By Piotr Mierkowski
The present essay is based on an article I wrote in Polish – my mother tongue, for the first issue of ‘Fenomen Psychoterapii’ (2015), a journal published by the Polish Association for Gestalt Psychotherapy (PTPG). Unfortunately, this excellent periodical no longer exists.
My original article was inspired by the organic way in which the Polish journal came about, and the climate of ferment and excitement that was bubbling up throughout the Gestalt community in my country of birth in the mid 2010s. People were meeting each other with warmth and openness and fervently discussing Gestalt theory and practice. Fresh ideas were being proposed as new Gestalt training institutes were emerging all over. ‘Fenomen’ was just one novel development that had pulled together so many creative minds and energies. My hope was that the journal would become a means of promoting the humanistic ideas of Gestalt therapy throughout Poland. I hoped it might reflect and build on the ongoing support for dialogue and engagement among Polish Gestalt therapists after their excellent 2014 Research Conference in Wrocław. I was so fortunate to attend this event and wrote about my experience in the online issue of the BGJ. My article on contact was born out of a desire to contribute to their exciting fresh venture.
Less than four years later, in July 2019, the same strong feelings of enthusiasm emerged through and from my participation at the UKAGP conference in High Wycombe, ‘Gestalt Therapy Now – Vitality, Integrity and Visibility’. This had led me to join the work of the UKAGP Organisational Committee, and take on the role of editor of the UKAGP Newsletter. I recall Gaie Houston confirming my enthusiasm at that conference when she exclaimed, ‘You are really fired-up, Piotr!’ I spontaneously jumped in and immersed myself in all the activities, enjoying every minute of my two year experience, even if at times some of these were far from smooth and easy.
The editing of the UKAGP Newsletter involved connecting, meeting and talking with many different people, members and newsletter readers, and reaching out to Gestalt therapists from abroad. All this gave me a huge amount of emotional stimulation and pleasure. It was as if the initial spark was kept vividly alive, giving me more energy every time I came into contact with a new reader, a new author. I met people passionate about Gestalt or just concerned about something they wanted to communicate about themselves or the world around them. I enjoyed working things out together, at times in a heated, but always sincere and engaged way. Shaping each new edition was for me an intense and gratifying experience, which has benefitted me personally and professionally.
Against the background of the enormously fulfilling personal experience at the PTPG conference in Poland in 2014, which had all the hallmarks of so-called ‘good contact’, the idea that my original article for ‘Fenomen’ would be about the phenomenon of contact came to me effortlessly. In a similar way, it feels entirely natural to offer an English version to the readers of the UKAGP Newsletter, as I am on the verge of leaving my editorial post here. I have an urge to shout ‘Thank you!’ loudly to all the contributors, readers and colleagues who have enabled me to have such a satisfying experience; a perfect feast of ‘good contact.’
My experience has meant that I have learned, as if anew, that the fullness of spontaneous engagement and direct contact with the environment is just like electricity. It is the primary and basic phenomenon that makes all other phenomena possible. ‘We speak of the organism contacting the environment but it is the contact that is the simplest and first reality.’ (Perls, Hefferline, Goodman, 1951, p. 227). From the perspective of Gestalt therapy, the phenomenon of contact is particularly significant in therapy. In the words of the Gestalt founders:
‘the achievement of strong gestalt is itself the cure, for the figure of contact is not a sign of, but is itself the creative integration of experience’ (ibid, p. 232).
My ambition in this essay is not to make any exhaustive academic study of the phenomenon of contact. Rather I have sought to pull together: loose impressions, feelings and personal experiences and reflections, quotations from Gestalt literature, as well as poetry, fragments of conversations and encounters with people and the arts, All these will, I hope, touch and move you as readers, and so offer you an opportunity to experience this contact, as it has been viewed from the perspective of Gestalt therapy. This has been my style in writing, in therapy, and in life in general. Most references here are to music, because music, as W.H. Auden declares, is not reflective like, say, verbal art that stops to think, but instead ‘music is immediate, it goes on to become’ and can move us deeply in the same way as only the engaged encounter with another human being can (Auden, 1962, p. 471).
