Steve Silverton

This article has been published in Self and Society.

Thought, I love thought.
But not the jiggling and twisting of already existent ideas
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of the conscience,
Thought is gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to a conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending

Focusing teaches us to think like a poet. We learn to dip below the surface of the explicit and already formed and to find new symbols for what is implicit, symbols which, in the poet Don Paterson’s words, make us ‘open to suggestion, vulnerable to reprogramming, complicit in the creative business of […] self-transformation’.

DH Lawrence’s poem ‘Thought’, which I quote above, evokes something of Focusing’s power to help us reflect with the whole of ourselves, and come to new conclusions. But we do not need to be poets to focus. Unlike the poet, the Focuser does not need to find an artful form of words. And whereas the poet must make symbols speak about more than their private experience, striving for some kind of collective relevance, the Focuser does not need to make their symbols relevant for anything other than their own life. But there is, I think, something similar in the process of making a poem and the process of Focusing: this process of waiting for a symbol to form itself from the subtle and implicate layers of experience. Once experience is made explicit in the form of a symbol, it can be re-cognised – known again.

The gift of Focusing is to make the process of ‘man in his wholeness wholly attending’ explicit and teachable. By learning to attend wholly in this way, we can open up fresh perspectives, new insights, new ways of looking and feeling at and about things. Focusing takes us forward, so that whatever was occupying our attention sits a little, or a lot, differently with us. It takes us to a place, simply, where we are more in touch with our truth.

Once learned and honed with continual practice, this process can be a wonderful friend, offering a path to self-knowledge, deepening and enriching creative work and relationships, and acting as a guide when there are difficult choices to make.

It is in this last respect, as a tool for decision making in both personal and professional life, that I have found Focusing to be a particularly potent ally.

Not Knowing

Now, let go of what you think you know about thinking! To get to somewhere new inside ourselves, we have to let go of what we already know about the problem or situation we are focusing on. As long as we are in what we already know, we are stuck in the ‘jiggling and twisting of already existent ideas’, in Lawrence’s l phrase. So we have to allow not knowing. Here I want to call on another poetic voice, for this capacity seems very close to what Keats called ‘negative capability’:

‘That is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.’

Our technological culture does not allow much room for not knowing. There is huge pressure to know, to be decisive, to get it all sorted. This can prematurely close down what can be an extraordinarily potent and creative space: the womb, if you like, of not knowing, with all its receptivity to something new and surprising. Keats believed that negative capability marked out the truly creative artist. It is certainly a feature of the creative focusing process.

It is worth noting here that the word ‘focusing’ is itself a metaphor, a visual metaphor. It describes one aspect of this ‘attending wholly’, that aspect of looking closely, bringing something at first indistinct, blurry, vague into focus, so that it can be named. When we look at something, we seek it out with our eyes. We go out to it. Looking is an active process. But what we call ‘focusing’ could equally well be described with an auditory metaphor: as a kind of inner listening. We listen closely, as if with a stethoscope, to the body-mind’s experience of a situation, so that ‘it’ can tell ‘us’ what it knows. The listening metaphor captures more of the receptive aspect of focusing than the visual word ‘focusing’.

The Inner Relationship

Negative capability is one element of what Focusers call ‘the inner relationship’ or ‘the focusing attitude’. The key to successful focusing is the quality of our our relationship with experience. When approaching our experience in Focusing, we need to be friendly, curious, interested, non-judgemental, and we need to let go of what we know. We bring an attitude of open, friendly, non-judgemental curiosity to our experience. We attend to or with the body; to and with the body’s direct and immediate experience of the situation we are focusing with; to and with the felt sense of it.

Once we have cultivated this attitude or quality of realtionship, the next step, or aspect (it is, of course, not a linear sequence) is symbolisation. We try to represent the felt sense with a word, an image, a sound, a gesture… . The word ‘re-present’ is apt here. We are trying to make implicit experience present, present to ourselves in an alive, vital and fresh way.

Then comes dialogue. This not necessarily a literal dialogue, although it can be. It is, however, always some kind of relationship – relationship with the felt sense. We are present with the felt sense and with the symbol, resonating with each, feeling for a fit, or for where the symbol does not quite fit. When it does, we get a sense of relief, release, insight, opening, forward movement.

All this takes place in presence. Presence can be distinguished from partiality, to use Anne Weiser Cornell’s helpful terms. In presence we are able to attend to the whole of our experience without, as it were, taking sides, or excluding any part. As soon as we do either of those things we are in partiality: we have identified with, or dissociated from, some aspect of our experience.

Focusing With A Decision

To make things clearer, I would like at this stage to give an example of using focusing with a decision. The example is drawn from my own experience. I usually focus alone and use either a piece of paper or a small notebook computer, to write or draw as I focus. This helps me to stay in touch with the process and I find that seeing the symbols in front of me works well as a reflection which allows me to resonate with the symbol, or in Lawrence’s words, to test it ‘on the touchstone of conscience’. If I use the computer, the process of typing -and mis-typing, then correcting- and then going back over what I have written, works in the same way.

The decision was around moving house. This was and is a major life issue for me, and I have worked with it for a long period, using focusing. Below I present one focusing session on this topic, which was a key session in moving that decision process forward, but which was also the outcome of several sessions of working on it. I choose it because it seems to exemplify the kind of many-stranded, complex choices that face us in life, and which focusing can help with. I will then draw out what I have found to be three very helpful things to try when focusing on a decision.

To start the session I set up a focusing space. I have my own way of altering the physical space to mark out and ‘ritualise’ the activity, which I find helps me to cultivate presence – that attitude of friendly, interested, non-judgemental, not knowing in relation to experience. I ensure that I will not be disturbed, set up the space and have my computer at the ready.

To begin, I feel into the whole thing, asking something like how does this whole thing around moving sit with me just now?

I notice a warm contented feeling in my belly, like something really appreciates the attention. There is a sense of something about really loving and needing the safety and security of this physical place, and the words come: ‘I really don’t want all that upheaval right now’. And that sentence feels really right. Then an image comes of a plaster being ripped off a wound which has not yet healed. The words ‘Not ready’. A realisation that I have been through a challenging and difficult time this past three or four years, that only recently have I started to feel more healed and resourced, and that this process needs some time to complete itself before taking on something as big as moving, with all the stress, instability and upheaval this entails.

That feels really right. That feels like just where I am right now with it. But I want to feel into the other side of it. I have sat with this problem for long enough to know that this is not the whole story. The part that needs security and safety is very strong right now. But I’d like to feel into the other side of it. So I ask, ‘how would it feel to move somewhere new?’

What comes now is a kind of heavy, leaden feeling in my stomach and chest and the words ‘more of the same’. What brings this is the sense that even though the physical surroundings might change, even though there would be practical advantages, there would be a sense of oppression, struggle. This is about the pressure of a bigger mortgage, having to pay a bigger mortgage on my own. It is something about being on my own with it. It is this being on my own with it that brings the sense of ‘more of the same’ and the heavy, oppressed feeling that comes with that.

I am already feeling much clearer about where I stand just now on this. What is new for me here is the allowing of this strong impulse to safety, to ‘hold fire’ for the time being, and this sense that I do not want to do it alone any longer. I had not realised how identified I was, before, with the part that wants to move. And I had not realised that I was not allowing other possibilities into the picture. The possibility that I could move on in a different way than I had been imagining.

What is fresh and surprising here – and needs some more processing – is a part that simply does not want to do it alone any more. A part that needs and wants a sharing of life and possibility – a partnership.

Now I try something that has really worked well before. I try turning these thoughts and issues into simple statements that I can then ‘test on the touchstone of conscience’. This is like doing one of those questionnaires where you have to choose between, usually, five boxes, which range from ‘agree strongly’, through ‘neither agree nor disagree’ to ‘disagree strongly’.

The first statement I try is ‘I don’t feel ready to move just now’. I get a strong felt sense of agreement with that.

Then I try ‘I am happy to stay here for several more years’. I get a strong felt sense of disagreement with that. Like something would have to go very wrong for that to happen.

So I try ‘I am happy to stay where I am for now and explore possibilities for co-operation and partnership with others’. That feels just right. That feels like where I am right now. And that feels like a good place to stop for now.

In the above description I have telescoped around 45 minutes of time into a few sentences, to convey the essence of what was a key session. I got a breakthrough in what had been something very stuck, where neither staying nor going felt good. What gave this was really allowing the part that needs stability right now to have its voice heard. This led to realising that the way I had framed the problem was too limited: there were other possibilities for moving on besides buying another place on my own.

Now I want to draw out those three ‘top tips’ for working with decisions, whether alone or with a focusing partner:

  1. Ask ‘What is the felt sense of the whole thing? How does it all sit with you right now?’
  2. Feel into each side of the decision. How would it be to say ‘yes’/ to say ‘no’?
  3. Turn the questions into statements and then feel for the felt sense of agreement or disagreement

A Concluding Story

Focusing can open a door to the mystery of who we are, to the subtle currents of being which poets and artists give form to on a collective level, but which on an individual level can guide us towards what is right, true and real for us in our own lives. This combination of depth, wonder and mystery with the pragmatic and the everyday reminds me of the Zen tradition, and I want to end by quoting Neil Friedman’s adaptation of a Zen story, which for me captures the marvellous way Focusing can bridge the subtle and the ordinary levels of reality:

Once upon a time there was a convocation of healers, wizards, sorcerers, therapists, channels, mystics and disembodied spirits. Each had a time to get up and do his or her particular miracle.

Quite the pyrotechnics! One walked on fore. One hypnotised the entire audience without their knowing it. One foretold the future. One read past lives. One stood on one leg in a bizarre position until his whole body shook. One did medical diagnoses based only on each audience member’s name and age.

Then a short, plain-looking man got up. It was his turn. He said ‘My miracle is that when I am hungry, I eat; and when I am thirsty, I drink; and I know when I am hungry and when I am thirsty and what I am hungry for and what I am thirsty for’.

Then he sat down.

He was the focuser.

Further Reading

Cornell, Anne Weiser, ‘The Power of Focusing’, New Harbinger Publications, 1996

Friedman, N, ‘On Focusing’, published privately

Lawrence, DH, ‘Complete Poems’, Wordsworth Editions, 1994

Paterson, D, ‘Rhyme and Reason’, in The Guardian, 6.11.04.

Steve Silverton is a Core Process Psychotherapist and business coach
with a private practice in London. For more details see www.stevesilverton.net.

He can be contacted via the Bloomsbury Therapy
Centre on 020 7404 5348 or at s.silverton@virgin.net.

Campbell Purton

I have taught two focusing courses in India this year (2005). One – in January – was
a weekend introducing Focusing to people associated with the Chellamuthu Trust
(www.msctrust.org), which is a non-governmental organisation providing mental
health care and rehabilitation in and around Madurai in southern India. There were
about 40 participants, including social workers, community care workers,
psychologists, and teachers. They had some knowledge of counselling, but person-
centred counselling and Focusing were new to them. They were very used to
structured, medical-model approaches to therapy, and seemed fascinated by the
Focusing-oriented alternative. One of the participants was a counsellor at the
American College in Madurai, and I was invited to give a talk there. I also gave a talk
to students at the Madurai Kamaraj University (and had my picture in the local
newspaper!) Altogether, a wonderful few days.

At the end of August I went back to southern India, this time to Bangalore, to give a
week�s workshop at Montfort College, which is an associated institution of Bangalore
University. This is the only college in India which runs counselling certificate and
diploma courses as we know them in the West. The Montfort directors had their own
counselling training in the Philippines which (apart from Thailand) seems to be the
only other place in Asia where such training is available. They have difficulties
fitting humanistic counselling training into the prevailing ethos of cognitive-
behavioural and clinical-psychology approaches, but are determined to bring ‘our’
sort of counselling to India. They have many more applicants for their courses than
they can accept, and are just completing a huge new building which will
accommodate the counselling, psychology and teacher-training courses that they run.
As in Madurai they were fascinated by the focusing-oriented approach. I had a group
of 15, and was lucky to have the assistance of Kabir Ganjee, one of my students from
UEA, who has family connections in Bangalore. (Kabir is back with us this year as a
trainee trainer on our counselling diploma, and is working for his MA). The College
library is very short of books, especially on Focusing. If anyone has any such books
that they no longer want, could you let me know? I could take a few over when I
next go (probably in July 2006) – or even better, you could pop one in an envelope
and send it surface mail to :
Mathew Panathanath,
Montfort College,
184 Old Madras Road,
Indiranagar,
Bangalore 560038,
India.

Many thanks!

Campbell Purton

Introduction

These were written for the second, third and fourth years of the course ‘Focusing and
the Power of Philosophy’ which I taught with Rob Foxcroft and Barbara McGavin on
the Isle of Cumbrae in 2002-2004. The ‘Ladybird’ title is taken from a series of short
books that was popular in the 1970’s – each gave a brief, but accurate and informed
summary of knowledge in a particular field.

I have left them as they were for the Cumbrae course; a modified version of the
material on A Process Model can be found in ‘A brief guide to A Process Model‘ in
The Folio: A Journal for Focusing and Experiential Therapy. Vol 19, No. 12 (2000-
2004), pp. 112-120. Gene read this through and suggested some changes, which I
incorporated.

 

The Ladybird Guide to A Process Model – Part 1

In a note to Rob Foxcroft Gene says “I do know that the Process Model is difficult to
read partly because I don’t explain what I am doing until the last section of III and the
section IVAd. These might be put first. I also think that some part of VIII is
understandable near the beginning because that’s where the concepts come from.”

The last section of III is the one titled ‘Some motivations and powers of that model so
far’. In this section Gene says that his project is ‘to create an alternative model in
which we define living bodies in such a way that one of them can be ours’. And –
‘We can speak from living, and we can make rudimentary concepts from speaking-
from, and especially from focusing and from the process of explication. Since these
are possible in reality, they can lead us to an alternative set of “basic” concepts of a
“reality” in which we would not seem impossible.’

Gene believes that our current ways of thinking don’t really allow for the existence of
human beings in the world. Our current ways of thinking separate ‘the world’ from
‘what the world means to us’; once that is done ‘what the world means to us’ is
outside the world. Gene wants to bring meaning back into the world. But there is no
place for meaning if we think of human beings as physical (physiological) systems.
So to make room for meaning in the world, the world has to be re-thought. Gene’s
concepts constitute a framework for this re-thinking.

The central concepts which he develops are drawn from focusing and the process of
explication. It might seem strange to base a whole way of looking at the world on
these things, but it is not really so. Focusing and explication are activities where there
is the creation of meaning, so that in them we have the crucial thing which is left out
of the current way of thinking. If we can develop a new way of thinking which
allows for focusing and explication, then we have a way of thinking which allows
there to be us.

In focusing a felt sense forms which carries us forward in a way that is different from
the way we are carried forward in logic or mathematics. In these disciplines what was
there, such as ‘7+5′ carries us forward to ’12’. Or, from ‘All men are mortal’ and
‘Socrates is a man’ we are carried forward to ‘Socrates is mortal’. The premises of a
valid argument imply its conclusion. But in focusing, in explication, in the
completing of a poem, the next step is ‘implied’ in a different sense of ‘implies’.
This new sense of ‘implies’ is one of Gendlin’s central concepts. Implying is the
converse of ‘carrying forward’: if one event implies another then the second event is
carried forward by the first.

Gendlin introduces this new sense of ‘implies’ in Ch 2, where he says that hunger
implies feeding. This is not a logical implication (it is not part of the meaning of
‘hunger’ that it is always followed by eating). Nor is it a causal implication (since
hunger can occur without eating following it). It is rather that eating is what will
satisfy hunger, that hunger will continue until eating – or something else (such as
intravenous feeding) – takes place. In the hunger there is the implying of feeding, but
what ‘feeding’ amounts to can’t be specified as any particular form of event. Feeding
has to be defined in terms of ‘that which removes the implying of feeding’.

Gene says (p. 9) ‘hunger is being about to search for food, find it and eat it’. Hunger
is both an occurrence and an implying. In Gendlin’s scheme nothing is just itself – it
always implies other things. In this way his scheme is different from the one that is
familiar in science. In science we usually start with separate things (e.g. atoms or
cells) which can in principle exist on their own. Then complex bodies are seen as
being built up from these elements. Of course there are connections between the
elements in the shape of the laws of physics or chemistry, but the laws could in
principle change without the elements changing. In the ‘atomistic’ view a thing
doesn’t imply anything beyond itself. Everything is, in Hume’s phrase, ‘loose and
separate’; the connections are supplied by us, by our theories.

In Gene’s scheme there are no loose and separate entities. Each entity implies others.
One ‘other implied entity’ is that which will carry forward the implying. For instance
eating is what carries forward hunger. But there are also other implied entities –
hunger implies a body, and a body implies an environment. There is a distinction
here which Gendlin suggests lies at the basis of our concepts of time and space. He
sees these concepts as being less fundamental than the concepts of implying and
occuring. Time is a more abstract notion which derives from the fact that there are
implyings which are carried forward by occurrings; space derives from the other
implyings. Rather than begin with space, time and matter, as in current ways of
thinking, Gene begins with implying and occurring. The detailed discussions of
space and time strike me as some of the most difficult parts of PM, but I think we
need to appreciate that what Gene is doing is quite radical, so that we can get some
feel for why PM starts in such a peculiar way with the b-en terminology.

In his introductory note Gene says that he will ‘lay down some terms as if they came
out of nowhere’. Of course, the terms do come from somewhere – they come from
what is needed if he is to be able to talk later (in chapters VII and VIII) about
meaning, focusing, and human things generally. But at the start he wants to construct
some concepts for talking about living things which will later allow there to be human
beings and meanings in the world. There is an important sense in which PM starts
with Chapter VIII, with the fully human world in which we discover/create meanings.
This world can’t be constructed out of the physical-biological world as it is presently
understood. So Gene reformulates the physical-biological world in a way which
inevitably seems very odd if we don’t know why he is doing it.

Section IVAd-2 is the next section in which Gene pauses to reflect on his strategy.
He says ‘Our model begins with concepts which begin with interaction’. This is the
principle which he calls ‘interaction first’. In the model there are no fully separable
things, events or processes. Everything is what it is through how it is affected by
other things, which themselves are what they are through how they are affected by the
first thing. Gene’s story of the IF cans (in IVAe) may help us to get a first feel for
this. It is the same point as is touched on by Paul Weiss on p. 26 of ECM. (But
remember that the IF cans are only a machine analogy. They differ from ‘interaction
first’ in that (1) the adjustments are made in sequence, whereas in ‘interaction first’ or
‘interaffecting’ everything is there in one time instant, and (2) the adjustments are
made from outside the system in accordance with a human goal, whereas in organic
interaffecting the ‘goal’ emerges as what Gene calls the ‘focaling’ of the
interaffecting. See IVAf for ‘focaling’.)

In this section (IVAd-2) Gene says that ‘interaction first’ applies as much to temporal
as to spatial relations. The present is a carrying-forward of the past, and the past
implies the present. What we experience in the present clearly depends on the past,
but what we experience as the past depends on what else is happening in the present.
The notion of a time sequence in which events occur in sequence without inherent
connections is a late development in human thinking, which belongs with the notion
of a physical world as made up of independent particles moving in empty space. The
real, lived world, however, is one in which nothing exists independently of its
relations with everything else.

In the sections following IVAd Gene continues to develop the concepts he requires.
Sections I-V of PM are his general model. The model applies equally to bodily
processes, behaviour, culture, language and focusing. In Chapter VI he uses the
model to rethink behaviour, in Chapter VIIA he uses it to rethink prelinguistic human
culture, and in VIIB does the same for language. Roughly speaking, Chapter VI is
concerned with the world of animals; in it Gene develops his ‘interaction first’ notions
of behaviour, consciousness, perception, and motivation. These form a cluster of
concepts which have application in the case of animals (sentient beings), but not in
the case of plants. Human beings come into the picture in Chapter VII. Here all the
concepts which applied in Ch VI still apply, but now there is another conceptual
‘layer’ which is associated with the symbolic ways in which human beings interact
with one another. Chapter VII is concerned with what one could call ‘traditional’
ways of being human; the kind of human life which is rooted in standard cultural and
linguistic forms. Gene sees the modern world as going beyond such forms (while
retaining them in the same way as the human level ‘retains’ the animal level). The
modern developments involve a growing awareness of alternative conceptual
schemes, with the result that there is no longer a single agreed tradition of what will
carry us forward. Focusing can be seen as a response to this situation, in which all the
available ways of seeing a situation are brought together in a felt sense. Then action
carries forward from the felt sense rather than in any of the traditional ways. This
way of being human (Chapter VIII) is different from the traditional way (Chapter
VII).

One way of thinking about the structure of the book is, then, that Chapers I-V lay out
the new conceptual scheme which centres around ‘interaction first’, and show how it
applies to organisms in general. Chapter VI applies the scheme to animals, Chapter
VII to ‘traditional’ human beings, and Ch VIII to ‘modern’ human beings. There is
an important sense in which the concepts developed for organisms in general are
retained, but elaborated on, in the case of animals. Then the concepts which apply to
animals are retained but elaborated on in the case of traditional human beings, and
similarly for the transition from traditional to modern human beings. This scheme, in
which the human world elaborates the animal world, and the animal world elaborates
the vegetative world is very similar to that of Aristotle (Gene is among other things an
Aristotelean scholar).

However the way in which each level is transformed into the next is unique to Gene’s
philosophy. Roughly speaking, the transitions occur where a process at one level is
not carried forward at that level. It is familiar in focusing that a process at the VII
level (traditional human) may not be carried forward by anything which is
traditionally (culturally) available. For instance, in a traditional society the response
to an insult might be to throw down a gauntlet, which would lead to a duel, and hence
to a resolution of the conflict But that is hardly an option in contemporary society.
One might, in more metaphorical ways, throw down a gauntlet, but the modern human
being will more likely reflect on what really would be the best thing to do here, on
what it would be authentic for me to do, being me. They would in short do something
like focusing. The environment no longer provides a traditional solution to the
problem, so rather than make a symbolic gesture (as one does at the VII level) one
does something quite new (focusing – level VIII) which nevertheless involves
symbolising. One symbolises to oneself all the possible ways forward, but does not
yet act on them. Action, when it comes, comes not from the traditional symbolic
context but from the individual’s felt sense.

But just as focusing (VIII) presupposes symbolising (VII), so symbolising
presupposes behaving (VI). In chapter VII Gene outlines the very complex way in
which symbolising can arise out of situations where behaving does not carry one
forward. The natural behavioural response to an insult would perhaps be anger and
attack, but in human cultures such ‘natural’ responses may not carry us forward
effectively. Instead of actual fighting, something is said, or gestures are made, and
the situation carries forward on that (VII) level. Gene shows how this transition is
prefigured in animal threat displays. Nevertheless, speaking or gesturing is still a
(specialised) form of behaviour.

Then again, behaviour presupposes biological tissue processes. Speech and gestures,
like any other behaviour require muscle movements and nerve firings. During some
portions of an organism’s life behaviour is not required. (Plants don’t have behaviour
at all – their needs are satisfied without any moving around). However, in the case of
animals, the environment does not provide for all physiological needs without the
necessity for behaviour. The physiological processes associated with hunger stir the
animal into action which continues until feeding has taken place. Then the animal
rests, becomes more like a plant for a while. The behaviour is the animal’s way of
carrying forward physiological processes which are carried forward in plants without
behaviour. With social animals the patterns of behaviour become increasingly
complex: the animal may not only have to hunt but also to threaten another animal
which is about to steal its food. If it is a traditional human being it may express this
threat verbally, and if it is a modern human being it may reflect on whether this is a
situation which, for them, is best met by assertiveness or patience, or … something
more subtle but more appropriate to this situation.

