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I teach and practice Gestalt therapy, Career decision coaching, and Family Constellations work. As well as Australia, I teach workshops and training in China, Japan, Korea, the USA & Mexico. I am author of Understanding The Woman In Your Life, a book of advice for men about relationships with women. In my work as director of Lifeworks I provide therapy,  training and supervision. I am a Phd candidate, studying the interpersonal dynamics of power, and am currently director of an MA in Spiritual Psychology for Ryokan College, an accredited online institution based in LA.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Case #92 - The blissfulness of nothing

Zac talked about feeling depersonalised. As a kid he thought his mother was going to die (though she didnt). He did talk about his grandmother dying. He prayed to God as a child...but she still died. As a result, he because distrustful of religion - it seemed to him that God would do the opposite of what he asked for. For some reason, a bible story that he learnt had stayed with him - of someone who had prayed, and the the devil had come to tempt him.
So he associated fear with prayer. He said that he believed in science, but not in God. He considered himself a nihilist.
His association with religion, and spirituality, was a belief system which did not appeal to him, and a practice (prayer) which seemed pointless.
I pointed out that spirituality has three main elements: it can provide inspiration and direction, it can help people find a place for the transcenent in their lives, and it can provide practices which bring expansion and joy.
None of these constituted his experience of religion.
So I pointed out that there were spiritual forms such as Zen which did not require a belief system, including a belief in a God.
The depersonalisation component clearly had a psychological dimension. So I asked Zac to pay attention to his body. He reported 'nothing'. I asked him to 'be the nothing'. We always go with the resistance in Gestalt, and move to embrace whatever the experience is.
I asked 'nothing' to talk to Zac. 'Nothing' told Zac that there was no point to life, he might as well stop hoping. Life was just about the mundane experience, and then you die.
This certainly sounded like the nihilistic philosophy which Zac claimed to have.
I asked Zac how he felt. 'Empty'.
So again, we stayed with the emptiness, for some time; I asked him to stay in touch with his breath, and I just remained there with him, in silence.
This is what we call the 'creastive void'. Its not something to be feared or talked through, but to sit with, and allow something to emerge in its own time.
Sure enough, after quite some time, Zac reported feeling warmth in his body. As he breathed into this, a sense of joy started pervading his experience. It was a nameless joy, not linked to anything in particular. As he stayed with it, it became quite intense; he breathed heavily and deeply. This lasted for some time.
There was no name to the experience. It was simply an experience of his own being. His nihilism was not just a distancing from faith in something greater, it was also a cut off from his own existence. As he allowed this experience of self embrace, a deeper sense of meaning emerged. This is the existential approach to finding meaning - allowing experience to bring meaning, rather than trying to overlay it through explanation or projection.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Case #91 - Talking with God, twice

Joanne had a very deep and significant spiritual experience as a teenager. It was ecstatic, and stemmed from an interest she had had in spirituality from childhood.
Her parents were religious. But they did not handle it well. Her mother was afraid - probably that she might be going crazy.
Joanne went to their priest, but he told her that she would need to be on medication her whole life, and that there was something wrong with her - confirming the message that she was crazy.
Even a close aunt, who originally had encouraged her interest in spirituality, had nothing to say.
Her reaction at the time had been to thow herself into her external life, into the world, and distance from anything spiritual. This however had felt very empty to her.
So I suggested to put 'God on the chair', and have a direct conversation.
She said actually, there shoudl be two chairs - one for her first encounter with God ('like a first boyfriend') and one for her current relationship with God.
So we did that. It went just like a conversation might go to a lover that you have unfinished business with! I did lots of checking in with her - how she felt, as she was engaging in these conversations. It was very sensitive territory, and she had not really processed those feelings of 'betrayal' by God. 
This was also a very sensitive topic, as her previous experience of talking about it had been to be 'made crazy'. So I made sure that I gave her my personal support, encouragement, and declared my positive judgements. I also made sure she got feedback from the group, so she knew where they stood, and that there was support. Its not enough to assume this, and its essential to have such feedback in the place where there migtht be shame.
This is an example of how Gestalt process can be applied to traumas related to the spiritual area. And how the relationship with God is, in a certain way, like other relationships, and can therefore be amendable to the therapeutic processes we use with other relationships.

