A review of CoCreating The Field: Intention and Practice in the Age of Complexity.
The Evolution of Gestalt Series, Volume 1 edited by Deborah Ullman and Gordon Wheeler. Published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, New York, 2009, 408 pages. Price: £26.95.
In the foreword to this book, Deborah Ullman acknowledges the overwhelming complexity of modern life and the information-overload which places ever-increasing demands on our attention. In the light of this she then asks us: 'why indeed might a new book on Gestalt Theory and Practice matter?'
It's a good question, and one which the rest of the book is devoted to answering in an ambitious quest, to try redefine our understanding of what it is to be human, at this point in history. The writers also con-sider the ways in which Gestalt therapy might need to evolve to meet the challenges of the new millennium. It's a daunting brief, so don't expect this book to provide a quick read or any easy answers.
In fact, as Gordon Wheeler reminds us, it is now just over half-a-century ago that Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline set out on a very similar intellectual task. By integrating ideas from contemporary culture, philosophy, and science with their own professional experiences and intuitive thought, they success-fully formulated a new definition of the nature and construction of human experience. Their writings, in the 1950s, offered a radical revision of the possibilities for therapeutic support. However, despite being recognised and respected as timeless and inspired in many respects, certain aspects of this seminal Gestalt text are still very much of its era and therefore, Wheeler argues, need to be revised and updated.
With this in mind, a group of contemporary Gestalt thinkers and writers set out on the daunting task of formally attempting to update the fundamental questions of: Who are we? And, what is our situation in this highly complex modern world? As the overall title of the volume suggests, the authors are particularly concerned with a shift of emphasis away from the fundamentally individualistic view of human nature which has so dominated Western thought and culture. They turn instead to the understanding that we are fundamentally relational, intersubjective, beings, and that:
maturity, in other words, is not 'autonomy' but inter-dependence; not a simplification of the relational field but an ever-growing capacity to experience its complexity. (Wheeler, p. 19)
And, it is the challenges of this co-created existence with which the various contributors engage, as they consider the implications of new discoveries in the world of science, technology, infant research, neuroscience and intellectual thought, for our ever-evolving understanding of human need and relationships.
The format of the book is a collection of essays, most of which were delivered as speeches by members of the Gestalt community at a conference in Esalen in 2005. The stated purpose of the conference was both a purging and revision exercise; to chart the progression of ideas and dialogue which has taken place in Gestalt circles over the past fifty years or so and, at the same time, attempt to tease out which aspects of the therapy have successfully survived the test of time.
Although the content and the ideas explored in the book have since been widely voiced elsewhere, it does feel useful to have most of the significant themes of contemporary Gestalt thinking brought together in one volume. For relative newcomers to Gestalt, it provides a useful overview of the evolution of Gestalt theory, offering context for its beginnings and also the historical progression of ideas and their application in practice.
The book also provides some food for thought, for newcomer and seasoned practitioner alike. We accompany each individual author as they grapple with their own understandings of how new discoveries in the fields of neuroscience, human development, and physics influence our understanding of therapeutic healing. By engaging with their journey we are invited to join in the debate, asking ourselves how this new information can be successfully and fully integrated into Gestalt theory, to enable the therapy to continue to make a valuable contribution in today's world.
The issue is examined from numerous perspectives ‚ personal, political, philosophical and practical. Some explore the role and responsibility we each hold in a global world, others consider how to effect a smooth integration of the old and the new ‚ re-framing some of the concepts, emphasis, and language of psychotherapy to take on board the new discoveries.
As Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb states in chapter 4:
Psychotherapy is (constantly) confronted with the task of providing new perspectives and tools to support our being interconnected with therapy's nourishing possibilities. (p. 105)
She identifies the challenges this throws up in terms of comprehending how we can best promote healing and growth in our clients, and argues that we need to move beyond awareness as being the major tool, and into a deeper understanding of the importance of contact. She cites the importance of recognising the `intentionality of contact' clients bring to the relationship, plus the creative possibilities for mutual recognition in the therapeutic meeting. While reminding us of the goal of Gestalt Therapy‚ to restore the client's ability for spontaneity and enlivened contact ‚ she suggests that experiences of meaningful connection are deeply healing in what she describes as the 'liquid society' we have become.
While paying tribute to the genius and foresightedness of Gestalt's founders, Gordon Wheeler and Malcolm Parlett both respectfully attempt to identify the limitations which became inbuilt to the modality. They identify an overemphasis on the therapeutic value of promoting individualism and self-sufficiency in the roots of Gestalt, seeing it as a reflection of the cultural and political climate of the time. Malcolm Parlett also links it with the personal experiences of its founders whose values he says became embedded in Gestalt. He speculates that:
the early emphasis [in Gestalt] on self-reliance, self-support, self-responsibility and self-help makes sense given what they endured. Dependence on others must have seemed precarious and at worst, dangerous in the extreme. They also must have derived, from the years of growing Nazi power, a visceral aversion to mass confluence, to dehumanisation, to the submergence of the individual and the loss of capacity for independent thought. (p. 310)
While respecting that communities and individuals emerging from highly confluent political systems such as Fascism, and more recently Communism, may have over-valued the polarity of differentiation, he argues that the emphasis now needs to be revised.
The implications of globalism, multiculturalism, and the various tensions around the planet are considered by Gordon Wheeler, who makes an appeal for the need to hold the relational complexity of the world and people's life situations.
He suggests that through its concept of field theory and its view of the 'self as a system of contact', Gestalt already has the theoretical framework to take account of the high levels of relational complexity our modern life has created. Human brains, he points out, are reorganising and evolving constantly to try to cope with the rapidly increasing social demands and, as we are so implicitly interconnected, it is the quality of our relational dialogue which will determine our ability to move forward and survive as a race, not competitive individualism.
