Meditation and Gestalt Therapy

When things come together . . .

I was meditating a few nights ago and my son was listening to an online course in game development. I generally try to meditate after he has gone to bed, but it was quiet and I thought I would give it a go a bit early. As I meditated, I could hear the training video from his room. I am so proud of my son and his willingness to learn! Anyway, my first reaction was that I would have to stop meditating. Then, I decided to see if I could meditate through it. I remembered Jack Kornfield mentioning that he had learned to meditate in a place next to a busy road and how thankful he was for the noise. At the time, this seemed strange to me. Now, I understand.

As I focused on my breath, I noticed the video sound disappeared. It then re-appeared. It seemed to come and go in the same way that my thoughts did – that is, as I focused on my breath, my thoughts and the video receded. As my concentration lapsed, thoughts and the video returned. It was quite insightful. I knew that focusing on my breath could still my thoughts, I hadn’t considered the same for external stimuli. I began contemplating how our minds might be more powerful at excluding than I had formerly considered. I then sat down to continue reading a book by Fritz Perls on Gestalt Therapy.

Fritz was discussing the “object” (foreground) and the background – how our focus moves between the two and how they are rarely integrated. When they are integrated, we are whole (there is a Gestalt). To the extent that the two are not integrated, there is neurosis. I began to consider my meditation insights. I imagined that I might actually be excluding things from the background – if I was doing such effectively, I wouldn’t even consciously know. We exclude things that are painful, induce fear, are overwhelming and for other reasons which might protect our psyche. While our initial efforts might be adaptive, what about when the original negative emotions are gone? Do we re-integrate (open ourselves) to the stimuli, or do we continue to block it? I would suggest that once we learn to ignore something, it doesn’t normally make its way to the foreground short of a traumatic experience.

So, what is next? I am going to explore integration of the background. There are a number of techniques in Gestalt and Mindfulness practice to re-integrate things happening in the here-and-now. I will be exploring these, but the first step is to open oneself to the present moment. This is meditation.

Gestalt Therapy – The Empty Chair

Fritz Perls is interesting to watch while he workshops his therapeutic approach and it is highly recommended to watch his “Empty Chair” technique (various videos available on YouTube). In this technique, the client and therapist are seated and there is also an empty chair, generally facing the client. This allows the client to look at the empty chair while s/he talks, with the therapist observing the client and the empty chair.

Gestalt Therapy Empty Chair
Gestalt Therapy Empty Chair

The empty chair becomes a focus for the client, as s/he is directed to speak to the chair, as if speaking to another person (or a personified problem). If the subject of the discussion is the client’s fears or insecurities, those fears or insecurities can “take form” in the empty chair and be addressed by the client. If the issue is the client’s relationship with a parent, that parent can be “placed” in the empty chair and the client addresses their parent directly. Sometimes, this involves the client talking to the empty chair and sometimes it has the client jumping from chair to chair to take on the persona (and provide responses for) the other party to the conversation.

How is this helpful?

  • This technique can allow the client to verbalise issues, helping to clarify problems and suggest solutions.
  • The client can also begin to understand the perspective of the person in the other chair, by trying to take his or her perspective.
  • The client can “externalise” problems (this is a powerful technique also applied in other modalities, such as Narrative Therapy). Once problems are externalised, the client can began to examine them from a distance and realise that the problem is not him or her (that is, the client is more than just the problem).
  • The client can be helped to move from verbalising feelings to expressing them (both in the chair as themselves and in the empty chair as the “other”).

When might the Empty Chair technique be used?

  • When the client insists on making the therapy session about others (the problem is not his or hers, but rests with someone else).
  • When the client cannot distance him/herself from problems.
  • When the client seems to lack empathy for others.
  • When the client lacks affect.

We all practice things we are going to say to others. Perhaps we are practicing how we might respond in a stressful situation. Perhaps we are visualising how we are going to respond in an interpersonal encounter. The Empty Chair makes this technique more overt and allows us to remove ourselves from the problem, to look at new ways to address it. Talking to an empty chair might help empower us to improve our relationships, so we don’t find ourselves sitting across from empty chairs outside of therapy.

Here’s to good mental health!

Jerry's signature

In the Moment

Most of us spend significant parts of our lives either dwelling on the past or planning (or dreading) the future. The exception might be when we are young and are living in that moment – remember savouring an ice cream on a hot summer day, wanting nothing else and to be nowhere else?