Case #8 - Distrust towards men

Joanne had a very deep and significant spiritual experience as a teenager. It was ecstatic, and stemmed from an interest she had had in spirituality from childhood.
Her parents were religious. But they did not handle it well. Her mother was afraid - probably that she might be going crazy.
Joanne went to their priest, but he told her that she would need to be on medication her whole life, and that there was something wrong with her - confirming the message that she was crazy.
Even a close aunt, who originally had encouraged her interest in spirituality, had nothing to say.
Her reaction at the time had been to thow herself into her external life, into the world, and distance from anything spiritual. This however had felt very empty to her.
So I suggested to put 'God on the chair', and have a direct conversation.
She said actually, there shoudl be two chairs - one for her first encounter with God ('like a first boyfriend') and one for her current relationship with God.
So we did that. It went just like a conversation might go to a lover that you have unfinished business with! I did lots of checking in with her - how she felt, as she was engaging in these conversations. It was very sensitive territory, and she had not really processed those feelings of 'betrayal' by God. 
This was also a very sensitive topic, as her previous experience of talking about it had been to be 'made crazy'. So I made sure that I gave her my personal support, encouragement, and declared my positive judgements. I also made sure she got feedback from the group, so she knew where they stood, and that there was support. Its not enough to assume this, and its essential to have such feedback in the place where there migtht be shame.
This is an example of how Gestalt process can be applied to traumas related to the spiritual area. And how the relationship with God is, in a certain way, like other relationships, and can therefore be amendable to the therapeutic processes we use with other relationships.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Case #90 - When the client is more aware than the therapist

Martin had an acute sense of fairness. The context was that his parents asked a great deal of him, but offered him only criticism.
This set the tone for our interaction. If I did anything in the therapy without being aware of it, whereby it was in some way for my own benefit, he would immediately notice it and remark on it.
I was always happy to examine his criticisms and concerns. I would acknowledge the validity of them, recognise where it was I was not aware of my own self interest, and talk about that explicitly.
In Gestalt, as a dialogical therapy, it is essential to be willing to own places where I might go out of awareness. This happens to therapists as well. Most clients will not notice, but some are very attuned to this. This is actualy very positive for the therapy.
But it means as a therapist I must be willing to be non-defensive, to look for the grain of truth in the clients concerns, fears and accusations. This not only defuses the situation, it provides a reparative healing experience for the client. And as therapist, I also learn something about where I go out of awareness - I am confronted. Its also an opportunity for me to recognise my own self interest, and where and how I may hide that in the guise of 'helping'.
Small things are of note here - my tone of voice, how fast I speak, what I choose to focus on. With clients like Martin its necessary to be as aware of my dynamic as his.
Its easy as therapist to focus on the client, what they are doing, their process. But harder to focus on ours. And even harder when the client is aware of my process, but I am not. Theres potential to feel shame there for me, but I move beyond this by adopting a welcoming attitude towards all feedback and criticism, and always am ready to look for the truth in it, and admit it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Case #89 - Opening up a very private realm

