This is the fourth and last post in a multiple part series. For the introduction and table of contents, see part 1.

The Always-On Trance

The growing popularity of connected devices like computers, tablets, and smart phones, is both a boon and a challenge. On the one hand we have constant access to unimaginable stores of knowledge and can easily share in the lives of friends and family despite the otherwise fragmented nature of modern living. On the other hand, constant distraction, the inability to stop and take a step back from the constant barrage of email, tweets and status updates and the intrusion of the digital stream into our in-person relationship space are presenting us with new struggles. For many, this has become business as usual (or the new normal) but a growing body of evidence is exposing the cost of the always-on trance.

A recent study by Rosen, Carrier and Cheever (2013) found that students spent less than six minutes before switching tasks while studying. Participants who accessed Facebook had overall lower GPAs. Foerde, Knowlton and Poldrack (2006) showed that a demanding secondary task reduced declarative learning about the primary task. Meanwhile, multiple studies document the prevalence of exactly such multitasking in the classroom. For example, Kraushaar & Novak (2010) found that students engage in non-class related multitasking about 42% of the time, and Martin (2011) found that 80% of students sent at least one text message during class and 15% sent more than 10.

Beyond the classroom and the workplace, computers and mobile phone are a part of our every waking moment (and sometimes in sleep as well). Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes this experience in his book, The Distraction Addiction (2013).

Digital life can be great but it also has a price. Keeping up with everything that everyone’s sharing can become overwhelming – not just the sheer volume of material, but also the obligation to stay on top of it. These are your friends (or “friends”) and if you don’t keep checking in on what they share, you might miss something. The little buzz from a new e-mail or text message is nice, but it’s also disappointing when you hit Refresh and there’s nothing there.

The ongoing feeling of overwhelm and the obligation to stay connected lead to experiences of anxiety and even dread. In order to lessen these effects some have turned to what amount to a digital diet. Some practice a digital sabbath and even go on digital detox retreats. Do these practices actually get at the core issue? Rebecca Rosen suggests that these digital diets lay the blame on the technology itself and allow us to, “absolve ourselves of the need to create social, political, and, sure, technological structures that allow us to have the kinds of relationships we want with the people around us.”

Like Rosen, Howard Rheingold (2012), who has been writing about the cultural, social, and political aspects of online media for almost 30 years, takes a larger view of what’s at stake here.

Digital literacies can leverage the Web’s architecture of participation, just as the spread of reading skills amplified collective intelligence five centuries ago. Today’s digital literacies can make the difference between being empowered or manipulated, serene or frenetic. Most important, as people who are trying to get along day to day in a hyper-scale, warp-speed civilization that seems so often to be beyond anyone’s control, digital literacy is something powerful we can learn as well as exercise for ourselves and each other. (p. 3)

The automatic nature of our relationship to technology comes through in Pang’s, Rheingold’s and Rosen’s writings. Pang and Rheingold also offer frames of practice geared toward de-automatization of this relationship.

Rheingold’s (2012) concept of digital literacy includes such aspects as controlling one’s attention, critical thinking, and the power of participation. Digital literacy, according to Rheingold, requires that we be aware of the way the digital world works so that we’re better able to tap into the collective intelligence of the network. The skills and attitudes Rheingold includes under digital literacy not only allow us to see the digital world in a new way (de-automatizing our assumptions) but also invite us to reinvest attention into the way we consume media and the way we participate online.

Pang (2013) describes a practice he calls contemplative computing which offers a new way of relating to and using technology. The principles of contemplative computing ask us to recognize the unique depth of our relationship with technology and to accept that if we want to keep that depth, we must face the distracting nature of today’s world and take control of our environment, becoming calmer and more purposeful in how we use information technologies. As an example we can look at some of Pang’s rules for social media. Notice how these rules ask you to create a new and more conscious relationship with social media.

  • Engage with care. Think of social media as an opportunity to practice right speech.
  • Be mindful about your intentions. Why are you going into Facebook or Pinterest?
  • Remember the people on the other side of the screen. Remember that you’re dealing with people, not media.


I’ve described two frameworks for practice in daily life. These frameworks focus on aspects of modern life that many find challenging: food and information technology. Following Chögyam Trungpa, I suggest that we can use these frameworks as a way to engage the “man on the street” in transformative practice that is conducive to waking up from what Arthur Deikman called “the trance of daily life.”


Martin, C. (2011). In-class texting behaviors among college students. University of New Hampshire. 2011.

Foerde, K., Knowlton, B. J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(31), 11778-11783.

Kraushaar, J. M., & Novak, D. C. (2010). Examining the Affects of Student Multitasking with Laptops during the Lecture. Journal of Information Systems Education, 21(2), 11.

Pang, A.S. (2013). The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. NY : Hachette Digital.

Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive inline. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rosen L.D., Carrier L.M., Cheever N.A.(2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 29(3), May 2013, Pages 948–958.


This is the third post in a multiple part series. For the introduction and table of contents, see part 1.

Waking Up From the Food Trance

One place where many operate in an automatic fashion is around food. Our relationship to food is complex; it is affected by early conditioning from our parents, socio- economic status, mood, activity, body image and more. The prevalence of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabeties have also been linked to diet. Last, eating disorders have been increasing in rate for several decades across many segments of the population in the US. It is clear that many, young and adult alike, have a troubled relationship with eating and food. We can call this troubled relationship, the food trance.

A common method employed to deal with food related issues is food restriction through dieting. According to Hawks (2005) dieting is often ineffective and does not lead to sustainable change. Further, restricted eating may even lead to such negative outcomes as, “weight recycling, altered body composition, heightened fat storage potential, decreased resting metabolism, dysfunctional relationships with food, increased risk of eating disorders, low self-esteem, and an overall sense of failure among dieters.”