However, even the modern human being focusing on their dilemma has to say
something, saying something involves physical behaviour, and physical behaviour
involves tissue changes. Focusing in itself involves the manipulation of symbols,
symbolising involves a complex background of changing behavioural potentials, and
these involve physiological changes. It is for this reason that focusing can ultimately
be seen a a physical process which has physical effects. Of course it must have
physical effects if a person is to be different in their actual living. But what the
‘physical’ is, has to be re-thought in a way which allows us to understand how
focusing can do this.

I have said something about the structure of PM insofar as that structure relates to the
different ‘layers’ of bodily process, behaviour, culture, language and focusing. There
is much more to the details of each of these: in the chapter on behaviour (VI) Gene
shows how sentience and perception can be seen as arising out of behaviour that does
not involve consciousness, and how this involves a new kind of space (behaviour
space) in which the animal moves. In VII he discusses how symbolic and linguistic
forms of behaviour can develop and, with them, the forms of space and time with
which we are familiar. In VIII he elaborates the theory of focusing on the basis of
what has been developed previously, showing how in focusing we again enter a new
kind of space with its own characteristic objects. It becomes clear hear that focusing
as we know it is just one example of a way of experiencing associated with all
creative innovation. There is much more also in the section (I-V) on the general
model, some of which will be familiar to readers of ECM.

In addition to all this there is another theme running through PM. As we have seen
Gene pauses at times and reflects on what he is doing. What he is doing comes from
Chapter VIII, the chapter in which creative innovation is discussed. PM is itself a
creative innovation; Gene builds PM through developing concepts in a way that is
theoretically underpinned by the material in VIII. He himself sees the method of
concept formation (which is formalised in TAE) as more important than the theory
which he has developed to explain it. This is the same attitude as that which he takes
in Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams, where he says “If you don’t like this theory,
don’t let it get in the way of the experiential steps which the book describes. They are
not based on theory. You don’t need the theory for them…Theory does not represent
what “is”. Theory makes sense, but sense-making is itself a kind of step which
expands what “was”. That opens to further steps, and these need not stay consistent
with the theory.”

For more on Gene’s theory see Appendix B of Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams,
from which the above quotation is taken, and also the theory section of his paper ‘The
client’s client: the edge of awareness’
in RL Levant & JM Shlien (eds) Client-
centered Therapy and the Person-Centered Approach. New York: Praeger (1984).
These are much easier to read than PM itself, but of course they omit much important
detail. You might also look at Greg Walkerden’s useful summary of PM ‘How I read
the structure of the PM text: what is a “kind” of process?’ This is on the Focusing
Institute website.

The Ladybird Guide to A Process Model – Part 2

This part is in two sections. The first section is taken from my chapter on Focusing-
oriented psychotherapy in The Tribes of the Person-Centred Nation (edited by Pete
Sanders, PCCS Books, 2004). It is meant to give an overview of the main themes inA
Process Model
. The second section goes through some of the themes in more detail,
especially material in Chapters V – VIII.

Section One

Gendlin sees human nature as being essentially interactional. A child is born into a
relationship with the world and can survive neither physically nor psychologically
without interacting with the world. There is a level of interaction which we share with
inanimate things: as physical beings we are the way we are through the interplay of
physical forces which constitute and act upon us. Then there is the level we share with
plants: our bodies are complex organic systems in which each element is what it is
partly as a result of the impact of other elements, which are the way they are partly
because of the way the first element is. In Gendlin’s terminology a living organism is
an ‘interaffecting whole’ which cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. The
interaffecting extends beyond the physical boundaries of the organism: organisms are
what they are partly because of the way the environment is, and the environment is
the way it is partly because of the way the organism is.

Then there is much that we share with sentient animals, in whom there is a new kind
of interaction: an interaction between the animal and how it registers or perceives its
environment. Unlike a plant, an animal reacts not exactly to its environment but to
how the environment is for it . If the animal’s temperature-regulation system is faulty,
for example, it will behave in terms of the temperature it registers rather than in terms
of the actual temperature. With sentience comes a whole new kind of interaction with
the world. Finally, human beings have a mode of interaction with the world which
involves our construing it in terms of concepts and general principles. This has both
advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that we can guide our lives by
general principles which we can learn from others, without the need always to start
from scratch by ourselves. For instance, we may know that it is not a good thing to
drink salt water in order to quench our thirst, and this may make a difference to
whether we survive when shipwrecked. All that which comes through language and
tradition comes to us in terms of general truths or helpful principles, that is, the truths
or principles of the culture which we are born into. But there is a catch, which is that
where there are truths and helpful principles there can also be falsehoods and
misleading principles. We can get caught in the general and fail to check whether the
general principle really applies in our particular situation.

Gendlin emphasises that our situations are always more subtle and intricate than can
be articulated in terms of general concepts. For example, suppose that a person is in a
state which may correctly be described as ‘angry’. That is an application of a general
concept. Yet there is more to that person’s experience: they are angry , but with an
undercurrent of hurt, and not even exactly angry, but more full of resentment in
connection with what was done to them, yet also angry with themself for letting it
happen, and upset because they have let this happen again when they had only
yesterday realised that this is what they always let happen… There is an intricacy in
the lived experience which is fully captured by the concept of anger.

For Gendlin, human life is an interplay between the rich, intricate sensed experience
of our situations and the concepts which we employ to articulate those situations. It is
an interaction between this – my immediate sensed experience now, and the forms or
concepts in terms of which I express it. However, it is not as if my experience is
sitting there, whole and complete, and just waiting to have the appropriate labels put
on it. Immediate experience is not like that. It is something which prior to
articulation has no fixed form; or we could say that the forms which are to come are
there only implicitly. If we give our attention to our experiencing we can often sense
something there which cannot yet be articulated adequately. (It can be articulated a bit
just by saying ‘I feel something there’, and that is already to draw it a little into the
realm of the explicit). But what it is cannot yet be said. Gendlin often uses the
example of a poet who is trying to get the final line for a poem. The poet tries out
various possibilities, but as they do so they feel – physically feel – the not-rightness of
these proposed endings. There is a physically felt sense that these endings are not
right. They don’t connect with that other felt sense of what the poem needs. In order
to get a satisfactory ending (and it may never come) the poet has to stay with the felt
sense of what is needed, and wait for what may come. When the right line does come
there is a sense of release, perhaps a deeper breath – ‘Ah! – That’s it’. Now that the
last line is there the poet may sense the need to change some of the earlier lines before
the work is done. This last point shows vividly that one could not possibly get from
the earlier lines to the last one by any process of logic.

In Gendlin’s terminology the earlier lines imply the last line in a novel sense of
‘imply’. It is not that the last line is determined by the earlier lines, but nor is it that
any old last line would have done. There is an implication, but it is one that arises out
of the felt sense of what has come before and of what is now needed. The example of
the poet is just an illustration of what is involved in any aspect of our life which is
not entirely governed by explicit principles. Much of our life is governed by such
principles, and it would be foolish not to employ them when appropriate, but general
principles, by their nature, are inadequate when we are faced with novel situations, or
situations where we can all too clearly sense that none of the standard options are
going to be satisfactory. In these situations we are stuck, and we have to let go of the
general principles and familiar concepts for a while and dip down into the felt
intricacy of the situation.

In that felt intricacy there is much that is implicit, and which may be of help to us.
After all, we have built into our natures millions of years of evolution, and many
years of experience with complex situations; also many imagined situations, situations
about which we have read in novels or myths or biographies and so on. All this could
not possibly be set out in an explicit way, but it is there in us, in an implicit
interaffecting way which, if we will give it a chance, may give rise to a creative
possibility. What emerges may not be right; we will have to see…how would it feel if
I tried that?…Liberating? Constricting? What is the felt sense of this new possibility
that has come? What, actually, does this new thing amount to? Even if it would be
absurd to do exactly that, I might be able to find some non-absurd thing which still
preserves the spirit of what has come.

In brief summary, Gendlin’s view of human beings is that we are beings who are
always moving between our own immediate individual experiencing and the
expression of that experience in words, images, dance, music and so on, which allows
our experiencing to be in communication with others’ experiencing through its
formulation in some way which is not just ours, but sharable. What we are able to
share makes a difference to the cultural forms in which we live, just as much as the
cultural forms make a difference to how we construe our experiencing. Human life is
an experiential interaction process between what is private and individual and what is
public and communal.

Section Two

Chapters I-V

I will try now to summarise the essential points in the first part of PM (chapters I –
V), focusing especially on points which there was not time to elaborate on last year.

Gendlin’s model is a process model. The more familiar model starts with individual
things (such as atoms) and then develops the notions of change, and connections with
other things. The things in that model are essentially separate, and are only linked
externally through being existing in the same space-time framework, and being
subject to the laws of motion. In this model the problem is how to explain change and
interdependence within a basic framework in which the things (the atoms) stay the
same, and are separate from each other.

In Gendlin’s model the problem is the opposite: we need to be able to account for
stability (lack of change) and for individual entities, within a basic framework in
which everything is in flux, and everything depends on everything else.

The Process Model begins with change, process, interaction.

It starts with ‘implying’, which is already a concept involving connection and change.
Into the implying something occurs, which may or may not carry the implying
forward.
If the implying is not carried forward, the process is stopped, and the implying
remains the same. This is the first point at which, in starting from change, we get to
something which does not change.

When something occurs which resumes the process it is as if that something is
‘recognised’. There is again something that is ‘the same’.

We don’t yet have the concept of a body, but there is already a distinction between the
stopped process and the other processes which continue. Here is a first separation
within the interaffecting whole.
We can say that the body is what continues when a process is stopped.
The body carries the stopped process.

Processes interaffect. They are what they are through being affected by other
processes which have already been affected by them.
An occurrence is a focaling of all the involved processes.

pp. 75-7 Intervening events develop in a stoppage – Gendlin calls them ‘stop/on’s’.
Some of these involve repetition or reiteration (leafing) – the first bit of the stopped
process repeats with minor differences.
We will see this pattern itself being repeated at different ‘levels’ later – what is
stopped at one level carries forward on another level.
The reiterations are versions of the stopped process. (They version that process).
(Consistently with the model, Gendlin tends to turn noun forms into verbs, so that we
get terms like ‘versioning’ and ‘sequencing’).

80-82 There are two distinct kinds of change, that of interaffecting, and that of
occurring. This is important, but needs some explanation:

Consider two processes, such as those of walking and breathing in some organism
such as a bug.

Interaffecting:
Walking and breathing interaffect since the bug is an interaffecting system
The walking would be different if the breathing were different and vice versa.
Any change in the walking is also a change in the breathing, and vice versa.
Any change in walking happens at the same time as a change in behaviour, and that is
the end of the matter. The walking and the breathing are two aspects of what is
occurring. In interaffecting it doesn’t take time for one aspect to affect the other.
‘This is basic to what an implicit order is’ (p.82). But if this were the whole story,
there would be no sequence of changes.

Occurring:
Now suppose some dust falls onto the surface on which the bug is walking. This is an
en-change which is not an interaffecting change (the falling of the dust is not caused
by the bug). The bug’s walk now stirs up the dust, and its walk changes because
walking in the dust affects how its legs can move.
This change happens immediately the dust falls, but nothing more happens as a result.
In the new en the bug has a different walk. Again, there is no ongoing sequence of
changes.

However, in reality there are both interaffecting changes and en changes, and it is this
which generates the sequence of changes:

The bug’s walk changes because of the en change. The changed walk stirs up the
dust. The dust affects the bug’s breathing. The changed breathing by interaffecting is
also a change in the walk. This changed walk makes a difference to how the dust is
stirred up, and that again affects the breathing etc.

The changed walk/breathing is an actual occurrence, caused by the en change.
The change in the walk due to the change in the breathing is an interaffecting change.

Chapter VI

One kind of intervening event (occurring within a behaviour stoppage) is reiteration,
where the first bit of the stopped process repeats. These repetitions version the
stoppage. If there are many such reiterative processes we can think of these as a
special sector of the organism. This sector is ‘pulsing’ (as if sending out radar
signals) and changes in the en or in the rest of the organisms body are registered by
the changes they make in the pulsing.

The reiterative sector (‘the registry’) of the organism is thus especially sensitive to
changes. It registers changes, both in the en and in the rest of the organism.

It is not only that changes in the en and in the rest of the body produce changes in the
registry. Also, the changes in the registry produce changes in the organism – the
organism changes; it moves as a result of what it is registering. These movements are
not simply effects of en changes (like a hole being worn in a shell by the sea), they are
movements the organism itself makes because of what it is registering. The organism
is now behaving, not just moving.
Its movements are themselves registered along with the changes in the en.

93-4 A new kind of carrying-forward develops here. The behaviour is a version of the
stoppage of a process. That process is still implied in the behaviour. If the
appropriate en-aspect occurs the process will resume (in a sense the process ‘is still
there’, it is there implicitly). It is as if the organism ‘recognises’ the en-aspect. (That
is the old kind of carrying-forward). But while the stoppage is there, and the
behaviour is occurring, there is a new carrying-forward: the organism’s movements
result in changes in the registry, which in turn affect the organism’s movements. The
organism’s movements come to imply changes in the registry, and if these registry
changes actually occur they carry forward the implying. If what is actually registered
is different from what was implied then that behaviour sequence stops (the lamb stops
at the cliff edge).

95 The organism now is registering the changes as it moves – it is feeling them. It is
conscious. The registerings themselves can be thought of as perception. So far,
feeling and perception occur only as aspects of behaving. (Feelings and perceptions
separate from overt behaviour only come later, in Chapter VII). The behaviour
continues until the stopped process resumes: this resumption could be thought of as
the ‘goal’ of the behaviour (though this would be a ‘too-early’ use of ‘goal’). We can
also say that the behaviour is motivated by what would resume the stopped process.

102 Many behaviour sequences develop. They form a ‘space’ in which each has
implications for the possibilities of the others. As we shall see, with the development
of a new ‘level’ there comes a corresponding kind of space.

109 Behaviour sequences can generate stable objects, such as the registry of the bird
when the cat chases it. Objects ‘fall out from’ the animal’s behaviour. What these
objects are for a particular animal depends on that animal’s life and behaviour.
Objects are not just there, the same things for all animals.

Chapter VII

122 Much behaviour occurs in relation to other members of that species. When a
behavioural interaction with another species member is stopped, the first bit may still
occur, and repeat. This is gesturing, ‘the dance’. This is the beginning of the next
level.

The first animal gestures and the second responds to that gesture. The first animal’s
gesture is a rendering, a versioning, of its current behavioural context. In responding
to the gesture the second animal reflects back to the first this versioning of its
behavioural context. The first animal which already has feelings and an awareness of
its environment, now has some awareness of its own feelings.
This self-awareness happens initially only in the presence of another animal, but later
such awareness can be triggered by objects which are relevant to the behaviour
context.
At the same time a new kind of space is forming, a space in which there is the
possibility of standing back from behaviour, symbolising it without actually
performing the behaviour. This kind of space is very different from behaviour space,
which is constituted by all the possible implications of one behaviour sequence for the
others.

The new kind of sequence involves both self-awareness and awareness of the looks
(sounds, images) of things. This is the beginning of the form of awareness in which
there are kinds of things – a look is the look of that kind of thing, although ‘kinds’
have not yet fully appeared.
Sounds are similarly the sounds of kinds of things. Moaning is the sound of that kind
of behaviour context – it is how the wounded animal is expressing its situation. It is
inherently connected with how the body of the animal is a that point. But then other
things can begin to have looks or sounds. There can now be the moaning of the wind
as well as the wind itself.
Sounds, especially, come to express behaviour contexts, and this is the beginning of
language. At the start the sounds are ikonic (onomatopaeic) symbols – they are the
sounds of that behaviour context. But as the sounds of various behaviour contexts
develop and interact in new contexts, the direct link between sound and context
becomes attenuated. The sound patterns begin to form a system of their own.
Nevertheless language is not a matter of mere convention; it is rooted in the body and
behaviour processes out of which it emerged. (This is why rituals can have deep
effects).
At the same time the interactions between the animals become more prominent and
significant. Instead of gesturing (communicating) being an occasional pause in
action, action now becomes oriented towards communication. The world is now
transformed into one in which there are kinds of things which are determined by
human interaction-contexts. This is the FLIP (165), after which we are in a fully
human world.

Summarising up to the end of Chapter VII:

Body-process can be stopped, and behaviour then emerges as a detour in the process.
The behaviour is still body-process, but has in addition a new form which is ‘layered
over’ the original kind of body process. The behaviour is a version of (it versions) the
stopped body-process. It is a sequence of changes in the stopped process (it
sequences the process).

Similarly behaviour can be stopped, and gesturing, symboling, language then emerge
as a detour in behaviour. Symboling is still behaviour, but has in addition a new form
which is ‘layered over’ the original kind of behaviour. The symboling (gesturing,
speaking, dancing) is a version of (it versions) the stopped behaviour. It is a sequence
of changes in the stopped behaviour (it sequences the behaviour).

Chapter VIII

Now in the same way symboling can be stopped, and as before something new
emerges. Symboling is stopped when we can’t find the word (image, gesture, etc)
which will carry us forward. This is the situation we are often in when focusing. As
in the other cases of stoppage, the first part of the usual process occurs – we try out
first one word (image etc) then another. But we are beginning to do something new
here: we are sensing into ‘all that which we can’t yet express’, and awaiting what
comes. There is still symboling going on, but it is going on in a new way, just as in
gesturing behaviour is still going on, but in a new way. And just as gesturing brings
with it a new kind of space (symbolic space, image space), so focusing brings with it a
new kind of space. It is a space in which we can stand back from our experiencing as
a whole
. This space is different from image-space, which belongs in VII. We know
for example that if we imagine (visualise) putting a problem down while focusing,
there still remains the question of whether it has really been put down. It can be put
down in VII space without being put down in VIII space.

It is only with the concepts of VIII that Focusing can be described adequately. But
because each level is built on previous levels, changes which occur through Focusing
are at the same time changes in symbolisation, in behaviour and in bodily process.
That is why Focusing can change us.

Campbell Purton

Introduction

These were written for the second, third and fourth years of the course ‘Focusing and
the Power of Philosophy’ which I taught with Rob Foxcroft and Barbara McGavin on
the Isle of Cumbrae in 2002-2004. The ‘Ladybird’ title is taken from a series of short
books that was popular in the 1970’s – each gave a brief, but accurate and informed
summary of knowledge in a particular field.

I have left them as they were for the Cumbrae course; a modified version of the
material on A Process Model can be found in ‘A brief guide to A Process Model‘ in
The Folio: A Journal for Focusing and Experiential Therapy. Vol 19, No. 12 (2000-
2004), pp. 112-120. Gene read this through and suggested some changes, which I
incorporated.

At the heart of Gene Gendlin’s philosophy is the notion of ‘interaction first’. Earlier
he used the term ‘encounter’: the idea is that encounter is more basic than what does
the encountering, that the interaction is more fundamental than the things which
interact. Another way of putting it would be to say that things cannot exist as entirely
separate things, and people exist only in relation to a world which includes other
people. A poem by Rilke catches something of this (even in translation):

    Alone I can never be.
    Others before me going
    and away from me flowing
    were weaving, weaving
    at the I that is me.

Human experiencing is through and through relational. We are born into, initiated
into a network of human relationships. Yet we have our own identity. Indeed this
identity is fixed by our place in the network – only you were born at just that time, in
that place, from those parents. In principle someone else could have all your
characteristics, but they wouldn’t be you. You have a unique place in the world.

The individual human being has their own special experience – the experience from
just there, where they are. But their experience connects with, and wouldn’t exist
without, the human network into which they were born. How does that unique
experiencing
connect with the network of human society, with the ways of thinking
which characterise society, with the rules, conventions and forms of society, with
language? It sometimes seems that language and the rules of society can entrap our
experiencing, but this doesn’t have to be so. Language can express our experiencing,
rather than imprison it. (Rilke’s poem expresses an experience). On the other hand it
can sometimes seem that the uniqueness of our experiencing isolates us – ‘no one can
really know what anyone else feels’. But again, it need not be so, and again it is
through language (including music, dance and other symbolic forms) that we are not
alone. The relation between experiencing and language in this broad sense is central
to the human form of being; it is also the central theme of ECM.

These general and rather abstract themes lie in the background of ECM; they are
what, for me at least, give book its philosophical interest. But ECM doesn’t just
discuss the theme of the relationship between symbols and experiencing in a general
way; it shows in some detail how the relating of experiencing and symbols works in
practice. In Chapter 3 we can see this happening. The first two chapters are more
concerned to demonstrate that there is such a thing as ‘experiencing’, something
which people interested in Focusing are unlikely to doubt! So one approach to ECM
would be to start with Chapter 3.

Gendlin gives not one, but seven different ways in which symbols relate to
experiencing:

(1) Direct reference. There is the sort of case where we refer to an experience which
we have, without describing it. For example, ‘that feeling I had when I met Cedric – I
can’t put it into words’ But you have already put it into words! You have just said
‘that feeling….’ You haven’t used words to describe the feeling, but you have used
them to refer to it. Notice how in a way ‘that feeling’ wasn’t exactly there until you
got hold of it with the words – that specific feeling comes with the words. It is an odd
half-way case between creating something and simply noticing what was there all
along. Language is like that; it is odd, it is creative. This theme runs through ECM.

(2) Recognition. Next there is the kind of case where there already is a symbol
available to us, for example a word such as ‘ashamed’. When we encounter the word
it calls forth in us a particular kind of experience. The relation here between
experience and symbol is that the symbol pulls out the experience. Rilke’s poem
pulls out a particular experience. But also, when we encounter familiar situations the
situation pulls out a particular kind of experience and that is what makes it a familiar
situation, a situation which we recognise. We look at the chess board, and say ‘That’s
checkmate’. The familiar situation which we are in elicits the same experience which
the word ‘checkmate’ elicits. Situations can in this way function like symbols. There
is a relation between the symbol (or situation) and our experience through which we
experience a sense of recognition when we encounter the symbol (or situation).

(3) Explication. This case is the converse of (2). When we read Rilke’s poem it
elicits a particular kind of experience which we can recognise once we have
experienced it. But when Rilke wrote the poem, the relation between experience and
symbol worked the other way round. He started with the experience and then found
words that would express, render, or in Gendlin’s term ‘explicate’ the experience, that
is, render it explicit.

(4) Metaphor and (5) Circumlocution. Often when we have an experience we can
explicate it (make it explicit in words or other symbols). If we are to do this the
words must already be there for us to use. For instance, we stay for a moment with
that feeling we got when we met Cedric, and then realise that it was a feeling of being
ashamed. ‘Ashamed’ calls out just that experience which we got from meeting
Cedric; there is a fit – that’s what I felt. But sometimes there is no word available
which quite fits the experience. Then we have to bring into play words which have
their own meanings (the experiences which they usually call up), but which can be
used in a new way to call up this meaning. That is what happens when we make use
of a metaphor. There are two aspects to the use of metaphor, which are related to
each other in the way in which recognition and explication are related to each other.
First there is the kind of case where we read a poem which contains a metaphor, such
as ‘weaving’ in Rilke’s poem. ‘Weaving’ has its own meaning in connection with
cloth manufacture, but there are aspects of this meaning which can be applied in quite
new situations. In particular there is the aspect of different strands of material being
brought together to form a whole. When Rilke thinks of himself in all his aspects the
image of weaving draws out a particular way in which he can see himself – as having
been woven by those who came before him, by all those who have contributed to him
being as he is. When we read the poem the relation between the words and the
experience works the other way round: we read the word ‘weaving’ and this draws
out in us that felt sense of having been woven which Rilke started from. Gendlin use
the term ‘metaphor’ for the relationship in which we start from the word which then
creates the experience. The other relationship, in which we start with the experience
and create the metaphor, Gendlin calls ‘comprehension’: the metaphor pulls together
or comprehends the whole intricate thing which we were feeling.

