Events & Articles

Psychotherapy and the Work of the Soul

  1. Introduction

I feel honoured to be invited to share my thoughts about psychotherapy and the soul with members of the Jungian community. Thank you. 

 

My use of the word ‘soul’ is strongly influenced by the work of Hameed Ali, pen name A.H. Almaas, the originator of the Diamond Approach to personal realisation.

 

He says:-The self is a living organism that constitutes a field of perception and action. This is what we call “soul.” Fundamentally it is an organism of consciousness, a field of awareness capable of what we call experience – experience of the world and of self-reflective awareness of itself. Soul and self are used somewhat interchangeably.’
The Point of Existence, p. 13

 

Following my first contact with psychotherapy over 35 years ago, I have been attached to  and identified it as a path for self-realization. 

As a child and adolescent, I witnessed the experience of family members’ psychiatric treatment via the medical model which did not address the systemic, transgenerational and spiritual aspects of our family’s issues. So, when I sought help and understanding it was from modalities distinct from the medicalized and socially conventional models of therapy.

In doing this, I protected the sanctity and integrity of my soul. However, I now see that my contempt for the conventional has been/was also a manifestation of my psychological splitting of the world; through terror and with hate.  Obviously not conducive of the journey of the soul!

I felt honoured to be asked by Gottfried to provide this talk, following my sharing with him of an article for Self & Society. However, the article carried the alienated  attitude which I have just mentioned.

By the time it had been accepted for publication I saw it was seriously flawed (and so I withdrew it from publication). Gottfried also saw the flaw, but he still gave me this invitation!

In the article, I wrote about the spiritual conception of essence and the unity of being, whilst critiquing models with a medicalised or quasi medicalised paradigm. My attitude of superiority in the way I expressed this, mirrored what I was alleging against these models!

Rather than being negatively merged in hate and fear towards what I experience as different and threatening, I am working spiritually towards acceptance. As Sandra Maitri, a teacher of the Diamond Approach says: ‘Acceptance is not capitulation’.

As always, salutary shame supports my unlearning and learning!

So, I will here try to state, in a better way, what I consider to be a significant epistemological contribution made by Jürgen Habermas, which can assist our appreciation of the range of functions for talking therapies.

Habermas’s epistemological conception of ‘Knowledge Constitutive Interests’ provides a framework which supports an appreciation of the nature and functions of different types of knowledge.

In his book Knowledge and Human Interests (1972), Habermas identified ‘three categories of possible knowledge’ (p313) which are formed and developed from different ‘knowledge constitutive interests’:- technical, practical and emancipatory.

In this way, he established a means of engaging with, and appreciating the particular qualities, functions and limitations of different types of knowledge creating activities.

Habermas subsequently went onto develop a theory of communicative action and ethics (Badillo,1991), within which critical, open and liberating dialogue can take place.

Technical and practical knowledge constitutive interests, accept and engage with the manifest and socially conventional concepts about being and reality. In relation to psychotherapy and counselling, these are supportive of an instrumental, conservative conception of therapy. One in accord with the current hegemony of the medical model of mind. Paradigmatically, they lean towards the endorsement of therapies, such as CBT, which focus upon the individual’s adjustment to her/his circumstances.

Whilst modalities such as CBT have unattractive to me in my personal and professional journey, their predicated therapeutic functions and objectives, are obviously important. They are of value to many people with respect to the relief of suffering and the support of functioning to fulfil commitments with which they identify, and to which they are attached.

My conscious concern (rather than my pathological rebellion, which I have previously mentioned) about these therapies, has been their potential to reify being, and be used for social control.

The use of therapy for such purposes, relates to what Harold Walsby termed in his book ‘The Domain of Ideologies’(2009), first published in 1947 an ‘Eido-static’, passive and conformist orientation to the political and social status quo, in contrast to the politically oppositional ideologies of the ‘Eido-dynamic’ .

(Harold Walsby was an important figure and influence upon John Rowan. My father and John were members of a group who left the Socialist Party of Great Britain in the late 1940s as a result of Walsby’s critique of the party’s so-called ‘mass rationality assumption’.)

Therapy for personal adjustment and the symptomatic management of distress fits with one of the key objectives of the State; the facilitation of cohesion, stability, and the maintenance of the status quo. (Poulantzas, 1978). The plan, and I understand, developing policy to impose a type of CBT upon benefit claimants, reflects one of the functions of therapy as conceived by the State at this time (The Guardian, 2015).

