“Taking responsibility for what you feel”
“Playing out the internal scene is experienced
on all levels of
“Finding out for yourself what is healing for you”
“In ancient cultures,
art had always been part and parcel of therapy”
“A chance to experience
a rite of passage”
Gestalt as an Art Form
“Therapy is the work of the soul, and art is the language of the soul”… Paul Rebillot writes about personal balance, gestalt, rites of passage, and the principles along which he created his experiential processes, the first of which was The Hero's Journey, in 1973.
by Paul Rebillot
Restoring soul harmony
Therapy is the work of the soul, and art is the language of the soul. Whether it be poetry or visual art or dance, it is through art that our souls resonate with each other. Science and philosophy are the language of the mind. When you are working psychologically with people, you are working with the mind, but primarily, you are working with the soul, and that is art’s fundamental ground. When we talk to each other in poetry or dance, we are talking at the level of the soul.
I have always worked with the arts, so when I began to develop my experiential structures, I naturally used artistic expression — not only painting and drawing, but also sculpting, acting, dancing, singing, all the various plastic and mobile arts. Stan Grof once introduced me as the man who has brought art into therapy. I was very pleased by this idea that I had brought art into therapy! That same evening, however, Stan had invited a Quichol Indian shaman to do a ritual. As I watched the shaman, I saw that he was singing, he was dancing — it was all art. And I thought, it isn’t that I’ve brought art into therapy; it’s that I’ve brought art back where it belongs.
In ancient cultures, art had always been part and parcel of therapy. In the ancient Greek culture, for example, people went to the healing places because they were out of harmony with their life, which is what disease is, a loss of harmony or balance. A priest would greet them and give them something that would put the person to sleep and evoke dreams. The person would then sleep until he dreamed of a serpent, which is the symbol of the god, Aesculapius. He would tell the dream to the priest, who would then say, this means that you need to do this for your body, then afterwards you need to go to the gymnasium to see the dancer who will teach you the kind of dances that you need to dance in order to heal this part of your body.
Then you need to go to the theater and see the play that deals with this issue on the soul level, because the imbalance in your body is evidence of a disharmony in your soul, as well. At that time, people felt more implicated in what they saw in the theater. They would identify with the main character and have a cathartic experience of the relationship between the archetypes, or the gods and goddesses, and the mortal human being.
After that, they would go to a certain temple, depending on the nature of their illness, where they would be initiated so they could re-integrate the god or goddess with whom they were out of harmony. That was how they regained their balance. Healing was not a matter of going to the hospital and having an operation; it meant working with the whole being.
Nowadays, when we go to the theater, the drama takes place in the darkness within a square of light. Very frequently, we feel disidentified from the play. In the ancient Greek theater, the play took place in the middle of their environment. With the sky above and the Bay or Corinth behind, the actor stood in the midst of a cosmic scene. The audience could also see their neighbors sitting across the amphitheater; it was all connected. So when the actor was going through his experience, the audience was filled with what Aristotle called pity and fear, catharsis, a primal cry of pain.
In that identification there was emotional expression; also in the dances in the gymnasium there was emotional expression. Going through initiation was a form of emotional expression, because I am sure the initiations were in some way taking the god within and experiencing the power of that god. The dances of Dionysus, with which theater began, were ecstatic experiences. That is how the mortal human being experienced Dionysus.
People seeking healing in ancient times were helped by priests, actors and dancers, but they had to do the work themselves. Today healing is seen more as something that someone else does for the one who is sick or out of harmony. We have bring back the idea that healing is something we have to do ourselves. Someone else may serve as guide, but I have to find out for myself what is healing for me.
Teaching ourselves through experience
As an experiential therapeutic form, gestalt is a way of teaching ourselves through experience what we need to do. At its very basic, simplest form, gestalt is not about what happened to me when I was three years old, it’s not about my heritage, it is about how I go about satisfying my needs.
