Process Work With Addictions, Altered States, And Social Change - By Arny Mindell

Given at the 11th International Transpersonal Conference, September 1990, SPIRITUAL QUEST, ATTACHMENT AND ADDICTION. (Thanks to Stan and Christina Grof for creating this, and other conferences, from which we’ve all benefited.)

I came across the idea of the dreambody 9 or 10 years ago. At that time I was working with a man who was dying of a metastasized cancer of the stomach. He was in the last stages of his life, and had just undergone another failed operation. They had sewn him up without removing anything because he had too many metastases. He leaned over toward me grinning and said, “You know what the real problem is, Arny? It is still growing!” And I said, “Well, don’t worry about that.” I tried to repress the problem that he was talking about. I wondered if it was the anesthesia that was making him grin. He grinned again and said, "It is growing, it is getting bigger and bigger . . . in my stomach!" And I thought, Gee, that guy's weird! Maybe he is just crazy from the anesthesia.

From my Jungian background I knew that what comes to us from the unconscious is good—it is not just pathological; it is not just bad—it can also be useful. So I said to him, "Well, what would happen if it just got bigger?" And he said, "It gets bigger and bigger and bigger." And then in this absolutely euphoric expression, this altered state of consciousness—induced in part by the morphine—he grinned and said, "It would explode! But that's just what I dreamed before I came to the hospital. I dreamed that there would be a huge explosion on August 1st [which is Independence Day in Switzerland], and that day would be the cure for all things!"

I began to realize that what was happening in the body was trying to happen in his dreams. He was trying to explode; his dreams were trying to explode—and that would be his independence. What was happening in his body was happening in his dreams. It is the individuation process. He needed to explode. In his everyday life, he was a very shy guy, very timid, and he could not explode for any reason to anybody about anything. So he started exploding in his body instead. I continued to work with him, and he had a rich and full life for the next four or five years. He put off his death for a while.

The idea that came out of that experience is that what is happening in our body and what is happening in our dreams are very similar. That is how the dreambody idea came into my awareness. I began working in other areas as well, such as in psychiatry, using this same paradigm that what is happening physically is also trying to happen in the dream world.

That experience was my springboard to the development of Process Work; today this approach has numerous applications. One of the applications is dreambody work and another is relationship work. Recently Amy and I and others from our Portland center have been involved in creating a conflict resolution procedure for people in Johannesburg, South Africa, so we are doing a lot of conflict work and organizational development workshops. Process work is like a pie in which all of the applications come from core idea that whatever is happening has some sense to it; it is not utterly nonsense; it is not simply bad and unwanted.

Alcohol Addictions

Let’s talk about alcohol now. Imagine a person who has had an alcohol problem. There are lots of different substances to which we can become addicted. Alcohol addiction frequently accompanies a conscious tendency to try to be really good, hard-working—in short, to live a straight life. But the alcohol elicits the exact opposite side of the personality, which is comprised of “material” that is trying to be integrated.

Last night John Bradshaw talked about how at one point in his alcoholic period he became delirious, then blacked out and was taken to a hospital.  On the drive to the hospital he began reciting poetry. That poetic side of him was trying to become part of his “real” world; it is now part of the way he speaks and writes.

Addiction Is a Partially Experienced Experience
In the process-oriented point of view, an addiction is a partially experienced experience. That means that we have experienced things but we haven't experienced them consciously, fully, and we have not used the experience for what it is meant to be.  We have found that the addiction has to be re-felt. Those people for whom this method has been useful go into their feelings, into their imagination, for example, about alcohol and feel what is happening to them. About 85 percent have something resembling a comatose experience.

Recently I worked with a woman who began to make circles with her hands, circles in the air, as she was having this imaginary delirium. I asked, "What is it that you are doing?" She said, "Well, I would like for us all to live in one world." I said, "Right! Let's do something about that!" She responded, "Well, I'll never be able to do something about that." This brief dialogue revealed the psychological work waiting to be accomplished through her discovery of how to integrate that drive into her ordinary, everyday life; how to bring that “one world” into her family life, which was anything but one world. It was 20 different worlds, with many problems at home! 

People who re-feel, re-process, really access the state that alcohol brings them, for example, have very deep experiences. Some of these experiences unfold into specific roles: a trickster, a child, a leader who has not been a leader. Some people just need to do nothing, need to learn how to relax. Obviously, a great variety of experiences come out of processing of alcohol-like experiences.


