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.

Alienation: Philosophical Roots and Therapeutic Implications for the Gestalt Therapist

In today’s fast-paced and interconnected world, many of us find ourselves grappling with feelings of disconnection and fragmentation. From the pressures of work and social media to the demands of everyday life, it’s easy to lose sight of our true selves amidst the chaos of white noise. Gestalt Therapy offers frameworks and approaches that offer hope and guidance for reclaiming our sense of wholeness which is more relevant in our post-pandemic world than ever.

Alienation is a term that resonates deeply with many of us in today’s society. It’s that sense of feeling disconnected from ourselves, from others, and from the world around us.

Europe in the early 20th century, the world was undergoing profound social, political, and intellectual transformations. It was in this context that the philosophies of alienation and Gestalt psychology emerged, offering insights into the human condition and paths towards holistic understanding and healing. This essay delves into the intersection of these two paradigms, examining their philosophical underpinnings, mutual influences, and implications for Gestalt therapy.

The year 1923 marked the publication of Georg Lukács’s seminal work, “History and Class Consciousness,” a text that would deeply resonate with intellectuals of the time, including Fritz Perls. Lukács’s exploration of alienation and totality within the framework of Marxist thought laid the groundwork for understanding societal structures and individual experiences. Concurrently, Gestalt psychology, with its emphasis on holistic perception and meaningful wholes, was gaining prominence in the field of psychology. Perls, influenced by both Lukács and Gestalt psychology, would go on to develop Gestalt therapy, a groundbreaking approach to psychotherapy that integrated philosophical insights with therapeutic practice.

The Roots of Alienation: Lukács’s Dialectical Analysis and Heidegger’s Existential Analysis

At the heart of Lukács’s work lies the concept of alienation, a condition in which individuals become estranged from themselves, their labor, and their social context. Lukács’s dialectical approach to understanding reality emphasizes the interconnectedness of phenomena and the dynamic nature of totality. Drawing from Marxist theory, Lukács critiqued capitalism as a system that commodifies human relationships and reduces individuals to mere objects within a market-driven society. The concept of alienation, therefore, becomes central to the revolutionary critique of capitalism, offering insights into the fragmentation of human experience and the quest for wholeness.

Alienation is linked to concepts of fallenness and inauthenticity that are integral to Heidegger’s existential analysis, portraying how human beings often live without genuine engagement with their true selves or the realities of their existence, instead being led by societal norms and expectations– which are intensified today with the pace of technological development. These themes are essential for understanding Heidegger’s views on the potential for more authentic modes of being, which could be tied into therapeutic practices in Gestalt therapy by focusing on helping individuals recognize and overcome the influences of the ‘They’ to realize more authentic ways of being.

Gestalt Psychology: Perceiving Wholes in a Fragmented World

In parallel to Lukács’s exploration of alienation, Gestalt psychologists were investigating the nature of perception and consciousness. Rejecting the atomistic approach of structuralism, Gestalt psychologists argued that perception is inherently holistic, with individuals organizing sensory input into meaningful gestalts or wholes. The figure/background principle, central to Gestalt theory, highlights the dynamic interplay between elements and the contextual nature of perception. Gestalt psychology thus provides a framework for understanding how individuals perceive and experience the world as integrated wholes rather than fragmented parts.

Integration of Philosophies: Creative Indifference in Gestalt Therapy

By exploring the dynamic interactions between figure and ground, clients gain insight into their patterns of behaviour and the underlying causes of their distress. Through experiential therapeutic sessions, Gestalt therapy aims to facilitate the integration of fragmented aspects of the self, and the integration of the self in the environment, allowing for wholeness that reaches beyond the individual.


The potential of Gestalt therapy to reconcile the needs of individuals and society stems from its philosophical underpinnings, particularly the concept of creative indifference attributed to Salomo Friedlaender. This philosophy embraces the coexistence of polarities, allowing for a balanced approach that honors both the autonomy of the individual and the interconnectedness of society. Through creative indifference, Gestalt therapy offers a framework for navigating the tensions between personal growth and social responsibility, fostering a holistic understanding of human experience and facilitating healing on both individual and collective levels.

Therapeutic Implications: Navigating the Journey Towards Wholeness


Gestalt therapy stands out as a potent tool in resolving the tension between individual needs and societal expectations while maintaining ethical balance. At its core lies the philosophy of creative indifference, attributed to Salomo Friedlaender, which embraces the coexistence of polarities. This approach allows Gestalt therapy to navigate the complexities of human experience, addressing both the individual’s quest for autonomy and the interconnectedness of society.

In the therapeutic context, Gestalt therapy provides a safe and nurturing environment for individuals to explore their experiences of alienation and disconnection. Through guided exploration and experiential techniques, clients are encouraged to delve into their feelings of estrangement from themselves and others. By fostering heightened awareness and facilitating the integration of fragmented aspects of the self, Gestalt therapy guides clients towards a deeper sense of authenticity and wholeness.

