Volume 7, 2 (1998)


Volume 7, 2 (1998)


The British Gestalt Journal 1998, Volume 7, 2


Editorial - Malcolm Parlett and Judith Hemming

Interviewed by Judith Hemming - The Field of Soul - Hunter Beaumont 

Gestalt: A Point of Departure for a Personal Spirituality - Des Kennedy

Remembering Earth: From Armoured Spectator to Sensuous Participant - Bill Cahalan 

The Gestalt Reflecting Team - Rachel Brier 

Towards a Gestalt Development Model - Gordon Wheeler 

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Welcome to the second issue of Volume 7. As usual there is a variety of Gestalt related topics and some excellent writing, both from new writers and voices familiar to regular readers - a good mix. We are wanting to stride out more adventurously by increasing our range, in subjects, styles, and authors. This issue stretches our familiarity boundary in ways which excite us. Our hope, of course, is that it will excite you as well.

While we occasionally seek papers around a common theme, usually we do not. Yet sometimes good material arrives, synchronistically, forming a natural cluster. Thus it has been with the first three papers. Readers will make their own connections between Hunter Beaumont's interview entitled 'The Field of Soul’; Des Kennedy's transcribed and shortened talk an Gestalt and Spirituality at the AAGT Meeting in May 1998, in Cleveland USA; and a paper by Bill Cahalan, about our intimate relating to the natural world. For us, what stands out is that each of the three writers is questioning the secular humanist bias of a lot of Gestalt writing, which regards as a bit embarrassing such words as 'soul' and 'spirit' and 'ultimate reality'. We are glad, therefore, that with these three papers (all very different, despite seeming a cluster) the BGJ is contributing to a kind of Gestalt topic and discourse that is still somewhat unusual.

Equally refreshing, in another way, is Joel Latner's piece, 'Sex in Therapy'. With this, we are glad to be reinstating the 'Opinion' section - where unconventional points of view can be given space with even less than usual editorial review. Dan Rosenblatt, in a letter in this issue, suggests the BGJ could be helping to establish a new orthodoxy in Gestalt. We intend otherwise.

Other contributions include several other letters (from Vincent Humphries, Peter Philippson, Malcolm Coward, and Lolita Sapriel); a thorough review by Ansel Woldt of Jennifer Mackewn's new book on Gestalt counselling; and two papers which are sharply different from one another. In the first, Rachel Brier describes a training method in detail. It is essentially practical, applied, and hands-on. In the second, Gordon Wheeler offers the most ambitious attempt to date at describing a Gestalt model of child development - long recognised as 'missing' - and, as a paper, it is unrepentantly theoretical. As we said earlier, this is a good mix.

The Good News and the Bad News

Publishing a journal is a tricky political process. 'Positions' are taken up or hotly defended about lots of things in the 'Gestalt world’, as in any other special focus area. Opinions differ markedly, not least about how Gestalt relates to spirituality, and certainly about the degree to which the founding text written by Goodman and Perls should be revered and continuously referred to, or dismantled, or ignored (or, indeed, thrown into the Pacific Ocean as Fritz Perls once said it should be).

The editorial function, as we see it here, is both to give expression to the various trends and movements of thought as they exist in Gestalt today, as well as to respect the tradition and enduring qualities of the approach. In the language of the 6th European Conference of Gestalt Therapy (Palermo, Italy, October 1998), this is a hermeneutic activity - interpreting the texts, the tradition, what has gone before, yet doing so in the ever changing contemporary context. Alongside the process of interpretation is also integration, 'chewing' recent developments in a way that is in keeping with our ethos.

The ground has indeed changed for the figure of Gestalt therapy. No list of the last fifty years’ changes can suffice. But think about some of their influences on Gestalt theory and practice: massive developments in holistic health practice; proliferating new psychotherapy approaches; changing psychiatric categories and thinking (e.g. in relation to personality disorders and increasing recognition of post-traumatic stress); psychoanalysis almost reinventing itself in some regards; and the vast attention paid to awareness training - e.g. in respect of the civil rights, womens', and gay/lesbian movements.

The world has indeed moved on. And it poses issues not just for editors of Gestalt journals, but for all who consider themselves part of the Gestalt community. The European Conference in Palermo, as well as the 1998 Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy (AAGT) in Cleveland, Ohio, drew Gestaltists from a huge range of countries. These gatherings reflect the fact that the Gestalt community has more international communications. There is a lively Gestalt presence on the world wide web; new journals appear; trainers criss-cross the planet; writers from different Gestalt 'cultures' are being translated more frequently. Gestalt, like much else, is being globalised. Though it remains a tiny specialist profession, it is less disconnected, at least by geography.

