I’ve always been puzzled that so many people turn to therapy to deal with their “issues.” I’ve never done that, because I know how to “process” my experience, both alone (through journaling, plus paying attention to dreams and synchronicities) and with others. I’ve always known how to process, to seek and create meaning in the flow of events; and I presume others — especially we women — also know how, that a mutual attempt to deeply understand experience is seated deeply into our genes. Indeed, I see personal processing, as, in part, an outgrowth of “gossip,” something intimate female friends have practiced since time immemorial, while shelling peas over the kitchen table, or helping to birth a baby. The derogatory use of this term was not there in the original, when the word meant “god-sibb” or siblings in God!
FACE IT EMBRACE IT ERASE IT
How We “Process” Our Experience
by Ann Kreilkamp
Published in SageWoman, Spring 1995.
“Sometimes when you start to talk like this I get nervous. The way you use that word ‘process’ . . . I have no idea what you mean.”
My lover looks nervous, too. Like something is expected of him, a certain way of responding, and he has no idea what it is. I am startled, caught up short. Oh my God, here is another man telling me that something I take for granted is brand new to him. That I can’t just assume he operates from within the same world-view that I do.
Perhaps because we are so familiar with cycles on a personal basis, we women have been developing, since the late ‘60s, a unique manner of reflecting and thus moving through our experience, truly learning from it. We call it “processing,” and I have yet to see our way of using the word appear in any dictionary.
Though we have been “processing” our experience for many years now, we have taken little notice of how radically new, not to mention productive, our use of this word is. This mutation in the meaning of the word “process” has gone on underneath things we officially notice. Embedded in the language and experience of everyday, it has, like the word “empowerment,” slowly and inexorably become part of our normal vocabulary. I can go to any part of the country and talk with women, presumably strangers, and we will all be using that word “process,” and all in the same way! And yet I have yet to see any literature that focused specifically on this subject. The zeitgeist has been unusually subtle in the way it has moved us all in the same direction without our noticing it.
What I would like to do in this article is to explore this emerging use of the word “process,” that we may begin to acknowledge the enormity of what we have done.
I begin with a true story.
A true story
Mike and I first met each other in 1983, at a peace rally in Cheyenne. Sparks flew. He wrote me. I wrote back. Letters flew back and forth. At last we met again, at his home in Wheatland, and immediately fell into each other’s arms. Together for a few days. Intense talking, walking, loving. More letters. How about coming to live here with me, he asks.
Time crawls by. I am preparing to leave Jackson, to go be with him on the other side of Wyoming. Finally, after months of romantic fantasies, the day comes when we fall into each other’s arms again. Make love. Talk intensely.
The next day we are to drive to Denver, another peace rally. Whose car shall we take. Mine, he says. No, mine! I say. We go back and forth; on the surface it seems as if each of us wants to be the generous one, but — I can say now — the hidden subtext is who’s in control. Finally agree to compromise. We will take my car, he will drive.
Something has shifted. Some subtle atmospheric change, hard to pin down. Easier to pretend nothing’s happened, it’s all as it was, romantic, loving, trusting. But we have trouble talking on the six hour drive down. I look over to his profile, he’s wearing one of those duck billed hats I’ve always detested. I feel myself clam up, go rigid.
Mike and I are together now; at least that was the plan, nurtured for so many long months. But something has gone wrong. We are playing roles, pretending. It’s weird, not fun, not easy and flowing. He wants to stop at this one store, “to look around.” I say okay. Remain the car in the sweltering heat, pretending to read. He’s gone for two hours.
We drive on to Boulder “for lunch.” Sit in a fancy little place across from each other, tense, no conversation. We can’t meet each other’s eyes. Lunch takes forever.
Get back in the car. Next stop, Denver. After a block or two, he suddenly swerves to the curb, stops the car, turns it off, gets out, grabs his bag from the back seat, and looks at me: “Well lady, here’s where we part company.”
“What?” I am shocked, outraged. “But you can’t do things that way!”
“Oh yeah? Watch me.” He saunters off down the street, swinging his bag.
I double over in pain, his sudden abandonment a terrific blow to my solar plexus. We have been in an unacknowledged twenty-four hour power struggle, and I just lost.
I spend that night with my sister and her family south of Denver. Telling Mary what happened, my voice is cold, furious, ticking off the events of the past twenty-four hours. The next day I head back north to Wheatland. (Forget the peace rally! There’s a war raging inside me.) Got to get my stuff before returning to Jackson. Hope he won’t be home.
