Self in Gestalt Therapy.

(from "Buddhism and Primal Pain" by Frederick M Farrar)

"Imagine a dance full of grace and joy. What is the situation in such a dance? Do we have a summation of physical limb movements and psychical consciousness? No. One finds many processes which in their dynamical form are identical regardless of variations in the material character of their elements." - Wertheimer.

"...From a formal point of view, Freud's calling the unconscious mental was not necessary. In the physical and psychological theory of the Gestaltists we see that meaningful wholes exist throughout nature, in physical and conscious behaviour both, in the body and mind. They are meaningful in the sense that the whole explains the parts; they are purposive in that a tendency can be shown in the parts to complete the whole. Quite apart from consciousness, such intentional wholes occur with formal similarity in perception and behaviour in any event, and this is all that is required to speak of 'symbols'."

"Every contacting act is a whole of awareness, motor response, and feeling - a cooperation of the sensory, muscular and vegetative systems - and contacting occurs at the surface-boundary in the field of the organism/environment.

We say it in this odd way, rather than "at the boundary between the organism and the environment", because, as previously discussed, the definition of an animal involves its environment: it is meaningless to define a breather without air, a walker without gravity and ground, an irascible without obstacles, and so on for every animal function. The definition of an organism is the definition of an organism/ environment field; and the contact-boundary is, so to speak, the specific organ of awareness of the novel situation of the field, as contrasted, for instance, with the more internal "organic" organs of metabolism or circulation that function conservatively without the need of awareness, deliberateness, selection or avoidance of novelty. In the case of a stationary plant, a field of organism/soil, air, etc, this in-ness of the contact-boundary is fairly simple to conceive: the osmotic membrane in the organ of interaction of organism and environment, both parts being obviously active. In the case of a mobile complicated animal it is the same, but certain illusions of perception make it more difficult to conceive...The illusions...are simply that the mobile wins attention against the stationary background, and the more tightly complicated wins attention against the relatively simpler. But at the boundary, the interaction is proceeding from both parts.

(The verbal embarassments here are deep in our language. Consider the confusion of usual philosophic speech in this context when we say "inner" and "outer". "Inner" means "inside the skin", "outer" means "outside the skin". Yet those who speak of the "external world" mean to include the body as part of the external world, and then "internal" means "inside the mind", inside the mind but not inside the body.)

Now again, as Freud and especially William James pointed out, consciousness is the result of a delaying of the interaction at the boundary...And we can see at once that consciousness is functional. For if the interaction at the contact-boundary is relatively simple, there is little awareness, reflection, motor adjustment, and deliberateness; but where it is difficult and complicated, there is heightened consciousness. Increasing complexity of sensory organs means that there is need of more selectivity, as an animal becomes more mobile and adventures among more novelties. Thus, with increasing complexity we may conceive of the series: phototropism becomes conscious seeing, and this becomes deliberate attending; or osmosis becomes eating and this becomes deliberate food-taking."

"Experience occurs at the boundary between the organism and its environment, primarily the skin surface and the other organs of sensory and motor response. Experience is the function of this boundary, and psychologically what is real are the "whole" configurations of this functioning, some meaning being achieved, some action completed. The wholes of experience do not include "everything", but they are definite unified structures; and psychologically, everything else, including the very notions of an organism or an environment, is an abstraction or a possible construction or a potentiality occurring in this experience as a hint of some other experience. We speak of the organism contacting the environment, but it is the contact that is the simplest and first reality.

...Where the organism is mobile in a great field and has a complicated internal structure, like an animal, it seems plausible to speak of it by itself - as, for instance, the skin and what is contained within it - but this is simply an illusion due to the fact that the motion through space and the internal detail call attention to themselves against the relative stability and simplicity of the background.

...psychology studies the operation of the contact-boundary in the organism/environment field...When we say "boundary" we think of a "boundary between", but the contact-boundary, where experience occurs, does not separate the organism and its environment; rather it limits the organism, contains it and protects it, and at the same time it touches the environment. That is, to put it in a way that must seem odd, the contact-boundary - for example the sensitive skin - is not so much a part of the "organism" as it is essentially the organ of a particular relation of the organism and the environment.

