Log in
Toronto Hakomi Logo

Embodied Mindfulness


  • 1 Jul 2021 12:00 PM | Jalen Séguin (Administrator)

    The Hakomi Way

    by Donna Martin, (edited by Ron Kurtz)

    The Hakomi Method of psychotherapy has been described by its creator, Ron Kurtz, as a method of assisted self-study.

    What Hakomi is interested in studying is the organization of experience. To do this, Hakomi uses mindfulness – a kind of quiet, non-interfering attention to present moment experience – and little experiments to evoke experiences to study. The attention in Hakomi is on present experience.

    The Hakomi practitioner is trained to pay attention to two things about present experience: first, what it is (i.e. what is happening now); and second, how it is being organized. We call this way of paying attention “tracking”. First, we are tracking signsof the client’s present experience. Secondly, we are tracking for indicators (that may be signs) of how the client is organizing present experience.

    Yes! We’re tracking for nonconscious habits which may be indicators of foundational experiences, which resulted in implicit beliefs that organize experience into actions and emotions that create unnecessary suffering.

    Experience is organized by habits. Some habits create experiences of suffering, suffering which is, in effect, unnecessary. This is the kind of experience that we can actually help the client with. We can also help with the kind of suffering that is normal, like grief for the loss of a loved one. If the client’s present experience is painful because of difficult life events happening in present time, we can offer compassion and comfort. We also offer comfort when the client is experiencing emotional pain related to some past experience that has been brought to consciousness by the therapeutic work. Many of these painful past experiences were overwhelming and were not completely integrated. This leaves an ‘irritation’ to the system which requires energy and habits to keep the painful experience away from consciousness. We are also very interested in helping the client become awake in the present moment and aware of the possibility that some kind of nourishing experience, formally unavailable, is available right now.

    So, in Hakomi, we are not working on the person’s history. We are, after all, only able to guess at someone’s history. Even someone’s memory is not a reliable source of information about their history. Remembering, however, is a present time experience and, as such, it can reveal how experience is organized, unconsciously and automatically. It is the habitual organization of experience that we want to address as this is what causes unnecessary suffering in present time.

    The Hakomi Way is grounded in spiritual understandings gathered from Taoism and Buddhism. Buddhism teaches that the world is always changing. Taoism teaches that these changes are spontaneous, natural, appropriate and do not need to be controlled by humans. (“Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.”)

    Taoism teaches us that what happens is what happens. There is no should or should notabout what happens… or what has happened. We learn to rest into things as they are and as they are unfolding. Buddhism teaches us about wisdom and compassion. In Buddhism, we understand that the only reality is the present. The past is a dream. The future is a dream. Only the present moment is real. This is wisdom. However, many of us continue to experience the present as if in a dream. We are dreamers. But, this power to dream also makes us great planners with a great capacity to anticipate and to remember. So our minds are filled with imaginings, many full of fear and hurt that do not match the present state of things. This ignorance and delusion causes unnecessary suffering. We are not fully awake to life as it is.

    Experience is organized by habits and ideas. When the ideas that organize our experience are operating outside of consciousness, they are called implicit beliefs. When our actions are organized by behaviors that are on automatic, outside of conscious awareness, they are called reactions.

    In Hakomi we want to assist clients to study present experience for clues about their implicit beliefs and the reactions that influence how they organize life experience. We want to help clients discover nourishing experiences that they are not having in present time because of how they are organizing their experience.

    There is some misunderstanding about what is meant by the “missing experience” in Hakomi. Let me try to clarify.

    Since Hakomi is a method that focuses on present experience, even what we mean by the missing experience is something happening (or not happening) in present time. This might be related to childhood experiences, but those are outside our sphere of influence (unless we are working with an actual child). The only place where we can realistically intervene is in present time. We can ask, how does the person seem to be organizing his or her experience based on behaviors or ideas that are outside of conscious awareness?

    And what positive or nourishing experience is missing for the person, right now, because of how she or he is organizing experience? There is this very significant connection between implicit beliefs, habits and the inability to receive certain kinds of emotional nourishment. Implicit beliefs and the habits associated with them, inhibit those perceptions and actions that would create positive experiences. One good reason to bring such beliefs into consciousness is it provides an opportunity to realize how such beliefs actually do that. So, one kind of missing experience is missing because of the habits keep it from happening.

