The book you have in front of you arrives at the right time. On a scale as never before, the citizens of the world are waking up to how much they are interdependent and interconnected. Changes at a global level affect every single person – the climate, international banking practices, or the despoliation of our planet: all of us are implicated. While the human population is nowhere near acting as a truly international community, there is an expanding sense of common participation; people regard the planet in smaller, more finite terms, and issues of concern are looked at more and more from a global vantage point. At times of natural disasters or major world events, people around the planet become transfixed by the same visual images. At these times our interconnectedness as a species seems palpable, an experienced togetherness of millions. And on a daily basis, aided by new technology, communicating across the globe increases exponentially. These developments add poignancy to the reflections of this book.
For most people it is a step too far to insist (as Buddhists have for centuries) that our sense of interconnection has to embrace all beings, not just other human ones, but there is a discernible shift even here, as human beings come to terms with their place in the web of life on which our species depends for its survival; and also how akin to that of other primates’ is much of our behaviour – including our capacities for selfishness, cooperation, and love. With Armageddon possibilities surfacing more publicly, there is enhanced interest in human beings’ evolutionary inheritance – and potential. Kinship networks, roaming groups of hunter-gatherers, and the emergence of permanent settlements all had evolutionary advantages: humans congregated and communicated through language and imitated one another (Dunbar, 2004). At the same time, it seems, even with such early community-building, the joining together impulse had its ‘us and them’ dynamics – with ‘out groups’ needing to be kept at arm’s length. However, the relational impulse of humans was paramount, leading to organized collaboration, trading, village-building, and intermarrying (thereby expanding the gene pool and the transmission of expertise). In the present era, with common threats to survival, there is genuine uncertainty whether planet-wide collective responses will disappear under a surfeit of competitive localism – that can only hasten our possible extinction; or whether, under the pressure of circumstances, some fundamental shift (or ‘Great Turning’, Korten, 2006), will come about, heralding a life-sustaining whole Earth community. Without question, on the biggest human stage of all, investigating the potential for community-mindedness is key.
These big questions of our era need many inputs and contributions. This book is one of them, with reports of experiences offering insights that extend far beyond the boundaries of the book, providing much scope for the thoughtful reader to go further. It offers privileged and succinct access to various experiments in community; there is a series of reflective accounts, concerning how human beings live out their shared, collective existence. Most (but not all) of the examples are drawn from a small subset of communities, ones connected with gestalt therapy. The case studies and descriptions may be ‘local’ and specific, but they describe recognisable realities with general implications of significance.
The arrival of this book is also notable for gestalt therapy. In his wide-ranging introduction, Brian O’Neill describes how far gestalt therapy has moved away from the hyper-individualistic stance of its early years. The times have changed, and gestalt therapy has changed – or, rather, gestalt therapists have – in the direction of more fully embracing what our theory has always stood for, that human beings are inseparable from the context, culture, environment, or medium in which they live. Even though standing alone may seem our experience at times, we are never actually ‘stand-alone individuals’ for we unavoidably form part of a greater whole, in fact of a great many different wholes, as most of us belong to numerous mini-communities, networks, and assemblies of one kind or another. The hyper-individualism has been superseded but the literature of gestalt therapy, for all its talk of contact and (later) dialogue, has still relatively little on issues of the communal. Overwhelmingly, the focus has been the one-to-one rather than the group, two people in a room rather than a dozen, with small group life favoured over the larger collective. Moving beyond the dynamics of small groups, to consider wider and bigger systems and even larger communities of people is rare, despite our founding group having two in particular – Paul Goodman and Elliott Shapiro – who always saw individuals first as participants within a shared, social, and communal world. There are, of course, distinguished exceptions – I think of practitioner-theorists like Lichtenberg (1994/2002), Houston (1993), and Nevis (1987) in the English-speaking countries – who have not been so confined. And now, of course, there are a numerous practitioners working in organizations who are drawing upon gestalt therapy thinking – and where issues that arise may cross over into other settings of human collaborating.
Ideally, this publication should also be demonstrating to the world of psychotherapy (and beyond), that gestalt therapists are in the vanguard of enlightened practice when it comes to managing and resolving conflict, not only in tiny groups but in ways that affect whole communities, but regretfully, I do not think we are. However, as in many other ways, I believe this well-produced book will ‘stir the pot’, as well as continue a publishing trend. I regard it as a worthy companion volume to The Bridge: Dialogues Across Cultures (Bar-Yoseph, 2005), that covers neighbouring territory.