My identification has been with psychotherapy as a radical practice, for liberation . I think here of John Rowan’s succinct article ‘Back to basics: Two types of therapy’ (Counselling, 11(2), March 2000, pp.76-78), in which writes about counselling for adjustment and counselling for liberation.

Habermas’s study of the ‘emancipatory interest’ focussed upon the practice of psychoanalysis and stated: ‘Self–reflection is determined by an emancipatory cognitive interest (1972, p310), and, ‘In self-reflection, knowledge for the sake of knowledge comes to coincide with the interest in autonomy and responsibility (Mündigkeit). For the pursuit of reflection knows itself as a movement of emancipation’ (1972, 197-8). I believe other models of psychotherapy for which self-reflection is integral are facilitators of emancipation.

 This is the case with Gestalt therapy and its commitment to awareness, as succinctly expressed   by Gary Yonteff: ‘Insightful awareness is always a new Gestalt and is in itself curative.’(Yonteff, 1993, p250)

The personal, oppositional stance which I mentioned earlier, reflected my formative experiences of childhood. I experienced the world as threatening and terrifying, and I transmitted back fear and hate towards it. Recent spiritual retreats at Auschwitz have been very important in helping my shift away from this attitude, and my opening towards having an appreciation of the spiritual and transpersonal dimensions. I will share something about these with you:-

3. My Two Retreats at Auschwitz of May 2014 & 2015

A little bit of background information: My mother’s family were members of the Sephardic Jewish community of Salonika.

Through my grandfather’s ingenuity, my mother, her parents and siblings managed to emigrate to the UK in the early 1930s. Only one of the family members who remained in Salonika survived. The community was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau by train in the summer of 1943.  Only 2% of the community survived the Holocaust. The catastrophe deeply affected my mother, and for me as a child, it was a defining factor in my developing orientation to the world.

My first retreat at Auschwitz in May 2014 was as a member of a group from the Ridhwan school of the Diamond Approach.

I.

We stayed at the Centre for Dialogue & Prayer nearby, in Oswiecim.


For four days we had the use of a hut at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the function of which had been for the recreation of officers of the SS; a poignant and darkly transcendent twist of fate.

I experienced quite life changing contact and companionship with German people on the retreat.

Prior to the start of our first walk to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I introduced myself to a German couple. The woman, Monica, reacted with humble distress, upon my answering her enquiry of my background:

‘Is it ok that we walk, with you?’, and I replied from deep within my soul,

‘It is perfect.’ And so it was.

Later in the SS hut, I shared an exercise of personal inquiry with her husband, Volker.

Whilst simultaneously viewing one of the camp watchtowers through a window, I looked at Volker, and sensed the different relationship we would have had in this place 70 years ago. I felt white light explode from my head.

Through his writing and our subsequent meeting on Skype, I learned that Volker’s father was a member of the Waffen SS and worked in concentration camps. In a childhood surrounded by Nazi family and teachers, he had been deeply inculcated with this ideology. I sensed the courage and loneliness of his journey to become free of the Nazi indoctrination.

In the depth and mutual compassion of our second encounter, I felt it was as if two planetary platelets had moved towards each other. I sensed my kinship with him.

I found the experience of walking to Auschwitz-Birkenau each day to be uplifting. To my surprise, upon approaching the campus I felt peaceful and my heart open. The green of the site touched and soothed me.

Our reciting as a group, in turn, the names of family members murdered there, or on route, was cathartic and healing. When I did this, I went back to the centre, had a short sleep , and awoke with a  most beautiful feeling stillness in my soul.

Father Manfred, the priest at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, told us during the final evening of our stay: ‘When you visit you learn that evil is not the last word from Auschwitz, you can sense the spirits want peace’.

I was moved by this message, confirming that my experience was neither aberrant nor unique.

Retreat May 2015

I knew I had to return to Auschwitz, and when I spoke of this with my German friend, Dorle. She said she would come too.

Whilst there is no evidence of Dorle’s family being involved in the Holocaust, she has carried a heavy burden of a transgenerational, collective shame and guilt.

My meeting with Dorle at Katowice airport for our shared journey and exploration at Auschwitz, was for me transcendently significant. With the backdrop of my history and conditioning and familial conditioning, it felt like a miracle to me.

On the first of our two visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dorle and I set off after an early breakfast for our walk to the campus. It was important to be there early, because of the large groups, who fracture the crucial quiet for this work.

Arriving at 8am, there was a curious occurrence that reminded me of Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphic resonance with regards to the memory of events being held within the fields of soul.

