Gestalt Approaches to Change
My Italian colleague, Piergiulio and I co-authored an article that was published a couple of years ago in the British Gestalt Journal, called ‘Ingenious Intention’. We explored Gestalt theory about change and understood that fundamental, creative solutions emerge from relationship – the relationship between an individual, other people and the environment in which they are situated.
It is possible for an individual to have an ‘intention’ to change, decide the outcome they want and take steps to achieving it. There is another kind of change that Gestalt theory identifies, which some people call ‘emergent’ which means that it develops through paying attention to what is actually happening in the moment. We find this by being aware of our own physical and psychological processes, interested in those experienced by other individuals, and willing to pay attention to the phenomena that are unfolding around us. We called this type of approach to change ‘ingenuity’ to emphasise the possibility for novel and creative resolutions it offers. Both ingenuity and intention are necessary.
It is fine to have a goal and take steps to work towards achieving it – this works well a lot of the time. But what if a situation is so strange and unique, like the one we find ourselves in now, that you don’t know what could be possible? Or you want to find an outcome that is new and innovative? Then achieving a goal, however aspirational, may mean that an outcome that might be more creative and satisfying is lost.
Then, how can we work out how to go forward from this crisis?
In moving on from the current Covid 19 crisis, I believe that noticing what is emerging in our selves and our societies is crucial. The responses and interaction between us as individual, knowing beings with the power to influence events – ‘actors’ as Canadian psychology professor John Vervaeke calls us, and what he calls our ‘arena’, the social systems and natural environments which compose our experience of the world. Each of these elements contributes to the direction the future follows as it unfolds, and it is the dynamic of the relationship between them that provides the impetus or energy for change.
In Gestalt we talk about person-referring forces, meaning the consequences of the decisions and actions each of us makes all the time, and environment-referring forces – for example, the law of the land, whether a deadly virus is in circulation and what our employer has decided to do about paying our wages. The negotiation between all these forces allows for a field to organise itself in the best way possible with what it has available. Of course, this organisation re-configures as new possibilities become available over time.
Like many people, I have been in lockdown. My therapy work moved to Skype and my outside activities are limited to essential shopping and a daily period of exercise. So there is time, lots of it, and not many distractions. I found myself slowing down and, at the same time moving deeper into my thoughts and feelings, and my intuitions and profound knowings. Particularly, I was aware of my body – vigilant for the cough or fever that might mean I was going down with the virus. I thought about the hospital treatment I might want, or not want; whether my will was still valid. How I would manage to get fresh milk if I couldn’t go out at all… I started to notice that bird song was much louder and that the birds themselves were more available for connection – I spent several fascinating minutes looking into the eyes of a magpie on my lawn. A similar thing happened with insects: a large wasp took up residence for several days, like a flatmate in my bathroom. In the garden a few minutes ago, a squirrel sang to me from my roof. I live in a city and I’d never heard the sound a squirrel makes before (mid way between a cat and a bird).
In the world around me I become aware of emerging societal trends (or environment-referring forces). For example, there is less pollution because people are travelling less. Meetings, both for work and socially, have moved to Skype or Zoom. Everybody stands at social distance from everyone except members of the same household. Things can happen very quickly, like the Nightingale Hospital in London, built in only 9 days
What important aspects do we need to bear in mind as we go forward?
I have begun to long for things to be ‘normal’ again, but we cannot go back. We have an opportunity now to create a new normal. All of us can influence one another, and the wider field so that the future takes shape in the most beneficial way possible.
So what do we need to learn to make that happen? The last time I met Piergiulio in person was in September, at a Gestalt conference in Budapest. Climate change was a huge concern for everyone there, inspired by the Extinction Rebellion marches happening simultaneously in Budapest and other parts of the world. Think how much has changed. Air travel has declined phenomenally, along with other forms of non-essential travel. People came to the conference from all over Europe, the USA and Asia. We met and saw and spoke to each other. Now we are all staying at home.
From a Gestalt point of view, where we talk about self-organising systems, what could be more natural to think that the ‘sickness’ our planet has been experiencing because of pollution – demonstrated by floods, fires, drought and extreme weather has a connection to the sickness experienced by humans in the current pandemic. Even the symptoms we experience have parallels: extreme heat and the inability to absorb oxygen. For me, it is easy to believe that our beautiful, wise and powerful planet has resorted to Covid 19 as the optimum way forward. I know this seems brutal when so many people have suffered and died but, maybe brutal is what happens in extreme crisis. Which is why we probably don’t want to go back to how we were before. Our selves and our environment are so fundamentally connected, how did we think we could damage the planet without damaging ourselves?
