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Gestalt at Esalen

For over 40 years Esalen Institute has been a leader in the application of the Gestalt psychology model to lifelong personal growth, integral education, and community life. Based on extensive lab and social research across the past century, the Gestalt model was the first to establish scientifically that our perception and our understanding of the world is an active, constructive process, deeply conditioned by emotion, expectation, embodiment, relationships, and culture. This means our experience of the world is always experimental, always an interpretive process, always open to larger and deeper perspectives and understandings. Ultimately our behavior is determined by our individual and shared meaning-making — and not by simple stimulus-response or reward conditions, as the classic behaviorist model had it. Thus deeper awareness, contact, and dialogue with self and others are inherently transformational, opening up our consciousness and our worlds.

Likewise, Gestalt has pioneered our contemporary understanding that “mind, heart, body, spirit, and relationship” are ultimately inseparable dimensions of our human experience, and evolve (or remain arrested) together. At Esalen this understanding underlies our integral approach to all our educational and personal growth programming — both the public programs we offer, the “residential education” programs for our own core community, and our pioneering “new thought” conferences and other initiatives at Esalen’s Center for Theory & Research.

Gestalt Therapy was introduced at Esalen in 1964 when Fritz Perls came to Esalen, where he would live and teach for five years. His form of Gestalt Therapy became widely known in America and around the world, largely through his association with Esalen. Dick Price took much from Fritz's work, adding dimensions from other traditions to create his own unique Gestalt Practice, which is now deeply embedded in Esalen's DNA.

Basic Gestalt practice at Esalen begins with awareness itself — awareness of self, awareness of others, awareness of relationship and support in our shared experiential field. In this view we are each responsible for the meanings and experiences we create — and at the same time co-responsible for the conditions of safety and support for others to engage in deeper awareness and communications practice. As we grow together in our capacity to take responsibility and support others, our own capacity to hold more complexity and diversity in our own perspectives continues to evolve.

Our basic community practice together is Gestalt-informed dialogue. Dialogue means communication based on inquiry, transparency, and a shared commitment to understanding each communication from others “from the inside,” continuing our open-inquiry practice until our dialogue partners are satisfied that we understand not just their positions, but what values and emotional choices lie behind those positions, and why each of us holds the positions we hold. The goal of dialogue is not to prevail in debate, but to evolve our own perspective toward greater inclusiveness and complexity, owning our own fears, projections, and assumptions as they are challenged, and as we become aware of them. Our best solutions emerge collaboratively out of this process.

Today the influence of the basic Gestalt psychology model of perception, cognition, narrative and scenario generation, and the creation of meanings systems in the brain has spread to the point where this understanding of brain process underlies the entire field of psychology. Gestalt psychology provides the underpinnings for today’s revolution in brain modeling and cognitive neuroscience, while the Gestalt understanding of how we form (and how we change) basic patterns of behavior, emotion, belief, and understanding underlies much of the world of psychotherapy, group and organizational work, and other areas of applied psychology. 

Here at Esalen we continue to draw on our basic Gestalt awareness and dialogic practices to manage ever-greater social and organizational complexity, and to evolve ever-deeper experience and enactment of the unity of our cognitive, emotional, embodied, spiritual, and community lives.


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