Personal Experience, Self-Reporting, and Hyperbole

Philip Brownell. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

I was riding in the car on the way back from working out in the gym one early morning. In Bermuda the streets are narrow, and they are often carved out of the gray, porous limestone. My wife was driving, and as we turned uphill, a middle-aged man with a hat, bright yellow shirt, pink shorts, and tie came walking down a pathway to our right. To the left, on the adjacent street, a rusted taxi approached, and a young Bermudian male was driving; he had dark sunglasses, and he didn’t appear very happy. On the far left, shuffling over the hill, a middle-aged man approached carrying a large paper bag. The sun had just come up and the light reflected off the foliage and buildings in fresh tones; it was a new day.

My wife said, “That looks like Mr. Smith.”

I had been watching the taxi as it approached and so inspected the driver a bit more closely. Although I did not think he looked anything like Mr. Smith, I responded, “Right. His second job.”

She said, “What?”

I repeated myself, and she didn’t say anything, so I added a commentary. “You know. Driving a taxi is his second job.”

By that time she was smiling.

I asked what that was about, and she told me she had been talking about the man in the hat. I had not paid attention to him. My experience of making a turn up that hill was mostly about missing the taxi, thus avoiding a serious accident, but hers had been about the tone of the light falling on everything, and the way the man in the hat reminded her of her friend, Mr. Smith.

This illustrates that individual experience is just that, individual, by which I mean subjective. Psychologists encounter this fact routinely in practice with couples having conflict and struggle. These people are at opposite corners in an intersection, and the only reality they have to go on is the way they have experienced the intersection from their own respective vantage points.

If, for instance, a red car and a blue car collide in the middle of the intersection, one of the witnesses might say, “The red car ran into the blue car,” but from across the intersection, on the far corner, another witness might reply, “No. The blue car ran into the red car.” This is the usual way conversation goes between such troubled couples, because instead of sharing their experience of the situation and becoming mutually enriched by one another, they are trying to win an argument about whose version of reality is the truth.

This chapter explores experience using some of the constructs found in Gestalt therapy theory, in order to provide an orientation to personal experience, self-reporting, and hyperbole in regards to the miraculous. I do not offer a formula for determining the truth about miracles. Gestalt therapy lends itself to such an exploration because it’s an experiential approach that is phenomenological, dialogical, and field theoretical. Gestalt therapy theory provides a rich method for a clinical psychologist, using the experience of the client to facilitate progress in therapy. Here, it provides a convenient heuristic model by which to consider paranormal experience, the testimonial concerning such experience, and some of the possibilities associated with hyperbole in reference to such self-report.


Self-report is a matter of speaking for oneself and about one’s self self-disclosure or witness. Among psychotherapists and psychologists there are commonly held to be two kinds of self-disclosure and two kinds of witness.

Psychological Insights Into Self-Disclosure

The first kind of self-disclosure has to do with what is communicated during the ongoing process of being together, without an overt and intentional revealing process. It is often a matter of reading the body language in any given situation (Norberg, 2006). This is sometimes referred to as nonverbal communication and consists of subtle interpersonal exchanges based in the nature of the relationship. Resonance, mutuality, and empathy, for instance, “are affective states which are frequently, although not always, non-verbal and non-conscious processes occurring between a mother and child, a therapist and patient, and probably in all close human relationships” (Rubin and Niemeier, 1992, p. 599). Indeed, it is also not always the warm and supportive messages people read in one another; many couples fight because of the nonverbal messages between them.

Frequently in couples therapy one person will say one thing but the partner will interpret it as quite another based on the nonverbal level of communication. That is because the verbal content forms the foreground that can only be understood against the nonverbal background that provides its context. Thus, the relationship of foreground to background provides meaning in such cases, and it is the background of nonverbal self-disclosure that gives significance to the foreground of verbal content. As such, the nonverbal self-disclosures tend to dominate the overall meaning-making in communication episodes. For instance, it is one thing for a spouse to walk into the room with relaxed posture and a smile on the face to say, “Aren’t you wonderful,” but it’s another for the same person to walk into the same room while tense, with a smirk on the face, to say the same thing. The nonverbals reveal the meaning of the message: the first one generous and warm, the second, caustic and demeaning.

