Gestalt  Critique

Stephen Schoen:

Gestalt Therapy and Spirituality
Psychotherapy als Sacred Ground


Gestalt Critique

the eMagazine for Gestalt Therapy, Politics and Spirituality,
the on-line version in English language

Gestalt Therapy Institutes of Cologne and Kassel, Germany

Stephen Schoen:

Gestalt Therapy and Spirituality
Psychotherapy als Sacred Ground

Foto: Stephen SchoenStephen Schoen

Here you will find an other article of Stephen Schoen in German language.


Our New Book:

Erhard Doubrawa
Touching the Soul in Gestalt Therapy
Stories and More

In this book the author has collected stories, which he has often told in his therapeutic work – during individual therapy sessions with clients as well as in group trainings. These stories have already often contributed to helping people open themselves again and be deeply touched by others.  [Information]


I'm going to give you a series of metaphors tonight about the inner life ... because, quite simply, I don't know what better I can give. And for me to say this is at once to recall and pay tribute to my dear friend Gregory Bateson, who, some ten years ago, a few months before he died, stood right here also as the guest of the Jung Institute, and spoke of the inextricable place of metaphor in the inner life. First of all, he defined it ... with his usual flair for reverse logic. For his was not the "metaphor" we had all learned by rote in high school: that is, making unlike things equal. For example: "You are my lucky star." To Gregory, metaphor disclosed a real similarity in different things, "a correspondence of form," as he said, "between ... one thing mentioned and another-" His technical term for this was "an isomorphism." Then "you are my lucky star" isn't an extravagant compliment, but a great actual discovery. And if I say to you, as if it were simple fact, "I know that my Redeemer liveth," this audience isn't likely to dispute the matter with me, as you would with my saying, "I know that the Pacific Ocean is due East from here." It isn't just that, in the second case, we're dealing with facts held in common, and in the first, with a personal faith. By this faith you understand something more: that the statement of faith is metaphoric; that I am linking my personal limitations and frailties on the one side, and on the other, a very different plane of absolute value, as lower to higher level of being. Such a linkage of different things exists in all talk of the spiritual, and is precisely the isomorphism of metaphor which Gregory referred to. He himself loved to quote the Anglican definition of a Sacrament: "The outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." There, too, is your linkage ... of outward data with an inner state. And to speak as I shall be doing tonight, in the spiritual language of " the soul" is, consciously or not, to be imbued with this isomorphism; it is to tell a tale, where the tale is taken as true. Simple piety, of course, disposes of these concerns. It has the advantage of a significant unconsciousness. Along which lines the sharpwitted writer, John Jay Chapman, once observed, "A thing is not truth till it is so strongly believed in that the believer is convinced that its existence does not depend on him." But I doubt that any of us will forget, or want to forget, that I am speaking of truth as beliefs; and perhaps conscious metaphors can even strengthen faith, as they may also bring out something relativistic in plain fact. A good poet could set us meditating that the Pacific Ocean is East from here, too, when you keep going; or even that.the ocean is a state of mind.

Well then, for us tonight, what state of mind is the soul?

I shall begin with two kinds of relationship.

The first is of living objectified. Ordinarily we are immersed in goal-directed and time-bound activities, from the most simple ones, like getting a drink of water when we're thirsty, to the very complex kind, like succeeding in a career, making a relationship work, giving up one that doesn't, and so on. This is life categorizable. It is the reality of our having names, histories, plans, the reality of your being here tonight as listeners and me as speaker, and of each of us wondering just what we will "get out of this" or how we might "put it to use." It's the reality of the presentation of ourselves in the world, whether to good or poor effect. It's a reality incomplete: we can always add something to it. Well, and what more reality, you might well ask, could there possibly be? There is a lovely cartoon on this theme of Something More. Two Zen monks are seated in meditation, one an older man, the other a novice with a perplexed look. The novice has just asked a question and the older man is answering. He says, "nothing happens next. This is it." Now we are in the second kind of relationship. It is of life uncategorizable. It is not effective presentation of self, but presence of self, without regard to effect. It is immediate, spontaneous experience of the other in pure attentiveness, pure communion, no strings attached. It is savor of the other, like walking appreciatively in a flower garden --without naming the flowers-- or watching a sunset, or playing with a baby, or a contented mother's nursing her baby. It is the upholding of another's uniqueness, as Simone Weil once described it: "Belief in the existence of other human beings as such is love." It is unbounded fullness of contact, a fullness that creates a new thing, as in Donne's lines:

