Volume 12, 1 (2003)

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Volume 12, 1 (2003)


The British Gestalt Journal 2003, Volume 12, 1


Editorial - Malcolm Parlett

Special Focus on Embodying

The Embodied Field - James Kepner 

Culture and Body: A Phenomenological and Dialogic Inquiry - Michael Craig Clemmens and Arie Bursztyn

Embodying Creativity: The Therapy Process and its Developmental Foundation - Ruella Frank

Developmental Processes in Clients with Chronic Health Conditions - Bill Palmer

Countertransference and the Gestalt Approach - Joseph Melnick 

Interviewed by Richard Wallstein: 'I am Me and My Circumstance' - Jean-Marie Robine



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The International Gestalt Scene

As an international Gestalt journal published in Britain, we retain a 'watching brief' on Gestalt developments across the world. One of the great differences, compared to previous decades, is that the scattered, Diaspora-like Gestalt community is linking itself up, through the spread of email and easier air travel. The tendencies that lead to the global village are also promoting more face-to-face meetings with those of like minds. and more communication regardless of physical distance. There is also, like never before, a fast growing literature in our field, especially in English, with Gestalt books of different types and good journals, including (we think notably) the British Gestalt Journal. And these form, along with numerous websites, another rich layer of communication possibilities.

More meetings and interchange does not automatically lead to greater unity and solidarity. Part of what happens is that differences appear like yawning gaps, too big to address in short conferences, yet too small to feel comfortable in ignoring as trivial. Increased communication is likely to have long-term unifying effects, but meanwhile the Gestalt community is divided, and has been for many years. People differ in their Gestalt lineage, and in their loyalties. Across the sprawling 'extended family' there are varied traditions, old hurts, new divisions, and sharp contrasts in emphasis from family branch to family branch. That there are diverse priorities in terms of methods, attitudes to PHG, and widely differing standards of training, is not news, That these can (and do) perpetuate themselves as sources of conflict and snobbery, from one generation to the next, is also well understood.

Our own hope, as editors committed to dialogue and openness, is that with increased communication and networking, more knowledge of each others' work, more reality testing and suspension of stereotyping, there can be a more genuine interplay of minds and experience, more cross-fertilisation internationally, and more recognition - even celebration - of our diversity. We need more courageous meetings around our differences without sacrificing goodwill. We need creative ways to challenge approaches and actions that we may not consider good enough, yet in a way that does not wipe out contact or create new bitterness.

The British Gestalt Journal stands for promoting dialogue, and there is a need of it. In this issue, there are notable contributions from writers drawn from different institutes, traditions, and countries. We welcome this cosmopolitan interplay of Gestalt ideas and methods. As a Journal, we stand for high quality writing and reportage, from all sections, stylistic sub-groups, national traditions, and holders of particular emphases.

Some Collective Insecurities

An enduring theme of the Gestalt community, worldwide it seems, is it's place as a philosophy and speciality among competing approaches. It is often said that others have stolen Gestalt's clothes - or at least its ideas and methods, without giving due credit to the originators of the ideas. (Interestingly this was an accusation made about Fritz Perls, that he was an inveterate purloiner of others' ideas. If he had not been, the synthesis of ideas that denote Gestalt therapy as we know it, would not exist. Anyway, the exact provenance of ideas is invariably a questionable matter: in these pages there have been assertions that Heraclitus and Gautama Siddhartha anticipated Perls by thousands of years.)

Alongside the conviction that others are queueing up to make off with our ideas is another strand, contradictory really, that emphasises that Gestalt is not 'respectable' in academic terms. We are failing to keep up with the latest trends in psychoanalysis, neuropsychology, evolutionary psychology, research on infants, political science, complexity theory, and other fields of endeavour. Our collective reluctance - or inability - to do so, suggests a false sense of our own importance, a narcissistic feature.

Another view is that as fast as we chase academic and professional recognition and respectability, the faster do we lose the unique qualities of Gestalt therapy as a questioning, anti-establishment, socially critical pursuit of creative living. In this view, acceptance of and conformity to national guidelines and professional associations sounds the death knell for Gestalt - its lifeblood is squeezed out of it.

Other insecurities appear. Some fret that there is no massive influx of younger Gestaltists, that numbers are falling, and that the present generation of leaders will be unable to step into the exalted shoes of earlier generations of well known trainers, many of whom are deceased or advanced in years.

Some Contra-Indications

Amid all this questioning, sometimes gloom, there are places and persons that speak another story, and a balanced international perspective needs to take these into account.

