Stolen by Gypsies
by Erving Polster, Ph.D.
This article original appeared as a chapter in Arthur Burton's Twelve Therapists published by Jossey-Bass in 1972.
When I was four my mother, transplanted from Czechoslovakia, used to tell me stories about gypsies who steal children. Standing head-high to her ironing board in unblinking absorption, I heard about children with fairy names, such as Jobbela-Bobbela. They were always transcendentally dear to their parents. The stories I remember best are the ones in which the gypsies stole these children just because they loved them and had no inhibitions about stealing them. They reared them as princes. The children, nevertheless, always longed to find their lost homes where their primal familiarity would be restored.
Mother got me right there, entering my psyche with her own homing surge. Even now, at fifty, I still struggle between my love for what is familiar to me and my search for novel experience. My internal dialogue between familiarity and novelty would go something like this:
Familiarity: I know the old days well. I never have to make it with the people I knew a long time ago, family or friends. They never judged me except momentarily, nor I them. That's how I like life to be. If anything I do doesn't include that, forget it.
Novelty: Bullshit. You could rot that way. Unjudgmental loving is overrated. You have always been too impressed with that. You're just too lazy and scared to do the things necessary for changing your world. People can judge me any way they want. I want new and I'll take care of the consequences.
F: Lazy, my ass! You misjudge serenity for laziness and you have made a god out of ambition. Where do you think you're headed? You must know none of us will get out of this thing alive and the constant struggle for new worlds won't get you any closer to what you want than the basic ways you're familiar with. Ambition!
N: Yes, of course we are all going to the same place but I want to be fresh until I get there and not hang onto staleness and safety just because I am going to die someday. I would like death to represent a change in my life.
F: Well, you have a point there, but you should know that if you don't pay attention to me you can very easily get frenetic and grow, grow, grow without ever tasting your experiences.
N: I know. That's not really how I am, though. I feel fresh only when I taste my experiences and then when that happens they all seem very familiar to me. Familiar at the roots of me.
F: There you are, familiar, that's me, and I am the ticket. Not whether something happened before but whether the feelings are the ones I know from deep inside. OK, if you and I can keep getting those familiar feelings I don't care whether the events and places are the same or not.
N: Now you're talking more like a person I can live with.
Even in the face of mother's unwitting brainwash it is plain that what I am calling primal familiarity can only be recycled through new events, old sensations being repeatedly reincarnated. The basic sensations accompanying such qualities as absorption, awe, shame, or delight may remain the same all through life. Since such universal awareness is polymorphously present, having no predetermined subject matter, it is possible to feel the same agelessness at eighty as one does at eight. I am recurrently mystified by the fact that my age keeps changing and yet I remain the same in my native awareness, not counting the aches and pains. I experience myself differently now but not so much in my primal quality as in the content of what I am doing, like appearing on TV; or in new perspectives, like not wanting to work for a living, or in specific sensations, like the taste of a new Indian dish. I surely would not have been doing this, typing these words, when I was eight. Instead, I would have been throwing a ball up against the point of our front steps trying to catch the rebound and counting how many times I could do it in a row. The inner striving, attentiveness, and even adventure are quite the same, though. The details of what I am doing are important only because I could no longer get that old sensation throwing a ball against the steps, except perhaps as a momentary nostalgic act.
There is an infinite range of experiences that will give me the basic sense of familiarity, and paradoxically the more novel the experience is, the more likely it is that a primal familiarity will be part of it. I may get it with a stranger on an airplane. It may appear in awesome physical settings, such as the place where the Mediterranean and the Alps join. It may happen with someone I fall in love with for an evening at a cocktail party or with breaking into second wind while swimming. I felt it in my parents' bedroom when they were making love, when I was making butter in the kindergarten, on the roller coaster and the ball yard, on a holiday in the synagogue, when I first touched a girl's breast, meeting my brother in Little Rock, seeing my sister married, driving to the hospital knowing my mother had just died, seeing my wife rolled out of the delivery room or even just seeing her as I walk into the house, the birth of our two children and the death at birth of another, coming down from altitude after a bombing mission, a beer after sweating, a surprise meeting with an old friend, an ice cream cone. Then, of course, there is the experience as it may happen every day, like sitting with my feet under me, smiling at a light word, or remembering something that builds on another person's story.
