This article published in The Gestalt Journal, 23(1) 2000, pp God, Buber, and the Practice of Gestalt Therapy. Edwin S. Harris, Ph.D. - PDF

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This article published in The Gestalt Journal, 23(1) 2000, pp God, Buber, and the Practice of Gestalt Therapy Edwin S. Harris, Ph.D. * Introduction In recent years significant advances have been
This article published in The Gestalt Journal, 23(1) 2000, pp God, Buber, and the Practice of Gestalt Therapy Edwin S. Harris, Ph.D. * Introduction In recent years significant advances have been made in the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy. Contributions such as the integration of Gestalt with Psychoanalytic theory (Jacobs, 1992; Yontef, 1988) and Relational Gestalt Therapy (Hycner and Jacobs, 1995; Yontef, 1999)) have stretched the boundaries of Gestalt theory. And, the expanding applications of Gestalt Therapy continue to influence our clinical work from children (Oaklander, 1978) to the elderly (Woldt & Stein, 1997) and practically every population in between. However, with all the interest in Gestalt theory and practice, very little has been written about how to work with clients who struggle with issues about God** or who could turn to God as a source of healing. This article describes a Gestalt therapy approach to working with such clients. I ve been practicing Gestalt therapy and training therapists for over 25 years yet only the last 10 years have I been working with clients about their God issues. I was working with a gay man in his late 40 s who was HIV positive. He came to therapy to get his life straightened out, to come to terms with HIV, and to learn to take better care of himself. He talked a lot about his loneliness and lack of connection with others. He grieved over his disconnect from the Protestant church, and how, as a gay man, he didn t feel accepted there. I mostly listened. During our time together he talked a great deal about his illness and his regrets, about finding a new community, about healing his old wounds from the church, and about his relationship with God. He talked about God and to God and found a sense of peace and healing. A door was opened for me about what is possible in therapy. I didn t look for it. It found me. * I am deeply grateful to my teachers who have inspired me over the years: Erving Polster, Ph.D., Miriam Polster, Ph.D., Joseph Zinker, Ph.D., Sonia Nevis, Ph.D., Robert Resnick, Ph.D., Robert Martin, D.S.W.( of Blessed Memory), Rabbi Susan Talve, and Rabbi James Goodman. I also thank Joe Wysong who encouraged me to write this article, and Shelly Fredman who edited my work. ** In this article I will use the word God rather than the commonly used pronoun He. Although this could result in some awkward sentences, I believe it is important to use gender-neutral language when talking about God. 2 Concurrently, I was on my own spiritual path, deeply involved in the formation of a new Jewish congregation in St. Louis. Judaism came alive for my family and me. I serve as the lay cantor in my congregation and I substitute for the rabbi when she is unavailable. When I lead services I bring, and am able to tap into, my Gestalt therapist self and, when I m in my office, I do the same with my spiritual self. Recently, I ve begun to offer workshops and training for therapists interested in bringing a spiritual dimension to their clinical work. What started out, in the Fall of 1997, as a 15-week course ended in the Spring of 2000 as a three-year program on the integration of spirituality and psychotherapy from a Gestalt perspective, mostly because the therapists had a hunger for spiritual talk in their lives and work. I believe it s true for other therapists as well. However, despite all my enthusiasm, I realize this work is not for everyone. Some clients and therapists will gravitate to it, others won t. This paper reflects a small portion of what s possible. Research About Belief in God When clergy members tell us that it s good for us to believe in God, we might dismiss it because it s their job to say so. When medical researchers say that faith or belief in God is good for our health, one might want to take notice. That s exactly what s happening. Recent polls suggest that 95 percent of Americans believe in God and 76 percent pray on a regular basis (Benson, 1996; Chopra, 2000); one poll showed over 70 % of patients believe that spiritual faith and prayer can aid in recovery from illness. (Richards and Bergin, 1997, p.86), and, Clay found that faith may boost mental health. In summarizing studies that examined people s view of God, Clay found: People who feel angry toward God, believe they re being punished for their sins or perceive a lack of emotional support from their church or synagogue typically suffer more distress, anxiety and depression. In stark contrast are people who embrace the loving God model. These people see God as a partner who works with them to resolve problems. They view difficult situations as opportunities for spiritual growth. And they believe their religious