This article originally appeared in the Lomi School Bulletin, a fine magazine published by the Lomi School Foundation, 1211 Lattie Lane, Mill Valley, California 94941.

Ron Kurtz is a psychotherapist and the author of The Body Reveals.

Copyright 1981 Lomi School Bulletin


When I work with someone these days, it’s usually in a workshop setting. I ask the person to stand and walk. I like to see the posture, the structure of the body, the way the person moves. I’m asking: What kind of world is this person in? Who is he relating to? How old is he? Look at a person’s posture and shape and you can almost “see” a situation. “Posture,” “pose,” “position”; these words suggest what I mean. I’m looking for a character in a play, the part the person has chosen in life or was forced to play. Often, it’s completely obvious.

Typically, these few moments of observation yield a wealth of material. Several important aspects of this person’s being-in-the-world are revealed. These are the same kinds of things that all therapists are interested in: feelings, key relationships, areas where growth is blocked. They are listened for and almost always asked about and talked about in psychotherapy. I look for them. It is a very rapid way to learn about someone. It has other advantages, too.

For one thing, simply looking does not require that the person talk to us about himself. So, we’re not dealing with explanations and attempts at self-analysis. We don’t need to believe or not believe this person. All the judging, analyzing and remembering that are part of listening to a person’s story can be usefully suspended. We can be simply present. Before I look, I usually stand next to the person I’m working with and trade a little small talk. I also make physical contact of some kind. I might put my arm around them or massage their shoulders a little. I am saying in a non-verbal way, “I am with you — I am on your side.” And there I am, physically, at their side. “I am behind you, I want to help you to relax and feel better and not be so afraid of what we might find out.” My voice, my eyes, my touch say these things. With this touching, a friendly feeling develops. Within this non-verbal frame we’re creating an intimate space in which to work, even while other people watch.

The first principle of psychotherapeutic change is that such changes occur most easily in situations where the patient or client feels safe and secure. The setting is part of this, with closed doors and comfortable, easy furnishings, but primarily, it’s the therapist who contributes most to the feeling of safety. The therapist (pastor, counselor, teacher, guide, whatever, we’re all just people working with each other) must be a secure “place” for the person with whom he is working. If working with a group, the therapist must see to it that the group is safe also, by instructing the members to be quiet and not express judgments. The feeling of safety is a product of the person’s capacity for trust and the therapist’s self-trust and compassion. Any insecurity on the part of the therapist is detrimental to the process. It’s not that the therapist has to know everything, it’s just that he must not be made afraid by any uncertainties about self, other, or the process unfolding. You can call that “faith.”

Safety allows relaxation and intimacy. It allows the focus of attention to turn inward. It helps one to drop outer concerns — those that are imbedded in time and daily life. It quiets the system and gives new clarity to feelings normally masked or unobserved. As a therapist I know how responsible I am to see that wherever I am working is a safe place. My touch is part of saying this.

There are some people I don’t touch. They don’t want to be touched — they recoil at being touched. I don’t fake it. Warmth is just there or it’s not. When it is, the rest of the process has a much better chance of being fruitful. When it is not, I start with that. So, presence, contact, intimacy and some understanding are there right from the beginning.

Too much feeling overwhelms the mind. We learn but rarely do we change very much from it. In order to change, we need to both have our feelings and at the same time to remain a witness to them.

Two things are going on that we’re most interested in: first, the person’s body and movements are expressing something about them, something about their way of being in the world, their self-concept, their needs and feelings. Second, we’ve created some intimacy. Once I’ve seen/felt/sensed something, the next thing to do is bring it to life — to make it felt, immediate. If we can, we want to reawaken the kind of emotional forces that shaped this characterological something and find a way to change the painful aspects of it. The person is stuck there, frozen into this role, this posture, this style, this way to move, this way to see and do things, frozen into beliefs about his self and the world. Personal interests and possibilities are limited, stuck and frozen. We need to heat things up.

Take for example this notion, “nobody was ever there for me.” You see this in bodies that try too hard to hold themselves up and seem to be failing at it. It is the need for support that you see and the attempt at self-support that is not going too well. (It’s easier to see than to describe.) Someone with the notion that “nobody was ever there for me” is living in a world that seems unwilling to give what is needed. He wants this world lit up, brought to life, painful though it is. The individual is usually avoiding this, holding it outside awareness, not looking at it. Yet, this complex of beliefs, this way-of-being controls choices, behavior, decisions. It is a big part of this person’s map of reality. He is acting on and living within this belief system completely. It shapes his body as it shapes his life. We want it to be felt again, to activate the processes which will bring this life system fully into awareness and to make it something that is felt and chosen so that a choice may be made to feel otherwise. There is a need to be aware of these things before changes can be made. Simple as that.

