realities together and supports the person to become fluid in going back and forth between these states, valuing both of them equally.

Living on this planet is a part of a transformation process for all of us. We go through birth, then a growing body and lots of other transformations, then sometimes an aging or sick body, and finally the transformation called death, or the end of the body. Since society places a high value on health, youth, and activity, and since consensus reality is viewed as the only one, death is seen as the final enemy, the end of it all. Which it really isn’t, from the viewpoint of dreaming. From the viewpoint of dreaming it is like any other stretch in your experiential stream.

During the Lava Rock seminar on the Oregon Coast, we recently worked with a man who had AIDS. He had lots of breathing problems and his doctors had said that, in their opinion, the end was coming. When we subtly amplified his breathing, he entered an altered state and became very quiet. He no longer lamented the coming end, but looked very peaceful. Everybody was moved by the obvious peace on his face as he silently experienced his breathing process. Then he started to cry, opened his eyes, and told us that he was crying with joy because he saw himself jumping off a cliff over the ocean and flying around looking at the world. He said that, contrary to his usual outlook, he found himself feeling deep love for the planet and all the beings on it, and profound hope and optimism, a certainty that everything was right and happening for the best. He was in bliss. After some time and some interactions with other group members, one of them asked if he thought he had crossed the threshold of life. He looked puzzled, and then explained that he thought his experience belonged neither to life nor death, but rather to a separate reality.  He died a few days later in a hospital, in the midst of a good-bye party he gave for his friends.

Bogna: Right… But, as you said, people who start to work with their symptoms often just want to get rid of them and go back to their „consensus reality” lives. This is their main goal. What is your goal, when you as a process worker work with body symptoms?

Max: Process work says: the goal of working with a person is to follow someone’s process. I am trying to follow a person’s process, but of course I often fail. Following a process means that I am trying to follow a number of signals that appear in the person. I also try to follow myself and find out how my own reactions and signals are connected to the process of the person and how I can make them useful to the other person. It is very much a breath-by-breath meditation. For example, this might mean that, when a person is sick, they might not want to work on their symptoms. Then, my goal would be to follow that and see where it might lead. Sometimes, it can lead to an unfinished story from the past or other issues that are more pressing on the person’s mind than their illness. They might even need to be working on something that is more important to them than their own life, such as a particular kind of learning that they must have. The biggest problem, in my view, comes when I as a therapist try to be helpful to a person, instead of focusing on being aware of what is happening. Wanting to „help” dims one’s consciousness and frequently becomes the root of confusion. For one thing, I am then pressuring myself to achieve something. I therefore subtly start to pressure the person towards a particular type of experience, which in the best case won’t happen, and in the worst case ends up in a psychological wrestling match with the client.

Bogna: I guess what I am trying to do is to connect the world of dreaming, or thinking in terms of dreaming, to the common knowledge or consensus reality.

Max: You mean, what could you do if you have a body symptom?  Well, what you could do if you have a symptom is think that a disease is an interesting experience, worthy of further exploration, and not only an enemy that needs to be overcome. Of course, this is easy to say when you are healthy, say, or slightly sick with a common cold.

What this woman said this morning2 is true: so many people find out, when they go into the experience of their illness, that what we usually call life is some sort of deadness, while going deeper into something that looks „life threatening” can bring experiences where people feel truly alive for the first time.

Usually, we travel on consensus reality roads. Let’s say that you are a woman and that you have been told that the right role for you is to have children and look after them. This might be very beautiful, very rewarding. But certain people don’t have this process. They only live it because they feel it is expected of them. This is like playing at a role; there is some sort of deadness in it. Or, if you are a man, you will be told that your main role is to look after a family, to go out and make money to provide for them. This might be a very limited aspect of life. Many of us have no other choices than to follow the roles that society intends for us. We are forced to do so by our economic situation, or at least we believe we are forced to do so. For many of us, it is also the way we like to live.

An illness is a chance out of these collective roles. I have met so many people who say, for example: „I have cancer. I have been working on it for the past two years, and I am starting to get nervous that I might get healed. My life has changed so much, I am living so differently, so intensely and beautifully, and I am afraid that if I get healed I will go back to my normal routine self.”

You can say that, in a sense, if you look at everyday living, a lot of what we call consciousness is actually more a kind of sleepwalking. We go through our lives and our jobs and our relationships, and in a sense, it is like a sleep walk, going along with particular roles, double signaling all over the place. Illness is the opportunity to get out of those roles, to go into the altered states that do not go along with consensus reality. It’s a great thing, illness.  No, one shouldn’t say that, because it is a terrible thing as well.

Bogna: So, it seems that we are imprisoned in consensus reality, in these roles that we are playing. But on the other hand, these roles help us find our place in the world, to keep our identity. Is there anything wrong with having an identity?

