Perl’s Gestalt Therapy and Dream Yoga


Integral Deep Listening and Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy and Integral Deep Listening both have strong roots in the work of JL Moreno, creator of psychodrama, sociometry, and many of the interactive processes associated with “T-groups” and “sensitivity trainings” of the ’60’s and ’70’s. Joseph Dillard was trained in Gestalt therapy, but it was not a major influence in the creation of Integral Deep Listening, nor did it become a treatment method of choice. While Integral Deep Listening may superficially resemble Gestalt therapy, in that they both use role-playing procedures, Gestalt has tended to be used for emotional catharsis and the reintegration of disowned pieces of one’s shadow. The objective of Gestalt therapy, as a humanistic psychotherapy, is to enable the client to become more fully and creatively alive and to become free from the blocks and unfinished business that may diminish satisfaction, fulfillment, and growth, and to experiment with new ways of being.

Gestalt emphasizes the resolution of internal conflict and the acquisition of an independent and responsible self, although with time Gestalt therapy has broadened to include many other uses. Change comes about as a result of “full acceptance of what is, rather than a striving to be different.” A Gestalt therapist today could incorporate Integral Deep Listening and call it “Gestalt.” We have no problem with that, any more than we have a problem with coaches calling Integral Deep Listening “coaching,” Jungian analysts calling it “active imagination,” shamans calling it simply “dream yoga,” or integral psychotherapists calling it “shadow work.” Integral Deep Listening views such explanations and applications as potentially helpful yet always partial, because they emphasize parts of the “elephant” at the risk of missing the importance of other aspects that allow Integral Deep Listening to transcend and include many of these definitions.

In Gestalt therapy, attention, and mental and emotional energy is invested in identification with various roles in order to move into the here and now, gain objectivity, and insight. Gestalt emphasizes personal responsibility, the experiential present moment, and self-knowledge through examination of relationships. Focusing more on process than content, Gestalt de-emphasizes interpretation in favor of direct experience in the present moment. Integral Deep Listening strongly agrees with this emphasis, but emphasizes the important distinction between prepersonal and transpersonal experience that Gestalt does not. Integral Deep Listening tends to use a much more structured approach to first access and then transform what Gestalt calls “roles” and to access transformational life potentials than does Gestalt.

Different Roots in Moreno’s Work

In addition to new physics, Eastern religion, existential phenomenology, Gestalt psychology, psychoanalysis, experimental theater, systems and field theory, Gestalt therapy was influenced by the active, playful, and interactive methods pioneered by psychiatrist J.L. Moreno. There is no indication that Perls was influenced by Moreno’s sociometry, which was a key influence on the development of IDL. While Perls denied roots in Moreno’s psychodrama, there is evidence that indicates Moreno’s work provided Perls with much of his methodology: role playing, “empty chair,” and an experiential emphasis on spontaneity in the here and now. Integral Deep Listening, on the other hand, which superficially resembles Gestalt therapy, was a direct outgrowth not of Moreno’s psychodrama and “sensitivity” or “T group” exercises, but of Moreno’s sociometry.

Humanistic Psychotherapy Vs. Psychospiritual Yoga

Following Freud, Perls assumed that emotional disturbances are generated by patients accepting some of their experiences, perceptions, and preferences, while dissociating, denying, repressing, or projecting others. Healing involves the reintegration of disowned parts, and dreamwork became a primary resource for accomplishing this end.[1] Consequently, Perls’ treatments were designed for those with various emotional issues most closely linked to fixations at what integral terms mid prepersonal through early personal levels of development. His model relied on Freud’s understanding of defense mechanisms and was also a creative outgrowth of Freud’s theory of childhood development. Perls saw both therapy and role identification as reintegrating disowned parts of an individual. The goal of therapy was responsible individuality: “To mature means to take responsibility for your life, to be on your own,” which indicates that the goal of therapy for Perls is roughly what integral terms mid-personal development. Because Integral Deep Listening is not humanistic or self-oriented, it does not assume that assumed roles are dissociated self-aspects that require integration. While Perls was interested in helping patients “grow up” into “normal” functioning, Integral Deep Listening educates students to the full developmental spectrum, including transpersonal states and stages, and supports them in transcending personal and social definitions of normalcy.

