Gestalt Associates Blog

Richard Shrobe

Every Day and Every Moment

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“Flowers in Springtime, Moon in Autumn, Cool Wind in Summer, Snow in Winter. If you don’t make anything in your mind, for you it is a good season.”I often use this poem to teach both new and more experienced Zen students. Quite often, when I ask a student during a private Zen interview to read the poem, I see a spontaneous smile or “Aha” reaction emerge, and a kindling of the student’s “faith mind” or original confidence. It’s as if he or she were saying, “Yeah, the True Way is like that.”

The central point of this poem is essentially a restatement of the third and fourth of the Four Noble Truths, i.e., that there is an end to suffering and that there is a way or path of practice which actualizes the end of suffering. “If you don’t make anything in your mind, for you it is a good season.”

The poem comes from Case Nineteen of the Mu Mun Kwan and is titled “Everyday Mind is the Path.” The case is an interchange or dialogue between Zen Master Nam Cheon and his student JoJu, who later became a great Zen Master in his own right. At the time of this Dharma combat JoJu is still an inexperienced student. He asks Master Nam Cheon, “What is the true way?’ Nam Cheon responds that “Everyday mind is the true way.”

Then, there follows a series of questions by JoJu and answers by Nam Cheon which, one by one, undo JoJu’s conceptual orientation. For example, JoJu asks, “Then should I try to keep it or not?” Nam Cheon responds, “If you try to keep it, already you are mistaken.” Finally, Nam Cheon exclaims, “If you completely attain the true way of not thinking, it is like space, clear and void. So why do you make right and wrong?” At this, JoJu got enlightenment.

In the case, there is only talk of the Mind of no thinking, clear and void like space. The poem emphasizes how one with such a mind functions in contact with time, part of the phenomenal world, which is indicated by the four seasons. In a few words, it demonstrates a non-clinging way of being/becoming, a way of encountering the events of life. In this sense, it is in accord with Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching of “Don’t make anything, don’t hold anything, don’t attach to anything. Then you will realize that you have everything.”

And a similar point is made in Zen Master Yun Men’s case in the Blue Cliff Record, “Every Day is a Good Day” (Case Number Six):

Yun Men, instructing, said, “Don’t ask me before the fifteenth day of the month (Borom). After Borom, you must bring me one word.” He answered himself, “Every day is a good day.”

Our teaching in the Kwan Um School of Zen proceeds from “every day is a good day” to “every moment is a good moment.” So a number of important questions for practice appear from the four seasons poem and Yun Men’s case.

1. How can you demonstrate the meaning of, “if you don’t make anything in your mind, for you it’s a good season?”

2. What is the true meaning of “Every day is a good day?”

3. How can you demonstrate your understanding of “every moment is a good moment?”

And finally: A good season, a good day, and a good moment, how are all of these different? Which one is the best?

Alan Cohen

What Is Awareness?

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Awareness is the central element in any approach to psychotherapy or human behavior, but it is likely the most neglected aspect when it comes to our inquiry. In psychoanalytic theory, “awareness” was seen as being synonymous with “consciousness”, but was not defined as a phenomenon. Instead, focus was put on two other elements: the defenses against awareness (resulting in “the Unconscious”); and “insight”, which was seen as an illumination, an understanding of the explanation for the problems or life issues of the patient. Insight was a focus on content, even though it might be accompanied by emotion. But awareness itself was not discussed. In cognitive therapy, focus, again, is put on the content of thought. The effort is on illuminating irrational content and substituting functional content. Awareness itself, however, is taken for granted. It is as if we are so concerned about where we drive, and how we drive, and the route we take, that we forget that we are in a car! While our daily destinations may be important, attention to the vehicle itself may prove to have some significant impact on all of our journeys! Gestalt therapy was devised as a therapy which placed a focus on awareness. This brought our focus to the transient present moment – which is the only time that awareness can occur. We speak of contacting the present moment, through a flow of ever-changing objects of awareness. I may be aware of a need, and as soon as it is satisfied (and I am aware of the experience of satisfaction), I become aware of the next “figure”, or object of awareness. Awareness is constant, even though what we are aware of is constantly changing. Regardless of the content, regardless of the vibrancy (what Gestalt therapy calls “good contact”), regardless of the emotion, awareness itself is constant. So, what is awareness? Curiously, even Gestalt therapy neglects to be clear about that question. It is taken as a fact, as something that “occurs in contact”, but is not defined beyond that. But, this is where meditative traditions have much to offer us: awareness is the constant energy that underlies our consciousness, regardless of content, regardless of functionality or irrationality, regardless of culture. Awareness itself is the constant in a field of constant change.

