Gestalt and Ten Lessons

I came to the Gestalt Workshop with the purpose of creating a thirty second elevator speech that would answer to the question: “What is Gestalt?”

Dave is the executive director of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. Some people have no idea what Gestalt is or else they have a fuzzy view at best.  Me too.

So I wanted to learn by participating in the Gestalt Experience Workshop: Introduction to Gestalt. It was described, in part, this way: “This workshop will emphasize learning through direct, present experience and contact with others. We will explore both individual capacities and the dynamic capacities of groups in a context that supports the development of all. Throughout the weekend, we will highlight and weave in core elements of the Gestalt model in order to support a maximally integrated learning experience.”

I wasn’t sure what a “dynamic capacity” was nor was I clear about what a “maximally integrated learning experience” would look like. I guess I thought the weekend would include some modeling, interspersed with some teaching about Gestalt Theory, some prompts, role playing, and meditation. Later, I gave feedback that this introduction left me unprepared for what the weekend was about.

First lesson: Don’t have preconceived ideas.

When the afternoon arrived, I entered the room of strangers, picked a computer type chair and started to adjust its settings. I sat. I waited. Silence. We smiled. We gazed. Silence. Finally, I introduced myself and we seven started to chat. Others filed in. I was making little jokes about, well, I don’t remember. I always do this.

Second lesson: I am uncomfortable in silence.

The two facilitators came in. There were introductions, a brief outline of community norms, and an explanation of what we would be doing during the weekend. Among other things, we were asked to Honor Others, Honor Ourselves, Speak from Experience, and Respect Confidentiality. We were asked to think about our desires, and wants or needs for the time we had together.

After a drawing exercise to show who we are and what we needed, we were lead through a meditation to get ourselves ready and to be present with each other. It was a good way to relax, put us in the moment, and to put everything outside the room away.

The facilitators prompted us to think about how we felt through our heads, heart and body. And, while we talked, to pay attention to how these three—heads, heart, and body—were with us. How did we feel? What were we thinking? How was our body reacting?

Third lesson: Gestalt involves your whole being.

Throughout the first tiny steps we revealed bits of ourselves through expressing what we hoped to take away. Most people wanted to gain personal insight, growth, acceptance, or change. I was the only person who wanted to script an elevator speech.

Fourth lesson: You might end up changing your original purpose for being there.

The afternoon/evening moved through lots of silences, eye contact, thinking, feeling, body checking and just being. To me it felt like Quaker meeting where people sit in silence and speak when moved to do so. It very much reminded me of when I had gone for therapy and counseling through the years.  So when the moment arose, I stated that this felt like group therapy. Although I never intended this, my words, body language, and intonation conveyed to many that I was judging them and made them feel unsafe.

Fifth lesson: Think before you speak.

When asked how my comments “landed” with everyone, it was clear I needed to do some back peddling and explanation. I felt inadequate in doing this. I didn’t know what to say because I wasn’t exactly clear how I had misstepped so badly. I was confronting an awkward and painful time. I try to avoid feeling this way. Crap, who wants to feel miserable?

At this point the facilitators also had to change direction. We had to reestablish that we would not judge or feel judged. We had to go back to a safe place. We started over. I was ready to leave and not come back.

Did I express this? I didn’t need to. It felt like the rest of the evening was spent with people explaining their feelings and apologizing for being so harsh.  It was clear the others knew what I was feeling. I retreated into taking my cues from them. I thanked them for their feedback and decided to see how it “landed with me” before I said more.

Sixth lesson: Wait and listen.

For the rest of the weekend, I felt I said appropriate things and played it close to the hip. I didn’t want to go back to being reminded of the “pinches” I had caused and I certainly didn’t want to start over. As a former teacher, this type of constructive criticism was always done in private with my students. This was a new and humiliating experience for me. I felt respected but never validated. The faint praise I felt was about my fashion sense and teaching “acceptance.”

I spent Friday evening talking with Dave and cutting myself some slack. He commented that I would miss opportunities if I didn’t return. He knows me. He’s very good at talking me down off the limb.  At dinner we had joked about me going to Puppy Obedience School to learn how to behave.  That seemed to put things in perspective.

