"Loose your mind, come to your senses"
"Psychoanalysis is an illness that pretends to be a cure"
Fritz Perls, p. 244
The founder of the Gestalt Therapy movement, Frederick (Fritz) Perls, took
his initial training as a European Freudian psychoanalyst, but soon saw
psychoanalysis as a big game that kept the patient in the therapist's pocket (or
the therapist in the patient's pockets) and began to work out quick, powerful
techniques to return the control of one's life back to the individual. His own
group work would eventually become the model for many peer dream groups that
would form in 1960's and 1970's, and his influence is in dreamwork is
o The basic concept of Gestalt
Perls believed like Freud that unresolved conflicts from the past had a great
deal of influence upon present behavior, and that these conflicts needed to be
"worked through" (Perls, 1969). He also felt that dreams were highly
symbolic and made extensive use of interpretation. Perls felt all past conflicts
were continually acted out in the present, and chose always to work on them in
the here- and-now. In the here-and-now we are completely free and can choose
freedom, responsibility and openness instead of illness. In the here-and-now we
are free to actively control our own "becom ing."
Thus Perls would have his patients enact in the present the conflict and have
them take on the various parts of the conflict as dramatic roles so the patient
could become aware of the conflict, contact it and control the direction of it
in the present and future. Thus one's feelings and actions become unified in a
whole, what Perls calls a gestalt, that is more spontaneous, open and honest.
While Gestalt therapy has had its own ups and downs, supporters and critics,
its own hey-day and decline, what we are going to look at here is the influence
it has had on the modern dream work movement, and thus focus on the techniques
developed mostly during the 1960's at the now famous Big Sur retreat center in
California, Esalen. (Downing, J and Marmorstein, R. 1973, Perls, F. 1969)
o Gestalt approaches to the dream
Nearly all the techniques come from that same set of ideas that Jung offered
us, that the dream is a subjective presentation of the dream him/herself and
that there is a sense of wholeness in every image. As with Freud and Jung, for
Perls what is unconscious in the personal psyche is initially projected out onto
other people and to other objects. That is, we see in others first what we
refuse to see in ourselves.
Perls takes this idea to an extreme and looks at how *all* we see is in part
a projection of ourselves.
"In dreams, the hardest aspect to accept is that every part of the dream
is the dreamer: if I am driving along a dream highway, the car, the road, the
passing automobiles, the distant mountains, the unseen dread, all are
(Downing, 1973, pg 7)
As you can see, the difference between Jung's view and Perls' is that for
Jung the dream has a subjective-objective tension, i.e. was about something that
contained both inner and outer realities. For Perls, the objective outer
boundary is allowed to collapse to get directly at the inner fantasy level. In
this way the split off inner processes can be re-owned and integrated within the
context of the immediate present.
However, as Anthony Shafton mentions, there was a dangerous tendency for
untrained individuals to take Perls' technique and turn it into a gimmick,
claiming that anyone who got some kind of breakthrough would be cured. (Shafton,
1994, p. 214).
And yet, as I mentioned, there is hardly a modern dream technique or approach
that doesn't acknowledge or use this idea of the intrapsychic dream landscape.
The compromise for this class will be to keep and eye on the theory, but to
focus on some of the ways the technique is unfolded that will allow us to give
meaning to our dreams and recover the significance in a non-therapeutic setting.
Thus the emphasis is two fold here. The first is a historical rendering of the
exercises and the second is a confining for our use the exercises to the
imagination. Any direct use of the exercises should be done within the context
of a qualified gestalt therapist.
"Lose your mind and come to your senses," suggest Fritz. How aware
are we of what we are doing in the present? How often are our minds anxious
about the future or remorseful about the past rather than just being here, now?
To test out your ability to stay aware in the present, you might want to try the
following exercise. For just a couple of minutes, I'd like you to keep saying
"Now I'm aware of [blank]" and fill in the blank with a word or two
about whatever it is that you happen to be aware of. If you shift from outer
observations of the room to inner awareness, keep saying out loud what it is you
are aware of. Example: "Now I'm aware of typing this sentence and now I'm
aware of wondering what to type next and now I'm aware of the chuckle in my
stomach and now I'm aware of the reflections on the computer screen and now I'm
aware of some confusion about what I'm aware of and now I'm aware of the sound
of a car going by...." and so on.