Gestalt therapy is an approach that is holistic (including mind, body and culture). It is present-centered and related to existential therapy in its emphasis on personal responsibility for action, and on the value of “I-thou” relationship in therapy. In fact, Perls considered calling Gestalt therapy “existential-phenomenological therapy.” Gestalt therapy trains therapists; Integral Deep Listening trains students and practitioners who may be parents, coaches, or therapists. Gestalt therapists may or may not take a history or require a DSM diagnosis to treat; this is often determined by imposed conditions of treatment, such as requirements of insurers, rather than Gestalt therapy itself. However, Gestalt therapists routinely make diagnostic decisions about what to focus on or not in order to reframe some traumatic experience in a more productive way. While clinical skills can be helpful for Integral Deep Listening practitioners, they are not essential. It is purposefully intended to be simple enough to allow children and third world parents to interview each other and follow the recommendations themselves, if they so desire.

Purpose and Method of Questioning

Gestalt therapists direct role-taking and choose behaviors to focus on or ignore. While they have a “plan” or goals for treatment, questioning and interviewing is relatively unstructured. However, the course of role dialog is very much directed by the therapist, based on his or her interpretations of what is occurring and what is required. Integral Deep Listening practitioners, on the other hand, do not usually choose the life issues that the student works with, nor do they typically have a plan or goals for the process other than to support the student in waking up and growing up in those ways that are recommended by interviewed emerging potentials, in consultation with external authorities and the student’s own common sense. Integral Deep Listening is directive in that its interviewing protocols for dreams and life issues are highly structured. However, this structure is not designed to bring a “cure” through the intervention, treatment, and interpretations of a therapist, but to encourage deep listening in an integral way to one’s own inner compass.

Experience in the Here-And-Now 

Gestalt’s emphasis on experience in the here and now was adopted from the work of another Freudian psychoanalyst, Otto Rank. Gestalt therapy focuses on process, or what is actually happening, over content, or what is being talked about. Consequently, it can be thought of as a method of active awareness practice, in contrast to meditation, which is generally but not always pursued as a method of receptive or observational awareness practice.

Like behaviorism and many other schools of psychology, Perls developed Gestalt therapy in reaction to Freud: “To mature means to take responsibility for your life, to be on your own. Psychoanalysis fosters the infantile state by considering that the past is responsible for the illness.” Gestalt’s experiential emphasis was partially based on a deviation, or reinterpretation, of Freud’s model of childhood development. While Freud associated eating with introjection and saw therapy as the incorporation of therapist “food” (interpretations) by the patient-child, Perls, in contrast to the psychoanalytic stance, believed the client must “taste” his or her experience, and either accept or reject it, but not introject or “swallow it whole.” The consequence of this reframing of the psychoanalytic developmental model for Perls was a new emphasis on avoiding interpretation and instead encouraging discovery. This is a key point in the divergance of Gestalt therapy from traditional psychoanalysis; growth occurs through gradual assimilation of experience in a natural way, rather than by accepting the interpretations of the analyst. The therapist should not interpret, but lead the client to discover for himself or herself.

Perls believed anxiety was caused by a failure to stay in the ‘here and now.’ Therefore, treatment of anxiety involved getting patients to stay in the present moment. In fact, the basis of Gestalt therapy is looking at the moment, the whole moment and nothing but the moment. Perls said, “I have one aim only: to impart a fraction of the meaning of the word now.” By living fully in the present, one gains insight into themselves and hence stimulates growth. Rather than hide behind intellectual analysis, Gestalt therapy emphasizes direct perception of what one is feeling at the moment and how one is behaving.