...Let us understand contacting, awareness, and motor response, in the broadest sense, to include appetite and rejection, approaching and avoiding, sensing, feeling, manipulating, estimating, communicating, fighting, etc, - every kind of living relation that occurs at the boundary in the interaction of the organism and environment. All such contacting is the subject matter of psychology.

Envisaging an animal freely roaming in a spacious and various environment, we see that the number and range of contact-functions must be vast, for fundamentally an organism lives in its environment by maintaining its difference and, more importantly, by assimilating the environment to its difference; and it is at the boundary that dangers are rejected, obstacles are overcome, and the assimilable is selected and appropriated. Now what is selected and assimilated is always novel; the organism persists by assimilating the novel, by change and growth.

...all contact is creative and dynamic. It cannot be routine, stereotyped, or merely conservative because it must cope with the novel, for only the novel is nourishing...On the other hand, contact cannot passively accept or merely adjust to the novelty, because the novelty must be assimilated. All contact is creative adjustment of the organism and environment. Aware response in the field (as both orientation and manipulation) is the agency of growth in the field... psychology is the study of creative adjustments...abnormal psychology is the study of the interruption, inhibition, or other accidents in the course of creative adjustment.

...anxiety, the pervasive factor in neurosis [is] the result of the interruption of the excitement of creative growth (with accompanying breathlessness).

...since the real is progressively given in contact, in the creative adjustment of the organism and environment, when this is inhibited by the neurotic his world is "out of touch" and therefore progressively hallucinatory, projected, blacked-out, or otherwise unreal.

...The process of creative adjustment to new material and circumstances involves a phase of aggression and destruction, for it is by approaching, laying hold of, and altering old structures that the unlike is made like.

...Contact, figure/background formation, is a mounting excitement, feelingful and concernful; and conversely, what is not concernful, present to one, is not psychologically real. The different genera of feeling - eg. pleasure or various emotions - indicate altering organic involvement in the real situation. There is no indifferent, neutral reality. The modern epidemic scientific conviction that most or even all of reality is neutral is a sign of the inhibition of spontaneous pleasure, playfulness, anger, indignation, and fear (an inhibition caused by such social and sexual conditioning as create the academic personality).

...Emotions are unifications, or unifying tendencies, of certain physiological tensions with favourable or unfavourable environmental situations, and as such they give ultimate indispensable (though not adequate) knowledge of the objects appropriate to needs, just as aesthetic feeling gives us ultimate (adequate) knowledge of our sensibilities and their objects. In general, concern and the excitement of figure/ground forming are immediate evidence of the organism/ environment field. A moment's reflection will show that this must be, for how otherwise would animals have motivations and strive according to their motivations, and yet be successful, for success comes by hitting the reality.

...Concern is felt for a present problem, and the excitement mounts toward the coming but as yet unknown situation.

...Let us call the "self" the system of contacts at any moment. As such, the self is flexibly various, for it varies with the dominant organic needs and the pressing environmental stimuli; it is the system of responses; it diminishes in sleep when there is less need to respond. The self is the contact-boundary at work; its activity is forming figures and grounds.

We must contrast this conception of the self with the otiose "consciousness" of orthodox psychoanalysis which has as its function merely to look on and report to the analyst and cooperate by not interfering. And accordingly the revisionist para-Freudian schools, for instance, the Reichians or the Washington School, tend to reduce the self altogether into the system of the organism or the interpersonal society; strictly speaking they are not psychologies at all, but biologies, sociologies, etc. But the self is precisely the integrator; it is the synthetic unity as Kant said. It is the artist of life. It is only a small factor in the total organism/environment interaction, but it plays the crucial role of finding and making the meanings that we grow by.

The description of psychological health and disease is a simple one. It is a matter of the identifications and alienations of the self: If a man identifies with his forming self, does not inhibit his own creative excitement and reaching toward the coming solution; and conversely, if he alienates what is not organically his own and therefore cannot be vitally interesting, but rather disrupts the figure/background, then he is psychologically healthy, for he is exercising his best power and will do the best he can in the difficult circumstances of the world. But on the contrary, if he alienates himself and because of false identifications tries to conquer his own spontaneity, then he creates his life dull, confused, and painful. The system of identifications and alienations we shall call the "ego"."

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All the above quotes are taken from "Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality" by Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, The Julian Press, 1951, (currently published by Souvenir Press, 1994).

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