There’s a couple of basic things to understand. One is the difference between reporting your present experience and reporting on the basis of what you remember. If the doctor pokes you somewhere and asks, “What do you experience when I do this?”, he asking about present experience. If he asks, “How was your week?”, he’s asking for what you remember. The reports you give in those two cases can be thought of as representing two different selves: an experiencing self and a remembering self.
When you’re working with people, you want to know the truth about them. The clearest expression of that truth is in a person’s behavior. The person’s stories may not be all that accurate, but spontaneous behavior—reactions, habits and impulses—are true expressions of a person’s experiential self. Aristotle said, “You are what you habitually do.” Your habits are how you learned to interact with your environment. They operate automatically, without conscious thought. The express your beliefs about what kind of world you believe you’re in and who you are in that world. They limit and control what you can and cannot experience.
The riddle of experience vs. memory by Daniel Kahneman
So, if you want to understand someone, you’d do best by studying the person’s behavior. So, the essence of this method is this. The therapist will study the client’s behavior and make guesses about what kind of history might have created the need for that behavior, what kinds of beliefs make sense of that behavior, and finally, how might those beliefs limit and control what the client can and cannot experience.
Here’s a very simple example: There are people who have a habit of shrugging their shoulders a lot. An extreme example would include holding the arms close to the body, raising the forearms, and turning the palms upward. That’s a very common expression of, I’m not responsible. It says, It’s not my fault. I don’t know anything about it.
Suppose you ask someone, “How’d you like the movie?” Well, let’s say you ask the question in an email and they message back, “I liked it.” That would be quite different from asking them in person and them saying “I liked it.” But at the same time, shrugging their shoulders. The words say one thing and the shoulders are saying, “But not that much.” In the first case, you’re getting the story. In the second, you’re getting the experience.
Here’s another example: There are people who almost never look straight at you. They tilt their heads to one side or they turn it slightly away and they look at you from a slight angle. This is also a very common expression. It says, I don’t quite believe you. Or, I don’t quite trust you.
From habits like that, we can make some guesses about what environment made it useful and what kind of belief about self and world makes sense of it. And, most important, what kind of experiences does it create or prevent. For in the long run, we’re trying to help our clients have better, more nourishing experiences and fewer experiences that entail unnecessary suffering. We want to help our clients discover the beliefs that control their behavior and too change those beliefs where they do harm.
If you work this way with many different people over a number of years, you’ll build up a lot of experience with this kind of guessing and, as a result, you’ll become very good at understanding people. But, it’s not just guessing that does this, it’s what we do with our guesses that make this method unique. From the indicators we notice, we create “experiments’ that confirm or disconfirm our guesses. More about this later.
So, we have to “think backwards” about habits like these. What history makes sense of shrugging ones shoulders? If the person habitually has to express a need to minimize their responsibility, you can imagine a scenario where deflecting the blame was useful. Maybe there was a significant person who had a habit of trying to make the person feel guilty. (It happens!)
The method is based on the idea that the deepest beliefs—we call them core beliefs—are not usually conscious. They are implicit. They are implied by habitual behaviors. For the most part those behaviors were procedurally learned and have become generalized ways of being. A person’s habits tell us in this pantomimic way, what kind of world the person is imagining they’re living in.
The goal of working with someone is to enhance their well being and reduce their unnecessary suffering. Much suffering is the result of over-generalized core beliefs. The world is not the way the client is imagining it. For example: a person could be afraid of dogs. They have a core belief that all dogs are dangerous and can hurt you. Maybe they were bitten as a young child. That person will never meet a friendly dog. Never feel the pleasure of a dog’s loving, playful company. Not while that belief is unconscious. Or, if the client habitually distrusts people, has an implicit core belief that people will hurt you, they’ll never have a good relationship. If no one can be trusted, they’ll never find someone they can trust and that’s going to cause a lot of suffering. That won’t change that belief becomes conscious.
Okay, we’ve seen an indicator and we’ve made some guesses about the core belief. Now what do we do? We create an experiment. Here’s what I mean by an experiment: We are deliberately trying to evoke a reaction. In order to enhance the probability that a reaction will occur, we ask the client to be mindful. At this point, we’re interacting with the experiencing self, not the remembering self.
Experiments are designed to do some combination of three things.
