With so much turmoil in our world, people everywhere have an instinctive feeling that there’s got to be a better way ahead for us all. Oxford-based psychologist, teacher and coach Dr. Malcolm Parlett proposes that we explore “whole intelligence” or whi (pronounced “whee”) – our inherent all-round competence and our access to wisdom – and consider how it can be applied creatively at individual, community, organisational, national and global levels. He came to write this book because he sees that many consciousness-changing books don’t explain how to achieve positive change for long-term survival.
Parlett describes five dimensions of whi to help us on our way, as applied to handling situations, relating to others, living more fully in our bodies, discovering more about ourselves, and experimenting with discernment. Each dimension supports the others and is integral to achieving a high quality of living and consciousness development. This comes down to the individual level but with a view to creating more empowered global citizens where we can all make a contribution for the benefit of the world.
Future Sense contains historical perspectives as well as feedback from people who are walking the talk. There are many whi insights here for grassroots and community groups, organisational managers and even politicians to filter on the way to transforming lives for the better.
Nexus Magazine – Feb/Mar 2016 issue
Future Sense is an interesting study by Malcolm Parlett, Ph.D. of the enormous global challenges that face everyone to day. It is, in effect, “his manifesto for changing the world, one person at a time.” He points out that humankind seems unable to face the challenges that face humanity today. It is his belief that, because of the growing modern interconnectivity between peoples that we can change the world by changing ourselves.
He raises the concern that whilst there are a large number of books that call for a “fundamental change of consciousness to survive long term” that, paradoxically, having identified the problems that the authors offer no suggestions as to how this might be altered for the benefit of the human race.
Almost as if a doctor might say to someone: “You are ill!” But then fail to offer a diagnosis or to provide short term medical prescriptions or a long term treatment regime.
However, based on his considerable experience as a practicing psychologist, Dr Parlett makes some suggestions as to how everyone can become “a more empowered world citizenm making a unique personal contribution” What he describes as: “a step for themselves and a step for the benefit of the world at the same time.”
The book covers these concepts in five distinct sections
1) Handling Situations
2) Relating to others
3) Living more fully in our bodies
4) Discovering more about ourselves
5) Experimenting with discernment
He points out how all five must be interlinked in order for them to be effective. This is an interesting and an important book published by Troubador/Matador at £12.50.
That’s Books and Entertainment
Laurence Hegan, in a review inSelf and Society: European Journal of Humanistic Psychology
“Malcolm Parlett is a consumate Gestalt practitioner having demonstrated his Gestalt fluency in fields as varied as journal editing, teaching, therapy and writing. Our Gestalt practice is illuminated for all by the few who lead in the development and communication of the practice and Parlett is one of these. Future Sense is both a continuation and a synthesis of his desire to communicate Gestalt beyond its normal boundaries and it eschews the usual Gestalt language and conceptual architecture. As I immersed myself further into the book it seemed increasingly apparent that in bringing together a communicative mission with a field orientation Parlett had, despite himself, made a significant contribution to the theory of Gestalt Therapy.
At the time of reading Future Sense I was writing an article for the British Gestalt Journal on Perls, Hefferline and Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy, published in 1951. I see in Parlett’s work a potential that resonates with the earlier work to show us how to think more clearly about the deliberate intentionality that might lead us into a more mature consideration of the ‘wild being’ that lies quite frighteningly close – just beyond the boundary of what we can countenance, of what we have socially constructed. I hope that Parlett will take his work deeper as well as communicate it more broadly.”
Eros, interconnection and creating conditions for life to flourish
A review of Future Sense: Five Explorations of Whole Intelligence for a World That’s Waking Up by Malcolm Parlett. Published by Troubador/Matador, Leicester, UK, 2015, 289 pages. Price: £12.50 (pbk).
Once upon a time, more than my lifetime ago, three men from different backgrounds collaborated to create what became a foundational text for Gestalt practitioners. The three men were Frederick Perls, Ralph F. Hefferline and Paul Goodman. The book was entitled Gestalt Therapy with the subtitle Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (1951).
