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Unread March 12th, 2005, 03:54 PM
Phil Brownell Phil Brownell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2005
Posts: 23
Default A More Complete Spiritual Gestalt

Embedded in the roots of Gestalt therapy is a "neglected polarity." I say neglected because at one end of it there has been considerable development, which is evident in Brian's first post on this subject (Defining Spirituality) and in other places, for instance in an article on spirituality by the late Ruth Wolfert in Gestalt! (see index of authors at However, the other end of the polarity has not even been named, much less owned or described, and because of that, the polarity itself has not been available for development.

Before naming and describing the other end of Gestalt's neglected polarity, it's helpful to remember what a polarity is. A polarity is a reduction of an otherwise complex field. For the sake of efficiency, or because of an interruption of contact, a person will often form a simple, but crude gestalt, by creating the split between "this or that," "black or white," "good or bad," "large or small," "Gestalt therapy and not Gestalt therapy." With regards to spirituality, this is precisely what has been lacking. Before the exploration of what lies between the two ends of such a polarity, there must be the perception of extreme difference that separates them out to opposite ends.

The other end of the neglected spiritual polarity in Gestalt therapy is theistic - the sense of a personal God. One way of expressing this polarity is to say that it is "eastern philosophy or western spirituality." Another way of saying this is "process phenomenology or personal relationship," and still another might be "pantheism or theism."

Laura Perls admitted that at a crucial moment in the development of Gestalt Therapy, the founders made a choice between the nihilistic existentialism of people like Sartre and what she called the more positive existentialism of people like Kierkegaard. Indeed, at that point in the interview she broke out and virtually exclaimed working with Paul Tillich, a theologian of some note. Thus, even while appropriating such developmental influences as Kierkegaard, Tillich, and Buber, Gestalt therapists have consistently and systematically rejected theistic elements in these contributors to our theory. As perhaps one of the most telling indictments of such an approach, Martin Buber took Carl Jung to task for sucking God out of spiritual experience, making God-experience nothing but the product of one's subjective psyche. Buber would say to us today, "Where is the divine other in your I-Thou relationship?" For him God is an objective reality and not an idea we manufacture along the way.

Philip Brownell, M.Div, Psy.D.
Sr. Editor, Gestalt! (
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Unread March 15th, 2005, 10:16 AM
Brian O'Neill Brian O'Neill is offline
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 45
Default Re: A More Complete Spiritual Gestalt


I am ALMOST agreeing with what you write here... my exception is personal... I did not experience such a polarisation as you describe (and attribute) when I was writing the piece on spirituality... and on re-reading do still not experience what I wrote as fitting the polarity you express... I am curious how you did not see what I wrote as theistic?

I experience what I wrote on spirituality as having the space for being BOTH theistic and with a space for those who are not...

and I understand your statements about thesism and DO find this sparse in Gestalt therapy literature and conferencing...

and know from reading Jung intently that his private life as evidenced in his autibiography shows a more theistic surrender than that ascribed by others to his psychotherapy writings..

For example John Sanford quotes one of Jung's letters....

“Individuation is ultimately a religious process which requires a corresponding religious attitude – the ego-will submits to God’s will.”

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Unread March 16th, 2005, 09:32 AM
Phil Brownell Phil Brownell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2005
Posts: 23
Default Re: A More Complete Spiritual Gestalt

Hi Brian,
You asked a couple of things. First, you asked how is it that you succumbed to the polarity of which I spoke, and then you asked how is it that you did not express a theistic perspective. Let me address the first and then the second.

Brian, simply put, I don't think you DID express the neglected polarity to which I referred, and in that, to me you provided an example of the same neglect of it that I addressed at first. My lament is not that people are at the rudimentary stage of a polarity, but that they are not even yet there. We cannnot develop the complexity of "the between" until we have BOTH ends of the polarity firmly in place; yet, Gestaltists have consistently either rejected or neglected a serious consideration of the theism which is actually embedded in our roots. To me, you have attempted to express a complexity that is not fully appreciated as such, and cannot be fully appreciated as such because the simple structure has not first been established.

Now, I know you differently, and I welcomed your dialogue supporting theism in Gestalt Therapy, History, Theory, and Practice.

How did you not write of theism here? I think perhaps it is a matter of emphasis and of organization in what you wrote, but perhaps also of having something in your mind which you did not make explicit. You start off referring to Sylvia's observation about spiritual being anything non-physcial which brings one the sense of mystery. That could be many things, but is certainly not a clear reference to God. Then, you talk of Roberto Assagioli and religious/spiritual experience. When you describe him as accepting that spiritual experiences exist and that we can study them, and when that statement comes in the context of studying self and other psychological constructs, it becomes to me precisely what Buber criticized Jung about. It's the horizontal plane, with no real inquiry toward the vertical (in one way of speaking). When you move to discuss Van Dusen, you list eight things he thought of as essentially spiritual and not one of them was a reference to God, and then you said, "In essence spirituality is to begin to look for and see/experience the design of existence and the slight shift into greater significance which occurs as we do." That is the positive existentialism that Laura, Fritz, and even Paul Goodman chose over nihilism, but it also carries with it the same lack of direct reference to God, who is the reason for significance to people like Kierkegaard, Rudolph Otto, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich - all of whom can be traced in the roots of Gestalt therapy. In our contemporary scene people will find this same linkage between significance and "ultimate concerns" (one of Tillich's terms) in Rick Warren's fabulous best seller, The Purpose Driven Life (which, by the way is experiencing large cross over into the other theistic populations (from Christianity to Judaism and Islam - according to an interview recently with Larry King).

As an aside, recently in the states a man went on a murderous rampage and killed a judge and several other people before he took a woman hostage in her own apartment. She started telling him about her faith, and then she started reading to him from Warren's book, and then the man told her he thought she was an angel sent from God, and he let her go. It may well have been an example of God's intervention, for surely that man had a target on him for every swat team member in the city, but he was able to surrender without a shot fired, and who knows where this story goes from here, but I think it is significant for the juxtaposition of the relevant issues of existential significance and purpose being grounded in the reality of theism, and a kind of theism that does not turn the objective God into mere subjective experience.

To continue with what you wrote, you move directly from Van Dusen to exploring spiritual experience and your references are Buddhism and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. You speak of losing one's self, which is very eastern, but is NOT a relational, theistic understanding (because there must be a self, an "I" in order for there to be an "I-Thou." For instance, Otto, in his The Idea of the Holy, gives the example of the experience of self in the presence of the numinous (God) as awareness of one's creaturehood - awareness that one is a mere creature in the presence of One Who is so much more as to constitute Creator. That relationship provides the ground of emergence of self, not loss of self.

Brian, for me the closest you get to a clear theistic position in what you wrote (previous post titled "Defining Spirituality") was when you quoted Wordsworth:
"And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns..."

That presence that disturbs one, a sense of sublime something, is finally referred to with a personal pronoun - "Whose..." Who is the antecedent in Wordsworth's poem? That is the One neglected in Gestalt therapy. That is the Thou for Buber underlying every I-Thou encounter. That is the ground of being in Tillich which stirs every existential ultimate concern. That is the numinous in Otto, and that is the One in whom all our Fear and Trembling must find figure for Kierkegaard. Yet, we have either rejected or merely neglected Him, and when we speak of spiritual things, we either associate with the eastern philosophies, which are easily identified with because of their material and phenomenological processes, or we speak in terms of subjective psychological experiences. Either way, Brian, I think our discipline would largely fall under Buber's indictment.


Last edited by Phil Brownell; March 16th, 2005 at 08:13 PM. Reason: add something pertinent to previous post
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