A Personal Preface
My life experiences serve as an example of the interaction between fields and how the field influences the figure that emerges. Having been born Jewish in Paris during the Hitler Olympics, the sociohistorical field has always been of major importance to me. My family was one of the last to successfully emigrate to the United States from Occupied France in October, 1940. I attended the City College of New York during the late fifties and recall no fellow African-American students. My class of seventeen grad students at Yale contained only one woman.
After receiving my doctorate in social and clinical psych in 1964, I became a clinic director and instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I wore a tweed jacket and smoked a pipe. Beginning in 1967, the contrasting field provided by Esalen and working intensively with Fritz Perls during the last three years of his life had a profound effect on my apparel, smoking habits, and mind set.
Moving to the Bay Area during the seventies enabled me to be part of the dynamic Gestalt scene of that particular time and place. My engagement with sociohistorical aspects of psychotherapy continued with my co-founding the “Gestalt Community Action Project” in the late seventies, and “Psychotherapists for Social Responsibility” in the early eighties. Now in my seventies, I have experienced the sweep of history and seen how far American society has come in affording more opportunities to women and its disadvantaged minorities.
As I have aged, the work of Teilhard de Chardin has become increasingly meaningful to me. His vision of evolution has helped mine become more complex and cohesive, integrating the work that I do with a vision of the universe that I am part of. This paper has evolved over many months as a result of my connections with my surrounding sociohistorical and interpersonal field.
Gestalt Therapy as a Field Theory within a Larger Field
From its inception, Gestalt has been a field theory whose central preoccupations have been “the ‘unitary’ outlook, the relationship between parts and whole, and the balancing of connecting with others while also maintaining a separate identity” (Parlett, 2005). Internal interconnection and interdependence are qualities seen as inherent properties of any field. We partake in many fields simultaneously. Some overlap, others are concentric. Wheels within wheels. On a meta-level, field theory indicates that fields may interact and influence each other.
The largest four-dimensional field we can imagine is postulated by a leading cosmological physicist, Leonard Susskind. He theorizes that the cosmos is a megaverse comprising a multitude of universes operating under differing laws of physics. That particular field seems to have minimal impact on the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy. However, when the field attended to is limited to our universe, then the possibility of a vital connection between universal processes and Gestalt therapy becomes more imaginable.
In this paper, the figure in the field that draws my initial attention is the process of evolution. Later, I place the field of Gestalt therapy within that larger field, and note the resonances between aspects of the evolutionary process and Gestalt therapy. In the final section I outline some possible implications of this contextual shift for Gestalt practitioners.
Chardin: The Jesuit Paleontologist Who Linked Evolution and Complexification
Teilhard de Chardin, the renowned twentieth-century paleontologist and seer, regarded evolution as the process whereby matter was transformed into consciousness. This momentous transformation came about through the increasing complexification of matter as portended by how the simplest of molecules evolved into the human brain-mind and the self-contemplative consciousness that comes with it.
Chardin posits that the mark of an evolved organism is its degree of intra-organismic variance, or differentiation. The greater the variety of cells an organism contains, the greater its range of behavior and achievement. An evolved organism has succeeded in differentiating while maintaining its coherence. It is an organism that has “complexified”. Chardin points out that human beings are the most complexified organisms, and hence the most evolved. A human has at least 260 kinds of cells, each functioning in the service of the organism. A flatworm has but a handful.
Complexification, the process of differentiation while maintaining coherence, is thus seen as the engine driving biological evolution. The key to maintaining coherence while increasing intra-aggregate differentiation is increasing intra-aggregate connection. The paradoxical, counterintuitive nature of this evolutionary process is difficult to grasp since seemingly opposite trends, (increased differentiation and increased connection), intensify as part of the process.
Chardin equates biological evolution with complexification and applies this perspective to human beings in all aspects of their lives. His ultimate vision is teleological and theological, seeing evolution as inevitably leading to all humanity uniting in Spirit and then joining with God. While I apply his idea of complexification to major aspects of human existence, I avoid embracing the deterministic and religious aspects of his perspective.
Aspects of Human Complexification
The theory of complexification described above maintains that the more evolved an aggregate, the greater the depth and breadth of its internal differentiation and the more robust its means of internal communication needs to be. Applying this model to society, interpersonal relations and the individual, is the subject of this section of my paper.