Integral Deep Listening observes that fear, as well as some varieties of anxiety, is experienced in the here and now. For example, the alarm reaction of Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome is a physiological response to a perceived imminent threat, whether awake or dreaming. Consequently, while moving into the here and now can move one out of anxiety, it provides no insurance against either fear or reactivity. Your level of development, the breadth and depth of your perspective on your experience, and the context you adopt, are equally as important. We can see this with babies, who live in the here and now, but can and do still experience fear. With repeated exposures to fearful stimuli children become anxious in the here and now. Consequently, Integral Deep Listening emphasizes both being in the here and now and moving to perspectives that transcend and include your present stuckness. Identification with an emerging potential tends to move a subject into the here and now; identification with emerging potentials that score higher than you do in some or all of the six core qualities moves you into a perspective that most likely handles fear and anxiety better than you do. Such a perspective is less stuck because its perspective transcends and includes your own.

Integral Deep Listening sees life in the moment as about state transformations which wake us up. Application of knowledge requires objectivity, which takes one into a broader now that embraces a past and a future. Therefore, due to an emphasis on stage development, Integral Deep Listening places more emphasis on the past and future than does Gestalt, but shares its emphasis on the present.

Relationships Are Key

Perls saw everyone as entangled in webs of relationships. Therefore, it is only possible to know ourselves against the background of our relationship to the other. Selfhood, orfunctioning personality,” is something that is achieved in relationship, rather than something inherently “inside” the person. This is what integral would term an “external collective quadrant” emphasis because it focuses on objective and social interpersonal interactional dynamics. A key term for Gestalt in understanding relationships is “inclusion.” To practice inclusion is to accept however the client chooses to be present, whether in a defensive and obnoxious stance or a superficially cooperative one. It is to support the presence of the client, including his or her resistance, not as a gimmick but in full realization that this is how the client is actually present and is the best this client can do at this time. Gestalt therapists are committed to the process, trusts in that process, and does not attempt to avoid pain or discomfort. This is similar to the approach of Integral Deep Listening when it views all experiences as wake-up calls to be respected, listened to, and learned from.

Another aspect of relationship in Gestalt therapy is summed up in the saying, “The I and thou in the Here and Now,” which is a semi-humorous shorthand mantra. It refers to the “I-Thou relationship” described and popularized by the German Jewish theologian, Martin Buber. His approach emphasized immediacy, and made the quality of relationship primary. Any process or method that turns the patient into an “I-It” object-relationship, such as behavioral therapy, was regarded as inferior to intimate and spontaneous I-Thou relationships. This was Buber’s and Gestalt’s attempt to emphasize both respect, egalitarianism, and the sacred in therapy over the re-parenting, hierarchical, and secular emphasis of Freudian and psychodynamic approaches.

A Common Emphasis on Phenomenology

Both Gestalt therapy and Integral Deep Listening emphasize direct, non-mediated experience in the here-and-now. Assumptions are dropped in favor of allowing unfiltered experience to emerge and speak. We also find a similar emphasis on experience in the here and now in shamanism and dream yogas in general, for which interpretation takes a back seat. The phenomenological method comprises three steps: the rule of epoché, the rule of description, and the rule of horizontalization. With epoché, we set aside our biases and prejudices in order to suspend expectations and assumptions. Any initial theories regarding diagnosis and treatment are set aside. With the rule of description, we occupy ourselves with describing instead of explaining. Immediate and specific observations are emphasized, avoiding interpretations or explanations, such as those derived from this or that clinical theory or model of treatment. Application of the rule of horizontalization involves treating each item of description as having equal value or significance and avoiding any hierarchical assignment of importance such that the data of experience become prioritized and categorized. A Gestalt therapist utilizing the phenomenological method might say something like, “I notice a slight tension at the corners of your mouth when I say that, and I see you shifting on the couch and folding your arms across your chest … and now I see you rolling your eyes back”. As in Integral Deep Listening, the therapist may make a clinically relevant evaluation, but when applying the phenomenological method, temporarily suspends its expression.


