The Gestalt Centre and London Metropolitan University
Diploma in Professional Development
Module Number: PC6 100GS
“Contact and Awarenessare central concepts in Gestalt Therapy Theory”
Contact describes where the self meets the environment, through the transmission of data from our sense organs, including the skin, but it also includes neurological contact such as intuition and sensing. Perls referred to contact as “the sense of unitary interfunction of you and your environment.” (Korb, Gorrel, and Van De Reit, 1989). Gestalt’s are formed through contact. As we engage with our environment, and vice-versa, we form meaningful interpretations of the world. These Gestalt’s consist of self and environment and are a whole. Contact is fluid and the person-environment boundary is not fixed or rigid but dynamic and hard to discern.
At any given moment new, existing and closing Gestalts may exist, woven in and out of each other. There are various ways in which an individual can resist contact with the environment and these are discussed later.
The process of contact with the environment takes place along a continuum of awareness, where awareness describes a individuals’ ability to recognise and notice their thoughts, feelings, emotions and body sensations. The concept of awareness has a long tradition in Buddhist thought and was brought to Perls’ attention while he was in New York via contact with Paul Weisz who was a doctor and student of Zen. Perls later studied Zen in Kyoto Japan. (Clarkson and Mackewn, 1993).
Awareness is a matter of attention. If you do not attend to your thoughts and feelings you will not know they exist. Thus it’s possible to speak of people as being unaware, or of being partially or dimly aware.
Contact and awareness form the core of the Gestalt approach and this can be seen from the seminal and founding text by Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman. (Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, 1951). All of Perls’ first section deals with the two concepts and he covers contacting the environment, techniques of awareness and directed awareness. In this volume (Vol 1), the key resistances to contact are also introduced.
Figure and Ground
Through contact a person perceives the environment as a whole, as a total unit of meaning. This is made up of things which an individual is directly attentive to and those toward which they are not. A Gestalt emerges from what is figural, and a figure arises from the ground, distinguishing the important from the unimportant in any given moment.
Figures can be visual, physical (physiological), sensational, or emotional. In any of these areas a need can trigger figure formation. The Ground is always the background from which the figure emerges. Figures can be formed at different speeds and their differentiation from the ground can vary (Mann, 2010). Lack of figure awareness disrupts the Gestalt cycle and can lead to withdrawal from contact and the inability to fully integrate an experience.
Here and Now
Awareness is always in the here and now. Thoughts, feelings, visual perceptions, emotions all occur in the present. If you are aware of them, you are aware of them as they happen. The past and future exist for us only as mental states, thoughts and images in the mind. If a persons’ attention is on their mind then their contact with the environment is diminished and Gestalt formation and closure is hindered.
Yontef goes so far as to say that awareness is always accompanied by Gestalt formation (Yontef, 1993). Without awareness in the here and now the present can be tainted by past experience or habits or concern about the future. When this happens contact and figure formation may be disturbed.
This has significant implications for the therapeutic process and the way the therapist undertakes interventions. The goal of the therapist is to increase awareness. This is the single factor that is likely to interrupt the pattern of fixed or broken Gestalts. Interventions at the content level, the level of the mind, need to be used carefully and sparingly since the outcome cannot be known a priori, although it may be intuited.
Perls called Gestalt therapy “here and now therapy”, in which the patient is asked to turn all attention to the present. (Perls, 1973, pg 64). Since neurosis is, by the Gestalt definition, a person who has inadequate contact with the world and who continues to have a problem of the past in the present. “He cannot get along in the present, and unless he learns how to deal with problems as they arise, he will not be unable to get along in the future.” (Perls, 1973, pg 64). In increasing awareness the neurotic learns that he has all the tools within himself to solve his own problems, both now and in the future.
The Gestalt Cycle
Clear perception of the immediate present leads to “good Gestaltan,” well formed or well-represented relationships (Korb, Gorrel and Van De Riet, 1989). A good Gestaltan occurs when the move through the Gestalt cycle is smooth and unhindered. The Gestalt cycle is a model or map used to show the cycle of experience of meeting needs, either physical, such as thirst, or psychological, such as bereavement (Mann, 2010).
The Gestalt cycle starts with contact and the arising of a sensation. An individual then becomes aware of the sensation, mobilises and then takes action. After the action meets the need contact stops and there is satisfaction, withdrawal and a return to the void, leaving space for further needs to occur.