In doing so, I have decided to use examples from American society. I am well aware that in many ways the United States is not representative of contemporary human society. Yet, when I look over the sweep of history since the Enlightenment, I see an increasing movement towards both individual differentiation and connection occurring worldwide, and our country imperfectly and appreciably manifesting this evolutionary trend.
The process of social differentiation has followed two major pathways. Firstly, the more evolved the society the more differentiated the types of occupations available to its members. In early societies there were but a few. With the onset of agriculture, and then civilization, the variety of occupations increased greatly. The industrial, and now the post-industrial age, have led to a dramatic increase in occupational differentiation.
Secondly, more members of society have moved into more occupations. This is directly linked to political changes. An oppressed sector of society is invariably denied the opportunity to take on a variety of occupations. As oppression lifts, the members of that sector are permitted to take up occupations previously closed to them.
Slaves in pre-emancipation America lived within a relatively evolved society, but were restricted to being either field hands or house servants. They were not permitted to be professionals, educators, or entrepreneurs. Now in twenty-first century America, there are significantly greater opportunities for descendants of slaves. Similarly, social and legal restrictions vis-à-vis women, have lessened considerably over the past few generations. Consequently, our society has become more differentiated.
As American society has differentiated in the manner described above, the rapid development of connective transportation and communication systems has reduced regional and local differences and increased national coherence. Concomitantly, and of equal importance, the emergence of federal social programs such as Social Security have contributed to our intranational connectiveness on a variety of levels. We accept paying a portion of our earnings to support and care for others in our society, something that was not the case a few generations ago. In many important respects our society is significantly more diversified and more connected than it was a hundred years ago. It has complexified and evolved.
As society complexifies it develops congruent political and social credos. The values of the Enlightenment support equality of opportunity and human rights and provide the grounding for the interpersonal complexification that has occurred in our society within the past fifty years. The trend has been towards more differentiated, individually determined ways of interpersonally interacting. In the area of adult relations, greater acceptance of same sex relationships has granted individuals more of an opportunity to differentiate according to their sexual preferences. Additionally, adherence to restrictive gender roles that separate partners emotionally and increase the difficulty of authentically communicating has been lessening. Consequently, there now exists a greater likelihood of partners sharing their thoughts and feelings than was the case fifty years ago. Our child-raising is no longer determined by the convention, “Children should be seen and not heard”.
The choices and feelings of individual children are given increased weight.
As our society complexifies, interpersonal relations become less traditionally role-bound and more open to the expression of individual differences. That openness brings with it a greater potential for authentic connection and contact. Differentiation and connection drive evolution in the interpersonal area as well.
Individuation is the term I will use when describing personal differentiation. It implies an emergent personal distinctiveness within a social context. Individuated persons are aware of their own specific values, interests, and preferences and are likely to consider them in the choices they make. They may choose not to conform to role expectations. They remain their own cohesive selves while making choices based on their own differentiation.
Our evolving society based on values honoring individual rights and equal opportunity has enabled individuation to an extent never seen before. We live in a more choiceful society that offers a flux of differing roles and expectations. Individuation is created and maintained through choice based on the awareness of ones values, interests, and preferences within the field of a society that offers us more opportunities to be ourselves. It is this connection between the more choiceful society and the choiceful individual that leads to more members of society individuating. Again, differentiation and connection work hand-in-hand to enable evolution, in this case in the form of individuation.
The Changing Field of Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt theory highlights the figure-ground aspect of field theory. Applying that perspective to the unfolding of Gestalt theory and practice helps us note how over time different aspects of Gestalt have risen to become figure.
During the period preceding Fritz Perls’ move to Esalen in 1965, the “field perspective” of Gestalt therapy, as put forward in its founding text: Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, (Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman), was seen as an integral part of the Gestalt approach. However, that aspect of Gestalt theory and practice shifted in figural importance during the last five years of Fritz’s life (1965-70). During the time that he resided at Esalen and Lake Cowichan the counter-culture in America revved up to full throttle. Every facet of American society saw the rejection of traditional roles and expectations. Soldiers flashed the peace sign; men and women left their straight spouses for same-sex unions; millions “tuned in and dropped out” and psychotherapists refused to stick to traditional approaches. The mantra for the counterculture was: “I am an individual, and will not conform to the rules laid down by this puritanical, patriarchal, racist, sexist society”.