Following Deikman, I suggest that dieting, and other related methods like increased exercise, do not work because they fail to wake us up from the food trance. Dieters may see short term changes but eventually this short period of “awakening” is over and they return to their automatic way of relating to food.

In recent decades, the concept of intuitive eating has been gaining in popularity. According to Hawks (2005) intuitive eating suggests that “individuals have within themselves a natural mechanism that if allowed to function will ensure good nutrition at a healthy weight.” (Tylka 2006) studied intuitive eating among college women and describes the following core features:

  • Unconditional permission to eat when hungry and what food is desired.
  • Eating for physical rather than emotional reasons.
  • Reliance on internal hunger/satiety Cues to determine when and how much to eat.

Intuitive eaters re-learn to eat when hungry and to stop when full. Intuitive eating invites us to let go of stories about what food is acceptable or unacceptable. With that out of the way, we are can decide for ourselves, based on input from the body, what to eat, how much to eat, and when. Intuitive eating requires that we re-invest the act of eating with awareness. Bringing awareness to the urge to eat allows us to look at the underlying structures behind our relationship with food. In fact, awareness of the emotional aspects of eating, is a core feature of intuitive eating. Learning to trust internal cues of hunger and satisfaction brings our awareness to old patterns of eating. Why do we eat more or less? Perhaps we are replaying patterns from our childhood or maybe we are being manipulated by ideas of body-image we’ve absorbed from the media. Reinvesting awareness into these decisions serves to wake us up from this part of the food trance.

In a study from 2006, (Smith & Hawks) discovered a correlation between high intuitive eating scores and 1)higher levels of enjoyment of food, and 2)fewer food anxieties. The second factor, reduction in food anxieties, shows that participants with higher intuitive eating scores are less caught up in the social and personal food trance. The first factor is similar to a one that Deikman (1966) noted in relation to de-automatization as a result of meditation: “The undoing of automatic perceptual and cognitive structures permits a gain in sensory intensity and richness at the expense of abstract categorization and differentiation.” This conclusion would certainly be in keeping with the core features of intuitive eating I’ve listed above.


Deikman, A.J. (1966). De-automatization and the mystic. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 29.4

Hawks, S.R. (2005). The Relationship Between Intuitive Eating and Health Indicators Among College Women. American Journal of Health Education, Volume 36(6) pp. 331-336.

Smith T. & Hawks S.R. (2006). Intuitive eating, diet composition, and the meaning of food in healthy weight promotion. American Journal of Health Education, Vol. 27(3).

Tylka T.L. (2006). Development and Psychometric Evaluation of a Measure of Intuitive Eating. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Vol. 53, No. 2, 226–240.

This is the second post in a multiple part series. For the introduction and table of contents, see part 1.

Working With the Manure of Everyday Life

In the book Meditation in Action, Chögyam Trungpa (1991) offers a possible solution to the question I posed in my previous post. Trungpa begins by recognizing the common split between spiritual and everyday life and the difficulty this split creates for many.

[P]eople tend to make a very sharp distinction between spiritual life and everyday life. they will label a man as “worldly” or “spiritual”, and they generally make a hard and fast distinction between the two. So if one speaks about meditation, awareness, and understanding then the ordinary person, who has never heard of such things, obviously would not have a clue and he probably wouldn’t be even sufficiently interested to listen properly. And because of this division he finds it almost impossible to take the next step. (p. 25)

It is probably true that many find mystical texts unapproachable and even confusing. Others may try some form of meditation and quickly quit because it seems to be hard. Trungpa sees that as a problem to relate to the “man on the street”. He suggests that make an effort and provide, “some way of finding out, some concept that he can understand and which will still be related to his life and will still be part of his life.” The way to create the connection is not by trying to change the person, quite the opposite, “start off by just accepting the character of that person, who may be completely worldly minded, and then choose one particular aspect of his activity or his mentality and use it as a ladder, as an anchor, as a vehicle so that even the man on the street can give birth to bodhi.”

By meeting each person exactly where they are and exactly how they are we can find the seed of awakening that is already gestating within them. In order to help that seed grow, says Trungpa, we must meet that person fully so that he may be able to use the most painful aspect of his character as part of this process. This person may already be struggling, trying to solve a problem he cannot solve because, says Trungpa (in a similar vein to Deikman), “in his search for a solution he merely substitutes other activities for the ones he has renounced.” If we meet the person in this place, where the pain is beginning to be known, we can use just these simple, direct, and ordinary things that are already part of his life and we need not rely on arcane mystical texts or practices.

In this approach we take samsara, the world of confusion, to be the vehicle to nirvana, or liberation. We are like a skilled farmer that collects the rubbish from her farm, composts it and spreads the resulting fertilizer over her lands. Out of this smelly and dirty matter, rise all her crops. Trying to rid ourselves of samsara in order to find nirvana, says Trungpa, is not the skillful way. Start by recognizing, studying and then working with desires, passions and other negative things. Work with the life you have, and let that be the seed of your realization.

According to Trungpa, we need to be specific in this work, generic solutions do not apply here. While there may be general tools that many find useful, we need to connect to each person in this moment of experience and study that. This points at the importance of personal support in the form of a teacher, guide or coach. The external perspective of another person allows them to see the moment we move from being active to passive or in Deikman’s terms, the moment we fall back into the trance. The clear pointing out of this moment shows us exactly where it is that we need to bring our awareness.

