Gestalt Practice is a contemporary form of personal exploration and integration developed by Dick Price at the Esalen Institute. The objective of the practice is to become more fully aware of the process of living within a unified field of body, mind, relationship, earth and spirit.
Gestalt is a German word that denotes form, shape or configuration, and connotes wholeness. Practice is an ongoing program or process of development. Gestalt Practice is an ongoing process of integrating human awareness across a broad spectrum of consciousness.
Initially, Gestalt was used as a psychological term in Gestalt psychology. Then Fritz Perls, Laura Perls and Paul Goodman applied it to psychotherapy when they developed Gestalt therapy, upon which Gestalt Practice was partially based. Alan Watts, who was a mentor of Dick Price, suggested combining practices from the cultures of East and West. The writings of Nyanaponika Thera and the nearby presence of Zen Roshi Shunryu Suzuki were sources of Buddhist meditation practice for Price. Gestalt Practice was the term he used to describe his combination of these Eastern and Western traditions. This term distinguished the practice Price taught from both Gestalt therapy and Buddhist practice.
This form of awareness practice is different from Gestalt therapy, because it is not a “cure” for psychological symptoms, and it relies upon the interaction between two equal partners, namely an "initiator" of awareness work and a "reflector," rather than a patient and a therapist. Some aspects of Gestalt Practice are derived from the theory of Gestalt therapy. However, as Dick Price conceived of Gestalt Practice, if a "patient" wants to do Gestalt work with a "therapist" then they belong in Gestalt therapy. In keeping with this approach, eclectic techniques of meditation, physical exercise, environmentalism, contemplation and spiritual practice are incorporated into Gestalt Practice, along with some typical Gestalt awareness experiments borrowed from the Gestalt therapy model.
Gestalt Practice is an amalgam of awareness practices. Lao Tzu was one of the most significant Asian influences on Price. Otherwise, the primary influences upon the development of Gestalt Practice were Fritz Perls, Wilhelm Reich, Alan Watts, Nyanaponika Thera, Shunryu Suzuki, Frederic Spiegelberg, Rajneesh, Joseph Campbell, Gregory Bateson, and Stanislav Grof, as well as many other scholars who were in residence at Esalen Institute during the two decades Price's lead the Institute.
Price worked with Perls for approximately four years at Esalen, between 1966 and 1970. Then Perls told Price that it was time for him to start teaching Gestalt on his own. Price was impressed with the similarities between Gestalt and mindfulness meditation, which he used with insights from Eastern religions and altered state research to develop Gestalt Practice.
Gestalt practitioners teach mindfulness skills, using a wide variety of methods not limited by the psychotherapeutic model. All Gestalt Practice techniques emphasize experience over analysis. Besides the standard Gestalt exercises that characterized Gestalt therapy, Dick Price widened the approach by incorporating novel techniques from such disciplines as meditation, shamanism, compassion practice and spiritual contemplation. Thus, Gestalt Practice became a personalized form of consciousness exploration beyond the limits of psychotherapy. A partial list of the modalities used in Gestalt Practice includes the following:
Gestalt Practice work may involve the reporting of present awareness, and the integration of awareness through intrapsychic dialogue between aspects of personality. This kind of work, borrowed from Gestalt therapy, is often practiced as a shared experiment between two partners working together as a "dyad." Phenomenological techniques like these are based upon the belief that subjective experience is worthy of direct attention, without the interference of preexisting ideas or interpretations.
Somatic awareness may be the focus of Gestalt exercises. Awareness of breathing is emphasized because it promotes immediate experience of the body. Dramatic interventions, typical of body-oriented Reichian therapy or Bioenergetics, generally are not used in Gestalt Practice. However, an initiator’s awareness naturally may be directed toward areas of tension or holding. A scan of body feelings and sensations, similar to forms of Buddhist meditation can enhance awareness practice. And movement exercises such as T'ai chi ch'uan, Yoga, dance, art, hiking, chanting, singing and massage may be used to integrate awareness of the body.
Interpersonal relationship practices may be used in Gestalt Practice to clarify communications, improve relationship skills, and enhance empathy. A neutral moderator may assist with interpersonal encounters, although this is not necessary, in keeping with the Gestalt Practice principle of equality among participants.
Dreamwork is a common Gestalt awareness practice, in which enactment and integration of dream elements are favored. An initiator of Gestalt dreamwork intentionally re-experiences their dream as if it were happening in the present. The initiator then assumes the role of various dream elements, and enters into a dialogue with whatever is encountered in the dream. This approach is borrowed from the Gestalt therapy model. However, in contrast to Gestalt therapy, alternative sources of dream interpretation, including intuitive experiences are welcomed in Gestalt Practice.
Meditation practices, derived from many different contemplative traditions, may be used by Gestalt practitioners. Buddhism provides many useful models for mindfulness and compassion practice; and some of these have been adapted to complement the objectives of Gestalt Practice.
Taoism, as it was expressed by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, provides a non-judgmental backdrop for non-intervention with an initiator’s process, allowing whatever happens in a Gestalt work session to unfold naturally in the present moment. In addition, Taoism reinforces the reverence for nature that is typical of Gestalt Practice.
These techniques, and many others beyond the ambit of therapy, are regularly used in Gestalt Practice, with the same objectives of enhanced awareness, spiritual growth, and respect for the natural environment.
Gestalt Practice is most often taught in groups, with an experienced reflector serving as group leader. However, after participants have learned the basics of Gestalt, they frequently choose to do awareness practice work together on their own, outside of a group, without a leader. In this way, a Gestalt Practice group functions as the model for a Gestalt community. Indeed, Gestalt Practice, as Price conceived it, quickly evolves into a congregational awareness practice that transcends the confines of any meeting room.
Price led Gestalt groups at Esalen for fifteen years until his death in 1985. His wife and collaborator at Esalen, Christine Stewart Price, carried on the Gestalt Practice tradition by developing her own form of awareness practice, which she calls Gestalt Awareness Practice or GAP. Christine Price now teaches GAP in the United States, Europe and Japan. Christine and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner Gail Stewart also offer a Gestalt Practicum once a year at Esalen, in which they teach Gestalt Practice methods and theory to experienced practitioners. In 2013, Christine Stewart Price founded a new facility, called Tribal Ground Circle, dedicated to continued teaching and development of the Gestalt Practice legacy.
Gestalt Practice influenced many people at Esalen. Prominent among them was a student of Dick Price named Steven Harper, who incorporated aspects of Gestalt Practice, along with principles of ecopsychology, into his own unique wilderness practice.
Contemporary American forms of psychoanalysis, such as relational psychoanalysis and intersubjective psychoanalysis, have had an impact upon Gestalt Practice, leading to the development of Relational Gestalt Practice by Dorothy Charles. She teaches this practice at Esalen, and in Japan, Spain and Greece.