The Gestalt Cycle of Change and the human capacity to grow (or not, as the case may be)


We've always done it this way

For anything to grow and evolve, life needs to be in contact with the life around it. Nothing and no-one exists in isolation. As human beings, we cannot exist without the Earth Herself or the people around us yet some of us have been trying to do so, particularly at top level, and the cost of this is being borne by us all. The human social problems caused by this withdrawal are one of the main complaints from large protest movements such as Indignados, Occupy and Anonymous. Those making decisions at global, national or local levels are ‘out-of-touch’ or out-of-contact with those affected by them. Efforts to create contact are being met with repression by those ‘in-charge’.

Understanding the process of how we, as individuals, make contact with our environment and each other can be extremely helpful. Knowing how we fail at this can be even more useful. The Cycle of Change developed by Gestalt theories provides a model for this that could have practical applications if understood more widely. The Cycle of Change can be particularly helpful in setting our own needs and participation in context, not simply from our own perspective but for the collective too, but first, the Cycle of Change needs to be understood.

Change is normal, healthy and vital for any living essence if it is to conceive, gestate, grow, flourish and die within the Cycles of Life on Earth. All Life comes from ‘no-thing’ and returns to ‘no-thing’ while inbetween offers an opportunity to contribute to the continuation of the living processes of which we are a part. The rising and falling of Life, of need, of necessity, are all a part of the Cycle of Change which brings us into contact with life around us. This is as true of our human psychological processes as it is for the material world we inhabit. In a healthy Cycle, we emerge from a ‘ground’ where all possibilities exist; become aware of something ‘missing’;  consciously identify the ‘need’ to be met; prepare ourselves of act; act to have that need met; enjoy the satisfaction and assimilation of the met need; and return to the ‘ground’ where all possibilities exist once more. In a playful mood, I might liken the ‘ground’ to the wave of the Zero-Point Field and the Cycle itself as the particle emerging from the wave to perform a particular task of Life.

The Cycle itself looks something like this:

Humanity, in relation to itself and the planet, is now in very serious trouble, so understanding the way we interrupt the Cycle of Change within ourselves could be extremely useful if we are to find the way out.

To demonstrate how the Cycle of Change can work collectively, let’s take a global example – the need to eat in order to survive – and see if it works. Global hunger on a planet that grows enough food to feed every human on earth needs some explaining.

So we begin with Sensation – something is not right; there is a disturbance in our ‘Force’, for the purposes of this example, we move to an awareness of hunger. Some of us will be able to move through this Cycle by eating and assimilating the food into our bodies, but only some. Others cannot do this and when we can’t, we slowly starve to death. If those ‘Others’ come in their thousands or millions, those who can eat may slowly become aware of this need and act to assist. Yet, in the West, we hear talk of ‘Compassion Fatigue’ as one human disaster follows another. Those who have food begin to become desensitized to those who starve. Those who are already desensitized have closed down their capacity to respond, and this is defended by a process called deflection. There are more important things to worry about than people starving half way round the world; country; block; next door; whatever those important things might be.

If a collective of awakened people begin to mobilise to meet the needs of the starving, those unable to respond due to desensitisation or deflection, now begin to defend their position with Introjects. Introjection is a process whereby a human being swallows down ideas or attitudes whole – without the chewing of consideration, examination or reflection – and regurgitates them as required. One introject in our Global hunger example might be “It’s their own fault for not organising their lives properly”, or for living where they do, or for any number of other reasons that support the individual’s unwillingness to mobilise their personal resources. The chances are that a person afflicted with these interruptions will simply not be present at the time when the Collective acts, although they may have opinions about those who do. When working at an introjected level, such people will have no difficulty in expressing the opinions of others whose opinion they swallowed. What they may not fully appreciate is that their opinions are likely to be projections.

Projections are where we see qualities in others than we cannot see in ourselves. Given that each human experience is quite unique, it isn’t possible to see something in another without it existing in ourselves too, whether those qualities are good or bad. (For example, there is much being said and written about psychopathy at present but it is all ‘out there’. Psychopaths are someone else, not me. Yet, if I can see and understand psychopathic behaviour, then there has to be something of that in me whether I like it or not. If I’m evolving, the question then becomes “How do I use this quality?” To use myself as example, I don’t like it when, by dint of tangible evidence, I find myself treating another without empathy or compassion but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it if it becomes necessary to my health or well-being, or the health and well-being of others. If I am wrong, then I can choose to change. What makes a true psychopath is the absence of choice in their own behaviour and/or their attempts to remove my capacity for choice coupled with an absolute refusal to take responsibility. The only way I can be certain I am not locked into this thought-form is to become responsible – to be open to difference and contact with otherness… but that is only my opinion.) Whatever we project on to others says far more about who we are than it could ever say about the person we are describing. In a Global Hunger setting, we hear a great deal from the mainstream media about the institutionalised corruption of recipient countries, but very little about the institutionalised global corruption that created the starvation in the first place.