Today, in a world increasingly characterized by social isolation and digital connectivity, the issue of alienation has taken on heightened significance. The pervasive influence of the internet and social media has paradoxically amplified feelings of isolation while fostering a culture of superficial connections. Moreover, the rapid advancement of technology raises concerns about the potential for further alienation as humans become increasingly reliant on digital interfaces for communication and interaction.

In this context, the principles of Gestalt therapy offer a timely and relevant framework for addressing the challenges of alienation in contemporary society. By providing individuals with the tools to reconnect with their authentic selves and fostering a sense of integration with society, Gestalt therapy offers a pathway towards healing and wholeness. Therapists equipped with the philosophy and techniques of Gestalt therapy are uniquely positioned to guide individuals through the process of confronting and transcending their experiences of alienation, ultimately facilitating a deeper sense of connection and belonging in the world.

References:

Bocian, B. (2015). Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933: Expressionism Psychoanalysis Judaism. EHP-Verlag Andreas Kohlhage.

Chew-Helbig, N. (2022). Understanding Salomo Friedlaender’s Creative Indifference: A Psychotherapy Case-Study. Geštalt Zbornik9, 5-15.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and time. Suny Press.

Naranjo, C. (2004). Gestalt therapy. The Attitude and Practice of an Atheoretical Experientalism.

Wilhelm Reich’s Influence on Gestalt Therapy

Wilhelm Reich was a prominent figure in the early development of psychoanalytic techniques, particularly noted for his integration of body movements and psychological experiences, as well as his focus on sexual liberation and character analysis. Reich’s work was characterized by its active and engaging approach during analysis sessions, which contrasted with the more traditional, passive “abstinent” psychoanalytic methods. He was deeply interested in the link between physical posture and psychological states, a pioneering approach that heavily influenced Fritz Perls.

Reich’s methods, which included his “character analysis” and later the development of vegetotherapy, emphasized the bodily expressions of psychological resistances—a concept that deeply resonated with Perls. During his training analysis with Reich, Perls experienced a dynamic and contact-prone style of psychoanalysis that highlighted the importance of real-life experiences and emotional honesty in therapeutic settings.

“A human being has a right to be right, to have an opinion, without being criticized for it or having to struggle for recognition.”

— Spurgeon-English, recalling Reich’s approach.

Reich’s Influences from Body Movement Studies

Reich was not the first to consider the connection between body and psychological states, but he was among the most influential in the psychoanalytic community. His thoughts were preceded and inspired by the work of others like Otto Fenichel and Sandor Ferenczi, who had also explored how physical expressions and resistances could mirror psychological ones. Ferenczi, for example, experimented with techniques that encouraged emotional expression through body movements, which influenced Reich’s therapeutic approach.

Differences Between Perls and Reich

While Fritz Perls drew heavily on Reich’s theories and methods, particularly in terms of focusing on the here-and-now and the bodily expressions of psychological states, he diverged in his conceptualization of the therapeutic process. Perls developed Gestalt therapy, which emphasized awareness, the holistic aspect of the self, and the environment interacting as parts of a greater whole. This approach shifted somewhat from Reich’s more singular focus on sexual and character dynamics.

Key Importance for Perls: For Fritz Perls, the key lay in awareness and the present moment, which were essential in helping clients to understand and resolve their issues. His therapy style focused less on the analyst’s interpretation and more on the client’s current experiences and perceptions.

Wilhelm Reich’s pioneering work on the integration of body and psychological processes heavily influenced Fritz Perls and the development of Gestalt therapy. Although inspired by Reich, Perls adapted and evolved these concepts to form a new therapeutic approach that emphasized holistic integration and present awareness, marking a significant evolution in psychotherapeutic practices.

Early Conceptualisation of Gestalt Therapy’s Understanding of Introjection

Gestalt therapy, a distinctive form of psychotherapy, developed by Lore and Fritz Perls, offers a nuanced approach to understanding and facilitating human growth and development. This method emerged from the Perls’ personal and professional experiences, as well as the influence of their peers and the cultural environment surrounding them.

In the early stages of their exploration, Lore Perls focused on what might seem mundane—infant feeding and weaning practices. However, her observations provided profound insights into human behavior and psychology. She noted that the manner in which food is introduced to infants—often hurried and without allowing the child to “chew”—parallels how people are introduced to new knowledge and experiences. Lore Perls identified this rushed process as “introjection,” where individuals absorb information without fully processing it, a concept that would become central to Gestalt therapy.