I could tell Lizzie was a bit tense, but didnt know what that was about. She seemed on edge, I imagined maybe angry.
She talked about arguing with her father as a teenager about the topic at hand - spirituality. From both parents she experience a lack of support for her interest. Her mother undermined her, her father opposed and ridiculed her desire to understand more.
Whilst those who grow up in religious contexts may have problems because beliefs are stuffed down their throats, others such as Lizzie may find that athiest parents may oppose an interest in religion or spirituality on the part of their children.
Lizzie was now in her 30's but still felt affected by this. Her search continued in her life, but it was not something she generally spoke about to otheres, keeping it very private. This was understandable, given the experience she had growing up. But it also isolated her, and meant she did not get support or dialogue about the topic.
I could understand better now her prickliness when I started discussing the topic with her – she was expecting negativity and opposition rather than support. This was understandable.
So the first thing I did was to make my support explicit. This was a topic I was interested in, positive to, and willing to open up with her. I talked about my own energy for the subject, and my interest in dialogue.
I also pointed out the nature of the environment we were in – a group of people who were also interested in the topic, and who were open to dialogue. I stated my intent to make sure that there were no putdowns when opinions were expressed.
This was important in terms of setting the ground of safety to raise the topic with Lizzie, and make it clear to her that these circumstances were different than those she was used to.
I was very aware of the risk for her to talk about this. She reported she felt relieved, but still tense. My words were all very well, but she had no experience of such support.
So I proposed an experiment – inviting her to state some of her beliefs, and I would explore them with her.
So she chose one – her belief that people were not born bad, but rather got lost, or were unaware. I shared that I resonated with this belief – a measure of support, and also signaling to her that I was open and listening. Making this explicit was very important. I asked her some questions to draw out more detail, and she was clearly enjoying sharing her perspective, and being heard.
I linked her ideas with those of some other writers – for instance Mathew Fox (Original Blessing), to indicate to her that there were others in the field who shared these perspectives, and to whom she might turn for support and to deepen her own ideas.
I then asked her if she would be willing to hear some counter views that might be out there in relation to this belief. She agreed. This was the next step – to support her to stand her ground in the face of opposition.
So I gave one perspective – that of existential responsibility – for the consequences of our actions, no matter our intention, level of awareness, or state of mind.
I gently stretched her thinking, providing challenging perspectives, and then engaging her in dialogue regarding her responses. This was a rich conversation, and I moved very carefully, so she could experience conversation across difference, without it being angry or oppositional.
This helped her to consider other perspectives, and provided her with an experience of successfully encountering difference. She now had some ground to be able to extend the dialogue with others.
In Gestalt we are always looking for the right balance of challenge and support, and in providing the client with a new and transformative experience through the experiment – working at the edge of their comfort so there is growth, but at a pace which is assimilable.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Case #88 - Strong symptoms, little information

John had attended a variety of personal growth groups. He had been wanting to come to a Gestalt group. So he was clearly keen to be here. He came up to work. I had been noticing him over several days, and now as he sat in front of me what struck me very strongly was his facial expressions. To look at him, I would think he was not simply nervous, but really distressed. He blinked rapidly, his mouth would twitch, his eyes narrowed as he talked. His eyes looked very frightened to me. My impression was of someone who was anticipating being hit.
I felt genuine concern for him, gave him a feedback about my experience, and asked what a he was feeling.
To my surprise he reported feelings only a little nervousness about coming up, but nothing further.
So I asked if he had had some kind of childhood experience of being hit.
No.
I asked if he had particularly frightened things happen to him.
None.
I asked if there was any incident he could recall that had really distressed him.
None.
He reportedly being an extremely shy kid. This made some kind of sense, that perhaps what I was seeing was simply a kind of difficulty with contact.
Usually I will readily accept someone's description of their experience. But in this case I felt very strange  because what I saw was very distinctive. Others in the group confirmed they had a similar experience. Something did not add up. But I was not going to press. In Gestalt we do not push through 'resistance'.
Nothing further came clear in our conversation so I decided to work somatically.
I asked him to lie on his back and I sat next to him.
I asked him to simply follow his breath.
His breathing seemed fairly regular and open. I was looking for interruption or places of tension. None were apparent. I asked his experience. He simply felt the air coming in and out. Clearly, he was not easily in touch with his feelings. So I took a lot of time, simply sitting with him, observing, enquiring.  
He did report an empty feeling in his belly. So I asked his permission, and placed my hand there. Nothing further developed. Clearly his feelings were carefully held, and I had to be patient to find the key.
I noticed that his eyes were  very active, even thought they were closed. So I asked to put my hand on his eyes, and held them there for a while. Then he reported a cold feeling in his lower belly. I put my hand there.
I asked him to look at me. He did so, then looked up for a while. I asked him what he was picturing. He saw darkness, cold, and a very dim streetlight.
Now we had the image I could work with it. I asked him to keep looking at me, and tell me his feeling. He started to feel warmth in his chest, so I put my hand there as well.
I told him that it seemed the street light was getting brighter, and asked him to let the warmth move down from his chest to his lower belly. As this developed I explained linked the  streetlight getting brighter to our connection  getting stronger  and his connection to his body warming up. I asked him to continue letting the warmth down into his legs, to his feet. This happened very slowly but not quite as far as the feet. So I asked someone else to hold his feet,
Finally he felt the warmth through his whole body.
As he sat up, his eyes looked completely different. They were steady, clear, both the same size, and I told him this difference in my experience of him.
I asked him to look at a few other people  to have that experience of connection both with himself, and with them. He energy was bright and warm and he reported experiencing connection with others in a new way.
We dont need to know what symptoms are about to work with the person. We dont have to have the story or the context. Sometimes it is simply not available. But if we work with the direct experience of the body, from that grounded place, something will always emerge that is the most important 'figure' needing attention.
Again, we dont even really need to understand the figure - just work with it, supporting the development of whatever is coming forward. When working with the body, that can be a slow process that requires patience.
In the end, we want to connect such experiences back into relationship. These are the core elements of Gestalt - awareness, and contact.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Case #87 - The Good Husband and the True Love

