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By Martin Shepard
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Martin Shepard
All rights reserved.
The Finder of Gestalt
Friedrich Salomon Perls was admitted to the Weiss Memorial Hospital of Chicago on March 8, 1970. He was seventy-six years old at the time. His friends had asked that the news of his hospitalization not be given to the papers because they feared the place would be overrun by hippies, eager to pay respects to their psychological mentor. A police guard was put up so that no one would disturb him during his illness. But the grapevine being what it was, the young and the hip would assemble and sit on the grass in front of the hospital until March 14, the day he died.
The only other person to have warranted police protection at Weiss Memorial was Sammy Davis Jr. That an aged and gruff psychiatrist inspired a public loyalty similar to that accorded a nationally recognized song-and-dance man was quite impressive. Particularly for a man who rose, in his own words, "from an obscure lower-middle-class Jewish boy to a mediocre psychoanalyst to the possible creator of a 'new' method of treatment and the exponent of a viable philosophy which could do something for mankind."
Ten years earlier, "fed up with the whole psychiatric racket," doubting his own significance, and despairing over his lack of professional recognition, he dropped out for fifteen months and traveled about the world. Yet, by the time of his death, it was clear that Fritz Perls might have as significant an impact on psychotherapy as did another German Jew. For thirty years Fritz had radically challenged the assumptions and directions of Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts. And in his final years, many people began to listen. For the culture had begun to catch up with the man.
The long-haired, bearded, unwashed dropout could readily identify with him because Fritz had traveled the same road. When he arrived in New York in 1946, he was Central Casting's prototype of a European psychoanalyst—pinstriped suits, spats, a cane, and an occasional beret, which sat upon a stern, trimly mustachioed face. By 1966, firmly established as a fixture at The Esalen Institute of Big Sur, California, Fritz had donned the uniform of the West Coast Mountain hippies. A roly-poly five-foot-nine-inch chain-smoking bald-pated longhair, with a full-flowing beard, sparkling eyes, and a gruff no-nonsense voice, given to wearing jumpsuits, Cossack shirts, and beaded necklaces, he looked like a combination of Santa Claus, Rasputin, elf, primordial Father Earth, sage, guru, perhaps Jehovah himself. By his own description a "gypsy" and a seeker of new experiences, he had been through the drug scene, the Zen scene, and was still going strong within the sex scene. YOU STOPPED HERE.
Older intellectuals had much in common with him too, for Frederick (his anglicized first name) Perls, M.D., Ph.D., could hold his own with the best of them. He had the benefit (and the curse) of a classical German education. A lover of opera, of Mozart and Mahler, he could quote Heine and Rilke to his ladies and Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to his colleagues. During his lifetime he authored four books, directed some theater, tried his hand at movie making, and debated with such esoteric luminaries as Baba Ram Dass and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
His friends and acquaintances in the field of psychology included such classicists as Paul Schilder, Kurt Goldstein, and Kurt Lewin. Among the psychoanalysts he encountered and was affected by were Paul Federn, Helene Deutsch, Otto Fenichel, Karen Horney, Ernest Jones, Erich Fromm, Clara Thompson, and, above all, Wilhelm Reich. His theatrical contacts extended back to the great German directors Max Reinhardt and Fritz Lang, through writers Christopher Isherwood and James Agee, actors Julian Beck and Judith Malina, and dancer Ann Halprin. From the world of philosophy and ideas he had more than a passing acquaintance with Sigmund Friedlander, Jan Smuts, Paul Goodman, Alan Watts, and Michael Murphy.
Fritz's niche in history rests not on the shoulders of his friends, however, but upon his own tireless efforts to revolutionize the practice of psychotherapy. Often alone, often scorned, often ridiculed, he nonetheless persisted until his message was heard. Given to wisdom and wit, passion and paranoia, he injected a new vitality into psychology. He called his school Gestalt, and he preached it with the same sense of drama and paradox as he lived.
Fritz's basic message was be here now and be truly yourself. This he taught by example as well as in therapeutic sessions. Laura Perls, his estranged wife, once referred to him as half prophet and half bum. Fritz felt the description accurate and used it himself, proudly. The prophet in him was fond of leading his psychological workshops in a reading of his 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.
Many people, from Esalen psychologist William Schutz to Laura, a fellow Gestalt therapist, have been quite critical of the Prayer.
"I'm disappointed that it's so influential," said Schutz. "I think it's had a negative effect as well as positive—a kind of 'Fuck you' attitude."
