Volume 15, 1 (2006)


Volume 15, 1 (2006)


The British Gestalt Journal 2006, Volume 15, 1


Notice from the Publishers

Editorial - Malcolm Parlett

On being Absurd: Soren Kierkegaard 1813-1855 - Sean Gaffney 

The Trainer's Presence in Effective Gestalt Training - Juliet Denham 

The Poetry of Gestalt Therapy Interview with Jan Ruckert - Carol Swanson and Mark Fairfield 

Dialogue in Groups - Adam Harvatis

Gestalt and Family Constellations: Compatible, Complementary, or Conflicting? - Janet Gunn 

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Writing my last editorial I become aware of a mix of emotions and thoughts. I feel both excited and regretful about retiring from being editor; anticipation flip-flops with relief; I can gaze at heights scaled or others not achieved. In Gestalt circles, we take for granted such complexity of states and varieties of self-positioning. In Sean Gaffney's article in this issue, we learn how a Gestalt ancestor, Soren Kierkegaard, explored his own intense contrasts and how he rejoiced in paradoxes and contradictions. And we can do so too. Variety and inconsistency, so often castigated, are strengths as much as weaknesses - that's the substance of what I want to say as I leave.
We do not need to look far to come across a lack of uniformity. Even Gestalt therapy turns out to be questionable. 'Therapy' carries baggage that many - for example, consultants to large systems - don't wish to carry at all and even for therapists has unfortunate 'doing to' associations. Others opt for calling themselves Gestalt psychotherapists, while still trying to explain that psyche therapy does not exclude soma and that what they do remains an anti-dualistic approach. Many practitioners drop the second word and talk just of 'Gestalt', a usage disdained by some (including the late Isadore From) on the grounds that it is vague and pretentious. Others, including me as it happens, use all the names according to the situation of use. The variety in naming extends to whether, in English, our approach is to be depicted as Gestalt Therapy with capitals G and T or as plain gestalt therapy, (the BGJ position sticks to big G, small t: my successor may decide otherwise!)

Unity and Diversity

In other words, even at the front gate of the Gestalt property, visitors get indications of complexity, different fields of application, and alternative possibilities. Entering, and meeting the approach face-to-face, there are more surprises. The scope of the enterprise is striking - for instance, how come that the approach can intersect with human life as a biological, social, and experiential process all at the same time? It is oddly difficult to grasp at first. The concepts in use are unexpected; they seem simple and turn out to be slippery and difficult to define.

At a different point in the learning curve, I am still in awe at the breadth of the Gestalt enterprise - our shared, rich, fascinating, and sometimes confusing field of inquiry and practice. In fact, as I am writing this, I am feeling like celebrating Gestalt's polarities and tensions, the multiple applications, the tidal currents of theoretical difference, and the diversity of therapeutic practice styles. They are good inoculations against the usual consequences of seeking uniformity - the growth of central control and bureaucracy, censorship and fundamentalism. We have seen steps towards these latter outcomes, and Gestalt has shifted its centre of gravity towards more structure and coherence. And my suggestion is that, in doing so, we may throw away part of our attraction.

I acknowledge, of course, the dangers of an 'anything goes' carelessness or grand muddle. As editor, I have often come down on the side of pushing for more coherence, structure, and collegiality. It is obvious there are major drawbacks in having different trainers, institutes, and even countries taking Gestalt in different directions, and obvious too that it would be good for Gestalt if we spoke in the world with more authority and unity of vision.

Re-inspired by Kierkegaard (and also by Frank Staemmler in his article on Consistency in 14:1) I realise I can sit in either one of two chairs and argue convincingly from each - first, for more agreed thinking, and, second, switching to the other chair, for celebrating the colours of multiple interpretation, the whole spectrum. And then, standing back, I realise this about the BGJ: that by maintaining our presence, editorial style, and policies, we have played our part in the unifying and consolidation of the Gestalt approach that has been evident over the last twenty years; and we have done so, paradoxically, by championing diversity among writers and voices, by going for the broadest range of topics, and by signalling respect for different perspectives and schools world-wide, honouring the wisdom of each.

