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It is impossible to imagine a self that does not include the warming light of the sun, the wind, or animal and plant life. There is a boundary between the self and the other, and this boundary is the essence of psychology. It is something that is always, always moving.
There is always something either coming into the foreground or receding. But we always meet. There is awareness. There is experience. Perls, Philippson describes the permeability of this boundary: In my image, which comes from Gestalt Therapy, the boundary is a process that separates two areas using spatial language for what is not just a spatial process so that the activity on one side is qualitatively different to that on the other side. The boundary both maintains the separation, and allows interchange between the two processes which are therefore really only one process. The boundary thus creates the regions, rather than, like [a] wall, marking pre-existing regions.
But the cut is far less important than the recognition of uncertainty about making the cut at all. This uncertainty opens the mind to wonder again, allowing fresh considerations to enter the therapeutic equation. Hillman, , p. Therefore a place or landscape could be sad by its expressive formal gestalt and not because feelings were projected on to it Hillman, , p. Our theory acknowledges complexity and in principle already reaches beyond the anthropocentric paradigm. This is implicit, but not explicitly explored in our theory and our practice. Hillman suggests that: … perhaps killing weeds on my lawn with herbicides may be as repressive as what I am doing with my childhood memories.
Perhaps the abuses I have unconsciously suffered in my deep interior subjectivity pale in comparison with the abuses going on around me every minute in my ecological surroundings, abuses that I myself commit or comply with. Hillman suggests that the most radical intervention in psychotherapy would be a theory that replaces the individual with the world and that sees treatment of the inner requiring attention to be placed on the outer. This would be a departure from anthropocentrism and a decisive move towards a polycentrist view of life.
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Our belonging in this web, and the wellbeing and care for this web, become the primary concern and command the greatest loyalty. I believe that as Gestalt therapists, we already have a wide-ranging theory that allows us to widen our perspective of how self and other intertwine. How does the practical application of this widest aspect of our theory of self impact on our interventions and our response-ability in the work with clients?
How may our theory of self inform other parts of the larger system in useful ways? Privatisation and ownership We are big on ownership in our culture and are taught to find comfort and identity in what we possess and consume. Even the natural world has become a commodity ready to be used for our benefit. Land is property, real estate, capital, recreation ground or natural resource. We try to possess everything as private property, including ideas, feelings, dreams or what goes on in our own psyches. In doing so our language has a norm of acquisition that separates us from the field context in which a particular feeling emerged.
Once we own an idea, we can then extract the maximum potential from it, as if we were eternally hungry for something. But maybe life calls us to serve something larger than our own individual needs. We have forgotten to think as a village or a commons. We do not know anymore how to relativise the self in service of community. Our hegemonic ideology has isolated us out of our sense of belonging to a greater, more meaningful entity than our individual existence. We are so conditioned to the individualistic mindset that we often do not even have ways of imagining a different way of being.
And yet, I believe that a communal bond is indigenous to our human nature.
We are wired for it. As therapists our focus on the individualistic paradigm makes us less experienced in allowing something to unfold of what it wants to become. An alternative approach would be to put our own lives in a relative position of service, allowing ourselves to surrender to it, serving its needs and being curious about what it wants from us rather than the other way around. From this perspective we would ask what the dream, the crisis or the relationship asks of the client not how it can be beneficial to them. And how would we learn to love the land around us as deeply as we love our partners?
We may not be able to learn this from humans but only from a deep engagement with the land itself, an immersion in its rhythms. We do this with our sensual bodies, smelling, sensing, touching and tasting the world. We may need to take our sorrows, dreams and insecurities out into a place we learn to love and see if we come back changed. This would be an aesthetic engagement, which invites participation in something bigger than our individuality.
The question we need to address as therapists is how best to facilitate an I-Thou relationship with the world that offers itself to us. Whilst these are currently still voices from the fringes of our profession, I believe that there is some urgency in Gestalt therapy raising its profile and finding its distinctive voice in the growing chorus. What follows is an emptiness. We typically blame ourselves for this feeling of emptiness and psychotherapy often colludes with this. Shepard asks us to consider that this emptiness may be the absence of our encounter with the other than human world, in which case the feeling is not a personal shortcoming, privately owned, but a healthy reminder of something essential that we have lost.
