Deep Democracy: The Cutting Edge of Conflict Resolution with Arny and Amy Mindell

Photo of Arny and Amy Mindell
Arny and Amy Mindell

“Know what you’re doing and do it!”  —Arnold Mindell

By Cat Saunders

Arny and Amy Mindell travel throughout the world facilitating seminars about Process Oriented Psychology. Arny is the author of several books, including Dreambody, River’s Way, City Shadows, Working on Yourself Alone, Coma, and The Shaman’s Body.

In addition to his work as a writer, Arny is an analyst in private practice. He is the cofounder of the Center for Process Oriented Psychology (Zurich and Portland), and a former resident teacher at Esalen Institute. His wife, Amy Mindell, is a therapist best known for her work in the areas of dance and philosophy. With Arny, she co-authored the book, Riding the Horse Backwards.

As a longtime of process work, I knew I wanted to interview the Mindells. It took two years of occasional but persistent requests to get them to stop long enough to do an interview. It was worth the wait.

When my partner, John Giovine, and I arrived at their Portland home, Amy greeted us at the door as if we were old friends. Both John and I were deeply touched by their warmth, humor, and compassion. It was delightful to be in the presence of two people with such passionate devotion to exploring the mystery of life.

In this interview, I spoke with the Mindells about Arny’s book, The Leader as Martial Artist: An Introduction to Deep Democracy (HarperSanFrancisco).

Cat: In your book, you introduce the concept of “timespirits.” How did you come up with that idea?

Arny: Timespirit ideas arose from our work as conflict and town meeting facilitators for organizations. The idea comes from three influences, one of which is indigenous thinking. All over the world, indigenous people understand that the “field” of their community is populated not only by people. It is also inhabited by ghosts and spirits. They talk to these spirits and work with them all the time.

Indigenous people understand that these spirits sometimes get into people. So people are seen as being partially representative of these spirits. In other words, the feelings we have do belong to us as individuals. Yet at the same time, they may be connected to spirits in the field.

Another aspect of the timespirit idea comes from practical work with today’s conflict situations. People in groups may find that when they are in a conflict, they may feel certain things. But they don’t feel only one particular thing. For example, a woman in a group may experience feelings related to her own position. But part of her may also identify with some of the things her opponent is saying.

If you can accept that these different positions are just timespirits “floating around” in the room, you may feel freer to let yourself have more than one feeling at a time. Obviously, it facilitates conflict work if people can be supported to participate in both—or many—sides of a difficult situation.

A third idea that contributes to the concept of timespirit is the German word “zeitgeist.” Directly translated, “zeit” means time and “geist” means spirit. So more specifically, “zeitgeist” means “spirit of the times.” For example, New Age concepts are a spirit of the times, just like democracy and communism are also spirits of the times.

Cat: It sounds like the timespirit concept can help people shift more fluidly between viewpoints, instead of getting stuck in one position. What happens when you work with groups where there is massive denial? What happens when no one even acknowledges that there are any other valid viewpoints?

Arny: Every group is in denial of things which don’t go along with its vision. Every group has a vision—whether they identify with it or not—and they deny everything in themselves that doesn’t go along with that vision. For example, the United States has the vision of democracy, among other things.

One of the things the United States denies is the Preamble to the Constitution, which talks about King George. King George was the bad guy, the English tyrant against whom the United States fought. One thing the United States denies is King George in the United States! In other words, our tendency to colonize the world is denied.

So we start with groups by celebrating their vision. We encourage them by saying, “Your vision is a great vision! Having the vision of democracy, you want to be open to every part of yourselves, including the tyrant!”

Cat: You sneak in the door.

Arny: Yes. You start with people’s consciousness before you work with their unconscious.

Cat: In The Leader as Martial Artist, you mention working with a group of a couple hundred people in San Francisco. They got really hot and started arguing intensely. At some point, you encouraged them to feel free to hurt each other.

Amy: That was the workshop we did right before the Gulf War. We simply encouraged people to follow what was happening.

Arny: Yes. If you’re not going to listen and be peaceful like your vision says, if you’re all really angry and miserable, then go ahead and kill each other. Know what you’re doing and do it! But when we said this, people got shocked. They didn’t realize what they were doing! That’s the awareness business.

After that, they said, “Oh, we don’t want to do that!” And I said, “Well, okay, then, I thought you did!”

Cat: You took the voice of their anger, and made it even louder, more visible.

Arny: That’s right. It’s process work. Whatever’s happening is the key. It’s so simple. It’s just hard to keep awake. I can’t always do it, and Amy can’t always do it.

Amy: It can be surprising. Sometimes being in a group can make you go into an altered state. To see what is actually happening and bring it out can be very difficult.