Laura finds herself "rather unhappy about it. Particularly the last sentence, for it abdicates all responsibility to work on anything."
Such charges have a certain validity. People do hear what they wish to hear and are prone to justify their actions by pointing to authoritative sources. If I wish to be rude and uncooperative, I can always claim that I am doing so because I am simply "doing my thing" and quote the Gestalt Prayer as others would the Bible. And certainly, Fritz did insist upon only doing what interested him.
Fritz was aware not only of his selfishness, but aware, as well, that the same trait exists in everyone. Admonitions to "stop being selfish" are usually little more than moralistically couched manipulations that have, at their heart, the message "satisfy myself, not yourself." He would be the last person in the world to deny his self-indulgence. Indeed, he asserted it unapologetically: "I believe that I do what I do for myself," he wrote in his free-floating autobiography, In and Out the Garbage Pail, "for my own interest in solving problems, and most of all for my vanity."
A century ago, a Yankee from Boston expressed sentiments indistinguishable from the German Jew's Gestalt Prayer. "Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string," wrote Emerson, in his essay, Self-Reliance. "I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions, I will seek my own."
Like Emerson, Fritz believed that the only thing that made sense, in the end, was to follow your own intuition and interests, as arbitrary or rough-edged as society might judge them. It is only by following that path that you can appreciate your authentic self. Each man, in his own way, believed that the intuitive wisdom of the soul was the best instructor. "Trust your inner self," they both argued, "and not the culturally acquired inner doubter."
"I have often been called the founder of Gestalt Therapy," Fritz said. "That's crap. If you call me the finder or refinder of Gestalt Therapy, okay. For Gestalt is as ancient and old as the world itself."
Gestalt is a German word that implies "wholeness." It is akin, in many ways, to the Eastern concept of Tao. It recognizes that foreground and background form a complete whole and cannot be separated from one another without either losing their individual meanings or destroying the wholeness that was. Fish make no sense without oceans. Night is meaningless without day. Water may consist of two parts of hydrogen and one part of oxygen, but if you break it down for the purpose of analysis, you are left with two gases and nothing to drink. Gestalt, in this sense, is as old as the appreciation of the ancient Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang—where one shape defines the other, and both are required to complete the whole.
Fritz saw his new/"old" therapy as a natural outgrowth of his own philosophical existentialism. He was aware of the fact that life—indeed, all of existence—occurs in a perpetual present moment, that all things are transient and ever-changing, and that past and future are concepts that we think of in some present time.
He was cognizant of the fact that emotional suffering is related to the degree to which people are not sufficiently aware of what is occurring in the ever-present Now; that unmet needs and undischarged tensions cause stress and, in sufficient quantity, are responsible for mental illness. He recognized that some people live perpetually in the past, ruminating about "what I should have done ... what I should have said," or blame history (their parents, friends, spouses, or society) for their lack of present-day fulfillment. Others miss out on life's riches by being future-oriented—always preparing and daydreaming for a tomorrow that never occurs—like the donkey who walks toward a carrot that always remains dangling two feet in front of his head. Anxiety was similarly described by Fritz as "stage-flight," wherein an anxious, fearful person is speculating about some future challenge instead of savoring the moment.
In his work, Fritz tried to teach people what is, for he knew that without full awareness of ourselves, we cannot lead fulfilled lives. No person can attend to his wounds unless he is aware of his hurt. No man can discharge his tensions if he is oblivious of his anger. No woman can satisfy the needs of the flesh if she is unaware of her sexual appetites.
Fritz's Gestalt Therapy focused upon the never-ending moment-to-moment interaction between man and his environment. Whereas Freud, with his concept of libidinous energy, postulated that sex was the main motivating factor behind most of life's activities, Fritz simply assumed that the organism is always striving for homeostasis—seeking to take in things from the world that it needs in order to be in balance and seeking to discharge things when it is overloaded.
To appreciate the challenge such self-evident concepts posed to his psychoanalytic colleagues, one need only cite the remark of Maria Bonaparte, one of Freud's disciples, upon reading the manuscript of Fritz's first book, Ego, Hunger and Aggression, in 1940.
"If you don't believe in the libido theory anymore," she said, "you'd better hand in your resignation."
Gestalt thinking led Fritz to realize that there was more to existence than Freud's twin motivating forces of Eros (sex) and Thanatos (destructiveness, the anti-life force). As he wrote in Ego, Hunger and Aggression:
"Attempts have been made to enumerate and classify instincts. Any classification which does not consider the organismic balance, however, must needs be arbitrary, a product of the specific interest of the classifying scientist.
