Dream Academy

And you thought your degree was useless...

Even over the phone, Arnold Mindell is beguiling. Though we've never met, never even spoken before, he calls me by my first name 20 times in as many minutes. He sounds as though he's in the middle of many important and exciting projects, but has managed to put me at the top of his list. Quick to laugh, he is impressed by my questions, by the depth of understanding they convey; before hanging up, he tells me that he feels very encouraging toward me, that I should probably be writing books. And though I suspect that Arny would rather I were writing books than asking indelicate questions about his curious graduate school on Northwest Hoyt Street, I can't help but feel flattered.

At a time when corporate health plans cover acupuncture and First Ladies consult with astrologers, Mindell's freewheeling psychotherapy school, which trains students to interpret dreams and read body signals, may not raise many eyebrows. But this month, as the Process Work Center of Portland seeks state authorization to continue to offer a master's degree in a therapeutic subspecies it calls "Process Work," it has come under the microscope of the obscure state agency that's charged with defending academic integrity. In considering the PWCP's application, the Office of Degree Authorization is investigating some serious allegations: that the master's in Process Work is a meaningless degree aimed only at satisfying INS regulations, that student confidences shared in the privacy of therapy will be used as fodder for public discussion, and that the shortest route to a degree and diploma may be through a teacher's bedroom.

"This is by far the most serious collection of complaints that I've had in the two years that I've been here," says Alan Contreras, the one-man staff of the Office of Degree Authorization. A report commissioned by Contreras takes the PWCP to task on many points, offers a tawdry glimpse inside the world of a New Age academy, and may prompt some to wonder if there's a downside to Portland's embrace of fringe thinking.

Born in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1940, Arnold Mindell had earned three degrees by the age of 24, including a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He moved from MIT to Switzerland, where he studied at the C.G. Jung Institute in Kusnacht, receiving his analyst's diploma in 1970 and continuing on at the institute as a training analyst.

Described as an intensely charismatic man, Mindell was soon attracting students and clients to his own brand of psychotherapy, which he came to call Process Work. In 1979 he married one of those clients, Amy Kaplan, and in 1980 the Mindells opened the Process Oriented Psychology Center of Zurich.

With the publication of Mindell's book Dreambody in 1982, his teachings began to acquire a worldwide following in the field of holistic healing. Now the author of 15 books (published in 18 languages), he's a regular keynote speaker at international conferences on alternative therapy and conflict resolution.

In more traditional psychological circles, however, the Mindells and their brand of psychotherapy are almost unknown, even in the city where he has practiced for more than a decade. When contacted by WW, Muriel Lezak, a neuropsychologist at Oregon Health and Science University, had never heard of Process Work. Nor had her OHSU colleagues Harold Boverman, a professor of clinical psychiatry, or Loren Pankratz, a consultation psychologist. Pam Birrell, a clinical psychologist at University of Oregon, had heard of Process Work and, though reluctant to judge it by the little she'd seen, described it as "a very out-there offshoot."

Those who admire Mindell and have benefited from his teachings don't seem to care that his work sits squarely outside the academy. Richard Grimaldi, a family counselor practicing in Bend, received his master's in Process Work in 1998, and he considers the degree invaluable. "I learned to master various awareness practices, both in group settings and in terms of my own inner work," Grimaldi says. "I knew it was what my soul needed."

To the uninitiated, the term "Process Work" resists definition, and the jargon-filled language used by Mindell and his followers can be baffling. On its website, the PWCP describes Process Work as "a cross-disciplinary approach to individual and collective change," and says that it is rooted in Jungian psychology, Taoism and quantum physics. Mindell's own explanation is just as gauzy: "Process Work is an attempt to follow process," he says. "That means the outer signals of ourselves and others, as well as the less visible, subjective and dreamlike experiences of everyone."

The unconscious world looms extra-large in Mindell's brand of therapy. The course-book description of a PWCP class titled Life Is But a Dream: Exploring the Foundations of Process Work reads in part: "Process Work offers an awesome technology for noticing, entering and unfolding the dreaming process. Yet when we are working with others and ourselves, we often have trouble crossing the border into other worlds. We will work on developing our fluidity in crossing between consensus reality and the magical world of our dreaming process."