 We Need Definitions
Over the years, I have worked with people in the social work agencies in Switzerland and Portland, Oregon. I have worked with street people as well as people who live in houses! The definitions I want to give you are cross-cultural; they seem to work well in Bombay, in Japan, in Africa, Kenya, wherever. The ideas expressed by the definitions are linked, in part, to the World Health Organization.

Definitions are important, especially in preventative medicine, because they tell us what to look for and where to look. A narrow definition of addiction will give us a narrow range of perception; a wider definition will encompass more landscape, so to speak, of the processes involved. The more we know about the tendencies that precede the full manifest addiction, for example, the more quickly we can implement useful interventions. 

Addictions Are Incompleted States
Addictions are incompleted states; they are attempts to create an altered state of consciousness that conveys a specific message, not just a general message, that wants to be heard.

Addictive Tendencies Are Normal
Addictive tendencies are normal; all of us have them. I have never met anyone who does not have a craving for something.

Addictions Are Trance States
Addictions are trance states. As is the case with every trance state, the addiction trance state occurs because we have not processed the message within it. Therefore, we remain “trancey” and dreamy. An example: Imagine that you are sitting with somebody over lunch, but you don't really want to be talking to him or her. There is a message inside of you that says “I don't want to be talking to this person, I am bored to tears and don't really care about her [or him]. I am just networking…” And so you continue to talk but something in your body produces a trance that looks like this. (Arny demonstrates the following:) You are looking at the person, your eyes are wide open, your pupils dilate, and your head goes up and down like this (nodding). The other person looks at the one signal of your nodding head but does not notice your dilated pupils and starts to nod too. Now you have a collective trance. It is really exciting. If you want to do something, you could ask the yourself, or the other person, to relate the message that is behind the trance state.

An Addiction Is Dangerous to Our Health
Addiction is a particular trance state that is dangerous to our physical or emotional health or to those around us. As noted above, we all have addictive tendencies, but only some of us have actual addictions. If you have an addiction, it is a very serious business, and there is something suicidal in it as well.

For example, if you have an addictive tendency toward eating sweets, are they dangerous? Are they actually physically bad for your health? They may be dangerous only in borderline situations. For example, if you have diabetes and you consume foods with sugar, I would call that behavior an addiction. Smoking is an addiction, and everybody knows it is overtly dangerous. If you are worried about addictive tendencies, then that is the time to unfold them and listen to their full message.

We Get Addicted to Those Parts of Our Personalities That Are Disavowed Why can't people stop doing things that are dangerous to them? I don't believe there is one reason, any more than I believe there is one particular therapy that works for everyone. But one point seems certain, regardless of the particular addiction: We get addicted to those parts of our personality that we have disavowed or which we are shy about integrating. The addiction tries to give us access to that part. If we don't explore the inner composition of the addiction—the unacknowledged parts of ourselves—then we will remain at the mercy of the substance and never get the message.

If you have an addiction, you are addicted to a part of yourself that you need desperately. John Bradshaw has also talked about being addicted to sex while he was in the monastery. That was a part of himself which he had ignored. We can't get away from being whole! If you want to be one-sided, which everybody tries to do, the other side has to come up. One of the main ways that the “down side” comes up is through an addictive tendency. It is not actually the substance that we need—very few people are happy about their substance addictions. I have almost never met a person who is happy about needing an addictive substance. It is not the substance; it is the message that is trying to get us.

Working with Addictions: Following the Individual’s Process
How do I work with addictions in practice? What do I preach here and what do I actually practice in my practice? Here I am talking about generalities and things that have worked fairly well or very well. But in practice, I try to follow the individual’s process. That is harder than following one particular program. But it is my tick. I just have to follow the individual somehow.

For example, it may be somebody's process to repress her or his addiction, to stop it. At a certain time in your life it is right to stop, cut it out, just stop it. You just need someone to say, "Stop it now, you are killing yourself." In following the individual’s process, you have to say “Stop it, repress it” at certain points. The relationship between the therapist and the client is really important. Your own codependent nature as a therapist or helper is really important here. You’ve got to be careful.

Working with Addictions by Experiencing the Body
I personally have a predilection toward body experiences. They are not the only way to focus on process, but when it comes to hard-core addictions—20–25-year heroin addictions or long-time cocaine addictions—it is really helpful for the individuals to re-feel and re-experience exactly what it is they have been doing—to go through the body experience of what the substances appears to provide.

When people “feel into” the state of alcohol, as I mentioned above, they may lie down and drift. The underbelly of caffeine addictions is very different, not surprisingly. Caffeine can be a very serious addiction, especially if the drinker has very high blood pressure or fibrous breasts.