All I need for this sense of primal familiarity is a favorable climate. When I am in a hospitable climate, my whole range of behavior is okay, whether I am hollering, lecturing, joking, listening, or even blanked out. However, when I am alienated from my surroundings or when I am ashamed of something I have done, there is no sense of familiarity in me, only an out-of4t foreignness. Then I have live through the sense of isolation. Until familiarity returns, I am in purgatory. Frequently, it is a silent purgatory, my very own; sometimes bereft, always alone.
The compulsion for a favorable climate is a root poison I have sucked on a long time; yet, paradoxically, as you will see, it mobilizes my movement in psychological theory and action. Until my adult years, I accepted life pretty much as it came, never creating new climates but operating tolerably well in those which were already hospitable. Under those conditions only half my cylinders were necessary, which was all right with me because I had very little ambition for life to be different from what it was, and in the still waters I lived in, half was plenty. When my own directions began to take root and my need to effect decisions appeared, abrasions came too. I began to care about things that were happening around me and I felt an urgency to be in the center of these happenings. In my first fights, during the early years of our gestalt institute, I lost two friends who left the institute. This was an unsettling experience and through it one aspect of me died and another was born. My exhilaration multiplied but my serenity took some severe lumps. Until I became an in4he-world professional and occasionally got my back up about this or that, I had been playing out an internal bargain to be a nice guy. Even in my early years as a therapist my patients rarely got angry with me and I wondered how that could happen. My colleagues didn't get angry at me either. Alas, I succeeded, at least somewhat, in working out my unavailability to anger. Again exhilaration and anxiety played in-out games. Not a bad bargain, says my presence, but my nostalgia doubts it. Nowadays, I am glad about anger, no matter how painful, when resolution results, but my existential friends can have it when the alienation comes. For many of the people I have admired the most, a conflict here or there adds spice to living and, as for resolution, they can take it or leave it. Apparently for me, utopia still goes a long way.
I did have an early utopia as the first grandchild in a tiny Czechoslovakian village of a man who had twelve children, the oldest of whom was my father. The celebration lasted six months, I have been told. What else was there to do in that village? Then, about time, the novelty wore off. Still, in spite of starting out in a rose garden and having lost my place in it, I never thought one way or another about love as I was growing up. No trouble, except that when it was absent, I simply didn't produce the way I could otherwise. That was safe enough because at home love was about as unconditional as it could be and I didn't have to produce. Such easy acceptance flowed like mother's milk -- but what I really needed was a stiff potion that would galvanize me into producing. Not that we didn't have a zillion hassles in our house, but love was never at stake in them so they did not have emergency quality. Mother could be angry, and frequently was, sometimes out of simple irritability and sometimes about charming improvisations like playing basketball in the living room. Her anger was a ripple in the water, though. She never placed any of us in a corner we couldn't get out of. Demands from her and protests from us were standard. Very often her demands would be met as a result of the fights. But hardly always. Nevertheless, there was never an ultimatum or a punishment in our household. I remember that she never even said a word about the pajamas I wore when I masturbated in bed. When they dried they would look like crackled paper. In my own innocence it never occurred to me that she would know. I would have been mortified. Now I realize that she could not have been that innocent and that she was simply remarkably decent to leave me alone in grace with my private discovery and not to spoil my fun, as she could have by intruding her own morality. A friend will do that, of course, giving the loved person the benefit of the doubt. That is something I really like with my friends and I think it is basic to friendship. Among people in the psychological world, generally, I have experienced over and over that kind of openness to another person's way, and whenever I do, I feel a glow, I feel I am in the right place.
A faraway land and a very little boy looking at his mother, she, fresh, ready to hold him when his movement brings him into her fold. As he rides into this seat of all) a message is breathed into the soul of his youngness, indelibly wafted into fresh nostril, and he will know such fragrance always.
Then, one day safety leaves and future comes. A lively gypsy, from an always foreign land, steals the inwards of his life and, though he loves the boy well, the bounds of his gypsy-otherness crease the future and trace a new course. Betraying the boy, in truth, the gypsy also blesses him later with a new primacy, showing him ways into the princely life as gypsy, unfettered by mother-will, beloved anew. The boy fills his welt with waters always foreign; rich, but made, not born of self.
