My Mom and I took a trip to Iceland. When we returned home to Canada and reviewed our photos, one striking feature stood out. Even though we visited the same glaciers, hot springs, and stunning landscapes, Mom and I interpreted and documented our experience in entirely different ways. It was as if we took two distinct trips.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes phenomenology as:
the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first-person point of view.
Here is an example of how my Mom and I experienced the same landscape including the iconic white and red church from atop a hill overlooking the village of Vik. We stood side by side taking photos. In the first interpretation, my eye gravitates toward a panoramic view whereas in the second photo my Mom is drawn to a more intimate view of the church.
Phenomenology is not just a philosophical approach; it is also an essential component in Gestalt psychotherapy. It is a search for understanding based on what is obvious, rather than on one’s interpretation.
In the research paper Gestalt therapy: Clinical Phenomenology, author Gary Yontef, describes this method as teaching students the:
phenomenological method of awareness, in which perceiving, feeling, and acting are distinguished from interpreting and reshuffling preexisting attitudes.
How are our reality and evident consciousness achieved? It is when we can develop self-support and self-regulation in response to the environment. With others, phenomenology is the conscious intention of our communication; it is living each moment to feel and sense our experience of the other.
Let’s return to Iceland — the land of fire and ice. Mom and I were three hours southeast of Reykjavík. We were in the middle of nowhere amidst low lying farmlands and felt exhausted from the flight and uncertain where to sleep. The environment felt disorienting, messing with our internal clocks. For a clear July night, the dashboard showed 11:00 PM, yet the sun continued to shine. Mom looked at me with intention:
“Lisa, where are we?
“I have no idea.”
“We really need to find somewhere to rest…”
“I know — I’m with you.” We both opened our mouths with contagious yawns and, at that moment, were in complete unison. I felt an unmistakable urge to pray out loud with purpose for my Mom to experience the words.
“Lord, if you’re there — please provide Mom and me a place to sleep.”
Our SUV passed over a rolling hill. At the bottom was a little sign. It revealed a hotel. And not just any old hotel, no — it was the Hotel Ranga, one of Iceland’s premier resorts. And on that night, we slept like babies once the blinds were shut firm to edge out the creeping sun.
Mom and I lived in conscious awareness in our exhaustive struggle to find sleep. We were intentional in our communication with one another and in speaking with a spiritual source beyond ourselves — whether one chooses to believe our arrival became marked by divine intervention or pure coincidence.