This is not an intellectual process. Beliefs as pervasive as those about reality are protected by natural defenses. We keep these maps in a safe place. (The brain has bone all around it.) It is an important function of the nervous system to create stable images, maps of the world we live in, so that we may go about our business within that world. The visual field is an example. The images on the retina are blurry and constantly shifting as we move our heads and eyes. Yet, the world we “see” is clear and steady. The immediate visual field is only one of the images we carry. As with the images on the retina, the nervous system acts to sharpen and stabilize our beliefs about ourselves and the world. These images are much longer term and are deeply affected by our experience, particularly emotional experiences. They are more abstract. They are maps about the kind of world it is we live in, not just what it looks like. They tell us whether, just as with our images of our bodies, the world is dangerous, friendly, nurturant, abundant, empty, competitive, etc. Such images control our behavior and determine our choices. They are maps of the choices we imagine we have. Such maps have great power to lead us, to shape our lives. Some maps, the ones most deeply held, will even help shape our bodies. Ideas and feelings about ourselves and our world direct and energize our behavior. These are our personal “mythic images” in the sense that Joseph Campbell uses these terms.

We can’t simply question these beliefs. Rational arguments don’t matter here. What matters is felt reality. What matters is going to that place within the person where these beliefs are vivid, active, current, and therefore, available for change. Bandler and Grinder call this process “accessing.” We’re going into the space where reality can be decided upon, the map room. We’re going to see if we can change any of the maps.

Accessing seems most magical; it is very similar to hypnosis. Both processes allow us to alter felt and perceived realities. Though accessing may take only a moment, it requires several conditions to make that moment. It needs contact, intimacy, security and precision. Here’s an example: she was the oldest of ten children, had worked hard taking care of her brothers and sisters, was never given much time by her father and now had children of her own with no man around. So, without her saying anything directly about it, I heard a deep longing she’s always had.

“I want you to be open to the next sentence I say. You don’t have to do anything. I’m going to say something to you and I want you to witness your reactions, your feelings, thoughts, ideas, whatever comes into your awareness. If my sentence is accurate, if it has any import, then your responses will be automatic. You just watch them. We’re working with parts of you that respond automatically. It’s like pushing buttons. I call this ‘a pebble in the water.’ I’ll drop in a pebble and you and I will watch the ripples.”

When she was ready, I said to her, “I want you to be my little girl.” She burst into tears, feeling again that child within her that longed so deeply to hear those very words. She cried off-and-on for forty minutes while I held her in my arms. Once in a while, we’d chat a little. In that process, she got some relief and a clearer idea of her deeper needs. The sentence I had used brought all her longing to life. She came alive with memories and feelings. It’s in that space that these blocked feelings and deep needs can be known and decisions made about them. Feelings are signals. They tell us things we need to know about ourselves — that we’re being hurt, endangered, suppressed, that we want a mother, a father, that we want to be loved, that the fullness of our humanity has been thwarted. They tell us about what we have to do to survive and grow. We’re not just promoting feeling. This is not pain just to process pain. Too much feeling overwhelms the mind. We learn but rarely do we change very much from it. In order to change, we need to both have our feelings and at the same time to remain a witness to them. We need to be aware of ourselves and awake to what is happening. Afterwards, in the quieter time following, often insights will come. The level of feeling is crucial. Too little and there’s no aliveness, no signal to guide us; too much and we’re simply blown away. Releasing a lot of feeling has value, especially if there’s a big backlog of it, a heavy charge. When there’s a great deal of feeling, I help it move through before I do anything else. To grow, to really change, we need to both feel what’s going on and to work with it. We need some room to see ourselves, to think and decide and change. Without this part, such experiences become merely dramatic exercises. They slip into acting out very easily. Awareness and choice are sacrifices to personal drama. In the context of spiritual awakening, losing the self has great value, but even then, it seems it’s better lost in stillness than in chaos.

Once that space is accessed, once the person is in touch with feelings and beliefs, I ask the person what they would like to do or hear. I’m asking them to look inside to find their way towards satisfaction. The replies are simple enough. “Tell me you love me.” “Tell me I don’t always have to work to earn your love.” So, I tell them that. “You don’t always have to work to earn my love.” And they sigh and relax and feel better. When in this special state, open, alive and aware of oneself, simple things like hearing what you want to hear or being touched a certain way, or asking for new things, just these, can bring about change. Shifts in values, priorities, self- and world-concepts, redirections of behavior, even changes in muscular patterns occur.

The answer for each person is within that person. The therapist doesn’t have the answer. The therapist is not there to lead us through the darkness, he’s there to turn our lights on.

The real power in any approach that can change fixed patterns is that it accesses the map room, that it goes beyond habit and conditioning to awareness and concrete experience. The map room is where experience is codified, symbolized, abstracted, generalized. These maps, these symbols and images, these proto-beliefs, have great power to control us. By manipulating these we can also affect behavior. However, the deepest changes require that we go beyond the maps to the very experience upon which maps are based. All maps are based on experience; from sights, sounds, feelings, etc. Freedom lives in a return to this level and a recoding into more accurate, less painful, more satisfying, reponsible imagery. We return to simply “what is” and recode it.

So the process of therapy turns the person inward, toward concrete experience. This turning is done by asking for specific experiential knowledge that only the person can provide. By asking for the experience we will eventually confront the map. At that point, something buried becomes available, something frozen becomes animated. For example, if a person says, “I’m afraid of people,” I ask, “Who?” Just as another therapist might ask, “Where do you feel this fear?” Both questions move toward the person’s experience, toward the concrete. It is the general direction that is important, not the specific question.) Maybe the response to “Who?” is “Everybody” and a challenge is given. “Everybody?” I question. If the person turns within, they might find that “everybody” really means, “my schoolmates” and suddenly you have something like, “They always laughed at me!” with a lot of feeling. An old, emotionally charged scene is back.