Split Between Worlds
My high priority for primal familiarity was not fertilized, of course, only by mother's gypsy stories and her easy love but more pervasively by a split between being a foreigner and an American. I was brought to this country at two and stayed European for a long time thereafter because my home, family, religion, and neighborhood were all European. My sister, one year younger, and I were jokingly referred to as the Europeans and my brother, four years younger than I, was the American, having been born here. This country had charisma, which probably means there was a lot of food, drink, gangsterism, a newspaper in every household, radio, movies, masses of people, excitement and action, informality, and so on. Also, our vast extended family was reunited here. Furthermore, a person had a chance. I used to think about how lucky I was to be here and felt sorry for those who weren't. In my milieu it was always America this and America that, much as an anthropologist might describe a curious primitive island. I only caught glimpses of America, though -- in the movies, the department stores, in school, and at the ball park. After I entered school, the split grew and I lived in two worlds, home and out there. Out there all of us spoke English but I understood little of what was going on. At home, my mother always spoke Yiddish to me and I always spoke in English. Nevertheless, we understood each other perfectly.
The differences between my parents and me were just givens, hardly worth notice even though the split was a crucial one. For one thing, my parents knew next to nothing about most of the events of my life. Though this seemed okay, like breathing, it unconsciously accented the novelty of the world out there. Whereas we all grow up spellbound by new experiences, for me these were transformed into new worlds, accentuating not only the spell, as new experiences naturally would, but also emphasizing my own awkwardness and nonbelonging. When I first saw Santa Claus and later when I first played basketball in a Christian church or hitchhiked or heard stories about marijuana or talked to kids who had been to reform school, I was not only growing up but I was entering new worlds. When I would occasionally over the years relate "American" experiences to my parents or guests at home, they would smile at the incongruity or sometimes laugh hilariously, tickled by the ludicrous unreality, as though the stuff of movies had entered right into the house. Consequently, although I didn't verbalize it, even to myself, I always knew that I was on my own. This circumstance was underlined by the fact that I got my bachelor's degree, spent three years at war, and was already in my second year in graduate school when my father talked to me for the first time about my future. He asked me what this psychology thing was about and was I going to be able to make a living at it. I reassured him that it was going to be all right and he was satisfied, blessed with a strange faith in my own self-regulation. I wish I had had as much faith as he did.
He was a self-possessed man who struggled to support us all and tightened every muscle to keep his body and soul together during the depression. He asked for no help, guidance, or sympathy from anyone and he never gave me any, either. A war story about him, possibly apocryphal but probably literally true, is that he was sent to a Polish regiment in World War I. While living in the trenches he would pull out his Jewish prayer shawl and philacteries daily, binding them liturgically around himself, and pray. The fact that he did this among people, some of whom required only small arousal to slit a Jewish throat, didn't prevent him from doing what was a simple indispensability to him. Life was as simple as that. Fortunately for him, he was never a greedy man. He worked very hard, doing what he could, but never lusted for the world beyond, as I have. Even the most cunning gypsies would never tempt him.
My mother never had to venture into "America" as he did, nor did she ever try to. She was at home in our familial home, in our extended family, and in our neighborhood. In the thirty-four years she lived in this country, she never went outside the neighborhood alone. Not that she felt deprived because all she seemed to want existed within her familiar environment and she was not about to be taught the new possibilities by any of us. At home she could familiarly cook, beautiful; laugh, like music; scream, from a transparent mind, in panic, rage or exasperation; and tell stories, soft. She projected her inner nature reflexively and would sometimes rue the fact that, as she put it, what was on her lung was on her tongue. This also meant, though, that all
she had to do was say my name and I could feel her love. But she never was at home in "America" right up until the day she died, when she refused to accept the hospital's oxygen mask.
Somewhere along the borders of my awareness, I frequently felt a gnawing responsibility for my mother, and my sister, too. My father wasn't around because he worked too much. My brother was a simple pleasure, always a luminous person. He would often join in the games of us older boys. I would teach him athletics and just play with him. But I never needed to "do" anything for him. My mother and sister, though, wanted something from me which I could not identify. I was affected by my own feeling that women had a lousy fate in this world and I felt sorry for them. They seemed hemmed in. Nevertheless, I just copped out on them, anyway, going my own way most of the time. Later on, I had some of my warmest conversations ever with my sister. But in our earlier years all I felt was a lingering undertone that I should be more helpful and that I was defecting from my own basic urge to make everything right for her and mother. This urge, maybe more like an obligation then, may have been the psychotherapist budding in a corner of my life, waiting for its instrumentality. But what could I do then? Now I speculate that in my mistaken heart of hearts I was immobilized by the belief that making love was the unavailable instrumentality that would make it all okay.
