Deep Democracy: Coming to Understand My Polyamory

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

This is the first in a series of articles about the intersections of polyamorous identities and psychotherapy, adapted from my article in Sexual and Relationship Therapy, “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients” (Henrich & Trawinski 2016).  In this installment, I explore the ways in Process Work influenced my understanding of polyamory and drove my research into the topic.

What Is Process Work?
In the late 1970’s, Arnold Mindell founded Process Work (otherwise known as Process-Oriented Psychology), which has its roots in Jungian psychology, physics, and Taoism. In very general terms, the practice of Process Work is one of understanding people’s “processes,” or said another way, the flow of experience as it unfolds in oneself and in the environment. “The Taoist view of life assumes that the way things are unfolding contains the basic elements necessary for solving human problems.” 1 In order to stay close to this “unfolding,” Process Work is focused on expanding personal awareness and “paying attention both to events that support your identity and to the disavowed aspects of life—to which you do not usually pay attention—that disturb.”2

As an awareness paradigm, Process Work has a wide range of applications including individual work, relationship work, and group conflict facilitation work. In the sections that follow, I discuss some of the Process Work theories and methods that have been most helpful to me as a person involved in a polyamorous relationship, as a clinician and as a support group facilitator for people who identify as or are exploring polyamory and consensual non-monogamy (CNM).

Believing in My Path of Heart
One of the greatest gifts that Process Work has given me is the ability to accept my wild, adventurous, intense, and outrageous nature with greater ease. As much as I knew I could never really deviate from my deepest self and path of heart, I was nonetheless intermittently conflicted about my relationship scene and wondered if something might be wrong with me, wrong with us. I had a tendency to pathologize my curiosity, my intensity, my sexual explorations, my counter-culture relationship, and my general out-of- the-boxness, but Process Work helped me to see the value in my own inner diversity. It offered a perspective that emphasized “the belief that inherent within even the most difficult problem lays the seed of its solution.” 3 In other words, Process Work suggests that what you doubt about yourself or what you think is wrong with you may in fact be the seed of something beautiful and useful that wants to unfold and be lived more completely. For me, the idea that my family’s polyamorous relationship might somehow be perfect and hold exactly what is needed was a radical and deeply relieving perspective.

Process Work does not rely on preconceived notions of what is right or wrong, “it follows experiences rather than holding fast to any culturally determined standards.” 4 According to Julie Diamond and Lee Spark Jones, “following the flow of process involves caring for the absurd and impossible and going against conventional beliefs and ways of seeing things. … [it] also involves going with what is happening in a given moment, rather than resisting it.” 5 This lack of judgment, attention to personal experience, and respect for the unconventional was liberating. As I began to unfold and follow the flow of my individual and relationship experiences, my internalized judgments and resistance began to slowly dissolve. This cleared the way for me to embrace my path of heart more fully.

In the words of Arnold Mindell:

The path of heart makes you feel strong and happy about your life because it follows your dreams, your dreaming body, your mythical task. … If you view the world from the path of heart, you understand it to be the place … that you need in order to grow. The world is awful and awesome; from the viewpoint of the path of heart, what happens is meant to be used, completely and fully … to find our entire selves. 6

By bringing forth awareness of how polyamory is an aspect of my life myth (or the path of my life), Process Work has helped me to de-pathologize my view of myself and my relationships. It has kept me close to the dreaming and meaning that flows through this path, and it has paved the way for greater self-development and relationship growth.

Becoming Aware of Marginalization and Internalized Oppression
Cindy, Tom, and I have always been aware that our non-monogamous relationship meant that we were outside the mainstream, but Process Work provided me with the additional framing of marginalization, which has helped tremendously. To realize that non-mainstream people are marginalized by the dominant culture in such a way that it leads to internalized oppression confirmed my experience and provided some relief. As Mindell points out, in addition to external forms of oppression, discrimination and bias, “many people from minority groups are plagued by self-doubt, self-hatred or hopelessness and think these feelings are only their own problems” 7, when in reality these people “suffer from different forms of internalized oppression picked up from the mainstream.” 8

It is often difficult to recognize internalized oppression because it can take on the form of an inner critic, a relationship argument, or some other personal manifestation, but Process Work helped me to de-personalize it and wake up to the ways in which our family’s difficulties and feelings of self-doubt were not entirely our own. Such pervasive forces can creep into a polyamorous relationship and have a huge impact on the interactions and atmosphere of the relationship. “You can exhaust yourself dealing with your personal pain and fighting, not only the mainstream, but members in your [relationship] who are unconscious of oppression’s effects.” 9 In addition, internalized oppression and inner criticism can enhance and reinforce marginalization that occurs within the relationship and between the members. Having some awareness of the internalized oppression goes a long way towards minimizing these effects, because “every time you free yourself from a sense of internal oppression, you begin to transform the cultures [and relationships] you live in.” 10

