Healing in the Here and Now: Buddhist Mindfulness in Gestalt Therapy

Since the emergence of Freudian psychoanalysis in the nineteenth century, psychotherapy has burgeoned into a discipline offering various approaches aimed at the maladies of the mind. Among these many branches, Humanistic Psychology in particular has bequeathed to us Gestalt therapy, a unique treatment modality whereby the patient is encouraged to exist in the here and now. Privileged by the diversity surrounding its origins, Gestalt therapy’s emphasis on an acute awareness of the present moment owes much to the parallel concept of mindfulness in Buddhism. As such, one witnesses in Gestalt the successful therapeutic application of a central Buddhist paradigm bearing immense psychological impact in an otherwise Western milieu.

Owing its establishment primarily to the German-Jewish couple of Fritz and Laura Perls, both noted psychoanalysts that had to emigrate from their homeland amidst the proliferation of the Nazi regime, Gestalt differed from its psychoanalytical progenitor through a focus on interfacing with the patient as a whole, rather than spooling out only specific aspects for consideration; perhaps this is why the Perls chose ‘Gestalt’, a German term connoting form and wholeness, when labeling their brainchild. Indeed, as Yontef notes,

 “Gestalt therapists aim to meet and understand the patient rather than to move the patient in any particular direction. The gestalt therapy version focuses more on the immediacy of how the patient functions moment-to-moment and on what is happening in each moment between therapist and patient and less on content (story, history, reinforcement schedules, etc.). . .[because p]eople do not change by trying to be who they are not. . . Trying to be who one is not is a disowning of oneself or denial of aspects of the self and leads to internal conflict and prevents wholeness and organismic change. The paradox is that the more people try to be who they are not, the more they stay the same. . .[True c]hange occurs with self-recognition, self-acceptance, owning, and healthy interpersonal contact.”

And according to Greenwald, “In Gestalt therapy, there is no preconceived concept into which an individual should fit. There are no goals as to how he ‘should’ be, nor is there a fixed concept of what a mature person is like. The emphasis is on growth through self-discovery― becoming aware and experimenting with what fits and what does not fit the unique self of each individual.” Winghart likewise broaches that “. . .Gestalt therapy is primarily a core attitude with three aspects: actuality (to be here and now), awareness, and responsibility. . .[but] awareness. . .is more than a technique or a tool. It is also a prescription with direct therapeutic value in itself, and an ideal, an aspect of ‘good’ living.”

Given the transformative power of such newfound awareness, one cannot help but descry from Gestalt the selfsame undercurrents also present in spirituality. After all, Gestalt therapy’s goal of altering the patient’s entire macrocosm, through reorientation of the way he or she views the world, bears much more in common with the spiritual traditions than psychological techniques circumscribed to altering specific problem behaviors as they emerge. For as Williams states,

“Having the awareness to experience and to examine self in this multidimensional way begins to open our minds, bodies, and hearts to Ultimate Reality or Spirit. . .[and thus m]any spiritual traditions have meditations, prayers, and rituals that incorporate multidimensional awareness and experience. Because of the fundamental principles of valuing awareness and awareness cultivation, another prevalent aspect of Gestalt therapy is being open to whatever arises in the present moment in an intentional and nonjudgmental way. This quality of awareness is similar to concepts from major spiritual traditions. For example, in Buddhism, mindfulness is a key agent of change. . .Cultivating awareness is a Gestalt goal that can facilitate identification of wants and needs while at the same time helping the person identify how they prevent themselves from getting their needs met. Similarly, in the Buddhist view, mindfulness helps us to break unhealthy habits that cause suffering, which then enables us to liberate ourselves from our own conditioning.”

It’s in this aspect, then, that Buddhism’s influence comes to the forefront of Gestalt therapy.

The utmost attention should be drawn first to the fact that Perls actively sought information on Buddhism prior to the birth of Gestalt. Woldt informs us that

“Fritz Perls went to Japan to learn about Zen, a synthesis of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoist principles. Zen meditation is a process of emptying the mind in order to experience satori, or enlightenment. No philosophical discourses are involved in Zen training. Rather, the Zen master directly points to the ‘Buddha nature’, by pointing to what-is. . .so [one] may become able to perceive the ‘suchness’, the ‘thisness’ of what-is in the present moment. A person who can perceive ‘this’ will be ‘instantaneously enlightened’ and experience satori. [And b]ecause Gestalt is an experimental and holistic approach to ‘what-is’, the experiences in therapy are not ‘about’ what-is but are actual lived experiences that have the power to alter how clients live their lives beyond [emphasis added] the therapeutic context. One of the major ways in which Zen has had an enduring influence on Gestalt therapy is, therefore, in the emphasis on the primacy of the here and now.”