I knew about the magical possibilities of sexuality in my crib, hearing my parents make love. I didn't know what they were doing but I did know that my mother made sounds altogether outside of my repertoire, strangely deep and from an opening that had to go beyond her throat. I was spellbound and probably fainted dead away but I experienced a pureness of attention in that room which is always present in the most fulfilling experiences in my life, especially, as it happens, in my therapy work. Nevertheless, I forgot about these experiences until I grew up and was left only with a nameless fantasy that one could press the good4ife button which in one stroke would bring radiance to people. I still have to say "down, boy," to that one. As for sexuality, it was so far removed from my actuality in childhood that, though I slept in the tiniest of rooms with both my brother and sister until I was fifteen, I never even saw her naked. Such a feat of legerdemain I have seen paralleled only on the beaches of France where, presto, people change in and out of their bathing suits without nudity. Needless to say, my sister and I both missed out on a good thing and I experienced an indispensable distance between me and girls even though I always longed for them.
It is still tempting to think that good sexuality will straighten out one's world and I have no doubt that the Reichian recognitions are magnificent insights into the urgency of orgastic potency. However, where they view the orgasm as the basic requirement of good life, to me it is only a prototypical event. That is, the conditions which accompany orgastic potency are also necessary for all other human potency. Muscular release, engagement of all relevant aspects of one's self, movement through resistance into smooth, exciting function, building then through climax and into release are all essential ingredients in moving to the greatest levels of human potency. This would apply not only to orgasm but also to functions as disparate as vomiting, planning a conference, or even writing a chapter for this book. Though sexual experience is nevertheless a central surge for me, I am also aware that I am at least equally nourished by scintillating conversation, a job really well done, or a time of hilarity. Invariably these register on a par with the most luminous orgasm. Even so, I would always choose the latter.
Moving beyond the home side of me, grade school came as the first of my other-world requirements. During my years in grade school I could not understand the contrast between my school behavior, on the one hand, and my behavior in my neighborhood or at home, on the other. At school I was vastly shy and uncommunicative, daydreamed a lot about saving girls from burning schools and other kindred exploits, and watched the clock interminably. I own a clock like that now and it hangs beautifully in my kitchen. School then was agonizingly boring. But in the neighborhood or at home there was always a lot of action and I was organically involved, more quiet than most but very absorbed and probably strangely serene. I excelled in nothing, yet because of some odd combination of incongruities in me, whenever there was a continuing grouping of people, like a ball team or a social club, I would find I was central, being voted captain or president. The major incongruity to me was between being a spot in the background at school, unnoticed and noncontributing, and being in the clear foreground in my home territory. Only in writing this now do I realize that I was making sure the gypsies couldn't catch me.
Not until graduate school, at Western Reserve University in 1946, did I find a scholastic metier where I experienced the primal familiarity I needed. Not only in school but also for the first time in America I finally became a meaningful participant as well as an awed observer. Luck was with me because I went into a beautiful department led by Calvin Hall, who was the most brilliant and inclusive man I knew and who was the person who turned me on to psychology in the first place. My cup ranneth over when I was recognized and included in the workings of that department. I was offered a responsible and exciting assistantship, doing therapy with undergraduates, and later a fellowship. I also became part of a psychoanalytic repartee that blew my mind open to tile knowability of persons. Nothing was sacred in that department. I operated there within an altogether new frame of mind, exploring unconscious sensibilities which had ripened long in me and broadening my view of nature almost unassimilably. We, faculty and students alike, presumptuously applied our recognition of each other's deep characteristics, adventurously and incisively confronting each other. We only barely escaped from hideousness by the hilarity of our humor, our abiding affection that transcended specific remarks, and our hardiness. The image of my being affected by castration anxiety or wanting to screw my mother or growing through the psychosexual stages was both ludicrous and compelling. When someone remarked about how deeply hidden my homosexuality was, I was profoundly shocked. I almost swallowed the psychoanalytic message hook, line, and sinker, a risky business but worth it to me. Even though I no longer accept the psychoanalytic perspective, I owe a lot to my willingness to be uncarpingly fascinated with it. Learning happens best for me when, through my intuition, I am willing temporarily to set aside my interferingly critical faculties, absorbing messages as given, as mother's milk or a nursery rhyme. Chewing comes later and is, of course, just as necessary. But my mind expanded by approaching psychoanalysis with the innocence that was native to me and by allowing my sophistication to develop organically. In any case, the new liturgy had timely relevance and was far more exciting to me than the orthodox Jewish liturgy had been even before I gave it up five or ten years earlier.