In a personalised psychology, based on individualism and ownership, we ascribe our feelings of emptiness to a failure in our own personality. The problem becomes interior and we try to fix or eradicate that which is calling out to us from beyond the confines of our individual lives.
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As we may look in the wrong place, what we are left with is a chronic feeling of emptiness that walks with us wherever we go and that we get so used to that we hardly feel it anymore. And as we often do not even have words for this sense of loss, we learn to anaesthetise our longing. The psychotherapist Francis Weller believes that what we are longing for are primary satisfactions, satisfactions that evolved over thousands of years and that our brains are wired for, such as: gathering around communal life, around story, mythology, meaningful relationships, ritual, gathering around fire, around slowly evolving local connections, sharing and preparing food, spending time in nature, being fully embodied, etc.
For the most part we have abandoned these primary satisfactions and are now surrounding ourselves with what he calls secondary satisfactions, like individual power, rank, prestige, wealth, status, material goods, stimulants, etc. These are all things that no matter how much we get of them, it will never be enough. We always want more in order to temporarily fill this permeating sense of emptiness that has already depleted the world of its resources. If, on the other hand, this emotional hunger is truly met, we become receptive to reciprocity and gratitude.
If we experiment with offering ourselves to the world we may be astonished at what we receive in return. So how do we support clients in daring to reconnect to what truly nourishes them in a culture that sells them the opposite? The individualistic perspective tells us that we shape our own lives and that it is within our grasp to be content, unique and accomplished if we only try hard enough. This heroic ideal separates us from community and leaves us wide open to a sense of individual failure when life events do not work out for us. Addiction to progress, growth and self-improvement In a capitalist society we subscribe to the idea that everything has to progress to something bigger and better.
We like things rising — stock markets, profit margins, house prices, whilst we are fearful of depression in the economy or in individuals. We are focused on trying to improve, fix and rectify in our relentless pursuit of happiness. In line with the patriarchal heroic ideal we turn everything into a problem to be overcome, even death. Aspects of our fallible human experience such as collapse, decay, loss, regression and stillness are often approached with a notion of repair. It is therefore maybe not surprising that many clients come to us trying to create a self that is approvable to the world.
This agenda is often based on self-hatred and a wish to eradicate the parts in them that stand in the way of the idea of progress and perfection. In our attempts to domesticate that which frightens us, we risk pathologising the aspects in life that refuse to move anywhere or lead us downwards Weller This is the problematic aspect in our notion of healing as opposed to an aesthetic approach that finds beauty in broken places. The cultural obsession with things rising is often mirrored in psychotherapy when we collude with the idea of perpetual self-improvement or overemphasise the experience of lack and proclaim that there has not been enough parenting, unconditional love, attachment, etc.
In the hunger thus created lies the risk that both therapist and client are continually looking for what we can grab to fill up the emptiness Weller From this place, we devour the world without ever being nourished. The focus on our inner longings seems to make us blind to the holes we tear into the fabric of the outer landscape.
Most mythologies tell us that the price for initiation and wisdom has to be paid in the currency of suffering.
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Our experiences of abandonment, loss, death and betrayal are part of life and what has bound us together over centuries. In many myths all over the world the question is not whether or not our hearts will get broken, the question is what meaning we ascribe to a broken heart. Do we follow the culturally dominant path of hunting for personal happiness or do we educate our hearts and allow them to be broken, so that the world can flow into us? In order to take in the enormity of devastation that we have caused in the world, we need to know how to allow our hearts to break.
In mythology an educated heart often comes through the gateway of rupture, as a certain level of pain and our ability to bear it is the vehicle that allows us to cross threshold moments. How can we facilitate this process in our clients when we are steeped in a grief-phobic culture? Materialism I remember a Gestalt therapy session many years ago in which I expressed deep grief over a desolate landscape that I had visited that day.