This embracing of complexity is echoed by Judith Hemming whose essay 'The Larger Field' explores the benefits Hellinger's work with constellations. She outlines how examining and exploring our relational and family fields can increase understanding of how we are all part of a co-created system and how this work can enrich our field theory perspective.
Spirituality is also placed in the frame by Judith Hemming and Deborah Ullman who give intensely personal accounts of their experiences and understandings of spirituality and connection.
Catherine Carlson and Robert Kolodny examine the nature of responsibility in their organisational work, particularly around the generation of shame. They argue that in accepting that we are all simultaneously co-creating and co-regulating the field, then as consultants they are also 'field players', and need to integrate this into their work and be prepared to allow themselves to be impacted too by the journey and their clients.
Iris Fodor describes a very different way to use ourselves to impact the field in her work with Tibetan adolescents in India. She shows the youngsters how to take digital photographs and use film to tell their stories as refugees. Their joint venture reveals a new sense of resilience and curiosity that the children develop from sharing their experiences.
Malcolm Parlett, Lynne Jacobs, and Frank Staemmler all explore the power of language and words, identifying how they can sometimes unhelpfully limit concepts and fix attitudes.
In his clearly-argued chapter, Frank Staemmler explores the concept of empathy and challenges the fact that it became something of a dirty word in Gestalt circles up to recent times. While acknowledging Fritz Perls concern about empathy leading to confluence, Staemmler suggests that immense areas of relatively permanent confluence is actually indispensible to human relations as a background to experience. He cites the experiments carried out with Macaque monkeys in which the discovery of mirror neurons imply that, to a large extent, we are wired for confluence and empathy. Our bodies not only perceive another actions and expressions, they also physically re-enact them to a lesser degree. Experience, he argues, is always relational; a co-created joint situation at which it is greater than the sum of its parts. An encounter doesn’t exclusively belong to either person involved and is irreducible to the individual consciousness of one or the other. As such, Staemmler argues, confluence has been unfairly pathologised in Gestalt because it is, in fact, the ground for all human relationships. We inherently empathise, anticipate, and connect and it is from that ground that we then can choose to actively differenciate to varying degrees.
Malcolm Parlett highlights how Gestalt terminology can potentially alienate other therapists and rigidify ideas, while Lynne Jacobs examines the concept of transference and asks whether it may be helpfully redefined with the word perspective’. She argues that perspective takes into account both the historic aspects of clients patterns of relating and also the current reality of the co-created relationship between the therapist and client.
Most contributors also explore at some level their own personal sense of place and responsibility in a world in which we are all so intricately bound together. They attempt to pull together modern scientific knowledge and philosophy to understand how Gestalt therapy might meet the needs of today increasingly global culture.
Unsurprisingly, this book both begins and ends with complexity. It is a dense read, and this review only skims the surface of its contents which, ultimately, deliver many open-ended thoughts along with an invitation for more debate. Deborah Ullman describes it as a book about edges: the developmental edges of a beloved theory of human nature and process, (p xvii). It is a book about the evolution of Gestalt and also the evolution of human beings.
The authors call on us to fully engage with the ramifications of field theory, that we are fundamentally and continually connected in interdependent relationship, constantly impacting and being impacted by each other, albeit with an ability to differenciate within that. Readers are also urged to embrace our inherent connectedness with openness and a deep sense of responsibility. Lynne Jacobs sees the moral thrust of Gestalt as being the way in which we choose to meet and connect. She asks: ‘in what kind of human beingness do I want to participate? What kind of relational world do I want to help co-shape? (p. 52). Jacobs also invites us to engage in our meetings with clients with much humility, acknowledging that each is creating the situation together and no one has the privileged view. She believes it is the quality of the encounter; the experience, which is healing and growthful, and this, she points out, is always co-created.
Overall, the book reminds us that whatever beliefs we may hold about the human condition, we are fundamentally social animals who are more alike in nature than we are different. Also that, in terms of the future of humanity, we are all in it together! Gordon Wheeler identifies the biggest evolutionary challenge for the human race as: the ability to evolve relationally to dialogue and attempt to understand what is needed to nurture humans creative possibilities in such a complex society. The alternative, he fears, is that humans give up the struggle and under stress revert to aggression or fundamentalism. There is a danger that we will:
suddenly flip drop down from higher cortical processing to‚ reptillian brain . . . and radically simplify the social filed by resolving complexity with a more dichotomous us-them boundary. (p. 348)
Gestalt therapy originally grew out of the revising and integrating of old and new ideas and one of its great strengths is an emphasis on process, which allows its theory to remain open enough to dialogue and grow with the times; making new sense of new times.
In fact, as Gestalt theory informs us, everything is always in process. However, if you are hoping for clear directions, practical applications, and definitive answers to the dilemmas that change throws up, I’m afraid you won’t find a great deal of that in this collection of essays. There are more questions than answers. On the other hand, if you are interested in engaging with a somewhat diverse, contemplative, thought-provoking overview from ten deeply-experienced Gestaltists as to where the starting point for the way forward might be (or at least where it was in 2009), then this book can certainly provide you with that. It is a ground-laying exercise for a debate which is still ongoing.
Lynne Brighouse BA (Hons) Humanities, is a journalist who has worked for provincial newspapers and as a freelance writer in the East Midlands for the past twenty-seven years. She lives in Nottinghamshire and is presently in her final year of studying for an MA in Gestalt Psychotherapy at the Sherwood Institute, in Nottingham.
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