In addition to this pointing out, it is helpful to have some theories and frames of practice. In the spirit of Trungpa’s “Manure of everyday experience”, I would like to provide two such frameworks that I believe many today will find relevant. While the two frameworks are specific in their focus, I believe that we can use them as “entry points” into the greater process of de- automatization. These are the places where a modern person may already be collecting some “manure”. By meeting the person at this pain point, we can use them as fuel to engage in practice.

The first framework focuses on our relationship with food. As a basic human need, food has been part of spiritual traditions for millennia. Many ancient practices revolve around limiting food and the enjoyment of it but I do not believe this is necessary. In the next section I’ll present a framework that offers a different way to relate to food; supporting health and well-being while allowing us to enjoy food and eating. The second framework revolves around the use of information technology. Like food, information technology is now an inseparable part of our lives. Many, however, have a dysfunctional relationship with technology. I’ll offer a way to relate to technology consciously, placing the human back in control of the tool.

This is the first post in a multiple part series. 

  1. The trance of ordinary life.
  2. Working with the manure of everyday life.
  3. Waking up from the food trance.
  4. Waking up from the always-on trance

The Trance of Ordinary Life

In The Observing Self, Arthur Deikman suggests that we are going through life as if in an hypnotic trance. Caught up in this “trance of ordinary life,” we engage in fantasies, recreating the relationships of our childhood (or trying to escape them), never quite seeing each other for who we are but as distorted images. We pursue goals like money, sex or power but we don’t really know why. Not knowing why, we are never satisfied, allowing the trance to go on. In this trance state our awareness is divided between fantasy and the real world. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), it appears that being half-awake is enough.

Because half-awake is sufficient for the tasks we customarily do, few of us are aware of the dysfunction of our condition. Moments of more complete awakening do occur, but the consensus of the group, and the automatic functioning of the object self make such phenomena transient curiosities rather than urgent signals that something is wrong with the normal state. (p. 129)

Deikman suggests that the aim of mysticism is to wake up from this trance, to let go of motivations that are born of fantasy, and to expand beyond the biases and limitations of our culture. Meditation and renunciation, according to Deikman (1966), are the tools that lead us there through a process of de-automatization.

Deikman (1966) suggests that the trance of ordinary life is brought about by automatization of our ways of thinking and perceiving, similar to the automatization of motor behavior (see Hartmann, 1958). This seems to be an evolutionarily solid assumption, as automatic action is less energy consuming and faster than intentional action. Based on several decades of research, Kahneman (2011), describes the mind as composed of two systems. System 1 is mostly associative in nature and designed to offer a quick impression of the environment, allowing for immediate reaction. System 2, on the other hand, is slower and more energy consuming. While system 2 is capable of analytical thinking and is used to verify system 1’s quick decisions, it often tends to accept those without much thought. Kahneman’s description appears to support Deikman’s theory of an increasingly automated (trance-like) way of being. Kahneman’s theory also supports Deikman’s suggestion that de-automatization leads to freedom through awareness of system 1’s automated nature and increased reliance on system 2.

De-automatization is “the undoing of automatic processes that control perception and cognition” (Deikman, 1984 p. 137). It may result in undoing of the perceptual selection and cognitive patterning that were created as we grew up. This may lead to ways of seeing that appear to be childlike but,

Rather than speaking of a return to childhood, it is more accurate to say that the undoing of automatic perceptual and cognitive structures permits a gain in sensory intensity and richness at the expense of abstract categorization and differentiation. One might call the direction regressive in a developmental sense, but the actual experience is probably not within the psychological scope of any child. It is a de-automatization occurring in an adult mind, and the experience gains its richness from adult memories and functions now subject to a different mode of consciousness. (Deikman, 1964)

De-automatization works by reinvesting action, thought and perception with attention. According to Van Nuys (1971), the techniques of meditation “constitute just such a manipulation of attention as is required to produce de-automatization,” resulting in “a shift in the level of perceptual and cognitive organization.” Deikman (1964) further deconstructs the mystical experience from the perspective of de-automatization, demonstrating that the effects of meditation and renunciation can be explained in this way. Deikman concludes that:

Under special goal conditions such as exist in religious mystics, the pragmatic systems of automatic selection are set aside or break down, in favor of alternate modes of consciousness whose stimulus processing may be less efficient from a biological point of view but whose very inefficiency may permit the experience of aspects of the real world formerly excluded or ignored. The extent to which such a shift takes place is a function of the motivation of the individual, his particular neurophysiological state, and the environmental conditions encouraging or discouraging such a change.

While many of us may be motivated to make a change, it is often quite difficult for one living in the world today to engage in spiritual practice. Practicing renunciation is especially hard while living in the midst of a consumerist society. Not many today will give up relationships, careers, homes in favor of remote spiritual goals. What are they to do?


Deikman, A.J. (1966). De-automatization and the mystic. Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes, 29.4

Deikman, A.J. (1982). The observing self: Mysticism and psychotherapy. Boston : Beacon press.

Deikman, A.J. (2000). A functional approach to mysticism. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7, No. 11–12, 2000, pp. 75–91

Hartmann, H. (1958). Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation. New York: International Universities Press.

Van Nuys, D. (1971). A novel technique for studying attention during meditation. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. 1971, Vol.3 #2 | pg. 126

In my last post I discussed a four stage model of change based on the conscious competence model. The conscience competence model is traditionally described in four stages the last of which is called unconscious competence. Unconscious competence is the point in the process of learning a skill when you can perform the skill without thinking about it (“it’s like riding a bike…”). As much as we’d like to be able to rest forever in that stage, unconscious competence isn’t free of traps. One such trap is complacency – believing that you have mastered a skill, you neglect practice and allow the skill to languish, in effect falling back into the previous stage, conscious competence. Applied to the process of change, this would be a relapse either to the conscious freedom model or, even all the way back to unconscious habit.