Our Relationship Is a Worldwork Issue
Process Work suggests that, in a marginalized group or relationship, much of what people fight about is not necessarily related to personal psychology, but is instead a world issue being played out through the relationship. From Mindell’s point of view, it is important to understand “that the inner self, relationships and the world are all aspects of the same community process.” 11 In this way, “whenever you work on personal problems, you also address political issues”, 12 and “you notice that you are a secondary process for the whole community. It is not you alone who wants to change, but a cultural path that wants to change. Your changes may therefore somehow be right for everyone else.” 13

Realizing that my marginalized voice and experience was not just tolerated but actually needed in the world was yet another breakthrough moment for me. After so many years of inner and outer criticisms and judgments, suddenly there was a perspective saying that the world might need something about our polyamorous relationship and experiences; that the mainstream may also suffer in some ways from a rigid adherence to monogamy; that both the freedoms and the difficulties of a polyamorous relationship may be something our culture actually craves or may learn something important from. Without suggesting that monogamy is wrong, this new perspective opened me to new questions about what polyamory means for the broader culture. Is it possible that people in monogamous relationships need more openness in their lives? More awareness of an expansive capacity for love? Might they need more awareness and attention to their own inner diversity, to the myriad needs and interests they have that might not be wholly satisfied by one partner?

Mindell articulated the concept of worldwork wherein issues or world problems can be felt and processed by individuals through relationships and manifest in group dynamics. Viewing our relationship as a worldwork issue helped me to value our path of heart that much more, and it supported and encouraged me to come out, to express myself, and to step into yet another worldwork role: that of a therapist to polyamorous clients and a facilitator of support groups for those who identify as polyamorous or exploring polyamory.

Discovering My Own Rank
In Process Work, rank is defined as “a conscious or unconscious, social or personal ability or power arising from culture, community support, personal psychology and/or spiritual power.” 14 In other words, rank is the power or privilege that a person or group has in a given circumstance, and Mindell observes that when people are unaware of their rank, this lack of awareness can lead to increased oppression and escalations in conflict. “Power struggles are ubiquitous. People with less power are jealous, hurt and furious when others are not conscious of rank. Rank-consciousness reduces struggle universally.” 15

As a person in a polyamorous relationship, I’m often aware of the rank and privilege that monogamous people have, and at times it is easy to get frustrated with their lack of rank awareness. While it is important for me to recognize that I may have less social rank in the world (at least when it comes to mainstream relationship styles), it is also important for me to recognize where I do have rank. As Mindell points out, “the trouble is, most of us are aware only of the rank or power we do not have. We forget to notice the rank and power we do have.” 16 Process Work has helped me to notice the rank that I do have. Although my social rank in the world is low, my psychological rank is relatively high because creating and sustaining a counter-culture relationship has forced me to work on my awareness, my edges (or my own conscious and unconscious limitations), and my relationship in a very determined way.

Also, being part of a marginalized and oppressed group provides me with a certain amount of spiritual rank. Our relationship has given me ample opportunity to experience isolation, feeling on the outside of mainstream relationships, feeling afraid to celebrate our relationship both within the context of our extended families and in the world, and always feeling like I/we should act “normal” so as to not call attention to us. This made me feel unseen and unknown, and one person even called us an abomination. These experiences forced me to go deeply inside, to find a place of detachment and love for all voices, including those who judge me harshly. Opening to judgments made me aware of my own judgments towards myself, the ways in which I (like those whom I accuse of marginalizing me) marginalize our relationship and me. At one point, I realized that I have a kind of spiritual rank that can only be gained by experiencing the pain and realities of reflection, isolation, fear and rejection.

By surviving any kind of suffering, you gain power. … A tough life destroys many people. But for others, it can lead to insight, power and psychological radiance that … can intimidate and educate the mainstream … it can raise your consciousness and give you the power of understanding.” 17

In addition, I recognize that I also possess a certain amount of social rank that results from having two wonderful loving relationships, while many people struggle with loneliness and wish that they could find even one partner with whom they could share their life. Becoming aware of my own rank has been an interesting and enlightening process, and part of that process includes coming to terms with the rank issues that exist within our relationship. In a polyamorous relationship, some members have more rank than others. For instance, Tom and I have more social rank within the relationship because we are legally married, while Cindy and I have more psychological rank because we are both dedicated to psychological learning, personal growth, and awareness training. As the person in the middle, I have a certain kind of rank in the relationship because both Tom and Cindy “share” my time and attention.

