Dialogues and Interviews

Gestalt and Spirituality

Sue Murray interviewed by Rudolf Jarosewitsch

R: Can you say something about Gestalt and spirituality?

S: It is difficult to approach this topic without acknowledging that the basis of Gestalt is experience, being able to test something out by experience. So dealing with spirituality is the same. It’s about the experience, and believing in what you experience is your experience. That’s how I come to it, from an experience that has been life-long and always feeling that somehow as a therapist I have had to keep this part of myself and my own experience out of the therapy room and out of my own experience of therapy. While I was in England, I spent a lot of time talking with other Gestalt therapists who are looking at what is their own spirituality and then how can they incorporate that in therapy. How can we facilitate people becoming more aware of their own spirituality. I don’t think I have a lot of answers, but I have a lot of interesting experiences about it.

R: Sounds good. My interest in this theme is with the concept of integration and wholeness. For me it seems that a person is more than the physical, mental and emotional processes. There is also the spiritual aspect. I believe this is what we aim for in Gestalt Therapy, the integration of the whole person. We also have to attend to the spiritual side.

S: I am reminded of doing a lot of personal work in therapy and always being clear that they were stepping stones or building blocks. OK, you might do therapy with a particular therapist and you don’t finish the work. It is growing. I think the same applies with people’s awareness of their spirituality, that it’s a growing process. Whilst they may not work on spirituality with me or you as therapists. When we are open to that possibility, it may increase their awareness. I think, we as therapists are there to “lovingly serve the awareness process of the client” (as Vernon van de Riet says), it is not our job to say, “this person’s block is in their spiritual area and therefore I must do something about it”, rather how can I as a therapist put in front of them, the possibility that some of the issues may have to do with their alienation from the spiritual being.

R: My interest is also to look if the spiritual aspect is implicit in Gestalt. It is not explicitly written about, but I have a feeling that implicitly it is part of Gestalt Therapy theory, as in the concepts of dialogue, organismic self regulation, and also in field theory. What are your thoughts about that?

S: It’s a bit of a chuckle, as Buber was a theologian. Many people who have become important teachers in the helping professions were theologically trained. If we look at the history of humans and go back into other cultures, there always has been a dialogue with another being, e.g. God, Jahve, spirit gods.

R: Buber says that I only can have a sense of myself as an “I” when I meet a “you”, and this encounter between I and “Thou”, I get a sense of who I am. He also says that this encounter happens by grace, we cannot force these I-Thou moments. There is almost a sacredness in this meeting.

S: When this happens in the therapy room we can experience the process of healing in real connection. It happens. I think, it is an experience which is outside our five sense experience. It is difficult to explain. It is not just something I heard or saw or touched, there is a meta-level going on.

R: Would you call this intuition?

S: I don’t know what I would call it. This is what Zukav calls “the multi-sensory person experience”, which is more than the five sense experience. Looking at it not only from dialogue, but also from field theory. The field is broader than often taken into account. If we take the experience of intimacy, which is moments of actually meeting through dialogue, there is more operating than just the you and the I. The sum of all our experiences, the sum of the fact that we live in this universe. For many of us there is more than just people involved in the meeting. There is a spiritual dimension involved. It makes me often ask, why did these particular people seek me out for therapy? Why do we connect? What is it about the fact that this person walks through the door, and that I am this person’s therapist? And vice versa, when I am a client. How is it that I get to this particular therapist to do this particular piece of work? When I could have done it with anybody else but I don’t. How can I make some sense of this?

R: There is no coincidence, there is always purpose.

S: Yes. I don’t have scientific explanations. I have experiences. I make sense of my life in terms of what happens, and I don’t necessarily know at a particular point why I do something that I do. But it does make sense when I have the bigger picture of it. At the time of doing and being I might only have part of the picture and a knowing that it is right.

R: When people go through hardships and they have experienced difficult situations like abuse, this is purposeful. Is this what you would say?

