Gestalt Therapy as Spiritual Practice
by Paul Kapp
There are many Gestalt theorists who believe Gestalt Psychotherapy to be a kind of spiritual practice. Spirituality is also known as the transpersonal, and psychotherapy is seen as interpersonal work. Claudio Naranjo believed that Gestalt is a transpersonal therapy. “The transpersonal in the interpersonal.” C. Naranjo 1978
When Fritz Perls arrived at Esalen in 1964, he gave a workshop that proclaimed: ‘ “To expand the scope of awareness, to bring greater contact with the environment and to end the subject object split are the goals of Gestalt therapy.” and he promised to relate this new psychology to both existentialism and Zen Buddhism.’ Jeffrey John Kripal 2007
There are those within the Gestalt community who say Gestalt is humanist and irreligious, while others say it is transpersonal in nature. Though Humanist psychotherapy is not mutually exclusive of transpersonal psychology, these two views reflect differing poles in the community of Gestalt theorists. Fritz Perls was known to be anti religious, and distanced himself even from Zen, saying “all religions were man made crudities.” Jeffrey John Kripal 2007
Claudio Naranjo puts this into perspective:
'That Gestalt therapy is commonly regarded as humanistic rather than transpersonal is a reflection of this lack of conceptual precision, though a most understandable one if we consider that the spirituality of Gestalt therapy is, in a sense, disguised. With this "in a sense" I refer to Perls' rejection of ordinary religiosity. C. Naranjo 1978
Fritz became disillusioned with Zen. ‘One of Fritz’s most often quoted blurbs involves his memories of visiting Zen monasteries in Japan. “This kind of meditation,” Fritz insisted, was “a form of constipation. It’s like sitting on the pot: one just sits there, neither shitting, nor getting off.” ’ Jeffrey John Kripal 2007
He then took refuge again in existentialism, an early secular influence on Gestalt Therapy. In spite of this, Fritz had integrated a number of essential Zen Buddhist ideas and practices into Gestalt. Zen influence was joined by Taoist: “Fritz’s religion of no religion… also strongly resembled a kind of psychologised Taoism.” Jeffrey John Kripal 2007
Some Zen parallels with Gestalt are, a confidence in the practice of being in the present as a healing agent, the Aha moment and mini Satories as significant stages of growth, and the primacy of Awareness as our real nature. Perls stated: “Awareness in and of itself can be curative.” Jeffrey John Kripal 2007
After setting up court at Esalen in 1964, Fritz attracted a large entourage. Among them were two men who he later regarded as his heirs, Dick Price, and Claudio Naranjo. Price was at Esalen before Perls and
‘Although initially suspicious of Perls when he arrived, Price decide to enter therapy with him, found the experience helpful, and soon embraced Gestalt as one of his main spiritual practices, along with Buddhist meditation and ..psychadelics.’
Jeffrey John Kripal 2007
Price inherited Fritz’s mantle as leader of the West Coast Gestalt movement at Esalen when Fritz passed on and brought a gentler way to it.
‘Those who knew Price best,..have all commented extensively on the incredible “space” or broad “field” that he seemed to inhabit while he worked with people. Price accessed a spiritual dimension of consciousness that was grounded in the experience of the basic interconnectedness of all existence.’
Jeffrey John Kripal 2007
This reflects aspects of the Presence of awareness that I have as an ideal, openness, spaciousness, non-duality and interconnectedness. Price used the phrase “Gestalt Practice”.
THE FERTILE VOID
But there were spiritual influences before Fritz encountered Zen. Perls was inspired by the concept of creative indifference, of an early 20th century German philosopher called Sigmund Friedlander. Perls integrated into Gestalt the concept of the zero point, or centre of opposites, a psychological stance in which an individual is poised at rest in the space between opposites of action. Perls said: “Zero is naught, is nothing. A point of indifference, a point from where opposites are born. If you are caught by one of the opposing forces you are trapped. If you stay in the zero center, you are balanced and in perspective.” Eventually Perls recognised that this was “the Western equivalent of the teaching of Lao Tse,” that is, that it was a philosophical form of Taoism. ’ Jeffrey John Kripal 2007
I see creative indifference as akin to Wu-wei, the Taoist concept/practice of non-doing, a view that others hold. Wu is the Chinese word for empty or non and wei is action. Wu also means enlightenment, so the fertile void and the Aha! are identical. But how can that be? If you accept the essence of awareness to be the fertile void, then it makes sense. Aha! ‘The crux of the matter is what Zinker calls the “Presence” of the therapist. His view is that a therapist must be present as a witness to the system, a concerned “being with”, rather than a “doing to”. His view, while almost spiritual in it’s implications, to our minds points to the Taoist concept of “wu-wei” or non-action. That is, the aim of the therapist’s presence is to evoke rather than to provoke in the old Perlsian style of Gestalt therapy’
Karin Jordan 2008
Creative indifference comes from the experience of the fertile void. A synonym for the fertile void is openness. "The cultivation of here-and-now awareness in Gestalt therapy goes hand in hand with another issue underlined by traditional psychologies, Buddhism in particular. Let us call it openness: to be aware of what is given here and now in our experiential field. This involves a basic gesture of allowing – an indiscriminate acceptance of experience, which may be said to involve in turn a relinquishment of standards and expectations. Inasmuch as openness cuts across mental content, it lies, again, in the transpersonal realm. It is expressed in Gestalt therapy in a number of ways, other than the injunction of being aware without self-manipulation.