Max: What you are asking is very important. We all need an identity. It is great to have an identity, especially when you have a meta-position, that is, an inkling that your identity isn’t really your total self. In my view, many therapists are not sufficiently trained in understanding that lots of people have a process of developing an identity, of needing to be seen as who they are in the world, just as many therapists are not sufficiently conscious of how much dreaming is marginalized in our society.

But there are periods in your life when you are too much in the identity. You are too much Max Schupbach or Bogna Szymkiewicz this and that, this and that address, this and that telephone number, busy with establishing yourself, being somebody, so to speak. There are other periods in your life when you feel you are not enough the address and the telephone number. You feel that you need to pull yourself together in your consensus reality scene.  At that point, the task of the process worker is to help the person become stronger in their identity, to have clearer boundaries, and to learn to become fluid between having an identity and moving out of it into other parts of the self. Actually, life is teaching that anyway, and the process worker is just trying to support that learning.

You are bringing up a big issue. If you have an identity, the identity often helps you develop a meta-position that allows you to travel in and out of other parts. Because you think you are such and such, you can say, “I also have a part that is different.” For example, we can say about ourselves that we are good, but we also have bad parts. As you might have noticed, not too many people reverse the percentages and say, “I am basically bad but I have a very pronounced good part.” Identifying with being good allows you to metacommunicate about aspects of yourself you are more in conflict with.

Your identity also allows you to pay your bills at the end of the month. The identity allows you to be named as a partner, to drive a car and register to vote. Along that line, it is interesting to remember that process work was born in the 1960s. Many process workers, including myself, preferred to go against structure, since we shared the 60s suspicion that structure was always anti-democratic. We knew that majority voting was not doing what we hoped it would do, since it repressed minorities, but we didn’t have any other models to replace it. During that time period, many young people preferred not to have any structure and therefore no methods, but to rely on spontaneity. If freedom meant chaos, we preferred chaos to a pseudo-freedom that repressed marginalized groups.

Process work did its share to solve that dilemma through Arny’s development of worldwork, which came out of a deeper understanding of the dreaming processes of large collectives. Worldwork sees marginalized groups not only as parts of the collective that are being repressed in terms of social justice, but also that the information, values, and lifestyles they have are badly needed to balance mainstream viewpoints. The marginalization of certain groups by the mainstream society can be compared to the repression of certain experiences by the individual. A collective that was originally meant to be whole and diverse is split into a „central” or „more important” mainstream body and „marginal”, „less important” or „to be persecuted” groups. Worldwork has shown that democracy can have a structure, a dream structure actually, that can be followed in great detail, but not as a program. This, among other things, opened us up to the value of structure, clear boundaries, and identities from a new perspective. The consequence of this development for working with individuals is especially valuable when working with people with abuse issues, in modeling for them and supporting them in being clear about boundaries: „This is where I am, and this is where you are—don’t you come into my space.”

A danger is that those of us who are in the white mainstream and have developed comfortable lives within our identities compensate our own need to have less identity by preaching to those who need more social identity about the unimportance of identity. You know what I mean? If I am a white male therapist in my fifties, and have some moderate success in my life, if I have a nice car and a house, it is easy for me to go out and teach the younger people, the people of color, the women, „Don’t take consensus reality too seriously.” If I do this, I am not considering all my relative privileges. What you are saying is very important.

Bogna: Thank you. Coming back to our main topic, then, from a process work point of view, how does a person develop a symptom?

Max: We do not know yet. This is like the question, “Where do dreams come from?”  Where does a dream come from? Why is there a Bogna? Who decided that a Bogna was missing on the planet and created her? Where does that information come from? How was Bogna always there and why did she become local? Who is behind this? I do not know. Dreams and symptoms are like that.

Bogna: In a way you are saying that there is something behind it, something that puts or „localizes” the part in a specific form…It can be in a form of a symptom—some kind of information or meaning is there.

Max: Yes, maybe, I am not sure. I do not know.

Bogna: Well… and how is it in our everyday life? On one hand we have all the experiences that we accept, we identify with, and on the other hand, lots of other experiences happen to us, such as body symptoms, that we do not agree to have. What is the relationship between body symptoms and identity?

Max: We use the word „dreaming” a lot. When I think of relationship problems, or group conflicts, or symptoms, I think that there is a dreaming process. What I mean by dreaming is anything that is out of control. If you cannot control it, we call it dreaming. If you can control something, you have an identity around it. If you can go along with it and control it, you feel it is yours. So, if you can control your hair, you feel that it is your hair. And the moment your hair starts falling off or acting weird, you think: „What is the hair doing?” In the United States, a “bad hair day” means that things are out of your control.

