Key Ideas in Daoist Philosophy that Coincides with Gestalt Therapy

The Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching 道德经) is a foundational text of Chinese philosophy and Taoism. 

The Dao De Jing, an essential text in both traditional Chinese culture and world philosophy, is believed to have originated around the fourth century BCE. It is ascribed to an anonymized thinker named Laozi, who was contemporary with Confucius (551–479 BCE). The text, written in aphoristic verse, is divided into two parts: one on Dao (道) and one on De (德), and it consists of approximately five thousand characters in its standard version. The Dao De Jing is still actively used in Daoist practice and is an inspirational guide worldwide (Kohn, 2019).

The Integration of Gestalt Therapy Principles with Daoist Philosophy

Gestalt therapy, a psychotherapeutic approach developed by Frederick “Fritz” Perls, focuses on the client’s present experience and their understanding of reality. It emphasizes awareness, freedom, and self-direction, aiming to enhance the individual’s sense of here-and-now (Yontef, 2011).

Common Philosophical Grounds

The Ever-Changing, ‘Acosmotic’ Cosmos

Daoists reject the traditional Greek concept of a single-ordered universe (cosmos) and instead see the world as an endlessly flowing series of interconnected events (“ten thousand things”). There is no ultimate, unchanging reality.

Ames & Hall (2003, p 29)

Time is not an empty framework but is created by the ongoing transformation of events. Things cannot be understood without their constant change over time. In Gestalt therapy, we are conscious of the temporality of the field in field theory

Events as Shapeshifting Processes

Daoists see “things” as porous, interconnected, and ever-changing events. These events gain their definition and function through their relationships with other events. Gestalt therapy theory of holism views the whole as more than the sum of its parts.

The Novelty Within Continuity

The world is ever-changing, yet there is a rhythm to life. In this context, persistence and the spontaneous emergence of genuine novelty exist side by side. This idea is synonymous with Gestalt therapy, which focuses on the here-and-now from which new figures of interesting phenomena emerge from the background.

Creativity as Co-creation

Daoists understand creativity as less about making things from nothing and more about the spontaneous emergence of novelty within the flux of interconnected events. This creativity is always multidimensional and transactional–it’s about the ‘self’ within the whole. In Gestalt therapy, we give space to the field the client and therapist bring into the therapeutic session as a co-created space, ready for the emergence of new experiences, which I would call enlightenment (to shed light on the experiencing). Creativity is self-creativity and co-creativity.

Perspectivism and Holographic Existence:

Mutuality does not negate individuality. Daoists reject a single, objective viewpoint. Each particular perspective, while unique, also contains and reflects the entirety of existence within it. Gestalt therapy reflects on the philosophy of phenomenology, an attitude of being in the world, attuning to what is, and being conscious of prejudice and bias. 

Creativity as Growth

Daoists view concepts like “sincerity” and “integrity” as outcomes of a creative growth process within relationships. It’s about co-creation, the dynamic of shaping and being shaped, that builds one’s unique identity. Gestalt therapy’s early adoption of the concept of the “fertile Void” and creative indifference marks the therapeutic attitude of the Gestalt practitioner.

Impact Through Personal Excellence

For Daoists, cultivating strong personal character (de) is the most potent way of positively shaping the world. A focused, well-developed person can become a force for positive change in their increasing spheres of influence (family, community, state, world). Gestalt therapy is especially focused on integration, which is, at the core, the true essence of integrity, which is the “de” of Daodejing. The forebearers of Gestalt therapy originated from a people who sought to achieve integration and suffered, instead, alienation.

Husbanding and Character

Daoists value “husbanding” – a balance of cultivation and conservation – for optimizing experience. Building strong character elevates one’s influence, creating a resource the world can draw on to solve problems. This correlates with Gestalt therapy’s focus on integration and acknowledging that we are all of the field. We face issues by connecting with the field without seeking to enforce change prematurely. This concept is presented in Gestalt’s paradoxical theory of change. The international community of Gestalt therapists also works outside the therapeutic office. Many of us are active in environmental and immigration issues.

