Robert Martin, D.S.W. - 1930 - 1996

A long time ago, in the 1960's, representatives from Gestalt Institutes around the U.S.A. gathered in Cleveland, to try to work out an interrelationship that would help give cohesion and direction to our disconnected organizations. I remember only two things about that meeting. One was that our various organizations had as little intercommunication after the meeting as before. The other memory is of Bob Martin, who was representing Los Angeles.

I can see him sitting across the room. He said very little and looked like he had been dropped into the room by some unseen hand. As far I could tell, he could easily have been a Tibetan mystic, a Russian spy, a reincarnated Don Quixote, a brooding Irish poet. With all such intriguing images, his silence only kept my curiosity alive. His silence seemed like alertness without insistence and availability without invitation. I felt like at a moment's notice it could turn into vibrancy, surprise, assent, contradiction; nothing foretold, nothing excluded. So, normally shy about conversations, during the break, I moved toward him anyway and the two of us talked; two silences playing at words, on the verge of blushing, like two adolescents who had no outlines or habits to tell us how to talk. We formed a bond, which was unsupported by anything we said to each other, a bright vacuum.

That was that. Then, some few years later I moved to San Diego and Bob invited me to Los Angeles to do a series of workshops. I could see how beloved he was in his home circle and how generous and warm he was in introducing me to people, helping 'tie at a time of need in starting a new life. But he was still mysterious; no longer, however, the mystery of inexpressibility but, as is true of a certain few people, the mystery of simplicity and clarity, where much having been said, there is still much unsaid.

Bob was very much a man of the mind giving homage to the power of individuals to carve out their own lives, transcending the biological, social or circumstantial givens. He pruned his own experiences carefully, cutting out much of the clutter which compromises the mind. For him, therefore, to have had to allow the poisons of chemotherapy into his life was an irony which did not escape his notice. Nor did he fail to notice the worst part of dying to be not only the indignities and pain we see people enduring but rather that it upstages the beauties of our lives. He put this anti-climatic shadow into relief in his last words to me in a letter shortly before his death when he said, "I am tired of having so much of my consciousness preoccupied with health.. .I miss my strength, my vitality, my humor, my independence, my sense of contributing and carrying my own weight, not to mention my sexuality . . . Sometimes when I am more enlightened I can be with the experience without comparing it to how I've been or how I want to be." In these words I could feel the surmounting spirit, which kept alive his sense of his familiar style, glimpsed through the shadows of his deepest illness.

As a Gestalt therapist, his wisdom was grounded in a solid understanding of familiar gestalt principles, but he stretched beyond this into more exotic beliefs. For one example, he was a student of energy flow. He believed in the powers of each person to direct that flow. Nothing surprising about that. But his belief was raw, certainly more raw than mine. One day when we were talking about the ins and outs of human energy, he observed that it's possible that some day a human being might not have to eat. After blinking a little I asked where he thought our energy might come from. His answer was simple; the sun. He proceeded to talk about chakras and to show me how to use chakras. As I lay down for him to demonstrate the process for me, he sensitively passed his hands several inches above my body, invoking a distinct increase in warmth as the chakra areas were specifically passed over. Notwithstanding my theoretical reservations about either of his views, I was captivated by his boldness and his saying yes to seeing things freshly and to welcoming the unknown regions of human possibility.

Though I was intrigued by his exotic ideas, what impressed me most about Bob was how masterful he was in the basics of the gestalt process, following his patients step by step into experiments which were so faithful to the simple directions each of their statements implied that they would mellifluously roll into the most self-realizing, fantasy-like elaborations of the themes of their lives. When I have seen him work, what he did seemed so easy, so minimally intrusive, just adding a little color here and an arc of experience there, a suggestive enlargement of what was already there. The people I have seen him work with seemed altogether at home with him, trusting his intuitions and the safety of taking new trips with him.

Part of this security on the risky journey came from his belief in the paradoxical theory of change, as proposed by his colleague, Arnold Beisser. Everything is O.K. even while it also must change. This open-mindedness started with Bob's own hospitality to apparent contradictions. He could be both earthbound and surrealistic, practical and idealistic, creative and mundane, shy and adventurous, sober and hilarious. His hilarity quotient was especially high and the two of us would tap into each other's funny bone in rare adolescent revelry. Bob was one of only a few people I could laugh boy-antly with about almost anything, maybe even if he had done nothing but call out the number "23!". He was also uncluttered in his dealings with people by any sense of personal aggrandizement or by a need to nurse any particular image of himself. He was just as he was, asking for nothing more than to tune into his own circle of people; his wife, Kirsten, his daughter Tasha, his friends and his students.

I ponder sadly about the loss to the gestalt therapy community of his move away from the middle of theoretical and organizational action. The reduction of Bob's involvement in national and international gestalt events, once he moved to Portland, also makes me think more generally about the dynamic of who gets heard and who doesn't. This dynamic is composed of a puzzling mixture of style, ambition, expressive vehicles, politics and which message the community cares to hear. Whatever this dynamic is and whatever powers we, in the community, may have to direct it, one of our topmost teachers and practitioners has died, leaving us with a lesser sense of his mind than he merited. Through no "fault" of either him or those of us who remain, it is a long time since Bob Martin has been heard from in any national format. He did not write; he did not travel; he did not seek recognition; he did not socialize outside his circles. That may have been good for him as he reduced the complications in his life and retained a personal clarity, which is too often compromised by the half-baked communications among distant people whose words often slip past each other. Whatever the dynamics are for being heard, I think Bob Martin represents a missed opportunity for gestalt therapy to tap into the talents of varied practitioners.

There is probably no escape from missed opportunities. To lament for the moment about the waste slows me down a little, though, in this fast passage of ourselves, sometimes bonded with each other and sometimes tantalizingly out of reach. It is especially good, therefore, to have the opportunity here to say out loud that I have missed Bob as a buddy in teaching and thinking and experimenting -- and to express how much I loved the way our minds, different though they were, challenged each other to stretch into the other's way of thinking. I am ruefully aware of how beautiful it would be if I could believe Bob hears me now, within his still mysterious silence.

Erving Polster, Ph.D.
Co-Director - The Gestalt Training Center - San Diego
Author:  Every Person's Life is Worth a Novel

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