Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Dark Coil in contact with Gestalt Therapy - Second Entry

Disclaimer: In this entry, I will only talk about Gestalt therapy, not about the Dark Coil or Warhammer 40.000. If you want to skip this part dedicated to Gestalt therapy and rather read about its psychological concepts while they are being applied to Fehervari's 40k fiction, you can opt to jump ahead to the third entry.

A short history of how this article came to be as well as an incomplete summary of the psychological school of thought known as Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy was something that only entered my life at a relatively late point in time.

I studied Psychology at university and finished my Master’s degree in late 2017. I had the plan of becoming a therapist or a researcher afterwards and had aligned my Masters courses accordingly. During my Masters, I had started a project in my free time that combined training for my dream profession with my personal hobby interests: writing a psychological, quasi-scientific analysis of Warhammer fiction. This became Stories told by Monsters, my analysis of Josh Reynolds’s novels about Fabius Bile and Lukas the Trickster through the lens of Narrative Therapy. You can read the finished piece, re-arranged as a multi-part article series, here on this site. Writing it was a very rewarding process back then and I’m still proud of the piece of work that resulted from it.

Later, due to various circumstances and developments, I distanced myself from the idea of doing a PhD or entering the training program for cognitive-behavioural therapy. Looking for a new direction, I talked to a friend from university who had been receiving training as a Gestalt therapist for some time. He introduced me to the concept of this school of therapy and connected me to the trainer of his institute. Talking to her, I got interested enough to take up her offer of visiting the first training session with the new training group. I became convinced that I had found something worthwhile and fascinating and joined the training for good in late 2018. By the time I'm writing this, the final year of my training is about to start. It has been quite the journey.

When writing Stories told by Monsters in 2017, I had ideas for “sequels” and “spinoffs” - other analyses of different Warhammer stories in a similar vein, but through lenses of other schools of therapy. I was (and still am) fascinated by the works of Irvin D. Yalom about Existential Psychotherapy and wanted to write an extensive, four-part analysis about several different novels with his work as the theoretical foundation. I started writing this in 2018 and finished most of what was supposed to become the second chapter, but never went further than that. (I plan to take this mostly-finished piece and repurpose it as a stand-alone article on this site at some point, so stay tuned)

Fire Caste was supposed to be a part of this analysis, but I never went deeper than collecting a few spare thoughts and possible angles for analysis. It seemed a bit daunting, to be honest, to analyse it - it seemed more complex and harder to dig into than, say, the Horus Heresy- and Primarchs-stories that I had otherwise lined up for the analysis and I didn’t know if I could do it justice. But as I said, I put the project on hold anyway and life went its way without it.

Fast-forward to 2022, and here I am with renewed vigour to write something that combines psychology and Warhammer, two passions of mine, one of which I’m lucky enough to be able to do as a full-time job. And while I still think Fire Caste and the Coil as a whole are rich grounds for analysis through the lens of Existentialism and Existential Psychotherapy, I just don’t feel like returning to my work from four years ago.

Rather, I want to engage with the Coil alongside the school of therapy that has become most influential in my development as a professional and, indeed, as a person: Gestalt therapy. So here we are.

Before I get into the places where the Dark Coil, the process of therapy in general and the attitude and concepts of Gestalt therapy specifically meet and come into contact, I’ll give you a short introduction as to what Gestalt therapy actually is and what it is used for.

Ever since Sigmund Freud created the foundations for modern psychotherapy at the start of the 20th century, the field of psychological practice and thought has blossomed into a garden of variety for different schools of therapy: Freud’s own psychoanalysis, C.G. Jung’s depth psychology, cognitive-behavioural therapy, systemic therapy, narrative therapy, existential therapy, and many, many others, not to mention that every branch of psychotherapy, once established, has also been continually developing, growing and fracturing over the years.

All of these variations in therapeutic practice and thinking have, in essence, the goal of understanding human thought, emotion and behaviour as well as helping people overcome suffering, solve problems and achieve more happiness in life. But around this shared goal, the differences are fundamental:

When we look at different approaches to psychotherapy, we are actually not looking at interchangeable strategies, techniques, or interventions. Each approach has its own set of theoretical, ethical, relational, and structural assumptions. And each set of assumptions leads to and even dictates the role of the therapist and the nature of the relationship between the therapist and the client. (Cohen, 2014)

Each approach to psychotherapy has its own view on the nature of psychological problems, its own ideas of cause and effect, its own methods, a different attitude towards the role of the therapist, the therapeutic relationship and the question of human development. Of course, the individual therapist is not beholden to follow “their” school of therapy to the letter, not to mention that, most often, therapists explore more than one therapeutic framework over the years of their life-long training and development as professionals. There’s as much variety in individual attitude and style as there are therapists.

Gestalt therapy as a school of therapy and was developed in the 40s in reaction to Freudian Psychoanalysis, in which most of the founding parents of Gestalt therapy had originally been trained. The most prominent name in terms of Gestalt therapy is certainly Frederick “Fritz” Perls, but while Perls towers above his peers in terms of visibility and prominence, he was far from alone in shaping Gestalt therapy into a unique, cohesive, and blossoming form of therapy.

