Holistic gestalt therapy


Victor Daniels
Sonoma State University

Today’s blog is for psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors, and students in those areas—but a few others may be interested.

Why “holistic?” Perhaps you find the title surprising. You might think, “But the Gestalt approach is inherently holistic.”

Yes and no. Max Wertheimer, whose philosophical genius was the midwife for the birth of Gestalt Psychology, articulated a view of human experience and behavior that was more holistic than that of any other psychologist of his time. Kurt Lewin expanded that view into a perspective that provided a holistic grasp of the person in his or her lived environment. Lewin’s concept of the “life space” included both the immediate and extended social and physical environments, and also the vicarious environments that were part of a person’s thinking and feeling as a result of hearing stories, reading, and watching movies and videos. For example, I love Will and Ariel Durant’s monumental work The Story of Civilization because I can open a page and be instantly transported through Durant’s clear, engaging prose into the midst of the Italian Renaissance, or into any other place and time of which the Durants wrote. Thereby a skeletal sense of Renaissance Italy becomes part of my life-space. This embracing holistic view that is inherent in Lewin’s Field Theory is part of the ground of Gestalt Therapy.

Gestalt process work is inherently holistic in the sense of its attitude toward the client. The therapist or counselor takes a phenomenological stance of trying to comprehend the client’s lived world as it is, without interpretation or embroidery, and uses some variation of the phenomenological method of “bracketing” to set personal reactions aside in order to achieve that comprehension. Then the practitioner may (or may not) draw on his or her own bracketed reactions and mention them to the client to see whether this leads the client to fuller awareness and deeper understanding.

Methodologically, a holistic approach implies that the therapist or counselor (a) has a repertoire of approaches and methods; (b) can choose appropriately among them to find what best suits any given client in any given situation; while also (c) remaining true to his or her own preferred, most comfortable, and most skillful ways of working. This is analogous to a doctor who has a variety of medical tools and procedures available, and chooses that which best fits the patient’s needs. (With this analogy, I do not mean to imply that a medical model fits most psychological difficulties. It fits some but not most. I prefer Thomas Szasz’ description of psychological and relational issues as “problems in living.”

Finally, a holistic approach acknowledges the value of a spectrum of valid Gestalt approaches and methods used by others which may or may not be part of a given practitioner’s own repertoire. (“Valid” means a method that fits the criteria of being phenomenological, awareness-based, present-centered, existential, and field-define. And, we might add, competent, skillful, and fully cognizant of the need to provide both sufficient safety and sufficient opportunity for exploration and for adventurous growth.) In this sense, Gestalt work may or may not be holistic. Historically, as in so many psychotherapies, spiritual traditions, and other realms of life, some Gestalt practitioners have disapproved of approaches used by others even when those approaches fully met the criteria described just above. Such biases have sometimes been overt and sometimes subtle. In recent years, for example, in the English-speaking Gestalt world there has been a welcome development, most especially by those trained by Laura Perls and Isadore From, of methods that emphasize the relationship and the dialogue between client and therapist. Some practitioners of this approach have assumed that their “dialogical relational” approach is contemporary, and that the work of other practitioners is outdated. In reality, practitioners trained by Fritz Perls, Jim Simkin, and others at Esalen Institute, Lake Cowichan, and the old San Francisco Gestalt Institute, and second-generation practitioners trained by them, have also evolved and developed their methods and perspectives into new and more effective forms. Fortunately, the disapproval of some Gestalt approaches by practitioners of others has been far milder than, for example, in classical psychoanalysis, where Freud declared that such geniuses as Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Wilhelm Reich were no longer psychoanalysts when their creative development of new ideas and practices diverged too far from Freud’s central orthodoxies—in particular from the Libido theory. Nonetheless, there is value in explicitly acknowledging a contemporary attitude of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness of method and perspective.

Therefore, use of the term ”holistic” in the title explicitly implies a “large tent” definition of Gestalt process that welcomes diverse ways of working and recognizing that we can all learn from the “otherness” of practitioners who have evolved their work in directions different from our own. It allows those who have felt that their working approach has been marginalized by the biases of some colleagues to come in from the shadows. And it highlights the interesting reality that the dominant views about which approaches are central and which are peripheral differs from one country and linguistic region to another. I welcome the large tent that makes space for diverse working processes and welcomes all who legitimately think of themselves as part of the Gestalt community. This includes dialogical-relational approaches, two-chair and sometime even multiple-chair work, dreamwork, use of diverse artistic media, movement and body-oriented work, and Gestalt group process work, to name some but not all of the orientations that can be found within this large tent.

