Tag: figure/ground

Statue of Arjuna

The Golden Arrow: how to live a more or less fulfilling life

The Golden Arrow is a heuristic tool I’ve been thinking about for a while now to help frame my understanding of what is happening in therapy at a given time. Really, it’s an app running off the gestalt cycle api; the theoretical cycle of gestalt formation and destruction chunters away in the background, and gets expressed through the Golden Arrow.

I originally intended this to be a single blog post running through each element of the arrow, but the content exploded. I figure that means the process of writing this out is helping me integrate a bunch of stuff (what David Tennant’s Doctor (the best Doctor) might term gestalt-walty stuff), so I’ll let this emerge in its own time, then thread everything together once it’s complete.

The overall idea is simple. The cycle of gestalt formation and destruction describes how a gestalt comes into and out of being by breaking the process down into seven stages. This aids therapy by providing a diagnostic tool geared towards the mechanics of how we construct our experiences. But it can sometimes become too abstract.

So for me, keeping that theory close to practice is about asking what’s happening now within the active gestalt; what is the overall kind of action to which this current situation is geared?

That’s led me to describe four modes of gestalt functioning with a natural direction of travel:

Needing > Wanting > Choosing > Doing

The arrow metaphor is by no means original, and comes from the concept of karma being explained through the metaphor of archery. A blog post for another day perhaps, but I think karma has huge potential as a solid clinical concept in therapy. I think what we essentially work with in therapy is a person’s karma (a word whose meaning is to do with certain kinds of action).

For The Golden Arrow, I’m using the metaphor to describe the way an arrow points and flies from one point to another. This is to emphasise how needing leads to wanting which leads to choosing which leads to doing. This movement from one mode to another is the natural progression of a given gestalt. Left to our own devices in a relatively simple environment, we can mostly relax control and allow our arising needs to progress into actions.

But therapy exists because we aren’t left to our own devices in a relatively simple environment. We live in complicated environments, often subject to extreme frustrations and dangers, and usually subject to some degree of external imposition that opposes our own needs of the moment.

Many, maybe most, of these needs can just be dropped. But chronically frustrated needs and significant unmet needs create the classic unfinished business of gestalt therapy. And given severe frustration, and/or the need to survive environments characterised by intolerable and contradictory psychological pressures, entire modes of being can become problematic.

It’s possible to adapt ourselves to hostile environments to such an extent that we are unable to identify our own needs; be aware of what we need but feel no desire for it; be unable to decide things for ourselves; or consistently fail to follow through on our own decisions. Or all of the above in various combinations at various different times as we try to navigate our own personal hellscape.

For the purposes of doing therapy, The Golden Arrow is an attempt to frame therapeutic dialogue. It also provides a usable model for developing a background sense of feeling more or less fulfilled (whilst acknowledging that fulfilment in life can’t be reduced to a four step exercise!). Roughly speaking, the formula is this:

If you want what you need, choose what you want, do what you choose, and need what you do, then you will live a more or less fulfilling life.

But all those elements must be there, and the foundational work is being able to connect with a mostly accurate sense of what you need. Which involves developing an ability to return to the ultimate basics of gestalt therapy: what am I aware of now?

The main advantages of focusing on these four ideas are accessibility and action-orientation.

Needing, wanting, choosing, and doing are accessible themes for conversation because they are themes people struggle with. And those struggles are scalable, meaning you can do an experiment about needing easily in the therapy room, and it will be directly applicable to major needs outside of the therapy room. As above, so below.

Action-orientation relates to the words being verbs rather than nouns, and so already being rooted in directly experienced action. It’s tempting to talk about needs as if they are neatly packaged things we can pick up and examine. But our lived experience isn’t of picking up and putting down needs, it’s of need*ing*.

With both needing and wanting, there is a visceral experience of the absence of something. With choosing there is an often tortuous process of weighing up options and being pulled in different directions before having to actively commit to something over something else. And with doing there is a dazzling array of different actions and combinations of actions that go into fulfilling our intentions. For me at least, this helps with grounding theory in both practice and every day experience.

I’ll link here to each additional part as I get further posts written.

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Photo credit:Arjuna” by tbSMITH, shared under Creative Commons.

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.

