What is Process Work

Written by Sushanta Banerjee on invitation by the Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Sciences for their Silver Jubilee commemorative volume, May 1997



I am often accosted with the questions:
Are you a therapist?  A counsellor?  A Psychoanalyst?
As well as the questions:
What is Process Work? Is it Psychology?, Group Therapy?, Group Counselling?, Philosophy?, Management?

And then of course I dread encounters with the scholars in the formal well-established disciplines of the social sciences, including philosophers. I envy their ease of stating a pedigree, “post modernist”, “deconstructionist”, “logical positivist”, etc., etc. What pedigree does a process worker give? Especially those of us who have grown with it in India? “ISABS ian”, “ISISD ist” or now “Sumedhasian” or what? The scholar of psychology or sociology who holds membership in well-recognised groups, does not have to explain his profession and appears to have the luxury of a shared language and conceptual frames. Universities recognise them and the different paradigm groups interact with one another. On the other hand a Process Worker is a diffused identity, not easily recognised. Most family members of Process Workers do not understand what he does and he is constantly under the threat of being given a familiar substitute label “Shrink”, “Shaman”, “Management Expert”, Social Worker” etc. In short scholars and practitioners from the classical fields have legitimate “identity cards”, as it were, but the Process Worker is somewhat adrift when it comes to a legitimate paradigm for his professional and social identity.

My experience on the other hand shows that Process Work can trigger off rejuvenation in organisations and institutions, self-renewal for individuals, helps people change or redesign their lives into more healthy patterns, facilitate teaching and learning, facilitate and review, faith commitment and spirituality, and indeed actively explore the metaphysical realm which otherwise has been the domain of a select few.

So where do we stand? ”Experiential learning” has for long been a fairly effective banner protecting me from the onslaught of the questions. Of late, even this became unsatisfactory to me. It seemed to mystify and effectively anaesthetised my questioners, but I knew their questions had not been answered, they had only been given “a straight defensive bat”.

In this paper I have made an attempt to state the universe of the Process Worker’s identity and his calling. It is founded on the subjective and is the result of over two decades of dedicated application in diverse spheres.

Many writers have put down their experiences and generated concepts from their experiences. I do not mind joining the line and making my statement as well, attempting to respond to six questions, “Who are we? and “What is Process Work?”. Willy nilly, I also feel constrained to respond to the associated questions, “Where does Process Work come from?”, “What is the purpose of Process Work”, “Why does the world have it?” and “Where is it likely to go?”.

The nature of this presentation, in the Sumedhas tradition, a paradigm of Process Work  I prefer to “belong”, to, is to conceptualise from the subjective, go from the micro to the macro, and use pattern identification and recognition as the dominant epistemological tool. The presentation does not attempt to establish any cause-effect dynamics, it follows the eastern definition that the world of human experience is inherently, necessarily and as a matter of fact, subjective. It further founds itself on the philosophical stand that reality is not only that which is manifest but also includes in heavy measure the unmanifest. It is not intended to proffer any prescriptions nor does it actively avoid making statements that may appear prescriptive.

Where does Process Work come from?

The origins and antecedents of Process Work in the Western tradition have been chronicled extensively in the literature. It began with group therapy for war ravaged soldiers (1) and went on to find applications in the management sciences and other fields. Being founded on a therapeutic approach it brought in the assumptions and frames of therapy. The main purpose of psychotherapy is to return the patient to normal functioning in the society, it relies on a process of re-education such that the necessity of symptom formation is abolished (11). In a way it assumes a “drop” from “normal” levels and sees its work as a means to restore to “normal” levels. The frame is medical in nature, of a malady-remedy kind. Secondly, its prime goal is to enhance effectiveness and remove dysfunctionality. In a way it values instrumentality as a fundamentally desirable characteristic. In actual practice the Western tradition also took seminal contributions from several developments such as the work of Carl  Rogers etc. This was necessitated by the fact that the users of Process Work usually did not consist of “patients “ in a clinical sense.

The Eastern tradition draws its identity from two streams. One is an ancient stream of using metaphorical processes for stimulating discovery. This stream focused on self-discovery (2) as the main goal in contra-distinction to the assumptions and goals of therapy which so characterised the western tradition. This ancient stream is most clearly manifest in the yogic and sankhya traditions which were mainly focused on discovery, definition and formulations on the nature of man, the nature of phenomena and the nature of the universe (12). Enquiry was its main purpose and self-reflexivity, both individual and collective, its prime value. The use of groups, however, was not an essential ingredient of the work.

