Want to Heal? Participate!

By Cathy Cassata 10/17/14

Anne Wilson Schaef shares how Living in Process can heal addiction, mental illness and anything life throws at you.

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At 80 years old, author, spiritual teacher, and healer, Anne Wilson Schaef, PhD, is more profound than ever. 

After working as a traditional psychologist for years in hospitals, schools and a private practice, Schaef left the psychology world in 1984. “It became clear to me that many theories in psychology were developed by men for men, and had little to do with what women thought, felt or needed. Around that time, I was at a speaking event held by the American Psychological Association and someone pointed out that the word ‘therapist’ broken down is ‘the rapist.’ By that time I was beginning to question the whole set up of one person having that much power over another person,” she says. 

As Schaef pulled away from traditional psychology, she delved into researching other methods of healing, went on to become one of the crusaders of feminist therapy, and began to develop her own way of healing called Living in Process, which is an ongoing, growing, changing, healing work. “I had a broad background, and when I put all of those things together with my own training from my great grandmother, who was Cherokee, I came up with my own way of working with people,” she says.

Living in Process works with recovery from the addictive process, moving beyond to wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. For the last 20 years, Schaef has worked intensively with people throughout the world facing both ingestive addictions, such as alcohol, food and drugs, and process addictions, such as work, gambling, sex, and relationships.

“As an addict, that disease will always be there. In fact, everybody in this culture has learned aspects of addiction. Our society itself breeds addiction and it demands addiction in order to be comfortable in it because we’ve created a society, which is not friendly to humans or animals or the planet. In order to tolerate what we’ve created, we’ve used addictions to take the edge off,” she says.

Schaef has published thirteen books, which have been translated in many languages and have been bestsellers throughout the world. Her books, Living in Process and Beyond Therapy, Beyond Science, discuss Living in Process in depth.

Schaef shared some insights into Living in Process with The Fix.

How did you become interested in helping those with addiction?

Almost by accident, when I was living in a household of women and our children. One of the women in the house was disruptive to the household and turned out to be an alcoholic. At that point, I realized I knew nothing about alcoholism. In my psychology training, I only had three hours on addiction yet I thought I knew something about it, but this woman and others I met made me realize I knew nothing and was ignorant in the field. I went ahead to dig in and learn everything I could about alcoholism. I started doing my own research on alcohol and other addictions and went on to be the first person to define ingestive addictions and process addictions.

One of the most significant shifts in my life was when I decided to go to an AA meeting to observe and take notes on why and how people get better like I was trained to do in traditional psychology. But it was when I got there I realized that I wasn’t going to learn about the effectiveness of the 12-step program unless I did it myself. So that’s what I did.

Is this the point when you started to develop Living in Process?

Yes. I shifted from a non-participatory observer and researcher to taking a participatory approach to life. This was very major. All my training in clinical psychology had been to pull back and observe.

During this time, I began to develop my own theories about psychology, which were very different than the prevailing theories of that time. In 1981, I came out with Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System, and in that book I went beyond the individual feminism and began to look at systems, the way systems function, and how the white male system is a dominant system in which we live. I called the system that women are functioning in as the reactive female system, an artificial system that women and men created in order for women to survive in the male system. Later, when I was giving a lecture in Minnesota, the words came out of my mouth, ‘the white male system is the addictive system’ and all the characteristics and processes of addiction fit the white male system. What I mean is that our society is an addictive system, and the reactive female system is the co-dependent. The emerging female system could be equated with sobriety, but it’s a different system.

How would you explain Living in Process to someone who’s never heard of it?

It’s difficult. For the book I wrote on it, my editor asked me to define process and I had a hard time because defining it compromises it. I thought I should have been able to come up with a definition. Then I was talking to some Hawaiian friends—the Hawaiian culture is very process based—and literally they stepped back in disbelief at the idea that I’d have to explain process. Their response was that everything is in process. We are in process. As human beings, we’re a process. We are not a thing. We’re not going to make ourselves perfect and stay that way because we’re always moving and changing. Our cars and homes are a process; they’re always calling to us to fix something. Nature is a process; nothing is static in nature. I think one of the major problems that we’re having with understanding how to live in our universe as human beings is that we don’t know that everything is in process and a process. 

The purpose of western science is to static your world so that it can be measured and controlled. This is based on a worldview and belief system that from my perspective is not true to the reality of our reality because everything is in process.

I found this quote from you to be very insightful. “In Process, we learn to own our lives and take responsibility for our own healing, recognizing that there are no external experts who can ‘heal’ us.” Can Living in Process be effective in combination with other forms of therapy and/or medications?