Once, at a family party, I explained to my uncle that I had been learning how we all pass through the oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages. He, unschooled and a man of great earthy exuberance, laughed with wide-eyed bawdiness at this ineffable union of the shithouse story and the advanced college education. He beamed in pride that I had been able to pull off such a union. Forever thereafter, even in the face of later missed contacts between us, he marveled at me, as though inexplicably I had become wise in ways he could not understand but which nevertheless must reflect indelible marks of my humanity. In our experience together at this party we bridged the twoworld quality which is a major theme in my life.
The two-world notion is, of course, the natural view of the foreigner, which is to say me. An idyllic view in one sense, because it is simple. Incongruities are not confusing. They are just set apart, each side in its own compartment. But for me, this view was doomed. Once I ventured into the gypsy world I became grandiose. I wanted to go beyond professionalism and exercise my commentary on the world out there. I wanted to experience my power to change it, to have a hand in creating it.
In spite of a new focus on the world out there, I continued to live at home through graduate school. Strangely, though I was already twenty-four when I entered, it never occurred to me to live anyplace else. For one thing, I was dead broke. For another, I had just finished a stint in the Air Force, and after bombing missions, it was a serene pleasure to live at home, where my movements were always my own anyway. In spite of the vastly new experience I was soaking in at school and the new camaraderie with other graduate students, my lifelong friends and my family were still the core of my community. The psychological world was becoming more and more compelling, though, and furthermore, at the end of graduate school I got married. Then I left Cleveland to take a job at the University of Iowa, and though I came back to Cleveland two years later to go into private practice, my two worlds have never meshed well again. One might say I grew up, but I have often felt more like a renegade. Nevertheless, my directions were indispensable. I had married Miriam, who was lovely and added new dimension to my life. She sang beautiful songs, made household lovelies, smiled like sunshine, told stories, and left me trails of funny notes and other endearments. I was spellbound when I was with her. The new home with her was as primally familiar to me as the old, only it was far more exciting. But Miriam did not have the investment in my family or my old friends that I did. Besides, I was up to my ears in new "professional" directions and I didn't have enough energy left to continue also with life as usual.
The giant step in my new direction came in 1953, two years after starting my practice in Cleveland. Fritz Perls gave a workshop in gestalt therapy and he was a revelation. He was an undulating mushroom of a man, with a large, transcendent head and lithe underpinnings which wrapped themselves into the space he occupied. He was a breathing freedom, like a respirator, and he had a voice that made every word feel like the final accent with which life itself would be endowed. He had a radar sensitivity and a simple faith in the power of staying with people step by step as he worked with them. He could also be trusted in a clutch. I experienced that one day when I raged at him. He had inspired my rage with instructions which finally led to shouting and which left me open to spasms of crying and a return deep inside myself to primitive aloneness. All of a moment, focused on the only light left, inside myself, I felt his warm hand and there he was as I opened my eyes, so tender. I loved him and I embraced him. He said some soft words I can't remember and I felt damp and lubricated all through me.
