Be Here Now: The Message of Gestalt Therapy
Fritz Perls is often called the “Father” of Gestalt Therapy, although he disavowed that honor. In his words, he is a “discoverer” of Gestalt, because learning is discovery. Gestalt Therapy borrows considerably in theoretical principles from the Gestalt Psychology of Kohler, Wertheimer and others. Many of the techniques used by Fritz Perls and others were originated by Moreno (who invented psychodrama). Some of the roots of Gestalt go back to Reich as well. Fritz Perls, Ralph Hefferline and Paul Goodman wrote a basic outline in 1951 of the principles of Gestalt. Perls was the major proponent and publicizer of Gestalt on the West Coast, while Laura Perls, Paul Goodman, Elliot Shapiro and others worked out of New York and Cleveland centers.
Fritz Perls was trained as a psychoanalyst, but he felt his life took a major shift with World War II. He left Europe relatively early, with no security. (Several other analysts less willing to gamble were later caught by the Nazis.) Perls cites this as a contribution to his emphasis on risk-taking: that growth involves confronting the unknown, not having pat, sure answers—no guarantees.
His earlier life included training as an actor, and Fritz loved being on stage. His style of doing Gestalt was very theatrical: geared to public demonstrations, going for dramatic impact and persuasion. He was a proselytizer. For him, Gestalt was the way. But he and others have emphasized that students must not confuse the Fritz Perls’ style with Gestalt. Styles vary from person to person, but the basic principles of Gestalt remain.
A cornerstone of Gestalt theory is the name itself. Coming from the German, a rough translation might be “figure” or “whole.” The idea is of a configuration, something MORE than a sum of its parts. Gestalt includes the relationships between parts. Change a relationship and you change the Gestalt.
Gestalt Psychology worked a lot with perception and first focused on what Kohler and others called Gestalten. For example, when we perceive, we tend to organize our perception into wholes, unified observations.
Rather than seeing four dots most of us see a square.
The same four dots also make a diamond and a “T” or a triangle.
Gestalt Therapy emphasizes that as humans, we are wholes who are more than the sum of our parts. The focus is on the person, as a whole. Gestaltists feel Behaviorists and others miss the point by looking at little bits of a person. Gestalt’s principles clearly state the whole is what is important, and cannot be understood merely by analyzing and summing up the parts.
Another principle of humans, animals and plants, as wholes, is that of organismic self-regulation. That is, organisms continually attain, lose, and regain biological balance. We are involved in a homeostatic process. Needs disturb our equilibrium. (E.g. I become aware of being hungry.) As we are gratified (e.g. by eating), balance is restored. Humans are not seen as innately good OR bad; they just are what they are.
For Fritz, self-actualization is to be all that one is. He saw a big difference between “...SELF actualizing and self-IMAGE actualizing.” (p.20 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) Or, as he said in In and Out of the Garbage Pail: “Leave this to the human—to try to be something he is not ...to be cursed with perfectionism so as to be safe from criticism, and to open the road to unending mental torture.” (There are no page numbers in In and Out of the Garbage Pail.) Fritz felt only humans and some domesticated species try to be other than what they are: “...no natural animal and no plant exists that will prevent its own growing.” (p. 30 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim)
Another basic principle of Gestalt is that organisms operate within an environment with which they are interdependent. “Every organism needs an environment with which to exchange essential substances ...air, food, ...love...” (p.5 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) The organism and the environment cannot be separated. Ego boundaries are not fixed; they flow and change. The pictures and sounds of the world do NOT enter us automatically, but rather selectively. We scan, search for, and interpret our perceptions. Perls said, “I personally believe that objectivity does not exist.” (p.13 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) He quoted Heisenberg’s Principle that observed “facts” change through being observed. We act in organizing our environments; we are not passive recipients. As Fritz pointed out in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (p.45): “Memory is an abstraction, exaggerations, projections, distortions.”