At the start of my Gestalt career in 1985, Malcolm Parlett introduced me to this book. At the time, I was practising as a clinical psychologist, versed in cognitive behavioural and analytic approaches to therapy, which aimed to repatriate individuals who had been diagnosed as having ‘mental health problems’ back into the world of ‘functioning’ human beings. My meeting with Malcolm introduced me to an approach that was altogether different, which focused instead on a holistic approach to individuals and orientated them towards living well. Indeed, the very subtitle of the text Malcolm recommended hinted at something completely different than the clinical psychology references that I was familiar with: this dared to suggest that practitioner focus need not just be ‘treating the diagnosis/dysfunction’, but also attending to such matters as capacity for joy, seeking satisfaction and the ability to live life well. Indeed, to quote from Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, ‘Such therapy is flexible and itself an adventure in living’ (1951, p. 15).
In setting the context for Future Sense, Malcolm Parlett aligns himself very firmly with this initial radical agenda of our foundational Gestalt text: indeed, when I first read Future Sense, I felt the stirrings of that very same excitement that I had experienced years ago. A sense that there were things that we could do, indeed, that we must urgently do, as individual citizens, Gestalt practitioners, and members of the human species. A summoning and call to action, combined with a profound hope and belief, that through this empowered action we would be able to heal ourselves and, necessarily, also create conditions for thriving individuals, families, organisations, societies and the biosphere/ planet.
In what follows, I will attempt to outline how Parlett approaches such a vast project, and also try to frame why he sees the necessity for the agenda to be so expansive, ambitious and complex. At the same time, it is worth saying from the outset that one of the (many) gifts that Future Sense delivers is its readability, accessibility and appeal outside of those versed in technical Gestalt/ wider psychological language. The balancing of magnitude with simplicity, and vision with pragmatism, is masterful and delivers for us all a product that has clearly been crafted with dedication and skill across a breadth of time and experience.
Framing and intent
In setting the context for Future Sense, Parlett outlines very clearly both the need and the wish to contribute to what he calls a ‘growing, highly creative, expanding global consciousness’ (p. 2). Indeed, he directly links increased interconnectivity between human beings to an increased capacity to act together for good, or for ill, to effect global issues, policies and problems. Similarly to Perls, Hefferline and Goodman, he chooses not to emphasise that which we cannot do, but instead focuses on what is possible if people start to act, and preferably, act together along five ‘directions’. As Parlett states, ‘the argument here is that the greater fulfilment of our talents, potentialities and unique gifts is a direct way of changing the world at the ultimate grass roots’ (p. 3). Future Sense is thus aimed to firmly link personal development with global development and to empower individuals to work creatively, both alone and with others, to develop their capacity for ‘whole intelligence’, or, as Parlett terms it, ‘whi’.
In this way Future Sense can be considered as laying out an agenda for personal activism within the realm of personal development, with a conviction that such development will enable direct contribution to resolution of global problems
and creation of a new and positive agenda. The subtitle of Future Sense is ‘five explorations of whole intelligence for a world that’s waking up’ and these five explorations are offered as capability-building activities that can be followed by individuals. They also point to new discourses in different domains of human existence, such as mental health, human development, education, social affairs and policy creation.
A relational sensibility: connections and context
It is perhaps worth stating at this point that I do not consider myself to be an ‘objective’ reviewer, if such reviewers ever exist. Parlett has been busy with his exploration of these five directions for nearly twenty years, and over that time we have had many discussions, both professional and personal, concerning the contributions that the dimensions might make. He was my first Gestalt trainer and is a current collaborator in Relational Change, where we share commitment to core values and aspirations regarding what Gestalt theory and praxis might contribute to world ecology. Although Parlett states that Future Sense is not academically linked to his previous major contributions to the development of Gestalt theory, (for example, Reflections on Field Theory (1991), and The Unified Field in Practice (1997) ), it is my personal sense that his immersion in field theory, phenomenology, and indeed, the worldwide Gestalt community, is deeply implicit in the book. As such, it proved impossible for me to read Future Sense without seeing the threads extend from his previous, more academic works and broaden into a more explicit attention to global concerns. Connections abound: between us, with others, with theory and with praxis: across time and space. Indeed, Parlett summarises some guiding principles which those familiar with his more theoretical writing will recognise; namely that human beings are more interconnected, with each other and with their eco systems, than they are separate, and secondly, that because of this interconnection, life on the planet is profoundly interdependent. Therefore, he argues, not only are people willing to work to develop their ‘whole intelligence’, but for many, they sense this as their lives’ purpose. In this definition and construction of his foundational arguments, I would suggest that Parlett demonstrates a profound ‘relational’ sensibility that, while recognising individual agency and responsibility, nonetheless views individual flourishing as indivisible from the context in which that particular human is situated. This formulation underlies Parlett’s arguments and is marked as a ‘point of departure’ from the general culture, which sees individuals as isolated autonomous entities that are acting upon their environment.
