When the manuscript of this book was finished the COVID-19 virus pandemic had not yet devastated the world as we knew it. But did we know it really? And will the virus change everything as some observers claim? I doubt it. Politicians in all industrialized countries have as soon as seemed reasonable, and often against medical advice even earlier, started to get the economy going at whatever cost. It seems that beyond the corona-crisis the capitalist machinery will continue to suck up our natural resources, as it does even now in the middle of the crisis.
That means that climate change will continue, too. Therefore the last two chapters of this book will, unfortunately, continue to be as pertinent as when I wrote them.
When 1 started to think about this book almost 40 years ago, 1 had just finished my training in Gestalt therapy, a form of psychotherapy which immediately fascinated me and which 1 still practice with great enthusiasm. But from the beginning I was dissatisfied with the state of the literature on Gestalt therapy. To be sure, even then there was a growing literature relating to the practice of Gestalt therapy. This time was marked by the contemporary wave of therapies derived from the Human Potential Movement, spreading the news about the innovative craft skills and techniques of this new form of psychotherapy. But there were significant lacunae in Gestalt theory. The theoretical part of Gestalt Therapy - the ground-breaking text written by Frederick Peris and Paul Goodman in 1951 - was almost its only theoretical basis.
Especially lacking were:
- 1 A consistent theory of the contacting process - a mere sketch in chapters 12 and 13 in PHG;
- 2 A phenomenological exploration of the role of emotions in the contacting process and in Gestalt therapy;
- 3 The problematical issue of clinical diagnosis in Gestalt therapy, i.e. the problem of a process-oriented diagnosis;
- 4 A theory of growth and development consistent with Gestalt therapy;
- 5 An exploration of the anthropological philosophy underlying Gestalt therapy with a special focus on the question: how we can achieve a meaningful and satisfying good life in a world of catastrophic developments?
- 1 was not surprised to realize whilst working on these issues, that the scope of the task exceeded a single book. Since then, the situation has changed, and many important contributions to Gestalt therapy theory have been published, especially by Erving Polster, Gary Yontef, and the participants in a discussion forum on theory in several issues of the American Journal of Gestalt Therapy during the 1990s. Meanwhile a new wave of theoretical thinking is underway focused on “relations” and a new emphasis on the “field” and the “self’. Yet little of this literature has really addressed the theoretical issues I had in mind to fulfil the promise opened by Peris, Hefferline and Goodman’s book (hereafter cited as “Peris & Goodman”).
So I decided to start with the first two of the topics listed above. This book presents the results of this work. The third topic in the list eventually became the subject of my book on diagnostic perspectives in Gestalt therapy, published in 2010 under the title Gestalt and Process - Clinical Diagnosis in Gestalt Therapy - A Field Guide (Dreitzel, 2004 I 2010). A final book on issues 4 and 5 above was published in 2018 under the title The Art of Living and the Joy of Life - Development and Maturity in a Changing World (Dreitzel, 2018).
So the two main parts of the present book are dedicated first to an exploration of the theory of the contacting process and secondly to a theory of emotions and their relevance for Gestalt therapy. Both parts explore their topics by applying the phenomenological method of studying our consciousness and its ways to construct what we experience as our reality. This methodological approach - the basis of the Gestalt therapeutic practice - presents itself naturally as the method at hand to dive into the depths of the way human beings make contact with each other and attempt to lead a satisfying and fulfilling life. In a highly interesting recent contribution Michael Vincent Miller (Miller, 2019:97-98) has remarked that after Fritz Peris broke during his time at Easalen with Paul Goodman he also left behind any serious attempt to further incorporate phenomenology as the major method of working therapeutically in Gestalt therapy. Miller even came to the astonishing conclusion that Gestalt therapy has little to do with awareness. This is the result of Miller's analysis of the distinction between awareness, being an undirected, unintentional activity, and attention, being always an intentional act of consciousness: "My own viewpoint is that awareness is not sufficient for a Gestalt therapy theory of contact as put forth in PGH. Contact is a meeting that is emergent, creative, potential nourishing and fulfilling, and reshapes the two parties to it” (Op. cit.JOl). (I will not follow up Miller's distinction which unfortunately came too late to my attention for this book.)