The Polish guard on the gate, signalled to me that I couldn’t enter the campus with my small rucksack. Dorle asked him about her very much larger shoulder bag, and he told her that was fine!  At Dorle’s suggestion, we solved my problem by emptying the few items I had in my rucksack into her bag, and left the former in the care of the manager of the site’s bookshop.

I wondered aloud whether this had been a mild, historic reflection of the contrasting status of Jews and Germans at this place. As we entered, I felt the love and significance of Dorle carrying my load.

At Crematoria 2 Dorle recited the names of Jews from her area of Berlin who were murdered in the Holocaust; and I laid on the ground and felt healing in my soul.

Each time we entered a barracks, I felt compelled to bow and kneel in the dusty doorway. In one of the barracks we sat together at its centre, in the darkness against a wall, and Dorle lit a candle to accompany her continuing recitation of   names of Jews from her area of Berlin who had perished in the Holocaust. With this act, Dorle again powerfully conveyed her fortitude and love.

I experienced remarkable moments of peace and connection as in 2014, but this time they were more substantially in my body. I felt calmer and at times had a sense of radiant white light, especially around my hands. I also noticed my moving in and out of this experience of presence and awareness, into dissociated, displacing rumination and daydreams.

Whilst being and inquiring with Dorle in the grounds of Auschwitz, I noticed an inner movement which had manifested during the several family constellations in which I worked on this issue, ten and more years earlier: To lay flat on the ground with my ancestors who had perished. In this position, as in the constellation workshops, I felt comfortable and warm. I eventually followed a subsequent movement in my soul; to stir, kneel, bow and return to my feet: a movement of respect and of clarifying our different, distinct fates.

Being at the destination for which my ancestors either died en route or were killed; confronting my spiritual and psychological entanglement with their fate, and , sharing this experience with German people was very healing for me.

Since then I have believed and felt more strongly the ultimate unity of being and our oneness, and, a growing freedom from my parent’s attitudes.

This has supported a movement in my work as a therapist towards a holding of compassion for not only my client, but for her/his whole family system, and the wider field.

4. The systemic/ The field of soul and trauma .

My appreciation of the systemic transpersonal perspective , which supported my retreats at Auschwitz,  has been influenced by my involvement with family constellation work. This is a model created by Bert Hellinger, and now practiced globally, with which you may well be familiar.

For me, this quote is a concise articulation of an essential aspect of its incisive perspective:-

‘Family constellations go beyond the concept of a purely personal experience of trauma to include trauma that has been the fate of others, primarily those we are bound to in empathy and blind love and in a kind of unconscious attempt to balance and compensate. This, too, extends beyond the limits of present time and space.’ (p32, Schneider, 2007)

A brief introduction to family constellation work

Family constellation work attends to hidden systemic processes that take place within the ‘soul’ of a family (p35, Schneider, 2007). This approach has much in common with the perspective of field theory, one of the ‘three pillars on which gestalt practice is deemed to stand’ as Malcolm  Parlett has written. (pxiii, Parlett in Gaffney and O’Neil, 2013).

The family constellations model has a phenomenological approach towards the understanding of, and the working through of intergenerational entanglements (unconscious identifications) which carry forward the effects trauma from one generation to another. Its usual format is a workshop comprising of a dozen people or more, but it can be applied within 1 to 1 work. I find that simply holding  this perspective deepens work with both clients and supervisees.

A family constellation is not considered to be an ‘objective’ representation of reality, but rather an uncovering and exploration of the aspect that is affecting the issue holder:

‘Something is presented in image and word in a compressed form that allows us to experience a previously hidden reality. It is similar to truth in art. Art brings forth, in a concentrated form, what was previously invisible in reality.’ (Schneider, p180, 2007)

I find it can facilitate understanding of the effects of family history upon our sense of self, and orientation to the world. With regards to our relationships with parents, it can also assist us to appreciate the systemic background to their behaviours that were injurious to our development and well-being.  

I do not view this approach as taking precedence over the essential therapeutic work of uncovering and processing early experiences, that have caused a person to  close down their depth of being.

Of course, it doesn’t excuse the injurious behaviours of parents. However, it can  enable  the acceptance of what was and is nutritious in these relationships. In this way, it can support our movement towards maturity, and beyond the limiting confines of ‘object relations’ (Almaas, 1988) with a victim/perpetrator dynamic.  I believe Hunter Beaumont’s writing on this area is important: (‘Towards a Spiritual Psychotherapy’,2012). Hunter was a colleague of Hellinger’s for many years.