Naranjo sees three ways of expressing openness in Gestalt therapy: being aware without self-manipulation, being creatively indifferent, and accepting nothingness."
Preface to Gestalt as a transpersonal approach C. Naranjo 1978
I have learnt that awareness has primacy in Gestalt. Naranjo here expresses in a nutshell the importance of awareness in it’s therapeutic context: “Precisely because the manipulative and inauthentic behavior characteristic of the neurotic modes of being-in-the-world involve an attempt to avoid certain experiences, the attitude of the therapist is to invite an undoing of such avoidances, a "staying with it," however painful or confusing. In Perls' view, our awareness is constricted because we have not accepted our suffering…”
“Therefore, Gestalt therapy’s approach of focusing on the relational, intersubjective aspects of experience (the personal) makes human connection and relationship the basis for an embodied type of spiritual experience (beyond the personal).”
Naranjo describes the Gestalt principles of refraining from preconceptions, and openness of the self to what emerges, as rooted in and parallel to Taoist traditions. Through this attitude of openness, a flexibility is present that allows for creativity and sacred experience to emerge. "This practice of open attention within Gestalt therapy is similar to many forms of meditation."
"A Gestalt approach also challenges us to sit in openness with feelings of not knowing, lack of meaning, or emptiness. These feelings are often associated with the feeling of “a void.” Sitting in “a void” is a familiar aspect of Taoist and Zen Buddhist traditions"
(Van Dusen, 1977).
'This is often called a “fertile void” by Perls or place of “creative indifference” by Friedlaender in Gestalt psychology.'
It is the center from which all phenomena arise. Wolfert (2000) tells us that it is through dwelling in the fertile void that we can have deeper contact and allow spiritual experience to enter.
"This fertile emptiness also has been compared to the psychological openness of grace in Christianity "(Van Dusen, 1977).”
Lynn Williams 2006
Ruth Wolfert shows how the fertile void can be used in the stages of contact as a therapist explores a clients figures with them. As each figure is investigated, it can dissolve into a deeper figure and so on until therapist and client are sitting in the fertile void, with possibilities for growth. ”Gestalt therapy has these spiritual underpinnings in its organizing principle of the process of contact. The stages of contact can be considered as a description of transcending ordinary reality and entering into an experience of unity (Wolfert, 1989). In the contact continuum, we move in a series of shifting figures and grounds to final-contact (PHG, pp. 179-207” R. Wolfert 2001
I have not had much experience of this, but once I was in a clinic session and working with a client who was a Gestalt student, and quite mature and aware. At the beginning of our session I was a mixture of excitement and nervousness. I had rushed from 30 kilometers away through traffic to be at the clinic on time. After a moment of her taking care of me because of my nervousness, we settled into our session. I calmed myself by acknowledging how I felt and allowing my feelings with an open attention. I felt very present. We quickly became attuned. She had something figural she wanted to work on. She had a block to doing an essay. There was quite a bit of similarity to my experience so I felt I had to come clean a little and admit that I too had the same difficulty. I allowed her to bring what she wanted to the session and discuss it, but after we explored her experience in this matter a bit, I invited her to participate in an experiment. She talked about the block as an entity that was external to herself, as if it was alive and in opposition to her moving forward with her essay. She used the phrase “constricted awareness” which was a cue for me that she would be open to an awareness based experiment. I proposed to her we put the entity out on a chair beside her and then, in a departure from traditional Gestalt chair work, I suggested that we imagine that her and I and the entity were present together sitting, surrounded by space. We developed this imaginary situation for a few minutes. I asked what it’s qualities were, like colour and so on. She described it as smoky, hazy, dark, frenetic. After a while I invited her to report on her sense of the entity. She said it had transformed. She said it was gradually losing it’s power. I did not make the suggestion that she would now be able to do her essay with no problems, but left an open space for her organismic wisdom to come forth. I shared with her though, that when I had blocks to doing this kind of work, when my interest was aroused it drew me into the work, and through to completion. We had a sense of meeting which felt very much like I-thou. I felt that our eyes met in a gaze of mutual acceptance and respect. At one point, dialogue stalled and I left her in silence for about 30 seconds. At the end of the session I asked her for feedback, and she said the one thing she had difficulty with was that awkward moment of silence. This was useful to me as it made me aware of the potential for rupture with a client who was not ready for a silent void. Though she handled it well, a client with less self-support may have gone into regression or into their trauma. The experiment seemed to bear fruit for her. What I had tried to do was to bring a spacious, open awareness to her experience of the block and allow that to transform it. My intuition was that, partly because of her presence and also her reference to a “restricted awareness”, she would be open to the experiment, and she was.