I see my main purpose here as commending Community, Psychotherapy and Life Focus to readers, while also framing it in a wider context that I believe it merits. In addition, I will include some of my own thoughts and experience, thus joining with the other writers.
In my view, this book is an invitation to explore together – with some humility given our past bias – issues of communal life, especially the phenomena of experiencing togetherness; of affiliation (‘connection to a branch of the whole’, says my dictionary); and of what Erv Polster calls ‘creating an enchantment’. He continues as follows: ‘Enchantment is a strong word but I think it is important to recognize the exceptional charge created by satisfying the human tropism to the deep communal experience’.
So what do gestalt therapists have to say about these matters, about communal experience? We have to start with ourselves, home and also home truths.
Imagine a visiting anthropologist investigating gestalt therapy training communities and institutes, from the beginning up to the present time. She carries out interviews and periods of observation, in the process becoming both confused and intrigued, assailed by powerful contrasts. Without question, there is abundant evidence – a number of examples appear here – of vibrant, satisfying community life under the aegis of gestalt therapy. There are organizations and groups in which people have eagerly participated, excited by their learning and by undergoing transformative group experiences. Clearly something arises between and among participants that is benign, lively, and healthy, and it happens at a collective, shared level. Overall (the observer might conclude) there is some valuable knowledge here – at the core of the gestalt therapy approach – about how to organize a community and promote productive togetherness, even ways to ‘enchantment’.
A second impression is different. The anthropologist examines the record of gestalt therapy organizations, communities, and collective endeavours and finds it patchy, to be polite. Those in the present still contend with the fall-out from past splits, rivalries, and professional divorces along the historic path. Feuding and distancing began almost as soon as Perls et al (1951/1994) was published and the New York Institute established. The tension between Fritz and Laura Perls mutated into ‘West and East Coast’ controversies. Also, in the early era, a culture came about in which seeking consensus was dis-allowed as evidence of the despised confluence; teachers could teach what they liked on the grounds that any other arrangement would be oppressive or hierarchical; and absence of organization and careless management styles could always be justified as fulfilling an anarchistic agenda. The anthropologist might conclude, on this second basis, that gestalt therapy was communally deficient, showing inability of its members to work together in a sustained way to fulfil a common purpose. In fact, she might surmise, the approach’s apparent lack of coherence and organized collaboration could explain its inability to project itself more effectively in the wider world.
At this point, I and others would be hastening to explain to the anthropologist how big a shift has taken place over the last 15-20 years, in terms of the culture of gestalt therapy. We would point to the now respectful interchanges, in frequent international conversations and conferences, through journals, as well as in joint ventures such as this one. This book grows in fertile ground – a product of the overall vital and friendly professional contact that reflects gestalt therapy today. Only sometimes does one encounter signs of earlier patterns. Overall, the anthropologist might not be convinced by our explanations; she might still find the big picture of gestalt therapy contains contradictions, putting in doubt its qualifications to understand community.
In this case I might venture a follow-up comment to the anthropologist, giving more of the background story of gestalt therapy and its development (see Bowman, 2005). I might point out, first, that with an array of doctrinal and practical influences brought together in the original synthesis, there was no way a simple, uniform, or coherent picture was likely to emerge. The integrating of its different principles, methods, and traditions has never been seamless and complete; lively disagreements continue to this day. Second, I would need her to understand that gestalt therapists – heirs to anarchistic thought – have been historically cautious, even suspicious, of ‘organized togetherness’: seeing it as often unnecessary (people self-organize themselves to gather with others when they need to); or as hierarchical (with anti-democratic and possibly oppressive tendencies); or as bureaucratic (thereby becoming insensitive to unique situations and individual needs). Also, of course, in the folk memory lies the spectre of the Nazi manipulation of ‘togetherness’, from which Friedrich and Lore Perls fled to save their lives. It is not surprising that gestalt therapy specialists have veered away from anything that might suggest the need for a conformity of view. Instead they have emphasised the plus factors of a fair degree of dissonance and paradox, with productive confusion and conflict supporting creativity and vital process. Vigorous argument and divisions of opinion have not been discouraged – indeed, they were present right from the beginning, when members of the original New York group ‘hammered’ each other on a regular basis (Shapiro, in Wysong, 1985). But in the necessary balancing of individuality and communality – both of which, in fact, gestalt therapists know a lot about – the strength of such an individualist orientation has sometimes meant that less emphasis has been given to deliberate community concerns, such as promoting smoothly run institutions and fostering sustainable collegial relations. Of course, an extreme emphasis on individuality does not indicate an inability to engage with community as such, in that the surface disagreements do not wipe out the underlying unity of shared commitment and belonging. However, looking back there was undoubtedly some polarisation, inclining towards discord rather than concord, differentiation preferred to confluent merging. This is not a complete picture, as we shall see, but it might help the visitor to be less confused about the contrasts she discovered.