At advanced levels, Process Work takes off in even more divergent directions, including "worldwork," in which process-oriented therapy is brought to bear on ethnic and large-group conflict, and "comawork"--whereby a Certified Process Worker (for $120 per hour) will attempt to communicate with a comatose patient.

"Arny can establish communication using signals," says Katrina Wynne, a yoga instructor in Vancouver, Wash., and a former MPW student who has observed Mindell's comawork. "Signals can be eye movements, twitches. A signal can even be the flow of blood moving closer to the skin."

It is in this area, working with what Mindell calls "extreme states" (process workers also claim that their therapies can be of use to those suffering from chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and AIDS), that the techniques begin to resemble faith healing. Mindell is careful about the claims he makes--"We're not trying to heal people," he said in a 1990 interview--but some believe he's walking a dangerous line.

One disenchanted former student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was troubled by what he saw at workshops in which Process Work was used to help people suffering severe physical ailments.

"If you go to one of these workshops, you'll experience this intense psychodrama," says the former student. "I think it gives people the hope that they may be able to act out of their illness, and that can be risky, especially if you're chronically ill."

Standing outside the Process Work Center of Portland, you may not realize that you're steps away from the academic epicenter of such groundbreaking work. A modest, one-story former dental clinic, the PWCP looks like so many other medical office buildings in the Northwest neighborhood, where chiropractors and hypnotherapists rub elbows with acupuncturists and massage therapists.

According to Ingrid Rose, the administrator of the MPW program, the Mindells decided to leave Switzerland after Carl Jung appeared to Arnold in a dream and told him to it was time to return to the States. Portland was chosen as America's Zurich on the Willamette, and in 1990, the PWCP opened as a nonprofit corporation offering classes, seminars and clinics.

It's hard to gauge how many people consider themselves students of the PWCP. In a 1999 IRS filing, the center estimated its student body at 675. That number, however, includes everyone signed up for one-day seminars and five-day workshops. To receive the ambiguous "diploma" (which is also referred to as a "certificate") in Process Work, students study for years. In 1992, the school added the master's degree, which is meant, says faculty member Joe Goodbread, to serve as an academic marker of achievement en route to becoming a "Diplomate," the highest rung on the Process Work ladder. School officials estimate that there are "about 30" Diplomates, in the Portland area, 20 of whom serve as faculty of the MPW program. In the last nine years, 11 students--eight of them foreign nationals--have received the MPW, with nine more currently enrolled.

Rose, the MPW administrator, says the program lasts a minimum of four years, but that many students have taken longer. She estimates the MPW tuition at $8,000 per year and says that this figure includes all costs related to the program, including the required therapy. At least one former student, however, says that figure is misleading. To defray tuition costs, students often do clerical work--and sometimes housework--for faculty.

By all accounts, the Process Work community is a close-knit one. Mindell inspires devotion in many current and former students interviewed for this article. "He's at a different level of development," says Bend counselor Grimaldi. "He's a masterful artist with people and a unique soul."

In February of 2000, however, an anonymous letter alleging sordid and sundry shenanigans at the PWCP landed on Contreras' desk. The allegations, made by a former student, painted a bizarre picture of psychotherapy run amok. The complaint made three serious charges.

First, the letter claimed that students progress not by completing a course of study but by divining the unspoken requirements of the Mindells and their inner circle of Diplomates. Gaining access to this exclusive clique is key to academic advancement, the complaint alleged, and sex with higher-ups is a common path to success.

Second, the complainant alleged that the academic and therapeutic aspects of the program are so intertwined that violations of confidentiality are inevitable and create an atmosphere of paranoia and palace intrigue.

Finally, according to the complainant, the master's degree is professionally useless even within the Process Work community, its primary purpose being to provide INS protection to foreign students while they earn the much-coveted diploma, which is not a degree recognized by the INS.