(6) Relevance. Understanding the meaning of a symbol always involves
understanding other meanings; symbols come in connected webs of meaning. For
instance the understanding of ‘weaving’ in Rilke’s poem involves the understanding
of cloth-making, which involves the understanding of people as needing clothes, and
so on. For any particular felt meaning, such as the meaning of ‘weaving’, there are
other meanings which are relevant to the understanding of that meaning. These other
meanings come into the having of that meaning.

(7) Circumlocution. We saw that (5) (comprehension) relates to (4) (metaphor) in the
same way as (3) (explication) relates to (2) (recognition). The last category (7)
(circumlocution) relates to (6) (relevance) in a similar sort of way again. In relevance
(6) we start with the felt meaning (of, say ‘weaving’) and enquire into what other
meanings are relevant to understanding it. In circumlocution (7) we create the
possibility of someone else understanding the felt meaning by talking around it, by
referring to this and that, to people wearing clothes and clothes needing to be made
from strands of material put together in a criss-cross sort of way, until the person we
are talking to gets a feel for what ‘weaving’ is. Then if the person understands what
weaving is, but doesn’t yet understand how a person can be woven by others, we need
to talk about the different aspects or strands of a person and how these connect and
sort of … interweave…you see…? Here we are creating a new meaning for ‘weaving’
out of old meanings.

Gendlin is concerned throughout with this theme of the creation of meaning.
Meaning is not just invented, but it is not just there waiting to be discovered. One
aspect of this is that we can’t just choose (invent) what the meaning of our lives will
be in the way some existentialist philosophers seem to think is possible. But nor are
we just as we are with no hand in being what we are. We create our lives, much in the
way that a poet creates a poem. This, I think, is one of the central themes of
Gendlin’s work.

Chapter 4 elaborates on the creation of new meanings, and Chapters 5 and 6 go more
deeply into the philosophical implications of it all. The Introduction, and Chapter 7,
explore the relevance of the discussion for psychology and psychotherapy – these are
less philosophical chapters and can be read separately, which would be an alternative
approach to the book.

Steve Silverton

This article has been published in Self and Society.

Thought, I love thought.
But not the jiggling and twisting of already existent ideas
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of the conscience,
Thought is gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to a conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending

Focusing teaches us to think like a poet. We learn to dip below the surface of the explicit and already formed and to find new symbols for what is implicit, symbols which, in the poet Don Paterson’s words, make us ‘open to suggestion, vulnerable to reprogramming, complicit in the creative business of […] self-transformation’.

DH Lawrence’s poem ‘Thought’, which I quote above, evokes something of Focusing’s power to help us reflect with the whole of ourselves, and come to new conclusions. But we do not need to be poets to focus. Unlike the poet, the Focuser does not need to find an artful form of words. And whereas the poet must make symbols speak about more than their private experience, striving for some kind of collective relevance, the Focuser does not need to make their symbols relevant for anything other than their own life. But there is, I think, something similar in the process of making a poem and the process of Focusing: this process of waiting for a symbol to form itself from the subtle and implicate layers of experience. Once experience is made explicit in the form of a symbol, it can be re-cognised – known again.

The gift of Focusing is to make the process of ‘man in his wholeness wholly attending’ explicit and teachable. By learning to attend wholly in this way, we can open up fresh perspectives, new insights, new ways of looking and feeling at and about things. Focusing takes us forward, so that whatever was occupying our attention sits a little, or a lot, differently with us. It takes us to a place, simply, where we are more in touch with our truth.

Once learned and honed with continual practice, this process can be a wonderful friend, offering a path to self-knowledge, deepening and enriching creative work and relationships, and acting as a guide when there are difficult choices to make.

It is in this last respect, as a tool for decision making in both personal and professional life, that I have found Focusing to be a particularly potent ally.

Not Knowing

Now, let go of what you think you know about thinking! To get to somewhere new inside ourselves, we have to let go of what we already know about the problem or situation we are focusing on. As long as we are in what we already know, we are stuck in the ‘jiggling and twisting of already existent ideas’, in Lawrence’s l phrase. So we have to allow not knowing. Here I want to call on another poetic voice, for this capacity seems very close to what Keats called ‘negative capability’:

‘That is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.’

Our technological culture does not allow much room for not knowing. There is huge pressure to know, to be decisive, to get it all sorted. This can prematurely close down what can be an extraordinarily potent and creative space: the womb, if you like, of not knowing, with all its receptivity to something new and surprising. Keats believed that negative capability marked out the truly creative artist. It is certainly a feature of the creative focusing process.

It is worth noting here that the word ‘focusing’ is itself a metaphor, a visual metaphor. It describes one aspect of this ‘attending wholly’, that aspect of looking closely, bringing something at first indistinct, blurry, vague into focus, so that it can be named. When we look at something, we seek it out with our eyes. We go out to it. Looking is an active process. But what we call ‘focusing’ could equally well be described with an auditory metaphor: as a kind of inner listening. We listen closely, as if with a stethoscope, to the body-mind’s experience of a situation, so that ‘it’ can tell ‘us’ what it knows. The listening metaphor captures more of the receptive aspect of focusing than the visual word ‘focusing’.

The Inner Relationship

Negative capability is one element of what Focusers call ‘the inner relationship’ or ‘the focusing attitude’. The key to successful focusing is the quality of our our relationship with experience. When approaching our experience in Focusing, we need to be friendly, curious, interested, non-judgemental, and we need to let go of what we know. We bring an attitude of open, friendly, non-judgemental curiosity to our experience. We attend to or with the body; to and with the body’s direct and immediate experience of the situation we are focusing with; to and with the felt sense of it.

Once we have cultivated this attitude or quality of realtionship, the next step, or aspect (it is, of course, not a linear sequence) is symbolisation. We try to represent the felt sense with a word, an image, a sound, a gesture… . The word ‘re-present’ is apt here. We are trying to make implicit experience present, present to ourselves in an alive, vital and fresh way.

Then comes dialogue. This not necessarily a literal dialogue, although it can be. It is, however, always some kind of relationship – relationship with the felt sense. We are present with the felt sense and with the symbol, resonating with each, feeling for a fit, or for where the symbol does not quite fit. When it does, we get a sense of relief, release, insight, opening, forward movement.

All this takes place in presence. Presence can be distinguished from partiality, to use Anne Weiser Cornell’s helpful terms. In presence we are able to attend to the whole of our experience without, as it were, taking sides, or excluding any part. As soon as we do either of those things we are in partiality: we have identified with, or dissociated from, some aspect of our experience.

Focusing With A Decision

To make things clearer, I would like at this stage to give an example of using focusing with a decision. The example is drawn from my own experience. I usually focus alone and use either a piece of paper or a small notebook computer, to write or draw as I focus. This helps me to stay in touch with the process and I find that seeing the symbols in front of me works well as a reflection which allows me to resonate with the symbol, or in Lawrence’s words, to test it ‘on the touchstone of conscience’. If I use the computer, the process of typing -and mis-typing, then correcting- and then going back over what I have written, works in the same way.

The decision was around moving house. This was and is a major life issue for me, and I have worked with it for a long period, using focusing. Below I present one focusing session on this topic, which was a key session in moving that decision process forward, but which was also the outcome of several sessions of working on it. I choose it because it seems to exemplify the kind of many-stranded, complex choices that face us in life, and which focusing can help with. I will then draw out what I have found to be three very helpful things to try when focusing on a decision.

To start the session I set up a focusing space. I have my own way of altering the physical space to mark out and ‘ritualise’ the activity, which I find helps me to cultivate presence – that attitude of friendly, interested, non-judgemental, not knowing in relation to experience. I ensure that I will not be disturbed, set up the space and have my computer at the ready.

To begin, I feel into the whole thing, asking something like how does this whole thing around moving sit with me just now?

I notice a warm contented feeling in my belly, like something really appreciates the attention. There is a sense of something about really loving and needing the safety and security of this physical place, and the words come: ‘I really don’t want all that upheaval right now’. And that sentence feels really right. Then an image comes of a plaster being ripped off a wound which has not yet healed. The words ‘Not ready’. A realisation that I have been through a challenging and difficult time this past three or four years, that only recently have I started to feel more healed and resourced, and that this process needs some time to complete itself before taking on something as big as moving, with all the stress, instability and upheaval this entails.

That feels really right. That feels like just where I am right now with it. But I want to feel into the other side of it. I have sat with this problem for long enough to know that this is not the whole story. The part that needs security and safety is very strong right now. But I’d like to feel into the other side of it. So I ask, ‘how would it feel to move somewhere new?’

What comes now is a kind of heavy, leaden feeling in my stomach and chest and the words ‘more of the same’. What brings this is the sense that even though the physical surroundings might change, even though there would be practical advantages, there would be a sense of oppression, struggle. This is about the pressure of a bigger mortgage, having to pay a bigger mortgage on my own. It is something about being on my own with it. It is this being on my own with it that brings the sense of ‘more of the same’ and the heavy, oppressed feeling that comes with that.

I am already feeling much clearer about where I stand just now on this. What is new for me here is the allowing of this strong impulse to safety, to ‘hold fire’ for the time being, and this sense that I do not want to do it alone any longer. I had not realised how identified I was, before, with the part that wants to move. And I had not realised that I was not allowing other possibilities into the picture. The possibility that I could move on in a different way than I had been imagining.

What is fresh and surprising here – and needs some more processing – is a part that simply does not want to do it alone any more. A part that needs and wants a sharing of life and possibility – a partnership.

Now I try something that has really worked well before. I try turning these thoughts and issues into simple statements that I can then ‘test on the touchstone of conscience’. This is like doing one of those questionnaires where you have to choose between, usually, five boxes, which range from ‘agree strongly’, through ‘neither agree nor disagree’ to ‘disagree strongly’.

The first statement I try is ‘I don’t feel ready to move just now’. I get a strong felt sense of agreement with that.

Then I try ‘I am happy to stay here for several more years’. I get a strong felt sense of disagreement with that. Like something would have to go very wrong for that to happen.

So I try ‘I am happy to stay where I am for now and explore possibilities for co-operation and partnership with others’. That feels just right. That feels like where I am right now. And that feels like a good place to stop for now.

In the above description I have telescoped around 45 minutes of time into a few sentences, to convey the essence of what was a key session. I got a breakthrough in what had been something very stuck, where neither staying nor going felt good. What gave this was really allowing the part that needs stability right now to have its voice heard. This led to realising that the way I had framed the problem was too limited: there were other possibilities for moving on besides buying another place on my own.

Now I want to draw out those three ‘top tips’ for working with decisions, whether alone or with a focusing partner:

  1. Ask ‘What is the felt sense of the whole thing? How does it all sit with you right now?’
  2. Feel into each side of the decision. How would it be to say ‘yes’/ to say ‘no’?
  3. Turn the questions into statements and then feel for the felt sense of agreement or disagreement

A Concluding Story

Focusing can open a door to the mystery of who we are, to the subtle currents of being which poets and artists give form to on a collective level, but which on an individual level can guide us towards what is right, true and real for us in our own lives. This combination of depth, wonder and mystery with the pragmatic and the everyday reminds me of the Zen tradition, and I want to end by quoting Neil Friedman’s adaptation of a Zen story, which for me captures the marvellous way Focusing can bridge the subtle and the ordinary levels of reality:

Once upon a time there was a convocation of healers, wizards, sorcerers, therapists, channels, mystics and disembodied spirits. Each had a time to get up and do his or her particular miracle.

Quite the pyrotechnics! One walked on fore. One hypnotised the entire audience without their knowing it. One foretold the future. One read past lives. One stood on one leg in a bizarre position until his whole body shook. One did medical diagnoses based only on each audience member’s name and age.

Then a short, plain-looking man got up. It was his turn. He said ‘My miracle is that when I am hungry, I eat; and when I am thirsty, I drink; and I know when I am hungry and when I am thirsty and what I am hungry for and what I am thirsty for’.

Then he sat down.

He was the focuser.

Further Reading

Cornell, Anne Weiser, ‘The Power of Focusing’, New Harbinger Publications, 1996

Friedman, N, ‘On Focusing’, published privately

Lawrence, DH, ‘Complete Poems’, Wordsworth Editions, 1994

Paterson, D, ‘Rhyme and Reason’, in The Guardian, 6.11.04.

Steve Silverton is a Core Process Psychotherapist and business coach
with a private practice in London. For more details see www.stevesilverton.net.

He can be contacted via the Bloomsbury Therapy
Centre on 020 7404 5348 or at s.silverton@virgin.net.

Barbara McGavin

This article has been published in Self and Society.

They stand in a dark and threatening line in front of me, their cowls shadowing their faces. Their sabres raised against me, gleaming bright against the dark hollows where their faces should be. I can feel the waves of malice rolling off them towards me. I can feel a writhing in my stomach of fear, almost nausea threatening to bring me to my knees. And then I feel a rising anger, a resistance to being threatened by these figments of my imagination. ‘Begone!’ I yell at them. They remain impassive, immobile. I look down and find that I have a light-sabre in my hand and I brandish it above my head and step forward slashing through the threatening monks. They fall, one after the other until all are lying in a heap before me. I feel a lightening in my stomach and rejoice in my taking action against these monsters.

Ah, if only that was the end of the story and everything was just fine after that. However, it didn’t take long before those seemingly vanquished inner critics were back in full force as if nothing had happened. And then I had not only those critical presences but also the feeling of having been subtly and mysteriously outmanoeuvered somehow. I was at a complete loss as to how to proceed.

It was after many years of trying to banish, vanquish, control, belittle and dismiss my various inner critics with no discernible lasting effects that I came to realise that a completely different approach was going to be needed if things were to change in any kind of meaningful way. And I needed change. I was beset, as you probably gathered from the story above, by some pretty scary inner monsters that were making my life truly unpleasant. In almost every aspect of my life they would turn up and turn my stomach into a writhing mass of fear and shame.

So, what was I to do?

I had been practising Focusing for several years at this point (the early 1990’s) and in many ways my life had vastly improved: feeling more grounded, embodied, contained, centred, stronger emotionally, more able to cope with day to day ups and downs.

And I had been bringing Focusing attention to this area of my life as well. I’d been sitting with the parts of me that felt so bad about being criticised. I could sense them in my body very clearly. I would listen gently and compassionately to how this part or that felt attacked, undermined, as if something wanted to annihilate it. And it would feel a bit better for a little while, but something was missing. Give it a few hours or perhaps, if things were pretty good in my life, a few days and the attacks would be back. The sense of shame and pain would return.

The turning point came when two things came together for me.

For some time I had been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the difference between how we had been treating what we called ‘the inner critic’ and everything else in our awareness in Focusing. I had been taught to dismiss the inner critic with a ‘contemptuous wave of the hand’, to send it away until it had something new to say to me. This jarred with the basic Focusing approach that whatever needs my attention receives gentle, compassionate, patient awareness. I started to wonder if perhaps what this critical part of me needed was the same kind of awareness.

The second insight had to do with a limitation of the Focusing process itself. I could feel in my body the part of me that felt criticised, but not the part of me that was doing the criticising. As Focusing is essentially a body-based process of awareness, I had at that point no way of being able to Focus with a part of me that I couldn’t feel in my body.

Just thinking about it logically I came to realise that if something in me is feeling criticised and there is no one in my life that is criticising me at that moment, then there must be something inside me that is doing the criticising even if I can feel or hear it. I started to wonder if I could act as if it were there and start to have a relationship with it, even though I couldn’t hear it or sense it in my body.

Bringing these two insights together, I began to turn my awareness to an unfelt part of me whenever I felt ashamed, bad about myself, not good enough. I would act as if there was something I could relate to with compassionate curiosity. It was as if I was saying ‘hello’ to this unknown, unfelt part. And, lo and behold, it started to respond. Thus my journey of transformation of my inner critics began.

My colleague, Ann Weiser Cornell and I have learned many things since then about those parts of us that are behaving critically. We have learned how to spot them, the dynamics of how they operate in our lives, and how to relate to them so that they can release the positive, living-forward energy that is trapped within them. Here are some of the things we have learned and some of the models that we have developed.

The experience of inner criticism

Inner Critic, Super Ego, Bad Parent – some names that we have for this experience. What they all have in common is that you feel bad when they are around. You feel smaller, weaker, your confidence undermined, your power fading.

Inner Critics bring shame, withdrawal, apathy, lethargy, depression, aggression, hyper-achievement, rebelliousness, defensiveness. They make us afraid to fully and freely express ourselves, develop our talents, reach out to others, live from our hearts. When we are busy coping with an inner critic attack, we cannot be fully present in our lives. We misunderstand what is happening around us. We are not able to respond in the present moment; we react with knee-jerk replays of situations that happened long ago.

Although everyone that I know has experienced inner criticism, it can be very helpful to take some time to notice just how this lives in your life. Different people experience their inner critic in different ways. Some people feel bad when they are around (I’m that kind of person). Some people hear them. Some people see the dire consequences of ‘bad’ actions or thoughts. Here are some common manifestations of being in the grip of something in you that is being critical.

  • You feel ashamed, embarrassed, guilty
  • You label yourself: ‘I’m lazy.’ ‘I’m weak.’
  • You diagnose yourself: ‘I’m trying too hard.’
  • You feel that you have to control some aspect of your personality or behaviour
  • You feel bad when someone gives you friendly feedback
  • You hear an inner voice that tells you just how you are failing, inadequate, bad which attacks you in a snide, sarcastic, mean, harsh, righteous, impatient, belittling manner.

And, of course, our natural reaction to that is to try to get rid of those kinds of experiences. Most of us want to destroy them, just like me with my light sabre.

The Nature of our Inner Critics

Our inner critics are obsessed about the past or the future: how badly you have done, how inadequate you will be. They make generalised judgements about who you are and what you are capable of doing. They tell you that they know what’s wrong with you, why you are in such a mess: They offer pat solutions for your problems. It often sounds like this: ‘If only I were more…(hard working, loving, assertive…)’, or ‘What I need to do is…(work harder, forgive him, stand up for myself…)’

When you hear yourself saying you ought or should or must or never or always… do or think or feel something, you can be sure that something in you that is feeling critical is active.

Inner critics seem to be determined to make you feel as bad about yourself as possible. They seem bent on showing you how incapable you are to deal with this dangerous world. They let you know all the dreadful things that will happen to you if you don’t heed their warnings and advice. They seem so powerful because no part of you wants to experience those dreadful things. But the truth is that they don’t know how to tell you how they are really feeling: they are afraid. They are trying to control your behaviour, your thoughts, your feelings because they are terrified of something.

And any part of us that is afraid, needs compassion and company in order that it can become transformed.

Moving towards transformation

Focusing on personal issues is like listening to something inside you that wants to communicate with you. And yet, like a shy animal or child, this ‘something’ may first need to discover that you are trustworthy and safe before it can come closer and reveal itself to you. And parts of us that are behaving critically are always frightened.

Almost always we have been trying to get rid of these critical parts of ourselves. But think about it from their point of view for a moment. Think about how you feel when you can see the danger in a situation and your warnings go unheeded? Frustrated? Angry? Critical?

I’m not saying that this part of us is right and we should simply agree with what it is saying. Far from it. However, to empathise with the difficulty of the situation that this part of us finds itself in, is a big step towards reconciliation and transformation.

That in me which can keep company

So what is it within ourselves that can empathise with this criticising part of us? Ann Weiser Cornell and I experience this as a state of being we call Presence. When I am able to be in this state, I am capable of keeping company with anything within myself (or, indeed, within another person) no matter how vicious, how terrified, or how alien it feels.

Presence is powerful. When we are in a state of Presence, energy effortlessly flows from us towards what needs attention. We are not overwhelmed; we are not denying. We are present to the truth of how we are right now. We sense what is there emerging into our awareness, with non-judgemental, open attentiveness.

We do not judge whether some part of us is right or wrong. We don’t take sides. We notice how it is, what it is like, what it is feeling, what it needs. We are able to keep company both with what is being criticised and the part of us that is being critical.

Some of the qualities that people experience when they are in a state of Presence include: compassion, clarity, receptivity, courage, curiosity, being here in the moment, responsiveness, empathy, being attuned to self and others, trusting in the power of life to find its own healing way forward, feeling separate (clear boundaries) but also connected, open, strong, whole… and there are many more qualities that we could differentiate.

Whenever you relate to something you experience, and the quality of that relating is interested, curious, non-judging, you are developing your capacity for Presence. For example, when you acknowledge that you can sense something, or when you sense how some part of you feels from its point of view, you are deepening your state of Presence.

Being in a state of Presence creates the conditions where change occurs spontaneously, organically, effortlessly. When the right conditions are there the living-forward of the organism flows naturally. All parts of this painful dynamic contribute essentially to its positive resolution.

Some ways to access and deepen the state of Presence

Ann is a linguist with a particular interest in conversational linguistics and has developed simple, but powerful language to help elicit this state of Presence. We have been refining this language since the early 1990s.

The most simple language that we use, ‘I’m sensing something in me…,’ has been found to have a profound effect. People who have been feeling overwhelmed regain a sense of being centred and grounded, no longer at the mercy of their emotions. You might try it for yourself. First say out loud, ‘I’m feeling really sad.’ Notice how that feels in your body. Now try saying, ‘I’m sensing something in me that’s feeling really sad,’ and notice how that feels.

Or, conversely, when something seems distant, almost not there, this language can help it to be more available. For example, ‘I’m not sure that this is important’ can become, ‘I’m taking some time to sense something.’

This language helps you to move your identification from a part of you that is caught in a particular emotion or point of view, to an expansive, inclusive, centred state of Presence.

A second way to enhance the experience of Presence is by carefully bringing your awareness into your body and noticing anywhere that feels easy, flowing, energised, alive. When you are in a state of Presence, the natural experience of the body is one of aliveness. This is true even when you can also feel pain.

A dynamic system of Controllers and Reactors

If we think about it for a moment, anything which is criticising is actually making an attempt to control the feelings, thoughts or behaviours of another. And an attempt to control demands a response of some sort. Most often what it gets is a reaction. We have noticed that these reactions take three common forms which correspond to the classic stress reactions of fight, flight and freeze.

When a fight reaction is triggered, we rebel against the critical part, ‘I am not stupid!’ ‘I don’t care! I’m doing it anyway and hang the consequences.’ These rebellious parts of us react against anything they feel is constricting. Many of us identify with these rebels. They can give us a feeling of energy and power that can be very seductive. Sometimes we only have access to them when we are under the influence of drink or drugs.

When a flight reaction is triggered, we withdraw, reach for the drink or the chocolate, throwing ourselves into work, burying ourselves in a book or sports…

When a freeze reaction is triggered, we might blank out, become confused, numb, forgetful. It is as if something inside collapses and we can sink into feelings of shame, guilt, depression, self-doubt, exhaustion, defeat. It is as if this part of us is agreeing with what the critical part is saying. Many people live a great deal of their lives feeling under internal attack, identified with those parts of them that feel so bad.

