Awareness and the question of change through therapy

Contributed by Steve Vinay Gunther

People generally seek therapy is as a result of some kind of disatisfaction with their life. Something is uncomfortable, unworkable, painful or stuck, and they come wanting help. International relocation often creates dislocation internally, and also in relationship. Lives that were previously relatively stable become disrupted, and cracks in marriages often get bigger in the process. Even if incomes increase and there is more help available, unfinished business and resentments tend to come to the surface.

There are many different approaches in therapy to providing help for people. Some are goal oriented, and involve an analysis of ‘what is the problem, what is the solution, and how can we get there’. This seems straightforward, and can indeed be of value.

The approach I find useful takes a different tack. Gestalt therapy is based on is based on the Western philosophy of Existentialism, and the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. In this orientiation you dont get to the goal of change by pointing directly at it. This is because often the reason you are stuck is not through lack of effort of trying. Think pf diets – many people try hard to lose weight – and it seems very straightfoward: eat less, exercise more. But people can get caught in cycles of ‘trying to change’: making progress, then slipping back, ‘despite oneself’. In that sense, good intentions and powerful techniques are not enough.

The Gestalt approach that I favour utilises awareness; more specifically, awareness of ‘what is’. In ordinary terms, this means a focus on who you are – not who you could be, should be, might be, or want to be. Who you are is about your uniqueness, incorporating both your strengths and limitations. Who you are also includes the unique personal context you come from – the family and culture you were raised in.

Helping you to know yourself more deeply makes you more available to yourself (strong self support, a clear inner compass), and clearer on being in relationship. You are able to know and express your boundaries – what you are and are not available for. You are also able to step into deeper intimacy, as self awareness results in having more to offer in relationship.

This leads to an increased capacity to live authentically. The result is a greater sense of meaning and purpose, self direction, and inner power. Living more fully with awareness can be understood as the goal of the Gestalt orientation. Change may occur as a result; however, it happens naturally, as an expression of ‘who you are’ rather than coming from the outside.

Another aspect of this  Gestalt way of working is that the therapy process is not so much about the therapist ‘working on’ helping the client improve. Its a journey which involves deepening relationship. The therapy relationship reflects the experience of other relationships, and through the clarity and steadiness of the therapist, this can be a healing process. Familiar road blocks are likely to arise; in this case, they can be worked through, clearing the way for this process to occur in other relationships in the client’s life.

This requires self knowledge and awareness on the part of the therapist, and a willingness to also be transparent. The therapist is not a receptacle of expert knowledge, as much as a companion and guide on the journey. This is challenging for therapists – to not just facilitate and ask questions, but to also reveal themselves in order to bring the experience of shared humanity to the process.

In this work with awareness and relationship, I also bring to bear a kind of ‘creativity of the moment’. Rather than using preset ideas, techniques or formulas (great as they might be), my interest is in developing unique ‘experiments’, where we explore new ways of doing things in the session itself. This moves us beyond ‘talk therapy’, into experiential learning. The therapist’s role is to balance support and challenge, to maximise the opportunity for client learning.

I also pay attention to ‘the field’ – the larger systems that we are all embedded in. Understanding interconnectedness (for instance, the influence of generations of family patterns) helps to make sense of current behaviour, feelings and thoughts. Most of us lose our balance at times, behave strangely or inappropriately for the circumstances. When you look at context, such behaviour makes sense. So Gestalt therapy addresses not only individual expreience – I also want to understand the ways in which family, culture and religion might influence a person. This is also a component of the awareness approach to self development.

I also apply this orientation to working with couples. A couple is not just two individuals, its also a system, with its own history, and ‘personality’, including unique strengths and limitations. So I pay attention to the ‘how’ of a couple in terms of their interaction, much more than the ‘what’ of the content of their issues. In this way, I can help increase awareness of their process, which takes the focus away from individual tendencies to blame and point the finger. It removes me from the role of judge and jury, or expert advisor, and instead allows me to work with the couple in terms of understanding their uniqueness, and exploring together ways to strengthen the undeveloped aspects of their interactions.

I find this orientation constantly refreshing – I never get bored, tired, or lose interest. I feel like I am on the journey with clients, and their discoveries are just as delightful for me. This is a result of another aspect of Gestalt: the ‘creative void’, or in Taoist terms, the ‘Wu Wei’, the ‘effortless effort’. Whilst this sounds somewhat mystical, in fact it simply refers to an ability to be still, to be with things as they are without the need for change or reform. It requires me to be open, interested and attentive, without trying to fix or solve anything. It frees me to enjoy the process, and frees the client from any kind of pressure to change. I find this approach takes us very deep, very quickly, and the resulting explorations involve us working together as co-explorers of awareness.

Author: Steve Vinay Gunther

Steve Vinay Gunther is an international Gestalt trainer, teaching in Asia (Japan and China),  South Africa, Mexico and the US. He ran a professional Gestalt program in Australia for several decades, and now offers the training in China.

He wrote a best selling book for men about relationships with women (Understanding the Woman in Your Life). He works as a therapist in the fields of Gestalt, Family therapy, Career Coaching and Family Constellations.

Steve has practiced and studied meditation, spirituality and psychotherapy over a 40 year period, and has brought these topics together in a integrative meta model. He is currently Professor of Spiritual Psychology at Ryokan College, Los Angeles.

With his wife, he has pioneered an arena of relational psychology termed The Unvirtues. He is currently enrolled in a doctoral program in Social Ecology, researching the topic of the interpersonal psychology of power.