Symptoms are part of dreaming. They are body experiences that you have no control over. If we get used to a symptom in the sense that we don’t experience it as being out of control, we no longer perceive it as a symptom. For example, now that I am in my fifties, my eyes are different than they used to be. Medicine calls me farsighted. I wish I were. Just kidding… My eyes are changing. This is a collective process that happens around a certain age for a lot of people. When it started to happen, I experienced it as a symptom. But now I can control the whole process. I put on glasses so I can go along with my eyes in my everyday life, and I do not experience my eyesight as a symptom any longer. As with many changes and experiences, when we identify them as a certain something, they stop being symptoms. A symptom itself is a very subjective experience. The experience is subjective, not the medical diagnosis. You can always diagnose my eyes, but my experience of them is subjective. Of course, I still hope to catch up with my farsighted eyes and stop being so nearsighted in my worldview. I hope to start seeing farther into the future and not be so bothered by the details in front of me, which really don’t matter so much.

Bogna: May I interrupt for a moment? I would like to ask about the importance of the subjective experience. When you work with symptoms, a lot of focus is on the subjective experience. It is not enough to say what the symptom is, interpret it, and give advice. Why is the subjective experience so important?

Max: What an incredible question. Pointing at the moon is not the moon. I mean that describing and explaining an experience is far different from creating it. Some of my Zen friends say that having experience instead of describing it is the key to enlightenment.

Process work is a phenomenological approach, meaning that the experience is the key from which everything follows. In every person, each symptom and every diagnosis have its own unique experience attached; it is a game that needs to be understood within its own set of rules. It is not possible to interpret, and even if it were possible, it would not be the same. The symptom itself points to the necessity of having the experience. Body symptoms are Zen teachers in that way, as you can see, and perhaps Wittgenstein would have liked process work too.

Bogna: So, in process work we focus on awareness. Often people think that awareness means that you understand something, preferably verbally. How do you work with children, especially young children, if they are not able to metacommunicate yet, or are just not interested in metacommunicating about what they are experiencing?

Max:  Yes, usually we believe that consciousness is the same as being able to formulate an intellectually meaningful thought. But this is not true. Awareness is about knowing what you are experiencing. And kids, of course, are very aware in their own way, knowing where they are with their energies and interests. Kids are more shamanistic than adults, meaning more sober about life, less sentimental, and more pragmatic and fluid. They chop wood and fetch water. That is why many of us wish to return to childhood in one way or another, and why many body processes unfold into experiences of the childlike spontaneity that is missing in adult life. Spontaneity is really nothing but being in touch moment by moment with where you are. Being in the here and now. It’s sheer awareness.

Bogna: Yes. And how do you work with children?

Max:  There are many different ways. One is playing, like we role-play with adults, but play with children has an additional component. It needs to be done really „as if” and not only „pretend as if”. If you play with kids, you must play the dragon and the hero, versus acting as if you were playing the dragon, if you know what I mean.

Storytelling is also a great tool. You can create a story about a kid and through that give the child a metaposition to her own process. Of course, each kid is different. I remember an 8-year-old who came to a bodywork seminar with her mom because she wanted to know what went on in these seminars. In this particular seminar, we worked on body symptoms and shamanism, using some of the insights that we had gained from conversations with our Aboriginal friends in Australia. The child was very interested in our introduction, listening intently. Then we proposed an exercise in which you were supposed to go deeply into feeling a symptom and find an ancestor who had similar energy to the body symptom you were having. The next step was to converse with him or her about the meaning of them being there. When the exercise started I went over to the kid to talk to her and relax her about being in the seminar. I asked her about kid stuff. She politely went along with me for about a minute and then asked me if I could please leave, because she needed to do her exercise. I obeyed. After the exercise I went over and asked her how it went. „Very well,” she said, „I found out that the stiffness in my back is caused by the walking cane my favorite grandfather used. He told me that he loved me very much and that he was lending me his stick so I could use it against my older brother who is constantly harassing me.” „I am very impressed with you,” I said, full of awe and amazement. „Yes,” she said dryly, „that is a pretty good exercise you came up with.”

Bogna: So, a person, a child or an adult, goes into the experience…

Max: Yes. And then interpretations might come out of having the experience, or intellectual understanding, or personal connections, or integration, but that is not what you are focusing on in process work. The only focus is that the people have the experiences that they are having.

Bogna: On the other hand, from the viewpoint of consensus reality, there is a big difference between organic symptoms and symptoms that do not have any organic cause. People who learn about process work are puzzled by the idea that we work with all kind of body experiences, whether or not they have organic causes. Another confusing point is that these organic symptoms sometimes disappear after psychological intervention, although, from a medical point of view, they should not. My question is, how do you understand the connections between „body” and „mind”, between „matter” and „psyche”?

Max: Yes, this is a fascinating question. I would like to say a couple of things that I think are very interesting in terms of the discussion of what really causes a symptom. But before that, we need to say that not all body symptoms disappear when you work with them. They sometimes do. But we don’t understand in detail when they do and when they don’t, so I’d prefer not to talk about it until we know more.