He opens the door to my knock, his face blank, eyes narrowed, distrusting. Suddenly, standing there with only a few feet between us, a million miles apart, something deep within me shifts. I ask him, can we please talk about what happened? He looks puzzled, suspicious. (“What’s this lady got up her sleeve now? Why doesn’t she just walk on out of here?”) But curious, too. Reluctant, he agrees, shifts his body so I can enter.
We sit down across from each other, awkward, defensive. Begin to talk, slowly, hesitant. What is there to say? What happened? It all took place so precipitiously, beginning with the first time we met. Wouldn’t it be easier to just shrug it off and go on?
No. Something in me knows we must do this now, we must process this experience so that it doesn’t stick to us like sludge, weighing us down, one more layer of frozen feeling that prevents us from truly encountering another human being. To leave now would be to drive one more nail in the coffin of our mutual isolation.
It takes a couple of hours to move past the usual pretending. I keep plugging, searching for an entry into the feeling. Must screw up my courage. Want to unplug these words stuck in my throat. Finally, the vise-like mood gripping us yields, and we begin to speak truth, moving into describing the invisible but decided dynamic of the change which had taken place in our feelings. Of the subtle atmospheric shift that occurred when we talked about whose car to take to Denver.
At this point I am deeply inside the experience once again, feeling the same feelings, but now also attempting to understand them. What prompted the change? What old emotional pattern in me was triggered by that event? I notice he still seems somewhat defensive, but at least he is still sitting there. And for the most part he does seem to be willing to listen.
Suddenly something breaks open from within me. I grow excited. I have never been here before. Who knows what I am going to say? All I know is I must explore this discovery process, follow its guidance. The words roll out as fast as they come up. I am as surprised as he is with where they are taking me.
“Unconsciously,” I begin, “I think I was afraid of taking a trip with you. Who knows what would happen? I haven’t known you very long. And we’ve just committed to each other? What a joke, looking back on it now! And then, you wearing that awful hat . . . looking sort of watchful, furtive, distrustful . . . reminded me of one of my husbands, the one whom I am still afraid of. I saw you as him and found myself reacting to you in the same way, growing cold, rigid, judgmental . . .”
He looks startled, almost glad. His attitude of patient but slightly derisive tolerance (give the lady what she wants, she’ll be gone soon enough) suddenly falls off. He is astonished. Words break from him too. “The look on your face, your freezing silence . . . reminded me of my first wife,” he replies. He leans towards me, excited. “I always felt that she was judging me. I could never feel comfortable with her. Just being with her made me feel like I had to get away.”
In that short exchange we broke through to an understanding of the deep patterns in each of us that triggered the change in our behavior towards each other. Our neuroses, we were discovering, dovetailed, fit together exactly! Indeed, I would realize over the following months, we had gotten together precisely to remind both of us of our respective unfinished business with the opposite sex.
We talked for a couple of more hours, our attitudes towards each other undergoing that slow but wondrous metamorphosis that accompanies a breakthrough into a new realm of understanding. By the time we were finished, both of us had visibly softened, and we hugged each other with real care.
Driving back to Jackson afterwards I felt at peace. A cycle had completed itself. We had successfully “processed” that traumatic event to the point where I could go on now, it wasn’t going to be there in front of me, obsessing me, preventing me from being fully present to whatever or whoever came next.
As for my friend, I sensed he was a bit overwhelmed by the exchange, though he did feel better afterwards. As a man, Mike was not as familiar with what we women call “processing,” and so had no firm idea of the import of that conversation.
Two years went by with no exchange between us. Then one day, I was surprised to receive a letter from him. In it Mike thanked me for teaching him about “process.” He said he had no idea what that word meant before, but now it had seeped down into his bones to become the foundation for how he gets along with people.
Mike and I moved through something together which changed us both. Our interaction triggered old patterns within each of us which, had we not “processed” what happened together, would have continued to attract similar situations to us both in the future.
He would have “gone away mad.” Him to bury himself once again in work to forget his loneliness; me to nurse old knee-jerk “feminist” anger towards men.
But what is this mysterious little word “process” which we females are using so much these days?
In order to get a feel for what the word process means to us, we need first to place it within a larger field of meaning. The larger context for the phenomenon of “processing” is that of our search for the truth that shall set us free. Free to evolve. Free to unfold the mystery of our full and wondrous divine natures. Free from attachment, from whatever it is that keeps us stuck in a certain manner of being, thinking, and acting.
Think of the word process, in the abstract, as either a verb or a noun, representing a cycle or circle of a certain period or time. The cycle or circle is a form or pattern of behavior to which we are attached. How large the cycle or circle is, however, we do not know until we have finished “processing” it.