The second kind of self-disclosure is comprised of conscious self-revelations of specific content. In psychotherapy these usually relate to the client’s issues and are either revealed by the therapist to the client (Zahm, 1998; Zeddies, 2000; Zur, 2007) or by the client to the therapist (Farber and Sohn, 2007). Client self-disclosure has been closely linked to positive outcomes in therapy (Watson, Goldman, and Greenberg, 2007). However, such conscious and intentional self-disclosure does not belong only to the realm of psychotherapy.

Researchers at Boston College, the University of Miami, and Pennsylvania State College (Laurenceau, Barrett, and Rovine, 2005) found that self-disclosure and partner disclosure both significantly and uniquely contributed to the development of intimacy in relationships. In recognition that one’s experience is not formed in a vacuum, perceived partner responsiveness can mediate the effects of self-disclosure and partner disclosure on intimacy. This might seem like common sense; if a person reveals more about him or herself to someone, and that someone listens, the experience is a process that tends to bring those two people closer together. In an exercise called “truth telling,” for instance, marital therapists Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks state that the central question for most people in close relationships is, “ ‘Can I be me and still be with my partner?’” They go on to say, “We can learn the crucial skill of honoring our experience and hearing our partner. This activity is designed to differentiate your experience from your partner’s … The ability to be present to our experience while in the company of another person, especially a romantic partner, is at the heart of building an enlightening relationship” (Hendricks and Hendricks, 1993, p. 75).

This kind of self-disclosure is also called authenticity. Authenticity is a matter of being the person one actually is (Crocker, 1999), of not veiling the face; not concealing in some fashion the person one is in the current moment. Thus, in therapy, it is common for a psychologist to conceal himself or herself behind the veil of professional distance. Relational psychoanalysis and Gestalt therapy, by contrast, acknowledge the necessity for a therapist to actually meet the client and to do so truthfully. “Dialogue is based on experiencing the other person as he or she really is and showing the true self, sharing phenomenological awareness. The Gestalt therapist says what he or she means and encourages the patient to do the same” (Yontef, 1993, p. 132).

Experienced therapists know when they are communicating to patients the therapist’s fears or courage, defensiveness or openness, confusion or clarity. The therapist’s awareness, acceptance, and sharing of these truths can be a highly persuasive demonstration of authenticity (Levitsky and Simpkin, 1972, pp. 251-252).

Psychological Insights Into Witness

This process of intentional self-disclosure can also be seen in forensic psychology under the heading of witness. In forensic psychology there are two kinds of witness: witness of fact and expert witness (Bank and Packer, 2007; Costanzo, Krauss, and Pezdek, 2007). The distinction between them is especially useful to this discussion. The witness of fact is just that, someone who relates to the court what he or she has experienced in a matter. The witness of fact must be able to provide a report of aware, firsthand sensation or perception that is also usually fixed in space and time. The witness of fact saw something, somewhere, on a particular day, at a specifiable hour. The witness of fact heard something. Something happened to him or her.

By contrast, the expert witness is someone who relates to the court what he or she thinks about a matter, offering opinions, providing diagnosis, and making risk assessments based on expertise and competence. These opinions, assessments, and so forth, are not tied to movement through physical space, nor do they accord with any necessary chronology. Rather, they usually express some kind of necessary logic. As such, the constructs and conceptions that are relevant for such a witness are just as intentional, but they are not presented in an experiential fashion. The expert witness can pass judgment on the testimony of a witness of fact, but the witness of fact cannot offer a rebuttal based on his or her own competence. As such, and compared to the expert witness, the witness of fact is more clearly experience-near.

A Biblical Understanding of Witness

The concept of an experience-near witness can be further understood by considering biblical constructions of the term. The word group associated with martyrion indicates a testimony that can serve as proof or evidence in a court of law. In classical Greek it was used to denote the confirmation of a fact or an event, and from about the fifth century BCE onward, the verb form, martyreo, meant to bear witness (Hillyer, 1971).