My third point, in this imaginary dialogue with the anthropologist, would be simply that gestalt therapists and teachers are not set apart; they do not claim to be immune to the pathologies of human relationships. Specialised knowledge is no guarantee of enlightened action: just as bankers and economists can know the theories and yet still wreck the financial system, so can specialists in contact and dialogue sometimes get things radically wrong, especially – a field theory point – if the surrounding sub-culture has had an emphasis on enhancing individual difference, rather than seeking collaboration and consensus as the norm.
This long diversion into imaginary conversation with an external viewer touches on themes I want to come back to; it also points to – and explains – a discernible bias in the book. Examples of failure, of breaking up (or breakdown) of communities, of poor collaboration and the frequent pathology encountered in organizations, do not seem to make much of an appearance here. We know they occur, and not infrequently. Yet authors veer mostly in an upbeat direction, pointing to best practice, successful enterprises, and visions of the possible. I think this bias is very understandable: the former polarisation is under correction, as it were, with gestalt therapists choosing to address the pole that has been avoided, and eager to show they also know a lot about community; they have been discovering for themselves the advantages and pleasures of greater connection with their professional peers; and this is a first compilation of its kind – and is itself a collaborative achievement. If the pendulum has swung towards the communal end, it is neither surprising nor a major problem. A second book may one day redress any imbalance in this one.
My own sense is that a great strength of gestalt therapy is its thinking about polarities, and the need to acknowledge both poles and hold the contrasts within a single overarching view. Enthusiasm for a range of English words with the prefix ‘co-’ – like cooperation, co-creation, coexistence – needs to be tempered with acknowledgement of words beginning with ‘dis’ – such as disaffection, distancing, and disagreement. As strong as the forces are that attract or propel people into groupings (communities, teams, associations of all kinds) – that is, in the direction of flowing together or ‘confluence’ in gestalt therapy jargon – there are also powerful opposing tendencies: to stay out, decline to join, or leave (the pole of ‘isolation’ in gestalt therapy terms). Breaking with either/or thinking, we can recognise the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, for both ‘co-’ and ‘dis’ type preferences – at different times and according to the situation or moment. Joining together and the ‘human tropism to the deep communal experience’ (in Polster’s words), does not exclude the right to ‘do one’s own thing’, nor does it automatically pathologise someone’s fear of being ‘submerged’. An emphasis on the need to gather, share, and above all to belong, does not mean that the need for private space, times of solitude, and necessary withdrawal from others, is wiped out. Without due attention to the latter range of human experiences as well as to the former, there could be a danger of drifting into being over-idealistic about the potential for community, a word with a high ‘feel-good factor’ in English-speaking countries, (their having leant so far towards economic and social priorities inimical to community-mindedness).
I may seem here to be swimming in the opposite direction from the mainstream of the book. This is not my intention. I simply want to acknowledge that there is an inevitable opposite pole to the wish to join together; and that in practically supporting communities it is necessary to explore the anti-community tendencies, the pulling apart as well as the coming together energies. This reminder of actual practice brings me to a significant question – ‘does contemporary gestalt therapy have a distinctive contribution to offer, in the matter of serving the needs of communities?’ And if the answer is ‘yes’, what is it?
In the accounts that follow, the contributors are laying the groundwork for addressing practice issues, and there is much more to be worked out. As I wrote earlier, this book is an opening to further inquiry. Having posed my own significant question, I feel duty bound to attempt answers, using the remainder of this ‘fore-contact’ portion of the book to reflect on my own experience, drawing on examples wherever I can.
