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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...

Self and No Self

“In conscious life cosmic being reoccurs as human becoming. Spirit appears in time as a product of nature, and yet it is spirit that envelops nature tirelessly.” Martin Buber This is a topic which includes and transcends both psychological and spiritual traditions. We can begin with the questions: “What is self?” and “What is no self?”. In Western psychology, we see self as being of central importance. We say that it is good when someone has a sense of self, or has good self- esteem. We speak of someone’s self-image, and even their ideas of self. In these constructions, self is a noun, a thing. We have a narrative construction of our interpretation of our past experiences, which we name “me”. This “me” may be overinflated, underinflated, or otherwise distorted. It must be, since we are clearly not objective observers of our subjectivity. Alexander Lowen, a student of Wilhelm Reich and the creator of Bioenergetic Analysis, wrote that psychological health is the coinciding of our image of our self and our actual self. That is a step forward, but Lowen is still stuck in the paradigm of the “noun” of self – i.e. self-image or self-concept. Gestalt therapy took us further in looking at self. In Gestalt therapy, self is a verb. It is the experience of contact between the “organism” and its environment in the immediate, passing present. It is the awareness of “me” meeting “not me” in all of the complex possibilities. It is the sensory experience of a breeze touching one’s skin; it is the joy of seeing a friend’s face; it is the excitement of...

Presence

I have been developing an interest, both theoretical and experiential, in what I refer to as Presence over the course of the past forty years. In this blog I would like to begin to elucidate some of my clinical, theoretical, and personal findings regarding Presence, and it’s relationship to awareness and growth. I will be speaking to a conceptual framework for understanding this, a means of addressing direct experience, and clinical examples of the role of Presence in psychological stuckness and growth. I am eager to enter into dialogue with any who take an interest in my entries, and hope that such dialogue will further facilitate the development of understanding the nature of Presence and how it informs our...

Meditation

In the last decade, there has been a lot of attention given to meditation in the psychotherapeutic community. Much of this attention has been focused on Mindfulness meditation, in which attention is given to any object of awareness that enters the mind, with full acceptance, and without effort or discrimination. This practice, taken from the Buddhist tradition, has added to our ability to help our patients (and ourselves) to accept our experience without struggling against it, or judging ourselves for it. But, this is not a new discovery in the psychotherapeutic community: forty years ago Arnold Beisser, a Psychiatrist and Gestalt Therapist, wrote “The Paradoxical Theory of Change”, in which he posited that change can only truly happen when we stop struggling to not be what we are, and when we fully accept our experience. Once we can accept what is, the natural process of change can re-establish itself. Forty years ago, I was taught a different approach to meditation. This approach came from the Vedic tradition of India. In this approach, the mind does not observe thought and experience. Instead, it is allowed to let go of this focus. It neither “engages” in thought (our conscious waking experience), nor does it stand back and observe it. It simply allows it to pass unobserved, while allowing the attention to be drawn to a mantra (sound) which is “heard” mentally. As the thoughts fade to background and eventually become faint, and then absent, the mantra tends to become faint as well. At some point we are left with awareness, but no thoughts, and no mantra. We are left with bare...

What Is Awareness?

Awareness is the central element in any approach to psychotherapy or human behavior, but it is likely the most neglected aspect when it comes to our inquiry. In psychoanalytic theory, “awareness” was seen as being synonymous with “consciousness”, but was not defined as a phenomenon. Instead, focus was put on two other elements: the defenses against awareness (resulting in “the Unconscious”); and “insight”, which was seen as an illumination, an understanding of the explanation for the problems or life issues of the patient. Insight was a focus on content, even though it might be accompanied by emotion. But awareness itself was not discussed. In cognitive therapy, focus, again, is put on the content of thought. The effort is on illuminating irrational content and substituting functional content. Awareness itself, however, is taken for granted. It is as if we are so concerned about where we drive, and how we drive, and the route we take, that we forget that we are in a car! While our daily destinations may be important, attention to the vehicle itself may prove to have some significant impact on all of our journeys! Gestalt therapy was devised as a therapy which placed a focus on awareness. This brought our focus to the transient present moment – which is the only time that awareness can occur. We speak of contacting the present moment, through a flow of ever-changing objects of awareness. I may be aware of a need, and as soon as it is satisfied (and I am aware of the experience of satisfaction), I become aware of the next “figure”, or object of awareness. Awareness...