Sheree Johnson is the founder and Director of Gestalt Ann Arbor. She is a licensed psychotherapist and certified alcohol and drug prevention specialist. She has developed extensive expertise – Women’s Issues, Domestic Violence; Sexual Abuse; Intimacy and Relationships; Spirituality and Self-growth. Sheree holds a B.A. in Social Work; a M.Ed. in Clinical Counseling; and is completing a Ph.D. in Health Psychology. She has studied with the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland and is a graduate of the Advanced Gestalt Couples and Family Program. Sheree also sponsors and leads workshops and retreats throughout the United States and Canada.
NP: You have a thoughtful background. How did you arrive at where you are today in terms of your philosophical outlook?
Johnson: It changes, hopefully its evolving, becomes more inclusive, kinder…It’s quite an organic process. There are three points – apexes – that sparked this process within my mind. When I was very young I would have a very clear vision of a Blue Shape, an entity of some sort. Very human in appearance and always seated at the foot of my bed facing me. Child psychologists would say that the Being was my imaginary friend. But even as I speak to you about Him, He was quite real. The Being would communicate to me, and again, even now, my memory is alive more with the “feeling” of the communication. The striking aspect of the phenomena was the clarity of the image and that our conversation was telepathic. There was a kindness, softness and wisdom in the exchange. I decided at some point that the Being was a Christ-Like Entity.
As I grew older, the second apex formed. I began watching David Carradine, the American actor when he played a Shaolin monk in a Kung Fu series. I noted his character’s actions. They were choice-full actions amid events in which choice was uncertain. It helped opened the door to my interest and study of Eastern religions.
The third apex was formed within my experience of family and community. I was the oldest of eleven children in a rural community in which kindergarten through twelfth grade was all in one building. The ability to learn new things was instilled as one of the greatest and exciting of opportunities. In my community, no matter if the person was the town drunk or the village Sunday school teacher, respect of elders was deeply valued and taught. In my little school, teachers modeled fairness, equanimity, commitment, loyalty, and self-responsibility. My socio-cultural and educational experiences created an imprint on my mind inspiring belief in self, the value of community and helping those less fortunate, while being calm, patient and loving.
NP: Life is a struggle even its most benign moments. Do you see an interconnected to things in life – such as oneness? Also, what are your thoughts about whether our internal wiring has the ultimate say in how we respond to the world around us?
Johnson: Nature has been my Greatest Teacher. Watching birds fly and change direction in a split second; the transition of seasons; the cycle of birth, life, death; witnessing the constant degeneration and regeneration on a daily basis right outside my window, offers deep insight as to our interconnectedness. Regardless of who one believes himself or herself to be; regardless of our attainments; how we might define “success”; despite the infinite ways we have created to try to keep ourselves on “the other side”- there’s an infinite organic processing and interconnectedness in nature that is reflected in and through all living things which for me is my definition of God.
As to our internal wiring (heart and mind), I think all fundamentally healthy humans possess a predisposition towards “Being-ness”. We possess a blueprint that includes tendencies towards harmony, interdependence, and self-actualization. Out potential to become self-actualized is ignited through acts of love towards the self and others and can be cultivated when we offer ourselves in service to others. We also become self-actualized through the practices of self-observation (what am I doing right now?); self-assessment (is what I am doing right now helpful or hurtful?); and self-correction (I take full responsibility for my thoughts, speech, and actions). Our quest for inner peace and happiness is part of the nature of our being human. An example of a true being living in her true nature is seen in a healthy baby who, from belly laugh to crying, is fully in the moment
If we are unable to realize our predispositions or true nature regardless of gender, sexuality and so forth, we become depressed and experience self-loathing and anger. We live on the surface and not in the moment. Further, if we try to override our innate tendencies towards harmony, balance and interconnectedness, and “will” ourselves into a world of say narcissistic greed, we run the risk of falling victims to our own illusions of self-importance. self-righteousness, or superiority or whatever the antonyms are for “kindness” and “compassion”. Conflict and dissatisfaction in life will ultimately envelop the mind and self-inflicted suffering arises. The opposite of power-seeking is learned helplessness. The victim mentality takes over when we abdicate our own power by failing to accept responsibility for our experiences of thought, speech, and action. We wind up trapped in a mind filled with fear, isolation, and despair.
Self-responsibility, self-awareness – choosing to cultivate a nature predisposed towards kindness and compassion – are behaviors and attitudes that will create a fuller sense of purpose and inter-connectedness. The word “mindfulness” is almost common in American language now and probably best describes the attitude that creates the process of self-actualization that I am describing. Mindfulness is the manner in which true inner power and self-love are effectively cultivated.
NP: How does your spiritual view affect your everyday outlook? How do you meld together your Buddhist and Christian thinking? Where are you at this moment in time philosophically, spiritually and sensually?
Johnson: I find an un-necessary divisiveness between individual religions and their respective dogmas. Conflict appears inevitable when one group or individual suggests their belief is superior to others. I find it somewhat illogical to ascribe to believing in the concept of “interconnectedness” if I am unwilling to explore other forms of theology or spirituality. As a person who has delved deeply into Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism, I have discovered the greatest truths and wisdom through the words that are repeated, regardless of what language or culture they are echoed from. I see the interconnectedness of all things in the world around me, and dogmas become disharmonious to that worldview. I like to challenge myself by embracing the world around me with curiosity and enthusiasm. Truth reveals itself to an open, inquisitive mind.
NP: Is hope and faith part of your internal dialogue? If so how do you express that hope in your everyday actions?
Johnson: Hope and faith serve as catalysts for action. Attachment to hope and faith as a means to an end can create stagnation, however. So, while the two can motivate, you cannot stay in either spaces too long. Hope and faith without adding the conscious choice of letting go will negate intention and action. We must live in the present and that’s a learning process. We must cultivate a clear understanding of our interconnectedness which will, through its own volition, yield powerfully responsible actions.
NP: We live in an age where fear, insecurity, intolerance, greed, ignorance and poverty are forms of violence against the wholeness necessary for understanding our human interconnectedness. How does the person change to realize that wholeness and interconnectedness?
Johnson: My outer reality reflects my inner reality. When I fully accept responsibility for my thoughts, choices, emotions, and actions, I reclaim my inherent power and will make choices that benefit every living thing. Alignment with all living things becomes effortless. Living in the present moment ultimately circles back to understanding and embracing my true nature. Each breath I take is an opportunity to choose thought, action, and speech that reflects responsibility and care towards myself and others.