    A second important type of missing experience is one that would have supported the integration of a painful event at the time it first happened. When an old emotional hurt comes into present consciousness, it can be met with a kind of emotional support that was missing during the original event. With kindness and understanding there to meet it now, emotions may flow freely and come to a natural completion spontaneously.

    With genuine emotional support, the old pain and its negative effects on the organization of experience have a good chance of dissolving . This kind of unintegrated painful experience is very common and providing the emotional support that was missing can be very effective.

    Talking about past events is only one source of information about how someone is organizing experience. Nonverbal behavior is perhaps a more accurate source. Memory is a very unreliable source of accurate information about the past, but it can be a source of information about beliefs, especially when we pay attention to the person’s unspoken assumptions. A better source is paying attention to nonverbal behavior, searching for indicators of those habits and beliefs connected to the narrative elicited by the memory.

    Hakomi was originally referred to as “body-centered” psychotherapy because the information about someone’s present experience and how someone is organizing experience is more available from nonverbal expression than from what the person can or does say in words. So we are tracking nonverbal signs of present experience and indicators of how experience is organized.

    In Hakomi, we are accompanying the client on a journey. We are constantly following signs of his or her present experience and where it is going.

    The Hakomi Way has four distinguishing characteristics as a therapy method. Two have been with the method from the beginning; two have evolved more recently. From the beginning, there was a focus on present experience and the use of little experiments in mindfulness for the purpose of self-discovery.

    What has evolved since is the movement toward a nourishing missing experience. This evolution has been two-fold: first, there is now more understanding of the missing experience as a present experience. We are looking for what kind of nourishing experience the person needs now and is ready for, one that is missing only because the person’s own habits and beliefs make them so. And we will supply it, if we can.

    Secondly, we have more understanding now of how important experience is in shaping the brain, and how important the new nourishing experience is in changing how the mind perceives and responds to life. So we want to spend more time on creating the nourishing experience and less time on the old painful experience. Painful emotions are evoked only long enough to give us the information about what kind of nourishing experience is needed. The focus of attention and time in the therapy session is now on providing the nourishing experience needed and of making sure it is taken in.

    One way of doing this, throughout the whole therapy session, relates to the final key ingredient of Hakomi as it has evolved. There has always been an awareness of the importance of what we call the healing relationship. In the past ten years, we have realized that the key to the healing relationship is the state of mind of the therapist. We are calling the particular state of mind that creates the best possibility of a healing relationship loving presence.

    Loving Presence is now seen as the key to the whole method.

    Previously, in psychotherapy generally, the therapist was supposed to be in a neutral state… somewhat emotionally detached from the client. Now the latest research shows that the successful therapist needs to be loving… emotionally connected with the client, full of compassion (without sympathy) and skillfully responsive to the client in a way that is felt as caring.

    In Hakomi, we call this way of being “loving presence”. It means, first and foremost, that we see the client as a source of inspiration and nourishment. We are receiving the client as a gift. This receptive and appreciative state is felt by the client as a reminder of their own personal strength and wholeness.

    As Hakomi therapists, we see ourselves, not as professional experts who will heal the client, but as a kind of skilful spiritual friend who will accompany the client on a healing journey. The quality of relationship that this state of mind creates is tangible to the client and to observers. The therapist is relating to the client as a person with another person.

    So the four characteristics of the Hakomi way are:

    1. the practice of loving presence and all that entails…
    2. a constant focus on present experience (both the what and the how, using nonverbal expression, emotion, memory, etc as sources of information about present experience and indicators of habits)
    3. the use of little experiments in mindfulness for assisted self-study
    4. and a movement as soon as possible in the direction of the nourishing missing experience.

    This article was originally posted on

  • 1 Jul 2021 11:59 AM | Jalen Séguin (Administrator)

    An integrated approach to healing the spirit

    Donna Martin

    “Wild Geese”, by Mary Oliver

    (from her book, “Dream Work”, 1986.)

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.
    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
    are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.
    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
    are heading home again.
    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.

    As people in our western society rely less and less on religion to “care for the soul” or heal their spirit, it seems that we are more and more in need of psychotherapy to attend to the emotional pain and distress that cause most of our suffering. We may use a psychotherapist or counsellor the way someone in India, for example, might use a spiritual teacher or guru. We use support groups to provide the community and the sangha that would otherwise be missing from our western lives. We want help to be free of the stress and chaos of our lives, mostly when we experience transition and loss — the loss of a loved one, of our health, of a job, of a relationship, of our identity and our security as we have imagined it.