Chuan had never done therapy before. He was a businessman. His father made things out of wood, and had an small farm. Chuan had fond memories of his early years, being with his family; his father liked hunting, so they had big dogs. But during middle school he moved to another place than his father, and missed him.
In school he had always been a top student, but had never received acknowledgement from his father.
Ten years ago his company had run into problems. His wife and daughter were living in their hometown, and he was in the city trying to deal with a financial disaster in his company. He started drinking regularly, and fell into a depression for a year.
At the end of this terrible year of depression he met his father at Spring Festival. His father asked straight away - 'whats the problem? Are you getting divorced?' Chuan replied 'just a few problems at work'. But his father did not believe him, and pressed him.
His father shocked Chuan by saying to him, 'I trust you. I believe in you.' He also said, 'if its not working in the marriage, its ok to get divorced'.
This had a huge impact; Chuan stopped drinking, and started turning his business around.
However, there was indeed a problem in his marraige, and Chuan did not feel he could really talk to his father about it.
HIs wife had been his classmate. She got pregnant, and out of duty he married her. She was a kind person, nice to his family, and a good mother to their daughter. He had reluctantly married, and now felt 'kidnapped'. He didnt want to let anyone down, but he was unhappy. I asked how bad it was - 3 out of 10 he replied. Sex had dried up years ago. And he simply wasnt attracted to her. He felt more like brother and sister.
This was not a marriage that could be reignited, because there was never much of a spark originally. In some rare circumstances, it might be possible. But the situation was that he came out in a cold sweat if he hugged her - there was so little attraction there. He respected her, but only as a companion.
However, his strong family values kept him in the marriage, and his need to be a 'good boy'.
He also declared that he didnt want to hurt his daughter, he didnt want to lose her, and he didnt want to hurt his wife.
He was indeed trapped.
I asked him to name the two parts of him in conflict: the 'Good Husband', and 'True Love'.
I invited him to select two objects in the room to represent these polarities, and I then facilitated him to have a dialogue between the two parts. At first, it was simply a reiteration of the endless arguement between those warring parts.
I  pointed out  that this argument could go on eternally, but the two parts  had to come to an agreement - which I likened to a business negotiation.
After some discussion, the two parts came to an agreement: *True Love* would give *Good Husband* a year to sort things out. *Good Husband* agreed to talk with his wife about these matters.
However, I could see Chuan's fear about actually having this talk, as he knew that doing so would indeed pain his wife, and would probably spell the beginning of the end of their marriage.
At this point Chuan became very uncomfortable, and a bit dizzy. He had to stand up and walk around. He looked around the room, and said, 'I dont like a room with no windows'. I explained that there was a window behind the curtain. That relieved him a bit.
I then took some time to tell him about my experience of divorce. He interrupted me at  and asked about the ring around my neck. I explained I got it in Englad, when visiting my second daughter's graduation.
I told him that although the divorce was difficult, my children had not ultimately been damanged - they had gone on to do well.. and that I had found true love myself. I told him honestly about the difficulties I had faced, and that my ex-wife had faced, in the process of divorce.
In playing the 'father' role in the therapy, I was reinforcing the message that it was ok to divorce.
I will generally do whatever I can to help a couple stay together and have a healthy relationship. But sometimes, if this is really anti-life in terms of a constriction of their lifeforce and ability to live authentically, then I support someone to consider divorce.
Chuan was very relieved at the end of this. He said that what really caught his attention was two things - when I said that there was in fact a window in the room, and when he had asked about my ring.
It is in these interpersonal and symbolic moments that touched him. Triggered by his question about my ring, hearing about my own experience of divorce helped him out of his fear and stuckness - this was a dialogical part of the therapy, which involved my own self revelation, about my own story. A therapist has to be very careful about telling their own story, but on occasion, that can be very helpful for the client - thats the measure.
The symbology of the window being open was also very important to him. He felt suffocated, and I introduced the possiblity that there was a way out, even if hidden. This is something we could work on in subsequent therapy.
The facilitated dialogue between the two parts of him was also key - two warring elements that could never meet. The therapy gives the opportunity for them to come into contact, but this requires a lot of support from the therapist to facilitate this meeting, much like a real meeting between two warring people.
The significance of his father in all this was also a part of the complexity of the therapy. The support his father gave - including the acknowledgement of Chuan - was important in his change. So this signalled the importance of the role I could play as a 'father figure', and the impact I could have in the support I gave him.