Over the last few years, before retiring from a lot of my work, I ran mainly long term, stable membership groups. After reading the contents of this book, I wondered whether or not they could accurately be described as ‘life-focus communities’, and decided they probably could be. I also looked up basic ideas about community, an idea and concept already much studied by social theorists (e.g. Smith, 2001). The word itself has multiple meanings and associations, of course, but some appear in any list. Think ‘community’ and words and phrases like solidarity, shared purpose, fellowship, and sense of belonging come to mind. To qualify as a community, there needs to be evidence of some deliberate gathering together, or membership in common, or another similarity and adherence which is shared and felt collectively. A sense of community (which is felt in the body as an experience of field, Parlett, 2008) can arise in a whole variety of ways, for instance, as a result of living in the same village, or by playing in a team together, or through membership of a club, church, street gang, and so on (and including aligning oneself with others in a school of therapy). Internet-based social networks and diverse groups of the population (for example, farmers, gays, Asians) can also become – and feel like – communities, as a result of social movements or of new technology arriving, or through experiencing discrimination, or sometimes to build solidarity for political purposes.
Communities come in countless different forms, but they have two intrinsic aspects: first, a common identification or area of similarity that binds its members together (e.g. gestalt practitioners); second, a boundary around the collective that both ‘contains’ it and demarcates or sets it apart from those outside it (e.g. practitioners with no connection to gestalt therapy). The parallels with the concept of contact boundary (Perls et al., 1951/1994) are obvious, as is the idea that inclusion in a group or community requires identifying with its purpose and project, thus excluding – or alienating – other possibilities (ibid). The two activities are joined as two sides of the same coin.
Communities are very diverse. Some are short-lived, others continue for generations; their boundaries can be porous or impermeable (or both at different times); and while some generate loyalty and passionate commitment, others never seem to gather steam and fizzle out quickly. Given a broad enough definition of what a community is, we can all identify a great number that we have belonged to, or still do. In the process, I imagine readers have accumulated (as I have) a bank of experiential understanding, a kind of informal catalogue of the countless diverse ways in which people gather, participate, and take up positions and roles. We can notice fellow participants fluctuating in their degree of involvement, or being undecided between leaving or staying. Also, we have probably witnessed how an assembled group or collective can disintegrate as a grouping through unresolved conflict (sometimes leaving a residue of bitterness, or alternatively shrugs all round, a laugh, and goodbye handshakes). My point is that community life, in all its complexity and diversity, shows evidence not only of coming together, but also of wanting to pull apart (an entropic process). In all, there is something precarious and amazing about building community and then maintaining it.
As I consider the groups I led, I realise how precarious they were, despite apparent solidarity, and how effort had to be expended – an anti-entropic process – to ensure that the ‘coming together tropism’ was supported.
I first had to attract people to join. This was not difficult – there were many interested punters. The individuals (mainly practising psychotherapists) who became members of my long-term groups usually had good memories of the developmental possibilities they had experienced in earlier therapy or training groups, and wished to rekindle the experience of group life. They wanted a context in which they could address issues of living life in their middle years, and to do this among peers – companions who had already trodden the therapy ‘path’ and who were not beginners. I called them ‘post-therapy’ therapy groups and in one publicity announcement wrote as follows:
There are obviously many reasons for a ‘post-therapy’ therapy group: a) No-one is immune from difficult times, or life changes, that knock one off-balance; b) Therapy is never ‘complete’ in that old, regressive patterns can still be re-triggered by newly encountered field conditions; c) Most people need regular reminders to ‘re-member’ their most evolved ways; d) The more we know, the more we do not know.
In each group I described what I had in mind in some detail, establishing an outline framework, and what my intentions were. In an earlier era I had experimented with much looser and less pre-structured groups, and found that levels of fear and mistrust at the beginning of a group’s life slowed its subsequent development, as did changes in personnel and uncertain attendance. I learned that greater attention paid to support at the beginning led to a far richer and more risk-taking group culture later. The extra attention to detail and to initial framing helped establish a culture that could tolerate the ups and downs of community life – the fights and times of confusion as well as the moments of magic mutuality or enchantment. Given the proven power of early support, I became more ambitious in my outlook. One of the (later) groups had the following as part of its pre-description:
Central themes in this group will be learning and practising emotional self-care and self-therapy; embodying and creative expression; engaging with Gestalt as a discipline or life-practice; supporting one another through life changes, crises, and dilemmas arising in the course of living-in-the-world over a two year period; and engaging more consciously with political, spiritual, existential, and ecological questions in a deeply troubled world. I envisage that the group will be a crucible of change and exploration at the edge, and through its very existence and life, serve as a vehicle for wider field change.