As we get older, this changes. We propel ourselves into an imagined future, as we live our lives mentally in what we want to exist. My first experience with this was when I started university and – as I worked so hard with my studies and jobs – I imagined myself finishing university. These visions kept me going when little else would. Sadly, what started as a strategy to accomplish a goal (many of our dysfunctional actions start off to address real situations in our lives, but outlive their usefulness) became an unhealthy pattern of living in the future.

Why is this a problem? Other than losing out on your experiences now – such as the attention of your child – living in the future is not terribly productive (how much of what we imagine actually happens?) Also, such projections can lead to significant anxiety, when the future we imagine is not a positive one.

What about the opposite – living in the past? Nostalgia can be comforting, for a moment, but can quickly morph into regret, bitterness and sorrow. Living in the past offers little assistance in making it through the rest of your life.

People present to therapy who cannot stay in the moment. They are depressed about the past or anxious about the future. How can the therapist help?

There are quicker ways to come into the present:

  • Grounding in the body. This involves exercises within the therapy session where the client is taken through attempts to focus on what is happening in their body at the moment.
  • Changing speaking patterns. This involves encouraging clients to speak in the present, not the past or the future (e.g. only present tense verbs). This can be difficult and cause frustration for clients accustomed to doing otherwise.
  • Initial attempts at facilitating a meditative state, perhaps utilising something like Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).

There is a long-term (or perhaps better worded, a more persistent) way to come into the present:

  • Developing a mindfulness practice. Once a client is able to spend 20 – 60 minutes a day meditating, he or she will find that this state will start to work into other parts of life. This is the point. Mindfulness is not about a few minutes of focus, but focus that becomes normalised for the practitioner.

Do you live in the moment? Is the here-and-now your normal mode of existence?

Do you:

  • Spend significant time reviewing the past?
  • Do you often find yourself feeling sorrowful about what has happened or what might have been?
  • Do you dread the future?
  • Do you find that normal things happen without you seeming to notice them (e.g. eating, spending time with family)?

Anxiety has a hard time taking hold when you focus on NOW. Depression loses it power when you find wonder around you.

This moment is all we really have. Make it your focus.

To good mental health!

Jerry's signature

Gestalt Therapy Verbatim

When I wanted an introduction to Gestalt Therapy, this book was one of my first acquisitions. When I was a counselling student, I had seen the 1960s videos of Perls, Rogers and Ellis counselling Gloria (these videos are a rite of passage for counselling students). Like most, my first instinct was to support the idea that Rogers was most effective – with Perls insulting and condescending to Gloria (and Ellis – to use a modern expression – “mansplaining”). Although Perls seemed a bit harsh and rude, I sensed there was something more to what he was achieving. So, I began to research Gestalt Therapy (and I have come around to believing that Perls was the most effective therapist with Gloria – a topic for another post).

Other texts are more theoretical. This one is Uncle Fritz sitting in a chair and talking to his students (followers). You might want to read a bit of theory first, so that you can jump into this in a similar mindset to those in the room with Fritz.

Frustration in meditation

When I first started meditating, I thought I had to get it “right”. I thought that somehow I could completely focus and then I would have a startling epiphany – a moment of “enlightenment”. Many of us start out with these sorts of ideas.

First, some would argue that “enlightenment” is not an instant insight at all. Stephen Batchelor in “After Buddhism : Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age” argues that the Buddha saw enlightenment as a practice to alleviate suffering and not a mental epiphany that allows one to “break” with corporeal existence. I would say there are some merits to this view. One of the many difficulties I had with the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) was that after the Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he continued his existence for another 40+ years. This makes sense if enlightenment is a process, rather than a flash of insight. So, I have come to see meditation not as some mystical experience leading to immediate release, but rather as a practice, which takes effort and whose goal is release from suffering through this practice.

Second, in my straining to focus, I didn’t realise that the simple act of returning to my breath is the purpose of meditation. Rather than beating myself up over my inability to focus, I realised that simply realising my mind was drifting and returning my focus to the breath was itself meditating. I was not “failing” by wandering, I was “succeeding” by noticing and returning to the breath. How did this help? Rather than scolding myself when my mind wandered, I felt good at noticing and returning my concentration to my breathing. This self-encouragement has had remarkable effects on my meditation practice (including my excitement, rather than dreading or putting off my practice).