Expanding on this idea, Lore argued that true understanding and learning require time and patience, akin to the physical act of chewing. This metaphor highlighted the importance of fully engaging with and processing new information, rather than passively accepting it. In her 1939 lecture “Child Raising and Peace,” she further discussed the role of aggression in creative change, warning against the suppression of aggressive impulses as it could lead to intellectual inhibition and a lack of critical thinking.

Her insights were complemented by Fritz Perls’ contributions. At the 1936 International Psychoanalytic Congress, Fritz presented a lecture on “Oral Resistances,” where he explored children’s natural resistance to forced feeding. He argued that such resistance is not limited to eating but can extend to intellectual matters as well. Fritz observed that most people conform to the intellectual “diet” they are allowed, while only a few question and choose what truly resonates with them.

These ideas were further elaborated in Fritz Perls’ book “Ego, Hunger and Aggression,” co-written with Lore during their exile in South Africa. The book critiqued traditional psychoanalytic techniques, emphasizing the need for a self-directed assimilation of experiences—a stark contrast to the often authoritarian approach observed in conventional psychoanalysis. Fritz criticized these methods for projecting predetermined notions onto patients, which he termed “intropress,” borrowing from the concepts discussed by Sándor Ferenczi, another influential psychoanalyst who advocated for considering psychoanalytic interpretations as mere suggestions.

Gestalt therapy, thus, encourages individuals to actively engage with their experiences and emotions in the present moment. It promotes awareness and personal responsibility, enabling individuals to navigate their own psychological landscapes independently. This approach stands in contrast to the intellectual passivity and reliance on authority that the Perls critiqued, particularly within the rigid educational and political systems of their time.

By integrating these psychological insights with broader socio-political observations, the Perls developed Gestalt therapy not just as a therapeutic method, but as a form of intellectual and emotional liberation, advocating for a more mindful, autonomous, and critically engaged way of living and learning.

References

Bocian, B. (2015). Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933: Expressionism Psychoanalysis Judaism. EHP-Verlag Andreas Kohlhage.

Perls, L. (1997). Der Weg zur Gestalttherapie. Lore Perls im Gespräch mit Daniel Rosenblatt. Wuppertal

Gestalt Therapy: A Tapestry Woven from Psychoanalysis, Gestalt Psychology, and Field Theory

This passage explores the intellectual milieu of Frankfurt in the 1920s, highlighting the cross-pollination of ideas that significantly influenced the development of Gestalt therapy by Fritz Perls. Bocian’s book “Fritz Perls in Berlin” is a great resource for those who wish to fully grasp the theoretical foundations of Gestal therapy.

A Fertile Ground for Interdisciplinary Exchange

The Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (IfS) served as a central hub for intellectual exchange. Here, renowned figures like Gestalt psychologists Ademar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein, social philosopher Paul Tillich, and Marxist sociologists all interacted and debated. Both Lore Posner (later Perls) and Fritz Perls were deeply impacted by these thinkers, particularly Goldstein and his emphasis on the organism as a self-regulating whole.

Psychoanalysis and the South West German Working Group

In 1926, the South West German Working Group for Psychoanalysis was established. Key members like Karl Landauer and Erich Fromm fostered a space for critical engagement with psychoanalysis. Lore Perls underwent training analysis with Clara Happel, a member of the group, and later with Landauer, who Perls greatly respected. The Frankfurt Psychoanalytic Institute (FPI), founded in 1929, further solidified Frankfurt’s position as a center for psychoanalytic thought. Perls and Lore Posner attended lectures by prominent psychoanalysts like Anna Freud and Siegfried Bernfeld at the FPI.

Bridging the Gap Between Psychoanalysis and Gestalt Psychology

While both psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology explored the human mind, they did so from distinct perspectives. Psychoanalysis focused on the unconscious mind and the role of past experiences, whereas Gestalt psychology emphasized present experience and the formation of meaningful wholes. However, there were attempts to bridge this gap.

  • Siegfried Bernfeld’s work in 1934 explored the relationship between these two schools of thought, highlighting the potential for Gestalt psychology’s holistic view of perception to inform psychoanalytic theory.
  • Psychoanalysts like Alfred Adler and Imre Hermann (Ferenczi’s student) saw connections between their work and Gestalt psychology. Adler’s individual psychology, whichwas already establishe, like Gestalt therapy, viewed humans as integrated wholes within social contexts.

  • Wilhelm Reich and Fritz Perls, who had both studied under Paul Schilder (who reviewed Kurt Koffka), believed Gestalt psychology could contribute to refining psychoanalytic concepts. Perls went on to be in analysis with Reich after having been with Karen Horney.
  • Georg Gero, who also was in analysis with Reich, reviewed and studied the work of Kurt Lewin (theory of the field) and Kurt Lewin’s colleague, Bluma Zeigarnik (unfinished business).
  • Thomas French introduced the concept of “insight” into psychoanalysis, which he had taken over from Wolfgang Köhler, attempting to create a synthesis of psychoanalysis and Lewin’s field theory.
  • Siegmund Fuchs (S.H. Foulkes) who worked with Perls as assistant to Goldstein employed Gestalt and Field theory to groups.
  • George Deveraux drew on gestalt psychology to explain how confrontation stimulate rudimentaty gestalts, while interpretation uncover repressed elements.
  • Wolfgang Hochheimer studied under Goldstein and Gelb published “on the analysis of the therapeutic field, investigating the application of analytical field theory. He acknowledged how the therapist and client’s respective “life fields” overlap has therapeutic significance.

