The Whole Intelligence Manifesto: A Gestalt Journey

Malcolm Parlett

“Have you moved away from gestalt?”, Simone asked me, a little accusingly. I had sent her a link to my Whole Intelligence Manifesto and her first impressions were that gestalt was little mentioned.

“No I haven’t!” I replied, “I’m as committed to the gestalt approach as I’ve ever been. The Manifesto I sent you is full of gestalt experience – but gestalt viewed from a different angle for a different purpose”.

Simone is the daughter of an old friend of mine. She recently qualified as a gestalt counsellor. She was enthusiastic about the effects of her therapy and training: “I’m more spontaneous, more grown up”. She paused: “But I don’t feel I’m more intelligent, in fact I’ve needed to move away from being so heady, to being more in my body”.

Her remark shocked me. It revealed a possible confusion for others as well. The whole point of the Manifesto is to challenge the automatic superiority of academic values, elevating conceptual knowing and abstract thinking above all other forms of human knowing. Rather than a super-concentration on intellect and skill in manipulating words and numbers, I want to promote an altogether more inclusive and holistic view of how human beings can “act intelligently”: which in today’s world conditions is surely humanity’s most urgent need. Opting to speak of “Whole” Intelligence was a deliberate raid on a pivotal concept in general circulation. 

Gestalt therapy supports diverse ways in which people and groups can grow and differentiate. I want to convey the all-round nature of healthy development fuelled by the urge to grow, learn, and self-actualise. People act intelligently, whether or not they have been “educated”. My conviction is that even if gestalt practitioners do not explicitly have “aims”, they are supportive of “Whole Intelligence” as I am describing it.

Simone’s (and maybe others’) misunderstanding of the Manifesto made me realise I needed to tell the story of how I came to write it.

Beginnings

I trained in gestalt at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland in the USA in the late 1970s. The experience was wonderful for me, as rich and exciting as Simone’s experiences have been for her, half a century later. Soon after arriving back in Britain in 1980, I began to practise, and then to teach. By the late 1990s, I was deeply involved in offering gestalt training and had a large therapy practice. For clients and trainees, as for myself, immersion in the gestalt approach appeared to change their lives – freeing them up, allowing hidden potentialities to emerge. 

What patterns of development did a gestalt education foster and stimulate?

I puzzled over this for some time. Suddenly one morning, I realised I could distinguish five different ways in which students and clients seemed to change as a result of their experiencing gestalt.

  1. Through switching chairs (literally or metaphorically), trainees and clients were becoming less fixed in how they viewed their personal world; more agile in exercising choice; better able to handle fluid conditions; and more conscious of the scope of their “response-ability”. (I called this their ability to respond to the situation).
  2. They were relating to others in an intersubjective field in which they were invited to practise open, authentic, contact-rich communication. As co-creators of this relational field, they were learning to respect and listen to others and to handle relational dynamics like conflict and confluence with more skill and confidence. (They had increased facility in interrelating).
  3.  Trainees and clients became less desensitised, more in touch with their physical bodies, sensations, emotions, and desires. They discovered they could express their feelings safely to available others. Posture and voice quality often shifted, movements became more fluid. (They were becoming more embodied).
  4. They developed greater awareness of their personal process, changing needs, and habitual “contact modulations”. Listened to, they became more “meta-aware” (aware of their awareness), and created a fuller narrative of how their lives were changing. (They were self-recognising more). 
  5. Encouraged to be more open to questioning fixtures and habits they became more willing to try things out for the first time, and taking small steps into the unknown, extending their reach and drawing on supportive familiarities if the novelty proved too much.(They experimented more).

These were the “five abilities” or modes of development that I identified back around 1997. It was a rough and ready schema, with lots of variation between people; and my selection (“how I cut the learning cake”) was subjective. Obviously they were not independent categories, but they made sense as valued gestalt priorities, as varieties of creative adjustment, or as supports of self-functioning within the organism/environment field. As “gestalt learnings” they had not been specified or written about in these ways before.