I expressed disgust at what we are doing to ourselves and the land we live on. After an exploration of where I felt this in my body, my experience was explored as a projection on to the world. This is a worthwhile avenue to take but it is a much trodden path. The phenomenological exploration of my experience as perception or a dialogic encounter with place is extremely rare. This avenue would open up questions about the way we see the world. Is what is out there dead matter or in some way able to communicate and reciprocate? Is the fact that we do not hear anything when we contact the world proof that there is no other consciousness than human consciousness or a sign that we have forgotten how to listen to a different language?
The existence of non-human subjectivity is what indigenous cultures have lived by for millennia, but which ours has eradicated a long time ago. However, the question about matter holding consciousness is no longer a concern of freaks and New Age hippies. It is at the cutting edge of the current scientific debate Koch, In philosophy, the concept of panpsychism, for instance, holds the view that consciousness is a universal feature of all things Bruntrup and Jaskolla, We may continue to view subjectivity as only residing in human nature or we may expand our view of the field and consider the possibility of a subjectivity in animals, plants, waterways, trees, rocks.
We are still a long way away from this, but do we, as Gestalt therapists, have anything to say about this? Lack of a mythological and cosmological dimension Descartes made the world dead. Everything has become solid matter. As opposed to our ancestors we no longer feel at home with the mystical, divine or the numinous. We seem to have replaced our human need for mythology and transcendence with materialism, which means that most Westerners can no longer take their sorrows to a bigger entity.
Cosmology and mythology traditionally place the human experience in a wider context, but with the loss of connection to our mythological and cosmological ground we have become self-referential. It all becomes about our own personalised and exceptional life. Our focus seems to fall only on us. This risks creating a culture of literalness that becomes blind to that which is not tangible and dismisses meaning that is outside of our cognitive realm of reason. There are few exceptions in psychotherapy that break with this norm, but they are often looked down upon. In Jungian psychology the ideas of soul, archetypes and the collective unconscious transcend the merely human realm and ascribe agency to forces and presences outside of human control.
For him, the anima mundi is an entity in its own right that acts upon us and asks us to participate in its dance. As Gestalt therapists we may agree or disagree with the Jungian perspective, but it puts forward a view of the world that transcends the material and individualised perspective of the Western mind. He argued that an I-Thou relationship with anything or anyone connects us in some way with the eternal relation to God. In order to experience an I-Thou relationship with God, we have to be open to it, as opposed to pursuing it which would turn it into an I-It relationship.
Buber claims that if we are open, God will eventually come to us and respond to our openness. Equally, our theory is influenced by Zen Buddhism and yet the transpersonal aspect of Buddhist philosophy is not explicit in much of our work.
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There are a few exceptions, but the discourse is discordant. Some writers consider a concept of transcendence being part of the field Brownell, ; Naranjo, , whilst others believe that Gestalt therapy and spirituality are two separate concepts Au, We leave it up to individuals to decide whether or not they put a third entity in between. As in the wider culture, it has become a matter of personal taste and opinion. This lack of a cosmological and transpersonal perspective opens us up to the risk of practising a wild mix and match of individualised preferences.
We try Buddhism, shamanism, yoga, Sufism, etc. We feel entitled to decontextualise that which is sacred to others. Only a few people are willing to surrender to something bigger. In the absence of a transpersonal perspective, how do we learn to approach the world with a sense of wonder? What rituals guide us? How can we elicit a sense of what is sacred to clients and where does our moral compass come from?
Whom or what do we serve if there is nothing that deserves our humility? Conclusion In this article I outlined how anthropocentrism as well as the capitalist values of individualism, materialism, privatisation, ownership, progress, and growth are reflected in our notion of mental health and the practice of psychotherapy in general, including Gestalt therapy. I highlighted that psychotherapists risk reinforcing a culturally endemic I-It relationship to the world. Engaging in experiential exercises can be a wonderful way to open up and share, especially when it is difficult to find words or when you tend to process in a more visual way.
