Taormina: A Conference Beyond

Something happened for me around the recent AAGT/EAGT/SIPG Conference in Sicily, and the shift I’ve experienced since the Conference is why I’m writing this article (my first at length). Other changes include making a fundamental change to a primary relationship, giving a speech at a public occasion and performing and believing in myself as a pianist again. This article is not going to be the end of the process of digesting what happened and, as I write, I notice ever more resonances underpinning the experience.

My sense is that the event was in some way seismic- albeit that this is a loaded word in connection with contemporary Italy and the recent terrible earthquake which laid waste to historic towns near the epicentre of Accumoli, destroying places like Amatrice with their rich history. The movement I have experienced inevitably has elements of destruction to it, but the sense of growth and creation is figural for me and I’d like to reflect here on the factors -or vectors- that may have contributed to this.

By any standards this was an unusual Conference, not least from the angle of having nearly 1000 attendees from all over the world. Sicily, historically the quintessential ‘crossroads of civilisations,’ is frequently now reported as a figural European location in terms of navigating receiving large numbers of refugees arriving from war-torn regions. While Palermo has been the focus of this process, the Conference at Taormina reflected this challenging backdrop in taking as its theme ‘The Aesthetic of Otherness; meeting at the boundary in a desensitised world’, a proposition appropriate to the multi-continental, multi-organisational meeting as well as to the international reality on the doorstep and the real possibility of xenophobia in the situation.

Prior to the Conference and staying in Taormina with its spectacular Greek theatre a few kilometres away from the Conference epicentre at Giardini-Naxos, I had a few days to explore a land new to me and chose to take a trip to Mt. Etna, itself the source of explosive change and destruction over the centuries, yet also, I learned, the source of the rich ash that fertilizes the region supporting a fertile agriculture and the excellent wines that I tasted, grown on its magma-layered slopes. The wreckage of the previous cable car infrastructure destroyed in the 2002 eruption littered the slopes like a warning as I travelled up the mountain, and I had a personal experience of the volatility of such an environment when, subject to a sudden storm and zero visibility, my 45 minutes at the summit became a freezing and drenching hell, requiring I later take a good hot soak, grateful that my hotel room retained a bath. From Etna I’d expected to gain insight into a land clearly part of the early ground of western civilisation but I’d been obliged to pay attention instead to my immediate embodied situation.

Archimedes, born in nearby Syracuse is famous for his bath-time recognition of how to calculate the volume of irregular vessels, his ‘Eureka’ -or perhaps ‘A-Ha’ moment. This was not the moment I recognised a shift for myself, but I was now curious about how encounters could turn out so contrary to expectations, so chilling and inhospitable in this case.

Tectonic plates cause earthquakes when their boundaries undergo energetic contact (movements I found are called ‘transform, divergent and convergent’) with the consequence of ‘continental collision’ when convergent plates move toward each other and, attending the AAGT Conference in Asilomar, California in 2014, I had felt the potential for collision or eruption to be the figure when the two major international Gestalt organisations, with their political, geographical and aesthetic differences, came together for the first time. Forming new ground can entail earthquakes, but the rumbles and grumbles in the substrata at the Asilomar Community Meetings had me wanting to participate in the proposed Conference in Taormina rather than avoid it, sensing an unmissable opportunity that felt exciting and somehow personally relevant. Would there be eruptions and fissures or would something else emerge? Others too, must have perceived something interesting in the situation, as it was fully booked 7 full months before it happened. I wonder how many people weren’t able to go and what it’s like now to have wished to take part and not to have been able to.

On a personal level, I noticed after the Californian AAGT Conference in 2014 that my interest picqued around the new Italian published ‘Gestalt Therapy in Clinical Practice; From Psychopathology to the Aesthetics of Contact’ (2013) with its impressive contextualising and grounding basis, featuring relational dialogues on themes in place of the more usual uni-polar authorial statements. I’d also started to attend workshops at UK Conferences by European Gestaltists like Jan Roubal, appreciating new, subtly differentiated voices from the predominantly North American ones I’d read and identified with while training (Yontef, Jacobs, Wheeler etc) and met in person at workshops (such as Rich Hycner). While I’d not yet been to an EAGT Conference, the ground for me also identifying as a ‘European’ Gestaltist was being laid I now recognise. Simultaneously English politics was ceasing to support the dialogue with European-ness leading ultimately to the ‘Brexit’ vote, with xenophobia on the rise as ’otherness’ became something to avoid lest it contaminate rather than inform and co-create the experience of Englishness.

In contrast to this domestic backdrop of alienating isolationism, the hope that the Conference represented ‘common vision and ground’ was part of the welcome message from organisers Gianni Francesetti, Burt Lazarin, Margherita Spagnuolo-Lobb and Jelena Zeleskov Djoric, along with the ‘trust that this experiment was worthy, exciting and potentially fruitful.’ This optimism felt precious to me as I prepared for the Conference, a contrast to the prevailing low grade despair I’d felt since the ‘Brexit’ vote.