So you can see the result of this approach, often in a very short period of time, is a change in the “energetic factor.” The excitement level changes; interest and involvement change. Moving toward the concrete, toward the here and now, into feelings, into the body, the sensory, toward the personal and intimate, towards “what is” raises the energy level. Suddenly, there’s more aliveness. Energy gathers around concrete experience.

These maps about oneself are based on highly charged emotional events and are loaded with energy. When an old, painful experience is made alive again, some of this painful energy can be discharged. The beliefs associated with the experience can be re-evaluated. When the old situations are re-experienced, new views of ourselves and others become possible. We have a chance to see things differently. We are given choices.

Powerful therapy brings us to these choice points and leaves us free to decide for ourselves. We know what’s right for us, what’s satisfying. The answer for each person is within that person. The therapist doesn’t have the answer. The therapist is not there to lead us through the darkness, he’s there to turn our lights on.

Another example: I’m working with a woman who seems stuck in her anger. She’s expressing it, but it’s not satisfying. I ask her, “Is there anything you can say which would fit what you’re feeling?” This begins the accessing process in the sense that she has to find words that “fit.” She has to turn inward to make that judgment. Putting words to feelings has this effect. “It’s not fair,” she says. “It’s not fair.” I sense she doesn’t quite have the right words. It sounds more to me like “I’ll never forgive you.” Anyway, I hear a “never” in there. So, I ask her to try the word “never.” It fits. She says, “Never! Never! I’ll never forgive them!” She means it. She sounds like a five-year-old. She has accessed the space. I ask her very gently (I don’t want to do anything which would jerk her out of this space of being an unforgiving five-year-old), “What would make you feel better?” I’m encouraging her to find a route out of there, a route that hopefully allows forgiveness and gets through the anger. She doesn’t answer me directly. The five-year-old, still very unhappy, says, “Nobody ever said they were sorry for what they did to me.” And she turns her face away. So, she wants her pain acknowledged, she wants to be given simple respect for her feelings. Just decent treatment. That’s all she wants. Well, that touches me. I ask her to look at me, look in my eyes. When she does, I say to her, “I’m sorry for what they did to you.” I didn’t even know what it was but I could see the result and I was sorry.

She looked up at me, a little surprised, a five-year-old who hears something she’s not quite sure she can believe. We look at each other for a moment, then she believes me. There’s a big sigh, a melting, a forgiving. “How’s that feel?” I ask. “Feels good,” she said. I felt wonderful. It was like making a sad little child happy again. Then we just hugged. And that’s all. That’s enough. She can explore the details at her own pace. She will make all the connections she wants to later. She discovered something that she wanted, something she never expected to get and she got it. In an area that was stuck and painful, she found a way out. She made a new map about what people could feel about her and about forgiveness. The accessing took place when she was searching for the words that fit and we came up with “I’ll never forgive them.” That “posture” was there. Searching for the exact phrase and voicing it was enough. It can happen in a moment. The right touch, the right word, and Bingo!, a five-year-old.

Sometimes, I bring a person’s character to life in other ways. I polarize it by responding to it in a challenging way. Or I simply act on it and acknowledge what’s going on outside of awareness. Say a person thinks of himself as a sweet, gentle person but in reality, carries this swelled-up chest and fierce-looking countenance. I ask him to be fierce. “Really frighten me,” I say. When he does, I tickle him under the chin. (My therapist used to do this to me.) I go, “Kootchie, kootchie, kootchie.” The underlying feelings come up quickly. Anger, impotence, rage, pain, come up quickly. There’s something like the opposite of accommodating here; I’m giving the opposite of what’s wanted, thus providing a sharp contrast. This also brings life to the situation.

Sometimes, when I call my brother, who’s a big executive at Westinghouse, and I get through his secretary without being announced, he growls “Ray Kurtz!” (like I’ve disturbed the gods). I just calmly say, “You can’t scare me!” There’s a dead silence for about three seconds, then he knows it’s me and laughs and we’re brothers again.

Summing up, there are a few important points that seem worth going over. The therapist has to be and provide a safe place for the work to take place. This allows the person working to turn inward. And the questions, probes and experiments the therapist creates are designed to turn the person inward to look for answers, events, feelings, and the concrete experiences that have shaped that individual’s belief or images of self, others, and the world.

Without precision, we cannot be gentle. Any struggle, any forcefulness communicates itself and calls up defenses. All such systems thrive on struggle. When defenses are aroused, awareness turns outward, away from any possibility of deep change. Only safety allows us to turn inward. By feeling safe ourselves, by being open and aware, we create a space in which the other opens also. Asking only for inner experience, we find our way quickly to the very roots of experience itself. By a gentle presence and soft invitations to look within, we reach the other’s maps of reality. For me, it is the highest privilege granted, to be allowed to accompany, to assist on that journey into self.