Reprinted with permission from Gestalt Review 2015 Volume Nineteen, Number Two (pp.186-188).

So, let us see what metaphors emerge from my unconscious to depict metaphors: – a bridge; a reflecting pond; and a card from a deck of cards. Looking at them in that order, we see that each reflects a part of what a metaphor does: it connects disparate entities, gives us a different picture of reality, and shows us a particular aspect of reality.

Metaphors are a poetic part of language and an essential part of poetry. And poetry is to reality as a song is to a sentence. Metaphors, poetry, and art itself are phenomena arising from the interaction between our consciousness and reality. How we look at reality (the bridge), what image of reality becomes foreground (the reflecting pond), and which aspect of reality we bring into relief (the particular card), are evidence of both human creativity and the mutability of reality itself.

Yes, that is a chair we are looking at, with its defined dimensions and materials, but how that mundane object is seen and the associations it gives rise to vary from person to person. And what it evokes is surely part of what it is. Thus, the mutability of reality. When we make the leap from material aspects of reality to psychological abstractions of any kind, from retroflection to sublimation, the mutability of those abstractions are even more apparent.

Since we each perceive and experience reality in our own way, we cannot be sure of how our perceptions align with those of others. Languages, theoretical systems, ideologies and religions are social phenomena constructed to bridge this existential gap. They are attempts to establish agreement as to the properties of the material and abstract elements of reality. Dipping into metaphor to describe the relation between our systems of representing reality and reality itself, I picture reality as a vast and ever-changing ocean, stretching behind, around, and in front of us as far as we can see. Our systems are swimming pools of defined dimensions, each marked by its own lanes. They draw water from the ocean, but purport to represent more of it than they actually do.

Humanity’s long standing adherence to systems put in place by powerful, persuasive males and their followers can also be seen as attempts to achieve certitude about the nature of reality. The ruler, guru, priest, or philosopher provides the answers. Contradicting those answers invites conflict and retribution.

The advent of the Age of Enlightenment was accompanied by bloody revolutions and unrest. In some parts of the world the spread of democratic rights and ideology institutionalized the acceptance of pluralistic approaches to reality. Different political parties, religions, and ideologies – each with their own perspective on reality- are now accepted as threads in the fabric of an enlightened democracy. However, even in a pluralistic society, there always exist forces both intra-psychic and societal pushing us to embrace certitude.

A current example is our educational system. It is becoming increasingly focused on “teaching to the test”, based on standardized tests with their “right” or “wrong” answers. Striving for certitude is inherent to any system that judges participants on their ability to come up with the “right” answer. Cognitive faculties are then used in order to come up with what the test (authority ) requires, rather than on trusting one’s reasoning and seeing where it leads.

This system of striving for certitude continues on up to professional education, licensure, and practice. Licensing for entrance into the professions depends heavily on standardized testing. The recent publication of the DSM-5, the latest official manual for psychiatric diagnoses, is an excellent example of an attempt to fit the uncertainty and messiness of reality into a professionally approved grid.

In 1995, Cultures of Healing: Correcting the Image of American Mental Health Care by the philosopher and psychotherapist Robert Fancher, was published. Fancher notes that at the time more than fifty distinct theoretical approaches to psychotherapy existed. It would be safe to say that the number has grown since then. Think of it: each one of these “cultures” believes it holds the correct approach to doing psychotherapy. Each is an island of certitude, competing with other islands of certitude. All afloat in the vast ocean of ever-emergent, ever-changing reality.

Recently, one of my students related her experience of teaching Gestalt to less experienced students. When there were times she felt she didn’t have the “right” answer to a student’s question, she felt she was slipping off an island of certitude (firm tenets of Gestalt theory), and floundering in the waters of uncertainty. My response was to suggest that she imagine everyone existing in that ocean of uncertainty (i.e. reality) and forgetting about the islands of certitude (which themselves change shape over time).

A main reason why I identify with Gestalt is that its practice and theory provide me with perspectives that enable me to swim in the ocean of reality. The awareness continuum serves to ground me in the ever emergent unfolding within and without me – all the while that the Gestalt statement “contact is the appreciation of differences” grounds me in the diversity that is a core aspect of humanity.

The documentary film, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013), covered the trial of three activist women facing a seven year prison sentence for staging a satirical performance in a Moscow cathedral. Russian Orthodox toughs are shown inveighing against those who dare show their opposition to the alliance between the Putin regime and the Russian Orthodox Church. One of them points to the slogan on his
t-shirt, Orthodoxy or Death, with a Death’s Head emblazoned above it. My counter-slogan is: Orthodoxy is Death. Insisting on certitude leads to the death of the inquiring spirit. That applies to adherence to orthodoxy in politics, art, religion, and ways of doing therapy.

I realize that I may appear to be adopting a position with all the certitude that I can muster. A world-view to end all world-views. But that is not so. I do believe that making space for and enabling new thinking and nourishing each other’s differentiation will be of benefit to humanity in the short and long term. But I do not presume to say that such a process is an inevitable part of the arc of human history, nor that it is sure to work out for the best. Belief in a process need not be certitude as to outcome.

I find a metaphor to describe that belief. A tree springing from a soil rich with hope and personal experience … a tree responsive to the ever changing, ever emergent environment surrounding it.

Frank Rubenfeld

Frank Rubenfeld, Ph.D. is a BAGI Trainer and Faculty Member. For more, go to