When love, with one another so

Interinanimates two soules,

That abler soule, which thence doth flow,

Defects of lonelinesse controules.

And in all these ways the relationship is something complete.

This way of relating is my first metaphor of soul--of the free soul. In Donne's words, it is "that abler soul."

Now, it is clear that I'm contrasting these two relationships in the manner of "cold fact" vs. "warm heart," or "the letter" vs. "the spirit" of the law. And, of course, we don't exist in these unmixed states. There's no life of the soul without glasses of water, career, and plans, and the purest of warm hearts might proclaim, on a bumper sticker: "Honesty pays. But not enough." Or the soul may be enclosed, quite knowingly and contentedly, in a material cocoon, as in the remark quoted with such charm by Emerson: "I have heard," he said, "with admiring submission, the experience of the lady who declared that the sense of being welldressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity, which religion is powerless to bestow." Nor can the purest acceptance of another person honestly disregard that wonderful line of the humorist Ashleigh Brilliant: "Accepting you as you are does not necessarily mean that I have given up all hope of your improving." On the other side of the matter, no one has ever taken an entirely soulless drink of water, except perhaps an IBM-designed robot; and it would have intrigued Gregory Bateson's roving mind very much as to what metaphoric messages you'd have to implant into a robot in order to claim that it, too, had a soul. But the weight of the human problem does really fall on this side. Because there can be a lot of action, a lot of planning, evaluating, achieving, and relating to others with very little soul; or rather, the soul can get fixated in these activities, like a butterfly embedded in plastic. And then the pattern of one's actions over time is not, as in T.S. Eliot's phrase, "a pattern of timeless moments," which is a good phrase for every day life in its fullness, and a good synonym for the traditional kingdom of God.

Psychotherapy is concerned with this fullness. It is concerned, in other words, with the soul being free.

How did it ever manage not to be free? It is quite evident that we have been so made as to live often less widely than we can. I shall not tonight appeal to the explanations of theology, nor myth, nor even of developmental psychology. I want to start with a sheer fact of our experience, moment to moment, at any age: the movement of a desire toward its fruition. I want that drink of water ... and I drink. I want to greet you ... and I say "Hello." But suppose I want, and I don't act; I want, and I stop myself from wanting ... suppose, in fact, I stop myself from noticing that I even have the want? Now, please, another metaphor. Imagine an ocean wave out a distance from shore. See it as it moves along, approaching the shore line. Slowly, then, it crests, then it breaks, and subsides, and washes in. Impulses do arise in us rather like a succession of these waves, the manifest upward surge of unseen depths; and as sea waves are shaped by the gravitational pull of the moon, so too outward events draw the swell of impulse into action. After its satiety, the wave dissipates; it thins down, and then recedes.