I started writing about the five abilities soon after the millennium (e.g. Parlett 2000). In the two decades following, a number of further developments occurred in my thinking. 

Exporting the ideas beyond gestalt

Very soon after first formulating them, I began to think that perhaps the five abilities had wider relevance. Other people professionals and their organisations might benefit from cultivating the same abilities, for example, teachers, managers, medics, as well as leaders and political activists. In other words, I was already thinking of the abilities having a life outside the context of gestalt therapy. 

There was another enthusiasm close to my heart. Gestalt deserved to be better known. I was keen to communicate gestalt ideas and practices more widely. I wanted the British Gestalt Journal (which I edited at the time) to “infect” other approaches to therapy and consultation, and key ideas – especially gestalt field theory – to have wider influence in the world at large. Maybe the five abilities could also be a means to expand gestalt’s public profile.

The new millennium brought new stimulus for thinking about world-scale human problems. I began to think of the five abilities as five “human strengths” that could help counter mental ill-health, support resilience, and empower the disadvantaged. I wrote a book in 2003 on these lines but feared the ideas were too “far out” and grandiose to publish. The manuscript served as an unpublished prequel to Future Sense: Five explorations of Whole Intelligence for a world that’s waking up that did come out, though not till  2015, by which time my fear of grandiosity had reduced to levels I could manage.

“Explorations” and “Whole Intelligence” 

Two other developments are highlighted in the subtitle of Future Sense

Through this long period of developing my ideas, gestalt thinking was also moving towards the ”field/relational” emphasis that characterises present day gestalt. I was critically asking myself whether the language of abilities was too individualistic, “having abilities” suggesting something like “personal possessions”. Yet whole groups and organisations could manifest, suppress, or support them. It felt more accurate to call them “explorations” – something to engage with, make sense of, inquire into, allow oneself to be influenced by. Suspicions of personal “achievement” were reduced. 

The term “Whole Intelligence” came about through needing a generic term to encompass all five explorations, which were inextricably entangled, interdependent, and mutually necessary. Each exploration was a dimension of a composite whole.

Between Book and Manifesto

The book (Future Sense) went into a lot more detail concerning the five abilities/ explorations than had appeared previously in print. It focused on the complexity of living in the contemporary era; our basic ecological condition; and the opportunity for each person, leader, community, or organisation to make a difference – by aligning with the values and principles of the explorations, sampling, encouraging, and applying them. For those without a gestalt education, such engagement is a challenge.

A number of therapists and organisational consultants in five different countries  (several have recently joined me as research fellows in this project) have built on ideas of Future Sense to underpin their organisational practice. They report that people intuitively grasp the meaning of Whole Intelligence, and that there’s hunger to deepen and apply the ideas in practical ways. The values communicated– fundamentally gestalt values – are seen as globally relevant and urgently necessary.

I expressed to Simone my excitement on realising how the ideas of my book were traveling far afield, assisted through podcasts, lectures, interviews, and webinars. I am not sure when exactly the idea of issuing a manifesto arrived, but the seed was planted, and it has now appeared. It’s more an ongoing inquiry, a manifesto-in-perpetual-making, with a growing online community, than a fixed, let alone final, statement. 

Ultimately, the success of the Manifesto rests on the validity of its gestalt origins: our field sensitivity, dialogic relating, body emphasis, awareness work, and emphasis on experimenting in the present moment, all integrated in a different way for a different purpose. The different purpose is the need for us all to engage with the global crises facing humanity with all that we know and love. Maybe it IS ambitious….and also necessary.

(The Whole Intelligence Manifesto can be found at www.wholeintelligence.org). 

Parlett, M.(2000) Creative adjustment and the global field, British Gestalt Journal, vol.9, no1.

Parlett, M. (2015) Future Sense: Five explorations of whole intelligence for a world that’s waking up, Leicester: Troubador

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This page first appeared in the UKAGP Newsletter. View the Newsletter here.