An experimental life

experimental lifeA few things have been coming together in the past week that have moved my book project back to the foreground of my awareness: the reading of a new text on Buddhist psychology and the gestalt therapy approach, and a few conversations with supervisees and students to name but two. It feels timely that I have a writing retreat in my beloved Normandy planned for just before Easter. I can feel a buzz of excitement, this happens within me when the pursuit of meaning and experience align.

I’ve been reflecting on the common ground of my psychotherapeutic view (that of Gestalt) and the view that holds my world and very being (that of Buddhism). There is much common ground and convergence, but what I am holding figural is the key quality of awareness. In both systems of thought, suffering can be alleviated by becoming more aware of experience – to separate out the stories from ‘what is’ in the moment. In Buddhism, that quality of awareness can be honed through various methods of meditation; in psychotherapy it is the relationship being offered to develop awareness in the client. And in Gestalt psychotherapy, we have a particular method – that of the ‘experiment’.

Most of us when hearing this word will conjure up images of scientists in white coats or memories of chemistry classes at school – I can assure you, there are no test tubes or Bunsen burners in my therapy room! But when I invite a client to “try an experiment”, it can be greeted with a certain look. And, as I often share with students, the way a client responds to this invitation already tells us a lot about client process: those that want to please me and say “yes” (before even knowing what I am going to propose); or those that are already in touch with an emotion and the mere thought of contacting it more deeply is enough to elicit strong awareness (and we don’t need to go further). The key with a gestalt experiment is attitude – both client and therapist need to engage a “let’s just see” curiosity as to what might unfold. Unlike the scientist, the therapist does not hold a hypothesis; the only motivation is to move from talking about to experiencing of.


Fritz Perls, co-founder of Gestalt psychotherapy (along with others including his wife Laura), called the experiment the opportunity for a ‘safe emergency’. With the support of the therapist, the client can safely experience something new; or rather, experience what is currently in the background more figurally, directly. It might be to support a client in contacting their long-held anger. Gestalt therapy can carry a reputation of being all about bashing pillows or screaming to an empty chair – I will not deny that sometimes this IS the case (!). But Gestalt is far from a primal scream type therapy – the aim is to amplify what is being felt and bringing greater attention to it; it is NOT a process for catharsis (although that might be a side-effect). We are not ridding our clients of their feelings, but more helping them realise them. Creating and holding a space for the safe emergence of something new.

Gestalt experiments are often really really simple…

“Can you say that sentence replacing the ‘but’ with an ‘and’? Does that feel any different?”
“I notice your hand is in a fist, what if you squeeze it harder?”
“When you said that, I noticed you stopped breathing out halfway through ….can you say it again and fully exhale?”
“What if rather than saying ‘you feel kinda angry’ you make that ‘I feel angry’? What happens then?”

A client of mine Steve would often look away when he talked with me. An experiment we tried together was having him tell me about a painful incident in his week with varying grades of eye contact: his eyes closed, whilst looking away from me, with me looking away from him, and then whilst looking directly at one another. We took it slow, and I asked him what he was aware of in each case. He was able to contact the feeling of fear in being rejected by me – looking away was his method of regulating his expectations: to look away meant he didn’t risk seeing me disinterested and bored. We began to notice how his eye gaze moved away at points he felt were critical in his story i.e. the times he really needed to be heard. With time, he began to trust my holding; and with more time, to trust his own experience of himself. Alongside, we developed ideas of where this had come from in his childhood. Both insight AND experience were needed in the healing work.

In teaching ideas from Gestalt therapy, I have observed how intimidated trainees can get with performing experiments: trainees are often on the hunt for ‘the way’ to ‘do’ therapy; but with gestalt experiments there appears to be additional hesitancy of the ‘how’ (and ‘when’). So in my teaching, there is an additional consideration of the ‘safe emergence’, this time with the students. As with clients, the goal is simply to raise awareness. We don’t need to learn “101 gestalt techniques” (that is not going to be the book I write!) but simply bring our own awareness to the relationship and pick up on what is not in awareness for the client. However, I remember my days in training and ‘raising awareness’ doesn’t often cut it as a teaching point that enables a student to give things a go. So last week, I helped our students make a first step in to gestalt experimental work.

chair workAs I say above, experiments can be very simple and appear to flow naturally within the dialogue. Others take a bit more setting up like ‘chair work’. There is much intrigue with these awareness experiments, and it can be daunting to try chair work for the first time. Again, I emphasise this type of experiment is not a form of gestalt ‘Joe Jitsu’, but rather only done in pursuit of raising awareness. It can be helpful to appreciate the sub-types and when we might use them:
– Empty chair work: allowing a client to speak to an imagined figure – perhaps a deceased family member – and allow a conversation to take place that helps address ‘unfinished business’ – perhaps anger that this relative did not show them the love they needed when alive. Sometimes, I let a client speak to an empty chair with ‘me’ sitting on it; to help them have a more authentic and daring conversation with me – perhaps their anger that I am going away on holiday at a time they need me.
– Two chair work: allowing a client to experience more deeply two, internal dynamics. Leslie Greenberg proposes we might see two different types of this work work: Firstly, for resolving splits. Very often we might observe a client who has a very anxious part and a very critical / hostile part (we can theorise these as the child and the parent). Inviting the client to sit in (and embody) each part in turn and facilitate a dialogue can be incredibly powerful. The second type might be used for undoing self-interuptions. An example of this is a client who might hold back emotion and ‘retroflect’: tightening one’s fist rather than expressing anger for example. In both types, the key for the therapist is to be the empathic observer, not taking side with either part and instead helping the client see and feel the important roles they both play (and have played) in keeping them safe.

Even with some years of experiencing some very powerful experiments with clients, I can still feel my own resistance to bringing them in to the room. I monitor my own self-talk, my own ‘self-interruption’ to trusting how awareness brings contact between the two of us in the room. Yet I cannot think of one time when overcoming my inertia has not paid off. I feel both proud of the method and view, and privileged to witness the courage of the client in trying things out and staying with often painful experiences.

Faith in the practice requires that…practice. And for me, there has been no better training ground than on the meditation cushion. Lately, it has been useful to frame my current meditation practice as an ‘experiment’. Following the somatic meditation practices advised by Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray, I am allowing an amplification of the sensations within the body: bringing attention to what is often going on in the background of my experience somewhat out of my everyday awareness. As with any experiment, dropping the story and letting the soma speak for itself. But as I know with using experiments in my therapy work, ‘staying with’ is hard.

My own experiences help me commit to my client’s experiencing, and vice versa. I doubt they will ever know how their courage also supports and builds faith in me.

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