What 1 mean here (and in the subtitle of this book) by phenomenological method is not identical with what Edmund Husserl, the inventor of phenomenology as a philosophy, was after: to establish a new philosophy beyond empiricism and rationalism with its many turns including a return to metaphysics. 1 will not address its complicated history. Instead here I mean a methodological perspective which is focused on the “how?” rather than on the “what?”. This sticks to the phenomenological method of “bracketing” all evaluations, prejudices, emotional reactions and the like as biases. It also keeps in mind the phenomenological notion of the intentionality of all acts of consciousness (which is one reason why I see the contacting process as a horizontal time line rather than a circle).
In this new revised English edition I introduce the second main part with a study of Physical pain and the nature of suffering and I conclude my reflections by considering Aliveness and the joy of life as a general goal of Gestalt therapy. Taking up the political and sociological impetus of Paul Goodman, these two central parts of this book are framed by essays reflecting on the historical and the cultural context of psychotherapy today, because I am convinced that beyond our clients’ individual family backgrounds we urgently need to consider in what kind of society our lives and therapies are embedded. 1 have focused here on the Western world because it is in these countries or at least in their Western spirit that Gestalt therapy is practised internationally, even though this entailed disregarding many national differences. This partly reflects problems of space and the danger of overloading the book but this limitation may be justified considering our common fate of being subject to both hopeful and truly fearsome technological and political developments globally. As the spirit of Gestalt therapy demands that we take responsibility not only for our individual lives but also for the future of our societies, we need to think about how we can mobilize our energy and focus our motivation - and that of our clients - to actually get involved in changing the dangerous path our civilization has chosen. That is why I have added an Epilogue with some reflections on the question how Gestalt therapy could react responsibly to environmental destruction in our age of climate change. I hope they will be encouraging.
In this way a book emerged which does not just address the narrower circle of Gestalt therapists but is written for all psychotherapists, as well as for readers interested in sociological, political and philosophical analyses of our time.
1 gratefully acknowledge that the theory of the contacting process was first outlined in the seminal text Gestalt Therapy (Peris & Goodman, 1952) - the starting point of my own contributions to the theory of Gestalt therapy. I am delighted that both volumes of Gestalt Therapy have been re-published (1994) with the addition of an inspiring new foreword by Michael Vincent Miller in the spirit of his friend and teacher Isadore From. Somehow it represents a kind of last will and testament of Isadore’s since it was posthumously written and published shortly after his death, and presented as originally planned: theory, followed by practice as Isadore had wanted.
At the time, the particular perspective of Peris & Goodman was meant to overcome some of the deficiencies of psychoanalysis of their time. Today -when the politics of mental health seem to be governed more and more by the diagnostic imperialism of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) and the doubtful promises of the pharmaceutical industry - it is even more pertinent: it emphasizes
- • process instead of structure;
- • creativity instead of passive adjustment; and
- • the autonomy of the patient instead of the disturbances of their character.
The theoretical part of Gestalt Therapy (Volume One) contains in its chapters Xll and XIII the theory of the contacting process, which in my opinion represents - together with the theory of the self and the focus on the contact boundary - the heart of Gestalt therapeutic theory.
It is the intention of this book to convey to readers interested in psychology, education and other social sciences the contribution a Gestalt perspective could offer to an understanding of the interaction between man and his environment. As far as 1 know there is no psychotherapeutic theory which has given as much attention to the exchange processes between human beings and the environment, and the interaction (contact) between people. This makes Gestalt therapy particularly significant considering the environmental disasters which surround us today. Peris and Goodman could not have guessed at this catastrophe at the end of the 1940s. But their theoretical insights are, in my judgment, still of great importance today for learning how to deal with these developments. This assertion will be examined in the Epilogue to this book. 1 am convinced that the recently much-discussed notion of the “field” will empirically become more and more aligned with our decaying biological environment, which in turn will become the vague but anxious-making background of all our contacting processes.
Here 1 present the theory of the contacting process in detail. Compared to its first formulation in Peris & Goodman, 1 have expanded the model without too much regard for the original text: 1 was not concerned with exegesis, nor did 1 want to enter into any dispute with Peris & Goodman’s assumptions. These I do not always share though I always find them stimulating. But since the first publication of Gestalt Therapy, almost seventy years have passed; we now have a broad range of clinical experience and insights pointing beyond the original work.1 There have been theoretical discussions and contributions, too, especially during the 1990s, which left their traces in my reflections, and later with the advent of “relational” Gestalt therapy, which in my view is superfluous and so it remains undiscussed here. (Is not all Gestalt therapy guided by a personal relationship between the therapist and their own therapist? That is certainly as I have learned it.)
