“The contours of your neurosis are the same
as the contours of your awareness” – Gestalt Therapy maxim
In the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, a charismatic and dynamic form of psychotherapy called Gestalt Therapy was central to what was known as the human potential movement. “Gestalt” is a German word that does not translate easily into English, but means roughly, the configuration or meaningful whole of an entity. A more precise way of explaining the concept of Gestalt as relates to a person, is contained in the concept of the “figure-ground relationship”. This is the relationship of the perceptions and actions of a person to their full potential. The“ground” is a person’s full potential, while the “figure” emerges from the ground of full potential to be a person’s experience of themselves and the world, which for most of us is only a small fraction of our full potential. Gestalt therapy was conceived to explore and activate the potential that is repressed or dormant, to expand the contours of awareness, thus dissolving neurosis. The figurehead genius behind this therapy was German psychologist, Fritz Perls, who immigrated first to South Africa in1933, escaping Nazism, then to America in1951. In his own words: “from an obscure lower middle-class Jewish boy to mediocre psychoanalyst to the possible creator of a ‘new’ method of treatment and the exponent of a viable philosophy which could do something for mankind.” Perls dissented with Freud, disagreeing that healing the human mind was accomplished through analyzing the historic personality (ego) formation. Rather, he believed that healing occurred when a person was able to witness the limited and limiting contours of their personality in the present moment, exposing the distortions and lapses between their potential (ground) and their conditioned personality (figure). In the distortions and lapses was the unfulfilled Gestalt of the person. Bringing these distortions and lapses into awareness for full experience completed the Gestalt, and realized the “meaningful whole” of a person.
Perls realized that what wasat issue in determining a person’s sanity was the degree of consciousness that a person could bring into their experience of life. What Perls brought to psychotherapy was a method of actualizing the expansion of consciousness into a more complete personal Gestalt. His method was, reminiscent of Eastern meditation and mindfulness, a process that cultivated the capacity of a person to step outside of being trapped within the limited figure of their conditioned personality, into the ground of their witnessing self. Perls brought to western therapy a multidimensional model of mind much like that which Buddhist psychology is based in. Translating into the language of Buddhism, “figure” is the conditioned egoic “little mind”, and“ground” is the full potential of the “original mind”, “Buddha mind” or“big mind”. Another way of expressing this,is that figure is the ideas we carry around about who we are, others are, and the world is, while ground is the reality of full potentiality. The difference between this idea and reality is our “neurosis”.
Perls developed very powerful and dramatic methods and techniques for expanding the contours of awareness so that a person could make better contact with the full potential of life. Perls was, however,very Western, and a very powerful and dramatic ego, and true to his analytic training, his therapy focused on unshackling the ego from its neurotic constraints, creating an uninhibited, creative and assertive dynamism. While his insight was instinctively trans-egoic, his methods, following the contours of his own personality and training, led principally to the expansion of the contours of the ego,and thus, it might be said, failed to accomplish the full Gestalt of his insight,an integrated psyche of ego and the ground of original mind. A large ego, inevitably results in conflict with other egos. Just ask anyone whoever encountered Fritz Perls, or many of his ultra-assertive disciples. The contours of awareness of a fully healthy and realized being contains and also transcends an ego not noted for its size,but its minimalist balance, fearlessness and compassion. Buddha realized this over 2500 years ago. We in the West, are just beginning to catch on, and if we do, it just might really “do something for mankind”.