Figure and Ground

Home / Gestalt Therapy / Figure and Ground

(Before reading this section please see What is a Gestalt.)


We saw that a gestalt comprises of a figure (foreground), with definite boundaries, which is the point of focus for a person’s awareness at any point in time, against an unformed ground (background or landscape). This ground is constituted of parts which give the figure its meaning and its structure. Like a full moon with its boundary looming out against the backdrop of an otherwise dark sky.
Another example of figure and ground would be this particular page. The words you are reading on this current page is the figure.

The page on which the words are typed, to which your attention had not gone so far, is the ground against which the figure looms up. And just now since the page was mentioned and your attention went to it, momentarily, the page became the figure, and the words the ground. In other words, the page became the gestalt against the background of the words. Or if a white paper has a red dot and you focus on the red dot, the red dot is the figure, and the paper the ground. If your focus is on the white paper, then the white paper is the figure and the red dot, the ground. So gestalt is the sculpting of our experience into a figure, against a ground (background).
In other words in Gestalt therapy, whatever a person’s awareness is focused on, at any given point of time, becomes the gestalt, seen as a figure against the ground, which provides the context from which the gestalt / figure emerges. The ground can be anything starting from a person’s thoughts, body, moods, to environment, culture, etc.
The gestalt or figure emerges in the awareness of a person because there is a need to focus on it. For example, if I feel like drinking a cup of coffee while I am typing this write-up, the cup of coffee is the gestalt, the figure, against a ground of the write-up. The feeling of drinking a cup of coffee has its constituent elements or parts appearing as sensations in my body.

If, on the other hand, I focus more on this write-up, the feeling of drinking a cup of coffee becomes the ground and the write-up becomes the figure or gestalt in this moment. If my need to drink coffee increases in urgency and I am no longer able to ignore it, it becomes the gestalt or figure, against the ground of the write-up. Along with wanting to drink a cup of coffee, if the need to munch on a biscuit, arises as well, then the biscuit becomes the gestalt and the cup of coffee the ground.
In any gestalt the figure always derives its meaning in relation to the context of the ground. The same gestalt will have different meanings in different contexts. For instance a knife in a murder scene will have a completely different meaning from a knife placed near vegetables in a kitchen, or a knife in an operation theatre. The knife is the figure deriving its meaning from the context of the ground, i.e., the murder scene, the kitchen, or the operation theatre.
The idiom ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’, too brings out the figure’s meaning in relation to the ground very well. The meat is the gestalt, holding a different meaning in context of each of the two grounds, the two men.


As an experiment, look outside a window and see where your awareness rests. Ask yourself, “What am I aware of right now?” See how prominent the figure becomes on which your awareness rests against the ground (background). What does the figure mean to you against that ground?
Ask yourself, “What does this mean to me?” Wait for the answer.
After sometime close your eyes for a few minutes to break that particular awareness.
Then look around the room you are in, and see what your awareness rests on in this room. Repeat the same questions to yourself. This will increase your awareness about yourself.

You can practise this a few times a day to see how many gestalts come up to your awareness.
If you are aware and observant, something strange will begin to happen. You will see gestalts arise and vanish, and more gestalts appear, sometimes from the ground the previous gestalts were against. Each of these realities, these gestalts, are wholes existing on potential infinite number of wholes, and yet each of them stand out uniquely.
Figures will spring up and vanish. Realities will burst out into your awareness and disappear swiftly, as another reality takes its place. You will see everything is in a constant state of flux…constant movement.
And, as you keep observing this dance of changing figures/ realities/gestalts moment to moment, it will slowly dawn upon you that whatever you perceived to be your reality is actually transitory. These are truths of the moment. That too, your perception of what you consider as the truth. It is we who choose our realities/figures/gestalts moment to moment and arrange them according to our priorities. And the only reality and constant in this world is change.
Speaking of our versions of truth, this is a video of a Thai commercial which struck a chord in me, showing the objective view of the camera, and the subjective, highly coloured view, of a person:


At times, a certain figure might keep popping into your mind. Sometimes you may be aware of the figure, at other times not. Yet disturbingly the figure will keep returning to haunt you. If you are not aware of it as a figure, it makes its presence felt through a range of feelings such as, resentment, hatred, pain, anxiety, grief, guilt, abandonment, etc. Infact these feelings may blind you so totally that the figure may not be clear because of them. Well, this is a gestalt which is not complete. A figure which is not complete against the ground.
These kind of gestalts are unfinished businesses, and unexpressed feelings from the past. They interfere our effective contact with the present. These are the points where our awareness is blocked. Either awareness is willfully restrained or there are blind spots in it. When you become aware of an incomplete figure, be aware of the ground as well. For that is the context from which this incomplete figure is rising. And, the human mind always seeks to finish what is unfinished, to complete what is not complete. It seeks closure. It seeks to complete the pattern even if the tail, tusk, or ear is missing. If it cannot complete, it will find a way to intrude upon your ability to function in day to day life, sometimes rudely.


Most of the time, this arrangement of the units of our perceptions into gestalts, against a background of seemingly a lot of forms and shapes, is a blessing. It brings order, sanity, and a sense of stability to our lives.

As Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy, so aptly put it, “We couldn’t live if we would register all the millions of shapes and forms, which we encounter day by day without bringing some order to them. And we bring order to them by [the] inherent ability of any organism, the human as well as the animal organism, to form a [figure, a] gestalt”
We are now ready to look at the Main Aspects of Gestalt Therapy.

To know what is a gestalt, please see, What is a Gestalt?

Be In Touch

Newsletter, Event and Blog Updates

Harmonious Interventions


Among your many faces, in the cover of darkness, that you hide, Buried somewhere beneath them is your Light…. Although its been many years now, I haven’t forgotten her shining face, and sparkling eyes as she spoke to a crowd of around a hundred and fifty odd people.

Read More


Deafening noise. That’s what I experienced when I first set out to practice silence. There was nowhere I could escape to. The din was in my head. Practicing silence in life, initially, can indeed get maddeningly noisy. It tears apart and rips all that you are not, to shreds; it tosses you around in the darkness, mocks at who you think you are by showing you all the stories you have told yourself, about yourself.

Read More

Upcoming Events

Cutting the Ties that Bind – A Phyllis Krystal Method

This is a group session held at Breakthrough every month, that teaches how to break free from the invisible chains that bind us, block us and keep us from being who we really are.
Dates for the next session to be shortly announced.

Leave a Comment