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CHARACTERISTICS OF THE GESTALT FIELD
In any discipline of knowledge or practice there are guiding principles, values, rules or norms.
Clients enter into the ‘Gestalt field’, with its particular ways of working, its history, its methodology, its focus.
In the Gestalt field we can say there are some of the following dimensions, which characterise the field, contribute to its ‘feel’, shape the behaviours, identity and expression of ‘what is Gestalt’.
This field includes:
Attention to interconnectedness, holism, the ‘bigger picture’. Understanding phenomena through seeing how its connected to other phenomena. Understanding through ‘grasping’ the whole, rather than understanding through reducing it into its component parts.
Understand perception of phenomena as active, not passive. That is, we constitute our experience of ‘the world’. We assemble it. Its not ‘out there’ as some kind of fixed reality. So we participate in constructing ‘the world’. Therefore, we pay attention to how we do that construction.
Orienting around the principle of existential responsibility. That is, we are always ‘condemned to choice’. So no matter how limited the circumstances, how much of a true ‘victim’ we may be of forces beyond our control, we always have some capacity for choice. Disavowal of this leads to ‘bad faith’, and inauthenticity. Gestalt supports and encourages and sometimes demands people to recognise their choice making capacity, rather than emphasising their helplessness and victimhood.
A belief that the vertical authority relationship has limited value therapeutically. It creates an expert and a lay person, a wise one and a seeker of wisdom, etc. This inherently disempowers the client, and discounts their own knowing. The position is that the ‘client is the best expert on themselves’. The ethos is one of a therapist being willing to be ‘human’ - failed, vulnerable, not having the answers, being lost, etc. This places client and therapist more on a horizontal plane, and allows for a different kind of meeting - person to person. Therapy becomes less I-It, and more I-Thou. This requires the therapist to be transparent and reveal themselves, as much as they invite the client to reveal their inner world.
A belief that ‘awareness is curative’. That is, primarily non-cognitive awareness. Cognition is viewed with caution - of limited value therapeutically. Necessary as the way we make meaning, but filtering of people’s direct experience. So the therapist works with their direct and immediate experience, and invites the client to do the same. All dreams, memories, stories, future projections are brought into the present and into somatic or sensory awareness. This grounds experience.
A privileging of subjective experience - the uniqueness of each person and their way of being in the world, rather than placing people into preset categories (personality profiles, diagnostic criteria). Immediate experience is trusted more than abstract and categorical knowledge or models, including psychological ones.
A style of working which involves Wu Wei, the Creative Void - rather than pushing towards goals, the opposite is practiced - letting go of agendas, in order to be present with ‘what is’, in a non-grasping way. This involves the therapist taking this stance, and being wiling to ‘not-know’, rather than have all the answers.
Prioritising action, rather than just ‘talking about’. Therapy can easily devolve into a discussion of other things, places, people, all remote. Gestalt brings everything from ‘out there’ into the here and now, into the therapeutic relationship. Ultimately, discussions are evolved into experiments where core themes and challenges are enacted, creatively, bringing novelty into stale situations. The mode is one of experiential learning, rather than that of ‘insight’ on a cognitive level. The therapist often actively participates in such experiments, supporting and challenging the client in the process.
In Gestalt the therapist does not perform interpretation - filtering the clients experience through a theoretical lens. Gestalt is a non-analytical therapy. It is oriented towards ‘raw’ experience, and attempts to surface this.
Gestalt works with an understanding of Figure and Ground, and the dynamic interplay between the two. The figure emerges, the ground recedes. But the two are always related. A sharp figure allows awareness to naturally develop. Then the figure spontaneously dissolves after it has been expressed. Understanding this provides a framework to follow the flow of awareness, and find the places it becomes fixed or stuck.
Gestalt views ‘resistance’ as simply an expression of the person, not something to be rolled over or got past. This understanding is termed ‘creative adjustment’, and means we value the way someone has found to be in the world, in response to their circumstances. Rather than pathologising it, this is met, worked with, danced with, explored, and put in a larger perspective.
Unfinished business is understood as unfinished Gestalts. As soon as a space is made for awareness to arise, the most important piece of unfinished business will naturally arise, and can be addressed. In this way, it is not necessary to ‘dig’ or seek out core issues; simply creating the right space allows for them to emerge.
Gestalt does not frame an ‘unconscious’ which ‘lurks beneath’. The focus is on what emerges into awareness, on a dynamic basis. The person is seen as a whole, with elements of self emerging at any moment, in response to the environment. Creating a safe setting allows aspects of self to spontaneously emerge.
Change is not seen as something to strive for, but the result of ‘being with what is’ - a paradoxical understanding. Pushing too hard for change is understood as being counter productive, as it generates more stuckness in response. So the style of Gestalt involves attention to what is, rather than striving after what is not, what could be or what should be.
Gestalt values digestion; this means that rather than attempting large and dramatic pieces of work, the focus is on digesting ‘bite sized’ pieces of experience. It also means that Gestalt eschews prescriptions about ‘how to live’ or ‘what is healthy’. It supports people to ‘chew over’ beliefs and find what is right for them, whether they be family shoulds, social shoulds, cultural shoulds, or therapeutic shoulds.
Gestalt is fundamentally antithetical to techniques. As Martin Buber says ‘The deciding reality is the therapist not the methods. Without the methods one is a dilettante. I am for methods, but just in order to use them not believe in them’. That is, personhood is most important. Techniques may be learned, but do not define Gestalt, and cannot be used as the basis of practicing Gestalt.