Preparing the ground
In chapter 2, Parlett introduces us to the history of the five explorations and describes the moment when he created the list of five abilities. This is a compelling story accompanied by a rich and satisfying case study. I found myself transported back to a vivid moment in time when the concept of the five explorations had seemingly spontaneously emerged as a compelling gestalt; full of erotic energy, purpose and significance and, seemingly, demanding that Parlett explore in more detail. Through this case study, we learn both how the domains stand alone and also how, in practice, they start to shape and create gestalts, courses (and causes) for action. As such, they open up windows upon both the lived life and doorways to the life that could be created.
Reading this section of the book is an exciting experience, full of potential and possibility, where Parlett’s presence as a coach, educator, therapist and guide becomes palpable in the written word. As a reader, I became hooked at this point and found myself reflecting deeply on how the directions applied to my own life; specific situations that were arising and the wider field in general. I anticipate most readers who encounter the model will have similar experiences.
The five figures for exploration
The five directions are explored individually in depth in Future Sense and, indeed, some 200 of its 300 pages are occupied with individual chapters outlining these. Parlett argues that each one of the explorations supports the development of each of the others and that all five are necessary for the development of whole intelligence. They are, therefore, I believe best viewed as a complex gestalt intending to describe ‘what conditions are needed to bring out the best in human beings’ (p. 13). In this way, I would formulate them as dynamic ground conditions to the figure of individual flourishing, and thus describing an optimal field for human and, necessarily, non-human, thriving.
The five explorations are entitled, ‘responding to the situation, interrelating, embodying, self-recognising and experimenting’. In each case, a chapter is allocated to an exploration, and each of these five chapters searches for a detailed understanding of a specific dimension of whole intelligence. It is hard not to want to use Future Sense at this point as a ‘personal development’ aid in a rather simplistic way. In other words, to undertake a form of personal action enquiry that allows one to assess oneself in fairly classic fashion as doing well or badly with regard to the exploration, and to attempt to use the chapter to shape up and do better.
To do that, however, would be to collapse complexity and simplify the relational and contextual epistemology that lies at the heart of Future Sense. While the book can be used to extend our personal capabilities, the aim of the book is wider than this and is seeking to build a global community where we support each other to thrive under healthier/more intelligent conditions. The aim is to build a positive feedback loop so that as more whole intelligence is generated in the world, the capacity for each of us to behave more intelligently is strengthened; a dynamic virtuous spiral.
Within each of the five chapters relating to a specific exploration, Parlett makes an eloquent case as to why the exploration is vital to whole intelligence, how its presence or absence shapes functioning and the impact of the dimensions’ presence or absence on the context. The examples are vivid and persuasive and the under- lying philosophical, epistemological and ethical relevance is highlighted. This latter aspect of the book I found particularly compelling and Parlett is clear that each of the explorations is underpinned by a core motive, or value, that resonates to our global situation.
Of the five chapters, I personally found the explorations of interrelating and embodying the most potent. With reference to interrelating, the critique of individualism and application to the causes of war, violence, competition and destruction by human beings is compelling. Parlett draws upon the thinking of political scientist Benjamin Miller (2007), and his description of a war–peace continuum. This section highlights the power of affiliating and bonding in creating a sense of community and ‘tribe’. It also contains some direct and potent examples of how such identification with a specific identity and subgroup can lead directly to distancing and alienation from ‘the other’. This exploration of both violence and the potential we have individually and collectively to work to create peace is gripping reading and raises vital issues concerning how we educate children, arrange our economic systems and organise our political institutions. Parlett argues that there is currently an overarching emphasis on competition in conditions of increasing scarcity and that, in combination, this is obviously going to lead to inequities, divisions and potentially violent struggles, rather than building of community and sharing of resources. Parlett addresses these topics sensitively, with compassion and with deep insight and humility. Additionally, the writing style is eloquent and vividly articulate so that complex concerns are delivered in a highly palatable form.
