Erving Polster on Gestalt Therapy

Erving Polster on Gestalt Therapy

by Victor Yalom and Randall C. Wyatt
Gestalt Therapist and teacher extraordinaire discusses the origins of Gestalt Therapy, his encounters with Fritz Perls, the importance of making contact, and more.
Filed Under: Gestalt, Erving Polster


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The Interview

Victor Yalom: We could get started by asking how you got involved in this business of psychotherapy, many years ago.
Erving Polster: Oh, I don't know where to begin on that.
Randall C. Wyatt: What first sparked your interest in psychology itself?
Erving Polster: I started college as journalism major. I had no thought of psychology but several things led me there. In high school I was a doorman in a movie theater in a very tough neighborhood in Cleveland. I came from a very lower middle class neighborhood, but there was no crime, and it was scandalous to do anything against the law. These kids at the theater were juvenile delinquents, yet they were terrific kids; I just really enjoyed them, and they enjoyed me, and we had a good time together. I got this sense of how different people actually are from what we might think they are. Later, I took a course in juvenile delinquency in the sociology department as a sophomore and really liked it. I realize now that the course in juvenile delinquency tapped into that same quality of how people may be different than they appear. I switched my major from journalism to sociology. I took a course in personality theory with Calvin Hall and he just flipped me over with his ideas, particularly his views of psychoanalysis, and the incredible power of the inner experience. I then went to graduate school in Hall's psychology department... so that's how I got into psychology.
RW: What then stirred your interest in Gestalt, what drew you in?
EP: In graduate school, I was psychoanalytically oriented as was the department and Calvin Hall. As a matter of fact I wrote my dissertation on ego functioning in dreams, which was previously said to be only for super-ego and id. I got involved with a workshop with parolees in New York, and it was really eye-opening about what you can do in therapy without being the distant intellectualizer pedantic. It showed me how to get down to the basics, to the raw experience that people have. And it also introduced being open in a group. These groups were very early in the game, I'm talking about 1953, and it was long before the encounter movement was in full swing in the sixties. It was a very eye-opening group experience, hearing people's internal experience, which was unheard-of in those days, except in very intimate situations.

RW: What was your initial reaction to that?
EP: Oh, I was spellbound by the possibilities of human experience. And it happened very quickly too, because the leader was very skilled in knowing where to go. There was one patient that I'd worked with before I got involved in Gestalt therapy. He was still working with me and our worked had changed, so I asked him, "What seems different in being here?" And he said "It's not so lonely anymore." And that was really a very eye-opening feeling as well, about the importance of the connectedness between the therapist and the patient, which was then quite rare.
In fact, I think when I started doing psychotherapy, I sat behind a desk. Coming out from behind that desk was a big change, metaphorically and literally.
In fact, I think when I started doing psychotherapy, I sat behind a desk. Coming out from behind that desk was a big change, metaphorically and literally.
VY: Was there some loneliness for you though in abandoning the bastion of psychoanalysis, and doing this on your own?
EP: It wasn't lonely because I was joined with a group of people. I loved being with those people and so, no, quite the contrary, it expanded my community, rather than subtracting from it.