Contacting the environment
“The warmth of dogs and the essence, inscrutable,
Yet I feel it. In the lolling of the humid tongue,
In the melancholy velvet of the eyes,
In the scent of fur, different from our own, yet related.
Our humanness becomes more marked then […]
I want to believe that the forces above us,
Engaged in doings we cannot imitate,
Touch our cheeks and our hair sometimes
And feel in themselves this poor flesh and blood.”
(Miłosz, ‘Consciousness’, 1986]
The above fragment of a poem by Polish-American writer and poet Czesław Miłosz vividly conveys the undeniable importance of our direct contact with the world around us – the act, which has become all the more apparent since the outbreak of the recent pandemic. What is more, his poem expresses what I believe to be the essence of life – the universal and incessant search for contact with the mystery of being and consciousness, the intense human quest for knowledge about the nature of reality, be it animal, human, or divine.
If not exactly the same, then at least similar descriptions can be given to the aim of Gestalt therapy, namely awareness – the process of discovering the nature of reality by “being in vigilant contact with the most important events in the individual/environment field with full sensorimotor, emotional, cognitive and energetic support” (Yontef, 1993). By remaining open to my senses and engaged with the world in which I come to live, moment by moment, I am enabled to fully and concretely appreciate the meaning of my existence.
It is for this reason that Gestalt therapy remains as radical today as it was in the early 1950s when it was founded. The revolutionary quality of this approach to psychotherapy is clearly evident in the assertion that knowing our reality and personal growth takes place at the boundary through contact of the individual and the environment. Whereas psychotherapy per se is nothing more than an aware shared interaction, here-and-now between the person of a therapist and the person of a client, irrespective of whether the client is an individual, a group of people, or a couple at any given time.
‘Perls perceived the value of what is now called intersubjectivity, the dialogue between client and therapist rather than the more passive and abstinent style of an analyst. He became fascinated with the truly immediate, and so brought into being a therapeutic theory of the process of perception and interaction with the world.’ (Houston, 2003, p. 20)
In short, Gestalt therapy deals with the movement or the flow – it focuses on exploring the process of how the client contacts the environment.
I shall limit myself in this essay to describing healthy contact as demonstrated through the words of Bankei Yōtaku, a Japanese Zen Buddhist master, who is quoted to say, ‘My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink’ (Latner, 1983, p. 31). Being healthy is equated here with remaining in involved and fluid contact with oneself, one’s environment, and the relationship that exists in-between. Being attentive focused, engaged, and interested, full of concern and grace is a sign of health. Pathology, on the other hand, is characterised by a disruption of contact, such as when we feel bored or act passively and habitually, compulsively or obsessively rather than by choice; when we are full of anxiety, lost, restless, or confused. (Perls et al., 1951)
Therefore, the work of the Gestalt therapist focuses on contact, or the way both client and therapist relate to each other in a reciprocal relationship when they meet. This process is often referred to as analysing the structure of contact situation, because ‘most psychological difficulties are indicative of problems related to autonomy and contact’ (Houston, 2006).
I must emphasise here that during therapy sessions, the responsibility for the quality of the interaction rests primarily with a therapist. This is because an individual who comes to therapy is often, for one reason or another, withdrawn from close contact. It is therefore the task of any therapist to create conditions in which a full, attentive and honest relating becomes possible for the client. When this occurs, there exists an increased chance that the client will begin engaging in more intimate contact, with themselves inasmuch as with others, more often than before.
