The satisfying experience The contacting process in the interaction between humans and their environments
The departure point and ongoing background of all Gestalt therapeutic work is a theory of the contacting process, which describes the exchange relationships between the human organism and its environment. The original version of this theory was first outlined in chapters XII and XIII of Peris & Goodman under the heading “Creative Adjustment”. In this chapter I intend to provide an explication and further elaboration of the original ideas of Peris and Goodman.
The theory of the contacting process could even be understood as a sociological or even anthropological theory of action explaining all or any human experience - an over-extension of the model which 1 will not discuss here. Its sole purpose was and is here to be a useful tool for (Gestalt) psychotherapy. Hence the only criterion for validity of this theory should be: does it prove to be helpful for the general orientation of the therapist, and their perceptions and interventions? This theory does not attempt to do more than fulfil such a pragmatic function - even if it should also turn out to be helpful for gaining psychological and sociological insights beyond its immediate aim. In fact I do believe that it could make a valuable contribution to a general theory of action or interaction in sociology, but this is not the point 1 wish to make in this book.
Each psychotherapy process starts either explicitly or implicitly with an idea of what is “normal” and what is “disturbed”. This theory of the contacting process describes what is considered “normal” from a Gestalt therapeutic perspective. Such a model of “normality” is the assumed background from which the “disturbances” of the patient take shape (“weak gestalts”) in the eyes of the therapist. The limits of the model emerging from this theory consist in setting boundaries around what can be considered a psychological “disturbance”, and therefore as material for therapeutic work; and what are really not suitable subjects for therapy, like political adversity, economic hardship, physical illness. Still, it is part of the ethos of psychotherapy to assume, possibly contra-factually, that the potential and resources of the afflicted person are always more extensive than they assume at any given moment - therapists, too, can have astounding experiences.
I. Figure and ground
The process of Gestalt formation in the contacting situation
Each organism lives embedded in an environment, with which it exchanges energy, material and information. The same is true for the human organism; just like any other living being, they are an “autopoetic” system. It is an organization of parts, which perennially renews itself in “anabolic” (increasing) and “katabolic” (decreasing) processes, while over time no cell and no molecule remains the same.1 These processes of change are responsive to their environmental source systems which in turn are embedded in higher order systems or aggregations of subsystems. Such an organism-in-context field never achieves complete homeostasis. It is ruled by its constant need to be replenished by material, energy and information from its environment. The organism is therefore “open” to its environment - and this in turn is open towards more encompassing systems - i.e. it is dependent on exchange and oriented towards new experience. Only by assimilating something new can an organism grow; growth in turn is the definition of life. The process by which the organism absorbs something new from its environment we call the contacting process. The contacting process encompasses the perception of new information from the environment, the differentiation between something that can be assimilated and something that cannot; it refers to moving towards that which is new and can be assimilated, as well as the incorporation of the new and its assimilation.
At this point it already becomes clear that the project of describing such processes in words encounters difficulties which will occur again and again as we proceed. The model of the contacting process corresponds to Heraclitus’ famous saying: “Everything flows”. However, our language quickly meets limitations when we try to describe processes. It is not orientated towards processes and functions, but designed to describe things and qualities. It is not oriented towards dynamic interactions, but towards static opposites. “Subject” and “object”, “mind” and “matter”, “biological” and “cultural”, "inner world” and “outer world”, “rational” and “emotional” - we could almost continue this list of opposites arbitrarily, which inform our patterns of thinking, and which in turn make it difficult to formulate and understand interdependencies in organism/environment relationships. Thus the concept of a “field of organism/environment relationships” suggests a flat plain clearly delineated with certain properties. Instead, in this context “field” is intended to suggest fluid interchanges of all functions of growth and change in shifting contexts of interactions between organism and environment.
The human organism and its specific environment show some particularities which need to be clarified before 1 can describe the contacting process in detail. 1 understand human beings as body-soul-spirit unities, as living systems, which have spiritual, emotional and bodily functions in perennial interplay with each other and never occurring separately. This should be remembered when I talk frequently about the human organism, rather than simply about human beings or individuals. Each thought is a bodily process too; each emotion has cognitive aspects, and the potential and limitations of our being a body have an effect on our mental and psychic condition - in just the same way that our thinking and feeling has an influence on our body.
Beyond this, an organism can only be defined in the context of their changing environments. Other than animals, which through the structure of their senses and their genetic codes are conditioned always to live in their specific environments, human beings can and must form and organize their environment themselves. Of course, some animals are also extremely adaptable with regard to some environmental conditions, but they adapt thanks to their organic endowment, something human beings do not have in the same way. We must compensate for our instinctual insecurity and the relatively limited development of our sensory endowment by the use of planning and technology. Humans are, as Johann Gottfried Herder said, “invalids of their higher powers”.
The human organism is biologically programmed to improve its sense organs through inventions and to change its environment through discoveries. Telescopes and glasses are not external to human beings but are part of our anthropological potential. Changing our environment, indeed, is an anthropological necessity. In order to reproduce, human beings are forced to adapt nature; changing nature is not just a possibility but is imperative for survival. Of course, these adaptations have to take place according to the laws of nature. More than ever before we are confronted with the fact that we are not merely capable of making our environment more hospitable (for us!), but also of making it more inhospitable. Since we did eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the problem here is created not so much by our knowledge, as by our ignorance and the complacency that always accompanies limited knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge is like the Hydra: each bit of knowledge generates new questions and expands our awareness that there is an infinity of things we do not know. But there is no return to pre-lapsarian times; we must continue to question, to search, to quest and explore. Therefore, the real problem at present is not that we have too much science, but that we have too little - and in some respects the wrong kind of science. Intellectual endowment is part of human nature, and the nature of our environment is its adaptability.
From the outset, working on nature has been a social process. Especially through the extremely long socialization period, cooperation with others -communication, that is - has always been a condition of human nature. In that way, the means and forms of production and reproduction are social from the beginning. In other words, the human organism is a social organism and the forms of social organization are expressions of the respective conditions of production. Also, being aware of their own death, human beings need to make sense of their existence. In this way, we “cultivate” our natural and social environment through interpretive patterning and symbolic rituals which change in interaction with and in response to particular historical conditions of production.2 For human beings therefore, environment is always an already formed and perennially adaptable system of objects and symbolic elements with bodily, social and cultural functions.
The human organism does not encounter this environment in abstracto, but in specific concrete contacting situations, whose spatial and temporal horizons contain everything that is given here and now. In thought and fantasy we can transcend the limits of the situation, but as a body/soul unit we are always situated in a (specific) situation, and only in such situations can new things be encountered, new experiences be made. Only within given situations - no matter how they may be adapted - can the human organism undertake the task imposed on us: to adapt creatively to the given environment. It consists in discovering and inventing something new, the objects of our need satisfaction. This means that what is given in a situation is not the endless amount of physical, social and cultural data it contains, but whatever stirs our curiosity, attracting and binding our attention and demanding that we concentrate -compared with which everything else fades into the background as irrelevant, eventually becoming unnoticed.
Therefore, contacting situations are not only circumscribed by a space/time dimension but they are also contoured by a “structure of relevance of what is simultaneously given”,3 which gradually develops in the contacting situation. We distinguish between more or less relevant information and make this distinction according to our spontaneously emerging need or deferred needs active in this situation. The concept of contact boundary is crucial here. It is the point where organism and environment touch each other, the point where all sensorimotor attention increasingly gathers. It is foreground, the figure or Gestalt which arises as the most relevant information from the background, focussing according to changing degrees of relevance or irrelevance - until even this background fades, and all attention is focussed exclusively on this one point alone of encounter with the environment.
The contact boundary is therefore not identical with our skin, which we normally experience as the boundary between “inside” and “outside”. Instead, the point of contact shifts from “inside” to “outside”, even erasing this distinction for a brief moment and returning from “outside” back to “inside”. Food intake can serve as an example. Frederick Peris took food intake to be the prototypical paradigm of exchange processes between organism and environment. 1 experience hunger - a bodily sensation in my stomach; my senses organize themselves so that my attention is directed towards food related contexts and gets aroused by this stimulus. I see the cold buffet, or I smell the smells which come from the kitchen. Next in line are certain processes of orientation - 1 choose objects for the satisfaction of my need, I weigh the costs (time, money, social and moral considerations) and perhaps I defer satisfaction of my need. Now the manipulation of the environment begins: 1 reach out, break the bread, cut the meat or boil the potatoes. This is where the positive aspect of aggression comes in - literally and metaphorically cutting into pieces, fragmenting - a de-structuring of whatever food the environment makes available to me: adapting nature. This aggressive process is continued in tearing apart, chewing and swallowing. In relishing the taste while chewing, the culmination of the contact process is achieved; the exclusive sensorimotor attention of the organism is now focused on the mouth, the momentary contact point between organism and environment. Finally, a sense of satisfaction is achieved, and the figure of food pales again as the arousal of the organism diminishes and at last disappears altogether. The organism can now integrate whatever it can assimilate and eliminate what is left.
This example can - with appropriate modifications - be transferred to other contacting processes. My attention can be just as much captivated by an intellectual problem as by an erotically attractive person - in an uninterrupted contacting process, my cognitive and affective capacities and my sensorimotor functions are focused on the contact boundary, where for this specific experience organism and environment merge. This specific unity of experience creates the relevant figure or Gestalt, which is set apart from the background of the remaining field of organism/environment.
The concept of figure or Gestalt is used to describe experience, illustrating how we experience “world” as that which we encounter at any time in the field of organism/environment. Therefore adjustments of the contact boundary, the point of connection, are identical with the fluid changes of figure/ ground constellations, the process of Gestalt formation. Whatever is happening at the contact boundary - activated by need - rouses our attention, and this in turn organizes attention, will and action. They interact to shape the figure, which rises from a background of less relevant information. The curve described by the contact boundary is identical with the curve of the intensity of the organism’s sensorimotor and affective excitement, which in our example culminates in tasting and chewing the food. The function of this excitement is to mobilize the organism’s energies, to sharpen its capacity for attending and orienting, and to increase its power to create Gestalts, so that all its might is directed towards assimilating whatever is new.
Through this contacting process we experience and learn something about our world. Whatever we experience as real happens at the contact boundary and touches the whole of the human organism. Through experience we attain growth and maturity, a renewal of life and an increase in competency. Through this contacting process alone we experience a feeling of reality. Psychologically speaking, we experience subjectively as real only that which we experience at the contact boundary - that which subsequently proves successful through the satisfaction of our needs - or creates frustration by resisting satisfaction. Importantly from a sociological point of view, another aspect is relevant: that we need confirmation of such experiences by others, especially if we are dealing with symbolically mediated contacting processes. However real an experience at the contact boundary has been for a person, if it fails in the long run to gain social validation by others, it radically isolates the person from community. It can even trigger a psychotic episode. The very reality, therefore, which the human organism is capable of experiencing “body and soul”, is inter-subjectively constituted in contacting processes.
2 The phases of the contacting process
The unfolding of the self
Goodman calls the energy process through which the human organism copes with their environment - perennially replenishing its lack by absorbing something new - the “self’.4 The “self’ therefore is nothing substantial or static, but a process: with every arousal of need or interest the self unfolds, and with each satisfaction it disappears again.
Let us call the “self’ the system of contacts at any moment. As such the self is flexible and different in different situations, for it varies with the dominant organic needs and the pressing environmental stimuli. It is the system of responses, it diminishes in sleep when there is less need to respond. The self is the contact boundary at work; its activity is forming figures and grounds.
(Peris & Goodman:! 1)
The model of the contacting process does not know a static Ego-identity. Human beings experience themselves when they are interested in something new, and experiences gained previously are elements of the psychic and social competencies which constitute part of what presently motivates action. The reality of our biographical continuity is being reconstructed anew in the contacting process: we re-write our history in the interest of what is currently given (Berger, 1969).
This means that the self is the energetic force behind the formation of Gestalts in the organism/environment field. The clearer the figure arising from the background, and the more our sensorimotor attention is focused on the figure as it arises at the contact boundary, the more fully the self unfolds. In essence the self is identical with the process of Gestalt formation, since the figure embodies all the interests of the self, and the self is nothing but its current interest. The figure now arises with the need and disappears as the need is satisfied. Since self and environment meet and inter-fuse in the figure, the full experience of the self is the ever new and passing experience of a deeper union of body and the surrounding field, the lived oneness of the organism/environment field. This description also enables us to define meaningfully the concept of selfrealization which is frequently misused today: self-realization means to enter into spontaneous contact processes, to allow them to run their course, and to let go of them once satisfaction has been achieved. Letting go, then, the dissolution of the self, is death lived in life, the experience of satisfaction through life itself.
When we look more closely at the contacting process, we can differentiate various stages of self-realization: fore-contact; orientation and manipulation; integration; post-contact. During fore-contact the self awakens to the possibility of an experience of aliveness; during orientation and manipulation the self is fully engaged in the exploration and re-shaping of this new environment; during integration it achieves climax - and during post-contact it gradually fades again. With respect to the Gestalt formation process, one could describe these phases as follows:
Fore-contact: A need arises in the organism or is triggered by an environmental stimulus. Need and stimulus can barely be differentiated: a hungry person sees (or fantasizes about) nourishment, but also sight or smell of food generate appetite. Need and environmental stimulus then generate a figure which is set apart from the background of the body and less stimulating parts of the environment. The organism spontaneously senses that a need has arisen, and most likely senses which of several needs should first be satisfied. In such contact situations which mostly in our society don’t arise spontaneously, rather following patterns of social arrangement for the (direct and indirect) satisfaction of regularly occurring needs (e. g. work meetings, social events, shared meals, erotic contacts), this phase of pre-contact is usually filled with rituals of greeting epitomized in small talk.
Orientation and Manipulation (in Peris & Goodman “contacting”): At this point the need - while remaining the engine of the sensorimotor activity of the organism - moves into the background of the experience, while the potential objects of need satisfaction move into the foreground. Such objects (in Freudian terms, libidinal objects) can be concrete (food) as well as virtual (ideas), but mainly they are concerned with other human beings as partners in a variety of interactions. Equally, the object of need satisfaction is not always identical to the aim and purpose of an action: the joy of climbing mountains is more than just reaching the top, and the pleasure of taking a bath is not limited to being clean by the end of the process. Feelings of attraction and aversion may develop in relation to possible objects in the contacting situation. These are initially spontaneous orientations of the organism in the given environment. In social situations we now leave behind rituals of greeting and meaningless small talk and begin to be interested in the task at hand - the challenging topic of conversation, the exciting presentation, the fascinating other. Sensual and cognitive orientation occurs simultaneously with turning physically and with resolute grasp. Differentiating situational givens into objects of relevance also implies negation - discarding, pushing aside of unattractive possibilities, which seem indigestible and uninteresting - as well as affirmation through turning towards that which is desired, moving towards it and reaching for it. Whatever is interesting is being identified and grasped; whatever is uninteresting is blanked out or pushed aside. The configuration of the contact situation according to criteria of relevance takes place through orientation and manipulation.' This manoeuvre is necessarily aggressive - grasping affirmatively; destroying or eliminating whatever is irrelevant.
Integration (in Peris & Goodman “final contact”): At this point, the Gestalt is discovered and invented, immediately appearing conspicuously in the foreground, pushing everything else aside. The organism merges with the object of its need. This peak of the contacting process constitutes a situation of healthy confluence of organism and environment: The “Thou” of my partner fills my experience completely, or I become as one with the task in hand, or -in aesthetic experience - I am “all ears and eyes”. In sexual encounter the contacting process is completed with orgasm, an experience which is perhaps the most obvious example of what is meant by integration of need and object. The organism forsakes all intentional planning and action. Perception, feeling and motor activity work together spontaneously and allow boundaries between self and other to become permeable. The self is merged completely with their experience. I am, literally as well as metaphorically, gripped as I grip. The paradox of our existence - to have and to be a body - is momentarily resolved - and with this I leave my-self behind.