The first contemporary Indian school of process work is what began with the application of Process Work to train leaders in Community Development work at Aloka in the 1950’s (9). Here Process Work was used in a primarily instrumental function, it was a means to an end. Techniques and approaches developed in the Harvard Business School formed the foundation of the Aloka experience. Shortly thereafter the Tavistock processes were also brought in. The Ahmedabad Textiles Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) was a major focal point in bringing the formal Western tradition to India. The Indian Institute of Management at Calcutta thereafter institutionalised Process Work by integrating it with the formal curriculum. Western traditions have been represented in India largely by the American school that too primarily the Human Relations stream. European traditions such as Psychodrama (Moreno) and the Tavistock  pattern did not receive as visible and firm a footing as the Human Relations tradition. The Indian Society for applied Behavioural Sciences (ISABS) provided the base for the Human Relations pattern.

A second contemporary sub-stream as it were, through the founding of the Indian Society for Individual and Social Development (ISISD) in 1978, is a major step towards integrating the ancient tradition from Sankhya and Yoga with the western approach of using groups. This tradition makes free use of Sankhya and Yoga insights and perspectives as well as knowledge and insights from the formal social sciences, drama and literature, attempting to hold together (6) the tradition of generating understanding about the nature of man and his collectivity as well as the western leaning towards using process work for instrumental purposes such as managerial effectiveness, leadership development, self-renewal etc. Sumedhas,founded in 1996 carried forward the paradigm that had evolved in ISISD.

I do not wish to chronicle the history of Process Work in India as that would be an altogether different kind of effort, very welcome, it would be perhaps very revealing too. Suffice it to say, however, that the unfolding of Process Work in India has been person centred and led by giants who struggled and made pioneering efforts in the last three decades. In spirit, like in almost all spheres of endeavour in the country there are two clear streams contributing to Process Work in India, the Eastern tradition centred on enquiry and self-discovery leading to new definitions of man and his reality, and, the Western tradition of using knowledge and insight of the social sciences and applying them to enhance the functioning of individuals, groups, communities and organisations. The two streams are neither inimical nor exclusive. The contribution of each is highly significant. I believe the different schools active today are distinguished by the relative focus they give to these two streams of influence, that they are in their own ways, sustaining each other is quite certain.

Both the Eastern and the Western traditions are an incremental movement. The ancient Eastern tradition in its original form was limited in its utilisation to those dedicated to orthodox academia or spiritual pursuits. These people then offered their wisdom in diverse settings as gurus or healers. The Western tradition was limited to a medical format for use by those in need of the healing. What has sprung from both the origins is a step to bring the knowledge and the wisdom for use in more mundane aspects of living such as organisations or to put it another way for the “householder” (grihastha) rather than only the ascetic. The “pure” disciplines (e.g. Yoga in the East and Therapy in the West) in their orthodox forms are not central players but a directly usable form in action is available. A second bold step essential to and characteristic of Process Work is the use of groups rather than the classical dyadic settings.

The underlying need evidently in the Eastern as well as Western traditions of Process Work is to contribute to the “good health” of emergent processes, and well being of individuals (as opposed to happiness).  In his seminal work Pulin Garg  brought in the concept of returning to what he called the “experienced reality” rather than be governed by the “constructed reality” and used Process Work as a means of returning to the experienced reality(4), likewise Moreno in the West talked of modern times forcing individual spontaneity into an obsolete concept and put forth his Psychodrama as a means of restoring it(10).

Where has this left Process Work and the Process Worker’s identity?

Process Work has not emerged as an independent body of knowledge. It is eclectic, drawing from psychology, sociology, philosophy, poetry, drama and many other fields. Yet it has acquired a distinctiveness by the dint of the fact that it has an inherent commitment to action. Perhaps it is at a stage of a major paradigm shift. It is not a field founded on knowledge but is founded on the experience of emergent reality and is centred on action for learning so that in turn it can lead to new action. I would put its relation to the classical disciplines, much in the same way as catastrophe theory is related simultaneously to physics and mathematics. Catastrophe theory attempts to explore, study and define (let us say in optics) the behaviour of light as it occurs in nature. Sounds simple but, is totally confounding when we find that light in nature is far more complex in its behaviour than the elegant line diagrams in the high school physics books where we studied how light is manipulated by lenses and mirrors, not the behaviour of light as it occurs in nature.