In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, martyrion expresses Hebrew words indicating a time and place of meeting, where and when God met experientially with his people. Since the same Greek word was also used in reference to the ark of the covenant, its meaning shifted over time from the act of encounter to the place of evidence, and then to the observance of the Law (Hillyer, 1971).

The use of the word in the New Testament is largely reserved for the works associated with the Apostle John. Jesus, for instance, was not in need of the testimony of other people to understand the nature of humanity. John the Baptist came as a witness so that people of that day might hear and believe in the one to whom John pointed (John 1:6-8, 14-15, 31-34; New American Standard Version [NASV]).1 Jesus stated that God himself bore witness to Jesus by giving him works that authenticated him (John 5:30-38; cf. John 8:12-19). Thus, the miracles that Jesus performed were the testimony that had impact on those who could understand.

Consequently, it is not just that a witness was given, but also that there was or was not a corresponding witness received, apprehension of the witness, and the formation of an appropriate appraisal. People either do, or do not, have the spiritual sensitivity, the capacity to perceive spiritual realities and to comprehend, to make an appropriate meaning from their experience. Those who have this capacity see beyond the empirical limits of physical sensation. Thus, John sang a chorus to them in Revelation, chanting over and over, “Let those who have ears hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; [NASV]). In a corresponding thought, Paul stated,

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. (1 Cor. 2:12-14)

Where martyrion appears in the synoptic Gospels, it does so largely in its classical sense. It can be that which serves as a testimony or proof, consisting of an action, a circumstance, or a thing that serves as a testimony (Matt. 8:4, 10:18, Mark 6:11, Luke 21:13; Arndt and Gingrich, 1957). Luke makes a significant extension of that meaning in Acts, however, applying it in a technical sense to indicate a certain group of people who could tell what they had perceived while living with Jesus, seeing and hearing the things he did and said, perceiving his resurrection, and encountering the postresurrection Jesus (Acts 1:8, 1:21-22; 2:32; 3:14-15; 13:30-31; 26:12-18). In Paul’s statements before King Agrippa, for instance, he offered that his witness was not only of the things that he, Paul, had experienced, but also, in harmony with John, that this witness served a purpose. It was not mere narrative; it was evangelistic. This, then, is consistent with a witness of fact. These witnesses were testifying to what they had experienced and not just to their opinions, estimations, or considered evaluations.

Exaggeration and Hyperbole

Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which statements are intentionally exaggerated for effect. It is an overstating of the facts designed to evoke a response, but it should not be taken literally. When I was growing up, one of my best friends used to turn simple events and objects into superlatives on such a regular basis that I learned to dilute everything he said. I could not trust that things were as he had said they were. He did not merely ride his bike home fast; he rode it faster than anyone had ever ridden a bike over that distance. He did not simply get a good price when he bought a model airplane; it was marked down so low the store lost money by selling it to him. Sometimes I wondered if my friend knew the difference between things as they actually happened and things as he related them. The response he at first evoked in me was amazement and envy, but after I figured out what he was actually doing, the response turned decidedly in the opposite direction.

Imagination is intrinsic to such hyperbole. It exaggerates the concrete experience of a person, extending the here-and-now into a potential that then is seen as present reality.2 In a specific application of imaginative exaggeration, hypotheses are constructed in which a person performs a “what if …” calculation. He or she then extends or expands some aspect of current experience so as to form a larger than life mental image of something not yet experienced. Thus, Stamatopoulou (2007) hypothesized a shared, embodied frame of reference for emotional experience between people. He then conducted research exploring the concept of the intersubjective nature of embodied subjectivity, which he uncovered, regarding an imaginative enactment that induced a shared understanding between the persons. However, does such a shared and co-constructed field exist, or is it a construct of exaggerated imagination? Is the intersubjective relationship hyperbole or literal fact?