In so saying, I am keenly aware of the danger becoming too diffuse, and of the need to keep a sharp focus. For me personally, the central focus is onprocess work within a working session—that is, within the therapeutic or counseling hour, or within one person’s working session when individual work is done in a group context. Of course that exists within the larger context of concerns that may take weeks or months, and multiple sessions to work through.

A phenomenon that has become more widespread in recent years is the inclusion and integration of methods from Gestalt therapy into other working modalities, such as alchemical hypnotherapy. I find that I am beginning to turn the tables on that process, and integrate perspective and methods from other approaches into my Gestalt work. Most notably these include humanistic and existential approaches, assertiveness training, and Yogic and Buddhist meditative disciplines. Such integration is highly selective, with close attention to maintaining a sharp focus on the client, the moment, and the way of working that is most appropriate now.

Already I hear the objection, “Gestalt therapy is a depth psychology, a process of exploration. How can you include something from a programmatic approach like assertiveness training?” There are two answers. First, good assertiveness training is also exploratory and based on the expansion of awareness as well as being programmatic. The “program” arises out of the exploration and awareness. Second, I find it appropriate only occasionally, and only when “pure” gestalt work has led to clear awareness of maladaptive behavior but the client keeps falling back into the old patterns and fails to behave differently. In this context, “assertiveness” can be a misnomer, for the methodological approach can be used with someone who needs to become more respectful and courteous toward others just as well as with someone who needs to learn to stand his or her ground.

With existential and phenomenological approaches, what I borrow is less often methods than attention to particular phenomena, or classes of phenomena, that have had a tendency to be overlooked in Gestalt therapy. These too are appropriately part of a holistic gestalt perspective, even though some gestalt training institutes do not emphasize them. In the present brief overview, I merely mention this outlook and not to delve into it in depth, which would require extended discussion of the work of such figures as Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Abraham Maslow, Soren Kierkegaard, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, James Bugenthal, Sidney Jourard, and others. That is a project for another day.


Inquirers and Denyers -Two Attitudes of Mind

Mental flexibility and rigidity is a crucial matter. Either one is usually both an attitude and a habit. Yesterday as I was reading posts about the polar vortex’s possible contributions to the January 2014 extreme colds and storms in the Eastern U.S., (and much less publicized, climate scientists’ opinions that it may also be causing the blocking high pressure area off northern California that has given the usually rainy and foggy winters of the redwood country less rain in the last year than the desert cities of San Diego and Phoenix, which has caused my spring to stop running), I noticed something interesting. The intelligent and thoughtful comments tended to include a lot of detail and information about diverse phenomena related to climate change, whereas the boorish comments that insulted previous posters, primarily by people who denied that any changes in climate are actually occurring, were for the most part devoid of any knowledge or details about real phenomena. They just parroted opinions of others who thought similarly.

As I read, it occurred to me that those who posted almost all the comments could easily be labelled “INQUIRERS” or “DENYERS.” An Inquirer is somone who actively seeks out diverse best available information about something, usually from a variety of different kinds of sources and in considerable detail. A Denier is someone who forms opinions based on repeating what others have said and does not go looking for additional information in anything resembling an openminded way. They know what they believe and don’t want anyone to question it. Reminds me of a time many years ago when in the middle of a discussion a friend said, “Victor, you really don’t like to be contradicted, do you/” It hit me like a brick. I had viewed myself as SO OPENMINDED. But what she said was so true at that moment in that context that I had to admit it. It was the beginning of a long-term change in attitude. Now when I find myself stubbornly holding onto some belief or opinion despite what others say, my discipline is to NOTICE THAT I’M DOING SO and then say something like, “Of course, I may be mistaken.”

For all you denyers out there, please understand this: The main thing you are doing is defending your self-centered egos. You believe that you are not an OK person if your belief about something is wrong. The reality is that there is no dishonor in changing your mind, in acknowledging that you were mistaken about something. Dishonor lies in snotty, judgmental put-downs of others who disagree with you. THAT’s small minded. THAT closes down your ability to grow, to change, to discover. If that’s not the case with you, you can ask yourself: “What’s in it for you to hang on so tightly to you attitude, belief, opinion, or preconception?” What about it are you attached to? The approval of others who are parroting the same opinions? Or . . .? Doing the best you can to answer that question in an honest way could be an important step in your life.

