I have wrestled with this piece. It needs to walk the talk. It needs to have a satisfying coherence, a composition that serves the purpose. My words need to demonstrate to you the value of intrinsic organisation and how all of us instinctually measure that in everything we experience. The shape of the article needs to measure up, supporting your collaboration in this understanding as you read, lofting, lifting, landing lightly. Everything requires good form, from the strike of the heel and subsequent rolling through to the ball of your foot when walking to the tilt of the earth that creates the shape of the seasons. All life moves organically toward good form, but in human endeavours it doesn’t just happen.
Practice and Discipline
In order to make something into a fine craft, it takes time, patience, and care. It takes the application of tools like responsiveness, timing, and repetition. It necessitates experimentation followed by adjustment and refinement. Artistry in any form requires SKILL. And skill requires practice and discipline. Of course, that is built on a bedrock of love, involvement, and passion. If only that were enough. We often want to skip all the work in favour of an easily obtained outcome. But good form – grace, harmony, beauty, and integral design – are the result of attention and skill. The practice is the art.
Creating Self is the Artistry of our Life
We could also apply this understanding to the making of a truly congruent self. Becoming a beauty-full person rests on an artistry of selfhood that takes both practice and discipline. We don’t arrive in life fully formed with mature awareness and elegance in contact. Over our life span we refine how we relate to others and how we relate to ourselves. However, each of us has an intrinsic sense of what is good for us, what creates harmony and flow within us. This evaluation is an embodied knowing, a felt experience. Each one of us knows what is possible-at-this-moment within us. If we are willing to learn some skills about living, relating, contacting ourselves and others, our life can have more beauty, integrity, fluidity, generosity and courage.
It is a fine art to get these skills without merely bullying ourselves to improve. Instead, if we attempt to stay true to the integral design of who we uniquely are, we develop trust in the motivation for fairness and beauty that fires all our struggles. If we can view our pain as a message from within, telling us that something needs to be different for us, we can honour our suffering. Our tensions and dilemmas are creatively seeking to heal our pain. Our suffering is a valuable part of life, well-being requires ill-being.
Scores and Structures
For many years I taught the introduction to improvisation for students wanting to study new dance at the Amsterdam College of the Arts. Many of those students arrived full of enthusiasm and high energy, inspired by the creative process, innocently idealistic about what was possible. They would turn up wanting to dive right in. They would be frustrated by limits, the discussion and determining of scores, bored by the artful use of restraint and the harnessing of spontaneity. It was one of my tasks to help them discover the incredible freedom found in tightening the parameters. To share with them how, paradoxically, adhering to agreed limits led towards a much greater range of choices. To invite them to see how structure catalyses spontaneity. How pausing, listening and attending generate novel interest and renewal. How these collective scores were alive agreements; negotiations that were about collaborating.
Good Form as Natural Law
I understood my student’s abhorrence for value systems imposed without contact or context, the imposition of a moral order that was not about relating with them at all. I loved their rebellion against dried up societal rules that were indiscriminately applied. I was all for their resistance to anachronistic compliance with prescriptive notions of virtue. What I hoped they would find within improvisational scores was an order akin to the laws of nature, the Taoist way of things, the sense of good form. How creative process is both organic and crafted. I hoped they would also discover the potency of attunement; generating a bonded connection actually makes more choices possible. How together is stronger. And is the natural way of things.
Cosmologist Brian Swimme teaches that there are quite a narrow set of conditions that enable life to flourish on our planet and in our universe. The conditions for life on earth and the on-going creativity of life are specific and need to remain relatively consistent and stable. The universe keeps the fluctuations of possibility held within tight parameters. It is a delicate balancing act that continually re-establishes homeostasis. Within each ecosystem on earth there is an adaptive dance occurring to keep it functioning as a whole. Each of these systems functions collaboratively but without the need for a leader. A continually moving adjustment to enable life to feed on life to create more life. An exquisitely scored improvisation.