Chewing digital food in my pocket

An enduring metaphor in gestalt therapy is to imagine experiences as food. Whilst this was a concern of the founders back in the 1950s, social media has given emphasis to its appropriateness. We regularly refer to what’s appearing in our feeds, mostly without pursuing the hint that the information delivered by our feeds is a form of sustenance.

One of the ideas this leads to in gestalt therapy, is a concern with the process of chewing food. This relates to the critical examination of what we are experiencing / have experienced in order to aid the process of digestion (ie, to assimilate our experiences as fully as possible), and to be more choiceful about what we take in (swallow) and reject (spit out).

Most appropriate to our information rich age of social media, is the observation that if we take in too much information, too quickly, we don’t have time to critically evaluate that information, and are more prone to simply absorb other peoples’ views/biases/prejudices (introjection in gestalt therapy). This is by no means an observation unique to gestaltists; it’s a staple warning of anyone who values critical thinking and independent thought.

A while back, I decided I wanted to keep track of what I read online and started using pocket. You sign up for an account, then download the plug-in for any browsers you’re using, and the app for your smartphone. It’s then possible to save any link in pocket, and assign tags to make the links searchable by keyword. As the pocket account is in the cloud, links saved can be accessed from any machine that has the plug-in / app installed.

Since November, I’ve kept track of my online reading using a weekly tag (wc for week-commencing, then the date that week started) in addition to relevant keywords. This has already made it easier for me to track down articles I vaguely remember having read. I’ll either remember the main keyword and scroll the articles under that tag, or remember roughly how long ago I read it and scroll back to that week.

I’ve also become more discerning about which articles I read; the minor hassle of tagging something in pocket is enough to make me do an initial assessment of whether reading the article is going to be worth the hassle of tagging it afterwards. My eyes are no longer bigger than my stomach!

More recently, I’ve decided to experiment with more of a chewing process. Each week, I keep a pocket scratchpad in my email drafts. My aim is to record the thoughts that come up in relation to what I’m reading. At the very least, this consists of a TL;DR of a couple of sentences, usually with some notes on basic responses (thoughts, feelings, images, associations etc).

I’m finding that with some links, a commentary emerges, which might only be a more detailed reaction than just notes, or may turn into a blog post in its own right. Where a blog post emerges, I’ll be publishing it as a separate post, and keeping just the TL;DR and a link to the blog post in the scratchpad.

Which is all an elaborate way of describing the production of a weekly digest, but the fact we call it a digest in the first place helps reinforce the point. I’m using Medium to publish the digests. It feels kind of like Livejournal: The Next Generation.

To extend the food metaphor, the weekly digest itself could be the equivalent of chewing and swallowing. What happens to that blog post in the wilds of the internet is maybe more akin to food’s journey through the intestinal tract. Maybe other people read the post and leave comments that help me consider what I’ve taken in from new perspectives, like gut bacteria breaking food down into useful nutrients.

It’s also a good way of putting into practice this article’s advice on using systems not goals. I tend to want to write more blog posts than I get round to writing, and can go a long time between ruminating on something and actually getting it out there.

By doing little bits of writing on a regular basis, without worrying much about quality or putting together commentary (some of my responses simply involve typing “welp”), I’m at least chewing stuff over and making a discipline of a really basic blogging skill: picking out figures of interest from articles and responding to them.

Follow me on Medium if you want to see how it pans out. And if you use a system of your own for keeping track of and processing your online reading, tell me all about it in the comments!

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Photo credit: Chewing the cud by robdownunder

Resentments and regrets: working with unfinished business.

Any incomplete gestalt is unfinished business demanding resolution. Usually this takes the form of unresolved and incompletely expressed feelings. Patients are encouraged to experiment with finishing business which heretofore was unfinished… Gestalt therapists have found that resentments are the most frequent and meaningful unexpressed feeling, and often deal with this with a game in which communication is limited to statements beginning with the words “I resent…” Gary Yontef – Awareness, Dialogue & Process (1993; p79)

When the environment fails in some emotionally significant way, disappointment is a natural organismic response. When that disappointment is not acknowledged, is not expressed, or is held onto, it grows bitter and transmutes into resentment.

Maybe I come to resent someone for not living up to my expectations, or for not doing something I wanted them to do, or for doing something I didn’t want them to do. Maybe I come to resent some aspect of my self for not being the way I want it to be. This part of my self then becomes other to me; I resent my body for not fitting a social ideal, or I resent my intellect for not being sharp enough, etc.