A basic quality of all organisms is assumed to be awareness. That is not a conscious knowing, but more a sensing, like being aware of gravity. Fritz felt awareness was “an aspect of all existence, organic and inorganic, along with time and space. ...He believed that all nature is bound together by a mutual sensitivity and responsiveness.” (p.18 Gestalt Therapy Book). Awareness includes being in touch with ourselves, reality and the fantasy world in between. Awareness is totally present, here an now. Reality is assumed to be partly given and partly created (like memories). The creative activity of an artist is suggested by Perls as optimum functioning of awareness: integrated, in the here and now, aware of self and the field around the self.
Disturbances in awareness are assumed to be at the root of most disturbances, problems, etc. Gestalt Therapy seeks to re-establish here and now awareness, expanding our awareness to include what was formerly excluded. (E.g. what is called repressed or inhibited parts of the personality by Freud and others) Therapy involves enrichment. Perls felt, “...THAT AWARENESS PER SE—BY AND OF ITSELF—CAN BE CURATIVE.” (p. 17 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim)
As we interact with our environment, we form “Gestalts.” A Gestalt is an emerging focus of attention and activity. Any Gestalt is a whole, a configuration. Changing any part destroys that Gestalt. Gestalts are what is meaningful to us. There is “spontaneous dominance” of what we need most urgently at this moment. That is what will naturally emerge to focus upon.
Organisms continually form and destroy gestalts. We start with the field (organisms and environment) undifferentiated. No needs are in focus; we are in a state of “creative indifference.” The balance of the field shifts. Through organismic self regulation, we begin to distinguish certain aspects of the field, depending on their importance to the needs of the organism. Polarities emerge. The polarities are then merged into a figure that includes parts of the organism and parts of the environment in a gestalt (whole) of comprehension. This leads to behavior gratifying the need, and the gestalt is destroyed. Organism-environmental balance (creative indifference) is restored. The state after satisfying one gestalt before forming another is also called Predifferentiation. Differentiation separates the field into polarities, each necessitating the other. The undifferentiated field, unity of organism and environment, is called Background or ground. The focus is the figure or gestalt.
Of course, normally gestalt formation and destruction is occurring continually. The gestalts we form may be weak or strong, graceful or forced, clear or diffuse. Split gestalts occur when we split our energies, doing more than one thing at once. Similarly, if we do something other than what we want to do right now, we form weaker, forced gestalts.
If we do not resolve a situation, we are left with an unfinished gestalt. All gestalts have an urge to close (finish up). We tie up a lot of energy by resisting the closure of certain gestalts. A part of Perls’ definitions of health included the ability to form and destroy clear, strong and appropriate gestalts.
Perls felt resentments are among the worst of unfinished situations. For him, guilt was projected resentment. He worked on getting people in touch with their resentments and the demands he felt are behind any resentment. Perls also said people need to learn (discover) their appreciations where guilt/resentment is involved. Without appreciation, said Perls, we would just let go of the person and the situation. We would not be hanging on with guilt/resentment.
Gestalt, like many theories, has its share of jargon. Some of the words I have already mentioned. More will follow. We can consider the ideas, whether or not we use the language.
In Gestalt, the organism is the self, which is all that we are—body, mind, emotions, etc. (Fritz Perls did not mention soul.) The self functions in two major styles. The Id Mode is playful, spontaneous, emotional, relaxed and passive. This is Nature left to itself—free functioning. The Id mode blends boundaries of the self with the field around us. The Ego Mode emphasizes form and structure. Here, we make distinctions and separations. The Ego Mode is active, intentional and vigorous. Both modes are assumed a part of life. Problems come when we get locked into one mode excessively or inappropriately.
The way we are in touch with ourselves and our environment is defined as Contact. Good contact is absorbed. fully engaged, “into” it. Poor contact has disinterest, fear, mental screening, walling off. Poor contact builds poor gestalts. Good contact requires support from our breathing, coordination, physiology, posture, motoric skills, orienting abilities, and language to articulate needs, responses and self knowledge. Good contact is influenced by our environment, e.g. the kind of air, love, etc. we get from our field.