But now: imagine the wave far out from the shore, approaching it ... and suddenly it is frozen still. It stops, literally, in midstream; the cresting, the breaking don't occur. Then, aborted as it is, the wave moves again, but just to subside. So it is with my wish to greet you when at once I deny the wish; the wave has no chance to crest. Or imagine that it does crest ... but then it freezes: for suppose I want to greet you and don't deny that wish to myself, but then another wave follows close behind: an old, unsettled quarrel between us looms up in me when I see you, and I don't deny that either, but also I don't care to face it altogether. So I want to greet you and I don't want to ... and then? I greet instead the man who is accompanying you, who is of no interest to me; and I find myself obsessed with dislike of the tie you have on. Well, you see: both waves crest ... a bit. But they don't'break. Or suppose I am determined to greet you and I do, and I try forgetting everything between us that has troubled me, so my wish is hamstrung: the wave breaks all right, but before it fully crests. Or I know that I've wronged you in the past, but I want a favor from you now, and I easily forget the trouble that's still between us; the wave crests and breaks, but its full swell and dissipation are curtailed. Now, you may have noticed: all these examples are examples from so-called psychopathology. Professional therapists call the response of fearing to want (the non-cresting of desire) "schizoid"; of being indecisive before competing desires and screening them off in repetitive thought, "obsessive" (here, the breaking of the waves was aborted); of displacing desire prematurely, into action (the wave breaks too soon) "hysterical"; of refusing to assimilate the consequences of a desire which is fulfilled (the full flow and ebb is denied) "sociopathic." All these, in short, are different patterns of experience self-interrupted. And if one thinks, with Gestalt therapists, of the inner life as occurring in successive waves, which are its successive forms, or Gestalten, then one way to describe the whole psychotherapeutic problem is: Gestaltus Interruptus. Now, actual experience complicates the wave metaphor by giving us overlapping wave fronts, of varying heights, frequencies, and powers. The wish for a drink of water, for instance, is mountainously big if I'm dying of thirst. But in civilized life it is usually little, and of course frequently recurrent, compared with the vast, slowly building wave of, say, the symphony I'm writing, or the house I'm building, or the fate of my troubled marriage. Also, at different times I may interrupt the pathways of desire in all of the ways I've sketched ... and in others: addiction, for instance, compels a wave to crest, for fear that it will not, of its own. Pathology is democratic, it all represents us all, though we have our preferred patterns based on our past conditioning. But what, for the moment, I want to emphasize is just this awesome capacity we have for self interruption. One way to put it is that we forget, or ignore, or hurry the timelessness of each moment, and so the moment is imprisoned. This is, in mystical thought, the nature of evil, and Kafka summed it up in his own brief, startling metaphor: "A cage went in search of a bird." (The German, of course, is wonderful and even briefer; here it is, for those of you who know German: "Ein aefig ging einen Vogel suchen.")

Now, I'm giving you a description, so to speak, beyond the fact that we experience. In the middle of self-interruption, we don't know that we are frozen or imprisoned. We know, or we feel, other things: anxiety, depression, confusion, self-doubt; they are the outward and visible signs of the soul's contracture. And the causes, when they press us a great deal, of our seeking psychotherapy. Recently my wife showed me a cartoon in a magazine (you notice my partiality to the wisdom of cartoons). It pictures a man walking by a store and eyeing the sign in the window. The sign says: "Putting Things into Perspective While U Wait." Now, surely this is a shop for psychotherapy; (and the sign refrains from mentioning how long your wait may be.) But ... in all seriousness ... there is a fateful, double-edged point in that sign; and I should like the situation it proposes to stand as an explanatory center for the needs of the soul. What are these needs? The soul needs to be free of self-interruption ... clearly that is implied in all I've said so far. But for this to happen, it needs something else that is quite specific. It needs care by another. You will perhaps have noticed that I began tonight, when speaking of the soul, with images of relationship, and you may have wondered why. "Surely," you may have thought, "my soul belongs, in the first place, to me." Well, it certainly doesn't belong to anyone else. And if you've struggled a lot with feeling like a possession of your parents, or your spouse, or your job, then you've been in poignant battles. But one can get into a quandary all its own with the possessive pronoun "my"; we know how it can lead on to wars..."my" religion, "my" ideology, vs. "yours"; and the best of thoughts about the soul tends to rearrange the pronouns. "Not my will, but Thine." Or language itself may bring this idea home: in German, Kafka once again notes, "The word sein means two things: 'to be- and 'His' (that is, 'to belong to Him'). My own point, now, is that for the soul to thrive ... and therefore, although it may be confused about this need, it does very well to seek a therapist --- for the soul to thrive, it needs to be cherished. This is the care it has not yet gotten from another Person and that it needs, now and forevermore.