As a true microcosm of that great macrocosm our internal conditions have a similar adaptive, survival oriented, collaborative processing that seeks the best possibility in every given moment. Human beings are internally motivated toward good form. Each of us has this inbuilt capacity for responsiveness and adaptability to meet external demands. We evolve toward higher levels of organisation quite naturally. In order to truly participate in this dance, we need to find the creativity inherent in any of our dilemmas, conflicts and struggles, rather than experience them as tight parameters that inhibit our freedom.
Necessity and the Skilful Response
As stated above, nature itself and therefore human nature has an innate drive for wholeness, collaboration and completion. However, judgement and choices always need to be made to support the functioning of the whole organism. Currently, judgement has got a bad rap, but in fact we are all in a continuous process of evaluation. Our perceptual reading of our experience, through our senses and our neuroception, is constant. If we cultivate an intrinsic aesthetic to guide our choices, our relating, contacting and living become more authentic and more alive. If we sensitise our own responses and become aware how our action is embedded in the whole, we live in reciprocity. In Greek philosophy the concept of phronesis means something like this, a practice that is grounded in attuned responsiveness*. A practical wisdom in relationship to our environment. This is a central tenet of Gestalt therapy in both our theory and our practice, the fluid meeting of ourself, the other and our world in contact at the shifting boundary between us.
Most of us do the best we can with what the current field conditions permit and our internal resources will allow. We can increase our internal resources and extend our repertoire of choices, but we are continually adjusting to our circumstances, are shaped and influenced by the emerging situation. Necessity is the mother of invention, so the saying goes. Necessity powerfully calls up resourcefulness and inventiveness. An extraordinary array of creative responses arises in an emergency. If we have a good relationship to our inner responses, if we know how to attend to ourselves and the moment, we make potent choices, co-creating what is possible. This is a different skill to editing and planning and premeditating. It isn’t cognitive. It is relational. Moment by moment, the choices we make create the arc of our life.
Improvisation, Composition and Exploration
In the School for New Dance Development that I mentioned earlier, we differentiated between Improvisation i.e., spontaneous creation, Composition i.e., designed and crafted creation and Exploration i.e., deep inner research into anatomy, embodiment and physical realities. We discovered how improvisation and composition eventually become the same thing. When bringing deep moment by moment presence to your composition, as you play or perform it, you truly are improvising. When bringing deep aesthetic presence to your improvisation your choices become more and more refined, truly crafting your impulses into carefully constructed instantaneous composition. Exploration gave us the presence to respond with a fully engaged response, an aliveness within our embodiment, inspiring an available repertoire across an expansive range of inner awareness.
In therapy you are invited into a safe, open place where without judgement you can explore the edges of yourself. You can improvise with parts, memories, and emotive states, explore ways of being that are so familiar they aren’t even conscious anymore and ways of being you that are completely unknown to you. You re-discover what was living inside of you all along. The more you increase your sensate awareness, the more of you is available in any given moment. There is enormous value in exploration without censure, before editing. Quietly honing and crafting the aesthetic of the process of your Self, becoming ever more you, revealing the essence of you inside into an artful composition.
Technique gives us some measurement of consistency, reliability and virtuosity. It enables the artist to be able to express what they feel within. In the performance arts, an actor, musician or dancer with technical training has an awareness of how their body does what it does. They can mindfully re-activate the pathways of action. They can track their path and retrace their steps. They can make subtle choices that refine the aesthetic of the performance, the nuances of good form become masterful as they play. They have refined knowledge of the energy flow, structure and support of any shapes or sounds they make. As a dancer I learnt how to refine and develop my body as my instrument, finding greater range of motion, strength of intrinsic musculature, swift capture of balance, and whole-body engagement in any action.
Technique eventually becomes intuitive; the scaffolding disappears from view. Similar to the way as an adult I can talk and write in sentences and paragraphs, but once I had to learn how to write each letter and put them together to form words. Technique eventually gives us the language of possibility, to be able to express what it is we feel and want to share. Technique without feeling is stilted, like a lover with smoothly perfected moves but whose heart isn’t present in the contact. We have to bring beginners mind to our artform. A fresh wonder and curiosity. We have to find generosity toward our very impulses, giving them our lifeforce, letting them use us as the conduit.