leaders and fellow congregation members give them the support they need. The result? They enjoy more positive mental health outcomes. (1996, p.1) In other research individuals who perceive God as warm, caring, and dependable reported less loneliness, anxiety and depression and more general life satisfaction than those who either perceive God as cold, vengeful, and unresponsive or those who weren t certain about their trust in God (Clay, 1996) Herbert Benson, M.D., author of The Relaxation Response (1975) and Timeless Healing (1997) cites research that linked religious commitment to a positive effect on health. Religious commitment includes faith or belief in God and other factors such as attendance at a worship service or membership in a congregation or fellowship community. I object to the term because it sounds as if subscribing to the religion is the 3 key whereas, according to Benson, the most important factor is belief. Some research examined participation in organized religion, other research looked at less publicly practiced beliefs in God (Benson, 1997, p.173). The general conclusion was that belief in God can improve health (Benson, 1997). According to Benson, one researcher (Levin, 1994) reviewed hundreds of studies and concluded that belief in God lowers death rates and increases health (Benson, 1997, p.172). Other studies showed that religious commitment can positively affect quality of life, marital satisfaction, sense of well being, and self esteem (Benson, 1997). Clearly, these results make a strong statement. Even if only a fraction of these findings are true, how can we not consider the implications for our work as therapists? God References in Gestalt Therapy Direct references to God s presence are almost absent in the Gestalt literature. Zinker describes creativity as the presence of God in my hands, eyes, brain in all of me (1977, p.3). Smith, in a delineation of his personal theology states, Whatever force, power or spirit which was involved (in creating life) I can call God God created life The ultimate worship of God is a life abundantly lived. The ultimate praise of God is to embrace life joyously. (1996, pp ) Although God s presence is acknowledged in each quote, little else is mentioned about what clients might be experiencing about God, if anything, and how to access it. There are other references to God but they are secondary to the theoretical points being made by the authors. Polster, in discussing anthropomorphic identification states: The personification of God and the ease thereby gained in the experience of knowing him are monumental entries into the psyche of multitudes of people. (1995, p.11) And, Polster and Polster (1973) tell of working with a young man to help him engage as passionately with others as he did in his conversation with God. These references illustrate important theoretical clinical examples. However, God is not the primary focus, nor has it been in the Gestalt literature. Spirituality in Gestalt Therapy Gestalt Therapy gets a little closer to dealing with issues about God when spirituality is mentioned. Although God and spirituality are not necessarily the same (one s issues, struggles and relationship with God are perhaps a component of one s spirituality), some Gestalt therapists have written about a spiritual dimension in therapy. Hycner describes such a dimension. 4 At the Conference*, there were a number of questions about this being a spiritual approach. Discussing a philosophy of dialogue, talking about the between and mentioning grace places my thought explicitly in a spiritual context. By spiritual, I mean a recognition of a reality greater than that of the sum total of our individual realities, and of the physical and visible world. It is inconceivable to me to steep myself in a dialogical approach without recognizing a spiritual or transpersonal dimension. I feel more and more that in my best therapeutic moments I am present to, and sometimes the instrument of, some spiritual reality. (1990, p.44) Jacobs talks of transcendence in Gestalt therapy when she states, When the full implications of Gestalt therapy are lived through, from the perspective of the I-Thou relation, then I think it is impossible to divorce transcendence-and therefore spirituality-from one s view of the nature of persons, and from the therapy process. (1978, pp ) Clarkson mentions a sacredness that is present in a particular kind of therapeutic relationship. The transpersonal relationship is the spiritual dimension of relationship in is about a kind of sacredness in the therapeutic relationship (1997, p.65) Each of these quotes is a description, from the therapists perspective, of something spiritual happening in the client/therapist relationship. Grace, transcendence, sacredness, and transpersonal, are the authors attempts to describe what they experience. We may not yet have the language to describe accurately this phenomenon, but the authors are describing something extraordinary, something quite special that exists and seems greater than ourselves, Martin Buber and Gestalt therapy The writing