But let’s go back to your question.  First, I want to talk about how causal theories of illness in medicine are a much greater subject of debate within the medical community than the medical community acknowledges. Then I’d like to say a few words about Arny’s work on the body-mind connection, and why this question is less relevant in terms of working practically with a symptom as a process worker. We often hear questions about the connections between mind and body, and that in itself can be misleading. The context in which your question is asked could imply that the medical community understands the causes of disease and that doctors agree among themselves on their theories, and that the body-mind connection is the link where the real controversies happen. That is actually not quite true.

First of all, the debate about the organic causes of diseases in the medical community is not as clear-cut as they would like us to believe. From the very beginnings of modern pathology there was a debate over what actually causes a disease. The French physiologist Claude Bernard, who is regarded as the founder of experimental medicine, developed the idea of the „milieu interieur”, which was his name for physiological homeostasis within the body. He debated with Louis Pasteur, who had developed the germ theory of disease, that disturbance in the physiology of the body caused disease, while Pasteur insisted it was an external agent. They are reported to have fought about this even when Bernard was on his deathbed. The deeper meaning of this story is that the question of how much of illness comes from the outside and how much is an internal process has plagued Western Medicine from the beginning. It is still the key question to address when we talk about process work with symptoms.

We don’t usually witness this discussion and diverse opinions within the medical community. Those of us who are not doctors only hear the theories of the mainstream medical groups, which are often presented as proven beyond doubt, which creates an image of something like total objectivity. In fact, this is not the case.

Let’s take HIV as an example. A commonly accepted mainstream theory says that the HIV virus causes AIDS. It says that HIV gets into the bloodstream and attaches itself to T-cells, then creates change in the cells, resulting in an immune deficiency. But, within the medical community, there is no single viewpoint on what causes AIDS. There are several different viewpoints. One of the people who holds a divergent opinion on the causes of AIDS is Peter Duesberg of the University of California at Berkeley. His view is that AIDS is not an infectious disease, but rather that it is constellated through a number of factors. His views are supported by Kary Mullis and Walter Gilbert, both Nobel Prize winners. While they may turn out in the end to be wrong, they have an interesting point, and their minority opinion deserves to be brought into the discussion. Diverse opinions could help in discovering medical solutions, and could also open the public to thinking along with modern scientific ideas, instead of having science presented as a monolithic block of knowledge. In the case of „Mad Cow Disease”, which is a popular name for the Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, the minority opinion about the causes, which was repressed for a relatively long period of time, turned out to be correct.

What I am trying to say is that we are looking into the body-mind connection in terms of illness prevention and cure, often pretending that this is a vague field not to be taken too seriously, since it includes many unproven factors. This is not actually so: the same process that is projected onto people who are studying the mind-body connection can be found within the mainstream medical community. This community is no longer as authoritarian and rigid as it used to be; it is starting to realize that there are diverse viewpoints about the origins and pathways of disease. That is why we find more and more Western medical doctors who are open to paradigms other than their own. In other words, there is a large uncertainty factor in modern science, of which intelligent researchers are very aware, but which, for a number of reasons, is not shared with the public. As an aside, we know that successfully treating an illness with a remedy does not necessarily mean that the theory about why the remedy works is also true.

For many years, stomach ulcers were considered a great field for psychosomatic interventions, because they were considered psychological in origin rather than an illness with a biological cause. Many ulcers were treated successfully with psychological methods. Now new medical research sees bacteria as a possible cause of stomach ulcers, which are being treated successfully with antibiotics. Medicine itself is proving that it doesn’t matter on which level you approach a disease. This debate is not only between psychology and medicine, but within these fields as well. The argument that all of this is due to the placebo effect is insofar insufficient, as no one has come up with a good theory on why the placebo effect works. If we knew this, we would have a theory for the body-mind connection.

If you are interested in the physiological connection between emotional and psychological experience and organic events, current medical theory explains that the work we as process workers do with a person can have an immediate physiological effect. Ernest Rossi [2] for example, but also many neuroimmunologists are studying these connections. For example, we know that in a functioning immune system, neurotransmitters and happiness are closely interlinked. Working with a person and helping her get along better with her disease makes the person happier. This has an incredible, immediate result on the immune system, an effect that can be measured in something like half an hour. Immunological parameter that you can measure in the bloodstream can change within a very short time, depending on a person’s mood. This might be why Norman Cousins[3] could heal himself from spondylitis with laughter. He found that ten minutes of solid laughter gave him two full hours of pain-free sleep.