These reactions happen so fast that we are not aware of it.

If the first step to releasing this dynamic is recognising when something in us is under attack, the second step is acknowledging the part of us that is attacking. When we are caught up in the dynamic, we are merged with one side or the other.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing that I experience in my work is this moment of recognition and reconciliation when someone’s relationship with a part of them that they had been experiencing as attacking them suddenly transforms. They may have been trying to control this part or even excise it completely from their life. They have been locked in a fierce battle that has been sapping their energy, undermining their vitality. And in a heartbeat they sense how this part of them is actually something that needs their care, their attention, their compassion. They begin to sense how it has been working incredibly hard to warn them and advise them – utterly isolated and reviled by the rest of them. They sense how it feels like it is the only part of us that can see how things really are – and what needs to be done to avert disaster. They sense how lonely this part of them has been striving, perhaps for years, isolated, wanting nothing but their greater aliveness and safety. In this moment something that I can only describe as magical occurs. It is as if a light begins to shine in this darkest of places. And that light is love.

Barbara McGavin teaches Focusing full time to all sorts of people in as many interesting and beautiful places as possible (last tally ten countries on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the Equator). With her colleague, Ann Weiser Cornell, she has developed a body of work they call Treasure Maps to the Soul which uses Focusing in some of the most difficult areas of life, including self-criticism. They have also co-authored The Focusing Student’s and Companion’s Manual.

Barbara helped to found The British Focusing Teachers Association and
is an Accrediting Mentor of that body. She is also a Certifying
Coordinator for the Focusing Institute. She directs The Bath Focusing
Centre, which offers courses to the general public at all levels. She
can be contacted at
bath.focusingcentre@focusing.uk.com
or on 01225 311062.

Jenny Brickett

Are you truly coming from a place with no agenda?

When you Focus, can you really find that source of compassion?

It is not just about not being judgemental. It is about being compassionate and able to hold anything!

I suspect that,if we could really grasp Presence and never again let it go, the rest of the techniques used in Focusing would become unnecessary. “Grasp Presence”? The choice of words reduces Presence to a concept. My sense is that it is more than that – it is in the realms of experiencing the indefinable, on a different level from ideas or science. This makes it impossible to fully explain or impose. It cannot be taught (in the sense that is usually understood in our 21st century education system).

As a Focusing Teacher, I can only point the way and allow people to discover it within themselves. This may take far longer than one weekend or even five. This is about your process carrying you deep into the Presence place, which will take as long as it takes.

You may not find it and may live your life with Focusing, benefiting enormously from it. And you may find it easily with minimal help from me. But, maybe, like me, you will search and not be satisfied with the level of your experiencing, understanding just a little but never quite managing to disidentify with that part that tries to be in Presence!

What is the Presence place? By definition, it is Here and Now and so you are, in fact, in it already! What takes time is for the light to dawn so that you can see that!

I have been teaching Presence qualities and Presence language, hoping that people will grasp the concept. I trust that their awareness of Presence will develop when the time is right. The crux of the matter is that, if we are really seeing and listening to our inside places from Presence, experiencing being Presence, Focusing becomes much easier. Every time we need a guiding move, a suggestion, it is because we are not truly in Presence. The more we are, the more we can just Be Here, allowing what is here to unfold.

My experience is that the part of me that attempts to position itself in Presence, gets as close to Presence as it can and then gets drawn back, because I haven’t quite settled myself (come to reside) in this Presence place.

It is taking a long time. I have done my thinking about it; I have done my Focusing on it. Now I am practicing it. In everyday life this is not always easy, sometimes still not possible. I have a friend who finds herself walking her path alongside me – we are doing this work together. We spend time together just Being in Presence, being aware of what is here now. We have been doing this regularly for nearly two years.

This has developed into our offering residential retreat weekends. So far we have run four. We call them “Silent Presence”. These weekends are a chance to move more deeply into Presence. Relieved of everyday routines and challenges and with no expectation of “sitting down and doing” a Focusing session, this is an opportunity to get used to Being in the Moment. When we facilitate a Silent Presence Retreat, we go into Silence before bedtime on the Friday night. Before that, we spend time introducing the participants to Focusing and Breathwork. We make suggestions that may help them to be more present in the moment. And we honour the principle of not imposing a way of doing on the participants. They are free to use whatever practice or technique they bring with them. They are encouraged to sense for what is appropriate for them in each moment. We have a pattern of sitting and walking in silence and even this is not compulsory. If a participant senses that the pattern is not appropriate right now, she/he is encouraged to go with that sense. We advocate being aware of this moment, dwelling in the Present, even when the mind is moving through the past and the future. This is about Being Here Now and noticing what the mind is doing.

If we are silently Present, what do we do with what is here? We may label things; we may think how pretty or ugly they are. This seems to me to be judgement, although I am not making that wrong. Certainly we are back in our heads with our minds running. As a Focuser, I find it is natural to Focus on what is here inside in response to this moment – that is, I notice and spend time with the body sense and anything that may require attention within or around that.

I also realise that, when something arises within, it is the result of a pull either into the past or into the future. I notice that from the Still Silence of Presence Right Now. So when something in me wants my attention, inevitably it is either hitched in to the past (perhaps it needs to let go of something) or it is dragging me into the future. When I attend to it, it rests Here Now, with the light of Presence upon it. I wonder at the qualities of Presence and I look at the qualities that are uncomfortable, seeing that I can list them under Past or Future. For example:

Past

Grief, regret, loss, sadness, judgement based on past experience, anger (we are angry with something that has already happened), bitterness, victimisation, inferiority, superiority (all are based on previous experience).

Future

Frustration, fear, impatience, wanting, greed, anticipating, wanting time to pass (i.e. not valuing this moment), anxiety, worry, nervousness, dread, excitement (even this can be uncomfortable).

The preoccupation of all of these hides the Present Moment and leads to confusion and lack of clarity.

And then there is Presence! What a wonderful place in which to reside! And of course there is no other place where we can be. We just need to awaken to the truth of that.

 

Kate Brightwell

The words at the end of this article are the final outcome of a
joint process I facilitated with six other people who regularly Focus
following an adaptation of Eugene Gendlin’s (1996) Focusing called
Bio-Spiritual Focusing. With them, for the final dissertation of a
Masters degree in Facilitating Change, I explored what it feels like
inside to turn all one’s attention to the inner sense of love.

Bio-Spiritual Focusing was developed by Frs. Edwin McMahon and Peter
Campbell (1997), psychotherapist-priests, whose particular interest was
healthy spirituality. It is based on an explicit understanding of
spirituality as the connection between an individual and the universal
life-force. It’s ethos is that a person’s Focusing process through
their physical body is the gateway to their spiritual awareness. It
enhances certain of the Focusing steps and adds a particular subtle
emphasis.

Caring Feeling Presence (CFP) is a term used within Bio-Spiritual
Focusing to mean a particular type of inner attitude – that of open
loving acceptance of oneself during the process of Focusing. People
experience it as a gift, that can’t be willed or controlled and is
associated with healing, mystery and paradox. I recorded several
people’s focusing as they turned their attention within the session to
their own CFP and described it. From these several descriptions I
derived the essence of each person’s experience, and synthesised a
collective description in their own words.

Caring-feeling-presence is a key concept of Bio-Spiritual Focusing,
closely allied to the term Unconditional Positive Regard coined by Carl
Rogers (1961). Whereas unconditional positive regard was regarded by
Carl Rogers as a necessary and desirable quality of the listener,
caring-feeling-presence is an inner quality of the Focuser them-self,
which they explicitly learn to develop as they practise BioSpiritual
Focusing (BsF).

In BsF, when the process seems to have become stuck, or a sensation
in the body seems too painful or uncomfortable to stay with, the
Focuser, invites CFP to be with the felt sense. The attitude with the
help of CFP, is simply to be there as an internally felt support to the
process, rather than trying to change, fix or distract from it. “Caring
feeling presence is not pushing to fix a feeling. It is sitting down
beside that feeling with a genuine desire to listen, to accompany, to
journey the extra mile, with whatever needs to be heard inside
yourself. The inside texture of such body-presence is not one of
‘setting things straight.’ It is an open presence, one where your body
carries neither felt expectations nor agenda.” (Campbell &
McMahon,1991, p4).

Whilst this is easy to write, it is often very difficult, to
cultivate such an inner attitude. When this alongside state is
achieved, the discomfort often seems to melt into the process, which is
then able again to move forward again. Such a moving forward is usually
accompanied by a perceptible and sudden physical sense of relaxation,
sometimes called the “felt shift” and frequently leads to a new sense
of knowing about the content of the inner process just completed. In
1999 Peter Campbell wrote to me

“Both Ed and I feel that one of the major contributions which
BioSpiritual Focusing has made to Focusing, is the introduction of
Caring-Feeling-Presence (CFP)..….CFP opens the possibility of “a
new kind of relationship” to those places, memories, and feelings
inside ourselves which we usually hold at arms length, run away from,
or otherwise seek to “numb” their power over us.…CFP is a way of
befriending an alienated part of myself–because that’s what these
places/feelings are.”

Finding an initial concept from which to start sensing internally
for a feel of CFP, is sometimes very difficult. Whether people are
deeply religious, with a concept of CFP that is synonymous with God, or
atheists, they seem to have just as variable an experience, initially,
getting an inner feel of CFP.

Each person has to find it for themselves, and their starting points
vary a lot:- a favourite place they went to when they wanted to be
alone; how they felt in a particular loved one’s presence; their own
sense of love towards a child, or a pet; some memory of a moment when
they’d felt awe or wonder; a sense of their absolute uniqueness; a time
when they’d felt particularly well or a time when they’d felt
absolutely overwhelmed by the grandeur of nature and the smallness of
their place in it; for some it had a particular symbol, for others an
associated memory.

Paradoxically, despite all these differences in starting point and
belief, as people develop their Focusing practise, and recognise their
inner CFP, they seem to become quite comfortable using the term, and
appearing to understand and accept a common meaning. Often, favouring
neither believer nor atheist it gives every appearance of ‘working’ in
the sense of their being enabled to stay Focusing with inner feelings
and parts of themselves, which were previously difficult or too painful
to bear.

Each of those who participated was an experienced Focuser who had
already formulated their own understanding of and connection with CFP.
Between them, they’d had six different teachers introducing them to BsF
and CFP. Four had their spiritual roots in religion – Bhuddism and
Christianity, and two regarded themselves as spiritual but not
religious. They varied between those who knew their inner CFP before
learning Focusing, and those who had built it up gradually as their
Focusing process developed. This breadth of ‘origin’ of CFP amongst the
participants is important when considering the meaning of the outcomes.

In the normal style of a BsF session, the Focuser turns their
attention to whatever emerges, oscillating their attention between the
symbolic representations and physical sensations arising in their
awareness from the felt sense. If something comes that is difficult to
stay with, they invite CFP, or possibly their companion, suggests it.
The companion’s task is to follow the Focuser’s process never asking
direct questions of the content nor leading the Focuser during the
session.

For this purpose though, as companion, I wanted to ask all the
Focusers the same set of direct questions about CFP itself, rather than
the Focusing process it was usually invited to be alongside.

After each session, we had a conversation about the experience of
CFP they had just had and any further thoughts or descriptions they
wished to add.
There was no common pattern to how CFP appeared in the individual
sessions, or at what point in the session the co-researcher was invited
to turn their attention to it. One example was a man named Lynn.

Common Themes

I gathered the raw data by taping descriptions of their inner
experience of CFP. Using a step by step process, I explored a number of
different ways of looking at the data to extract the essential
constituents of CFP common to all. I reduced these to a common
descriptive sense of CFP in their (synthesised) own words and proceeded
to a paragraph setting out the pure essence of caring feeling presence.

For all participants, there is a qualitative difference in listening
to the two types of recording, that is difficult to express on paper.
In the Focusing sessions, speech slows down and becomes quieter, with
long pauses. After the Focusing session, in conversation, the same
person is more energetic and expressive. As one said “It’s not just my
energy. It feels like there’s a spring in me and the source is coming
from beyond me.”

All six co-researchers had experiences of CFP that were intense, and
some expressed a feeling that the session had developed their
connection to it:

Angela: “..it was more of an expansive sense, but yes I do feel there’s been development.”

Edward: “I’ve only had a slight sense of that once or twice before but this was overwhelming.”

Several people referred to CFP’s healing qualities. For example,

“the thing that’s making itself known is its really powerful sense of presence, the healing power of just simple presence”

“there’s no angst at all, it’s all gone”

“I feel as if I’ve been lying in the sun for hours.”

Five people talked about a sense of being connected beyond
themselves to “the universe”, “the cosmos”, “all that is” and all six
expressed how CFP helps them connect internally.

eg “I’m aware of the heart area. It’s my connection” ; “My voice and
me, we’re connected, we’re coming out of the same place rather than
being entwined with each other. It’s a very peculiar feeling” ; “making
connection with everything that’s there” ; “This was about the
Universe, the Cosmos, God.”

Physically, there are several factors. Some co-researchers had a
sense of CFP being in the central part of their body, and
simultaneously loosing their sense of the body’s limits, a feeling of
expanding or melting. Others experienced physical changes eg. Andy
flushed, and some felt weight on their chest, tingly sensations,
melting changes in temperature.

Images associated with CFP vary from a cave to indescribable golden
shapes and a pair of hands. Some had visual representations of the
universe.

In different ways, all the co-researchers express the feeling and frustration that CFP is more than could be fully conveyed.

“Where do you find words for this?” ; “this was beyond symbols and words.”

There is a sense that CFP is constant, always there, and what varies is the ability to connect with it.

eg ” It’s always there. I can’t always connect with it” and “In order to be open to CFP I first have to connect with myself.”

The intensity of the words used to describe the experience of CFP
stood out – Blissful, Sublime, Awe, were emotional descriptions, Deep,
Profound, Knowing were statements of meaning and the experience itself
was described as Huge, Vast, Wonder, Vivid.

Since the original concept of CFP is caring and feeling and
presence, It’s no surprise to discover that many of the descriptions
are words like loving, benign, accepting and healing. More interesting
are some of the other categories – for example many of the physical
sensations, touching on losing the normal sense of the physical body,
opening up and expanding, without dimensions of form, limit or time.
These are not intrinsic to the sense of having a caring feeling
presence or attitude to the felt sense, and were beyond what I was
expecting. The beliefs about CFP included notions of some sort of
Divinity, an intrinsic part of the Focuser and a non-being type of
concept that related to the universe – life, energy.

Caring feeling presence as described by the participants in this
exercise, is an intense experience, which touches a sense of the
sacred. The power of this is expressed beautifully by the following
direct quote from within the Focusing session,

“It’s divine agony – it’s wonderful. Things I haven’t seen for
years, shimmering, geometric patterns, turquoise colours – greens,
blues – lights! I used to see them all the time when I was younger,
they change shape, go red, fractal drawings, something like that. It
feels great.”

By extracting all the significant statements from all the sessions,
combining them and reducing them to eliminate repetition I arrived at
the description in the box below which, whilst being synthesised from a
collection of their individual descriptions, was meaningful to each
person as a universal description of their experience.

Focusing enables the practitioner to connect with their pre-symbolic
experience, and the felt shift comes when appropriate symbols interact
accurately with the meaning held in the body. These symbols can be
words, but don’t necessarily need to be. At key points in their
Focusing process, the participants, lapsed into silence, and found no
words adequately to express what they were experiencing internally.

Because the unique inner details are purely internal, there is as
yet only minimal shared vocabulary for the experience that arises, and
because it isn’t logical or rational the vocabulary of the outer world
cannot easily be adapted.

Because of this, the article I’ve here written about the experience
seems very clunky in comparison with the fun connection and fluidity we
experienced in coming up with our collective description. I hope,
despite these limitations of the written word this article has managed
to convey something of its sense.

Kate Brightwell, BioSpiritual Focusing Teacher(1996), M.Sc. (2001),
Diploma Biodynamic Psychotherapy (2008), MLSBP(2009), UKCP registered
(2009)

Article written in July 2005 based upon research and dissertation for M.Sc. (2000-2001).

This article may be copied in whole with appropriate credit. To use any
part of the document please refer to the author for permission.

Email: Katebright@aol.com

Bibliography

Campbell, P & McMahon, E, 1985, 1997, BioSpirituality: Focusing as a way to grow, Chicago, Ill, USA: Loyola Press

Gendlin, E T 1978, 1981, Focusing, N.Y. USA :Bantam New Age Books

Rogers, C. 1961, On Becoming a Person, Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Welwood, 2000, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Boston, MA USA: Shambhala Publications.

Synthesized Final Description of Caring Feeling Presence

When I direct my attention fully to the Caring Feeling Presence(CFP)
and concentrate my mind as far as I can on CFP, rather than my ongoing
Focusing process, time seems to stand still and I become lost for words
with which to describe the overwhelming delight of the experience. My
physical body feels light, or weightless, with the CFP expanding
limitlessly out from somewhere central to my body cavity around the
diaphragm or heart region. It is a very intense experience, sometimes
accompanied by heightened emotions and/or perceptions, and I feel
totally connected and at-one within myself, and with the universe. I
have a sense of being beyond the normal dimensions of life, of being
relaxed and at peace with cares and anxieties lifted and of being so
loved that the feeling spills over and beyond me to everyone and
everything else in the universe. Whatever is needed for my body,
emotions, mind and spirit to flow together in harmony and expand
outward seems to happen effortlessly. Accompanying these feelings and
sensations are rich images, links to very pleasant, and/or forgotten
memories and a positive sense of active silence independent of any
outer world sounds. It seems to give texture, depth and meaning to my
life beyond that of my normal conscious awareness and simultaneously
seems to provide the greatest imaginable sensation of containing,
holding and supporting me. It is both intensely personal and intimate
and overwhelming, awe-inspiring and humbling. Beliefs about CFP are
difficult to separate from personal experience, and include the feeling
that it’s a part of me, it’s the whole essence of me and it’s sacred or
divine coming from beyond me. It has a powerful healing quality, and
also seems to act as a bridge into the mystery of life and the
universe. When I feel connected to CFP I have a sense of reluctance
about returning to ‘normal’ consciousness.

Lesley Wilson and Addie van der Kooy

Having been regular Focusers for over 10 years, we are still amazed at how
powerful a tool Focusing truly is. It has helped us with making important
decisions in our lives, it has been pivotal in managing physical pain and it has
become instrumental as a tool for healing, for example in facing deeply held
traumas from the past. But above all, Focusing is for us a very simple and
practical process for healthy spiritual growth which is firmly grounded in our
physical bodies.

Focusing has enabled us to touch a directly felt experience of who we truly are
and a directly felt connectedness and sense of belonging to some larger Life
Process or Presence. Whether this is given a name – like Higher Power, God, Tao
or the Great Universe – is not important. What matters is that we can actually
feel and experience it directly in our bodies. For us, this has become the core
of our journey and in this article we will explore the elements of Focusing that
have opened the door for us into this experience.

But first, we want to acknowledge the pioneering work of two psychologists of
religion, Dr Edwin McMahon and Dr Peter Campbell. Their work and teaching has
been inspirational to us, providing profound guidance for our journey with
Focusing. They recognised the significance of Focusing as a bodily grounded,
practical pathway for healthy, spiritual growth. They trained and worked with
Dr Eugene Gendlin and have, for many decades, been researching, developing,
teaching and writing about the spiritual dimension of Focusing. They use the
term “Bio-Spirituality” to describe this body-based spirituality which goes
beyond doctrine, religion, language and culture.

As they say in their book “Bio-Spirituality – Focusing As A Way To Grow

“There are two critical issues in spiritual development..The first is
to discover a holistic approach for letting go of the mind’s omnipotent
control as a prelude to allowing some broader wisdom within the entire
human organism to speak. The second is to allow the unique next step that
is “me” to emerge as an integral, harmonious expression of some Larger
Process”.

Letting Be – “Letting go of the mind’s omnipotent control”

Two words lie at the spiritual heart of Focusing: “Letting Be”. They point to a
bodily felt unconditional acceptance of what is there. When we listen to
a place inside that hurts, for instance, the quality of our presence is not the
usual one of fixing or trying to make it feel better. Rather, we are willing to
let it be exactly as it is. Sometimes you can almost hear the place give a sigh
of relief when it feels this non-judgemental attention. It may soften or
intensify and as you continue to be with it in a way that says, “It’s ok for
you to be there, exactly the way you are now”
, it often opens up and starts
to tell its story. As this unfolds, you can begin to understand the pain and
listen in a more compassionate way.

This total acceptance does not always bring immediate change to the place
inside, but it does change you, because you are holding this part of
yourself differently. Instead of feeling uptight about these horrible feelings
inside – “I shouldn’t feel like this!” – you relax and begin to feel
okay about yourself for feeling all this. There is a deepening of kindness
towards yourself, a healthy “self-love”. This is a major step to becoming a
whole person, welcoming home those parts of you that were split off or that you
had been holding out on, judging and suppressing. And there’s more – in doing
this you begin to have a sense of who you truly are – that you are much larger
than the wounded parts and can actually accept and embrace them. To have a real
body feel of this is extremely freeing.

Letting go of our mind-sets of how we, others and the world should be and
instead letting go into the reality of the present moment, is extremely
powerful. It is also very much misunderstood. Accepting what is present and
real now – inside and
outside – is not the same as acquiescence. True acceptance does not turn you
into a passive doormat for others. On the contrary, because of its non-reactive
nature, it gives you the space inside to trust and allow intelligent and
graceful resolution or action to arise that is fitting for the situation.

Presence and Identity

To be consistently present in this accepting way to what goes on inside creates
a safe, inner climate in which deep change can happen. In Bio-Spiritual
Focusing this bodily felt presence is called “caring feeling presence” and is
specifically evoked and nourished as a way to develop inner kinship with what
goes on inside. This is especially important when we are with painful feelings.
As Gendlin said, “Every �bad’ feeling is potential energy toward a more
right way of being, if you give it the space to move toward its rightness”
.
A gentle, caring presence creates a nurturing climate – Gendlin’s space – so the
feelings can move and change in the way only they know is right for them.

It is not always easy to maintain this sense of caring presence, especially when
Focusing with intensely felt traumatised places, which may be overwhelming. But
in the very struggle to find your own unique way to be present and caring, you
are growing into your own sense of presence. For instance, you may need to find
a place somewhere in the body that feels safe and unaffected, e.g. the sensation
of your feet touching the ground can give a sense of safety and strength, a
sense of your own presence that says “I am here and all is well!”

This is emphasised by Kevin McEvenue, an Alexander practitioner and Focusing
trainer, in his teaching of “Wholebody Focusing”. He places great importance on
awareness of the body as a whole to provide a resource for being with
difficult
places. As Kevin says, “When a part of me feels loved it awakens to its own
healing”
.

As you continue to Focus you begin to increasingly experience that this sense of
presence is who you truly are. A process is unfolding whereby you are gradually
dis-identifying yourself from parts and places inside you with which you were
previously identified. Your sense of identity is peeling away from entanglement
with
these parts. You begin to know yourself as that sense of presence: a simple
sense of �I Am-ness’ that cannot be affected by anything that happens internally
or externally. Nothing can be added and nothing can be taken away – I am simply
present and aware.