This has also created a problem. There is a paucity of direct literature in Process Work. It cannot be “taught” and unlike medical or legal practice, its boundaries remain diffused. It also carries along charlatanism in the shape of technique centred group work whose philosophical antecedents are dubious and very limited.

The nature of Process Work and its present stage of evolution has a second vulnerability. Being centred in subjectivity it demands a high rate of upgradation and emotional growth from its practitioners. This often becomes a burden that the practitioner finds too heavy. He cannot enjoy a status of having “arrived”.

What is Process Work?

Perhaps the time has come to attempt a formal definition of Process Work. I make such an attempt here from my own experience. I have tried, in the following to distinguish it from its many “look alikes” and the classical disciplines of psychology, psychoanalysis, therapy and social work. The attempt as yet is descriptive rather than definitive. Perhaps a “hard” definition will pull it into orthodox frames and as such a descriptive mode is nearer to the reality.

Process Work is a tripodal body of knowledge, philosophy and praxis aimed at enhancing the well-being of individuals and their collectivities simultaneously. It is characterised by the use of groups, man’s inherent need to enquire into his condition and existence and is firmly committed to action for learning that will lead to further action.

The three legs of the tripod are:


The prime ingredient is provided by man’s inherent need to be self-reflexive, i.e. raise questions about the nature and unfolding of his own existence, its meaning, purpose, origin, destinations, relatedness and unfolding. This quality of self-reflexivity also inevitably drives man to critique, review and examine the human condition.


Process Work’s most distinguishing feature is its use of groups as the elemental unit of study. However, since the group and its members study themselves a whole universe of dynamics and experience is generated wherein the classical divide of subject and object is dissolved.

Commitment to action for learning:

Process Work has a firm commitment to action. It recognises, acknowledges, invites and examines action. Without action Process Work is sterile since then one of the essential elements of its existence is removed. Generating knowledge or insights is not enough, these must lead to action, not as in compliance but as in closing the Gestalt and creating a new whole.

In more detail:


It is our firm belief that human beings have an innate need to enquire into their existence as well as into their condition. Man is the only being endowed with the capability of being self-reflexive. He can reflect upon himself and use it to make new choices. He can study his own condition and indeed conceive of new conditions to work towards. All rebellions, revolts and significant changes in history have been triggered off by these qualities. Buddha, Christ and the other prophets are the most prominent examples but in less visible form with equal drama in his existential world each of us keeps encountering this self-reflexivity in ourselves.  It is this universe of self reflexivity, manifesting itself as a critique which gives rise to visions and dreams of a better future.

Process Work is also a means to fostering self-reflexivity of another order. In its essential form man’s self-reflexivity raises five questions that have no definite “objective” answers. Evidence shows that these questions have been alive since as long as we can trace our history.  The questions are:

·  Who am I?

·  Where do I come from?

·  What is the meaning of life?

·  What is the purpose of this world?

·  Where do I go from here?

In not yielding definite answers these questions further stimulate the self-reflexivity from where they spring. They connect the questioner to macro issues of existence itself. They also reinforce the connectedness of man with a purpose higher than mere survival. The process of this self-reflexivity leads to expression and evocation, crystallising the universe of aesthetics, mysticism and philosophies, in their myriad micro forms in the unfolding of the being.


The most distinguishing feature of Process Work is its use of groups. The group is the temporal “here and now”  context of each individual.  In the group setting each member is taken as a part spokesperson, voice and alter-ego of the group, and vice versa.

The group, existentially is a major source of learning to each member, as it provides a mirror for each participant. An operating statement that Process Workers often use is “each member of the group is a resource, the appointed anchor-persons are not the only resources here”. Participants are encouraged to learn from each other as this creates a context to also contain the anxieties that arise in the process of shifting locations inherent to the process of growth. The group also provides the security of relatedness to each participant, as it, through identification across members, reduces the inhibitions engendered by shame and loneliness.

Each issue raised in the group finds resonating echoes so that the universe of the phenomenon it crystallises becomes the object of attention as opposed to the person who raised it. In this way the issue gets broadened and also gains in depth. The group thus acts as a telescope and microscope at the same time.