S: Yes, I would say it is purposeful. I would not say that people invite abuse into their life. In my experience of working as a therapist, each person can use the experience of abuse to learn something about life. From that perspective it makes it worthwhile. It doesn’t make it less painful. It doesn’t take it away or minimise it. But it does actually mean that we can go forward rather than staying stuck.

R: To do this we need to have a more positive or more accepting attitude towards the world.

S: I feel a little frightened by saying more positive, fuller would be the way I would look at it. Because more positive means that if I don’t have it, then what I do is not positive. It seems like it rounds it out more. It doesn’t make it better. It just adds to it, more flavour.

R: I believe, I need a spiritual perspective as a therapist in order to be able to support a person into growth which includes their spiritual growth.

S: I can be a good therapist without a sense of the spiritual. I think, that the client can only work in therapy with me to the level at which I am skilled to be there. That’s about all sorts of things, not just the spiritual. If I am not skilled to do a particular behavioural technique, then my client doesn’t benefit from that. If I can’t use the Rapid Eye Movement technique, then my client doesn’t benefit from that. If I don’t have a spiritual understanding, my client doesn’t benefit from that either. It doesn’t mean I am a bad person or a bad therapist, it just means that this is not part of me. And I don’t think that everybody needs every skill. Some clients will be quite happy with where they are and what they are doing and the spiritual isn’t important, or they have a spiritual understanding that doesn’t need dealing with in the therapy room.

R: Can it be a support to therapy?

S: It is not to say that because people have a concept of God or a spiritual being that they can have an easier time. There is support because they know there is something more in their life than the struggle they are having.

R: For me the spiritual aspect is also a sense of meaning.

S: I think people do need a sense of meaning.

R: A sense of purpose.

S: Yes. I need to make sense of my life and my journey, and I experience that clients need to make sense of their life and their journey.

R: Is it your impression that the spiritual aspect is becoming more attended to in Gestalt Therapy circles, from your experience in Europe?

S: I don’t know that it is being attended to more. I know, it is beginning to be attended to. There is a degree of interest in England in the whole concept of channelling and also in spiritual healing, as opposed to therapy. At the Gestalt Centre I worked in London there was the interest. Both the students and the staff are coming to grips with the spiritual. What does this mean? How does this affect the way that I work? How does this affect me as a person being open to more than the five senses.

R: You mentioned earlier Zukav, can you say more about his writing?

S: Its called “The seat of the soul”, it is his second book. Zukav is a physicist and initially wrote about quantum physics. This book deals with a lot of issues I have been thinking about. One of the concepts he talks about is the “multisensory human”, which is more than just the five senses that we traditionally have been using in Gestalt. Only working with five senses is limiting. What about intuitive ideas when working with clients? Where does this come from? Is it me seeing things happening and therefore making a logical conclusion? Or is it something that comes from somewhere else, different from my five senses?

R: Sometimes they talk about the sixth sense. I know, in Anthroposophy, they talk about twelve senses. Does he propose any additional senses to the five?

S: Zukav says: “It is not necessary to be capable of voice-to-voice communication, so to speak, to be able to draw upon the sources of guidance and assistance that surround you. This way is available to the advanced mutisensory human, but the road to that ability is a joyful one of developing an awareness that wise and compassionate guidance is always available to you, and learning to incorporate it consciously into your life.” He goes on to say, “From the multisensory point of view, insights, intuitions, hunches and inspirations are messages from the soul, or from advanced intelligences that assist the soul on its evolutionary journey.”

R: I find this very empowering – I also use this in client work – to support people to trust not only their five senses, but also their intuitions, their hunches. I believe this is very often an aspect that we can alienate ourselves from and therefore diminish ourselves.

S: I think that is true. If we have, what a lot of people say, a Higher Self – Zukav calls it the soul – then that is a part of ourselves that traditionally we haven’t paid attention to. The hunches, the gut feelings are in a way my experience of getting information about my world, my beingness in the world, that living without would be very difficult. It’s nothing spectacular, it’s listening to that quiet voice inside rather than turning it off. The more we learn to trust that side of ourselves, the more we are tapping into the spiritual.

