Reflections on the 15th BGJ Seminar Day

The day stretched out from everyday Gestalt therapy practice to consider unusual states of mind or consciousness....  

This year's BGJ Seminar Day at Friends House, Euston was fully booked! It was a lively day with two engaging speakers, Gaie Houston a therapist, author and lecturer at the Gestalt Centre and Dr. Tim Read, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist.

We have received a number of reflections by those who presented, helped organise, or participated in the Seminar Day. These various points of view have been 'woven' together, with the hope of creating a dialogue. Nils S. Konstantinovs, a Seminar Day attendee and trainee gestalt therapist starts us off...

Nils S. Konstantinovs: "There is a popular belief among some psychotherapists in a function of the field, which supposedly, and rather mysteriously, operates by leading every client to the right therapist. Although such a function has never been properly investigated, I can assure you that the field was strong when it brought me to a BGJ annual seminar in London. “Synchronicity” – as this phenomena was later explained to be known in more scientifically attuned audiences. Something happening outside which corresponds closely (and quite miraculously) to the happenings on the inside. “Miracles”, as we called them in Sunday school." 

Gaie Houston: "Perls’ borrowing the concept of satori from Japanese Buddhism, shows up the lack of any such term in English. Sociologists make clear that people only give words to concepts that have importance to them.  That leaves much to be reflected on about cultural attitudes and tendency to look at the gloomy rather than the bright side.

Tim Read’s important talk was about achieving mini-satori, or in his words, non-ordinary healing states of consciousness, through particular means that he explained.  My interest was in the occurrence of such states either through therapy, or apparently out of the blue.

Some years ago I used the words ‘transformative moments’ to describe mini-satori, jolts to awareness that seem to bring a new clarity or resolution, or a shift towards integration, peace.  Supervising people doing brief therapy, I noticed how at times the client seemed to have, not a full-blown aha experience, but a squeak, just the ah, perhaps, without the ha. And the therapist had ploughed on straight past this hint, concentrating instead on some dysfunction that was the present topic. Returning in the next session, and after reflection in supervision, to honouring this hint of mini-satori always took the client forward to a new assimilation, to therapeutic progress." 

 Neil Harris: "Gaie Houston needs very little introduction to most of the UK Gestalt community, or to many internationally.  She brought her lived experience to bear and was prepared to bare herself in the process.  Are these experiences simply on a continuum with normal experience, or do we venture into other realms when we are in a non-normal state of consciousness? We could have spent some days discussing this, and perhaps bringing our own experiences to the conversation, but sadly one day was not enough.  I am still mulling this over and processing what I heard and saw, and thinking of ways to continue to develop my knowledge, for my own personal growth, and for that of my clients."

Nils S. Konstantinovs: "The link between theological inquiries and NOSC was even more prominent in the wonderful and emotionally touching presentation by Gaie Houston. Her ontological probing into the source of NOSC –purely inborn or dependent on outside factors? – if put in theological terms, was dealing with grace (outside) vs. works (self-caused). This question has haunted Christian thinkers since at least the age of Augustine, and although the presenter herself held a Pellagian view which excludes outside elements like grace from operation, I am sure she would feel familiar with plethora of testimonies concerning extra ordinary mind states as recorded by two thousand years of religious exploration. 

Where Gaie Houston and theologians of all ages would agree completely, is that language always fails us. As Freud once pointed out, there are certain fields which are doomed to an inevitable failure, like education, governance and analysis. Theology could be added to the list easily, as well as attempts at describing and validating NOSC. But there is certainly an immense potential for Gestalt therapy in both." 

Gaie Houston: "Like Tim, I feel sure that experiencing such healing states is worth cultivation and attention. And a caveat remains for me, particularly as I think of the more extended states of what can be called enlightenment.  One or two inspirational examples came to mind, of people who are living or seem to have lived outgoing lives of what the Greeks would call virtue.  Alongside those can perhaps be placed many figures from history who have carried banners with strange devices and marched along crying Excelsior.  It seems that they were filled with joyful conviction, had absolute certainty, and yet in some casesvisited their visions on others in ways that have been far from healing.

Saint Paul was one example I quoted.  Arguably he was Christianity’s most stalwart proselytiser, and without him that religion would not have become as important as it is.  Within that, his attitude to women has justified a great deal of oppression.  Yet he was inevitably a man of his time and culture.  His blinding Damascene conversion has all the hallmarks of a non-ordinary healing state, but he inevitably later entwined it with current values that must have felt part and parcel for him of a vision of a good society, and which to us seem quite otherwise.

In spite of this caveat, my hope in this talk was to make figural those jolts to perception that are likely to occur during therapy, either in the consulting room, or between sessions.  Sometimes they follow Beisser’s dictum, and come about after a yielding to present reality. Sometimes they are flicked from the depths by we know not what.  That they can be transformative is unquestionable. That they can sometimes be embroidered out of recognition and lose their simple healing quality, needs to be somewhere in the mind of the therapist."

Neil Harris: "I think it is important to continue to look outside our familiar domain of knowledge and expertise, and to develop competence and vocabulary for the less than usual experiences that both we and our clients can have in our lives.  Sometimes these are disorientating and anxiety-provoking, sometimes fruitful and helpful as well. Tim Read is a psychonaut (in the words of Stanislav Grof) who also has his feet firmly on the ground with his background in NHS psychiatry.  He was a good companion and guide to a territory that is both very familiar (as we all live peopled by many archetypes), and strange and challenging."

Nils S. Konstantinovs: "Being a trainee Gestalt therapist educated in theology, a Christian in the hostile post-soviet space, and researcher of spiritual interventions within secular clinical setting, the seminar theme sure felt like touching upon a miraculous Gestalt-spot. This couldn’t have been more apparent when Dr. Tim Read's presentation opened with quotations from Plato, Jesus, Buddha and Jung literally on one PowerPoint slide – I had never seen that much religion in my entire Gestalt training! Although Jesus sadly got misquoted (as far as we know, he never said that he and God was one with the humanity), that was a small drawback considering the vast amount of carefully prepared information Dr. Tim Read provided for our reflection. By no accident, the most fruitful insight for me proved the notion of religious practice (ritualized breathing in this case) serving as an advancement or catalyst in therapeutic healing process. It is exactly what my research hypothesis implies, although I still feel bit uneasy trying to articulate it to my Gestalt colleagues."

Nils S. Konstantinovs: "Although Dr. Read testified that he himself had resorted to Holotropic breathwork – something a religious scientist would classify as neo-shamanic practice – I found it especially peculiar how much of his descriptions of non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC) resonated with mystical and ascetical themes in Christian spirituality. One such example would be the observation of psychotic experiences andtransforming mind-states to be two springs flowing from the same source. It must be, as Dr. Read speculated, something in the environment, context and overall attitudes which determines whether a particular spring will turn into a numbing disease or manifest itself as healing sparks of enlightenment.  This closely corresponds to the works of many ascetic theologians, for example, Evagrius the Solitary – a Christian monk of the early centuries -, who proposed an idea that inner demons, who represent interpsychic forces, are actually irreplaceable companions on the way to salvation. For Evagrius, it is a matter of technique (mainly dietary limitations and meditative exercises) together with various communal support mechanisms which would let the monk tame and use his demons for the benefit of becoming a more enlightened human being. 

Maybe the most important insight for me I took away from the wondrous day at BGJ seminar was that NOSC is appears to be active ingredient which fosters change and growth in therapeutical process.  And religious language offers by far the richest resource to talk about it. So it is time indeed for us, therapists, to become better versed in the language of religion!"