What Constitutes Healing in Psychotherapy?
There is a certain acceptance in this country that I had not known before I came to live in New Zealand. The spaciousness of the sparsely populated land is reflected in the interpersonal space of individualism with a high degree of tolerance. To live and let live is a predominant attitude, complemented with a general caring for each other. Quite a difference to the highly competitive social structures in Germany, where I grew up.
In this article I want to attend to the question: what makes New Zealand such a special place? Then I want to share how living and working here has effected my work as a Gestalt therapist and attempt to deduce some general ideas with regard to the question: what constitutes healing?
Even though the majority of New Zealand’s population is of European descent, the feeling in this country is remarkably different to being in Europe. The most obvious difference is the physical location in the South Pacific. New Zealand consists of two main islands and is surrounded by ocean, Australia the closest neighbour, more than 1500 km away.
The indigenous people, Tangata Whenua, the people of this land, have a great impact on the overall energy. Their connectedness with the land and reverence of “Mother Earth” and “Father Sky” can be felt. Huge areas of undisturbed nature, from lush native bush, towering mountains, thermal regions, deserts, to remote sea shores arranged in large areas of National Parks attract more and more visitors to walk the trails.
I came here as a tourist and New Zealand initially captivated me to extend my stay. Yet it took quite some time for me to feel comfortable here. It was very much Rena’s land, who was a very successful stained glass artist. For many years I was not clear why I was here. I had given up my country, friends and family, felt a stranger in a strange land, battling with English as a second language.
What intrigued me was the Maori culture, and the reason to be here became more obvious to me when I walked the ancient trail of the Waitaha with Barry Brailsford. This has been a life changing experience for me. Barry, a historian and archaeologist, had been instructed in the old ways as a preparation to writing down the verbally transmitted knowledge in “The Song of Waitaha”, a book of sacred ancient knowledge of the people of peace who predate and are part of the Maori people of Aotearoa, New Zealand.1 I feel very fortunate that I was invited to walk with him, tracing the steps of the ancestors, in the spirit of the people of peace.
Aroha is a Maori term that goes back to Waitaha times. It might be translated as “unconditional love”, and it stands for the utmost respect for fellow human beings. You can feel Aroha, when you are invited to enter a Marae. Rituals play an important part in Maori culture, as in the Powhiri, the welcome ceremony. After the challenge, exchange of speeches and Waiata (songs), the Hongi (touching of forehead and nose) signifies the sharing of the same air, the life force, and this seals the generous inclusion into the tribe.
A common ritual at gatherings is the use of the Tokutoku, or talking stick. Whoever holds the stick can speak whatever they want for however long they want. Holding the stick creates the space for everyone hearing each other. This is the prerequisite for peace. Everyone needs to have a say, and what everyone has to say needs to be validated, not necessarily be agreed with, but heard. In spaciousness there is place for everyone. There is no time pressure: “it takes as long as it takes.” This is Aroha in action, and we are in the fortunate position in this country that this spirit of Aroha has been kept alive in an unbroken lineage of being passed on from generation to generation.
New Zealand jade, called Pounamu, symbolises Aroha. In the old days it was carried through the land for the purpose of healing. Healing of the land and of people.
“Pounamu is the sacred stone of this land. It is the core to the spirit of this land. Within the great rainbow of the planet, the colour of Aotearoa is green; the colour of healing. The stone of this land is Pounamu, which is often called greenstone. The spirit of this land is Aroha, or love, and the stone embodies that spirit. It is a very special stone. In Waitaha understanding, it is of the stars, Mere Pounamu, the star of many colours. Pounamu is not only green, it can be white, black, blue, green, light green, dark green, or golden. It has many, many colours. No matter what colour, its spirit is always the same. It is the stone of healing; it embodies the spirit of love. When we touch the stone, we touch into the stars, into the beginning of all. All that is, is of the stone, and the stone is all that is. The stone is of the beginning, it endures and is of the end. The stone is of the mountain that stands tall, that falls down into the river, is carried to the oceans, its boulders in the streams, t o finish up at the beaches as sand, to sink deep within the ocean, to be bedded down and become rock again, to be raised again in the future as mountains. So the song of the stone is an enduring one, of all ages. The spirit of Pounamu is the spirit of creation, the lore of the universe. The lore that drives the universe is love. That is the spirit of the stone.”2
I feel so inspired by this that I now carry Pounamu with me. I take my special stone to workshops, pass it around, give it clients to hold, treat it with reverence. I have experienced a home coming of my soul, as I met people in the spirit of Waitaha. My connection with the land and its people is evolving.
