Or, What to answer when asked by somebody who does not know the first thing about it?
Everybody in Gestalt has the same difficulty: how to convey something about what Gestalt is, for the benefit of someone who has had no direct experience of it nor has read anything about it. I must have attempted the task many hundreds of times over the many years I have been involved with Gestalt, and each time I am sure I have said something different – according to what I am thinking about at the time, how I am feeling, who it is I am talking to and in what context we are speaking.
The following is based on something I wrote several years ago which forms part of an unpublished manuscript geared to a readership of “interested outsiders”. I am concentrating here on the “personal practice” aspect of Gestalt, not on its characteristics as a form of psychotherapy.
I want to emphasise that the following is a fragment, a sample, a taster – not a comprehensive overview or definitive statement. And what I say here might be totally inappropriate to the person you have next to explain Gestalt to; and YOUR meanings of Gestalt, of course, may put the emphasis elsewhere. That’s just right!
Gestalt is more than just a mode of psychotherapy to use with others who seek help and who identify themselves as ‘disturbed’, or are so labelled by others. It also provides a down-to-earth philosophy to live by for the relatively undisturbed, a method of self exploration and personal stress management which is available to all, although it has to be directly experienced for such statements not to sound vacuous.
There is a particular discipline involved (in the sense that Yoga and singing are disciplines) that features strongly in Gestalt and it is this discipline which, in a way, patients learn in therapy (arguably they should be called ‘students’); and it is the discipline which also enables, for anyone willing to go into it deeply, a lifelong exploration of one’s reality and capacity for a full life.
First, the discipline of Gestalt is a cultivation of truth-telling or, at least truth-acknowledging, to oneself. In order to know the truth of my own experience I must first recognise what I do habitually and without consciousness (running on auto-pilot). I need to attend to my thoughts, feelings, wishes, heartfelt longings, all my reactions and my conscious experience, much of it in the background, or on the fringes of my consciousness. As I do this I also become progressively more aware of the ways in which I cut off or pretend to myself or try to override certain inner states, thoughts, imagined realities.
Second, Gestalt involves attending to the fact that we are real and tangible physical beings and not simply minds perched on top of bodies. We are instinctual, organismic beings. Our emotions, feeling states, hungers, aversions all have physical bases, and we react to others, whether in fights, sexual encounters, warm conversations, loving moments, or however, with the whole of our selves – physical reactions, thoughts, and feelings intertwined. The discipline of Gestalt acknowledges, and involves tuning into, our physical sensations and inner feeling states and releasing ourselves into fuller physical experience and expression.
Third, the discipline entails opening ourselves to non-verbal, intuitive, metaphorical ways of thinking as well as rational, logical, and clearly articulated ways of thinking. We can expand our creativity, intuitive powers, and our aliveness generally if we recognise that living is the ultimate form of art, in which we seek to give expression to what is most alive and energising within us, what satisfies us to the depth of our being. And in the difficult process of managing life’s complex choices, the realities and obstacles, we need to have multiple channels of appreciation and expression, including the imaginal, the aesthetic, the capacity to separate the beautiful from the ugly.
Fourth, the discipline is about waking up politically and culturally, realising how indoctrinated we are, having absorbed – along with language – the assumptions of our families of origin, our schooling, our community, our national culture. And the process continues: perpetual propaganda through advertising and media assaults us – relating to politics and peace and war, food and what is healthy, fashions in clothes and artefacts, materialism and spirituality. We are easily mesmerised, confused, awash in a sea of opinions. Discovering what is true for us, what we believe, what we will stand against or for, requires a lot of work – tasting and learning to chew rather than immediately to swallow, to spit out as well as to take in.
Fifth, above all, Gestalt as a discipline involves attending to the quality of interaction, our meetings with the world, reality, other humans. In meeting you, how do I stop myself being fully myself and how do you stop yourself? And what has to happen so that we can meet each other with all our individuality recognised and incorporated in our meeting? When I am fully in touch with another at the same time that I am fully in touch with myself, there is a transcendent moment of absolute recognition – often, indeed usually, beyond words: I recognise your intrinsic humanness, and mine is recognised too. What is, at the moment, is that we are. We might even call it a love.
Whether or not such a discipline is widely practised or not by those claiming to appropriate Gestalt, I cannot say. My impression is that it is, though it is articulated variously. What is certain is that in order to work with others in the Gestalt way, we need to know, and live, its discipline. The quality of the work we do with others is inextricably linked with the extent of our own discoveries.