Gestalt Associates Blog

Alan Cohen

How Do We Experience?


As you read this page, you are experiencing. You may be experiencing interest in what may unfold before you, or you may be experiencing skepticism about the value of what this person has to say. Or you may be experiencing your sore back. Or hunger… In all of these cases, there is a focus of interest or need that both draws your attention, and serves as a lens through which your experience is formed.

In this forming of awareness, the way you experience yourself and the way you experience the world is created. The external object of perception is not the primary shaper of experience, since the same object can be experienced very differently by different people. What creates the meaning of the experience are the attitudes, beliefs, needs, and world view of the perceiver. So, in the process of contacting the present moment, awareness is brought to some object of awareness (figure), which may be external (e.g. this blog entry) or internal (e.g. hunger) and is given meaning by the background (e.g. personal history, biases, cultural environment, zeitgeist, etc). Our emotions, then, are felt responses to the relationship between the figure and the background. So, a glass of water would have very different meaning, and would evoke a very different emotional response from a man struggling in the desert, than from a man sitting in a restaurant. And their response to the water (figure) would be a function of the degree of need or interest that the figure/ground relationship elicited. We are constantly forming such figures in relation to a (personal, environmental, cultural, economic, etc) background. As soon as that particular figure (object of awareness) passes, it is replaced by another. More likely, there are numerous figures occurring simultaneously, and “competing” for primary focus. This process allows us to address the dominant need of the moment, whether in relation to physical survival, emotional safety, pleasure, or whatever, and to thereby maximize the survival and growth of the person.

Arleen Maiorano



I’ve been asked to talk a little bit more about triangulation, so  here goes. Let’s begin where I left off, with Harville Hendrick’s question:  “Would you rather be right or be in a relationship?”  The most serious problem with triangulation is that it is often an attempt to enlist friends, colleagues and/or family members in our quest to be “right” when we feel “wronged.”   There is often strength in numbers, so when we feel powerless we seek allies.  We act outside of the relationship, instead of inside, which is the only place where healing communication can take place.

Most of us know the intense feelings that overcome us when we are in the midst of a fight with a romantic partner, a parent, a boss, or any other figure with whom we have an intense and often dependant relationship.  Aspects of these relationships often trigger, or in the case of a parent re-trigger, a confirmation of our world view that we are being unjustly treated, unfairly accused, ignored, devalued, etc.  We then feel a combination of self-righteousness, powerlessness, and rage, and this is often felt by both parties, each feeling “right” and each feeling “wronged,” an escalation that can happen so quickly that we find ourselves unable to respond with awareness and good judgment.

In Gestalt Therapy, we would call this emotional place of “rightness” a polarity: we tend to re-create and re-experience early family dynamics in our relationships, continually finding ourselves stuck in one side or the other, often having the same fight with the same person with the same words, as if we are in a Shakespearean play and we have memorized our lines.  We tend to go to our friends and colleagues after these moments, to confirm our sense of injustice.  But, paradoxically and sadly, we then also confirm our belief that we are powerless; that the world is unfair; and that the people we love will always let us down.

This is at odds with the Gestalt/Relational perspective which is based on the premise that we most fully embrace our authenticity in relationships, and facilitate mutual healing, when we meet someone at the boundary of contact. We then can attempt to understand our partner’s perspective and invite him/her to understand ours; even more important, we can attempt to understand the mutual and co-created dynamic that emerges from our interaction. The two wounded inner children can meet, and instead of fighting for survival in the only way they have known, they can begin to collaborate and build a safer and more caring partnership which acknowledges and validates the feelings of both partners.  This is the ultimate healing potential of a relationship: we get a second chance to be part of a loving and supportive partnership, instead of repeating what we have always known and being disappointed all over again.  We get to do it a different, better way.  We have to talk to each other to do this, however, and not to someone else, unless that someone else has the wisdom to be empathic to both sides and send us back to our relationship to do the work that needs to be done.  But, to be clear, then we would not be triangulating.

Richard Shrobe

Zen and Psychotherapy


  …From a Dharma talk at Dwight Chapel,
ale University

Q: An issue has come up lately in discussions about Zen meditation practice and psychotherapy which seems to be a different way of getting at the same things.

Do I just sit with something and let it dissolve or is it better to sit and talk about it in a psychotherapy situation?

A: People have often asked me this question. I wondered at first if they were asking just because I’m a psychotherapist. Were they just indulging their intellectual curiosity? It felt counterproductive to me if that was the reason. But I began to realize later on that the question really, in some cases, was: What is the place of my emotional life in Zen practice? Or, is there any place for my emotional life in Zen practice? Of course, practice may have different kinds of leanings or attitudes connected to it. For instance, there is a fierce approach in Zen practice which is about stripping something away and having the courage to have the props knocked out from under you in order to face certain things. This is to fiercely face the rawness of things without any props. On the other hand, some people approach Zen practice from the viewpoint of acceptance, melting, letting go, warm embracing, and appreciation. That has a different flavor and attitude. The direction of the practice is the same in either case, but the nuance is stated differently.

If someone does not have enough confidence in their direction, and in what they need and how they should proceed, they are influenced by messages such as fierceness or openness or warmth. One teacher may say, “Take hold of the big question fiercely and hold it as if your life depended on it. There is nothing more important than this one big question, ‘What am I?’ or ‘Who am I?’ Grab hold of that and do not let go.” That is the samurai-like attitude of fierceness. On the other hand, another teacher might say, “As soon as you raise the question, already that is enlightened mind.” just let yourself be. What am I? Don’t know. That is it!

Zen practice can be therapeutic, but it is not the same as therapy. A lot of therapies deal with shifting around attitudes, whereas Zen practice primarily heads toward wiping everything clean and seeing what is. Sometimes, people need the help of a therapist to talk things out. If what they are holding is very subtle and specific to a “set-up,” a specific limiting way of being in the world, then they might need someone fairly skilled in spotting “setups” and in helping someone to let go at a pace that is workable and reasonably comfortable. They might also need help in facing why they even feel the need for that set-up! That is what psychotherapy is about. There are many kinds of psychotherapy just as there are many different strains of Zen practice.

“Zen and Psychotheraphy” is excerpted from Open Mouth Already a Mistake, by Richard Shrobe