I am a recovering coffee drinker. In the 1970s I experienced a phase of life in which I was mad for coffee. I just looked at a coffee can and I was mad for it. Three cups in the morning. I didn't drink much more after that, because that was plenty for me. It was a time during which I was scared of doing anything in the world; I was avoiding publishing my thoughts, and I was very busy trying to be a reasonable character in ordinary reality. The caffeine was trying to say, “You have a lot more energy, and you are not using it, and you are scared of yourself.” Since I have gotten more in touch with my energy, I can't drink coffee anymore. I am not against it; I just can't drink more than a cup every few weeks. Getting into the jitterbug experience of what I was experiencing on an unacknowledged level was very important for me.

There Is No Such Thing as One Addiction
Another idea about addictions that I think is useful comes from process work and is sort of fun. It is that we can't have just one addiction; we have to have two!

This is a shame, in a way, because it means working with two addictions. It is really unusualfor a hard-core addict to have only one addiction. It is so unusual, in fact, that I have never encountered such a person, though I am open to the possibility. If you are engaged in an addictive process, it means that you have at least two parts to your personality, both of which are trying to attract you. There is an addiction to your identity, to those experiences and substances that support your identity, and addictions to those disavowed parts of yourself that you have not permitted into consciousness.

Last week I was working with a businessman who has an alcohol addiction as well as a caffeine addiction. He has to drink coffee to speed himself up, to get himself going. He is literally addicted to coffee, though he did not call the coffee habit an addiction. He called alcohol an addiction. What is the coffee doing? It is supporting his identity as a man on the fast track. So the coffee represents his addiction to his primary process or identity. Then alcohol helps him to relax and do nothing. This is the dangerous one, because it is an addiction to the disavowed part, the relaxer. You don't have to have two full-blown addictions, but all of us have at least two addictive tendencies.

Consider the following questions and see if your mind allows you to answer them:


  • What substance or food do you have a tendency to abuse? You may not act on the tendency, but look for the tendency, the urge or craving, nevertheless. Caffeine, sweets, alcohol, nicotine, cocaine?
  • Is this substance or food physically harmful to you?

Addictions and Shamanism
Many addictions have shamanic qualities to them. This means that people tend to go into subtle altered states of consciousness when they ingest the addictive substance. There is nothing psychologically “wrong” with these people; this altered state may be  part of their nature, though it’s usually very unconscious.

When Amy and I were in Africa recently, we got healed by a couple of shamans in the Kenyan bush. They were terrific characters. I felt so much at home with these people. The woman and man went into altered states and started rolling on the floor. When I interviewed them afterwards, they reminded me, in a way, of what addicted people could do with their altered states. These shamans have this tendency to go into another world and to use the information from the other world for the benefit of the people here now. These shamans are not addicted to anything, as far as I know, because they did this as a job: going into altered states. The man is a painter by day and at night he goes into these altered states. He also told Amy and me all about the people who dislike us and who were troubling us the most! I don't know how he knew it!

Addictions and City Shadows
I once worked with a group of teenagers in Switzerland, all of whom were addicted to different drugs. It was like a group addiction process. A lot of gangs, to my limited knowledge, have similar characteristics. They are the “city shadows.” They are shamans, who are not always using their skills or gifts in the best possible ways.

If you are addicted to something, you are carrying something for the city. You are doing something for the rest of the world, because everybody else is afraid to be addicted and to be totally passionate about something. Therefore, everybody looks down on people who are addicted, because people who are addicted look down on themselves. The non-addicts are also jealous somehow, deep in the background. They would love to be passionate about something. Most of them are bored out of their minds.

An Addiction Is a Reaction to Another State
Addictions are reactions to other states inside of ourselves. For example, if you are eating lots of sweets, that craving could be a reaction to an inner sourness toward yourself. Everybody I have seen who has an addiction to sweets is not sweet enough to themselves or to other people. So every time you take another piece of chocolate, say to yourself, "How much love do I need? I know my inner critic thinks I am good for nothing, but can I give myself some love?”

Addictions and Suicidal Tendencies
Be careful also; know that chocolate may one day kill you. Addictions have something suicidal about them. So, what is right about suicidality? Ultimately, suicide, death, is a transition from one state to another, a transformation. The addicted parts of yourself are desperately trying to kill the part that is one-sided so that the unacknowledged or disavowed aspects can come into your awareness and your daily life. So it is not really an out and out suicide; it is more a reaction in which a part of you is trying to kill another part. I am thinking of a diabetic woman I worked with recently, whose eating of sweets was an attempt to experience a longed-for state of being a beautiful child. Ordinarily, she thinks she is unattractive and worthless.

