Archive for March, 2011

One of the interesting things about gestalt as a field of practice and human enquiry is the difficulty its practitioners have in explaining what the word ‘gestalt’ means. Most attempts to explain the meaning of the word make the mistake of translating from German to English. I say this is a mistake because, invariably, this translation is prefaced by a disclaimer along the lines of ‘gestalt is a German word that has no direct translation into English’.

Now, English is a very adaptable language with a long tradition of simply absorbing words that don’t translate easily. Hence why George W Bush was able to make his infamous statement, ‘the trouble with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur’ (he didn’t by the way). English has already absorbed zeitgeist from German, so I think all that’s needed for gestalt to follow suit is a suitable exploration of the word’s meaning rather than its mere translation.

Gestalt therapy was named in specific reference to the work of the gestalt psychologists. This was a school of psychology that investigated the holistic construction of human perception. That is, these psychologists observed that human beings don’t construct their perceptions of the world out of constituent parts. Instead, we perceive things as coherent wholes that we subsequently break down into parts in our attempt to understand them.

A gestalt in this sense is anything that can be said to be a coherent whole in its own right. There is a zen koan in which the Venerable Nagasena is explaining to King Milinda how it is that a person can seem to exist yet (in Buddhist philosophy) not exist in ultimate reality. He asks how the King travelled to their meeting, and the King says he travelled by chariot. So Nagasena asks the King to explain what a chariot is; is it the wheels? Is it the pole? The axle? The framework? The reins? And so on, listing all the parts of the chariot.

He then asks, is the chariot the combination of all these things? The King replies it is not; after all, a chariot is understood by these elements but not all of those elements need to be present for us to understand we are dealing with a chariot. Essentially, the King ends up explaining that the word ‘chariot’ is a concept we use to group together a certain family of elements in a certain way; a chariot is a whole that arises out of its parts and yet is greater than the sum of those parts. A chariot, is a gestalt.

Nagasena’s plucky Buddhist rejoinder is to say that it is just so with people. The name Nagasena is also a concept used to make reference to that which arises out of the collection of elements that make up what we understand to be a person. What he’s trying to get across to the King is that it isn’t possible to pin down the essence of a person; I am not merely my hands, my arms, my legs, my thoughts, my feelings etc. Add up all the parts you can think of that make up a human being and you don’t end up with a human being; you end up with a collection of parts. The true essence of a human being (and indeed of anything capable of being perceived) is the whole person as perceived by another person, including the wider situation they exist within (a human being can’t be understood without reference to the correct mix of gases in the atmosphere that contribute to tolerable living conditions for example). A person, too, is a gestalt.

A lighter touch example of this would be to consider how it is you know that the film you’re watching is an action film. What are the elements that make up action films? Which of those elements is the essential element that defines an action film? Of course, none of the elements are the action film defining essence; and in fact, cook-book action films are easy to spot (Vin Diesel being a particularly good predictor for cook-book action films) and not that satisfying.

Like any genre, we become familiar with the common elements that make up the genre in the same way that we become familiar with the common elements that tell us what we’re seeing is a car, a building, a crowd of people, a queue (with the sole exception of the taxi rank outside Bristol Temple Meads, which seems to be subject to a local bye-law forbidding the implementation of a stable queuing system), a bad action film starring Vin Diesel (though this last one is, strictly speaking, a tautology).

Cars, buildings, crowds, queues, action films (it’s ok, I’ve owned it, I’m over Vin Diesel now); these things don’t exist in themselves, they are the gestalts by which we recognise stable elements of the reality we exist within. At the same time, they aren’t simply invented by us; they arise out of our contact with something other than ourselves. And I’m calling them gestalts rather than concepts to get across that they aren’t just about movements of the intellect; they are coherent wholes recognised by virtue of their being made up of familiar elements united in a familiar way.

But, importantly, we know the whole before we know the elements that commonly make up the whole. When films were first being made, no one knew what an action film was. Action films were a discovery arising from the observation that a number of films seemed to belong to the same family of film and shared common, broadly similar elements. That’s how classification works; you start with something you want to classify, then analyse it by breaking it down into elements.

And that’s what the gestalt psychologists were exploring; the ways in which human beings naturally arrange perception into wholes, and the laws by which they could theorise these phenomena. For example, one gestalt observation was that people more readily remember what they haven’t finished than what they have finished. This is called the Zeigarnik effect after Bluma Zeigarnik’s observation that waiters only remembered orders they were in the process of completing.

