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Meaning comes form the connections we make

Mark Johnson, in his book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, said that meaning “ … is not just what is consciously entertained in acts of feeling and thought; instead, meaning reaches deep down into our corporeal encounter with our environment.”

People are whole beings; we are not just brains with minds that think, not just bodies with sensations that feel, and not just spirits with values by which we yearn for significance and something beyond ourselves with which we can have meaningful connection. These are poetic ways in which people focus on various capacities of whole persons. This is one of the things I like, and that makes sense to me, about gestalt therapy.

Contemporary gestalt therapy is an embodied and holistic approach that agrees with those who say that meaning comes from the visceral connections in life, including the bodily conditions of life. We are born into the world as embodied beings. We are born into a world already going on, filled with other people's values, ideas, cherished aspirations, hopes, and strivings. We are born into societies that are also cultures. So, we adapt and grow as human beings in correlation to the literal place in time and space where our bodies set us. We are impacted by the world we are born into through our bodies, and we in turn affect others and our world with our bodies.

This situated phenomenology lends itself to the interpretation of experience. Bodies cannot be everywhere at the same time; we are limited by time and space, and that sets up conditions of perspective. People are stuck perceiving a situation from a definite place within it, and physical space gives rise to interpersonal space. These are the “places” from which we interact with others and make meaning of our experience. We do this by use of the gestalt figure-ground relationship in which the foreground of content is set against the background of process, and in which the two working together give rise to a gestalt, or whole pattern. We listen to what people say, and we hear that in comparison to how they say it. In fact, we read the non-verbal mannerisms and intonations of the other person first, and then set in place the content of what they are saying. It comes in this order as a by-product of how people develop, because infants have no words by which to talk to themselves and make sense of what is going on around them, but they still process their experiences. On a primordial level they are sensitive to others and their environments and learn to self-regulate their emotions before they have a well-developed cognitive capacity to process thoughts. They learn and develop higher order capacities from embodied movement. From the time of infancy on, then, the interpretation of experience follows that order — what we perceive in the embodied actions of others precedes and takes precedence over what they say. All this occurs in the context of a larger situation that includes the remnants of past experience and the anticipation of future experience. It is a hermeneutic process that is the concern of hermeneutic phenomenology.

The field of hermeneutics came from theology and was concerned with the interpretation of religious texts. As such there is a distinction between the process of interpreting and the rules for such a process. The process is called exegesis (literally a leading out from), and the rules are called hermeneutics (literally of translating or interpreting). Thus, an exegetic phenomenology is the process of understanding a person's experience while a hermeneutic phenomenology is a concern for the principles or process of interpreting experience. Contemporary gestalt therapists concern themselves with an appropriate phenomenological method by which to follow and possibly understand the experience of the client. They observe the client, bracket (or put aside) initial theories about what is going on with the client or their own issues triggered by the client, and then describe what they perceive in the presence of the client. This is in the service of increased awareness of what the client does and how the client does it. It syncs up the embodied presentation of the client, as observed by the therapist, and that provides a kind of mirror for the client by which he or she can reflect upon him or herself.

Contemporary gestalt therapists are conversant with developments in the collateral fields of hermeneutics, embodied cognition, and phenomenology. They practice mindfulness, because focused awareness has been part of gestalt therapy from its inception in the middle of the last century, but now the larger field of psychotherapy is developing mindfulness ways that allow contemporary gestalt therapists to assimilate developments from outside the field of gestalt therapy. Such mindfulness/awareness provides a natural bridge between cognitive science and human experience.

The experience of working with whole people in these ways has affected the way I understand spirituality. Our spirituality is not something that is isolated from our bodies. We are not simply spirits trapped inside bodies — as if there is no influence between body and spirit. We are embodied spirits. The nature of human beings, really what can be conceived of as a Biblical anthropology, is that we are spirited bodies/embodied spirits; so, to me the catastrophe of death is that it rips us apart at the core of our being, separating spirit from body. One of the wonderful things about the resurrection is that people are given bodies again — spiritual bodies, but bodies that in many ways function like the physical bodies we current have.

So, what is the “take away” from these ideas? One thing is that for spiritual principles to have meaning for us they must be practical, down to earth, and reflect the fact that we can only live out our connection with God through our situated phenomenology — our bodily experience. When Paul talked, for instance, about the way in which a husband ought to love his wife, given that the relationship between them is a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church, he said, “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.…” In this sense, Mark Johnson's words apply. Meaning, our significant spiritual experience, is not just something we feel or think; it reaches down into the way our embodied beliefs lead us to participate in the world in which we live.

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Published September 24, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 24, 2013 at 9:21 am)

Meaning comes form the connections we make

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