In the therapeutic relationship you want your therapist to be a generous collaborator. Who has some skill and artistry with your process, who has deepened themselves in the suffering of their own life. But who is attuned to the uniqueness of how this issue is for you. You want them to have some technical prowess, a precision of attunement, a specificity of resonance, enough identification with you and differentiation from you to be useful to you. Who recognises you as the artist of your awareness, who supports you without taking away your agency.
We often hand over our power to an external authority, allowing the experts to offer us the handbook to follow on ourselves. Being in charge of your own inner process is the only way to truly know yourself. It is daunting to go it alone. Guiding yourself through your confusion and suffering is challenging. I am reminded of those hours in the studio dancing by myself, listening to my body, warming up, learning how to prepare. It taught me how to cultivate concentration. How to listen. Then when the piece began to arrive in my imagination, learning how to serve its formation without getting in the way. To respond with what is required. To lead yourself through an experience takes receptivity and focus, determination, curiosity, diligence, attentiveness. Return. Travel through the boredom. Find the discipline of practice. Meeting oneself here again. Turning up and tuning in. How to show up even when you don’t know what you are doing, even when you don’t have the next idea, when you don’t have inspiration. Learning how to meet the emptiness, the unformed, the open space. Did I sometimes lie on the floor in the sun and distract myself with my life outside those walls, of course. Did I sometimes eat my lunch half an hour after I arrived, just because I was daunted by the space. Yes, I did. Most of the time I found the road in to my inspiration, that then made creating feel effortless, energised and uplifting. Meeting yourself in your own life process can be just as creative, like riding a truth-seeking wave, that creates energy and possibility within yourself.
The Power of Being Received
Our searches are enhanced when they are met in dialogue. A writer needs an editor, a theatre maker needs a dramaturg, a choreographer needs an artistic director, an orchestra needs a conductor. The making of a whole Self benefits enormously from the relationship with the therapist. What we are striving for is received more powerfully in our awareness when it is reflected back to us. In the writing of this piece, I am searching for meaning from my life experience, but my understanding is enriched and clarified by the work of world leaders in psychotherapy such as Gianni Francesetti and Joseph Zinker. The masters may instruct us, but we make full contact with it within our own self-realising, in dialogue with those who know us and accept us.
This meeting yourself without shying away, turning up, tuning in, listening and guiding yourself, is what happens in therapy. Together in the therapeutic relationship you find what needs to emerge. The art is to not overwhelm it with analysis, not squeeze it into pre-emptive understanding, but allow this awareness and transformative longing to arrive, unfold and expand, and realign your patterning.
The emerging process within a person gets evoked because the therapist is there. It is like what happens when improvisers play together or perform for an engaged audience. Something greater than we two happens in the dialogue. There is a potency at the contact boundary, that invokes the inherent responsiveness within every cell of both of our beings. Co-creation is the heart of self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-realising, self-acceptance, self-manifesting, self-expressing. The true formation of a person is never made alone.
When you leave the therapy hour the problem you have been grappling with will feel more like an improvisation. A soul making process is at the heart of it. It will require practice and discipline to meet it, you might need to further explore and experiment with the edges of it. It might need you to bring all of your life skills to bear on it, and some graces like imagination, presence, and timing. The “issue” itself is seeking wholeness, integration and completion within you. In good therapy you leave feeling that your suffering is valuable and your struggle worth the effort. It is driven by the desire to whole-heartedly and creatively be you. The exquisite composition of who you are.
* Aristotle discusses phronesis, the 20th C philosopher Gadamer expands this concept, and within Gestalt Therapy theory, Gianni Francesetti, Jan Roubal refer to this concept.
Brian Swimme lecturing on Homeostasis can be found here https://storyoftheuniverse.org/power-of-the-universe/
Francesetti, G. Pain and Beauty: From Psychopathology to an Aesthetics of Contact. British Gestalt Journal, 2012, Vol 21. Pg 4-18. Gestalt Publications, Ltd.
Stephen Nachmanovitch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmSTdRMAtUQ&ab_channel=LeahRoseman