Learning from Fritz Perls

RW: So, looking back, what contributions did you pull from Perls? What nuggets still stick with you?
EP: One thing I got from Perls is the power of simple continuity; if we stay with somebody step-by-step, and heighten their awareness so that there is an accumulation of vitality, that leads toward very strong and revealing experiences. That process is not required for depth, but depth comes through sequentially, rather than through proof and interpretation. Not that I think that one should never interpret, but I was impressed with how much leverage that continuity and heightening of experience had on the work.
RW: What are some memories and impressions of Perls as a person?
EP: Well, he was a very unique person. I was not accustomed to a person so full of uniqueness: how a person can be really clearly differentiated from others and still have some connectedness, some offering, some contribution.
Perls was a very brilliant demonstrator of therapy. There was a strange sense of daring and safety joined together. Perls was radar; he just knew where to go.
Perls was a very brilliant demonstrator of therapy. There was a strange sense of daring and safety joined together. Perls was radar; he just knew where to go. And he had a presence which was very supportive. There was a sense that, if you went where he wanted to go you would never be in trouble. He could be supportive, kind, and resonant, as well as opinionated and impatient. Perls was a "my-way-or-the-highway" kind of guy.
RW: It must have been quite different coming from traditional analytic training. Did he work with you in a group or individually?
EP: Well, when I rolled in, I had never seen anything like this. Many people in the group had been to Moreno's Psychodrama workshops. But it seemed valid and not out of tune with the people and where they were ready to go. So I felt very excited, but with a certain fear inside. It was very illuminating to experience within myself and see what was happening within others. In the beginning I thought "Hey, what's so new about this; this isn't all that different from psychoanalysis," but the more I could see it, the more I could differentiate it. It just "grew me up" as a professional, and expanded my sense of what could happen in people's minds.
VY: Do you have any specific memories of working with Perls that still stand out for you?
Well, I remember that I reached way inside myself, and wound up in a deep cry, and not just tears, but crying. And it's like the whole world was in there, and suddenly I felt his hand holding my hand, and it was Fritz.
Well, I remember that I reached way inside myself, and wound up in a deep cry, and not just tears, but crying. And it's like the whole world was in there, and suddenly I felt his hand holding my hand, and it was Fritz. It's a very touching thing to feel this kind of sense of appreciation of what I had been through, and not keeping his distance. It was a very mind-changing realization of people's need to connect, getting a feeling of interactive connection.
RW: So these experiences you had in the group with Perls and with others, I mean I'm not exaggerating, it transformed your work and you personally?
EP: Yes it did transform me. And I love psychoanalysis, don't misunderstand me. I was really taken with the theory; it just opened me up tremendously.

The Contact Boundary in Therapy

VY: You talk a lot about making contact, and you delved into that in your writing as well. Can you say more about the centrality of contact in Gestalt therapy?
EP: Well, there are a number of central principles, but that's as central a principle as any from my standpoint. For me it's the one that was the grounding through all the rest.
VY: Why is it so important to your work, and so important to you?
EP: I'm not exactly sure why it became so important to me. I just gravitate more to that concept than to others that are also very important to me-like awareness, experiments, and helping people to act their directionalism, to really behave in ways, rather than just knowing about something. But you are right that it is key to my work.
VY: Help us get a sense, or a picture of what contact boundary means?
EP: Well, contact boundary is said-by Gestalt therapy in particular in those days-to be almost like an organ of personality. Psychology deals with the interaction between self and other. Psychology is where the two meet, where the person and the universe meet, where the person and otherness meet. Contact boundary is where the person and world meet. The concept of "boundary" says that at the meeting point there is no distinguishing between self and others.