He was a very tough man, was Fritz, as many people have said, and he is widely known as a person who was cutting and rejecting whenever the spirit happened to move him. It may not be as widely known that he had vast capacity for tenderness, and indeed it was this quality, as well as his unparalleled imagination and sensitivity, that made his work go. One knew that he knew both the authentic agonies and delights of life. Once, during a break in a workshop, he asked me why I was so silent. I told him I was afraid. He said he knew about that, too; that up to a few years earlier, he could not say a word publicly without reading from a paper, so shy did he feel. I was amazed and felt the gift he was giving me. Later, he named me interferer in the group because I had not wanted to say things that might interfere with whatever process was going on. He instructed me to interfere at any point. I wanted to. I did it to a faretheewell, free associating out loud to whatever was going on. Finally he got angry with me. Someone said, "You told him to interfere." Fritz said, "Yes, but I didn't tell him I would like it." I continued to interfere, though, and discovered that what started out as interference wound up as lively leadership, one of the more important lessons I have learned. In spite of his great tenderness, Fritz could turn into a first-class son of a bitch when he felt people trying to capture him or foist a sense of obligation on him. His own unwillingness to inhale environmental poisons communicated the vital message he was always sending: one creates one's own life.
Fritz was an eye-opener in Cleveland as he later was throughout the country. Among us, he found the first place where he had a substantial breakthrough in teaching his method of therapy. He was counterintellectual and, as I now realize, he moved fast into primal familiarity. He described the nature of good contact and exercised it, stripped of amenities and professionalism. He showed how good contact joined with techniques for heightened awareness could provide new leverage into developing profound emotional experiences. The resulting emotionality was a rarity in those days. Even to cry in public, among fifteen people that is, was remarkable then and, in fact, quite suspect for the rest of the community who saw his methods as dangerous and irresponsible. We got a lot of flak in Cleveland in those days about what we were doing, but our new community had too much discovery and excitement in it to leave much room for worry about how well4iked we were by those who spread and heard rumors about our bacchanalian rites. I should have had it so good as the rumors had it.
The basic novelty to me was the accentuated possibility for entering into the experience of therapy rather than trying to understand the therapy. This simple change in orientation seems old hat now but at the time it presaged a core change in my professional existence. I gave up being merely professional and permitted myself to become as deeply absorbed as is necessary for the sense of primal familiarity. I moved from the periphery of people's lives, which was a tease away from the personal absorption I wanted. I moved out from behind my desk and began to allow myself authentic centrality. Whatever intimacy developed I no longer felt as a professional applique irrelevantly administered by the transferring patient but rather as a just response to my participating artistry, a joined thrill in the creation of fulfilling drama. One of my first patients with whom my gestalt flow became noticeable said to me, "It's not so lonely here anymore." I was teaching another patient how to bark and I succeeded so well my psychiatrist neighbor across the hallway teased me in the elevator the next day about my patients bringing dogs to therapy. When I told him it was no dog, that it was me, he was shocked. Nothing more was said but there is no telling what rumors followed that one. I liked going crazy like that, and my patient learned more from barking than a whole stream of words would have taught him.
Perls was not the only eye-opener. Our gestalt community in Cleveland was, too, as were the other teachers we invited from New York, including Paul Goodman, Paul Weisz, Laura Perls, and Isadore From. When I first saw Isadore From he looked like a scholarly Arabian jockey -- tiny, exotic, and elegant in his language and mind flow. He is hardly known outside gestalt circles because careerism is incidental to his life. He only accidentally fell off the psychotherapy tree, ripened by therapy with Fritz and Laura Perls and their wide knowledge of phenomenology. In spite of the great impact of all our teachers from New York, Isadore was the most important to us. They came in for the most fertile workshops four or five times a year, but Isadore stayed with us for six years, coming to Cleveland twice a month at first, then once a month later. His visits were like holidays, not recreational but the kind of holiday which is a harvest of sensation and which addresses itself to life's primary forces. With Isadore, in my private therapy, I talked, cried, screamed, touched, whispered, walked, saw, heard, remembered, fantasied, laughed, and loved. He had a remarkable knack for what was organic between us, never contriving an experiment and never resorting to theoretical fiat. I became a poetic patient, respectful of my inner flow, always moving from initial confusion and verbal constipation into the most heartfelt and eloquent statements I had ever been able to make. He was exquisitely tuned in to my character and his learnedness and wisdom were the fulcrum around which my life grew for ten years after I met him.