Diversity and Holism

The diversity and variation within Gestalt, that the British Gestalt Journal has embraced, is also a central
feature of our philosophy. It is a function of our holism.

We have to go back a bit - to a fundamental beginning point in Gestalt thought. A major feature of our philosophy is that we attend to the whole. Anything and everything can be addressed, seen as relevant, brought into the equation. Of course, not all of it is or could be - hence the necessity for present focus: 'Hey, yes, there is all that which we could look at, but let's concentrate instead on what is most immediate, pressing, and vital - including the context of its arising at this point.' This simple yet exquisite device - investigating figure-ground - is what enables us to attend to the whole and do it justice. We may have plans in advance, but we also see what is 'up' at the time and are ready to jettison the pre thinking in the light of experience at the point of contact. It is as if, as Gestaltists, we can gain access to a huge guarded building through a small side door that others don't even notice. The essentials are a clear head, an embodied state of visceral aliveness, and a grounded sense of the possible in the time available.

An over-simple picture, yes, but the implication of making avenues into holistic complexity is that we can do it so many different ways. Hence the appearance of inconsistency, the lack of uniformity. But painters and writers are inevitably individual in their artistry. There are as many ways to paint the 'same' landscape as there are painters. If honoured rather than disparaged, variations add to the overall appreciation of the whole.
Unsurprisingly, our founders offered several different versions of Gestalt therapy, and had 'the parents' stayed together there might have been several great and different syntheses and integrations, following the first great one, Gestalt Therapy, by Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman. They were well informed, alive to numerous trends of thought, and looked outside the narrow confines of psychotherapy. Fritz in particular was a notorious collector even purloiner, of others' terms and methods, and had the chutzpah and vision to integrate them with his own. He was not embarrassed by his ideas and emphases shifting over time. Fritz was a brilliant maker, a resourceful maverick, and more a bricoleur than a bricklayer. The first substantial theoretical integration required Paul Goodman, but in the earlier Ego, Hunger; and Aggression, Fritz (and Laura, the unacknowledged second author) had already shown appetite for creatively synthesising others' ideas and drawing on a whole range of different outlooks.

In passing, it is worth pointing out that we should not be surprised, as we move around the fields of psychotherapy, systems thinking, holistic medicine, the spiritual search, effective management etc., that Gestalt-like themes seem to crop up everywhere. Given the breadth of our founders' interests, the scope of their agenda, and the raiding of others' best ideas, overlaps and parallels are inevitable. Acknowledging our history, we should stop whinging about others pinching Gestalt ideas and not giving us credit! Copying the approach is a form of disseminating its value.

This Issue and its Contents

Another notable challenge for the BGJ has been to find ways of refreshing explicit knowledge (the written down and talked about variety, i.e. 'the literature') with newly out-ed, freshly articulated ideas that stem directly from Gestalt-based practice and experience. In other words, we have wanted to honour the implicit kind of knowing that suffuses our practice, and is manifested in our competence. The wish has been to help make explicit what is mostly kept implicit, hidden in the ways we work. Through the act of getting it down and published, the rest of the professional community can learn.

Obviously, the balance is different in each article and each issue. I am delighted that in Vol.15, No.1 there is a very good mix.

We begin with Sean Gaffney's article on Kierkegaard to which I have already made reference. It began as a presentation at the first of the two 'Roots' Conferences, both in Europe, highlighting the lives and ideas of previous thinkers and their often unacknowledged contributions to Gestalt. These excellent conferences have been organised by the Gestalt International Study Center and many of the contributions have landed up in our friendly competitor journal, the Gestalt Review. We are very glad that we bagged this one! It is a delightful introduction to Kierkegaard, whose living and writing exuded intensity and set existential philosophy on its path. Sean makes Soren present and accessible; he also describes his own process in a wonderfully entertaining fashion.

Superficially, the Sean Gaffney article might seem to qualify as being 'just theory', but theory is never divorced from individuals' making sense of it, from the existence in which the ideas land. Personal resonances abound - as is also the case with the next article: Juliet Denham's article about presence - specifically the presence of the Gestalt trainer. Here is a fine example of bringing together recognisable elements, astute observation, and what she has assimilated from other writers. She achieves a new integration, explicit knowledge added. It is a most welcome contribution to a theme more or less passed over in the literature.