In light of the potential for sliding back from the fourth stage in the model, some have suggested a fifth stage. There are several names offered for this fifth stage but the one I like best is reflective competence. At this stage the practitioner is able to execute the skill without conscious effort and has a clear understanding of the skill such that he’s able articulate it to himself and teach it to others. Another key characteristic of this stage is the ability to step back and reflect on performance of the skill from an external perspective. How does the apply to the process of change?

Being able to step back and reflect on my experience is the skill of mindful awareness and a clear understanding of the skill is exactly what’s being described in this model. I suggest that in the process of change, the fifth stage of reflective freedom is composed of two main skills:

  1. Understanding the process of change itself as I’ve described it previously. Getting to know the various forces at play in each stage (ignorance, resistance, etc.) is especially helpful.
  2. An ongoing practice of mindful awareness. Coming back, again and again, to this moment and noticing: what is my mind (and heart and guts) up to? This practice can support us with maintaining that change that we want and with discovering unskillful habits that were, so far, unconscious.

To summarize the model so far:

  1. Unconscious habit – Ignorance is in full force.
  2. Conscious habit – We recognize the unskillful habit and become increasingly aware of its impact. The suffering inherent in this habit brings up strategies of avoidance (ignorance) and self-criticism. Through the practice of compassionate mindful awareness we develop a friendly relationship with the habit. It is helpful to seek support from a friend, teacher or coach at this point as their external awareness will prove very useful.
  3. Conscious freedom – We’re now able to recognize the habit happening in real-time and, increasingly often, we can even do something about it! As we actively work to bring about change, we encounter resistance. The resistance will try to convince us to give up, it’s too hard, not worth it! Instead, we bring our compassion to the resistance as well and keep practicing conscious change.
  4. Unconscious freedom – we’re now largely free of the unskilful habit. Aware of the trap of complacence we continue practicing mindful awareness.
  5. Reflective freedom – We’re able to reflect on this entire process and we recognize that it has happened before. With this awareness in mind and an ongoing practice of mindful awareness we are now more resilient. We can recognize habits we want to work with and we have the tools to do so ourselves. We can even support others through this process.

In this post I will present a model of change based on the conscious competence model and Stan Grof’s Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs). This simple model will describe each stage people go through as we try to change existing habits using practices based on mindful awareness. In my own work of personal development I have found this model to be a helpful container for the process of change. It was especially helpful to remember this model in the difficult stages, when progress is difficult to detect and as a result things appear to be hopeless.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll keep the theory short. if you’d like, you can learn more about the conscious competence model, see here. You can think of the BPMs as an archetypal description of the process of birth which (because of it’s archetypal  nature) we can apply to other things in life. If you want to read more about the BPMs, see this link.

Conscious Competence Learning Model

The conscious competence learning model, also known as the four stages of learning, describes the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill. The origins of this model are not clear; it has been used by Gordon Training International since the 1970s and is also reference in a technical paper from 1974 authored by W. Lewis Robinson. It is often attributed to Abraham Maslow, but no reference to the model exists in Maslow’s work.

The conscious competence model describes four stages in the process of learning a new skill. The process is often described as a matrix or as a ladder. It is a simple and essential model of learning, designed to support trainers imparting new skills. The four stages are as follows:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – at this stage one is not even aware that one is lacking a particular skill or competence.
  2. Conscious incompetence – one is now aware of the need to learn how to do something but is still incompetent at doing it.
  3. Conscious competence – at this point one is able to achieve this particular task as long as they are very conscious about every step.
  4. Unconscious competence – at this final stage, one has finally mastered the skill and can complete it without even thinking about it.

Progression through the stages is sequential, moving from 1 to 2 and so on. It is not possible to skip stages, but it is possible to regress if one does not practice the new skill. The progress from stage to stage is often experienced as an “awakening” or feeling that “things click into place.”

The Conscious Competence Model and the Process of Change

We can generalize the conscious competence model and apply it to more than acquiring new skills. I am personally interested in the process of creating change in individuals both for my own process of growth and for my work as an Integral Coach. I have observed my own process of change and discovered that it can be described using a model very similar to the conscious competence model. I will also use Grof’s BPMs as a way to describe each stage from an experiential perspective. The BPM lens will help  highlight important aspects of each stage of the model including forces that both support and hinder progress.