- evoke re-experiencing of the original experience
- the emotions associated with it
- bring the client’s core belief(s) into consciousness
Experiments are designed to do these things in a very special way. That special way is something the remembering self is able to do under the right conditions. The remembering self is sometimes able to re-experience. That is, it is able to recreate the intensity of a remembered experience. This is especially true of experiences that were very intense originally. Experiences that were overwhelming and could not at the time be successfully integrated. The re-experienced event is not just a memory, it has become an experience again, usually a very intense one, as in traumatic flashbacks. Where it does not re-traumatize—something to be very careful to avoid—re-experiencing can be an important part of the healing process. Experiments begin the process of re-experiencing. Experiments not only confirm or disconfirm our guesses. They initiate healing. (More about healing later.)
About making habitual behavior conscious: Most behavior is habitual. That is, it is automatic. It is done without conscious planning or deliberation. It is learned a learned way of doing things. Like walking. Like speaking with the grammar of your native tongue. You only need to be conscious of habitual behaviors when they fail. You normally walk without planning each step, but if your legs suddenly become weak or numb, then you’ll become very focused and conscious of using them. Your habit is to just put one foot in front of the other without thinking about it. But, when that fails, when your unconscious prediction about what’s supposed to happen fails, you become conscious. Like all habits, clients’ indicators, are based on unconscious predictions about how the world works. We bring those predictions into consciousness by making them fail.
The way to make a person’s predictions fail is to say something or do something that totally runs counter to their implicit beliefs. That’s what experiments do. Here’s an example: With someone whose indicator is to shrug their shoulders, you could say to them—while they’re in a mindful state—“It wasn’t your fault.” If they are unconsciously expecting to be blamed, saying will run completely counter to what they’re expecting. That should evoke a reaction. Sometimes, the reaction will be disbelief. The don’t believe it’s true or they don’t belief you mean what you’re saying. Sometimes, the reaction will be emotional. They might suddenly feel sadness, sometimes relief. Often, along with the emotions, a memory suddenly come into consciousness. If the therapist and the assistants do the right things when that happens, the client may begin re-experiencing the painful events that were the original source the client’s habitual behavior.
Any strong emotional reaction will bring with it a need to understand it. That need will call forth the precise memories that make sense of the reaction. The memories help explain—to the client—how those habits and beliefs came to be. During the period of time where this kind of self study is happening, the client’s eyes are usually closed and the client is not speaking. It’s best if the therapist stays quiet also. As the painful memories of being mistreated, physically, emotionally or sexually, treated with indifference, being isolated, humiliated, abandoned are arising, therapist and assistants offer support by quiet attention and, if acceptable, comforting touch. The touch is soft and gentle at first, perhaps just a hand on the client’s shoulder.
That kind of support allows the emotions and insights to intensify. If intense enough, the client is re-experiencing the memories and that’s when healing becomes possible.
Here’s how the healing happens using this method:
The events that created the beliefs and habits need not be consciously remembered to have the effects they do. The habits are procedures for dealing with the world, the world as perception and expectation. Remembering those events is an act of reconstruction. The various aspects of the memory are put together again at the time of remembering. If it’s a story you’re remembering, you may not feel again what the events felt like. You may not see them in your mind’s eye. You may not hear the spoken words or experience the pain of being hit. That is, if you’re just remembering the story you have about the events. But, if you’re re-experiencing an event, all your senses can be involved. From all parts of your brain, the various aspects of the event are being re-composed and joined together to create something much more like an experience than a story.
The memory has become present again. It is here, now. When that happens, it has become part of this time, not just the past. While it is part of this time, it can be influenced by what else is also present at this time. The caring people who are present, the kindness, attention and comforting they give, that too is present. Those things alter the memory. They create new beliefs and the possibility of new behavior and new habits to come. The process is called, reconsolidation, the alterations of a memory on the basis of what’s being experienced at the time of its remembering. The whole system of habits and beliefs becomes conscious and available for change.
When the new experience is powerful and nourishes the client’s well being, when it’s savored and given all the time it needs to clarify and stabilize, something important changes for the client. Experiences that weren’t possible before, become possible. Experiences that had been missing, are now happening. Where fear was always somewhere in the background, a wash of relief and safety fill the body-mind. Discoveries are made. Something that wasn’t real before, is alive within us. Trust becomes possible. Love becomes possible. Self-acceptance, confidence, forgiveness. Some rich source of strength and satisfaction becomes available. What you habitually do has begun to change. Some part of you is healing. You are renewed.