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Gestalt Psychotherapy and Zen, similarities and differences – Jutta Keijo Pieper

The theme of the next SWZ newsletter is “Zen and therapy: different, the same or both?”. Here we have the first piece on the subject from long-time sangha member and therapist Jutta Keijo Pieper.

Looking at the similarities and differences between psychotherapy and meditation, my focus will be on the Gestalt Psychotherapy approach which I am trained in and in regard to Buddhism/meditation practice I will relate to Zen.

There is definitely a correlation between Zen Buddhism and Gestalt. Fritz Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt, was interested in Eastern Philosophies and studied Zen Buddhism. One of the theoretical underpinnings of Gestalt is field theory. Basically, one could describe the core of it as there is an interdependence between everything. Nothing exists in a vacuum, but is always operating within a field, or one could also say environment. Depending on the environment, a person will experience a situation in their very own way, influenced by past experiences, present circumstances etc. So two people could be in the same situation, nevertheless we would have two different perceptions of the situation. In Zen we have the notion of interconnectedness as well. This becomes very apparent in koan work. Koans often play with the relative and the absolute. The relative could be described as me seeing just through the eyes of my ego while sometimes when the ego steps slightly into the background, for example while sitting for longer periods during a retreat, it seems as if another force sweeps into our being that allows a wider, more interconnected perception of ‘me’. For me it feels like my compassion with the world is growing in those times, I feel more appreciation which paradoxically emerges when “I” am less in the centre of my world. This is more the world of the absolute.
Paradoxes are also part of Gestalt. We have a theory that we call “the paradoxical theory of change”. Clients often come into therapy because they suffer emotionally and usually they want this suffering to end, which is a fair point. But in Gestalt the therapist doesn’t see herself as an agent of change. The goal of Gestalt is awareness, not change. But interestingly what happens when people become more aware is that change happens within them. When we are in our own little ego bubble we mainly act habitually, without being aware of what we are doing and why and how we do it. But the moment awareness comes in we create a bit of space. I have the image of being right in the middle of something and then stepping a bit away from it. Then I am suddenly able to see the place I have stood in a moment ago. This space brings with it the chance to choose. I can still act habitually, but now that I am aware of my habitual way of acting, it becomes possible to try something that’s out of my habit, that’s new. I have choice. Here comes the paradox. I learn that cutting out the suffering doesn’t work, but through awareness I learn about it, see it as a part of me and how I have been acting/reacting, and then change is often the result. Especially when I find compassion with myself and the patterns I have developed over time. Patterns that once have supported me. And, seeing them as a support instead of as a cancerous thing that suffocates me, awakens compassion. I start to accept these things as parts of me that don’t have to be so rigid anymore. The paradoxical theory of change is that change comes when I embrace and make peace with who I am, not by wanting to be different.

I guess that this sounds in a way quite straightforward and simple, but it can be a long process even when the awareness is already there. As humans, like all other mammals, we need attachment and nurture to survive. The neuropsychologist Louis Cozolino even goes as far as to say that it is not survival of the fittest, but survival of the nurtured. But no matter how much or little nurture we have experienced as a child (the first 24 months of our lives have a massive impact on our attachment patterns) we always attach. And these attachments can be very unstable and insecure and usually we carry them with us into every relationship we engage in, like re-enacting the old relational dynamics we are so familiar with. I don’t think that we do this from a masochistic place, but out of the hope to finally find solutions, new ways. These attachment patterns take time to become more secure, even when awareness is already there.

I think that this is where for me the difference between therapy and meditation practice comes in. In therapy I am with somebody, the therapeutic relationship is an experiential field where I can make new experiences, where I can experiment with ways of being that might be unfamiliar to me. It is a relational way of working on our suffering, a path that client and therapist co-create.

In meditation we focus inward. We try to let be what is, which is very similar to Gestalt where I would often encourage a client to stay and experience what is coming up in the moment. But what is different is that in meditation we try to be with whatever arises on our own. This is a powerful (and also I often find quite difficult) thing to do. Facing oneself moment after moment. Wanting to get up, to just do something, finding it hard to just stay, be still. I think in meditation it is easier to “cheat”. To not really practice something new, but to keep doing what I am doing when I am not on the cushion.
A couple of years ago I facilitated a body movement workshop for the Sangha. One of the things we did was called ‘authentic movement’. In a couple, one person is moving in the room with their eyes closed, just trying to follow whatever impulses come up for them. The second person, “the witness”, stands at the side watching the “mover” and trying to be aware of what happened for them while watching. For most of us being in the mover role brought up uncomfortable emotions and we experienced being seen by our witness as difficult. Especially shame and self-consciousness surfaced. And some of us had been meditating for decades and known each other for a long time. But nevertheless we were so inhibited to be with each other.

I think that both meditation and therapy have something to offer and can be mutually supportive. There are blind spots and habits we have that can only be worked on if we are relating to someone. And not only that, also “we see the other seeing us” is a prerequisite for healing. Emotions like shame for example have developed in rational experiences, and they can only be healed through contact and relating. I think that especially for people with a more fragile sense of self it is useful to first engage in therapy to develop a more stable sense of self via relating, before engaging in a meditation practice. My opinion is that for a lot of people a mix of meditation and therapy is most beneficial.