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the gestalt cycle of figure formation and destruction

Rising and falling: the cycle of gestalt formation and destruction

My first encounter with what pre-gestalt Fritz Perls would have recognised as concentration therapy, came in the form of two exercises from a book called Concentration & Meditation. These were exercises designed to lead into wider Buddhist practice, but I was using them to still and focus my otherwise drastically scattered mind.

One of these exercises is the simple yet surprisingly trippy process of focusing on a simple object, and ignoring any other sensations, thoughts, objects etc. It was wild, but irrelevant to this post.

The other exercise is (eventually) beautiful in a hard to express way. It involved observing the rising and falling nature of experience and, by extension, reality itself. I was in the 3rd year of my undergraduate degree, sharing a house in a suburb near campus. Consequently, whilst there was a moderately busy road nearby, during the day there was regular but not incessant traffic passing by my bedroom window, which overlooked the road.

So the way I trained myself in observing the rising and falling nature of experience was to sit by my window and listen out for cars. If I construct a memory of it now, then I remember it going something like:

I am sitting and listening. I am hearing all sorts of sounds: now a bird singing, now someone yelling in the distance, now the traffic on the busy road further away. Now I am hearing the sound of a car starting to move towards me. I am focusing on this sound, and hearing it get louder and closer. I can also see the car now, and hear the whooshing noise it makes as it passes by me. I see it moving away from me, and hear the sound of it moving further away. I notice how it sounds different moving away than it did as it approached. I listen to the sound of the car fading away until I can no longer hear it.

That’s an idealised version that happened every now and again when the day was quiet and traffic at its least busy. More often than not, at some point, the sound of the car would be interrupted by another car. Maybe several cars would come past in quick succession, and my focus would change to the sound of the cars as a group, instead of just the one.

But the rising and falling of the sound stayed the same: the sound of cars got louder, then quieter. The sound of traffic began to remind me of the sound of sitting next to the Thames back in my hometown, listening to the waves crash when the tide was in, over and over.

Even now, this exercise brings me a level of peace and contentment that I can’t adequately describe. I gain, momentarily, a perspective on reality in which the inevitable rising and falling of all things implies an impermanence that speaks of freedom from suffering. It’s like the universe itself has popped into a social media exchange to declare, “and this too shall pass lol”.

All of which provides the basic experiential material for explaining the cycle of gestalt formation and destruction, which essentially attempts to map out the rising and falling of experience in a therapeutically useful way.

An overview of the gestalt cycle

The cycle of gestalt formation and destruction is generally broken down into seven stages: sensation; awareness; mobilisation; action; final contact; satisfaction; withdrawal.

Zinker gives a pretty good walk through of the cycle from sensation to satisfaction. I’ve used square brackets to annotate his description with stages of the cycle:

“The power of this description is that it gave greater depth and understanding to figure/ground formation. The figure would surface during sensation, [sensation] where the individual experiences something happening that disturbs the steady state. If the sensation holds sufficient attention of the individual, awareness [awareness] of a need would sharpen. Awareness begins to develop through a mixture of feelings, thoughts, perceptions that seek to interpret the sensation. Energy mobilizes [mobilisation] in response to this awareness of a specific need that is seeking satisfaction. The energy is released [action] and Contact is made with that which will satisfy the need [final contact]. During contact, whatever is other than the self is digested by destructuring to find what is new or different and assimilating (or integrating) it. When what is new or different has been satisfactorily destructured and assimilated, change occurs within the organism (individual) [satisfaction]. Once the original need has been satisfied, the individual returns to a steady state by withdrawing from the experience and closing the cycle [withdrawal]. When the cycle has been completed, the individual would return to sensation and wait for a new figure to emerge from the fertile ground of the individual.” (Zinker, 1977, 90-91; quote lovingly snaffled from Cleveland Consulting Group)

When I talk about “a gestalt”, I am talking about a clear figure/ground composition, an experience in which a clear focus for attention stands out from a background of other elements of experience. What’s interesting about the rising and falling exercise with passing cars is that when the figure of interest is the passing of a car, the whole experience holds up a mirror to the inherently rising and falling nature of the gestalt cycle itself.