Addictions Are Embarrassing.
All addictions are embarrassing. We are so late in dealing with them in psychology, therapy, sociology, and medicine because we are so uneasy about the disavowed parts of ourselves that come up via those addictions. We are afraid of these parts, or shy about them, and that is incredibly embarrassing, just as it is to be addicted.

Addictions and Possessions
Addictions can also be considered, as they are in Africa, as possessions. They are coming from the spirit world; they are not personal problems. I can only say that I have seen that with heroin; it is something like a spirit possession. People will say on a really deep heroin high, "Oh, the spirit of my grandfather, the spirit of the earth, is possessing me." There are spirits looking for integration also. 

Addictions and Personal Myths
Addictions are connected to our personal myths. You can almost guess the addiction that somebody is going to have by listening to one of his or her childhood dreams. For example, if you wanted to guess that at the age of 35 I was going to be a caffeine-aholic, the way to do it would be to ask me what I dreamed as a kid. As a child I dreamed that a big bear was chasing me. The first part of my life I strove to be like my father, who was very, very gentle and loving. I still like that side of myself, but I was denying the bear. I needed something external to support the bear consciousness in me, and coffee seemed to be doing some of that.


  • Do any of the following characteristics fit any of your addictive tendencies?
  • Is there something shamanic about your addictive tendencies?
  • Is there something deadly and suicidal in your particular tendency? If there is, you may want to help that “suicide” happen by interrupting your one-sided life.
  • Is there something of a spirit possession in your addictions? What does the spirit look like that is trying to possess you?
  • Do you see your addictions in your early childhood dreams? Do you remember one of the scariest images there? See if it is connected to one of your addictions/tendencies.

Modalities of Working with Addictions
Let's talk about helping people work on their addictions in a practical way. One modality is to make use of substitutes, such as exchanging methadone for heroin. Another is to admit defeat; one part of you has to go down so another can rise. Not just being humble and giving the problem up to God, but having humility in the sense of saying, "God does not want me to be one-sided. I have to develop another side of myself.” Still another modality is that of behavior modification, in which some kind of negative response is paired with the perceived positive addictive response. Mao's method was supremely straightforward: He said to the people, in essence, “If you don't clean up your act, you go to jail!” A lot of people got off their addictions!

A cocaine expert whom I met in Europe told me that as far as the researchers know, only 3% of cocaine addicts are helped by all the various methods. This shockingly low figure means that we don't know enough yet.

Getting into the Stream of Experience
I recommend following the individual’s process. Some people have a phase when they really need to get down on their hands and knees and give their troubles up to God. There are as many methods as there are people doing this work.

The one course of action I can always recommend is that of following the individual’s process. In process-oriented work we try to feel and unfold things in great detail. This approach is closely connected to one of my own spiritual dimensions, Buddhism. I could be a loving Christian and Jew and  or an avid Buddhist or Muslim. In the same way, process work attempts to be inclusive of all, well.., processes. No burp or breath is considered too small or unimportant, because each manifestation of underlying beingness (the burp or the breath) is seen as a holograph of the entire being. 

Thich Nhat Han speaks about a type of Buddhism that is closely related to the kind of work I do. He says that to have knowledge about something, in the sense that we acquire things mentally, is not useful. True knowing happens by getting into the stream of things. I have found that we cannot know something without re-feeling and re-thinking it. All the ideas that we have about some issue may be great ideas and they contain the clues we need, but they can never tell the whole story. Getting into the stream of the experience is the only way to learn the full essence of it—its entire substance, so to speak.

Addictions, Relationships, and Codependency
Let’s talk a bit about addictions, relationships, and codependency. The codependent person in you and me is somebody who bases all of her, or all of his, activities on an imagined outcome. We are interested in what is going to happen if we do a certain something.

Think to yourself. Are you unrealistic about relationships in some way? Do you let dreamy states insulate you from certain relational aspects you do not want to face, for whatever reason? In one relationship it took me 18 years to discover something about myself. I may be a slow learner! Think about the last time you spent years and years in a relationship and could hardly wake up to the fact that the person was not the person you wanted her or him to be, or imagined her or him to be. Check out a present or past relationship. What did you want that this person could not give you? Why did it take you so long to move on? Who did you think that person could become if only you struggled enough to show her or him the “right” way to be?