Trusting A Larger Process

To practice letting go of the “mind’s omnipotent control” of how Life,
the Universe and Everything should be, encourages a humility to emerge in
oneself. A deepening sense that “I don’t know and that’s ok” . A sense
of being content with not knowing. Having Focused for quite a few years it has
become clear to us that this humility brings a sensitivity and openness to a
larger intelligence that is present within the physical body. An intelligence
that can set in motion powerful healing processes. The body carries a wisdom, a
knowing how to move things forward inside so that stuck or hurt places can be
healed.

Focusing is all about allowing this “broader wisdom within the entire human
organism to speak”
. It is about getting sufficiently out of the way, by
letting go of the mind’s control, so that this body wisdom can express itself in
its own unique way. So when we take our attention inside, it is clearly
important that we have no investment in a specific result, but rather an
openness and curious interest in where the body wisdom wants to take us.

But, our openness to the body’s wisdom must be genuine. The body can’t be
fooled. It will know when there’s still some kind of agenda, a wanting to fix
and change things in a certain way. Our conditioning to assert our judgements
as to what is good and bad and what should be and shouldn’t be is deeply
ingrained, so to let go to and trust this larger intelligence or process is a
huge step along our spiritual path.

As we begin to allow the body wisdom to speak in and through ourselves, there’s
an undeniable sense that this wisdom or intelligence is much larger than we are.
It’s moving in us but is also carrying us in it’s unfolding.

Paradoxically, the body gives us the experience of being both whole in ourselves
and yet, at the same time, part of something much larger. This may be
experienced in different ways. For instance, it may feel like my feet are
plugged into some large batteries hidden inside the ground and there’s a strong
sense of being connected with a flow of energy that is much larger than I am.
Often in that flow there is a sense of compassion for hurt places welling up
which I could not feel on my own. I have a sense of being surrounded and
supported by the whole earth, nature, the stars, the universe – a larger
Presence or Process. As Gendlin says:

“Your physically felt body is ..part of a gigantic system of here and
other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact, the
whole universe. This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is the
body as it is felt from inside”
.

Feeling part of a Larger Process is a natural spiritual need that is deeply
etched in the psyche of human beings. It is often inadequately substituted by a
sense of belonging to certain cults, groups or even religions. To have lost the
experience of this “sense of being bodily alive in a vast system” has
been the primary cause of much human misery.

Felt Shifts – “Grace Unfolding”

Once you have a felt sense of a place inside and it begins to open up, it will
tell its story through a variety of symbols, such as images, words, insights or
physical movement. As the story unfolds, something may begin to shift. Either
the place itself or the way you are holding it may change.

Felt Shifts can sometimes happen in ways that could be described as “internal
alchemy”: the freeing up and transmutation of stagnant energy from stuck places
inside us. This freed energy strengthens our sense of Presence. There’s a
sense of being more present, more vibrantly alive. In his book “The Power Of
Now
“, Eckhart Tolle calls this “internal alchemy or the transmutation of
the base metal of suffering into the gold of consciousness”
.

These Felt Shifts are not of our own making. All we can do is to provide the
right climate for these places to feel heard and to step back and wait to see
what wants to happen. The body in all its wisdom inherently knows the direction
in which these places need to move in order to be resolved, so that, ultimately,
we can become whole.

When these shifts happen there is a sense of being gifted or �graced’ by the
movement of a larger process at work through you. Like being in a river that
powerfully flows towards it’s destination.

“Following the directions of Focusing is much like paddling a canoe
from some protected inlet out into the middle of a river. Once there…you
soon discover that the stream has a life and movement on its own. It does
not bend to your paddling any more than your canoe can change the course
of the river’s flow. All you can do is go with it in case it should catch
you and carry you along.”
Peter Campbell and Ed McMahon.

Felt Shifts may be minute steps or they may be dramatic and instantly life
changing. They may change the way you hold a certain issue or a certain
situation in your life. They may open the door to creative solutions which your
mind couldn’t have thought of in its wildest dreams. Or they may unlock painful
places. Whatever it brings, a Felt Shift always feels good inside. First,
because we are at last beginning to know and accept ourselves; and second,
because we are reconnecting with the movement of some Larger Process which
deeply satisfies our spiritual need.

So Focusing facilitates this experience of the movement of the Larger Process
through one’s body and mind. To experience the immovability of one’s own unique
spirit, whilst also experiencing oneself being changed by the movement of a much
Larger Process inside may seem paradoxical. But the world inside one’s body is
a different world, with paradox and contrasts happily living together.

Living In The Now

As Peter Campbell and Ed McMahon have said, there is a critical issue in our
spiritual growth as human beings: the mind’s “omnipotent control” . The
thinking
mind generates an incessant stream of thoughts. When we observe this seemingly
unstoppable stream, it becomes obvious how much these thoughts take us out of
the present moment, because most are related to either the past or the future.

The only access point to our own unique spirit and connection with a larger
Process is the Here (our body) and Now (the present moment).

When Focusing becomes a way of living, you have a simple discipline that
provides an excellent way of disengaging from the control of the thought stream
and coming back home to the present moment. When you notice that you have
jumped on a train of thought that has left the Here and Now, you can simply ask:
“How does it feel in my body to think these thoughts?” This takes your
attention inside your body and back to the present moment. This simple
discipline, which can be done anytime, anywhere, offers us a way of living that
keeps us connected to the dimension where we can be gifted by the intelligent
energy of the larger Process.

Peacemaking From The Inside

As we begin to live this way, deep changes begin to happen in the way we relate
to ourselves and others. Whenever something happens that triggers strong
violent
emotion, we are less likely to get swept away in the usual reactive cycle of
violence-begetting-violence. Violent thoughts may be stirred up but by noticing
them in a Focusing way you can unhook yourself from the violent thought stream
and give yourself a choice in how to respond. This may not be easy in the heat
of the moment and will take some practice, but even a few seconds of such bodily
awareness can already be powerful. Even in such a short time there can be an
experience of “grace”, of something shifting in the way you are holding the
situation.

When these feelings are �graced’ inside, it may also become clear whether there
is some action to be taken with regard to the situation. You have broken the
usual chain of reactive violence and any action you take now will come from a
more peaceful way of being inside.

As Campbell and McMahon put it,

“Through developing a relationship with the inner realm of “Grace” or
“Gift” we give ourselves the chance to live in inner harmony instead of
inner conflict. Then we are much more likely to be a catalyst for peace
rather than conflict in the outer world”

Kay Hoffmann

“I’ve given up trying to focus alone because I never get anywhere”; “I can’t stay with the process when I’m on my own”; “I need the presence of another person for something to shift.” All these comments were made by experienced Focusers. So why is solo Focusing so much harder for most people than Focusing with a companion? And can anyone learn to focus effectively on their own? In the hope of finding answers to these questions I quizzed 15 focusers about their own experiences. All of them were familiar with the various helpful tips available and yet the majority of them found Focusing alone difficult. Just two said their solo Focusing was as valuable as Focusing with a partner.

Why People Find Solo Focusing Difficult

The main reasons for solo Focusing being unsatisfactory, as stated by the Focusers themselves, were:

  • “My mind wanders”. “I find it difficult to concentrate and keep drifting off on daydreams.” (In this case whatever the Focuser is thinking about, he labels it “drifting” or “wandering” )
  • “As soon as I sit down to Focus I start to think I haven’t really got time for it.” “I keep getting distracted by thinking of all the other things I need to do.”
  • “It goes OK up to a point but then I just get a foggy stuckness.” (A range of similar reports included “fuzziness” and “getting lost”.)
  • “When I go inside there’s nothing there”.
  • “I can always find a felt sense but I can’t get it to shift.”
  • “I sit down to start Focusing but then I get scared that if I go too deeply into something I’ll be overwhelmed.”

These obstacles have two things in common: they happen after the Focuser has begun to direct their attention inside; and they are either easily surmountable or not evident at all in the presence of a companion. This suggests that although the Focuser may perceive them as obstacles to the process getting underway, each one is actually “a something” which could be given attention within a process which is already underway. To use the second quote as an example: there is a difference between not planning to focus at all due to a genuine lack of time, and deciding to focus, sitting down to begin, and then thinking “I haven’t got time for this.”

So the main pitfall of Focusing alone could be missing the obvious – that which is directly under our noses. Why does the Focuser not say to themself: “I’m noticing something in me which feels I haven’t got time for this”? Likewise, what prevents the “easily overwhelmed” Focuser from acknowledging their fear by saying “something in me is scared I’ll be overwhelmed”? Clearly, in each case, the Focuser is merged with something – yet even when my interviewees were reporting their difficulties, this possibility did not always occur to them – and I am certain that all of the Focusers in question would immediately spot such an instance of merging if they were in the companion’s seat! It seems that there is a particularly subtle dynamic in place here which can hide the obvious from us when we are Focusing alone.

Most of the Focusers I spoke to reported that if they do get past the point of settling down with a felt sense and it begins to make steps, the session usually runs smoothly thereafter. The main danger area, then, is at the very beginning of a session when self-listening skills are not yet consciously engaged – the transition zone between usual thinking patterns and Focusing.

Let’s borrow Ann’s analogy of arranging to meet a good friend in a cafe. Say friend A has the intention of finding out how friend B is really feeling. Imagine she says “So how are things with you today?” and friend B replies: “I really haven’t got time for this now because there’s still so much I need to do today” or “I’d rather not talk just now because if I do I know I’ll get really upset” or “Everything’s just fine – nothing really to report at all at the moment”.
If friend A were to follow up with a comment such as: “What’s wrong with you? You always come up with the same pathetic excuse for not talking to me” or “Well if you’re going to be like that, I’m off!”, she would be responding in a similar way to how Focusers sometimes respond to parts of themselves. No wonder such parts react by digging in their heels! Obviously, these would be examples of not listening from Presence – obvious at least if a Focusing partner were to make such a response out loud, but much less easy to spot in our own ambient thoughts.
So why are these thoughts that come up at the point of entry into a Focusing session so particularly hard to identify as ‘parts’? One reason – substantiated by the observation that most of us seem to have one particular recurring ‘obstacle’ – is that the more habitual it becomes, the more invisible it becomes. For instance if someone has an experience of “drifting off into thoughts” the first few times they attempt Focusing alone, they soon begin to carry this information with them as a fact : “When I try to Focus alone I just drift off”. It follows that they are likely to become so merged with this negative expectation that it is impossible to recognize it as something which could be acknowledged: “Something in me is wanting to drift off.” Another possibility is that our recurring difficulties with Focusing alone are the equivalent of our habitual forms of process-skipping – the mechanisms we tend to use to avoid staying at an edge where change can happen. In this case we would already be oblivious to our use of a particular avoidance strategy and if this were adapted as a means of avoiding an edge in Focusing we would be less likely to recognize it. McMahon and Campbell write: “My defences against such bodily-felt, authentic contact are strong, automatic, process-skipping and invisible – at least to myself.” (Bio-Spirituality Newsletter, Winter 1998 )

Why Focus Alone?

Given the difficulties of solo Focusing, can anything be said in favour of persevering with it? Are there any benefits of Focusing alone which cannot be accessed by Focusing with a companion? In an article on Focusing alone Dorothy Fisch says: “Focusing ‘alone’ is when I feel most connected with the oneness of life… I valued partner-Focusing, but it led me to different places.” (TFC, Nov. 1992) Another experienced Focuser says: “My solo Focusing is the core of my Focusing practice.” Others give various reasons why Focusing alone is sometimes preferable to Focusing with a partner. These include Focusing on issues which are of a private or sensitive nature, occasions when something needs immediate attention and no listener is available, and times when the Focuser would feel inhibited by the presence of a listener.

There are also times when something needs much more time than would be practical for a listener to give and often just “keeping company” while it slowly unfolds. Dorothy describes her experience of this beautifully: “Solitary Focusing…is like watching an oak leaf unfurl. It happens very slowly. First you notice a nub, then a few days later a leaf bud, days after that the unfurling starts to happen and you have a leaf.”

The term “Focusing alone” is generally used to denote a formal type of Focusing session – a “sitting down to it”, however, another form of solo Focusing is that which could be said to be the long-term aim of all Focusers: to be lightly aware of the felt sense of the moment at all times. Touching base with the felt sense briefly throughout the day is an especially valuable practice which helps to soften the boundary between “outside” and “inside”. It leads to a sense of being more consistently in touch with oneself and more authentic in interactions with others.

Focusing alone also provides a unique opportunity to acknowledge parts which tend to be “off-stage” when a companion is present. In my determination to undertake regular solo sessions whilst working on this project, I found myself acknowledging a part with which I had hitherto been merged. Finally settling down with this part developed into a bizarre though very valuable session during which I made the following notes. The transcript begins after I suddenly realized I’d spent five minutes just thinking about whether I ought to be doing something else instead of Focusing. (Qualities of felt senses are described in brackets; words I ‘hear’ from a felt sense are in italics; my own “listening-me” responses are in inverted commas; …. = silences /taking time to acknowledge something).

“I’m sensing something which is saying it’s really important for me to think about whether I ought to be doing something else just now”…. (Ache across torso) ….
I really hate it when you feel unsure about what you want to do ….. I don’t want you to waste time struggling over what to do. I hate it when you feel tense and scattered and unsure ….. I can see there’s lots to do and I don’t know what’s most important …. I want you to be focused and in the moment – in flow. ….
(Tense, desperate pushing under diaphragm) ….
There’s so much to do and not much time …. get ON with something – ANYthing – then I can relax …..
“Ah, what you really want is to be able to relax” …..
Yes… like when you’re Focusing with someone else….
“Like when I’m focusing with someone else – then you can relax”..
Yes.. And I know Focusing is good for you and well worth the time but like this I really struggle with feeling perhaps you ought to be doing something else ……. actually I’m here nearly all the time like this but you don’t notice me. ….
(Ache elongating – exhausted, strung out, stretched thin) ….. “I’m going to just stay here and keep you company”…..
Do you really want to spend time being with me when you’re so busy?
(Weak, tired, surprised) ….”Yes”…. (ache released, spreading warmth)

I stayed with the pleasant warmth, enjoying feeling relaxed and centred for some time before finishing. This ten minute session proved to be a valuable step for me. Since then I have been able to keep this part company “on the hoof” when it is around, enabling it to gradually shift in a life-forward direction. It has also made me aware of just how much this one part has influenced the way I perceive my use of time – and taken a lot of tension out of that whole area of my life. As I have never encountered this part in my partner Focusing, it demonstrates that solo Focusing can provide a unique opportunity to come into relationship with such habitual process-skipping strategies.

So having convinced myself that there is enough to be said in favour of solo Focusing to make it worth persevering with – indeed to make it highly recommendable – I decided to try to shed more light on the problems encountered in Focusing alone by looking at when they tend not to present themselves:

When Focusing Goes Well and What Facilitates the Process

The vast majority of the people I spoke to said their Focusing usually goes well a) when alone if a pressing issue is clamouring for their attention and b) when Focusing with a partner.

a) “If I’ve got something worrying me I can usually focus on it alone.” Several people said that although they don’t focus regularly alone – due to one of the problems previously mentioned – they do use Focusing to address pressing issues and/or strong emotional reactions as they come up. When something is already physically felt or when strong feelings facilitate rapid access to the felt sense, obstacles are less likely to be encountered. The danger area has been bypassed. Not only are we already engaged in the Focusing process by the act of noticing the felt sense, but we also have a set purpose for the session – we have something in obvious need of attention and are motivated to spend some time with it. Some degree of Presence is automatically established in the act of identifying something inside as separate from “me” and being interested in finding out more about it. Therefore having the idea of Focusing on a currently felt issue is in itself an indication of an intention and capacity to be with something rather than be merged with it.

b) In a prearranged session with a companion there is often no such burning issue present. The intention is to simply check in with ourselves and see what, if anything, wants our attention – just as in an equivalent solo Focusing session. And yet the vast majority of Focusers report rarely, if ever, encountering their usual obstacles when Focusing with a companion. Why not?

Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin write: “There are three qualities which a partner brings which need to be brought into Focusing alone, often consciously and deliberately: 1) containment (being held), 2) concentration (the opposite of spacing out, wandering, etc., 3) non-judgment.” (early draft of Focusing Student’s and Companion’s Manual)

On sensing that a companion has these qualities and is thereby supporting Presence, it becomes possible to stay at an edge of experiencing where one may otherwise not feel safe to go. Ed McMahon and Peter Campbell put it this way: “So the companion is there to support the Focuser in finding his own innate ability to keep himself company in a gentle, caring way. If a person has lost this ability and/or developed a strong habit of disconnecting from the felt sense, he will be unable to Focus alone.” (“Bio-Spirituality”)

So we are not speaking here of a simple application of technical skills, but of having the capacity to provide the kind of Presence which allows our own self-process to unfold. Gene Gendlin explains why the first step towards developing this capacity is to Focus with a listener: “To be myself I need your responses, to the extent to which my own responses fail to carry my feelings forward. At first, in these respects, I am ‘really myself’ only when I am with you.. The continued carrying forward into ongoing interaction process is necessary in order to reconstitute experiencing long enough for the individual himself to obtain the ability to carry it forward as self-process.”(“A Theory of Personality Change”)

Can Solo Focusing Be Learned?

Gendlin’s words prompt a question: Can solo Focusing be learned at any stage or must a certain capacity to listen to ourselves be developed before we are able to begin to focus alone? In other words, is it always possible for a Focuser to provide the qualities of Presence necessary to support their own process?

Most Focusers need very little from a companion to support their process. In fact, as I discovered by accident, often literally nothing apart from simply being there (even on the other end of a phone) is needed to generate an atmosphere of “containment, concentration and non-judgment.” Naively attempting to simulate solo Focusing as closely as possible to observe the process, I listened silently to several sessions and found that the effect of the experiment itself defeated my object! People who when alone had difficulties in beginning a session, settling down with something, staying with the process or experiencing a shift, had no problems whatsoever when I was simply ‘listening in’. It seems that although a companion’s reflections and suggestions may provide a very useful and welcome aid to Focusing, it is the overall effect of having someone there which facilitates the Focusing process. Hence many Focusers are pessimistic about their abilities to focus alone because in partner Focusing they perceive the companion to be “holding Presence” for them. It makes a subtle but important difference to consider that successful Focusing can only occur when the Focuser is also listening to himself from a place of Presence. In this sense it could be said that even when a companion is present, the Focuser is still Focusing alone! Whatever level of support the companion is providing, he is still not ‘doing’ the Focusing himself. Would it follow then that anyone who is able to focus successfully with a companion is also able to focus alone?

Technically it might appear so, but there are occasions when solo Focusing is – by definition – just not able to fit the bill. One Focuser says this beautifully: “Sometimes the words need to come out of my system and be met by another human being.” I strongly feel that no efforts to support solo-focusing should attempt to minimise this very real and healthy desire for human contact when it arises.

With the exception of such specific requirements for a listener, it appears likely (to me) that in most cases Focusers do have the capacity to provide themselves with the necessary qualities to support Presence. Therefore I propose that problems can be traced back to just three specific areas of merging:

  1. the Focuser does not succeed in establishing Presence at the beginning of the session. This makes the likelihood of merging with whatever comes up almost inevitable.
  2. at the point at which something begins to make steps, a “critical part” throws doubt on the Focuser’s ability to focus alone and the Focuser becomes (and remains) merged with that part.
  3. a “controlling part” is present which feels a sense of responsibility for directing the session. It may feel that it has to initiate something which will make the process flow faster or make a shift occur or that it has to do something to “fix” something. This area is a quagmire if the Focuser becomes merged with it – and the risk is high because there is, of course, some truth in the idea that “I” am responsible for directing the session. As much emphasis is placed on the role of the companion in Focusing and students learn many subtleties of listening responses, it is not surprising that many feel daunted by the prospect of “doing both jobs” in solo Focusing.

It seems that many of us assume we know the “ground-rules” of Focusing so well that when we sit down to focus alone we comply with them automatically, and yet according to my findings, it is not unusual for experienced Focusers to either “forget” the basics – or believe that they can dispense with them. Consequently all the effort we put into learning to cultivate Presence as a companion goes out of the window when we focus alone! There is a notion that to simply pause and look inside denotes the beginning of a solo Focusing session – and indeed it does on the condition that we have a respectful, compassionate, non-judgmental attitude towards whatever we might find there. If not, then we will become merged with our ambient thoughts rather than be in a position to say hello to them.

Taking it forward

What then can we do to avoid becoming merged with ambient thoughts? I feel the answer lies in going back to the basics – reminding ourselves that moving into Presence does not always happen automatically and that normally we have to do something to encourage it to happen. And remembering, above all, that any attitude other than one of respectful, compassionate, non-judgmental attention denotes a merging with another part.

So before coming up with any new suggestions on how to alleviate the problems of solo Focusing, I first came to a point of realizing just how good all the old ones are! Almost every article and chapter on Focusing alone includes a list of suggestions on how to stay in Presence, from “Conjure up the person you would most like to listen to you, then have them respond in exactly the way you want” (Diana Marder, TFC, Nov. 1992), to “Write down key words like the description, the questions you’re asking, and whatever else feels important” (Cornell, “The Power of Focusing”) and “Speak into a cassette recorder and play it back if you get stuck or lost” – and there are, of course, many others.

Finding some means of consciously becoming one’s own listener seems to be essential. This means having a concept of “listening-me” which feels bigger than all the rest of me – whether one imagines it to be another person, a computer, a teddy bear or oneself. During the session I transcribed, I was writing down not only the significant words that came from the felt sense but also my own listening responses. Having a very clear sense of “listening-me” was what enabled me to come into relationship with a hitherto hidden part.

I have noticed that doubts around self-guiding skills and impatience when something doesn’t shift appear to diminish with experience. People who have been Focusing the longest are generally much more content to just keep something company – for a long time if necessary – trusting that a shift will occur if and when it is ready. In his book “Focusing”, Gendlin writes: “If the felt sense does not shift and answer right away, that is all right. Spend a minute or so with it. We do not control a shift when it comes. What is crucial is the time you spend sensing it. If you spend time sensing something unclear that is right there ..then you are Focusing.”

So although we are responsible for maintaining Presence, we are not responsible for directing the process itself. To remember this during each session could take a considerable amount of unnecessary stress out of solo Focusing.

It might also be helpful to let go of expectations that solo Focusing should feel the same as Focusing with a companion but to increase the value we place on it in terms of developing the habit of being in touch with our moment to moment authentic experiencing. Seeing solo-Focusing as a step on the way to cultivating Presence in our lives in general rather than as an end in itself could significantly ease some of the difficulties it presents. Focusers are less likely to encounter problems when “checking in” with the felt sense briefly throughout the day. If all else fails it might be advisable for a struggling solo Focuser to take a break from formal sessions and simply enjoy sensing inside at times when they are feeling good.

Finally, a quote from Neil Friedman strikes me as particularly relevant to solo-Focusing: “Focusing is relaxing. It feels good in the body.” (“Focusing: Selected Essays”) It follows that if it starts to feel unpleasantly scary, sad, frustrating, empty, lonely, or whatever, we can assume we are merged with something. So I would like to offer just one fundamental tip: If it doesn’t feel good – step back and acknowledge it from a place which feels safe and comfortable. This will take you to what is “right on top” in your experiencing – the outermost edge of that which is needing attention – and to be with that will always bring a sense of rightness and relief.

Since accepting that by following this one guideline we can consistently spend time with something in our authentic experiencing in a caring way, I have tentatively come to the feel that – yes, with sufficient support, anyone can learn to focus alone.

Peter Afford

This article has been published in Self and Society in September 2005.

