gestalt • myths • vitality-------

The hero's journey

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“The first step is always

to be aware. The next

step is to begin to take responsibility for this.”

“Playing out the internal scene is experienced

on all levels of

the person’s being.”

“As an experiential therapeutic form, Gestalt is a way of teaching ourselves through experience what

we need to do.”

“In ancient cultures,

art had always been part and parcel of therapy.”

“A chance to experience the drama of the hero in an art form, in a structure.”

Gestalt as an Art Form


“Therapy is the work of the soul, and art is the language of the soul”: Rebillot talks about healing and soul harmony, gestalt and experiential processes, myths and ritual theater, his trilogy of transformation, and his teaching in the creation of experiential structures.

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.gPeople 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. The scene is the heart of the drama, working through the dilemma, whatever it happens to be. Then it is brought into contact with the rest of the group. The person now brings whatever learning has come from the past into the present in order to find out how this drama continues to affect his life and whether he is satisfied with the way he is fulfilling his needs. If he’s not, what can he do to change that? The material from the past is always brought into the here and now because here and now is the point of power where the possibility of change can be discovered.


Against the star system

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 students. I 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, Helen Hayes or whoever it was, 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.


The genesis of 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. This also gave me an opportunity to teach gestalt process, because the people would facilitate and in other ways participate in each other’s work.

Then one time when I was doing The Hero’s Journey in Holland, I noticed that the people had a great deal of trouble expressing themselves. So I thought, “I need to make another structure that breaks down the childhood injunctions that don’t allow them to express themselves.” So I developed a structure which I called Family Circles,  in which people go back to the childhood period and try to destroy and transform early parental messages that block spontaneity and self-expression.


A trilogy of transformation

A little while later I was asked to do a group on Easter weekend at Esalen. That is when I created the Death and Resurrection process. So I had now created Family Circles, The Hero’s Journey, and Death and Resurrection. And it occurred to me that in a way it was like a trilogy from ancient Greek theater. We have only one existing trilogy, the Oresteia, the story of Orestes, Electra, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. The first drama, the Agamemnon, is a family drama. Agamemnon comes home from the war, he’s got another woman with him; he has also killed his daughter, Iphigenia, to get good winds in order to get back home, so Clytemnestra is furious with him. She has a lover, and she kills Agamemnon. That’s the first play, a family drama. The next drama is about the son, Orestes, who is called by Apollo to avenge the father. He becomes the hero, he and Electra together. They kill the mother. Then the Furies come after him and he is driven out of town. This is the hero drama. The third play is all about how to heal this problem, how to stop this continual vengence. It is a healing drama. The way it is stopped is by the goddess Athena coming down and saying the city should vote. The town votes absolutely equally, and so Athena herself casts the deciding vote to end the guilt, and in this way, creates civilization. She transforms the Furies into the Eumenides, the household goddesses who take care of the fire and make the home a safe place.

The Death and Resurrection process is dealing with the spiritual level, and so I equate it with the third play in the trilogy, in which there is the family drama, the hero drama, and the spiritual drama. This also relates to the structure of the psyche. Jung said that the hero’s journey has to do with the first half of life, and death and resurrection, with the second half of life. In a way, the family circle has to do with the begining of life. So these three dramas were my way of trying to find the structure of the psyche as it goes through its evolution.

In another structure, we work with the lovers’ relationship, the male and female images. The Hero’s Journey has to do with the relationship to the self; The Lover’s Journey also has to do with the relationship to the self, but in order to be able to come into relationship with the other. Owning the Shadow in some people’s lives precedes the relationship work because it means dealing with the most negative, the most maligned figure, the most unloved part of the psyche. Those two processes are connected with The Hero’s Journey, as I put the structures together, and then comes the Death and Resurrection, the final transformation. Also connected with Family Circles, I do Exorcising the Demon ”Should”. Family Circles has to do with intrajects from childhood. The intrajects are what the child tries to live up to in order to satisfy the parents. The Demon “Should” deals with the images that come from these intrajections. The Hero’s Journey, The Lover’s Journey, Owning the Shadow, and Death and Resurrection are the transformation process.

These processes 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. As I go through my own process with awareness, I can view with compassion somebody else, for example, my child, going through his or her transitions. Therefore I am growing not only myself, but I am growing the future. I am helping my children to grow into consciousness with compassion, and not just training them to do what my mother trained me to do in robot fashion. 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.


