In the Beginning was the Conversation 'Process' Spirituality and CAT

Dunn, M., 2007. In the Beginning was the Conversation 'Process' Spirituality and CAT. Reformulation, Winter, pp.16-19.

As a CAT Practitioner, I am attuned to pay attention when I come across ‘relational thinking’ in other fields of interest. So you will understand why I reacted to the following:

Without our touching there is no God.
Without our relation there is no God.
Without our crying, our yearning, our raging, there is no God.
For in the beginning is the relation, and in the relation is the power
that creates the world through us, and with us, and by us, you and
I, you and we, and none of us alone.

Carter Heyward 1982

This passage came up in my reading of Feminist Spirituality literature. It struck me that there is further to go with the concept of the Relational Self in this context, and I want to explore these ideas in this article, sharing some of my reading and my meditation, and delving into the Journaling work of Ira Progoff which he calls ‘Process Meditation’. My aim is to articulate a spirituality that is characterised by the following.

It needs to be:

  • Process –based
  • Conveyed by image
  • Relational
  • Dialogic
  • Creative

Why this particular list? I think the answer is that I have always been uninterested in discussions about the existence of God. It has seemed to me to be a fruitless exercise and I am more comfortable taking the existence of God as read, and then moving on to the more riveting question which is: how to relate to the Supreme Being. (‘Process’ questions often begin with ‘how’ rather than ‘why’). This has driven my reading, my prayer-life, my study, my involvement with ritual – and now, yet another attempt to put the spirituality and the psychology together. Each of the words in the list above represents a value derived from elements of experience, and for me they are essential. Given that I am signed up to the Relational Self, I hope to show that these are its implications in the realm of the Spirit.

My first question is therefore –

What do I mean by Process vs Content?

Since the early part of the 20th Century, Philosophy, Theology and many other things beside (most recently Management theory) have been dominated by Process thinking. Since A.N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne began to make the distinction between Content and Process, it has become a thinking-tool that many of us have used to excellent effect in Mental Health work. These are some of the ways I understand the distinction between ‘Content and Process’:

• The Content of tennis (or any other sport) is the score: the Process is the stroke.

• The Content of communication is the topic: the Process is the experience. (You can take-back and apologize for something you have said at the Content level; you can never take something back at the level of Process).

• Bateson points out that animal communication is almost content-free: its substantive content is simply about “me” and perhaps “you”, perhaps “our relationship”, but not “it” (Bateson, 1966). This is such a heart-warming example of the connection between Process and being-in-Relation!

  • Teachers know that what is learned is a matter of Content, but helping it to happen is a matter of managing the Process.
  • Therapists know that once they are caught in issues (should she leave her partner? change her job? stop contact with her parents?) they are lost. The genius of CAT is that it moves from Content to Process, so that ‘pushing it where it moves’ becomes a possibility and ‘issues’ are re-formulated into procedural enactments.
  • “Process thought points to the flow of experience through time”. (1)
  • As a relational rather than mechanistic cosmology, process thought addresses questions of social, political, economic, and ecological justice. (2)
  • An essential part of ritual is its awareness and use of the Process dimension. (2)
  • Absence of communication is, in Process terms, a communication. (2)
  • Anatomy is Content; Physiology is Process.
  • I am thinking about Strategy and Tactics – but I think they might both be different elements of Process – but you may have something to add here.
  • I have a sense that Process is where the energy is.
  • Content is noun; Process is verb.

Process and the Relational Self

In lieu of a case-study I am going to look at an encounter in the Gospel of St John that illustrates what happens at the Process/Content level in an interaction. This is the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the well (3). Their Reciprocal Roles begin with –

He engaged/interested

vertical arrow



She wary/feisty/defensive

Her dialogue is mostly at the level of Content (“You have no bucket”; “Give me this water so that I may never be thirsty”). His dialogue is mostly at the level of Process (“If you knew the gift of God…”; “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”.) By the end of the meeting she has undergone a transformation and the new Reciprocal Roles could be described as –

He Self-revealing
(“I am he, the one who is speaking to you”)



She Known/open to the Spirit
(“He told me everything I have ever done.”)

As Bateson pointed out, the dialogue has moved from being about thirst, water and ethnic/social issues – to being about ‘you and me’ – the relationship itself. There could be no movement or transformation at the level of Content, but at the level of Process the relationship becomes meaningful and open to change. The Relational Self is responsive at this level; this is where you can push it and it will move. Content acts as a carrier for the real activity, which is the Process. The Relational Self can only be recognized and engaged by moving to the level of Process.