I've used two words here: "cherish," which stands for a pledge of the heart, and "care," which has an old medical ring to it, as in "taking eare of an illness." Now, medical models are in bad odor these days with many psychotherapists ... and with many patients, perhaps because physicians, as we know them, are so often pompous, impersonal, and humanly negligent. As a "doctor of the soul," the preferred image today is the shaman, in whom are joined forces of nature both curative and hallowed. That is fine. But I'd like to remind us that, in Western Tradition, no less a lover of the soul than Plato favored a medical view of its needs, thought of the healthy soul as balanced like the sound body, and used for it the Greek medical concepts of plerosis and kenosis filling and emptying in regular succession, which in fact correspond remarkably to the metaphor of breaking waves. And his medical terms tempt me now to risk with you another metaphor ... one directly of physical disease. Here it is. I've spoken of the soul's contracture when it seeks psychotherapy. Then it is stuck... as people in the environment don't mind telling the person... in self-involvement. It is walled off within him, or her, often with evident obstinacy. At the same time, it may puff itself up, with obvious arrogance, be quite proud: "No one pushes me around." And still, it does feel tender; and it is in pain. Now, just as physical tissue, painful, tender, swollen, and walled off is called "inflamed," so the soul in this state may be said to show Ego-itis.

Well, supposing that the cure for this contracture is to open up to something larger ... other people, or in the first place, inner impulses which have grown either mute from neglect or clamorous from restraint ... is this openness not welcome? But how can it be welcome? For although aware of its losses, the inflamed ego is abstemious in giving to itself. It is self-protective, guarded, tight. It doesn't know how to cherish what it is, or how to be compassionately allowing to what is happening within it. The waves of desire arise (here, as you see, I am clustering my metaphors.) ... the waves of desire arise, and the inflamed ego stills them, fearing indifference by others, or judging the desires unacceptable, or questioning them into paralysis; or if it does accept them, filtering them into something routine, so they hardly make a ripple, or turning from their consequences, so they never fully swell nor fully subside. From other people, the ego may fear abandonment, and cling at the cost of selfdegrading ... much foamy anger and turbulent white water amid the desires. (The so-called "borderline character" we hear much of today.) Or the ego may fear devaluation, and restore itself with conceit: desires crest high, then freeze, waiting for applause. And how much, then, are others really welcome? (This is the pattern often today called "narcissistic.") All these habits of the inflamed ego make it feel at bay in a hostile world, and whether withdrawn or fighting, still cramped and deprived.

A person so suffering comes to psychotherapy for relief of the inflammatory pain. He, or she, can hardly know that the constrained soul will keep defending all the conditions that maintain it... isolateness, self-interruption, aLrrogance.... It doesn't know that it can be esteemed and cherished in its own right, since it doesn't esteem or cherish itself. And if one thinks with the mystics, as I do, that there is only an ongoing present, and that past and future are, so to speak, the fan of the present spread out in both directions, then one sees, in the soul's constraints, past deprivations by others writ large. Parents, teachers, the assault of strangers or acquaintances, have created these things, out of their own deprivations. The poet Auden quotes an autistic child to show how even a machine ... a good teaching-machine, for instance ... can provide a degree of cherishing that humanity does not. The child says: "Machines are better than people. People go too far." Our wish, always, is that they won't go too far; that we can be esteemed just as we are, with all our weaknesses, losses, gifts, and potential strengths ... as the ads say about secondhand goods: "in As-Is condition."