He describes how ‘Feelings of justified resentment’ against our family can leave us ‘dependent and incomplete’ (p8-9, 2012), observing: ‘When we are able to remember our father’s essence we do better, our children do better and our father does better’ (p33, Beaumont, 2012)…and …‘This soul movement towards our mother’s essence can succeed because we are reaching out to the potential behind our entangled mothers.’ (p59, Beaumont, 2012, my emphasis)

In family constellation work there is the central concept, of ‘Orders of Love’ (Hellinger, Weber & Beaumont, 1998), which comprises of those related to personal conscience and those of a hidden, systemic conscience. When there is disturbance within a family caused by events of  tragedy, trauma or exclusions,  transgenerational entanglements may result. The ‘Orders of Love’ can help identify what is out of alignment, and a path towards freeing the entangled.

‘Everyone in the system has an equal right to belong, and no member can deny another his or her place…Members may forget those who have been excluded, but the system “re-members” its own’ (p153, Hellinger, Weber & Beaumont, 1998.) If someone is excluded there may be a movement towards correcting this imbalance via the unconscious identification and entanglement of a member of a subsequent generation with her/his fate.  

A brief description of the procedure in a family constellation workshop

The model works with the direct experience of the issue holder, representatives and facilitator: ‘Constellations basically look at two questions. Firstly, what entangles one family member in the fate of another and what might resolve this entanglement? Secondly, what is needed to support a free flow of love?’ (p32, Schneider, 2007)

The issue holder sits next to the facilitator and is asked to speak of the ‘burning issue’ and/or ‘heart’s desire’ inspiring her/him to work. Following this initial conversation, if it is appropriate the facilitator will invite the issue holder to choose, one by one, people from the group to represent members of her/his family, other involved people and her/his self. S/he will then intuitively and gently guide each representative to their starting position in the constellation.

Members of the group chosen to be representatives, act in the service of the issue holder’s family system: The helpful information in thoughts, feelings and movements which emerge through them to support the work, is frequently extraordinary. Different explanations have been offered for this remarkable phenomena, such as Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of ‘morphic fields’ (Sheldrake, 2011), and Vivian Broughton’s use of a comparison with the unconscious processes of transference, projection and projective identification (British Gestalt Journal, Vol 22, No.2, 2013).

Through the information manifested through the representatives, the reactions from the issue holder and the attuned guidance of the facilitator, there occurs an unfolding of the issue within the family system.  This can help a freeing of the issue holder from entanglements, and, her/his re-connection with support for his life; through actions such as the voicing of feelings of loss and grief deeply held within the family soul, with sentences of gratitude, and bows .

Where deeply traumatised family patterns have been present for several generations, a line of representatives of ancestral mothers and fathers may be employed to enable the issue holder to connect with an archetypal support which has not been disturbed by suffering and entanglement.

A family constellation can work with the impact and effects of traumas from a previous generation, by helping:-

1. To open the way to, and facilitate the honouring of ancestors who suffered. 

2. A person to see, and be freed from, the form of her/his traumatising entanglement with the past.

3. A re-connection with support and affirmation to live more freely.

A family soul is deeply affected when a person/persons are lost in a way which does not accord with the normal flow of life, examples of this are: murder, suicide, a mother’s death in childbirth and the death of an infant. As a result, members of succeeding generation are often found to carry an unconscious entanglement with the lost person, in ‘blind love’ which overrides her/his personal way of being, and causes her/his flow of life to be diverted and restricted. In family constellation work the identification of such entanglements can be freeing,  enabling the recognition and honouring of the lost and excluded, and the connecting  of the issue holder with ‘enlightened love’ (Schneider, 2007) which supports the forward flow of life. In the case of the off-spring of survivors or perpetrators of genocide, there can be the liberation from a tormenting identification with trauma, guilt and concomitant self-defeating ways of life. This allows space and energy for the opening of a greater appetite for life and living.

Client 1. A professional male client in his thirties experiences disempowering shame and guilt with respect to his heart’s desire to have an intimate relationship with a woman, and create a family. It took him over a year of weekly sessions to be able to clearly state and sit with this intention. Adapting constellation work for 1to 1 therapy, I asked him to place vinyl floor tiles : -one for his father (who he experienced/es as disinterested as a father and seeking/expecting his help). When my client stood on the tile for his father (F), it was clear that the energy/interest was not towards him/the son, but turning backwards towards his father, the paternal grandfather (GF)-so I placed another tile to give a place for the grandfather. When my client stood on that tile, I immediately saw his body and face reveal that something powerful was happening-he looked moved and expanded-he had connected with the Grandfather’s tragic loss of his first wife and child in childbirth-this led to a resolving dialogue between GF and F regarding the former’s lack of availability to the latter as a father. F became more available to client and so I facilitated the exchange of resolving sentences between them. Whilst this piece of work did not create a quick solution for the client’s issue it was certainly supportive of his steady, continuing progress.

