Contact: What's In the Room Is Sometimes the World
As a gestalt therapist, I work from a here-and-now perspective with contact awareness. "Contact", in gestalt phenomenology, is described by one of my favorite contemporary gestalt writers, Hanne Hostrup, in the following way: "Organism and environment are interdependent. This interdependence is called contact." My mentors, Bob and Rita Resnick, often describe this interdependence as "what's in the room" or "what's fresh", and that can be with the client, with me, the space between us, or the world beyond.
Sometimes clients come in to my office with a set notion of what they want to explore with me but get lost in the content, such as the details of a specific fight with their partner. I watch how they unpack what surrounds the content to understand their specific meaning-making. Those moments when one of us (usually the clients toward each other, or me toward the client) leans in to check out an observation, the contact can be visceral - a felt experience for both the speaker and listener. Besides what's emoted - a heavy sigh of relief, head bobbing, teary eyes - the room actually feels safer, more comfortable, like the proverbial elephant was a balloon that popped. All the tension it took to hold back dissipates.
Couples who feel like they often fight without making repairs or avoid fighting may be battling in content without making contact (I discuss the contact cycle in my next blog). They don't get to the place of meaning-making, which takes listening to the other's story and feeling the impact. They don't get to a place where they accept influence because they are too heady, deciding if they agree or not with the content. In the merry-go-round of content, the tension never fully dissipates.
It makes sense that we go into cognitions rather than feelings when we see a problem. That's how we problem-solve malfunctioning appliances, variegated schedules, or what to eat for dinner. Sometimes cognition is all that's needed. However, conflict between individuals is usually steeped in an emotional undercurrent of needs, hopes and desires. Unfortunately, we're rarely taught how to show anger with vulnerability, frustration with connectedness, or really and kind of difference with empathy rather than defensiveness. Yet, these processes that support contact are more equipped to help dissipate conflict than sticking with the content.
This is not to say content doesn't matter. It does. Our news is content. That's why what's in the room is sometimes the world, and all the problems that we feel we can't repair. We can carry these worries within us and within our relationships. This is especially so when there's weeks upon weeks of brutality, loss, and injustice documented in the news and social media. We all feel these things on some level, from panic to grief and numbness. And the closer it hits home, the deeper it's felt. It's felt in the bones of folks marginalized by inequality - they don't get a break as they move through the world near-constantly aware of such things.
Dedication to showing up in the room can fundamentally shift relationships, AND some level of safety is necessary to be able to show up. An environment feels safe if we let it know what we need and it responds in kind. If it doesn't, we learn to protect ourselves. This is the organism-environment interdependence of contact. Being aware of our choice in contact is critical, personal, and ever-changing because both who we are and where we are is ever-changing.