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How Hakomi Therapy Supports Psychedelic Healing

March 24, 2022

Hakomi therapy is an experiential, mindfulness-based practice that resonates with many of the philosophies that underwrite psychedelic-assisted therapy (PAP). Bringing together general systems theory, Taoism, Buddhism, and an array of somatic disciplines, Hakomi views the body as a window into an individual’s unconscious belief systems. 

By exploring the implications of gestures, facial expressions, and other physical coordinates, Hakomi practitioners support individuals as they build bridges between their embodied self and the psychodynamics that give rise to their habitual patterns of behavior and thought. These new understandings foster changes in the way individuals relate to traumatic events and other sources of inner tension. Hakomi’s goals and methodologies resonate with PAP’s ambitions to give people therapeutic experiences that help them forge new conceptions of self, other people, and reality itself. 

This article explores the unique benefits Hakomi brings to psychedelic practitioners. It also offers commentary on why Hakomi may lend itself particularly well to psilocybin and MDMA psychotherapy.

Hakomi’s History and Roots in Body-Centered Therapy

As one of the founders of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy, experiential psychologist Ron Kurtz developed the Hakomi method while studying meditation and Eastern religions in the 1960s. The method was unique for bringing together a variety of body-centered approaches, such as bioenergetics, gestalt theory, neuro-linguistic programming, (among others), with mindfulness practices stemming from Buddhism and Taoism. Kurtz published the discipline’s foundational text, Body-Centered Psychotherapy: The Hakomi Method in 1990. 

Unlike cognitive therapies, which focus on the level of reflection, Hakomi and other somatic modalities dwell beneath the conscious mind, penetrating the space beneath a person’s interpretive frameworks. Using an experiential process conducted in mindfulness, Hakomi practitioners view the body as a storehouse of a person’s implicit assumptions or their “core material,” the unconscious modes of adaptation governing their personality structure. 

Similar to life scripts in transactional analysis or Carl Rogers’ conditions of worth, core material refers to a person’s central organizing principles related to love, safety, acceptance, and empowerment, which are informed by various forms of growth, pain, or trauma throughout their lives. Though not all core material becomes a source of conflict, practitioners focus on what limits a person’s capacity for flexibility in the present moment. By approaching their inner environment as a subjective laboratory to be mined for information about the unconscious programs that drive them, individuals can identify and release the beliefs that ordinarily lead to disempowering thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Once a person brings their core material into conscious awareness, they contact a freer, more present-focused version of themselves.

Hakomi stands alongside Internal Family Systems, holotropic breathwork, Jungian psychology, and other modalities in the MAPS MDMA-assisted psychotherapy treatment manual. The text describes cognitive therapies as limiting when compared to body-centered approaches, which excel in psychedelic therapy thanks to their overt directives related to processing the bodily manifestations of trauma. As noted by the Hakomi Institute, this idea echoes psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichman’s claim that the individual requires an experience, not an explanation, to transform. 

The name “Hakomi” came to David Winter, one of Kurtz’s early collaborators, in a dream featuring a piece of stationery that read “Hakomi institute.” Intrigued, he discovered that “Hakomi” is a Hopi word meaning “Where do I stand in relation to the many realms?” Given that Hakomi helps individuals re-situate themselves in relation to core beliefs, Winter, Kurtz, and their colleagues thought the term encapsulated the practice perfectly. 

Along with his colleagues, Kurtz founded the Hakomi Institute in the 1980s. Although he left the organization in 1990, he continued to expand the original Hakomi method, later creating the Hakomi Education Network. At present, practitioners can study Hakomi along with other psychotherapists and practitioners interested in combining its original principles with new neuroscientific insights.

Key Principles in Hakomi Therapy 

The practice originated with five key principles. These principles govern the experiential strategies used to identify and reconfigure core beliefs. They also form the foundation of Hakomi therapy, influencing every aspect of the client-therapist interaction.

Organicity

Hakomi views human beings as organic, living systems intrinsically driven toward self-correction, self-actualization, and self-regeneration. If communication breaks down, a corrective process may appear in the form of physical or psychological symptoms. However, when viewed as a self-corrective process, psychological distress isn’t a neurochemical problem but a signpost along a journey toward equilibrium. 

This belief in self-generated healing inspires Hakomi’s commitment to a non-authoritative stance on the part of the therapist. Rather than positioning themselves as problem solvers or prime movers in a person’s recovery, Hakomi practitioners trust that even their clients’ most distressing symptoms are part of a wise, carefully coordinated program necessary for a resolution to occur. 

This perspective mirrors psychedelic-assisted therapy (PAP)’s focus on the individual’s “inner healing intelligence” as the central catalyst of transformation. While PAP’s commitment to client autonomy arose in part because psychedelics heighten suggestibility, Hakomi’s organicity concept complements its focus on a non-hierarchical client and therapist relationship. 

