Volume 13, 2 (2004)


Volume 13, 2 (2004)


The British Gestalt Journal 2004, Volume 13, 2


Editorial - Malcolm Parlett 

Interviewed by Sally Denham-Vaughan - 'A Gestalt Integration' - Gary Yontef

Drive Theory in Gestalt Therapy - Peter Philippson 

Why Awareness Works - And Other Insights from Spiritual Practice - Robert Kolodny 

Gestalt Therapy: A Harm Reduction Approach - Mark Fairfield 

Towards an Integrative and Holistic Model of Gestalt Couple Therapy - Glenda Devlin and Brian O'Neill 

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One of the most encouraging features of the 8th Triennial Conference of the European Association of Gestalt Therapy, held in Prague in September 2004, was that it was a lot more youthful than in times past (I do not think solely because of the 'policemen get younger every year' factor). I have been at Gestalt conferences when people have come up to me and said: 'Look around you. What's the average age? Where's the next generation coming from? Gestalt will die out.' No one could have come away from the Prague conference with that idea. In Eastern Europe, as well as in many other countries, there is a younger presence; there is energy; numbers are increasing. The future looks promising. 

In many places - including in 'old' Europe and America - Gestalt therapy is alive and doing well. Training standards are on the rise; there is a lot more international connecting and collaboration; and intellectual exchanges are happening that would not have been supported in earlier times - for instance, a panel at the EAGT conference discussed a particular clinical case from radically contrasting Gestalt therapy traditions, an activity that would have been regarded as potentially explosive by most conference organisers only five years ago. Stereotypes about people from other Gestalt lineages and institutes are eroding. 

What is giving Gestalt thinking a new edge, a spring in the stride, a sense of renewal? Alternatively, the question might be: what ensures its survival, despite evidence of its widespread non-acceptance - for instance in lots of National Health Service settings in the UK? Well, here is one possible explanation. 

Gestalt therapy, in its earliest formulation, stood a real chance of having a long term impact because its founders, knowingly or not, anticipated future trends in therapeutic thought. The particular theoretical synthesis that Fritz and Laura Perls and Paul Goodman came up with was inspired. Thus, philosophically, it was compatible with those great movements of thought that in the early twentieth century focused on human existence itself, direct and unmediated. Our founders happily embraced a humanist, secular position in an era of declining religious belief and yet, again ahead of the times, were connecting to traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism. Contact in the here-and-now anticipated the later commitments to dialogue and the quality of the therapeutic relationship. Holism was championed from the start, ahead of its being common to do so - and nothing has occurred since to suggest that body, feeling states, and physical phenomena can be sidelined. Above all, perhaps, Gestalt therapy's orientation included a distinct opening to anti-individualistic thought, a readiness to operate in the uncertain psychological territory of a flexible self * one that is ever-changing, field-dependent, and creatively adjusting within an ever-changing human milieu. And it is only in the postmodern world that such ideas have a wide currency. 

In other words, we have received a generous legacy: a basic infrastructure of theory and philosophy that has stood the test of time. In fact it is better than that: Gestalt therapy is an approach that others either have imitated or around which they have built similar systems (without attribution); or they have withstood Gestalt thinking and yet independently come up with more or less the same ideas, simply because they are true, or they work. There are multiple signs of convergence upon positions where Gestalt therapists have long settled. 

Alongside our founders' arresting yet sensible synthesis were the maverick people who first assembled; and the unwillingness at first to institutionalise and lay down any guidelines regarding the teaching of the new approach. This resulted in a chaotic and dispersed beginning phase with a fragmented representation of Gestalt therapy,
versions of which were neither written down nor shared between beginning institutes or between teachers. Instead, they were passed on by modelling/imitating, a fundamentally introjective process.

A Written Tradition

As we have suggested before, continued reliance on the oral tradition - as characterised the 1960s and '70s - would have led to the death of Gestalt therapy before now. The growth since the 1980s of a substantial literature has led to increased recognition of our shared intellectual heritage. This is another reason for the spring in the step - the forming of an international professional community has firmer foundations on which to build. For training standards to rise and greater professionalism to become the norm, history philosophy, and distinctive concepts of our approach have to be properly appreciated. The days when theorising was 'elephant shit', when the head was a shameful encumbrance, and when people were discouraged from reading, are thankfully long gone. 

Of course, with any connection of an imbalance, there are dangers. And we have not been hesitant in naming these, despite the fact that the British Gestalt Journal cannot but fall into the 'theoretical wing', as it were, of the Gestalt community. Theorising, for instance, could become an industry for a few deep thinkers who talk between themselves and leave everyone else out. Or cultivating a surface appearance of understanding - for instance, to achieve an academic award - may disguise deep confusion beneath. Or there could be a progressive slide in the teaching of Gestalt towards more talking about and less direct experiencing, to the point where the alive, visceral, non-verbal qualities of Gestalt therapy are submerged under layers and layers of printed words. 