R: I remember John Leary-Joyce from the London Gestalt Centre in 1992 talking about “somatic resonance”. On a somatic level I might feel something that I am tuning into which is relevant for the client.

S: If we are open to those experiences and can use them in the service of the client, we offer a lot. If we are closed minded about different experience, we limit both, ourselves and our clients. If I am willing to trust information from both, my senses that I am more familiar with and my “knowing” then I am a fuller therapist. That is what I think, the spiritual is about. It is not about religion as such, but a connection to my fellow human beings and the wisdom of the universe. This includes the wisdom of the people that have come and gone before me. Also to a spiritual being that sometimes in my finiteness I can’t comprehend fully. I haven’t enough words to explain, a frustration with my own lack of understanding. When I read books like “The Seat of the Soul” I connect with the writing and have a sense of knowing.

R: There is another author, Thomas Moore, who has written “Care of the Soul.” He makes the point that the aspect of the soul has been missing in psychotherapy. It seems it is an reoccurring theme of our times.

S: It does. It seems like we have gone as human beings as far as we can to reducing ourselves down to quantums, smaller and smaller parts. We still don’t have the answers to who we are, why we are here, and what the tasks are that we have to learn as human beings. The more open I am, the more open I am to the spiritual. That is what drew me to New Zealand in the first place, that it is a place of spirituality, and the indigenous cultures have such a strong spiritual mythology. Whereas I think our roots in Europe have lost a lot of this.

R: According to Barry Brailsford, the spirit of the Waitaha, the peace loving tribes is still present in New Zealand. I feel that this is where the healing lies, in the re-connecting with nature, land, the earth.

S: As therapists, we can help people to re-connect to themselves, then part of that re-connecting is to their spiritual side. A lot of our struggles are because we are disconnected.

R: I see a parallel, I am disconnected from myself to the same degree that I am disconnected from my environment, from what is in my wider field. The connection that I can have to nature, to animals, to people, enhances the connection to myself, including my Higher Self, or God.

S: If we are in isolation, we are isolated from ourselves, other people and our spiritual being. It is a difficult place to be, just as being totally confluent means that we are disconnected and unavailable to ourselves and to our spiritual selves as well. Finding the way through is quite a challenge.

R: It is living in the paradox of being a separate being and at the same time connected.

S: Yes, it is a paradox. How do we do it? My experience is the more I am tuned in to myself, the more able I am to really be with somebody else. That does mean to be tuned in to my essence, my soul energy. Zukav seems to think that if we pay attention to our soul energy, life is actually easier. We may not have to go down the same path, beating our head on the twentieth wall to learn something. We have the possibility to learn it earlier.

R: How do you do this?

S: It’s paying more attention to the dialogue in my head, the stuff that has traditionally been called “middle zone”. I think it has a lot to offer, if I act on it and test it out. A thought that just came into my head: Was Fritz Perls frightened of that part and therefore diminished it?

R: I am thinking of meditation, and Fritz also put meditation down. When I meditate, I create a space. This is also a way of connecting. He didn’t have kind things to say about meditation either.

S: It just struck me that maybe this is his hang-up that we are wearing and that we don’t need to. Maybe that’s the challenge of Gestalt now, what is “middle zone”? What is this “in-between space”?

R: It is just one more of these things that need to be integrated.

S: I think, that this is our task to say “I don’t know”. It doesn’t mean it is wrong. I just don’t know. Let me find out some more. Let me experience some more. There is such power in Gestalt, in that my experience is real.

R: Which brings us back to the beginning.

S: That is all that I have in my life, is my experience. There are neither good or bad. They are experiences from which I can choose to learn, or choose not to learn till maybe the next time. If I would live my life without the spiritual, I would be poorer.

R: Thank you.

Sue Murray is one of the co-founders of the Integrative Gestalt Centre. She now lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

Copyright © 11/1995 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Gestalt Dialogue #3, Nov1995

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