Of course my classification of online commenters, and for that matter everybody else, into Inquirers and Denyers is urealistically dualistic. Actually people are not just one or the other, but hold attitudes along a continuum that runs from flexible openmindedness to rigid clinging to their preconceptions. Many people fall somewhere in the middle. It appears to me that fewer of those in the middle tend to make online comments than Inquirers and Denyers. And some Inquirers dig up a lot of information to support their views but are nonetheless rigid and judgmental. Little in the realm of the human psyche is totally cut-and-dried, either THIS or THAT. (Back to Venn Diagrams and mathematical set theory for the demonstration.) But in the clouds of bloggers, comment posters, and purveyors of editorial opinions (so labeled or disguised as so-called “news”), an great many of the aforementioned authors sound like either Inquirers or Denyers.

Note: I have used the spelling “denyers” instead of “deniers” because the dictionary defines the latter as “a unit of weight by which the fineness of silk, rayon, or nylon yarn is measured,” and “a French coin, equal to one twelfth of a sou, which was withdrawn from use in the 19th century.”

The Perils of Self-Righteousness

man with sword raised facing backward on horse at edge of cliff

We all have our pet peeves. One of mine is self-righteousness. “I am good and righteous and just and you are bad and maybe even wicked and evil.” Not that I never fall into it myself, but I try to notice it and pull out when I do. What are the earmarks? The self-righteous person fancies himself or herself better than others who think or act differently, or who look or sound different. If it’s one of your own tendencies, the chances are you don’t much notice it. You think you’re just in touch with reality. If it’s someone else and you agree with them, you may react that same way. But if you’re anything like me, you probably curl your lip with distaste and dislike (even if only internally and invisibliy) when someone else gets into a self-righteous schtick. It may be a raving rant like many of the venomous online “comments” sections or it may be snide and subtle, but either way it has several unfortunate effects.

First, it often involves projection, a common and often destructive psychological mistake that can easily torpedo our relationships. In projection I see you as the living incarnation of whatever qualities I dislike and refuse to recognize in myself. I deny my own inner reality and experience, project it onto you, and then either denigrate you or try to exterminate you, as if in doing so I could get rid of the disliked and unrecognized qualities in me. The projector does this over and over and over again. It is highly visible, and almost always present, in the phenomenon of self-righteousness.

Second, whether it appears in religion, politics, or in a marriage or other couples relationship, it often leaves whatever sense of shared community we might have had in tatters. After an incident or two, if you’re on the receiving end of the self-righteousness will always be at least a little on guard, at least somewhat reluctant to reveal your thoughts and feelings. This leads to a more distant relationship.

Third, you just might want to get the self-righteous SOB back, especially in contexts like politics and religion where in-group imperialism often runs rampant – WE are better than those other jerks and we’re going to run things our way and impose our ways on them. You end up with results like male committees and legislatures making decisions about women’s reproductive rights that take away women’s freedom (in some cases in direct violation of their own professions of a libertarian ideology). That can lead to a lot of bitterness and desire for revenge.

Fourth, self-righteousness often requires a person to lie to himself or herself. In something like eighty or ninety percent of situations there are at least two or three viable ways of looking at the situation, and sometimes half a dozen ways or more. The ability to consider such multiple perspectives increases internal communication within oneself and also increases a person’s creativity. A self-righteous attitude requires you to deny the possible validity of every view except your own. It commits you to your own monologue and makes it very difficult to engage in any potentially constructive dialogue. And who wants to listen to know-it-all blowhards besides people who already agree with them?

Finally, to anyone with the eyes and ears to see and hear, it boils down to ego. “I’m better than you are.” We’re better than they are.” And then it all to easily sildes into, “and so I’m justified in doing whatever I want to you,” or “we’re justified doing whatever we wish to them.” And of course often it turns into being the other way around. The organization, or our authorities, or some other influence requires me to do terrible things to you, and so I slide into the lie of self-righteousness to justify it.

But in the end, development as a person occurs when we work on shrinking our self-centered egocentrism, not when we inflate it. Self righteousness takes us in the wrong direction.

Meditation: The essence

Meditating at GlastonburyThis site is still in its early stages of construction.  Blogs on meditation will appear soon. In the meantime, click the “Meditation” tab at the top of the site and check out the meditation page. It has several free pdf downloads that you might find useful.