 In working with a female client (Client 2), who has a terror based, fragmented dissociative process, diagnosed by her previous therapist as borderline DID, consequent of the transmission of family systemic trauma, and a traumatising infancy and adolescence; it has been important to find a balance of supportive holding of the relationship, and a clear facilitative stance for her exploration of the entanglements within her family.

Because of the very disturbed nature of her family system, its history, and her childhood, where I have responded with verbally expressed empathy the client has abreacted (closed down from contact and exploration) from within her dissociated defence against the absence of empathy and the presence of annihilating forces.

When I employed a trauma therapy approach –utilizing EMDR, Ego state therapy or CRM, (taking specialist supervision for the work): each triggered, no matter how carefully and sensitively performed, an un-therapeutic re-experiencing of overwhelming terror.

The key to our recent and significant progress, including her greater stability, has been through my helping her recognise, and begin to process the family systemic basis of her terror; with the family constellation model adapted for 1-1 work. This is enabling her to experience from within, modest, but significant and growing inner holding, including a greater trust of her memory and experience. However, I should add that the client is clear that her work with previous therapists and our work prior to this provided the conditions necessary for our working with her family constellation to be possible and helpful.

My belief is that family constellation work can aid the journey of soul in the working through of interruptions from the consummation of love and the ultimate unity of being.

5. Reflecting on the influence of the Diamond Approach to Self-Realisation upon me

I experience the following lines from Bert Hellinger as spiritually and psychologically challenging, with regards to the work towards deeper truth  and freedom:

'It’s gradually become clear to me that clients have a strong tendency to use their strengths to hold on to their problems and to avoid solutions. That has to do with the fact that psychological problems, unhappiness, or symptoms give us an inner assurance that we’ll be allowed to continue to belong to our group. Suffering is the proof our child soul needs that we’re not guilty with respect to our family. It secures and protects our right to belong to our family. Every unhappiness that’s caused by systemic entanglement is accompanied by the deep contentment of knowing that we belong.’ (Hellinger, P223)

I believe that one’s self-realisation requires the freedom which comes with a dis-identification from any group or concept, which allows movement towards the experience of non-duality/Unity. And To be in the world, but not of it.

The Diamond Approach of the Ridhwan school has been enormously helpful to me, in my opening to the spiritual and transpersonal, and, having an anchoring awareness of my personal psychology. This model works integratively with psychological and the spiritual.

A central understanding of the Diamond Approach is that we are ultimately inseparable from ‘essence’ (Almaas, 2004), but through alienating, inevitable formative experiences involved in our development of a personality structure, we disconnect and lose contact with this reality.

This alienation is manifested and expressed through a general sense and belief of ‘deficiency’ (Almaas, 1996) and concomitant forms of suffering and distress.

Almaas sees the personality structure as a scaffolding via which we can each open to contact with our essential qualities, and ‘True Nature’. For example: those of us with a narcissistic personality style have a natural, organismic movement towards painful, disturbing ‘black holes’ of the experience of a lack self-value: Through the exploring and working through these holes, we can  connect with our true essential value, which transcends a dependency upon recognition and confirmation from others.

Whilst the concept of ‘relational depth’ (Knox, Murphy, Wiggins & Cooper, 2013) within the person-centred model of therapy is a valuable one, in this context its limitations needed to be  appreciated, because relational distance may  be important for the realm of inner relating, and the spirit, from which come, in my experience, profound, mysterious experiences of grace and understanding  .

A failure to respect this depth, and to over emphasize the importance of the therapeutic relationship, can limit exploration and unfoldment. I made this type of error with client 2.

Client 3: A professional female client in her late forties came to me with a lifelong addiction to prescription sedative medication which dated back to her childhood. This medication was given to her from the age of 8 years old by her disturbed and seriously ill mother, seeking to provide a soothing containment for the client’s natural experience of anxiety in the overwhelming, frightening circumstance of seeing her, apparently, near to death.

The mother groomed my client from a young age as both a carer and accomplice in a life of infirmity, and, also deceit in relation to education and social services.

My client had seen several therapists and psychiatrists before me.

Through our working systemically and respectfully with the entanglement, and a reverence for her soul’s  journey of survival, she is becoming free of her addiction- and currently for the first time since childhood is not taking any medication (Note: She has consulted her GP throughout this process).