But I was dreading another day of soulfully gazing into the eyes of others and trying to get in touch with the flutter in my gut. My present feelings of happiness in my life felt challenged. To be honest, I spent some of Saturday silently defending myself. Then, I was reminded of my diversity work where we were encouraged to “lean into the discomfort.”

Saturday was a repeat of Friday. Throughout the morning and afternoon people spoke to their concerns with their families, of dealing with sadness and loss, of being misunderstood, and making monumental changes in their lives. Boxes of tissues were passed, hugs were extended, and bodies were touched and held. Check ins were repeated. What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What is your body saying to you?

As others were coached through role playing and practiced what it would feel like to have a difficult conversation with a parent, I moved with them. What would I say in my own situation? How would that feel? Would I have the courage to have that conversation? Should I leave well enough alone? Could the situation become worse? But then I would lose the opportunity for a relationship to become better.

Seventh lesson: Be open to change your long held beliefs and behaviors.

Through words and practice, it became clear that my life long beliefs and patterns could hold me back and dishonor others and myself by not fulfilling who I have the potential to be.  I thought about myself and how I like to be the center of attention when in a group, how I feel the need to control my environment, how I like to be “in my head,” and how good and comfortable that all feels. But what do I miss by doing this? I can define sadness and joy, but I am numb to the fullness of feeling these emotions.  I have shielded myself from the profoundness and overwhelming depth of these emotions.

Eighth lesson:  After almost seven decades, you may think you know yourself, but there is more to learn.

As the others moved through the day with me, they expressed feelings of wellness, calmness, and peacefulness. We shared a sense of triumph when someone said something like, “I tried this new thing today and I actually was okay!”

To be honest, I felt closer and less judged by some than by others.  My usual response to this feeling would be to say that I think that this is a common experience. I found myself doing this during the weekend: “Our parents are resilient, just like we are” or “I think Americans live in a culture that expects this.” This was not necessarily speaking to my experience. It was making a proclamation.

Ninth lesson: Keep trying to express yourself in personal terms and not generalities.

I also found myself working at trying to lighten an intense moment. Obviously I don’t feel comfortable with profound emotions and their displays.  I try to inject humor or a change of pace. Then I wanted to explain,” It’s a joke.” There were moments of laughter and release during the workshop, but I felt my brand of silliness had to be left at the door.  It is best described as the difference between visiting perspective in-laws and hanging with your best buddies.  “We’re doing serious work here!” was the attitude. Rightfully so.

Saturday’s session (I was going to say Puppy School. There I go again, trying to lighten the mood.) was over. One more day: “I will survive,” I was thinking.

We spent Sunday morning wrapping up, answering unasked questions, explaining what we will take away, detailing how we will apply this “in the world” and evaluating the workshop. At break time, I was taken aside by one of the facilitators and offered an opportunity for some personal reflection, questions, and feedback. My questions about group therapy were answered. It seems therapy of any kind implies both legal and ethical responsibilities beyond what we did this weekend. Who knew?

When asked about my elevator speech, I said I would work on it. This has been attempted countless times but people have a hard time agreeing.

Tenth lesson:  Apply what you learn.

So here goes. My personally crafted, not stamped with the seal of approval elevator speech:

Gestalt is a way of reaching your full potential through knowing your mind, heart, and body. This may happen through role-playing, symbolic objects representing things, touching, visualization, direct teaching and many other ways. These ways present themselves from the needs of the participant(s). Gestalt attempts to coach and mentor people with their present relationships, with themselves, and with others through challenging people to practice changing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Thirty seconds on the nose.


4 responses to “Gestalt and Ten Lessons”

Leave your response
  1. Pat says:

    No Primal scream?
    Thanks anyway

  2. Judy says:

    Whew, repeated several times, is what comes to mind. Congratulations for perseverence!

  3. Karen says:

    Yes! Pat and Judy. I’ve gotten several comments through email from the other participants.

  4. Carolyn says:

    I sm … er….speechless.