Each of these stages is more appropriately thought of as a descriptive element of a good enough gestalt, ie the more or less smooth arrangement of experience into a figure of interest, clearly differentiated from a broader experiential background, that enables meaningful action in pursuit of the dominant need of the moment.

Withdrawal – Imagine you’ve just woken up from a deep sleep, opened your eyes, and are in a state of calm that feels empty but in a good way. Or imagine you’ve just finished a big task, sat down, and are just taking a minute before doing anything else. That’s more or less the withdrawal stage, characterised by not just a lack of any clear figure, but a lack of potential figures, and little to no sense of emerging feelings or background sensations.

Sensation – In my rising and falling example, “I am sitting and listening. I am hearing all sorts of sounds: now a bird singing, now someone yelling in the distance, now the traffic on the busy road further away”, is an example of the sensation stage. There are various proto-figures bumping up against my awareness, but I don’t invest much energy in them. Nothing “disturbs the steady state” as Zinker puts it. Maybe fuzzy thoughts, memories, or images pass briefly through my mind without sticking or commanding much attention.

Awareness – It helps to think of awareness as a light. In the sensation stage, there is a very soft, low level light, tricksy like moonlight. In the awareness stage, something has captured enough interest to begin developing into a fully fledged figure. That low level light intensifies into something more like sunlight, centred on the developing figure of interest. This is where the overall gestalt starts to dramatically re-arrange, as the figure of interest primes consciousness by pulling relevant associations into the background.

Mobilisation – A pithy gestalt saying I like is “awareness supports response-ability”. As a figure of interest develops in awareness, we mobilise ourselves in preparation to respond to the active situation. If I am aware of a glass of water, am I mobilising to drink it or pour it on a stray ember or clean my paintbrush in it? The context of the active situation influences how I mobilise, which is why in gestalt meaning is formulated as a figure considered against its ground. It isn’t the figure of interest alone that mobilises me, it is the relationship between the emerging figure of interest and its immediate context.

Action – “The energy is released”, as Zinker puts it. Action in the context of the gestalt cycle refers to whatever moment of release you have mobilised towards. It’s easy to identify the action stage of, say, swatting a fly. But looking at my example of listening to passing cars, it’s less immediately obvious, and this leads to possible objections of gestalt being overly action-oriented. In my rising and falling exercises, the key action is the passing of the car: “I can also see the car now, and hear the whooshing noise it makes as it passes by me”.

One of the things that quickly became apparent to me in observing the rising and falling of experience, was the occurrence of a peak moment. In listening to cars passing, mobilisation is covered well by the anticipation of the whooshing of the car as it passes. The action is *hearing*, which requires the action of putting energy into focusing concentration into that sense at the expense of others. It may not come with obvious bodily movements, but it remains a movement of the self, and an action of the contact boundary.

Final contact – “Contact is made with that which will satisfy the need”. Final contact can be hard to describe because it is heavily experiential and without much obvious objective manifestation. Try remembering a time you had a really insistent itch, one that needed a good few seconds of scratching. Maybe you were scratching around the area for a bit before really hitting the satisfying bit that makes you go “ahhhhhh, that’s the spot”. That, “ahhhhhhh”, is the moment of final contact; it’s the combination of the release of mobilised energy in the action stage with the experiential target of that action. It’s when you finish writing and checking an email and finally click send (ahhhhhh), or drink some water to quench your thirst (ahhhhh). It’s also the point where you get smacked in the face after bracing for impact (paf!), or when you open that bill you’ve been dreading and finally have a concrete number of £££s you can’t afford (oooof). Final contact is the gestalt’s flavour; it is fully experiencing the taste of the food of experience before you swallow it.

Satisfaction – The after glow of final contact is satisfaction. If a really good itch scratch has a final contact of “ahhhhhh”, then satisfaction is the pleasing sense of “mmmmm” afterwards, when you can still enjoy the absence of the itch. Satisfaction carries a positive value judgement, usually referring to a good thing, so it can be harder to apply it to getting smacked in the face or opening a horrific bill. But even here, there is a “sinking in” feeling that follows final contact (though with unpleasant experiences, we’re least likely to want to spend time in satisfaction, and are more prone to skipping straight into withdrawal or jumping into some kind of action to avoid those feelings). The satisfaction stage of a smack in the face is the relief of the act of violence having passed. The satisfaction stage of finding out what the damage is for a hefty bill could be a kind of resigned “well at least now I know”. If I was to rename the satisfaction stage with a more neutral word, I’d use resolution or completion, possibly even demobilisation. It is simply the feeling of the aftermath of something having happened as it falls away.