    After three decades as a yoga teacher I realized that what yoga seemed to offer most of my students, far beyond learning ways to release the tension in the body that causes unnecessary discomfort, was better ways to handle stress generally. I became a counsellor, and then a psychotherapist, and discovered that most of my clients were suffering from the kind of isolation which our culture produces in its focus on individuality. Many of the people who came to see me were ashamed of feeling like they couldn’t handle their stress. This sense of shame makes people embarrassed to talk to their friends about the emotional suffering they are feeling. It makes them avoid asking for help until things are really falling apart in their lives.

    I discovered, as a psychotherapist and as a teacher, that the bottom line for most, if not all of my clients and students was this shame and a sense of fear about not being good enough, smart enough, or strong enough, to handle the difficulties in their lives. After years of psychotherapy practice, I came to the conclusion that the only thing wrong with most people, is the idea that something is intrinsically wrong with them.

    This is an idea that is not found in all cultures. It may be that this is the real dis-ease, at least emotionally, that psychotherapy in our culture must address. Unfortunately, many psychotherapy methods collude with this delusion (of something wrong) and attempt (in a well-meaning but spiritually impoverished way) to help people find out what’s wrong with them and how to fix it. Unfortunately, if this is the basis of psychotherapy, it can go on and on for years. If the whole process is based on a faulty idea to begin with, how can a right solution ever be found? Even Jung is supposed to have said that patients don’t get better, they just move on!

    What psychotherapy needs to do for the average person — who is emotionally distressed and needs support to successfully move through life’s most difficult situations — is a combination of these two things:

    First and foremost is the realization that there is nothing inherently wrong with them. They are fine. The story line that holds them in the grip of the question, the fear, the shame of “what’s wrong with me?” is just that – a story. A myth. A construct. A wrong idea. And secondly, they need some tools, a new model, and especially some new experiences for healthier ways to meet the challenges of life… ways to be with the most emotionally distressing situations and not fall apart or lose themselves.

    Daniel Goleman’s book, “Destructive Emotions”, quotes the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist teachers who explain that Buddhism sees emotions as destructive when they disturb a person’s equilibrium. Destructive emotions disrupt equanimity and therefore create delusions. They interfere with our ability to see the true nature of reality … “Fundamentally, a destructive emotion – which is also referred to as an ‘obscuring’ or ‘afflictive’ mental factor – is something that prevents the mind from ascertaining reality as it is. With a destructive emotion, there will always be a gap between the way things appear and the way things are.” (Matthieu Ricard)

    So the goal of Buddhist psychology and practice, like western psychology, is to cultivate the possibility of emotional balance, mental clarity, and well-being. In fact, Buddhism goes beyond western psychology up till now in aspiring to something more than the absence of mental afflictions… in actually believing in the possibility of cultivating several wholesome states that lead to happiness. In Destructive Emotions, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard again is quoted:

    “We speak of four things to cultivate: love,
    equanimity, compassion, and rejoicing.”

    Now the latest research in neuroscience is exploring a somewhat new understanding (for western psychology) of what is being called “neuroplasticity”… which is the possibility of the brain to change throughout our adult lives.

    Research conducted by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin is demonstrating that repeated experience modifies the brain. It confirms something written by the Dalai Lama in his book, the “Art of Happiness”:

    “The systematic training of the mind, the cultivation of happiness, the genuine inner transformation by deliberately selecting and focusing on positive mental states and challenging negative mental states, is possible because of the very structure and function of the brain. But the wiring of our brain is not static, not irrevocably fixed. Our brains are also adaptable.” What Buddhism has understood for a long time, Western science and psychology is now discovering to be true.”

    Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley, in their book, “The Mind and the Brain: neuroplasticity and the power of mental force”, (ReganBooks, New York, 2002) describe how neuroscience now shows that the human mind is an independent entity that can shape and control the functioning of the physical brain.

    “The adult brain can change. It can grow new cells. It can change the function of old ones. It can rezone an area that originally executed one function and assign it another. It can, in short, change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to see and hear, into the networks that remember, feel, suffer, think, imagine, and dream… Through the mental act of focusing attention, mental effort becomes directed mental force. … it is now clear that the attentional state of the brain produces physical change in its structure and future functioning. The seemingly simple act of ‘paying attention’ produces real and powerful physical changes in the brain.”