  1. Unconscious habit (BPM 1, primal union with the mother) – This is the stage of blissful ignorance. In this stage we are not yet conscious of the habit. Like the fetus in the womb, we are free from worries.
    Counter forces: ignorance – unconscious habits tend to remain so until the light of awareness is directed there. As mentioned above, this intervention can come from an external source or from internal self-awareness.
  2. Conscious habit (BPM 2, the state of no exit) – At some point we become aware of this habit and the suffering that comes with it; perhaps this has been pointed out to us or we’ve noticed it through self-reflection. At this early stage we usually only notice the habit in retrospect or when it is already too late to change our actions. Like the fetus in that initial stage of birth, we feel the suffering inherent in our situation but are unable to change it. We may speak with a teacher or therapist and take on a practice. However, at this point it seems that all our efforts to create change either fail or quickly regress. In fact, our growing awareness of the situation may serve to increase the suffering as, through practice, we are now becoming increasingly aware. We may feel helpless, frustrated, or stuck. This is the most difficult and challenging stage of the change process when we are most likely to drop our practice and give up.
    Practice: mindful awareness and compassion – at this stage it is most helpful to become more familiar with the habit. By making it more conscious we are taking away some of its power. If we bring a critical awareness to this habit we create an antagonistic relationship with it, likely creating more suffering. However, with compassionate awareness  we begin to establish a friendly relationship with the habit leading to deeper understanding of the internal forces that support it.
    Counter forces: suffering and ignorance – the pain and suffering we begin to uncover at this point may push us into avoidance, thereby falling back into unconsciousness (ignorance).
  3. Conscious freedom (BPM 3, the death-rebirth struggle) – If we continue with our practice, we notice that given time, awareness, and applied effort things begin to change. We are sometimes able to notice the habit in real time and stop from engaging with it. There is a clear sense of hope here, but the struggle is far from over. Due to our practice, we’re now more aware than ever of the suffering brought about by our habit and we may also be gaining glimpses into the deep origins of this habit. The pull between deep psychological conditioning and the desire for freedom can be frustrating and painful. At times we may relapse into the previous stage and feel, once again, stuck. At other times, we may gain glimpses of freedom.
    Practice: conscious change – at this stage we may get more traction with practices that actively support new patterns. Keeping up the practice of mindful awareness we can supplement it with some form of compassionate intervention.
    Counter forces: suffering and resistance – as we begin to change our patterns we will likely encounter resistance. Bringing the same kind of compassionate awareness to the resistance is helpful.
  4. Unconscious freedom (BPM 4, the experience of death-rebirth) – If we continue with our practice we can create sustainable change. At this stage, the new pattern becomes natural and eventually unconscious. There is a subtle vulnerability at this stage as, after a while, one might become complacent and either fall back to earlier stages or miss the formation of new unhealthy habits. To guard against complacency it is important to develop an ongoing practice of mindful awareness and to maintain this attitude a part of one’s life.

This model can be applied to the process of undoing an unhealthy habit or to the process of acquiring a healthy one with just a small change in emphasis. Awareness of where we are in this model can help us to focus our efforts in the most effective way and serves as a reminder that even in our bleakest moments, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

As currently practiced within the Catholic tradition, confession or rather, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is often a structured ritual performed within the hierarchy of the church. However, in some Protestant traditions, confession may be practiced with a peer and in some cases it may be practiced without a witness at all. Pennebaker et. al (1987) looked at the effectiveness of confession in several settings; working with the assumption that inhibition creates stress, leading to disease they began with the hypothesis that disclosure of a traumatic event would lead to a reduction in stress. The researchers discovered similar reduction in stress when writing, speaking to a tape, and speaking to a confessor. They also noted a change in language and presentation when speaking to a confessor, suggesting increased inhibition in some participants. One key conclusion from Pennebaker’s work is that there are different ways to practice confession effectively; we must each find the form that works best for each of us wherever we are on the spiritual path. In light of this conclusion I will not offer specific instructions for practicing confession but instead will include some suggestions and guidelines for the reader to experiment with.

Medium. We may practice confession verbally or in writing; both mediums appear to be useful. According to (Pennebaker 1987) merely thinking about the events appears to be less useful.

Higher Power. It may be useful to practice confession in the presence of one’s divine image. Whether we ask for forgiveness or simply being witnessed, the act of including the divine in our confession supports the spiritual container of the practice. Meister Eckhart writes:

It is to God that we should confess sooner than to men, and if we are guilty of sin, it is our confession and our self-reproaches before God to which we should attend carefully. And if we want to go to the sacrament, we ought not to neglect this confession before God in favor of external penance, for it is in our intention as we perform our works that is just and godly and good.

Ritual. Some people find that creating a ritual around the practice of confession supports the practice as well. For example taking a kneeling position may remind us of our intention to surrender and ask forgiveness. Many sources recommend finding a regular time of day (for example, at the end of the day before retiring) for this practice supports consistency and serves as a daily reminder of one’s commitments.

Witnessing. We may practice confession in solitude or in the presence of a witness (i.e. a confessor). We may also share a written confession with a witness after the fact. This last option may allow for the greatest flexibility, especially when combined with technology like E-mail. While some people find the presence of a confessor to be inhibiting (especially when combined with asymmetrical power dynamics) there is power in being witnessed.

The Twelve Step tradition makes great use of confession; including it in several of the steps and as a regular tool in meetings. Step five in that tradition reads, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” In this tradition, we see, confession (often related to the process of taking moral inventory) is practiced in the presence of one’s God and another person. Practicing confession in the presence of another person is a humbling experience and one that requires us to look squarely at our shadow. Being compassionately witnessed in this way also leads to greater freedom and serenity. Reciprocal witnessing of confession with a peer (or possibly, group of peers) can lead, over time, to a sharing of trust and intimacy allowing the participants to dive increasingly deeper into their own vulnerability in the practice.

Evolving engagement. Like any other form of practice, confession evolves over time. One particular form of doing the practice may work well today but not tomorrow. Understanding that our ability to engage with a practice changes and evolves over time allows us to keep practicing, slowly deepening, even through difficult or dry times. As you mature in the practice, be prepared to challenge yourself in new ways; perhaps aspects of the practice that did not work before can become the leading edge of the practice.

Last, a few guidelines based on advice from experienced practitioners, Ona Kiser and Jamison Wiggins:

  • Be honest! This practice is an invitation, not a requirement. You are invited to share as much as you are willing.
  • Confess only your own sins! This isn’t the time to make excuses or explain away your actions based on someone else’s actions. This practice is about you.
  • Remain engaged with the practice with both heart and mind. The purpose of this practice is not to accurately describe one’s mistakes but to reflect on the event in its entirety, especially in the emotional realm. We may invite surrender, a feeling of contrition, and a intention to accept one’s limitations while reinforcing one’s commitment.
  • Recognize the relief that follows the practice and allow it to sink in. You may notice gratitude arising as well – to yourself for your dedication or perhaps for divine forgiveness.
  • Understand that more will be revealed. As you confess your transgressions, more will become apparent; perhaps more subtle aspects of your motivations or insights into your own personality structure. This process of coming back to alignment requires sustained effort, time and humility.
  • Let resistance show the way. As you recall your transgressions, you may notice an internal resistance to visiting certain memories or feelings. Take note; these difficult places in the mind are pointing at wounds which have yet to heal. Over time you will learn to see resistance not as a problem but as a navigational aid on the path.