Now, another remarkable fact about the soul that doesn't esteem itself "as is," and that continually interrupts itself, is how little it lives in the actual present. Inside of Kafka's cage --that cage which precisely is our own selfcontracture-- the soul doesn't really settle in and look calmly around. It flutters wildly, or closes its eyes, or broods about the past, or worries or dreams of the future. If there were a latch to open the cage, it wouldn't notice it. I'm reminded of a sign on the wall of a casino in Las Vegas--I have this pleasant tale from the Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield --the sign on the wall of the casino says: "You must be present to win." Well,'this is true of the casino in Las Vegas; it is true of psychotherapy everywhere; and it is true of the sacred. It is, in fact, the precisely sacramental offering of psychotherapists --and we can only hope that they're up to it-- to offer this freshness of perception and tribute of value; so that the patient, "as is," is being taken in as a great new natural phenomenon, like tonight's sunset. And this is, isn't it, the general human yearning, overt or hidden; for we are all secondhand goods wanting to be appreciated as God's first sunset. And when we are, an alchemical change like this really does happen. That is the nature of the sacred. "The true Christian," Gide wrote, "is he who gets drunk on water. It is inside himself that the Cana miracle is being repeated." (You remember? The marriage in Cana, where Jesus changed water into wine. Gide said: ""within oneself.")

The miracle of the soul's therapy begins with the easing of its inflammatory pain. But I want now to speak less glowingly, to shift from these rather exalted metaphors of Nature and the sacred to a quite different, rather comical one. That isn't really so strange. We are moving now into the everyday world of the consulting room, where facts are, simultaneously, plain, painful, and often a bit surreal...for instance, at one moment the patient can want to live and die, to love and kill, to provide for and mistrust, to change everything and change nothing. So I shall evoke another cartoon picture for you ... a cartoon in motion, this time, rather like a play by Samuel Beckett- The curtain goes up. We see ... two pies, a few feet apart. The pies are so lit that only a single wedge of each one is visible. Here they are. (The speaker holds up two colored wedges representing the pies.) Now, in each hand, I am holding a perfect circle of a pie --like the Uroborus, the snake with the tail in its mouth-- the alchemist's symbol of the infinite; only, as you observe, most of the circles aren't visible. One of the wedges, you notice, is larger, and faces the other, which looks off at an angle, like this, across all of you. Oh, you can clearly follow this "looking toward" and "looking away" because in fact ... my props are deficient here ... each pie wears a human head, which talks to the other. In fact you can consider these wedges of the pies to be a sort of Elizabethan ruffcollar under the heads in front. The larger pie wedge is the therapist, the smaller, the patient, which is pushed and pulled from those areas you don't see so as to be turned at an angle. The invisible, or shadow areas, in short, are repressive, not just unconscious. They also contain undeveloped potentialities. In its positive aspect, the unconscious spills over deep in the center part of what's visible here; it is one's accepted depths and, so to speak, one's guiding star.... Oh yes, as to the colors. Something to resemble "bitter fruit" here ... certainly this segment of the pie is: therefore the muddy yellow and depressive grey. For the therapist, a suggestion of a solid, but not heavy texture ... shall we say, lime and orange; and so earth colors, grass-green, orange. I'll give you a scrap of their introductory talk and movement (my own head will have to do for both):

Patient: I don't know if I can talk with you.

Therapist: I don't know either.

Patient: That's very reassuring. (Turns toward the Therapist for a moment.) At least you yhaven't a beard. (Turns away. Silence.) Well, doesn't that deserve a question? About me and beards? Or me and you?

Therapist (loudly): Not today.

Patient: What do you mean?

Therapist: I'm answering you. I haven't got a beard today.

Patient (angrily): I don't like jokes.

Therapist: I know we aren't together.

Patient (anxiously): That's something at least. Your office is all swank. (Or:) Your office is a jail cell. You're too old. (Or:) You're too young. You're too rigid. (Or:) You're too loose. (Pause.) You're the wrong sex, in either ,case. (Taunting or flaunting tone:) I can talk circles around you. And walk them. (The patient-pie now circles the therapist's table, which itself turns slowly to keep facing the other. Then the patient-pie snakes across the stage into a circle of its own. The therapistpie moves and trails just behind.)