Post-contact (as Peris & Goodman use it, this is part of the full-contact-circle, with “final contact” as the last phase of this circle): The timeless moment of integration of course does not last. As I come back to “myself’, organism and environment gradually separate out; slowly the figure pales. Yet, post-contact is an important stage of the contacting process. Only at this point, as the new experience slowly resonates in the organism, does assimilation of the new learning begin and the contacting process become a satisfying experience. Whatever has been assimilated has been digested in peace, the body now needs to relax and regenerate. Our capacity for absorption is exhausted and needs a break, before we can “change gear” for other contacting processes. In social interaction there are countless variations of ritualized post-contacts: the “social” part of work meetings, visiting the restaurant after the theatre, the shared breakfast after a night of love, many forms of saying goodbye. Everything that was important has been said and done - and still, there is a need to make extra time for silence, for thanking the other, for the return to the temporal and physical conditions of the organism/environ-ment field. A contacting process without post-contact is worse than one which does not get beyond the pre-contact phase. In the one 1 remain hungry until the next time; in the other 1 am full, but not satisfied.
These four phases of the contacting process systematically build on each other. They are - from a phenomenological perspective - grounded in each other. In practice this means that none of the stages can be skipped without damage to the next. If the fore-contact is left out, the need remains diffuse or arises suddenly and overwhelmingly in the middle of the contacting process as an organismic impulse, as in bulimia. Attempting to leave out orientation and the setting up of an appropriate context leads to engagement without appropriate regard for distance, careless action and frequently regressive fantasies. They are bound to miscarry in view of the immediate actuality. If the contacting process is not completed through the integration of need and object, nothing new has been absorbed - and without appropriate ending through post-contact the organism has difficulties or may even be unable to integrate whatever was new.
In the normal course of events many contacts end after the fore-contact or fail to achieve satisfaction through full integration. This does not mean that they are pathological. The behaviour pattern of delayed gratification is part of the organism’s characteristics and is possibly an aspect of the basic requirements of social interaction. Finally we need to consider that within the same social event different kinds of contact situations quickly follow on from each other. They can be superimposed on each other or interlaced like Russian dolls, and therefore social reality is almost always more complex than it appears in the model of the contacting process. And this is even truer when we consider that in social situations, the contacting processes of different participants in the interaction cross over or complement each other. The model of the contacting process in the first instance is primarily designed for one acting subject. To describe the whole of the interactional web of the organism/environment field in a social situation is another task, and rather one for sociological theory. For the purpose of psychotherapy it suffices to analyse the contacting process from the perspective of just one participant of the interaction: the patient.
If the self is defined as the activity of figure/ground formation in the contacting process, this of course does not mean that the process happens unconsciously. Quite the opposite - self-unfolding is experienced as an increasingly alert sensory-intellectual process of attentiveness, which grips the whole organism. This experience of the self experiencing itself, its deepest modus of experience, is perhaps captured best in the English word "awareness” which encompasses consciousness without being identical with its purely cognitive aspects. With these 1 can focus on a problem and think about its solution. But awareness as I use it here is an intense holistic experience of the world as presently given in the specific contact points between me and my environment here and now, which always includes emotional aspects.
3 The instincts
Needing and desiring
Gestalt therapy emerged from the debate with psychoanalysis. Both Peris and Goodman were deeply impressed with Freud, each in his own way struggling with him as a father figure. Therefore, it is not wrong that Gestalt therapy has occasionally been called a neo-analytical school; after all, Frederick Peris and his wife Laura, who had a deep influence on the development of Gestalt therapy, were both trained psychoanalysts. And so it is not surprising that Goodman occasionally borrows aspects of Freud’s meta-psychology when he describes the different functions of the self. He speaks about id functions, ego-functions and personality functions of the self. Self-unfolding in the contacting process begins with developing needs and appetites - the id functions. Then it searches for objects related to these needs in its environment and creates a Gestalt through sensorimotor orientation and manipulation - the ego-functions. Finally new experiences and abilities gained in the contacting process are assimilated - the personality functions. (Gestalt therapy can do without the construction of a super-ego, since from the perspective of the model of the contacting process it consists entirely of neurotic introjects.6)
Initially, these distinctions were meant to help a psychoanalytically trained public to understand Gestalt theory. Today they are still valuable in helping the therapist to be alert to the following two points:
- • Disturbances in experiencing needs, i.e. in the id functions, are more serious and need to be treated differently from disturbances of personality functions. The earlier processes might lead to psychotic symptoms, whereas the latter relate to narcissistic processes and in the worst case to psychopathic processes without any awareness of the environment.
- • From a Gestalt therapeutic perspective, disturbances of id functions and personality functions can only be worked with if the patient has a sensory experience of how he continually reproduces these malfunctions through blocking off different ego-functions in fore-contact, orientation and adaptation, in integration and during post-contact phases. In Gestalt therapeutic work we address the process of how the patient blocks, obstructs or weakens his ego-functions in the contacting process.7
Beyond this, orientation for therapeutic practice distinguishing these three functions is barely relevant and therefore will not be considered in the following more detailed examination of the activities of the self at the contact boundary.
At the beginning of each contacting process is a need. The organism experiences scarcity which can only be assuaged by assimilating something new from the environment. Each need is experienced as a lack of something, and only through this lack does a specific organism/environment constellation become fore-contact, the first phase of any contacting process.
The organism experiences lack - initially vaguely, then more clearly - and begins to reach out beyond its own resources; energy is required for doing so. But simultaneously, it opens out into its environment, takes in, processes and absorbs, compensates for lack, feels satisfied. The objects of the environment are not “libidinally charged” but are part of intentional actions of the thinking and acting human being. The self is not juxtaposed to the aims and objects of its desiring, but from the beginning it is in sensuous and cognitive contact with them, shapes them through this contact into the figure arising from the background - not only of the environment but also of the organism itself.
Being in need is the experience of lack. Some deficits need to be equalized immediately; others can wait. The air we breathe is so necessary that we assume its presence without a second thought. Only when it is acutely lacking are we anxiously aware of how dependent we are on this environmental condition. Lack of warmth and food can be borne a little longer, but have to be relieved sooner rather than later. Other needs, some of them physical, do not need to be satisfied as long as survival is not at stake. The body does not die from lack of sexual satisfaction, although the organism as a whole suffers. Such suffering can only become foreground when other, more urgent needs are satisfied. Vienna’s bourgeoisie, from which Freud recruited his patients, were a satisfied rich bourgeoisie able to afford acceptance of Freud’s obsession with sexuality. If it were useful at all to speak about different drives, self-preservation would have to be accorded the first priority. In relation to individual survival the organism has clear physical priorities: air, food and warmth are its unquestioned first requirements.
But of course, human beings need a lot more; even an individual is part of the species and has needs which serve the maintenance of the species - biologically as well as socially and culturally. Without sexuality there would be no procreation, and without information and communication, society could not reproduce itself either individually or culturally.
Obviously, there is an order of priority of needs - yet it is very difficult to establish such an order with any clarity, as soon as we go beyond the most elementary descriptions. Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of Humanistic Psychology, made a suggestion which can fruitfully be used with the model of the contacting process (Maslow, 1954a; Hondrich. 1975). Maslow differentiates five groups of needs which respectively are foregrounded in the phases of the psycho-social developmental process of human beings. To begin with there are the physiological needs for food and warmth; in the second phase we are dealing with needs for protection and security; thirdly there are the social needs for being loved, accepted, belonging; in the fourth phase needs for status, appreciation and esteem are in the foreground and finally, in the last phase, the focus is on “self-realization” (this expression is meant in a somewhat more extended, more existential way than the term “self-actualization” used by Maslow although the relationship should be clear) and personal fulfilment. In this model it is essential that the conditions for satisfying the needs of the prior phase are secured before the needs of the following phase can be fully experienced and become the paramount impetus for action. Of course, elementary needs are never permanently satisfied - we need nourishment daily, and of course the desire to be loved emerges again and again. But only once the individual has achieved sufficient social and psychological competency to get what it needs from its environment, and only if this environment is sufficiently equipped with resources, can it continue to unfold and develop new needs on other levels.
Maslow’s model is open and flexible enough to withstand three challenges which can in principle be raised against any attempt to establish a catalogue of human needs. Psychology, sociology and anthropology each raise one particular concern.
There is no human need which can be satisfied forever. That is true even for so-called childish needs, which secretly remain adult longings; it is not the need for maternal care or paternal orientation that is childish, just a perennial fixation onto the same person to satisfy these needs. Our lives take place in a complex tangle of contacting processes initiated by our needs, some of which regularly repeat themselves while others arise afresh. Significantly, some of them gain greater importance in each life phase. Our energy flows into those contacting processes which are currently of greatest interest for us, those which are motivated by needs which focus our anxieties and hopes, the new needs, whose satisfaction we cannot yet achieve with our felt competency. For instance, sexual encounters are always exciting; but only in puberty, when sexual needs first fully unfold, do they obtain that irretrievable significance which often makes all other contacting processes pale into insignificance.
In that way, Maslow’s model allows space for the ever changing and developing order of relevance of the daily contacting processes throughout life. It also shows that psychological disturbances can arise from the hierarchy of needs being turned upside down if, for example, under the pressure of (often internalized) societal expectations, we may look to satisfy needs of a higher order when the competency for a problem-free satisfaction of more elementary needs has not yet been achieved. Normally the organism automatically regulates the order of priority in such situations. But if the experience of an overriding basic need is sufficiently strong to distract us from currently active contacting processes, a significant delay of need satisfaction would diminish or disable the organism’s ability to fully function. If in turn primary needs are satisfied, the organism flourishes on other levels too and begins to sense more subtle needs. Thus the psychoanalytical concept of sublimation makes no sense within the theory of the contacting process. Of course, in this theory too, sexuality is a core need - but not the only one. The model of the contacting process entails the inexhaustible range of human needs and interests in a perennially changing organism/environment field. Each contacting process is sui generis and has its specific needs and satisfactions. The book 1 write, the mental activity which 1 am engaged with, is not a compensation for absent sexuality. If there is a connection at all, it would be that lack of sexual satisfaction would deter me from my work. Sexual images would replace theoretical imagination.
The second proviso refers to the historical and cultural variability of human needs. Bertolt Brecht’s famous contention that first there is food, then there is morality, was less an anthropological diagnosis than a political demand. Whatever is postulated as a basic need or even as a human right - some of them sometimes even realized! - depends on prevailing power distributions and on how rich a society is. Maslow takes this into account by measuring the relations between labour and capital (Maslow speaks about “cultures”) against the same standards. Whatever can be experienced as a need at all depends on the level of economic and cultural development of a society (or a social grouping). Where hunger still prevails (even today) we will look in vain for a need for individual self-realization. And whoever in our society is threatened by loss of work, will prioritize security needs. But whoever has a secure place of work may suddenly have a question regarding whether they are receiving sufficient recognition and whether they are able to use their abilities in a satisfactory way.
The third proviso refers to an anthropological problem: we human beings are able to say “No” - even to our needs. Knowing about the unavoidability of dying, in the final analysis, we can even deny life itself. Appropriately, we recognize today that suicide often tends to be a neurotic solution to a problem which has nothing to do with wishing to die. But in view of this we must not forget that beyond all psychological reflection this possibility of a final irrevocable “No” is a basic figure of our human condition, which in many different ways co-determines our lives. In our current context this has two implications. First of all, as stated, the satisfaction of higher needs can be deferred; secondly, the satisfaction of all needs can be rejected once and for all.
The first case is of primary importance; without the behavioural pattern of deferred gratification there is neither cooperation nor culture. It seems that this requires no further explanation, and yet from a Gestalt therapeutic point of view we have to keep checking whether somebody has consciously chosen to defer their need satisfaction, or whether deferral derives from habitually internalized norms, of which the person is unaware, i.e. introjects. Of course, there are frequently good reasons for deferring need satisfaction - perhaps because another need satisfaction seems to be more achievable, even while it is less urgent; or the situation does not allow more than fore-contact and a first orientation; or consideration of other people may suggest this course. It remains important that the original need can still be sensed and that the deferral takes place with insight and as a free decision. Of course, however tedious, some things need to be accomplished; some rules need to be kept. But it is also possible to surrender to the tasks, surrender to learning and to the recognition that the rules of social intercourse are also rules which allow new room for play. In other words, doing anything can become the object of a fascinating contacting process.
Forever insisting on “self-realization” is frequently nothing more than the desire for narcissistic gratification, while on the other hand any skewed orientation towards focussed action and simply getting stuff done often merely expresses an introjected achievement orientation.
The sociological theory of deferred gratification can easily become an ideology, which conceals the problems of alienated labour (Dreitzel, 1973). From a Gestalt therapeutic perspective it is centrally important to determine whether the delayed need can still be experienced, is still allowed to be noticed and will motivate future contacting needs; or whether it is repressed to avoid having to experience the meaninglessness of those socially expected actions and the helplessness which arises in the face of overwhelming social pressures.8
The second case is more complicated. It is one of the unique potentials of human beings to be able to distance ourselves a little from our bodies, putting its needs on hold in favour of higher aims. Asceticism, though, is a position which has become alien to our society. It seems that even in the religious sphere, where there is a tradition of asceticism, renunciation is now rarely seen as a necessary condition for spiritual experience (the exception being the stubborn refusal of the Catholic Church to give up celibacy and its denial of homosexuality). Still, ascetic behaviour is a foundational figure of our human experiential potential. If a person’s concern is focused on the beyond, such a search is beyond the range of therapeutic model (as for instance if they decide to die by refusing to eat) - except if the patient is being forced by institutional or introjected rules.
Whenever we meet attitudes of secular asceticism, we must always ask whether this is forced by a low standard of living due to lack of resources or simply a manifestation of exploitation. Today we no longer need our work to produce ever more food, but we do not know how to distribute food (or whatever else is produced in surplus quantities) except through institutionalized labour. In the work of the psychotherapist it remains of crucial importance to determine whether a person with full awareness and competency says “No” (for instance in case of sexual assault or if they fast voluntarily), or whether they find themself forced by social pressure to forego erotic satisfaction. If this kind of social pressure is internalized we are dealing with intro-jects which can be worked with therapeutically in the hope of extending the realm of decision-making freedom within the client. If such socio-economic pressures are consciously experienced, though, (e.g. in non-voluntary lack of work), psychotherapy can only work indirectly through strengthening personal competences, all of which always have a political dimension. Let us not forget that there is no true renunciation of anything, unless there has been a fully embodied experience of it - where we dealing with a “No” from a position of psychological and social autonomy.
It begins with small things: first 1 have to sense what I need, what is necessary, where the lack is located. Only after this come the desires. The order of priority of needs becomes real again in any contacting situation - in sensing what I need now, in thoughts about what 1 now desire. “An animal”, the German philosopher Ernst Bloch says, “relates to the aim of its need in exactly the same way as is entailed in the need itself, whereas humans create an image of it as well” (Bloch, 1961:58). Bloch's critique of Freud's theory of instincts (Bloch, 1961) is relevant also for Gestalt therapy: in human beings the relation between need and object is mediated through abstractions. At first I sense a need and immediately recognize a class of objects which might serve to alleviate this lack. “Food” would satiate my hunger, “(wo)men” would assuage my sexual appetite, “something warming” would take care of feeling cold - and so on.