When I first arrived here, 14 years ago, a New Zealand friend made it very clear: “you are here to bring a special gift to this land.” It was my experience and training in Gestalt Therapy that I had to offer. But when I first introduced it, at the meeting of a voluntary organisation, I experienced immense resistance. It was a typical clash of two cultures. My confrontative style which worked so well in Germany was not welcomed here. Nobody told me directly, I needed to find this out by myself. This irritated me. No harsh words were used. I felt powerless, nothing to fight against, nobody to convince. At the “School of Critical Psychology” at “Freie Universitaet Berlin” I was used to criticise, to engage in aggressive discussions. None of this worked here. It was just not done.
Over the years, assimilating living here and learning from participants at workshops, students and therapy clients, I developed a way of working much more gently. This represents more truly my inner core, giving me a taste of inner peace. In a fundamental way it is a home-coming. This process becomes obvious when I look at what I wrote last year:
“The essence of Gestalt Therapy is Aroha, unconditional regard and love. We cannot force this, we can only allow this to happen and be there. We will never be able to make it a technique or measure it. The essence, the spirit of Gestalt, the ‘Geist’ can be experienced in the process of our meeting. It is the space between us, the vastness of the presence, the timeless moment of our encounter. If I want to capture it, it gets lost. It is elusive and yet the most real experience there is.”3
Aroha emanates from this poem by New Zealand Gestalt therapist Anne Maclean. She writes about “The Heart of Gestalt”4:
- When I call all my senses home
- into my central core
- then I know a deep peace
- just simply being.
- Here is unconditional love and compassion
- Heart deepening and expanding
- to accept whatever I am
- or have been, or will become.
- No tugs of war between anything,
- and all of me
- simply here.5
Recently I attended a seminar by Eng-Kong Tan, Psychiatrist and Self Psychologist from Sydney (Love and Hate, Christchurch, 20/6/97). He also stressed the importance of unconditional love for healing. Unless a therapist has a feeling of love and respect for his client, healing cannot occur. He then asked the question, “How can the patient find the unconditional loving in a therapy setting?” They pay for their session, it’s a business arrangement.
In an informal research he explored the question: “What do you remember of your therapist, what touched you?” He discovered that it were neither any clever interpretations nor any skilfully applied techniques that clients remembered, but special moments when they felt cared for. Maybe these special moments constitute healing.
A special moment of my own therapy that I remember is the tenderness I felt as my therapist wiped a tear off my cheek. He sat attentively beside as I was lying down, exhausted from a deep piece of work. I can’t remember the work, but I remember his gesture of genuine care. Until then, male tenderness had not been in my field.
These special moments remind me of “I-Thou moments”.6 An “I-Thou attitude” is crucial for therapeutic healing. “It is not the therapist’s theoretical orientation that is critical in the healing process as is the wholeness and availability of the self of the therapist.”7
This is a strength of Gestalt Therapy, to focus on the therapist-client relationship, to emphasise a dialogical approach. Yet, we cannot create dialogue, we even cannot intend it, since this would include an element of control. All we can do is being present in the moment, practice inclusion and be ready for dialogue. “I-Thou moments” happen “by grace” (Martin Buber). Any deliberateness only gets in the way.
Well known New Zealand counsellor/therapist George Sweet attends to this paradox in therapy by emphasising “the advantage of being useless”.8
Rather than trying to achieve something in therapy, he uses the following as a mantra: “I have no desire to change this person in any way.”9
I can only work in a healing way with someone when I care for them, feel genuine love, unconditional love, Aroha. This means, to accept them the way they are. Acceptance creates the space for this person to unfold, for healing to occur. It is necessary to help heal any internalised fights.
All I can do as a therapist is to nurture a loving attitude and allow space, without cluttering it with my own agenda. In Hakomi Therapy this spaciousness is referred to as non-violence.
“Nonviolence is born of an attitude of acceptance and an active attention to the way events naturally unfold.”10
The most basic dis-ease I am faced with in my work as a psychotherapist is rejection. People are afraid of rejection and do anything, like pleasing others, working hard, trying again, forcing, fighting, attempting to mind read, agree, join, etc to prevent rejection. This might touch my own tendency to reject.