I came across focusing in 1984 while training to assist on the sort of personal growth courses popular back then in which a hundred people were locked in a room for a weekend and provoked into dramatic catharses. The subtlety of focusing was in stark contrast with the excitement and terror of these experiences and, perhaps because of this, it eluded me at the time. However, some time later, with the help of my ex-wife who was a natural ‘focuser’, and the experience of biodynamic therapy in place of drama and provocation, I got the hang of it.

So when I came to do a therapy training in 1990, I had been focusing for some time. There being no UK training available in focusing therapy, I opted for psychosynthesis because friends had taken this route and I had thereby gained a feeling for it. It would have been logical to do a person-centred training, as focusing is an offshoot of the person-centred approach. But I knew little of the British person-centred world, and anyway it had somewhat rejected focusing as being too directive.

Psychosynthesis and focusing are eminently compatible, but my evangelical enthusiasm for the latter meant that I judged everything else in the light of it, usually unfavourably – an easy trap for focusing aficionados. But the psychosynthesis people were a kind and tolerant lot, and gave me my counselling diploma. Ignoring advice to start one’s career in a particular orientation, I made up my own blend of focusing, psychosynthesis and Jung, who was my original source of inspiration.

Now I have a solid body of experience under my belt. I’ve done short-term counselling and long-term therapy, post-traumatic stress interventions, workplace counselling and private practice. Focusing has been at the heart of my approach in all these settings. I’m not sure whether I am really a ‘focusing-oriented’ therapist, because I don’t know what a such a therapist is meant to look like. But I am clearly a therapist who’s oriented towards focusing and endeavouring to orient my client towards it.

Having focusing at the heart of my work means that I help my client to connect with their bodily experiencing in the session. For example, I may invite them to turn their attention inside to the flow of feeling in their body. I may seek to phrase what I say so as to prompt them to look within their feeling body as well as their thinking mind. I often slow my talking and go deeper into my ‘felt sense’, to find the right words and to model focusing. And much more.

So here I shall reflect on my own interpretation of the term ‘focusing-oriented therapy’, and in so doing tackle some questions that focusing raises about the therapeutic enterprise.

Explicitly teaching ‘Focusing’ vs. Implicitly encouraging ‘focusing’

‘Focusing’ began in the 50’s when Gene Gendlin, a colleague of Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago, identified it as a self-reflective behaviour that some clients did naturally from the outset of therapy and others didn’t, and that correlated strongly with successful therapy outcomes. He devised instructions for teaching this inner attention to all clients, and later these instructions became a method for anyone seeking self-help skills. As self-help, peer-partnership focusing developed, those who followed in Gendlin’s wake started putting a capital ‘F’ on the front. So ‘focusing’ is the natural skill of listening to bodily felt experience, and ‘Focusing’ is the learnt method and practice of inner attention that encourages the natural skill.

One way to bring focusing into therapy is to teach it to your clients explicitly, or to send them to another Focusing teacher. I don’t do this unless requested, because I am wary of making such a strong intervention that might lead to resistance or compliance in my clients. I don’t think anyone in the Focusing world has ever done the research needed to evaluate the usefulness of such a strategy, which is strange as Focusing originally grew out of research.

More importantly, I think it is simplistic to believe that clients taught Focusing the method would then be doing focusing the inner behaviour. Yes, it helps if clients deliberately pay attention to bodily feeling, but this is not a therapeutic panacea. What I’ve found to be most helpful is for clients to develop their ability to reflect on their felt experiencing – to focus naturally – during therapy. It’s a skill that’s transferable to other relationships.

The ability to focus on felt experiencing develops from birth onwards through zillions of experiences both in and outside the therapy room. The deliberate learning of Focusing is a drop in the ocean compared to the subconscious learning that takes place in close relationships. So I like the implicit encouragement of focusing – e.g. “does it feel right when you say that?” – topped up sometimes with pointing out an aspect of focusing – e.g. “that feeling you have that’s hard to put into words, it’s important”.

Lengthy Focusing interventions and brief focusing moments

People who know a little of Focusing may think the focusing therapist guides their clients through the sort of step by step process outlined in Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ book. That’s one way, but it is cumbersome. It is much more helpful to make up a guided process spontaneously to fit the moment. And whilst I sometimes guide clients through longer spells of Focusing, much more often I encourage brief moments of pausing to ‘go inside’.

The advantage of having clients attend inwardly and silently is that they orient more of their awareness towards the body, towards feeling, and towards the unconscious and the quiet depths from which images and transcendent experience arise – away from intellectualising, words, and the conscious mind. But this can happen naturally in therapy for brief moments, and a balance has to be struck between the client’s intrapersonal contact with their bodily experience and their interpersonal contact with the therapist. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive.

The more seamless the moving from a lively interpersonal exchange to a deeper level of intrapersonal experiencing and back again, the happier I am. I don’t like to feel I am doing techniques – I prefer to sense that together my client and I are extending the boundaries of what and how we can communicate.

‘Experiential’ listening: the bees knees in empathic listening

I learnt Focusing under my own steam in the 1980’s by practising it with my ex-wife, reading the literature and benefiting from my own experience. It was only when I went to Chicago in 1990 to do a week’s training with Gendlin and his colleagues that I appreciated their style of reflective listening. It’s a sensitive and intimate style, and I came home feeling as if I had found the holy grail.

Therapists may do reflective listening, but we don’t necessarily learn how this basic counselling skill can become a creative therapeutic art. In Chicago they called their style ‘experiential listening’ to denote that the aim is to reflect not only what the client says but how they are experiencing it inwardly. Responses can point to the bodily ‘felt sense’ of what is being discussed – e.g. “something about all this feels uncomfortable for you”, and the therapist can stay close to the client who is on the edge of feelings that are hard to articulate – e.g. “yes, yes, it feels sort of ‘zingy’ in there …..”.

Especially with painful feelings, I noticed that where the psychosynthesis people remained silent, respectfully but distantly, the focusing people would be right in there with empathic noises and statements like “I can sense that this place needs very gentle care just now”. This close support helps those of us with a tenuous connection to uncomfortable feelings to overcome our shame of experiencing them in front of others. Silence can be experienced as ‘this isn’t really OK’.

I suspect that such close reflection can recreate the empathic responses we may have missed in infancy, so that we learn how to be with distressing or hard to articulate feelings and states in the company of a supportive person. It relates to the area of unconscious right-hemisphere communication between infant and caregiver that is the focus of current neuroscientific study.

Focusing delivers transcendent experience

Focusing (the method), through its inwardness and quietness, frequently delivers transcendent experiences, especially in the lengthy intervention format. Such experience, in which the individual discovers a surprising inner depth, gives a taste of the creative power that lies within. It is impressive in the way that something unexpected and transformative wells up from an unexplored corner of the mind. However you conceptualise it – spiritual, the higher self in action – it is experienced as empowering.

Transcendent experience may not be necessary for therapy to work, but it helps. It inspires and gives confidence that change can happen. For clients who find intimate relationship a struggle, it provides self-esteem whilst they continue the difficult process of learning to relate better. I think it is not absolutely necessary to therapy because it is available outside the therapy room, whereas working through the thoughts and feelings aroused by intimate relationship is not – not to the person who feels they need therapy, at any rate. All embodied transcendent experience involves focusing, and Focusing is a good way to help it happen.

Gendlin believes the unfolding of the bodily felt sense is Jung’s ‘transcendent function’ that lies beyond thinking, feeling, intuition and sensing. I think this is sometimes the case, but it usually takes the lengthy and deep Focusing for this to happen, or a similar process involving symbolic imagery. On the other hand, the bulk of unfolding from the felt sense in therapy comes in the course of dialogue, and is about grounding the ego in the client’s embodied experiencing – a local synaptic re-structuring perhaps, rather than a global transcendental uplifting.

“It’s the therapeutic relationship, stupid!”

In contrast to transcendent experience, much of therapy is of necessity the hard work of going over the minutiae of life experience, unglamorous and often painful. The therapist is not only the provider of comfort and support but also the challenger and the deflater, the one who speaks uncomfortable truths, and the fumbling human being with his or her own inner fault lines.

Whilst my aim is to be both the facilitator of transcendent experience and the companion on whom my client can project what they will, in practice I am more often the latter. If someone comes to see me for a Focusing session, they get the facilitator of possibly transcendent experience. But if this becomes a therapy relationship with its ongoing dialogue, I become the companion they may feel ambivalent about, and I then have to deliberately change direction to switch the process back into the inner depths.

I now tend to believe that the best cure for a poor ability to reflect on bodily experiencing is the experience of a good therapeutic relationship over time. This relationship can be extended to include focusing, with both parties listening to their felt sense of what is happening in the space between them. Transference can be explored in this gentle, step by step way, with both parties’ experiencing being informed by, but also taking precedence over, psychodynamic theory.

The theory of focusing is as rich as the practice

Focusing is better known as a method than as a theory. People want to know what they can do as therapists, and clients want to know what can be done in therapy, that isn’t plain old talking about the problem. Focusing offers them an inner process, a way to explore topics experientially, a way to turn one’s attention from mind and thinking to body and feeling.

But Gendlin’s theoretical ideas of immense value too. In fact, I haven’t come across any better description of what really happens in therapy. Any technique is limited in scope, and this is true of Focusing: there is client resistance, the fact that techniques do not always work as planned, and the fact that therapy is often such a demanding task that we have to abandon our favourite procedures and invent something new to fit the person in the moment. And to create on the hoof, a good foundation of theory is needed: principles, understanding, and experience arising from them, that enable us to do better than make stuff up at random.

There is not the space here to go far into Gendlin’s ideas. His paper ‘A Theory of Personality Change’ is the best place to start if you are interested (to go much further, you have to venture into his philosophical works). I think he undermines his case by not coming to terms with the notion of unconscious feeling, but as an explanation of how new conscious contents emerge in the therapy room, it is brilliant. He shows how fresh feelings, thoughts, images and memories unfold when there is a human relationship and a ‘feeling process’, and advises the therapist to respond “to what is happening in the client that the client doesn’t respond to”.

Think ‘felt sense’

A key Gendlinian concept is the ‘felt sense’. There was no English
word for the experience of bodily feeling in the moment until he
coined this phrase, though obviously this aspect of experience was
known about. It underlies each moment, it’s the source of fresh
feelings and creative thoughts, and it’s the place from which the
‘unfolding self’ unfolds. But without a name, it has been relatively
unavailable for popular consumption. The neuroscientist Antonio
Damasio has written a book about it, ‘The Feeling of What Happens’,
and describes it as “the feeling of a feeling”.

The term, however, fits with popular language, because we say “my sense of this situation” and “it just felt right”. When the therapist pauses to speak from his or her felt sense, the client is subliminally encouraged to do likewise. And when the client speaks from their felt sense of what they are exploring, then you can be sure that something valuable is happening. We heal emotional wounds by moving between our felt sense of them and our attempts to express them. People come to therapy because they have an experience the felt sense of which they are unable to sit with for long enough to form in consciousness what is implicit within it.

Speaking from the felt sense is not the same as speaking with feeling. ‘Feeling’ is a concept we have a name for, like ‘sadness’, ‘anxiety’, ‘frustration’, but we may or may not have a sense of it in the moment. ‘Felt sense’ is the here and now bodily sense of something we don’t yet have words for, it’s the faltering attempts to find ways to express our experience, it’s what gives rise to the odd things we say that don’t make logical sense yet ‘we know what we mean’.

In the therapy room, the felt sense is the client’s meaning that they struggle to articulate, or a vague and incomplete “something …” that appears amidst their explanations. It’s the therapist’s awareness of the particular counter-transference feeling evoked by this client, the sense that something is too much for the client to talk about just now, or that a kind or a confrontative response is needed. The felt sense is visceral, sometimes powerfully so, other times very subtly so. Effective therapy is the interaction of two flows of felt senses in two people: when this interaction stops, the therapeutic process risks going nowhere.

If you are puzzled, read on, read Gendlin, think about it. I have been mulling over what ‘felt sense’ really means for years, and I’m still doing so. That’s the sort of creature it is – in itself, a shift in consciousness.

Keep your head screwed on and have a bodily felt dialogue

People often bemoan the futility of mere ‘talking about’, the apparent limitations of words and language to reach the parts where life is deeply felt, and criticise ‘being in the head’ as if they would welcome placing their’s on the executioner’s chopping block. We all know the satisfaction that comes with other forms of self-expression – movement, imagery, drawing and so forth. So how do we make the talking meaningful, and how can we orient our talking so that it connects us with our bodies? And if we don’t bite the bullet in the therapy room, how will we learn to talk with heart and mind in our relationships and friendships?

Dialogue can be embodied, felt in the body. We can learn to speak from the felt sense, to think from it, and to refer the theoretical ideas and concepts we take from our mental filing cabinets to it. If we don’t, these ideas and concepts – all of which once emerged from someone’s felt sense – may come to dominate. They need to be brought to heel, to be made relative to the bodily self. Then they are useful helpers instead of tyrannical figures.

Here are some ways I use to keep the dialogue rooted in the felt sense:

“hold on, let me check I’ve understood you here” (and then I say it back from my felt sense of what my client said)
“take a moment to check inside whether it feels right to say that”
“what do you think?”
“how does what I’ve said leave you feeling?”

I try to be mindful of the place my speaking is coming from in me, and the effect it is having on my client – and of the place their speaking seems to be coming from in them and its effect on me.

Something that I don’t think is well recognised in the Focusing community is that the felt sense is evoked by discussing meaningful content as well as by ‘going inside’. If the dialogue is to the point, both therapist and client connect their heads with their hearts and beyond. The longer I practice, the more I want to engage my clients in a lively dialogue where I include my own experience and knowledge.

Conclusion

The use of Focusing and a focusing orientation in therapy brings inwardness, reflection, bodily feeling, moments of reflective silence and transcendence, into the room. If overdone, it can result in the client hiding from the therapist and the therapist hiding behind a procedure. But sprinkled in sensitively, it adds depth and embodiment to other therapeutic methods and to the dialogue. Clients like it, because it feels good when something new unfolds from the felt sense and they can trust an inner resource as well as the outer resource of the therapist.

It takes time to appreciate focusing in depth, and there is no substitute for the experience of peer-partnership Focusing. Many therapists do little bits of Focusing, e.g. “invite an image to come”, “stay with it”, but I doubt that those not well exposed to it say the following sorts of things to their clients:-

“you had something there just a moment ago, maybe you could find it again”
“I can see you’re really feeling it now”

So why can’t you train in focusing-oriented therapy? Because Focusing on its own is insufficient, as Gendlin himself admits. It’s better suited for weaving into a more comprehensive therapeutic training, as we are doing at Regents College on their Integrative and Existential courses. You can study it after qualifying, for example at the University of East Anglia which is running an MA programme devised by Campbell Purton and colleagues (Campbell is also the author of an excellent new book – ‘Person-Centred Therapy – The Focusing-Oriented Approach’). Or, you can learn Focusing for yourself and adapt it to your work.

I cannot say if I’m a better therapist for my knowledge of focusing. But I think I orient myself to the task in hand with my clients more easily because of it. It offers many ways to help them experience the therapeutic process as arising from within themselves, and an experiential base for the therapist to mould their theoretical understanding to the particular client.

Further reading

Damasio, Antonio, ‘The Feeling of What Happens’. Heinemann, 1999, London.

Gendlin, Eugene, ‘Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy’. Guilford Press, 1996, New York.

Gendlin, Eugene, ‘Focusing’. Rider, 2003, London.

Gendlin, Eugene, ‘A theory of personality change’. In P. Worchel and D. Byrne (Eds.), ‘Personality change’, pp. 100-148. John Wiley and Sons, 1964, New York.

Gendlin, Eugene, ‘The client’s client: the edge of awareness’. In R.L. Levant and J.M. Shlien (Eds.), ‘Client-centered therapy and the person-centered approach’. Praeger, 1984, New York.

Purton, Campbell, ‘Person-Centred Therapy – The Focusing-Oriented Approach’. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, Basingstoke.

NB: the two articles by Gendlin can be downloaded from
here.

Copyright Peter Afford, May 2005.

Susan Jordan and Sally Nealon

Published in The Fulcrum, the craniosacral journal.

Many craniosacral therapists already use Focusing as a tool to deepen awareness and ground experiences in the body. Those who are not familiar with it may be interested to know more about what it can offer to both therapist and client in cranio-sacral work.

For those who have not met it before, Focusing was discovered or identified in the 1950s by Eugene Gendlin, a philosopher and psychotherapist who worked with Carl Rogers on his research into what made counselling or psychotherapy effective. Gendlin found that those people who were able to make contact with the bodily sense of their process, which he named the “felt sense”, were more likely to experience changes during therapy than those whose understanding of themselves was less connected with their inner sensing. He developed Focusing as a way of teaching this skill, which we all use naturally to some extent, to those who do not access it so readily(1).

In craniosacral work, as with other forms of bodywork, if the client can sense into what is happening, including their own resistance to it, they are already on the way to allowing the process to move through more freely. This then makes a connection to what Franklyn Sills (2) describes as the “inner realm which allows access to how we hold meaning in an embodied way”. Through bodily sensing, Focusing provides a way of experiencing this meaning. If the client does not seem able to sense into the body, this may be because the shock and trauma, often too early to be consciously remembered, have caused them to freeze or dissociate. It is easy to assume that if someone is not sensing anything, this means they are not accessing the felt sense. In fact the apparent nothing is ‘something’, and by acknowledging it the client can begin to make more space around it. The practitioner can help the client to do this through the non-judgemental acceptance of whatever arises, and perhaps by reflecting back in a Focusing way (see below).

It is sometimes difficult for people to distinguish between feeling an emotion, which will probably be expressed as “I’m angry”, “I’m scared”, and sensing into it, which Focusing might express as “I’m noticing that something in me is feeling scared”. Further sensing might reveal that the “something” is not only scared but also perhaps hurt or outraged, or whatever else it may happen to be. Sensing into it in this way can enable someone to disidentify without dissociating, to be with the experience rather overwhelmed by it. The practitioner’s presence and ability hold the larger space can help the client to do this. In Focusing there is an implicit trust of the process, and also an acknowledgement that at times something may simply be too much for the person to be with.

Peter Levine (3) talks of the importance of bodily sensation in processing trauma and uses felt sensing as a way of helping people to reconnect with their experience. Michael Kern (4) also refers to this in the context of craniosacral work. As the client begins to re-associate with the dissociated sensation, the body can start to release the trauma by shaking or other forms of discharge. A Focusing attitude can help the client to acknowledge the process as it is happening and sense what more needs to come. This can generate an attitude of acceptance which makes it possible to be with distress and disturbance. Focusing-type interventions such as “perhaps you could just see what that feels like” may help to facilitate the process, as can the judicious use of reflection (“so that feels really heavy” etc), which can help the client to connect more deeply with the experience. If someone is asked “How are you feeling now?” their immediate response may be to say “I feel fine”. The practitioner can then ask if the client can sense what the ‘fine’ feels like, and this may carry the process forward. Alternatively, rather than asking “How do you feel?”, it can sometimes be more useful to ask how it feels (i.e. the particular place, sensation or emotion). This can help the client to become interested in the process rather than identified with the emotion – or lack of emotion. In this way the client has access not only to emotion but to feeling, which is the subtle interface between emotion and bodily sensing, and which may include thought and imagery.

Focusing can also be directly helpful to practitioners. By checking inside from time to time, they can notice when they have slipped out of ‘practitioner neutral’ and been drawn into the client’s process. This noticing can give the space to re-set fulcrums and come back into what Focusing describes as Presence, i.e. the sense of the larger holding field. If the practitioner is aware of feeling uncomfortable, they can take a moment to sense what is happening in the relational field and whether the discomfort is theirs or the client’s, or both. Learning to do this and to hold the neutral state is particularly important for new practitioners.

If a client is experiencing strong emotion or bodily manifestations such as violent movement, a new practitioner’s first reaction may well be “What on earth do I do?” Sensing into oneself at such moments, and helping the client to sense into themselves, can open up the space in which the process can complete. When working with physical manifestations which seem overwhelming to the client, such as unexplained pain or nerve impulses in particular areas, the practitioner can easily begin to feel overwhelmed. Taking a moment or two to acknowledge that “something in me” is feeling overwhelmed can help to hold the whole space and enable the practitioner to step back from feeling responsible. If the client experiences extreme tension, the practitioner can help the client to relax simply by acknowledging that this is there, rather than taking on the tension and struggling with it.

In all of this, Focusing can support being with what arises rather than becoming it. When this is difficult for the client, the practitioner’s presence and ability to be with themselves can create safety. Cranio-sacral therapy works non-verbally with the relational field, and this can have a profound effect. In addition, the verbal ways of reflecting and supporting process which Focusing teaches can enable clients to hold themselves with more space and compassion.

If you are interested in finding out more about Focusing, you can visit the British Focusing Teachers’ Association website, www.focusing.org.uk. A number of Focusing teachers offer courses in different parts of the country and individual sessions are also an option. Other websites with articles and further links are the Focusing Institute, www.focusing.org, and Focusing Resources, www.focusingresources.com.

Susan Jordan is a British Focusing Teachers’ Association recognised Focusing teacher and a Focusing Institute certified trainer. She is also a UKCP registered Core Process psychotherapist and trained at the Karuna Institute with Maura and Franklyn Sills. She offers Focusing courses and individual sessions in London. Her website address is www.susanjordan.net.

Sally Nealon, RCST, is a senior tutor at CTET and a visiting tutor at the University of Westminster’s School of Integrative Health. She trained at CTET with Michael Kern and Franklyn Sills. She has a private craniosacral practice in North West London and can be contacted at sally@bodyknowsbest.co.uk.

  • 1 Gendlin, Eugene Focusing (2nd edition), Bantam New Age Books (1982)
  • 2 Sills, Franklyn Craniosacral Biodynamics, North Atlantic Books (2001, 2004)
  • 3 Levine, Peter Waking the Tiger, North Atlantic Books (1997)
  • 4 Kern, Michael Wisdom in the Body, North Atlantic Books (2006)

 

Margaret Hannah

The following is an extract from a dissertation which I completed
early in 2004 in order to gain an MA in Psychotherapy, and which is
entitled “Focusing: its Use and Context within Core Process
Psychotherapy”.

For those unfamiliar with Core Process, it is a psychotherapeutic
approach which embraces Buddhist teachings. It is taught at the
Karuna Institute, near Widecombe in the Moor, Devon, England —
“Karuna” means compassion in Sanskrit. Core Process also adopts some
modern western psychological theories, mainly of the client-centred
type, which in my view sit comfortably within the Buddhist philosophy.

Focusing is the only “technique” or skill which is taught formally in
the Core Process training, and I use it frequently in my work with
clients. I hope this section may be of interest to those wanting to
investigate Buddhism and/or meditation.

Margaret Hannah, MA
Core Process Psychotherapist
(Accredited UKCP)
2004

CONNECTION WITH BUDDHISM

Core Process is a psychotherapeutic approach which embraces Buddhist
philosophy, and as such accepts the central tenet of the Buddha’s
teaching, the Four Noble Truths. As Chogyam Trungpa states, these are
“the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the
truth of the goal, and the truth of the path”. He was acknowledging
that the human condition inherently involves suffering, that it is
possible to understand how the suffering has evolved, to carry an
intention to end the suffering, and through contemplative spiritual
practice attain the blissful state where suffering no longer
exists. Indeed, Core Process is regarded as a contemplative model of
psychotherapy. This is because it can be likened to the spiritual
practice of vipassana meditation. In this, the intention is to be
physically still, to slow the mind and place the attention inward,
observing what arises within and letting this pass away. In a therapy
session the therapist’s role can be seen to replicate the observing
part of the meditator, and the material presented by the client as
that which arises in the meditator. The
non-judgmental contemplation of the therapist of the material allows
it to transform and thus pass away. In the
vipassana method, the relationship with the body is central.