I am not very interested in how psychological interventions finally affect the actual body, because I think that the differentiation between matter and psyche is vastly overemphasized. An analogy is being in constant amazement that traffic flows in two lanes in opposite directions. Psyche and matter are really expressions of one and the same event. I feel that they are closely linked, that we are in reality dealing with one phenomenon. When I work with a person, I assume that I am working with a cluster of experiences and realities. Part of the cluster has material aspects, part has psychological aspects, some parts have dreamlike aspects, and others are strange moods and hunches. When I work with a person, after a while I cannot tell what is physical or biological and what is experience. I treat it as one cluster, and as the story unfolds the parts sort themselves out. When symptoms disappear in a way that could suggest a connection between process work interventions and the physical improvement, I am of course thrilled. But I was more thrilled in the past if the person got better than I am now. Today, my thrill comes when I feel I understand what a person is going through, and when I feel that they are interested in understanding and learning from what is going on. I love people who are interested in their own nature and what makes them tick, and symptoms are a good passageway for that.

Bogna: Could you give an example of the process that is behind the symptom?

Max: Let’s see. Let’s say the doctor tells you that you have an ulcer. You don’t know that. All you know is that during certain times of the day there is a sharp pain in a particular area of your body.

You go deeply into the experience. I recently did this with a man who had an ulcer. His pain felt to him like a glowing piece of iron. He was under incredible, incredible pain. We went further with it and found a figure that is carrying a glowing piece of iron, torturing another person who is lying down. That was the beginning experience.

Continuing the work, the man realized that he had been abused a lot as a child. He had a very brutal father, and as a result had developed an incredible capacity to toughen stuff out, to fight back. He was constantly ready with his glowing iron to meet a potential intruder. He had a spontaneous insight that he had become the glowing iron and that everybody was now scared of him. He had not identified with his aggression before, but thought that it was triggered by the outside brutality of the world. He decided that the true medicine was to mellow out and take it easy. His particular process was to cool the iron.

Bogna: How did you find out about the details, and whose side was he really on?

Max: He had a lot of awareness around it. After we found the image and the story, I asked: „Where does it happen in your life?” He said right away: „I feel it happens in my relationships.”  We got deeper into the relationships, and he described his relationships like this: „Something happens that I consider an attack on myself, and then I must come forward and defend myself until I feel I have won. It is like an addiction, and I must insist, in a very glowing, fiery interaction and confrontation that I am being granted my right and my space to be.” Through talking about it, he realized that he was not happy with this style. As he said, it might have been useful at one time in his life, but it had become a sort of addiction. He thought that he would be happier by being able to detach a little bit from it. So, it is a cooling off process. Something happens. You feel your iron starts to glow, and you put a little water on it. Putting a little water on the iron is like saying: „Mellow out and take it easy”. The grass is green and the sun is shining, as they say in California. He mellowed out and the ulcer went away.

Bogna: Are there similarities between processes behind particular symptoms? You just gave an example of an ulcer. Is it often like that?

Max: It can be the other way. Another person might need a more fiery, glowing capacity. He or she might have an ulcer because they need to be more glowy and powerful in relationships. You can’t just say that what you find in the symptom is what the person is repressing. There is a whole process that goes with it. The symptom itself is the door into a story, an experiential stream that must be followed in great detail. It is unique and new and always a test for your beginner’s mind.

To make a programmed causal connection between a medical symptom, or even between a personal experience of a symptom and a psychological consequence is too simplistic. Lots of small things happen when you work with a person. For example, in case of the person with the ulcer, there was a moment of authentic distress about the glowing iron, but not the pause or excitement that you would expect if the person was just shy or unprepared to go deeper into the experience that was unfolding. Noticing and appreciating details is key in working with disease processes. Sometimes a person might need to do something more, sometimes less, and sometimes a person needs to become aware of various tendencies and become more fluid.

Let’s say you work with a person with high blood pressure. The high blood pressure might mean that they need to pressure others more, but it also might mean that they need to pressure less and relax more. Dreams and the person’s particular signals will show you the way.

In addition to individual experiences, we can say that certain symptoms are grouped. A classic one is breast cancer in women. Breast cancer experiences tend to be grouped around the experience of having something hard (like a tumor, which is hard or tough) in an area that is traditionally supposed to be soft. This has a lot to do with a changing image of what it means to be a woman. Among themselves and between each other, men and women are debating what it means to be a woman. If I am allowed to say it as a man, one of the themes that is coming forward is the idea that in an area that has been traditionally soft, and a symbol of softness and nourishment, like the female breast, it is now okay to be tough, too. This idea invites women to also identify with their powerful and tough sides, so to speak, and to see them as a useful balance to a more collective idea that invites them to be soft and feeling. Having toughness, hardness, and strength alternating with their soft opposites is a new option for many women. With this option comes a changing view of what makes a woman beautiful, which means we also are rethinking our standards for body images.

Bogna:  I am now thinking about diseases that are inherited, passed from generation to generation. What could you say about these kinds of problems from a process work point of view?

