“May all beings enjoy happiness and have whatever causes happiness,
May they be free from suffering and whatever causes suffering,
May they never be separated from the pure happiness which is without suffering,
May they remain in great equanimity beyond attachment and aversion, to things near and far.”
The goal and task in Gestalt Therapy is to be more fully who I am, to realise my potential. In an ongoing exchange process between organism and environment, I develop awareness, a sense of myself and of other.
The Power of Gentleness describes for me, both goal and task. It is primarily an attitude, a way of being that is vital for the therapeutic process. At the same time its realisation is the achievement of the therapeutic goal.
What I intend to show is how both aspects, “power” and “gentleness” complement each other and form a Gestalt, a meaningful organised whole. In coming together they lead forward on the path of self actualisation, they lead forward in being more fully who we are, in our separateness from and connectedness with our environment.
When applied to therapeutic situations, it is the Power of Gentleness that invokes an attitude that supports self-directed growth and is in keeping with the “three basic processes which … provide the foundations that define Gestalt Therapy”#. This will be contrasted with the old style Gestalt that Robert Resnick called “boom – boom” therapy.
I want to unfold the concept of Power of Gentleness by exploring theoretical assumptions and clinical examples. At the end, I want to identify aspects of Buddha Dharma, the teachings of Tibetan lamas, that can enrich our understanding of the process.
First, however, I want to identify and acknowledge my subjective bias with regard to this topic by sharing aspects of my own personal process.
What I recall is that as a small child, I was a rather sensitive, gentle person. This was not the way I was “supposed” to be. In particular, I recall the messages from my uncle, that I had to be tougher to be a real boy. “Men don’t cry!” I learned to block and suppress my emotions, I learned to close my heart, and to play tough. I was desperately trying to be a man, so I had to fulfil what I swallowed as introjects, and to meet the assumed expectations of the environment. I remember the struggle from an early age, where I had to be someone who I never really managed to be. It seemed that just being myself was not enough. I had to act differently, to prove myself constantly and to be someone else. My uncle would say that I should join the army, so that I would become a “real man”.
I recall that joining the army was the last thing that I wanted to do. I grew up in post war Germany, where the effects of war were still very present in the form of ruins and the depressive feelings of the people. I did not quite know what I wanted to be, but one thing I was sure from an early age, I didn’t want to be a soldier. There was this conflict within myself, the urge, on one hand, to meet these introjected messages, on the other hand having rebellious feelings and resistance against them.
It was with the help of astrology that I finally came to the realisation, that my essence, my potential was much gentler than I always felt I had to be. Sun in Cancer and Libra rising supported me to be a sensitive, gentle person. Once I got to know my horoscope more fully, I started to accept myself in my sensitivity and my gentleness. It took me a while longer to recognise that in my sensitivity, in my gentleness was also strength. Initially both concepts, the “gentleness” – or feminine aspect – and “power” – or masculine aspect – seemed quite opposite. Power seemed to have little to do with gentleness, and gentleness seemed to be quite removed from power.
I want to clarify what the terms mean to me.
Power stands for “personal power” not abusive power. This is “power with” rather than “power over”.
What appears to be powerful is not necessarily powerful. For example, the violent husband who beats his wife might appear to be powerful and definitely has a powerful effect on his victim of abuse. However, when we examine more closely, we can discover that his violent outburst actually is the result of him feeling utterly powerless and helpless. If he would not feel so powerless in himself, he would not need to suppress someone else. In violence he covers up his feeling of powerlessness. In suppressing someone else he makes himself appear or feel powerful.
In the same way as grandiosity is based on low self esteem, violent expression of power is based on personal weakness. Violence is an expression of helplessness. When I truly feel powerful within myself, I do not need to suppress another person. The other person’s power does not frighten me, I can meet the other person in power. We both share in our strengths. We share power with each other, and since we are both powerful, we can meet as equals.
This is a basis for interpersonal contact.
The concept of personal power allows individuals to be themselves more fully and to develop a sense of autonomy. It is the basis of free and fulfilling relationships. It is the absence of neurotic or characterological confluence. With a sense of personal power, we define our boundaries, where we develop our discriminating abilities.
Personal power is exercised in the ability to set boundaries, to identify personal needs and to follow them with full self-support. It is both, asserting personal needs and respecting others and the environment. In this it is different to Fritz Perls’ notion of “I do my thing and you do your thing” in his “Gestalt prayer”#.
Personal power includes recognition that the individual is part of a family, whanau, community, and that the individuals and their wider ‘system’ are interrelated. Subsequently, personal needs cannot ignore the needs of the society and the ecological context they are part of.
For example, I will be unable to meet my need for water in the long run if I waste or pollute the water resources. Personal power is not egotism. It is exercised in acknowledging and respecting my own and other people’s needs, as well as natural laws. It is the actualisation of personal will with respect to the principles of self regulation.
Gentleness is not niceness.
I can be nice and appear to be gentle without really being gentle. Being nice, I play act and operate on what Fritz Perls called the ‘phoney layer’. I act phoney in the sense that I do not express my true feelings. As I protect you from my true feelings I diminish our possibilities for contact.
Gentleness needs to go both ways, towards others and towards myself.
I can recall Enu Schaeffer, a teacher and friend of mine in Berlin, saying to me, that I was always so nice and gentle with others and yet so hard on myself. Gentleness needs to go both ways.