of Martin Buber has had, and continues to have a profound influence on the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy. Perls was the first to describe the importance of Buber s (1958) I and Thou relationship in Gestalt therapy although its scope of significance may have been diminished by the popularization of the phrase, I and Thou, Here and Now (Perls,1964; Naranjo,1967). Subsequently, students of Gestalt therapy have gone well beyond the phrase to recognize the importance of dialogue, inclusion, confirmation, presence, and the between in the therapy process, and Gestalt therapists are now writing significant works on the importance of the client/therapist relationship (Hycner, 1985; Hycner and Jacobs, 1995). * 11 th Annual Conference on the Theory and Practice of Gestalt Therapy, Congress Hotel Chicago, May 4-7, 1987 5 Almost all of the Gestalt literature focuses on the person to person aspect of Buber s writings and their clinical applications in Gestalt therapy. There is very little mention in the Gestalt literature of the importance, for Buber, of one s relationship with God and more specifically, how to work with that relationship in therapy. I believe that the next logical step is to look at Buber s writings about one s relationship with God and to see how to work with that relationship in therapy. The Other I-Thou Relationship The other I-Thou relationship is one s relationship with God, and, in some ways, for Buber, this is the most important relationship. Smith states: The question for Buber (is): how may I understand my experience of a relation with God (1958. p.7) By relation with God Buber means an immediate and direct (I-Thou) relationship that is always spontaneous and in the moment. The immediate and direct relationship also involves dialogue. God cannot be spoken of, but spoken to. cannnot be seen, but can be listened to.* The only possible relationship with God is to address (him) and to be addressed by him (in the present). (Kaufman, p.26) Buber refers to God as the eternal Thou and, while the I-Thou relationship is a possibility in one s relationship with another, the I-Thou relationship always applies to a person s relationship to God (Telushkin, 1991). According to Buber one s relationship with God is not a one way relationship. God, too, enters into a relationship with us - through God s acts. God him who whatever else he** may be enters into a direct relation with us men in creative, revealing and redeeming *** acts, and thus makes it possible for us to enter into a direct relation with him. (Buber,1958, p.124) * In Judaism, God is not seen or visualized. God is listened to or heard. The Israelites, when receiving Torah said, Na aseh venishma, We will do and we will hear. (Ex. 24:7) ** Hebrew is a gender based language. Every noun is either masculine or feminine and there is no neutral word it. In the Hebrew language, all the names for God are masculine. *** Creation, Revelation and Redemption are the first three major themes in most Jewish prayer services. 6 Buber and Hasidism Buber was very drawn to the early Hasidic movement that arose during the eighteen century in Eastern Europe. Hasidism was regarded as revolutionary and religiously liberal (Telushkin, 1991, p.214) because it emphasized one s relationships with others and one s own unique, personal relationship with God. Hasidism had a number of teachings that appealed to Buber. The first is that God is in all things. Thus, a divine spark lives in every thing and being (Buber, 1950, p.5). Second, God is in the everyday and in our relationships. This is especially important for Buber. When one person truly meets another, they both encounter God. However, Buber goes on to say, God is not found by fleeing the world to private moments of mystical union; God is met in the social world with its concrete societal demands and ethical duties.revelation as the relation of an I to the eternal Thou is always spontaneous, it always occurs only in the present, and it occurs if one is in a state of readiness to receive it. (Selzer,1952, p.xiii) This might seems like an apparent contradiction to the Hasidic teaching that Buber embraced, that God is found in all things. I think he would say that there is a divine spark (of God ) in all living things but to have a relationship with God, one has to engage through actual immediate encounter with God ( as an external Thou). Buber s comments: But truly though God surrounds us and dwells in us, we never have Him in us (Buber,1958, p.100). This supports the notion that while God might be found in all things, to have a relationship with God means God must be perceived as external and other. I disagree with this apparent dichotomy, and take a less all or nothing stance. My experience and those of my clients is that one can experience God both as an external encounter with a Thou, as Buber describes, and, as an internal experience (the divine spark inside) as a part of oneself. And often the experience with God is not one of a dramatic Wow but of a much quieter still small voice * (Buber, 1950, p.13). Hasidism also emphasized the creative expressions of the heart, through song and dance and the importance of rejoicing in life. Accordingly, rejoicing in the world, if we hallow it with our whole being, leads to a rejoicing in God. (Buber, 1950, p.19) * From I Kings (19:12) (in the Hebrew) Kol d mama dakah, a still small voice. 