“The core of problems which clients bring to a counsellor/therapist is that they do not feel okay with who they are. It is the sense that they should be different. When, as a therapist, I have my own agenda of how I and my client should be I only add to their accumulated ‘shoulds’. We then get involved in a game where I play the therapist and you play the client, each of us acting in a way that we think is expected of us in our respective roles.”11
We need to face and heal our own internalised rejection by acceptance. How can we do this, when it has not been our experience, when it is not part of our field?
Again I am inspired by the peaceful spirit of Waitaha.
Rose Pere, a Waitaha/Maori elder, works with the healing power of Aroha. People who otherwise would not go to see a therapist come to her for healing. She is not interested in their past, nor in the assessment of their psychological condition. She has no interest in judging them. Her requirement is that they are ready to look at themselves. Then they can stay with her on her Marae and work there. She is very mindful to not take away a person’s Mana (personal standing that comes with birth), so nobody gets shamed. She honours the Wairua (spirit) and she sees the person in a holistic way. A sense of belonging, and the grounding in acknowledging the line of ancestors, is an important aspect of healing in Maori tradition, easily overlooked in Western psycho-therapies.
At her keynote address of the NZAC Conference12, she challenged with the statement: “Every person is perfect, and every situation is perfect.”
Is there no need for change, when everything is perfect?
Change happens all the time. As long as we are alive, we are in process, we change constantly. We cannot not change, all we can do is get in the way of change.
“We cannot force change. Or if we do, it won’t be integrated, it won’t last. ‘Any deliberate change is doomed to failure. Change has to come by itself through organismic self regulation’ (F. Perls, 1969).” 13
Any intention to change interferes with special moments that constitute healing. In telling you explicitly or implicitly that you need to change, I tell you also that you are not okay the way you are.
Maybe it’s space that we need more than anything to heal. Space, which can be easily cluttered by an overly keen therapist. On the other hand, the contact between therapist and client is diminished if s/he only sits back and waits. It is the challenge to do both, stay contactfull and allow the client all the space and time that is needed for the process. This cannot be done in a mechanical way. It is the therapist’s loving attitude that matters and is expressed when there is no need to rush, and the current state of the client is valued.
To allow space is an act of Aroha, space for the person to unfold their uniqueness.
I believe as I face my fellow being with this attitude, it constitutes healing.
As a therapist, I need to attend to my own healing, so that I can stay in an accepting loving space of Aroha with my client. I need acceptance of myself. Rather than waiting with self acceptance until I have solved all my life’s challenges, I might as well accept myself in process. In the same way as I experience it in this beautiful land, I develop a self caring attitude and allow space for myself and all the time in the world that it takes to grow.
The journey is the goal.
Aroha is the healing.
- 1. Song of Waitaha, The Histories of a Nation, Ngatapuwae Trust, 1994
- 2. Barry Brailsford: The Journey is to be nothing, in Gestalt Dialogue 4, p. 10f
- 3. Rudolf Jarosewitsch, The Essence of Gestalt Therapy, in Gestalt Dialogue 4, 1996, p.3
- 4. in: Grounds for Gestalt, Foreground Press, 1994
- 5. Ibid. P. 76
- 6. Lynne Jacobs, “Dialogue in Gestalt Theory and Therapy”, Gestalt Journal XII, 1989; and Richard Hycner & Lynne Jacobs: The Healing Relationship in Gestalt Therapy, Gestalt Journal Press, NY, 1995
- 7. Richard Hycner: Between person and person, Gestalt Journal Press, NY, 1993, p. 15
- 8. George Sweet: The Advantage of Being Useless, Palmerston North, The Dunmore Press, 1989
- 9. George Sweet, Opening Comments at NZAC Conference, Christchurch, October 1995
- 10. Ron Kurtz, Body-centred Psychotherapy, Mendocino, CA 1990, p. 29
- 11. Rudolf Jarosewitsch, The Essence of Gestalt Therapy, in Gestalt Dialogue 4, 1996, p.2
- 12. New Zealand Association of Counsellors, Havelock North, July 1996
- 13. Rudolf Jarosewitsch: The Power of Gentleness in Gestalt Therapy, in: More Grounds for Gestalt, Foreground Press, 1996, p. 44
Copyright © 11/1997 by Rumijabu | Originally published in the Internet Magazine Gestalt! 1(3) Oct1997, also in Gestalt Dialogue #7, Nov1997