On the other hand, when it is I who fails in some emotionally significant way, that disappointment transmutes into regret. These regrets become particularly poignant and important towards the end of life; important enough that a palliative nurse wrote a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Just as with environmental failures, regrets can arise both from what I have or haven’t done. The main difference seems to be that regret focuses on actions I have or have not taken, whereas resentment arises from something being other than I want it to be.

Yontef’s experiment above is designed to focus awareness in order to create a clear series of figures. This is an exploration of figure/ground formation by taking a feeling as figure (resentment), then fixing it in place as a stable background, from which a series of other figures are invited to emerge (“I resent x; I resent y”).

This is particularly useful for people who defend against a specific feeling with deflection; changing topic, becoming tangential, or otherwise trying to prevent me from retaining a focus on the difficult feeling. Consequently, I have used variations on this experiment that include, “I am angry…”, “I am afraid…”, “I am sad…”. It effectively prevents avoidance by fixing the avoided feeling in place, in awareness. Though it’s important that the person I’m working with retains the power to end this experiment to prevent it being something I do to them.

My aims here include: developing self-support for the feeling under exploration by assimilating the realisation that episodes of experiencing that feeling are tolerable; developing the capacity to choicefully move towards and away from the feeling under exploration; general awareness raising (this is always in fact the primary objective of a gestalt therapy experiment, and a necessary condition for an experiment qualifying as “gestalt”).

Resentment and regret seem to be two important skeleton keys with the potential to unlock doors into a wide variety of unfinished business. Resentments will bring environmental failures into view; a landscape of disappointment. Regrets will bring organismic failures into view; the disappointed self. In both cases, the therapeutic task is discovering that which is necessary for completion.

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Photo credit: Regrets by Magali M.


The psychopathology of boredom

Psychopathology is a great word. It has three parts: ‘psyche’ (the soul), ‘pathos’ (suffering), and the suffix ‘ology’ (the study of). If you’re ever writing about something in the context of its impact on human suffering, you can’t go far wrong by dropping in psychopathology (incidentally, given those meanings, that makes the meaning of ‘psychopath’ something like ‘suffering soul’). I digress.

As is perhaps becoming clear, I enjoy contemplating etymology; the origin and historical development of words. Not just their current meaning, but their historical origin and development over time. In the gestalt approach to therapy, we work with the present situation, and appropriate aspects of the person’s historical field come into awareness in relation to the material under consideration.

The reason I’m fascinated by etymology is because language creatively adjusts over time, and I think the history of a word has some bearing on its present meaning. In gestalt terms, I’d say that the present dictionary definition is in awareness, whereas the etymology is out of awareness (roughly correlating to the more analytic ideas of conscious and unconscious).

Consider the majority of the words you use every day: how did you learn those words? We don’t learn language from the dictionary, we learn language from people. The dictionary may fix an agreed definition for a given word, based on research into its current usage, but that makes the dictionary more like a camera taking linguistic snapshots than the actual source of a word’s meaning. I’m fascinated by etymology because it is the lived, relational story of the life and times of language. I suspect that etymology gives us a better idea of a word’s full meaning than the dictionary.

So, boredom.

Unfortunately, Cambridge Dictionaries Online define boredom as ‘when you are bored’ committing the cardinal sin of dictionaries by defining a word through reference to the word being defined. This vexes me. Fortunately, it defines bored slightly better: feeling tired and unhappy because something is not interesting or because you have nothing to do.

Now, ironically, my interest perks. How often have you been in or witnessed the situation in which one person (let’s call him Agamemnon) complains about being bored, and another person (say, Trixi) comes up with ideas for things Agamemnon could do, only for him to reject all of these ideas. There is never, incidentally, nothing to do; at the very least you can daydream.

From a gestalt perspective, a person is a process not a thing, so when I contemplate boredom, I look for the process. What is happening to bring about the feeling of boredom. The etymology of boredom gives us the process; boredom is the state (-dom) of being drilled into (bore). The word boring is a verb that has become used as an adjective; so the original sense is that if something is boring, then that something is actively doing something, it is boring into something.

The reason our dear Agamemnon ends up frustrating Trixi with his lack of interest in any of the available options is that it’s those very options that are boring into him. It isn’t simply that he lacks interest in his situation; it’s that his situation has become incredibly fixed and is starting to bore/drill/perforate into him, slowly and relentlessly.