I personally think the gestalt cycle focuses more on gestalt formation than gestalt destruction, so think there’s work to be done on describing how a completed gestalt breaks down. This is potentially a side-effect of the early gestalt focus on the analogy of chewing and swallowing food. It’s fairly easy to map the process of putting food in your mouth, chewing it, then swallowing it, onto the gestalt cycle as it stands. But if satisfaction is the stage that follows swallowing, and sensation leads us into our next mouthful, where is the cycle describing the food’s journey through the rest of the digestive tract?

The gestalt cycle in practice

At this point, I am required by ancient gestalt custom to mention how Kurt Lewin once said, “there’s nothing so practical as good theory”, because the gestalt cycle is ultimately a practical tool. It’s useful for understanding what is going on with someone’s process, and pointing the way towards what to do about it.

The main function of a gestalt is to organise experience in a coherent way to allow situationally appropriate action. To this end, the gestalt cycle describes more or less how a gestalt comes into and out of being.

A common occurrence in therapy is for someone to talk about a problem they have had for a while, and experience a sudden rush of emotion. One of the most common phrases I’ve heard from clients when this happens is, “saying it out loud makes it more real”. Often, this simple experience is enough to start shifting a person out of an inner conflict and into action to rectify the situation.

The reason things feel more real when they’re spoken out loud to another person is because the process of that deliberate, purposeful communication supports contact with the content of what is being said. In terms of the gestalt cycle, we’re working with “final contact” here. There is already a sense of something being problematic (sensation), which is in the clients thoughts (awareness), and which they want to talk about (mobilisation).

The act of talking about it (action) then supports final contact with the entire gestalt, hence the rush of emotion and sudden sense of it being more real. Typically, this is then followed by a sense of calm as the tensions caught up in the problem are (for now at least) released (satisfaction).

This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to talk about something before they can make it real, just that this seems to often be the case for significant personal issues.

In the therapy session itself, the gestalt cycle offers me a way of thinking about what is happening in the therapeutic encounter at a given time, especially when things feel stuck or repetitive. It also gives me a kind of road map for a “good” gestalt. This needs to be applied gently, as otherwise all I’m doing is enforcing a different kind of shouldistic regulation: you should be forming better gestalts! You haven’t done the cycle properly!

Gently applied, it’s fairly easy to avoid that danger. The stages of the cycle simply offer one way (and a good way to avoid reification of a concept is to remember it is only one possible useful concept) of describing how to create and destroy an experience; it is primarily descriptive not prescriptive.

So in-session, it is a reflective tool that sits in the background of my attention, ideally only becoming a figure of interest to me when I spontaneously connect some aspect of the cycle with what is currently happening in the therapy. I’ve found that applying the cycle analytically just disrupts the flow of the therapy and becomes confusing. The most valuable application is when I’m talking with a client, and suddenly think, “there is mobilisation here but no action”. This is an optimal time to talk about what needs to be done and support someone in planning for action. Better yet, that mobilisation can be channelled into an experiment that rehearses or otherwise prepares for appropriate action.

On the other hand, if a client makes a huge breakthrough in therapy, and then quickly starts talking about a new topic, a kind of satisfaction klaxon goes off because we’re now skipping straight from final contact in one gestalt to sensation in another. It is rarely possible (in the beginning) with these examples to make someone “do satisfaction” (nor would it be desirable if it could), but I can at least draw attention to the process of moving quickly from one experience ending to another beginning.

Incidentally, I think the use of “satisfaction” to name this stage is exemplary, as the most effective way to live a dis-satisfying life is to never bask in the glow of being at rest between two tasks. And of course, the most effective way to become overly self-satisfied is to spend too much time resting on your laurels!

What hopefully stands out from the above is that the gestalt cycle works best as a meditation on the nature of processing experience. The more I contemplate the experiential nature of each stage, and of the progression from one stage to another, and the felt sense of what it is to spend too little or too much time in each stage, the more I assimilate the overall concept. This makes it more available to me in practice spontaneously as needed.

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