These changes make it a heady time, and at conferences it is easy to feel that Gestalt is healthy, viable, and growing. Sadly, however, this is only one side of the picture. It is not at all clear that overall the field of Gestalt therapy is thriving, at least in some countries (although here in Britain its reputation is steadily growing). In Germany, for instance, Gestalt therapists have found themselves denied recognition by the state in ways that formerly they had received, and Gestalt institutes are closing. The Gestalt therapy community there has suffered a grievous blow. In several other countries, too, Gestaltists find themselves up against powerful institutions - notably, national medical professional bodies, health insurance companies, and universities - which have 'endorsed' certain therapeutic approaches and left out Gestalt therapy, thus removing economic privileges and status. Such centralisation and political control of the therapy scene is, of course, completely at odds with the Gestalt outlook, but it happens.

Arguably, the lack of recognition is a condition with which Gestalt therapists have long contended. Either Gestalt is not taken seriously, or is trivialised, or still regarded as a fringe '60s style therapy, or otherwise diminished in status. Most of us have had to contend with gross misunderstandings and out of date stereotypes. This long term pattern has now become an acute problem for Gestaltists in certain countries.

How a Minority Can Respond

A situation like the one described above raises political questions - not the local politics within the Gestalt community, but in relation to the bigger systems and power centres that dictate public policy. Given the globalising tendency, these are issues for all of us, not just those who discover their professional specialisation has been sidelined and institutionally disparaged. There are at least four different possibilities, it seems to us, for the Gestalt professional community.

Option One: 'No Sell-Out’. The first approach is to take refuge in Gestalt’s anarchic tradition. This position involves standing outside the institutions of the state and being proud of it. Gestalt is a radical approach; it does not invite accommodation with the powerful bodies that call the shots. The Perls' and Paul Goodman made no attempt to ingratiate themselves with the powerful establishment bodies of their era. So why should we?

This approach can be linked with images of the bohemian outsider, the prophetic voice in the wilderness urging 'no sell-out', and the radical and anarchic questioning of society's dominant values. It is a strong and exciting tradition within Gestalt which seeks to uphold the approach as our founders defined it - alive, innovative, and questioning of the establishment. While there is much historical energy for this position, there have been (and are) serious consequences. In its most fundamental form, it ensures that Gestalt remains on the fringe of the therapeutic world; which in turn leads to many of its practitioners being cut off from financial security or influence. Arguably, a Gestalt approach that adopts this position fully is shooting itself in the foot. Proclamations of the vision can seem self righteous as well as self deluding, especially if its adherents dwindle to a tiny group and its networks go into oblivion.

On the other hand, losing the radical edge and the ability to question orthodoxy seem to be abandoning part of the essential heritage, and our strength. And there are minority movements which come up in the world - whose ‘time comes' (like organic agriculture in the UK, whose farmers are at present the only ones doing well).

Option Two: Assimilation/Accommodation. The second approach is to move in the opposite direction entirely. In extreme form it might be summarised as 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em'. Many Gestaltists have come to the view that to stand outside the dominant systems and schools, differentiated and isolated, talking about 'pure Gestalt', is suicidal. It is necessary, they say, to adapt, or even to shed the Gestalt label at times - in other words, to relax the boundaries of Gestalt. The vision is of integrating it with other approaches, thus ensuring that the approach survives in some form or other (as well as its practitioners surviving economically).

For those advocating this approach, it does not particularly upset them that Gestalt may not continue as a separate movement, school, or outlook. They will point out that it has already made a considerable mark. Elements of it have affected psychotherapy as a whole - albeit with little overt recognition for its having done so - and the task today is for Gestalt-trained professionals to identify with bigger, more inclusive definitions of psychotherapy and to accept the way in which the profession at large has moved, working with the integrative tendency rather than against it. One's influence personally is best exercised by operating within the power structure, not outside it.

From this position the idea of fighting to maintain Gestalt therapy as a separate entity seems unattractive. It suggests a narrow and exclusive definition of Gestalt therapy, rather like a sect of Gestalt 'believers'. Integrationists are, by temperament, opposed to segregated or highly differentiated views of psychotherapy. (Hunter Beaumont in this issue is an unapologetic integrationist.)

The difficulty with a position that opens up the boundaries of Gestalt to many diverse influences, is that Gestalt does have a distinctive philosophy, a unity of method, of theory and practice. If the particular synthesis and specific qualities of Gestalt therapy are dispersed too much, the approach gets diluted to the point of its disappearance. Gestalt would then end up, historically speaking, as a 5O year long fad, of minor interest in the history of mental health approaches in the 20th century. Some do not mind this, including (we imagine) some of our readers. Others are appalled at the prospect.

Option Three: Subversion/Contagion. A third alternative involves partial collaboration, with infiltration of Gestalt thinking and practice into fields which run counter to them. Here, Gestalt practitioners live alongside and within big systems, complying to an extent with the powerful forces, yet always actively seeking to deflect, question, satirise or otherwise subvert them. Those who have lived in totalitarian countries are finely tuned to the possibilities of infecting large systems with foreign ideas and unusual thinking, to the point sometimes of undermining the systems from within. At the very least they maintain healthy self-respect in the attempt. Expedience and minimal compliance have a place in the political process. 