Max: Well, you inherit a lot of stuff from your family. Some of it is genetic, some of it is financial, some of it is emotional, and some of it is psychological. This is partially your fate. With inherited symptoms come inherited family ghosts, so to speak.  And families themselves can have a family myth…

Bogna: What do you mean by family myth?

Max: The family myth is a theme that a family is working on. Some families have a family myth with collective importance. The collective importance is clearer when a family becomes, like the Kennedys in the United States, a national myth, a representation of the American dream. The whole country looks at a particular family and the tragedies and happiness that they go through identify the larger field. In the background all families have a collective myth. They are all Kennedys, except that they are less central. They all hope to be famous and wealthy and popular and have learn to get along with relationship problems, illness, ill fortune, addictions, and so on.

If you work with families, the types of problems that come up are not that different from the problems in society as a whole. But each family has, so to speak, a specific role to play in that performance. That’s what I mean by family myth. A particular family might have generations where the theme is power for women. Such a family might have an abusive father who needs to be confronted and also processed as a role. It might include alcohol problems on the male side or problems due to somatizing all kinds of symptoms on the female side. As families work on themes, we see generations where there is the same problem again and again. We can pathologize this and say that the problem has been handed down the line. I think that this view is too harsh. Rather, as individuals and families we carry the burden of actual change, and change sometimes needs the effort of generations. One family devotes itself to working on a problem through generations, and I am grateful for that.

Some children who inherit a disease are ill in one way, but bring healing or wholeness in another. We see this in George Miller’s film „Lorenzo’s Oil”, where a boy is struck with an inherited metabolic malfunction and brings the whole family together in the quest for a remedy.

I remember working with a woman who had inherited a rare form of muscle dystrophy that normally leads to death before the age of 20. Her illness had become quite acute when I met her, and she was no longer able to walk without crutches. She worked on not being able to walk, and she tried to walk anyhow. As she walked along, the whole group came in to support her. Her courage and struggle were so moving and authentic that it got everybody to support her. This work took place in an introverted culture, where people don’t usually easily or spontaneously get involved in someone’s process. Her struggle brought the whole group together in an effort to support her, because everybody was very touched by her. She wanted to walk with everyone’s help without crutches. Before she worked, the members of this group were very conflicted and relatively brutal with each other. She came in, apparently as a weak person, but her weakness brought out the goodness and love in everyone. When we told her this and brought her awareness to it, she started to glow and cry and say that this was the most important thing in her life. She said that she felt so light that she could take off and fly.

When we asked her about a childhood dream, she said that when she was about two years old, she had dreamt she was flying through the sky and looked down and saw her family. Her family was very rough, and they were fighting with a group of motorcycle people. It looked very threatening to her up in the sky and she wanted to go down and help. She landed in the attic of their house, and then walked down the stairs. As she walked down, she realized that her legs were getting weaker and weaker. By the time she was at the bottom, she could not walk any longer. Everybody stopped, turned around, and reached out to her to help. Through that they stopped fighting.

This is a Bodhisattva process. She is some sort of Jesus figure, who through congruently showing her vulnerability and weakness reflects other people’s power and toughness to them, helping them to reflect on how that power should be used. When I talked with her privately after the work, she could walk for a few minutes without difficulty, carried by the high of the experience. She told me that, because of the insights she had had, she felt that her life was complete and meaningful even if she died soon. I understood what she meant. At moments when I am in touch with my deepest feelings, I don’t mind the idea of dying, because I don’t have the feeling that something is left unlived. There are different types of completion. One kind is when you have lived your consensus reality life to the fullest. Another kind is when you deeply understand who you are and live it at every moment, so that you can also die at any moment. She was one of the greatest teachers I have met in my life.

Bogna: It is very beautiful and important what you are saying. I believe that this kind of thinking may help people find some sense or meaning in difficult events, and perhaps sometimes accept the fact that close loved ones are ill or that they die. But still there is lots of suffering around illness. There is pain, and people we love die, and this is not easy. So, compassion, as one of basic metaskills in process work, is important. But detachment is also important. I have experienced many times that you are full of compassion when you work with people.  My question is how do you cope with human suffering when you work with severe body problems, pain, or life-threatening diseases?

Max:  That is an incredibly important question. I was very lucky to be confronted with death as a child. My father died when I was young, and both my parents previously had suffered from tuberculosis and thought it was a miracle that they had survived. I grew up in a community in the Swiss mountains where many people lived for health reasons, especially because they had lung problems and allergic reactions. Growing up around sick people was normal for me. I also knew that I wanted to be a doctor relatively early in life, but I wasn’t clear what form it would take. That is the basis of some of my initial detachment. I am blessed in this way, because sick people have told me that my attitude relaxes them. I try to remain friends with death. I have a little Mexican statue of two happy skeletons getting married in their best clothes on my dresser to remind me that consensus reality is only one aspect of who I am. Also, if you follow the process of a sick or dying person, you come out enriched, full of hope and encouragement and joy. They teach you that there is nothing to cope with, in the normal sense, but only wild and unpredictable experiences to look forward to. As you might know, I developed a process-oriented grief-counseling model, which uses process-oriented ideas to work with people who are grieving about friends, children, and partners who have died. It is based on the thoughts, that the person dies but not the process, and that the process can be picked up at any time by anybody who misses it.