Therapist (in the best psychiatric tone): Do you have the feeling that someone is following you?

Patient: You're crazy. But that's your affair. (Pause.) I get myself in a lot of trouble.

Therapist: Obviously I think you're worth a lot of trouble.

Patient (quickly): Don't say that!

Therapist: Why not?

Patient (half turning toward Therapist): You haven't been fake-y so far. And no one says that, meaning it.

Therapist: That's sad.

Patient (turning toward Therapist): Yes, it is. (Turns partly away again.)

Therapist: Have you ever noticed? Troubles fill you up, and then, no matter how full they are, after a while they empty; then they fill again. There's a kind of rhythm in it, rather like breathing, I think. Do you know the old black Spiritual: "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen"? Even with these, the filling and emptying rhythm. All as natural as breathing.

Patient: That's interesting.

Therapist: I don't know.... Perhaps it's possible for us to talk.

Patient: Perhaps. (Turning to Therapist. The wedges face one another now. The smaller one is within the field of the larger. This fragment of dialogue ends here.)

I know that I have imagined this scene along the lines of a juvenile delinquent speaking; and the absent bodies do no justice to the woman, or man, who enters for the first time in full seductive sweep. But consider the scene a vignette of the distrust ... and the testing for trust ... inherent in many first contacts, even when they proceed more confessionally, and more politely. The vignette, also, may be compressing several hours of dialogue, which I've condensed into key therapeutic patterns. This therapist literally (physically) follows the patient and yields to the patient's negative language ("Don't know"; "I know we're not together"; "'Nobody knows the trouble I've seen") but in each case transmutes the negatives with humor, with support, and in one instance, with an explicit positive framework: "troubles" are tentatively re-stated in terms of the natural act of breathing. (You can see my own partiality here as well. This time I've found a physiological basis of filling and emptying for my earlier metaphor of the waves.) And when the therapist says about fake support, "That is sad," his words are the witnessing echo of the patient's words, which turn him toward the therapist. It is the Buber-like connection of I-Thou, to which I am myself very partial.

Of course, if distrust is too great, there is no therapy. This distrust may be on the therapist's side, too, so that it's he, or she, who turns from the patient. Say, with a patient too full of rage and a therapist too eager to be loved. If there is a therapist "big enough," then he, or she, never turns away. But I'm not pushing that point.

What should this play be called? Something crisp. Perhaps, "Once, at Sunset."

My therapist and patient have begun to talk together... most of all, to be present to one another, beyond words. And of course things go well where there is accord and support between them. But the nub of the therapy is the difference in the size of the wedges, which permits the therapist to speak, straight across, to the border areas of the patient and the shadowed places outside... in short, to be faithful to the soul beyond the patient's walled-off disloyalty to it. (That boundary, you will remember, is literally too narrow for the patient's comfort, having brought on anxiety and other such plagues, which propelled the therapy into existence.) So now you are to imagine contact between these two as laser-like lights flashing between the outer regions of the therapist pie-wedge and the actual borders of the patient's, and places beyond the border. The therapist's message to the edges of the slice, and beyond them (and once again I don't intend to be quoting anyone's exact words, but rather the theme and the attitude in the words) ... this message is: "Take your time. Notice yourself ... dreams, passing thoughts, questions about me, what you say by chance, and what you deliberately keep from saying. Don't skip over any response; it's when you assume you must that you create that boundary." And also, there is direct challenge to the boundary ... the generic phrase for the challenge is: "Who says?" For example, "Your Dad...or your Mom ... never trusted you, or respected you. Who says you have to prove them right, and destroy, or limit your life? And who says they'll ever change? Anyway, who says you need them to? I'm glad you're safe with me and feel nourished, but you're living altogether on a pretty thin oasis with a husband you hate ... or a wife ... or a job. Who says you can't ask for what you want? Who says you can't face desires, or anger, or disappointment, or loss, or regret, or fear, or loneliness? Maybe you are thin-skinned. Who says a thin skin isn't a strong skin? Who says you'll bleed so easily, or that, if you do, you haven't got a good clotting mechanism to stop it? Who says you aren't the salt of the earth? You give me enough pleasure to think you are ... and enough trouble too."