The third exploration, ‘embodying’, is another tour de force that takes us into discussion of diversity, but rather than emphasising difference as figure, chooses instead to emphasise similarity. I spent a long time immersing myself in this chapter, and feeling the resonance within my body that is generated and amplified by vivid recognition that all humans are deeply interconnected and members of a single species. It is in this chapter that Parlett makes what, for me personally, was his most profound and compelling call for an urgent shift in human consciousness so that we become more, rather than progressively less, embodied. In particular, he speaks to our alienation from our embodied state as underwriting our alienation from other life forms on the planet. His case for connection with these other species, as well as with our own bodily nature, led me to experience a quite profound shift in a range of ways of responding that I could not have predicted. For example, the first time I read this chapter I was aware that my stomach was clenching and that a feeling of tension was being generated. As Parlett says, it is not easy to write about embodiment, and yet he does so brilliantly and in a way that pulls forth an embodied response that, in my case at least, defied rationality. This was further amplified in my following early morning walk for bacon sandwiches, when, upon going to take my first mouthful, I realised that my stomach was clenching in exactly the way it had when I had been reading Parlett’s embodying exploration. It was not that I minded eating meat; it was that I minded not knowing anything about the quality of life and death that the animal had enjoyed/endured.
This is one, albeit small case where Future Sense seems to have spoken as much to my body as to my mind and to have generated a holistic response. I take this as evidence of whole intelligence being activated through my experience of not just reading the book, but of actively exploring and working with it in the way that Parlett suggests; by dipping in and out, by engaging in the explorations, and by viewing the book as a profound action inquiry that would inform holistically and not just intellectually; an experience that would summon me to unanticipated action and change.
The fourth exploration, ‘self-recognising’, is full of potent discussions of what I experienced as ‘honesty’ but Parlett labels wisdom. He outlines many examples of both personal and political instances where individuals and institutions have determined to create a narrative and then live with their own rhetoric, rather than examine the actual impact of their actions on others. In this chapter, Parlett reaches for a description of ‘self ’ that Gestalt practitioners will recognise as being drawn directly from Paul Goodman’s description of self as a process in the later sections of Gestalt Therapy (1951). In this definition, the self is seen as the moving, constantly evolving and fluid process that enables us creatively to adapt to a range of situations. Interestingly however, Parlett also makes a good case for the need for stability, predictability and consistency so that we are able to self-recognise and also to sustain relationships on an enduring basis with significant others.
The fifth exploration is focused on the concept of experimenting and it is perhaps most vividly in this chapter that I recognised the life-creating impulse in Parlett’s writing that I had experienced in that of Perls,
Hefferline and Goodman some thirty years ago. There is the same formulation that we are energised by novelty and a realisation that this can be viewed as a manifestation of erotic energy that leads to transformation and growth. Parlett views experimenting as an active, and probably preferable method of learning and changing, which he equates to the value of ‘play’. In this exploration, Parlett highlights the tension between the urge to change and the urge to stay the same and describes this as ‘being caught between the current sweeping us towards the future and its new possibilities, and the opposing current tugging us back to the familiar patterns of the past’ (p. 222). I was touched by the way Parlett describes his own preference for adventure, change and novelty, but also recognises the dangers of this and of the accompanying need for stability and familiarity. Again, he makes a powerful case for avoid- ing polarising change and novelty as good, and argues that Whole Intelligence requires a balanced approach.
It is in this chapter that Parlett writes a relatively long section on the topic of ‘dementia care gardens’ using a methodology he developed earlier in his career with his colleague Garry Dearden (1977) called illuminative evaluation. This section is particularly potent in demonstrating the very practical possibilities that can arise from an experimental approach in complex and challenging situations. It is here that we can see that Parlett’s invitation to view Future Sense as a personal action inquiry can also be taken into a range of organisational settings with genuine potent results and outcomes.
Importantly, in this chapter Parlett also addresses some of the dangers that can ensue from experimenting, both to self in the form of unbearable shame and to others when the impact of actions are not factored in and considered. I viewed this as a vital aspect to have included in the book, and as a necessary corrective to the possibility of erotic energy and exploration over- powering the needs for containment, caution, compassion and care. This is, of course, to name some of the criticisms that have been directed at early Gestalt approaches, and, since Parlett is writing for lay people as well as practitioners, one that very importantly he highlights. Thus, although change, growth and personal development can contribute to whole intelligence, the pursuit of them without due care and attention for the longer-term impact on self and others can lead to an abusive form of toxic narcissism often seen in ‘privileged’ individuals with
an overblown sense of entitlement to pursue their own interests at whatever cost.