Anonymous (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.

Eckhart, M. (2005). Counsel 21: Of zeal. In Griffin, E. (Ed.), Meister Eckhart: Selections from his essential writings. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Murray-Swank, A. (2003). Exploring spiritual confession: A theoretical synthesis and experimental study. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; 2003

Pennebaker, J.W., Hughes, C.F., & O’Heeron, R.C. (1987). The psychophysiology of confession: Linking inhibitory and psychosomatic processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 52(No. 4), pp. 781-793.

“There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”

~Oscar Wilde

The practice of confession is familiar to many Christians, especially those in the Catholic tradition, although it is by no means limited to Christianity. According to Murray-Swank (2003) confession is a widespread cross-cultural phenomenon and “diverse spiritual traditions have developed variety of rituals and methods of confession.” However the popularity of this powerful practice, especially as it was traditionally practiced, appears to be diminishing over the last few decades. While weekly confession used to be the norm among many Catholics, Murray-Swank (2003) cites a study from 1990 that found 80% of Catholics attend confession twice a year or less. There are probably many reasons for this decline, however, they are beyond the scope of this work. In this section I will describe the benefits of confession and offer a few variations on the practice that I believe will be helpful for a modern audience.

Before describing the benefits of confession I would like to expand the definition of the practice to include two main forms: individual confession and communal confession.

  1. Individual confession is similar to the practice of confession as practiced in the Church. This may be practiced in private, with a witness, or in the presence of one’s divine image.
  2. Communal confession is practiced by an individual in the presence of a community (often a community of fellow practitioners). Communal confession allows one to ask forgiveness when the transgression involves another person or persons. Being witnessed by one’s community in this way make this a powerful practice.

The practice of confession serves several functions; I will mention a few here, focusing on confession in the context of a spritual practice. For a more detailed overview of this topic see (Murray-Swank 2003) & (Pennebaker, Hughes, & O’Heeron 1987).

  1. Reducing guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are often mentioned as a reason to seek confession. Studies have also found a reduction in guilt following confession. Through confession we can make guilt into a “healthy” emotion. When guilt motivates us to seek confession we may act to repair relationships, seek forgiveness (interpresonal or divine) and self-improvement.
  2. Seeking social connection. The feeling that we have somehow sinned or transgressed a social boundary is isolating. Confession between individuals or in a group is likely to promote connection. For more on the effects of confession in a group see (Weiner, Graham, Peter, & Zmuidinas 1991).
  3. Seeking meaning and coherence. Discolsure of a transgression and related feelings may allow us to find meaning and emotional relief in an otherwise difficult experience. It may lead to a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves and insight into troubling habits. As we make progress on the path we may notice that the topics that come up in confession are changing as we are able to notice more subtle elements of our experience. In this way regular practice of confession can be a tool for integration and reflection on our path as a whole.
  4. Coming back into alignment with the sacred. To understand this point more clearly, I would like to introduce the concept of Sin as explained by theologian Paul Tillich (1999):
    “In any case, sin is separation. To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation. And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a man from himself, and separation of all men from the Ground of Being.”
    At times we transgress in a way that leaves us feeling separate, lost, disconnected, or misaligned from whatever it is that we hold sacred, be it God, nature or a set of values. The act of confession requires that we face that transgression, in effect facing part of our shadow, and allows us to come back into alignment with that which we hold sacred. Facing the shadow element is integral to psychological and spiritual growth. Turning again to the words of Paul Tillich, we can say that confession is a way to come back into grace.
    “Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; it changes guilt into confidence and courage.”


In my next post I will offer suggestions and guidelines for the practice of individual confession.


Murray-Swank, A. (2003). Exploring spiritual confession: A theoretical synthesis and experimental study. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; 2003

Pennebaker, J.W., Hughes, C.F., & O’Heeron, R.C. (1987). The psychophysiology of confession: Linking inhibitory and psychosomatic processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 52(No. 4), pp. 781-793.

Tillich, P. (1999). The essential Tillich: An anthology of the writings of Paul Tillich. Church, F.F. (Ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

The Hakomi Method is a form of psychotherapy developed by Ron Kurtz in the late 1970s. Hakomi is influenced by Eastern philosophies and practices like Buddhism and Taoism, and by Western forms like systems theory, Gestalt therapy and Reichian body work. Over the last year I have experienced Hakomi both as a student of the method and as a client. In this paper, I would like to describe Hakomi through the lens of nondual psychotherapy.

Hakomi is grounded in five core principles. These principles serve to guide the evolution of the method, the process of training, and the work itself. The principles serve as a container for the work, “Like a babe in its mother’s arms” (Kurtz 1990, p. 22). As the principles are so intimately intertwined with the method and the work of Hakomi, I will use them as a gateway into the method, describing each principle briefly and showing the relationship with nonduality from the perspective of each of the core principles.

1. Organicity: Living Systems

The first principle states our belief that the as an organic, living system the client is the only one capable of healing himself. The therapist’s role is not to fix or repair the client, rather to support the process through which the client finds answers or healing. Kurtz (1990, p. 25) tells us that, “Healing is an act of self-recreation.” This principle is grounded in an understanding of living system that, “Self-organize, self-create, self-maintain, and in many ways, direct their own evolution.”