Another profound influence on the formation of Gestalt Therapy was the thought of Martin Buber, a German Jewish philosopher and mystic. The notions of I-thou, dialogue, realisation and inclusion were integrated into the foundations of Gestalt early on, probably by Lora Perls, Fritz’s partner and co-author of Ego, Hunger and Aggression.
“Inclusion, according to Buber, means the ability to develop a dual sensation among those engaged in dialogue: experiencing oneself and simultaneously perceiving the ‘other’ in its singularity. The inclusion of a person causes one to ‘know’ one’s fellow human being both physically and spiritually, in the Biblical sense of ‘knowing’ a lover. Buber illustrates this two-fold sensation of inclusion with an erotic metaphor: a man who caresses a woman who lets herself be caressed, unexpectedly senses the contact from both sides—through the palm of his hand, and through the woman’s skin. This two-fold event occurring between two human beings is the actualization of love, which is the expression of responsibility of the I for the Thou.”
Kalman Yaron 1993
This I-Thou stance is not unique but makes relations with the ‘other’, predominately our fellow humans, the prime focus of his philosophy.
The experience of dialogue and I-Thou is similar to Zen Dokusan, where teacher and student meet intimately and knit eyebrows in realisation. And of course the notion of the fertile void is classic Zen teaching. For Buber, the absolute I-Thou, is God, but all else is between humans. “There is no self without other(humans)”. This differs, on the surface, with most eastern though which could be said as, There is no separate self, of individual and environment. In this environment, human relations are implied, but as part of the totality of experience. From my predominately eastern perspective, I do not see such a distinction between the eastern understanding of self and a view of the self like Buber’s. The above quote with the metaphor of lovers reminds me of one of Nisargadatta’s:
“I find that somehow, by shifting the focus of attention, I become the very
thing I look at, and experience the kind of consciousness it has; I become
the inner witness of the thing. I call this capacity of entering other
focal points of consciousness, love; you may give it any name you like.”
But Buber was a theist and Zionist, and the absolute Thou, was for him the God of the old testament. Regardless of the differences between Buber’s I-Thou and eastern thought, I-Thou is definitely a transpersonal point of view, and shows one of Gestalt’s original “transpersonal in the interpersonal” influences.
“..if the morality of Gestalt therapy is one of authenticity and nonmanipulation (of self or other), it’s awareness training may be summed up in the statement that J.S. Slmkin proposed as a capsule definition of the approach: "I and thou, here and now." In other words, it is a practice of awareness in relationship…"
C. Naranjo 1978
Perl’s spiritual outlook is shown by the central place he gave to awareness. Some would disagree with this, and on the surface, awareness may not seem to have anything to do with spirituality.
“The fact, however, is that awareness is transpersonal. Or, to use the earlier term, spiritual. The most articulate spiritual traditions make this very clear. Buddhahood (from the root bodh,"awake") is not a particular state or content of the mind, but mind as such, the container.” C. Naranjo 1978
And from Perls:
‘..Fritz could get even more metaphysical. In his autobiography.. he is quite clear that “everything is awareness,” and that even matter and molecules have some quantum of consciousness.’