In Sicily, where one of us (MP) spoke briefly about these matters, a conference participant described how a psychodynamically-oriented psychiatrist used to come for weekly Gestalt therapy, and described it as "like having a secret love affair'. The notion of people keeping their Gestalt interest as a private matter, a secret indulgence, is amusing, sad, strange.

The main difficulty with Option Three, however, is somewhat like the difficulty with Option One, the anarchist position. There is a presumption that 'Gestalt is right as it is' and is, in its essential nature, already fully developed. The need is not for Gestalt to change but for 'the poor professionals who have not yet "got it" to change' - therefore we must infiltrate, persuade, adopt the missionary position (so to speak). It can easily suggest - deep down, even if it is well-hidden - a blinkered certainty, a failure to recognise the improvisational nature of all knowledge structures.

At the same time, for many people the Gestalt approach palpably demonstrates a distinctive effectiveness. The synthesis and practice has tremendous face validity: it works. Enthusiasts identify with it and want to influence others - by their presence, by the way they come across. This is the view that Gestalt therapy is represented in the world by the nature of its practitioners and their enthusiasm. We stand or fall on the basis of our personal impact and presence, communicated individually, and sometimes by subversive means. People catch the bug from our excitement and example.

Option Four: Creative Adjustment (Revisited). A fourth possibility, arguably the most daring and most difficult, calls for continuous creative adjustment. This idea was there all along - in Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman. Yes, there are powerful groups out there, and more populous therapies; and there are ideological and commercial pressures that can result in the deliberate overlooking or casual by-passing of the Gestalt approach. This is part of the field in which we live, the 'what is' of our present situation. And, pursuing creative adjustment, 'the ever-renewed transition between novelty and routine' as Goodman puts it, calls for our dialoguing with, wrestling with, these dominant outlooks, from neither a position of arrogant certainty nor of unconfident suppression of our beliefs, but rather from a differentiated, clearly articulated, and persuasive standpoint.

Creative adjustment is not a one-way process. On the one hand, the strengths of Gestalt philosophy, practice, and theory can be expressed in lively, informative ways - Gestaltists have not always been very good at that, especially in ways that others can grasp. Yet it can be done. Assertive participation, creative influencing (or ‘aggression' in the specialist Gestalt sense), means that Gestaltists can be pushing for what they believe in, using ingenuity and skill in translating their experience so that others spot its benefits more easily and grasp its purpose more accurately. This calls, not least, for good writing, strong journals, new books, fresh expositions.

On the other hand, creative adjustment is also about how we, as a professional community, need selectively to be affected by present possibilities. If we want a Gestalt therapy (and its derivatives) that is alive, progressive, and true to its founders' intentions, we need to be respectful of the novel features of the 1998 world, and open to fresh integrations - and that means changing, sometimes uncomfortably; it means chucking out as well as taking in; it means living the ever-renewed transition between novelty and routine.

If Gestalt is to survive and grow, and become more rather than less influential, it too must take on new dimensions and fresh perspectives, extending its range and definition of itself. That is the nature of creative adjustment - and indeed of all contact in the Gestalt sense: we can neither stand still, nor can we guarantee that 'we will only be changed a little bit'. We may even need to reconstruct some of the theoretical edifice, however profoundly unsettling for some of us this may be.

This fourth option is a courageous and confident position for the Gestalt approach today. The policy of this Journal is decidedly in line with it. Our aim is to champion new thinking and extensions of the Gestalt discipline, without abandoning fundamentals. This is what various writers in this issue are saying is required - albeit in differing ways and words: Hunter Beaumont, Bill Cahalan, Dan Rosenblatt, and Gordon Wheeler are all advocating changing aspects of how we have been. Such is the route to creative renewal. Debates that hinge on the nuances of theoretical exactitude can be like old style theological debates about angels on the end of a pin. This seems out of character with the legacy that was provided by Goodman and Perls, both of whom were painters with a broad brush and a flair for integrating ideas from others. They were willing to change their thinking freely and inventively, without abandoning their fundamental values or strong beliefs. We should be prepared to do the same.

Malcolm Parlett and Judith Hemming 

Letters to the Editor:

Gestalt Writing of Different Kinds - Dan Rosenblatt 

Marianne Fry in Ireland - Vincent Humphreys 

‘Five Layers’ versus ‘Interruptions to Contact’ - A Follow-Up Note - Peter Philippson 

‘On Bracketing’ - A Response to Lolita Sapriel - Malcolm Coward 

Reply to Malcolm Coward - Lolita Sapriel 

Book Reviews: 

Developing Gestalt Counselling: Jennifer Mackewn - Ansel Woldt 


Sex in Therapy - Joel Latner