Thursday, June 5, 2014

Case #86 - Why so fat?

Laila was fat. On the scale of obesity, she was somewhere in the middle. As is often the case, this was not something that she brought directly to therapy. It was something I observed, after getting to know her for some time.
The subject of weight is a very complex and difficult one for women, and in therapy it should not be avoided. But it has to be treated with sensitivity and care, and not with a heavy hand.
Laila was interested to work on the subject.
I asked at what point had she started putting on weight. She said in college she was hungry for some time, as she didnt have much money. So when she did eat, she would eat a lot. But that levelled out after some time.
So I pressed again, and she said, after she had her daughter she put on weight, because she had to eat a good quantity during breastfeeding. However, her daughter was now 10, and she still carried the weight.
She said she ate when anxious, and she was anxious about something bad happening to her daughter.
She also said she liked to have something in her mouth a lot of the time, to snack on.
This provided a number of possible entry points, but the only thing that seemed really clear was her anxiety. However, this was quite generalised, and so it was not precisely evident just how this worked.
I asked what kind of foods she ate, in what quantity, and how much exercise she did. These are all very grounded aspects of the issue. It seemed from what she said that she did not eat huge quantities, so again, it was not completely clear what was going on.
I started at this very practical level, and told her that to make a difference, she needed practical support on those three fronts - the quality of her food, the quantity of it, and the balance with exercise.
I emphasised that support was the key, not trying to address all of that on her own.
I asked about nourishment - how much emotional nourishment she got from a variety of areas of her life - work, friends, family, activities. It seemed she had quite a lot of nourishment, so the eating was not in response to a lack.
Still, the underlying dynamic was not evident. I asked about the anxiety: her father had some kind of fear of something happening to her, and somehow she had taken on that fear in relation to her own daughter.
This emerged from the Field, and so needed to be dealt with on a field level. However, before we could start on that, she suddenly said - oh, thats right, my mother used to overfeed me as a young child.
She explained that her mother would shove food into her mouth, and then before she had even eaten it all, would shove more in. This was a regular occurance, and was very uncomfortable for her.
She burst into tears relating this,  I empathised with her and asked her what she was feeling. Anger, she replied.
So I invited her to imagine telling her mother, using her adult voice, what the infant would have liked to have said - 'I have had enough, please stop shoving the food in my mouth'.
She found it hard to say this with force. So I suggested she put up her hand in front of her mouth, to block anything else coming in. This felt powerful for her.
For homework I suggested that she  think of her mother each time she ate,  remember the force feeding, and notice her response.
This conscious association with the traumatic memory would enable her to act out her refusal, rather than identify with the powerless child.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Case #85 - The empty swimming pool