Instead an update of the original descriptions in Peris & Goodman seems pertinent today, as I hope to demonstrate in this book. While my considerations are deeply rooted in the work of Peris & Goodman, I take sole responsibility for what follows, especially since 1 have not always made an effort to refer in detail to where 1 deviate from Peris & Goodman. But to avoid misunderstandings one important difference should be mentioned right here: in Peris & Goodman the fourth phase of the contacting process denotes action outside the contacting process proper, whereas 1 use the concept of post-con-tact to indicate that the process still continues with slowly fading intensity within the contacting situation proper. This is particularly important for the therapeutic process, because it often happens that, though progressing well, a therapy fails to catch hold because the therapist does not pay sufficient attention to the post-contact process within the session. This, too, is why 1 call the third phase “full contact’’ (also known as “integration") whereas Peris & Goodman called it “final contact”.
Opening Chapter IV, the essay On physical pain and the nature of suffering has been added to turn the focus from interaction between human beings in general terms to our subjective experience. For even though the Gestalt perspective always considers the contacting process at the contact boundary between the person and their environment as the real battle-field where most of our construction and experience of reality happens, it is still true that at least the experience of physical pain is a lonely one. This is because our bodies are separated and it is very difficult to express in words the specific quality of a pain which puts it beyond any real possibility of empathic understanding. Pain and suffering are a priori to the emotions to which the book turns next because the incarnated nature of our bodily existence with its frailty and its transience is the undeniable condition and basis for all our emotional experiences.
Following this, the phenomenology of the emotions provides an important completion of the analysis of human interaction. For how could we conceive of contacting processes without our feelings? Our attempt to comprehend the nature of emotions in Chapter IV and V concludes with an essay on the experience of Aliveness and the joy of life, the other side of pain and suffering -and an essential and encompassing aim of Gestalt therapy. We all desire to enjoy our lives more deeply and with greater intensity; Gestalt therapy and meditational practice may help us to reach this goal by reviving and cultivating our senses.
Peris & Goodman’s text does little more than hint at the role of emotions. This is quite astonishing since Gestalt therapy is often quite accurately described as a mode of therapy which attributes significant importance to feelings. It is the second aim of this book to close that gap. Of course, a Gestalt therapeutic understanding of emotions must be rooted in their function within the contacting process; for this reason, in Chapter III of this book I start with elaborating the theory of the contacting process and only then subsequently proceed to develop a phenomenology of emotions consonant with this model in Chapter IV and V. I could not have done this without discovering Manfred Clynes’ book Sentics — The Touch of Emotion (Clynes, 1976). I came across it while browsing in a tiny bookshop at a bus stop in the northern woods of New York State. I learned more about emotions from this book on my way back to town than from all the academic investigations of the whole of the Psychology of the Emotions put together as they existed at the time. Clynes taught me to understand emotions from an aesthetic point of view akin to Gestalt therapy. I was so impressed that 1 immediately began to write the first draft of this book. Around the end of the 20th century the Social Sciences saw what has been called an “Emotional Turn”: Suddenly a new interest in our emotions was blossoming, resulting in a boom in research and popular literature. Yet seen from today the harvest of this new interest in the nature of our emotions seems meagre.
Through my therapeutic and supervision work, and through my own selfexperience processes including my own Gestalt therapies and forty years of meditational practice, 1 have learned how - when our senses and feelings come more alive - both our motivation for and sensitivity towards a more attentive kind of relationship with our social and natural environment begins to unfold. That experience has motivated me throughout the writing of this book. It is not wrong and - in my eyes - not paradoxical to say that my theoretical insights rest partly on my own self-experience. During the years when this book gradually grew in me, 1 worked on it with the conceptual tools I was equipped with through my training as a social scientist, especially in the theory of symbolic interaction founded by the American philosopher George Herbert Mead. Equally I am grounded in my early training in the methodology of phenomenology by my teacher, the philosopher Helmuth Plessner, at the University of Goettingen in Germany. Thus, 1 checked and tested everything with reference to my sensory and emotional experiences as they came alive in my own body through my training as a Gestalt therapist and in my practice of body meditations. In this way I am more personally implicated than is usually the case in this kind of text. My reflections are of course based on the findings and insights of other and greater people, but I have developed and checked them through observation and self-experiment not least in the encounter with others. But my main method of gaining knowledge and insight was the phenomenological method of epoche, of bracketing all evaluations and distancing myself from any prejudice, staying strictly with the Here-and-Now of the givenness of emotions.