Remember the build up of a substantial high-calibre literature, already referred to, much of it written for a wider audience of therapists and counsellors. Note the validation of Gestalt psychotherapy by several national governments (for instance, in Norway, Belgium, Italy, New Zealand). Observe the growth of Gestalt therapy in the former Eastern bloc countries; the established core of Gestalt training in Britain and a solid reputation established here, at least within the greater community of psychotherapists, and in several universities; and the explosive growth of interest in other countries, like Greece. Take in the fact, too, that after a lapse of years without much academic presence in the USA, a new college textbook about Gestalt therapy is in preparation there, to be published by Sage, with writers from several countries. Realise how the European Association of Gestalt Therapy has transformed over the last eight years or so. Recognise the outreach of the new Gestalt International Study Centre, and recent conferences, including a historic one in New York, and a new style international theory-oriented meeting in Paris.

I could go on. There are also, of course, on the encouraging side, gloom-dispersing repeated experiences of seeing people shift, open up, and light up, as a result of their exposure to a Gestalt education. These moments, for many of us central to our continued involvement with the Gestalt approach, add to a sense of deep confidence in the fundamental rightness of what we are doing, and a deep belief that the Gestalt approach will survive.

The Holistic Attitude

The British Gestalt Journal stands for promoting and disseminating Gestalt therapy and its derivatives. Our task is to bring to our readers the highest quality writing and thinking we can find - about practice, basic theory and its application, emerging trends and new discoveries. We also want to ensure that the most fundamental perspectives are reinforced and that what makes Gestalt distinctive, well-founded, brilliant, and worth preserving and fertilising, is remembered.

A fundamental Gestalt emphasis is on holism. The central attention paid to the body in Gestalt therapy has not always been obvious in its literature, nor always in its practice. We are therefore delighted to present this Special Focus Issue on Embodying.

The holistic outlook - which in Gestalt therapy means putting body experience, movement, structure, and feeling state at the very centre of investigation - stands in contrast to approaches that reduce complex wholes to component parts. The reduction of the whole human being to parts, to minds and bodies and spirits, is one level. To reduce the whole down to particular symptoms, organs, behaviour patterns, that are then seen in isolation from one another, as if they can be insulated and kept apart, is to split the working unity into fragments.

In the gigantic building of science, reductionism not only persists as the dominant paradigm but is thriving as much as ever, including within psychological medicine. The revolutions in genetics, in brain research, in developing mind-altering drugs have all been dependent on scientific research of the reductive kind. Holistic medicine, by contrast, attracts less money and fewer specialists, and remains a minority outlook in the greater medical establishment. 

Holism is not eclipsed entirely. More and more people acknowledge there are dangers in treating symptoms in isolation, and that medical interventions have secondary consequences. We live in an era more used to ecological-type thinking and complexity of interactions, and these outlooks support holistic attitudes.

Moreover, in the time since Gestalt therapy emerged, stress has become a huge area of study, a medical growth industry, and is fundamentally holistic in its conception and nature. Hans Selye was developing his then revolutionary ideas abut stress as a 'general syndrome' in the same era as others were developing field theory (Lewin), holism (Smuts), general systems theory (von Bertalanffy), Gestalt psychology (Kohler et al) and the variant of psychoanalysis that morphed into Gestalt therapy (Perls). Stress is now generally regarded as a serious complex phenomenon of contemporary lived existence, with accompanying changes that are registered in many ways, from the social to the immunological.

To assert a holistic perspective is to question certain suspect reductionistic trends -for example, naive beliefs in looking for single genes to explain complex human conditions, or finding magic bullets or procedures that remove single symptoms while leaving the rest of the organism unaffected. Yet we must be careful. An unthinking adherence to holistic philosophy may disregard evidence. The current dominance of cognitive, behavioural, and pharmacological approaches has much to do with their being able to show evidences of reduced suffering. While many of us might wish to question the findings, we are unlikely to be heard. And it just may be that we need to re-think our position on holism - as focusing too much on one end of the part-whole dialectic.

Indeed, to bring the argument to Gestalt therapy itself, it is far from clear that we have lived the holistic philosophy, even within the sphere of Gestalt therapy.

Thus, even with Gestalt therapy, most practitioners choose to specialise. They may attend, much more than others to, say, group process, or dreams, or the expressive arts, or attunement and ruptures within the therapeutic relationship, or a person's spiritual life, or the life-story, or the phenomena of shame, or field theory, or to physical process and the body. We may have a philosophy that calls for attention to the whole person, and the whole person in his or her situation, yet each practitioner, and each training, tends to focus on some smaller segment of the whole human-being-in-situation. Perhaps it is inevitable that practitioners need to specialise, put their emphasis in different places, develop a style that leaves out some of the total picture. Arguably, Gestalt is too wide a canvas, too comprehensive a philosophy and mode of practice to be integrated in its entirety. Inevitable or not, this specialisation - a form of reduction -just might have something to do with the fact that the Gestalt community can sometimes seem a contentious lot. While sharing theory and outlook, this often fails to translate into real agreements about therapy and precise interventions.