No. Therapy is ruining AA. What we’re hearing in AA today and in any 12-step program is a contamination with therapy concepts. Therapy comes out of a mechanistic, scientist model based on objectivity and manipulating variables and that the human is a machine. Western science is based on reductionism and empiricism, which means to understand something you reduce it to its most elemental form, observe it with eyes, ears and microscopes, and measure and control it so you can understand it. For instance, if you want to understand cat, you kill the cat, dissect the cat, and you study its brain, nerves and muscle system, and then you “know” the cat. However, another scientific model, which we haven’t named well yet, that the Native American people know and others like the Chinese culture practice, is you have to put the cat in its context and the cat has to be whole to understand it. This approach is related to the process in context. Living in Process and AA at its best, come from a process model.

How has your Native American heritage influenced Living in Process?

I didn’t find out that I was Cherokee until I was in my late-50s. I learned that when I was born in 1934, my family had made a decision not to claim their Cherokee heritage because I would have been sent off to a boarding school just for being an Indian. They decided to pass as white because they wanted me to get what they thought were the advantages of a white education. As far as I knew, we were white people. Despite that, I was raised as a Cherokee and treated like one in the family. Our family system had more equality. It was not based on a hierarchical system. 

My great grandmother was very active in my life and about two years after I discovered I was Cherokee, I suddenly realized that my great grandmother was a medicine woman. People came to our home for healing. She taught me what was edible in the woods, what was for healing, and she had two shelves of herbs and medicines in our home, but I never made the connection. I can see looking back, how my DNA informed what I was interested in. At 7-years-old, I announced I was going to be a healer, yet I didn’t really know what that meant. 

I was struck by the following quote from you. “Since we are spiritual beings, our solutions to our problems must come from our spiritual wholeness. All healing is based in our spiritual wholeness. The secret of living a whole life is accepting and being wholly who we are as full spiritual beings.” Can you explain what spirituality means to you?

It’s very different from religion. Religion takes spirituality and tries to concretize it with abstract beliefs and concepts. To me, spirituality is a living process. Spirituality is participation. I believe that participating in your life and all life is spirituality. Recently, I was standing outside and a group of Canadian Honkers flew by, but they were going the wrong direction, and I thought what’s wrong? I laughed about how I felt responsible for the direction the geese were flying, and how that was my just being codependent. Then I realized that if the geese are confused because of the climate and pollution that we’ve done to our planet, then indeed I am responsible. Participating in all my life and whatever is in front of me is spirituality.

Not participating seems to be what someone with addiction is doing, correct?

Exactly. They’re withdrawing from participating. The same thing you do with mental illness. Both can be very self-centered. 

Consider the works of Max Freedom Long, who talked about how we have three selves; the higher self, lower self and the functional self. He said the functional self is how we deal with the world, things like what we’re going to eat, where we need to go. He said the functional self has no memory or feelings. The lower self is kind of like Freud’s id, but it’s not a scary place, it’s a place where we have feelings and emotions and memory. The higher self is basically where we came from, where we are one with all creation. Long said there’s no access to the higher self from the thinking mind or the functional self. The only way to get to that place of oneness or spirituality is through our lower self; through our feelings and emotions and memory. And our thinking will never get this reality. So this leads to the difference between thinking about God, which is theology, and experiencing the “Godness,” if you will, where we’re all one. This is where our reductionist and empirical science has taken us in the other direction instead of focusing on that oneness. I believe that ultimately we are all part of one creation. Those moments when you know in your whole being and your operating out of that oneness, that to me is spirituality.

What do you say to those who believe that spirituality has no place in recovery?

Recovery is finding your own spirituality, whatever that means to you. You can’t do it without reconnecting with your larger self. 

Can you share any personal anecdotes about being helped through Living in Process?

I’ve worked with many people facing different challenges, bipolar disorder, schizophrenic, addiction, and when they do Living in Process, they heal.

Whether you’re a chemical addict, food addict, or workaholic, it’s really important to deal with the addictive process, no matter what form it takes in our lives in order to really begin to heal.

The best tool we have for that is the 12-step program, but it doesn’t do it all. We have to do the deep work, which is trying, but a very exciting thing about being a human. Our bodies and our brains and minds store everything that has happened in our lives, and it’s absolutely marvelous because it means it’s there to work with when we are ready. It usually comes out in the form of feelings, memories and emotions. We’ve all had the experience of watching a movie and you suddenly start to cry and you don’t even know what it’s about. Or you’re suddenly angry with someone who doesn’t deserve that level of anger and you know that there’s something else that is behind that. I see that as a door into deep process work. There’s none of us who doesn’t have trauma from childhood and growing up in our families and in this society; some worse than others, but even if you were the school golden girl, you have some trauma. Our beings are so constituted that we have the opportunity to work through those traumas and heal from them and learn from them, not matter what they are.

Can you share a specific example of deep process?