The result is a de-emphasis on interpretation. Perls believed that “Nobody can stand truth if it is told to him. Truth can be tolerated only if you discover it yourself because then, the pride of discovery makes the truth palatable.” Consequently, Perls believed in allowing dreams to speak for themselves: “I believe that any single dream contains the essential message about our existence.”

“Roleplay,” or “Identification with Emerging Potentials

Are these two terms the same? Do the distinctions between them matter? Gestalt roles are dream characters or personifications of emotional conflicts. Gestalt roleplay is typically done like psychodrama, by switching from one chair to another and from one role to another, with the therapist directing. Roleplay in Integral Deep Listening is identification with emerging potentials. There is no switching between chairs or from one role to another based on the instructions of the teacher or therapist. Instead, the student is encouraged to stay in a particular role in order to respect, understand, amplify, and incorporate it as a consequence of extended state identification. In Gestalt, roles are thought to be self-aspects. In Integral Deep Listening, roles are thought to be perspectives and emerging potentials of indefinite ontological status, neither owner nor owned, or both owner and owned.

An Experimental Approach

Because Gestalt therapy emphasizes action rather than talk therapy it is considered an experiential approach. The therapist supports the direct experience of something new, through experiments instead of merely talking about the possibility of something new. These experimental encounters are regarded as “safe emergencies,” in that they provoke crises in a secure context that still allows for freedom of outcome. These experiments are also considered to be learning experiences, in which information that is useful for future growth is acquired. For example, rather than talking about the client’s critical parent, a Gestalt therapist might ask the client to imagine the parent is present, or that the therapist is the parent, and talk to that parent directly. If a client is struggling with how to be assertive, a Gestalt therapist could either have the client say some assertive things to the therapist or members of a therapy group, or give a talk about how one should never be assertive. A Gestalt therapist might notice something about the non-verbal behavior or tone of voice of the client. The therapist might then have the client exaggerate the non-verbal behavior and pay attention to that experience. A Gestalt therapist might work with the breathing or posture of the client, and direct awareness to changes that might happen when the client talks about different content. With all these experiments the Gestalt therapist is working with process rather than content, the How rather than the What.

The Empty Chair Technique

The Empty Chair Technique, or chairwork, a form of role-playing, is typically used in Gestalt therapy when a patient has deep rooted emotional problems, such as problems with aspects of their personality, their concepts, ideas, feelings, or with other people in their lives. The purpose of the Empty Chair Technique is to get the patient to objectify their emotions and attitudes by looking at them from one or more different perspectives. Patients might “become” another person, aspects of their personality, or a particular feeling. They may also move between chairs and act out two or more sides of a discussion, typically involving the patient and persons significant to them. The Empty Chair Technique is designed to open up the patient’s emotions so they can let go of what they have been holding back. Its purpose is to acknowledge feelings by having an emotional conversation that clears up any long held feelings or reactions to the person or object in the chair. When used effectively, it provides an emotional release and lets the client move forward in their life. It demonstrates the centrality of emotional catharsis as well as insight to the practice of Gestalt.

An Emphasis on Humor and Play

Like Moreno, Perls believed that people learn best when they do not personalize, that is, when they do not take themselves, their problems, the opinions of others, or life so seriously. The spontaneous, playful nature of psychodrama and “sensitivity training” for Moreno and role play for Perls was a way of taking the pressure off clients, helping them to relax, and allow reallignment to spontaneously exert itself from within. This is closely related to what Integral Deep Listening cultivates as “cosmic humor,” the ability, to laugh at ourselves and the seriousness with which we take our relationships, the opinions of others toward us, success and failure, loss, health, and death.