But only in situations of extreme scarcity will such generalizations suffice -then I don’t care what 1 eat and which (wo)man satisfies my craving. “Beggars can't be choosers”, the saying goes. A German proverb observes that “when desperate, the devil even eats flies”. The devil here is the animal in the human being: our most elementary needs, our survival instinct. When lack is so desperate that it eats us up from within, there is no preferring any longer. Then I know nothing beyond my need. Normally, though, a specific desire emerges from the experience of need, the image of something concrete following the abstraction. It is this food I’d like to eat; I’d like to sleep with this person; a hot hath would be just right to warm me up. Our desires and hopes go beyond generalizations which would help to assuage the need - without going into the blue yonder. It is the desire which concretizes - at first just imaginatively - the objects of need satisfaction, making an initial choice which (as long as we are dealing with action-orientated wishing and not just with daydreaming) is connected to previous experience. Wishing contains an anticipation of satisfaction which of course could also become the basis for negation. Only at this stage can 1 tell myself that I am not going to fulfil my desire in just this way or not now. And through this, the other function of wishing becomes foreground, i.e. its capacity to consolidate into wanting, pointing beyond the current situation. The delayed gratification is now nothing but the unfulfilled need, which is going to determine what 1 want in subsequent similar contacting processes.9 Each wanting has to arise from need. Wishes grow without limit or dissipate unless they remain rooted in the prior sense of lack. They must relate to what is actually available, not drawing energy away from the contacting process. Otherwise, desire achieved does not lead to real satisfaction, and a sense of lack remains. If on the other hand general hunger unfolds into a specific appetite -triggered and guided equally by the recollection of previous experience as well as through the appeal of the new - then we know what we want; fore-contact is complete and a new phase of the contacting process begins.
4 Sensorimotor functions
Perceiving and acting
At this point the contact boundary shifts from “inside” to “outside”. Concurrently with something being noticed incidentally - which then serves to activate and animate the process through which wanting and wishing become more concrete - the picture of what is wished for and wanted becomes a template for perception. Now the organism reaches beyond itself, leaves mere fantasy behind and begins - through activating its senses - to enter the process of Gestalt formation which is always a process of discovery and invention at once. The objects which trigger interest gradually emerge from a background which takes shape according to different relevancies of the situation, and group themselves around the contact boundary like a halo becoming darker at the edges. Part of this background is the body. The image of desire already became slightly distant from it in separating itself from the mere sense of need. Only while in physical pain or when experiencing the social pain of acute embarrassment does the body - often vehemently - become foreground and physicality become figure. Normally at this point the “inner” perceptions lose interest and weight compared to what demands attention from the “outside”.
The image of a halo must not seduce us to exclusively think about the eye (seeing). All our senses are involved in the contacting process at the same time; they work together syn-aesthetically, even while first this, then that sense is in the lead. This explains why, if one of the senses is disabled, the others can to some extent compensate for this failing by working together. Seeing and touching especially co-operate in such a way that by “touching” things with our eyes and “seeing” them with our hands we seem to grasp their form and significance at once. The baby learns to comprehend the world first by grasping with its hands. Today it is well understood that there is an intimate connection between the development of the senses in the child and the growth of its cognitive abilities. This means that neither the senses nor the cognitive functions can be understood in separation from the motor functions of the human body. As the philosopher Helmuth Plessner in his phenomenological research on the functioning of the human senses noted:
Sensorimotor function is the operative word. The senses, considered on their own, do not yield the secret of their diversity. Only embedded in the complete organism whom they simultaneously serve and rule - as is always the case with serving - can we begin to understand them in their encompassing unity.
(Plessner, 1970a, p. 244)
In order to fully fathom and appreciate the connection between the openness of our relationship with the environment and the experience of our physicality, we need a philosophical anthropology of the senses developed in the phenomenological tradition as worked out by Helmuth Plessner (1964), Erwin Strauss (1980) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Merleau-Ponty 1962). It defines the function of the senses in the contacting process by starting with our specifically human patterns of behaviour. “Looked at from the outside we are determined by our upright walk, from the inside through our instrumental relationship with our own bodies. This in turn refers back to our ability to objectify” (Plessner, op. cit.:244). Walking upright permits the hand-eye field to be freely available and thus we gain the capacity for variable space perception. In particular, our instrumental relationship with the body allows human beings to advance beyond the stimulus-response pattern. When physically we turn with all our senses to the environment, we use ourselves as instruments and thereby open ourselves to the world.
We have the ability to perceive movement in the environment along with the experience of being able to move arbitrarily; and therefore human beings can - as it were - spur ourselves on as well as reining ourselves in. Our precarious situation - to have a body and yet to be a body, to be within and outside ourselves at once - forces us to establish a balance which is the cradle of human action. “This is the reason why human beings cannot divest themselves of their motor functions and have to slide again and again into the active mode” (Plessner, op. cit.:245). This feeds back into the work of the senses; whatever can be grasped has already been seen in such a way; that which can be achieved is being distinguished from the unachievable; the manipulation of the environment is being anticipated even in the act of perception itself.
Seeing and touching complement each other in human beings in such a way that sensory experiences immediately organize themselves into action possibilities. In comparison, the sense of smell is less important and today less necessary as a means of orientation from a distance. Instead, it has become a means for enhancing the experience of physical closeness. For this reason it is the sense most shaped by civilization, even though among all the senses, cerebrally it is the most ancient one. Nowadays, it mainly serves to segregate “pure” nature through creating spontaneous disgust.10
Hearing, though, is of cardinal importance, partly because it extends our special orientation beyond that which we can see; even more so, because it adds the temporal to the spatial dimension of perception. Of course, seeing movement in itself creates a sense of time; the eye can attach itself to something immoveable, even if it is not able - nor permitted - to remain still. Sounds, though, fade and repeat themselves: time passes. Remembering sound that has faded, and listening out for a repetition, we can experience time. In this case too, we cannot separate one sense from another, cannot isolate any of them from our motor function. The unity of the senses is constitutive for the specific human organism/environment relationship. Biologist Francois Jacob writes:
It is most likely that the pressure of natural selection for hominids favoured spatial perception through use of the ears so that sources of sound could be more easily localized. This way, an ever better and more coherent image of a spatial and temporal world emerged where moving objects could simultaneously be heard, seen, smelt and touched. Since the temporal continuity of these objects was certain, it was possible to store their representation in memory. The way this representation is organised has consequences, especially for two remarkable properties of the brain. In the first instance, it is possible to deconstruct these stored images into their constitutive parts, and they then can be put together again into representations and situations which are new and beyond patterns which already exist. This capacity is the precondition for our ability not just to remember images of previous situations - but also to imagine contingent events, i.e. to invent a future. Through connecting acoustic perceptions of temporal sequences with regard to changes of the sensorimotor apparatus of the voice, it also becomes possible to symbolise and coordinate cognitive representations in a completely new way.
In this way, the sensorimotor unity of orientation and manipulation eventually leads to sensual awareness. But nevertheless, it is worth the effort to look at each of the five senses separately, at first physiologically and then with regard to the formations and deformations which the senses have undergone in the process of civilization. On all these levels we would see proof of the fact that our senses do not copy the world but discover and invent it - configurate it. Gestalt psychology has made an essential contribution to this recognition. The pictures of the Gestalt psychological experiments which convincingly show the tendency of our senses toward completion, toward creating fore-ground/background constellations, as well as showing the contextual dependency of perception, are accessible to anybody.
These properties of our perceptual apparatus need to be understood as cerebral patterns of functioning, resulting from the experience of our upright walk and the coordination of the hand-eye field. The theory of the contacting process takes one more step. The process of Gestalt formation does not just rest on the experience of different forms, but also depends on the interest which is generated by the objects. Perceiving and reaching out - orientation and manipulation - are guided by experience, but driven by need: controlled arbitrariness.
What is true for the individual and their biography can be generalized with little modification to the species and its history. The influence which the process of civilization has exercised - and still exerts - on our senses and our motor functions rests on new needs evolving as well as on socially required restraints. Ever since perspective as a perceptual modality was discovered, ever since optical science and optical technique and more recently the visual media have strongly favoured seeing over smelling, feeling one’s way, touching and handling things, tactile experiences in general have become more marginal. Spheres of privacy and intimacy have been created, the centres of which are our bodies. So now fear of contact can also be experienced as the anxiety physically to touch and be touched.
The objects of the contacting process, human beings as well as things, increasingly are kept at a distance, because the body as body is not public. This is not contradicted but confirmed by the fact that today the body, barely concealed by any veils of shame, is visually presented in the media and on nudist beaches. This in itself is a distancing process. The incomparable refinement of our sensory equipment through technical instruments nowadays stands in juxtaposition to an increase in experienced distance to objects which we can perceive and manipulate. This includes the medicalization of the body. The contacting process, though, is a process of incorporation - both through our senses and symbolically - of that which must satisfy our needs and interests. Frequently we are overfed with abstract and incomprehensible ideas
Let us take a brief look on the phenomenon of touching. Human beings need the touch of skin, and this is not only true for the survival of new-born and small children. Modern research shows that under secure conditions and applied by trusted others, stroking, gentle caressing and massages produce hormones stabilizing the immune system; improve the functions of the hippocampus; reduce stress and depressive tendencies. These are only some of the beneficial effects found by researcher Thomas Grunwald working in his laboratory at the University of Leipzig, Germany (Grunwald, 2017), and others.
There is, however, a problem inherent in the closeness of touching: it invites the exercise of power, even violence. Since our bodies are not only the haven of our pleasure and lust but also harbour weaknesses, illnesses and decay they are always easily victimized and exploited by dominant others. Hence, physical contact with the body of the other can always be either friendly and supporting or hostile and dangerous, thus creating a peculiar mixture of longing and anxiety, a fact on which a whole historical anthropology could be built. Presently it seems that in Western society the process of civilization -always characterized by a tendency of growing distance between one’s body and its objects - leads to a growing scarcity of touching contacts between strangers - meaning everybody who is not an actual sexual partner. Physical contacts between family members, even parents and their adult children, seem to diminish. Never before in history did average middle class citizens claim so much space in their habitation for individual use, thus increasing the distance between their bodies. Also singles living alone in their apartments seem to grow in number everywhere in the urbanized Western world (von Thadden, 2019). More and more the body is hungry for touch while our hands remain empty.
The search for correctives to the kind of instrumental reasoning which used to govern almost every sphere of our culture before the advent of populism has led to the development of many new therapies and physical exercises focussing on our capacity for mindful sensory awareness. The problem with many of these therapies is that we easily forget how little we still know about our senses and how they function psychologically. For example - why five? We can see and hear, smell and taste and touch. We also have a sense of equilibrium. But what about those senses which do not have any specific organs outside our brains? We have a sense of place and a sense of time, and we have a sense of beauty and of harmony. And what of intuition? Or our social capacity for picking up atmospheres of friendliness, hostility, interest and authority?
Sensory experiences - which have long been used and practised in the sensory awareness work of Charlotte Selver or in the bio-energetic schools of Alexander Lowen and John Pierrakos or in the focus on subtle energetic flows in Tarthang Tulku’s Tibetan Kum Nye work - are difficult to spot through the Cartesian lenses of scientific medicine. The bitter fate of the late work of Wilhelm Reich is symptomatic of this situation, especially since his case is extreme. His speculative Orgone theory was condemned, not because it was scientifically disproved (which nobody bothered to check out), but because it generated political aversion to the point that his books were even publicly burned.11
Even today we cannot with any degree of certainty say anything about the significance for the organism of the electro-magnetic field which surrounds the body. But since time immemorial some people have claimed to be able to see such an aura. We also know nothing certain about the fine streams of energy, which begin to flow in acupuncture and while doing bio-energetic exercises. A major obstacle arises from the difficulties presented to the natural sciences by the human brain. An example would be the current conjecture of some scientists that we respond positively to light and negatively to darkness, because quanta of light reach for the deeply hidden pineal gland.12 This leads us to the last question regarding the senses: how useful is it to speak about perception when we are dealing with so-called “subliminal perceptions” of which we are not consciously aware? For example, not only do we react to a sexually attractive image with an extension of our own pupils but we also notice this extension in the pupils of another person, i.e. we find them attractive at this moment - all without any conscious recognition of this process (Morris, 1978).
Of course, this is very significant for the contacting process. It appears as though we do not have much conscious awareness of any of the processes involved in sensory perception. Regarding the state of scientific study of “subliminal perception” in the early 1980s. brain researcher Helmut Emrich created a graphic image:
Our cortical system for dealing with stimuli can be compared with a correctly working civil service department, where all incoming information is dealt with and - if appropriate - answered. The chief of the department (consciousness) does not see all the letters that come in or go out. Everything is dealt with according to existing guide lines (attitudes, values). Only new cases (novelty), unusual or complicated information are handed to “him”. Only if he is not too busy may he look at something quite unimportant. Additionally, according to request, he will look at all letters which belong to a specific category (focussed attention). Everything else is dealt with correctly and according to rule by many civil servants. If any of them go on strike or fall ill - if there was no selectivity any more - the chief would be unable to cope with the flood of letters, and the department would grind to a halt (chaotic perception).
This model dethrones consciousness from its singular position as the authority over all decisions and turns it into one factor amongst many in the data processing system. Now, this does not mean that we have to give up the principle of the unity of the senses and its indissoluble connection with that ‘'willed” motor function characteristic for human beings where they need to touch and seek touch. Instead, it is the pre-conscious selection of information which enables the organism to use directed attention to press ahead with the contacting process. This is not passive “data processing”, but an action modality which includes motor functioning. We are no longer dealing with selection of data, but with its organization. Below the level of conscious awareness, and apparently due to inherited and learned programs, selected data is bundled into units and organized in such a way, that it activates and triggers the motor functions in all unproblematic cases, thereby making it relevant for actual behaviour.
5 Consciousness and awareness
Accepting and rejecting13
This analysis in the last section may not be the latest state of the art in brain research today but it marked an important change of our perspective on consciousness: it was no longer seen as the power controlling every detail of our daily struggle for survival but a much more flexible agency in the centre of a highly complex network awakening to activity especially in situations of crisis. This, then, comes close to the understanding of Peris & Goodman that caused them to replace the notion of consciousness with the word “awareness”. For being aware means being excited and the degree of excitement will direct the degree of its intensity. There are good reasons for this replacement because it connects the activities of our mind directly to our needs and longings and hence to the environment’s promises and dangers (notwithstanding M. V. Miller's contention that we are or should be dealing in Gestalt Therapy instead of awareness rather with attention would, if elaborated, shift the emphasis again on consciousness).
The image of the brain as a civil service department with consciousness as its chief, deciding important matters, needs to be checked regarding its actual usefulness as a model of the contacting process. In the past two decades brain research has made considerable progress and made some claims which have led to great hopes for some and a lot of criticism from others.
For a start, compare Damasio’s position (Damasio, 2005). The human organism is not a body equipped with a “black box” (the brain) which like a computer has an input-output relationship with its environment, but is a self-aware, flexible subject which touches and stirs up its environment through seeing and conducting itself as part of this environment. The images of “department” and “authority” are too static for an organism which perceives, moves and acts in an ever changing environment, perennially restructuring it according to need. This action modality is typical for human beings as consciousness/awareness plays its part as a function of the contacting process.