We have chosen for the present issue of the BGJ to take a very broad sweep, and to explore many of the fundamental ongoing themes. We return to our aims as a Journal: to provide a means of access to some of the major lines of thinking in Gestalt therapy today; to stimulate inquiry and dialogue; to reaffirm our roots; to push the boundaries of the approach; to offer an outlet for people's creativity; and to encourage new writers and new writing. Above all we have to remain mindful of Gestalt therapy being a practice for which the philosophy and ideas remain always in a supporting, background role.


From the beginning of the BGJ, interviews have been important and popular. They have taken a variety of forms and styles. Here is another that is first rate. 

Gary Yontef is one of the best known, and one of the most published Gestalt therapists, trainers, and thinkers. He has experiences that go back to working with Fritz Perls and Jim Simkin; he has written many chapters and journal articles and one of the most widely read contemporary textbooks; and has been a leading figure in most of the serious theoretical debates. He has also - we are delighted to point out - been one of the most stalwart supporters of the British Gestalt Journal, having been an Editorial Adviser since the beginning. 

Interviewed here in lively fashion by Sally Denham-Vaughan (of whom more anon), Yontef describes some of his early Gestalt experiences, and provides some informative vignettes for future historians of Gestalt therapy. He goes on to describe the origins of 'relational Gestalt', his later thinking about working with borderline phenomena, and a variety of other practice-oriented issues. He ends by talking about embodiment and joins in some of the discussion of the erotic that has been going on in the BGJ. We are pleased to have Gary's views on so many different issues and I recommend the interview to readers. 

Of course, Gary Yontef also appeared in the last issue (13, 1) with a Letter to the Editor, where he took issue with a number of Des Kennedy's points about the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (in his article in 12,2). Kennedy returns here to do battle, with a vigorous rejoinder to Gary Yontef. To appreciate the debate between them, it is worth having the two previous issues of the Journal to hand. 

A happy by-product of the Kennedy/Yontef discussion will be if more Gestalt therapists are stimulated to try reading Merleau-Ponty themselves. One thing that both protagonists agree on is the importance of his insights for Gestalt therapy. His thinking, however difficult to understand for those not steeped in phenomenological philosophy, does go to the very core of 'embodiment', and as such touches on one of the central tenets of Gestalt therapy. Our founders were unable to identify Merleau-Ponty's work as central because his key work was not translated into English until 1962. (Interestingly, however, there was a common link via Kurt Goldstein - Merleau-Ponty knew him and quoted him.) Arguably, here is a good test of whether Gestalt therapy theorists are capable of updating themselves, regenerating and adding to the body of essential ideas and drawing in new key writers.

The Articles

Peter Philippson contributes a welcome new paper. It follows on from the interview with Yontef and emphasises the importance of 'relational Gestalt therapy [being] both dialogic and embodied'. The paper makes a powerful case for traditional drive theory. It is also a further contribution to the thoughts surrounding the erotic. 

Next comes an excellent paper about Gestalt and Buddhist practice, contributed by a new writer here, Robert Kolodny. As suggested above, Gestalt therapy may be a powerful synthesis; however, many of its contributory founding influences are under-explored, and the bridge made to Buddhist psychology has been flimsy at best. Kolodny goes some way to strengthening the bridge, and his precision about similarities and differences, and his descriptions of states of being (for instance: 'mudata, or malleability, pliancy, or non-rigidity of mind') have obvious utility and are worth study. 

Mark Fairfield's article follows: another breaking of new territory by a previously unpublished author in the BGJ. Mark is the director of the HIV Community Center in Santa Monica, in California, and a Gestalt therapist. In a deeply thoughtful paper, based on his working with a client group characterised by extreme deprivation, he is advocating a position for Gestalt therapists in relation to working with addicts in particular. He argues that our theory should predispose us towards not taking up a position that abstinence is necessary before therapeutic work can begin. 'Harm reduction', a stance that leans towards a public health perspective, is a corollary of our field perspective. This is a key paper on a vital, contemporary subject. 

Two other newcomers to the BGJ, Glenda Devlin and Brian O'Neill, writing jointly about their work, come next. They work as couples therapists in Australia, and we are delighted to have their article about working with couples: there have been very few in the life of the Journal on this theme. We hope that this very practice oriented paper will stimulate others to write about their own experiences in this field. It is also a paper which will be widely used by teachers and trainee couple therapists.

