Volume 14, 2 (2005)


Volume 14, 2 (2005)


The British Gestalt Journal 2005, Volume 14, 2


Editorial - Malcolm Parlett and Neil Harris

A Centennial Celebration of Laura Perls: The Aesthetic of Commitment - Daniel J. Bloom 

Interviewed by Malcolm Parlett - 'Therapy of the Situation' - Georges Wollants 

Gestalt Students at Tate Modern: A Qualitative Research Study - Christine Stevens 

The Lived Body - Des Kennedy 

Shame and Creative Adjustment in a Multicultural Society - Turid Heiberg 

Brief Gestalt Therapy (BGT) for Clients with Bulimia - Sally Denham-Vaughan 

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The Evolution of Gestalt

The 'ecological niche' in which Gestalt therapy first evolved continues to change, introducing new selection pressures with which to contend. As with all other animate and intentional processes, change is inevitable within the Gestalt field. The questions are: 'In what direction, and with what possibilities other than the simple imperative to survive?' Our Gestalt philosophy - vision, model, discipline, or approach, you will have your own preferred term - is a constituent part of the total endeavour to sustain and inform the human world. 

Having just returned from a ground-shifting international Gestalt meeting, and imbued with the extra optimism engendered at such times, we are conscious of the deep commitment, as practitioners and editors of the British Gestalt Journal, that we have to Gestalt as a very particular part of the whole world scene. 

The conference in question was one of several important international meetings this year - two others were the second 'Roots of Gestalt Therapy' conference organised by Gestalt International Study Center and held in Antwerp in April, and a meeting of Gestalt institutes and organisations at Vallekilde, in Denmark, in October, both of which were regarded as very successful by those attending. 

The one that we attended was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, celebrating forty years of Gestalt at Esalen - a place hitherto associated with Fritz Perls and the 1960s' explosion of interest in Gestalt therapy that thrived in the social and political conditions of that era. The title of the conference was 'The Evolution of Gestalt: Intervention for Change in a Complex Field'. Questions addressed included: 'What core values and theoretical principles currently form the heart of the Gestalt approach?' 'What developments in other fields do we need to know about and assimilate?' 'How do we acknowledge and manage differences in the Gestalt community?' 'How can we maximise our influence in protecting the futures of our children and grandchildren, and of the world's family?' 

Throughout the five days, a shared focus and language developed. We converged around the inevitably interconnected, interrelated, interdependent nature of our existence, and the fact that our experience, our reality, is co-created, emergent, and embodied. Not for the first time, the centrality of phenomenology, the crucial need for dialogue, and experimenting in the field, were seen as a threefold defining basis, along with the continuing need to move beyond individualistic psychology in order to embrace a more holistic, relational, and situational perspective.

The Gestalt Brand

There was also thinking about how we presented ourselves in a world of competing and overlapping approaches. 'How might we brand ourselves for the future? How do we insure our survival in the market place of ideas? And, with our great product, how do we reach more of our potential customers (all 6.5 billion of them)?' 

One line of thought was that we might consider extending the brand, or at least having a variety of ways of describing and naming our approach. Thus, some Gestalt therapists, feeling a weight of negativity associated with the word 'gestalt' in their local setting, could perhaps be supported by calling themselves 'PDE therapists' (phenomenological dialogical experimental), to join other colleagues with three-letter acronyms! (BGT - Brief Gestalt Therapy - is already being used.) 

Whatever our response to such suggestions, they underline the need continually to reassess how Gestalt can exist alongside, and supportively engage with, other approaches. Gestalt enthusiasts, being also members of other professions and specialties, can 'infect' their non-Gestalt peers through their presence and by demonstrating the aptness of the model for the times in which we live, if necessary in fresh language while remaining true to fundamental principles. What is clear is that given the greater project of planetary survival, maintaining ourselves as a small theoretical ghetto with an excluding jargon is indefensible. Creative possibilities are generated if we can engage in dialogue through and across difference; or if we acknowledge similarities - especially with constructivist ideas, emerging cognitive approaches, the findings from neuroscience, and the ever wider acceptance of embodiment. There is a need, too, to search for new ways of conveying our approach, with its joyful spirit and its resonant holistic insights. In so doing, we might avoid 'the narcissism of small differences' between ourselves. 

The conference - in the beautiful (if unrepresentative) conditions of the Esalen Institute - was an important fractal of the whole world scene, where issues of difference, connection, community, hope, and love were all at play; talked through, felt, lived, and danced. However, while most continents were represented at the meeting, Africa was not: a glaring gap in our global reach. 

