Gestalt therapy focuses on the here and now. That’s not because the past and future are unimportant; they just don’t exist. When you and I meet in a therapy room, the experience takes place in the here and now. Every experience takes place in the here and now, so my choice as a gestalt therapist is to focus on that experience.
The consequences of past events, and our anticipation of future events, are both forces in the here and now. Think of the last time you were anxious about something that hadn’t happened yet. Your anxiety took place in your here and now experience. If I am anxious about something that’s going to happen next week, then the situation I’m in right nowmoves into the background.
An important concept in gestalt therapy is ‘unfinished business’. This is a clinical application of the Zeigarnik effect. Bluma Zeigarnik was a gestalt psychologist who observed that incomplete tasks are easier to remember than complete tasks. This is because the human organism needs to invest more energy in holding details of the incomplete task in short-term memory; a completed task can be happily stored in long-term memory or forgotten. Imagine spinning lots of plates on sticks; each one is an incomplete task that needs energy to keep the plates spinning.
The founders of gestalt therapy applied this idea to clinical practice. In our culture we often talk about people’s ‘baggage’. That baggage could be thought of as an accumulation of unfinished business or incomplete situations. Suppose someone grows up with cold, uncaring parents; the need for the warmth of parental love will be a major unfinished situation for that person. An important reason for focusing on the here and now is that we will actively seek to complete our unfinished business in the here and now. We’re usually unaware of doing this.
By continually returning to our experience in the here and now, we can build a picture of the pressing unmet needs that are seeking completion. Often, that insight brings with it an answer to the question ‘what do I need in order to complete this situation?’.
More than any other aspect of gestalt, it is the focus on here and now experience that makes it such a powerful approach to therapy.