There are four kinds of contact. Again, each has its appropriate use. (Just as the twelve letters of the astrological alphabet each have appropriate times and places.) Any can be unhealthy if over or under done. CONFLUENCE is usually the Id Mode. We feel similar to what we contact; our ego boundaries are permeable. E.g., feeling a part of the ocean waves. Psychotics tend to over do Confluence to an unhealthy extreme. In In and Out of the Garbage Pail, Fritz said, “Confluence is the appreciation of sameness.”
PROJECTION involves putting our existence into another. If we do it knowingly, as in art or science, it may be healthy. We abstract the field, and re-create it to fit our needs. If we think our projections are reality, as in paranoia, we are in for trouble. Unhealthy projections Fritz called “Falsification of the self by appearing to be less than one is.” in In and Out of the Garbage Pail. In other words, we give away a part of ourself to another. (As regular reader know by now, astrologers are quite prone to projection, and most clients do a lot of projecting. One of our helpful roles as astrologers is to keep in touch with our own projections, and help our clients re-own projected parts of themselves.)
INTROJECTION is rote learning or role playing, taking on behaviors and attitudes without forming gestalts. They are not us; we put on masks. This can be healthy if done as an experiment, but if we are not aware, there may be problems. Again in In and Out of the Garbage Pail, Fritz called this, “Falsification of the self by appearing to be more than one is.”
RETROFLECTION is done by the self in the Ego Mode. We discipline and control behavior in order to achieve an effect. An example is learning to play a musical instrument, through the discipline of practice. This, too, is unhealthy if we do too much of it.
The organism also has Safety Functions which can be over-done as well. One is (physical) Flight. Another is Desensitization (psychic flight). Regression is a third, which Perls defines as a reorganization of the organism/environment field so we can cope with it. Or, in In and Out of the Garbage Pail, “Falsification of one’s self by appearing to be less than one is.” Dreams are also a safety function. They work off some of the energy tied up in unfinished gestalts. Hallucinations and delusions carry that same function.
Any safety or contact function is unhealthy when inappropriate. Many disorders arise in childhood. For what seemed good reasons at that time, we went into flight, withdrawal, hallucinations, etc., and stayed there. Even though circumstances have changed, we cling to old patterns. We are no longer in touch with ourselves or our environment.
Fritz emphasized that all these have in common avoidance, or a flight from. “People are afraid of even a little pain. Instead of listening, they take away their attention when in pain.” (p. 56 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) And, “...roughly 90% don’t go to a therapist to be cured, but to be more adequate in their neurosis.” (p.79 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) Perls felt, in his In and Out of the Garbage Pail:
“I call neurotic any man who uses his potential to manipulate the others instead of growing up himself.”
Fritz often said what he did was “skillful frustration.” When we are frustrated, we can look to ourselves or others to meet our needs. For Fritz, part of maturity was, “...transcendence from environmental support to self support.”(p. 30 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) Gestalt Therapy’s aim was to help a person discover how much more s/he can do than s/he thinks is possible. According to Fritz, people live at about 5% to 15% of their potential, playing the same “clichéd” roles and patterns over and over again. (p. 31 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim)
Fritz frustrated clients by focusing on what they avoided. He said the function of a therapist is to help you to awareness of here and now, and frustrate your attempts to leave it. (p. 79 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) He was big on re-owning projected parts. On page 72 of Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, “I suggest we start with the impossible assumption that whatever we believe we see in another person or in the world is nothing but a projection.” And, Fritz emphasized, “...how much you gain by taking responsibility for every emotion, every movement, every thought you have—and shedding responsibility for ANYBODY else.” (p. 69 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim)
According to Fritz, we all have “holes”—missing parts of our personality. We project these onto a therapist. A good therapist frustrates the client until s/he discovers that s/he can do for him/herself what s/he expects from the therapist. Avoidance is a symptom of a hole, and it helps to have someone else see what we are avoiding. A therapist frustrates us until we face our blocks and inhibitions.