The principle of organicity leads to seeing the person as intrinsically whole rather than somehow wrong or broken. The wounds that we suffer over our lives are not something to be rid of but natural reactions to the environment around us at the time. From a nondual perspective, we could say that the wounds are not different from the wholeness or to use the example of the clay pot, the clay doesn’t care if the shape of the pot isn’t “perfect,” it retains its clayness no matter what the shape is. As we learn to recognize that, we can find great freedom even while being stuck in old patterns; we’re also able to bring equanimity to difficult situations thus bringing healing to deep wounds.

Adyashanti (2003) speaks to embodying the organicity aspect as a living-system in an interview quoted in The Sacred Mirror.

A lot of the embodiment is simply remaining completely real and completely honest to our own experience in a very deep and authentic way, without necessarily trying to change it. Our conditioned tendencies are allowed to unfold into the field of awareness. It’s the true spiritual alchemy that takes place almost entirely by itself, if we can just get out of the way enough.

2. Mindfulness

According to (Kurtz 1990, pp. 26-28), mindfulness is seen in Hakomi as both a core-principle and a state. As a principle, mindfulness guides the therapist to trust in consciousness, to recognize “the organicity, openness and sensitivity,” and to allow “the inner wisdom of the other to create change through awareness rather than effort.” Mindfulness allows us to slow down experience enough such that the organizing principles of our personality, which normally are unconscious, may be noticed. The practice of mindfulness supports the client’s well-being in the therapeutic container and outside of it as well.

Sheila Krystal (2003) has seen how clients learn to trust in their own organicity and wisdom by using mindfulness supported by an understanding of the nondual ground in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing); she writes:

As clients’ mindfulness develops, they begin to discern more clearly and quickly when awareness has become distracted from itself. Clients learn to come back from suffering and dysfunction to the eternally present, underlying peace. They learn that life takes care of itself endlessly in the moment.

In my own experience, using mindfulness as a client in therapy allows the mind to clarify. Much like the story of the water buckets, as the muddy water of the mind settle and clarify, it is possible to rest with the clear experience of the sun; resting in that experience as a psychological resource, I am able to look at the products of the mind more clearly, to recognize that these thoughts and feelings do not define who I am, and, finally, to shine the light of awareness even into difficult experiences that may otherwise be overwhelming.

3. Nonviolence: Reverence for Life

Nonviolence, says Kurtz (1990, p. 29), grows out of a recognition of organicity; understanding that, “using force against a living system is asking for resistance” we choose to go “with the grain.” In Hakomi we recognize that psychological defenses are attempts by the client to manage their experience. Instead of opposing this attempt to organize experience we try to support it so that the client may feel safe and free to explore his experience. Another aspect of this principle is “placing the emphasis on experience rather than advice or interpretation.” By following the client‘s process we allow what is alive in the client to emerge, rather than forcing our own agenda or perspective.

Nonviolence invites the therapist to take on the attitude of a supportive friend who is actively interested in the client’s living experience. As we hold this supportive attitude we encourage the client to develop internally a similar attitude. This inner friend that the client develops may be a powerful resource throughout the healing process and beyond.

From the therapist’s perspective, it may be difficult to truly rest in the principle of nonviolence. Resting in this principle requires some degree of emotional and spiritual maturity. As I started on the path of training in Hakomi I found it difficult to allow for silence and space for the client’s aliveness to emerge. The empty spaces in a session were filled with anxiety and worry: Am I not doing enough? Am I doing too much? What should I say next? The change came when I started to realize that the session is not about me; it is not about what I do or do not do, rather it is about the client’s experience unfolding at whatever pace it requires. Being able to untangle my sense of self from the way that the session proceeded gave me the freedom to rest in mindful presence, thus, supporting the client by offering them a safe space to be and from which to explore their experience.

4. Mind-Body Holism

Hakomi sees the mind and body as a complex whole. We are especially interested in the influence that, “deeply held beliefs, guiding images and significant, early memories have on behavior, body structure and all level of physiology.” (Kurtz 1990, p. 30). Judith Blackstone (2007) explains that nondual consciousness “is not just a mental or cognitive experience. It emerges along with a transformation of our entire organism. Nondual realization is the experience that our own body is saturated with consciousness.” It is exactly this embodied consciousness that Hakomi engages with constantly throughout the process of therapy; sometimes studying the effects of beliefs on the body and at other times studying the meaning that arises out of bodily experience. Wherever the focus lies, this principle brings the recognition that mind and body are not separate but part of a whole organism.

5. Unity: A Participatory Universe

Finally, Kurtz (1990, pp. 31-33) explains that the fifth principle of Hakomi, unity, is about “belonging, being part of, about hearing and being heard”; it is about the parts communicating to create a healthy system and the way that such systems break when communication stops. Unity recognizes that self-other separation is based in faulty perception or ignorance. To further explore the nature of this ignorance we can turn to Advaita Vedanta.

Anantanand Rambachan is a scholar of religion who has written about and practiced Advaita Vedanta. In The Advaita World View, Rambachan (2006) explains that, “Ignorance of the specific nature of the self causes one to fully and incorrectly identify the self with the attributes of the body, senses, and mind and to superimpose the finitude of these upon the self.” This ignorance, says Rambachan, is “the original cause of the sense of want and inadequacy experienced by human beings.” When we act out of this sense of want and inadequacy we create suffering and perpetuate the belief that we are not whole. In Advaita, freedom or liberation is found through the removal of these false assumption about the self or self-knowledge. However according to Carol Whitfield, the path of Advaita may not be enough for Western students of Advaita.