Gestalt therapists understand that these exercises help to increase awareness. The attention to language and tone is important in Gestalt therapy. As clients learn to accept responsibility, they learn to use language that reflects a sense of personal ownership rather than focusing on others.
For example, rather than say, "If he didn't do that I wouldn't get so mad! This is a role-playing exercise that allows a client to imagine and participate in a conversation with another person or another part of themselves. Sitting across from the empty chair, the client enters into a dialogue as if they were speaking with that other person or that other part of themselves. Empty chair can be very helpful in drawing out important perceptions, meanings, and other information that can help clients become more aware of their emotional experience and how to start healing.
Another example of role-playing might be what is referred to as "top dog and underdog. Similar to the empty chair, the client speaks as both the top dog, which is the more demanding side of their personality and the underdog, which is the more submissive and obedient side of their personality. The key is to become aware of inner conflicts so that the person can better learn how to integrate these parts of self into a more complete whole.
During a session, it might be noticed by a Gestalt therapist that the client is tapping their foot, wringing their hands, or making a certain facial expression. The therapist is likely to mention their observation of this and ask what is happening for the person at that moment. Incorporating language, the Gestalt therapist may even ask the client to give their foot, hands, or facial expression a voice and speak from that place.
In addition to giving body language a voice, a Gestalt therapist may inquire about the client's body language. If it is difficult for the client to find words to put to what is happening, they may be asked to exaggerate that motion or repeat it several times in a row for a period of time during the session to draw out some of their experience in the counseling room in that moment. The client and the therapist get a chance to process emotions and how the person might have learned to disconnect their emotional experiences with their physical experiences.
During a session, it is common for people to talk about emotion. Talking about emotion is different than experiencing an emotion, which is what the Gestalt therapist is wanting the client to do in sessions. As a client talks about emotion, the therapist may ask them where they feel that emotion in their body. An example of this could be, "a pit in my stomach," or "my chest feels tight. Additional activities such as painting, sculpting, and drawing can also be used to help people gain awareness, stay present, and learn how to process at the moment.
It is generally noted in this style that any technique that can be offered to the client, other than traditional sitting still and talking, can be quite helpful in allowing them to become more aware of themselves, their experiences, and their process of healing. Gestalt therapy intends for the client to gain greater awareness of their experience of being in the world. Gestalt therapists do not have a goal of changing their clients.
In fact, clients are encouraged to focus on becoming more aware of themselves, staying present, and processing things in the here and now. The working, collaborative relationship between therapist and client is powerful to the healing process in Gestalt therapy. It is suggested that the way we learn how to survive experiences, particularly painful experiences, is to create blocks or push things out of awareness so that we can move forward. As effective as it may seem, it can create trouble for us as we become more compartmentalized and fragmented in our sense of self and our experiences.
The very techniques we once used to help ourselves become blocks to self-awareness and growth.
Increasing client awareness allows for these blocks to be identified, properly challenged, and moved out of the way so we can find healing and personal growth. A key goal in Gestalt therapy is to allow clients the opportunity to own and accept their experiences. In blaming others, we lose our sense of control and become victim to the event or the other person involved in the event. Gestalt therapy encourages clients to challenge those old ways of how we may have created meaning about an experience.
Learning how to accept and embrace personal responsibility is a goal of Gestalt therapy, allowing clients to gain a greater sense of control in their experiences and to learn how to better regulate their emotions and interactions with the world. Gestalt therapy suggests that, inherently, people strive for self-regulation and growth.
However, we sometimes develop techniques to emotionally survive unfortunate and painful experiences. Some of these techniques feel helpful in the short-term because they can help minimize our pain or distress. However, over the long-term, they leave us is more emotionally shaky places, unable to express ourselves.
We may find it hard to interact with others, and difficult to learn how to effectively regulate ourselves and be whole, responsible beings. Gestalt therapy believes that, despite some of these setbacks, people are still wired for this sense of wholeness and feel distressed when we are not able to achieve it.