Feeling Things Wakes You Up
In codependent therapy today the most popular method of treatment is to acknowledge that you are codependent, to see clearly the unreasonableness of your behavior, and then to stop it. This is one direction to take, and it is a good direction. Another direction involves amplifying the behavior. That is, become aware of your codependent behavior and use it practically. I am thinking of a woman with whom I worked. She was certain that she could “heal” her partner of his inner wounds. He was a violent character, and she “knew” that if she gave him enough love, tenderness, and understanding, his difficult behavior would disappear. It didn't work out that way, and finally they parted. I asked her, “What were you really trying to do in that codependent situation?”  She said, "You know, I hate to say it, but I think I was trying to be Jesus Christ." I said, "Good, great. We need that today, there is not enough of Jesus Christ around." She said, "How do you mean?" I said, "Instead of calling yourself a codependent Jesus Christ, how about discovering what is right about trying to be Jesus Christ. Go ahead and do it consciously. Don’t just smile at everybody; say instead, “I feel like I could heal you, given the chance." I was asking her to go deeply into this behavior, to re-feel the very thing that was bothering her.

So she did just that: She felt deeply into the impulse to be like Jesus Christ, and then played it out with me. She said, "Yes, I am Jesus and I am going to heal you." Then she stopped and said, "But Jesus would try and help you find this healing capacity in yourself. Do you have that capacity inside yourself to heal yourself?” It changed. And then she woke up and she said, "Oh! I never realized that my partner did not want to heal himself." That was the end of her codependency in that moment.

Feeling things through exactly, using them consciously, wakes us up.

You may find codependent attitudes coming up again, and if you do, just be aware of them. "Oh, here I am again being really nice. Well, I am going to be nicer! I am going to really grin consciously!" Use your awareness; don't just make changes in yourself . . .  well, why not, if you can!

Addictions Return During Relationship Problems
The last thought I am going to slip in here is that all these ideas have their limitations, and the limitations come up when you get into relationship trouble. One of the worst problems for people who have been addicted to something is that the addiction returns, almost always, when something difficult happens at work or in relationships.

I am thinking of a couple I worked with. I asked them, "What tendency do you have right now in the present relationship?  What would you do in terms of addictions if you could?"2 And he said, "I would go back to my coffee addiction," And she said, "I would go back to my alcohol addiction. If things get really bad in this relationship again, I am liable to drink." I said, "Well, let’s pretend you were to feel that state of alcohol in the moment, without drinking. What would that bring you?" She felt it, and said, "I would relax; I would not have so many sharp corners. I would not try to win all the time." And she sat back and relaxed. And he said, "I would not be such an inert slob. I would drink my coffee and get on with this relationship scene and stop being such a typical man who is always avoiding relationship problems." So they both took their substance, in a sense, in their imaginary minds, and were able to integrate it in the relationship.

This is an idea about how to work on substance addictions in the context of people's relationships: They need the essence of those substances in connection with actual relationship situations.

Inner Reflection on Your Scariest Addictive Tendency

Let’s take a moment to think about a couple of things. Make yourself comfortable. See if your mind will allow you to think about your scariest tendency in addictions.


  • What is your scariest tendency, your scariest addiction? Name it to yourself.
  • As that bubbles up and you are naming it, if it is right for you, and if your mind will allow it, experiment a tiny bit with sensing it. What does that substance tend to do to you? Can you recall that? What is your hope that it will do? Feel that imagined, hoped-for state in your body. Instead of taking the substance, take the feeling of it. What does it do for you?
  • Go more deeply into that feeling and see if it will complete itself. What is the message that feeling wants to give you?
  • Maybe you can let the feeling influence your body motions as you sit there. See if you can get its message. Let it move your body just a tiny bit.
  • What is its message? Can you use that message in your everyday life? If you were to use the message, what changes would you have to make in your ordinary life? If it is a good change, perhaps you could think about actually making that change.

You may dream about this change tonight, and you may want to make a conscious decision to make that change.

1 August 2003. This re-accessing state requires meditative and disciplined focus. The beginner without such focus should probably be cautious about re-accessing states, especially if breaking with this addiction has occurred recently. Re-accessing requires a degree of detachment. With sufficient distance from the addiction and some training in inner focusing, re-accessing can help get to the bottom of things quickly.

2 August 2003. In this particular case, the couple had enough distance from these addictions to safely re-access potentially addictive states. These methods are not meant as general relationship resolutions where addictions may be close at hand.


The Dreambody

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