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Brian O'Neill
July 2nd, 2004, 01:23 AM
“ Within the past few years there has been a growing interest in spirituality among therapists, counsellors and others who work with people. Many of the therapists with whom I have had discussions about spirituality say they experience something deeply spiritual in the processes of therapy…”

A Life Well Lived: Essays in Gestalt Therapy
Sylvia Fleming Crocker, page 309





Perls Hefferleine and Goodman

I have left until now to write about the therapy I know best and which I still consider as a “strange case” in the realm of spirituality.

Without being, hopefully, too generalised, I would offer that there are those therapies which have clearly attempted to address spirituality and religion. We have seen this already with Underhill and James, Jung and Assagioli, Tart and Ornstein, Frager and Taylor. And there are those therapies which rarely if ever refer to spiritual concepts or terms. Gestalt therapy does not fit either of these classes and in several ways stands alone.

Many people associate Gestalt therapy with one of the founders, and perhaps the most charismatic of them, Frederick (Fritz) Perls. Perls in fact saw himself not so much as a “finder” of Gestalt therapy but a re-finder, in that he had described processes which were universal and had been “found” in many different forms.

As we've seen previously most psychotherapies are founded by people (usually men) and the person who founded it becomes the "label" for the therapy, such as Freudian, Jungian etc. Jung made the classic remark regarding this in saying he was glad he wasn't a Jungian.

Gestalt therapy for a time was associated with Fritz Perls, and for many people still is, however it has been diverse and robust enough to develop into the 21st century as a therapy without a personal name attached therapy. The attachment to Fritz still remains though.

He began as a German doctor and psychoanalyst who founded the first South African psychoanalytical institute with his wife and collaborator Laura. However in the aftermath of World War II they left South Africa and moved to New York where they developed their work with a small group of innovative thinkers, specifically Paul Goodman, Ralph Hefferliene and Isadore Fromm.

While Fritz Perls had already published a book which was a transition between Psychoanalysis and Gestalt therapy (Ego, Hunger and Aggression), the first manifestation of this new therapy approach appeared as a collaborative work between Goodman, Perls and Hefferleine titled “Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality”.

It remains today the classic seminal text in Gestalt therapy and is referred to by many Gestalt therapists simply as “PHG”.

If we begin to look for spirituality as part of Gestalt therapy in this early “bible” we are sadly disappointed. The table of contents and index contain no reference at all to spiritual or religious terms and one must dig deep and hard to find words such as “soul”.

However in a more recent Gestalt therapy text by Sylvia Crocker (which does include a chapter on spirituality) we find an excellent critique of PHG where the underlying ground of the authors shows a spiritual influence. Paul Goodman in particular was influenced by Zen Buddhism and the notions of reality of Plato and Aristotle. Crocker argues that the Greek notion of the soul as the animating principle which empowers living organisms deeply influenced Goodman and his writing in PHG.


“ Goodman’s position that the self is that aspect of the soul which involves awareness is well within this view of the soul”

A Life Well Lived: Essays in Gestalt Therapy
Sylvia Fleming Crocker, page 166





So while there are no mentions of theology or transpersonal experiences (such as we find two decades later), the very ground of PHG is imbued with a description of the self which has a spiritual resonance.

This echo of spiritual life is found in the view of reality which PHG propounds. In a return to a holistic paradigm as opposed to the reductionist descriptions of self found in most psychologies of the 1950’s, PHG offers a new language to challenge the fixed fabric of words which create our sense of self as separate and disconnected.




The Organism/Environment Field

The reductionist scientific paradigm had dominated our world view in the 19th and 20th centuries and languaged a reality of separate individuals. In a dramatic break from way of seeing the self and personality, this new psychotherapy described the person as a fluid part of an organism/environment field.

In simple terms this was a shift from seeing people as rocks (fixed and measurable) to seeing them as rivers ( mercurial and fluid). This is like the Buddhist metaphor where the personality is like a rain drop which seems separate but is really just part of the ocean which it will rejoin. A figure which emerges from the ground to be full and then melt back into the ground again.

Like a rain drop in an ocean, PHG described the person as an organism/environment field. The field is all there is, and like a clear figure which emerges from the ground, the organism is always part of this field and is defined by the field. Hence the definition of self is as follows:


“The self is a system of contacts in the organism/environment field”.


Like a Zen Buddhist koan this little mantra at first makes little sense to the uninitiated in Gestalt therapy. It needs to be unpacked - to define terms “system” and “contact”. In many ways this definition of self reminds me of the elusive and paradoxical definitions we have discovered already in the Tibetran Book of the Dead, in the Bhagavid Gitta, Swedenborg, Underhill and the later work of Tart.

Yet while this spiritual flavour and ground of existence is at the core of the first Gestalt therapy text, there is no written link to these earlier spiritual psychologies with no mention of any of these authors or books.

