The Essence of Gestalt Therapy

“Imagine a huge canvas in the middle of the circle. We are co-creating a joint painting that will be finished with the completion of this workshop.” This was the image that came to me at the beginning of a recent workshop in Auckland outlining what we were going to do.

I have a basic idea and I am willing to put forward suggestions and share my phenomenology. The end result however is always a joint venture. The essence of Gestalt is the ‘between’.

As Anne Maclean says: “You and I. … Gestalt is about life and liveliness and being fully who you are. You and I are the centre of Gestalt.”

The moment I attach a label to a person I am in danger of freezing the natural flow of life. The concept of Field Theory is central to Gestalt, the understanding of a person in her/his becoming (Gewordenheit), in the context of the past and present environment.

The essence of Gestalt is hard – maybe impossible – to capture. Our language is often too static. It is the ‘in-between’, the middle way between opposites, the ‘and’ rather than the ‘or’.

At introductory Gestalt courses I have often heard the comment of participants, “I still would not be able to say what Gestalt Therapy is and yet I have gained a sense of it.”

I remember in the seventies, when I first got involved with Gestalt, theory was frowned upon “you can’t explain Gestalt Therapy, you can only experience it”.

Gestalt becomes absurd the moment we are dogmatic in any way. It cannot only focus on experience. There needs to be a place for theoretical reflection.

Another rigid belief that I met as a guest at a psychotherapy training course was: “Gestalt leaves out the past and only attends to the here-and-now.”

Robert Resnick made it clear that if we attend to ‘what is’, we focus on the ‘now’ but not necessarily on the ‘here’. A memory of the past might be my present ‘now’. I may be somewhere else than where I am physically.

The main emphasis is on ‘what is’, rather than ‘what should be’. Where I am now is more relevant than being here. However, apart from being caught up in the past or future a ‘should’ could also be what is. We miss the point if we become paranoid about using the wrong term, like ‘should’. Whatever is, is. And we gain access to what is through our senses. Beside being mindful of what I see, hear, smell, taste and feel I might have a hunch, an intuition which is relevant. I call this state of hightened awareness ‘being in Gestalt’.

As I relax in this process of basic acceptance of you in your reality and of me in mine, as I shuttle between paying attention to your phenomenology and mine, life becomes simpler. Relaxing into ‘what is’ becomes a way out of the struggle of inner and outer fights.

This process reminds me of what the Dalai Lama calls ‘peace of mind’. It is a basic sanity, one where I can arrive at ‘being at home’ in myself, where I can be embodied.

I remember my own struggle with myself, finding it difficult to accept myself, believing that there was something wrong with me. One of my greatest insights was that the only thing that is wrong with me is the believe that there is something wrong with me. More and more, as I accept and experience acceptance, acceptance of myself sinks in and becomes my reality.

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.

The existential dilemma of self rejection can only be attended to when I am with ‘what is’ rather than ‘what should be’, when I am free to be myself, warts and all. This is the most essential part of Gestalt Therapy.

Its simplicity is stunning. Yet it is very profound. I am inspired by the freedom of breathing space that I feel in the presence of someone who accepts me in my being, who does not burden me even with subtle expectations. I think of Tibetan lamas who I have met and wise Maori elders who live in the spirit of Waitaha. It is the presence that communicates in silence.

On my journey of personal growth I learn to accept myself and others more and more. This makes it possible to focus on the divine spark or Buddha nature in the person in front of me. Maybe I open myself to a heart-to-heart connection. But this sounds already like big words. No, the spirit of Gestalt is in the simplicity of being. The essence cannot be spoken, it cannot be named. Stories could be a vehicle, poetry, songs, or simply being with someone in silence.

We must be careful not to lose the spirit of Gestalt by trying too hard to make it more acceptable in the academic world in constructing more and more abstract and removed theories, by squeezing it into the straight jacket of ‘objective’ research.

Jan Illingsworth identifies the need for balance in attending to “creative right brain work” which can get lost in the attempt to attend to professional credibility of the training.

I focus on your strength. Your problems don’t interest me, your growth does. I know that what I focus on I reinforce. I believe that those who are not willing or too afraid to identify and acknowledge them are the ones who have problems. The moment you engage in counselling or psychotherapy you are engaging in your own growth process.

I look for your potential and the wisdom in your survival pattern. George Sweet’s mantra comes to mind: “I have no desire to change this person in any way.”

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.

Rudolf Jarosewitsch


Copyright © 6/1996 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Gestalt Dialogue #4, Jun1996

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s