The question is: which function? The psychological concept of consciousness with its many facets offers little help. Psychology has had a hard time overcoming the black box model. Only after conducting investigations along phenomenological lines was progress made and the basic intentionality of all action was recognized and emphasized: consciousness/awareness is always directed towards objects, which indeed are part of its very being. This creates the danger that we might see the environment simply as a phenomenon of consciousness, even while the organism obviously depends on incorporating parts of it - not just on the level of consciousness but also in very physical ways. This was the trap in which Husserl found himself by insisting on a programme of pure essentialism (“reine Wesensschau” = the idealistic turn of his philosophy). Gestalt therapy’s use of Phenomenology can and should remain more modest. Suffice it that the phenomenological perspective stays focused on the insight that it is always consciousness/awareness of something and that this something presents itself for our attention as “new”. If in addition we keep in mind that the object is intended and also differentiated from what is more relevant or less, down to the space/time horizon of the situation, we are on a safe Gestalt therapeutical line of thought. This way we remain informed, as the use of phenomenology in Gestalt therapy thinking originally was and should be. by the Gestalt-psychological insights about the dynamics of the fore-ground/background relations.
It is true though, that the essential character of contact, being a process with a direction, still remains too indistinct in this phenomenological conceptualization of intentionality. For it turns experiencing, thinking, and acting into undifferentiated aspects of the field of consciousness. Due to this Carl-Friedrich Graumann, the leading German psychologist of the phenomenological tradition in the last century, considered - with reference to Maurice Merleau-Ponty - letting go of the concept of consciousness altogether:
Unfolding the complete structure of the concept of behaviour [...], i.e. behaving-in-relation-to-something would serve us better than the overused concept of consciousness.
However, this just shifts the problem into another dimension, since now everything depends on how 1 behave: whether reactively-impulsive or intentionally-planning, whether sensuously-experiencing or rationally-planning, whether with alert attention or according to dull habit.
Another problem is the question of who is the originator of the acts of consciousness? Who chooses the senses we use, makes the choice of their object and decides on the intensity of their attention? A pure philosophy of consciousness quickly loses itself in conjectures about a transcendental subject as happened to Husserl. If on the other hand we acknowledge that we are dealing with an embodied organism which as subject constitutes the field of consciousness, we quickly see that intentionality does not characterize a dynamic independent of will and independent of need, but that it is a figure-ground process whose perspective is directed towards the interesting object which one has discovered and desires. This means: the subject of conscious acts is a living organism in interaction with its environments, and its consciousness has a (limited) control function in this process.
However, the organism/environment field of human beings remains vulnerable to problems arising from the paradoxical nature of our relationship with our bodies. Since human beings can and must use the body at will, we are to some extent free to act consciously. Even in situations where automatisms normally tend take over, we have developed through evolutionary processes or cultural training the potential to act consciously, as with breathing. Yawning can be repressed, the flow of the breath can be modulated, meditation can change the necessary intake of oxygen from 15 to 5 per minute (Young, 2014), and anxiety can be overcome. In the contacting process, though, whatever is new becomes paramount: that which has not yet been incorporated. And quite frequently it is the new that leads to problems.
Awareness entails consciously experiencing while acting on what is happening at the contacting boundary, a process of being in attentive contact with what is most relevant in the organism/environment field - based on fully activated sensorimotor, cognitive and energetic powers (Yontef, 1979). Sensual awareness describes the way the self experiences itself through its senses. It is the experience of being fully present in a situation, “being here now”. Mobilization of sensorimotor attention is constellated when the contacting process is rooted in the currently dominant need of the organism and is animated by it - the organism orienting itself through action and according to the actual conditions of the situation - its specific inherent possibilities and obstacles which affect the satisfaction of current need. Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb in her extensive article on the somatic experience in Gestalt therapy (Spagnuolo Lobb, 2015) states:
The idea that somatic experience is formed at the contact boundary between therapist and client in the here-and-now of the therapy session emancipates us from the intra-psychic mentality that sees the body as a container of “emotions” and conflicts that the client brings to therapy.
The relationship between sensual awareness and the self is similar to that between experiencing emotions and expressing emotions (see part IV of this book): The more an emotion is expressed in mime and movement, the more intensely it is experienced - the more the self experiences itself with awareness, the more fully it unfolds; the contact boundary becomes more fully active and Gestalt formation becomes richer in the contacting process. Putting it slightly differently, the more a contacting process is experienced with awareness the more easily it becomes a satisfying experience. This is the reason for Gestalt therapy simply relying on increasing awareness, leaving the rest to the capacity for self-regulation of the organism/environment field.
It would be wrong, though, to deduce from this that human beings can do without consciousness (as defined above), to see in it nothing but an obstacle for spontaneous self-regulation. Perhaps, with their consistent exchange of the term consciousness by awareness Peris & Goodman were too optimistic in trusting the latter for its capacity of complete concentration - and also the power of self-regulation. Even full awareness of the contacting process, requiring the mobilization of all relevant senses and a focus on what is new, does not absolve us from hesitating for a moment, pausing, and from thoughtful deliberation, which in the final analysis is rooted in the paradoxical relationship with our bodies. Of course such hesitation can be exaggerated, so that each action is obscured by too much thought and consideration. rather than being illuminated by the light of its own endeavour. But normally, the body's instrumentality and the varying potential of the environment for reorganizing its Gestalt formation demand spontaneous thinking and perhaps some planning when difficulties arise in the contacting process. We may need to make judgements regarding the possibilities and dangers entailed in this situation. Beyond our daily routines we are constantly (and in today’s terms more than ever) faced with choices, accepting or rejecting objects of need satisfaction, goals and strategies. All these mental activities are properly part of the functions of consciousness. Yet it remains true, as Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb insists, that “From a Gestalt point of view, any relationship with the other is always ‘embodied’, lived intensely on the aesthetic level, constantly mediated and activated by the perceptual channels, by the sensory system” (op. cit.:23). The important point here is that from the phenomenological perspective of Gestalt therapy the body is not an entity separated from the mind - the old Cartesian duality - but a mind-full organism as the organism is an embodied mind. Therefore it does not make sense to therapeutically focus on the body as an independent biological corpus but on the speaking body, the body as an expressive medium of the human organism.
This begins with thoughtful imagining: 1 picture what it would be like if 1 did X: what is possible, what significance would this or that of my possible actions have for me and for the other participants in the situation. But this first step of running through possibilities in imagination remains stuck with the images, while it is yet constitutive for the function of consciousness that it differentiates through naming. That is the specific process through which thinking of a fantasy becomes thinking with imagination. The old debate, whether thinking pre-supposes language or whether there is pre-linguistic thinking, is irrelevant here. It was the American social philosopher George Herbert Mead who first pointed out that every contacting process - including those with concrete objects - is always a social process, a symbolically mediated interaction, rooted in the assumption that whatever is perceived and imagined can be named. This is the only way in which consciousness can integrate previous experience into the contacting process as “common sense”. The stock of everyday knowledge is socially mediated and for it to function appropriately, we have to make an assumption that it is shared by others.14 Of course, the spontaneous use of everyday knowledge is not a linguistic process, but only because it is possible to articulate it linguistically does it become shared knowledge. “To be conscious and to experience something means to communicate from within with the world, with my body and with other people - to be with them, rather than next to them”, says Merleau-Ponty (1962:79).
This suggests that consciousness, as thinking about appropriate behaviour and potentially successful strategies in a confusing and problematical field of contacts, is structured dialogically, as communicating with oneself. But it doesn’t make sense to assume that consciousness is only used for inner dialogue. On the contrary, a function of consciousness is the exchange of information, shared reflection, an exchange of experience through the medium of language and non-verbal communication. We create our world through naming and therefore differentiation, linguistic symbolization, as well as through using our senses and our motor functions. Specifically through this phenomenon, the constitution of whatever we experience as “real” is social from its inception: talking means achieving agreement about differentiations, thus creating a common world, a taken-for-granted reality which we relate to together. Speaking is the expressive mode of thinking-consciousness.
Just as the organism cannot be limited to the matter inside the skin, so consciousness is not confined to its organic substratum, the individual brain. There is no need, though, to speak about a collective consciousness. Thinkingconsciousness is a function of the organism/environment field, which allows us to consider and reconsider our needs and our steps towards fulfilling them. Such reflections are processes of discovering and inventing at once, i.e. our creative intercourse with the conditions and possibilities of verbal expression, which enables us to constitute a shared world that becomes functional only through naming.
“The uniqueness of language”, writes the French biologist Francois Jacob,
... seems to be related less to its capacity to allow us to give directions for action, but rather because it enables us to symbolize, to evoke cognitive images. We create our reality through words and sentences in the same way as we create it through our visual and auditory senses.
Language offers countless possibilities for combining words, which can be understood because such combinations follow rules and thus they can be shared and comprehended. Language makes it possible to collectively devise and plan the future, anticipate with imagination and planning whatever is still embryonic, not yet realized both for the individual, for social groups, and for society as a whole. Thus we can understand why consciousness becomes most conscious of itself wherever we happen to find the biggest problem, no matter whether we deal with it in communication with real people or with their internal representations.
Summarizing what I have said so far, we can say that thinking-consciousness fulfils two functions in the contacting process. It enables problems to be solved and it allows the development of tolerance of frustration. If it seems likely that a problem could be solved within the given situation, if need satisfaction seems to be a realistic aim, then thinking-consciousness specifically has the capacity to somewhat delay action, in order to facilitate further consideration, planning and talking together. From an instrumental point of view the aim is to find the right strategy and to gain a realistic appreciation of any obstacles, while on the normative side we need to ensure that means and actions are considered legitimate through achieving consensus with relevant others. Thinking-consciousness therefore has an instrumental and a normative aspect. Both require verbal communication which duly find the attention of Peris & Goodman (part 2, VII, pp. 99-112).
If on the other hand the need remains unsatisfied, the problem unsolved, thinking-consciousness enables us to consider a quiet retreat into reflection -an action which allows us to creatively use part of the energy of our frustration. Through this we may ensure the containment of potential explosions of useless rage, and at the same time realize that there are energy implosions which may lead to paralysing resignation.
Thinking-consciousness may invent and discover alternative possibilities for the frustrated need and in the interplay of inner and outer communication, secure an anticipation of future satisfaction in new and different contacting processes with new and different others.
Tolerance of frustration is achieved through reflection and - as we shall see later - by empathy. It is not an end in itself, but the basis for and departure point of either the continuation of the contacting process in other situations or a new start and a search for satisfaction with different objects. This last, of course, is what Freud termed sublimation; except here we are not dealing with a replacement of satisfaction but with real alternatives. “Being gifted is well sublimated rage”, T. W. Adorno says. In our context this means: the energy which could not be discharged in good contact, turns with unbroken strength - a strength which may even have grown through being barred from satisfaction, i.e. retroflected - towards another attempt or even another task, thereby perhaps increasing the drive towards mastery. The interplay of retreating into consciousness and the openness of awareness towards hitherto unnoticed possibilities in the environment generates invention and discovery which is not sublimation but creative adjustment.
A recurring problem arises though from the fact that apparently some needs can only be satisfied with this particular person or only through this particular kind of work, etc. - as if the childhood situation where we had to depend on one mother was still operative. A change of partner or a change in work situation or travel plans, the discovery of new possibilities and the invention of new strategies - all of these require reflection and dialogical conversation for fantasies to become concrete future actualities.
There is one phenomenon still missing in this exploration of the functions of consciousness and awareness that is a realm of unconscious mental activities. Part of it are the numerous workings of automatically functioning physical or biological processes. A close look at them immediately reveals that no strict boundary is to be found between unconscious and conscious processes: both realms are permeable with typical interfaces: As mentioned above some physical autonomously working processes can be deliberately brought into awareness, like breathing or most of our senses, while others make themselves noticed by feelings of irritation like a shortage of nourishment by hunger, or through pain as in most cases of physical dysfunctions.
However psychologically more interesting is that what seems to be sleeping in the unconscious realm are phenomena like intuition and dreams. The latter may also be called an altered state of consciousness in that dreams can be remembered - even if they usually aren’t - and we can even learn to make them altogether conscious. Freud had discovered their value for psychotherapy and this insight was taken up by Peris & Goodman, even if they changed radically the way to work with them. What Peris & Goodman argued about Freud’s procedure to gain access to the client’s “subconscious”, the so called method of “free association”, was also true for their view on therapeutic work with dreams: instead of leaving the interpretation of what comes up in the clients’ deliberate memory of a dream or spontaneous associations, a Gestalt therapist would help them to discover for themselves what in their contents would be meaningful for their lives by bringing them into the here-and-now of the therapeutic session through dialogue and identification methods. In Gestalt therapy the unconscious realm is not seen as a trashy pool of repressed instincts and desires which have to be brought into the light of consciousness to be controlled by the super-ego and brought to adjust to the norms of society but rather as Peris & Goodman pronounce it:
... that something not known as his, comes from his darkness and yet is meaningful; thereby perhaps he is encouraged to explore, to regard his unawareness as terra incognita but not chaos. From this point of view he must of course be made a partner in the interpreting.
(Peris & Goodman: 108)
And they continue to importantly state: “The thought here is that the maxim Know Thyself, is a humane ethics; it is not something done to one in trouble, but something one does for oneself as human. The therapist’s arcane attitude toward the interpretation withholding it or doling it out at the right moment, is contrary to this” (pp. 108-109). In this way the client may become aware of their autonomy to define what is meaningful for themself including their own limits, physical, intellectually, socially, whatever, and learn to value the unaware resources in themself and their powers of awareness in the here-and-now. The unconscious realm is a wonderful pond of ever-surprising creative solutions and insights if one is open and attentive to its gleams and sparkles. Without its interplay with awareness creativity would remain a mystery.
But still the question of who is the author of all these internal and external activities remains unanswered. The traditional answer of psychology was: “the self’. The nebulous character of this concept was not much improved by the insistence of Peris & Goodman that the self is a process rather than a static substance phenomenon, even if this pointed in the right direction. In any case the continuing confusion among Gestalt therapists about the nature of the self was impressively illustrated by Jean Marie Robine’s recent book (2016) Self: A polyphony of Gestalt therapists, containing a collection of 19 articles with 19 different views on this topic by 19 internationally well-known Gestalt therapists! Maybe the breakthrough is now coming from the neuro-sciences: Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher contemplating recent brain research on the nature of our consciousness clearly states that “there is no such thing as a ‘self’ and contrary to what most people believe nobody ever was or had a self’ (Metzinger, 2010:2). It should be noted here that with this claim he is in total agreement with the mystical schools of all religious traditions with their millenniums of history! (Huxley, 1945b). This is not a small matter, given the extreme difference of their methods of getting knowledge -meditation there, scientific research here. In his theory of the “Ego-Tunnel” Metzinger describes the complex mechanism by which our brains produce the ongoing illusion of having a “self’ or an “I”. This has tremendous consequences for our thought as well as for any kind of social organization (see also section 10 of this chapter on “Self-identification and social anchoring”), beyond the questions it raises in regard to artificial intelligence and the attempt to replicate human brains technologically, which are Metzinger’s overriding concerns. I will not discuss these developments in this book. They may entail our future, but for the practise of Gestalt therapy today it may suffice to keep a close eye on those neurotic processes which express an exaggerated blown up ego or self - a task which for the moment surely keeps us busy enough.
Destruction and annihilating
There is a constant danger that this inner and outer checking process becomes an end in itself, that consideration before action turns into the deadlock of rumination; that verbal exchange with others becomes an endless pointless questioning of everything. When the contacting process is unfolding undisturbed, though, thinking-consciousness (just as our emotions) serves our orientation. We consult language like a map, whose symbols stand in for real conditions - and now we step out, enter into the landscape and go towards the places that seem interesting and promising. This stepping out and eventual grasping belongs to the next phase of the contacting process - what in the theory of Gestalt therapy is meant by aggression - the process of actively restructuring and changing the given situation.