So what is, you know, Gestalt therapy's whole deal?

Laura Perls, another founding parent of Gestalt therapy (who was married to Fritz), explained in her "Comments on the New Directions" (first published as part of The Growing Edge of Gestalt Therapy in 1974):

The German word "Gestalt" is untranslatable into a single English term. It covers a multitude of related concepts like countenance, shape, form, figure, configuration, structural entity, a whole that is something more than, or different from, the sum of its parts. A Gestalt stands out from the background, it "exists," and the relationship of a figure to its ground is what we call "meaning." If this relationship is tenuous or nonexistent, or if, for whatever reasons (cultural, educational), we are unable to recognize and understand it, we say: "It doesn't make sense." It is absurd, bizarre, meaningless.

Whatever exists is here and now. The past exists now as memory, nostalgia, regret, resentment, fantasy, legend, history. The future exists here and now in the actual present as anticipation, planning, rehearsal, expectation and hope, or dread and despair. Gestalt therapy takes its bearing from what is here and now, not from what has been or what should be. It is an existential-phenomenological approach, and as such it has to be experiential and experimental. Thus talking "about" Gestalt therapy is really quite contrary to the philosophy of Gestalt.

The actual experience of any present situation does not need to be explained or interpreted: it can be directly contacted, felt and described here and now. Gestalt therapy deals with the obvious, with what is immediately available to the awareness of client or therapist and can be shared and expanded in the actual ongoing communication. The aim of Gestalt therapy is the awareness continuum, the freely ongoing gestalt formation where what is of greatest concern and interest to the organism, the relationship, the group or society becomes Gestalt, comes into the foreground where it can be fully experienced and coped with (acknowledged, worked through, sorted out, changed, disposed of, etc.) so that then it can melt into the background (be forgotten or assimilated and integrated) and leave the foreground free for the next relevant gestalt.

So what does that mean in practice? The core idea is that, ideally, there’s a free flowing stream of awareness from one moment to the other, which allows for the free generation of Gestalten - what’s actually relevant for you in mind, body and soul - which you can contact, experience and move through to “close the open Gestalt” and be open and receptive for the next one.

For example: You become aware of a slight queasiness in your stomach; you identify it as hunger; immediately, your perception of your environment will adjust so you become more aware of features that relate to your current “open Gestalt” (being hungry) and less aware of those that are irrelevant to it; you identify possibilities to fulfil your need as well as hindrances to that; you begin to move, approach something that will fulfil your need, grab it, bite it, chew it, swallow it, savour it. Your hunger is sated, it retreats in the background, the Gestalt is closed and gives way to the next Gestalt formation.

But over the years, people develop blockages or disruptions in their process of Gestalt formation: needs become inhibited, actions become prohibited, awareness becomes censured.

[...] Each person is in some way off-centered; that is, his aegis over his own action has been delegated to someone else. Each person is in some way, as close as we can put it, off-centered. He's not a responsible, spontaneous source of his own activity. Somehow that has been delegated to his environment. In some ways his awareness of the world has been blocked. [...]

Now the goal of therapy in Gestalt is to develop people's awareness about what's really happening to them, what they really want, what they're really striving for, wherever the organism is looking, wherever its attention is drawn. The goal of therapy is to make this possible by somehow giving the person back his own aegis over himself; his own re-centering of his powers; finding out why he blocks his perception, why he's not looking there. "Why are you not looking there? Don't you see that? It's obvious that person is smiling at you. Why do you think they are frowning?"

There was an excellent case reported by a therapist of a woman who was in psychoanalysis for three years, and for three years the psychoanalyst smiled at her when she came into therapy, and she thought for three years that he had been frowning. And then she said, "Oh, you're smiling today!" -- the third year. And he said, "But I always smile!" She said, "You mean you've been smiling for three years?" "Yes." "Oh, my gosh." In other words, she had seen him for three years as a frowning man because her parents trained her to think of herself as being frowned upon.

The organism perceives the world as it is trained to perceive it. Gestalt tries to cut through this, as I said , by letting people discover in practice their own activities in the world, giving them back possession of themselves, possession over their own motives, finding out what is unconscious to them, what they're doing unbeknownst to themselves. That's what I think is the whole point of Gestalt: take people who are conditioned and automatic and put them in some kind of aegis over themselves. (Ernest Becker, 1970)

Let me try to summarise: Gestalt therapy, like other forms of therapy, seeks to alleviate suffering, help overcome problems and facilitate personal growth. It does so by focusing on the Here and Now of the therapeutic setting - the therapeutic relationship and the form of contact that is made between client and therapist are its primary tools of analysis and change. As Paul Goodman wrote in the opening paragraph to the foundational Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951):

[...] it is the contact that is the simplest and first reality.