Letters, Book Reviews, and Opinion

Two letters appear in this issue: one is Des Kennedy's, already referred to; and the other is a very balanced and thoughtful response from Leanne O'Shea to Bill Cornell's and Sally Quilter's letters on love in therapy in the last issue. This is becoming one of our longest running discussions, and O'Shea's statement would be a good note to rest on. 

Next comes a 'book review essay' in which a distinguished writer is given full opportunity to develop a theme based around an important book. We are pleased to welcome back Sylvia Fleming Crocker who provides here a very worthwhile discussion about creativity in Gestalt therapy, based around a major new book edited by Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb and Nancy Amendt-Lyon, entitled Creative License: The Art of Gestalt Therapy. This discussion of creativity is one of the most substantial we have published, and it is definitely worth reading (as is the book itself from which Crocker draws inspiration).

This is followed by a review of Ruth Lampert's book on Gestalt therapy with children, from Neil Harris, who brings professional experience and a critical eye, and adds a number of his own observations. This is actually a very important statement, disguised as a short book review. 

Lastly, after a display of the richness of Gestalt therapy - its development, its field of applications, its distinguishing emphases on embodiment and relationship - a reminder from Anna Bates and Paul Barber about Gestalt's link to humanistic psychology. The Opinion sounds a warning about the predominance of academic and professional values in Gestalt therapy training: for all the gains, there is also a danger of losing something essential and life-giving. Thanks to Anna and Paul for a provocative statement to end upon.

Apologies to Don Diespecker and Lenny Ravich

We are aware at the BGJ office that in every issue some efforts escape our notice, despite rigorous proof reading. Mostly they are minor if irritating for you (and perhaps even more to us) to find after publication. Occasionally more serious errors get through, and in the last issue (13,1) there were several. Don Diespecker's name was misspelled not once but in three places, including in the Editorial and on the Contents page. Lenny Ravich, too, had his book (reviewed by Andy Birtwell) re-titled by us as well as his name altered in the Contents. The book reviewed - and this is correct - was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Enlightenment. 

To Don and Lenny: I think we can all project ourselves into your places and can imagine our own reactions had these kinds of mistake been made about ourselves or a book that we had written. That both errors were emblazoned on the front cover makes them seem even more egregious. I am very sorry that they occurred. We have reviewed our procedures and added a further stage of checking. Hopefully errors will be further reduced, though never - I suspect - to nil.

The Friends and the BGJ Annual Seminar

We continue to be indebted to the support of the Friends of the British Gestalt Journal. The names of current Friends appear at the end of the Journal, as usual. We do not take this support for granted: the fact that we are not bumping along on the edge of insolvency is a huge benefit to those who give their time unpaid to the work of the BGJ and enables us to concentrate on the real work of producing and promoting a journal of the highest quality. We appreciate those who have made this commitment to sponsor us, and invite others to consider doing so. 

We have decided that the 'Friends Day' needs to change somewhat. In many ways, the Day has evolved to be a kind of BGJ annual general meeting and networking session with a special lunch, and high level intellectual stimulation as well. This year there were two invited speakers, Frank-M. Staemmler and Ernesto Spinelli. Both gave exciting, very well presented papers. In 2005, the Friends Day will be renamed and relaunched as the BGJ Annual Seminar. It will be open to anyone who wishes to attend and a modest charge will be made. Friends will receive concessions. Again, there will be high-level presentations and intellectual exchange, with a good lunch, and an opportunity to meet people and to engage in conversation. Notice of the date and arrangements will be given.

Advance Notice of Change of Editor

I have given notice to the board of Gestalt Publications Ltd. that I shall retire from the editorship on my 65th birthday, in July 2006 - in roughly eighteen months time. After much thinking about a replacement, the board approached Sally Denham-Vaughan and I am delighted to announce that she has agreed to succeed me as Editor of the British Gestalt Journal, from July 2006. Sally will be 'shadowing' me for a couple of issues before then, and I shall be helping her with her first issue as Editor. Further announcements about the changeover will be made later, but since information of my stepping down is now in the public domain, I wanted you as a reader to hear from me directly. To those who do not know Sally, I refer you to her discussion with Gary Yontef in this issue, and the short author's note at its end. And she will introduce herself more fully at a later stage.

Malcolm Parlett


Letters to the Editor:

Perception and Awareness: A Reply to Gary Yontef - Des Kennedy 

Fears, Intimacy, and Vulnerability in the Face of Eros: A Response to Quilter and Cornell - Leanne O'Shea 

Book Reviews:

Creative License: the Art of Gestalt Therapy edited by Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb and Nancy Amendt-Lyon - Sylvia Fleming Crocker

A Child's Eye View: Gestalt therapy with Children, Adolescents and Their Families by Ruth Lampert - Neil Harris 


Dangers in Forgetting Our Humanistic Roots - Anna Bates and Paul Barber