So what is the psychopathology of boredom?

Agamemnon’s situation is one in which a number of the possible figures of interest have become fixed. Usually, when we lose interest in one figure, it recedes into the background and something else comes into the foreground. The shifting process of figure/ground is one ever-flowing dance of things moving from background to foreground to background according to the shifting needs of the person. Agamemnon is suffering because this process has stalled; whatever his needs are in this moment, he is unable to re-configure his immediate field around that need. If Trixi asked him in this moment ‘what do you need right now?’, it’s quite possible he’d only be able to answer ‘I don’t know’. Boredom is the state of being impaled on one’s current situation, and a (temporary) loss of the ability to create a new one.

So what’s to be done about this?

Trixi makes the critical error of suggesting possibilities to Agamemnon. Either the options Trixi offers are ones that he is already aware of (in which case, they are the very spikes on which he is already impaled), or they are possibilities he hasn’t been aware of, in which case he is largely unable to reach them on account of being impaled on his current situation. The trouble with being offered a new situation when one is impaled on the existing situation is that unimpaling onself is more painful than remaining impaled.

Remember: it isn’t possible to exhaust the possibilities of any given situation because the possibilities are infinite; it is only what one is aware of at any given time that is finite. Boredom is a state that we create for ourselves, without being aware of what we are doing or how (the clue here being the feeling that it is our situation that is doing something to us, which immediately points to a projection of some disowned aspect of ourselves). Consequently, there is the high likelihood that if Trixi succeeds in getting Agamemnon engaged in a possibility he is unaware of, he will most likely simply become impaled on the new situation once its novelty has worn off.

Ironically, the cure for boredom is to become interested in being bored.

There is a saying in gestalt, ‘work with the resistance’. Resistance is when I make a suggestion as a therapist and my client pushes back against it in some way. A classic example would be me asking ‘what are you feeling right now?’ (directing awareness towards emotion) and my client answering ‘oh I’m just thinking about…’ (deflecting awareness from feeling onto thinking). My client in this example is resistant to being aware of feelings. Working with the resistance means observing this process and becoming interested in it because that is where my client’s energy and interest is focused; in resisting the awareness of feelings. I’m not interested in overcoming resistance; I’m interested in directing awareness towards resistance because that is the fast-track to how my client has creatively adjusted. If someone deflects from feeling to thinking, they have good reason; my job is to support those reasons in becoming explicit rather than implicit.

Agamemnon isn’t simply impaled on his situation. Agamemnon is impaling himself on his situation. He is also frustrating Trixi’s attempts at creating a new situation. Boredom, then, can be seen as a resistance to two important things: first, the creation of a new/unfamiliar situation; second, the destruction (in the sense of de-structuring) of the old/familiar situation. Human experience is a constant process of structuring, destructuring, and restructuring.

I said the cure for boredom is to become interested in being bored, which I realise implies that I think boredom needs to be cured; I don’t. I think boredom expresses an important struggle between remaining in a familiar situation and entering an unfamiliar situation. In gestalt terms, this is an impasse, a deadlocked situation in which there is both potential for transition and resistance to that transition. Honouring this struggle means staying with the impasse and all the uncomfortable feelings that entails.

To that end, I suggest the following experiment for the next time you find yourself suffering from boredom:

Exaggerate your boredom and become as bored as you can be. What about your situation is boring? Make a list: x is boring, y is boring, z is boring. Tell each of those things in turn that they are boring you: ‘x, you are boring me; y, you are boring me; z, you are boring me’. You might find you want to say more to them: ‘x, you are boring me, and while I think about it, I also want to say…..’. If you find it difficult to say ‘x, you are boring me’ then what about saying that is difficult? Wherever you find yourself resisting, become interested in exploring how you resist, what you resist, why you resist.

Resistance is one of humanity’s most creative and beautiful processes. Even under the most crushing of tyrannies, still human beings are able to find ways of resisting apparently overwhelming force. Considering that the possibilities in any given moment of life are infinite, the sheer creativity involved in holding oneself in a state of boredom is astounding.

In fact, when I consider what it would be like to be cast adrift on that sea of infinite possibilities, what Milan Kundera would call the unbearable lightness of being, boredom suddenly seems fundamental to survival.

~ ~ ~

Photo credit: “boredom” by jean olahus. This post first appeared on my old blog, le chat d’argent.

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