Contreras recognized immediately that he was dealing with a special situation. He's used to making calls about offshore academies--"We've had a lot of trouble with St. Kitt's, for example"--and pursuing "graduates" of Internet-based diploma factories, his newest foes. "They're breeding faster than I can kill them," he says of these scams, many of which operate beyond his reach.

But no one is alleging that the PWCP is a diploma mill; to the contrary, students spend years in pursuit of a degree. And Contreras is the first to admit that he has no experience evaluating psychotherapy training academies, which contain all manner of differing approaches, theories and techniques. So he hired Paul Kohn, an independent consultant and court-appointed investigator, to look into the allegations of what his report called "certain programmatic and ethical issues."

The Office of Degree Authorization may not be the best-known state agency, but it has an ambitious mission: "To preserve the integrity of an academic degree as a public credential." It is a task Contreras takes very seriously.

If a school is regionally accredited (in Oregon, that means accreditation by the Northwest Association), its academic degrees are to be honored at face value. But all sorts of institutions, from foreign academies to very specialized schools, cannot get regional accreditation; that's where Contreras comes in. He runs unaccredited Oregon institutions through a 23-point checklist to make sure they're legit, and he sniffs out charlatan schools in other states that have "graduates" in Oregon. He loves his job. "There's a very definite sense of being able to do the work of goodness and light here," he says from his office in Eugene.

At Contreras' request, Kohn visited the school, interviewed students and faculty and reviewed the PWCP's own student handbooks. He concluded that some of the allegations were "substantially correct" and recommended further investigation before the master's program is reauthorized.

Kohn found that the school had changed its position regarding what, exactly, the MPW entitles its holder to do. In 1993, a graduate with an MPW was supposed to be able to use the degree in the role of a counselor. But the 2001 student handbook specifically prohibits MPW graduates from calling themselves Process-oriented therapists. That right belongs only to Diplomates, who are also called Certified Process Workers.

Kohn concluded that "the meaning and market-value of the MPW degree has been materially changed in such a way as to render it less meaningful." Noting that many PWCP students come from abroad, Kohn suggested that the degree may be little more than "a vehicle for foreign national Diploma Program Students to meet INS requirements in order to maintain U.S. residency." (In general, the INS allows foreign students to remain here while in pursuit of an academic degree.)

Kohn was unable to confirm that sex between students and teachers was related to academic success, but he did find that "romantic and intimate relationships between students and teachers are accepted without basic prohibition." In that regard, he noted, PWCP is way out of step with mental-health professional standards.

Given the small size of the Process Work community in Portland, Kohn reasoned that sleeping with a student is likely to mean sleeping with a current or former client, a practice expressly forbidden by established psychotherapy. Ethical codes enforced by professional psychological organizations discourage any sort of "dual relationship"--including business, professional or social relationships--from forming between therapist and client. Regarding sexual relationships with former clients, professional standards range from lifelong prohibition to the imposition of a two-year waiting period.

Though the PWCP recognizes the need for a waiting period, it is coy about specifics. The "Ethical Guidelines" the school lays down for process workers state, "We don't specify the length of the waiting period because we work out the details of these and any allied issues soon after the professional relationship has concluded rather than wait for several years." Kohn found this reasoning troubling, and concluded that the PWCP's standards are "unethical" and "potentially harmful."

Kohn also agreed with the complainant that Mindell's school fails to protect the confidentiality of its students while they are engaged in program-required therapy with their teachers. He didn't like the confusion of roles that occurs when faculty are seeing students on the couch as well as in the classroom, nor did he like the idea of a forum called "Diplomate Case Control," a group discussion led by Mindell in which Diplomates discuss issues they are encountering as therapists. "What happens to confidentiality when the student's therapist discloses to the student's supervisor, the therapist's therapist or the therapist's supervisor, confidential information about the student?" he wrote.

On a couple of points, the PWCP agreed with Kohn's findings. It promised, for example, to revise its consent forms so students understand that the school's therapist-client relationship is not as privileged as it is in private practice.