This gave rise to the concept of the ‘incomplete gestalt’ and the human tendency to try and complete those incomplete gestalts. How often have you had a song stuck in your head that wouldn’t go away until you either hummed/sang it out loud or listened to it? How often have you had to close an open cupboard or drawer because it was annoying you that it was open? How often do you remind yourself of things you need to finish?

The founders of gestalt therapy applied the concept of the incomplete gestalt to psychotherapy and observed that people coming for therapy often had unfinished business. Important needs went unmet as children, or they went through traumatic events, or they reported a host of things they wished they’d said or done. Each of those pieces of unfinished business is an incomplete gestalt, and the important thing about an incomplete gestalt is that it seeks completion in the here and now.

That’s why gestalt therapy came up with concepts like closure (an idea so familiar and over-used in therapy that its gestalt origins are lost in the mist of sixties American counter-culture). Closure is when you do what you need to do to complete an incomplete gestalt. And that’s why gestalt therapy focuses on the here and now. Because really, you can’t go back in time to when you were three and make your parents give you what you needed then. But you can identify what needs you’re still trying to get met now, own them (that is, genuinely feel them to be present needs that you have), and respond to them choicefully (do something to get them met, or choose to believe that they can’t be met; but actively choose your response).

There is, of course, a lot more to gestalt than just getting closure for this that and the other, but the starting point for getting to grips with what gestalt therapy means is that tricky word ‘gestalt’. My hope is that, rather than attempt to give a pithy definition of gestalt (an activity that in itself contradicts the spirit of the gestalt approach to therapy), I have given enough of an exploration of what the idea of a ‘gestalt’ feels like for the word to start to make sense. Try an experiment:

Look around you and try to identify as many gestalts as you can. Ask yourself simply: what am I aware of right now?

Everything you become aware of will be a gestalt of some sort. Notice how some of them are simple (for example, I’m writing this just before lunch and I am aware of feeling hungry; feeling hungry is a gestalt made up of bodily sensations and my understanding that those bodily sensations are associated with a certain range of activities. Notice as well that I’ve immediately focused on an incomplete gestalt; feeling hungry means I have an as yet unmet need for food). Others will be more complex; I’m aware of my computer, I’m aware of the wind outside being gusty, I’m aware of it being lunch-time, I’m aware of currently writing a blog post. Each of those gestalts can be broken down into minute detail (each of which will then be a gestalt in its own right!).

A gestalt could then be said to be any unit of human perception that can be held as an object of conceptual enquiry. A bit rough and ready, but workable as a philosophical statement. Except there’s something missing. A gestalt isn’t simply the various objects, people, situations etc you become aware of at any given time. A gestalt is an arrangement of our experience into a figure (whatever our attention is focused on) against a ground (the background to what is standing out as figure). If you revisit the ‘what are you aware of?’ experiment with that in mind, a gestalt becomes whatever you focus your attention on considered as a figure against the background of everything else in your awareness.

So I am hungry whilst writing this blog post. When I focus on my hunger, writing this blog post gets less focus and becomes more background. When I focus on writing this blog post, my hunger becomes a more dull, background sensation. As my hunger becomes more urgent, I become less able to focus my attention on writing this blog post and start to become split between two actions; writing this post, and seeking food.

The basic composition of any gestalt is a figure against a ground. Go back to King Milinda’s chariot. ‘Chariot’ is figure, all the elements by which we understand ‘chariot’ is ground. Likewise with ‘Nagasena’; the person is figure to the ground of elements by which we understand that person. In gestalt, meaning is understood as being a figure considered against a ground. Hence, a peanut butter sandwich will mean something very different to me (peanut butter sandwich = yum!) than to someone with a nut allergy (peanut butter sandwich = threat to life). The meaning of a peanut butter sandwich entails a figure (the peanut butter sandwich) considered against its ground (the elements by which a given person understands it including their own relation to it).

Reality kind of explodes at this point, because every gestalt is a figure/ground composition made up of a potentially infinite number of other figure/ground compositions. All of which are a) coherent wholes capable of being held as an object of conceptual enquiry, and b) entirely dependent on a potentially infinite number of other coherent wholes for their existence. Reality itself comes to us as a gestalt; an ever shifting figure/ground composition that we arrange according to our ever-changing range of present needs.

In keeping with the context of this post, I am now switching my focus from writing my blog to meeting my need for food. There is a whole world of amazing stuff out there, but right now, all that is background; the emerging figures are all purveyors of tasty foodstuffs. I have arranged my reality into a figure/ground composition that is driven by my hunger; my lunch is currently unfinished business.

This post, on the other hand, is now a complete gestalt.


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