Our gestalt community had weekly leader less meetings for two years, at which time, in 1955, we formed the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, one of the early growth centers. At first we set up training experiences for ourselves as a learning community, and as we grew,
we took on the training of others who wanted to learn gestalt therapy. I was central in this process, leading our first workshops, teaching our first courses, doing private therapy with many who are now our leading people, and being a prime mover in establishing our postgraduate training program. We carved out our own style of function through our joined enterprise, and my part in this has been a major radiance in my work life. This was a place in "America" where what I contributed and what I received were comparable. Being at home among these people was therefore another recycling of my early primal familiarity, joining the old feelings of familiarity and the new associations, restoring the old environment without imitating it. Le plus que ce change, le plus que c'est le meme chose.
Present Leaning into Future
What I see as a result of growth centers which have subsequently appeared all over the country is that psychotherapists and their brother workers are now in the midst of developing a populist psychotherapy, by which I mean a psychotherapy which moves beyond patients and offices and addresses the general population.
The traditional psychotherapist's view was the naive one that with good therapeutic experience we would all -- those of us who were successful, of course -- be enabled to manage the society we live in. Presumably the society had such range within it that anyone in sound psychological form could find a rightful place for himself. Only those who were filled with distortion and obsession could fail to fulfill the requirements of their own directions. It is apparent now that these assumptions were pure pollyanna and that the reality is closer to the graffiti sentiments of our young people who say Horatio Alger eats shit. We wanted only to "cure" people until it became clear that sickness was an obviously inadequate word to describe most of the people we worked with. Then the term growth came into phase.
New people came on board, more of them than ever and more who were seeking better forms of living, thinking little of cure and a lot about self4mprovement and personal discovery. Excitement became more central than ever as a motivation and the forms of interaction did induce great excitement, leading over and over to experiences of primal familiarity.
A central factor in the induction of this excitement has been what I have called the synaptic experience. This is the experience of personal unity and vibrancy brought on by joining together an individual's awareness with his actions. Since we are all sensory-motor beings through neurological predetermination, we are most complete when our sensory and motor sides are both represented in our existence. There is a variable preference among us for the sensory side over the motor side or vice versa. Under certain conditions, either may cover over the other, thereby causing blockage of our full sense of presence. The restoration of the unity of awareness and action is one of the general directions that growth-oriented groups have taken, calling attention over and over to the specific feelings, wants, values, and assessments which exist for people in groups. The accompanying action -- mostly talking but also including non-verbal acts -- come as a result of knowing what is going on inside, such as dancing when one recognizes his wish to dance. Or the other way around, the actions artfully developed may make us newly aware of what is going on inside, like feeling scintillated because one has danced. Whichever way the union happens, a heightening of personal presence develops with an accompanying sense of the primal familiarity involved in being in fresh contact with other people.
Another quality of the growth groups is in the condensation process, which through its power to heighten excitement also reproduces primal familiarity. Condensation is man's way of creating brief but faithful representation of vast stretches of his experiences. Through condensation one expresses poetic as well as literal truth, achieving clarity, parsimony, and meaningfulness. Thus, for example, a person who is large and silent in a group sees himself poetically as an elephant. When he plays out the elephant, he gets into a wrestling match where, in mindless aggression, he nearly injures his partner whom he vanquishes with far greater force than necessary. He is faced with the dismay and fear of people in the group. He thus feels what it is like, perhaps for the first time, to exercise the elephant in himself and he can then fathom the fact that people are frequently frightened of him even though he does not usually do frightening things. The transition from a condensed, surface experience to the underneath behavior results in a whoosh of excitement, releasing the energy subsumed within the symbolic shorthand.
A further quality of the growth group is sanctification, which means setting the group apart from the usual conditions which, in everyday life, are inhibitory. The risks of being fired, divorced, ostracized, misunderstood, punished, and so on, which exist ubiquitously in everyday life, are minimized in these groups. Most of us cannot manage the world of unremitting sequentiality without withdrawing to sanctified opportunities for experiencing that which is usually forbidden. There is no surely desirable proportion between that which is sanctified and that which happens every day, but it is clear that there must be a continuing relationship between the two. Otherwise the sanctified experience would wind up tricky and cultish, splitting the world in two again. Instead, the world out there must be changed by the new experiences of our groups, as will inevitably happen when enough people insert their new discoveries into our everyday world. The more timely and vital the sanctified experiences are, the more revolutionary will be their effect on the population.