The Contemplation of the Body — The Satipatthana Sutta

In Buddhism, the term “Dharma” or “Dhamma” is translated as “spiritual
path”, or more loosely as “spirituality” or
“righteousness”. Nyanaponika Thera writes in his “Vision of Dhamma”,

“The most concise expression of the Dhamma, its unifying framework, is
the teaching of the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its origin, its
cessation and the way leading to its cessation” (29, Intro p. xix).

He goes on to emphasise the importance of the teaching of the
Satipatthana Sutta in relation to spiritual practice. He writes:

“The teachings of the Buddha offer a great variety of methods of
mental training and subjects of meditation, suited to the various
individual needs, temperaments and capacities. Yet all these methods
ultimately converge in the “Way of Mindfulness” called by the Master
himself “The Only Way” … the systematic cultivation of Right
Mindfulness, as taught by the Buddha in his Discourse on Satipatthana,
still provides the simple and direct, the most thorough and effective,
method for training and developing the mind for its daily tasks and
problems as well as for its highest aim” (28, p.7).

The
Satipatthana Sutta occurs twice in the Buddhist scriptures, once in
the Majjhima Nikaya (Middle Collection of Discourses) and again in an
extended version in the Digha Nikaya (Long Collection), where it is
referred to as the Maha-Satipatthana Sutta (The Great Discourse).
This teaching was given by the Buddha both at the beginning and the
end of his career, latterly when he was ill and his disciples were
anxious that he would soon die, at which time his faithful attendant
Ananda asked him for a teaching. He is said to have replied:

“Be
your own island, Ananda, be your own refuge! Do not take any other
refuge! Let the Teaching be your island, let the Teaching be your
refuge; do not take any other refuge! And how, Ananda, does a monk
take himself as an island, himself as refuge, is without any other
refuge? How is the Teaching his island and refuge, and nothing else?
Herein a monk dwells practising body-contemplation on the body …
feeling-contemplation on feelings … mind-contemplation on the mind
… mind-object contemplation on mind-objects, ardent, clearly
comprehending and mindful, having overcome covetousness and grief
concerning the world. In that way, Ananda, will a monk be his own
island and refuge, without any other, in that way will he have the
Teaching as his island and refuge, and nothing else.” (Nyaponika
Thera quoting from the Pali Canon, 28, p.140)

The Buddha’s teaching emphasises therefore, that for liberation from
suffering, all one needs is one’s own body and experience. He is, in
my view, implying in the final sentence of the above quotation that in
his physical being he embodies the teaching; all he needs is within
himself, “nothing else” is required from outside of himself. This
message is wonderful news for the monks; what more empowering a
concept than to know that the key to your liberation from suffering
lies within what you already have. Self-enquiry, including enquiry
into the body can provide all; and a parallel with focusing is
evident.

The Satipatthana Sutta describes in detail the various elements of
human experience which the monk should contemplate. These include
bodily functions such as breathing, postures, physical movement,
bodily feelings such as pain, pleasure or neutrality, sense
perceptions like sound, sight, smell, touch, taste, “mental objects”
such as emotions like anger, desire, sloth, agitation, doubt, and
factors of enlightenment such as mindfulness, energy, joy,
tranquillity, and equanimity. Consciousness is also listed as an
element to contemplate. Included in the list is the contemplation of
the body as the four elements of earth, fire, water and air; as well
as all unseen elements of the body, some of which may provoke
revulsion such as bile and faeces. In addition, and surprising to the
modern mind, are the “nine cemetery contemplations” — which the
monk is encouraged to undertake at charnel grounds in order to realise
the impermanence of the body.

Each element described in the list falls within one of four
categories: body, feeling, mental object or consciousness. And at the
end of each section describing the object or objects of contemplation,
there is a reiterated passage, as follows:

“Thus he lives
contemplating the body (or other category) in the body internally, or
he lives contemplating the body in the body, internally and
externally. He lives contemplating origination-factors in the body,
or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in the
body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: “The
body exists,” to the extent necessary just for knowledge and
mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to naught in the world.
Thus also, monks, a monk lives contemplating the body in the body.”
(15, p.113)

This teaching comes from around two and a half thousand years ago (the
Buddha’s exact dates are unknown), from a distant culture, and has
been translated. It is therefore always open to interpretation.
However, what may be revealed by self-enquiry of ourselves as humans,
it seems to me, is not dependent upon time and culture, but will
contain basically similar elements. Nyanaponika Thera writes “True
wisdom is always young” (28, p.21). The contemplation of “the body
in the body” in my view means that it is necessary in this practice to
delve into the bodily-held experience to taste and appreciate its
qualities. Thich Nat Hanh writes: “To comprehend something means
to pick it up and be one with it. There is no other way to understand
something” (14, p.11). This is echoed by Tarab Tulku:

“It is
important to note that in accordance with Tibetan psychology, the
conceptualisation of emotionality represses it. This psychological
view suggests that instead of letting the conceptualising mind
dominate and repress the emotions, we should stay with and live
through the emotional experience” (27, p.33).

Chogyam Trungpa, in
answer to the question “How do you transmute emotions?”, replied

“Instead of experiencing emotions as being separate from you, your
rather unruly employees so to speak, you must actually feel the
texture and real living quality of the emotions … We have to be
brave enough to actually encounter our emotions” (30, p.235).

There is no intellectualisation of the experience, no dwelling on the
relationship with the experience which is created by the ego; it is
“going into” in order more fully to understand it. This is directly
comparable with what happens in focusing. Campbell and McMahon write:

“Most of us only feel our uncomfortableness with a problem or our
need to control it. Rarely, however, do we experience what it is like
deliberately and consciously to be in the body’s sense of negative
issue. … This openness to bodily knowing within the Focusing
process sets the stage for real and sometimes dramatic change as
hurting places are allowed to unfold.” (2, p.17)

There is also possibly a connection between the focusing process and
the concept of “origination” and “dissolution” factors in the body.
When a felt sense rises into consciousness, or when one realises more
about that felt sense, could this not be an origination factor? And
when a felt shift occurs, this is surely energy transforming, or in
other words, dissolving. It may be that this instruction in the Sutta
is describing factors of personality arising from the ground of
emergence, the not-self, and dissolving back into it, and so presumes
a state of relative enlightenment which is not the case with focusing
instruction. Certainly for the contemplation of consciousness,
considerable enlightenment would seem to be necessary; although the
other three categories of contemplation, i.e. body, feeling and mental
objects do arguably encompass the material which is worked with in the
focusing process.

Contemplating the body “externally” would not seem to find a direct
parallel with the focusing process. As explained in Nyanaponika
Thera’s “Heart of Buddhist Meditation”:

“And how does a monk dwell
practising body-contemplation on the body externally? Herein a monk
reflects upon a body external to himself.” (28, p.155)

However, certain of the instructions concerned with contemplation on
the body which are explained by Thera in the same work can be seen as
having some parallels with focusing. In answer to the question
“How does one dwell practising body-contemplation on the body?”
The Buddha’s answer is seven-fold:

“Contemplating it as
impermanent, he abandons the notion of permanency, contemplating it as
painful, he abandons the notion of pleasure, contemplating it as
not-self, he abandons the notion of a self; by turning away he
abandons delight; by being dispassionate he abandons greed; by causing
cessation he abandons origination; by relinquishing he abandons
grasping” (28, p.156).

Certainly focusing can be linked to the
first element of the above teaching in that it embraces the notion of
impermanency — an acceptance that change is not only possible but
natural and healthy; and to the second element in that, in focusing
there has to be a willingness to be with painful aspects of the self,
temporarily abandoning defences against pain. In addition, the sixth
and seventh elements “by causing cessation he abandons
origination” and “by relinquishing he abandons grasping” can
be related to the process of bringing unconscious aspects into
consciousness — the realisations and felt shifts which are
indications of real psychological change.

The fifth, fourth and third elements, which are about abandoning
greed, physical pleasure and the notion of self are more difficult to
relate to focusing, as these teachings assumes the highest spiritual
aim of enlightenment, which in Buddhism carries an intention to
realise the “not-self”, that which is not conditioned, being beyond
individual personality in order to “overcome grief and covetousness
concerning the world” (28, p.154). In focusing, the self and its
development is emphasised — the aim is to become happier with
ourselves, more fulfilled as individuals within the world.

The development of mindfulness can be seen as involving two different
types of practice, one formal and time limited, the other an
application of awareness within everyday living. Chogyam Trungpa
writes:

“In addition to the sitting form of meditation there is the
meditation practice in everyday life of panoramic awareness. This
particular kind of practice is connected with identifying with the
activities one is involved in. The awareness practice could apply to
artwork or any other activity” (31, p.80).

He also writes
“Sitting meditation needs to be combined with an awareness practice
in everyday life” (32, p.47). Nyanaponika Thera similarly states:

“to trap the actual and potential power of mindfulness it is
necessary to understand and deliberately cultivate it in its basic,
unalloyed form, which we shall call bare attention. … Bare
attention is developed in two ways: (1) as a methodical meditative
practice with selected objects; (2) as applied, as far as practicable,
to the normal events of the day, together with a general attitude of
mindfulness and clear comprehension.” (29, p.50-51)

There is certainly a parallel here to the use of focusing in Core
Process Psychotherapy. The devotion of a part of a therapy session to
a time-limited section, proceeding formally through focusing steps,
can be likened to the first “sitting form of meditation”,
whereas the practice of inviting the client momentarily to become
aware of their felt sense, bringing their awareness to the inside of
their bodies, is like the second. Neil Friedman described these two
types of focusing in his psychotherapy practice, calling them
“focusing rounds” and “mini-focusings” (7, p.129). The
more practice undertaken in focusing, the easier this “touching
momentarily into the felt sense” becomes. Moreover, I have found that
my own practice of focusing has increased my ability to find a state
of “panoramic awareness” in everyday living. Paradoxically, to become
more aware of oneself at an inner level, is actually to become more
aware of everything around one as well. Campbell and McMahon write in
“Bio-Spirituality”: “We also find that Focusing can support
spiritual growth by inviting a person to step beyond the mind’s
perennial quest for control” (2, p.52), and McMahon in “Beyond the
Myth of Dominance” urges:

“Look not with your mind, but with your
body. If you can find a way to live in your body and not reject any
of it, then you will be guided into discovering the wisdom you sense
in nature all around you. Your own body is the key that will tune you
into this vast and awesome Presence, the source of all wisdom” (24,
p.199).

Are there then similarities between developing the skill of
focusing and developing the “bare attention”; that is the key to the
“potential power of mindfulness”? There are in my view significant
parallels.

In developing bare attention, and in developing Focusing, there is a
common objective: that of examining the self in order to transform the
self. Similar advice is given about physical posture to be adopted.
For sitting meditation and for Focusing, a relaxed posture with a
straight spine is usually recommended. As well as a similar physical
attitude, there is the adoption of similar mind-sets in approaching
meditation or focusing. These mind-sets are typified by qualities
which are positive and expansive, involving trust and open-mindedness.
In Buddhist meditation, confidence and curiosity are emphasised.
Chogyam Trungpa writes: “This awareness practice … requires
confidence. Any kind of activity that requires discipline requires
confidence”(31, p.80), and in “Cutting through Spiritual
Materialism” he states

“in order to be a completely inspired person
like Gautama Buddha, you have to be very open-minded and intelligent,
an inquisitive person. You have to want to explore everything”
(30, p.162).

even though what is found may seem ugly, painful or
repulsive. Nyanaponika Thera also writes: “The aim of the
meditative practice to be described here, is the highest which the
teaching of the Buddha offers. Therefore the practice should be taken
up in a mental attitude befitting such a high purpose”. He goes on
to suggest that the meditator recite the Threefold Refuge because
“this will instil confidence in him, which is so important for
meditative progress.” (28, p. 91)

Focusing writers Amodeo and Wentworth emphasise faith (confidence
actually means “with faith”) and courage: “Allowing ourselves
to vulnerably open to a full range of felt experience requires the
courage to take intelligent risks.” And “Facing unknown outcomes
requires living with a realistic degree of faith” (1, pp 83-84).
Other writers describe the cultivation of a respectful attitude and
friendliness to the self, as well as curiosity: “The point of
creating a caring-feeling-presence is … to create an open enough
body climate within which negative feelings can be owned” (24,
p.118). “A Focusing attitude is a respect for a reverence towards
concrete bodily felt experiencing” (7, p.130). “Focusing is
like being a friend to your own inner experience. The qualities of
true friendship include acknowledging, allowing patience, curiosity,
respect, warmth, welcome, empathy, compassion, and love.” (34,
p.18).

This encouragement by writers on focusing to be warm and friendly
towards oneself may be in light of the prevalence of low self-esteem
in our culture today; it may be that greater natural self esteem was a
given for the Buddha. When I consider my own experience when
approaching a Focusing session or a meditation session, I note that in
both cases I enter a mind-state of slowing or dropping thought
processes, where my attention is inwards rather than outwards; and
there is an aspect of giving time to myself, of self-nourishment, and
inner expansion. For both activities, I drop as much as possible my
tendency to self-judgment, and carry an intention to notice this at a
subtle level when it arises; this is different from my everyday
consciousness mode. There is also common to both a sense of a
balancing act going on; not getting drawn into self-criticism, not
getting drawn into thoughts, a sort of “hovering at the edge”. Ajahn
Chah writes, when giving advice about meditation technique “To
practise in a way that’s peaceful means to place mind neither too high
or too low, but at the point of balance” (3, p.47). Chogyam
Trungpa echoes this, when relating a story about a sitar player who
asked the Buddha how to meditate: “The musician asked, “Should I
control my mind or should I completely let go?” The Buddha
answered, “Since you are great musician, tell me how you would tune
the strings of your instrument.” The musician said, “I would
make them not too tight and not too loose.” “Likewise”, said
the Buddha, “in your meditation practice you should not impose
anything too forceful on your mind, nor should you let it wander.”
That is the teaching of letting the mind be in a very open way, of
feeling the flow of energy without trying to subdue it and without
letting it get out of control.” (30, p.10)

There can definitely be shifts in my experience of time in practising
focusing and in meditation. In both, I am less aware of time as a
linear process. I have focused for forty-five minute periods when I
seem to have visited many deep places in myself and been aware of
significant shifts, and yet have been astonished when given the “five
minutes to go” signal from my listener — much more time has elapsed
than I would have guessed. This can also happen in those meditation
sessions when I experience less busy-ness of mind, a deeper
relaxation. In both meditation and focusing also, thoughts can arise,
acting as distractions from the intended process. When this happens
in a focusing session with a client, I encourage them to return their
attention to the body. When engaged in focusing myself, I bring my
attention back to my felt sense after realising my mind has wandered.
However in meditation something subtler, less action-oriented is
encouraged:

“In true meditation there is no ambition to stir up
thoughts, nor is there an ambition to suppress them. They are just
allowed to occur spontaneously and become an expression of basic
sanity. They become the expression of the precision and the clarity
of the awakened state of mind.” (Chogyam Trungpa, 30, p.10)

The Skandhas Trungpa also writes about thoughts in relation to
meditation:

“One comes to an understanding and transcendence of ego
by using meditation to work backwards through the Five Skandhas. And
the last development of the Fifth Skandha is the neurotic and
irregular thought patterns which constantly flit across the mind”
(31, p.151).

“Skandha” is the term use in Buddhism for elements of
the ego as it develops, the creation of ourselves as individuals. The
word is translated as “heaps” or “aggregates”, as it carries the
quality of “growing collections”. There are five of these. The first
involves the development of “form”, which arises from a fear of space.
The space is the universal energy, which holds all form in potential.
Trungpa writes:

“the fear of the absence of self, of the egoless
state, is a constant threat to us … We want to maintain some
solidity … so we try to solidify or freeze that experience of
space” (32, p.21).

The second skandha involves feeling, a seeking
to feel in order to confirm that we are distinct and separate from
that which is outside ourselves. The third skandha involves impulses
which are guided by perceptions. According to Trungpa this
encompasses

“indifference, passion and aggression. … Perception,
in this case, is the self-conscious feeling that you must officially
report back to central headquarters what is happening in any given
moment. Then you can manipulate each situation by organizing another
strategy” (32, p.21).

This is linked to the impulse to control our
experience. The fourth skandha involves the development of intellect
and concepts. Trungpa again:

“We cannot establish ego properly
without intellect, with the ability to conceptualize and name. By now
we have an enormously rich collection of things going on inside us.
Since we have so many things happening, we begin to categorize them
putting them into certain pigeon-holes, naming them” (32, p.22).

The last skandha is the development of consciousness. Thich Nat Hanh
states: “The fifth category, consciousness, however contains all
the other categories and is the basis of their existence” (15,
p.46). Although these are described in order, they arise together and
continuously, and are involved in the creation of karma. Trungpa
states that all five have one purpose:

“The whole development of
the five skandhas — ignorance/form, feeling, impulse/perception,
concept and consciousness — is an attempt on our part to shield
ourselves from the truth of our insubstantiality. The practice of
meditation is to see the transparency of this shield. … If we want
to take this wall down, we must take it down brick by brick; … So
the practice of meditation starts with the emotions and thought,
particularly with the thought process” (32, p.23).

Meditation can
be seen as an “unpacking” of the skandhas, so as to become eventually
free of karma, the cycle of birth and death.

In focusing there is an intention to move away from the emotions to
find the more subtle felt sense.

“A felt sense is the broader, at
first unclear, unrecognizable discomfort, … to let it form, you
have to stand back a little from the familiar emotion. The felt sense
is wider, less intense, easier to have, and much more broadly
inclusive” (Gendlin, 9, p.69).

So, any issue which may exist
around the relationship with our arising emotions is not entered into
immediately in the focusing process. However, during focusing, a
question about the emotional tone of a felt sense or image can
usefully be asked, and acknowledging such a tone can bring a process
step to reveal the nature of an underlying fear or belief. For
instance, in a recent focusing session I saw an image of a garage door
open inside my heart area. My listener asked if there was an emotional
tone, and I realised that there was anger involved with the
image. Underneath the anger was a fear of being energetically “too
open” and that to receive was also to be invaded. What was happening
here was, I would argue, an engagement with the anger and fear
unearthed in this process. It was necessary fully to taste the nature
of that particular anger and fear in order to move my process on. And
in order fully to taste them, it was also necessary to apply something
other than the “dualistic thought process” referred to by Trungpa.
The dualistic thought process involves judging whilst perceiving:
whatever is perceived is judged as right or wrong, good or bad; the
mind takes a fixed stance as to the desirability or repulsiveness of
that which is perceived. (Often the terms “clinging” and “aversion”
have been used to describe this in a Buddhist context). Focusing, as
described above, involves non-judgmental acceptance of that which
arises in the inner space. This seems to me to be closely related to
the space being described by Trungpa in “The Myth of Freedom”, when he
states that the Buddha’s teaching “was inspired by his discovery
that there is a tremendous space in which the universality of
inspiration is happening. There is pain, but there is also the
environment around the origin of pain. The whole thing becomes more
expansive, more open.” He goes on “the vipashyana practice that
we are attempting … is realizing that space contains matter, that
matter makes no demands on space and that space makes no demands on
matter. It is a reciprocal and open situation” (32, pp 58-59). In
focusing, it is tremendously helpful to be able to be with and to
explore the felt sense from such an open, spacious and non-judgmental
place, which allows for fluidity and change.

Focusing engages us in the more subtle felt sense which can be related
to the second skandha of feeling. In choosing to be with the bodily
felt sense we are helping to disengage from thought processes (peeling
away the fifth skandha), and similarly in realising emotional tones
held in the felt sense we are strengthening a non-attachment to
emotions associated with the fourth skandha. It is more difficult
directly to correlate the first skandha regarding form to the process
of focusing, and to the third one regarding perception/impulse. In
the Buddhist context, “impulse” is a phenomenon much more subtle that
a “wanting to”, which can be categorised as an emotion. I believe I
recently touched the edge of an impulse whilst focusing, when I
noticed quality of energy to the left of my heart which constantly
pulled away from settling into the moment, being fully present. It was
so subtle as to be difficult to describe in words, and my sense is
that it will take time and persistence to transform.

Of course, it would not be helpful to analyse in terms of skandhas or
another model the sensations which are noticed whilst in a focusing
session, as this would put one back into thought processes rather than
being with the felt sense. Finding a handle is about individual
experience, not about fitting an analytic construct. Nyanaponika
Thera describes something very similar when discussing meditation
technique:

“It is a fundamental principle of the Satipatthana
method that the disciple should take his very first steps on the firm
ground of his own experience. He should learn to see things as they
are, and he should see them for himself. He should not be influenced
by others” (28, p.87-88).

In Focusing, the listener is not
intending to influence or control the focuser, and most focusers find
the practice much enhanced by the presence of a listener (I would
suggest because of feeling reassured by being accompanied, and because
the spirit of non-judgment is reinforced by the listener’s quality of
presence and skilful reflection). The listener can be likened to a
“spiritual friend”. Trungpa describes this concept in relation to
unpeeling the layers of the ego:

“We must be willing to communicate
in a completely open and direct way with our spiritual friend and with
our life, without any hidden corners. …

Q: Must we have a spiritual
friend before we can expose ourselves, or can we just open ourselves
to the situations of life?
A: I think you need someone to watch you
do it, because then it will seem more real to you” (30, p.82-83).

The implication here is that the “spiritual friend” is a guru,
perhaps. However, as the role of the guru is to enable one to see
oneself more clearly, so the listener in focusing also fills this
role, albeit for a very limited time period. It is the finding of the
handle and expressing this to a listener which is perhaps the most
obvious difference between focusing and any form of meditation, the
latter being a practice where transmutation is usually an inner
process only.

CONCLUSION

The Buddha’s teaching on meditation practice was addressed to monks,
who were committed to a way of life which embraced non-harm to self or
others, the adoption of precepts such as poverty and chastity, in fact
surrendering all aspects of living to the goal of spiritual
enlightenment. At the present time those who embrace Buddhist beliefs
or practices are, of course, not necessarily monks. Still, vipassana
meditation is undertaken by the Buddhist practitioner with the
intention of becoming conscious that one’s basic true nature is
unalloyed joy and ecstasy; “as the Master says so emphatically in
the Discourse, the attainment of final deliverance from suffering
(Nibbana) is the ultimate aim and inherent power of Satipatthana”
(Nyanaponika Thera, 28, p.13). The practice is part of a spiritual
tradition which accepts the concepts of reincarnation, karmic effects,
and the paradoxical idea that liberation of an individual from
suffering is possible by releasing the concept of the self. Focusing
does not claim such connections of course, and is simply a skill
useful in the pursuit of self knowledge in the twentieth century
western cultural context of self-development. Gendlin writes “It
is a way of enhancing self-knowledge, rather than a complete
philosophy” and “focusing … should be combined with anything
else that can develop us as persons.” (9, p ix)

The foregoing has compared Focusing with Core Process Psychotherapy
and aspects of Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice. All these
teachings and practices are involved with the exploration and
strengthening of self-knowledge and the inner life, and as such, all
are methods of spiritual development, and can inform each other. The
key to success in all is the purity of intention of the practitioner.
As Ajahn Sucitto writes “We are our intention, that’s what forms
us” (26, p.109). Intention to change oneself involves courage,
honesty, commitment, perseverance and sensitivity. And all these
practices: Core Process Psychotherapy, Focusing, and Buddhist
meditation, combined with pure intention, are important, perhaps
vital, to the evolution of consciousness.

