The Essential Nature of Being HumanThe nature of being human also falls in the area of ontology, but we will address it separately because of its importance in our argument.
In the Gestalt perspective, people are collections of processes; ongoing and changing physiological, emotional, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual processes constitute the existence of each human being. The philosophically operative word in the last sentence is "existence." The stance toward life known as existentialism is one of the solid building blocks in the Gestalt approach.
Existentialism has often been characterized in an oversimplified way by the phrase, "What is, is" or, behaviorally, by "How you behave is how you behave," "What you do is what you do," "A rose is a rose is a rose." Generally, existentialism emphasizes that things are not created, maintained, or changed by some inner essence, or by their abstracted qualities or properties. They create, maintain, and change through the simple fact of their existing.
Gestalt therapy aligns itself with the existential stance in denying the categorical approaches to human behavior and embracing the process approach. By attending to processes underlying the concretions of experience, a human being can discover his essential structures of living. Concrete events are important; they are what happens as we perceive our world. A human being's world is constituted by his perceptions of concrete events. Abstract formulations or ideas about events are maps of the concretions, ways of organizing events.
Kierkegaard (1944), the pillar of existentialism, shunned abstract approaches and rejected formulating a general theory of "being." Instead, he concerned himself with what a person does in a real situation. The confrontation between the person and his environmental situation distinguishes him. Kierkegaard saw this confrontation as primal, not separable from what the person is or who he is. The Gestalt approach, similarly, maintains that it is the contact between the person and his environment that defines the person's identity. That contact defines the "ego boundary," the limit of the elements that are experienced as "me" and those that are experienced as "not me." That contact is constituted by awareness, which is at the core of Gestalt therapy. In existentialism, awareness would be "knowing," for the combination of "knowing" and "knowing about" actively engages the individual in living. Active engagement at the "ego boundary" enables the person to be aware of his world or to "know" it, to be alive.
In speaking of man as living at the ego boundary, psychologists often see and describe these living processes from the perspective of the individual. In the Gestalt perspective, however, an individual cannot exist alone; each individual exists within an environmental field with which he must engage (into which he must "aggress," according to Perls (1969) in order to live. He must engage with the objects of his world in order to survive physically; he must have food, clothing, and shelter, or the resources for providing them; and he must engage with persons in his environment in order to survive psychologically. Man, then, is both an autonomous individual person and an environmentally oriented person who needs other persons, other social institutions. Both the individual and the environment must be affirmed, studied, and described; and the interaction between them must be affirmed, studied, and described. Based on enunciations of Emile Durkheim (1912), some sociologists (cf. Zijderveld 1970; Simmel 1955; Mead 1934, 1962) discuss social phenomena from the homo duplex, perspective; i.e., woman or man as both an individual, unique phenomenon and also as a participant in the social roles imposed by the culture (Zijderveld 1970).
Perls (1973) speaks in a similar vein:
- No individual is self-sufficient; the individual can exist only in an environmental field. The individual is inevitably, at every moment, a part of some field. His behavior is a function of the total field, which includes both him and his environment. The nature of the relationship between him and his environment determines the human being's behavior.... The environment does not create the individual nor does the individual create the environment. Each is what it is, each has its own particular character, because of its relationship to the other and the whole... the environment and the organism stand in a relationship of mutuality to one another. (Pp. 15, 16, 17)
In addition to affirmation of both individual and environment, the central Gestalt perspective focuses on the interaction process. How does a human being interact with his environment? Here, the perceptual psychological processes described in chapter 1 come into play. For the purposes of this chapter, however, examine the existential assumption that underlies these psychological processes: the living processes are those that are dealt with as they exist, as they are. Often, people, particularly philosophers and psychologists, experience the world and themselves in one way, but think about it or describe it in other ways. Kierkegaard in his Journals (1938) says, "A man's thought must be the building in which he lives—otherwise, everything is topsy-turvy" (p. 156). In a famous example, he compares the separation of living and thinking to a man building a magnificent castle but leaving it empty and residing in a deteriorating lot next to it. Likewise, according to Gestalt principles, "thinking about" removes the person from the "here and now," from the experience of aliveness and engagement, it takes him away from awareness of what is happening. For Kierkegaard, thinking equals detachment, a lack of contact with the world. This is often useful for examining philosophical assumptions, as we are doing in this chapter; however, by thinking alone, we may create unworkable, even spurious, forms for our lives.
Thus far, the philosophical assumptions discussed are: first, the process nature of all of life; and second, the primacy of existence. The third assumption has been alluded to: people observe the events of the world and from that observation create order, structure, meaning, or relationships. The activity of perceiving is a process; it requires an observer and something that is observed, neither of which exists without the other. This is not to say that things do not exist except as they are observed, but that the process of observing in and of itself requires a relation between the observer and that observed, just as "objects" require a relationship with other objects in order to exist.