Am I satisfied with the way I fulfill my needs? When I need a drink of water, when I need to make contact with someone, am I satisfied with the way I do it? Am I direct and straightforward, or do I manipulate or figure out some way to seduce the other person to come and make contact with me? Is that satisfactory or not satisfactory?
If it is satisfactory to me, then there is nothing for me to do about it. If I am happy with the way I fulfill my needs, however it is, there is nothing I need to do. But if I am not happy and I’m getting bad feedback about it and it’s making me miserable, out of harmony with others and out of balance in myself, then I need to look at what my alternatives are. And if I can see alternatives, am I willing to choose one or more of these alternatives? Am I willing to change? That is the basic floor plan of gestalt.
When I find out that I am not satisfying my needs the way I’d like to, I generally feel the resistances or hindrances, the things I put in my way. I have to learn how to work through these so that I can find a more satisfactory way of dealing with the world.
A basic gestalt session, as I have learned to practice it, starts with awareness. “What’s going on? What are you experiencing?” My teacher, Richard Price, taught me to start with the body. The person explores the sensations in his or her body. As guide, I notice if what the person describes is inappropriate to the here and now.
For example, if someone says, “I’m aware of my hand on my face, I’m aware of the warmth of my hand on my leg, I’m aware of the burden on my shoulders” . . . I look at the person’s shoulders and I don’t see a burden there. Therefore there is something inappropriate to the here and now in this feeling in the person’s shoulders. That gives me something to work on. That tells me where in the body the resistance is forming. So the first step is always to be aware.
The next step is to begin to take responsibility for this: to take on the burden, to experience the burden, to burden myself, so that I feel what it is that I am doing. Generally as this self-burdening is intensified, feelings begin to emerge. As the feelings are expressing themselves, frequently along with the feelings comes an image. I don’t have feelings in a vacuum. If I’m hitting on a cushion, there is somebody I want to be hitting. The cushion is not making me angry! The cushion simply gives me a chance to express that feeling.
So if a feeling emerges, I as the guide or facilitator can find out if there is a scene, a drama going on. It might be in relationship to another person, or it may be an inner drama.
This is the place where the director of the drama begins to come forth in my work. I perceive the scene; I try to understand what the scene is, and then, as if I were the director of a theater piece, I try to bring these characters into the here and now. The mind lives in the past and the future, but the feelings exist in the here and now. So therefore, to bring the past into the here and now, to bring the image into the here and now, I use my capacities as a director in the theater to help the person realize the scene.
What qualities are in the scene? What does the person want? Who is the other person? What is going on? By moving back and forth between the two roles, the person can get a sense of what is going on and what the resistances are, what the problems are, in terms of getting what he or she needs.
Fritz Perls said that the best background for a gestalt therapist is not psychology or analysis; it’s theater, because a theater person immediately sees whether this person is living and engaged in the drama or is just doing a head-trip about it. A person who does not have theater background will frequently miss the engagement process. And in order for the gestalt to integrate, there needs to be engagement.
If emotion is drawn too much into the mental realm, as is often done in therapy, a very important part of the here and now is left out, that is, the emotion that expresses itself through the body. A good actor learns that the first vehicle of expression is the body. His body is his musical instrument, his body and his voice. After that comes word. Similarly, playing out the internal scene is more satisfactory as a therapeutic process because it is experienced on all levels of the person’s being.
While the scene is generally something from the past, it probably has an issue that is connected to the present. Otherwise the person would not have gone back to that particular scene. So it is important for the therapist or facilitator to be able to help the person find his resources, what he can do to resolve the issue. This is where it is important for the guide to have some gestalt knowledge of how the psyche is composed.