Shared Interests and the Rise of Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls, influenced by his exposure to both psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology, sought to create a synthesis. He was likely further drawn to this path due to his background in Mynona’s polarity philosophy, which emphasized the interplay of opposing forces.

  • Later developments such as the work of René Spitz (a friend of Kurt Lewin who explored Zeigarnik’s unfinished business and their connection to dreams) and the contextualist psychoanalysts further demonstrate the ongoing dialogue between Gestalt therapy and psychoanalysis. Spit developed a concept called “action cycles” that are similar to Gestalt Therapy’s “contact cycle”.
  • This group of psychoanalysts sought to integrate Gestalt psychology and field theory into their practice, focussing attention to the world beyond the client’s inner psyche, the environment (the field) that reciprocates its influences.

Conclusion

Even before Gestalt psychology became a formalized school of thought, Freud, particularly in his Interpretation of Dreams, began to employ concepts that resonated with a Gestalt understanding of the mind. Perls and other Gestalt therapists would later draw on these elements as evidence of psychoanalysis’ latent acknowledgment of the role of wholes and patterns in mental life.

The intellectual ferment of Frankfurt in the 1920s provided a fertile ground for the birth of Gestalt therapy. Perls, drawing inspiration from psychoanalysis, Gestalt psychology, and other influences, wove these diverse threads into a unique therapeutic approach that emphasized present experience, self-awareness, and the organism’s capacity for self-regulation and growth.

Erving Polster (1922-2024): Gestalt Therapy

I’m posting this marking the passing of Erving Polster at 102 last week.

According to the video, Erving Polster, then at 98-years of age, talks about his life and work in Gestalt therapy. The interview is conducted by Talia, who has known Erving for 40 years.

Erving talks about his early experience with Gestalt therapy when he attended a workshop led by Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. He was impressed by Perls’ charisma and the simplicity and power of Gestalt therapy. Erving had previously been interested in making psychotherapy more accessible to the public, and he thought Gestalt therapy could be a way to achieve this.

Erving describes his work in the 1960s, where he tried to bring Gestalt therapy into everyday life by running therapy sessions in coffee houses. People would come and discuss themes of life, such as hippies and policemen, and act out conversations related to these themes. Erving found this to be a more communal and engaging way to do therapy.

Erving also talks about the importance of enchantment in therapy. He believes that people are often drawn to therapy because of a sense of enchantment with the mystery of life and the possibility of new experiences. However, this enchantment is often overlooked in traditional therapy approaches.

Erving reflects on his life and says that he is proud of having found a way to work that is hospitable to his skills. He talks about his ability to tune into what is going on with another person and his interest in the world around him. Even though he is old, Erving says that he still feels attended to and interested in life.

Here are some points that Erving made:

  • Gestalt Therapy and Fritz Perls: Erving became interested in Gestalt therapy after attending a workshop led by Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. He was impressed by Perls’ charisma and the simplicity and power of Gestalt therapy. Perls’ ideas about focusing on the present moment and the client’s experience resonated with Erving’s own beliefs about the importance of authenticity and connection in therapy.
  • Transforming therapy into a communal event: Erving believed that psychotherapy should be more than just one-on-one sessions in a therapist’s office. He envisioned therapy as a communal event that could help people explore life’s themes in a more engaging and supportive setting. In the 1960s, he experimented with running Gestalt therapy groups in coffee houses. People would come and discuss themes of life, such as hippies and policemen, and act out conversations related to these themes. Erving found this to be a more engaging way to do therapy than the traditional approach.
  • Focus on the present moment: Gestalt therapy emphasizes the importance of focusing on the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or future. Erving believed that people often get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking and behavior by focusing on what has already happened or what might happen in the future. By focusing on the present moment, people can become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and this can lead to greater self-awareness and growth.
  • Client-centered approach: Gestalt therapy is a client-centered approach to therapy, which means that the therapist follows the client’s lead and helps them explore their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The therapist does not provide advice or direction, but rather creates a safe and supportive space for the client to explore themselves.
  • Holistic approach: Gestalt therapy takes a holistic approach to therapy, considering the person’s mind, body, and spirit. Erving believed that it is important to address all aspects of a person’s experience in order to help them grow and change.

