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Working With the Narrative – A Presence Centered Approach

I recently gave an intensive therapy workshop for therapists who are in their postgraduate training. Much of the work moved to a focus on the experience of Presence as it reflected and effected the client’s self-in-life. The work was powerful and moving, and fluidly moved from their immediate experience, to their life context, to something less defined by content and more (defined) by their Being meeting my Being. Since these were therapists who were attending, and they had been in therapy for several years, there were questions regarding how to work with people who were not able to allow their narrative to “fall away” – i.e. who were more fully identified with and unaware of their narratives and identifications. That is, how to work with the average person who walks into gestalt therapy. Clearly, we do not and cannot begin with a focus on the purely emergent, content-less self. So, here are some of my thoughts: People come to therapy, for the most part, because they feel some degree of pain or dissatisfaction, and they feel stuck or unable to change themselves or their life circumstances. For most people, this is not simply because they are not smart enough to “figure it out”, or because their life circumstances are beyond the possibility of change. It is, rather, because they have fixed ways of seeing themselves and their world, and they may not even know about their fixities. The last thing the fish sees is the water, and people are so immersed in their way of seeing that they are not aware of their lenses. These lenses lock them into...

Cliché Layer or The Art of Small Talk

Cliché Layer is by far the most disrespected layer of the neurotic personality. It is so disrespected that Fritz Perls would call it the “chicken shit layer”. And as Gestalt therapists, we tend to turn our collective noses up when it comes to “chit chat”. But, it has recently occurred to me that people who are not conversant with cliche layer interaction are handicapped living in our culture. Many of my patients – even those who I’ve been seeing for years, and who have done deep, moving work with me – come into my office every week asking “how’s everything?” or “how was your week?” or some such question. Usually, I respond by saying “fine”; sometimes I ask if they really want to know, or remark that a week is a lot of time to summarize. But they’re not really asking me how I am – they’re saying hello. And they’re conveying a sense of friendliness and interest in our relationship. Seemingly meaningless communications can convey a sense of good will, while not revealing or requiring much transparency. An ability to engage on that level allows some sense of safety and interest to germinate, and can signal some openness to further contact and communication. Even for those of us who are interested in self-reflection, and in intimate communication, many of our contexts do not support or allow this. Working in a collegial setting, for example, usually does not allow for intimate inquiry or unburdening self-revelation. And yet, if there is only communication about the task at hand, there will likely be an atmosphere of detachment, and a diminished sense...

Polarities

It has long been understood that any value, quality, or attribute exists in relation to its opposite. So, “up” has meaning in relation to “down”, “poor” has meaning in relation to “wealthy”, “dry” has meaning in relation to “wet”, and so on. The ancient symbol of the Yin/Yang visually depicts a “whole” which is composed of the joining of opposites. A healthy (as opposed to “unhealthy”) understanding of polarities accepts the simultaneous existence of both polarities, and the range and complexity of potential that this creates. We may choose to act in a generous or selfless way, knowing that we are also capable of choosing to act in a self-serving way. Given different circumstances and different self-states, we may choose to act differently at another time. We get into trouble when we try to define ourselves or others rigidly with one polarity to the complete exclusion of the other. In doing this, we restrict our range of possibility, and we actually empower the opposite polarity. So, the person who can only be saintly will be hounded by feelings and thoughts of the sinner. Or he may attempt to rid himself of those thoughts and impulses by projecting them onto others, where the other can be scorned, rejected, or persecuted. The attempt to separate one polarity from the other is doomed, and it leads to failure, imbalance, and a lack of wholeness. We all know narcissists who present to others and attempt to present to themselves an image of largeness, power, and significance. Those of us with some psychological awareness will also be aware that these people are plagued by...

Presentness and Presence

Presence has become a focus of much recent writing in the field of psychotherapy, and in Gestalt therapy in particular. But, much of the writing is vague regarding what exactly “presence” refers to. It is my impression that there is confusion between two different experiences: presentness and presence. I will describe the difference between these below. In Gestalt therapy theory, there has always been an emphasis on the immediate transient moment. We speak of contact as the awareness of a flow of figure formation, hopefully leading to some satisfaction or resolution of an emergent need. We are familiar with the sequence of contacting, which describes the flow of awareness: from sensation, to forming the figure of a need, to forming the figure of an element of the field which this need is in relation to, to acting in relation to this figure, to resolving the need, to receding and assimilating. And then noticing the next emergent need. In this process, we are optimally focused on contact with the immediate present. And to the degree that our awareness is in contact with this immediate present, we say that “we are present”. A hallmark of healthy process, from a Gestalt theoretical frame is the ability to maintain awareness in the present. To be present. This is what I refer to as “present-ness” – and this is what we strive to maintain as therapists – the ability to be aware of and responsive to the emergent events with our patients in this immediate, unique moment. In this process, we model and encourage our patients to orient toward this same present-ness. The experience...

What matters?

This is a seemingly simple question, but it is perhaps, at the core of how we live and how we feel about ourselves. If we are able to be clear about what matters to us, accepting of this, and organizing our actions in support of this, life will likely be meaningful and, hopefully, satisfying. This seems pretty simple. So, then why do so many people seem to feel their lives lacks meaning and coherence? Why do so many people seem unsatisfied? Ask yourself this question: “What matters to me?” “What do I value?”  Maybe you immediately identify principles, people, and commodities that have meaning for you. Or maybe you are left with a blank space and confusion. Perhaps you begin with what you’ve been told should matter to you. Can you consider whether what you espouse is something that really resonates with you, or it’s something that is there to gain approval or to avoid disapproval? Now, spend some more time thinking and reflecting about this. Are you actually being honest with yourself? Are you leaving things out? Are you saying what you’d like to matter, but leaving out what you really prioritize over those things? Please spend some time reflecting and being open to these questions. Now, when you have arrived at a clear, truthful sense of what this constellation consists of, allow yourself to envision what a life consisting of these elements looks and feels like. “Taste” your vision to see if it is to your liking. Let yourself step into this life. Is it satisfying? Full? Meaningful?  If it is, see how it matches the life...