This experiential approach must have definitely appealed to Perls who, as a psychoanalyst himself, realized how the limitations of his own training “played directly into neurotics’ problem, which was to substitute thinking for action, and thus contributing to their remaining ‘stuck’.” An equivocal understanding of psychoanalysis’ caveats, culled from experience, can even be found in everyday life― if one merely ponders on how to work a problem, rather than working on it, then he essentially dooms himself to a grueling, demoralizing process of failures. So, with a personal encounter of Buddhism and its present-centered focus etched into his mind, Perls gave this outlook vivifying potential amidst Western psychotherapy via its incorporation as a centerpiece of Gestalt’s modus operandi.
Having traced its subsumption into the matrix of Gestalt therapy, it would be prudent now to define mindfulness in its original Eastern context and as practiced through Buddhism. Brazier indicates that “[s]mriti is generally translated as ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness is often taken to mean awareness but can also describe the practice of keeping the Buddha in mind. In this context, what is being described is an experience of perception without grasping. When linked to the senses, smriti involves holding an object in reverent attention.” This notion is buttressed by Rahula’s statement that “[r]ight mindfulness (or attentiveness) is to be diligently aware, mindful and attentive with regard to (1) the activities of the body (kaya), (2) sensations or feelings (vedana), (3) the activities of the mind (citta), and (4) ideas, thoughts, conceptions, and things (dhamma).” And since right mindfulness is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Path, it is intricately linked not only to the Four Noble Truths as Magga but also to the foundations of Buddhism itself. After all, the Buddha came to understand Dukkha not by diverting his attention from his surroundings or the present but by embracing them while divested of any mentally disfiguring attachments. Naranjo, himself a well-respected practitioner of Gestalt therapy, writes that “[i]n Buddhism, the now is not merely a spiritual exercise but the condition of the wise. In a passage of the Pali Canon, Buddha first utters the prescription: ‘Do not hark back to things that [have] passed, and for the future cherish no fond hopes. The past was left behind by thee, the future state has not yet come’. And then the ideal: ‘But who, with vision clear, can see the present which is here and now, such [a] wise one should aspire to win what never can be lost nor shaken.”

For the Buddhist adherent, modeling a life after the Buddha, practice of mindfulness encompasses a central role in interacting with the world. By proxy, manifesting those principles invokes a self-fulfilling concatenation because one must be mindful to exhibit the state of mindfulness― an endeavor invested in its own fulfillment, rather than any extrinsic rewards.

“[An] aspect of mindfulness practice is to have awareness of what you do. This means being present in your actions. When you wash dishes, you [emphasis added] wash dishes. Feel the hot water in the bowl, enjoying the sensation as it runs through your hands and the colorful bubbles as they catch the light. . .This aspect of mindfulness practice involves being present in the moment and opening your mind to an appreciation of all the things that have come together to enable that moment. It also reminds you to give your attention to the physical world, thus creating opportunities to become more grounded and more in contact with real things,”

Brazier coaxes in a section devoted to evincing mindfulness under practical settings.

Shifting our attentions back to the inextricable link between Buddhist mindfulness and Gestalt, Naranjo further solidifies this connection with the statement,

“The cultivation of here-and-now awareness in Gestalt therapy goes hand in hand with another issue underlined by traditional psychologies, Buddhism in particular. Let us call it openness: to be aware of what is given here and now in our experiential field. This involves a basic gesture of allowing― an indiscriminate acceptance of experience, which may be said to involve in turn a relinquishment of standards and expectations. . . One of these is what Fritz Perls called, after S. Friedlander, ‘creative indifference’. By this he meant the ability to remain in a neutral point, disengaged from the conceptual or emotional polar opposites at play in every moment of awareness.”