Under this impact, a sort of steadfast, tender bullying, which is a quieter or louder drumbeat depending on the therapist's temperament ... under this impact, in time (how long? I can't say. But a good explicit contract is: "The shortest time possible") ... under this impact, then: Behold! (Up goes the new prop. Colors modified: sky-blue with the grey; umber with the yellow.) The wedge widens. The colors soften. Why not? The inner child who has never been proud, or proud enough, greets the new faith in its pride, and gets bolder. The enlarging soul has a witness. Now, from the expanded sides of the wedge, a variety of responses sound... I'll give you a medley of different voices with quite simple statements ... but from a changed inner world. "I've never wanted to admit that I would hurt anyone. But it's true. I did hurt her, by breaking us up, and finally I told her that I knew it, and was sorry." Another voice: "This time, when I told my boss he was wrong, I just did it. I wasn't scared. So I didn't cut him down." Another: "You know me and mistrust. Well, I let my teenage daughter, who's dying to be trusted, stay out after midnight. It was almost easy." And now I'm recalling one particular voice: a young man in my office who had felt psychotic as an adolescent at home while his well-educated parents, ambitious for his happiness, wanted to believe he was going through ordinary growing pains. They sat in my office with him as he wished --this is years later, and they were visiting from a distant city-- they were willing to help him however they could, though they were still eager to believe that those remote difficulties of his past were quite over. But no! He began trembling, and he said: "I want all that to be witnessed now. How I had suffered, and how confused I was, and trembling inside all the time, and completely mute in my confusion and turmoil. No one wanted to hear it then ... not either of you ... and I didn't know how to say it or how to believe it myself. But now it must be witnessed. I want it all to be witnessed."

They heard him. And their relationship opened.

What happens, you may wonder, when the patient's wedge comes to exceed that of the therapist? This occurs. And it is all right for the soul's therapy, provided that the therapist is big enough to be prepared to be outdone. This is a way of saying that the therapist's wedge widens too. Can I take it with good grace ... without interpreting away the response or ignoring it ... when the patient starts to joke like this: "Would you pass me one of those $100 Kleenexes?" Maybe I can.

Well, and what now is taking place within the expanded soul of the patient? It deepens. It shudders. The localized and selfreferring part of it, the ego, continues to exist, but the soul begins reaching beyond itself, to transgress its own separateness. And now you must imagine something, for I have no props to show this transformation. An extraordinary thing happens to the pie wedge. The circumference around it falls down, like the sides of a circular scarf. The head rises. Out from the unseen, neck, body, limbs appear, and a supple human figure moves freely on the stage. So, too, with the therapist, but he, or she, passes into the background; for the light focuses on the patient who, as if from a mysterious center within, is discovering an identity totally disseminated to all the parts of his being, or hers, and who cannot even detect where Being leaves off and Environment begins. And now, the figure speaks... I shall again give it different voices, but this time voices well-known to us for their exemplary release of passion and compassion, and for a bonding with others in which what is different from me is indivisible from me. "The color is exquisite here"...this is Van Gogh writing about Arles. "When the green leaves are fresh, it is a rich green, the like of which we seldom see in the North.... (S)corched and dusty, the landscape gets tones of gold, green-gold, yellow-gold, pink-gold, and in the same way bronze ... and also, of course, this calls up orange, -- a sunburnt face gives the impression of orange." What is the see-er here, what is the seen? Or another voice ... on human service. Mother Teresa talks to her students in Calcutta about caring for the poorest of the poor. "It would be wrong," she says, "to offer only our cures; we must offer to all our hearts." Whose heart then isn't also my heart? Or another voice: Gandhi stares into the eyes of the young man hired to kill him who, at the last moment, has dropped his knife in horror, and the old man bursts out: "My dear fellow! Now that you have failed in your mission, what will become of you?" Here is the soul unbounded.