Bogna: Now I would like to ask you about some social or cultural aspects of diseases. Some diseases, like AIDS or chronic fatigue syndrome, appear at certain moments in the world. How are they connected to the culture?

Max: Well, the thought is that the disease is a timespirit, that is, an experience that needs to come into public focus. A theme comes into the foreground through an illness and changes public awareness about a particular issue.

Bogna: What do you mean by „theme” that comes to the foreground?

Max:  Well, one of the things that AIDS has done is bring the issue of homophobia into the foreground. In the United States, while there is still a lot more to be done, AIDS has changed public awareness about homophobia. It has changed heterosexual relations to gay and lesbian people, and it has also changed the gay community. You can say that AIDS itself mirrors homophobia. Heterosexual society has always tried to kill homosexuals, and heterosexism is as deadly to gays as the HIV virus is. Some conservatives say that AIDS is God’s punishment. In my viewpoint it is heterosexual punishment. Aggression against homosexuals has always existed in society, and society has never had to deal with it, because no one ever came forward to talk about it. The pain of heterosexual aggression was not spoken about. It was not clear enough how much suffering was on the other side of this aggression. The gay community is dying on the cross for the sins of the heterosexual community, so to speak. When conservatives say that AIDS is the consequence of a sinful lifestyle, they really crucify Jesus again, driving another nail into the modern gay Jesus hanging on the cross. As a result, you find lots of personal Jesus processes when unfolding the dreaming processes of persons suffering from AIDS.

Bogna: So, society focuses on a certain theme, but during epidemics, or now, when we are so afraid of AIDS or cancer, people look with hope to the medical word to find a remedy, thinking that the solution will come this way.

Max: It is very interesting to look at the epidemiology of infectious diseases. Very often disease starts to lessen right before a remedy is discovered. Did you know that?

Bogna: No, I didn’t.

Max: This bell curve distribution is very common with disease. The curve starts out flat and then climbs more and more steeply. Eventually it peaks, but just before that it starts to flatten, indicating fewer incidences of new infection. Eventually a population will grow resistant and the curve will sink, slowly at first and then more rapidly, flattening out on the bottom. If you had to place the time a remedy was found on a curve like that, you might be tempted to place it at the steep climbing section of the curve, to show that it was responsible for the beginning decline. In reality, however, most modern remedies were found shortly after the curve started to flatten on its own, except for polio, if I remember the study correctly. If you look at this from a worldwork viewpoint and use a somewhat figurative analogy, you have to say that a theme comes up in the form of an infectious agent: something in society is killing people, so to speak. Society in its own way deals with that theme, and when the theme is somehow processed, the global mind also comes up with a remedy to shorten the whole process.

In other words, the appearance of a remedy does not seem to be independent from the course of the disease. The knowledge about the pathogenesis of a disease often forms the basis for the development of an actual pharmaceutical remedy, and the pathogenic theories themselves are of course very much part of the governing time spirit. I am very grateful for all the information I have obtained about this through discussion with Professor Eduard Jenny, M.D. of the University of Zurich.  At the moment, scientific rational explanations are still the most popular explanations for the cause of disease, but this is a very recent development, as you know. Also, in many areas this concept is waning as alternative medical interventions gain acceptance. This trend goes along with the spirit of diversity that we see being worked on in so many places.

Bogna: So, one aspect of it is global—a certain issue needs to be discussed or worked on in a society as a whole. And another aspect is the individual on one side, and the society on the other. And often there is a conflict. You cannot realize your potential, or at least it is very difficult, because the society is against it.  You said during this seminar that „Every symptom is the beginning of social revolution.” What do you mean by that?

Max: It is like what I said before when I was talking about the breast cancer. Themes come forward as diseases that challenge society as a whole to reflect on the given value of what makes life worth living. In the wake of that we have something like a social revolution, which is in my opinion much farther reaching than a political revolution.  Many political revolutions have failed because there was no social or psychological revolution following them, or even better, spearheading them.