Mind-Body Holism

Far from seeing the body and mind as two separate, non-interacting dimensions, Hakomi envisions them in a constant interchange. Core to the process is the notion that belief and memory systems that drive a person’s self-concept aren’t just cognitive schemas but phenomena that manifest in bodily gestures and sensations. Unlike other psychotherapeutic modalities which process outward behaviors as symptoms of various mental health conditions, in Hakomi, things like posture, eye contact, and gestures are indicators that reveal underlying attitudes, beliefs, and presuppositions that drive a person’s emotional and physical condition. They also confirm and reinforce their existing belief systems. 

Hakomi practitioners generate insights about these somatic indicators by using “contact statements,” or comments posed as open-ended questions, such as “Some tension in your jaw, huh?” Individual responses to these contact statements can unveil the “unconscious blueprints” that shape a person’s identity, relationships, and responses to their life circumstances. By gently nudging a person to assess the function of their physical gestures, the therapist models a discovery process that is driven by curiosity rather than fear or anxiety. 

Of course, mindfully tracking the subtleties of a person’s disposition can be demanding: the process requires pristine attentiveness even during moments of quiet processing. However, as described in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Hakomi is less about deploying a series of techniques and more about slowing down and listening to oneself, and by extension, the other. Intriguingly, as the authors note, Hakomi can give a therapist training in applied mindfulness, ultimately supporting their ability to witness themselves and their clients.

Unity

Hakomi takes a biopsychosocial approach to care, emphasizing the interdependency of all aspects of a person’s life. Seeing normally discrete dimensions as fundamentally intertwined, practitioners believe that imbalance in one dimension can affect the entire system. As a result of this perspective, Hakomi’s unity principle invites Hakomi therapists to comport themselves differently from biomedical practitioners, who, if at times only implicitly, view the individual apart from the overarching systems in which they’re immersed.

In light of Hakomi’s stance that optimal functioning depends on communication between all aspects of a person’s experience, practitioners don’t see depression or anxiety as isolated markers of mental illness. Instead, they’re responses to biological, psychosocial, socioeconomic, and psycho-spiritual imbalances. As a consequence, Hakomi practitioners view psychological issues as downstream effects of stress on the brain. Diet, sleep, and exercise habits can contribute to biological dysregulation that manifests as psychiatric symptoms. The unity principle aligns with PAP’s focus on lifestyle optimization, which is often seen as an essential part of the integration process.

Mindfulness

Hakomi takes place entirely within a state of mindfulness. This differs from many therapies that use mindfulness in support of insights gained through therapy. By cultivating a witnessing state of consciousness grounded in present moment sensations, therapists view mindfulness as a tool that re-organizes experience. Since Hakomi insists that a person’s core material automatically determines their habitual behaviors, studying how they organize their experience also provides insight into the way this material influences their perceptions. By orienting themselves toward their senses in new ways, mindfulness also allows people to view their habitual modes of perception without being directly implicated in them. 

As an experiential therapy, one key technique in Hakomi involves “probes,” which are subjective experiments wherein a person notes and analyzes their responses to physical touch, gestures, and ideas. For instance, a therapist might tell a person, “You’ve worked hard and should rest,” and then ask them to note what arises within. The goal isn’t to produce a specific state but to study the interpretations and sensations a probe evokes. 

As described in the Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, mindfully witnessing the results of these probes can unveil fresh ways for an individual to reshape or expand their perceptual lens. For this reason, Hakomi presents an alternative to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, which often receives criticism for its focus on cognitive responses intended to help a person control anxious, or “dysfunctional” thoughts, rather than allowing them to unfold from a place of open-minded receptivity. In distinction, Hakomi’s mindfulness dimension invites revelations about the implicit, non-linguistic aspects of experience, unraveling more about the workings beneath the interpretive self in a spirit of light-hearted exploration. Since psychedelics promote the release of normally unconscious emotional dynamics, this level of focus complements many of PAP’s therapeutic aims. Hakomi can provide an interpretive vocabulary that bridges the gap between the experiencing self and the normally unconscious memories, images, and other salient emotional material these compounds unlock. 

Nonviolence

Practitioners orient themselves toward psychological defensiveness in a way that mirrors the main directives of mindfulness. Like mindfulness, which encourages people to allow, rather than change or suppress, all experiences, Hakomi views resistance and defensiveness not as states to be defeated but supported. This orientation is rooted in the assumption that psychological defenses are strategies a person adopted as resourceful, protective responses to early pain. As a result, Hakomi’s non-violence principle views all reactions as expressions of a person’s organic wisdom. 

The principle of non-violence also speaks to Hakomi’s Taoist roots. Just as the ancient Tao Te Ching advocated for a loosening of control-based, excessively goal-oriented ways of being, Hakomi urges radical openness to the client’s experience, seeing the imposition of the therapist’s will as a kind of violence. 