An interview follows with a greatly esteemed teacher on America's west coast, Jan Ruckert, conducted by two lively and supportive interviewers, Carol Swanson and Mark Fairfield. As often happens in interviews, a distinguished practitioner thinks out loud, the reader witnesses the shift from implicit to explicit knowing and then goes through another level of connection - recognising and self-recognising. This interview is also novel for the BGJ in that Mark and Carol decided to carry out the interview and then sent us the result -normally we instigate. Thank you, Jan, Mark, and Carol!
Adam Harvatis writes next about groups. The BGJ has published little about groups, so this reflective paper is timely and welcome. He draws on ideas of others and adds his own, drawing on brief case studies of events in groups. The result is a good addition to a growing section of the Gestalt literature.
Finally, among the main papers, there is Janet Gunn's research into what Gestalt specialists think of 'Constellations'. This is contentious stuff, the work of Hellinger and his followers provoking enthusiasm and derision in roughly equal proportions. I have heard the approach described as 'proto-fascism' and also as 'a wonderful expansion of field theory in action'. Perhaps a majority is interested but circumspect. Whatever your position, no one can dispute that Janet Gunn offers a lucid account of the arguments and makes the case for at least keeping an open mind.

The BGJ has published articles from time to time that we have known some of our readers would object to in principle, and Janet Gunn's article may fall into that category. When the Journal began, we had to learn how to leap gracefully (or climb laboriously) over assorted barriers to communication. At that time, sealed belief systems, feuds, and pecking orders cluttered the Gestalt world. There has been a wonderful shift in this regard - towards a more open and dialogic, and therefore more intelligent, Gestalt community. International meetings, the internet, a book publishing explosion, and more people reading and writing for journals have together helped stimulate the change. And one of the changes has been more openness in absorbing influences from other Gestalt writers - for instance, Daniel Stern, Alan Schore, Antonio Damasio, Peter Senge, and Bert Hellinger.

Following the main articles come a variety of other treats. First, there is a Letter to the Editor from Jane Stringfellow. This follows up Sally Denham-Vaughan's article about bulimia in the last issue, and will command the reader's interest and respect for Jane's self-revealing insights and practical observations.

Then comes the most original, and arguably most important book review we have ever published. Vying with climate change, as the biggest world issue, are the relationships between groups, nations, cultures, religions, and differentiated patterns of thinking that exist within humanity. Talia Levine Bar-Yoseph has edited a crucial book, The Bridge - Dialogues Across Cultures, and here Marie-Anne Chidiac and Julianne Appel-Opper describe it and talk together about it. We join in as participants, privileged to be reading the emails that passed between them. (I introduce the review more fully at its beginning.)
Finally, in the Opinion, Lee Trusttum writes movingly about her physical impairment, drawing us into her life and problems and describing also the Gestalt therapy inspired developments that she has gone through as she has accepted 'what is', more fully and dispassionately.

Gender and International Connections

As I conclude my term, two points deserve underlining. The gender balance of writers in the Journal has always been a concern. I have been aware of two simple statistics. First, in most countries, and for certain in Britain, there are many more female Gestalt students and practitioners than male ones. Second, the clear majority of unsolicited manuscripts arriving at the BGJ office have been written by male authors. Sometimes we have ourselves wondered if Mind - the stereotypic province of the male - has been allowed to strut through our pages sounding off about big ideas, while Body and Soul - the essential and practically-minded daughters - have been given lower status and fewer pages.

Seeking always to encourage the women among our community to write, I note with relief that in this issue there are eight women and four men (including myself) who have contributed.

One other priority has been our legitimacy in being an international journal. In the first issue, back in 1991, I wrote that the chief focus was to 'promote Gestalt in Britain...if it is to flourish, (it) has to become so rooted here that it is regarded as indigenous, not as a foreign import' (Vol.1, no 1, p 2). Gestalt has been growing its British roots, for sure, with the BGJ playing its part. We have also got long past saying we 'welcome occasional contributors from overseas' (ibid): indeed, had we relied on British writers alone, the Journal would have been wafer thin at times. Naturally, we have wanted a strong representation of British writers - seeking them out, cajoling, welcoming and sometimes coaching the less experienced; yet we have also delighted in cosmopolitan variety. And we do so again in this issue, with writing from a Greek, a Lebanese, a German, a New Zealander, three Americans, four Britons, as well as an Irishman living in Sweden!