Now let's apply this to the dream, but use the dream imagery story to guide
Exercise: The first thing to emphasize is the telling of the dream in present
tense, as if it were still happening.
a. Take an dream and re-write it or tell it to yourself as if it is happening
right now. Example: " I am flying over the bay and I feel anxious. I look
towards the horizon for sharks. Now I'm flying towards the beach and see the
b. For contrast, re-write the same dream in *past* tense as though it all
happened a long time ago. Example: I was once flying over a bay and I was
feeling kind of nervous. I was looking for sharks on the horizon. Then I was
flying back towards the beach and I was looking at some people in the
What did you notice about the difference between the exercises? How alive did
you feel in each exercise? Make some notes about this difference.
Now that we have moved into the present, let's move into the subjective mode
as well and see all parts of the dream as ourselves.
Exercise: a. Take a dream and after each thing, adjective or action, put the
phrase "Part of me". Example using the Bay Flyer dream: " The I
(part of me) flies (part of me) over the bay (part of me) while the looking
(part of me) for sharks (part of me)..."
I realize this exercise is a little silly, but just want you to see how each
part of the dream may be seen as part of yourself in projection. Now we can
unfold each of the parts a little more.
b. Pick one of the parts of the dream that have some feeling or puzzle for
you. In my example I'm going to choice the "sharks" and the
"bay". Now pretend you *are* that part of the dream, as if you were
playing that character on a stage and describe yourself and your role and
whatever else comes up.
Example: "I am the Shark and I lurk unseen in the dream. I could swoop
in at any moment and eat the bathers and yum, how good they would be too! I make
the flyer nervous because I cause him to worry about things over which he has
little control. But I give him a purpose too. All the dream flyer can do is
watch, watch, watch. I like the unseen waters I swim in and hope the flyer gets
a little closer to the water too!"
"I am the bay. I am both shallow and deep, friendly and dangerous. My
waters flow out to the deep sea and up against the beach were people play. The
dream flyer soars above me and sees both these parts of me, but he seems afraid
of entering me himself. I am cold and liquid and bounded only by dry and
structured things. I provide passage for many ships and fish."
Try this for as many part of the dream as you can. Notice how this changes
(or doesn't) your feelings about the dream images and the way they fit together.
There is notion in Gestalt work that by taking on these roles, we begin to
integrate them into a gestalt or whole personality. In a sense this makes the
dream out to be a deception and we dream because we can't directly admit to
being these parts, i.e. we have disowned them. But in another sense the dream is
the carrier of our fate and future growth, and by re-owning these parts, we re-
own a more complete personality.
Exercise: Take an image in the dream and walk around the room acting like
this image. You might play a character as complex as a friend or relative, but
also try playing the inanimate objects, like a stick, a rock or a watery bay.
But what about parts of the dream that still don't seem to fit, even after
becoming that part of the dream? For this is there is an additional exercise of
having the parts talk and interact with one another. This is the famous
procedure of using an empty chair and talking to one part of the dream image,
pretending it is sitting in the chair, and then taking on the role of that image
and speaking back.
EXERCISE: a. After dramatizing a few parts of the dream as in the previous
exercise, pick two dream images. In my example I'll use the Bay Flyer and the
Shark. Pretend that you are one of the images, and that the other image is
sitting close enough to you that you can talk with the image. Put that image in
an empty chair or use a pillow or something else to represent that part of your
dream. Have a conversation with the image, tell the image from your role how you
feel, what you see as happening in the dream, what you would like to happen.
Then switch seats. Take on the role of the other image and respond. Play act,
experiment, have fun. If you get stuck, switch roles. Do this in the spirit of
putting on a puppet show.
B. If there is an unresolvable difference between the two parts, make up a
third chair and put in that seat the unresolvable difference. Allow the
unresolvable difference to speak about itself as well as about the other images.
_Bay flyer: I'm concerned about you shark and if you come into my territory I
will warn everyone to get out of the water. I feel concerned and plan to warn
the innocent people about you.
_Shark: Hog wash. Without me you wouldn't even exist. I draw you and everyone
elses' attention to deeper things. You eat life, I eat life. I don't need your
moral attitude. I feel connected to my depths and hunger.
_Bay Flyer. Oh, you are connected to your hunger alright, but don't think you
can satisfy it in my bay. There are plenty of ways of connecting us to our
depths without eating us alive. I'm highly skeptical that you have any concern
for all we have constructed here in the bay and feel threatened by your
_Shark: Yes, all you have constructed for your own purposes, while excluding
nature, me. Your daylight projects you tout as creative constructions are
clearly johnny-come-lately attempts to control what is not yours to control,
since you repress and cast out of the bay anything that doesn't fit into your
own little self-serving world. I'm not the one who doesn't fit, you are. You
keep me hungry by scaring all my dinners away.