My thesis is that if Religion is only about Content (dogma; whose in and whose out; hierarchy; authority), it has lost its way. As David Tacey says in his analysis of the Spirituality Revolution:

Religion imposes the ‘big story’ of theology upon our experience... It does not allow for the true radicality of the spirit… Religion is rejected, not because a person does not believe, but because he or she is not believed.
Tacey 2004

However, I think that the fairly obvious distinction between Institution and personal experience is the tip of this iceberg. Recognizing the difference is one thing – learning to inhabit the Process level of oneself-in-relation to the Spirit is another!

What is the ‘Process level’ of the spiritual life?

Introducing some of the rich sources in the literature on prayer, I want to look at this question in three stages:

  • first, the system called ‘Journalling’ which suggests a method for recognizing one’s own level of Process;
  • second, an approach to the prayer relationship which uses Process questioning;
  • third, the Process issues both within the medieval tradition of mysticism and in Jung’s understanding of the second half of life.

Ira Progoff, (a psychologist), developed an elaborate system called ‘Journalling’ in the 70’s, which has been delivered worldwide in the form of workshops. His Model of Process Meditation proposes a method with 22 categories of Journal entries, structured by four dimensions. However, I think the essence of his approach is helpful, even if one prefers not to engage in his method. He suggests that we ask the process-question: Where am I in the movement of my life? He asks us to engage with personal events which carry particular meaning and emotion, and then to move beyond them to the ‘essential fluidity of the inner movement’, so that we are not weighed down by their ‘content’ detail.

We are reaching back through our heritage as civilized persons to the inner source of that heritage in order to touch the power by which it originally came to be.
Progoff 1975, 1992

His experience of running these workshops has shown that: …this deep opening in a person’s life spontaneously expresses itself in the language of the spirit, with the style of natural poetry or personal prophecy, the language of the self discovering the self.

Once it has become possible to identify this underground stream running beneath the events of life, we are then invited to enter a dreamy ‘twilight zone’ from which images can emerge. Progoff suggests that we then enter a dialogue with one of the images, all the while writing in a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ way so that it is possible to reflect on the experience afterwards. Part of his thesis is that the most creative people proceed in this kind of way – he cites Dostoevsky, St Francis and others.

Other writers on Spirituality express something similar. Barry and Connolly (1984) ask process-questions following a period of prayer:

How did the Lord seem to you?
(A Contemplative attitude means becoming absorbed by and paying attention to the Other (not simply as a background figure for one’s own concerns).

How did that (period of prayer) affect you?
(To contemplate means to try to let the other be him or herself, to let one’s responses be elicited by the reality of the other.)

What is the dialogue?
(Persistent looking at what the Lord is like in prayer will gradually develop the prayer as dialogic.)

Barry & Connolly 1984 (my underlining)

It goes without saying that “persistent looking at what the Lord is like” is at the heart of Process Spirituality, and is a million miles from the “Please-God-find-me-a-parking-place” mechanistic and individualistic model of prayer of our more childlike understanding. These questions parallel that most vital Process question within a therapy session which is: What do we think is happening between us right now?

In an extraordinary book about Jung and Teresa of Avila (1982), John Welch uses the Analytic approach to ‘image’, and links it to the sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite mystic’s masterpiece called The Interior Castle. (This is the book in which Teresa attempts to describe her experience of her inner process). Welch says:

(Active Imagination) has the potential for assisting a person’s spiritual life. It is not that God is speaking to me directly through these images…but through the images I am led to depths where my God-given life is attempting to grow. If we think of ourselves as a word spoken by God, then in imaging and active imagination we are talking about ways of more clearly hearing the word we are.
Welch 1982

Welch also describes the Process Spirituality of the second half of life, involving a transition from the ego’s adaptation to the outer world (in the first half of life), to a focus inward and the emergence of the unconscious through images.

Consciousness and unconscious are now in communication and parts of the self which are seeking expression in conscious living are now being recognized and integrated...Another way of speaking about the descent into the unconscious is the living of the symbolic life. The individuation process requires that I listen to my depths, and those depths are experienced through their symbolic expressions in my life.

Teresa of Avila expresses the same reality within her metaphor of seven dwelling places. The first three dwelling places in The Interior Castle are focused outwards, and the ‘call from God is mediated through sermons, books, people and events in one’s life’. From the fourth dwelling place, ‘people allow themselves to be decentred’. The ego ceases to be the centre of life, and turns toward the Divine in a relationship with the Living God where ‘one’s responses are elicited by the reality of the Other’:

A firm base has been established in consciousness, but now it is time for a serious inward journey which means letting-go of the tight hold on ego-consciousness in order to learn more about the self… The deeper down the well I go, the closer I come to the source which puts me in contact with all other life.

I link these three sources to show that there is a literature which supports this Process approach, both at the level of how to do it, as well as describing the movement away from the ego and towards real dialogue with the Other.

Process Spirituality and Cognitive Analytic Therapy.

