“Listen. Listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
The central premise of Gestalt psychology and Zen are nearly the same. In Gestalt psychology, it is understood that we live our lives paying attention to only those aspects of the totality of what is present and happening that resonates with our personal conditioning and our motivation in the moment. It uses language that talks about the “figure” experience, that which is in the foreground of our awareness, and the “ground” or background of the total possibility of the moment. Our personal reality, our subjective experience, is made up of what we have brought out of the background and into the foreground of our awareness, and it is the maintenance of this subjective experience, our conditioned personality, the who-that-I-experience-to-be-me, that is our primary motivation. It is the way I walk and talk and think and feel. It is what I see and hear and interact with out of the everything that is to be seen and heard and interacted with, and for each person this is different.
So, who is this “me?” This is the central question of both Gestalt psychology and Zen, although they answer it slightly differently. Gestalt, emerging out of Western psychology, is primarily concerned with personality development, and defines this me by its neurotic contours, the ego, the who-I-experience-to-be-me. Zen, emerging out of Buddhist psychology, is primarily concerned with enlightenment, the state of absolute mental health and human potential. So the question, “who is this me?” has two answers. There is the neurotic me and then there is the enlightened or “true,” “original,” “natural” me, all terms that Buddhism uses to point to the enlightened Being that resides within each of us buried under neurotic conditioning.
Gestalt seeks, through bringing into present moment awareness by various techniques and therapist interactions, that which is happening in the subjective experience below the threshold of awareness, to expand the contours of the “figure,” thus bringing insight to the person. As is said in Gestalt, “the contours of the neurosis are the same as the contours of awareness.” We are primarily aware of that which conforms to the personality that is conditioned into us.
In example, an angry person is experiencing out of the everything in the world more reasons to be angry, and the anxious person, is experiencing out of the everything in the world more reasons to be anxious. This is a simplification, but it is mostly true. The foreground of a person’s experience is made up of not only healthy functional aspects of their personality, but also the limitations in perception that make for their craziness. The genius of Gestalt is that by expanding the contours of a person’s awareness, to experience more possibilities, and to see where the possibilities are being cut off, the contours of the neurotic personality begin to expand, becoming less limiting, less neurotic, eventually completely healthy, even enlightened.
Now the simple truth is that the everything in the world that Gestalt calls “background” is Life. It is Nature, the Universe, and this is where Buddhism picks up. Buddhism is a psychology that looks to bypass the neurosis completely by directing a person to get in touch with the dimension of themselves that is not neurotic. “Show me your original face!” exhorts the Zen master seeking to awaken in the person an insight, a direct experience, a Satori, into the realization of their deepest nature – – – – which is what? Of course, the only thing it can be: Nature.
Zen seeks to awaken the realization that the same harmony and balance that is Nature is the core of every human. What else could it be? It is only that humans have allowed that which is their natural core, their essential ground of Being, to be the un-noticed background of their lives, just like they dismiss the external world of Nature to be the blur in the background of their personal strivings. Humans give their attention primarily to the neurotic story of their egoic self, conditioned into them by the neurotic egoic forces that dominate others and society. Nature, both in the world and in themselves, is hardly noticed at all, a generally ignored background.
A famous Zen story has the student trailing after the Master as they walk through the woods asking questions about enlightenment, querying, “How do I enter into Zen?” Finally the Master instructed the student to sit down and be quiet. The Master then asked, “Do you hear that mountain stream?” At first, the student, absorbed in his own noisy thoughts, heard no mountain stream, and so the Master instructed, “listen harder.” As the student became quieter, and redirected his awareness from his own noisy mind into the world around him, as he allowed stillness and silence as the underlying fabric of the moment to fill his consciousness, he heard the faint sound of the stream emerging out of the silence. To which the Master instructed, “Enter into Zen from there.” The Master is saying, in effect, “find your true self in that level of attending to the background that is Life.”
Zen challenges us over and over: “Who is this ‘me’?” And the answer is never simple. And it is profoundly simple. Always with Zen, it is the paradox. We are born into this world with a consciousness that is pure awareness. There is no language or experience with which to categorize and separate, judge and discriminate that which comes into our awareness. We have not been shaped yet into our particular neurosis. This is the “original face” that Zen exhorts us to rediscover. Immediately, the cultural forces of family, and later, society, begin creating a dualistic subject-object orientation, and the conditioned recognition and interpretation of separate phenomenon in the environment begins to take over the foreground of mental experience. A personality and a cognitive map of the world begin to form. For the rest of our lives this cognitive map of “me-in-the-world” and subject-object orientation is reinforced, becoming stronger and more pervasive, until that original pure receptive consciousness is nearly completely buried, forgotten, inaccessible. But it is not gone.
There are moments when the dualism evaporates in a pure and direct experience. As small children we had these “satori” moments all the time, such as when we became completely absorbed in an ant trail winding through the grass on a sunny day and we became the ant trail winding through the grass on a sunny day – no me separate from the experience. Or we were running and laughing with a playmate and there was no me and there was no playmate, there was only running and laughing. Or we curl up in our mother’s lap and there is no me, no mother, only the warmth and safety of the lap.
As adults, in moments of sports, arts, love, Nature and sometimes, simply spontaneous openings, the original mind comes forward, subject-object experience dissolves into pure and direct experience of the moment, and time stops. This is Satori. The background of Life directly, non-dualistically experienced comes forward to fill the foreground of awareness and there is no separate me with my thoughts, emotions and proprioceptive separateness filling the foreground anymore. There is only the moment. Psychologists call these, “peak experiences” or “flow.” What they are is your “original face” coming forward as the little ego-bound self falls into the background. The subjective you is still there, but the object has merged with the subject. There is only the moment in experience with all self-directed orientation receded. The egoic self is nowhere to be found. “Out there” and “in here” become one. Non-dualism. Satori. Life directly experienced.
Mostly, however, we live with Life as a barely noticed background to our subjective strivings and cravings and aversions that fill our mental field. Our thoughts about our life situations and circumstances dominate us. Dualistic subjective-objective consciousness dominates, with the thought form of me at the center of my universe. There is a great deal of emotional reactivity in this universe as this “me” is under many stressors to achieve its agenda of safety, sufficiency and success in the world “out there.” Incessant mental activity “in here” with nearly always some degree of anxiety driving it like a whip, becomes our “normal” consciousness. Only when the anxiety erupts into fear, anger, compulsion, depression, and addictions do we discern something is wrong. What is really wrong is that this craziness has become “normal” from the perspective of contemporary life.
Remember the background? Remember Life? “Show me your original face.” Who are you? Well, on one level, you are this body and the jumble of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, behaviors, beliefs, prejudices, fears, ambitions and subject-object relationships that dominate your life circumstances. You experience yourself as the center of this subjective universe. On another level, the primary level, the Zen level, you are this moment in awareness that has a body, that has a cognitive mind, that has circumstances, but “you” are these things only secondarily to being pure consciousness in Life. Life is the foreground experience. The situations and circumstances are just background stuff that needs attending to; and you can attend to them, now skillfully, peacefully and with wisdom. A radical shift in gestalt has occurred. The Universe has become the center of you. It is what I call, “reversing the gestalt.” It is, like the faint sound of a mountain stream, the entry into Zen – it is what “brings me back to my true self.”