She generally feels stronger and freer, and is no longer plagued by panic and acute relational insecurity.

Crucial, freeing movements in our work together have been: 1. A valuing and appreciation of the function of sedative medication in her survival of childhood. 2. Seeing her mother’s dispensing of her own medication to her as an act of care; in giving a substitute for the holding she was unable to provide.

Through speaking sentences, which I offered from my practice in family constellation work, within a visualisation of her mother; of gratitude, and the leaving of mother’s issues with mother, the client was able to move out of an object relation of blame and guilt in relation to her mother.

Whilst I am not a practitioner of The Diamond Approach, my immersion in its teaching as a student, supports my holding of the psychotherapeutic and spiritual in my work.

Gestalt therapy and the transpersonal

I.

I believe Gestalt therapy’s  conceptualising of our process of forming and reforming figure and ground, in a cycle of awareness and destruction (Clarkson, 1993), is a wonderful support for wholesome exploration, towards  healing and spiritual unfoldment (complementary to the phenomenological process in family constellation work of resolving  systemic, transgenerational entanglements).

Its orientation, and acknowledged influence from Field theory (Gaffney and O’Neil, 2013), does support an understanding of our fundamental connection with other people, and the rest of the environment; assisting respectful dialogue and collective understanding. The term ‘organism-environment field’ (PHG, 1951) is a concise expression of this perspective.

And, because of this open commitment to awareness and phenomenological investigation, I also understand it to possess the potential to hold and explore the transpersonal dimension. I like this statement from John Rowan: ‘…the transpersonal is a dimension of all therapy, which requires attention if the therapist is to deal with the whole person who is present …’ (2005, p1)

By transpersonal I mean: ‘…action which takes place through a person, but which originates in a centre of activity existing beyond the level of personhood.’ (Rudhyar, quoted by Rowan, 2005, p29).

The Gestalt therapist, Claudio Naranjo believes ‘ the most distinctive features of  gestalt therapy are ..transpersonal…awareness is transpersonal…spiritual’  (my emphasis) (Naranjo, 1993, p196-7).

His perspective is consistent with the central place given by Gestalt therapy to Buber’s influence and his transpersonal and religious concept and attitude of ‘I –Thou’.

I think it would be epistemologically untenable to deny or eschew the transpersonal, whilst embracing the perspective and orientation of ‘I-Thou’. An attempt to hold an ‘I-Thou attitude’ in this way would be an effort of technique, alienated from the premise and ground which gives it meaning and existential movement.

In ‘The Healing Relationship in Gestalt therapy’, Hycner writes:

‘There have been a number of questions raised about this being a “spiritual” approach. Discussing a philosophy of dialogue, talking about the “between” and mentioning “grace” places my thought explicitly in a spiritual context. By spiritual, I mean a recognition of a reality greater than that of the sum total of our individual realities, and of the physical and visible world. It is inconceivable to me to steep myself in a dialogical approach without recognizing a transpersonal dimension. I feel more and more that in my best therapeutic moments, I am present to, and sometimes the instrument of, some spiritual reality’ (Hycner and Jacobs,1995, p.93).

II.

I believe a gestalt orientation in therapy can support the inner and transpersonal aspects of experience, facilitating:-

  1. The apprehending and understanding of the ways we interrupt and lose contact with our phenomenological experience; which, through the diminution of presence, has the consequence of weakening our contact with our inner experience, other people and the environment.
  1. Personal insight and transformation, enabled by the release from fixed patterns of beliefs and behaviours, through contact with energy and qualities from within and without of oneself.
  2. The inquiry into, and exploration of, personal experience: The rising of feelings, new and renewed inner connections. The expansion of awareness. In turn, expanded awareness mobilizes our energy towards action, contact, and, via assimilation and integration, a new synthesis and deepened orientation. And so the emergence of new gestalts, in our spiritual unfolding.

I understand my perspective is unorthodox and at variance with much of the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy (Kalisch, Personal Communication, 2015).

  .

However, I believe attention to both inner and relational gestalt formation and processing, is consistent with both the field perspective and phenomenological (PHG, 1951) orientation of the modality:-

I think here of  PHG description of the phenomenological approach, and  Gaffney & O'Neil recent work regarding the 'Gestalt Field Perspective' :

'There are times when the therapist will attend to the importance of the singularity and uniqueness of the person, while at other times noting the importance of the relationship within the therapist-client dyad' (2013, p51), and, 'The compass needle of proprioceptive experience, imagery and external figure-ground formation can be the guides to the therapist in...individual field therapy work.' (2013, p53)

PHG’s description of the phenomenological approach of Gestalt therapy includes this statement : ‘Sensing determines the nature of awareness, whether distant…close…or within the skin (proprioceptive). In the last term is included the sensing of one’s dreams and thoughts’ (1951, p.ix, my emphasis).

