I have been a Gestalt practitioner for fifty years, and am glad of it. Not only because my particular values and abilities are compatible with the practice of Gestalt, but because the approach itself is grounded in experiencing what is. One of my favorite sayings is: reality is an infinity of worlds waiting to be seen. Gestalt is directly tied into reality, and as such becomes more complex as it changes over the years.
I have seen it develop since the sixties, perhaps the most important change being the shift from intra-psychic to inter-personal Gestalt. We can see that shift as an example of expanding the context that is considered when working with clients - moving from the I to the I-Thou. Now, grounded in our knowledge of the intra-psychic and inter-personal aspects of our work, we would do well to include the cultural, socio-economic and political context as part of our work with our clients. To do so both on a societal level, and a more intimate one (I refer to the contexts present in our family, work, and educational environments). The societal context impacts the intimate systems we participate in daily, and in turn those systems impact both our interpersonal and individual lives.
In Gestalt, we emphasize individual agency, and with it the power to structure and own our experience. This emphasis may reduce our awareness of the power ofcontext and how it shapes our consciousness and choices. A good example in Gestalt practice is how we often ignore contextual forces when setting up and working with the top dog-bottom dog dialog. In my experience, the top dog often represents the views of privileged sectors of the population. Many of my female clients have had to struggle to overcome internal messages of inadequacy and worthlessness, directly planted by the oppressive patriarchal nature of the context they were reared in. To approach those clients as if their problem was a neurotic impairment to be handled by intra-psychic dialog is to leave out a vital part of reality. No matter what individual work the client does, or the reparative nature of the relation between the therapist and the client, the big picture remains a potent force ... continuing to impact both client and therapist. It is only when the client and the therapist acknowledge the toxic societal context and its resonance in the intimate systems of the client, can those damaging messages be fully met and resisted.
Since Gestalt practitioners place a high value on individual agency and the importance of interpersonal dialog, giving weight to context, which both encompasses and transcends the I and the I-Thou, may appear to detract from Gestalt values. In reality, when each is given their space to interactively engage with the others, a more complex and potent Gestalt is formed.
Here is an example from my experience of how context, the individual, and the interpersonal may dance together: I was one of two people in a non-hierarchical group with unfinished business between them. We asked the group for support and facilitation so we could engage in a dialog. At that point individual, interpersonal, and contextual forces were all operant. During the dialog, it became apparent that one reason there was unfinished business, was that at the time of the initial inter-personal difficulty no one in the group suggested that we dialog. The group context emphasized individual responsibility, rather than intervening in interpersonal difficulties without being asked to do so. Thus, it was not a situation where either of the protagonists, or the two together, held all the responsibility for the lack of dialog. The group's values played an important (albeit hidden) role in the two not having previously dialoged.
Integratingcontext into our way of doing Gestalt doesn't require our turning away from basic Gestalt values such as awareness, agency, and aliveness. In actuality, considering context necessitates expanding our awareness in a manner that encompasses and transcends the here and now. When we become aware of the values of the context we are in, we have a more clear cut choice as to how we respond to them. Do we resist, align with, or avoid those values? Those choices and more are open to us. With choice comes more opportunity for aliveness.
I close now, aware that the responsive support and interactions I enjoy with my colleagues, students, and therapy clients has contributed greatly to my having written this essay. Context can be empowering, nourishing, and liberating. That may be the subject of a future essay.
Frank Rubenfeld, Ph.D. is a BAGI Trainer and Faculty Member www.frankrubenfeld.com