The School of Gestalt and Experiential Teaching


In the form of the training that I am doing in the United States, the students spend the first two years learning the concepts and theories of gestalt as well as how to facilitate gestalt process. In my training we don’t think in terms of a therapist, we think in terms of a facilitator, so it is a more equal level: the one helps the other to find his or her own way through the process. The students learn how to facilitate individual process. They also learn about the interactions and the evolution of a group, because a group goes through a process just as an individual does. In the third year, they do a workshop which I call , Manifesting Your Myth as a Creative Process. In the first part of that workshop, the students work through a myth of their own choice as they would a dream: they discover what their relationship is to all the aspects of the myth. They understand the psychology of the myth as well as its spacial qualities; they not only understand, they experience all the aspects of the myth. After that, applying certain rules, they create a structure that comes from their myth. So now they are no longer doing my structures, but they are beginning to create their own structures. Once they have begun to learn how to create a structure from a myth, which is the way I teach them, then they take whatever their interest is, whatever that might be — their background, their history, their lifework — and they create out of that a structure which they can ultimately use in their work with other people as experiential teaching.

Basically, the School of Gestalt and Experiential Teaching is teaching how to create experiential structures. Also, since many people are interested in doing my structures, there is the possibility of learning how to do and use my structures. In order to use my structures, however, people need to have some therapeutic background, preferably gestalt; if they don’t have gestalt background, they can learn enough to enable them to understand the psychological or theoretical underpinnings of the work.

People who study with me are not all therapists, although there are many therapists. Some are religious leaders, ministers, priests, nuns; I have had mathematicians, university teachers of theater, astrologers, bakers — people from various walks of life who want to teach, to communicate something through experience. You can say, that’s easy. If you want to teach a kid how to add, put three apples and two apples and tell him to count them. Then he’s got the experience of counting the apples. Well, on a basic level, that’s true.

But when you are working with a concept that is more subtle and more complicated, it is a greater challenge to create an experience whereby people are not just understanding the concept from words, but are experiencing in their bodies what the movement of the concept is, what it means. Then they are realizing it, not just understanding it mentally. It is not just a head awareness. When Gurdjieff wanted to teach the laws of seven, he developed the work with the enneagram which many people know. In order to teach the enneagram, he created a piece of music that is based on the relationship of numbers to each other and he would have people dance to that. So it wasn’t something they looked at on a piece of paper, but they knew: now we go to this point, and from this point to this point. There is a relationship between the points; when you are at one point you are at one level of experience, and when you are at another point you are at another level of experience. So you talk through the movement with the melody based on the law of seven. That is an experiential teaching. It can be a spiritual teaching, a mathematical teaching, a physical teaching — anything that can be translated into either drama or dance or plastic artistic form in some way or another. By putting it into an expressive form, the learning is not just in the mind; it is also in the feelings and in the body. It is the complete human being who is doing the learning. That is the essence of experiential teaching.

Through the creation of my structures,  I have discovered that there is a plan that one can use to put together a structure that will have these elements, that will give a more complete sense of the teaching. The basic form of structure starts with home, with me. What is my experience? What is my body doing? What does my body want to do? Once I begin to feel the movement, or the non-movement, then what kind of sound is there? The movement is now augmented with sound. Then there frequently follows an image. What image emerges? The evolution goes from sensual-physical to sensual-physical-sonoric (sound) to sensual-physical-sonoric-word or image. This brings the mind into it as well. But the mind is third, not first, in my work. Image is the connection between feeling and mind, and word is the verbalization, the communication. So teaching about 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.

Since the age of Enlightenment, rituals have been put aside because they are not rational. It is foolishness to put them aside, because there is a child in us who needs magical thinking, needs beauty, needs ritual form to integrate itself, needs the experience of integration of body, heart, and mind. A ritual is frequently described as an acted out myth. When people act out a myth, they learn all of its psychological, personal, physiological, and spiritual aspects. From it, they learn how to transform their own life process so that it, too, can be beautiful and have meaning for themselves and for the world.

So Rumi wrote, “Let the beauty you love be what you do.”

Paul Rebillot

Illustration: Kai Wasikowski (1992-), Handscape VII, 2015



“An experience whereby people are not just understanding the concept from words, but are experiencing in their bodies what the movement of the concept is, what it means.”

“An existential statement that sums up

this new discovery.”

“Every person is important, all are equally of value.”

“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.”

“There was emotional expression.”

“Teaching how to create experiential structures.”

Vangel Naumovski, Spiral Galaxy, 1981