In other areas, however, the school and the state are still at an impasse. One has to do with students' ability to complete the MPW program. Contreras wants a clear sense from the PWCP of "what is supposed to be learned in a given course; how the material will be graded; and how it's possible to demonstrate that students are progressing through the program." Second, he wants to see some sort of time limit on the use of credits toward a master's degree.

This may prove difficult, as the PWCP uses criteria like "personal depth" when considering a student's fitness for a degree and seems loath to adhere to conventional timelines. "Since the evaluation process is also a dreaming process and does not depend on conscious efforts alone," the student handbook states, "the duration or even completion of the process cannot be predicted."

Likewise, the sex issue is also a sticking point. Faculty member Goodbread says the blanket prohibition against dual relationships "is artificial and unenforceable; it never works in practice, and it sets a bad model for how people interact with each other."

Mindell, too, seems reluctant to set strict guidelines. "In my opinion," Mindell told WW, "a more standard rule will not repress the natural human tendency towards multiple roles in relationships."

But that's just the tendency that has to be repressed, say many in the field. Jason Reynolds, a Northwest neighbor who hosted a French PWCP student two years ago, was appalled by what he saw going on at the school. "Everyone was having sex with everyone else, and some people were being persecuted and traumatized," says Reynolds, who has a background in professional mental health. "There was no sense of boundaries, no sense of professionalism." And Mindell, he continues, "was invested with almost godlike importance."

Whether shaman or charlatan, Mindell and his theories will certainly continue to attract adherents as more people turn to unorthodox therapies and holistic healing.

What's less clear is whether the PWCP will be allowed to continue to offer a master's degree, though Contreras insists that he remains open to the idea. "Unusualness is not a crime," he says, "and I have been willing to authorize some unusual and distinctive programs." As examples, he points to the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, the Western Culinary Institute and Birthingway, a midwifery school he recently authorized to grant a bachelor's degree.

In fact, Contreras is proud of Oregon's "extraordinary variety of approved programs." But he stands vigilantly atop the ramparts of the ivory tower when it comes to academic titles. "For me, this is not a complicated issue," he says. "If you're going to use degrees, and you want those degrees to mean something, society has an obligation to do the kind of enforcement that I do."

While such notions may seem quaint in the age of "distance-based" learning and "virtual classrooms," at least one of Mindell's former students wishes that Contreras had started poking around earlier.

"It's a free country, and people can participate in whatever they want," says the student. "But it seems that you can end up six or eight years down the road thinking, 'God, I spent a lot of money and got really confused, and what good was it?'"

There are other alternative therapy schools offering advanced degrees. Naropa University, in Boulder, Colo., is an accredited institution offering an M.A. in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology. At San Francisco's Institute for Integral Studies, one can earn a Ph.D. in Transformative Learning and Change.

In Europe, Process Work is known as Process Oriented Psychology. To get a sense of the Mindell's presence overseas, check out www.rspopuk.com .

In addition to the Process Work Center of Portland, the Mindells also are affiliated with the Global Process Institute (which lists the same address). It offers seminars using Process Work to resolve ethnic and global conflict.

The Palestinian- Israeli conflict is cited as a situation sorely in need of some Process Work.

Alan Contreras has come across all sorts of dodgy institutions, including Columbia Commonwealth, in Montana, which claims to be accredited by the nation of Malawi.

In Oregon, use of a bogus diploma is considered both fraud and a misdemeanor.

DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME: In the description of a class titled "Shamanism and Chronic Symptoms: Tunneling Methods," Arnold Mindell warns that the class "involves prolonged altered states and is not appropriate for anyone in need of sustained assistance with these states."

In Oregon, anyone can call himself a "counselor" or a "therapist." The Oregon Revised Statutes (675.020) prohibit the use of "psychology," "psychological," "psychotherapy" or "psychologist" in the title or description of anyone not licensed by the Oregon State Board of Psychologist Examiners.

Neither of the Mindells is licensed in Oregon.

For a full listing of PWCP class offerings, go to the school's home page: www.processwork.org .