If you look at the real estate space between two properties... that boundary line does not belong to either side, yet it belongs to both, but it is such a narrow boundary, nobody cares about owning the boundary; the boundary merely delineates what is on each side of it. With human beings, the boundaries are a little looser, but it's still a matter of the rhythm between individuality and relationship.
RW: How does that contact boundary work between people?
EP: The contact boundary means there are two individuals on each side of the boundary; they're individualized, but they unite.
It is at that point of union that you get the fundamental of existence that is to be nourished by relationships. So it's built into the nature of people to have that point of meeting: the illumination of what life is about.
It is at that point of union that you get the fundamental of existence that is to be nourished by relationships. So it's built into the nature of people to have that point of meeting: the illumination of what life is about. So the quality of the contact is very important, because contact itself is inevitable. But you can have a lot of variations in the quality of the contact. That is going to be a survival factor in anybody's life: to relate to the universe through others.
RW: How does that contact play out, then, in the therapy? And what does it mean in therapy?
EP: Oh that's such a broad thing. Let me, I'll tell you the first thing that comes to my mind... which may not be representative at all. One client really, really liked me, and admired my way of thinking and things like that, but I said to him one day, "How does it happen that you admire me so much yet nothing that I ever say to you is right." He was a little stunned by that comment, yet the fact was that his contact with me was a very narrow contact; he couldn't accept anything I would say even though his evaluation of my "rightness," if he had to evaluate it, would be "good." But for a specific engagement he could not allow that "rightness" to exist. So that's a deficiency in the quality of the contact.
VY: So you're always paying a lot of attention with clients to what the nature of the contact is.
EP: A lot of attention. But one doesn't have to pay attention to everything. I mean, it would be very self-conscious to do that. But in key moments you say, "Look now, somehow or another you say you are accepting what I'm saying, but there's nothing in you that makes me feel that you're feeling it, that you know about it. Rather it seems to be passing right through." So, we could examine what is present or lacking in the contact. That's not the best example at all, but my mind is blocking on giving you a good example. Maybe I will think of one later....
VY: So what about you draws you so much to the immediate contact?
EP: I don't know, I can tell you that I grew up very shy, very silent. I always had friends, but I wasn't the life of the friendship, and I wasn't the instigator. I was more of the reactive person. I'm still a silent person somewhere inside but I've gone beyond it. I can talk for hours if I have to lecture which still surprises me. My mother was a very loving woman and our family was very close. I saw people around me were in very good contact with each other even though I myself was very silent. And I must say that silence is not necessarily poor contact because I think people always thought of me as a good listener. I can remember my mother and my sister talking to me at great length while I listened to them. Somehow, they wanted to talk to me. I just listened. I didn't have that much to offer, but somehow they wanted to talk to me. So I don't know the answer to your question.
VY: You really like the contact.
EP: Oh, I love it... I love it!
RW: You also talk about the concept of, I think you use the phrase "Healing through meeting."
EP: Well, that's a Buberian concept. I've never used the word "healing" in particular, not that I'm against it!
RW: You're not against healing, that's a definite.
EP: No, no! (laughter) Buber used to talk about "healing through meeting." But yeah, the idea is to restore full function. The basic thing people have to do is to integrate with the world they're in. There's no way to be isolated and still live well.

What were you guys doing in the sixties?

VY: Let's get back to the zeitgeist of the sixties and seventies that was kind of a formative time in your professional career. I'm sure there was a lot going on there.
EP: Yes, there was. I suppose you're asking, what was going on?
RW: What the heck was going on? I mean it was...
EP: What were you guys doing over there?!
RW: was rather revolutionary.
Yes, it was. It was a natural extension of the power of psychoanalysis, but put in a non-pathology setting, and among people who were joined together rather than only in a private relationship. So the encounter group movement threw the whole aura of psychotherapy into the public at large, and a certain portion of the public became interested and very aroused by it. Sometimes with great expansion of mind there came harm because of premature changes in life that couldn't be assimilated easily: people being too impulsive about their careers, their marriages, their relationships. I think there were some people for whom it didn't work well, but I think for most people that I've known about, it worked very well in terms of freeing their minds to see beyond the ordinary privacy arrangements people have about living. Their internal experiences became more acceptable by being acceptable to others.
RW: Was there was some sense that you were changing the world?
EP: There was some sense to that, but you would have to be megalomaniacal to believe that.
VY: Did you have that sense?
No, I didn't have that interest in changing the world. I was aware of the changes that were very big. I think I've probably thought about it in terms of "could we live better in this world?" I didn't think of it in terms of political change which you usually think of when you talk about changing the world. I thought about it as a developmental difference, an evolutionary thing, in terms of what people could accept within themselves. I thought people might become kinder to each other, have more creativity, enjoy sexuality more fully. I felt there was a better way to be in the world.
VY: In 1978 you wrote in Gestalt Therapy Integrated, "The times are right for change. The magnetic force of immediate experience is hard to beat."
EP: That was 1973.
VY: Ok. So if times were ripe for change, looking back from this vantage point, did anything change?
Oh, yes. I think a lot changed. But unfortunately I don't see a shift in some of the fundamentals, with crime still very much a problem, terrible wars, violence between people. Yet we do have a lot of changes.
I think fathers became better with their children, more available and open. I think women are more assertive, more "self-actualizing", more happy sexually. When I see women run on the beach nowadays, they run with full grace and force, and freely.
I think fathers became better with their children, more available and open. I think women are more assertive, more "self-actualizing", more happy sexually. When I see women run on the beach nowadays, they run with full grace and force, and freely. And that was never true before; women's physical abilities were largely dismissed. There are a lot of changes: a lot more awareness of what's going on in the world, a lot less taking for granted. Even though in the general population we still have a tremendous amount of conformity, being led by the nose, not really examining the situations in terms of more than the symbols they represent, not getting down to the real causes. So when you ask is there any change, yeah, there is change, but a lot of things haven't improved; some have gotten worse.