The organism’s aggression consists in its manipulation of its environment -neither concept is meant in a negative sense, but they both indicate positive functions of the contacting process. Thus the concept of aggression which is entailed in the theory of the contacting process differs from most other theories of aggression. We will see that from a Gestalt therapeutic point of view the core problem of human aggression - aggression against the environment - is not the result of a lack of self-control, but its converse: aggression follows when we inhibit the spontaneous aggressive functions in the contacting process.
According to Peris & Goodman, aggression as a mode of action contains three elements:
- • the initiative of stepping out and grasping,
- • destroying in the sense of de-structuring obsolete Gestalts, and then
- • annihilating and disposing of those obstacles which cannot be destroyed or assimilated.
When we say somebody is taking the initiative, we mean that the organism reaches out into the environment, pushes the contact boundary towards the exciting objects of interest in the environment. There might be one which excites arousal and raises hopes of satisfaction, or perhaps there might be an obstacle in the path of action which has to be removed.
Initiative is the connection between a need with which 1 identify, and the motor activity which seems suitable for the occasion. 1 address someone (an essential part of motor function is using the voice), 1 open a book, 1 pick a fruit, or 1 reach out for my guitar. I introduce a topic of conversation, 1 ask to speak, I grasp my tools and start to work - in all these ways my body and/or my intellect becomes the instrument for contacting the environment.
The organism which reaches for something both sensori-motorically and intellectually may encounter something that is unknown, resistant. In order to be able to work on it and digest it, or to stroke and caress it, these wholes (alien because they do not belong to one’s own self) must be taken apart. A Gestalt is being changed, dissolved into its parts and must be re-constituted into a new Gestalt, so that the salubrious parts with which 1 can identify are separated out from what is insalubrious, that which 1 need to reject as alien. This process of destroying - de-constructing - is a normal part of everyday activities in a myriad of ways.
The clearest example of this is taking nourishment: Everything we eat. be it bread, meat or fruit has to be peeled, cut up or broken. Specifically, it has to be broken with the teeth and chewed before we can swallow and digest it. Hands and teeth are our specific tools in this process. Their use again shows the paradox of our relationship with our body, the interplay of inner and outer aspects of being a body and having a body. The civilizing process, in the course of which many instruments and techniques were developed and which refine and multiply the destructive powers of hands and teeth, does not change this principle in any way. Whoever experiences a loss of teeth or of a hand immediately feels their self-assurance shaken - these ‘’instruments” are not only very practical, they are also an intimate part of our identity. Nowadays most foods are cooked and baked, grated and mashed, milled and kneaded, chopped and filtered, before they are taken up to the mouth with fork and spoon: the function of our teeth - to be instruments for biting and chewing - is to some extent externalized in the civilizing process, thus again emphasizing the natural tension between the body’s neediness and its instrumentality.
Other examples for de-structuring in the contacting process can be illustrated as somewhat analogous with the process of eating. The reception of intellectual materials equally demands disassembling and breaking down into constituent parts: - the process of intellectual analysis works just in this way. Each successful learning process, even if we are just dealing with imitation, requires the material to be prepared and unfolded for absorption. Didactics are to learning what cooking is to eating: the art of preparation. Whatever has been presented in this way still has to be chewed and carved up by the learner. Then, by comparing and re-constituting some parts, putting them together with what they know already, they make their own appropriate sense of what has been heard, seen or read, absorb the material and make it their own. Of course, as a rule some material is lost in this process. Some bits are rejected as insalubrious, other bits are simply forgotten. Children spontaneously forget whatever they don't understand - and just through this capacity they are extraordinarily capable of learning and if not discouraged always stay curious for what is unknown. Whatever material is lost is in fact no loss for the organism, since damage can arise through surfeit, the organism exceeding its capacity for absorption. Absorbing and eliminating are two sides of the same process. Two issues have recently gained some urgency in this context. First: the everyday use of computers with their “delete” buttons and the arrival of the internet giving access to an almost unlimited number of “facts” (true and false). This has changed the relationship between learning and forgetting. Our children must learn new techniques for quickly deciding what is to be kept in memory and what can and must (!) immediately be “deleted”. And second: the more older people we have, the more pressing the question becomes of how a brain growing older can be helped to preserve its short-term memory as much and for as long as possible, essential for the management of everyday survival - instead of using up too much energy by focussing on long-term memory, which is not always pleasant but can also be painful, even terrorizing, as in traumatic memories.
Finally, even the more tender interpersonal situations require a de-struc-turing of what is immediately given - a change and new constitution of the present Gestalt. In touching the beloved 1 change her (or his) position, pull her towards me, take her in my arms, push her gently onto a cushion, undress her perhaps and excite her through my caresses. Eros and sexuality require this active element of tender-aggressive grasping, to overcome any natural awe of another alien if attractive body, to dissolve resistance into desire. In truly reciprocal situations none of this is limited to the male role: both partners are equally subjects of action and objects of intervention. There is no gender difference in this complex movement of reaching out and allowing oneself to receive, in an interweaving of activity and passivity, except where sexual roles are forced into limiting cultural frames.
The pleasurable aspect of aggression may be less obvious in argument, contention and conflict. Still, even in these situations - provided the contacting process is not interrupted - the destruction and change in the Gestalt formation is experienced as pleasurable. The reason for this is that this element of aggression is a function of appetite itself: here, too, pleasure arises from need. In experiencing needs which are about to be satisfied, the source of pleasure is in grasping and biting, chewing and working on something. Goodman calls this process identification with parts of the environment. We see it when teeth are shown in rage or in laughter. In addition, there are the many causes of dissatisfaction which call for a change. Destroying knots created through unsatisfactory habits in couple relationships; dissolving prejudices amongst friends and colleagues; political conflict around distribution of resources - all of this can be a pleasurable fight, hot quarrel or a cleansing thunder storm. Its completion creates a new situation, a more satisfactory distribution, a new Gestalt in relationships.
Apart from this “warm” grasping aspect of aggression there is the “cold” one, directed towards annihilation and removal of obstacles which interfere with my need satisfaction. Here, whatever the organism needs is usually not directly accessible; there are ever more obstacles, something stands in the way, frequently real dangers threaten. It starts out with harmless trifles: a vase disturbs the eye contact with my partner in conversation - 1 remove the vase. Rotting rubbish threatens my food - I remove the rubbish. An unpleasant person in a group prevents the hoped-for conversation - we ask them to shut up or remove them from the group. In most cases the removal of obstacles does not create significant difficulties. Emotionally they are accompanied by some irritation, which usually is quickly forgotten.
If, on the other hand, dangers and obstacles in the environment become too difficult to overcome in a given contacting situation, then we have circumstances where normally the organism withdraws, gets out of the way of danger, circumvents the obstacle, tries to reach the aim in a different way or at a later point in time. Almost always there are alternatives. Almost always there are many roads leading to Rome, and if there seems to be just this one way right now, there is always the question of whether really there is just this one aim, just this one object which is capable of satisfying the presenting need. The healthy organism gets itself out of the way of dangers and obstacles which it cannot manage: it is not interested in the heroism of victory or failure. It has, however, the courage to face a conflict, to destroy the old conditions which no longer satisfy, and to touch what is new, the unknown, which can only be created and discovered in and during the contacting process.
Difficulties arise when either - like a soldier compelled to serve in war - we are forced to stick with a dangerous situation rather than flee and search for need satisfaction elsewhere; or when the object of our desire is also the source of the threat, as violent parents are for their children. In both cases, the transient anger driving any process of removal and annihilation turns into cold rage focussing all the powers of the organism. It turns into despair if these powers are still insufficient to remove the source of danger or to flee from it, and this experience of frustration and powerlessness is usually at the root of violence. In an undisturbed contacting process, physical violence against other human beings is - aside from sheer sadism - never anything but a reaction of self-defence with regard to a real and present physical threat in situations one cannot leave. Therefore, the successful removal of a threat, or flight from danger successfully accomplished is not followed by the kind of happy satisfaction which follows the warm rage accompanying the destruction of resistant objects. Instead, it brings nothing but relief, ends in relaxation or exhaustion.
However, there are many pathological reasons for imagining oneself in a dangerous situation or for fixing exclusively onto the alternative of victory or defeat, which always interfere with the contacting process. The greatest danger threatening our civilization, though, is the internalized inhibition of aggression, which prevents a bad word from passing our lips but cannot prevent the unexpected punch, when pent-up rage breaks all controls. What we need to learn as pedagogues and therapists with regard to the problem of violence in our world is that flight and avoidance in real danger is a rational response, while heroism is a neurotic one - and that the de-structuring and annihilating aspects of aggression are a normal part of any contacting process. As long as this fact is denied and this denial remains introjected, the disproportion between cause and means in warfare and terrorism, and the fear of annihilation caused by it, will remain part of our lives.
If the threatening or violent person is identical with the longed for source of love, a paradoxical situation comes about: one part of the other must be negated, rejected and rendered harmless, while another part is desired, wanted and loved. In this situation the quality of the conflict becomes painful and gruelling, which is characteristic of many arguments between people living together. Of course there is always the question: why be fixed onto this one partner, who is supposed to fulfil all needs; why hold on to this one group, when there are others besides? Only for children, who are completely dependent on their relationship with their parents, can this constellation turn into a true double binding situation (Watzlawick et al., 1967). Repeatedly experienced contradiction between attention given and rejection threatened - in conjunction with the child being unable to leave the situation - can produce neurotic attitudes. The process is that at first the child learns to control the stirrings of their need and then habitualizes this mode of self-control. This contradiction, if it is repeated continually and is contained in the same communicative act - for example when words and gestures are mutually exclusive in their intention - only drives the recipient truly crazy. Aggression with its threefold function of reaching out, de-structuring and annihilation isn’t just normal but is an essential part of any contacting process. A person who feels secure within their environment and secure within themself, uses their sensorimotor, emotional and cognitive abilities and the authority at hand to change that part of the environment - and only that part - which will lead to the satisfaction of their needs, leading to growth and development. This process of change entails the de-structuring of Gestalts presenting themselves in the given situation. Using one’s ego-functions of de-structuring and annihilation by which any participant influences social arrangements, encounters and communication are made possible, If my own powers are not sufficient to confront the barriers against satisfying contact 1 get out of the way or leave the situation: one interrupts the contacting process in order to unfold more fully in other, new contacts. Anything else leads to resentment or even to latent hatred, which eventually destroys in the environment what may be needed in a future situation, or certainly that which nourishes other people in different ways - indirectly a condition of one’s own life and survival, also.
Surrender and enjoyment in full contact
Only now is the way free for the self to unfold fully into the contacting process - to assume the free-floating position of full contact. To reach this platform, all intentional ego-functions have to be surrendered, just like ballast. Once the object of contact is fully in focus, grasped and fully recognized, it begins to fill up the whole background. The figure is no longer emphasized in contrast to its background but now encompasses everything which is meant by this contact. The human organism is no longer opposite to an object, but its whole energy flows into the contact. Fully integrative contact between subject and object is the merging of organism and environment into a unified experience at the point of contact, with no spare capacity for anything else. Anything planned and intentional recedes; everything is spontaneous surrender to the rhythm of the encounter, in which another “I” or rather “Thou” completely fills me - in a way which is meant for me and only me.
Prototypical experiences of this nature can again be found in functions which secure individual and collective survival: in eating and in sexuality, since in these experiences the body perceptibly becomes an independent entity of experience according to its own rules; for a moment it eludes any instrumental intention. For that moment we are our body rather than having it - a transient breakdown of the “ex-centric” mode of experience which at all other times is definitive for human beings (Plessner, 1970a). Chewing our food leads to increased production of saliva and finally to the swallowing reflex, ensuring that the food is taken in and, if there is a corresponding appetite, the process is accompanied by pronounced feelings of pleasure.
The involuntary nature of some physical reactions is even more obvious in orgasm, where “I” and “Thou” become one in unified experience. Here the self, defined as a function of the contact boundary, is most itself, receives its strongest contour, since now my entire experience is this interfusion of “I” and “Thou”. As all energies accessible to the organism at this moment are wholeheartedly mobilized, all is exclusively focussed on realising You in me, thus giving such intensity to the orgiastic experience. Only by surrendering all intentionality, leaving behind all orientations and all plans and manipulation, can 1 completely pour myself into the other and simultaneously receive them into myself. Surrender is certainly self-forgetting, but it is not self-abandonment, instead it is letting go of all the strategic ego-functions of the self: they have fulfilled their roles. Integration, becoming one with the discovered and invented Gestalt, can only be fully achieved if it is the fulfilment and completion of a contacting process which has gone through all the preceding stages of fore-contact, orientation and re-organization. Premature integration (due to regressive desires) always remains unsatisfactory. “Each orgasm has its history”, feminist author Barbara Sichtermann says (Sichtermann. 1986). It is the spontaneous and unplanned culmination of a process where we gradually approach and touch the other. Of course it is possible to reach orgasm simply as a physiological reaction through intentional stimulation, just as 1 can force myself to swallow something. But in such a process orgasm remains limited as a physical experience; the organism - instead of fully surrendering to another - merely wrests a reaction from the body. In the full integration of “I” and “Thou” no part of the organism continues to use another part instrumentally. Letting go of all arbitrariness is a spontaneous act of surrender to the process. You cannot plan an orgasm - but it is possible to support wholehearted surrender by creating appropriate conditions in the earlier phases of the contacting process.
The tension typical for human beings - of always being suspended between involuntary and voluntary action, between having and being a body - is the foundation of the realization that even orgiastic experiences can be of different quality. Complete self-forgetfulness does not easily come to us, especially since this experience at the essential moment requires not doing but letting go. It is as if one had to step aside in order not to stand in the way of one’s own spontaneity. The spontaneity of full contact gains its own power and energy in the delight of orgasm which is balancing lack, satisfying need, and incorporating new experience. All these steps are accompanied by an arousal so intense that it burns up - as it were - anything pre-planned and anxious. With letting go of planning, the time perspective - always attached to having aims - also disappears. All delight is timeless, “wants eternity” as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says; the wish to extend this experience is the desire to become one with its boundlessness.
The phase of integration in the contacting process is not yet completed in self-surrender, but continues in the enjoyment and appreciation of a gradually noticeable sense of satisfaction which eventually dies away into the post contact. Enjoyment is at the same time an active process of approach and surrender of the senses and motor functions as well as passive absorption, allowing oneself to be filled by the other or something other. The delight of surrender is already beyond time; in enjoyment, though, we hover at the edge of time and play with the transitions between having and being as the two modes of experience associated with being embodied. This is the reason why -in spite of everything intentional now absent in the surrender to Eros -everywhere and always, there has been a culture of erotic and culinary enjoyment, which by no means ends with the arts of planning and preparation but aims to increase and extend enjoyment.
Each culture develops its own particular richness and simultaneously produces its own particular poverty in the possibilities it offers for shaping and forming surrender and sensuous pleasure. Each culture promotes and diminishes the chances for the satisfying contacting processes it offers its members living in and through it. Our own culture’s weakness lies less in the breathlessness of fast food and “instant sex” than in the commercially promoted narcissism which insists on Ego-centeredness, even when we engage in pleasure; there is a wide-spread fear of losing self-control in surrender to the other. All this is the price we must pay for the rule of instrumental reason. It is true too, though, that this same culture has found its own historically fresh answers in various forms of body-psychotherapy and self-awareness explorations.
Some aspects of these reflections will become clearer when we remember that surrender and the varieties of pleasure are not limited to the erotic and culinary arena. Each uninterrupted contacting process is completed in the integration of organism and environment. Our language offers hints at this -we say “I'm all ears” when our attention and energy is fully engaged in listening or gazing at something. Whenever we concentrate perfectly the subject is absorbed into the object, merges with it, becoming one with it. Everything else is shut off - not just as irrelevant background; nothing else enters awareness. I can be so intensely immersed in considering a work of art or natural scenery, absorbed with working, thinking or reading that for a time everything else around me disappears.