Three meanings of contact
In Gestalt therapy the word ‘contact’ has been used in many various ways and often in relation to many different phenomena. From time to time there are voices among Gestalt therapists that such synonymous use of the word ‘contact’ as a theoretical concept interchangeably with its meaning taken from everyday language is wrong because it confuses and trivialises this very important concept (Zinker & Nevis, 1994, p. 371). I disagree with this opinion, and yet simultaneously, I see the need to be clear about what meaning is being used at any given time. I also think it is important to know the ways in which contact can be understood. That is why I describe three different meanings of contact here.
Most often, the term ‘contact’ refers to a key concept, namely that of the boundary contact. From the perspective of gestalt therapy, ‘when we say “boundary,” we mean “the boundary between”; but the contact- boundary, where experience occurs, does not separate the organism and its environment; rather it limits the organism, contains and protects it, and at the same time it touches the environment. That is, to put it in a way that must seem odd, the contact-boundary – for example, the sensitive skin – is not so much a part of the “organism” as it is essentially the organ of a particular relation of the organism and the environment.’ (Perls et al., 1951, p. 229)
The biographer of Paul Goodman, Taylor Stoehr, remarks that Goodman used to say that existence in itself, is neither objective nor subjective. Contact precedes the organism and the environment (Stoehr, 1994, p.105).
The term contact may equally well refer to the relation that occurs between subject and object and mean the same thing as ‘being in contact’. This is what happens when, looking for a suitable illustration of the above way of understanding ‘contact’, I come into contact with the text of ‘Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality’. I chew on this, dissect, taste, and finally precisely choose the quotation I want to use, at the same time as rejecting all the rest of the contents of this book, published in 1951, and which constitutes the official debut of Gestalt therapy, and is referred to most often as ‘PHG’. ‘Contact is awareness of the field or motor response in the field.’ (Perls, at al., 1951, p. 229)
In this sense, contact forms an inseparable part of the person’s self-regulation, which enables one’s survival in the world. It is also responsible for one’s development and growth. Here contact is primarily equated with the process of contact-withdrawal, assimilation-elimination. This aspect of contact was particularly emphasised by Laura Perls, who spoke of contact as an activity with a specific rhythm of touching and letting go.
‘We make contact by acknowledging and tackling the other and experiencing ourselves in doing so. It is a continuous shuttling or oscillating between me and the other, and no English or German or any other Caucasian language has an adequate word to describe it except the ancient Greek: „aisthesthai” – to be aware is a medium form; grammatically it is passive, but it is used as an active verb. And, of course, full awareness implies the collaboration of all sensory and motoric functions.’ (Perls, 1992, p. 144).
Such behaviour enables the adaptation of people to the requirements of the environment that they are part of and the needs of their own bodies, as much as to shape their relationship with the world they remain inseparable from.
Both of the above perspectives on contact greatly simplify this phenomenon that in reality is much more complex. The creators of Gestalt therapy insisted that contact is not an act of one person on another, but rather – the creative interaction between them.
‘Primarily, contact is the awareness of, and behaviour toward the assimilable novelty; and the rejection of the unassimilable novelty (…) All contact is creative adjustment of the organism and environment. Aware response in the field (…) is the agency of growth in the field.’ (Perls et al., 1951, p. 230)
Contact in this sense has a constructivist character – because it is a construction arising from the mutual interaction of two forms, which at the same time create a dynamic tension of the whole they are jointly creating in the present moment. When we perceive contact in this way, it becomes much more than just touching something at the contact-boundary (like, when I handle a grape and feel its smoothness and plumpness) or tasting the other person’s difference (for instance, when I experience my disagreement or my curiosity towards what the other person is saying or doing). From the perspective of Gestalt therapy, contact represents aggression, thanks to which there is a reorganisation and something new is beingcreated. The term ‘aggression’ is used in gestalt therapy ‘in its root Latin sense of action, reaching out, handling, dealing with’, and all the behaviours that ‘can be roughly summed up as outwardly-directed action’ (Houston 2006, p. 20).
