I was sitting with M, a client who is full of laughter, who feels things deeply, and who appreciates being a rascal. Suddenly without warning or apparent context, she put her hands to her face, and ran through a catalogue of experiences with a vivid intensity. She was no longer present to me or where we were, but responding as if each episode were happening now. The image of shuffling a deck of cards comes to mind, the speed of images falling as they land on top of one another. It wasn’t the scenes of what had occurred that had captured her attention, it was her feelings. She was sequencing through, at breakneck speed, her unmetabolized responses, her feelings to the other in these scenarios, her inner experience. Her voice and body changed with each nano-second of recontacting each mini-episode. And suddenly, having taken about as long as we would normally take to shuffle a deck of cards, she stopped and looked right at me. She lurched right back to now, screeching to a halt out of breath.
Shifting Time and Space
In intense experiences in contact with others or our environment our sense of time and space changes. To be with her in this experience was giddying, terrifying and intense. I didn’t merely witness what was happening to her, with a remote kind of impartiality. My sense of time and space changed too. The familiar ground of here and now, in the room, together, changed like the shift of a kaleidoscope, and we were catapulting through time and space together, as if on a fairground ride.
There was a beauty in this moment for me too. M’s trust in me, our co-created connection and the safety that made, allowed something to emerge that she had held buried in her embodied experience for her whole life. Usually, I work with these kinds of traumatic events patiently, quietly, tenderly, tiny sliver by sliver. I don’t want to overwhelm my client, or take them out of contact with themselves and their experience in the present, their grounded safety in being able to witness their experience. I don’t really believe intense cathartic experiences are helpful. But I learnt something immeasurably valuable from M that day.
Time and Space are elastic, plastic, and are an integral part of how we relate to ourselves and to others. In moments of relationship where our experience of the other is terrifying the space between us alters. In moments of systemic threat our sense of time passing changes. In moments of psychological intensity, the usual flow of one moment to the next, the previous moment generating the possibility of this moment becomes disturbed. When we are depressed, crushed by life’s insults, we lose the space inside to reach out, to pull towards, to grasp, to hold, everything feels claustrophobically close and featureless. Nothing emerges. Boundless and timeless.
Positioning ourselves in space and time, in a chronological narrative, is created by sense of who we are as we relate to others. Our life is a long series of present moments in contact with our world, our beloveds, and our inner experience. In our memory the calendar of our present moments is arranged in a pattern that defies logical order, it is not a linear representation of that and then this, and next this. Our implicit memory stores these experiences associatively, perhaps as M did, in response to the similarity of internal experiences. For her, those were episodes of terror, fear, pain, shame and humiliation.
Time Travelling from here and then to now
To voyage across time and space, to reach out to another person, to sense the journey that led them to here, to be with how something that happened long ago feels right here right now, is the art of the therapy. We are travellers in time and space. And sometimes the trip is wild, like re-entering the earth’s stratosphere, ricocheting back into the pull of gravity, into consensus reality, returning to the weight of our body and the liveliness of an intake of breath.
“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once… space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”
Susan Sontag At the Same Time
For practitioners interested to explore these concepts more fully I refer you to the work of
Gianni Francesetti, Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb, Jan Roubal, Jacobs and Hycner, Phillipson and the earlier work of Latner, Yontef. You could start with this article: Field Theory in Contemporary Gestalt Practice Gestalt Review, Vol 24, No 2, 2020. DOI: 10. 5325/gestalt review 24.2. 0113. Pennsylvania State University.