While hyperbole is an understood exaggeration (extension or projection), simple exaggeration is not always understood as such because it is used to achieve other purposes. Malingering, for instance is the deliberate and imaginative exaggeration of physical and/or psychological symptoms for a known external reward such as additional sympathy or attention, or relief from work (Adetunji et al., 2006). It is a factor among forensic populations where clinical symptoms often bring pragmatic advantages (Walters, 2006). Sullivan, Lange, and Dawes (2007) estimated as many as 4 in 10 people in America evaluated for personal injury compensation exaggerated their symptoms, so they created a research project in Australia and found that 17 percent of criminals, 13 percent of personal injury persons, 13 percent of persons with disability or workers’ compensation, and 4 percent of medical or psychiatric cases were reported to involve exaggerated symptoms.

In still another way of seeing exaggeration, Grant Gillett (2007) theorized the origin of paranoid thought, claiming that psychotic thinking comes about through exaggeration of a person’s adaptive cognitions while situated in the world. Though common sense would normally lead to a coherent narrative to explain life events, the psychotic person is cut off from the customary checking that occurs in relationships, and he or she constructs explanatory narratives that become exaggerated to pathological dimensions.

Are the reports of miracles examples of hyperbole? If so, they would be exaggerated purposefully but not meant to be taken literally. Are they hypotheses meant to explain? Are they exaggerations for personal gain? Is miraculous experience a loss of reality, a form of psychosis? Perhaps reports of miracles are testimonies to the work of both God’s immanence and transcendence.

These are questions in which the answers are contingent upon the actual nature of the experiences in question. What is miraculous experience like? For that matter, what is experience itself?

Personal Experience

Experience is the conscious awareness of the feeling of what happens (Damasio, 1999; Gendlin, 1997) for an embodied organism that is situated. Thus, situation is an important concept, for it points to several issues, the foremost being that experience is never entirely just a matter of an individual consciousness (Wheeler, 2000), but of the person-in-context, or the lived body within a lived or experienced world (Merleau-Ponty, 2002). Such a lived world is a mix of subjective, inter subjective, and poly subjective experience. Further, consciousness, often a synonym for the experience of self, is dependent upon contact of an organism in such contexts (Thompson, 2007; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1993), raising the issue of alterity, which is the sense of one’s connection, or even ethical obligation toward an other (Buber, 1996, 2002; Levinas, 1999). Contact with the world is, then, at the heart of consciousness (Natsoulas, 1999). As Gillian King (2004, p. 72) observed, “People create meaning out of their experiences to give their life a sense of coherence and purpose … A sense of meaning arises through the development of a structure to everyday life that consists of various ways of engaging the self with the world.”

In the example of those who observed a wreck of the blue and red cars, the situation for them was a combination of the physical properties of the intersection, including the time of day and the amount of light available to see, how many lanes converged, and how much other traffic was also present when the wreck occurred. It also included the rate of metabolism and quality of the sensory apparatus each had to bring to bear on the process of embodied observation and reporting. The situation included the presence of a third person, as well as the presence of many other people, a social audience, who had gathered to look at the wreck. This third person was a person of authority, the policeman investigating the wreck, who asked them for the facts that appeared in the account of what they witnessed.

The situation also included the difference in perspectives that became apparent, and the conflict between them as each attempted to assert the validity of his or her version of events. At that point also drawn into the situation was the memory of conflicts and how they were handled in their respective families when each was growing up, as well as the fact that each was late for an important appointment and wanted to get the interview with the policeman over, but without appearing uncooperative. While each had only an individual, subjective experience of the situation, that emerged within a process of being embedded in a context of mixed features with many contributing factors.

Theories of situated experience focus on agency and intentions of people existing on a day-to-day basis within their respective communities. Thus, collaboration within groups of scientists creates a mutually beneficial experience comprised of many factors (Bond-Robinson and Stucky, 2006), and leadership is a function of the group; it is not simply dependent upon the traits of one significant person within it (Frew, 2006).

