So, what is Gestalt Therapy?

Gestalt Therapy is a psychotherapeutic method engaging the whole person in an exploration of relationship to self, world and others. Common self-limiting states such as worry, fear, embarrassment, guilt, and shame interrupt the natural flow to experience. To restore free expression, the Gestalt therapist encourages a client's contact with more primary emotions and bodily experiences - sorrow, anger, joy, disgust, surprise, and love/orgasm - that have become blocked as a result of trauma, addictions and/or internalized 'should's.' How we live in our bodies, what we dream and fantasize, and what we dare to need or want are brought to the surface in the safe place of therapy so that the client can wend a way back to increased freedom. Using ongoing present awareness as a guide, as well as experiments tailored to individual needs, the person reestablishes ability to make genuine contact in all spheres. The context of treatment can be individual, couples, family, or group work. A way for you to begin to self-evaluate would be to consider, as Gestalt therapists do, where you stand now as keeper of your own personal boundaries that may have become too rigid or too lax, and how you might best hold them henceforth to deepen contact as well to liberate spiritual states of heightened awareness. To begin the journey, fan through the six contact boundary images and their descriptions under the header "Gestalt." We all can exist in any of the states at various times. The first three depict superficial contact while the last three involve deeper levels of connection. It behooves us to note when we operate from a certain level and whether or not it is functional then. Each state, inked by the author, is represented by its respective Venn (or Zen) diagram:

Health as the balance of strength & pliability

Health as the balance of strength & pliability


1. Isolation

The separate circles without centers represents our possible estrangement from others. By habitually creating distance, deep contact is avoided, usually on account of lack of confidence, poor social skills, debilitating guilt, internalized shame, or simple embarrassment. Visible behaviors appear such as deflecting contact, or in extreme cases, self-injury. At the same time, occasional strategic withdrawal from others and the world is prerequisite to healthy functioning. Although much more than this, meditation is a purposeful turning away from the world to find one's center. Other examples of useful isolation could be stepping away from a destructively angry interaction or going temporarily inward to connect with deeper wants and needs. That kind of self-care is a portion of the Gestalt method.

2. Cliché

The cliché stands between isolation and confluence, and it refers to our superficial interaction with others. In a sense, clichés grease everyday social interaction and have their place as we bush-up against one another. After all, we cannot hope to make deep emotional contact with everyone we meet on the daily round, nor would we want to. So, a few hello's and how are you's? makes life a less somber affair. In addition to this exchange of social amenities, our "phony" behavior, as Fritz Perls called it, would also be included at this level of interaction--anything from presenting a false face to manipulation of others by telling "white lies" so as not to hurt someone else's feelings. Whether any of that is a betrayal of oneself and/or another, or proves that discretion is the better part of valor, only each individual can answer within his or her own particular circumstance.

3. Confluence

At the extreme opposite of isolation, two circles without centers unite in a thickened, undifferentiated mass. In this case, two (or more) persons exist in a state of "fusion." They seldom appear to disagree, sharing thoughts, values, interests, or even styles of attire. Visible behaviors can include passive-aggression, on the one hand, or too much caretaking on the other. Individual's cannot live in this false paradise forever though. Eventually, hidden resentments arise and fear of standing alone surfaces. As a position, confluence works temporarily in avoiding the burden of personal responsibility as one simply "goes along." At the same time though, confluence, too, has a positive side. Love would not exist if we did not at times let go of ourselves enough to join with others.

4. Contact

The image here of circles partially overlapping describes the experience of two individuals preserving their integrity while sharing connection with another person. The basis on which such contact happens involves the exchange of communication that penetrates through defensive walls to reach the other who is deeply affected. One can think of this honest exchange and sharing as an authentic "encounter," though some Gestalt writers have simply named this experience "love." If there is a single skill to be learned in therapy that improves our humanity, it is the practice of making oneself available for the possibility of such honest sharing.

5. Tracing

This level of possible existence is more elusive to describe and difficult to obtain. Perls mentioned it only once in his writings toward the end of his life. It is rarely mentioned in the Gestalt literature, though it is the hidden goal of this therapy. The image of an expanding, open circle with a dot representing a newfound sense of center accurately portrays this satori-like experience. Perls said that if we become free enough from our projections upon the world to begin to see it clearly, and if we concentrate sufficiently so that our sharpened attention stands out against a background of awareness, a type of growth-engendering unification with everything around us becomes possible, situating us abruptly in the NOW. Edmund Husserl in his book The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness (1928) describes the structure of this occurrence as may happen when listening to music with the melody standing out but also merging with a background rhythm. One colleague of Perls and mentor of mine, Dr. Abe Levitsky, described this expansion as a release of uninhibited joy that can accompany simply staying with a single good feeling while braving - though the experience is really enjoying - the attendant dissolution of our background neurotic ego (our ensnarled, everyday self). I continue to employ Dr. Levitsky's method of encouraging a client to stay with good feelings as they arise to facilitate this experience inasmuch as most of us, ironically, tend to shut them down.  

6. Mu

The final level is not precisely achievable in therapy. It has more to do with a spiritual experience that I believe psychotherapy can prepare us for but isn't designed to accomplish. I think this state can erupt spontaneously - perhaps in silence, possibly through prayer or meditation, taking on various meanings in different spiritual contexts. Christians might think of this as identification with Christ, Zen Buddhists might see it as extinction of all traces of the ego. Mu, in fact, means literally "not" that is the egoless emptying within the Buddhist tradition. Perls borrowed the phrase "the fertile void" from his student, Wilson van Dusen, to begin to utilize a portion of this state of consciousness. He said that whereas we in the West tend to respond to the experience of nothingness with panic, Eastern approaches welcome it as the doorway to even more richness, as if it were our creative well-spring. In therapy, a client might be offered the opportunity to begin to explore this area by 'dipping down' into a felt absence to experience our fullness rise back up. I allude to this phenomenon as a positive transformative possibility stemming from the Gestalt therapy practice of  "deep withdrawal." And whereas I think the experience here is related to a tracing , this experience is even more profound. The crucial difference has to do with the missing small dot in the middle of the final circle, which is a uniquely Zen image:  The individual ego has dissolved into Nothingness or, if you prefer, the All, the Godhead, identification with Christ, and so on. The open-ended circular image here - a traditional Buddhist enso  - might be thought to expand limitlessly. Like the famous "10 Ox Herding Pictures" of Zen in Zen Bones, Zen Flesh, edited by Paul Reps, the eighth picture has gone blank, which is a step before the transformed person returns to the world to appreciate its immediate beauty and to savor contact with others.