I was inspired to write this essay after viewing the TV series "The Leftovers" and the N.Y. Times interview of its creator Damon Lindelof. The series takes place in a dystopian U.S.A. after two percent of humanity has suddenly vanished. Nobody knows where they went; if and when they'll return; and whether or not a similar event will recur.
As a result people are left grieving, bewildered, and profoundly uncertain about the why of what has happened. The many ways individuals and groups respond to this unforeseen, cataclysmic event are depicted. They include: denial and normalization; apocalyptic cults; and messianic beliefs.
To quote Lindelof, "The reality you're watching is the same reality we've always been in". Two existential givens, uncertainty and death, underlie that reality. In real life a variety of philosophies, religions, and beliefs have arisen in order to help us cope with those givens. Fundamentally, that's how "The Leftovers" reflects reality. In this essay I focus on uncertainty.
Uncertainty is perennially woven through our lives and operant on every level, from the sub atomic to the personal and socio-political. We live in a probabilistic and hence uncertain universe. Science recognizes this state of affairs. Scientists constantly unveil new facts and perspectives which change our current understanding. Thus they are aware of the uncertain nature of contemporary knowledge.
Turning our attention to the field of psychotherapy, we see that all the white, male founders of the major schools of psychotherapy were certain that their particular approach was the most effective and realistic. That certainty reflected a hubris consonant with gender/racial privilege. Their followers felt the same way about the founders' theories, until they developed their own theoretical twists and turns and in turn presented them as worthy of certainty.
When we survey the history of Gestalt Therapy, we see a process similar to the one described above having taken place. Ironic, a therapy based on the awareness of reality has not paid much attention to the existential presence of uncertainty- including uncertainty about the approach itself. Ironic but explainable. Once an approach has the backing of practitioners who've created their own literature and training institutions, it must be presented with an aura of certainty if it is to attract new followers.
Fortunately, Gestalt has at its core an appreciation of the unfolding now along with a variety of techniques enabling the practitioner to be with that now. Awareness practices enable us to stay in touch with the emergent in ourselves and our clients. By acknowledging experiences as they arise in the therapist and client, choice points become more evident for both. With choice comes uncertainty and vulnerability. It is at that point of uncertainty and vulnerability where the opportunity for aliveness, authenticity and new behavior appears.
This ongoing, edgy process is a vital part of doing Gestalt. It differentiates us from the great majority of psychotherapeutic approaches which focus on abstract concepts. Jungian archetypes; Adlerian complexes; the Freudian unconscious; are all examples of highlighting a perceived aspect of psychological functioning and freezing it into an unchanging concept. The unspoken assumption is that the concepts presented reflect the unquestionable truth. Unfolding human experience which includes not knowing, confusion, and uncertainty - all occurring within an ever changing socio-political context - are not seen as existential givens worthy of attention.
As Gestaltists we are more aligned with process than with concepts. The process of being with the emergent enables us to deal directly with the role that uncertainty plays in our existence. We have no need to present concepts with certainty, even though we have our particular share of them. To mention just a few: top and bottom dog; the impasse; and retroflection.
Being wary of Gestalt concepts and stressing the importance of accepting and staying with the emergent in all its uncertainty, fosters a Gestalt practice that reflects life as it is and supports authenticity, aliveness, and creativity in both the client and therapist.
Frank Rubenfeld, June, 2017
Frank Rubenfeld, Ph.D. is a BAGI Trainer and Faculty Member www.frankrubenfeld.com