For example, friends invite me to dinner. I might be tired and feel like saying “no”. But since I am conditioned to be nice and as I don’t want to hurt their feelings, I agree and accept the invitation. In doing so, I am not really gentle, since I am hard on myself for not letting myself do what I need to do. I might be polite and smile and do all the ‘nice things’, but somehow my eyes, body posture, gesture, and the tone of my voice will express how I really feel. Our bodies don’t lie. I am convinced of that! My hosts will get double messages from me which creates an awkwardness. Therefore I am not gentle with them either.
When I am nice, rather than gentle, I suppress myself, my own personal needs. I can do this for a while, but if I do this long enough it has to turn into resentment.
I learned to be nice as an indirect way of getting my needs for affection met. I learned that I was liked when I was “nice”. But later I experienced that it did not always work, people did not always like me for being nice and giving. I might feel generous and giving in a sense that “your needs are more important than mine”. If I truly give without expectations, that’s fine. However, if I expect something in return, there is a good chance that I will be disappointed and miss out by not getting anything back. This is where resentment comes in.
Gentleness, going both ways, gives freedom to me and to you. I can be clear and respectful with regard to my needs and yours.
To be truly gentle means to be honest, with myself and others. In gentleness, I let myself be who I am, and I let you meet the ‘real me’. This takes courage and humility.
In gentleness, I reach out and I move out of my potential isolation. In gentleness, I am open for exchange, I reach out to touch you, and I am open for you to touch me.
Gentleness to myself means also to stop my self-criticism. Now, here we can hit a problem. If gentleness with myself becomes another “should”, the point is missed. For gentleness has nothing to do with exchanging one set of introjects with another. If the earlier “I should be tough” is replace by “I should be gentle”, the point is missed. Gentleness is much more relaxing into being who I am. If, for example, I am aware of my self-criticism, the gentle approach is to not punish myself for this. To be gentle, I don’t have to be a certain way, just myself. And even if I don’t like what I am, in gentleness I accept not liking what I am.
Gentleness finds its expression in acceptance. If I find it hard to accept myself in the space I am in, I can start by accepting this difficulty. Acceptance connects me with reality, with what is rather than what should be. It is very important not to make another “should” out of gentleness. We will see later that change happens with gentleness in a natural organismic way.
As I am gentle with myself, I am gentle with you, with others, with my environment. I am gentle to the degree that I am truthful, honest and caring.
What I tell you might disappoint you, like a “no” to your invitation, or a critical comment. Actually, if we look more closely, I give you a present by sharing of myself.
Since I acknowledge your personal power I treat you like an equal and I offer you myself in my fullness, how I am and feel right now.
I care for you to the degree that I offer you the greatest gift, my honesty.#
To apply the Power of Gentleness means to be more present in the actual moment. The Power of Gentleness is the unfolding of my potential in an attitude that is accepting, caring and embraces the potential of myself, another and of the given situation.
Acceptance does not mean a fatalistic giving in. Acceptance means to be with what is rather than what should be. In being with ‘what is’ I make the current situation a workable situation, because then I have the opportunity to respond to it appropriately.
For example, I want to go for a walk, and it happens to rain. The non accepting approach would be to be upset, annoyed, angry, to focus on what should be: “the sun should be shining”, to be annoyed with the fact that it rains. However, as much as I might work myself up rejecting the rain, it does not change the fact that it rains. Only in accepting the fact that it rains, I can make it a workable situation. I still can go for my walk, and accepting the rain, if I don’t want to get wet, I take a raincoat or an umbrella.
Acceptance is not a giving up, it is a giving in, a surrender. As we surrender to the given situation, we can more fully live in the present, we are more in touch with our senses.
Fritz Perls describes “two levels of existence”:
“One is reality, the actual, realistic level, that we are in touch with whatever goes on now, in touch with our ongoing experience, actual touching, seeing moving, doing. The other level we don’t have a good word for, so I choose the Indian word maya. Maya means something like illusion, or fantasy, or philosophically speaking, the ‘as if’ of Vaihinger. Maya is a kind of dream, a kind of trance.”#
We usually operate on both levels. Where there is insufficient sensory data, we fill the missing parts with our own fantasised or imagined concepts and constructions, and easily mistake them for perceived reality. This happens in particular, when we get triggered and have our “buttons pushed”. It is helpful to be aware of the difference between actual perception and fantasy.
“If a person confuses maya and reality, if he takes fantasy for reality, then he is neurotic or even psychotic.”# This applies in particular when there is rigidity. Neurotic and psychotic conditions can be described as a lack or loss of a sense of reality.
But what is reality? Do we not all live in a fantasy world? Do we not all create our own reality?
We live in a fantasy world, in illusion, to the degree that we don’t accept ourselves, that we don’t give in to what is.
“We do not accept ourselves for what we are, but spend our lives dreaming and grasping for pleasures outside ourselves. These fantasies hypnotise us and prevent us from touching our innermost feelings – feelings which then become covered with layers of disappointment created by our unfulfilled expectations. Fantasising thus creates a rift between our minds and bodies.”#
An alternative to being lost in this fantasy reality is to apply the Power of Gentleness.
“When we carefully observe our senses and feelings, we learn to accept and appreciate ourselves, and to be open to others. Through the integration and balancing of our minds and bodies, it is possible to attain the inner peace and joy which itself is love.”
For full article, please refer to: More Grounds for Gestalt, Edited by Yaro Starak, Anne Maclean, Anna Bernett, Foreground Press, 1996