Co-creation in final contact
The boundary contact not only brings the individual and the world together; this process can be understood more literally – as a mutual penetration of the individual by the world and the world by the individual. In this sense, like one of my teachers, Carol Siederer contemplates Gestalt therapy is a psychodynamic approach, as it deals with the dynamics of the flow at the contact-boundary (personal conversation). The participants of such a fully engaging contact process transform each other, re-create themselves anew and define each other, just as they do in parent-child or a marital relationship. It is the process of mutual metamorphosis, transfiguration, and transformation. This is also the case in therapy, in relationship between therapist and client.
‘Contact is not a passive process of perceiving an unchanging objective reality, but rather the creation of reality as it is revealed during direct experience of it. Contact in this sense is the interactive and creative, “real” creation of meanings in the midst of which we then come to live.’ (Beaumont, 1994, p. 100)
The same is true of the process of writing this essay, which is the result of my internal dialogue with imaginary readers. The guiding thread of my essay is like a braid woven from personal experiences and reflections, from events I have witnessed, from books I have read and felt moved by, from the ideas of other therapists and from my dialogues with my colleagues; it is combined again and again with my imagination of what might move and interest you, the readers of my essay. At the same time, I am aware that what I am creating will be deconstructed anew by you based on your own knowledge, beliefs and expectations, the broad background of your experience, and the context in which you will read this piece.
Pablo Picasso once said in conversation with Christian Zervos (1935) that ‘the painting is not thought and pre-set in advance. While you create it, it follows your thought processes. Once finished, it changes even more, according to the observer’s state-of-mind. A painting lives its life like a living being, experiencing changes everyday life imposes. This is totally natural as a painting only lives when a person looks at it. (…) When one begins to paint, one never knows what will come of it. When it ends, you also do not know.’ (Zervos, 1935, p. 173-174)
Even more aware of the creative aspect of contact in the world of arts, on the part of both creator and recipient, was Marcel Duchamp, a pioneer of the Dada movement who questioned long-held assumptions about what art should be. (By the way, the subversive attitude of the Dada movement with its rejection of all convention and seeing aggressiveness as a constructive force, had a significant influence on young Frederick Perls when growing up in the avant-garde culture of the early 1900s in Berlin; Bocian, 2010.)
Duchamp was an inventor of the concept of ‘ready-mades,’ which refers to the use of an ordinary object, most often previously manufactured, in a new context as a work of art. His most famous ‘ready-made’ was ‘The Fountain,’ an ordinary urinal signed by the artist with the name of an alleged sanitary ware manufacturer R. Mutt. It was exhibited in an art gallery in New York in 1917. ‘Ready-mades’ disrupted centuries of thinking about the artist’s role as a skilled creator of original handmade objects. In doing so, Duchamp paved the way for conceptual art – work that was ‘in service of the mind,’ as opposed to a purely ‘retinal’ art, intended only to please the eye. He believed that it is the recipient who creates the art through the process of active perception – which may involve the destruction of assumed meanings and the creation of new meanings (Arnason & Prather, 1998, p. 274).