Cat: What about when it’s really scary? How about that situation you describe in your book? You asked people to consider what they would do if they were trapped on an airplane with a terrorist. What would you do?

Arny: I would say that I really understand. I would say, “You’re not a terrorist. You’re a freedom fighter! You’re fighting for something that is terribly important to you. Everyone you know in your family has probably been killed by people you’re angry with. The one thing you can think of now is to kill everybody. You’re so full of vengeance. Vengeance is such a pleasure!”

We worked with a terrorist group in Belfast. This kind of work has an immense effect on people—even terrorists who are out to kill people. If you sit there like a typical American who doesn’t like conflict, who thinks terrorists are just crazy, they’ll shoot you, too!

Instead, you can say you understand vengeance. After all, everybody’s had relationships. Vengeance isn’t so far away! Terrorism is not the least bit far away from anybody.

When we talked with the terrorists like this, they started talking, and they started crying. They helped us learn a lot about the spirit of the times. If the spirit is vengeance, there is no religion on earth that can work its way through vengeance by sitting there and saying that vengeance is wrong. Vengeance is just another spirit that needs to be worked with.

Amy: Yes. No one ever listens to terrorists, so when they are finally heard, the process begins to change. They begin to wonder if there is something else they can do. They begin to wonder if there’s something more useful they could do to make the world a better place.

Cat: That’s incredible. Arny, I love this statement from The Leader as Martial Artist: “Harmony is a beautiful state, but it is not nearly as powerful as awareness.”

Arny: Resolution is a momentary state. But it’s such a pleasant state that everybody gets attracted to it—like and addiction—and they hold onto it. Harmony is good, but it lasts only a short time. Harmony is short-lived because everybody is always changing and growing. Awareness is a much more interesting thing, because life is wild!

Life is a wild flux of changing identities. There’s nothing new in that, but putting it into practice is different than just saying it. You need a lot of awareness and courage to pick up new ideas that other people—or you—don’t want to think about.

I don’t think anybody really wants harmony. They’re just afraid of leaving it! Besides, when people hang on to harmony too long, what’s repressed is diversity. It’s not only different ideas that are repressed. So-called harmony also represses any groups that aren’t mainstream in a given culture. In our culture, what’s repressed is poverty, the blacks, the Hispanics, the gays and lesbians, different religions. All these people are repressed under this harmony idea.

Cat: You’ve said that minorities hold the key to the future.

Arny: The minority positions—the non-mainstream positions—are the teachers. The minority positions are the teachers because they bring up things the mainstream doesn’t want to consider. People say, “Well, you’ve forgotten the blacks. Or, listen, you’re in a man-woman relationship! You guys forgot that. You think you’re everything!”

Minority positions are helping people in the “harmonious” mainstream to awaken. The mainstream should look for its great teachers in the minority groups. Our great teachers are real people, suffering difficulties, bringing up parts that we have repressed. These repressed parts are not only in the outer world, but in ourselves as well.

One of the reasons that blacks are having such a difficult time is not just because blacks have been so severely repressed. It’s also because whites repress their own “blackness”—their own energy, their own “color.” And they refuse to notice difference and trouble!

Cat: You mentioned that you feel a lot of psychological communities are racist and sexist if they are just doing inner work. Would you elaborate?

Arny: Yes. They’re racist if they don’t encourage or deal directly with diversity. Mainstream psychological circles may experiment with diversity. But when they do, they don’t really have people talk to one another or argue with one another. Typically, white groups don’t like anger, so they don’t know how to deal with conflict very well. Psychological and spiritual groups that put down anger need to grow.

A lot of psychological circles also tend to be sexist. For example, they may say that women who have opinions of their own are in the animus. That’s a sexist attitude. Also, classical, analytical psychological circles have looked at gays and lesbians as being neurotic. I don’t know what to say about that idea. It’s not only sexist, it’s outdated.

There’s another problem with mainstream groups that focus only on inner work. That is, they typically don’t have anything to do with global matters. They may idealize things. Or they may write critical books about the world situation and about how everyone ought to be different. But they rarely go out and sit in the difficulties.

I would like to make a challenge to all of these psychological and spiritual people who have their hearts in the right spot. I’d challenge them to experiment with going into difficult conflict-like situations in their families or in the world around them, and from that position, see if they can put their beliefs into practice.

I would ask them not to avoid conflict situations by retreating to ashrams and psychological circles, or to little modem shamanic circles where things are more or less agreed upon in advance. Instead, go out where it’s really difficult and see if you can practice psychology, see if you can practice shamanism, see if you can practice Buddhism. That’s where we need the help!

This interview was originally published in The New Times (August 1994) and updated in October 2016.

Arnold Mindell, Ph.D., and Amy Mindell, Ph.D., may be contacted via their website at

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).