If there is a satisfactory resolution, the guide, as I have always worked, then helps the person to find an existential statement that sums up this new discovery. If the person has not gone to a new discovery, we look for an existential statement that expresses what the impasse is. “I will never express myself to anyone” is an impasse. “I can be more honest with you,” might be an expression of a movement. To finish the gestalt session, that existential statement must be brought into the here and now and tried out in relationship to other people. […]
Breathing all together
What I have been describing is an individual gestalt session: one to one working in the group, which is the way most gestalt therapy is done. Since my background is theater, when I began to work with gestalt process, I experienced it as a form of theater. […]
I had worked primarily in educational theater, with had done work in professional theater, and what I found there very frequently was the star system. In New York particularly, they would cast the star, and then everybody else was cast around her, so that nobody was quite as good as her. She was the star. I never liked that kind of theater because it meant that everyone else had to be subjugated to the leading person or the main character; the play was developed so that it surrounded that leading actor. Well, when I first saw individual gestalt work in group it reminded me of the star system. There in the front of the group was the facilitator or gestalt therapist and “the star,” the person who was working. Surrounding them is the audience.
In amateur theater, you don’t really have a star because they are all more or less equal; they are working together. I always worked with the idea of the ensemble, so that the whole group together put on the play. I worked with the idea of having actors interchange roles, so that they could feel what the whole play was all about and not just what their own roles were about. I used to say that every person in the play is important, whether it’s the person who is pulling the curtain or the person who is saying the most dramatic line in the play: all are equally of value, because if that curtain comes down a second too late or a second too soon, it can ruin the whole last moment of the scene, when the actor may have just given the key line of the play. The play itself is like one creature; it breathes, and all the parts breathe together, so that the whole is one thing. That was my way of teaching and of directing.
Engaging ‘ensemble’ in experiential structures
So when I began to work with gestalt form, I wanted to find a way to apply that same principle to a group doing gestalt work. That is the way I began the creation of what I call my experiential structures.
In the early 70’s, I was working in a hospital as therapist for doctors and nurses who worked with patients undergoing psychotic experiences. One of the nurses commented that when she saw someone go all the way through such an experience and come together again at the end of it, she was jealous of the level of awareness the person had reached. I thought then that I would like to create a process that would allow the doctors and nurses to have this experience, to experience a rite of passage.
Then one day a former student of theater, who was now studying psychology, invited me to come and do a weekend at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. At this time I was a gestalt therapist and I assumed that that was what he wanted me to do. But he said, “No, I would prefer that you do something more archetypal, like you used to do in our theater exercises.” So that gave me an opportunity to put together The Hero’s Journey for the first time. I did The Hero’s Journey for the first time with that group of students in a weekend in 1972.
Using gestalt ideas, I wrote down the process, as if I were going to do a play, giving the participants a chance to experience the drama of the hero in an art form, in a structure. That was my first structure, and that was my way of applying ensemble to gestalt process, because everyone in the group was working all the time. They weren’t just watching while someone else worked; for the most part, everybody was working all the time through the structure, the basis of which was gestalt philosophy. […]
[All the] processes [that I created] make up the life story. We all go through them, but we are usually not aware of them. Doing them in structures such as these makes us more aware. That is what a ritual does. A ritual of passage brings to awareness the transitions of our lives so that we not only go through them, like an animal going through a maze, but we go through them with awareness, and therefore broaden our consciousness of ourselves as well as of others. […]
To experience the various levels of our evolution through rites of passage is a way of going through the life process with awareness and self-responsibility. These are the two legs of gestalt: awareness and self-responsibility, which is a way of saying, What is my experience? And how am I doing it? How am I making this happen? That is why these are not only healing processes, but gestalt processes. […]
So Rumi wrote, “Let the beauty you love be what you do.”
Source: School of Gestalt and Experiential Teaching
“Your existential statement
sums up what
you have discovered.”
“Working all together, out of the star system”
“To experience the various levels of our evolution through rites of passage
is a way of going through the life process with awareness and self-responsibility.”
“Ritual is a way of integrating the numinous, the spiritual, the magical, into the rational so that we, and our teaching, and those we teach, can be whole.”
“Healing meant working with the whole being”
“In that identification there was emotional expression”
“How do you go about satisfying your needs?”
“Experiencing the drama of the hero in an art form,
in a structure, applying ensemble to gestalt process”
Ohad Naharin, Batsheva Dance Company, Last work, Photo Gadi Dagon