Throughout the world, governments and ordinary people will be looking to restore financial growth. I hope we remember the change in values that the pandemic has brought about. In the UK the care sector has become almost as heroic as the NHS! Yet previously it has been marginalized, undervalued and underfunded. Supermarket shelf-stackers have been the ‘front-line’ between those of us in lockdown and the supplies of food that previously we took for granted, but that have become so crucial to our wellbeing. It is almost impossible to find flour on the shelves these days so I no longer make my own bread and ration my other baking to scotch pancakes for breakfast. I cannot even think of making a batch of scones! Maybe we need to reconsider in the light of recent events whose job is really important in society.
I would like us to stop taking the right to travel, particularly air travel for granted. This is probably relevant for the movement of food supplies and other goods as well as people. I had planned to come to Italy in March. After the Budapest conference I promised myself I wouldn’t fly to Europe again so, I booked the train, despite the fact that it cost three times more than a flight. And then Italy went into lockdown and I had to try and cancel everything. I’m still waiting to hear from Trenitalia…
Now we have to figure out how to connect as people from different nations when actual physical contact is hard and dangerous.
This is why I wanted to talk with you today. We will really only come through this if we come through it together. Let’s remember that.
Then who am I?
Is this a vase, or a face looking at a face, or a face looking at a mirror? It is all these things at the same time, and the one image that is most relevant to the particular situation is what will emerge in the moment of looking.
If this is how human beings make sense of the world, then how do we experience our selves in the series of involvements that eventually become a life? I was thinking about this after writing the previous blog. That image of the lady who appears either young or old, depending on how she is perceived, reflects my own experience of myself as a mature woman. Sometimes, when I look at my face in the mirror I see the fresh-faced miss with the jaunty feather, other times, it is the fleshy-nosed grandmother wrapped in a shawl. Likewise, the way the world reflects my self back to me varies. When I am patronised by the dental hygienist as she descales my gum-line, I feel like she sees the crone. When the guy who runs the local organic grocer’s looks interested when I discuss ordering milk in glass bottles with him, I feel seen as an equal adult.
In my work I am privileged to hear others speak about the way they experience themselves in the world. For example, there is the middle-manager who tells me she has difficulty believing the positive comments she receives from her director because she is so aware of her own uncertainties and lack of confidence, or the young professional who is confused about how to relate to his female colleagues, conscious of the dynamics of privilege, yet sometimes feeling disadvantaged himself.
So what is real? Am I young or old? Is my female client an effective leader or a bumbling incompetent? Is the young man privileged or disadvantaged? It depends on who is looking, and how circumstances shape what is seen. Yet, there is always the possibility of having a fresh perspective, and that could change everything.
Posted 16th March 2018
Transformational Change – It’s how you look at it.
Do you see the young woman, or the old?
Like this image, the way we perceive the world changes according to how we look. And one picture can dissolve and re-organise into the other quite spontaneously. This is how a Gestalt approach considers that we experience the world: as a series of impressions that take shape, become compelling, then fragment, ready for a fresh figure to emerge. Sometimes it is only the focus of attention that changes, which is what happens in this picture. Other times, the whole thing can re-configure because the background details that shape the way it is organised change sufficiently for a whole new understanding to become possible. We are looking at a completely different picture.
This can happen all at once with a new awareness but, more likely, it will take time. In my life, sometimes it has taken years. I remember wanting to make the transition from British Gas into a smaller work environment where I could concentrate more on people development rather than systems development. All-in-all it took about 10 years of planning and longing, But, when the time was right, everything fell into place and I had a redundancy package, a new part-time job and a place on a prestigious Gestalt training, all in a matter of weeks.
Similarly, when I wanted to be a writer, it took years of reading bad poems at open-mic nights, writing short stories that told rather than showed, and scripts full of ‘on-the-nose’ dialogues, before I found the right genre for what I need to be writing about now, which is, fundamentally, about how it is to be human, negotiating with a world that we both create and find.
Like the picture, experience presents us with an outline, then we make of it what we can…
Published 1st March 2018