Writing my personal profile for the Conference pre-contact (through the jisc-mail-type email group instigated by New York colleague Jim Battaglia), I described my curiosity regarding how such a large gathering might affect my sense of belonging in the world and my confidence as a gestalt practitioner. I’d had interesting experiences during my 20 or so years attending gay mens’ weeks where, in the company of 60 other gay men I’d noticed something change, especially the first couple of times. In contrast to the situation I usually inhabited, whereby we gay men were an often invisible minority, the experience of living, playing, working and forming a ground where gay identity was predominant led to new experiences and a new selfing- an emergence and a confidence. As a gestaltist, again a minority identity in my usual situation, I had noticed the importance of regular GPTI/UKAGP Conference-going and the support for the fuller embodying of my gestalt orientation that usually resulted.

While supportive of this pre-meeting experience of mobilising interest and curiosity, I eventually tired, recognising a disembodiedness to the plethora of online exchanges, leading me to want fuller contact. Once there, the welcomings began in the flesh and asked to introduce ourselves to neighbours, I found myself meeting and shaking hands with Jim Kepner. While his writing has been such a constant companion to my work, I was faced with undoing my preconceptions and encountering his ‘otherness’, something that helped me recognise both him and myself just then. However, the experience of hearing in turn from the organisers and officers of the Associations felt fragmented until Toni Gilligan(AAGT President-Elect) brought in a musical import from Africa, rousing me into the novelty of the situation more fully. This involved finding our voices in a literal calling/responding experiment through singing (AAGT ‘calling’ EAGT to the Conference and vice versa). I have a musical background but my sense was that others too became more present through this and that it required an inhabiting of the drama of the two major organisations choosing to encounter ‘the aesthetic of otherness’ in all its tones and shades. It sounded cautious at first but with Toni’s persistence the process became a more embodied encounter after repetition.

Once in the swing of the Conference, several things made a noticeable impact, giving me confidence that they contributed to the shift I have experienced. Firstly, the revelation of entering Tindari, the giant room where Community meetings and talks were held, with its 1000 chairs stretching back almost to infinity, was a spiritual experience -the authentic mountain-top one unlike my Etna experience. It had the epic ‘wow’ effect (perhaps a form of A-Ha moment) and underlined for me that this was, for now, a gestalt world to the horizon. I recall the thrilling sensation as I recognised feeling small but also a part of some huge scheme.

Secondly, my Process group provided an intense microcosm of otherness in finding myself making contact with participants from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, USA, UK, Bulgaria, and Belgium, led by 2 skilled young facilitators from Russia and Hungary. Over the meetings I became very moved by this encounter with gestalt ‘others’ from places that, I noticed, I hadn’t even imagined would value or practise gestalt. In the shock of this I encountered and owned some of my own ignorance and prejudice, a relief, to an extent, from thinking I’m so very different to the ‘Brexiteers’. Discerning the commitment and positivity of largely young practitioners (some of whom were working in war zones) and discovering our differences and similarities -even our jealousies- helped me appreciate myself and rediscover my situation, to re-sensitise and recognise my desire to live the as yet unlived life in myself.

Thirdly, attending a workshop led by Margherita Spagnuolo-Lobb based on her recent writing, I noticed I was drawn to watching Rich Hycner among the participants, writing his notes and evidently engaged. While I know nothing of their past acquaintance, at this point I think I was registering my need for the gestalt world to integrate, to encounter and inform one another. This experience of ‘outer’ integration was perhaps the main basis of the nascent inner shift that happened for me. There was no earthquake or explosion for me, unless it be on the basis of Perls’ 5-layers model (Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Perls 1969): I can say that greater authenticity has been an outcome as I find my voice and posture anew.

Jim from AAGT has generously maintained the Pre-Conference email group, and I’ve looked for evidence of how others perceived the event. While I’m sure that among the vast number of participants there must be those who were dissatisfied, New Yorker Michael Cortayo wrote at length stating that ‘This has been the most amazing and transitional professional weekend of my life’ and the general tone of emails seems to be that the event, as the organisers had hoped was worthy, exciting and fruitful.

For me the event was a sort of homecoming, which albeit to a new location, Sicily, was to ground uniquely fitting to hold and support the metaphorical meanings behind such a huge experiment. The vast meeting and its warm, welcoming fore-contact supported extending and deepening my identifying as a gestaltist and helped integrate the gestalt world for me. Some shame relating to the isolationism prevailing back in England was undone, and in this global meeting where encountering otherness was a necessary prerequisite to experiencing myself, I think the meetings at the boundary ultimately supported the figure of my personal re-sensitizing and experiencing.

This is personal response to the event at Taormina and not informed by a detailed acquaintance with EAGT and AAGT, their histories and differences. It seems to me that there is a need for a detailed appreciation of the event which, while it may happen within the organisations that came together for the first time this year, might also be valuable from the ‘beyond’ of the situation from those, like myself, who while we may or may not be members of one or both organisations, are not primarily involved in identifying with either. I hope this will happen and that this amazing experiment will get the processing and attention worthy of its significance and investment.

Chris O’Malley is a UKCP Reg Gestalt Psychotherapist and Supervisor in Birmingham. Originally trained as a musician, Chris is working to integrate his expeirence of Buddhism  and  Buddhist psychology into his practice and has taught Mindfulness from a Gestalt perspective. He is interested in the phenomenon of appreciation in therapy, including  how as therapists we inhabit the integrated ground of our experience, and how this wisdom may be manifested in client work. He can be contacted by email; chris.omalley@blueyonder.co.uk

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