Summary and closure
Parlett finishes Future Sense with a more detailed out- line of how the five explorations work together, and also acknowledges that the ideas contained in the book are likely to be familiar to a range of therapists, coaches, community activists, educators and organisational consultants.
Importantly however, he suggests that we try and focus on three basic principles: first, appreciating the five explorations, and I would add, familiarising our- selves with them via a detailed personal inquiry; second, the importance of seeing ‘wholes’ and how factors work together, rather than increasingly specialising and fragmenting aspects of our life; and third, the idea that whole intelligence/‘whi’ is not a given ability, but is something for all of us to cultivate over a lifetime. Parlett proposes that by utilising these three concepts we part company with much contemporary public and political debate and instead enter into what he calls ‘an activism of being and becoming’.
This ethic has perhaps already been well articulated by many, but Parlett argues that such interlinking is not just the project of field sensitive and ethically responsible Gestalt/Relational practitioners but falls to every member of the human species. Indeed, Parlett concludes by stating ‘I believe that inevitably we are involved in the state of society and the world, and cannot NOT be’ (p. 279). Importantly however, Parlett also carefully articulates the need for us to preserve our individuality while cautioning against individualism. In this, I believe he cautions us against a form of collectivism whereby individual difference and diversity are effaced and instead reminds us that each of us is a unique and diverse variant of the human species who is positioned to make our own individual contribution.
I found the book compelling reading, enjoyed and benefitted from engaging in the five explorations and would certainly recommend it to both Gestalt practitioners and members of the general public. Having said that, my own sense is that in terms of meta-theories of change, Parlett perhaps implicitly assumes a level of familiarity with complex change theory that may, in practice, be absent for some readers. I found myself trying to experiment with the idea of
approaching Future Sense without a background in either field theory or relational thinking and was not sure how the book would have impacted me then. As such, I am left with some concerns that it may be seen by some as a personal guide to self-development, without a fuller understanding of some of the cautions against shame, and/or potential retraumatisation of self and/or other.
What is clear, however, is that in Future Sense Parlett reaches back to the vision that brought together the founders of Gestalt therapy, who never lost sight of their wider political and communal context and roots. Reading Parlett there is indeed the same call as the call that spurred on those founders: the call to create a change process that does not just repatriate individuals to functioning, but that also addresses sociopolitical context and specifies conditions for health and growth. Many of us now focus our work on this full gamut of application and increasingly, in the global community of Gestalt and relational practitioners, there is wide- spread acceptance and recognition that these two agendas are genuinely indivisible. I would have welcomed explicit consideration of how we might gain data that would support our experiential action inquiries, how such data might inform large-scale research pro- grammes and proposal of a range of strategies to support large-scale application, particularly across complex and challenging cultural differences and given the urgency of the issues.
In writing Future Sense Parlett has, I believe, amplified the call of the founding fathers of Gestalt therapy and extended their vision to the world. He has built a bridge from technical specialists in Gestalt/Relational approaches to the global human community. Future Sense thus delivers a highly illuminating exploratory methodology for productive personal inquiry and prompts positive generative action that the world desperately needs. I recommend it most highly.
Miller, B. (2007). States, Nations and the Great Powers: The Sources of Regional Wars and Peace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Parlett, M. (1991). Reflections on Field Theory. British Gestalt Journal, 1, 2, 68–91. Parlett, M. (1997). The Unified Field in Practice. Gestalt Review, 1, 1, pp. 16–33.
Parlett, M. and Dearden, G. (eds.) (1977). Introduction to Illuminative Evaluation: Studies in Higher Education. Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA: Pacific Soundings Press.
Perls, F.S., Hefferline, R. and Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian Press.
Dr Sally Denham-Vaughan is an internationally accredited coach and coach supervisor, organisational practitioner and Gestalt psychotherapist/trainer/supervisor. She has a back ground in psychology and has held a range of senior leader- ship positions in the NHS and in academia. She is the co- founder of Relational Change, an international organisation focussed on developing Relational approaches.
Review published in the British Gestalt Journal 2016, Vol. 25, No.1, 52–B2