What do Zen and Gestalt Therapy have in common? (Part 1)

The paradoxical theory of change by Jutta Pieper

It has been on my mind for a while to write something about what Zen and Gestalt Therapy have in common. I often tell people that they have but what exactly is it I mean by that?

In the mid nineties I wasn’t well. I was suffering from panic attacks and often felt overwhelmingly anxious. I was also anxious around taking medication so that was not a route I could follow. Looking for a remedy, or at least something that could give me a bit of relief, I made contact with Zen as well as Gestalt Therapy. By that time I wasn’t aware that Gestalt Therapy had been influenced quite a bit by Eastern philosophies especially Zen.

I am not the first person undertaking this task and there are at least two books I have heard about that deal with just this topic. I haven’t read them. I’m interested in them but I don’t want to be too much influenced by what others have to say so I start off from the place of ‘not knowing’ which catapults me right into the first commonality of Zen and Gestalt. The truth is that even though we try to make our lives as predictable and safe as possible (though some people might prefer the opposite attitude) we have not the slightest clue what will happen the very next moment.

In Zen we go with that. Letting whatever unfolds be. That’s of course more what we strive for. We all know how we get distracted while we are sitting. Even on the cushion the picking and choosing doesn’t stop and that’s good because by slowing down and not running away, by just staying seated on our bums we discover that we pick and choose. And we become aware of how hard it is not to. And this awareness permeates into the times we are not sitting. We become more resilient in facing and feeling our emotions and thinking our thoughts. I think we learn that we can survive feeling difficult, unwanted emotions and we learn that our thoughts are ever changing and only powerful if we give them power.

In my practice as a Gestalt Therapist the same thing happens. I can get sidetracked by analysing my client, by thinking that I know (better) by diagnosing. But actually Gestalt Therapy is not about that. Like Zen it’s about going with what ever shows up. By engaging with the other, by being interested in the way the other (the client) experiences the world. There are as many ways of perceiving reality as there are people on this planet. The moment I think I have the ultimate answer, know the right way I lose my patient. And I can tell you that happens often!
But the moments when I can really meet my client by giving her/him the space to be ok with whatever he/she is – a deep contact is created.
Maybe that’s why a lot of people find Gestalt Therapy an uneasy approach. It has no techniques as such. The technique is to stay present with what emerges between the client and the therapist in every moment. This urges the therapist into the uncomfortable place of insecurity. I guess that’s also one of the reasons why many other approaches to therapy have techniques, they create the illusion of safety in the work (mainly for the therapist).

Something else that distinguishes Gestalt Therapy from most other approaches is that the only goal of it is awareness. Not change. That must sound strange because usually we start therapy because of things we struggle with in ourselves or in our contact with the world. And most people want to get rid of their struggles.

But my personal experience, as well as the theoretical underpinning of Gestalt Therapy, is that change happens when we are making peace with who we are. When we start valuing those parts of us that we wanted to get rid off.

I am of the opinion that there is nothing in our behaviours or personality structure that didn’t result out of necessity at some point in our life. Sometimes even more than necessity rather survival. In Gestalt Therapy we call this ‘creative adjustments’. When creative adjustments become rigid and when the situation/environment we once adjusted to has long changed we can start to suffer from them and lose sight of their value (in the past). By reconnecting with their value self compassion arises that gives way to more acceptance of ourselves.
In Gestalt Therapy this is called the ‘paradoxical theory of change’. So even if we work on awareness as a goal in therapy the result of awareness is usually change.

My experience of Zen is very similar but also more mysterious. It’s difficult to put in words but I think for me sitting (especially for longer periods like on retreat) pushes me to the edge of my being. But instead of distracting myself from being (with myself) I stay on the cushion. It’s as if more space opens up in me when I don’t run, when I endure myself with all the uneasiness that can bring during sitting. Boredom, physical pains, obsessive thoughts, resistance and and and…Again like I mentioned before the restriction I go through by glueing myself to the cushion strengthens the ability to be with all parts of me. On the cushion we learn that we are not dying from anger, boredom, fear, pain etc.

So by becoming more who I am, by being with all I am, I change. So Zen and Gestalt share the ‘paradoxical theory of change’. 
This is just one similarity. In future posts I would like to write about others.