    This is exciting news for all of us. It is moving western psychology closer and closer to a more spiritual appreciation of the person as a whole being, and moves psychotherapy in the direction of a more experiential and relational approach to supporting change in how we, as human beings, live our lives. This new approach to how psychotherapy can address modern problems is explored in the book, “A General Theory of Love”, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon (Vintage Books, New York, 2001):

    “As individuals and as a culture, our chance for happiness depends on our ability to decipher a hidden world that revolves — invisible, improbably, inexorably — around love. … Psychotherapy changes people because one mammal can restructure the limbic brain of another… When a limbic connection has established a neural pattern, it takes a limbic connection to revise it.” …


    “Because our minds seek one another through limbic resonance, because our physiologic rhythms answer to the call of limbic regulation, because we change one another’s brains through limbic revision -- what we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life.”

    And here’s the key:

    “Therapeutic techniques per se have nothing to do with results. The person of the therapist is the converting catalyst… the agent of change is who he is… if therapy works, it transforms a patient’s limbic brain and his emotional landscape forever… what we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life.”

    In a recent publication by the APA (American Psychological Association), called the ” Heart and Soul of Change (what works in therapy)”, this idea that the personal qualities of the therapist is supported, and the conclusion is that training needs to focus on therapists being people “who prize others”. When someone feels prized, the healing (of the whole idea of something wrong) can begin.

    Ron Kurtz, who created and continues to develop the Hakomi Experiential Method of mindfulness-based psychotherapy, says to therapists:

    “When we step aside from some of the habitual preoccupations and chattering of the mind—such as the tendency to analyze, or to criticize, or the idea that we are required to do something—we discover that we can find inspiration in almost every person we meet. It takes a concentrated intention to do it, if we haven’t already developed the habit.

    “It should be obvious that some people have a kind of talent for putting others at ease and giving them a sense that they are being heard and cared for. That kind of talent involves (1) specific skills that are learnable and (2) an awareness and control of ones mental states. Once learned, one’s interactions with others can become more natural, enjoyable and, clinically… much more effective.

    “Research on the effectiveness of psychotherapy, both recent and as early as 1990, has found that the personality of the therapist is significantly more important than any method or technique.

    “Research on the neurological basis of human, emotional communication has found strong emotional effects based on such things as eye contact, personal warmth, sensitivity, availability, awareness, all of which are components of the strong influence of personality on the effectiveness of psychotherapy. Neurologically, this kind of communication is mediated by the limbic systems and the Social Engagement Systems of the individuals communicating.

    “From these findings, it is easy to see that the training of “health professionals in general and psychotherapists in particular” must involve the development of exactly those kinds of personality traits. As part of that training, knowledge of and experience with the use of limbic resonance and social engagement are important factors. This workshop offers theoretical background, experience and practice with health care relationships based as much on social skills and “human beingness” as on technical proficiencies.

    “Limbic resonance is an essential component in any general approach to therapy that emphasizes the personality of the therapist and the positive emotional setting that the therapist creates through his or her personality.

    “My approach to therapy is called the Hakomi Method of Mindfulness Based Psychotherapy. The process involves self-discovery through short, precise experiments done with the client in mindful state. These are designed with reference to hypotheses which the therapist develops concerning the unconscious structures shaping the client’s attitudes, emotions and behavior. When the hypothesis is correct and the experiments are done properly, they can often evoke meaningful emotional reactions in the client. These reactions become the basis of self-discovery for the client. To provide a safe, positive atmosphere, in which such experiments become possible and fruitful, the warmth, flexibility and intelligence of the therapist, along with his or her ability to create limbic resonance, are paramount.” (Ron Kurtz)

    So psychotherapy, personhood, relationship, spirituality, neuroscience, compassion, and emotional well-being come together in the new millennium. Let’s hope the result will be more peace, love, and happiness throughout the world. May your inner goodness radiate through the way you live your life.

    The basic work of health professionals in general, and of psycho-therapists in particular, is to become full human beings and to inspire full human-beingness in other people who feel starved about their lives. (Chogyam Trungpa)

    © 2004 Donna Martin, M.A. (Certified Hakomi therapist and trainer)