How and for what reason the client makes contact with the therapist in the therapy session is something that can be directly experienced, analysed and worked with as fertile ground for the therapist and the client to explore and understand the client's usual mode of making contact with other people, other objects and, perhaps most importantly, themselves outside of the therapeutic setting. In short:

Gestalt therapy postulates psychological illness and health are interwoven with how a person gets in touch or interrupts contact with self, others, the environment, and the spiritual field. (Dr. Youssef John Kayyali, 2018)

Gestalt therapy is experiential, which means it focuses on creating room for new experiences that broaden and sharpen the awareness of the client towards themselves and their life rather than just relegating them to the role of a passive receiver of explanations. Another aspect of this is that Gestalt therapy is experimental, which means that it aims to create a room for the client to explore and experiment with their emotions and behaviour, again to facilitate awareness by making discoveries for themselves about themselves rather than just being told by an authority figure how and why they work that way. To quote Fritz Perls:

I am convinced that the awareness technique alone can produce valuable therapeutic results. If the therapist were limited in his work only to asking three questions, he would eventually achieve success with all but the most seriously disturbed of his patients. These three questions are 'What are you doing?' 'What do you feel?' 'What do you want?'

Processes in Gestalt therapy are also usually comparatively slow and long. It's a careful nurturing of exploration and growth in the tempo of the client rather than a quick operation to erase symptoms. To quote Perls again:

Don't push the river, it flows by itself.

This is in part grounded in the Gestaltist attitude towards resistance: rather than handling resistance purely as a hindrance to therapeutic progress that has to be dismantled on the way to dissecting the clients psychodynamics, Gestalt therapy appreciates resistance as a tool on the clients part that was, at least at some point of their life (and often still is), a necessary tool for protection and survival. So even if resistance furthers suffering, blocks growth or creates problems in the here and now, it has to be explored and experimented with with an attitude of care and respect. The client has a right to avoid looking at what they're not prepared to face.

There's a great focus in Gestalt therapy to give responsibility and therefore agency back to the client rather than allowing them to hand it over to another authority figure, this time in the form of the therapist. Exploration and discovery through experiments is supposed to help the client appreciate their own modes of being as something that is actively created, to experience their inner workings and resistances as ultimately being created by themselves in the here and now.

We hear the patient first depersonalize himself into "it" and then become the passive recipient of the vicissitudes of a capricious world. "I did this'' becomes "It happened." I find that I must interrupt people repeatedly, asking that they own themselves. We cannot work with what occurs somewhere else and happens to one. And so I ask that they find their way from "It's a busy day" to "I keep myself busy," from "It gets to be a long conversation" to "I talk a lot." And so on. (Fritz Perls)

This doesn't mean that symptoms and suffering are merely a choice on part of the client and can be "switched off" after enough therapy or that the client is solely to be blamed for their sufferings persistence - that's simply not how humans and the world work - but rather that clients learn to experience themselves as active survivalists that are still capable of experimenting with and maybe even changing some of their automated modes of being.

And sometimes therapy has already been worth it if, to paraphrase one of my teachers, we have simply (but never easily) learned to live more in peace with our own craziness.

There's a story one of my teachers told me about a client of hers who, despite being capable of swimming, suffered from an inability to enter deep bodies of water - as soon as he lost the ground under his feet, he got a panic attack. By careful exploration, he began to view his symptoms in the context of his past experiences as a child growing up in a violent dictatorship, where it was a question of life and death for him and his family that he kept at all times air-tight control over what he was talking about to whom. One slip, one careless mention of the smallest kind of transgression, even in front of other children, could have meant torture and death for everyone he loved.

So he learned to be alert at all times, to be in control at all times, as a necessary tool for survival. And even as an adult living in a different country, far removed in space and time from the dangers of his past, that deep-seated fear, although repressed and almost forgotten, never left him entirely, and certain situations - like losing the ground under his feet when swimming - made it rise to the fore again. Avoiding these situations was a way for him to avoid a drowning wave of terror, a way of protecting the part of himself that was still the frightened child of his youth.

According to my teacher, at the end of their therapeutic process, her client still couldn't - wouldn't - swim in deep waters. But he now realised what he was doing that for and decided that, here and now, it was an acceptable price to pay for his peace of mind.

There’s more to say about Gestalt therapy - much more, as it has by now been around for the better part of a century - and I still didn't really explain many of its fundamental concepts: the contact boundary, different forms of disruptions of contact, Martin Buber’s I-Thou philosophy, the model of the layers of neurosis, the importance of aggression, the 'hot chair', Perls’ dream work, and all the other aspects and ideas that form up the Gestalt of this form of therapy…

But that was not the goal of this article anyway. I titled this entry 'an incomplete summary' because that's what it is. And that is enough.

So this shall suffice for now. I will probably return to some, maybe even many, of these concepts in the following entries, when I look at the Dark Coil through the lens of Gestalt therapy.

Or maybe I won't. I'll just see where the river takes me to.

The spiral turns: Continue here with the third part.

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