The second piece of healing is to heal those feelings and emotions and experiences. This is done by going deeper than verbalizing them. You can’t just talk about them and heal them. They have to be done on a feeling level and they bypass our thinking mind and take us into our being. That’s where our healing takes place. Then we bring it back out and give it words so that we can talk about it.

One of the most powerful deep processes I’ve personally had was years ago. There was a Catholic nun who was coming to live in our Living in Process community, and we were talking on the phone before she came. I was telling her how I wanted to be included in her world as much as she was going to be included in our world, and suddenly I felt this rush of feelings, and I had to get off the phone. I went and lay down, cried and cried, and I kept seeing this little girl about three years old who looked determined. Between my sobs, I kept saying, “Go away, I’m busy here.” But finally I realized she was part of my process. I wondered what she was so determined about, and then a powerful memory arose. 

When I was three years old, my mother married my father who raised me—I never knew my biological father—and I moved from living with my mother and great grandmother to suddenly with my new father, his three brothers and his parents. At that time, I so wanted to be included in this new household. To their credit they included me completely, but as a child it was traumatic to me. It wasn’t like I was beaten or raped, but it was traumatic. From then on I realized that was why I had an “inclusion issue.” After this realization, I stood up and thought, “Wow that was powerful,” but then another rush of feelings came about so I lay back down and sobbed again. It became clear that these emotions had nothing to do with inclusion. The issue was that at age three, I lost my primary parent; my great grandmother. You see, my mother worked and my great grandmother was with me all the time, so when we moved in with my stepfather, I never lived with my great grandmother again. It was one of the greatest losses of my life, even though I got to visit her and spend time with her.

My whole life shifted after this deep process experience. We all have these memories and emotions rumbling around, so the second piece of the process of healing is to work through those things. It wouldn’t have been enough for me to just weep and weep that would have just been catharsis. I had to stay with it long enough until I understood what it was about. Then it made sense to me and it was hugely healing in terms of the way I worked with groups after that, and the confidence I had after that, and in the connection I had with my great grandmother, even though she had been dead for years. Almost always, what we “get” in our deep process could never be accessed with our rational mind.

This is how deep process works. It’s such a gift we have. Most people are afraid of it because when we start to cry like that or feel emotions that are uncomfortable, most people are so frightened that they shut it off rather than going into it and doing the healing. We can’t do this with therapies that try to pull these processes out of us like forceps in a natural birth. What happens is the forceps cause the baby and mother to get injured. 

I noticed the third piece of the process of Living in Process is the long process of making a paradigm shift. What does this mean?

It’s the process of separating yourself from the addictive culture that we live in and learning slowly the process of living another way. This is most effectively and powerfully done in a community setting. In a participatory system, we are all part of a larger whole, and our participation in that larger whole is necessary to our healing. Often, as others share their stories, their struggles, and their experiences we are able to learn about ourselves in ways that we never previously considered. Even more important, we need to participate in the community, in the hologram, in order to reclaim ourselves, and our self-esteem, and take our place in the universe.

Can someone with a mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia benefit from Living in Process?

Mental illness is a normal reaction to the culture that we’ve developed. Schizophrenia is a thinking disorder that includes a grouping of syndromes. Interestingly, in the psychology world, it originally included alcoholism. A schizophrenic experiences the same kind of thinking that an alcoholic does. The difference is that the schizophrenic pushes it further. Western culture displays schizophrenic tendencies as well. It develops abstract ideas, makes them real and then lives in them.

Do you believe some people have a genetic disposition to addiction or is addiction learned?

I have to point out the dualism you presented here because it’s another trait of Western culture. What dualistic thinking says is it’s either this or that. When we set up the world that way, it stops you because you don’t want to enter the dualism, and it keeps you stuck so you don’t have to deal with the world.

My answer is yes, both. Some people are born alcoholics. They have a genetic predisposition and they’ll have to live with it their whole life and the “ism” is culturally learned. However, it doesn’t matter when it comes to healing. Let’s say you were raped by your father as a child, so your challenge is to do what you need to do to heal from that trauma and to learn what you need to do to get beyond it. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what has happened to you or what your genetic predisposition is. What matters is that you heal, learn and grow from it. We all have that opportunity.

My final thought on this matter of genetics is that this goes back to the western world way of thinking. Wanting to know answers before process. The thing is we don’t know, and we have to be able to say we don’t know, and just do the work and then find out.

Living in Process intensives are offered all around the world. To learn more, visit www.livinginprocess.com. 

Cathy Cassata is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about addictions to sugar and tanningConnect with her on twitter—@Cassatastyle.

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Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She is a regular contributor to Everyday Health and Healthline. View her portfolio of stories at https://cathycassata.contently.com. Connect with her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.