I think every generation has its own view of its own problems. If you think you passed an old one, there's a new one, and we're challenged to stay up-to-date with what matters.
RW: So many changes happened in the sixties, all around the world. The changes which swept across our culture, like openness, freedom, authenticity-but then taking responsibility for that authenticity and freedom is another matter.
That was a big problem in the sixties. People didn't understand about responsibilities.
There was a certain anarchistic quality to it, as if "If I can do it, it must be okay." Well it's not!
There was a certain anarchistic quality to it, as if "If I can do it, it must be okay." Well it's not! There are lots of things that people do naturally and with full backing of their personalities that are exactly wrong for somebody else, and in the long run, wrong for themselves because they don't take account of the consequences.
RW: Do you think Gestalt therapy and Gestalt practices sometimes led to that kind of impulsivity: that whatever you feel is right, so just do it?
I think we had a hand in it. And I'm sad that that's true. But I think what a beautiful theory, there is much room for compassion and community, things most of us would want in a society. It very often got out of hand because it is very hard to coordinate freedom with taking account of the other. There's a basic paradox, like when I talked about the contact boundary before; the sense of union and the sense of separation. How do you coordinate those? It's hard to do simultaneously. If you are going to be free, where is there room in your mind to take account of the other? Well, there is room, but it's not easy to do it. It's very easy for people, whenever faced with paradox, to choose one side of the paradox over the other, so they become totally free and not care about anybody else, or else become conformist and lose their own direction.

Insight and Awareness

VY: Lets back up a bit and try to find out a little bit more about what Gestalt therapy is, or what it is today to you. You gave us some indication of the difference between Gestalt and psychoanalysis back in the fifties. Is there some way you can give us a summary of what distinguishes Gestalt therapy?
EP: When you have a broad theory, different people will take different things out of it, so you get a lot of variety. We have that in psychoanalysis too. The way I see Gestalt therapy is that it is a system that deals with contact, and therefore with how to join with others, how to coordinate with them, how to form community. And it deals with awareness, which unearths what people's needs and possibilities are. It nourishes their activity. Awareness is not only a confirming experience; it is also an inspirational experience, in terms of leading people into their behavior. I don't think of Gestalt therapy as programmatic as many people took it in the beginning-for example, that people in Gestalt therapy group members were not allowed to ask "Why?"
RW: Right. What? How? but not Why? Why is that?
EP: Yeah, no Why? They did that because Fritz Perls was aware of the intellectualization, of de-personalizing relationships. And the word why is one of the instruments of intellectualization. You ask why? and it leads you to intellectual answers. It doesn't have to, but it often does. Why? is a perfectly natural question to ask. Every child would ask Why? and Why not?-I mean, it's just stupid to exclude Why from one's repertoire.

Early on, Perls was against interpretation. But to explain things is a perfectly human thing to do. Why would you exclude that? You don't want to rely on it. Psychoanalysis went the other way, they did it too much. They didn't deal with the basics of experience as Gestalt therapy did. So for example, psychoanalysis was interested in insights; Gestalt therapy was interested in awareness. Now an insight, to me, is one form of awareness, but awareness goes beyond insights.
VY: How so?
EP: Well, like we're aware of talking to each other now, but that's not an insight, it's an awareness. I'm aware of moving my hands now. I'm aware of the words I'm saying. I'm aware of your smile. I'm aware of how you changed your smile. But I wouldn't call those insights. They're going on all the time. Insights go on occasionally, and are valuable, but not something to base a whole system on.