Although I had the same broad intentions, the way in which each of the groups developed was unique; the atmosphere and style of each one showed subtle but consistent differences from others (for instance, in the amount and types of humour the group allowed itself and in the time it took to reach decisions).
The structural features of the groups, as with most communities, provided stability. While arrangements and procedures were never identical, all five groups (of this kind) that I ran had stable membership lasting years, with 8 - 12 members at a time (mostly 10); a high level of commitment was required, with groups meeting three or four times a year for 2-3 days each time; and there was both peer and financial pressure to attend every meeting. There was also – in all but one of the groups – an arduous application procedure and selection was not guaranteed; I sought diversity and also a balance in terms of gender. The groups usually took place in a shared residential setting where eating together and sleeping under the same roof both played a significant part in creating a ‘community-like’ experience that was different from ‘just a therapy group’ where people came for two or three hours, then went. Getting feedback from members (sometimes requested and more often given anyway), suggested over and over again that the continuities (e.g. unchanging membership), structures (e.g. having fixed hours of group sessions), and boundaries (e.g. discouraging gossiping), as well as the longevity of the group, were all contributory in establishing a ‘safe container’ or stable base. This outcome might be expected, though it is not always achieved.
To my ‘significant question’ about what gestalt therapy has distinctively to offer communities, there is one immediate answer: adopting – and living – a field perspective (Parlett, 2005; O’Neill, 2008). I consider what I was doing to be supporting the development of a particular ‘experiential field’ in each of my groups, as advocated by Kepner (2003). In an under-appreciated paper, he makes this telling point:
“The core of what is healing in the Gestalt approach is our contextual, relational and experiential orientation to create the experiential conditions that make for growth.... This notion of creating fields of experience is perhaps the most significant contribution of Gestalt therapy to the pragmatics of psychotherapy and understanding human experience, yet it is virtually an undeveloped concept in our approach.” (ibid., p. 8, italics in original)
James Kepner is suggesting that the gestalt practitioner is, with awareness, ‘creatively generating conditions and situations where experience can be explored and learned from’. Kepner defines the term ‘experiential field’ very carefully, as ‘the contextual, interactive, energetic and interpersonal environment that supports a particular way of experiencing’, a definition which deliberately integrates ‘both subjective experience and objective frames of reference to understand how we create O/E [organism/environment] conditions which effect personal experience’(ibid.).
Kepner is not suggesting planning or programming, and any move to do so contradicts another field theory principle, (that of contemporaneity, Parlett, (1991)). But I entered into the formation of each group holding an overall intention or value cum concept, namely, to assist the creation of an experiential field in Kepner’s terms; what I wanted was for the experience to be personally liberating and supportive of both the group’s and individual members’ discoveries, experiments, and changes. From previous experience, I knew that the group would evolve in ways more (or less) inimical to this general intention, regardless of what I intended, but that did not mean some laissez-faire or chaotic beginning choices on my part. The Lewinian insight that the ‘need organizes the field’ (Parlett, 1991), means one begins with anticipating needs of the collective, including those of the facilitator or leader, ahead of the group’s coming into being; and then allows, when the group is underway and has acquired a ‘life of its own’, ample opportunities for reflection with its members about how it continues to evolve as a co-created experiential field. What needs, experiences, and qualities of engagement does the field now support or, on the other hand, deny, inhibit or inadvertently discourage?
My experience, again and again, confirmed the importance of one principle that I often endorsed (this is taken from another pre-description):
I see my role as helping the group to evolve into a safe enough place for experimentation and adventure. I believe strongly that unless people feel very well supported they cannot take the risks of profound personal change, and that everyone [also] has to take risks in order to create a high level of safety in the group.