And again this surrender entails permitting spontaneous interaction with experiencing the object of my interest - a process of active surrender and passive reception at once. Some people experience music so completely that it fills every fibre of their being; they become one with it. This is an experience where music is not realized until it is - as it were - embodied in every cell of the listener, who becomes a different being through the process of listening. Thus it is with the experience of merging: Rilke ends his verses about the aesthetic experience of a sculpture with the line: “You have to change your life”. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has built a whole anthropology on this sentence (Sloterdijk, 2009). In fact, whoever had the deep experience of gazing is already changed: we have absorbed that was something different from us a moment ago, which now is still resonating, until it is gradually assimilated, and thus becomes part of our own being.
It is truly remarkable how surrender itself constitutes the moment of creativity. Always the integration of organism and environment extends beyond itself, leaving organism and environment changed, at least in experience, and often enriched by new qualities or competencies. Just as new life sometimes emerges from sexual surrender, sometimes too, from surrendering to technical or artistic or scientific tasks a new form or a clear insight opens up, a moment of seeing through, seeing the whole, described here by Dorothy Sayers when it happens to her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey:
And then it happened - the thing he had sort of expected. It happened suddenly, with certainty, and just as unshiftable as a sunrise. He remembered in just one moment - not this bit or that, nor the logical sequence of events, but everything together, the whole story, perfect and complete, in all its dimensions - in such a way as if he stood outside the world and saw it floating in space with myriads of dimensions. He did not need any further reasons, he did not even think about it. He knew.
This experience of suddenly knowing the solution has been described by many people; we can find it in the commonplace “Aha!” when we finally find the missing ingredient in food; likewise “Eureka!” at a brilliant insight into the interplay of cosmic powers, at the solution of a common technical problem as well as in the experience of a “mini-Satori” - the name given to some special therapeutic insights of patients by Jim Simkin. Contacting processes are as different as are the needs which drive them and as the objects toward which they are directed. They simply share the structure of an irreversible sequence of the phases of approach, contact and finally integration with and through its objects, whether material or immaterial. Without the integration phase with its fullest unfolding of the self’s capacity for experience - always dependent on who is involved, what situation it finds itself in - there can be no change. Only through surrender and in enjoyment can new experiences be worked on, worked through, ensuring growth and development.
Of course, not every contacting process guarantees such moments of full integration. Often the climax of self-unfolding consists in just enjoying the very closeness of the contact itself, the shared play of senses and movements around the contact boundary, beyond which the organism loses itself in the timelessness of pure delight. Sometimes people engage fully in brisk, purposeful exchange of thought and argument; or embrace each other whilst moving with the rhythm of the dance or in the process of co-operating and playing together. In such cases what counts is not a result but the shared activity itself. This process works in a similar way when we are alone with ourselves and make contact with material and immaterial substances: when we surrender to the water in swimming or diving, to the rock when climbing, to the wind when sailing. So also in the cognitive spheres: the surrender to a memory, a train of thought or an idea are all experiences of full contact where the organism approaches the boundary to self-forgetfulness without necessarily crossing it. And yet, this unification with whatever it is that touches us is the aim of an often unacknowledged longing.
The process of integration or full contact has a deeper significance, beyond the pleasure of surrender and becoming one with an activity. Definitely we are not concerned here with an attempt at catching hold of lust and delight for its own sake - that is the concern of addiction to self-indulgence which simply leads to empty exhaustion and is soon followed by an urge to repeat the experience. Instead, the function of savouring an experience of full contact is to allow the feeling of satisfaction to slowly grow and fill the whole human organism. Only if satisfaction can be deeply sensed and experienced is it possible to avoid satiation and surfeit. While savouring the experience the organism gently frees itself from the totality of surrender and still remains completely engaged with it. Nothing can ever be savoured with finality, but at least lack has been remedied, and gradually the motoric pleasure accompanying the enjoyment turns into the languid delight of satisfaction. Thus the process of savouring slowly initiates the last phase, post-contact, which has its own kind of sensuousness as full contact is traced again and slowly allowed to recede.
8 Post contact
Enjoying the afterglow of experience and affirming
Each event needs time for it to become an experience. The intensity of an encounter with something new does not ensure that the organism will be sufficiently satisfied and enriched in the long run; in retrospect, a passionate encounter may seem nothing special and in memory becomes empty, does not leave a permanent impression. Or it remains a singular event having nothing to do with the reality of one’s everyday life; it resists being integrated and for that very reason may become an object of longing reminiscence and day dreams. As the old saying goes ’'Post coitum omne animale triste”, depressively reducing such experiences to the point. What is lacking here, what any encounter requires in order to become an enriching experience is the time to identify what has been gained during the post contact phase. Having been found and invented, the Gestalt dissolves; the contacting boundary becomes blurred, the self loses its energy and fades; the organism is unfocussed, is at rest and the environment is beginning to be perceived again in its specificity, though remaining relatively uninteresting.
In contrast to PHG, who left out this fourth phase of the contacting process, I think that it is an important part in the whole process of the satisfying experience: Post contact has three functions in the contacting process:
- 1 Letting an experience sink in, enjoying its afterglow, affirming it. At first the organism just needs time, to allow what's been experienced to settle in order for it to take root so it can continue to have an effect. In this respect post contact is simply-it-be-as-it-is, while the organism is still open and still resonating and letting what has been touched slowly die down. It is still permeable, and therefore vulnerable, too, and in need of protection. Rest is now required - both for the senses which are still replete with what has been perceived and received, and for the spent motor functions. Being hauled out of the previous absorption too quickly can work just like an alarm clock tearing us out of deep sleep, i.e. it may inflict a psychological and even physiological injury to which we react with light-headedness, disorientation and sometimes despair. The organism here is mainly vulnerable with regard to fellow human beings, who perhaps weren't quite as involved to the degree of full contact. Or who - in a narcissistic disposition - are shocked by their ego boundaries melting in the encounter with something new, and need to diffuse the effect of the contacting process through premature categorization, cataloguing and valuation or simply through turning their backs. It can be hugely irritating when there is immediate commentary or speedy criticism while we are still deeply moved by a play or by a film; how painful it is when the usual instant applause fastens on to the last chord of a concert which has barely finished; and how hurtful it is when the lover immediately withdraws as soon as love hunger has been appeased. Indeed, it is sufficient to allow free rein to the field of organism and environment, not interfering with one’s own organism but simply allowing space for the feeling of satisfaction to unfold.
- 2 Even this process of surrender to the afterglow of an experience, the second function of the post contact, is not really an activity of the self, but rather a passive, almost lazy attentiveness, directed towards the changes in the organism itself; towards what is new in their experience; what abides. It has already been incorporated but not yet assimilated. Of course it is possible to boost these processes of tracking and appreciating what has been experienced with cultured finesse - in the realm of the senses as well as in the interpersonal one. For the senses, we may usefully apply the culinary arts of closure and post contact with which we are most familiar. This is the place not just for desserts ending the meal, but also those special drinks: coffee, cognac, dessert wines - and for many people that most enjoyable postprandial cigarette. In the social realm we have rituals which, at the end of the shared activity bringing people together, allow some space for a less focussed kind of togetherness: the “social” or “informal” part of the evening after work has been accomplished; at the end of a meeting or an exercise class. We exchange experiences and opinions after a shared visit to an event or talk about the visit after the last guests have gone.
- 3 In the social realm the third function of the post contact is of the greatest importance: affirmation. We have to re-assure each other that it really was that way; 1 have experienced it in this way, you have experienced it in that way - we both had an experience. This matters for two reasons. Firstly, through this mutual affirmation of the contacting process now about to end, we mutually constitute our social reality through interpersonal contact; through this affirmation we define something as an experience which we can (confidently) invoke in the future. Secondly, this affirmation has the function of providing a ritual of reciprocity, a standardized communication which enables us to maintain or re-constitute norms of reciprocity.
Naming the experience is part of the constitution of reality, clarifying the question of what has actually taken place. For most contacting processes this is unproblematic; ready-made labels are available for use. We already know, of course, that we went out together for a meal or took part in a conference or went to the movies. What may be lacking is an evaluation: a “good” meal, a “boring” conference, an “exciting” film. But these labels are not always are so readily to hand. Has this been a “night of love” or a “passing sexual adventure”? Was this an “educational experience” or an “unnecessary ordeal”? It is necessary to begin to find preliminary answers to these kinds of questions through reflection, re-construction, and re-investigation - and mainly through talking about it all, jointly finding labels which encompass assessment and ordering. Much of this will be clarified somewhat later, after the complete closure of the contacting process - though sometimes it will be clarified only much later, or never at all.
Rituals of reciprocity tend to take three forms, normally a regular part of the post contacting phase in the social realm: expressing thanks, arranging another meeting and saying goodbye. Each of these rituals can take very different forms, depending on the nature of the contacting process, the types of relationships involved and the semantic traditions - words and gestures belonging to the everyday culture of the social groupings concerned. The norm of reciprocity,15 universal for all cultures, entailing a gift given being balanced by a gift given in return, can take many different forms. Saying “thank you” is but one of them, if the most common. Its function always is to maintain social balance. Arranging to meet again, however vaguely expressed (“Why don’t you give me a call?” or “We should do this again soon!”) has the function of fastening a personal relationship to the level which has been reached at this point. Saying goodbye serves to offer a closing ritualized evaluation of the shared contact (“What a great meal this was!” or “1 am very glad you could make it!”). It also serves to mutually affirm the status of the relationship (“Bye, see you tomorrow!” or “Goodbye, Mr. Smith; 1 hope you have a good trip home!”). These ritualized forms should not deceive us about the fact that we are dealing with an ever fresh assessment of previous contacting processes; each of these rituals offers the possibility - through voice tone and gesture - to fine-tune it to what best fits each contacting process.
Through its functions of letting things sink in, experiencing the afterglow of the event and mutual affirmation, post contact allows the assimilation of what was taken in - a process which happens once the contacting process has been completed, largely outside awareness. Letting things sink in, through appreciating and mutual affirmation, a preliminary decision is made regarding which parts of what has been absorbed will finally be assimilated and what is going to be eliminated - what is going to be kept, becoming part of the organism, and what is pushed away or forgotten. The functions of the post contact entail a sensory-cognitive short-term memory, which begins to decide what is going to be kept in long-term memory and what may soon be forgotten. It is the post contact which ensures that the harvest of the contacting process gets into the storage barn.
Remembering and forgetting
Each contacting process leaves behind a changed organism/environment field. The organism has incorporated something from the environment, its need is satisfied for the time being; it no longer needs to be active to ensure its regeneration. At the same time as it has been enriched for the longer term, it has become something else, has grown - sometimes noticeably, sometimes imperceptibly. What does this growing consist in? It is important here to recognize that successful contacting processes are not just about reconstituting the original state through re-balancing lack and through need satisfaction, but they are also learning processes through which the organism grows, that is gains increasing competency and a refinement of its needs.
In each contacting process already existing competencies are being practised again. But gradually additional competencies are gained: perhaps I become more perceptive, move with greater agility, express myself more clearly, experience things more deeply, think more sharply, enjoy more fully, can say “no” more firmly, etc. In other words, the most significant gain of any successful contacting process is a strengthening of the ego functions, of the skills and abilities through which we attempt to satisfy our needs. It is through them that we maintain movement in the organism/environment field, and that means we keep it alive. Oddly, this particularly shows in the fact that our basic needs re-emerge again and again - and can be sensed as such. Creatures are open (“dissipative”) systems that would cease to exist if they ever reached a completely balanced state.
The re-organization of the organism/environment field through contacting processes where ever-better competencies are applied also leads to ever-new needs developing. With the strengthening of the ego functions and under auspicious political and economic conditions, certainty grows that in the future, too, it will be possible to satisfy our most important needs. This security constitutes the basis for more differentiated needs developing through which the organism responds to previously unnoticed challenges coming from the environment. Another outcome of the successful contacting process may be that now 1 need different things and wish for new objects. As the organism's self unfolds in ever new ways in subsequent contacting processes, it does not only achieve new ego functions but also new id functions. Growth of the organism therefore initially consists in regeneration and extension of ego and id functions.
We know little about the psychological processes involved in assimilating something new: how assimilation actually takes place. On the physical level, of course, we know about the metabolism of breathing and digestion. The most important issue at this point is that the body cannot assimilate everything it takes in, for this equally applies on the psychological level. Breathing out and eliminating are life-sustaining processes. Apart from illness, when they are blocked or interrupted, we are dealing with a characteristic symptom of neurotic disturbance. On the cognitive level this corresponds to forgetting as a healthy ego function, which shares the task of protecting the organism from information overflow through selective perception. Again, we see blocking of this spontaneous function, the inability to forget, as symptomatic of a disturbance in the self-regulatory processes in the organism/environment field. The process of assimilation, starting right after the closure of the contacting process, largely happens outside awareness and is based on an unconscious capacity to differentiate between what is useful and what is not useful for the organism. It appropriates what it needs and eliminates or forgets what it doesn’t.
By forgetting 1 mean at this point that the information has finally disappeared. Some kinds of information may be latently available and will spontaneously be brought up into consciousness, “re-membered” if and when it is needed in a later contacting process. If the organism cannot remember relevant information, we are dealing with a memory lapse which may mean that something has been repressed. Repression entails that the memory of the original need is blanked out - as well as the method of repression which was originally used. If the organism cannot forget irrelevant information, we are dealing with a fixation to an earlier contacting situation. In both cases the current contacting process will be impeded.
What we remember, therefore, is not always consciously present, and relatively little of what we do remember actually needs to be remembered. Other types of information will have become second nature for the organism and therefore are part of the taken-for-granted background for all following contacting processes. I no longer know when, how and from whom 1 learned this or that; 1 just know how to do it, just as 1 know how to walk or talk. Spontaneously remembering what I have seen before, what 1 have already experienced or suffered, what 1 have already evaluated, is a natural potential in the contact between organism and environment through which our capabilities will be enhanced, our potential extended. Without the capacity to recognize something again, each situation would - in unbearable ways - be new and alien, and complete disorientation would be the consequence. This is, for instance, the catastrophe of Alzheimer’s disease.
Even today, after decades of brain research we do not know a great deal about how our memory functions (Kandel, 2007). It appears as if perceptions and experiences leave behind cerebral traces, which are more permanent the more they retain the holistic character of a process and disregard detail. Gestalt psychologists have long maintained that memory is not simply a container for holding memories but a self-actuating process which changes memory traces in order to attempt Gestalt closure, spatially and temporarily as well as emotionally.16 Only through this process do “decisions” seem eventually to be made regarding what is to be forgotten and what will remain accessible to be remembered at a later stage.
On the cognitive level, it is quite apparent that whatever has simply been memorized without a contextualizing understanding of the organizing principles behind it persists only for a short time - this is different when material is well organized. Beyond this 1 think that emotionally relevant experiences which closely concern the ego will make a significant difference to the question of how well and for how long something is remembered.17 It is amazing how tenaciously experiences of shame, frequently attached to quite banal events, can dig their claws into our memory - the more strongly, the more they concern our bodies. In any case the affective cathexis of memories -quite independently of their accuracy - has a significant influence on what we find attractive or repelling in any given environment.
Cognitively and emotionally, memories have orientating functions in the contacting process - more strongly if memory has formed a vivid Gestalt from the traces of previous experiences. This Gestalt formation can be strongly influenced by narratives within a family or other groups and by a memory being repeatedly presented as a story. Also in this epoch of photography, the memory will often be structured by photographs and video films. It is important to reckon with the fact that remembered images are not reflecting immediate experience but are based on photos, films and videos, and storytelling. We must add here that since photography became digital its claim to authenticity has gone - memory has not just lost its support, but can actively be falsified.
