Gestalt Theory and Spirituality

In our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice book, we include short sections on spirituality for each of the major theories. Previously, I’ve posted all the others (just search spirituality on this blog to find them), but discovered this evening that I forgot to post the Gestalt one. Maybe I forgot because it’s especially short and enigmatic . . . meaning, I didn’t find much out there on the crossroads between Gestalt theory and spirituality. If you know of something, please enlighten me!

Here’s the very short excerpt:

Spirituality

Although not always visible or palpable, Gestalt theory and therapy have deep spiritual roots. Laura Perls studied with Martin Buber and had interests in Taoism. Fritz Perls studied Zen Buddhism. Paul Goodman had interests in Taoism, and Gestalt writer, Dave Mann (2010) contended that Goodman’s book, Nature heals, is consistent with his Taoist beliefs about living with nature in accordance with nature. It may be that Gestalt experiments are consistent in style with the Zen Buddhist koan, a puzzle orriddle designed to open Zen novices to deeper levels of consciousness. At the very least, Zen Buddhism and Gestalt therapy share an attitude of acceptance of the now and an exploration of experience.

There are, of course, differences between Gestaltists regarding the role and nature of spirituality in Gestalt theory and practice. For some, the I-Thou connection is where the transcending and spiritual contact happens. Boundaries dissolve and deeper connections and insights blossom. This may have been what led Jesse Thomas (1978) to publish an early Gestalt-spiritual work titled, “The youniverse: Gestalt therapy, non-western religions, and the present age.” Spirituality, from the Gestalt perspective, is both personal and universal (or youniversalJ).

At the other end of the continuum are individuals who don’t see spirituality as warranting a place in Gestalt theory and practice (Mann, 2010). Mann (2010) recommended that Gestalt therapists, like clients, need to decide where they stand on religion and spirituality, recognizing, at the same time, that where they stand may well change. This brings us to perhaps the most famous words Fritz Perls ever wrote, the Gestalt prayer:

I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.

(Perls, Gestalt therapy verbatim, 1969, p. 24)

8 thoughts on “Gestalt Theory and Spirituality”

  1. Typo? I do my thing and you do your thing. vs You do my thing and you do your thing. ————- I think that the powerful experiential aspect of many Gestalt exercises provide fertile ground for spiritual experience, through catharsis, clarity and perhaps a sense of cleansing, or rebirth

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    1. Haha! Yes. “You do my thing” is a pretty hilarious typo. Thanks for reading and noticing. I made the edit. That’s a great point about the experiential Gestalt feeling spiritual. I will be thinking more about that.

  2. JSF —

    Somehow, I wasn’t aware or had forgotten the last line of this prayer. I was feel all warm and fuzzy reading the prayer, and then **WHAM!**, if not it can’t be helped. : /

    Thanks for this post today — it was a refreshing thought-filled break from compiling the promotion and tenure portfolio grind.

    Laura

  3. Hi John,

    Have you heard of Phil Brownell, PhD? He is the list owner of an e-mail group I belong to and has wrote articles and perhaps a book on spirituality.

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