Enter _The Unresolvable Issue: I am the tension between you both and feel
both the hunger and the abandonment of the flesh.
_Bay flyer: I need that distance resolved so I can have some fun too. I don't
feel I can have fun as long as you and Shark exist.
_Unresolved Issue: I cannot be wished away, nor can you use me to keep Shark
_Unresolved Issue: But Shark, while you offer some advice, that need to connect
with depths - you must learn to carry some of your own hunger. Being an animal,
you are simply hungry, but being cooperative, you may learn that the Bay people
will feed you on a regular basis.
_Bay flyer. There's an idea.
_Shark: Ya, give me a leg right now - har , har.
_Bay Flyer - so it seems we are agreeing to all three exist. But how to feed
_Unresolved Issue. I'm not here to solve issues, I just want some breathing room
too. You and Shark have to work that out.
"Most of our whole striving in life is Pure Fantasy. We don't want to
become what we are (but) what we should be." (Perls, 1969, p. 224)
Now in real Gestalt therapy there is an attempt on the part of the therapists
to bring the dialogues out of these more superficial levels and into high
emotionally charged areas. It is the belief that it is only in breaking though
to these charged areas that true integration can take place. But in the decades
since these encounter groups and intensive therapies, there has grown a general
belief in a kinder, gentler way towards integration. The point of all this is
not so much to find an answer as to be in present time contact with the issues
and imagery. The solution is being present. Fritz: "...once you judge you
can't experience anymore, because you are now much too busy finding reasons and
explanation, defenses and all that crap..."
( Verbatim, 225)
o Gestalt measures of intensity
So how deep do we go as individuals alone or in a peer group? The answer, of
course, is up to you. But here is a measuring stick that combines Fritz's work
and that of a student of his, Jack Downing:
There are five levels all of this can be seen.
Level 1: The Chicken Shit Level.
Good-morning-how-are-you-great-fine-nice-weather-be-seeing- you-bye. Barely
functioning and very dead. Downing calls this the Cliché layer. No contact, no
risks, no life.
Level 2: The Bullshit Games Level. This is the social roles level where I am
the student, the boss, the bully, the important person. Usually you can see it
in binary form - husband-wife, sick person- healer, student-teacher,
boss-employee. Lots of games, but no real life. Lots of danger in there being
just a game and no one really there to play it.
Level 3: The Impasse Level. This is were we get stuck and lost. We are
becoming aware of ourselves and the chicken shit and bullshit just isn't
working. But we are lost, frozen , uncertain. We know we have to change, but we
just don't know how or where.
Level 4: The Death Level. The Sick point. This is the final extension of the
impasse. Its the implosive or death layer were things really feel lost, dead,
sick. Really the repressed life we have denied is struggling for expression, but
so is our strongest rigid holding back. We are contracted, compressed,
Level 5: The Explosive Life Level. Here the authentic self has been contacted
and there is a free explosion of life, feelings and reactions that can take
various forms. Perls usually worked with grief, anger, orgasm and joy. Downing
adds to this ecstasy, where the complete freedom to feel and experience is
available and responsibility is seen less as a yoke which burdens us but rather
as an ability to respond without playing games.
Perls also stated as a measure the following: "Once it clicks, you are
through the projection and it's all over. First you look through a window, and
suddenly you recognize that you are just looking into a mirror" (quoted
form Shafton 225-226). As Shafton goes on to comment, we can see the value in
the experience without assigning it some grand cure or panacea. In later body
based dream techniques, this click will become the central focus, not so much in
determining health or sickness, but as an internal measure of the *place* where
meaning and value is created in the body.
The issue here, however, is that we can use this measure to get a sense of
where other's may be pushing us. To be one's own authority is to catch on that
being pushed into authenticness can be an abusive act. As the Buddha said, we
are already enlightened. Attempts to become enlightened are looked upon the same
way that a man in a lake looking for water is looked upon.
Sometimes Perls was accused of dragging people across their pains and wounds,
always focused on suffering. His response was to turn the accusation into an
" I don't preach suffering. But I'm willing to invest myself whenever a
suffering, an unpleasantness comes up. ... Staying in touch with the
unpleasantness is the only means of growing and consoli dating one's
Here's an example of the exercise: Play What Won't I Suffer? Pick a part of
the dream you don't want to deal with, the ickest part, and say " I'm not
willing to suffer this because [blank]." Fill in the blank with various
levels of answers, from the chicken shit level to the bullshit level and so on
until there is an impasse. Then begin with the impasse as the new thing you
won't suffer, and say " I'm not willing to suffer this because
Make some notes about the icky feeling and impasse - describe them as if you
were making a weather report.