Working from the perspective of experimental psychology, various researchers have made several related observations. For instance, the sense one has of the relationship between oneself, including one’s values, and his or her situation, determines subsequent emotional experience (Siemer, Mauss, and Gross, 2007; Silvia and Brown, 2007). Research into self-disclosure indicated that what a person is apt to share with either a spouse or a psychotherapist is largely driven by the situation, that is, the nature of the relationship of the person to the other in either context (Farber and Sohn, 2007). Child development specialist Michael Lewis concluded that it is one’s current context that is the greatest influence on behavior, and thus on one’s experience. “A contextual model does not require progress or that early events necessarily are connected to later ones; it requires only adaptation to current context” (Lewis, 1998, p. 2). Finally, Kenny, Kashy, and Cook (2006, p. 1) stated, “Many of the phenomena studied by social and behavioral scientists are interpersonal by definition, and as a result, observations do not refer to a single person but rather to multiple persons embedded within a social context.”

Phenomenological Considerations

When I was the pastor of a small, rural church along the Oregon coast, two things happened that stand out to me with regard to the subject of this chapter. First, after an especially difficult couple of weeks in which I had to perform funerals and meet with families who had lost children, one of our members told me that after her mother died, she (the mother) had come to her daughter and stood at the end of her bed. From there the mother had consoled her grieving daughter, and the daughter had come to share that story with me so that I could know that those who pass on sometimes communicate with the loved ones left behind. This woman did not believe that she had hallucinated or been the victim of an illusion caused by severe grief; she believed the spirit of her dead mother had come to her, in a bodily shape that was recognizable, stood close, and interacted with her.

Second, that church had been a troubled place and there had been conflict and disagreement over many issues. In that church was a single-parent woman who had had a rough life. She was not what many might have considered the model parishioner. One day, while I was preaching, she stood up in the middle of the sermon, and I stopped to inquire what was on her mind. You might imagine that this was something out of the ordinary, and the place was hushed. She looked very uncomfortable, and she said, “I don’t know how it fits, but I feel like God is telling me to say, ‘What right do you have to use my word to fight your battles?’” Instantly, I felt struck and convicted, because I realized I had been doing that very thing. Some might call what she spoke a prophetic message, but others would include it among experiences classified as paranormal. Some might say that prophecy was only present for a certain time period in the developmental history of the church, but others might say it is relevant for today. Some might say that woman was charismatic; others would not know what to call her.

One person perceived her mother, and the other person conceived a message. Both of these are real experiences and can be understood within a phenomenological perspective. Phenomenology is the science and philosophy of experience. It began as a discernible movement with Edmund Husserl’s insistence that “philosophy take as its primary task the description of the structures of experience as they present themselves to consciousness” (Wrathall and Dreyfus, 2006, p. 2). Phenomenology can be defined as the study of the experience of embedded, or situated, persons in spheres of overlapping person-environment relationships (Wilson, 2003). Writing from the perspective of phenomenological philosophy, Maurice Merleau-Ponty asserted,

All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my own particular point of view, or from some experience of the world without which the symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression. (Merleau-Ponty, 2002, p. ix)

When I say, “Ball,” something comes to mind, does it not? That could be a baseball, a soccer ball, or a basketball. Perhaps you even see it in your mind’s eye. Perhaps you recall a specific ball you either currently have in your possession or used to play with at some time in your past. Maybe the ball is currently right in front of you, or maybe absent physically, not present to your perception but only present to you because you can remember and recall it to your awareness. If you think of one, you think of a specific and real ball, you do not think of something that is only an imaginary ball, or a fictional ball. If, on the other hand, after reading that something like an imaginary ball is an option, then you might be thinking now about that, so that you could have had at least two, three, or four such kinds of balls come to mind.

When we experience things, generally speaking, we can do that in one of two ways. We can either have a direct interaction with something through our senses, and we call that a perception, or something appears to us through our use of language and our ability to imagine and to conceptualize. Thus, we can see a tree and relate to it as a matter of perceptual experience in a very natural way. We can also form a construct, for example, of the Tree of Life, and think of something in the Garden of Eden. While one can see a physical tree, the Tree of Life is a concept that has substance but cannot be seen. It can only be comprehended and held in the mind. Phenomenologically, the object that is given to us in either case is known as an intentional object (Moran, 2000; Sokolowski, 2000).