This perspective is compatible with Almaas’s conception of a cosmic unity, and of divisions between inner and outer, as being ultimately illusory (albeit  developmentally inevitable and necessary), and formed via our personality structure (Almaas, 1988).

Gaffney and O’Neil, writing about Field theory and Gestalt therapy, describe an inner vision experienced by the therapist, of a pair of gloves. The therapist’s subsequent sharing of the image with the client precipitated a healing turning point in the therapy. They consider this to be a manifestation of the ‘magic and the mystery of a field approach’(2013, p38) , and assert:

'The most parsimonious explanation for this figure of the gloves requires a field to be in existence that consists of both therapist and client connected through the operation of this field, in essence a "wireless", and not one which is through the interplay of separate contacts and figure formations. This was a creation that emerged from the field and supervened upon the agency of its individual members.' (2013, p51) 

In accord with the above reference, is the significance of the substantial contribution made by many people with a background in Gestalt therapy to the modality of work with family constellations.

Another eminent Gestaltist, Gordon Wheeler, in a conversation with constellators was warmly accepting and enthusiastic about the constellation model (Appendix A in Hausner, 2011). This is despite its practitioners working with esoteric concepts such as the ‘Greater Soul’ (Hellinger, Weber & Beaumont, 1998) . Wheeler writes about the constellation model, with a rigorous and useful gestalt narration of the power and depth of the human process, but he does not deal with the transpersonal aspects and effects of the model. (‘Afterword’ in Hausner, 2011, )

One of the most significant and important contributions of Gestalt therapy has been the conceptualising of personal process as being inseparable from the field. The transpersonal contextualising of individual experience which I am suggesting is not a negation of it; rather, it supports this understanding.

However, I sense and observe within Gestalt therapy an ambivalence and tension about the transpersonal. This is articulated by Malcolm Parlett:  'Writing and talking about the field can  all sound too mystical for some.... especially so when people veer off into talking about using oneself as a 'resonating chamber'; being open to intuitive leaps and noticing extraordinary coincidences... or even embracing a constellation perspective... Moving in these directions seems to lead to a tipping point, when the needs for definition, conceptual order, and consistent use of terminology cut in, and insist on being paramount again... For many of us from time to time, there is an irresistible temptation to delve into the arguments about what the word 'field' denotes: is there an actual field of energy (as in auras, chi, the astral body)?...'.(p.xviii, Foreword to Gaffney &  O'Neil, 2013).

Rupert Sheldrake has discussed the concept of 'anatheism', the journey back to God (Podcast on www.sheldrake.org): I wondered if  Gestalt therapy is in a similar type of process with regards to the transpersonal and the spiritual, and asked Rupert of his view:

He kindly answered: 'As I understand it, the whole history of Gestalt therapy grew out of a field conception.  But people are very reluctant to use concepts that might be branded pseudoscientific.  I myself think it is indeed a field process, and that family theory involves the morphic field of the family including memories carried by morphic resonance from previous generations. But this is not exactly anatheism.  It’s moving towards a more holistic field model which would be compatible with an expanded version of naturalism or materialism as well as with a rediscovery of God' (Personal Communication, 2015).

III.

Because of my orientation (consequent of a spiritual life–changing experience early in my personal therapy), and the potential I see in the model, as one that can support deep and transpersonal work, ever since commencing training in 1992, I have reflected upon key tenets within the theory of Gestalt therapy concerning Self/Personality and Contact/Contact Boundary, which appear to limit its availability to the transpersonal:-

A. Self/Personality.

PHG wrote: ‘Let us call the “self” the system of contacts at any moment…The self is the contact boundary at work; its activity is forming figures and grounds’ (PHG, 1951, p235).

However,  a model of therapy which supports deep personal and transpersonal exploration, needs to distinguish a conception of the personality from that of the soul or self : 'A personal type of behaviour (or feeling, or thought) is one rooted in the substantive, and conditioned form of the personality. A transpersonal form of behaviour is one starting from the universal unconditioned Self in Man and using the personality merely as an instrument.’ (Rudhyar, quoted by Rowan, 2005, p29. My emphasis)

I use the term 'personality' to refer to the relationally formed and socially adapted aspects of our being.