In viewing man as the creator of his order, his structures for living, the Gestalt therapist aligns himself with phenomenologists such as Heidegger (1955). Heidegger postulates a "Being" out of which man's being (being in the world) is created: "Being" is the inner light through which we become aware of our meaning, of what is reality for us. In Gestalt therapeutic work, the client is the sole arbiter of his world; "knowing" what is true for himself at any moment is the only valid basis for the ongoing therapeutic process. A therapist may suggest experiments for a client to try—sentences to say, body movements to make, or images to explore; however, the client alone "knows" what words fit, or what the images signify, or what feelings fit the movements. Thus, we see that the Gestalt therapist assumes the centrality of a "knowing" self, the centrality of the "being" of man, in Heidegger's terms. A person does not put together an elaborate theory of the self or develop sets of descriptive categories or terms. The person simply "knows" that it is there.
In being the arbiter of reality, then, the self or "being" serves as the center for individual choice, as it is for awareness and attention. When a client experiments with some suggested words or movements and then says, "Yes, this is true for me," a choice is made. The Gestalt therapy approach affirms the aware person as the "chooser" of his or her own responses. With awareness comes the possibility of choice. Further, with the choice comes responsibility ("response-ability"). Essentially, each person is responsible for personal choices whether they are made with awareness or not. When choices are made with awareness, however, the "knowing" self, the "being" of each person is engaged.
Each of us, then, acts in and on the total man/environment field by choosing what we will and will not do, what we will accept, reject, think, or feel. It is this choice that makes each of us a responsible human being, in the Gestalt view. To quote Perls (1973): "Awareness of and responsibility for the total field, for the self as well as the other, these give meaning and pattern to the individual's life" (pp. 49-50).
The philosopher/psychologist Abraham Maslow (1962) delineates a similar position when he notes man as "transcendent." He calls us to the "clear recognition of [man's] transcendence of the environment, independence of it, ability to stand against it, or adapt to it" (p. 169). For Maslow, there is an "autonomous self" which interacts with the environment in receptive or masterful ways. Autonomy of choice predominates in Maslow's conception, as it also does for the Gestalt therapist.
We see, at this point, that the Gestalt therapist affirms individual existence, the environment, and the interactive processes between. It is assumed that the individual is autonomous, the creator of his or her own world view. Gestalt therapy assumes the process nature of man, of the environment, and of the interaction. However, we must look at one further factor in the process.
The key factor in the process of constructing reality is that each person is able to represent or symbolize any parts of the world. There are two aspects of this process: first, all parts of the world are interlocked and have resemblances that can be represented or symbolized (Kelly 1963); and, second, human beings are symbol-making and symbol-using/misusing animals (Burke 1966; Cassirer 1946, 1955). Philosophers of language note verbal symbols. Cassirer (1946) describes the process of "noticing" as being animal in nature, function, and direction. To the "noticing" process man adds the process of "denoting" or naming, thereby transforming the physical world into an abstract, conceptual world, a world of ideas and meanings. Denoting or naming is the function of language.
For the Gestalt therapist, language is only one of the means of symbolizing experience. We symbolize our experiences in several other ways—through the movements and postures of the body, through images, and through dreams. Symbols may be verbal or nonverbal (Korb 1975). For example, let us explore the following common experience. You are in your home when the telephone rings. You gear the immediate sound of the ringing; your sensory apparatus allows the data of the sound into your ongoing process of awareness. The data are monitored by your intellectual apparatus; that is, you think, "that may be my friend Sam calling." Your thought prompts your physical apparatus to react: you walk to the telephone, pick it up, and say "Hello." Your friend Sam speaks to you and you listen. As you stand listening, you see in your mind's eye the image of your friend Sam, and you smile. You are aware of feeling warm inside. The warm feeling is translated by your intellectual apparatus into gladness. You way, "I am glad you have called!" Here, in this unexceptionable experience, we may note the symbolizing processes that are both verbal and nonverbal. The body feels warm and moves as you symbolize your inner experience. The words symbolize the inner experience. The image in your mind's eye symbolizes your inner experience. These are tools in creating reality, an ongoing process.
There is no proof that the world is a process and not a thing. There is no proof that existence is primary in the experience of humankind. There is no proof that humankind created the world in which they live through their own perceptions and psychological processes. The assumptions, however, are powerful ones, integral and pervasive parts of the philosophical Gestalt map of the existence and experience of human beings.
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