Fritz, who was very much part of the counterculture and one of its leaders, created the “Gestalt Prayer” which include the statements: “I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations.” The kind of Gestalt therapy he hammered out on the red-hot anvil of those last years of his life contained an array of psychotherapeutic techniques and perspectives that effectively cultivated self-awareness, personal agency, and authenticity.
Using “I” statements; the awareness continuum; re-owning projections; seeing all aspects of the dream as parts of oneself; defining and attempting to avoid “fusion”; and in general emphasizing the importance of “doing your thing”, resonated within the context of individuals struggling against an authoritarian sociopolitical establishment. These approaches coupled with the charismatic example that Fritz provided, and the rapid spread of Gestalt training centers that he had inspired during his last years, moved Gestalt theory and practice some degrees away from a contextual, field perspective towards a more individualistically centered one.
Living as he had in the Kaiser’s militaristic Germany, under the racist regime in South Africa, and in Nixon’s America, we can appreciate why in his last years Fritz thought of society as pitted against the individual, and consequently focused on helping individuals learn to be their authentic selves in defiance of societal expectations. However, a therapeutic approach that sees the individual as perennially pitted against society cannot in the long run contribute to the creation of a more evolved society.
Fritz did realize that the authentic, individuated person is more likely to make meaningful connections than the less individuated one. When a response is dictated by convention rather than authentic experience then the resultant contact is felt as flimsy and hollow. It is when a response comes from the heart; the gut; the engaged mind that it may serve as a source of stimulation and nourishment. Despite shifting away from field theory, Fritz established a foundation for a psychotherapy that encouraged and promoted authentic connection.
Connectedness Re-established in the Gestalt Field
It remained for later Gestalt therapists such as Gary Yontef, Richard Hycner and Lynne Jacobs to promote the evolution of Gestalt by focusing on the importance and healing power of the interpersonal therapeutic field. This has resulted in profound changes in the way Gestalt is taught and practiced. Relational and Dialogic forms of Gestalt highlight the important role of the therapeutic relationship in helping the client individuate. In doing so these approaches mirror on the psychotherapeutic level the essence of evolutionary complexification: the systemic interaction between connectedness and increased differentiation.
A Gestalt Therapy Connected to the Evolutionary Process
The contemporary clinical field of Gestalt therapists often includes body language and awareness; working with polarities; the paradox of change; and the importance of agency. During the course of a therapeutic session any one of the above may become figure and contribute to the healing process. For many practitioners the ground underlying the figure is the relational quality of the therapeutic interaction itself. That ground may become figure whenever appropriate.
The elements in the field of Gestalt therapy that I have noted above were brought about by practitioners working directly on changing the field by means of introducing new approaches and techniques into the therapy itself. Change – in effect from the inside out. This paper takes a different approach. Relying on field theory, I place Gestalt therapy within the larger context of the evolutionary process, and suggest that by doing so the Gestalt field may be influenced from the outside in.
Implications for Viewing the Field of Gestalt
I have presented a perspective on evolution that sees it as aligned with increasing connectedness and individuation. As Gestalt therapists, our emphasis on both contact/connection and individual agency fits easily with that model. By seeing Gestalt within the context of that vision of the evolutionary process our Gestalt theory and practice may shift in a number of ways.
Our work could begin to take on a meaning that transcends promoting individual growth. We can, instead, regard it as being aligned with a universal force that has at its core ever-increasing differentiation and connection on all levels of human existence. Realizing the resonance between Gestalt and the evolutionary process may serve as a source of inspiration and affirmation. No small thing in a difficult world where we are prey to cynicism and pessimism.
The connection-individuation process lying at the core of the evolutionary thrust itself is mirrored in the relational Gestalt approach. This has prompted me to re-visit the operational aspects of that process in the therapeutic setting. Not through a philosophical or theoretical lens, but in a phenomenological way describing the unfolding complexity. In the most general of terms, it is in the act of making authentic contact that we reinforce individuation, and it is through individuation that authentic contact is made possible. Below I offer one description of this process.