Contact, Awareness and the Therapeutic Relationship
There are two client related contacts that are important in the therapeutic context. The first is the contact between the client and parts of themselves, the second contact between the client and aspects, real or otherwise, of their interaction with individuals from their past, present or future.
Moreover, there is also contact between the client and therapist, which is called a I-thou relationship to denote the depth and awareness that is present. Perls firmly believed awareness itself is curative (Perls, 1969). Through the process of increasing awareness of the hear and now integration and healing naturally occur.
In order to increase the clients awareness therapists must practice what they preach. The most important thing a therapist can do for a patient is to be present, to attend fully without distractions. In order to do this most effectively the therapist must have a solid grounding in the both the theory of disruptions to contact and the skill and experience of dealing with, and managing their own, (perfectly normal and natural) resistances to contact.
Disruptions to Contact
There are seven commonly described interaction processes that are used to moderate, resist or interrupt contact with the environment.
- Desensitization (anaesthetizing the sensing self),
- Deflection (pushing away direct contact),
- Egotism (standing outside myself and observing myself),
- Introjection (swallowing whole messages from the environment),
- Retroflection (diminishing contact through an armouring process),
- Projection (assigning a disowned attitude, trait or quality onto another individual group or object), and,
- Confluence (dissolving the contact boundary and diminishing difference with the other).
All moderations to contact are useful to a certain degree and a individual could not survive without them. They become unhealthy and contribute to neurosis only when they disrupt the healthy flow of the Gestalt cycle. The cultural ground of any given group will affect the degree to which any single moderation is viewed as positive or negative. In the individualistic West introjection and confluence are often used in a predominantly pejorative manner.
All resistances to contact are part of a continuum and both contact and resistance can be healthy depending on the situation. We moderate our contact through our ability to creatively adjust.
Relation to Field Theory
Field theory is a set of principles, outlooks and methods that takes a holistic view of the person and their environment. Like Gestalt therapy, which it provides theoretical support for, it deals with the total situation, seeing human phenomena as complicated, organized, interconnected and interdependent. Like Gestalt therapy it therefore challenges the prevailing epistemology of the West that divides, measures, reduces and searches for objective truths.
The field is the contact boundary, a fluid border between the self and the environment. A person and the environment are not two separate entities but are one, constantly interacting in a dialectical manner.
A person is not a riefied object alienated from a world which is out there, a person is also the sights, sounds and smells they perceive, they are at one, or whole, with the surrounding environment.
Relation to Phenomenology
Whereas the Gestalt literature has a preference for the term awareness, phenomenalistic theory uses the term perception, but analysis shows that, while one discipline is inherently therapeutic and the other philosophical, they are, despite the semantic differences, remarkably similar. Perception as “conscious engagement with the world” is synonymous with awareness. (Spinelli, 1989).
Phenomenologically speaking the world is as a person lives through it, not as it is thought about. It is a present moment experience, which takes the world of experience as of being more important that the world that exists in the mind. “The now is not what I think, but what I live through”. (Kennedy, 2003).
This brief essay has, within the limited space, sought to outline how contact and awareness are integral to the main theories and concepts of Gestalt as well as the therapeutic practice of Gestalt.
To sum up, Gestalt therapy is the process of increasing a patients awareness of their contact with the environment so as to integrate contacts that have not completed and are interfering with the clients ability to form new, healthy Gestalts.
Clarkson and Mackewn, (1993), Fritz Perls, J Sage.
Korb, Gorrel and Van De Riet, (1989), Gestalt Therapy, Practice and Theory, Second Ed, Simon & Schuster.
Mann D., (2010), Gestalt Therapy, Routledge.
Kennedy, D., (2003), The Phenomenal Field: The Homeground of Gestalt Therapy, Vol. 21, No. 2, 76-87.
Kennedy, D., (2005), The Lived Body, Vol. 14, No. 2, 109-117.
Krznaric, R., (2014), Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get it, Ebury Publishing.
Parlett, M.,(1991), Reflections on Field Theory, The British Gestalt Journal, 1991, 69-81.
Perls F., (1973), The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy, Science and Behaviour Books.
Perls F., Hefferline R. and Goodman P. (1951), Gestalt Therapy, Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, Souvenir Press.
Spinelli, E., (1989), The Interpreted World: An Introduction to Phenomenological Psychology, Sage.
Yontef G., (1993), Awareness, Dialogue and Process, Gestalt Journal Press, 183-185.