PHG state: ‘The Personality is the system of attitudes assumed in interpersonal relations; is the assumption of what one is’ (PHG, 1951, p382), and they assert that: ‘..when the therapy is concluded… the Personality is a kind of framework of attitudes, understood by oneself, that can be used for every kind of interpersonal behaviour.’

Almaas’s  vision is much more radical:-‘… we need to realize Essence... But this is not to make the personality better… the point is that the personality itself finally realizes its own bankruptcy and that it's very existence is the problem.’ (Almaas, 1989, p42)

I use the term 'self' to refer to the deep, core aspects of our being; soul. With a different emphasis to PHG, Naranjo states in his writing on Gestalt therapy : ‘The idea of being true to oneself implies, of course, the existence of a “self”. If this term is to have any meaning, that must be the counterpart to character structure, the unconditioned-and, implicitly, the organismic’. (Naranjo,1993, p217, my emphasis).

Almaas believes :‘ .. The self is a living organism that constitutes a field of perception and action. This is what we call “soul'… alive conscious Presence’. Whilst he conceives it as… ‘ultimately not separate from the structures which form the ego. It is when they are taken as the self’s identity that these structures alienate the soul’s experience of its true nature'  (Almaas, 1996, p. 13-14, my emphases)

Thus, both writers are making what I believe to be a crucial distinction, between the adapted and adaptive aspects of people, and a form of being which is deeper, and transpersonal.

P.H.G. focussed upon the description of the functions and process of the self within the ‘organism-environment field’ (1951) more than the exploration of  inner reality, perhaps this is why, I have observed confusion in the practice of Gestalt therapy regarding self and personality.

Inner contact and interpersonal contact, are inseparable aspects of the ‘between’, and the organism-environment field; an interruption of any:-inner attunement, insight or contact will inevitably be manifest . And, Naranjo, whilst deeply appreciative of his contribution, refers to the issue of  Perl’s acting from the ‘characterological bias’ of his personality (Naranjo, 1993, p.218), rather than from his self/soul

I believe Gestalt’s phenomenological orientation is well suited to a reverence for self-exploration and depth encounter.

In order to support a client’s personal work, I believe it is important to hold an attuned appreciation of the different energies and qualities of the personality and self, and wider field.          

Rather than the focus being upon contact with the social environment, I believe, sometimes introspection is of figural importance to the individual, with the therapeutic relationship in the background, as counterpointing support. We can impede and rupture such exploration by ill-timed insistence of attention to personal and social contact functions, with the implicit discounting of the transformative potential of transpersonal contact experiences.

With a conception of the self’s ultimate oneness with the transpersonal, a reverent appreciation of transformative inner channelled contact is allowed. I believe this orientation is consistent with a key quality of the Gestalt model; its commitment to the phenomenology of awareness.

B/ Contact/Contact Boundary:  We are all deeply affected by our experience from the peri-natal phase of life onwards, through and in, contact. However, I believe, it is important to understand ‘contact’, ‘contact boundary’, and the organism-environment to include the transpersonal dimension(s).

This is for two reasons:-

  1. As previously stated, if this is not the case, to use I-Thou, I-Thou attitude and I-Thou moment to support and elucidate the process of Gestalt therapy is contradictory and epistemologically untenable. These lines from Buber express clearly the fundamentally transpersonal nature of holding an I-Thou attitude : “Only silence before the Thou-silence of  all tongues, silent patience in the undivided word that precedes the formed and vocal response-leaves the Thou free, and permits man to take his stand with it in the reserve where the spirit is not manifest, but is.” (Buber, 1958, p58)
  2. If a secular conception of contact and the process of emerging figures from the ground of being is insisted upon, the therapist will not be fully present to assist the client in her/his  personal journey, where it includes the transpersonal. Also, an attitude of excluding the transpersonal where it emerges in awareness and the therapeutic 

dialogue would be counter to the commitment to a phenomenological approach.

I believe it is important for me as a therapist to be open, and available to the person, with regards whatever her/his living gestalt may be, including the transpersonal and spiritual.

 

I hope the clinical work I described earlier conveyed a sense of my therapeutic approach to you.

Isaac Pizer

18/1/16

Thanks: I thank  clients 1, 2 & 3 for their providing of permission to refer to our work together.

References

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Almaas, A.H. (1996) The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization. Berkeley: Diamond Books.

Almaas, A.H. (1998) Facets of Unity. The Enneagram of Holy Ideas. Boston: Shambhala.

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