From this perspective, each and every person is the creator of their reality whether it is a painting, a sculpture, or an individual existence. Every now and then a person becomes an artist when what they have created offers a novel interpretation of reality, moves an audience, raises important questions, or aesthetically impacts the viewer. It is the case when a satisfied creator departs and their work continues pulsating with life, already on its own and touching those who come into contact with it. To illustrate the creative quality that characterises the phenomenon of contact between individual and environment I will refer to a short passage from ‘The God of Small Things’ – a magical and complex novel by an Indian writer Arundhati Roy, whose use of words and phrases has power to touch a reader:
‘He began to swim towards her. Quietly. Cutting through the water with no fuss. He had almost reached the bank when she looked up and saw him. His feet touched the muddy riverbed. As he rose from the dark river and walked up the stone steps, she saw that the world they stood in was his. That he belonged to it. That it belonged to him. The water. The mud. The trees. The fish. The stars. He moved so easily through it. As she watched him she understood the quality of his beauty. How his labour had shaped him. How the wood he fashioned had fashioned him. Each plank he planed, each nail he drove, each thing he made, had moulded him. Had left its stamp on him. Had given him his strength, his supple grace.’ (Roy, 1997, pp. 333-334)
The same is true of the relationship that musicians experience with the instrument they play. While most musicians perform on stage with their own instruments, for a pianist who is usually forced to play on a piano belonging to a concert hall, meeting a new instrument, touching it for the very first time is a momentous event. Here is what a Russian pianist Boris Giltburg (2015) says about this experience:
‘You enter the hall; the instrument is on the stage; you approach, take off your watch, empty your pockets of wallet and phone, sit down, adjust the bench. (…) You play something: a chord; a passage; a few bars. At once the piano ceases to be a generic specimen of the grand piano genus, and becomes the most concrete, tangible thing there is. This is the piano you are going to play tonight, and your encounter has just begun. (…) Each piano is unique. (…) The contrast in sound between different models, or between pianos made in different years or from different companies will be even more apparent. (…) Spending time with a good piano is rewarding: there is always something more to discover in its tone. (…) A good piano’s ability to influence playing can, however, like a good conversation partner, offer new interpretive directions; instead of forcing our will on the instrument, we are flexible, remain attentive to its tonal character and try to connect with it in an organic way. And so each concert becomes a voyage of discovery and you are kept alert, curious to find out how the Beethoven, the Ravel or the Rachmaninov will sound tonight.’
Inspired by the above words of the pianist, Natalia Żuk – a Polish Gestalt psychotherapist, who was assisting me with editing the original version of my essay in Polish, observed that the same process characterises a therapeutic encounter: ‘people we pass on the street are like anonymous pianos from a concert hall; the first time we come into contact with them in our consulting room, they become unique;’ they become ‘our clients’ (personal conversation).
A relationship based upon I-Thou dialogue is a particular form of mutual contact that occurs between two persons. In the philosophy of dialogue of Martin Buber, an Austrian philosopher and scholar of the Jewish traditions of Judaism and Hasidism, I-Thou encounter is contrasted with our everyday I-It relating, in which the other person is experienced as an object to be influenced or used — a means to an end. In the I-Thou relationship, the other person loses for us the temporal-spatial and psychological dimensions; instead, there is a committed dialogue that takes over the organising function of our encounter, as in authentic relating, where the focus is the human connection and wholeness. The same is true of a tune in music, in which individual notes cease to be important, and instead we are affected by its form, rhythm, or speed. In dialogic contact, the figure of interest for both persons becomes their interaction with each other. What matters most is then the quality of our encounter. Buber states:
‘The primary word I–Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.’ (Buber, 1937)
I believe that the words of Maria João Pires in particular, capture the essence of contact based on dialogue. During a class with young musicians, the recording of which formed part of a BBC Four TV programme entitled ‘Being a Concert Pianist,’ this renowned Portuguese pianist said that having notes or technique was not enough of a guide for her. To be able to perform one must play not from the head but from the feeling. ‘During the performance, normally I try to be away from my thoughts,’ revealed the artist.
‘I try not to be in my brain and to be more in my body, and try to feel comfortable, and not be outside myself. So I don’t look at myself. I don’t criticise. I try to just be there. For me, it’s the best way. Otherwise, if I start to think too much – wanting things, wanting to play well – then I start to be very stiff, and sometimes I can’t give my best. (…) The breathing is the most important thing in music. So that’s the only thing I can tell you, the breathing, the space and the quietness of the space. I think it influences people in a sense where they’re not afraid of silence and they’re not afraid of breathing and being open. So perhaps you could be convinced to close yourself less than you do normally, and to have less fear of approaching things in the right way. It means that if you are open, you approach things in the right way. And we cannot survive without breathing, so the breathing is our first knowledge.’