The criterion for whether or not something needs to be processed is a simple one, namely how we feel about it. A situation feels uncomfortable, tense, weird. We wonder why. We want to feel better, to neutralize the tension.
With all this in mind, let us look up this word in the dictionary. According to Webster, the primary definition of the word process sis “an orderly or established series of steps or operations toward a desired end or product.”
In our use of the word, however, we “process” in a manner which is usually not orderly or established. There is no algorithm or set of rules by which we do this. On the other hand, there is a “series of steps,” and a “desired end product.”
The series of steps is decided intuitively, moment by moment, point by point, according to the precise needs of the particular situation at hand. Each point in the process is isolated, sensed, absorbed within our entire beings. By completely embracing each point as it comes, we allow it to change us. The point in question then naturally gives way to the next point, which we then access in the same manner, through feelings.
In such processing, we don’t know what will happen next. We have no agenda beyond a need to be open to explore whatever is asking to come up to consciousness now. Always, our feelings are used to take us deeper into the meaning of it all. We plunge in by thoroughly sensing the interior depths of whatever is going on.
The more profoundly we allow ourselves to feel our way into any particular point in a process, the greater the discovery we will make as to its meaning. Indeed, there is no end to what we can discover through processing. Each single point in any process can be used to access a series of patterns (circles, cycles), each deeper and more inclusive than the prior one.
Think of a point along the edge of a circle. Now put that circle inside another larger one, with the original point tangent to its edge too.
Any single point can be used to access any number of larger and larger patterns of experience. The deeper our feeling into the meaning of that point, the larger the circle or pattern — or “process” — we are capable of understanding.
In our story, my recognition of how I had viewed Mike as my ex-husband was one circle of understanding; a deeper larger one would liken both men to my father, who seemed to suddenly abandon me as a small child when he was called to war; beyond that there might be a larger context yet, say, other lives where I was the man who had abandoned women, and so on.
In this case, a deeply felt response to a single point in a process which seemed, on the surface, to involve only a need to get at why this particular man had abandoned me, led to larger and larger circles of meaning, dimensions of understanding. By learning how thoroughly attached I was to a repeating pattern of abandonment, I was able to begin to free myself from that pattern.
In processing our experience we narrow our focus to a specific point in any one moment and our deep felt response to that point paradoxically removes the veils so that we see the larger field of meaning within which that point is embedded. We access the situation with our right brains; we analyze it with our left brains. We guide ourselves into the interior reaches of the situation through feeling; we are then able to describe and analyze both the feeling and the larger context within which it exists.
One way to define this use of processing is then, to say it is an integrated left-right brained manner of approaching and learning from experience.
The usual way of moving through experience is either left- or right-brained. Men are trained to be more comfortable with left-brained analysis; women with right-brained feeling.
To move purely in a left-brained manner is to skim over the top, to generalize and see particular situations as if they are all alike. We miss the uniqueness of what is really happening right now.
To move purely in a right-brained manner is to become lost in the feeling, overwhelmed by it. We have no perspective, we are liable to get stuck.
To limit ourselves to either left- or right-brained approaches to sticky or charged situations is to handicap our learning, if we assume, as Neitszche did, that “to learn is to change.”
“Processing,” then, is a certain way of moving through experience wherein we learn from that experience and thus change. Those who continually process are continually changing. Not superficially, by skimming over the tops of things, but deeply, changing from the inside out.
To return to Webster’s definition, “the desired end or product” of such processing is peace, a state of rest; we wish to neutralize the discomfort we feel, to release the charge that still accompanies a certain cycle, or set of cycles (patterns, circles), one enclosed within the other.
We can apply this manner of going through experience to our memories as well, approaching various cycles in our lives with an aim to both neutralizing any remaining emotional charge and to understanding those cycles as wholes embedded within larger wholes.
Always, the goal is to break the pattern, to turn a circle of repeating behavior into a spiral of evolutionary growth. For example, if I, as a woman, keep on changing my place of residence every two years (two years is the cycle of Mars), I am using my assertive male energy to make external moves rather than using it on an inner level, to help me develop my own animus, by learning how to go after what I want.
Always, the goal is freedom. Freedom to unfold our own divine natures. Freedom from attachment. We seek to break our patterns of repetition, to stop running around in circles and evolve into continuous spiraling action. This lofty ideal is accomplished by thoroughly immersing ourselves in the here and now. We courageously face, embrace, and thus erase! every single point in each situation which, for some reason unknown to us in the beginning of our “processing,” has temporarily stopped us in our evolutionary path. As we plumb our feelings we change. We learn. We grow. There is no end to it.