When your mind wanders, gently notice and return to the breath, over and over again. Each time being gentle with yourself and realising that this is actually meditation. You are not doing it wrong. You are not failing. You are taking the same path we all take. The “monkey mind” will calm, over time. Frustration will not help. Frustration will not motivate you. Being kind to yourself will encourage you. You are brave to explore the mind. Many live their whole lives without looking inside. You are an explorer. Be kind to yourself and keep going.

Self-comforting through difficult times

Therapy is not just something “delivered” by another person for a scheduled time each week. To ensure our own mental health, we need to look for opportunities to help ourselves outside of therapy sessions. Therapists realise this and often will recommend tasks to be completed between sessions. Sometimes these tasks involve reading a book – within the therapeutic relationship, this is called a number of things, including “bibliotherapy”. Sometimes, clients will be asked to watch for certain things and then make note for discussion at the next session. These can be wonderful tasks, that can be focused upon in therapy.

What about things to do between sessions or once sessions have ended? What sorts of things can you do to help yourself? Learning as much as possible can be empowering (and I will discuss that in a post soon), but second to that focus, I try to self-nurture.

Think about it like this – if you had a friend who was down, what would you do? Maybe you would take over some soup. Maybe you would buy them something nice that you thought would cheer them up. What might cheer them up? Flowers? A book? Music? A new robe? I am going to say this with emphasis – THE CARING, NURTURING, LOVING APPROACH THAT YOU TAKE WITH OTHERS, YOU CAN TAKE WITH YOURSELF. Now, I can hear responses. “That would be self-indulgent!” “I would feel silly!” Toss all of those notions out the window.

Now, most of us practice SOME aspects of self-nurturing. Who hasn’t gone on a big shopping spree to help their moods? The problem is that caring for yourself can be sporadic and tends to fail the most when you most need it. Would you be happy with a friend who was inconsistent with help and never showed up when you needed them the most? Don’t be that sort of friend to yourself!

Me? I have a lot of self-care ready and waiting. The long, wet New Zealand winters are hard to bare, so I have a stack of books I love on standby (ordered during summer) and I have some incredibly comfortable nightshirts I order from Ireland (also in summer). What else? When my moods are down, I have one of my guitars sitting next to my bed and I strum and sing to myself. I have framed art made by my son and put around the house. This always cheers me up. When dealing with bullies professionally, I have been known to buy some herbal teas during the day and come home to a movie, fluffy robe and herbal tea. When I find myself dealing repeatedly with people who lack commitment to quality in their lives (not within counselling, of course, but other contexts), I add that much more beauty, quality and intellect to my own. I have enrolled in another course to fill this current gap.

Things I love to raise my mood
Things I love to raise my mood

Today? Drinking coffee from the “Best Dad Ever” cup that my son gave me a few years ago, while I read some history (I love history) and meditating with my turquoise mala (which reminds me of where I grew up).

Yes, seek professional help when you need it, but ALSO take responsibility for yourself, as you would for a dear friend or family member. You deserve to be cared for and who knows your needs better?

When Sitting Meditation Just Won’t Happen

We all have those days where we can’t sit. Sometimes it is something physical, such as pain or injury. Sometimes, our minds want to be anywhere else. When I was new to meditation, I would just give up for the day! There are other ways to meditate than just sitting. There are practices for walking meditation, where you focus on your feet striking the ground (for example). There is eating meditation, where you focus deeply on the food, the movement of your mouth, etc. There is meditation while using the toilet (I will let you figure this one out for yourself). There is chanting (“OM”, “Om mani padme hum”, etc) meditation, where rather than focusing on your breathe or a flame, you chant to a rhythm.

Meditation mala for mindfulness practice
Meditation mala for mindfulness practice

One of my preferred options, if my sitting meditation won’t happen, or if I am in a situation where it is not practical (sitting at doctor’s office, on the train, etc) is chanting to myself while working along my mala. One of my malas is pictured here. I work along each bead with focus, inhaling on the bead and then exhaling and clearly chanting “OM” as my finger works into the space between the beads. This can have a very powerful effect on me. It is different from sitting meditation, but also a balancing, centring and calming experience.

Another practice that is helpful for me, especially when I am feeling too centred on my own ego, is loving-kindness meditation. I might mention that in another post.

Until then,

OM . . .