Cape Cod Institute
Behavior OnLine Forums  
The gathering place for Mental Health and
Applied Behavior Science Professionals.
Become a charter member of Behavior OnLine.

Go Back   Behavior OnLine Forums > BOL Forums > Gestalt Therapy


Thread Tools Display Modes
Unread July 17th, 2004, 05:20 PM
Brian O'Neill Brian O'Neill is offline
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 45
Default Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective

Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective

Sylvia Crocker - A Life Well Lived

To define spirituality I would start by borrowing from and paraphrasing a dear friend of mine, Dr Sylvia Crocker and her book A Life Well Lived: Essays in Gestalt Therapy. Sylvia has a sense of the mystery of spiritual experience and steps up to meet this mystery full bodied.

As I begin this definition I might also note that spirituality rests on the existence of levels of reality, particularly physical reality and spiritual reality.
Now not all gestalt therapists see this as the purview of Gestalt therapy, however there are those that do and Sylvia and I are two such Gestalt therapists. And interestingly enough as Sylvia writes in her book, it took a certain amount of bravery on her part to write about spirituality and religion.

For some, as Sylvia says, this spiritual reality is mostly a mystery yet people report experiences that they term spiritual and are a result of an awareness or a reality other than the physical reality - many often now reporting such experiences in therapy, both therapists and clients.

Hence spiritual experience is that which people report as an experience of a reality other than that which is physical, which many then call spiritual and which Sylvia states is the meeting with this mystery.

The “ality” part she describes as our ability. Hence physicality is our ability to experience the physical, emotionality is our ability to experience emotions and spirituality is our ability to experience the spiritual.

Roberto Assagioli and Psychosynthesis

The founder of Psychosynthesis, the psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, takes a very existential and phenomenological approach to defining religion and spirituality which I appreciate.

In defining the terms to separate religion from psychotherapy, Assagioli firstly notes two different stages of religion. The first is “existential religion” which is direct spiritual experience, often realised by founders of religions, mystics and in varying degrees by many people.

Second is the religion of theological or metaphysical formulation of such experiences and the institutions methods and forms developed to communicate to the masses.

Psychosynthesis affirms the reality of the first religion and works in this area but is neutral to the second, noting that this second form is necessary, but the purpose of psychosynthesis is to attain direct experience of the first (pages 194-195).

In many ways Assagioli makes the distinction between psychology and religion on practical grounds, offering definitions of terms such as “self” and “spiritual” and “religion” as being practical realities which can be experienced and altered by psychological techniques.

For example, in defining the term spiritual he does not attempt to define or discuss what it is in essence but offers the fact of spiritual experience, an experience of what he terms the super conscious. He then uses the metaphor of electricity wherein we do not need to know the underlying theory or ultimate nature of electricity to use electrical appliances. Likewise psychosynthesis accepts that spiritual experiences exist and therefore includes and studies them with the purpose of therapeutic and educational utilisation.

The same pragmatic approach applies in defining the “self” to his patients. Initially the notion of a personal self and a higher Self is presented as an hypothesis which can be verified or disproved as the therapy proceeds. How this is explained also depends on the background of the person, so that a religious person is told the higher Self is a neutral psychological term used for the soul. For agnostics it is whatever term or metaphor or symbol fits for that person.

Wilson Van Dusen and the Design of Existence

Another Gestaltist, Wilson Van Dusen, a psychologist, mystic and a colleague of Carl Rodgers and Fritz Perls, in his book The Design of Existence, proposes there are a number of terms that he would easily substitute for spiritual -

1. Our inner life
2. the significant aspects of life
3. the aspects of life related to eternity
4. your relationship to the order of existence
5. your loves
6. Those matters that make you feel most elevated and fee
7. Your ideal
8. Whatever matters most to you

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.

Overall I would say there are a number of important themes in attempting to define spirituality given the vast religious, spiritual and mystical writings and experiences.

First, there are issues of language and culture. Some words in mystical and religious texts do not readily translate, such as Brahman, so we must involve ourselves in the frame of reference of the writings.

Second, each writer is using words to translate an experience. Some experiences are beyond words or if you have not actually experienced what the writer is talking about then there will be inherent difficulties.

