In the mid-twentieth century, primarily in America, a new psycho-spiritual movement began to emerge, making use of ancient and modern healing practices from all parts of the world. Among the notable pioneers was Robert Hall, who began his foray into the new psychology by apprenticing with both Fritz Perls and Ida Rolf, each whom had developed their own healing methodologies. Dr. Hall also studied meditation under the Indian master Charan Singh, and learned Polarity Therapy from its founder, Randolph Stone. Since developing his own unique practices, Dr. Hall has earned an international reputation as an innovator of mind/body therapies. He is co-founder of the Lomi School of Somatic Studies, and, since 2001, the director of El Dharma in Todos Santos, BCS, Mexico (www.eldharma.com). A beloved meditation teacher, now emeritus on the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, Dr. Hall currently leads meditation and gestalt retreats/workshops throughout Mexico. He has also published two volumes of poetry, two spoken word CDs with music, and recently in Mexico, two English/Spanish collections of essays on contemporary Buddhism, illustrated with his paintings and poetry. In June 2012, Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates, Kevin Griffin and Wes Nisker held the following telephone conversation with Dr. Hall who was at his home in Mexico.
Inquiring Mind: Robert, you have been working with emotions your whole life, professionally and, we presume, personally as well. Do you think that as a culture we in the West are skillful in dealing with emotions?
Robert Hall: I don’t think so. As a therapist, body worker and meditation retreat teacher I have repeatedly found that people come to work with me who are in emotional upheaval, but they have no knowledge of what emotion is occurring or how it relates to their personal histories. There is often a sense of energetic movement and chaos that is experienced in the body, but for the most part, the emotion is not identified. The great success of Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence is very important, because a majority of people don’t have any idea what they’re really feeling. When I started work as a psychotherapist, that was one of the strangest things I encountered.
IM: Does meditation practice help people get in touch with what they are feeling?
RH: Yes, especially the emphasis in vipassana on paying attention to sensations in the body. That helps connect people to their emotions. However, in the early years of meditation practice in the West, the meditation teachers didn’t have much experience in dealing with emotions in their own lives, not to mention in the lives of students. So for quite a long time there was a lot of confusion about how to work with emotions.
IM: What would happen on a retreat if a student was crying a lot or seemed emotionally upset? How would teachers deal with that?
RH: Well, in the early days, they might not try to obstruct the emotion, but generally they would not refer to it as something to be attended to or talked about. It was kind of allowed and at the same time, ignored. You know, “It’s just your personality. Let it go and come back to the breath.” The real work was to come back to the breath. The concentration practice was what was emphasized.
IM: Was more attention given to the emotions in various psychological practices?
RH: Not really. There was a similar dismissal of emotions in the whole body-mind community. When I was working with Ida Rolf, I had some cataclysmic upheavals of reexperiencing trauma, for instance, but she essentially ignored my turmoil and didn’t want to talk about it. That was the attitude in a lot of the healing community in the seventies. One exception was Fritz Perls, who basically invented the psychological school known as Gestalt, and who was a very important teacher for me. I think his contribution to psychology was to make it possible for people to feel and name their emotions. He developed techniques for this purpose, such as the empty chair conversation, where you have to explore your projections onto other people.
IM: When you started teaching vipassana meditation, did you abandon the techniques of Gestalt or did you try to integrate some of that approach in your work with meditation students?
RH: I never was able to fully integrate the Gestalt work in a retreat setting because the retreats were essentially silent, and my work in Gestalt is anything but silent. However, in my work with small groups and individuals in my private practice, I combined meditation with the Gestalt work. I found that the ability to pay attention is very useful in Gestalt.
Recently I’ve started teaching retreats in Mexico where I fully integrate the two practices in a retreat setting. The days take place in silence, but in the evenings instead of Dharma talks, I will do Gestalt sessions. These sessions show people the power of emotions, how to identify them, and how to embody and explore them.
IM: Could you give an example of one of your Gestalt sessions?
RH: I will sit there in the open chair, the classical Gestalt format, and invite people to come forward one at a time and engage me in dialogue. I make use of what I have learned in Gestalt over the years by bringing forth the conflicts within the personality, the polarities. Quite often people get in touch with some deep emotion that gets worked through in the process. And the people who are observing the process are living through it vicariously.
So here’s a typical situation: I call the open chair and a young woman comes forward. She is in her late twenties and she starts talking with me about her life. I must say that over the years I have developed an ability to sniff out repressed emotion. I can feel it when it is present, and I usually know exactly what emotion is being repressed. So this young woman starts complaining to me about her life and I feel that she is holding a lot of anger. Then at some point she mentions her home life and starts to talk about her mother, and I hear in her tone of voice that there is a lot of rage toward her mother. So then I ask her to bring her mother to the empty chair and have a conversation with her. At that point, all of her projections about her mother come forward within the context of this conversation. I have her talk to her mother and then change chairs and become her mother talking back. When the work is really successful, at some point she realizes that all of the conflict is taking place within her own mind. She understands that she is speaking to herself, not her mother. And when that happens, wonderful awakenings occur. Fritz used to call these awakenings “mini-satoris.”