This attention to support – ‘that which enables’, (Jacobs, 2006) – is another key element. It includes working to maintain an appropriate level of ‘safety’, (in the currency of group members’ descriptions). Safety comes from maintaining some sense of the familiar and the predictable – a desirable cause but which, if overdone, can slip into deadening the very spirit of adventure which enlivens the collective experience. My sense of some communities is that they seek adventure but have too flimsy a base of shared security to integrate what happens; others hedge themselves in with regulation and fail to take essential risks to achieve satisfaction. Part of a field theory outlook is to be aware of the balances to be found, the many kinds of equilibrium, and the productive and unproductive departures from what is unfolding as strong figure. In its multiple calls for attention, sailing a boat is analogous.
Related is the field theory principle that priority be given to dealing with the present situation as it evolves, tracking the process through, (perhaps to some completion or to an aware acceptance of something not being completed). The organization of the field changes all the time, as does dealing with the ‘what is’ – the experiences of participants that are arising, severally and together. It provides an endlessly arresting and fascinating task that poses recognisable dilemmas for those who work with groups a lot (see, for example, Harris, 2001).
In the groups I set up, participants’ reported experiences, singular of course in their nature, often stimulated others – thereby becoming material for the whole group’s attention. The shared purpose, the basis for meeting as a community, was interest in personal development. However, there was appreciation that the evolving group experience was critical for what was possible for and between individuals. Over time, we established ground rules – that further helped to structure the experiential field and also legitimise freedom ‘to be oneself’. One permission was that anyone could speak up at any time, including ‘butting in’, especially with reports of bodily responses to what another was saying. The value of such immediacy was demonstrated over and over again, as participants – each person being recognised as a ‘holder’ as well as ‘maker’ of the field – became conduits for the ‘field speaking to and for itself’. Group life and individual experiences became inextricable, and in the process some intense times and moments of transcendent unity arose. But they came out of varied antecedents and arose through ‘grace’ rather than by any act of ‘will’. (Denham-Vaughan, 2005).
Lichtenberg and Gray (2006), writing about ‘strong personhood’ and ‘vital community’ (p. 23), make the point that the two are not in competition. Rather, each supports the other: ‘dialogue (or colloquy if there are several participants), promotes each individual in finding and sharing what she wants and who she is’ (p. 22) and also that ‘Space for all participants to reveal themselves in their special nature makes for the best in group life.’ (p. 24). I found confirmation of these principles – that each person needed to have a place, be recognised as a voice to be heard, and be valued as a holder of the shared experiencing, deserving of being listened to respectfully. Of course, how to uphold the equal rights among participants to be heard and respected without censoring vigorous expression of difference and competition to speak, is just another balancing act among many that a group or community has to accomplish. Contacting, unsurprisingly, is key. Once again, I find Lichtenberg and Gray’s emphasis is highly relevant:
The direction in the flowing process known as contacting is toward the creation of the special personhood of each and all who are participating in the relationship [community]. In the developing dialogue a distinct ‘I’ unfolds for everyone present. (ibid. p. 22)
In short, (they imply) a ‘completed and revealed personhood’ emerges not in isolation but in connection, relationally, through contact with others. But the contact with others also needs to be relaxed, free, and unencumbered by fear of being shamed, rejected, or not listened to. In describing the effects of the ‘general mistrust and hopelessness in social life today’, they write:
Persons will be inhibited from relaxing and being open; they will be alienated from their personhood and from others, and will have a guarded readiness as they enter new encounters. (ibid. p. 22)
In the groups I ran, the process of surfacing the mistrust, the shaming moments, the usually-not-talked-about realms of suppressing personhood, became prime matters for co-created investigation. Times of disaffection and felt ‘dis-ease’ were entry points for powerful inquiry; identifying lack of flow and ease, and the presence of retroflected voices, were often gifts. The field of experience fluctuated, of course, but priority was given to ‘surfacing the unsurfaced’. The idea of ‘taking risks in order to be safe’ was also affirmed every time a difficult self-revelation by one member resulted in raising the general ‘permission level’ for others, a virtuous circle ensuing. The progressive emboldening of participants meant ever more profound issues emerged and were addressed – with far more ‘toxic’ and ‘raw’ material entering the collective space than participants had ever thought possible when the group began.