The gathering was timely. We may not now be in the Cold War era - the time when Gestalt became well known - with its threat of nuclear obliteration, but we do have deep fractures between peoples that if anything are even more dangerous. All of us recognise that the world is unpredictable, ever more complex and interconnected, and changing almost every week. We can also sense, those of us with grounding in the approach, that Gestalt is a significant potential contributor to the way forward. The conference underlined this. It was a rich and many textured, multi-stranded meeting that left those present enlivened and celebratory if also slightly breathless at the task that faces us.

Laura Perls Centenary

The scope of Gestalt thinking is revealed in the present issue. But first, a notable date: Laura Perls was born one hundred years ago. The British Gestalt Journal joins in celebrating the centenary of one of our founders, with gratitude for her life and the legacy received. Those of us identifying with the Gestalt approach and seeking to deepen our understanding of it, cannot go far without becoming aware of Laura's contribution to our shared field. Of the three acknowledged founders, Laura - the woman of the trio - outlived her husband, Fritz, as well as Paul Goodman, and her influence has continued to grow relative to theirs. She was the least showy and certain sounding of the three identified founders and a reluctant writer, yet her vision of Gestalt therapy is arguably closer to contemporary practice than that of either of her cofounders. 

We begin Volume 14, No. 2 by, in effect, joining the audience for a notable keynote address, given by Dan Bloom in June of this year at another conference - a special one in Germany to honour Laura Perls. Reproduced here, his speech, his voice, and his message engage us. It is as if we are sitting there listening. We are delighted to be publishing this lucid and appealing introduction to the essential Laura Perls, provided by the only person, apart from Laura herself, to have served two terms as president of the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy. Dan attends to the small detail of her ideas, avoids idealising her, and identifies the particular Laura Perls slant - her style, special interests, and recurring emphases. It is, without doubt, a celebration that will also be a widely quoted article. 

Our celebrating does not stop there. Bloom is followed by an interview with Georges Wollants, distinguished European Gestalt teacher and himself a former student of Laura Perls - as he explains. His theme is 'the situation', a term he prefers to 'field', and in his choice of terms he again follows Laura. Moreover, he is steeped in existential philosophy and in Gestalt psychology, a fertile ground for his thoughtful and convincing therapeutic approach - and here is another similarity to Laura Perls and her own scholarship, rooted in European thought and culture as she was. The interview follows in the best tradition of BGJ interviews: personal, far-ranging, provoking new thinking, even as we traverse territory that is recognisable and basic to Gestalt therapy practice. 

The Wollants interview is followed by Christine Stevens' account of an arresting experimental venture - taking Gestalt trainees on a visit to Tate Modern. Christine's interest was in part to help develop skills in qualitative research (which the Sherwood Institute has pioneered as part of its Gestalt training programme). However, she explicitly draws out the natural connection between Gestalt and immersion in the creative arts - a connection that was taken for granted by the original New York group, and by Laura, the accomplished pianist, advocate of reading literature (not just psychology texts), and attuned to the wider cultural and artistic scene of New York and beyond. The Tate Modern experience clearly affected those who took part, reminding us - as again Laura would have sought to - that our senses need educating, and are intrinsic to our developing sensibilities. 

The connection between senses, feelings, and expression in movement takes us to Laura Perls's particular orientation as a therapist, and also to the next article in this issue, by Des Kennedy. Familiar to regular readers, Des is here at his most eloquent and convincing. Taking off again from Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, he argues his case: that Gestalt therapy needs a more substantial and coherent philosophical base upon which we can stand confidently ('A therapy theory that lacks a foundation does not bear thinking about: it crumbles when questioned.'). And the key notion, at the very core of what Gestalt stands for, is that we have - we are - a body, a 'lived body', a 'given' lived body, a body through which we experience the world and act in the world and experience being 'all there in one cohesion of life'; and we are also, perforce, situated beings (there are strong connections here to themes in Georges Wollants' interview), and to Laura Perls when she said, 'You have to have a body to be some-body' (quoted by Bloom). The Kennedy piece is an important statement. It is good to imagine that Laura might have been excited by it too. 

Turid Heiberg's article is next. Writing perceptively about how shame arises in a multicultural society, she explores issues - social exclusion, discrimination, prejudice - that Laura Perls also knew at first hand and that helped inform her political attitudes. Turid writes informatively in the context of contemporary Norway, yet the issues, sadly, are applicable elsewhere and at other periods. Laura - alone among the founders - obviously also thought a lot about shame, and about how much support was required to be able to move through it. Heiberg's article follows two other papers that we have published in the past: Lynne Jacobs' influential piece, 'For Whites Only' (2000, Vol.9, No.1) and Joanna Hewitt Taylor's article on 'Childhood Abuse as Experienced by Black Women Living in Britain' (2002, Vol. 11, No. 2). We are glad to publish another article in this series and to welcome Turid Heiberg as a new writer to the BGJ. 