Finally by its diversity the group provides each participant, through evocation and provocation a set of symbols of his past, present and future personal context. The group thus permits, to a great extent a re-creation of the world of each member and provides him with a temporary location to look at his own world and self from the “outside” and a distance such that a new examination, review and choice-making can occur.

The world of therapy also directs itself in the same fashion. It, however, does not necessarily rely on groups but uses its own techniques for stimulating psychological movement. The creation of an alternate perspective, however, is difficult to generate in the therapeutic encounter whereas Process Work is more likely to achieve a reconstruction not only of the emotive world but also the value frame, action choices and interpretative frames of the participant, by his own volition and with his own choices.

Commitment To Action:

The third leg of the tripod on which rests Process Work is its commitment to action. Action is one of the invariably present elements in all transactions and proceedings. The underlying value is to generate action for learning in the here and now, which in turn is likely to open perspectives and avenues for new action, both in the here and now of the group and thereafter in the life of the member.

Action can be at two levels. Action in the phenomenal world and action within the identity. These two are not exclusive and are likely to occur together.

Action in the phenomenal world is generated when the person has reviewed his own reality of relationships, power distributions and resource sharing.   Characteristically this occurs with an examination of issues of deprivations, discriminations and denials(5).  Associated with this are issues of self worth, autonomy, role taking and space.  Action in this sphere is in the nature of redesign of relationships, roles, boundaries, authority patterns and responsibility distribution.

Action within the identity is in the nature of recalibration that take place in the self-self relatedness.  While action in the phenomenal space as well as in the intra-identity plane are likely to be simultaneous, their respective universes are distinct.  Intra-identity phenomena can be seen to operate in a field, within this field lie the self in several modes.  Much as in a drama, these modes are distinct “rupas” of the self, each real, active and unfolding.  Action in this universe is to find a new drama with new scripts for the unfolding of the rupas which tend to remain unchanged in spite of stresses.  Action in this sphere is to find new volition rather than stay within frozen choices of the past, to create new relationships between the different rupas, may be to bid good-bye to some and create new rupas.

In responding to the question “what is process work”?  it becomes abundantly clear that to try and define process work is to try and describe music, art or poetry.  Perhaps no definition will be exhaustive enough for the complexity, richness and unexpectedness so inherent to it.  Its multifaceted-ness can never be fully captured in a definition.   It may be more apt to define it and then put in the clause that no definition of process work can be complete.


We began with six questions:

·  Where does process work come from?

·  What is process work?

·  Who are we?

·  What is the purpose of process work?

·  Why does the world have it?

·  Where is it likely to go?

I have shared here, the responses alive with me, to the first two questions. The third question I believe would require two kinds of responses.  A collection of subjective responses from many of us as well as a study of what kind of people take up process work as a primary calling, the most ambivalent in society, the most disenchanted or the most disillusioned?

The purpose of process work is to create space for a visit to the inner world of human existence and phenomena with a view to taking one step closer to the truth.  The truth not as an objective entity lying “somewhere” but the truth as it lies within each of us that keeps us human in spite of much that is destructive, undignifying and demeaning.  The truth as in the truth of the human spirit and its infinite resilience, creativity and its magic, the very magic that keeps turning pathos into creation, cacophony into music, indifference to love, and human to divine.   Here there is no need to conquer or overcome but to recognise, acknowledge and take the next step, individually and together.

For as long as history will tell man has devised different ways, with varying degrees of efficacy, to do just this.  To visit the inner realms of the mind at an individual and at the collective level.  Process work is a later day innovation with the possibility for more people to visit the inner world, together and with a new discipline.

In a sense the process worker, in his wholeness (as nearly as that may be possible) is a shaman, a management expert, a mystic and a practical problem solver.  A householder and an ascetic, and as such forever in turmoil.  Perhaps rightfully the world looks askance at him and keeps reaching out to him in ambivalence and in value.

Having revoked the classical “scientific” approach of being “objective” students of the subjective world namely the process worker, is as much a recipient of his process work as those that become members in the groups where he works.  He is as much “in process” as the “participant”.   It is perhaps his surrender to the human processes and his undying spirit to rise and learn from it that makes him human.