The physical tree can burn down, but the process of seeing it and the perception itself cannot. They persist as the residue of experience. According to Edmund Husserl, this residue, in terms of process and content, has no chemical elements, forces, or physical properties (Moran, 2000). The process is known as noesis and the content as a noema. One is a mental act and the other a product of such an action.

The noema is also known as an intentional object. When noemata appear to us through our senses, we can call these perceptual noemata, but when something comes to us through language or reflection, that is a higher order of consciousness known as a categorial noema. Thus, as mentioned above, experience itself can either be of something currently present or of something conceived but physically absent. If physically absent, it can be imagined and anticipated, as when one can only see one side of a box but can perceive the unseen sides as well, even without moving to the opposite side of it or turning the box around. Conversely, we can experience something that is physically unavailable altogether and only present to us categorially through our imagination. Further, categorial noemata can be concepts, constructs, and situations just as easily as they can be concrete objects and people.

The term intentionality itself is taken from Latin intendere (Thompson, 2007), which means to stretch forth or to aim at something. Franz Brentano elucidated the concept to clarify his assertion that a real physical world exists outside our consciousness and that all consciousness is directed toward it. It is the aboutness of thought (Jacquette, 2004). Thus, when Husserl refined the construct of intentionality, he asserted that consciousness is always consciousness of some thing, because the most basic interpretative act of human consciousness is to experience the world in terms of objects, or things (Spinelli, 2005). Intentionality was the most fundamental aspect of mental life for Husserl, who conceived of it as a self-transcending experience. It was of something that was beyond itself (Wertz, 2006).

By extension, all experience is experience of something. Thus, when someone has an emotion, it is about something. I encounter this often with my clients who are depressed, and I say to them, “Your depression is about something.” Thus, our feelings, our emotions, are about the important things in our lives, and they actually help us to pay attention, to orient, and to organize around those things that matter the most.

Let me bring some of this together in a natural way.

One morning my wife and I went out to Warwick Long Bay on the island of Bermuda, where we live, where I practice, and where we have a training institute. The sunlight hit the horizon out on the open sea in beams shooting down from the sky through breaks in the clouds. The clouds were billowy and thick but scattered, and they squatted low on the horizon in various shades of gray. The beach was deserted, and we walked down to where the dry sand gave way to wet. The water was choppy and the surf was slapping at the beach. As we stood there in the quiet of the early morning, two things happened that I regarded as remarkable.

First, a man rode up on his bike, parked it, and walked down toward us. At first I did not recognize him. He wore his bathing suit and a loose fit shirt. That was about it. His hair was uncombed and he had not shaved. He looked a bit crusty and slightly sunburnt. As he got closer I saw who it was. At first, he had been present to me as a stranger and some early morning denizen, but when I recognized him, he became revealed to me as a man of prominence, a member of one of the more distinguished and eminent families in Bermuda.

I said, “Hello,” and introduced him to my wife. That is when he recognized me as well, and he said, “At first I didn’t know you with your long hair.”

As we were standing there, this man looked over our shoulders to announce the presentation of the second remarkable thing. He asked, “Is that your ball?”

There, about 50 meters down the beach, came rolling with the wind a yellow, green, blue, and transparent beach ball about one meter in diameter. It was rolling with some velocity, and my wife caught it. We all stood there contemplating the mystery of the runaway ball; it seemed like a sign or a signal to us of something more significant, and we decided to let it go free. So, Linda dropped it onto the sand, and the wind caught it and rolled it all the way down to some rocks, where it careened into the surf and then was caught in a repeating surge back and forth from the sea onto the land, again and again.

Did you experience the man? Did he come to you in some way? Was he present to you as a real man? Did you see the ball? Did you understand its mystique as potential “sign”? Perhaps you imagined the beach and the ocean, or the sand. If you followed the narrative so that these objects became vivid for you, then they became part of your intuitive experience. They were presented to you as noemata. They were not fantasy; they were real, for you know of real prominent families, “denizens,” and you know of beach balls.