Pires asserts that she, as many other musicians, is often no longer active when playing music, but instead she becomes a passive ‘intermediary’ who shares the music with their listening audience. ‘It’s the music that makes us play. It’s not us who play the music. And that’s what I feel deeply when I approach a new score or a new piece. I always have this feeling, to have the score as a guide, and then the music as a guide. Instead of, “I’m going to play this, and this is me who plays.” I don’t feel that so strongly. I feel much more that the music takes us, teaches us. (…) I think every great piece can change you, can influence you and can give you the energy that it had, that the composer put into it. So if you don’t close yourself to that energy and to that experience, then it influences you for sure.’
The same happens during the psychotherapeutic process when a therapist is able to momentarily forget the various theories and techniques in which they are proficient and instead engages in a direct meeting with their client. I come into contact with the person sitting across from me with my entire being: emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. The focus of my concentration becomes the person of a client who sits in front – their unique body, their thoughts, feelings, what they say and don’t say, and their unique life situation; there is nothing else that is more important to me at this time. Such conditions might just at times lead to I-Thou meeting that is by itself an integrative experience.
I recall what Rich Hycner, author of ‘Between Person and Person,’ once said about dialogue- based psychotherapy. For him, psychotherapy is the nurturing of the soul, while therapeutic diagnosis is nothing other than getting to know the other person in relationship. This extremely responsible task requires the psychotherapist to be a researcher as well as an artist in equal measure, which is only possible through total focus on the situation of contact; just as it is in Eastern philosophies, e.g. Zen Buddhism or Tao; (Hycner, 2006).
‘This total focus is a complete acceptance of what is; a rejection of the pursuit of any ideal.’ ‘Putting down roots in our being here-and-now with the other person, allowing ourselves to be with him or her as we are, frees and opens us up all at once to the other person. Paradoxically, we become ourselves in relationship with another person.’
This is a unique phenomenon, because our reality is by nature temporary, it exists only in the moment: with this person here, in this meeting, I become aware of whom I am here-and-now in relationship with the other person, and vice versa.
‘Our dialogue is shaped as much by the present of our encounter as it is by our two distinct life histories, including the stigma imprinted by the failures of our former relationships, most notably, but not only, those that occurred in childhood.’ ‘This fully aware moment spent in the presence of another person, even if extremely brief, can radically change us. Anxiety dissolves and any blockages dissolve. The perception of the world around us, as well as of ourselves, changes. It is enough for us to enter with full attention into contact with the other person, here-and-now, from moment to moment. This is the mystery of the therapeutic encounter.’ (Hycner, 2006)
A Rhapsody of Contact
Now, being a classical music lover, I want to share here my phenomenological observations of a concert that featured a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.’ Although I had known this piece before, on this occasion it resonated in my ears and heart totally anew, as a metaphor for the process of contact that I was writing about at the time. I found myself engaging with this music in the same way as, at times, I become absorbed in a live dialogue with people; on this occasion, Paganini, Rachmaninoff, and me.
‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ consists of twenty-four variations in which NiccoloPaganini’s theme, the famous solo violin Caprice No. 24, is subjected to the most varied melodic, rhythmic and textural transformations. The composition of the work falls distinctly into three sections: introduction, central point, which is formed by the lyrical motif of the Eighteenth Variation, and resolution. The invention of ‘Rhapsody…’ is so spontaneous that divisions between single variations are scarcely discernible. An unusual feature of the piece is that the first movement contains no announcement of the theme. Only later, as I followed the music, which tentatively suggests Paganini’s leitmotif, did I become aware of the main theme, although attempts at a closer connection were left unfinished. Some variations here are like scarcely visible gestalten, lasting only short time.