Through this process, reality gets transformed in many ways, which does not, though, diminish our capacity to act - indeed Gestalt formation is in itself an expression of a capability, without which we could not cope with reality. In part, the ability to form a Gestalt from unstructured separate bits of memories already takes shape in internal processes of the brain; in part formed in communication with oneself and with others, in the shape of an anecdote for example, or a horror story or a funny tale, and only through these narratives do the original memory traces gain their power to orientate action.18
Whether my memory is actually accurate or not is irrelevant as long as it is not socially confirmed, because this, like any other reconstruction of reality, in principle also requires social affirmation. If 1 stick with my memories (or other constructions of reality) outside of what counts as shared historical experience, my memory will be considered defective, possibly insane. If on the other hand I can agree with others or they with me on a shared memory, then it is socially safeguarded and can fully enter into our construction of the present. That is one of the reasons why cognitive and emotional reference groups are so important - they share my own interpretations, supporting my perception of reality. It is not too difficult to live as a member of a cognitive minority (Berger, 1969) in society as a whole, but being alone in one’s cognitions will lead to psychosis. Trauma patients, for instance, need to be listened to in an accepting way by a therapist and perhaps by other victims, for only this can provide the necessary social affirmation which was not available in the solitary and uncontrollable space of remembering.
It is true, though, that in producing shared memories - a favourite activity and a very important function of couples and families - we are not just dealing with equal contributions to establishing a memory mosaic, but this activity is also a struggle for the power to define situations. This explains the phenomenon of family members and couples so often interrupting each other with “That was quite different; let me...” when telling about an event. In other words, the whole creative re-construction of what happened matters a great deal, because gradually the form of reconstruction becomes more important than what is to be reconstructed. Often we remember the highlights of a story, the drama, the tragedy or the comedy, but not that which once served as its model. Childhood memories can most easily be used to check this phenomenon: often we remember the legend which the family created from an event - not the event itself; we see the event retrospectively through the optics of presentation.
In addition the organism has an altogether different way of remembering: the memory of the body, which is often ignored - not merely because many psychologists think of “memory” as an exclusively cognitive and conscious achievement, but also because, at least in our culture, this kind of remembering can hardly be socially validated. Just as we spontaneously remember something we have seen before, something already experienced; suffering we have undergone, good or bad judgments we made in the past - all of this helping in the current contacting process to increase capabilities and the potentialities of the situation, so the body spontaneously remembers agonies endured, hunger suffered, lust experienced in orgasm, injuries borne. There is no need to think only about torture and deprivation; amongst surgeons there is a wide-spread belief that the body - in spite of the best anaesthetics being used - always registers and remembers the surgical intervention as traumatic. A long time ago, Otto Rank already pointed out how traumatic the birth process can be for every woman and child (Rank. 1924).
However there is an important difference in relation to other kinds of memories: under normal conditions, what the body remembers remains unconscious. Or in the case of experiences which have been physically traumatizing -car accidents for example and war experiences - body memory may be partially conscious, partly repressed and returning in dreams. Usually such body memories only become perceptible in spontaneous reactions of the body, when danger threatens or when we are suddenly startled. These days, we are able to trigger and make such body memories conscious by using specific therapeutic techniques.19 Just as with other physical competencies, the body’s capacity to remember has not attracted sufficient attention. That the body can be trained is part of everyday knowledge in our culture. That in this training (which to some extent of course is part of any process of socialization, at least in our culture) many of the more subtle capabilities of the body are repressed - which under different circumstances would unfold spontaneously - is rarely noted. We fail to take note of the body’s capacity to remember, which could be very useful indeed in our understanding of and dealing with illness and health processes.
Assimilation is an internal learning process of the organism and has various facets. To start with - and outside of our awareness - what has been newly incorporated is separated out into that which can and cannot be assimilated. Whatever is insalubrious or superfluous will be spontaneously eliminated or forgotten. What is useful, though, becomes second nature. The organism is specifically regenerated and enriched in its abilities and strengths. Whatever becomes second nature needs practice, and can be lost again. Once acquired, abilities which require coordination of sequential movements like cycling or car driving apparently do not get lost, even if they remain dormant for years. But they can be lost forever through traumatic experiences like accidents. This is why doctors advise to continue driving immediately after traumatic accidents. Even the most elementary capabilities of human beings like walking or talking or crying can be unlearned, if we are prevented from using them long enough, be it through illness, violence or introjects. Nevertheless, newly practised old competencies as well as newly acquired ones - however they may be threatened by loss or diminution - are a part of the organism which cannot be disregarded. Just as the organism’s needs arise afresh again and again, new ones are developed; they have become (more or less strongly) second nature for human beings, like the ability to cycle or drive a car.
Beyond this, the organism particularly stores emotional experiences which are either spontaneously used to inform action strategies in new contacting processes or are deliberately consulted by the actor in order to help their orientation. These experiences are stored as memory traces and seem to undergo Gestalt formation processes if they closely affect the ego and have an affective charge. The Gestalt process seems to form the remembered material in such a way that it is capable of powerfully supporting the actor in their orientation in the environment. Where purely cognitive memory traces are concerned, we seem to see a codification, i.e. we find that the information is transposed into a more economical version for the purpose of storage - like a map which codifies essential aspects of the territory with the help of symbols (Hbrmann, 1964:267). Such memories need to be decoded again for use in the current situation. The ability to decode then is part of remembering, an egofunction. In everyday life these memories are relevant for our spatial and temporal orientation, whereas affective memories tend to play a more significant role in personal relationships.
When 1 speak of storage here, this must not be taken to be an invitation to imagine the brain as a kind of container for information which through coding and Gestalt formation processes gets cooked up into useable memories. Of course the brain is responsible for memory achievements; but the “computer” which does the storing must be understood as a process or a
“flowing pattern” which organizes the interplay between the manifold functions of the organism. Intellectually as well as physically and emotionally, we bring some memory to mind as we are engaged in our particular activities -all functions of the organism work together in the contacting process in such a way that a creative solution for the concerns of the organism/environment field can be found. Bringing something relevant to mind is how we access this reservoir of stored experiences. This ego-function can be used spontaneously as well as intentionally. We are largely unaware of the body’s spontaneous memories - the body simply reacts to the new situation according to previous experience and in this sense it is conservative. This is less apparent in spontaneous emotional and specifically in cognitively focused experiences. Memories we search for intentionally are of course always conscious - and are therefore susceptible to falsification. They can deceive other people and lead to self-delusion.
For an interactionally-oriented psychotherapy, we would have to turn to the following very interesting observation by R. Bandler and J. Grinder - that in almost everybody, eye movements indicate whether we are dealing with “constructed visual images” or “remembered (eidetic) images”. In the first case the eyes move automatically up and right, in the second case they move left and up (see Bandler I Grinder, 1979:25 et al.). “Constructed images” are definitely not attempts at deception or self-delusion, but valid attempts at reconstruction. I suspect, though, that the eidetic memories have the greater affect attached to them.
What we intentionally search for is subject to an additional social reality control, whereas spontaneous memories have to try out their reality content in the contacting process straight away. In the contacting situation the reality content of a memory is fully actualized in its functional significance for the present, whereas consciously searched-for memories are concerned with the question of how it “actually” was. Another reason for a reality check of these memories is: did it take place in the presence of actual people, with imagined ones or even just with members of our reference groups we may have internalized in an abstract way. Importantly the verbal form in which these memories are couched plays a role since they may become a vehicle for meanings which can be passed on as “collective memories”, and in this way may contribute to individual or group identity formation - which has, of course, social consequences.
Finally, the process of memory normally protects itself from overload, not only by quickly forgetting everything stored in short-term memory that is of significance only for the actual tasks of orientation in the present, but also by forgetting content after longer time intervals when it has lost its function. Past events and experiences only live on for as long as they have meaning for the present. What we have learned persists while we use it, and what we remember can only be spontaneously remembered if we are dealing with currently useful experiences or those which have regained significance. “It is not by inertia but by function that a form persists, and it is not by lapse of time but by lack of function that a form is forgotten” (Peris & Goodman:75).
10 Self-identification and social anchoring
Identifying oneself and taking responsibility
There is a great deal more to a successful contacting process than remembering and assimilating. It clearly makes no sense to speak about the contacting process as a learning activity without thinking about a learning subject which remains constant throughout many contacting processes. The model of the contacting process, therefore, cannot do without a concept of the subjective centre of the organism. After all, in everyday practice we associate it with core questions about our sense of identity and the continuity of the human organism. Clearly these issues are of great importance socially and psychologically. The problem is this: it is easy to get stuck in the conceptual undergrowth of personality theories. They speak of the “I” or the “self’ (which I could not do without, either), about identity, personality or the character of a human being. These are concepts which in the first place only express a desire to find - behind all the roles and masks, beyond all contacting processes which everybody is involved in - a permanent being which will persist throughout life. From the perspective of our model however, human beings are just and only just that which they show themselves to be in exchange with the environment. According to a central understanding of Philosophical Anthropology we are only ever that which we embody, that with which we identify (Plessner, 1964). This reflects the knowledge that our human character is at once historical and culturally relative. This recognition has long been consolidated in the Human Sciences. In our context this means that any growth achieved through a contacting process can only be validated by the way it shows up in action and self-presentation in later contacting processes. This applies particularly to all learning, including psychotherapy.
We ask the question of the role of personal identity for our model as one regarding the significance of personality functions of the self in the contacting process. How does a human being experience themself as a subject which in different contacting processes remains identically the same, as having continuity?
We have already achieved a first answer: through the fact that learning experiences constitute memories. Second there is the sometimes immediate and sometimes slow realization that 1 am different from what I remember 1 had been yesterday, and yet in some sense the same. Which leads to the knowledge that 1 am somebody who has a history, who has gone through developmental processes, somebody who nevertheless is one and the same - somebody who was then like that and is today like this. The amazing discovery is always the ongoing process, one's development, one’s growth or decay. We all share the experience of gradually changing: of physically growing fast at first and then more slowly; then developing increasing competencies, our needs expanding. All these processes provide the basis for the certainty that I have continuity.
This certainty of my continuity is the assumed background of my contacts with the environment: my special competencies, my specific needs and my personal experiences together make up what we usually call personality. While something new takes shape in the foreground of an encounter between organism and environment “the continuities of personality are mainly present in the background as the basis of the Gestalt taking shape” (Latner, 1984a, p. 102). Peris & Goodman formulated a basic principle of Gestalt therapeutic personality theory, when they maintained that the healthy personality has little character (compare the considerations in Peris & Goodman, p. 144). This means that the competencies, needs and memories in the background of contacting processes are themselves fluid. It is simply not the experience of remaining the same, but the experience of change which endows me with the certainty of my continuity. Our character on the other hand can be said to be the sum of our rigid introjections.
When somebody’s character traits move into the foreground and interfere with whatever is interesting in the environment, or colour what goes on. the contacting process is disturbed; perception of the environment and access to interesting objects of need satisfaction are now limited by preconceived notions, rigid strategies and - as Wilhelm Reich showed - physical “character armour” (Reich, 1945). In this way we could say, that Robert Musil’s “Man without Properties” (Musil, 2017) is the ideal subject of contacting processes: he has many competencies, but is not fixated on certain ways of perceiving or behaving. In him, too, the certainty of his own continuity is rooted in the ever-renewed experience of change.
But the knowledge of growth and impermanence of one’s person out of which grows this sense of our own continuity is not yet sufficient for answering the question of how we experience ourselves as the identical subject of contacting processes. Here is the second answer: we know about our continuity through identifications. Apart from the memory of our former self, we have our identifications with parts of our natural and social environment which help us and others answer the question: Who are you? And we don’t use ontological definitions but define ourselves through identification with our own groups and through demarcations from others (“I'm a man like you” or “Unlike you, I’m a woman”). Identifications are of central importance, because they always already contain demarcations; while demarcations reduce the range of possible identifications, they do not fix them. Genetically, though, demarcations seem to be primary and the identifications may build upon them, for instance under the pressures of racism.
As we are using a concept of identity whose content is contingent and can no longer be distinctly defined, the focus moves to the formal level of identifying ourselves as such-and-such. The new perspective of Gestalt therapy theory was to replace our substantive and systematic concepts of the self with an understanding of the self as “active potential and resource which is capable of generating contingent aims, values, roles and identities” (it is interesting that this formulation comes from a sociologist [Gebhardt, 1975]). This contingency, however, has limits: Our identifications are always socially determined. Not only do they need affirmation by others but by definition they are socially constructed. This connection has been explicated by George Herbert Mead (1934). Mead’s famous distinction between the “I” and the “Me” anticipates the differentiation between id functions and personality functions of the self in Gestalt theory: “1” refers to the drives with which human beings are equipped - as well as our capacity for being spontaneous and being creative; “Me” at first arises as an idea of the image the other has of me, and is therefore the reflection of an internalized “significant other” (Mead, op. cit.). In identifying with the perception of the other (“taking the role of the other”) I take up their standards and values which now channel and structure the spontaneity with which the “I” seeks to satisfy their needs. But this process of taking up the other’s perspective is only to start with an undifferentiated, uncritical process of absorption. According to Hans Joas’ work on Mead’s social psychology, the most important factor is that the child is gradually confronted by different “significant others”, so that incompatible internalizations develop.
In order for any kind of consistent behaviour to be possible these internalizations will have to be synthesized into a consistent self-image. If this synthesization is successful ... Ego identity develops as a unified -as well as an open and flexible - self-valuation and action orientation, increasingly oriented towards accommodating different partners. At the same time a stable personality structure develops, which is certain about its needs.
Therefore, according to George Herbert Mead identification does not mean undifferentiated acceptance of parental models and norms as assumed by Freud's model of a Superego, but as the necessarily always new, creatively achieved outcome of the individual’s synthesizing activity. Frederick Peris - in a different context - achieved the same insight. He thought that Freud had overlooked the importance of teeth in the process of psychological development. As they grow there is no longer a need to swallow the food whole, without chewing, as is the case with babies. Analogous to chewing, Peris recognized the child’s gradually increasing capacity for critically analyzing what it absorbs intellectually. The condition of the possibility for synthesizing a range of influences coming from different significant others is firstly, then, the ability to say no, to reject, to refuse; and secondly, the ability to disassemble (de-construct) into component parts whatever has been taken in, to differentiate what fits together and what does not. Therefore, it is our reflexive and aggressive competencies which allow us to grapple with the normative expectations of others, and access, as Hans Joas has it, “the social norms of communicative exchange, where instinctual impulses can increasingly be adapted according to insight - voluntarily, because such re-orientation brings satisfaction” (Joas, op. cit.:l 17).
Essential for Mead’s theory of the personality is its dialogical character; self-valuation and action orientation, as well as clarity regarding one’s own needs, are constitutive elements of personality. They arise from the encounter between “I” and “Thou”. Over and over again in the course of life, these elements have to prove themselves flexible and capable of creative modification in relation to very different significant others - individuals as well as groups. Identifications do not arise through one-sided decision making, but stem from the dialogical structure of contacting processes between the individual and their social environment. Not only do 1 adopt the position of the other, but 1 present myself and my position towards them as well: identifications are the outcome of reciprocal processes of identification.
When and if this dialogical structure of identifications as they emerge and change is understood, we could define the personality or Ego-identity of a human being as the sum of their current identifications. Anselm Strauss pointed out quite some time ago, that:
Since the concept of the self has been used as a noun, the existence of a related entity or object is implied. But this is a wrong concept. [...] The concept of the self, if it is to be useful at all, has to be formulated as the organization of activities.