Punctuating Client Experience in Therapy

RW: In your therapy videos, I notice that you tend to punctuate client insights and awareness, at times dramatically. What is your thinking about that? Is that your natural style or a technique?
EP: Well, probably it's my own natural style, but it has a theoretical base in the sense that the registration of experience matters in terms of the experiencing having an impact. What you register matters in terms of how you relate to the world, and how you see yourself. There are some people where you don't have to say a word, and you know they're registering what is happening. So I wouldn't always punctuate, but there are certain times when I think punctuation is an amplification of what happens, so they really feel what is happening, and it is part of themselves, rather than a casual thing that went on.
RW: You wrote a book entitled Every Person’s Life Is Worth a Novel that makes the point of helping people fully appreciate the drama and experiences in their own lives.
EP: That's right: to recognize what is interesting in their lives, and not to take on somebody else's standards for what is worthwhile. So that's the idea of every person's life being worth a novel. Novelists base their work on what all of us actually are; they're not making it out of whole cloth. They're recognizing the nature of people's lives, and we ourselves tend to attribute to them the skill that would make our lives interesting. But the fundamentals are within us. And when we can recognize that we are living our life, that's very crucial for self-appreciation to come to fruition, because if we don't feel that value, then all the rest just dissipates. That's not an all-or-none matter of course for most people.
VY: I think you have a skill in conveying to people this kind of enthusiasm and interest in their own creativity and strength without being Pollyannaish.
EP: I don't feel like a Pollyanna. I'm particularly enthusiastic when I'm permitted that luxury of paying attention to what they're saying, and see that they're open to my paying attention. That's what they come for. Some people would not be open to my focused attention, so in another situation a person might wish I would get off their back. There are a lot of things I would say in a therapy setting that I wouldn't say to somebody at a dinner table. It reminds me of the time I did some work in a coffee house a long time ago at a church function. The guy who ran it said, "Here, just do whatever you do." He introduced me as a psychologist, and people gathered around. Some stayed for awhile, and others left, and some more would come; we had very interesting conversations. The main difference is that I would call their attention to what they were doing, which you would not do normally. It's too interruptive; it's not a good way to live. But the therapist has that invitation to pay attention to what's going on, rather than just living through it.
RW: At times, I imagine you might...
Let's suppose I said to you, "Randy, what are you aware of now as you're about to ask me these questions?" You'll say "Back off, I just want to ask you a question." That's perfectly how people live; it's the right way to live.
Let's suppose I said to you, "Randy, what are you aware of now as you're about to ask me these questions?" You'll say "Back off, I just want to ask you a question." That's perfectly how people live; it's the right way to live. But the therapist has the special permission to make up for the losses that come from those everyday things, so you can recover some of the awareness of what is not being expressed and make it a part of yourself. Excuse me for interrupting you.
RW: Well, I will tell you anyways. I was thinking that I wanted to know what happens when you are enthusiastic, when you say "Fantastic!" to clients, or when you punctuate their experience and help a client register something... and their response to that is to brush it away, they don't take it in: how do you attend to that?
EP: Well, I don't expect people to fall into line right away (laughs). I don't make that kind of demand of them. If they want to pass it off, they pass it off.
RW: You will come back to it.
EP: Yeah. Look, I could imagine saying to somebody later on, "Every time I praise you, you seem to go dim in your face. You don't like my praise?" And maybe they'll tell me, or maybe they wouldn't, but it has to be well-timed. You would have to do it with the right person at the right time.