This is the essence of what we have to offer one another in our various relationships, and when you think about it, it is all we have to offer: our own, unique way of experiencing people and things, the world in which we live.

When I meet with clients as a Gestalt therapist I am always working the edge of shared experience, for something is present in our meeting one another, and something becomes presented to me in the stories, situations, cathartic expressions, and interpersonal conflicts in which I often participate. As a Gestalt therapist I do not merely deal in the experiences of my clients; I also have an experience of myself that emerges by being with them, and that, in turn, feeds back into the working relationship. This is at the core of both psychoanalytic and Gestalt psychotherapy (Jacobs, 2002; Orange, 2001).

Synthesis: Relationship to the Miraculous

How might a Gestalt therapist, then, work with someone presenting “a case of the miraculous”? On June 9, 1970, a visiting priest was conducting a Tridentine Mass in the chapel at Stich, in the Bavarian region of Germany, near the Swiss border. The Mass proceeded in normal fashion until after the Consecration of the Host when the priest suddenly noticed, on the corporal next to the chalice, a small reddish spot that soon grew to the size of a coin. At the elevation of the chalice, the priest noticed another red spot on the corporal at the place where the chalice had rested. On July 14, 1970, at 8 o’clock in the evening, the Swiss priest was scheduled to celebrate another Holy Mass, according to the Tridentine missal, in the chapel of Stich. Shortly after the Consecration the red spots again appeared on the corporal.

Turning slightly aside, the priest signaled to the sacristan, who was in the sanctuary, to approach the altar. While the sacristan looked in bewilderment at the spots, the priest distributed Holy Communion. Noting the unusual behavior of the sacristan, members of the congregation suspected that something unusual had taken place and were noticeably restless during the remainder of the Mass. The priest satisfied the people’s curiosity at the end of the Mass by permitting them to approach the altar to inspect the stains for themselves (Cruz, 1987, pp. 181-82).

All concerned were careful to have both sets of stains tested to see what they were, and independent laboratories each indicated that they were human blood. This, then, constituted a miracle. Later, Mr. Johannes Talscher, the brother of the sacristan of Stich, declared that he had been in attendance during the Mass of July 14. He stated that he had known about the previous stains, and so he was hoping that it would happen again. When, during the Mass, the priest informed the congregation that it had, indeed, happened again, and when they were allowed to come forward, Mr. Talscher stated, “I saw four spots. One was the size of a priest’s host and a cross was visible on it. Another was the size of a small host, and the other two were smaller. They were all brownish red. It is my firm and considered opinion that these mysterious blood stains have no natural explanations” (Cruz, 1987, pp. 183-184).

What if Mr. Talscher later came as a client of a Gestalt therapist, doubting, and feeling that somehow, in some way, he had been duped by the whole incident? What if he stated that he might have exaggerated his testimony, for he began to wonder if he had actually seen or just imagined the cross on the stains?

A Gestalt therapist has four major ways of working that, in some ways already mentioned in this chapter, concern experience. He or she can follow a phenomenological method, engage the client dialogically, work with the life space or field of the client, and create new experience through experiments designed to heighten awareness (Brownell, in press). These are not four separate interventions, although they are described below as distinct and are taught in training groups as such for the sake of clarity. They form a unity of practice and are at play simultaneously during the course of therapy.

One can work directly with the immediate experience of the client using a phenomenological method. Although Brentano believed in a real world, none of us can prove it exists. We believe in an ontological field, and we can express our reasons for believing in it, but the only thing we have to base such beliefs on is our experience of the phenomenal field. That is where many Gestalt therapists tend to settle down, emphasizing working to increase awareness of aspects of experience that are available but not necessarily given to a specific person’s consciousness.

The phenomenological method is comprised of three steps: (1) the rule of epoché, (2) the rule of description, and (3) the rule of horizontalization (Spinelli, 2005). In the rule of epoché one sets aside his or her initial biases and prejudices in order to suspend expectations and assumptions. In the rule of description, one occupies himself or herself with describing instead of explaining. In the rule of horizontalization one treats each item of description as having equal value or significance. First one sets aside any initial theories with regard to what is presented in the meeting between therapist and client. Second, one describes immediate and concrete observations, abstaining from interpretations or explanations, especially those formed from the application of a clinical theory superimposed over the circumstances of experience. Third, one avoids any hierarchical assignment of importance such that the data of experience become prioritized and categorized as they are received.