Third and perhaps most importantly, is the higher is descending to the lower. We are speaking at one state of being, while what we are speaking about may only be experienced at a higher or more expanded state of being.
Usually the mark of this is that what is understandable at the higher or expanded state sounds paradoxical at the lower state. For example the Tibetan Book of the Dead states how when we discover the void ness of our own minds to be Buddha-hood and at the same time our own consciousness we will dwell in the state of the Divine Mind of the Buddha.

This holds the paradox without shattering the beauty. This experience of losing self may seem at first very theoretical and wordy. Words do not always convey the experience which behind the words. This is sometimes better expressed through poetry, or art or music.

This sense of losing oneself and becoming part of something bigger is not limited to such esoteric concepts. It may be found in everyday reality: in painting, in music, being in nature, cheering on your football team, being in a family gathering and laughing. There are so many areas where that which we are involved in is the direct moment and involves love and wisdom.

At such times we "forget" our "selves" and be in the moment, beyond time and worry. While in the background there is a sense of "me" - this me is almost gone, enrapt in the greater All that we are a part of. Such states are hard to translate into to words at times, and sometimes poetry achieves this best:

"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,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."

"Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey" lines 93-103

Last edited by Brian O'Neill; August 24th, 2004 at 08:29 AM. Reason: Spelling
Reply With Quote
Unread August 4th, 2004, 07:24 PM
Anna Freud Anna Freud is offline
Join Date: Aug 2004
Posts: 22
Default Re: Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective


Did you write that whole thing on Spirituality?

How long did it take?

Where are the other Gestaltists?

If a client wants the therapist to pray in a session would you comply?

Reply With Quote
Unread August 8th, 2004, 02:18 PM
Jassmine Jassmine is offline
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: Irving, TX
Posts: 3
Default Re: Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective

Hi Brian,

Fascinating post. Even though I am a very spiritual person, I have not really ever been able to define just what spirituality "is". I can define what is to me. For me it is a sense of being as one with the cosmos. A connection to another plane of existance outside of the physical.

I feel that spirituality is so hard to define, because for each person it is experienced differently. I also feel that religion is a way to express one's spirituality. I do not think the two are one and the same. For while I am a very spiritual being, one would be hard pressed to describe me as religious.

Just some food for thought
Blessings Eternal,
Reply With Quote
Unread August 10th, 2004, 09:39 AM
Brian O'Neill Brian O'Neill is offline
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 45
Default Re: Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective

Hi Anna

Apart from the quotes I wrote the article on spirituality and it probably took about an hour. I had already written the piece on Roberto Assagioli in a book I've done called "The Noble Quest: Psychotherapy and the Holy"

And I also was wondering where all the other Gestaltists are :-)

and if a client asked me to pray with them in a session then that would depend on the context in which they asked however overall I feel no sense that this would not be different than a person suggesting we meditate in a session....

Reply With Quote
Unread August 10th, 2004, 09:40 AM
Brian O'Neill Brian O'Neill is offline
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 45
Default Re: Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective

Thanks Jasmine

Reply With Quote
Unread August 20th, 2004, 06:35 AM
Jacqueline Jacqueline is offline
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: Devon, England
Posts: 4
Default Re: Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective

For me, Spirituality is about being at one with yourself, without judging or critisizing. It is about just being, being in the moment. It is about acceptance of yourself and others, an intermingling of energies between the universe and us as that same universe. We are all like individual drops of ocean, yet we are of that same ocean, what I do affects you and vice versa. Spirituality for me, is about change, growth, comfort zones, about not holding on to any one perspective but allowing your perspectives to change as you grow, allowing figure and ground to move, roll, intermingle as experience carries us through life like the gentle breeze carries a feather. It isn't just the strength of the breeze that allows the feather to be carried, it is also the components of the feather that gives it the strength to be carried. Spirituality is also, for me about intuition, it is about following and trusting your inner self. That part of you that is deeply and spiritually connected to universal energy. That part of you that surpasses all understanding. It is about trust and about love, not just loving others, that is the easy part, but about loving yourself. As we all begin to love ourselves, not only will that love bring healing to ourselves, it will also bring healing to others and healing into the world.
Reply With Quote
Unread August 24th, 2004, 08:44 AM
Brian O'Neill Brian O'Neill is offline
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 45
Default Language and Spirituality


Your post and the poetic language you use reminds me of the work of Eugene Taylor. He makes a pertinent comment about language when expressing our spiritual experience...