So the Cycle of Change moves on to Contact. We have sensed the need, identified it, mobilised ourselves and acted to meet the need. Now we are meeting it – the starving are being fed – but how we are doing it can prevent our experiencing the catalyst of change that direct contact brings. We vanish into other behaviours instead. We become Retroflective. We do to the starving what we actually want done to ourselves, or we do to ourselves what we really want to do to the recipients. I am sure that there are many examples of how this works. For instance, we may give food but fail to listen to what is necessary from the starving themselves about what is needed for them to take care of their own future; because we want to be looked after, we ‘look after’ them in ways that are counter-productive, creating ongoing dependency instead of genuine solutions that prevent future starvation. Within our global economies, we can see the spectre of starvation and malnutrition emerging within the West as our governments start to inflict upon their own people what they may have really wanted to do to the starving of the so-called Third World.

If, however, the need is met, the Cycle moves to the experience of satisfaction and assimilation and so emerges the defenses of Egotism, again to avoid the experience of genuine Contact. We may feel so self-satisfied with our efforts, either outwardly or internally, that we lose the impact of contact in favour of admiring our own self-reflection.

Finally, as the Cycle falls away into the ground of ‘no-thing’, we become vulnerable to Confluence. Confluence occurs where the individual merges with another, be it a person or an organisation, or other collective form. We cease to be the whole individual motivated to action and experiential contact outside ourselves and become merely a part of something or someone else – a cog in the machine. The interpersonal example of confluence used when I training was the question “Is it you or me that doesn’t like broccoli.”  We don’t know where we end and another begins, and this adds to our desensitisation in our next Cycle of Change.

Comfort zoneThe purpose of the Cycle of Change, in psychological terms, is to step outside our comfort zone to encounter realities that are different from our own. The contact can be experienced in all kinds of ways, from the worst to the best but it is supposed to change us. Contact enables our growth as aware human beings in touch with the reality of the world around us. It challenges our assumptions; it requires risk; it forces us to reconsider what we hold to be true; in doing so, it invites our personal and collective evolution. If we fail to answer the call of true Contact with our planet and her people, we become part of a continuing unhealthy problem which, by our absence, struggles to find resolution. Instead of being part of a wave of change created by individuals – like snowflakes or grains of sand contributing to an avalanche – we become an obstacle, a creature of inertia.

This piece is written for those who are changing as a result of real Contact with others, as we grapple with those who reinforce the interruptions to the Cycle of Change and cannot understand why. We are rediscovering, or may never have lost, the sense of aliveness that real Contact produces when the Cycles of Change flow freely. Not every contact will be good or pleasant but we grow a little more with each one until growth and evolution become a natural part of our Beingness. In my experience, those Cycles of pain can teach me far more about myself and others than any plain sailing ever could. We can appreciate our efforts with a sense of personal and individual satisfaction which sensitises for our next Cycle of growth. We can feel ourselves altering and changing, maturing, producing seeds for the next step, but there is one thing we cannot do.

We cannot force another to change. We can try but the result is more interruptions to the Cycle. We become the introjected message to those uninterested or afraid of growth as a defence mechanism to maintain inertia. We become the very thing we thought we were opposing. To engage in Contact with outer reality – to experience difference in others and to be different ourselves – can only ever be a personal decision. The only people we have any authority to control are ourselves. If we choose freedom and equality, then we must share that freedom with others equally and that includes another’s freedom to refuse to grow. What remains are the consequences of our choices. Those we are going to have to live with, regardless.

This is an imperfect piece. I’m providing a few links to others who are more eloquent than me on the personal psychological processes of the Cycle of Change, or Experience, or Contact – it has many names – for those who are interested. The intention here is to bring this Cycle to the attention of those who are evolving and wondering at the obstructions they are experiencing. As far as I know, the Cycle could inform the planning or preparation of events designed to heighten general awareness of our collective reality and it could be useful as individuals grapple with their own personal choices. A perfect description might prevent my fellow evolvers from taking it apart to see how it works for them and create the danger of yet another introjection at the very time when we need to be preparing for authentic action. Nevertheless, the Cycle of Change is an extremely useful tool that has applications in just about every dimension of human existence except those resistant to the natural rhythms of our planet.

I hope you find it as useful as I have.

Alice Walker on power

Gestalt Links:

Gestalt Therapy Theory: An Overview

Gestalt Cycle of Experience

3 responses »

  1. This is the best cycle description I’ve read so far. Also I like the fact that it is set out as a wave instead of a circle. I’ve referenced it in my essay! Thank you

  2. Pingback: The Gestalt Cycle of Change and the human capac...

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