One can work purposefully emphasizing the cocreated, two-person field of the client and therapist relationship. At that point the quality of contact between the two people becomes very important. Thus, the exploration of the client’s experience takes place within the dialogical relationship between therapist and client. This is a subject-to-subject relationship (Hycner and Jacobs, 1995) in which each person becomes known to the other. The Gestalt approach proposes that the potential for change and self-development arises not through the counselor or therapist, nor even through the client alone, but through what emerges in the meeting or existential encounter between the two of them (Mackewn, 1997, p. 80).

One can also work with an understanding for the life space, all things having effect for any given person. This is also known as the field (Brownell, 2005; Latner, 2000; MacKewn, 1997). The field is the medium in which therapy takes place and is inseparable from it. The field is the entire situation and all that goes on among those involved. To work the field is to comprehend the relevance of current effects and to intervene in the social, psychological, and physical world of the client (Brownell, 2005). Five principles distinguish clinical work that is essentially field theoretical (Yontef, 2005):

  1. Change is a function of the whole context in which a person lives.
  2. Change anywhere in the field affects all subsystems of the field.
  3. Therapy focuses on the subjective awareness of the client, the interactions within session, and an understanding of the whole context of forces that is the background for everyday life.
  4. Process in therapy refers to the space-time dynamics of change.
  5. All observation is from a particular place, time, and perspective.

Finally, one can experiment, by which is meant that a therapist can move from talk into action (Crocker, 1999). Through experiment, therapist and client create new experience from which increased awareness and learning can emerge. The most effective experiments, then, resemble artistic creations, arising from the circumstances and details of therapeutic process, rather than stylized interventions that can be used over and over with various and numerous clients. In the process, the client “acts from experienced awareness rather than following a direction imposed by the therapist” (Melnick and March Nevis, 2005, p. 107).

When one puts all these together, four observations can be made about the practice of Gestalt therapy: (1) the therapist and the client are always in some form of meeting, (2) they each have some degree of awareness around that, (3) for each there are various factors affecting how they experience what is going on, and (4) the entire interaction is alive and flowing through time in a fairly unpredictable fashion (Brownell, in press).

Let us consider what a possible session between a Gestalt therapist, who is essentially working with the experience of the client, and a person who comes claiming to have miraculous experience might be like.

Concluding Thoughts

It is the nature of personal experience that it is irrefutable. People know what they have experienced, normal or paranormal. They may turn its meaning around and around, but the elements of experience are presented to them in perception, and the thoughts that occur to them during the course of their lives, and the emotions, and the physical sensations—the intentionalities of living—all these things comprise what it feels like to be that living person. If someone comes to me and says he or she has seen and interacted with the spirit of his or her recently deceased mother, I am not going to that person that is impossible because my theology will not allow it. Further, if I were to do that, the experience would not vanish for that person, but the trust between us might.

Still, there are differing perspectives on any given experience. Once, I worked the intensive care unit of a secure psychiatric hospital. One day we admitted a new patient, and while we were putting together a blank chart to use in getting him started, he began to carry on an animated conversation with someone who was not actually there for me, nor for the charge nurse, nor for the other staff people, and not for the other patients either. That other person was there for the new patient, but the meaning of what appeared to him was different for him than it was for me. Once on medications, the meaning for him changed as well.

The point here is that miracles, by definition, are a form of experience that may remain elusive—not able to be explained to everyone’s satisfaction. They are experienced by some, and that experience is reported in the form of a witness of fact. Just as the experience is subjective, the significance is a matter of individual interpretation. Further, the experience of one leads to an experience of another, and then to still others in the network of relationships comprising one’s field, but the nature of the experience evolves as it moves from direct event, to witness of events, to narrative about others’ experience. At every stage in the process experience becomes interpreted.