As I said at the beginning of this marathon editorial, I have mixed feelings about departing and yet know that it is the right move. I think of the journey, from the gleam in Ray Edwards eye as he expounded his dream of setting up a Gestalt journal in Britain, to now. It has been some journey, and one of the most instructive of my life. I am not retiring from all Gestalt work and will continue to practise and teach.

As I leave, I also think of the accompanying players and helpers that have helped along the way. Some have been thanked already in earlier issues - Ray himself, Pat Levitsky, Judith Hemming, and Paul Barber. They and others have assisted in realising the dream, as did both Richard Evans and the Artemis Trust with initial funding and also my founding colleagues in GPTI by acting as the first publishers.

I particularly want to thank two long-term workers behind the scenes. First, Caroline Hutcheon, who has been the editorial assistant and proof-reader-in-chief for many years, and also has other responsibilities, as subscriptions manager and administrator. She has a fount of accumulated experience, and is very punctilious over details (both of inestimable benefit!). I have relied on her more and more as the years have passed. Thank you, Caroline, for your diligence, understanding, and for taking care.

Second, Naomi Jadwat, who lays out the pages and is central in the later stages of production, has been involved in all the issues except the first three. She brings unfailing goodwill and remarkable stamina, especially on the last day before the Journal goes to print, with Brenda Luckock and I still proofing, adjusting, re-writing, and checking up to the last hectic moment, most of which involves Naomi in further work. So, thank you, and the others at Splash Printing, for brilliant service over the last 26 issues.

I regularly thank the Friends of the British Gestalt Journal, for saving us from going out of business and for continuing to sponsor an operation that would be barely if ever profit-making left on its own. The job of editing has been easier for knowing, and feeling, the back-up provided by the Friends.

I also thank my fellow directors in the publishing company - they have already had their say! I wish to thank them for their companionship in running the business in recent years, and for their unfailing support to me personally, especially for upholding the principle of complete editorial independence.
Finally, I come to joyfully welcoming my successor, Christine Stevens, and wishing her and her team well.
Christine, I hope your stay will be long, successful, and satisfying. Journals, like lots of things, need new ideas, younger energy, and fresh creative input. Nothing stays the same, nor should we kid ourselves that it is possible. I shall disappear, except as a reader and maybe a contributor, leaving the British Gestalt Journal in good hands.

A Personal Postscript

When I trained, back in the 1970s, there was a lot of intolerance towards intellectuality in the Gestalt world, especially on the part of fellow trainees. On one occasion I was under considerable pressure to disown my academic past and intellectual interests.

Emerging from a particularly steamy encounter, I felt an arm around my shoulder. I looked up to find Bill Warner, one of my trainers at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland (greatly loved and respected, Bill died suddenly in 1979, while still in his early 50s). What Bill said on that occasion reverberated through my whole body and being: 'I am not one of those who believe that Gestalt requires that we anaesthetise the head'.
I have often wondered how my life might have been different, if Bill Warner had not reached out to me with this support at that particular time. I think it is possible that without his liberating, slightly conspiratorial intervention, I might have introjected the dominant norm of the era. Had I done so, I might well have not become the editor of this Journal.

So as I bow out, knowing that I have loved doing this work, I feel a depth of gratitude to Bill Warner, to whom I wish I could say 'thank you' in person. I cannot, but I can thank all readers of the Journal, without whom it would not have flourished as it has.

Malcolm Parlett

Letter to the Editor:

Brief Gestalt Therapy for Clients with Bulimia: A Response to Sally Denham-Vaughan - Jane Stringfellow

Book Review:

The Bridge: Dialogues Across Cultures edited by Talia Levine Bar-Yoseph - Julianne Appel-Opper and Marie-Anne Chidiac 


Physical Impairment and the Paradox of Change - Lee Trusttum