Given these conditions for fostering primal familiarity and for developing revolutionary effect, we come to the sociological step which moves not only beyond cure but also beyond growth and into the development of new climate. Since none of us can escape the psychological pollution of our surroundings, until we create psychologically necessary changes in our communal climate we in our groups or therapy continue a two-world existence. New ways of communicating; new values; new priorities; changing institutions, such as marriage, schools, and government; new vocational requirements; new reward systems are all parts of a necessary change in the spiritual atmosphere of our society. In a society based on the indispensability of change, as ours is, changes just naturally happen. In this time in history the psychotherapist and his kindred workers are feeding their perspectives and wishes into our sociological stream. They are currently having great impact but are hardly assured at this point of having the most effective voices. The greatest challenge comes as always from the materialistically oriented people who, sometimes through greed, sometimes through habit, and sometimes through the most fundamental need, believe that a chicken in every pot will give us what we need. Materialistic needs, such as eating, for one, are so primordial that in truth they outweigh all other considerations and draw the attention of people and governments. The psychological facts of life, of course, recede into the background, a slight homage being paid through the workings of faded religion. It is therefore from a position of poor leverage that we from the psychotherapy milieu are making our mark. Yet we are doing it and I believe will continue to, without necessarily ignoring basic materialism. Perhaps our move to expand into materialism has already begun through the extensive work of psychologists in industry and the growth of consultations with governments and other social institutions. A further unknown force in the future of our movement may be the effect of pharmaceutical discoveries which, though they could aid the populist cause by fostering the experiences of our new climate needs, may also become a formidable handicap, hindering the populist cause by serving as an easy soporific or as a source of delusion for those who could wind up defused.
In the meantime, through a concern with climate as well as personal growth, we are coming into a more fully holistic view of man, who is not only whole within himself but inseparable from his community. The loosening up of poisonous taboos is happening all around us. Boys are wearing very long hair, young men and women live in the same dormitories, black people appear on TV commercials, communal living foreshadows new forms of family life, peaceniks slow down a war, nude people are seen on stage and screen, men's clothes have become a riotous delight, and so on. Psychotherapy has had an important place in all of these creations, having sent out the message over the years for people to experience their actuality rather than to swallow the stereotypes and distortions which have always made deviations from the norm seem like pathology.
The messages are continuing at an increased rate. One can hardly keep up with new technological prospects that are emerging. Large group innovations have led the way, adding the concept of design to the interactive illuminations which were discovered in the open-ended small groups. The designs have supported leader less interactions, allowing us to work with as many as one thousand people in a room. Large groups have been used in setting up new designs for interaction in conferences, coffee houses, growth centers, housing projects, industry, universities, welfare agencies, town meetings and other normal groupings of people. Our technology now also includes recordings, TV, and self-administered instruments. Furthermore a sociological architecture is developing, as reflected in the new-town movement in particular and in new design philosophies generally. For example, an intimate friend of mine, Philmore Hart, who is a professor of architecture, takes as his fundamental theoretical base the inextricable unity of the psychological side of man and his built environment. He has designed one school without interior walls, wiping out the cellular structure of classrooms. The sense of community is vibrantly apparent to pupils, teachers, and visitors.
Obviously, these brief words about new opportunities for spreading the populist message are only a lick and a promise, hardly doing justice to what requires extensive exploration and critique. They are perhaps enough in this context to suggest why I believe that widespread innovations in humanist technology will inevitably affect the society at large, moving it further into directions which people within the psychotherapy milieu have inspired. For me, during the past twenty years, this entire movement, beginning with my place in the development of gestalt therapy and including my many experiences with people throughout the country, has been a communal home. It is my gypsy home and I have been repeatedly fascinated in it. When I next visit my mother's grave I should tell her about my gypsy experiences. She would have a harder time believing my story than I did hers. After all, what's a mother for, if not to come back to?
Trends in Gestalt Therapy. Cleveland: Gestalt Institute of Cleveland,
"A Contemporary Psychotherapy." Psychotherapy, 1966. Reprinted in D. Pursglove (ed.), Recognitions in Gestalt Therapy. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968.
"Encounter in Community." In A. Burton (ed.), Encounter: Theory and Practice of Encounter Groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1969.
"Sensory Functioning in Psychotherapy." In J. Fagan and I.L. Shepherd, Gestalt Therapy Now: Theory, Techniques, Applications. Palo Alto, Calif.: Science and Behavior, 1970.
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