All was not plain sailing by any means, and there were numerous times when one or other of the groups seemed adrift or felt unsafe or could not reach standards of mutual care and respect that were usually espoused. But the point again is one of polarity: the more that participants (including myself) foundered in a mire of shame or expressed emotional confusion, or got into fighting one another or lost confidence in what we were doing, the more learning there usually was, as we slowly ‘re-wound the tape’ and processed what had happened. These were times of integration and often change. Not all was perfectly accomplished: there were instances where not all ended well, or someone went away bitter or very distressed. This is where the safe container of structures and commitments kept the group afloat, the overall experience of unity and solidity enabling participants to return, to sort out their difficulties, and to continue.
I cannot presume that my groups were typical, of life-focus or, even more, conventional therapy groups, let alone many communities where gestalt therapy methods and principles have never been heard of. They were designed for accelerated self-development with ‘elite’ groups (only in terms of psychotherapy experience). However, some of what I discovered there, and participants learned as well, has helped inform other groups and filtered into very different kinds of community.
I have two points in conclusion The first is that, returning to my question, I believe that there is unquestionably a major gestalt therapy contribution to supporting communities and the lives of groups and other associations of people gathering for a purpose. The gestalt therapy orientation itself is what is both transferable and effective. Specifically the orientation involves acquiring the field perspective (which I have mentioned) plus an understanding of the place of adequate support. Other gestalt therapy emphases that play a part stem from our phenomenological heritage (the place of direct experience and the bodily provision of key contextual information); and from our existential realisation that contactful dialogue is the key relational enabler. It is through developing and applying the gestalt/field perspective or outlook, rather than through copying an exact methodology or relying on techniques, that transferability of skilfulness to any situation is best assured. In a recent publication, (Parlett, 2009), I make a similar point; I discuss a number of ‘modest, useful, and serviceable things which we can do and which make a difference’, suggesting that each of us can become a ‘citizen-practitioner’ by acting in small ways in a whole variety of contexts and situations, coming from this perspective.)
My second concluding point is to encourage fellow members of the gestalt therapy community not to polarize around issues of ‘spirituality’, a theme which also makes a partial appearance in this book. The subtle condescension that can easily be conveyed towards those of a spiritual disposition is associated with failing to give respect to experiences which people report, and often appears to come from projections of religiosity, bigotry, or absurd beliefs onto those experiences. This strikes me as unfair, when almost every other human experience is presumed – at least in the setting of gestalt therapy – to have some kind of meaning for the individual having it, and is respected as such. There is normally a presumption of validity, at least for the felt or sensed reality of someone’s expressed personal experience. People may parcel up their experience in terms that personally we might not use or favour; but the experience itself, I suggest, we might both honour and remain inquisitive about. Equally, for those with a religious bent, or who lay claim to ‘spiritual’, they perhaps need to recognise the qualities of their claims which are not phenomenological, and remain comfortably silent over the metaphysics of their experience.
I am not diverting far from issues of community and life-focus, for in our wish to join others, to reach out in search of sympathetic connection or inclusion in some body of other persons, there is something that can also be an affecting experience, almost a mystery, seeming profound yet also ordinary in our nature and significant for our well-being. Strong feelings of generalised loving towards others with whom we are in association may be, literally speaking, unaccountable; in our wordlessness, we might experience embarrassment if asked to justify or reduce it, let alone explain it in a sceptical academic context. The ‘irrational’ fears that many have of losing the connective bonds they have already, may also contain a core of inexplicable mystery, involving difficulty in explaining to the wider world what is being felt and realised. Examples of how we are unaccountably moved to tears or experience intense joy, or grief, or feelings of love can be poetic moments, and some are perhaps best left to the medium of poetry to give them shape. A similar diffidence towards ‘explaining’ might be an adequate guiding principle for gestalt therapists with regard to approaching the realm of the spiritual, as they encounter it in others – or in themselves.
Finally, let me say how much I have enjoyed this far-reaching and hopeful book. I believe and expect that you will too. This is pioneering work, and the world requires it of us. I wish you good reading.
Nether Skyborry, England, March 2009
Foreword by Malcolm Parlett
Community, Psychotherapy and Life Focus: A Gestalt Anthology of the History Theory and Practice of Living in Community (2009) O’Neill, B. (editor) Ravenwood Press, Australia.