In this the last few years of this century, it is very encouraging to note the emergence of new areas of enquiry that integrate and collage diverse disciplines to explore phenomena as they are.   To study and become one with as many facets of the universe as possible.   Fritjof Capra’s “Turning Point”(3) clearly notes and describes this.  Perhaps man has reached that threshold where the “pragmatic” and the “imaginative” can come together to weave a pattern that is closer to the “as is” world rather than keep creating “as if” worlds and crown himself the conqueror.

Perhaps process work is one of the newborns that, in struggling to find and create its own identity will strike a blow for this move of man.   Perhaps the ambivalence and the diffuseness is an invitation for process workers to find ways to the at-one-ment with the secrets and mysteries of human existence.  Not for the sake of knowing but for the sake of being at one with the universe.


The dramatic expansion of available knowledge as well as an  explosion in the knowledge base itself, particularly in all the sciences is a characteristic feature of the post European Enlightenment days.  Founded on a firm belief in objectivity spearheaded by the explosion of knowledge in the physical sciences it gave rise to a pattern in which parametric assumptions were made in order to ease the building up of the knowledge base.  So Newtonian physics for instance in its epochal study of the laws of mechanics made the parametric assumption of “no friction”.  If that was not assumed the laws did not work quite as fully.   It was necessary to make the assumption so that the laws could emerge in clear focus.  Nature in reality, however, did not follow the parametric assumptions.   Thus it looked random and chaotic in the main.  “whether nature is  essentially complex (that is, irregular and random) or “essentially” simple (that is Euclidean and ordered) is in some sense an “artificial dichotomy”(8).

The crisis facing man today is not so much the wars, pestilence, population or even ecology.  The crisis is man’s status in his own eyes and psyche.  A paper cut god-hood has certainly emerged where man can create, in many ways as the Bible says God did.  You press a switch and light is there. At the same time man has never been confronted with the dehumanising agony of meaninglessness and valuelessness so intensely as today.  The eye of knowledge has largely been turned outward to the material and phenomenal world leaving the inner world to fend for itself.  Healers and healing of bruised souls are flourishing.  Our education processes teach our children a great deal of “things” but little about themselves.  Perhaps the urgent need is to turn the gaze also inward rather than continue to pay the price of the European post renaissance(7) frame of “objectivity”.  Will man restore himself to his rightful place or will he keep striving to reach god-hood and in the process destroy humanness.

“In such a period, original innovations have not come from the official carriers of religion, science, or legitimate governments, but from outsiders”(10).

Process work it seems to me is that outsider, that body of insights which takes upon itself to study the world of man as it is, to arrive at a world that “ought to be” rather than evaluate the present reality with old frames permeated with parametric assumptions, in the full knowledge that the world it conceives too may go into disorder.  Remaining engaged with the process of the study, of the evocation, of the action is process work. Perhaps that is where it is headed.


  1. Bion, W.R.  Experiences in Groups.  Tavistock, London, 1955.
  2. Campbell, Joseph.  Myths to Live By. Souvenir Press (A Condor Book) London. 1995
  3. Capra, Fritjof,  Turning Point.  Bantam Books N. York. 1988
  4. Garg, P. K.  Identity in Crisis , A Study of the Berkeley Phenomenon (unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation) University of California, Berkeley. 1965
  5. Garg, P.K.   Themes in Personal Growth  (unpublished manuscript). Indian Society for Individual & Social Development, Ahmedabad. 1981
  6. Garg, P.K.  Aphorisms of Process Work (unpublished manuscript). Indian Society for Individual & Social Development, Ahmedabad. 1995
  7. Gregorios,  Fr. Paulos Mar; “Who Are We in Bharatvarsha ?”  in The Eye, Vol. IV, No.1 & 2. Nov. 96 ,  a SPIC-MACAY Publication, New Delhi.
  8. Hastings, Harold H. & Sugihara, George.  Fractals: A User’s Guide  for the Natural Science.   Oxford University Press. N.Y. 1993
  9. Lynton R. P.   The Tide of Learning; The Aloka Experience. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. 1960
  10. Moreno J. L.  Psychodrama: Action Therapy & Principles of  Practise; Third Volume. Beacon House, Beacon, N.Y. 1975
  11. Weiss, E. & English, O. Spurgeon . Psychosomatic Medicine. W.D. Saunders Co,London,1957
  12. Yogananda Paramahansa .  Autobiography of a Yogi. Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai. 1975

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