These kinds of techniques are fine if you are having dreams, but what if you
are not having dreams or your dream completely stump you? There is one last
example exercise I want to pass on. In these places Perls would have the person
take on the character of the dream itself.
Example: "I am your dream and I stay away from you. You try to catch me
in the morning, but I'm more clever than you. I have all the answers to
everything and even when you do catch me I won't tell you what I mean. I hide
everything you want in dark symbols and evaporate any meaning you assign to
Exercise: Go ahead, give it a try - become your dream and have a chat with
It should be clear by now how any part, fragment or even absence of a dream
image can become a useful dialogue or drama that can bring us into an awareness
of the present and involve us in being our own authorities in the destiny of our
lives. Whenever we find ourselves in confusion, deadness or distance from our
lives, there we find that impasse and a chance to wake up to a more colorful and
A final quote from _Verbatim_(1969):
"Now if we understand the impasse correctly, we wake up, we have a
satori, I can't give you a prescription because everybody tries to get out of
the impasse without going through it; every body tries to tear their chains, and
this is never successful, It's the awareness, the full experience, the awareness
of *how* you are stuck, that makes your recover, and realize the whole thing is
just a nightmare, not a real thing, not reality. The satori comes when you
realize, for instance, that you are in love with a fantasy and your realize that
you are not in communication with your spouse.
The insanity is that we take the fantasy for real. In the impasse you have
always a piece of insanity. In the impasse, nobody can convince you that what
you are experiencing is a fantasy. You take for real what is merely an ideal, a
fantasy. The crazy person says," I am Abraham Lincoln," and the
neurotic says" I wish I were Abraham Lincoln," and the healthy person
says, "I am I, and you are you."
(Perls, 1969, p. 40)
While the pressure of a group process to be "authentic" is seen
today as a little harsh, the basic techniques of taking responsibility for one's
own dream and dream imagery are universal. Once these techniques are shifted
from a pre-determined course to being used to explore the unknown, they become
user-friendly, and we can allow ourselves to be most essentially who we are,
o Bibliography and Citations
Downing, J and Marmorstein, R. (1973). _Dreams and Nightmares._ San
Francisco: Harper and Row.
Fosshage, J. C. & Loew, Clemens, A. (1987). _Dream Interpretation: A
Comparative Study._ (Revised Edition) New York:PMA Publishing Corp.
Mindell, Arnold (1982). _Dreambody_. Boston: Sigo Press.
Narajo, Claudio (1980). _The Techniques of Gestalt Therapy_. Highland, New
York: The Gestalt Journal.
Perls, Frederick S. (1969). "Dreamwork Seminars." In _Gestalt
Therapy Verbatim_, Moab, UT : Real People Press.
Perls, Frederick S. (1970). _Dream Seminars_. In Joen Fagan and Irma Lee
Shepherd (Eds.) ,Gestalt Therapy Now: Theory Techniques Applications. Palo Alto,
CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc.
Shafton, Anthony (1995). _Dream Reader: Contemporary Approaches to the
Understanding of Dreams_. Albany, NY: Suny Press. See especially Chapter 6,
"Gestalt", pp 213-231.
Van De Castle, R. L. (1994). _Our Dreaming Mind_. New York: Ballantine Books.
See esp. pp. 191-196.
o Gestalt on the Net & Web
A note on Gestalt Therapy. There are not a lot of pure Gestalt Therapists,
though the techniques are learned and used by those studying other types of
therapy and group processes. Often Gestalt is mentioned in NLP, or Neuro
Linguistic Programming, an offshoot of Milton Erikson work. This is a completely
different system, though they trace back through Gestalt therapies. Also,
Gestalt Psychology is a German psychophysics movement that preceded and
influenced Gestalt therapy but if fundamentally different, though the metaphors
used are shared.
Simpified Summary of Gestalt Therapy (AAGT)
Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therpy (AAGT)
Gestalt Therapy Page
A short History of Gestalt by Daniel Rosenblatt, Ph.D.
Dream Wisdom by Valma Granich (Short Essay)
Gestalt Therapy - By Alan Brandis, Ph.D.