Danielle told a very traumatic story. Both her husband and herself were teachers, and they travelled together, and taught English in a variety of countries. They had met in college, and it seemed they were very close, both creative, both interested in spirituality, and involved in the arts.
At one point he went to France for an art exhibition. He did not return however. He had decided to stay there illegally. He did so with no warning to Danielle, and no discussion. This was of course very upsetting. As time went by, things did not change. He did not invite her to join him, though he did return home a few times. Each time, the communication was strained, and Danielle continued to feel very hurt by the situation.
She felt her life in some kind of suspended place, where she could not really move forward with much confidence, nor could she seem to resolve the situation.
After some time, she heard through another person that he had died the previous year there. This dismantled Danielle even further. She even found that the process of getting a divorce was made extremely difficult, and that got shelved as well.
She described the experience as a building whose foundations collapsed, and lay in a pile of rubble.
She spent the next 6 years reassembling her life, bit by bit. She got very involved in spiritual practices and philosophy, personal growth work, and dedicated a lot of time and effort to extracting herself from the trauma.
She now felt back on a solid footing, but the issue was about moving into a new relationship. She had been in a few since then, but none lasted.
She now felt more ready for serious relationship. She had one currently, but it had not progressed much, due to her ambivalence.
She described it as standing at the edge of a swimming pool, feeling frozen, unable to dive in.
I pointed out this made perfect sense, given her experience. I took her metaphor and used it to further awareness. I pointed out that last time she dived into relationship, it looked like the pool was full of water, but in fact, this was not the case, and she got badly hurt.
So it was in fact very important to check how much water was in the pool. I compared this to knowing about the other person's shadows. I asked if she was better now at discerning these shadows in someone else.
She wanted to focus on what she needed to pay attention to in herself, her own shadows. But on this occasion, unusually, I did not want to do this. I judged that with all the intensive personal work she had done, she was quite aware of her shadow material, and able to own it.
So I focused on what she would need from a partner, taking the focus off of herself.
Usually I want to put the focus on the client. But when someone has taken a great deal of responsibility for themselves, then it can be good to get them too look out at the world, and evaluate others.
The issue in Gestalt is that we do not follow a formula. What is good in one situation is not necessarily relevant in another. 'It depends'...on the person's level of development, their needs, their awareness, and what is missing. In this case, the growing edge, as I understood it, was her ability to really see the other person, as they were, without either fear or fantasy.
In Gestalt we are very much focusing on grounding the person in their sensory experience, their somatic experience, in the here and now.
And, we also work with metaphor; in this case, it was very useful, as it gave a key to how to move ahead. Working within the person's own world, their own language, gives us direct access to their phenomenological world.

© Lifeworks 2012

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These case examples are for therapists, students and those working in the helping professions. The purpose is to show how the Gestalt approach works in practice, linking theory with clinical challenges.

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Gestalt therapy demonstration sessions

Touching pain and anger: https://youtu.be/3r-lsBhfzqY (40m)

Permission to feel: https://youtu.be/2rSNpLBAqj0 (54m)

Marriage after 50: https://youtu.be/JRb1mhmtIVQ (1h 17m)

Serafina - Angel wings: https://youtu.be/iY_FeviFRGQ (45m)

Barb Wire Tattoo: https://youtu.be/WlA9Xfgv6NM (37m)

A natural empath; vibrating with joy: https://youtu.be/tZCHRUrjJ7Y (39m)

Dealing with a metal spider: https://youtu.be/3Z9905IhYBA (51m)

Interactive group: https://youtu.be/G0DVb81X2tY (1h 57m)