Our blocks lead to an impasse: feeling stuck, afraid, confused. The impasse is mainly fantasy: “a distortion of observable reality” according to Fritz in In and Out of the Garbage Pail, “The neurotic is incapable of seeing the obvious; he has lost his senses.” We have catastrophic expectations which we use to stop ourselves from being. “The insanity is that we take the fantasy for real.” said Fritz on p. 43, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. He pointed our in In and Out of the Garbage Pail: “If we don’t check out our catastrophic fantasies, we become afraid to take even reasonable risks. If we don’t check out our anastrophic fantasies, we become reckless and don’t take reasonable precautions.”
Our fantasies keep energy tied up and excitement down. Excitement animates the organism. It is energy on the physiological and experiential levels, a feeling of being alive. Excitement converts to various emotions. If fully experienced and transformed, we have closure. If merely discharged, we have exhaustion.
Our life energy goes only into those parts of our personality with which we identify. Identification is whatever is inside our ego boundary. Generally, love, cooperation, and cohesion are felt within, while suspicion, strangeness and unfamiliarity are felt without. If there is a boundary question, there is a conflict. While Fritz felt it is “...probably not possible to live without boundaries,” he felt “...the closer the boundary defenses, the more likely wars and hostilities.” (p. 12 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) Anxiety was a kind of boundary issue. Fritz called it the tension between now and later. We hold onto sameness to prevent the future we fear. Anxiety bottles up excitement and diminishes our vitality. When we are in the now, we cannot worry about the future, and have no anxiety. Excitement goes into activity.
For Fritz, health included, “an appropriate balance of the coordination of all of what we ARE.” (p. 6 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) With alienation, we split off, disown, exclude parts of ourselves. Pathology is not being totally yourself. Fritz felt there was often a problem accepting polarities, e.g. loving and hating aspects of the same person. So we deny. He felt if we are truly centered, “...we see two poles to everything.” (p. 18 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) An example of polarities is Fritz’s top dog (righteous, bullying, authoritarian, demanding) vs. underdog (apologetic, wheedling, manipulative).
Often, there is a clash between our social existence (roles we play) and our biological existence (staying alive). Confusion ensues. If we stay with the confusion, Fritz felt, it will sort itself out. Emergent, unfinished situations come to the surface to be finished. Often when society demands certain things of us, we fall into catastrophic expectations. Fritz said in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (p.32): “...the basic personality in our time is a neurotic personality ...we are living in an insane society.”
Fritz felt people play two major intellectual games: 1)”Comparing” or “more than” and 2) “Fitting” or “adapting to.” (p.63 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) He saw neurosis as a “growth disorder” or “disturbance in development.” (p.30, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) We stop ourselves. Fritz felt explaining neurosis was useless. Focusing on “why” leads “only to rationalization” (p.47, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim), while focusing on “how” allows the person room to change. Fritz said, “Intuition in the intelligence of the organism. Intelligence is the whole, and the intellect is the whore of intelligence.” (p.24, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) Figuring things out often stops people from seeing and hearing what is going on. Thus came Fritz’s famous: “Lose your ‘mind,’ and come to your senses.” and “Thinking is rehearsing.” (In and Out of the Garbage Pail)
Fritz did list five layers to neurosis, although he was quick to say that his thinking changed continually, and explanations do not help one understand. Layer One was the Cliché Layer of stereotyped behaviors, such as the “Good Morning” ritual. Layer Two was the “Eric Berne or Sigmund Freud Layer” where we play games and roles, act as if, the synthetic, social layer. Layer Three was the Implosion layer, a paralysis of opposing forces. We fear death, destruction if we leave the known path. Layer Four is the Impasse and Explosion Layer. The impasse is a crucial point in therapy and growth. Environmental support is not there, or no longer there, and authentic self support has not yet begun. We feel blocked, stuck. There are four kinds of explosions Fritz lists: into grief, orgasm, anger, or joy/laughter. The Fifth Layer is Authenticity or maturity, or responsibility.