Rank is fluid, it changes all the time depending on the circumstances, and developing my rank awareness has been tremendously helpful in our relationship, because “when we are heedless of rank, communications become confused and chronic relationship problems develop.” 18 Noticing who has rank in a given moment can really help in the midst of a difficult relationship situation because it makes it easier to identify which perspectives or feelings may be in need of more support and understanding. “If you use rank consciously, it’s medicine. … You can’t get rid of rank, so you might as well put it to good use.” 19

Deep Democracy
Deep democracy is a term coined by Mindell to “addresses the perennial conflict of marginalization by emphasizing the value of all viewpoints and the necessity for them each to find expression.” 20 In other words, deep democracy means being open to all viewpoints, experiences, and emotions, not just the ones that we agree with, but also those that are uncomfortable, unknown, or frightening. This is a difficult thing to achieve, but it is worth the effort because “if change occurs by devaluing one state and throwing it out in favor of another, the part that has been thrown out may come back to assert itself and sabotage what has already been accomplished.” 21Ignoring one viewpoint in favor of another only polarizes the two sides and moves them farther apart, but deep democracy tries to honor “that special feeling of belief in the inherent importance of all parts of ourselves and all viewpoints in the world around us.” 22

In my personal work, deep democracy has meant trying to accept and value all of my inner voices, diverse states of experience, conflicting thoughts, subtle and fleeting emotions, etc. and trying to discover the important message or contribution that each has to offer. On a relationship level, deep democracy has meant honoring the viewpoints and emotions of each of my partners equally. The tendency in any relationship is to get polarized into your own position and fight for it, but Process Work has helped me to see “that instead of holding on to your position and defending your opinion, you [can] become aware of your process and that of your partner[s].” 23 Recognizing the contribution each individual makes to the relationship, and opening my eyes to the energies and nature of each of us has been amazing and wonderful. It made me feel a bit regretful that I didn’t recognize all of the rich perspectives and contributions earlier, but it’s a gift to recognize it now.

For example, there has always been a bit of a social activist in me who wants to burst forth from the closet, challenge societal norms, and force people to deal with my relationship style head-on. However, both Tom and Cindy are less inclined towards a social activist stance, and the topic of disclosure has been an ongoing negotiation. There were many times when I just wanted to change their minds, convince them that we needed to be public in order to pave the way for ourselves and others, but the philosophy of deep democracy sort of turned that on its head, and I had to ask myself, “What’s right about their hesitation?” This question allowed me to see and value Tom and Cindy’s perspective in a new way. It helped me to realize there are forces and energies out there that could be malevolent and should be feared, and it reminded me that our family also needs a certain level of protection. I tend to always think that I should overcome fears and hesitations, but deep democracy encouraged me to ask what might be right or useful about them and to respect and appreciate the parts of self and family that are fearful.

Applying the philosophy of deep democracy is difficult work because there are always aspects of self or other that I would rather change or just get rid of. Still, I do strive to develop an inner elder and facilitator that can hold and honor a diversity of perspectives simultaneously. It is this developing skill that I attempt to bring to myself, my relationship, my clients, my group work, and the world, and it is part of a learning that takes me into the depths of an oceanic process within me that has the room and space for everything, every way of being, every state, every thing.

This review of the key Process Work concepts relevant to the experiences of polyamorists is offered to Process Workers and other practitioners in the hope that it can be useful when working with polyamorous clients. While there are numerous Process Work theories and applications that can be used when working with polyamorous clients, the ones that I reviewed above have proven useful to me in my own polyamorous relationship, in working with polyamorous clients, and in facilitating groups of people exploring polyamory.

1 Mindell, 1995, p. 22
2 Mindell, 1993, p. 34
3 Mindell, 2002, p. 6
4 Mindell, 2006, p. 6
5 Diamond & Jones, 2004, p. 18
6 Mindell, 2003, pp. 143-144
7 Mindell, 1995, p. 7
8 Ibid., p. 69
9 Ibid., p. 39
10 Ibid., p. 38
11 Ibid., p. 66
12 Ibid., p. 65
13 Mindell, 1993, p. 142
14 Mindell, 1995, p. 42
15 Ibid., p. 53
16 Ibid., p. 58
17 Ibid., pp. 59-60
18 Ibid., p. 49
19 Ibid., p. 64
20 Menken, 2001, p. 14
21 Diamond & Jones, 2004, p. 36
22 Mindell, 1993, p. 5
23 Mindell, 1987, p. 97

Bibliography and Further Reading
Diamond, Julie & Lee Spark Jones (2004). A path made by walking: Process Work in practice. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press.

Menken, Dawn. (2001). Speak out: Talking about love, sex and eternity. Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Publications.

Mindell, Amy. (1995). Metaskills: The spiritual art of therapy. Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Publications.

Mindell, Amy. (2006). Alternatives to therapy: A creative lecture series on Process Work. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press.

Mindell, Arnold. (1987). The dreambody in relationships. New York, NY: Penguin Arkana.

Mindell, Arnold. (1993). The leader as a martial artist: Techniques and strategies for resolving conflict and creating community. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Mindell, Arnold. (1993). The shaman’s body: A new shamanism for transforming health, relationships, and the community. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Mindell, Arnold. (1995). Sitting in the fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press.

Mindell, Arnold. (2002). The deep democracy of open forums: Practical steps to conflict prevention and resolution for the family, workplace and world. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing.

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