Figure and Ground

One of the main contributions of Gestalt psychology to our understanding of human experience is the appreciation of how what we experience always is a “figure” standing out from a “ground” or background.  We have all seen the famous duck-rabbit picture, or the one of the young woman and the old woman, where one “figure” appears at a time from the same field.

These pictures make the idea vivid, but they also might suggest that this is an unusual experience, but that would miss the point.  All our experience is a process of calling figures out of the background.  We attend to one thing or another in our environment and make it the focus of our attention, the “figure.”  The “ground” from which the figure emerges becomes secondary, yet it influences the figure in ways of which we may not be aware.  We may, for instance, see a particular red square as darker or lighter depending on the color of the background.  We are inclined to ignore the background and its effects on our experience, concentrating on the series of figures that occupy our attention.

I was reminded of this Gestalt insight during the most recent workshop.  In thinking about the workshop, it is most natural to think of it as a series of experiential exercises that present particular challenges or opportunities, like the opportunity to give feedback, or the challenge to talk about one’s family of origin.  These are the figures to which attention is called by the instructions and structure of the exercise.

What I realized more vividly than ever in the recent workshop is that there are many elements of the ground that serve to support discovery and learning as much or even more than the particular exercises.  The shape of the ground we create opens doors for the creation of figures that may be more important than any that are directly prompted by an exercise.

This was, in fact, my own experience when I took the workshop.  One of the most important insights for me came when I experienced and reflected on my irritation with other members of my group who didn’t seem to me to be following the instructions for an exercise.  (I don’t even remember which one.)  There was no “exercise” designed to have me experience my irritation and judgment or to prompt me to consider how I saw others’ participation.  It was just part of what I was able to make a figure on the ground of the workshop context.   I saw clearly how judgmental I could be and how much of my time and energy I was wasting with those judgments.

The background conditions that helped me create that figure for myself included the non-judgmental environment, the emphasis on self-care and self-reflection, and the agreement I had made to work hard.  I had been irritated and judgmental hundreds of times – trust me – but I had never experienced my irritation and judgment in the workshop context, or anything like it.  The agreements and norms running in the background opened doors for me for learning and growth more important than what was presented in the exercises themselves.

I appreciate now more fully how important it is to see the workshop as a context that is both safe and challenging in very particular ways.  There are implicit “exercises” running all the time for participants that are not made figures until they make them figures for themselves.

How, participants might ask, for example, do I deal with an agreement I’ve made that I won’t be able to keep?  Do I get angry and blame others?  Hold resentments?  Feel ashamed?  Renegotiate?  Ignore it?  And, is this how I deal with this common situation in my life?

One more: How do I contribute to a team that is working together?  Do I take leadership?  Avoid doing my share?  Pretend I don’t notice?  Try to be one of the group?  Feel like I don’t belong?  And, how do I deal with this common situation in my life?

The workshop, viewed as ground rather than figure, offers a powerful reminder about how a supportive and challenging context can be even more important than the explicit lessons on which we often focus.  When we are in an environment that is non-judgmental, caring and asking for accountability, we will form figures, that is, focus on and develop, parts of our lives that do not come into focus in other contexts.

Beyond the workshop, I am reminded how important it is for us more globally to create safe places for our children to grow and learn.  The infrastructure of our lives is the ground from which we form our goals.  Secure families, well-resourced schools and inviting public facilities are the ground for healthy growth.   As we create more non-judgmental, supportive and accountable environments, people will, individually and together, spontaneously become who they really are.