Here is a collection of Erving Polster’s books, a couple of which were co-written with his late wife, Miriam:

Erv Polster on YouTube Interview in 2013

Erv Polster on YouTube

Kurt Goldstein’s Influence on Fritz Perls Gestalt Therapy

Fritz Perls’ arrival in Frankfurt during 1926-1927 marked a pivotal point in his career. At Frankfurt University, a renowned center for social sciences in Germany, Gestalt psychology held significant influence. Lore Perls earned her doctorate at this institution, where prominent figures such as Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Kohler, and Kurt Goldstein shaped the intellectual landscape.

Goldstein, director of the Neurological Institute, based his research on war-related brain injuries. Perls served briefly as an assistant within Goldstein’s research group. Renowned for his holistic and organismic approach, Goldstein conceptualized neuronal function as an integrated network. He was among the physicians advocating for a multidisciplinary psychosomatic perspective on human suffering, urging the medical profession to view individuals as integrated wholes. Goldstein criticized both somatic medicine and psychoanalysis for their failure to incorporate the organism’s environment and their reliance on abstractions of reality rather than the integrated mind-body experience.

Perls embraced Goldstein’s organismic theory, which resonated with his professional background and his adoption of contextual, relational thinking influenced by Friedlander. This foundation shaped Perls’ subsequent contributions to the development of Gestalt therapy.

Kurt Goldstein’s ideas on health and self-realization deeply impacted Perls’ personal and professional development.

  • Health as Self-Actualization: For Goldstein, health wasn’t a fixed state but rather the ability of an individual to live authentically and fulfill their potential. As Harrington (2002) explains, health hinges on “the degree to which individual human beings can realize their nature, in other words, that which is important for their lives” (p. 277).
  • Therapy for a Meaningful Life: Goldstein believed therapy shouldn’t just analyze problems; it should empower individuals. The goal, as quoted in Harrington (2002, p. 277), is “a transformation of the patient’s personality” that allows them to “make the right choice” – a choice that aligns with their true nature and makes life feel worthwhile again.
  • Navigating Challenges: A healthy organism actively shapes its environment and experiences clashes, disruptions, and crises. Goldstein emphasizes the importance of courage in facing these challenges, making decisions, and overcoming difficulties.
  • Perls’ Personal Connection: Perls throughout his life exemplified courage in the face of fear. He might have found inspiration in a quote by Kierkegaard, relayed by Goldstein: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself” (in Harrington, 2002, p. 286).

References:

Harrington, Anne. (2002). Die Suche nach Ganzheit. Die Geschichte biologisch-psychologischer Ganzheitslehren: Vom Kaiserreich bis zur New-Age-Bewegung. Hamburg

Karen Horney’s Influence on Fritz Perls & Gestalt Therapy

Karen Horney (1885-1952) was a pioneering German-American psychoanalyst who challenged traditional Freudian views and made significant contributions to our understanding of personality, neurosis, and feminine psychology. Horney was also Fritz Perls’ analyst, who made an impact on him. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, was deeply influenced by various thinkers, including psychoanalysts Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich. Karen Horney, a significant figure in the Berlin psychoanalytic scene during Perls’s formative years, left a profound imprint on his intellectual development and shaped his therapeutic approach. This article delves into Horney’s influence on Perls, examining the historical context of their interaction, the key theoretical tenets Horney espoused, and their lasting impact on Gestalt therapy.

Why Perls Chose Horney

Several factors likely drew Fritz Perls toward Karen Horney as a psychoanalytic trainer. Firstly, Horney embodied an accessible and less jargon-laden style of psychoanalysis compared to many of her contemporaries. Perls, with his rebellious spirit and disdain for intellectual abstractions, would have found her approach refreshing. Her emphasis on “human involvement without terminology” (Perls 1981, 50) would have resonated with him.

Secondly, Horney was a rare female voice in a field dominated by male theorists, particularly Freud. Her groundbreaking work on feminist psychology challenged the patriarchal biases prevalent in traditional psychoanalysis. This perspective offered Perls a counterpoint to the dominant Freudian discourse.

Thirdly, Horney’s interest in the impact of culture on the human psyche would have aligned with Perls’s later emphasis on the here-and-now and the individual’s interaction with their environment. This focus on social and cultural forces represented a shift away from the purely instinctual drives emphasized by classical Freudian theory.

The Nature of Their Relationship

The book by Bocian, Fritz Perls in Berlin, describes the relationship between Perls and Horney as positive and influential. Perls felt a “kind of love” for Horney and viewed her as one of the few trustworthy people in his life. He admired her warmth, pragmatism, and commitment to a human-centered psychoanalysis. They shared a passion for theatre. In Horney, Perls said that he found “human involvement without terminology” as opposed to most psychonalytic trainers.