IM: In the Satipattana Sutra, the Buddha’s instructions for dealing with emotions or mind-states (chitta) is simply to become aware of them. “One knows a lustful mind to be lustful,” he says, or “One knows an angry mind to be angry.” There is no moralizing or a suggested fix. All that is recommended is a simple and straightforward awareness.
RH: That is really beautiful. But I think that my work involves a little more than simple awareness, mostly because people don’t know how to identify the emotion. It isn’t so easy to know “a mind with anger” partly because people get swept away by it. So I assist them in experiencing the emotion in the body, at the level of sensation. And in that way you start to know what anger feels like. So then I might say, “Repeat with me, this is anger. This is anger.” That way the connection is made. Then I ask people to feel it deeply, as the energy of the body at the level of sensations. Then they really start to know what anger is and what it feels like. In a retreat setting, this understanding is very powerful, because of course, the concentration and the quiet during the day has created a context for this exploration.
IM: So describe how you would support this young woman in going back to her meditation practice.
RH: After deep work like that which is often very dramatic, I will take time to talk with the retreatant about how the emotion is now coming into conscious awareness, and that the awareness itself is healing. The light of awareness starts to dissolve the contraction in the body that has been holding the emotion. One has to do that carefully though, because it can happen too quickly and become overwhelming. There has to be an educational process that goes with it.
IM: Do you find that over the years, meditation teachers have become more sophisticated when it comes to psychological issues?
RH: Without a doubt. I think Jack Kornfield has taken leadership in helping to bridge the gap between meditation and psychology. At Spirit Rock there is also a lot of interest in Peter Levine’s work, Somatic Experiencing, and I think that’s really valuable. In general, in the meditation community, emotion is no longer seen as an obstruction to awakening, but a phenomenon to be investigated as part of the awakening process.
IM: Do you think it is important for people to explore an emotion in the context of their personal history?
RH: Yes, in the beginning I might encourage people to explore how they came to have these particular feelings. But then I will help them experience the emotion, and it’s always a bodily experience, one that involves paying attention to sensations. At some point the body starts to become formless, and we are no longer doing emotional work. The body becomes a field, an energy field, and we connect to the universal nature of the experience. We have moved out of the work of psychology and into the spiritual realm.
IM: In his Gestalt work, did Fritz Perls guide people to make that leap from the personal to the universal?
RH: Fritz himself made the leap very often. He was always looking for the point where the two sides of the ego, the polarities, would come to a stalemate. He called that place “the impasse.” At that point, a kind of transcendence could occur, an awakening out of duality. I saw it happen many times. But after he left the scene, his followers and imitators didn’t seem to have his skill or sophistication. Gestalt got relegated to some kind of pounding on the pillow and getting your rage out. The transcendent aspect of it was lost. Because of my experience studying vipassana, I feel that I have held on to some of that skill, or at least to the greater purpose of the work.
IM: What do you mean when you say the two poles of the ego reach an impasse?
RH: Essentially, our consciousness is split: we see the world through a lens of opposites. Fritz saw that split occurring within each of us, in the ego structure. He called the two polarities “the top dog” and “the underdog.” There is always the dominator and the passive one, and they are in constant conflict with each other. Emotions arise out of those conflicts. Gestalt is a way of isolating the conflicts within the ego and then working toward the integration of the two sides. It’s brilliant really.
The dominant voice is usually parental. The other voice is more childlike, and that voice is saying, “Hey, give me a break. I’m doing the best I can. Get off my back.”
An example of the inner dialogue might be one voice saying, “Listen, you’re too weak. You need to stand up and take a position. You need to make yourself known.” The other voice says, “Yeah, but people don’t like me when I do that. And I don’t want people to dislike me. That scares me when you talk that way.” That’s two sides of one person. You realize that this is simplified?
IM: Yes, of course.
RH: Another dialogue might include a voice that says, “I feel bad all the time. I think there’s something wrong with me. I feel sick a lot. It’s hard to get up in the morning.” And the other voice says, “Yeah, well, if you ate better, you would feel better. And if you did a little exercise, you would feel better. Why don’t you start taking care of yourself?”
Or one voice might say, “I am so alone. I never have found a partner. I need an intimate relationship.” And then the other side says, “Yeah, well you remember the last time you had an intimate relationship. Remember how that worked out?”
Those kinds of conversation go on inside a lot of people. The dialogue between the two voices is fairly continuous internally and often takes place below consciousness. Often the conflict is felt as contraction and discomfort in the body, some restlessness or pain. The inner dialogue is reflected in the body as unpleasant sensations.
In the Gestalt work, what I try to do is bring the dialogue into awareness by acting out the two sides in conversation with each other. In that way we’re exploring the ego structure. When we investigate those inner dialogues in public, people are deeply affected. At a meditation retreat, people are silently observing their inner conflict, and when they see it acted out in front of them the light goes on: “Oh, I get it. This is happening right now in my mind.” People begin to see the drama as impersonal, as well as impermanent. The emotions arising out of the conflict may no longer have such impact or control. People will enjoy a taste of freedom.