Gestalt Formation & Completion"Gestalt" is a German word for which there is no precise translation. Roughly speaking it refers to a form or configuration. The most common or textbook definition of a gestalt is "a whole which is larger than the sum of its parts." For example, a tree can be thought of as genetically unique from other trees, growing, drawing nourishment, composed of parts (limbs, leaves, roots, cells, etc.) But it is also more than merely the sum of those parts: hypothetically, if one were to somehow uproot the tree, chop it up and lay it in a pile, the parts would still be there but the tree would certainly not. In a similar way, I am myself a whole person, genetically unique and distinct from all others, an autonomous individual, growing, drawing nourishment, with a personality, behavior, body, intellect, feelings, judgements, spirit, dreams, potentials—all of the various interacting and integrated facets of that which I call "my self." More than a mere collection of parts, I am an organismic whole—a living breathing gestalt.
The Gestalt approach assumes this. But it also assumes that I am first and foremost an experiencing being. The way I perceive myself, the way I perceive the world, the way I interact with the world—these are aspects of my process of experiencing. This process itself is construed as being cyclical, the closing of a circle, an experiencing of wholes, of gestalten. The satisfaction of hunger is an example of a completed gestalt. When, for example, I eat a plate of spaghetti (which is nourishing and tastes good) I am completing a cycle: I'm hungry; I eat; I'm satisfied—until such time as my hunger reasserts itself. As a complex and unique individual, in a changing and challenging world, my day-to-day interactions are filled with such gestalten. Thus, a more dynamic definition may serve.A gestalt is a completed unit of human experience. It is a unique aesthetic formulation of a whole; it will to some degree involve contact, awareness, attention, and figure formation out of the ground of my experience; it arises out of emergent needs and is mobilized by aggressive energy."Aggression," in the Gestalt approach, refers to the energy of mobilization; it is directed in some direction. [see figure 1] I am attending, with my attention, to some need, such as hunger. There are many styles of aggression (e.g. "passive-aggression") one or more of which I've learned may satisfy the need, whatever that might be. When I'm hungry, I attend to that need and satisfy it, giving me closure. Once satisfied, I can use my creative energy (aggression) to attend to newly emerging needs. For example, I now need to walk the dog, take a nap, or whatever. The state of closure, or homeostasis, is sometimes referred to as the "creative pre-commitment" stance; my energy is readily available, but not yet invested in any new possibilities. As a new need or curiosity emerges, the cycle begins again.
In the Gestalt Approach, awareness is the key to making conscious choices whereby I can be self-empowered, response-able. I can choose, for example, to eat pasta instead of pomegranates, one of which is nourishing, the other of which I'm allergic to. I am not a victim of circumstance. Nor am I necessarily subject to every new whim, desire, or curiosity. With awareness, I can choose to postpone a need—or simply say "no" altogether—with no loss of closure whatever. It might be, for example, that I'm in a meeting I consider very important (I'm attending to that particular need) and deem it inappropriate to rush right out for lunch. Incomplete gestalten will continue to ask for attention until we notice. This asking for attention can occur in many ways, such as through physical discomfort (I might be fidgeting).
There are, however, gestalten which are completed without awareness. Particularly in the physical sphere, experiences that occur below the level of consciousness happen constantly. As I sit working, I may develop a cramp in a muscle and move in such a way as to relieve the cramp without even being aware of this process. Sleeping is another example. My body is renewing itself, and on many levels I am reestablishing organismic balance (homeostasis) and closure; on the other hand, my dreams or nightmares might be suggesting "unfinished business," incomplete gestalten asking for my attention.
Interruptions, of one kind or another, tend to occur throughout my day. Without awareness, or conscious choice, I may be left with "unfinished business" or unfinished gestalten, needs which have not been attended to or satisfied. I may be left feeling frustrated, uncomfortable, stultified, "blocked." [see figure 2] Without awareness, I might, for example, still be hungry (there's a gnawing in the pit of my stomach which I'm not paying attention to). I have, so to speak, a "condition" which is now coloring the quality of my contact with the world. My perceptual experience is different. My "figure," the "organizing principle" of what I experience, arises from a ground of this "unfinished business" or dissatisfaction. Without awareness, I may be looking for food without quite realizing it; I may adopt a different style of aggression (e.g. manipulating others into feeding me). I may also aggress in a way that guarantees I will not be satisfied. For example, I may drink some coffee, which tends to suppress my appetite.
Over time, my unconsciously chosen behaviors may become habituated. I'm not aware of my need; I'm not aware of how to satisfy it; I'm unaware that I'm unaware. As new needs constantly arise, I may choose some neurotic style of aggression which I've come to consider "safe" or "familiar." For example, the clothes dryer breaks down, so I blame my partner who "should" have noticed it. Or, I may aggress in a wrong direction (e.g. kicking the clothes dryer). Neurotic choices might also include drinking alcohol, or watching TV, as a way of avoiding the issue. I'm not attending to the real need in these instances. The "unhealthy" or neurotic experiencing cycle is essentially a creative garbage collector—accumulating and recycling unfinished gestalten.
Unfortunately, much of our Western culture has not adapted itself to either stating needs clearly and directly, or to the validation of those needs in the first place: "You can't be hungry, it isn't lunchtime"; "Big boys don't cry"; "You'll never amount to anything, don't pursue your ambitions"; "You're not a loveable person and don't deserve to get quality attention." As a whole, unique and growing individual, I have needs—a variety of forms of nourishment essential to my person and humanity. Because most of us aren't blessed or born with some "absolute awareness," this is necessarily a learning process. At any given moment, I meet the world conditionally; however, I can learn to be aware, just as I may have learned to be unaware.
I change by becoming aware of what I do. (We paraphrase Arnold Beisser: Change occurs when I become who I am.) Once I notice my need I can take direct steps to satisfy it, or to accept that a need can't be satisfied at this time. I can make choices based upon reality. I can make direct and clear statements, and healthy quality contact.
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