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Working With the Narrative – A Presence Centered Approach

I recently gave an intensive therapy workshop for therapists who are in their postgraduate training. Much of the work moved to a focus on the experience of Presence as it reflected and effected the client’s self-in-life.

The work was powerful and moving, and fluidly moved from their immediate experience, to their life context, to something less defined by content and more (defined) by their Being meeting my Being. Since these were therapists who were attending, and they had been in therapy for several years, there were questions regarding how to work with people who were not able to allow their narrative to “fall away” – i.e. who were more fully identified with and unaware of their narratives and identifications. That is, how to work with the average person who walks into gestalt therapy. Clearly, we do not and cannot begin with a focus on the purely emergent, content-less self. So, here are some of my thoughts:

People come to therapy, for the most part, because they feel some degree of pain or dissatisfaction, and they feel stuck or unable to change themselves or their life circumstances. For most people, this is not simply because they are not smart enough to “figure it out”, or because their life circumstances are beyond the possibility of change. It is, rather, because they have fixed ways of seeing themselves and their world, and they may not even know about their fixities. The last thing the fish sees is the water, and people are so immersed in their way of seeing that they are not aware of their lenses. These lenses lock them into self-defeating ways of living their lives, and do not allow them the flexibility or creativity to approach themselves and their lives in novel ways.

So, we not only have to be sympathetic listeners who create a sense of safety in the therapy situation, but we have to start to identify and make our patients aware of how they create the life they feel so unsatisfied in and trapped by. We as therapists also need to start with a sense that the person sitting in front of us is actually much “bigger” than they think they are; that the forms they take are actually arbitrary and do not reflect an essential self. Clients will often say “but this is who I am!” without realizing that “this is how I’ve been taught to see myself”. This orientation of the therapist, regardless of whether or not it is explicitly expressed to the client, will have a profound effect on the client and how the work emerges.

Too often, even the therapist is drawn into seeing the client in his/her own terms. We come to see the client as damaged, as a collection of maladaptive creative adjustments, as somehow deficient. And having bought into this, it is difficult to do much more than sympathize, or devise strategies for undoing the maladaptive behaviors. But to see the client as already whole creates an entirely different paradigm. In this paradigm, while we’re heightening the client’s awareness of how s/he is creating his/her own cage of dissatisfaction, we are holding the implicit understanding that this person in front of us is capable of many forms, since his/her basic “stuff” is not of any form in particular. Instead, we see the person’s “hypnotic trance” and the pull to the certainty of identity, even if it is one of pain or dullness. So, in drawing the client’s attention to their familiar creations, to see their external circumstances as something to be dealt with (according to PHG “a certain foolish optimism about the alterability of reality”), and as often as not, the result of their own construction or collaboration, we are signaling to their bigness, their fluidity, even if not yet explicitly. (As Buber said, “Thou is more than It could know”).

The impasse experience that is likely to occur leads to a new experiential awareness. The experience of spontaneously moving beyond the boundedness of our ways of perceiving the self and the world does more than lead to the solution of the particular problem being dealt with. It signals the fluidity of self, and even of the external world. It is an experience of the influence of Presence on Presentness. It may be frightening for some, disorienting for almost all, and illuminating for a few, but it is an experience of the narrative falling away, and the person still standing present. And the certainty of “this is who/what I am” is called into (experiential) question. And the next question of “so then who/what am I?” can begin to emerge.

The need to find a narrative to identify with will continue to assert itself, perhaps endlessly. But the ability to question each narrative and to look at how one constructs this narrative can open a larger disorientation. And as life problems are dealt with more satisfyingly, sometimes in new and unpredicted ways, our client’s focus may turn less to solving problems, and more to a sometimes undefined curiosity into what/who they actually are. If their form changes and they are still present, if the world they live in actually changes (or the way they see it and relate to it does) and they are still present, just what is this stuff that is present?