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!

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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.