Gestalt is a German word with many connotations for which there is no equivalent single English word. Gestalt encompasses the notions of a structure, whole, configuration, pattern or system of functionally and synergistically integrated physical, biological, and/or psychological elements resulting in sum that exceeds the sum of its parts.

Gestalt therapy has roots in the older Gestalt Psychology of Perception but is also distinct from it. Founder, Fritz Perls was a contemporary of Freud and began his career as a psychiatrist in the psychoanalytic tradition. Through many life experiences and exposure to diverse influences, Gestalt therapy has evolved as a container for the elements of these influences that integrate well.

Gestalt therapy is a therapy of the whole person. Body and mind are not treated as warring components of the individual; rather the person is viewed as a system always seeking to rebalance and to self-actualize (organismic self-regulation) all within a larger environmental matrix that provides context, differentiation and meaning (field). Self is viewed as a process, rather than a concept or component. The individual is understood to interact with others and the environment in a transactional way which normally comes to completion but may be neurotically interrupted. Completed gestalten become part of the every changing contextual (back)ground of the individual's experience as each new gestalt becomes figural.

Gestalt is also a therapy that deals with the present, the only point in time an individual can directly affect. Not that the past is ignored; one is only what one is today because of the experiences leading up to today. Recognizing that change is rooted in the moment contains another key element of the gestalt approach: personal responsibility for choice.

As a relational therapy, Gestalt therapy is about the self-aware process between individuals, characterized at its most healthy and enriching as contact: the awareness of difference or distinctness between other and self. In Martin Buber's words, I and Thou. In this context the hierarchy of patient and practitioner is normalized into a more equal relationship in between the client who is psychologically seen and the therapist who allows their personality to be included in the interaction. Although transference is not encouraged as in psychoanalysis, it is not discouraged if it provides insight into the client's blocks.

The Gestalt therapist provides a safe environment for the client to explore their present moment anxieties and issues. The therapeutic relationship (or community of a Gestalt group) provides a sandbox environment for the re-emergence of issues of the client's daily life, now to be addressed in the present rather than simply talked about as in traditional talk therapy. The client is encouraged to become aware of emotions, behaviors and immediate needs. Change is seen as mediated by awareness (the perceptual separation of figure from ground), completeness of gestalten, and the meeting of organismic needs.

Several roots of the Gestalt approach are contained in this brief description: holism, homeostasis, field theory, phenomenology, existentialism and Eastern healing.

For more information on Gestalt Therapy:

"Gestalt Therapy: An Introduction," in Awareness, Dialogue, and Process. Gary Yontef, Ph.D., The Gestalt Journal Press, 1993: http://www.gestalt.org/yontef.htm (longer, excellent overview)

Fritz Perls on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6K-8Hwh1RU&feature=related