The final contact of music of two artists results in a gorgeous melody of a haunting nocturne based on the inversion of the main theme. Perhaps nostalgia for Russia, from which Rachmaninoff had left before writing this composition, made the composer weave into his work the mournful melody of a medieval sequence ‘Dies Irae.’ In the presence of the beautiful new creation, I could hardly notice what still belonged to Paganini and what had already been the Rachmaninoff’s interpretation. The whole piece concludes with some further variations that provide support for the process of separation from the theme of ‘Rhapsody…’ and return to a ‘point of balance’.
Listening to this music enabled me to grasp the processual quality of contact as a gestalt formation; the creation of new figure with its ‘observable properties of brightness, clarity, unity, fascination, grace, vigour and release’ against the ground of the individual/environment relationship (Perls et al., 1951, p. 231).
‘Rhapsody…’ has provided me also with a superb illustration of the fluid nature of so called ‘good contact’. At the beginning of Rachmaninoff’s piece, I could hear how his composition moved again and again forward, towards the Paganini’s Caprice and back. Structure of earlier variations seamed uneven, their shape not fixed, as if the composer was extending himself in search for the creative inspiration. As a listener, I tracked the seemingly fluid process of gestalt formation and destruction from one variation to another through the whole of Rachmaninoff’s piece where the contact and withdrawal alternated with each other. At the same time when I zoomed out, I became aware of ‘Rhapsody…’ being like the ‘sequence of contact’ that proceeded through the successive stages of fore-contact, contacting, final contact and post- contact until the complete withdrawal and rest that commenced only after the music had already stopped.
I provide a web link here where the reader can experience and taste this piece of music for themselves played by Anna Fedorova and Philharmonie Südwestfalen under Gerard Oskamp: https://youtu.be/ppJ5uITLECE.
Natalia Żuk, who helped me edit the Polish version of this essay six years ago, drew my attention to the fact that the nature of contact is like ‘weaving the in-between’. Reading about my experience at the concert, she became interested in the etymology of the word ‘rhapsody,’ which, as it turned out, referred initially to a form of singing or recitation that originated in the ancient Greek tradition, and which can be loosely translated as ‘woven music’. Looking into this in more detail I was able to establish that the ancient Greek word ‘ῥαψῳδός’, ‘rhapsode’ or a rhapsodist, was in fact a ‘name for the wandering oral storyteller of an oral culture’, who in the ancient times would as much sing as narrate, ‘stitch together’ or ‘weave’ (rhaptein) one song or plot element to another and keep the public present and engaged. This definition makes noteworthy the many references to ‘weaving’ in the Homer’s ‘Odyssey’.
Further on in my research I have found that Socrates was quoted to say (in one of the shortest of the Plato’s dialogues, ‘Ion’) that ‘rhapsodists were the interpreters of the poets’ and, even more intriguingly, through his character Socrates, argued that ‘Ion’s talent as an interpreter cannot be an art, a definable body of knowledge or an ordered system of skills, but instead must come from the divine inspiration of the Muses’ (Barrish, 1981, p. 12).
This concept of a supernatural force, typically a deity, causing a person or people to experience a creative desire can be found throughout ancient mythology, inasmuch as in religious texts of Hinduism, Islam and western Christianity, and has usually been explained as a manifestation of complete absorption in God, or enlightened behaviour by persons who have transcended ego and societal norms (McLeod 2009, p. 158-165; DiValerio 2011, p. iii). Is there a better depiction of the transformative characteristic of the phenomenon of contact than that?
Plato talks of four divine inspirations or ‘mania’ that perfect the soul, the first of which, ‘Poetic or Musical, inspired by The Muses, brings the disordered parts of the soul into harmony;’ (‘Shrine of Wisdom Magazine’, 1926-7, 29-31). The above description of healing of the soul through the complete immersion in music and poetry reminded me of a Gestalt experiment invented by Perls et al. (1951) in order ‘to become sensitive to the emotional experiences’ by visiting a gallery of paintings, which might just offer an instant remedy to the imbalances of the personality:
‘… overbalances are always accompanied by underbalances in other spheres. The reestablishment of harmony and integration comes about through unblocking what is blocked. This previously impoverished side of the personality will then claim its share of energy and attention and the hypertrophy will disappear.’ (p. 102)
This sounds to me like just another way of thinking about contact, although at this point we are talking about the process of creating conditions to support the rise of awareness leading to re-establishment of balance and integration.