Key Influences: Values and Concepts

Karen Horney’s impact on Fritz Perls can be distilled into several crucial points:

  • Growth-Oriented Therapy: Horney’s belief that analysis could not only treat illness but also foster personal growth became central to Perls’s work. She proposed that “analysis … can liberate a person … so that she is free to draw on her own resources again” (Olvedi 1992, 139). This focus on human potential and self-actualization is a key principle of Gestalt therapy.
  • Neurosis as a Coping Strategy: Horney viewed neurotic mechanisms less as inherent pathologies and more as resource-oriented attempts by the individual to navigate a challenging environment, believing they represented attempts “to find paths through a jungle full of unknown dangers” (Horney 1977, 9). This perspective contributed to Gestalt therapy’s focus on understanding how present behaviors, even maladaptive ones, serve the individual.
  • Challenging Freud on Female Psychology: Horney’s pioneering work on female psychology contested Freud’s theories of penis envy and female inferiority. She argued that envy centered on the social advantages granted to men in a patriarchal society, rather than anatomical differences. Horney’s insights into the social construction of gender likely sensitized Perls to the power imbalances that can shape individual experience.
  • Cultural Critique: Horney emphasized the role of culture in shaping individual psychology, rejecting Freud’s drive-based universalism. Her belief that “our whole civilization is a masculine civilization” (Horney 1926, 361) influenced Perls’s attention to the influence of environment and social context on human experience, a core tenet of Gestalt therapy.

Legacy: Horney’s Imprint on Gestalt Therapy

Excerpt from Bocian, 2015, which to contributes to Gestalt Theory of Creative adjustment:

Even her first publication in 1917, »The Technique of Psychoanalytic Therapy,« contains hints of her later independent development. Perls integrated Horney’s early idea that therapy entails not only the treatment of illness, but also helps people to grow. In the article mentioned, Horney writes:

Analysis … can liberate a person whose hands and feet have been bound so that she is free to draw on her own resources again, but it cannot provide her with new arms and legs. Nevertheless, experience has shown that many factors which analysis assumed to be constitutional are merely the results of impediments to growth and can be removed.

Karen Horney in Olvedi 1992, 139

For Horney, many symptoms did not appear to result from inner instinctual conflicts; instead, they were direct reactions to an unloving, hurtful environment and upbringing. Moreover, she viewed neurotic mechanisms as resource oriented as well, and not merely pathological, proceeding from the assumption that these mechanisms are the individual’s attempt »to find paths through a jungle full of unknown dangers« (Horney 1977, 9).

Karen Horney’s influence on Gestalt therapy manifests itself in several key areas:

  • The Here-and-Now Focus: Gestalt therapy prioritizes the client’s present experience, emphasizing the individual’s interaction with their current environment. This reflects Horney’s focus on the influence of current conflicts and social conditions, rather than solely focusing on past childhood experiences.
  • Emphasis on Awareness and Responsibility: Gestalt therapy encourages clients to become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the present moment. This emphasis on awareness fosters self-responsibility and the ability to make conscious choices, aligning with Horney’s view of analysis facilitating personal growth.
  • Holism: Gestalt therapy’s holistic perspective considers the individual as a complex interplay of mind, body, emotions, and their relationship to the environment. This holistic approach echoes Horney’s recognition of the intricate ways cultural and social factors shape individual experience.

Key Facts (Bocian, 2015):

  • Psychoanalytic Training: Perls trained under Horney in Berlin (1925) (Bocian 1992a, Cavaleri 1992)
  • Theoretical and Therapeutic Influence: Perls valued Horney’s ideas and incorporated them into his approach (Perls 1977, 49).
  • Focus on Cultural Factors: Horney challenged Freud’s view on female development and emphasized cultural influences (Horney 1926, 361).
  • Concept of Growth: Perls adopted Horney’s view of therapy promoting growth, not just treating illness (Horney 1917).
  • Non-pathological Neurosis: Horney viewed neurotic mechanisms as coping strategies, not purely negative (Horney 1977, 9).
  • Humanistic Approach: Perls appreciated Horney’s focus on human connection over jargon (Perls 1981, 50).
  • Gender Equality: Horney’s influence may have contributed to Perls’ view of Lore Perls as an equal partner (Sreckovic 1999).

Note: Perls did not publicly acknowledge Horney’s work on female psychology.

Reference

Bocian, B. (2015). Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893-1933: Expressionism Psychoanalysis Judaism. EHP-Verlag Andreas Kohlhage.