The Special Focus Section

For our opening article, we are delighted to welcome Jim Kepner. He has done perhaps more than anyone in the contemporary Gestalt community to espouse holism, in the sense of bringing the body and physical process into sharper focus for many practitioners, and in developing the truly embodied possibilities of Gestalt therapy. His two books, Body Process and Healing Tasks, have been popular and important contributions. We believe that his article in this issue is also of major importance, both theoretically and in its possibilities for changing attitudes and priorities in practice. 

Kepner's emphasis here is on the creation of an 'embodied field' - a context or working milieu that supports being embodied, and has a particular energy configuration. Yet his point is even more basic and far-reaching. A Gestalt therapist, organisational consultant, group facilitator, or other practitioner creates and sustains a working milieu or 'field of experience' that can support the kind of inquiry or practice undertaken. Kepner is articulating what many think about but has never been said so neatly: that 'The core of what is healing in the Gestalt approach is our contextual, relational and experiential orientation to create the experiential conditions that make for growth.’ Kepner writes 'We might think of this as the feng shui of creating an experiential field'. It helps us to appreciate field theory as a practice. This portion of his article represents an important contribution to field theory as well as to the place of physical process in Gestalt therapy.

Other bold steps follow, in this well argued and authoritative statement. Kepner discusses, inter alia, 'deep embodiment', body structure, and the therapist's 'own energetic field which carries the frequencies necessary for body sensation, emotional texture, groundedness, and so on'.

Michael Clemmens and Arie Bursztyn follow with an equally important theme - namely how culture informs embodiment - how we stand, use our eyes in contact, etc, and align ourselves physically with a particular culture (or sub-culture, like skateboarders). The authors point to numerous therapeutic pitfalls - like not appreciating how one's own culture affects one's own body or making assumptions that are stereotypical. They provide case examples, that draw upon a number of different cultures (Israeli, Scandinavian, American West) and point out what therapists need to remember; stay close to experience, remain in dialogue, and bracket their preconceptions. 

The third article related to embodying takes us in a developmental direction. Ruella Frank, another well known trainer with a body work orientation, writes with eloquent precision about her approach, which involves the study of movement patterns, and their relationship to stages of infant development.

Frank, who has not written before in the BGJ, writes here about 'Embodying Creativity' - it is a shortened version of a chapter in a welcome new book on creativity and art in Gestalt therapy to be published this year (details at the end of Frank's paper). In the earlier part of the article she describes stages in an infant's creative process, later on analysing a videotape of an infant playing. The later part of her article centres on a fascinating vignette or case study of some body-oriented therapy with one of her adult clients. Her approach is to be almost continuously experimental: she uses props and toys that enable patterns of movement to be observed - e,g. grasping, holding, pushing, squeezing. The work is inspiring.

Ruella Frank also features in the Book Review section. Shirley Summers - another new and welcome writer for the BGJ, and a British Gestaltist who is trained in dance and movement - gives a vivid account of her experience in reading and reviewing Frank's landmark book, Body of Awareness, published by GestaltPress/Analytic Press in 2001. Her review can count as a fifth contribution to the Special Focus section, though it appears, as a book review, in the usual place in the Journal for reviews.

The fourth major article in the Special Focus section is from Bill Palmer. He describes, with several case examples, some of his work as a therapist working from a physical process perspective. His client group are people with chronic medical problems. The embodying he is referring to comprises the taking on of a 'story', often a medical one, and his concern is to find ways that the chronic problem can be more fully lived and experienced - often as a manifestation of great life change. He describes certain principles - for instance that too great a concentration on 'healing' and 'achieving health' may distort or get in the way of living out the life change that is happening. It is taking Beisser's paradoxical theory of change and applying it in a medical forum.

The four articles together, with the Book Review as well, make a substantial contribution to promoting greater understanding of the holistic perspective - and to a Gestalt therapy that is more embodied.

Other Contributions

Joseph Melnick makes a welcome return to the Journal, with a thoughtful review of countertransference, seen from the perspective of a Gestalt therapist and consultant. It makes a good companion piece to Peter Philippson's article on transference in 11.1 Melnick's and Philippson's articles represent conceptual bridge-building - in this case to psychoanalytic thought - that represents productive integration of a much needed kind. As others have pointed out, what Gestalt therapy theory has taken from psychoanalysis can sometimes appear to be a bit arbitrary, with some concepts 'in' and others 'out', for no apparent reason, save perhaps Fritz Perls' personal preferences. (This assertion, like some others in this Editorial, may provoke some rejoinders in the Letters column!)