Fritz felt that at the impasse, people get confused and do not look at what is going on. The therapist’s function is to frustrate the person until s/he faces the situation. For Perls, an absolutely healthy person is in touch with him/herself and with reality. Reality was defined by Fritz as “awareness of ongoing experience,” seeing, moving, doing. (p. 50, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim)
For Fritz, that meant that “Gestalt Therapy is being in touch with the obvious.” (p.58 Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) A lot of the “obvious” was portrayed in subtle body language and voice cues. Fritz said, in In and Out of the Garbage Pail, “Your words lie and persuade but the sound is true—poison or nourishment.” and “You don’t lie to me with your movements, your posture, your behavior, your voice.” His emphasis was on HOW, not WHY, describing processes in the now, including with context.
Fritz used many tools and techniques in his therapy, but the major focus was always on awareness. Some of the techniques now associated with Gestalt, e.g. the two chair technique for dialoguing with polarities, Perls borrowed from Moreno, the originator of psychodrama. But Fritz popularized them more widely. Perls was open to focusing exercises and other techniques to increase awareness. He felt clichés and patterns keep us locked in and encouraged trying out and inventing new behaviors. Polarities were of major importance to Fritz, and he would have people alternate between (e.g. here and now vs. there and then) or have a dialogue (e.g. top dog vs. underdog). One tool for getting in touch with polarities, and increasing awareness in general, was exaggeration. Exaggerating an emotion, or a gesture, or a movement often helps one define one end of a polarity.
Part of the focus in therapy is finishing old gestalts which tie up energy and excitement. Developing discrimination (what one is and what one is not) is important. Fritz was a very strong believer in personal responsibility. He emphasized naming the “it” we use in language as a taking of responsibility. He encouraged the usage of more “I” and fewer “you” statements as developing responsibility. “Each time you change an IT or a NOUN to an I or a VERB, you get, let’s say, a ten thousandth of your potential back. Don’t make a perfectionistic program out of it!” (p.76, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim)
Fritz often turned questions back on the questioner. “Question mark is the hook of a demand. Every time you refuse to answer a question, you help that person to develop his own resources. Learning is nothing but discovery that something is possible.” (p. 38, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim). And, also on that page: “All the answers are given. Most questions are simply inventions to torture ourselves and other people. The way to develop our own intelligence is by changing every question into a statement.”
Fritz also pushed discrimination between what he called thinking, feeling, and imagining. Thinking is purely intellectual and can be checked out in OBSERVABLE reality: e.g. “I think it’s sunny outside.” Feelings occur in the body, e.g. “I have an ache in my knee.” Imagining is judgments, theories about ourselves or others that are not directly verifiable by observation, e.g. “I imagine you like (or don’t like) me.” Too often, we confuse imagining (fantasy) with thinking (reality based). Fritz was aware that Gestalt Therapy, and all theories and hypotheses were “fantasies of models about how the world functions.” (In and Out of the Garbage Pail)
Gestalt therapists watch the flow of energy in a person, especially in the eyes, mouth, posture, small tics, movements, etc. Gestaltists teach clients to support themselves through breath, posture, etc. The emphasis is always on the client maturing to self support, not just “helping.” Fritz was often cruel and caustic, and felt too many people play sweet and “help” in a way that hinders growth. “Helpers are con-men who promise something for nothing, spoil you and keep you dependent.” (In and Out of the Garbage Pail) Fritz was rather strongly anti dependency. We see his emphasis on personal responsibility and not being dependent in his famous Gestalt Prayer:
“I do my thing, and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
And if by chance, we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.”
(Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, unnumbered first page)
Fritz also worked extensively with dreams. He said, “The existence, and the problems of existence, in my opinion are most clearly indicated in dreams.” He called dreams “the royal road to integration” and emphasized that they are “the most spontaneous production we have.” His basic belief was “...all the different parts of the dream are fragments of our personality.” (All quotes from p. 71, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim)
Gestalt dream analysis involves first re-living the dream, as if it were happening right now. The dreamer acts out the dream in the present. The dreamer then becomes every part of that dream —every thing, every person, every mood, etc. S/he can then dialogue between opposing parts. It helps to have someone with us, particularly to notice what we avoid, but that person must not be too “helpful.” Dreamers need to find their own meaning and pattern. Fritz said, (p. 80, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim) “...in a dream, we have a clear, existential message of what’s missing in our lives, what we avoid doing and living and we have plenty of material to re-assimilate and re-own the alienated parts of ourselves.”
In summary, with Gestalt Therapy, health involves integration, being one with our capabilities. Health includes satisfactory formation and destruction of strong, clear gestalts. We are in touch with what we are and what we are not; with our selves and our field (reality). We are aware of the world without us, the world within us, and the fantasy in between. We live in the present. In illness, we are out of touch with ourselves and/or reality. Therapy involves restoring awareness.
I think Gestalt Therapy has much to offer the astrologer. Astrology and Gestalt both emphasize polarities. I find an emphasis on personal responsibility fundamental in my work, and believe it is a major “hole” in the approach of many traditional astrologers. The theme of integration and the fact that each of us is much more than the sum of our parts is also essential. The concept of organismic self regulation could help a lot of people to ease up the pressures they put on themselves and others, as well as Fritz’s warning against perfectionism. The idea of unfinished gestalts pushing for closure integrates easily with astrology. Various themes are repeated in charts. E.g., issues with mother in one chart will be faced again in a partner, or in a child, etc.
Recognizing how much of our world (memories, etc.) is created can be quite growthful. I like that Fritz called Gestalt a “fantasy” just like any other theory and his recognition that therapists often “externalize their difficulties and work them out there in other people rather than in themselves.” (In and Out of the Garbage Pail) So do many astrologers. Periodic reminders of the differences between thinking, feeling and imagining can only help.
Perls’ emphasis on awareness and all the tools and techniques for aiding awareness can be useful to the astrologer with self as well as clients. There is no need to depend on the chart alone for our data. Clients and our own process give us many valuable clues.
With my strong Uranian focus, I like Fritz’s call for experimentation and going beyond old patterns. His push for independence and self- reliance is also appealing. And yet, I feel a major “hole” in Gestalt (as practiced by Fritz) is the quality of Confluence. Fritz did not recognize the spiritual side of life and I think he over-emphasized the separateness of human beings. I believe a strong sense of the connectedness and inter-dependence of humanity would have enriched Gestalt.
Fritz was a compelling person; one could not ignore him. He was alive, often feisty, sometimes cruel, but pushing for life and growth. Like all of us, he had his shortcomings, but he had a powerful impact on many, and his ideas are still impacting many. I believe Gestalt is worth experiencing. In many ways, it is the polarity, the missing half, to old fashioned arm chair astrology which eschews personal responsibility. A good dose of Gestalt would enrich clients and astrologer. Then, we can truly have what Joel Latner envisions in The Gestalt Therapy Book:
“Therapy is the process of learning to embrace ourself. In it, we try to replace our dreams and fantasies of living with total organismic functioning. To do that, we begin by embracing our present situation, difficult as that may be. In therapy, we face the facts of our lives that we have hidden from ourself. The task is to help us accept ourself.”
“As therapy unifies us, it frees the jailer and the prisoner. It releases the energy contained by all the parties to the conflicts within us, energy that can be used in our lives. We have been our own oppressors, and the excitement of our spontaneous self has been locked into immobility or artifice by our fear. Therapy brings us back to life again.” (p.155)
1. Latner, Joel, PhD, The Gestalt Therapy Book, New York, Bantam, 1974.
2. Perls, Frederick S., M.D., PhD, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, New York, Bantam, 1974.
3. Perls, Frederick S., M.D., PhD, In and Out of the Garbage Pail, Lafayette, CA, Real People Press, 1969.
4. Perls, Frederick S., M.D., PhD, Ralph Hefferline and Paul Goodman, Gestalt Therapy, New York, Dell Publishing Co., 1951.