Significance of Karen Horney’s Work

Here’s a breakdown of her significance, life, and influences:

  • Challenging Freud: Horney disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on biological drives, particularly the concept of penis envy. She believed that personality development was primarily shaped by social and environmental factors, not solely instinctual forces.
  • Neurosis as a Coping Mechanism: Horney viewed neurosis as the result of basic anxiety stemming from childhood experiences of neglect or lack of genuine love. To cope with this anxiety, she theorized that people develop neurotic needs (like needs for affection, power, or submission), which become problematic if overly rigid.
  • Feminine Psychology: Horney was a key figure in founding feminist psychology. She criticized the male-centric bias in traditional psychoanalysis and highlighted how cultural and societal factors shape women’s psychological experiences.
  • Emphasis on Self-Realization: Horney placed self-realization at the center of her theory. She believed that people have an innate drive for growth and self-actualization, which can be hampered by anxiety and the adoption of a false idealized self-image.

Life References

  • Early Life and Education: Born in Germany, Horney endured a difficult childhood marked by a distant father and a depressive mother. She excelled academically and became one of the first women in Germany to study medicine.
  • Psychoanalytic Training: Horney trained in psychoanalysis in Berlin, where she became a founding member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute.
  • Move to the United States: In 1932, she emigrated to the United States, fleeing the rise of Nazism. She settled in New York City and became a prominent figure in the American psychoanalytic scene.
  • Founding the American Institute for Psychoanalysis: Disagreeing with some orthodox Freudian perspectives, Horney co-founded the American Institute for Psychoanalysis, which reflected her more socially-oriented theories.

Influences and Influence

  • Influences: Horney was initially influenced by Freud but later diverged from his views. She was also likely influenced by her personal experiences of gender discrimination and the social and political turmoil of her time. Alfred Adler’s ideas, with their emphasis on social factors, may have also resonated with her.
  • Those Influenced: Horney’s work has influenced numerous fields, including:
    • Neo-Freudians: Psychoanalysts like Erich Fromm and Harry Stack Sullivan were influenced by Horney’s emphasis on social and cultural factors in personality development.
    • Feminist Psychology: Horney is considered a foundational figure in feminist psychology, inspiring later writers and theorists.
    • Humanistic Psychology and Self-help: Horney’s theory of self-realization and the emphasis she placed on self-analysis resonate with approaches in humanistic psychology and the self-help movement.

Further Reading

Integration through Experimentation in Gestalt Therapy: origins and theory

Bocian’s article, translated by F. Staemmler, “From free association to concentration: from alienation to Ferenczi’s “forced fantasies” and “the third” in Gestalt Therapy”, helps us to grasp the fundamental difference between the work of the “typical” Gestalt therapist and the Psychoanalyst.

Gestalt therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is based on Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, which itself developed from Pierre Janet’s hypnosis. This shows a transition from hypnosis, where the patient is simply an object of investigation with no agency in their own treatment, to psychoanalysis where the patient plays a more active role by expressing the analyst through free association. Psychoanalytic work deals with the resistance to free association by analysing the transference in the therapeutic relationship.

The focus of analytic work used to be on verbal content and reconstructing the patient’s childhood. However, this approach was criticized as being “passive” and being rich in interpretations and “poor in results” by Wilhelm Reich in 1942. Instead, in 1924, Ferenczi and Rank suggested that the therapy should prioritize what happens in the present moment between the patient and therapist.

The author highlights that since there is no third person in the room, the situation that plays out in the transference and countertransference can sometimes feel threatening to the client, and overwhelm the therapist.

Gestalt therapy provides the option to externalise the intrapersonal drama of the client, leaving the therapeutic relationship intact. The externalised figure, which may represent a parent or a fragment of the client’s personality, is introduced into the therapy room as a virtually present third person. Harsh emotions and memories from childhood that belong to the internal states of the client can be expressed and worked through with the holding and witnessing of the therapist.

The client can externalise and dramatize psychic conflicts in therapy, working through unfinished situations and integrating intra -psychic splits. In Gestalt therapy the therapist stays present, does not get themselves caught up in a swirl of emotions and enactments in the counterteransference, making themselves available to the client’s vulnerable split-off parts.

Gestalt therapy utilizes “embodied performance” to facilitate free association. This allows patients to fully inhabit and express their in-the-moment experiences—sensations, thoughts, and feelings. The result is a level of self-understanding that goes beyond simple intellectual awareness. The work of the therapist is to attend to the “emerging figure” by paying close attention to the body-language & phenomenology of the client, giving space for any form of emotional and physical expression.

The paper describes how therapists can use creative methods to facilitate enactments, enlivening therapeutic process. Well ahead of their time, Psychoanalyst Ferenczi writes, in 1929, of “physical memory symbols” in which he explains how patients get in contact with pre-verbal memories of events that occured during early childhood, through these physical enactments. (Now known as “The Body Keeps the Score”) Reich in 1925, adds to this observation that “acting-out and remembering are complementary.

Ferenczi mentions that these unpleasant memories which reverberate somewhere in the body represents unfinished situations that need to be developed completely. In gestalt therapy this process is described as an active organising force mobilised, similarly experienced during hysterical attack, where through word or gesture an inner or external experience is acted out.

