Gestalt Therapy part 1

The following experiment is based on one from a book called Gestalt Therapy, which I found by chance in a free book store in Baltimore a while back.  Without knowing much about gestalt therapy itself, I’ve still found the experiments in the book to be really great tools for self-inquiry.  Hopefully you’ll find them helpful as well.


Experiment 1 – Feeling the Actual

This first experiment is directed at heightening the feeling of what is actual, making contact with what is actually the case.  I’m reminded of Paul Hedderman’s terms “what’s happening” and “what’s not happening”.  (which you can find here: “AM on Halloween w/Paul”, starting at 8:50)  Think of this experiment as turning the attention to take a look at “what’s happening”.

This may particularly be a useful exercise if there’s something in the actual which would be to our benefit to pay attention to.  If our tooth is aching, we have a headache, or we are fatigued from overwork, these may be warning signals – signs that something is amiss which needs our attention.  Taking pain-killers to turn off the signal only falsely solves the problem.

A question approached in this experiment is: Are there comparable ‘pain-killers’ of a behavioral sort?  Are there behaviors we use in order to turn away from warning signals and other important aspects of our actuality?

More on that later.  For now, let’s try a very simple exercise.  Like Harding says, there’s no benefit in simply reading about this exercise.  Just DO IT.  Really, it’s easy.

Exercise 1

For a few minutes, make up sentences stating what you are at this moment aware of.  Begin each sentence with the words “now” or “at this moment” or “here and now”.

Not too bad, huh?  Let’s talk some, and then we’ll try it again.

So what do we mean by “actual”?  As far as time goes, it’s what is right now, in the present.  What is actual for you must be in the present.  As far as location, it’s what is right here, where you are.  You cannot be experiencing first hand any event beyond the range of your perception.  You can imagine things happening beyond your perception, but that imagining is really just in your mind (i.e. within the range of your perception).

To quote William Samuel (from A Guide to Awareness and Tranquility):

“When does one experience the occurrence of any event? Now!  Listen carefully: When do we remember the event?  When do we reminisce about the event?  When do we think about the past?  Now; always now!  When do we dream of a future event?  When do we plan and calculate concerning future activities?  Now.  All experience, all activity, all memory of the past, dream of the future, thinking and thought taking are inevitably, invariably ‘happening’ in the now.  Isn’t this so?”

Now, let’s be clear about something.  This experiment is not about living for the present (“eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”).  It is about living in the present.  Which is where we always are anyway (how could it be different?)

You may have an objection similar to this person: “Others may be able to remain in the now, but, unfortunately, I find it completely impossible.  There can be no constant now for me.  At this very moment I have just passed the now.”

The book’s authors respond: “The wish to seize the present and pin it down – to mount it, as it were, like a butterfly in a case – is doomed to failure…When actuality seems fixed, permanent, unchanged, and unchangeable, this is a fictional actuality which we continuously build anew because it serves some present purpose of our own to preserve the fiction.”

I’m reminded of the common meditation practice of attempting to “be in the now”, which often ends up being an attempt to hold tightly to an imagined idea (i.e. a thought or visualization) of what the “now” is.  Anyway, that’s not what we’re trying to do here.

Ok, so, let’s try it again:

Exercise 2

For a few minutes, make up sentences stating what you are at this moment aware of.  Begin each sentence with the words “now” or “at this moment” or “here and now”.


On to some important stuff: questions from the book…

-As you performed the exercise, what difficulties did you encounter?

-Why did you terminate the exercise just when you did?  Not to say you should have gone longer, but…Were you tired?  Had you gone blank and stopped forming sentences?  Did you quit without being aware that you were quitting?

-Did you skip over doing the exercise, or do it sort of half-heartedly just to move on?  Should you succeed in demonstrating that you can do these experiments and still remain unmoved, over whom would you have won a victory?

-Did you talk to yourself or others about what a great exercise this is without actually sinking your teeth into it yourself?

-Do you not want to get close enough to your experience to feel it vividly?

-Do you feel abashed to find your actuality to be commonplace and lackluster?  What impossible kind of actuality are you demanding if you require that it must at every moment be wondrous and exotic?  Or, if you find your actuality chronically dull and uninteresting, what is keeping you from doing something to liven it up?  What hindrances in this direction are you aware of?

-While doing the exercise, what sources of information are you leaving out?  Are you only writing about your internal experiences (thoughts, feelings), or only about your external experiences (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell)?  Are you like an editor at a newspaper who favors some news sources over others?  Whether you choose to “print it” or not, take notice of the range of the kind of information that is pouring into your editorial office.  Maybe you’re passing up some good bets.  In other words, take notice of all the different sorts of things you can be aware of at this moment.

-You may approach this exercise as a sort of test of potency, that is doing it to prove to yourself that you can do it, and then leaving it at that.  Well of course you can do it!  Anybody can.  The point is to achieve a result that makes it worthwhile – a change in perspective.

-Do you undertake to decide in advance of doing the exercises how or whether they will have any effect?

Whatever you discover in reaction to these questions, don’t try to change anything or somehow force yourself to stay in the here-and-now.  Just notice what you do in as great detail as possible.

One more time.

Exercise 3

For a few minutes, make up sentences stating what you are at this moment aware of.  Begin each sentence with the words “now” or “at this moment” or “here and now”.

More questions for self-inquiry…

-Do you tend to wander mentally into the past, looking for causes (i.e. excuses) for the present situation?  The present may be an outgrowth of the past, but the past does not solve the present problems.  Such memories are important in actuality only insofar as you notice what you now feel.  For example, what do memories about your past relationship with your father say about present issues in your relationship?  Otherwise, brooding on the past is a mere pretense of attacking problems and is actually a convenient refuge from them.

-Do you tend to wander into the future mentally?  Do you tend to paint the future in an apprehensive or rosy way?  Why?  Are you consoling yourself for some present frustration with daydreams, resolutions, and promissory notes?  Is your hope for tomorrow a means of putting off doing something today?  Do you count on the real uncertainty of the future to avoid involving yourself in what is certain – i.e. the present?

The point of these questions is not to get you to moralize yourself about your escapist tendencies.  Just to notice them, in terms of actuality.  That is, what sorts of these behaviors can you be aware of here and now, in the present, in your actuality?

There are two parts to this first experiment:

  1. Using “now” or some equivalent phrase to describe what you are currently aware of.
  2. Discovering your resistances to doing number one.  The exercise itself if incredibly simple.  So what comes up in you that makes it hard?

So, that’s Experiment number one, Feeling the Actual.  I hope you found it helpful and learned something about yourself and your present situation.

Experiment 2 coming soon: Sensing Opposed Forces!