"To be entirely exact, one has to recognize hundreds of instincts and to realize that instincts are not absolute, but relative, depending on the requirements of the respective organism."
Fritz referred to "incomplete Gestalts" instead of "instincts," need systems that required satisfaction. He also recognized that completing a Gestalt was no end in itself, but merely allowed the next Gestalt to emerge. Thus, a thirsty man desires a drink before he wants a woman. And after his woman, he feels driven to make an important telephone call that he has thought about all day.
For people to be in balance, to discharge tensions, to meet their needs requires, firstly, that they recognize their bodily yearnings. Too many of us, in the course of growing up, have lost touch with our own myriad impulses. We are taught, through our parents or our subculture, that certain urges make us unlovable. Yet, the impulses don't go away. Instead, we develop tics to hide our aggression, ulcers to mask our competitiveness, indifference to disguise our longing for love, propriety to avoid our sexual lusts, or phobias to deny our desire for independence. Rather than recognize our needs and tensions as our own—the better to fulfill or discharge them—we have learned how not to accept them. What we do, instead, is project our needs onto others, attributing to them what we ourselves lack.
Thus, timid people who always fear verbal or physical attack have usually disowned part of their aggressiveness. The other person becomes the angry one and not me. The "heman" who accuses gentler people of being "sissies" invariably denies his own softness and tenderness. The "professional" old maid, who spies on young girls and their beaus and condemns their "immorality," disowns and projects onto others her own sexuality. As does the bully who beats up young men with long hair for being "faggots" after projecting his own untolerated homosexuality onto them.
Gestalt Therapy offered people a chance to recognize and accept their projections as their own feelings, so as to be able to fulfill themselves, discharge their tensions, and thus be ready for subsequent challenges and responses. Adopting some simple techniques from psychodrama, Fritz had his patients playact at being those people or things that they complained about. In the process, they often came to appreciate that "I am you," expand their acceptance of self/other, and lead a richer and less troubled existence.
Like other existentialists, Fritz tried his best to minimize concepts and maximize phenomenology. He knew that concepts were nothing more than interpretations of events. Phenomenology, on the other hand, restricted itself to a description of things you could touch, feel, taste, see, or hear. "Lose your mind and come to your senses" was a phrase that he liked to use.
In his work, Fritz paid attention to the obvious, as a good phenomenologist might. He read the language of the body with an uncanny accuracy. He attended to the sound of your voice as much as to your words. If you said "I love you" in the same tone that you order cheesecake in a restaurant, he might confront you with that, have you playact your voice—describe yourself as your voice—so that you might recognize how bereft of feelings you were.
His therapy aimed at synthesis, not analysis. It was immediate and dealt with what was occurring in the Here and Now—not with events that had occurred in a distant childhood. It offered passion, drama, and confrontation in place of psychoanalytic detachment. It was a psychology of experiences, not words.
"If you write a book about Fritz," said Wilson Van Dusen, a West Coast phenomenologist who brought Fritz to California in 1959, "you must emphasize what things were like when he turned up on the scene. We were all imbued with psychoanalysis, we must get an extensive history of the person. We were all basically retrospective, strongly retrospective in both our analysis and therapies. We couldn't conceive of understanding a patient without an extensive history. And for a man just to walk into a room and describe people's behavior so accurately added a whole new dimension. This is where I considered Fritz very great. His incomparable capacity to observe. He could see all that he needed to see in the present. He often said, 'I'm only trying to see the obvious. You're sitting in this way and the implications of this are ...' It was dealing right here on the surface, the skin, the obvious. Yet, all you needed to know was there. The patient's history would only elaborate—repeat again—what you are seeing now.
"This was illuminating. At the time, I was well into existential analysis. I was drifting in the general direction of the Here and Now. We had gobs of existential psychological theory from Binswanger, Minkowski, Heidegger. But here was a man who could put into practice a rather tortured theory. So, naturally, I studied and learned as much as I could from him."
Fritz was strongly committed to the idea that all external controls, "even internalized external control—'you should'—interfere with the healthy working of the organism." Freud called this internalized external control the Superego. Fritz referred to it more colloquially as the "Topdog."
"Many people," he wrote, "dedicate their lives to actualize a concept of what they should be like rather than to actualize themselves. This difference between self-actualizing and self-image actualizing is very important. Many people only live for their image."
Excerpted from Fritz by Martin Shepard. Copyright © 1975 Martin Shepard. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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