While group processes, such as psychodrama and group two-chair work, normally occur within a group contract in order to respect confidentiality, it is clear that groups provide nowhere near the privacy, or illusion of invulnerability, that occurs in self-disclosure to a father/mother confessor figure on a one-to-one basis, as is done in individual therapy. Secrets are more special in individual on-on-one contexts, and are more likely to retain their specialness as secrets. Both Moreno and Perls believed that we are only as sick as our secrets and that an important part of therapy was spontaneous self-disclosure without concerns about vulnerability or privacy. Integral Deep Listening very much shares this same emphasis, for many of the same reasons. Open and vulnerable self-expression in front of a group is a powerful tool for getting over oneself; watching others do the same is also a quick way of recognizing the common humanity of us all, and the similarity of our challenges and issues, despite the relatively superficial distinctions that make up our persona, backgrounds, and roles in life.

Emphasizes Two of the Six Core Qualities

By stating that change comes about as a result of “full acceptance of what is, rather than a striving to be different,” Gestalt emphasizes the importance of acceptance, one of the six core qualities, for waking up and growing up addressed by Integral Deep Listening. Gestalt’s emphasis on spontaneous and experiential immersion in the moment emphasizes a second core quality, aliveness. In Integral Deep Listening, these are polar qualities, with aliveness emphasizing conscious choice, control, expression, work, and generosity, and acceptance emphasizing conscious letting go, detachment, respect, openness, vulnerability, dying, and surrender. A case can also be made for Gestalt’s relationship to the other four qualities. For example, balancing acceptance and aliveness creates wisdom, a third core quality. The very term “Gestalt,” indicates an important emphasis on contexts and inclusive wholes, often called the “ground” of which current experience is “figure.” This is an important aspect of objectivity, or witnessing, which is another of the six core qualities, and which is supported through role identification with its objectification of normal, everyday waking identity. Confidence and inner peace can also be found in Gestalt therapy.

Taking Responsibility  and Owning One’s Perceptions

Taking responsibility, an important priority for Gestalt, is a fundamental pre-requisite to growth. However, this default position becomes absurd when taken to its logical conclusions. You become personally responsible not only for the cavities in your teeth and your cancer, but for your genetics, babies dying in Zambia, and sunspots. Assuming that anything and everything is finally a self-creation and your responsibility, is ultimately as solipsistic as it is grandiose. Not only does the Earth revolve around you; your sense of responsibility is all that exists, since you are responsible for everything and everyone. Integral Deep Listening emphasizes owning your perceptions, preferences, responses, and reactions while allowing your dream characters, others, and life to be autonomous and not your responsibility. Once learned, as a developmental task, responsibility is to be relativized. Otherwise, growth remains all about you instead of all about life itself.

How Important are Catharsis and Insight?

Perls’ focus was on reducing the emotional disturbances in patients. He believed that reducing emotional conflict allowed patients to become whole. Catharsis often involves an emotional release, a feeling of relief, and “ah-ha” breakthroughs in insight that can be both powerful and meaningful. People feel, at that moment that they are unstuck, and unstuck forever. They have been basically and forever changed, such is the reality of a transformational cathartic experience. Because of its power, recognition of the nature of emotional conflict through insight and catharsis were therefore central to Perl’s approach to treatment. While Integral Deep Listening interviews feelings and resistance, it does not focus on reducing emotional disturbances per se. Instead, it assumes whatever is drawing attention is a wake-up call that is best listened to. It may not want to be resolved. It may prefer to get louder and more invasive. Integral Deep Listening does not intentionally evoke catharsis, because the process is not centered on releasing the emotional stuckness of the interviewee. It does not primarily pursue insight, because insight is a temporary state opening that feels good but rarely sticks because it becomes subordinated to the ongoing inertia of habitual cognitive distortions and life drama. It is not, by definition, advancement in stage awareness or a stable expansion of consciousness. Waking up provided by catharsis rarely lasts; it is a sexy, impressive taste that leaves a client or student looking for more. Catharsis can become addictive, something good for a therapist’s income, but which rarely adds up to lasting advances in a client’s stage of development. This is why Integral Deep Listening instead focuses on amplifying authentic, integrative, and duplicatable non-stuck perspectives, whether or not they are cathartic or lead to insight.