Thus, I am responsible for each thesis in this book as its author and investigator - but 1 am grateful throughout to all my teachers, my colleagues, my students and clients who helped through cooperation and discussion and through allowing me to teach and work with them. Many of them had a lively and patient interest in the theory of Gestalt therapy without which this book would not have been written. It is dedicated to Isadore From, who died before the first draft of the English translation could reach him and so, sadly, I am left without his critical appraisal.
If the phenomenological perspective is the best approach to studying the essence of interaction processes within our natural human environments, a different perspective is needed for understanding the social and political culture in which inevitably all psychotherapeutic work is embedded. Often the therapist’s view is limited by their interest in the three main influences: family of origin, family of procreation, and work situation. But there is much more to context or environment which we need to take into account. Currently, the socio-political situation of the Western world is not just in disarray: it is in deep crisis, threatening our civilization and even our survival. It is not surprising that deep anxieties and anger increasingly break through the surface of our seemingly civilized and peaceful standards of behaviour, emerging as a relevant background to our therapeutic endeavour. Therefore, the two main parts of this book are framed by chapters exploring the historical background as well as the cultural context which co-determine all psychotherapeutic work today. In working on this English edition, 1 revised and largely rewrote these chapters in order to take these newer political, social and environmental developments into account. Even if the present focus of attention unavoidably focuses on the sudden growth of populist movements, my own concern has long been dedicated to issues of climate change and environmental disaster, since in the long run they will completely change if not our own lives surely that of our children and our children’s children.
1 would like to ask the reader to bear with me if he/she feels that I have not done justice to the particulars of the actual situation in their own country. 1 focused on what can typically be observed in all Western countries, but I am well aware of deep differences, especially in regard to the United States compared with Europe or in regard to the differences between Western and Eastern Europe.
No doubt readers of this English edition will find various reasons for criticism and may object to some of my theoretical claims. And that is as it should be, since the theory of Gestalt therapy is never completed, and with such criticism the theory can continue to grow. Of course, much of what I claim for Gestalt therapy is true for other forms of therapy, too - but Gestalt therapy is my passion.
The following text does not describe the art of doing Gestalt therapy, how one could or should do it. The special issues of the therapeutic setting, of clinical diagnosis and therapeutic techniques are beyond my concern in this book and can - aside from easily comprehensible professional mistakes -indeed only be learned in a living encounter between teacher and pupil. But for the sake of readers not familiar with Gestalt therapy I will give a brief summary of its essence here and explain how it differs from other forms of therapy. For clarity’s sake, 1 will mainly describe its differences delineated from psychoanalysis out of which it first grew:
- 1 Gestalt therapy builds on the client’s oiwi experience and the shared interpretation of this experience, instead of the therapist interpreting subconscious material.
- 2 Gestalt therapy mainly works with experiments for self-experience instead of free association, as in psychoanalysis; it also does not use training exercises as offered in cognitive learning therapies. The focus for such self-experiments is the way the client interrupts contact or diminishes it without being aware of it.
- 3 Gestalt therapy concentrates on the experience of the client in the here-and-now rather than their discussion of the there-and-then, since all experience, including that of remembering, happens only in the present as does all learning.
- 4 Gestalt therapy trusts in the healing power of awareness, where insight and experiencing create a Gestalt, not in the power of cognitive insight alone.
- 5 Gestalt therapy has a paradoxical relationship with the change desired by the client. If we accept ourselves in loving awareness just as we are right now, the river of growth and decline flows by itself; if, however, at all cost we want to be different to what we are, we simply stand in our own way.
- 6 Gestalt therapy starts with the assumption that the therapeutic situation can be a safe space for the client to do self-experiments; that therapist and client have an authentic relationship, which enables the therapist to see the client as a whole person, a subject of creative adjustment processes and not just a symptom carrier. It is also a relationship where the client can experience the therapist as a person and not only as a professional concerned with the diagnostics of deficits. These are real enough and Gestalt therapists, too, struggle daily to patiently reduce these deficits a little, aiming to be alongside their clients, helping to carry these burdens. But if the therapy is focused on the contacting process between the patient and the therapist one begins to develop another perspective on the social norms according to which we usually define a specific behaviour as “disturbed".