Beyond Technique-Driven Therapy

RW: You're called a Gestalt psychologist, a Gestalt therapist, yet in many of the interventions in your psychotherapy video you come across as very different than what most people think of as Gestalt work. When you're doing therapy, it doesn't seem so cloaked in formal Gestalt technique, role playing, dream work, empty chair, and so on.
EP: To me, those formal techniques are scaffolds. They're very important in building the building. When the building is built, you take away the scaffolds. I think theories are a way of orienting yourself to what you do, and they help in directing you. But I could see somebody doing a psychoanalytic session, and explaining it in Gestalt terms or vice-versa. Yet, you would certainly distinguish between a Gestalt and a psychoanalytic session. So for me, my orientation is to the principles of Gestalt therapy. That guides my mind, so if I do something which is similar to what somebody else would do, that's no problem to me, because the theory doesn't decree the repertoire. No, that's wrong, the theory gives you a repertoire. It doesn't tell you what to choose out of the repertoire. So if I know that a part of my repertoire is to have a dialogue between two parts of the person's self, that's a part of my repertoire. Now I pick that out of the bag when it feels right for whom I'm working with. If I'm doing a dream, I may want somebody to play some part of the dream, or I might just say, "What does this dream remind you of in your everyday life?" Or, "Is there any more you want to say about the dream, or do you like the dream?" I wouldn't necessarily go through that rigmarole about playing out the parts.
RW: In the room with the client you seem to be tuned into the immediacy between you and the client. That seems to be much of the guiding force, as opposed to a series of techniques.
EP: Yeah, it is for me. But there will be other Gestalt therapists who'll be very distant in their actual relationship with the client, but they are very tuned into the awareness of that person -- "What are you aware of now? What do you want now?" they can do very well, but it's a different way of operating.

Wise Words for Therapists

RW: Let's shift to another track, which is that you consult with a lot of therapists. What do you see lacking in therapists' work when you train them? What do you push them on? What do you seem to be returning to again and again to help them become better therapists?
EP: I see a lot of therapists falling back on the stereotypes of what a psychotherapist does. They are unwilling to say what they know, unwilling to develop their own way of doing things, their own style-to be idiomatic, in other words.
VY: What do you mean by idiomatic?
EP: Idiomatic meaning only that person can do it. That's an exaggeration, because after all, we do have much in common with each other. But still you get a feeling like "Alvin is the one doing that; that's the way he does it" versus a generic therapist.
VY: Therapists really sticking their neck out in showing themselves.
EP: Well, that wouldn't be necessarily sticking your neck out. Some things come naturally, but don't fit their image of what a therapist should be doing. Like Miriam, my wife. She taught a course where she asked the therapy students to list a set of characteristics of themselves that are characteristics of them as therapists. And they would usually give a very straight list, very technical, empathy, and so on. Then she would ask for another set of more personal characteristics. And they responded with things like "fresh and lively" or "enterprising in new things." And when they saw that list, it became apparent that the best part of themselves were kept out of the therapy.
How can you get by in any field if you hold out the best parts of your self? Do we have that much good going on that we can hold out our best parts and still do well?
How can you get by in any field if you hold out the best parts of your self? Do we have that much good going on that we can hold out our best parts and still do well? So the question is how to incorporate the best parts of your personal style into the technical knowledge; because there is technical knowledge. At times of course, one needs to hold back parts of one's personality which could be over-stimulating, or dominating, or too intrusive, for example. There are all kinds of problems in therapy which anyone's natural self has to take into account or make use of depending on the situation and people involved.
RW: It's not just a matter of learning the techniques of therapy. It's personal too.
EP: Yes, that's the work. I mean, that's what we have to learn: how to do that. It's a matter of how you learn the technique and bring your personhood in. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who has a cousin who's a well-known concert violinist. Her cousin was performing that night and was practicing all day long. My friend asked her, "Why do you do that all day long?" and the musician responded, "The reason I do that is because I want it to be part of my reflexes, so when I'm on stage I have room left over for my emotions."

And I found over the years that what improves my therapy a lot is trusting my reflexes, not trusting them cavalierly, but trusting them through habits, through experiences. I began to trust what I would have to say, and I didn't have to think, "Is this right?" all the time. But it has to be built into your system so that you have room left over for your idiomatic qualities.

