Monday, October 31, 2005

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Life is a Series of Gestalts by Saralee Sky

“Our life is basically…an infinite number of unfinished situations – incomplete gestalts. No sooner have we finished one situation than another comes up.” (Frederick Perls) A gestalt is an ultimate experiential unit, a whole. The physical world maintains itself in terms of gestalts, for example, water consists of the gestalt of two hydrogen units combined with one oxygen unit. Split the hydrogen away from the oxygen and you no longer have water.

The human organism is also composed of gestalts: physical, mental and emotional. Our physical body is composed of many gestalts: a circulatory system, a digestive tract, a muscular system, etc. The mind thinks in terms of gestalts. We puzzle over a problem until we have solved it. The alphabet is a meaningless list of letters until the letters are combined in patterns to form words and sentences. Emotionally we need to complete an experience – a gestalt - in order to move through it and continue on with our life. We anticipate our birthday and get increasingly excited as the day approaches. Then the big day arrives. We have a party, play games, open presents, eat cake. Whether the day will live up to our expectations determines whether we will feel happy or sad when the day – and the gestalt - is over.

We can rely on the wisdom of our organism to present the most pressing unfinished gestalt to our consciousness. Let’s look at a little baby for an example. The baby is hungry and so she cries. The mother interprets her cries correctly and offers her breast. The tears stop as the baby quenches her hunger. She is happy and content for a time. A short while later the baby cries again. Mom knows she has just nursed so she looks for some other reason for the tears and discovers a very wet diaper. Mom changes the diaper and the cries stop. The baby is left alone to play in her crib and is happy for a time until she becomes lonely or tired. She cries again and Mom picks her up and rocks her to sleep in the rocking chair. The physical warmth and nearness of her mother is soothing and satisfies the baby’s need for nurturing. Contented, the baby falls asleep. These examples show the ebb and flow of unfinished, then finished gestalts.

Once an unfinished gestalt has achieved completion, it will recede to the background and another unfinished gestalt will soon arrive to take its place in the rhythm of life. The need for completion is so very basic to our ability to grow and thrive as a human organism that it cannot be over emphasized. If a gestalt is unable to be completed, it will present itself again and again until it is completed.

Here is a physical example: A little boy is playing happily in the sand box when he gets the urge to pee. This need to urinate competes with the need to continue to play in the sandbox. At first both gestalts compete for the little boy’s attention, but gradually the need to pee becomes uppermost in the little boy’s mind. He must complete this gestalt, either by running to the bathroom or by peeing in his pants. He chooses to run to the bathroom. Now that gestalt is complete. It recedes into the background and the desire to play again becomes uppermost in the little boy’s mind, until he gets hungry and wanders inside looking for something to eat, and so it goes.

Here is a mental example: A woman sits in the living room doing a crossword puzzle. She moves along quickly putting in the answers she knows for sure and leaving blank the ones she is unsure about or doesn’t know. She returns again and again to the ones she is unsure of, getting most of them. Still, a quarter of the puzzle remains undone. She chooses to set it aside until the next day, when her mind is sharper. The desire to return to the puzzle surfaces from time to time throughout the day until she has the time to sit and work on it. When she sits down for the second time she is able to complete the puzzle and also the gestalt. The puzzle recedes into the background leaving room for a new activity.

Here is an emotional example: A little girl must go to day care so that Mom can work. She misses her mom a lot throughout the day and is cranky by the time Mom picks her up in the evening. Mom has to run errands on the way home which makes the little girl even crankier. She has a “melt down” in the grocery store and cries and cries because Mom won’t let her eat a candy bar before dinner as they shop. Mom realizes that the little girl is simply at the end of her emotional rope. She stops the cart in the middle of the aisle and says “You look like you could use a hug. Come here, sweetheart.” Mom picks up the little girl and just holds her as people move around them in the aisle. The little girl feels loved and valued and soon calms down. They finish their shopping and go home.

As infants, we need to receive love, nurturance and support from our parents. When we do, we see the world as safe and inviting. As children we look to our parents to have our needs respected and addressed. When they are we see the world as a place where needs will be met and experiences – no matter how painful – can be learned from and put to rest. As parents, the more we are able to help our children complete all the gestalts that come up in their lives: physical, mental or emotional; happy, sad, or momentous; the healthier and more present-centered our children will be as they grow into adults. Gestalts that are completed as they happen will recede into the background of our lives and be forgotten. A completed gestalt may also become a memory, but one that no longer holds a lot of emotional charge.

So, what happens when a gestalt is not able to be completed? What happens to an unfinished gestalt? It will continue to resurface in a person’s life until it is completed. It will pull the person’s attention and awareness away from the present and into the past; or it will use up energy in the form of avoidance as the person tries not to deal with or be aware of the unfinished situation.

Let’s examine some possible unfinished gestalts from a person’s childhood. A little baby cries and is eventually picked up and fed and changed. Then the baby is put back in his crib. Soon he cries again – he is tired and lonely. No one picks him up. He’s allowed to cry himself to sleep again and again until eventually he stops crying and learns to go to sleep on his own. As he grows up he is rarely hugged or nurtured. Physical needs will be met, but not emotional needs. He grows up cold and unable to express his emotions but has no idea why.

A little girl spends her days in day care and her evenings running errands with her mother. Whenever she cries and makes a fuss she is yelled at by her mother in front of strangers and even punished – no treat, no dessert, certainly no hugs. She grows up feeling unloved and unlovable and goes from partner to partner, never getting her needs met for love and nurturance. Her partners say nothing they do is enough.

Again and again in the lives of these two people the unfinished gestalts will resurface and demand completion. Once the man realizes how he was never encouraged to express himself emotionally as a child, he can express his rage or grief for that little child. He will gradually be able to get in touch with his emotions as an adult, and all the energy spent in not feeling anything will be freed up to be used in the present in whatever way the man chooses. Once the woman realizes that she feels unlovable and needy as an adult because her emotional needs were never met as a child, she will be able to express her sorrow for the little girl that she was and gradually become the woman she wants to be, loving and lovable.

The key in both of these examples is putting attention together with awareness. Frederick Perls says: “Awareness – by and of itself – can be curative.” Once a person becomes aware of an incomplete gestalt in his life, he will be unable to ignore it until he takes steps to complete it. We all expend a lot of energy trying not to face up to our incomplete gestalts from our childhood. But once we begin to pay attention to what our inner Self is trying to tell us, we can heal old wounds and live much healthier and happier lives.

Situations will continue to emerge that remind us of incomplete gestalts from our past. Once we choose to put our attention and our awareness on these situations, we will be able to get to the root of the problem and express the unmet need or emotion that has been lurking all these years. Sometimes therapy is needed to help work through the resultant feelings welling up from the re-opened wound. But in the end, the result will be a freeing up of energy, a new zest for life and a more present-centered awareness. “We can rely on the wisdom of the organism.” (Perls)

Saralee Sky, M.A., has 30+ years of experience with children, as a mother and grandmother, as a therapist for abused children, as the director of three nonprofit agencies serving children, and as co-owner and manager of Womb To Grow LLC and Babynut provides natural, organic and alternative products for pregnancy, adoption, childbirth, parenting, babies and toddlers.