It is only in finding out more about the background of Perls and Goodman do we start to see the various influences in their life, through later authors such as Crocker, Sheppard, Wheeler, Clarkson and Perls himself.

For PHG was not written as a spiritual text by any means but as a psychosocial treatise offering commentary and even salvation from the mind numbing life of mainstream America in the fifties. In many ways it is a cross between a psychological text book and a sociological and anthropological “call to arms”- the stuff of social revolution with a goal of “saving the world”.


The Split between Secular and Spiritual

Perhaps if the sixties had not happened the impact of PHG would have been different, but the exploration of body mind and soul of this next decade saw two very different texts appear which I believe still echo a spilt in Gestalt therapy today. The first of these books is “Gestalt Therapy Integrated” edited by Fagan and Sheppard.

This book is a collection of articles, including work by Fritz Perls, which deal with clinical and theoretical aspects of Gestalt therapy. I see this as the “becoming part of the establishment” trend which all revolutions eventually seem to fall into. This book clearly aims to present Gestalt therapy as a part of the mainstream psychological culture and is echoed today in the need for conferences which accrue continuing education points and present scholarly papers.

The second book is titled “gestalt is” with a small “g” and is another collection of articles, including again work by Perls. This book is very different to the first, which has no mention of spirituality or religion.

This second book, edited by John O Stevens, presents Gestalt therapy as being as much a way of life as a particular therapy. It draws the connection between Gestalt therapy and spiritual practices (in particular Buddhism) and maintains the counter-culture tone with a distinctive 60’s flavour of alternative lifestyles and eastern religions.


I believe the themes (spiritual and secular) of both these books existed and sprang from the seminal text of PHG. If I draw a caricature of Gestalt therapy today I believe these “trends” can still be seen in how there are those in Gestalt therapy want to promote it as clinical specialty (along with all the other psychological therapies), and those who hold to the wider application of Gestalt therapy as a way of “being in the world”.

Hence there are those training centres and “camps” whose approach to teaching Gestalt therapy is to promote it as a psychological therapy and there have been some trainers who selected principally doctoral level psychologists as trainees.

Others such as Barry Stevens, have come to Gestalt therapy without any psychological qualifications yet have written classic texts on the subject with one of the most famous of psychological figures, Carl Rodgers.

My experience of this “divergence” has manifested in the conferences which have arisen in the 90’s with the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy (AAGT). These conferences have included almost all the leading American figures along with Europeans, South Americans and Australians.

I found a similar splitting into camps when I presented papers where I focused on spirituality. I was told by some how exciting and refreshing this is and by others that this is really not to be spoken of and clearly not a part of what Gestalt therapy needs concern itself.

Rather than limit the scope of Gestalt therapy, I would argue that these early seeds of spiritual worldview, social revolution and anarchy and psychological pragmatism have created a heady blend of a sociological phenomenon called “Gestalt therapy” which is in an adolescent phase of development, seeking self identity and direction.

It is more in the camp of the “being in the world” group that I believe we find the greater acceptance of the spiritual dimension of Gestalt therapy, yet this generalisation also falls apart when considered closely.

With the initial work found in “gestalt is” which linked spirituality to Gestal therapy, there were others who began writing in this area, such as Claudio Naranjo who described Gestalt therapy as a transpersonal approach.

These spiritual writings were attempts to align Gestalt therapy with other pre-existing spiritual practices. These initial writings also tended to fit with the counter culture movement which had taken up Eastern religions (particularly Buddhism and Zen Buddhism) with great fervour. However the two religions which were the ground of the culture wherein Gestalt therapy formed, Christianity and Judaism, came more slowly into focus.

The first of these was a work by one of the original Gestalt therapy pioneers, Wilson Van Dusen. Van Dusen was a clinical psychologist in Californian working with people such as Rodgers and was responsible for bringing Fritz Perls to the West Coast. Van Dusen, who is the second largest contributor to “gestalt is” after Perls, published a popular book entitled “The Natural Depth in Man” which presents a mixture of psychological, transpersonal and spiritual natures of humans.

While he writes about eastern religions and altered states fo consciousness this book is also a metanoia for Van Dusen who only hints at his awaking to the works of Emanual Swedenborg in this book before launching into the next of his books, “The Presence of Others Worlds” which deals exclusively with the psycho spiritual transformation of Swedenborg, a process which mirrored that of Van Dusen himself as he wrote.

Yet Van Dusen's books were not taken up as Gestalt therapy texts and it was not until the advent of Dialogical psychotherapy (based on the Jewish mystic Marticn Buber) and in particular the work of Richard Hycner and others, that we see a clear entrance of spiritual concepts into the mainstream of Gestalt therapy.