Who Does the Interpreting? 

Interpretation is not optional. It is going to happen. However, choices exist as to who does the interpreting and what priorities are given to which interpreter. In Gestalt therapy,

interpretation of therapeutic experiences is done primarily by the client and the therapist. In Integral Deep Listening, interpretation is primarily done by interviewed emerging potentials and the student. The interpretations of the teacher/practitioner and third party external sources, such as respected professionals or scriptures, are ancillary.

Gestalt assumes that the student is the best source for interpretation, which is a major advancement over traditional psychodynamic therapy. Integral Deep Listening assumes that the student is stuck, and therefore lacks the objectivity that is required to get unstuck. It further assumes that emerging potentials that transcend and include the student are the best source of interpretation, because they know the subject and his/her history already, at a depth and intimacy that is unrivaled. Consequently, Integral Deep Listening assumes that interpretations are best provided by emerging potentials and the student, with the practitioner providing objectivity to clarify that process, primarily through guidance in application.

Who Selects Characters for Role Play?

Perls would often select dream images that were polar opposites, such as female and male, shore and sea, earth and sky, a rug and a bare floor, to objectify conflicts within the patient.[2] While Integral Deep Listening provides some general guidelines for choosing subjects of interviews, it encourages students to choose what they want to interview, based on curiosity, intensity of emotion aroused, or its relevance to a life issue. It does not emphasize the shifting of roles to contrast different internal perspectives, nor does it attempt to amplify internal conflict. Instead, it focuses on staying identified with one perspective while allowing it to transform, if it so desires.

Are Dream Characters Self-Aspects?

Every character in a dream for Perls is an aspect of the dreamer. He rejects Freud’s idea, amplified by Jung, that dreams are part of a universal symbolic language. He believes that each dream is unique to the individual who dreams it. In the pursuit of balance, a phenomenological perspective, and deep listening, Integral Deep Listening does not assume that every aspect of your dream, every aspect of your experience, is an aspect of yourself. It discriminates between your perception of your dream and your experience, whether awake or dreaming, on the one hand, and the experience itself. Your perception is indeed your responsibility; the character, your life experience, in and of itself, is not. It is autonomous; it has reality apart from you, and if you will listen to any and all dream characters and life experiences, they may tell you so.

What is the Function of Role-Play?

Perls’ viewed dreaming as the most spontaneous of human behaviors and dreams as natural expressions of unresolved inner conflict, filled with projections of our own personalities. They contain your rejected, disowned parts. Consequently, working with dreams was important for uncovering, recognizing, and integrating these disowned self-aspects. Like Integral Deep Listening, Perls’ generalized this insight to life itself, recognizing that any situation or issue can be worked with in a similar fashion, with great benefit. However, Integral Deep Listening uses character identification primarily to access one’s inner compass, not to resolve internal conflicts. If a number of emerging potentials are interviewed over time, their areas of agreement point us toward our inner compass. The elimination of conflict often occurs as a clarification process that can be thought of as the removal of various filters, often in the form of drama and cognitive distortions, that stand between us and our inner compass.

In Summary

Perl’s Gestalt therapy represents a massive leap in strategies and therapist competencies over psychodynamically-based approaches due to its spontaneity, profound acceptance of the client, and extraordinary creativity. It has yet to reach its potential. Presently, it remains limited by its inability to distinguish between here-and-now experience that is prepersonal and that which is transpersonal. This is partially because it seeks a healthy self as the outcome of therapy rather than a transparent non-self that is a tool that life is using to awaken to itself. However, there is no reason why Gestalt therapy cannot and will not continue to evolve its definition of what it means to help people grow up and to help people wake up so that it will become not only a prepersonal and personal dream yoga, but a transpersonal one as well.

[1] Perls, F. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,1969.

[2] See Baumgardner, P. and Perls, F, Legacy from Fritz: Gifts from Lake Cowichan June 1975, and Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,1969.

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