Most of the articles included in this issue did not begin with thoughts of Laura Perls, yet in each case there is a connection that has been easy to make. Even in the final article, by Sally Denham-Vaughan, there are two threads that tie the writing to the theme of the legacy bequeathed. Sally writes here about her work in a British National Health Service setting, where the medical model rules, and where she seeks to combine her Gestalt convictions with the demands of the treatment situation. It is clear that she adjusts creatively to what is possible - fulfilling Laura's challenge to us to be inventive and flexible in applying Gestalt therapy principles. The second connection, of course, is their separate but overlapping interests in eating, food, and heightening awareness - for Sally is describing in this article her pioneering work with bulimic clients, and as Dan Bloom points out, Laura never discarded her early interest in the child's early experiences of sucking, biting, and swallowing. 

In other words, this issue is indeed a celebration of the legacy. It could have been a Special Focus issue on 'Celebrating Laura Perls'. The interesting thing is that such an issue has appeared of its own accord, and it does not need the label.

The Book Reviews

We are glad to have three reviews of two books. We are following the experiment of a few issues ago in having invited two reviewers, Marian Crowley, a younger trainer, and Erving Polster, with the advantage of his long perspective, to review a new Gestalt textbook: Gestalt Therapy - History, Theory and Practice, edited by Ansel Woldt and Sarah Toman. This represents an ambitious book publishing venture, geared to and suitable for trainees in particular, yet bringing together a substantial body of writing - much of it American, but not all - that provides something like a comprehensive picture of Gestalt therapy and its applications in 2005. Both Marian and Erv have important things to say and say them well, and we commend their reviews to your attention. 

The other review was promised in the last issue. We invited Katy Wakelin, who wrote then about becoming a mother for the first time, to write more extensively about the book she praised at the time, Why Love Matters, by Sue Gerhardt. She has written a clear and interesting review of a book that falls into the 'non-Gestalt but definitely Gestalt-compatible' category, with important summaries of developments in the neurosciences that are useful to have presented. 

The one Letter to the Editor in this issue is from Lynne Jacobs, and that, too, is almost a second book review. Lynne writes to express a different overall view of Creative License, edited by Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb and Nancy Amendt-Lyon, from that of Sylvia Fleming Crocker who wrote a review of the book in Vol.13, No.2. Lynne indicates the basis for her recommending the book as highly as she does.

Retirement of Paul Barber

Paul Barber who has been an Associate Editor of the BGJ since 1997, is sadly now retiring from this position. For his colleagues on the Editor team this represents a significant loss of experience and talent. He will be missed, not least for his often questioning collective decisions and his challenging many of the Journal's working assumptions, always with good humour and willingness to go along with majority views, even if before acquiescing he had clearly enjoyed throwing our conventions in the air for critical examination. In this and other ways, Paul has played a significant and useful part in the life of the Journal over his eight years of involvement, which has also included contributing several articles himself for the BGJ and interviewing Joseph Zinker in one of the liveliest interviews we have published. Paul has worked hard and has been willing to take on tough editorial assignments, in the process acquiring a reputation for a 'slash and burn' approach to long-winded prose that some of his more restrained colleagues have envied. On behalf of his fellow editors, and on behalf of writers and readers who have benefited from his efforts, we should like to thank him and wish him well.

Letters to the Editor

As always, the Editor Team encourages the writing of letters. We are aware, however, that there is a pattern, and one that deserves to be broken: Letters to the Editor that are published tend to be from the disgruntled; letters, by contrast, that are basically 'Yes, I wish I had said that, and extending your idea further I am now thinking...' seem to be written, if written at all, in private and often by email to the author directly. In the past we have encouraged readers to respond to writers - after all, nothing is worse than silence and empty inboxes when you have put yourself out there in a self-exposing way and after a lot of hard work. So carry on that good practice! But will readers please also consider writing sometimes to voice their appreciation of what they have read, or the thoughts that have been evoked by reading something, or an expansion or confirmation of the writer's idea that deserves wider notice, and write it as a letter to be published? This will ensure that there is a greater range in the published Letters to the Editor and that, overall, appreciation has a place alongside critical reflection and verbal disputation.

Malcolm Parlett and Neil Harris

Letter to the Editor:

Recommending'Creative License' - Lynne Jacobs

Book Reviews:

Gestalt Therapy - History, Theory, and Practice edited by Ansel L. Woldt and Sarah M. Toman - Marian Crowley

Gestalt Therapy - History, Theory, and Practice edited by Ansel L. Woldt and Sarah M. Toman - Erving Polster

Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt - Katy Wakelin