Gestalt therapy is doubtlessly a key contributor to the development of Soma, as it helped ground Soma´s methodology and therapeutic practices. Gestalt psychology emerged in the late 19th century and shaped the basis of contemporary psychology. Perceptual processes were at core of this theory, formulated by Frederick S. Perls and other researchers in the 1950’s, and later translated into a therapeutic method. Gestalt therapy emphasized the importance of perceptual alertness and ensuing coping mechanisms for dealing with the challenges of everyday life. For Gestalt proponents, therapy works best when it focuses on the experiential present moment, and one’s webs of relationships; it is only possible to know oneself in one´s relationship to the others.
According to Perls, each moment in life is composed by situations which are given different degrees of priority, as determined by organismic self-regulation. When one is out of tune with one´s self-regulation, one resorts to external references, creating what he termed as hetero-regulation. This is expressed by an overrating what comes from others – opinions, values, attitudes, behavior, in detriment of what comes from oneself. Hetero-regulation corresponds to the social personas which our social encounters engender, as Reich had denounced, resulting in a huge waste of our vital energy.
One of Perls´ tenets is to avoid leaving a gestalt non-concluded, open and incomplete – i.e. all experiential situations require creative responses to be adequately dealt with. To better grasp the meaning of a gestalt, let us illustrate it with an example: when we contemplate the sea and a seagull emerges, a gestalt is formed. The seagull becomes the foreground, while the sea, the clouds and the sky move into the background
Organismic functioning involves the simultaneous experience of figure and ground; the “figure” experience in the foreground of our awareness, and the “ground” or background in the total possibility of the moment.This innate tendency to perceive one aspect of an event as the figure or fore-ground and the other as the ground or back-ground can be illustrated in the reading of a book. The reading itself takes the foreground concomitantly with other physical and perceptual experiences around it: hair-twirling, surrounding noise-perception, pencil-biting, breathing-awareness. The figure has a well- defined limit and a prominent contour, while the ground is continuous, surrounds the figure and extends behind it
Frederick Perls argued that several situations of everyday life are given different degrees of priority, according to whether one sees them as figure or ground. Neurosis would emerge when either non-completed or many gestalts remain open for too long. Vital energy is wasted as a result of this incompleteness, drained from the unresolved past or the uncertain future, and the loss of the rich experiential present.
Valuing the here and now is thus crucial and this should be translated into the need of the frequent tuning in to one’s own current gestalts and to those of others, and the maintenance of self-awareness. Gestalts play a strong role on the most challenging areas of human life – affection, sexuality, family life and work, and, if mismanaged, they become potential sources of conflict.
Soma therapy emphasizes the need for groups to identify these conflicting and energy-draining situations and to develop coping strategies which ultimately will point to experiential recovery and solutions. Gestalt theory and therapies have largely contributed to the action-oriented Soma approach, offering tools to effectively empower groups to develop their autonomy and creativity.