Religion, Psychotherapy and Community

RW: Let's talk about your new writings on life-focused communities, spirituality and everyday life. You have stated that psychoanalysis and other traditional therapies left out everyday life in their therapeutic work. Can you speak to that?
EP: Freud developed psychoanalysis as a physician. He dealt with pathology; that was his game, rightly so. But he happened to build principles in a way that dealt with how people's minds work. He also had guidance for them through the therapeutic process that was generally related to the pathology. He basically invented another religion. What it lacks for as a religion is the sense of community, the lifetime commitment. But how do you take it beyond pathology? There are a lot of ways to do it, but my contention is that what I would see as an extrapolation, a rightful extrapolation, would be to have large segments of people meeting for a lifetime. Not that everybody has to come all the time, but much like churches and temples, there would be that process that is fundamental in orienting them about life, and then guiding them through it.
RW: Well, how do you do it? What makes it different or similar to traditional communities?
EP: Yes, how do you do it? We have very different methods than the familiar religions do. First of all, you don't have to believe in God. You could if you wanted to, but it won't be based on God-orientation. It would be based on what God probably represents to most people, which is an indivisible union with otherness, the ubiquitous other, that also has guiding impact on the community in a way that can have some of that force. I mean the poetry of God is really quite magnificent. I don't know whether we can ever duplicate anything at that level. But the community — if it can be hallowed, if we could see the sacred aspects of psychotherapy — would be a step toward a very orienting and guiding system. There are things psychotherapists do which I call "in the sacred realm." because they are limited to what happens in psychotherapy, and they're dear to people. And religion does the same thing; it has sacred things, but our sacred things are different from theirs. So I proposed a number of qualities which represent part of the sacred experience, and showed how religion does it, and how psychotherapy does it. I just finished my new book on this which I'm sending off to my agent on Monday.
RW: When you were just speaking there about your recent work, you really came alive... (Polster's laughter fills the room) ...much more than talking about the zeitgeist. Did you notice that?
EP: Okay... no, I didn't notice.
RW: This whole concept of spirituality—which all the big theorists have either avoided or dismissed: Freud, Ellis, Skinner, and so on, you are trying to... (Polster's laughter fills the room) ...much more than talking about the zeitgeist. Did you notice that?
EP: I don't think "spirituality." That's the term I don't use.
RW: What would you use?
EP: Religion. "Spirituality" has a lot of airy-fairy qualities to the term, and I never know what people are talking about. I like to know what I'm talking about. "Religion" I know is a community of people that is oriented and guided in their lives in very concrete ways and with very concrete beliefs, that can be defined. Spirituality - I don't know what that means. When I talk about some things, spirituality would probably be included, but I don't use the word. I'm talking about the natural quality that we seek in life of indivisibility from otherness, and I'm sure some neurological findings would support that experience. So would meditations, and deep relationships, sexuality, that sense of indivisibility, but I don't think of that as spiritual; I think of it as indivisibility. The term spiritual is too broadly-used for me to know how to use it.
RW: What is the most satisfying, the most meaningful part of your career and your therapeutic work? What keeps you going?
EP: Well, so many things: engagement, absorption, and a way of making new things happen over and over again. Also, there is the sense of impact, the sense of being important to other people, mattering to them. I'm very absorbed with writing and love doing workshops. I become just so totally absorbed by it that I just go and go.
RW: I'm sure we could go on and on right now, but you have a flight to catch.
EP: That's right!
VY: So thanks for taking the time.

Copyright © 2004 All rights reserved. Published September 2004.
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*Not approved for CE by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)

CE Test
Erving Polster Erving Polster, PhD is the Director of The Gestalt Institute of San Diego, and the author of several important books, including Gestalt Therapy Integrated, Every Person's Life is Worth a Novel, and From the Radical Center: The Heart of Gestalt Therapy, as well as dozens of articles and chapters.

See all Erving Polster videos.

Victor Yalom Victor Yalom, PhD is the founder and resident cartoonist of He maintained a busy private practice in San Francisco for over 25 years, but now sees only a few clients, devoting the bulk of his time to creating new training videos for He has produced over 100 videos, conducted workshops in existential-humanistic and group therapy in the US, Mexico, and China, and currently leads consultation groups for therapists.  More info on Victor and his artwork and sculpture at

Randall C. Wyatt Randall C. Wyatt, PhD is a practicing psychologist in Oakland and Dublin, California. He specializes in working with post-traumatic stress, cross-cultural therapeutic relationships and couples therapy and has extensive teaching experience.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the distinction between insight and awareness
  • Describe the use of Gestalt therapy beyond traditional techniques
  • Explain the use of contact boundary in psychotherapy

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here