As a result of my research into etymology of the word ‘rhapsody’ and dialogue with Natalia, I became aware in the instant of the coherence of these essentially different activities, music making and weaving, while Natalia came up with both a poetic and palpably concrete definition that captures the nature of the process of contacting: ‘contact is like weaving the in- between.’
I smile when I remind myself again of the creative power of contact. Full of awareness, contact between Natalia and I had led us to form new meaningful wholes, which neither of us separately could possibly create. ‘The awareness is not a thought about the problem but is itself a creative integration of the problem.’ (Perls et al., 1951, p 233). I feel the need to shout out loud like Theodore Adorno (1952) who when moved to the depths by Wagner’s music exclaimed: ‘It is not without reason that the innovative emotion-filled sound of the violin is counted among the greatest inventions of the age of Descartes!’
Entering into a direct, engaged, aware contact with any material or person allows formation of new concrete meanings, our reality.
Gestalt therapy emphasises the equal value of all three spheres of awareness: the one directed to the outside world through the senses, as well as the one directed inwards – body sensations and emotions, and the cognitive-intuitive sphere which mediates between them and whose content are thoughts, memories, imagination, and metaphor. Only through a balanced drawing on experience from all three spheres of awareness is an individual able to perceive the situation accurately and to respond to it appropriately. I would also add the spiritual or ‘divine’ sphere of awareness that in my view complements the other three.
I believe that what took place between Natalia and I, in the process of working together on my original article was just such a situation. Her framing of contact as ‘weaving the in- between’ had led me to pay direct attention to the process of our relationship in the here and now. I felt that we were both so engaged in the process of exploring the phenomenon of contact, and so absorbed in our dialogue that at times we almost ceased to exist separately. It was our committed encounter, the fullness of our contact, so to speak, that took over at that moment. The free flow of consciousness that briefly existed in these moments was truly like ‘weaving the in-between’: an uninterrupted dialogue via webmail where emails circulated between us like a weaver’s shuttle, slipping again and again between the two threads of the loom and flipping the thread back and forth, back and forth. It was in this way that we worked together to give the final shape to my essay that was then handed to the readers. I now present it once more, this time in English and in a slightly changed form to you readers of the UKAGP newsletter in the hope that it will stimulate you to reflect more on what contact means to you.
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The main picture: Ian McKeever, Four Quartet Series, Here No. 5 (2002) ‘… painting represents a moving through: the figure is regained through abstraction, form is found through the painting, the canvas is a threshold, a door.’ The above painting is from McKeever’s Assembly series, which is one in a group of four series that collectively form the body of work, Four Quartets. McKeever began Four Quartets in 2001 and took the title from TS Eliot’s poem of the same name. There are no literal connections or direct references to the poem within the works but the poem resonates within the paintings. (Martin Caiger-Smith in Ian McKeever ‘The Space Between Words,’ 2007)
Piotr Mierkowski, MA Dip Psych is a psychologist, psychotherapist, supervisor and international trainer passionate about Gestalt therapy. In practice in London since 1991. Graduate of the Gestalt Centre London, where he is now a visiting trainer. Areas of his clinical expertise include relationships, life transitions, creativity, sexuality, love and loss.
He has considerable training in body therapy and extensive therapeutic experience with gender, sex, and relationship diverse people who are also part of another racial, ethnic, language minority. His approach is gentle and invitational that nurtures a person’s authentic self, facilitates choices and self-expression, and increases capacity for intimacy. Piotr is bilingual (English/Polish) and works with individuals, couples and groups; now exclusively online. UKCP registered, MBACP (Accredited).