(Strauss I Gebhardt, 1975:25)
This is exactly the concept of self in Peris & Goodman - a theoretical tradition which I am following here. But then the idea of a stable Ego-identity, or personality is obsolete. The self is the contact boundary at work; it is nothing substantial but an on-going process. As such it has certain functions: id functions, ego functions and personality functions. These personality functions then can be seen as expressions of identifications achieved - the result of many successful or frustrating contacting processes. Even such results, though, are never permanent but fluid and provisional.
In this we have another piece of evidence for the self-reflexive character of the human organism: we are not just whatever has been accumulated in the experience of contacting processes. Through assuming the perspective of the other we always must affirm our being by identifying once again with what we have grown into, in order to be able to stand on our own ground: “Only by taking a detour via the other are human beings sure of themselves” (“Nur auf dem Umweg fiber andere hat sich der Mensch”: the often-repeated formulation from Philosophical Anthropology, especially H. Plessner).
Trying to answer the question “Who are you?” - which in the final analysis is unanswerable - will automatically transformed into answerable questions like “What is your name?”, “Which side you on?” or “For whom or for what do you stand?” In identifying with a role, a social position, a group, I make sure of my social anchoring - and thereby create a measure of predictability of my own behaviour and of those others who are involved in the contacting processes that I participate in. This is one of the functions of social identifications: self-reassurance through social anchoring.
The other function is the emergence of responsibility. In response to the question, “Where do you stand?”, I make myself known as the relevant subject of my actions - in responding I become responsible, and only now can I not just stand by my actions, but be answerable for them. “Personality is essentially a verbal duplicate of the self’, as Peris & Goodman succinctly express it (p. 130). We summarize what we think is relevant and interesting to know for the other and since that has to be formulated, the self now has to put itself into words. That means that human beings as personalities are completely transparent; our personality only exists in the modus of consciousness, in contrast to the self which is aware of itself mainly through sensual awareness. At the same time, personality is relatively enduring because it is the system of identifications we hold on to and which we have to hold on to when asked, when our response-ability is in demand. 1 describe myself in a particular way and become the one who is responsible and can be made accountable. And only now agreements and contracts, commitments and loyalties become a possibility. This shows that the shared constitution of a responsible subject is the indispensable condition for solidarity to function in our social world. Personality as the system of responsible identifications is the basic element of our social framework through which spontaneous contacting processes are possible - even if we sometimes step out of the frame.20
Yet contacts are only complied with, agreements will only be honoured, and loyalties only come alive in contacting processes where the driving power is real needs. Take an obvious example: couple relationships. According to the perspective I am developing here, these relationships are built on an actionmotivating expectation - that 1 will have satisfying contacting processes with this person right into the future. And of course, such expectations are often enough disappointed. In such situations loyalty helps, an attitude where I identify as part of a relationship and stand by it, especially when my needs remain unsatisfied for a while. Not only the sense that a relationship will provide mutual satisfaction in the future will be sustaining, but loyalty may grow from difficult situations, far beyond currently frustrated needs through an insight that neither partner is perfect; that nobody can satisfy all the needs of another; from the knowledge that it is worthwhile to be patient, because there still is a lot to discover in the other. Such knowledge is a personality function; to be loyal means to stick to the agreed continuity of the enterprise in order to ensure eventual success by developing greater tolerance of frustration.
But the personality functions must not take on too much of a life of their own with respect to the needs, because they might coagulate into rigid character structures which could prevent creative adjustments with new possibilities for satisfaction. Good relationships grow from satisfying contacting processes - just as organizations live through the actual contacting processes of their members. Articles, contracts, agreements and even simple loyalties provide relief from pressure in that they protect in times of crisis, and if crises occur they help to manage them better, bridging difficulties. The function of institutions is one of exoneration, as philosopher Arnold Gehlen convincingly argued in his “Man. his Nature and his Place in the World” (Gehlen, 1958).
To be a responsible subject means to stand up for each other in such situations. We are here dealing less with the moral dimension of the personality - however somebody conceives their morality - but with the moral personality functions of the self in specific contacting processes. These are spontaneously and intuitively guided by the knowledge that each and every dialogue - however fierce - needs a shared ground on which we stand and must not endanger. The rest regulates itself through spontaneous adaptation of the order of priorities of our needs to that which is necessary in view of the prevailing conditions.
The ground on which we stand now is not just the social world. The background - against which each newly discovered and created Gestalt emerges - has four dimensions in which we human beings have to anchor ourselves by individually or collectively identifying ourselves: nature, society, individuality, transcendence. Only through these background dimensions of the respective organism/environment field could we possibly describe the full breadth of our potential identifications and how we achieve them.
To summarize: we can identify ourselves
- 1 In relation to myself as nature: Through having a body, that 1 am this body; through having been born and the realization that I will die; that I have been born as a man or a woman; with the fact that I’m in need, and have needs; that my body has strengths and weaknesses, is young or old, goes through processes of illness and health.
- 2 In relation to myself as society: Through having relationships and loyalties, through having entered into obligations and having signed contracts; through belonging to specific groups; that I am involved with some and not with others; through embodying social roles and thereby having ownership of social norms and social interests.
- 3 In relation to my individuality: Through acknowledging that I am unique and that I express this through my personal style - in my gestures, my language, in my presentation, etc.; through having a specific biography and through living it. This means that I also have a unique past and a future horizon exclusive to me; through having specific characteristics and habits, some of which are virtues, some guilty pleasures; finally through the fact that I have developed a personal mode of stigma management (Goffman, 1967); and through presenting myself as a self-quoting figure in narratives (Goffman, 1974:553).
- 4 In relation to myself as source and embodiment of transcendence: That I am part of an encompassing whole, whose dimensions absolutely transcend that which is comprehensible to human beings - and which therefore push us towards humility and modesty, whether I experience this dimension as meaningless or as meaningful; and also through the fact that I am a part of the cosmos, and that especially through being a self-aware being 1, too, am an unfathomable source of creative processes.
The sequence of nature - society - individuality - transcendence contains an order corresponding to the hierarchy of needs: first come the elementary needs of survival (nature), then those related to the survival of the species and of social connectivity (society), and only then follow the needs for selfpresentation (individuality) and union (transcendence). In general, we will probably accept a person as being psychologically healthy when the basic identifications with their own nature and their own society can be achieved. But the so-called “therapy scene” nowadays offers many opportunities which go beyond these basic requirements of psychological survival. They offer personal development and transcendent experience. If the purpose of these offerings is to allow new kinds of shared experiences to people who are already capable of attending to their natural needs and are taking care of their social attachments, we can quite easily accept this phenomenon of present-day culture - new in its extent! - as enriching us. But here, too, the order of priority is often turned upside down. Whenever we do not attend first to what we need, neglecting or even despising it, something goes wrong; whenever we forget to take care of our bodies and our natural environment we endanger our existence; whenever we avoid working for our own and our fellow beings’ survival, or waste our capacities for creative adjustment and development of our culture, we miss out on the human potential with which we are all endowed.
When finally we can responsibly identify ourselves as someone who in varying situations is capable of a dialogically flexible and open response, thus participating in nature and in society; when, according to our capacities, we take part in culturally developed possibilities for expressing our personality; and when we have even learned to accept modestly our ignorance of the cosmos of which we are evidently and surprisingly a part - then perhaps we will have attained some degree of maturity. This then would not be the result of effortful striving for self-control, but the result of many valuable contacting processes turned into satisfying experiences.
- 1 For the theory of autopoetic systems see Jantsch (1975). Jantsch gives a resume of various approaches, including those that have become important for biology. They are concerned with organisms as evolving - or dissipative - systems, which are not organized according to homeostatic principles. In this way, the organism is a dissipative or autopoetic, i.e. self-referential system embedded in its respective environment. Jantsch shows the properties of systems which maintain their structure vs. evolving systems for comparative purposes. An overview of the hierarchies of the specific aspects of the system clarifies the difference between two fundamentally different classes of systems. Systems which maintain their structures are either in homeostasis or irreversibly move towards such a state. Evolving systems are far from homeostatic and evolve by an open sequence of structuring. Heik Portele (1989a:5) has shown the relevance for and connection of these models with Gestalt Therapy. Compare his book: Autonomie. Macht, Liehe (1989b).
- 2 Karl Marx developed the concept of the conditions of production. It describes the class structure arising from the distribution of capital and labour, which has developed historically in a given society. Included in the conditions of labour are the relative distribution of workers in agriculture, industry, commerce and the service sector; the way industrial disputes are conducted and the existence of hierarchies of employees and Civil Servants.
- 3 This concept from phenomenological sociology describes the factual differentiation of all conditions of a situation with regard to their significance or importance to the acting person, as soon as they focus clearly on the object of their need satisfaction or the concern of a social situation. Compare specifically: H. P. Dreitzel (1980), Chapter II, p. 3.
- 4 With regard to the concept of the self, compare part I, II in this book, as well as part V, 2 in H.P. Dreitzel (2004). Peris & Goodman differentiate between “self" as the complex system of necessary contacts which are required for adapting to a difficult field, and the three “aspects” or “structures” of the self - "id”, “ego” and "personality”, which represent the major stages of creative adaptation in the contacting process. "The id is the given background, which dissolves into its possibilities; it contains organic arousal, unresolved former situations which we become aware of, the vaguely perceived environment and the unexpressed emotions which connect the organism with the environment. The Ego is the ongoing process of identification and de-identification of possibilities, the process of increasing or decreasing the current contact. It entails physical movement, aggression, orientation and reaching out towards reality. Personality is the figure created from the self, which assimilates it to the organism, in combination with the results of earlier developments. Of course, this is nothing but the process of figure/ground itself’ (Peris & Goodman: 156-157). The most significant difference from other concepts of “ego” and “ego-identity” is that in this context the subject in its different aspects is exclusively seen as a function of the organism/environment field.
- 5 "Handling” (German: Handhabung) - is the original meaning of "manipulation” (from the Latin manus = hand), the way Peris & Goodman uses it. Manipulation of the environment here does not have the usual negative connotation of using underhand strategies and deception, but implies the process of physically and intellectually grasping what is needed to influence and adapt the natural and social environment according to need.
- 6 The fact that the model of the contacting process can do without constructing a position like the “super-ego” does not of course mean that the contacting process between organism and environment isn't normatively structured. Recognizing, adapting and taking ownership of norms and values is in fact a task of the contacting process, achieved though the core ego function of identification with other close reference figures and groups. Later however, Frederick Peris implicitly re-introduced the "super-ego” when he talked about “top dog” and "underdog”. More correctly we should here speak of introjects which are always recognisable in the organism's partial rebellion against them. For a critique of this development see the corrections in Isadore From (1984), - best summarized by Bertram Muller (1996). For orientation of behaviour to reference groups see the classical presentation by Robert K. Merton (1957).
- 7 Of course only some of the ego functions are blocked; to speak of a complete loss of ego functions would only make sense in a case of complete catatonia.
- 8 Whether psychotherapy still helps in such a situation or whether it might even contribute to hide the true conditions of their suffering from the patient - i.e. the political and economic circumstances - are questions difficult to decide. The ethos of the psychotherapist obliges them to work towards a higher level of awareness in the patient, even if that means suffering. It is important to respect the patient or client as a responsibly acting individual, and this entails acceptance of refusals. The therapist’s working hypothesis is that the client in spite of everything still has more room to manoeuvre than he/she perceives and uses. But the therapist must also be prepared to have this hypothesis rebutted, and must be careful not to generate guilt feelings in the client for not being happier.
- 9 “Willpower is the drive which awareness has lifted into the Ego sphere, which can manifest itself freely and creatively within the personality." Thus formulates Otto Rank, who taught Goodman and Peris a great deal. From: Rank (1929:28). Quoted from Mueller (1988)
- 10 The distance we have come in a very short historical sequence from “pestilential smell and flowery perfume” is shown by Alain Corbin in his book Le Miasme el la Jonquille (1988). For our sense of smell and reactions of disgust, questions pertaining to their modification in the process of civilization are particularly significant. Compare chapter IV, section 3.
- 11 For the tragic history of the late Wilhelm Reich being branded as a heretic in the USA see the biography by David Boadella (1973). In 1956 the US Food and Drug Administration demanded - and had it confirmed by the courts - that all accessible copies of sixteen works of Wilhelm Reich (including his famous “Character Analysis”, 1933) and four volumes of a journal which he had edited, were to be destroyed in a New York incinerator. Reich himself was condemned and died in prison after he had disregarded a judicial injunction against spreading the word regarding his Orgone Energy generator.
- 12 According to “Der Spiegel”, Nr. 6, Band 38, Edition 6.2.1984:24. Article: “For-schung Drittes Ange” Compare: Hess (1975).
- 13 Peris & Goodman use the term Identification and Alienation, which I think are full of unnecessary philosophical baggage. Therefore I prefer Accepting and Rejecting.
- 14 Re “common sense” compare: Clifford Geertz, Common Sense as a Cultural System, in Geertz (1973). It is part of the phenomenon of everyday knowledge that it is assumed without question. It is always naturally presupposed, it is always shared, so that it is often expressed only in hints. Since we are dealing here with cultural and sub-cultural systems, as therapists we need to know the cultural or social system of whoever we are working with. For an introduction into the issues regarding everyday knowledge - today a central term in phenomenologically oriented social research, compare Berger and Luckmann (1966).
- 15 Regarding the universality of this norm of reciprocity compare: Marcel Mauss (1966) (French original Le don 1924), and Alvin Gouldner (1960). Also see: Hans Peter Dreitzel (1980).
- 16 "What remains in the memory, the psychological ’engram’, should not therefore be thought of as an unchangeable impression becoming fainter as time goes on, like an image scored into a cobble stone. In fact the engram suffers changes according to Gestalt psychological rules” (Wulf. 1922, quoted from Hörmann, 1964). In these publications further information regarding Gestalt psychological explorations of memory function can be found.
- 17 This is very important for psychotherapy of patients who have suffered sexual abuse during their childhood. See particularly Hans Crombag & Harald Merkelbach, (1996). Generally for Gestalt therapeutic work the cognitive aspect of the material which is reproduced has less significance than the emotions which are attached to the memory, since we are concerned with working on the method of repression, of the block, in the present situation. This emphasis on the present experience of emotional memories of past experiences has another advantage: recent brain research seems to indicate more and more that auto-biographical memory is extremely unreliable. See Hans J. Markowitsch and Harald Welzer (2009).
- 18 Compare Konrad Ehlich (1980). In this volume there are some contributions from psychoanalysis to the topic of telling stories. For the expressive aspect of telling stories compare Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (1974), chapter 13 "Frame Analysis of Conversation”.
- 19 In the new body therapies, some regression techniques are used which are capable of making conscious body memories extend right back to pre-natal experience. For instance, even more impressive than Stanislav Grof’s school of Transpersonal Psychology is the technique developed by English psychiatrist Frank Lake, who uses the group to help clients remember their own birth and to re-experience it (Lake, 1986).
- 20 Erving Goffman talks about social situations whose meanings are intersubjectively constituted as “frames”, a concept he borrowed from Gregory Bateson. Frames are organizational principles of social experience; we move in social situations already meaningfully organized by everyday rituals and conventions, etc. Frames make sure that we all know what is going on or should go on, e.g. in normal conversation or therapy, teaching situations, practice, dramas, etc. Social situations therefore are meaning-frames and in them contacting processes unfold - and of course overlap and interpenetrate each other in many ways. Basic elements of such social frames are identifications of the participants as actors or audience members, as role players and even as individuals (Goffman, 1974). For “definition of the situation through role play” compare the relevant section IV, 1 in Dreitzel (1980).