Arleen Maiorano

Gestalt Therapy and Imago Relationship Therapy: an Interface

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As a Gestalt Therapist, also trained in Imago Relationship Therapy, I am struck by the profound influence of the philosopher Martin Buber on both these theoretical approaches.  In 1923, Buber wrote “I-Thou,” a radical essay on the relational nature of existence, postulating that we are always in relation and that the “I” is always affected by, and emerging in relationship to the “Thou.”  Buber made a distinction between two types of interpersonal relationships, the “I-It”, necessary for survival, in which we use each other to meet pragmatic and emotional needs; and the “I-Thou,” necessary for personhood, in which we have an authentic experience of our partners in dialogue, understanding and honoring their “otherness,” and attempting to appreciate their experience as well as our own.  Buber is most interested in the process of meeting, or the “between.”  This is the sacred space that is created between two individuals as they meet at the boundary of contact and attempt to look at and experience the world through the other’s eyes.  The essence of gestalt therapy is to maintain our awareness of this space, as we work with our clients.  Similarly, the essence of Imago therapy is to teach couples how to become aware of and honor this space, in their ongoing interactions with each other.

Gestalt therapists work toward what Buber calls inclusion, the attempt to experience what the client is experiencing, from his/her side of the dialogue; and toward confirmation, the acceptance of our client’s feelings and behaviors, and the recognition that they cannot, in any given present moment, be any different than they are.  In an attempt to help couples achieve inclusion and confirmation toward a partner, often extremely difficult during those moments when needs or perceptions differ, and/or when childhood feelings are triggered, Imago therapy outlines a structured process in which each partner takes turns listening to the other, almost adopting a quasi-therapeutic stance.  Rather than engaging defensively and reactively, each partner is “heard” by the grace and generosity of the other.

This process is called the Imago Couples Dialogue, and it consists of three processes: mirroring, validation and empathy.   Mirroring is the process of reflecting back the “content” of a message from a partner. The most common form of mirroring is paraphrasing, a statement of your understanding of the message a partner has sent.  It indicates a willingness to be curious about and to accurately reflect back your partner’s perception of feelings or events, along with a willingness to temporarily suspend your own need to share your version of what might have occurred. Validation is a communication to the sending partner that you understand how the information being received and mirrored “makes sense,”  indicating that you can see your partner’s point of view and can accept its validity—its “truth” for the partner.  To validate your partner’s message does not mean that you agree with it, or that it reflects your subjective experience. It merely recognizes the fact that in any communication between two persons there is a subjective way of “seeing” which is the “truth” for each person, sometimes influenced by deep-seated “knowing” or “learning” based on prior (especially early childhood) experiences. It also recognizes that no “objective view” is possible.  Empathy recognizes the “self” in the other. It is the process of reflecting, imagining or participating in the feelings the sending partner is experiencing about the event or the situation being reported. This deep level of communication attempts to recognize, reach into and, on some level, experience the emotions of the sending partner. This allows both partners to transcend their separateness, even if only for a moment, and to experience a genuine “meeting.”

Gestalt Therapy and Imago Relationship Therapy have one other very important thing in common:  despite the profound philosophical ground that they both inhabit, they are both very practical.  Gestalt Therapy is well known for offering an “experiment” at the end of a session, a bit of “homework” that allows the client to practice a new attitude or new behavior.  Similarly, the last step in the Couples Dialogue is the Gift or Behavior Change Request, in which each partner commits to a positive behavior change: one specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-limited action that addresses each partner’s unmet need or desire.  Both theoretical approaches recognize that action is just as important as awareness and, in fact, creates the ground for growth, as each person experiences the triumphs or difficulties that emerge in the trying on of new behaviors.