Jeffrey John Kripal 2007
I too place awareness at the centre of my world view, though the word awareness has many connotations for me that would be unknown to, or not shared by all. I see Gestalt as the practice of interpersonal presence. Presence is synonymous with awareness for me, and that is one of the connotations of awareness that I have, that in essence, it is pure presence, and the practice of this presence as a therapist, I believe, is both therapeutic and spiritual. This presence is I-thou in the fullest sense. When he says “everything is awareness”, to me Fritz implies awareness as ground of being, and the ground of all phenomena. The subject-object split dissolves in pure presence. This is also known as non-dual awareness. I have learnt that awareness has a primacy in the Gestalt understanding of dis-ease and it’s treatment. Naranjo here expresses in a nutshell the importance of awareness in it’s therapeutic context: “Precisely because the manipulative and inauthentic behavior characteristic of the neurotic modes of being-in-the-world involve an attempt to avoid certain experiences, the attitude of the therapist is to invite an undoing of such avoidances, a "staying with it," however painful or confusing. In Perls' view, our awareness is constricted because we have not accepted our suffering…” C. Naranjo 1978
THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY
This brings me to another point about the transpersonal nature of Gestalt Therapy. Buber and Christian philosophers influenced by him were and are wary of non-duality, but Jesus, when asked “Who are you?” by Salome, answered: “I am he who exists from the undivided”, a perfect expression of non-duality. St Thomas c70
Modern researcher Andrew newburg equates “absolute unitary being” with God. Newburg 2001.
Christian mystics called this experience, the Unio Mystica. So although some orthodox Catholic Christians don’t like the notion of non-duality, perhaps because they fear it replaces God, Jesus’ Gnostic Christian teachings have a striking resemblance to eastern non-dual teachings.
Ruth Wolfert believes that ‘Gestalt has central elements of the “perennial philosophy,” Huxley’s term for the common ground of all spiritual philosophies… All these traditions are based on transcendence and unity. At certain moments, the time-and-space of ordinary reality is transcended and the unity of the spiritual ground emerges. Gestalt therapy has these spiritual underpinnings in its organizing principle of the process of contact. The stages of contact can be considered as a description of transcending ordinary reality and entering into an experience of unity. In the contact continuum, we move in a series of shifting figures and grounds to final-contact (PHG, pp. 179-207). From the deliberateness of the ego functions' identifications and alienations in contacting, we move with, "a sense of readiness... to final-contact where there is a relaxation of conscious considering, the dissolving of boundaries, and a unity of figure and ground in which splits of mind, body and external world are healed; and in the aftermath, growth occurs” (PHG, pp. 5, 17-18, 193-97) (Wolfert, 1989).’
The perennial philosophy is another term for non-dual awareness.
An aspect of the Presence of awareness is it’s void essence, like space, it is empty, and like space, is all pervading. This Presence is known as
“unconditional Presence” by John Welwood 1996
“Raw Presence” by Jim Valby 2007
“Instant Presence” by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu 2009
Chogyal Namkhai Norbu says that the essence of Instant Presence is infinite potentiality, a similar expressing to the fertile void. This presence of awareness does not have the same meaning as presence does in Gestalt. It does however encompass the Gestalt meaning.
Gary Yontev describes Gestalts understanding of presence thus: "Presence. The Gestalt therapist expresses herself to the patient. Regularly, judiciously, and with discrimination she expresses observations, preferences, feelings, personal experience and thoughts. Thus, the therapist shares her perspective by modeling phenomenological reporting, which aids the patient's learning about trust and use of immediate experience to raise awareness. If the therapist relies on theory-derived interpretation, rather than personal presence, she leads the patient into relying on phenomena not in his own immediate experience as the tool for raising awareness. In Gestalt therapy the therapist does not use presence to manipulate the patient to conform to preestablished goals, but rather encourages patients to regulate themselves autonomously." G. Yontev 1989
Buddhist presence is the ground of being or greater field which encompasses all phenomena. It is empty in essence but it’s nature is radiant awareness and phenomena spontaneously arise within this field as it’s energy. This is meant as both the true nature of the individual and the all pervading nature of everything. So being in a state of pure presence is being in tune with the Buddha nature. From this space, a therapist has all the qualities needed for an I-Thou meeting with the other person. John Welwood speaks of an esoteric practice of self-liberation from the Dzogchen tradition and how it can enhance therapy. “In pure presence, awareness is self illuminating, or aware of itself without objectification. Psychotherapy a dialogic process is essentially reflective, although when practiced by a therapist with a contemplative background, it can also include moments of nonreflective presence that facilitate a shift into a deeper dimension of being.” J. Welwood 2000
I see Gestalt as the practice of interpersonal presence. Presence is synonymous with awareness for me, and that is one of the connotations of awareness that I have, that in essence, it is pure presence, and the practice of this presence as a therapist, I believe, is both therapeutic and spiritual. This presence is I-thou in the fullest sense. When he says “everything is awareness”, to me Fritz implies awareness as ground of being, and the ground of all phenomena. The subject-object split dissolves in pure presence. Presence is also known as non-dual awareness.