“It is not generally the language of everyday discourse because it is so personal. It is not the kind of language that drives science or business, and it not the normally the speech we hear when talking to our neighbours, although it sometimes appears in the language of relationships, such as between intimate friends, or in the expression of romantic feelings. It is, rather, a deeply interior language.”

The Psychology of Spiritual Healing
Eugene Taylor, page 2

Reply With Quote
Unread January 23rd, 2005, 05:00 AM
rayKillips rayKillips is offline
Join Date: Jan 2005
Posts: 1
Smile Re: Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective

I found that original post to be wonderful. I think that its a wonderful thing to see therapists concerned about hier patients spiritual well being. I have been a student for 7 years in school while working on my masters degree and I can tell you that I dont belive that this subject was even looked at during the whole 7 years. I would like to know what happened in our times that brought about the thought that spiritulality was an unecessary part of a human being and their well being. I belive that this arrogance can be quite damaging to an individual when their spiritualaity is not dealt with in therapy. I personally believe that there are more parts to the human existance than what can be explained by science. As for the other repsonse which asked if a therapist should pray with a client. I do belive that the therapist should do just that if they feel comfortable with that and the client and it is not a time to evangalize the therapist. I do not see anything wrong with praying with a client and I think that it may even be benificial to let them know that their spirtuality is not negated but can be a very useful tool in their therapy. I may have little practical experince in this field but I do know that through my personal experience a person with faith and expressive spirituality has a much less chance of suicide and a greater degree of hope. How can that be a bad thing? I belive that a therapist shoudl at the very least understand the clients belief system and if possible incorporate it into the therapy. Thank you
Reply With Quote
Unread April 2nd, 2005, 10:11 PM
Anna Freud Anna Freud is offline
Join Date: Aug 2004
Posts: 22
Default Re: Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective


You open up a psychological bags of worms regarding spirituality. So what does spirituality mean to you? There are millions of definitions. Spirituality differs from "having religion," or "knowing God." Most therapists wouldn't pray if their clients asked them to because that is reserved for Pastoral Counselors as i have read and have been told. Most therapists are secular in their psychological thinking. Even most so called christian therapists do not believe in spiritual tenets. Most therapists do not believe anything spiritual but their theory that will "cure" their clients. So why pray? I think bringing in the Spirituality card is a comfy cover to offer their clients, but few hardly believe Spirituality works.

Reply With Quote
Unread April 3rd, 2005, 11:03 AM
Phil Brownell Phil Brownell is offline
Join Date: Mar 2005
Posts: 23
Default Re: Defining Spirituality - A Gestalt therapy perspective

Dear Anna,
Your assertion that Christian counselors do not bring spirituality into the counseling is simply wrong. Furthermore, you seem to misunderstand the implications of holism and dialogic relationship; a Christian Gestalt therapist would practice presence as a whole human being, including his or her relationship with God. The way they might do this would vary. I listen for "the word" of the client which communicates their experience of God, but beyond that I attempt to provide a space in which the meeting between myself and the client might occur, in regard to spirituality, by disclosing to them my background in the ministry; when I conduct a formal history with the client, I include the spiritual by asking if spirituality is important to them, if they believe in God, if they do believe in God, what they think God is like, if they participate in a community of faith, and if so how involved and accepted they experience themselves there, and if they want spirituality to be part of their therapy. This is the kind of thing I believe a holistic approach would naturally prompt in a Gestalt therapist, but I agree with you that many do not (which I believe is from neglect of the theism which is actually present in the roots of our theory - see "A More Complete Spiritual Gestalt" elsewhere posted in this forum). I would not put the emphasis you seem to have made on the negative. I graduated, for instance, from a doctoral program accredited by the American Psychological Association to prepare psychologists to serve peoples of faith, and I know we contemplated often the integration of psychology and Christianity.

Philip Brownell, M.Div., Psy.D.
Sr. Editor, Gestalt! (
Clinical Psychologist, Bermuda-USA

Last edited by Phil Brownell; April 19th, 2005 at 08:26 PM. Reason: adding new and relevant information
Reply With Quote

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off
Forum Jump

All times are GMT -4. The time now is 10:09 AM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.7.3
Copyright ©2000 - 2021, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.
Copyright © 1995-2004 Behavior OnLine, Inc. All rights reserved.