These are dense and mysterious areas of the inner life, in particular because I have been summarising lengthy and deep expressions of the inexpressible! I hope to have opened-up some of the literature which shows how the Process approach to Spirituality is part of an ancient mystical tradition as well as having a sound psychological grounding.

I am thinking about the way in which we slot God into our own Reciprocal Roles, whether ‘critical-judgemental’, ‘absentunavailable’, or even ‘abusive’. The principle of being limited to seeing the world in these restricted ways must also apply to our perception of the Almighty. Compounded by a sense of alienation from the god of institutional religion, we might ourselves be stuck in the roles of ‘infantilised’, ‘dissociated’, ‘angry’ or ‘rebellious’. (Melton, J. 1995) So those of us who want to have a spiritual practice may find ourselves going round a selfreinforcing negative loop which ends up with “I don’t know what sort of a god I believe in, but I do have a god and I have no idea how to go about relating to him/her in a meaningful way”. If institutional religion has focussed us on

  • ‘belief ’ as an intellectual exercise (which we imagine has a resolution point? – “one day I will know what I believe”)
  • and a set of devotional practices designed to get the Almighty on my side
  • and living a good moral life (or risking a terrible mess), then it is my contention that we have been directed firmly toward Content. The Relational Self would predict that Content-based spirituality would be unsatisfying and meaningless.

In their article entitled God as other, God as self, God as beyond, Robert Marsh and James Low (2006) have helpfully summarised the research which links self-esteem with God-image. They also explore the sense in which God is apprehended in multiple voices and multiple forms, not just according to early experience and Reciprocal Roles, but also according to time and culture.

The emphasis each historical period places on particular aspects of the divinity may reflect the social values, concerns, and ‘voices’ of the day. In medieval times, God was portrayed as a stern judge; these days the emphasis has been more on Jesus as a kind of divine social worker.
Marsh & Low 2006

As Marsh and Low also comment, it is outside of the remit of the therapist to go beyond the subjective and psychological to the realm of the God who is absolutely not bounded by Reciprocal Roles, and remains ‘Formless and infinite’. However, here I may be linking the two by suggesting that the Relational Self does indeed dialogue with that God at the level of Process. I am also suggesting that this dialogue is continuing, in some way, regardless of attention being paid to it. If this is the case, then there should emerge a Transformational Reciprocal Role as the Process is nurtured and meditated and lovingly engaged-with.

What is the result of engaging at the level of Process?

How might the new Reciprocal Role with God emerge through this interior Process? Teresa of Avila attempts to describe the end-point of her journey in The Interior Castle:

The goal of Teresa’s spiritual journey is expressed in terms of masculine and feminine...the spiritual marriage…The journey through the castle has resulted in a oneness with God and the emergence of the self. Rather than absorbing the human personality, the union with God has differentiated that personality and given it fullness of life…a return to the centre and the source of meaning.
Welch 1982

I hesitate to put words to this new Reciprocal Role which liberates from the limitations of the old one. Different people would be comfortable with different language, and St Teresa uses 16th Century erotic poetry, but I think it is clear that we are talking about the Relational Self at its most transcendent, where the other end of the relational pole is none other than the Living God in all his/her otherness, engaged fully in dialogue and creativity! This is why the Process implications of Carter Heyward’s passage spoke to me so profoundly. I end with something similar where Edwina Gateley’ describes a very new (feminist) God-image in her Poem (1993):

Deep in myself
I found my God
stirring in my guts,
my middle-aged bones,
stilling all my buts.
there where my spirit
had slumbered long,
numbed into a trance,
a moist, warm, salty God arose,
and beckoned me to Dance.

Gateley 1993

Mary Dunn


Barry & Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, Harper Collins, 1984
Bateson G (1966) “Problems in Cetacean and other Mammalian Communication” reprinted in Steps to an Ecology of Mind London; Paladin, 1973 pp334-348
Gateley, Edwina. A Warm, Moist, Salty God. Source Books. 1993
Marsh & Low, God as other, God as self, God as beyond: A Cognitive Analytic perspective on the relationship with God. Psychology and
Psychotherapy Research: Theory, Research and Practice. 2006
Melton, Jane. The Impact of Different Views of God in Therapy: Healing or Perpetuating the Split in the Split Egg. ACATNews Article. 1995
Progoff, Ira. At A Journal Workshop. Penguin-putnam. 1975, 1992
Tacey, David. The Spirituality Revolution. Routledge. 2004
Welch, John. Spiritual Pilgrims. Paulist Press. 1982

(3) For this analysis I am indebted to the Spiritual Direction Training course at Worth Abbey.

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Full Reference

Dunn, M., 2007. In the Beginning was the Conversation 'Process' Spirituality and CAT. Reformulation, Winter, pp.16-19.

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