Most books written by psychotherapists are either dealing with psychotherapeutic techniques and procedures or with specific problems of psychopathology: neurosis and psychosis; early developmental problems; addictions; character neurosis and psychosomatic illnesses. They are concerned with the phenomenology of the abnormal, the pathological.
This book takes a different stand. In my reflections regarding the cultural, historical and social contexts of psychotherapeutic work in the first and the last parts of this book, 1 focus on the pathogenic elements in our civilization. In the two main parts, I deal with the theory of the contacting process and the role of emotions in it and draw on a picture of a “normal'’, undisturbed person seeking happiness and satisfaction. Peris & Goodman take the view that there is an observable objective criterion for mental health: the capacity to be involved in “good” contacting processes containing the potential of leading to satisfying experiences. The “factual difference of continuing creativity, is the crucial criterion of vitality and neurosis. It is an independent criterion, generally observable and also introspectable. It does not require norms of health for comparison” (Peris & Goodman, p. 246). This is a valid notion and I don’t doubt its truth. It is certainly helpful in a pragmatic sense in therapeutic practice. In my analysis of the phenomenology of the contacting process and the nature of emotions the focus of my perspective is on this observation of mature, alive responsiveness. 1 do not claim that this represents normality in any statistical sense. On the contrary I believe that we are all damaged by our history and culture; we all need (Gestalt-) therapy and should seek it to rediscover our potential for change. But for that we need a model to lead us to a more humane future.
In the last few years - and in response to many people recognizing the destructive power of technical, economical and political processes - we are seeing an upswing in the search for standards of ecologically correct behaviour. But there is a danger that even where that ecologically desirable behaviour is discussed, such ethical norms are always in danger of becoming lifeinhibiting introjects - or worse, instruments of power. Gestalt therapy, though, is concerned with the never-ending process of refining awareness of our processes of exchange with nature and society. Obviously, this includes a subtle sense of the other’s vulnerability - in nature and in society.
Since the beginning of my work on this book the ecological catastrophe - not too alarmist a word anymore! - has reached a dimension which brought me to think about the possible potential of Gestalt therapy to help with what must be done to prevent the destruction of our planet. These considerations resulted in the suggestions collected in the Epilogue of this book. They, too, are concerned with sensual awareness, or embodied mindfulness (“Reflexive Sinnlichkeit”) as 1 call this mental attitude of awareness where all our physical, psychological and cognitive senses are fully alive. In the final analysis this means a meditative attitude to life. Gestalt therapeutic practice, too, teaches that we can be fully emotionally involved and at the same time distanced in aware recognition. Even more of its power is rooted particularly in the fact that each contacting process entails the potential of “full contact”, as a moment of being together in which - in Martin Buber’s words - the “I” becomes a "Thou” such that momentarily awareness and experience become one and leave no room for any distance. This is a moment when our existentially given subject-object duality is suspended. The miracle is that all uninterrupted everyday contacting processes contain the potential of such a moment, depending on the degree of our awareness. The more we experience such moments of self-lessness in full awareness, the more the spiritual dimension of our lives deepens.
The reader of this book should be warned that it may be difficult to absorb it in one reading as a whole, although only reading it completely will bring the different parts and arguments together. Thus it might well be advisable to read it in parts pausing a little after each chapter to digest it. This kind of step-by-step reading of the book may considerably facilitate a comprehensive and stimulating approach to its ideas. There is also no problem in picking individual chapters regardless of their sequence in the book if curiosity has been aroused by seeing their titles - with one important exception though: the chapter on the nature of the contacting process (Ill “The satisfying experience”) must be read before tackling the chapter on the nature of our emotions (IV “Emotional orientation”), because the latter is based on the theory of the former and cannot be understood without a previous reading of the first!
Peter Dreitzel. August 2020 (www.dreitzel-gestalttherapie.org)
1 See the monumental collection edited by G. Francesetti et al.. Gestalt Therapy in Clinical Practice: From Psychopathology to the Aesthetics of Contact, (2013).