Free-association is not merely a speaking of fragmented associations or repetitions, but has the potential to organize these parts into meaningful wholes, filling in unfinished pieces. Free associating may also characteristically be devoid of emotional experience in practice. To frustrate the patient’s “elliptical associations”— when talking in circles, spiralling— is to enable making contact with painful emotions, a process that might often be met with resistance.

these interventions that are considered “active” at the time, facilitates remembering. Laura and Frederick Perls incorporated psychoanalytic work with character analysis as well as experimental transformation of behaviour and experience to establish Gestalt Therapy integrated.

Fritz Perls acknowledges that Freud is right in believing that contact with the present was essential, however the traditional practice of having the therapist sit behind the couch neglects other expressions like body language, lending to the possibility of what Perls calls, free-dissociation, where associations “float away”. The

Experimentation in the therapeutic session gives context the actuality in the here-and-now, establishing a ground for “felt-contact” allowing the figure of the symptom to sharpen; what Perls would call the “middle mode”.

The client involved in the experimentation becomes instrumental to the process of his own self-awareness. “The goal of Psychotherapy is not for the therapist to become aware of something about the patient, but for the patient to become aware of himself.” (PHG 1951)

Gestalt therapy incorporates character analysis instituted by Reich, reintegrating the splits between the psyche and the body, the individual and society. The emphasis is on using the observed phenomena in the therapy room to investigate past situations and fantasised content; a movement from the figure to the background. The importance is on description, less on explanation, and experience and experiment over interpretation. The therapist withholds premature analysis of repressed material, instead bringing light to how the client repressed the material.


I embed the pdf of this article here:

Bocian-from-Free-association

References

Bocian, B. (2009). From Free Association to Concentration: About Alienation, Ferenczi’s »Forced Fantasies,« and »the Third« in Gestalt Therapy. In: Studies in Gestalt Therapy: Dialogical Bridges 2, 37-58

Francesetti: Gestalt Therapy, an Engine of Change.

This lecture was given by Gianni Francesetti in Madrid on 22nd Sept 2023 at the European Association of Gestalt Therapy conference.

In the video, Gianni Francesetti argues that field perspectives are becoming increasingly important in psychotherapy because the world is changing and psychopathology is changing along with it. He suggests that many of the clinical issues therapists face today, such as identity problems and overwhelming emotions, are symptoms of a larger societal problem. Traditional diagnostic categories may not be sufficient to understand these issues, and therapists need to be able to view their clients in the context of the field.

@ 10:30 On the topic of “Boring.

Francesetti begins by explaining that he has tried to make his speech less “boring”. He then says, “Boring is not so bad, maybe.”

He will mention this phenomenon of boredom — which I find noteworthy due to personal experiences as someone who often gets bored myself and working with clients who feel chronic boredom as a practitioner — later on in this lecture.

Field perspectives in Gestalt therapy: there is a growing interest in the field perspectives in the current psychotherapy universe. This has much to do with current clinical issues. Frank Staemmler (2006) writes about the concept of ‘field’.

What does “Field” mean? Is it different for each person, or is the feel a “common” dimension?

@13:15 The speaker mentions that different people use the term “Field” differently, and even the same author may use different meanings of the word field, that a definition needs to be made. I tend to think that perhaps this is precisely what the term is about. The field is an all-encompassing concept, and all meanings of the word field are valid and useful to psychotherapeutic work.

@13:59 Is the field different for each person or is it a common dimension in a given situation?

The field as organism-environment contact/unity, and the key historical influencers to the concept of field theory in Gestalt psychotherapy.

@ 35:20 What are the clinical issues we are facing today?

Case study

Psychopathology, just like life, is a fractal.

Gianni Francesetti, outlines two main ways of conceptualizing the field: the organism-environment field and the phenomenal field.

The organism-environment field is the idea that each organism has its own individual field. This field is made up of the organism and its environment, and it is constantly changing. The speaker argues that this concept of the field helps us to move away from the idea of the isolated organism.

The phenomenal field is a more recent concept that has emerged from the field of gestalt therapy. The phenomenal field is the pre-reflective and preverbal dimension of experience. It is the place where experience emerges, and it is common to all of us in a given situation. The speaker argues that the phenomenal field is a way of understanding the forces that are at play in a situation, and that these forces can have an impact on our experience.

References

Francesetti, G. (2023). Gestalt therapy. An engine of change. Lecture EAGT Conference on 22 Sept 2023. Madrid. retrieved from https://youtu.be/dSIGs2bbwGU?si=cQGEKwFSDBMZFTbo&t=506

Staemmler, F. (2006). A Babylonian Confusion?: On the Uses and Meanings of the Term ‘Field’. British Gestalt Journal15(2), 64.