7 The Eclipse of God One more point needs to be made. Buber suggests that it s not easy to have an I- Thou relationship with God. There is something in our way. Buber believed that modern thinking had become, at best, indifferent, and, at worst, hostile toward having a direct immediate relationship with God. He called this the eclipse of God (Buber, 1952). In effect, contemporary thinking has blocked or eclipsed our access to God. Buber states: In our age the I-It relation, gigantically swollen, has usurped, practically uncontested, the mastery and the rule (of society). The I of this relation, an I that possesses all, makes all, succeeds with all, this I that is unable to say Thou, unable to meet a being essentially, is the lord of the hour. This selfhood that has become omnipotent, with all the It around it, can naturally acknowledge neither God nor any genuine absolute which manifests itself to men as of non-human origin. It steps in between and shuts off from us the light of heaven. (1952, p.129) The Eclipse of God was first published in Almost 50 years later, Robert Coles,in The Secular Mind, makes a very similar point. The secular mind in the past lived side by side with the spiritual interests and yearnings of millions, a sacred mind. In recent centuries that secular mind has itself experienced a transformation. Once an alternative to entrenched religious life, that secularity became an aspect of individualism, as societies became less and less dominated by church life, more and more capitalistic in nature. (1999, pp ) So what are we to do? It is difficult enough to know what to do to have a direct and immediate encounter with another person. I think it is even more difficult to know how to experience this with God. Yet it seems to be a basic need for many of us. And, Buber doesn t exactly give a set of instructions. He does, however, quote Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk who, when asked, Where is the dwelling of God?, replied, God dwells wherever man lets him in (Buber,1950, p.40-41). One way to help our clients to let God in (and maybe help to bring an end to the eclipse of God as well) is to offer, within the safety of the therapeutic relationship, an opportunity for our clients to explore their relationships with God. Some methods of exploration follow. Difficulties Asking and Talking about God One of the major difficulties with God is the word itself. It is probably one of the most overused words in our language and yet, there is no clear or common meaning. Quite simply, God means different things to different people. Perhaps we can identify with the one time childhood view of God as an old man with a long, gray beard in heaven. Beyond this, each of us has our own image or sense of what God is or is not. Then, there is the emotional charge of the word, God, arguably one of the most loaded words in the English language. Many shudder when God references find their way into politics, education, and professional sports. Others contend that such a personal belief or 8 expression should be reserved for private moments within oneself or in church or synagogue where such language is more acceptable. Also, our traditional images of God as jealous, angry, and judgmental are not very useful and the images of God as compassionate and good are difficult to reconcile with such tragedies as the Holocaust. In addition, Biblical language which anthropomorphizes God, reduces God to a human-like entity and can bring about one s skepticism ( I don t believe that God really spoke to Moses ). Finally, the masculine language can alienate women whose energies are divided between a spiritual search and a need to work through the difficult imagery created by stories and language with a patriarchal bias. In addition, clients and therapists may have specific difficulties voicing the subject of God. I have found that clients are reluctant to talk about God or spiritual issues because they fear the therapist will not accept them or the issue. Clients may also be reluctant because they believe in a kind of societal dichotomy - therapy happens in the office or clinic; God/spirituality/religion happens in church or synagogue. Therapists often have the same belief. Also, some therapists report that they want to be respectful of clients privacy so they don t ask about God or spirituality. They also don t ask because they think the client doesn t want to talk about God although this is often the therapists projection. Some therapists say they feel less expert in spiritual/religious matters and are thereby uncomfortable with the content. Finally, for some clinicians that work in agencies, there may be a mandate or policy that limits what can be asked or w
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