A member of our editorial advisory board (who read it in advance) has described the Jean-Marie Robine interview as 'the best interview ever published by the BGJ'. Richard Wallstein is the interviewer. Robine is using the opportunity of this dialogue to express some of his most up-to-date ideas regarding the field, and self, and the 'id of the situation'. He provides a revealing glimpse of the state of Gestalt therapy in France - divided, alas, as elsewhere; and also of the development over time of his 'Gestalt life', going through phases and re-thinkings as occurs with most of us. We are proud to add this interview to others in our series, and thank Richard Wallstein, a former associate editor, for conducting and editing the bulk of this interview with one of the most original thinkers in the Gestalt therapy field today.

To round out this issue are two other contributions. There is a letter from Julia Carter, building on Paul Barber's article on Gestalt research in the previous issue, and leaning even further away (compared to Paul Barber) from academic conceptions of research.

There is also an Opinion, by a Swiss Gestalt trainer and therapist, Peter Schulthess, on the subject of Gestalt and Politics. He is himself politically active and sits as a member of parliament in his canton, Zurich. He argues convincingly that Gestalt therapists need to remember their political roots, and that our founders had in mind political activism on behalf of freedom, liberation, and opportunity to develop. It is a timely piece, with so much heightened awareness of political issues having relevance in people's lives.

To return to the Special Focus theme, of embodying, it is possible that what is being embodied in our present global field - i.e, lived, breathed, taken in, experienced, held in an actual, physical way, perhaps with medical implications - is fear and uncertainty. We live in a time of extraordinary unsettlement, with a resurgence of war attitudes, international polarisation, galloping globalisation, and the acceptance as normal of stressful life styles. As Peter Schulthess reminds us, our founders attended to such social and political pressures, and -not least to be in tune with our holistic vision - we might need to pay more attention too, in the Gestalt field today. 

Elaine Kepner

It was a very sad item of Gestalt news to hear that Elaine Kepner had died in December, 2002, at the age of 82, after a long illness. Although less well known in Britain than some American trainers, two chapters written by her have become classics, and are well worth re-reading. (They are: 'Gestalt Therapy: A Behavioristic Phenomenology' in Gestalt Therapy Now, edited by Joen Fagan and Irma Lee Shepherd, 1970, Science and Behaviour Books [with Lois Brien]; and Gestalt Group Process' in Beyond the Hot Seat, edited by Bud Feder and Ruth Ronall, 1980, Brunner/Marel.)

Elaine was a Founding member of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland and on its professional staff. Born and bred in Cleveland, (Ohio), she lived there for many years, attended graduate school while bringing up three children, and obtained her doctorate in 1960 from Case Western Reserve University, where she subsequently taught. At the time of her death we were exploring how we might interview her for the BGJ. She was a formidable figure from the early days of Gestalt, with many memories of Fritz, someone with an interest in systems thinking, and a particular interest in group dynamics, politics, and organisations. That she would have been well worth interviewing adds to the sense of loss.

For me personally her death was significant, Elaine was one of my main trainers at Cleveland, and we made a good connection. We kept in contact for many years and my first 'assisting' was with her - in Britain, in 1979, also with Gaie Houston. With Elaine, I felt supported, seen, and stimulated. I liked the range of her interests, her intellect, her humour, and her anecdotes. She was an intelligent thinker, and read widely, though never alas completed a long promised book of her own. 

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, at Elaine's funeral, remarked on her life as 'an amazing quest for learning and wholeness.' She knew (Carolyn went on) 'deep heartache and soaring joy.' She also had 'an uncanny sense of when to rail against the injustice of systems we live in, and she knew when to demand each of us to take personal responsibility.' Though not always perhaps the easiest person with whom to collaborate, she was an outstanding teacher and inspired hundreds of students. It is coincidental that we are publishing a notable contribution in this issue from her son, James Kepner. He dedicates the article to the memory of his mother. Thank you, Elaine, for nurturing his talent.

Malcolm Parlett 

Letter to the Editor:

Non-Academic Research - 'Human Data on a Journey of Discovery': A Response to Paul Barber - Julia Carer

Book Review:

Body of Awareness: A Somatic and Developmental Approach to Psychotherapy by Ruella Frank - Shirley Summers


Gestalt Therapy and Politics - Peter Schulthess