In The Jungian Myth and Advaita Vedanta, Whitfield (2009) writes:

The Westerner has to take his or her route to mental purity through the unconscious, not around it or in spite of it. Only the assimilation and integration of unconscious materials into consciousness will provide the mental health and maturity that is needed for the Vedantic techniques dealing with the conscious mind to become meaningful.

Re-integration of those parts of our personality that have been split-off is an important aspect of the process of healing. However, the principle of unity goes beyond the personal; it is the recognition that the universe is a web of relationships. By supporting communications between elements that have been split-off or ignored we allow wholeness to emerge and healing to take place. In this way Hakomi supports wholeness in individuals, families and at every level of being.

Seeing through the lens of unity we recognize the deep connection that we share with our clients. We do not shy away from pain, rather we engage it with compassion. We see the full humanity of each person sitting across from us and together we explore the mysteries of being alive. We can access our own wholeness, relying on empathy and intuition, as well as technique and theory. We work to bring together all parts of the person, trusting that the system knows how to heal itself. And, just as importantly, we know that the work we do with one person filters out farther and farther to bring benefit to countless beings.


To summarize, I have described the Hakomi method through its five core principles: 1) Organicity; 2) Mindfulness; 3) Nonviolence; 4) Mind-body holism; and 5) Unity. I have shown how each of the five principles and the method itself are grounded in nonduality. Because of its grounding in the nondual and its emphasis on transformation I believe that the Hakomi method is a powerful tool for psychological healing and one that would be of great support to spiritual seekers on their path to self-realization.


Adyashanti (2003). Love returning for itself. In Prendergast, Fenner, & Krystal (Eds.) Sacred Mirror: Nondual wisdom and Psychotherapy. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Blackstone, J. (2007). The Empathic Ground: Intersubjectivity and Nonduality in the Psychotherapeutic process. New York, NY: SUNY.

Krystal, S. (2003). A nondual approach to EMDR. In In Prendergast, Fenner, & Krystal (Eds.) Sacred Mirror: Nondual wisdom and Psychotherapy. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Kurtz, R. (1990). Body Centered Psychotherapy: the Hakomi Method. Mendocino, CA: LifeRhythm.

Rambachan, A. (2006). Chapter Seven: Liberation. In The Advaita Worldview: God, World, and Humanity (pp. 99-116). New York, NY: SUNY Press.

Whitfield, C. (2009). Chapter four: The Western way to wisdom. In The Jungian Myth and Advaita Vedanta. Chennai: Arsha Vidya Research and Publications Trust.

“Have the men of our time still a feeling of the meaning of sin? Do they, and do we, still realize that sin does not mean an immoral act, that “sin” should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life? Do we still know that it is arrogant and erroneous to divide men by calling some “sinners” and others “righteous”? For by way of such a division, we can usually discover that we ourselves do not quite belong to the “sinners”, since we have avoided heavy sins, have made some progress in the control of this or that sin, and have been even humble enough not to call ourselves “righteous”. Are we still able to realize that this kind of thinking and feeling about sin is far removed from what the great religious tradition, both within and outside the Bible, has meant when it speaks of sin?

I should like to suggest another word to you, not as a substitute for the word “sin”, but as a useful clue in the interpretation of the word “sin”, “separation” . Separation is an aspect of the experience of everyone. Perhaps the word “sin” has the same root as the word “asunder”. In any case, sin is separation. To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation. And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a man from himself, and separation of all men from the Ground of Being. This three-fold separation constitutes the state of everything that exists; it is a universal fact; it is the fate of every life. And it is our human fate in a very special sense. For we as men know that we are separated. We not only suffer with all other creatures because of the self-destructive consequences of our separation, but also know why we suffer. We know that we are estranged from something to which we really belong, and with which we should be united. We know that the fate of separation is not merely a natural event like a flash of sudden lightning, but that it is an experience in which we actively participate, in which our whole personality is involved, and that, as fate, it is also guilt. Separation which is fate and guilt constitutes the meaning of the word “sin”. It is this which is the state of our entire existence, from its very beginning to its very end. Such separation is prepared in the mother’s womb, and before that time, in every preceding generation. It is manifest in the special actions of our conscious life. It reaches beyond our graves into all the succeeding generations. It is our existence itself. Existence is separation! Before sin is an act, it is a state.

We can say the same things about grace. For sin and grace are bound to each other. We do not even have a knowledge of sin unless we have already experienced the unity of life, which is grace. And conversely, we could not grasp the meaning of grace without having experienced the separation of life, which is sin. Grace is just as difficult to describe as sin. For some people, grace is the willingness of a divine king and father to forgive over and again the foolishness and weakness of his subjects and children. We must reject such a concept of grace; for it is a merely childish destruction of a human dignity. For others, grace is a magic power in the dark places of the soul, but a power without any significance for practical life, a quickly vanishing and useless idea. For others, grace is the benevolence that we may find beside the cruelty and destructiveness in life. But then, it does not matter whether we say “life goes on”, or whether we say “there is grace in life”; if grace means no more than this, the word should, and will, disappear. For other people, grace indicates the gifts that one has received from nature or society, and the power to do good things with the help of those gifts. But grace is more than gifts. In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; it changes guilt into confidence and courage. There is something triumphant in the word grace : in spite of the abounding of sin grace abounds much more.

And now let us look down into ourselves to discover there the struggle between separation and reunion, between sin and grace, in our relation to others, in our relation to ourselves, and in our relation to the Ground and aim of our being. If our souls respond to the description that I intend to give, words like “sin” and “separation”, “grace” and “reunion”, may have a new meaning for us. But the words themselves are not important. It is the response of the deepest levels of our being that is important. If such a response were to occur among us this moment, we could say that we have known grace.”

Quoted from: You Are Accepted.