But all this, too, is far from the security of a settled life. These powers court perils: vast negations, like attack fish, move deep in the waters of the breaking waves. As you know, Van Gogh dies by suicide, Gandhi, finally, by murder.

But I am conscious that I have left my patient on the stage with a sense of great fullness, full of body and soul, but alone. So, for a final scene, let the therapist come forward again, the two join hands and bow to one another. And now, one last act by the therapist. He, or she, performs, as befits the soul, a sacrament; this will be the sacrament of marriage. Am I requiring, then, something festive, and a husband or a wife? No. All this can be. But in essence these are the nuptials of such union as I have just been quoting, of what is within and what is without, conjoined with all possibilities of delight and all need off forbearance. And so the vows begin, much as we know them: "I take you ... my spouse, my world, my fate ... to be my lawful wedded kin"...but then the familiar words continue with a difference: "to please and to trouble me, to understand and to misunderstand me, to let me be and to impose on me and to slight me, to be demanding and unreasonable, selfish and self-justified, unyielding and righteous and proud... I take you, in all, to honor and to cherish, as long as I shall live."

So my play ends, and my evening of metaphors. But just one step further before I stop: to the rim of the horizon of all metaphor... I mean, the mystics' nullification of images. To the mystics, the one sacred thing, the truth of truth, requires a speech of negatives: not "This is equal to that," but "This is equal to nothing else." So mystical speech goes beyond even what I have called "the soul's pronouns" ("Thy will," "belonging to Him.") And full personal presence ... the end-point of my therapyplay ... deserves the mystic's turn of phrase, I believe; for there is, in this presence, a certain central anonymity, and a vividness not to be spoken. Therefore: "Neither existence nor nonexistence," says an ancient Hindu text. "It is absolutely necessary for everyone," asserts the modern Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, "to believe in nothing." Beliefs are a cage. In the West, the poet Keats writes along these lines too: "When a man (or a woman) ," he says, "is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching out after fact and reason." In the manner of the East, he called this Negative Capability. And with a similar tribute to sacred ground, and to what, in effect, psychotherapy can do ... finally Kafka, once more: "What is laid upon us," he says, "is to accomplish the negative. The positive"...our birthright, this shining mystery of existence..."the positive is already given."

Stephen Schoen, M.D.

is a graduate of Harvard College in English history and taught literature at George Washington University bevore obtaining his medical degree at Howard University in 1954. He received his psychiatric training from Harry Stack Sullivan, Fritz Perls, Gregory Bateson, and Milton Erickson. His interest in the spiritual values of psychotherapy led to his giving seminars at the Esalen Institute, The C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco, the Naropa Institute, and the Gestalt Therapy Intitute of Cologne. A former president of the Gestalt Institute of San Francisco, he has been a training member since 1970. He maintains a private practice in San Rafael, California. His Book "Presence of Mind. Literary and Philosophical Roots of a Wise Psychotherapy" was published in 1994 by the Gestalt Journal Press, Inc. His new book "Wenn Sonne und Mond Zweifel hätten. Gestalttherapie als spirituelle Suche" was published by the Gestalt Institute of Cologne in Germany.

Gestalt Critique

other articles in English language:

Fritz Perls: What is Gestalt Therapy?

Erhard Doubrawa: The Attitude and the Art of Intervention in Gestalt Therapy

 Daniel Rosenblatt: Gestalt Therapy and AIDS

Stefan Blankertz: Gestalt Therapy. A Libertarian Approach

Erhard Doubrawa: The Politics of I-Thou. Martin Buber, the Anarchist


Here you will find more articles in German language.
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