But even if the correlation of the two may seem almost obvious today, Dryden states that “[t]hroughout [the] period from 1945 to the present, there were increasing attempts to find common ground between Buddhism and psychology or psychotherapy. Initially these were at a relatively abstract or speculative level.” This is no more apparent than with the emergence of mindfulness as a term in the Western psychotherapeutic lexicon, for as Dryden continues,

“Mindfulness is now the commonly accepted translation of the word sati, from the Pali, which is the language in which the early Buddhist texts were written down, including the discourses in the Suttas. . . But it was only after some debate around 100 years ago that the word ‘mindfulness’ was chosen as the best rendering. Sati is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit smrti, which is usually translated ‘memory’. But sati also carries the connotation of attention, and to capture this complex of meanings one of the translators into English of the Buddhist Pali texts, had originally chosen ‘self-possession’ as the best translation in English. Eventually he settled on ‘mindfulness’ and this carried the day.”

Now, as aforementioned, Perls was concerned with creating a therapeutic model which gave experience and practice preeminence over thinking and the theoretical. To that end, mindfulness is cultured and expressed through a variety of methods. Naranjo emphasizes that

“[t]here are at least two ways in which present-centeredness is reflected in the technical repertoire of Gestalt therapy. One is the outspoken request to the patient to attend to and express what enters his present field of awareness. This will most often be coupled with the instruction to suspend reasoning in favor of pure self-observation. The second is the presentification of the past or future (or fantasy in general). This may take the form of an inward attempt to identify with or relive past events or, most often, a reenacting of the scenes with gestural and postural participation as well as verbal exchanges, as in psychodrama.”

Complementing Naranjo’s words, Greenwald explains how

 “[these two] ‘ground rules’ in Gestalt therapy constitute an invitation to the person, if he is willing, to accept a certain attitude in working with the therapist. . .[but f]ollowing the ground rules in a mechanical manner, or dutifully playing ‘good patient’, is in itself a negation of the philosophy of Gestalt therapy. The purpose of the ground rules is to create an atmosphere and attitude toward working in therapy that lead to greater awareness of the reality of oneself and how one interacts with others, and how one functions in the here-and-now. The ground rules are intended to enhance awareness and make obvious what a person does that is his authentic self and what he does that is phony, manipulative, or avoids being his own person. This emphasis on increased awareness is intended to confront the person with the full responsibility for all of his behavior, to increase authentic self-expression and relating, and to minimize self-deceptive, evasive, self-frustrating and meaningless behavior.”

Bringing this analysis to its conclusion, one should clearly see how the cross-fertilization of Buddhist thought and Western psychotherapy, engendered by Fritz Perls, has led in large part to the idiosyncrasies of Gestalt therapy. The fact that Gestalt champions so fervently this idea of being in the present is a testament to the influence Buddhism had on its origination; this truth becomes all the more poignant when one realizes at the time of Gestalt’s birth that, while Buddhist traditions cherished the here and now from antiquity, the Western world was still strangled by a belief in the hedonism of focusing solely on the present well into modernity. As illustrated through its repurposing by the Perls, Buddhism possesses an outlook with actuating potentials for liberating the mind. As such, the knowledge obtained can ultimately aid one not only through a system of beliefs but also as path through which mental health can be substantially improved. It is a similar pathway of mental freedom, I believe, which Gestalt therapy likewise offers to patients thanks to its measured syncretism with Buddhist thought.



Works Cited


Brazier, Caroline. Buddhism on the Couch: From Analysis to Awakening using Buddhist Psychology. Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2003.

Dryden, Windy, and Arthur Still. “Historical Aspects of Mindfulness and Self-Acceptance in Psychotherapy.” Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 24.1 (2006): 3-28.

Greenwald, Jerry A. “The ground rules in Gestalt therapy.” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 5.1 (1972): 3-12.

Naranjo, C. Gestalt therapy: The attitude and practice of an atheoretical experientalism. Carmarthen: Crown House, 2000.

Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. 2nd ed. New York: Grove Press, 1974.

Williams, Lynn. “Spirituality and Gestalt: A Gestalt-Transpersonal Perspective.”    Gestalt Review 10.1 (2006): 6-21.

Winghart, Olivier. Effects of Buddhist meditation on Gestalt therapists: a qualitative study. MA thesis. University of Derby, 2008. Accessed 14 May 2010. <http://zen-      terapi.se/old/Uppsats.pdf>

Woldt, Ansel L., and Sarah M. Toman, eds. Gestalt therapy: history, theory, and practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2005.

Yontef, Gary. “The Power of the Immediate Moment in Gestalt Therapy.” Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 37.1 (2007): 17-23.