I’m starting here a series of thoughts about concepts at the heart of Gestalt Work.
I want your help in letting people know about the Gestalt Work site, with the idea of building a community of practice to share the work, and your thoughts about the topics at hand.
I use a convention in the writing below that I consider any italicized words remain “undefined terms” that we use provisionally and do not take for granted.
On Gestalt Work.org I have quoted one of Fritz Perls’ remarks, “There is no end to integration.” An excellent example of the power of this aphorism is what occurred when people started questioning me about its meaning. “Commonly,” I would reply, “we carry many fragments along with us. A process like putting a jigsaw puzzle together can result in the integration of some of those fragments into larger wholes [= gestalts] which, presumably, are clearer in meaning, easier to manipulate, more powerful symbolically, and closer in form to other aspects of our lives.
When this response does not bring excited nods of understanding, and leaves further work to be done, starting with working on the undefined terms, the process opens me to looking actively for help—ideas, concepts, examples from (someone’s) experience. I meet Richard Diebenkorn (RD—1922-1993), an artist with whom I am instantly simpatico, in love, familiar and grieving (he could/should still be alive at 90).
[Quotes and paraphrases in what follows are from The Art of Richard Diebenkorn, Whitney Museum of Art and University of California Press, 1997, ed. Jane Livingston.]
RD was guided by a lifelong engagement with what he called “rightness”—a kind of “moral imperative” in each of his works. He sought a quality of integrity or singularity that was “unmistakably present when achieved.”
These are words and phrases that beg to be applied seriously to the process of working on oneself, analogous to working one one’s current painting or project or meal preparation. Especially in understanding that a moral imperative must provide the foundation for each of our endeavors, a demand that can only be fulfilled when a right outcome is reached, RD at once enriches the concept of integration and demands that we go beyond it.
“I want a painting to be difficult to do. The more obstacles, obstruction, problems—if they don’t overwhelm—the better. I would like to feel that I am involved at any stage of the painting with all its moments, not just this ‘now’ moment where a superficial grace is so available.”
Why not say, “I am involved, at any stage of my life, with all its stages/moments, not just this ‘now’ moment where a superficial grace is so available.’”
When we start to do Gestalt work this is precisely our situation: we know that we need to inhabit the stages or fragments of our lived experience here and now but in a new way. One beat in this process may well be “integration” or drawing the pieces closer together. But we’ll reach a “so what?” moment if we stop there. “There is no end to integration, and integration is not the end.”
RD’s method of working: at any point while working on a large canvas he would be looking at works on paper placed on his studio wall. The drawings were tacked in rows, as many as twenty of them; he changed them often, both in their placement and in their composition. He would have two or three paintings in progress—their demands for resolution (or, each one’s precise degree of lack of resolution) most intensely preoccupied him. “I felt that what was becoming my painting process was a wholesale proposition and that my initial intent, as well as intent in process, was reduced to simply making things right—to as vague a goal as realization.
In fact, the idea of realization, even in its undefined state, seems like a decent candidate for a step up from integration.
I integrate a number of experiences that cross my life’s path, and I can then realize something about their relationships, the recurring patterns in my life, the unresolved elements I have yet to work with.
But RD’s work toward “making things right” demanded that he knew just where to stop revising, learning “to forego the temptation of fixing that one more place.” (“You’ll try to fix it and find out it was they key to the whole thing, and you’ve ruined it.”)
RD’s intense attentiveness to the complexity and transformative energy of each work had to reach a series of limits. Being constantly in flux, the subject was never really right. He would soon realize, after stopping to prevent himself from ruining it, that his subject had once more eluded him. His work would have to be altered as well. Thus his process evolved until something in the work told him he had reached an emotional rightness—“Everything was integral—all the parts belong to the whole. If you remove an aspect or element you are removing its wholeness.” He realized that the rightness of each part was fully dependent on its integration with all the other right parts.
To do justice to oneself as a moral being, integrating the parts and realizing their connections, relationships (causal and otherwise) may bring us to a point of emotional rightness, but I think we need to use a third concept Diebenkorn mentions to reach a resting point, at least for now, and that is the idea of resolution.
RD might say, “This work is realized, I must stop,” but at the point where he saw all the right parts integrated he would more likely say, “This work is resolved –in my mind, in my moral understanding, in my emotional experience—and I can rest.
Integration, realization, resolution—still bearing the sign of “undefined (unresolved?) term,” nevertheless form a pattern that provides us with a way to frame aspects of our existence in a moral and spirit-filled way.
The tools of this trade are what I teach. I am moved now to work directly with people after decades of tangential (nonetheless valid) approaches. That story next.