I do my part in promoting connection by being authentic in my contact; listening and querying in a non-judgmental manner; making the effort to see the world through my client’s eyes, and utilizing self-disclosure. When I do my part to attune to the other and promote connection, then hopefully clients begin to feel safe and supported enough to face themselves and begin to cultivate, with my assistance, self-awareness and self-acceptance. Our connection thus leads to ever-greater client self-connection, and with it the development of a more choiceful self. An individuated client emerges, one more prepared to authentically and meaningfully contribute to the interpersonal and social field. Additionally, my helping to create a field amenable to the client’s individuation contributes to my individuation, since in the process of maintaining that context I must continue to develop and make use of those parts of myself that are authentic and creative.
Seeing personal growth as dependent on both the need to individuate and to connect – that these drives need not be at odds, and that indeed the evolutionary flow seeks to satisfy them both – opens the way to seeing a win-win connection between the individual and the larger group. The more individuated the person the more they have to offer to the field. The field enables individuation, and the evolving individual in turn plays a role in helping that field continue to evolve. We thus can counter the idea that personal work and self-improvement are selfish endeavors. Instead we can maintain the opposite: individuation can be linked to a mutually beneficial interaction between the self and a society aligned with the grand evolutionary flow.
Implications for Viewing Larger Fields
All types of contact between the individual and the larger group, whether they be romantic relationships; friendships; the interpersonal work environment; or the sociopolitical context, can be viewed through the lens of whether or not they support both individuation and connection. It is as if we have been previously presented with a choice between food or drink, connecting or being ourselves, and now we realize that we must have both in order to thrive. With that realization, we can make more informed choices vis-à-vis our social interactions.
As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, humanity has formed an increasingly interdependent and interconnected global society wherein more and more individuals gain the opportunity to develop their uniqueness. The Internet is a prime example of the evolutionary change described above. It enables our “global village” to become evermore densely interconnected while affording evermore individuals the opportunity to follow and deepen their own interests. Connection and individuation go hand in hand in this process.
This positive evolutionary vision of humanity is based on a type of faith. Faith in the process of connection/individuation itself and in the benefits that accrue to us when we support that process. Supporting my faith is a perspective that equates the evolutionary process of individuation with a kind of love. A process enabling more and more human beings having their uniqueness supported can be seen as a loving one. It is a process that confers dignity and value. I have experienced it both as receiver and giver and felt much the better for it. Thus my faith lies both in my experience and in my imagining where this process may lead.
I speak of a loving process adorned in the brilliant colors of individuation and connection. When we clothe ourselves and others in that multi-hued cloak on the personal, interpersonal, and social levels, we may well be expressing the universal evolutionary process and helping to carry it forward.
It is in that spirit that I suggest this alternative Gestalt Prayer:
I do my thing, you do your thing
and when we each help the other to do their thing –
then it is beautiful
and bring us to a close with a quotation from Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy (Griffin, 2008)
“The oscillation in human consciousness that moves from the center of the soul to the far edges of the known universe does not stop anywhere but travels outward and inward continuously, forming one field of perception. And at the heart of this process…there is a quiet but constant reciprocity; the great mystery in the geography of perception is that the way you see the world will either enlarge or limit the scope of your own being.”
Griffin, S. L. (2008). Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy. Boston, Trumpeter.
Hycner, R., & Jacobs, L. (1995). The Healing Relationship in Gestalt Therapy. Highland, NY: Gestalt Journal Press.
Parlett, M. (2005). Contemporary Gestalt Therapy: Field Theory. In A.
Woldt, and S. Toman (Eds.), Gestalt Therapy, History, Theory, and Practice. (pp.41-63. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications
Perls, F., Hefferline, R. & Goodman, P. (1951/1994). Gestalt therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. NY: Gestalt Journal Press.
Susskind, L., (2006). The Cosmic Landscape. New York: Back Bay Books.
Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1964). The Future of Man. New York: Harper & Row.
Yontef, G. (1993). Awareness, Dialogue and Process: Essays on Gestalt Therapy. Highland, NY: Gestalt Journal Press
The above article was published in the Gestalt Review 08, Volume Twelve, Number Three