Contact and Awareness in Gestalt Therapy Theory
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The Gestalt Centre and London Metropolitan UniversityDiploma in Professional DevelopmentModule Number: PC6100GSStudent ID Number: 15042100Word Count: 2196Date of Submission: January 13 2016Contact and Awareness are central concepts in Gestalt Therapy Theory. Discuss this statement using Gestalt Theory, drawing on appropriate references and illustrating your understanding with examples from your own experienceIntroductionAs Yontef relates in Awareness, Dialogue and Process, “Gestalt Therapy Theory is a phenomenological-existential therapy […] draw[ing] from the phenomenological method of awareness, in which perceiving, feeling and acting are distinguished from interpreting and reshuffling pre-existing attitudes (1993: 123). Contrary to classical psychoanalysis, GTT is process-oriented: it focuses on what is being done, felt and thought at any given moment, rather than the content of a person’s utterances. Contact and awareness lie at the heart of this process. When we become aware of what we are doing and how we are doing it we gain more meaning from our interactions, which enables us to evolve and learn to accept and value ourselves. What is Contact?Contact encompasses not just the physical act of touching but also the metaphorical idea of touch, such as being in touch with current trends or having the magic touch for healing aches and pains. Contact is the essence of human life, an encounter with what we might term ‘the other’. It is how we engage with and relate to the world. Through contact we grow and form our identities. As Yontef explains, “it is the experience of boundary between ‘me’ and ‘not me’” (1993: 126). It is precisely the existence of a “boundary” between organism and environment that makes the concept of contact so critical in GTT. This boundary is essentially a liminal concept – it cannot be said to belong to one thing or the other. Furthermore, this borderline is continuously changing from moment to moment and challenges the very separation. To illustrate the fundamental fluidity of the contact boundary, Latner compares this meeting with our environment with the shoreline’s meeting of the sand and sea (Latner qtd. in Mann, 2010: 34). Our contact boundaries move along a continuum (Mann, 2010), reaching a point in which they are so permeable that we completely merge with the environment. Perls, Hefferline and Goodman term this “confluence”, while using the opposite term “isolation” to describe the other extreme where we block environmental stimuli (1951: 118). For instance, when my partner and I are at our most intimate our boundaries are so thin they seem almost non-existent; yet when I feel great emotional pain, I tend to put all my walls up to a point of total isolation. The interesting factor about the contact boundary is that it can be partially in awareness at the same time as partially obscured. So if I am distracted from conversation with you because I’ve got something on my mind (the writing of this essay, say) then while my contact boundary encompasses both physical aspects (my perception of you in this moment) and metaphysical aspects (my sense of the work I still have to do), I am adjusting my boundary to modify my contact with you so I can put energy into making contact with my sense of ongoing writing.
What Is Awareness?If contact is the abstract equivalent of the experience of touching, awareness is that of the experience of seeing. With awareness we are able to tune in to our own existence, to determine what is. When we are aware, we are able to self-regulate, taking in what is nourishing and rejecting what is not, consequently growing from our contact with our environment. Contact is a pre-requisite for awareness and while it is possible to have contact without awareness, theorists have pointed out that if awareness is removed entirely, “there is nothing, not even knowledge of nothingness” (Perls qtd in Mann, 2010: 31). Therefore, ‘good contact’ is contact with awareness.To complete this essay, for instance, I make contact with my computer keyboard. But the extent to which I am able to construct meaningful sentences from the letters I am tapping, depends on the degree of awareness I apply to this task. Contacting the keyboard with no awareness might result in it becoming a random collection of letters. Therefore, awareness grounds and energises contact in order to satisfy my dominant present need: to complete this assignment.Just as there are different qualities of contact, so too with awareness, there is a movement along on a continuum comprised of three zones: the inner zone of our physiology and feelings; the middle zone of cognition and self-talk; and the outer zone of the environment (Perls qtd. in Mann, 2010: 96). If we are able to move freely from one zone to another we develop self-awareness. But when we get stuck in any of these zones, then the development is hindered as good contact is compromised. For instance, our class experimented with Perls’ “now I am aware” exercise, spending five minutes tuning into our bodies, minds and the environment around us. I was surprised by how difficult this was, as I kept getting stuck in the middle zone, where self-talk dominated the experience. Nonetheless, I did notice how much more enriched my sense of physical self, sound, smell and sight became. I have since used this phenomenological process of focusing awareness in my private therapy sessions, to contact emotions I find difficult to access. I was able to reach into a sinking feeling in my stomach and imagine what it looked like. I described a big ball of black tar and I realised this represented shame. I had never fully connected to any emotion quite like that before, which brought me to tears. But has this added dimension of awareness improved my quality of life? To answer this, we must first investigate how contact and awareness affect the formation and completion of what Perls calls “experiential units” or gestalts (1969: 35).