One intervention that reflects Hakomi’s non-violent orientation is the concept of “taking over,” where a therapist takes over for what the client is already doing. As demonstrated in “A Curious Form of Therapy: Hakomi,” a therapist might offer to take the strain off an individual's head by offering to hold it up for them. Understanding the client’s initial body language as a kind of defense, by taking over the gesture, the therapist allows the individual to release tension and bring awareness to the underlying feelings or impulses the gesture is helping them defend against. Supporting rather than fighting a person’s defenses paradoxically allows for their release. As a consequence, Hakomi’s strategies for anticipating and honoring defensiveness might be especially useful for psychedelic practitioners as they create a safe, interpersonal space that respects the vulnerability that psychedelics inevitably bring forth. 

Compound-Specific Advantages of Hakomi Therapy

The philosophical synergies between PAP and Hakomi can also be understood in terms of the brain states psychedelic compounds induce. Both Hakomi and MDMA, for example, may exert their transformative effects through the process of memory reconsolidation. Authors in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry describe memory reconsolidation as a type of neuroplasticity that involves reactivating, destabilizing, then modifying a memory so that it no longer drives maladaptive behavior. 

As the authors explain, MDMA increases dopamine release in the striatum and midbrain, a process positively correlated with prediction error. They hypothesize that when a person accesses traumatic memories during MDMA therapy, there’s a strong mismatch of experience: they feel love and empathy where they once felt anxiety and fear. These molecular events may amplify or generate a therapeutic prediction error related to the traumatic memory, allowing for changes in the way they understand the meaning of the event. 

Similarly, Hakomi aims to induce memory reconsolidation by providing a “missing experience,”  an interaction, vocalization, or another form of expression denied in a pivotal early environment. By creating a container where the missing experience can be processed, the person can release painful core material, becoming a healthier, less constricted version of themselves. Through this interaction, the practitioner becomes what Hakomi authors call a “magical stranger,” one who brings a healing interaction that was absent from the context in which the habitual patterns first took shape. Although Hakomi alone can initiate this process, the enhanced therapeutic alliance induced by MDMA may serve to amplify and extend the benefits of this interaction.

Hakomi and PAP also see the interpersonal space as an opportunity to resolve attachment-related trauma. As recounted in the International Body Psychotherapy Journal, many relational psychotherapies cite early failures in coregulation and parental attunement as the driving factors of psychological distress in later life. With its emphasis on the interpersonal space between the therapist and individual, Hakomi may grant people resolution from missed attunement opportunities in childhood.

Hakomi supports the healing of early relational trauma through its focus on the therapist’s inner space as a potent therapeutic instrument in its own right. To create a healing internal atmosphere, Hakomi practitioners are urged to bring a “loving presence” to their encounters with clients. As described in Body, Movement, and Dance Psychotherapy, practitioners evoke within themselves a state of loving presence by focusing on qualities within a client that give themnon-egocentric nourishment.” By focusing on deriving a feeling rather than imparting one onto a client, they broadcast a far-reaching sense of presence that enhances their attunement with clients. 

Similarly, researchers have explored whether psilocybin therapy may relieve attachment-based trauma. It’s well understood, for example, that connectedness—to self, other people, and reality itself—is likely a key source of psilocybin’s therapeutic effects. Authors in ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science recently evaluated whether psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy could sustainably reduce attachment anxiety and avoidance among long-term AIDS survivors. After the treatment, authors reported significant reductions in attachment anxiety among participants during a three-month follow-up. Interestingly, those with higher baseline attachment anxiety also reported more intense mystical experiences. 

The authors hypothesized that psilocybin-induced experiences of unity and interconnectedness might have reduced participants’ motivation to distance themselves from others. These mystical insights could have freed them from long-entrenched models that formed due to their exposure to inconsistent or intrusive early caretakers. These shifts encouraged the release of defensive postures that previously encouraged their distancing behaviors. Although to our knowledge, no clinical studies have paired Hakomi with psilocybin therapy, the mutual intent to alleviate early relational trauma suggests their potential to yield powerful results when combined. 

How Hakomi May Support the Trajectory of Psychedelic Therapy

At the time of writing, both MDMA and psilocybin have received breakthrough therapy designations from the FDA. By 2023, both may be available in some form, whether through a nationally provided treatment for PTSD or state-led psilocybin service programs. 

In the case of psilocybin, Oregon’s Measure 109 seeks to grant a high degree of choice to individuals interested in psilocybin services. After the completion of its development period, the program will enable people to choose where and if they receive integration therapy. They’ll also decide on the extent to which their therapist intervenes in their experience. 

With its focus on the intrinsic wisdom of the inner landscape, Hakomi aligns one clear logistical goal of state-led psilocybin programs in particular—client autonomy—with the philosophical backbone core to PAP: the inborn drive toward equilibrium alive within all individuals. Considering its emphasis on the wisdom of subtle bodily cues and the interchange between the therapist and client, Hakomi may be instrumental in creating fine-tuned, personalized approaches to psychedelic therapy. It can not only be a source of personal empowerment for those who receive it but a potent tool for all therapists interested in turning up the volume on their unconscious and that of their clients.

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