What this can look like in practice is, with the therapist’s presence, the figure in the client’s experience is explored together respectfully. The client feels met and understood, their experience validated and accepted. The figure and it’s context, it’s ground are illuminated and the client may be able to make meaning of their situation. To give an example from my limited experience as therapist, I was being therapist for a young woman who had never done therapy before. She bravely volunteered to be a client at our training clinic. She presented as a cheerful and charming and attractive young lady, who had quite a high degree of self honesty. She had come along on the invitation of a friend who is a student at SGI. After greeting each other, I enquired if there was anything she wanted to work on in our session. She said she had difficulty in social situations because she felt she did not have anything worthwhile to talk about. I invited her to explore where that statement might have come from. I was more present than I ordinarily am as I had meditated that morning and had just done a session as therapist, which honed my presence. My attitude was one of acceptance and responsiveness to the client. I was listening attentively but responding in an intuitive manner, not premeditated but yet drawing on all my experience of 4 years of training and so on. I think this helped allow her to come forth openly and to quickly come to the figure which for her was a sense of pain that was in large part grounded in the rejection and abandonment of her partner of 8 years, one year ago. She seemed to have doubts as to whether she would meet anyone soon for a new relationship. As we explored where the critical voice might have come from that told her she had nothing worthwhile to say, she realized straight away it was her ex who said things like, her job as a childcare worker meant she had nothing interesting to say. He had been constantly critical of her. She had not been able to withstand this and had been swallowing his critical words whole for years. I told her how I was feeling about what she was telling me. Now I realize I was intuitively practicing inclusion. I said I was angry. At first she didn’t understand where I was coming from. Then I told her I felt angry at her ex for the way he had spoken to her. She began crying. She had not realized that the way she had been treated was unacceptable to others. The figure of her self perception as having nothing worthwhile to bring to conversations had a context of many years of low level emotional abuse. This was the ground which through our exploration she was able to connect with her perception of unworthiness. She was able to question her own belief and change her perception. No doubt it was only planting the seed, but I feel sure she would have begun to change her sense of herself about this matter and more generally. I enquired about her occupation as a childcare worker and she told me how much joy it gave her. As another example of inclusion I shared with her my work with people with disabilities and how much I enjoyed it. I told her I really enjoy the presence of children and how much I valued what she does, how important it is to their development to have adult carers who delight in, and value them. Our eyes met and we held a gaze for what seemed quite a while. That she was able to look straight back and hold her gaze meant to me that she trusted me and felt accepted beyond what she was used to. She confirmed this saying she felt understood for the first time in a long time. My trainer was right there in the room but my attention was almost exclusively on the client. Time seemed to stand still and our contact seemed beyond the ordinary. We could have explored further back to see if her introjects had an earlier history but she did not seem to want to go in a direction other than where we were and I continued to practice respecting what she was presenting to me and what she wanted to explore. It felt very much like I-Thou, my strongest sense of this in my training as a therapist. It felt like a very real and ordinary exchange and at the same time, to have a transcendent quality. The client reported very positively about her first experience of therapy in feedback afterwards. I did not handle the session perfectly, but it seemed a very powerful yet very human experience for both of us.
EAST & WEST SIMILARITIES
The Gestalt Therapy of the Perls’ gained its name from the German Gestalt Psychology movement, a largely materialistic, scientific movement interested in the psychology of perception. The Buddha examined his experience and deduced the structure of the mind as originating with sensation(contact of senses with the sense objects), leading to perception, leading to mental formations, leading to desire and suffering. My point is, the Buddha was primarily concerned with mental suffering and it’s causes and examined the psyche phenomenologically from first principles starting with sensation. This is what the Gestalt Psychologists were trying to do. The Buddha used the instrument of meditation for his experimentation. So even the empirical experiments of Gestalt Psychology have something in common with eastern thought. The field theory of Lewin which greatly influenced Fritz & Lora Perls has much in common with eastern thought. The interconnectedness of all phenomena is an aspect of both Gestalt Field theory and many eastern traditions. In Zen, an individual’s(great) body is not bound by the skin, but radiates with his awareness to embrace all possible phenomena, in all directions. Gestalt calls this the phenomenological field.
16 years ago I managed to break free of the bonds of active addiction to substances. Some years ago I acquired the aspiration to work with addicts in recovery to share what I had learned in transcending the damage of addiction, and the conditioning that had led me into addiction. I sought a path to follow this and looked at Alcohol and other Drug studies, Counseling and Hakomi. What drew me to Gestalt was it’s closeness to Zen and other spiritual traditions and it’s field theory, it’s values of living in the present with awareness. It held much excitement for me as a path to continue my spiritual practice and benefit others. I look forward to practicing Gestalt in a way that helps others to awaken, as I am also awakening with them.