Individuality Through Process

Uniqueness is not a starting point but a continuous achievement within the interconnectedness of existence. Freedom means expressing this achieved uniqueness for the benefit of the community. Gestalt therapy agrees with the importance of individual authenticity as part of the group. Gestalt therapy clients often address the core difficulty of belonging in teams and society and finding the freedom to be themselves. We speak of how we strive to belong by creatively adjusting to the point of losing our ability to make contact with the environment.

Transformation as Inherent Energy

The world transforms not because of an outside force but due to the constant interplay between events. Proper participation in this, what Daoists might call “the art of contextualizing” (ars contextualis), maximizes the creative possibilities in any situation. Gestalt therapy’s paradoxical theory of change explains this concept of transformation, an energetic process from within and not forced. The individual undergoing the therapeutic change experiences an organic shift in themselves at some point in their healing process.


On Polarities

The philosophical aspect of the Daodejing, particularly concerning the mutual entailing of opposites and the cyclical nature of experience, aligns closely with the principles of Gestalt therapy. This summary will explore how these concepts from Daoism resonate with Gestalt therapy, a psychotherapeutic approach that emphasizes awareness, freedom, and self-direction.

Mutual Entailing of Opposites

The Daodejing discusses the inherent duality in all aspects of life, where each state contains the seed of its opposite, and this constant interplay shapes existence. This notion is mirrored in Gestalt therapy’s focus on understanding and integrating the various polarities within the self. For example, Gestalt therapy often explores conflicting emotions or desires within a person, recognizing that acknowledging and balancing these can lead to greater self-awareness and psychological health.

Cyclical Movement of Qi

Daoism attributes the dynamic flow of life to the natural cyclical movement of qi (vital energy), emphasizing that this process does not rely on supernatural forces but on natural progression. Similarly, Gestalt therapy views human behavior and emotions as natural responses to one’s environment and experiences. It emphasizes the “here and now” and the fluid nature of our perceptions and understandings, encouraging individuals to engage actively with their current experiences without preconceived notions.

Emerging and Collapsing Cycles

The concept of life as a series of rising and falling cycles in Daoism encourages acceptance of change as a constant and inevitable element of life. This is akin to Gestalt therapy’s contact cycle. By focusing on the present, individuals are believed to better navigate their emotional and psychological landscapes, embracing change rather than resisting it.

Journey of Growth and Return

The Daodejing outlines life as a journey where initial potency gradually gives way to a ‘returning’ or weakening, where each phase of life brings about its transformation. This perspective resonates with Gestalt therapy’s theory of the five phases of neurosis (which I would acknowledge as the phases of therapeutic change).

Optimizing Possibilities

Both Daoism and Gestalt therapy stress making the most of one’s current circumstances through the full experiencing and acceptance of what is. In the Daodejing, this involves harmonizing with the cyclical nature of life to maximize potential at each moment. In Gestalt therapy, this process is facilitated by increasing awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions, and by integrating various aspects of the self to make healthier choices and respond more adaptively to life’s challenges. This is a process of creativity that arises out of the fertile void.

The philosophical teachings of the Daodejing, particularly regarding the entwining of opposites and the embracing of life’s cyclical and transformative nature, closely align with the principles of Gestalt therapy. Both advocate for a deeper understanding of life’s dynamics and suggest a holistic approach to living that embraces change, integrates opposites, and optimizes personal growth. This alignment underscores a shared philosophical foundation that values balance, awareness, and the fluidity of the human experience.

References

Ames, R., & Hall, D. (2003). Dao de jing: A philosophical translation. Ballantine Books.

Yontef, G. (2011). Gestalt Therapy.

Li Jian-ming. (2006). On the Implication of Dao in Dao De Jing.

Hendlin, S. J. (1978). T’ai chi chuan and gestalt therapy.

Henle, M. (1978). Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy.

Moore, L. E. (2004). GESTALT THERAPY: PAST, PRESENT, THEORY, AND RESEARCH.