Fritz Perls and the Sixties

I worked intensively with Fritz Perls beginning with a month-long workshop at Esalen Institute in July 1967, and ending in March 1970 in New York City where he led his final workshop at my office. He died a few weeks later in Chicago.

That span of time coincided with momentous national events, including the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, the deadly riots in the ghettoes of Detroit and Newark, the growth and militant intensification of the anti-war movement, and the vivid appearance of the psychedelic, tie-dyed, eastern-religion influenced counter-culture throughout the land.

During this period, Fritz worked with hundreds of therapists from all over the U.S. at Esalen, in many major cities, and at his center on Lake Cowichan, B.C.. As a result, the followers of Gestalt Therapy went from being a small, insular group located chiefly in N.Y.C. and Cleveland, to a nation-wide community of therapists having a dramatic impact on the field of humanistic psychology and the human potential movement.

The times they were a-changin’, as Bob Dylan sang, and Gestalt Therapy and Fritz Perls were deeply influenced by the times, and they in turn helped that changin’ to occur.

When you read Fritz’s autobiography, In and Out of the Garbage Pail, you see how strongly the times impacted him. Esalen’s lightning ascendance into the public eye and his agreeing to become it’s resident guru; his use of psychedelics; the whole anti-authoritarian mood of the counter-culture – these all played a vital role in transforming Fritz Perls from a Viennese-born, New York City psychiatrist with a relatively small following to a jump-suited, iconoclastic, humanistic-therapy guru with adherents nation-wide.

The impact he had on my personal and professional life was not atypical. I remember attending a meeting of the American Psychological Association in October of 1966, where Fritz and Albert Ellis, founder of Rational-Emotive Therapy, shared the stage with a few other therapy “heavies”. Immediately after Ellis made his pitch, Fritz (the only male on the panel not wearing a jacket and tie) reached over, grabbed the microphone and growled into it, “I may be a son-of-a-bitch but I’m not a masochist. This guy talks like a machine-gun”.

That initial exposure to Fritz prompted my attending my first month-long workshop with him at Esalen during the “Summer of Love” in 1967. After that it didn’t take long for me to switch from tweeds to tie-dye, and from one kind of pipe to another.

I went on to attend many of his workshops at Esalen and in N.Y.C. and visited him at his ‘kibbutz” in Lake Cowichan during the summer of 1969. There he anointed me as one of his approved Gestaltists. As a result, I led month-long Gestalt workshops at Esalen and moved to Berkeley during the early seventies.

In the stuffy world of mid- sixties psychology, Fritz was a new wind – more a cyclone than a zephyr. His emphasis on “chewing on” and defying whatever conventional psychological wisdom was served up; his brilliant psychotherapeutic tactics which stressed immediacy and emotional impact; his philosophy of organismic self-regulation and wisdom; the importance he gave to being aware and in the now; and his insistence that group therapy was more effective than individual work – all these facets of the therapeutic system that he practiced and taught were consonant with intertwining strands of the fast-spreading counter-culture.

Fritz repudiated many social norms. His oft-quoted statement, “I’m not here to live up to your expectations” and his famous Gestalt Prayer, “I do my thing, you do your thing…”, resonated with defiant anti-war youth and the followers of Black Power, Gay and Women’s Liberation. The old values that supported a patriarchal, conformist, racist society, were finally being openly challenged. Gestalt Therapy took up the banner of non-conformity and carried it into the field of psychotherapy.

His emphasis on the importance of group work dovetailed with the growth of intentional communities. In fact, a number of “Gestalt Communes” flourished for a few years in the late sixties and early seventies.

The importance Fritz gave to the here and now and his down-playing of the intellect in favor of “coming to one’s senses” was congruent with the exhortation put forward by the then very popular guru, Baba Ram Dass, to “be here now”.

The excitement bubbling through society in the late sixties buoyed the entire field of Humanistic Psychology. It became seen as a vital “third force”, countering Psychodynamic and Behavioral approaches. By channeling the revolutionary energy of the times, Fritz was able to put Gestalt Therapy on par with the Rogerian and Existensial wings of Humanistic Psychology. Indeed, for a few years Fritz was the most exciting and influential of all the humanistic psychotherapists.

Gestalt Therapy was very much part of the cresting wave of sixties consciousness. However, times keep on a changin’, and a few years after Fritz died, that wave had crashed on the shore of history.

Yet, Gestalt Therapy survived and continues to play an important role in Humanistic Psychology. It currently thrives throughout the United States, Europe, South America and Japan, thanks to the many therapists that Fritz trained in those final five years of his life.

He liked telling the story of how a woman once asked him, “Are you by any chance Fritz Perls?”. He would savor repeating his response, “No madam, not by chance, but by grim determination”. It was not until he was in his early seventies (and showing his age) that finally the time and the man met. At that point he embraced the youthful counter-culture and his destiny with determination and vigor. His creative energies were unleashed, and he used his charisma and genius to spread the word of his liberating way of doing therapy. For a man of his years to suddenly appear like a comet in the sky of public awareness is extraordinary. What is even more amazing is the lasting impact that his presence made on the field of psychotherapy.

Frank Rubenfeld received his doctorate in clinical and social psychology within the ivy-covered walls of Yale University in 1964, just before the real sixties kicked in. He continues to maintain an interest in expanding the field of Gestalt into socio-political and transpersonal areas, and is currently part of BAGI, a non-hierarchical Gestalt community based in the Bay Area of California