Now, symptoms tell us—that is the connection between individual and collective—that we are all prisoners of our power, to use a term from Castaneda’s Don Juan. You cannot escape your power.  What does that expression mean? I mean by power the part in you that is driven beyond your control. It is your very nature, and it has a vision of what your life should be about that does not respect your social hopes and aspirations. Power is radical and total in its nature. The power of that young woman with muscle dystrophy was her capacity to bring out the healers and lovers in others. She became a healer herself and in that moment was more complete and happy. You can either follow power or you can resist it, but you cannot escape it or drop it.  You are the power that you are, whether or not you use it. And the symptom or a disease is your power, your ally

Bogna: This is fascinating, what do we do with our „dreaming power”, or what does it do with us? This is really something to reflect on.

You mention also the other kind of power—the social power that comes from our social or political or psychological privileges. I am looking forward to the times when the issues around privilege and power will become clearer. I am optimistic about this, and I find it challenging in my everyday life. But the world is full of abuse—we all are victims sometimes, when power is used against us and we are not able to defend ourselves, such as what happens to children, pupils, political prisoners, minority group members and so on. It has been discovered that abuse often leads to somatic problems. How are these connected?

Max: Abuse situations are very disempowering. For sure abuse situations that are not completed, where you are not able to fight back psychologically and find your power again, are very disempowering.  Abuse is actually the cause of many body symptoms. For example, for women, many disturbances in the pelvic and genital areas are due to sexual abuse that might be forgotten. There is an immediate causal connection.

Bogna: Does it mean that when you work with people, you can find the scene of the abuse in the experience of the symptom?

Max: Yes, that is very common. You can work with a body symptom, and the client finds him or herself immediately back in the abuse scene. Sometimes they remember clearly, while sometimes it is far away from consciousness and comes bit by bit.

As a result of abuse, many of us become hopeless and feel it is not possible to face the powers of life. We somehow give up hope and resign ourselves internally. We think: „I will never have a chance to fight back anyhow. ” The other is too strong, I had better stop trying.”  Then if a body symptom appears, it is just one more abusive force, so to speak, and you may resign and give up. This is a huge issue.

There is a big discussion about the relationship between doctors and patients. Lots of people feel that doctors, even with all the changes that have been made, need more education about how the power of a patient can be part of healing. Sometimes the medical profession is criticized for not realizing how important a fighting spirit is for the patient, and that a patient who makes trouble for the doctor has better survival chances than one who says: „I cannot do anything. You are the powerful one and you should do it for me.”

Bogna: This leads us to another question. Together with Arnold Mindell, you are the founder and director of the „Lava Rock Clinic”. Could you say what this is?

Max: Well, Lava Rock is basically a network and a place that creates room to practice all of these activities that we are talking about.  At the core stands the community with its power to heal. It also includes medical thinking and advice. We believe that Western Medicine, Eastern Medicine, Naturopathic Medicine and Process Work don’t exclude each other, but are synergistic. In our viewpoint, none of these approaches is exclusively right, nor is any exclusively wrong. They are all useful and have meaning. With the Lava Rock Clinic, we are trying to create the ground for diversity, for a democratic process where the various paradigms can live together and learn from each other. Patients can also teach doctors and healers where we all find community in our common fate as humans on this planet. If you are a person who wants to become well, you are able to use what there is to become well in a way that is good for you. And you are able to make your own choices and to use your power within a community of various professionals. We try to create a community in which the professionals realize that they are also patients and the patients understand that they have the power to be the true healers

Bogna:   Since we are coming to an end of our time, could you say how the clinics are organized?

Max: They are organized as seminars for adults, and Arny and Amy also do a Wizard Clinic seminar for kids once a year. Jytte and I have a seminar for older people. Through these various seminars people are connected with each other. Lava Rock has become a network. For people who would like to make changes in their lives and use their symptoms, this can be vital. Some of the changes and their consequences are taxing. Being able to connect to others with a similar motivation during the year is important. Once back in everyday life, people feel that there is a Lava Rock community that supports them and helps them make changes.

Bogna: Thank you.

[1] Mindell, A. Dreambody: The body’s Role in Revealing the Self, Sigo Press, Boston, Mass. 1982 (1st edition).

2 The interview took place on Saturday afternoon, after working with individuals and the group during a seminar in Epe, The Netherlands, April 1997

[2] Rossi, E., (1996 ). The psychobiology of mind-body communication: The complex, self-organizing field of information transduction. BioSystems, pp. (in press)

[3] Norman Cousins, „Anatomy of an Illness”, Bantam Books, ?? and „Head First: The Biology of Hope & The Healing Power of The Human Spirit”, Penguin Books


Cousins N. (1979) Anatomy of Illness. As Perceived by the Patient. New York; Bantam Books

Cousins N. (1989) Head First. The Biology of Hope and Healing Power of the Human Spirit. New York: Penguin Books

Mindell A. (1982) Dreambody. The Role of the Body in Revealing the Self. Boston, MA: Sigo Press

Rossi E. (1996) The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Communication: the Complex Self-organizing Field of Information Transduction. Bio-systems, 38