REFERENCES

      • Amodeo, J and Wentworth, K: “Being Intimate” Arkana 1986 ISBN: 014.01.9007.4
      • Campbell, P A and McMahon, E M: “Bio-Spirituality” Loyola University Press 1985 ISBN: 0-8294-0478-3
      • Chah, Venerable Ajahn: “Living Dhamma” The Sangha, Bung Wai Forest Monastery 1992
      • Chah, Venerable Ajahn: “Food for the Heart” The Sangha, Wat Pah Nanachat 1992 ISBN: 1 870205 12 X
      • Das, Lama Surya: “Awakening the Buddha Within” Bantam Books 1997 ISBN: 0553 505378
      • Flanagan, Kevin: “Everyday Genius” Marino Books 1998
      • Friedman, N: “Focusing: Selected Essays 1974-1999” Neil Friedman 2000 ISBN: 0-7388-1233-1
      • Gendlin, E T: “Focusing” Bantam Books 1981 ISBN: 0-553-27833-9
      • Gendlin, E T: “Focusing” Rider, 2003 ISBN: 184413220X
      • Gendlin E T: “Focusing” (Article in “Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice” 1969 Vol. 6, No.1, pp 4-14)
      • Gendlin, E T: “Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy” The Guildford Press 1996 ISBN: 1-57230-376-X
      • Gendlin, E T: “Let your Body Interpret Your Dreams” Chiron Publications 1986 ISBN: 0-933029-01-2
      • Hanh, T N: “Being Peace” Parallax Press 1987 ISBN: 0938077-00-7
      • Hanh, T N: “The Heart of Understanding” Parallax Press 1988 ISBN: 0-938077-11-2
      • Hanh, T N: “The Miracle of Mindfulness” Beacon Press 1987 ISBN: 0-8070-1239-4
      • Herman, J L: “Trauma and Recovery” Pandora 1992 ISBN: 0 86358 430 6
      • Karuna Institute: Buddhist Texts used for Core Process Psychotherapy Training
      • Karuna Institute: “Professional Training in Core Process Psychotherapy” Pamphlet
      • Karuna Institute: “Programme Handbook 2002-2003: MA in Core Process Psychotherapy”
      • Karuna Institute: “Programme of Courses and Professional Trainings 2003-2004”
      • Klein, J: “The Interactive Method — the path of healing through empathy and compassion” published by Janet Klein 1998
      • Kurtz, R: “Body-Centred Psychotherapy” LifeRhythm 1990 ISBN: 0-940795-03-5
      • Levine, P A with Frederick, A:”Waking the Tiger” North Atlantic Books 1997 ISBN: 1-55643-233-X
      • McMahon, E M: “Beyond the Myth of Dominance” Sheed and Ward 1993 ISBN: 1-55612-563-1
      • Sills, Franklyn: “The Core Process Trauma Booklet” Karuna Institute 2003
      • Sucitto, Ajahn: “Kalyana” Amaravati Publication ISBN: 1 870205 14 6
      • Tarab Tulku XI: “Tibetan Psychology and Psychotherapy – Unity in Duality – An Introduction” Tarab Ladrang Secretariat
      • Thera, N: “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation” Samuel Weiser Inc 1991 ISBN: 0-87728-073-8
      • Thera, N: “The Vision of Dhamma” Samuel Weiser, Inc 1986 ISBN: 0-87728-669-8
      • Trungpa, C: “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” Shambala 1987 ISBN: 0-87773-050-4
      • Trungpa, C: “Glimpses of Abidharma” Shambala 1987 ISBN: 0-87773-282-5
      • Trungpa, C: “The Myth of Freedom” Shambala Publications Inc 1976 ISBN: 0-87773-084-9
      • Weiser Cornell, A: “Disidentification and the Inner Relationship” — a presentation at the 1994 Focusing International Conference
      • Weiser Cornell, A: “The Power of Focusing” New Harbinger Publications 1996 ISBN: 1-57224-044-X

 

Fiona Parr

The Development of Wholebody Focusing

Kevin McEvenue, from Canada, has brought together his skills both as a Focusing teacher and an Alexander teacher, and developed Wholebody Focusing. He discovered that within the body is contained the possibilities of its own healing. In this article, I describe the Wholebody Focusing process, giving some examples of its uniqueness and usefulness. I also explore the process in relation to healing trauma, and to spirituality. I have found Wholebody Focusing to be an enjoyable and effective development of Focusing.

What is Different about Wholebody Focusing?

What is Wholebody Focusing, and how does it differ from normal Focusing, and from other bodywork and movement practices? Many of the essential elements of Focusing are present in Wholebody Focusing: the sensing into the body, becoming aware of how it feels, and noticing parts of us that may be coming up for special attention. As in normal Focusing, I find some way of symbolising what is experienced in the body. This may come as descriptive words, images or sounds, and would include life story; how does this connect to my life in some way.

Resonating

The Wholebody Focusing way follows the Focusing process of resonating – checking back with the bodily felt experience, to see if that symbol (word, gesture, movement) does, in fact, match precisely what that place is feeling or experiencing. This resonating process deepens the experience, and opens the Focuser to new and further developments. This takes time, awareness and concentration. That may mean the movement is slow or repetitive at first. The Focuser is continuing to be aware of that part of them, as it is experienced in the body; noticing if it changes in response to the movement or phrase, and making room for more to happen.

The Body in the Environment

Wholebody Focusing is a development from normal Focusing, in that the Focuser consciously invites a sense of the whole body, a ‘me-here’, grounded and present, supported by the environment. (McEvenue 2002 p.12) There is a sense of this body-mind organism held in the larger context of the environment; the room that is containing or sheltering the Focuser, and the natural environment outside; the weather, nature, the place where the Focuser is. This awareness process happens at the beginning, placing the Focuser in a larger context.

The Grounded Body

The next step, and one that is held throughout the session, and returned to as often as need be, is to consciously be aware of the ground under the Focuser’s feet; the floor, the earth under the floor, and the weight of the body as it is supported by the ground underneath the Focuser. Or, if the Focuser is seated, noticing the support of the chair and how the body is being ‘held up’ by the chair, rather than the body holding itself up. A relaxation often happens here; not a slumping, but a coming into alignment and balance. Feeling supported, the Focuser’s body may subtly grow taller. There is less of the contraction, less holding on, that many people habitually experience. The joints become softer and more relaxed. There’s less holding in the knees, hips and shoulders. The head finds a resting-place on the neck, gently easing out tensions, allowing a sense of support to come there too. Even the hands and arms can feel the difference when the Focuser consciously becomes aware of the support coming up from the ground through the feet. This is the starting point of Wholebody Focusing. There’s a sense of wholeness, of the whole body, balanced and supported by the ground and the environment.

A Sense of Acceptance

A crucial aspect of Wholebody Focusing is the quality of the relationship that I have, with whatever is there in my experience. It is of key importance to have an accepting, welcoming and non-judgemental attitude, especially to parts of myself that may be hurting, out of balance, or wounded. So there are three aspects to be aware of: the whole body, the parts that need attention, and the Focuser’s sense of ‘presence’, that resourced place in me that can be with anything. (McEvenue 2002 p.10)

Wounded/Hurting Parts Find Expression

From this resourced place, I can invite parts of me to come to awareness that might need special attention. This could be physical aches and pains, conditions that the body is experiencing. Or it could be emotional, or difficult life situations the Focuser is facing. A movement, a gesture or posture is invited to come, that symbolises how that part of the Focuser is experiencing itself. The Focuser not only resonates, as described earlier, refining the movement to be a more precise expression of the part. The Focuser also holds a sense of the whole body at the same time. This creates a special dynamic, where a sense of the whole, and the part or parts that need attention, come into a new relationship that was not there before. (McEvenue 2002 p.5) The relationship space in which change can occur is not so much between the Focuser and the Companion. Rather, it is the relationship between a sense of the whole, and a sense of the parts that need attention. The job of the Companion is to awaken a sense of the whole, in the Focuser. The body does the rest.

A Hurting Place Finds a Step Towards its Resolution

In this session, I spent time with a ‘pushing’ place in my jaw, shoulders and upper chest. It felt utterly drained and helpless. It connected to a fearful place in my solar plexus that also felt hopeless, and just wanted to give up. The more desperate that place felt the more the ‘pushing’ place in my upper body pushed, and tried harder.

As I spent time with all of this, giving my acceptance to these places to be just the way they are, and to be more, my arms stretched out, pushing things away, making more space. The words came to me, ‘open and back.’ That’s what the pushing place wanted me to feel. I began to feel that more and more. Less hunched over, less pushing forwards. It wanted me to be more open, and to come back. I became aware of my back. The front of my body felt open and relaxed. The rest of my body was hanging from my spine, being supported by it. It told me what I could do in my life to support this ‘open and back’ feeling that it wants for me. It is a stage in a larger process, but nevertheless, a very useful one. The body not only told me what it needed; it also gave me a real-life experience of what it felt like to meet that need. I now have an embodied reference point to which I can return. It showed me how I can get there, and what to do if I loose it.

Awareness

When the body starts to move, the Focuser is allowing the movement to unfold. I am not developing the movement like a dancer would, however. The resonating process stops it being simply an expression, or an acting-out of an emotion, a feeling or a hurting place. The Focuser is aware of the movement, and is asking, is this what you need right now? Is this movement meaningful? The Focuser is in charge, and I don’t loose myself in the process. The Companion is also there, supporting presence, reminding the Focuser to stay present, while giving permission and allowing the movement to happen. There’s a subtle balance of attention. The Focuser is aware of the whole body, and is also tracking changes as the parts that need attention are expressing themselves in movement.

Consent

There is a crucial balance between actively giving consent for a movement to unfold, and not making something happen. The movement is coming from a place all of its own. The body contains its own wisdom, its own knowing of how it should have been, its blueprint of how it could be, if this were all resolved (Gendlin 1981 p.76). The Focuser is not trying to fix it and make it all better. The Focuser stays back from becoming too closely involved or immersed in the process, and maintains an attitude of ‘interested curiosity’ and a compassionate openness, making space for whatever wants to happen. (McEvenue 2002 p. 11, p.15)

In the following example, I reminded myself not to think too much about it, and that it is really very simple. I found the balance of not making something happen; not doing, but allowing something to happen. I was open, expectant, and I made room for movement to happen. I did not judge what was happening. I watched what was unfolding with my attention. Like saying to my body, here’s the problem, what’s your response. And then setting it in motion, like gently swinging a pendulum and watching what it does.

An Example of Giving Consent

I recently Focused with a dream I had, where I witnessed a lot of cruelty. In the session, I realised I dissociate from cruelty. That’s not-me. I see the violence and cruelty in the world, and I make a separation between me and the others in the world, and say that’s not me. I moved into a Wholebody process. My hands and shoulders held a lot of tension, gathering all the cruelty, and trying to crush all the cruelty into nothingness. As I did this, I felt the hopelessness of the task, as if I was on a beach, trying to squeeze all the water out of the wet sand. It felt impossible.

I went back to a sense of my whole body, standing and supported by the environment, and I asked my body to show me what I don’t yet know, about this. I relaxed my knees and arms, and swayed gently, allowing movement to develop as it would. I found my arms were sweeping over my energy field, as if I was clearing my energy, and I enjoyed the sensation of the air moving over my face. Eventually, I started turning in place, like a Sufi turn, and this built up a momentum. As I stopped, I was immersed in a feeling of total surrender and ecstasy. I was balanced and harmonised, in harmony with the stars and the cosmos. It felt profound, like a big answer to a big question.

The role of my Companion was also important, as I shall explain later. Her Presence made it possible, and I could not have done it on my own.

Body Parts Connect Up

The Focuser gives space for hurting places to be ‘more’, giving them all the room they need, to experience just how it is for them right now. This might lead to them to connect up with other parts of the body, and the movement process develops. The Focuser finds that rarely does a body part operate in isolation. A whole complex dynamic begins to reveal itself. The Focuser gives active consent to the movement that is unfolding. It is being in a process of unknowing, and allowing the change process to follow its own dynamic. The Focuser is asking, what does my body know about this, that I don’t?

An Example of Body Parts Connecting Up

In a recent session, I Companioned a Focuser who was being with the back of her neck, which was feeling tense and contracted. It wanted to release and come forward, and she let her head and body relax forward, which stretched and released the tendons, the muscles and the spine in the back of her neck. As she continued to do this for a while, she noticed a place in her solar plexus that was feeling extremely vulnerable. She realised the tension that was being held in the neck, was also protecting her from having to feel the vulnerable place. She stayed with both places; releasing the tension in her neck, and giving caring to her vulnerable place, and the protection it needed. She looked a lot brighter, and said she felt a lot more ‘present’ and ‘in her body’, after the short session.

The Role of the Companion

Although the central relationship in Wholebody Focusing is between a sense of the whole, and the sense of the parts that need attention, the role of the Companion is crucial to the whole process. As Companion, I support the Focuser by being present in my own body, aware of my ground and connection. The Companion’s body becomes fine-tuned as a listener; able to respond to the subtleties of what the Focuser is experiencing. The Companion holds a large, compassionate, expansive space, supporting the Focuser in welcoming whatever comes. The Companion reflects back what the Focuser is saying or doing, in a way that makes room for that, too. As Companion, I am supporting the Focuser in giving consent for whatever wants to be there, and to be more. I continually remind the Focuser to be aware of their ground, to be present, able to make choices, and give permission to what is happening without getting lost in it. The Companion also reminds the Focuser to be aware of their whole body; not to loose touch with that, when a part becomes active and shows its needs.

About Companioning, Eugene Gendlin in his book, ‘Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy’ (1996) says,

‘Although attending inside, one is alive in the company of the other person. One senses the difference physically. The other person is holding the weight of the world, as it were; contributing energy to the Focuser’s inward attending. The other person’s presence makes all the difference in the manner of the Focusing process, even if the content seems to be only about the individual. There is no split between “intrapsychic”and “interactional”‘ (Gendlin 1996 p.109)

Wholebody Focusing and Trauma

Peter Levine’s work with healing trauma is described in his book, ‘Waking the Tiger.’ In it, he demonstrates the key role the body plays in releasing trauma. He suggests,

‘Until we understand that traumatic symptoms are physiological as well as psychological, we will be woefully inadequate in our attempts to heal them. The heart of the matter lies in being able to recognise that trauma represents animal instincts gone awry. When harnessed, these instincts can be used by the conscious mind to transform traumatic symptoms into a state of well being… The healing of trauma is a natural process that can be accessed through an inner awareness of the body.’ (p. 32 and p. 34)

Wholebody Focusing is particularly effective in releasing trauma because of its twin processes of starting from a resourced sense of the whole body, and because the body is already in movement. This creates a safety around the issue. I can move away from what is too scary or difficult to be with. I experience myself as standing on my own two feet, and I have a choice. The movement helps me through a stuck place.

An Example of Working with Trauma

I did a demonstration session with Kevin McEvenue, where I got in touch with a lot of holding in a part of my body, and a fearful place that is absolutely terrified of letting go. It just couldn’t do that – it’s too risky. My movement developed until I was almost taken over by the strong body movements. And yet I was still present, aware of my feet, aware I had choice and was continuing to say yes to the process. I also trusted Kevin, my Companion. I could not have got this far on my own. At the end of the short session, my whole body was shaking. It was finding a way of releasing what I could not.

Contra-indications, and What to Watch Out For

It’s important to make sure the Focuser is in presence, and can choose to stop if it is getting too uncomfortable. Reminding the Focuser that ‘I’m here, and you’re here,’ is helpful. Also, there is a need to discern if the movement is simply avoidance. Continuing to be grounded is helpful with this. It is important to watch out for dissociation, becoming bored, not feeling the aliveness or connection. Here the Focuser can ask how this whole thing is connected to my life story, or what else is alive here.

Both the Focuser and Companion need to feel they are safe. If the Focuser cannot take care of him or herself, Kevin McEvenue suggests coming out of the process. The Focuser is self-responsible, and the best way to take care is to ‘find the feet,’ as a simple reminder of the resourcing possibilities. It is unsafe for parts of me to heal, until those parts feel enough support coming to them from somewhere within me. Addie van der Kooy, in his article ‘My Experience with Wholebody Focusing’ says, ‘For this alchemical healing to take place, I can’t emphasise enough the importance of holding the wounded place and the positive ‘me-here’ energy in equal positive regard.’

Wholebody Focusing and Spirituality

Wholebody Focusing has implications for deepening my experience of spirituality. It is through my body that I have access to a deeper reality, a broader context. Through my body, I experience my connection with all life. It is in my body that I sense openness, joy, and enthusiasm for life. Griffith and Griffith, in their book ‘Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy’, (2002) say, ‘Spiritual experience is expressed not only through language but in the immediacy of bodily experience. It exists not just in words but in the sensations and movements of our bodies.’

Kevin McEvenue suggests that we can draw on this bodily felt connection with our spirituality. Especially at times when I feel stuck and cannot resolve the situation, it may be helpful to ask, is there a something larger in me that knows more than I do, about this. I have seen people do this, and it brings about a change that is surprising, could not be predicted, and is in the direction of more life. McEvenue says, ‘Wholebody Focusing is a way of accessing the body’s awareness of its own wholeness. This sense of wholeness has an inner direction and a purpose all its own.’ In this article I have shown how it is possible to allow healing and integration in directly felt positive ways through using Wholebody Focusing.

Fiona Parr, 2005

Further Reading

Gendlin, Eugene Focusing Rider 2003 London

Gendlin, Eugene Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy Guilford Press 1996 New York

Griffith, J.L. and Griffith, M.E. Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy The Guilford Press 2002 New York

Levine, Peter Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma North Atlantic Books 1997 Berkeley

McEvenue, Kevin ‘Wholebody Focusing’ in Dancing the Path of the Mystic Self-published monograph 2002 Toronto

van der Kooy, Addie ‘My Experience with Wholebody Focusing’ in The Focusing Connection Focusing Resources September 2002 Berkeley

 

Jenny Brickett

This article appeared in Positive Health magazine, May 2005.

When we bring our awareness into the Present Moment and begin to notice what is happening in our own inner space, we are amazed at how much is there. We begin to notice subtly different qualities of how we are within ourselves.

There is this thing called Focusing which has only one ‘s’. It has nothing to do with spectacles or photography, nor with a retail outlet for DIY. The spelling came with it across the Atlantic, where its origins lie, and serve to distinguish it from focusing with a small ‘f’. What it is is hard to describe!

Certainly it deserves more than a five-minute attempt across a dinner table in response to a polite inquiry as to what I ‘do’. On such occasions, conversation is generally fairly superficial, often consisting of feigned interest for the sake of good manners and a not-listening to the reply as something else diverts the attention — the food and wine, or some other interaction between the guests.

Listening Skills

The average member of our society lacks listening skills. Too often (almost always), we do not give our attention to the person who is speaking or the words that they are saying. We tend to hear some words and latch on to them, judging them, comparing them to something in our own experience, trying to work the content out for ourselves at the same time as the speaker is continuing what she/he is saying. We structure our reply and wait with impatience for the end, so that we may bring it forth. In the meanwhile we have missed most of what the person is saying and words taken out of context often fail to mean what they were intended to convey. On the whole, we do not listen well.

Listening with a capital ‘L’ is giving our whole attention to the speaker moment by moment — what is he/she telling me Right Now? That way we can see the whole meaning of what is being said, sense how it is for the speaker, as if we are viewing a whole painting rather than one little detail within it.

Can you recall a time when you really felt Listened to, really felt heard? Truly being heard brings a sense of empathy, of the Listener Being With you, keeping you company. Not necessarily understanding — that can divert the attention into trying — but holding that space in which what the speaker wants to convey can come.

The Present Moment

We have to be Here to Listen, Present in this moment rather than thinking of our Past experience or planning what is yet to come. The Past no longer exists and the Future is only a dream. The truth is we are very seldom aware of the Present Moment, despite it being the only reality that we ever have. This is what makes us such poor listeners.

Moreover, we not only do not hear what other people are attempting to communicate to us, we also fail to be aware of what is Here Right Now. We miss the details of our own present experience, our eyes and ears as good as closed to the beauty around us and the intricate patterns of interaction that make up our life. Communication is not just words; it is the interaction that comes in this moment between us and other forms, be they people, things or situations. We can sense in our bodies our response to other forms and we can be with that.

We do not notice what is happening in our bodies — the physical and emotional reactions that are continually creating our experience. If we do notice, we tend to ignore or suppress them, dictating from our minds according to our past programming, criticizing and judging many of our own reactions and successfully ignoring the rest.

Being stuck in our inner process does not benefit our health or our sense of well-being. The physical qualities that accompany both the frustration of the unheard aspects of ourselves and the resistance against them do not tend to be conducive to good health. When these aspects are heard, there is often release and expansion, a letting go of the stress and tension that was there.

When we bring our awareness into the Present Moment and begin to notice what is happening in our own inner space, we are amazed at how much is there. We begin to notice subtly different qualities of how we are within ourselves. In the Present Moment (with Past and Future no longer involved) we find ourselves able to accept without judgement and we find that those parts of us that were ignored or suppressed before come forward to be known. This is Focusing!

I practise and teach Inner-Relationship Focusing, which is the skill of keeping company with whatever aspect of the inner self wants to be known. It is about befriending whatever is here in a Present Moment way, supporting it with love, honour, respect and gentleness.

Sometimes what comes may be scary, threatening, or in some other way not easy to like. There may well be another part of me that wants to get rid of it. I can Be With that too. Focusing brings a realization that everything that comes has our best interests at heart. We realize that the scary, threatening behaviour is the result of frustration at not having been heard, of having been suppressed or exiled by our minds. With respectful attention and in its own time, whatever it is will transform of its own accord and move our inner process on.

This is a macrocosm/microcosm thing. In the Outside World where dictators rule, the people are suppressed. Nobody will listen to them or allow them freedom to live as they want to live. What occurs then is a building of frustration into a desperate bid for freedom that may go to any lengths in an attempt to obtain it. Freedom fighters can get very scary and threatening! In a democracy the people have a voice and, through being heard, contribute to the building and development of their society. Integrated community becomes more possible. So it is in our Inner Worlds and we can find this through Focusing.

Having this skill does not enable our minds to fix things. It does allow us to accept what is Here for us Now, recognizing the whole of our experience without becoming identified with those parts of ourselves that struggle so, as, from their narrowed perspective, they judge, criticize, condemn and try to control both in our Inside and our Outside Worlds.

Relearning Focusing

Focusing is a natural skill which most of us have had programmed out of us. It was rediscovered in the United States of America in the 1960s. Carl Rogers had introduced Client-centred Psychotherapy to the world and was working from Chicago University. In spite of his revolutionary techniques, the number of clients really benefiting from therapy was still unsatisfactory. He instigated research which he put in the hands of Eugene Gendlin. Many therapy sessions were recorded, both those that appeared to be successful and those that didn’t. On play-back, there seemed to be no noticeable problem with the way the therapists were working. However, when they listened to the clients, they discovered that there was a common factor amongst those who benefited from therapy. They would at some point in the session hesitate, become less articulate, bringing their attention down into their bodies, saying something like “What is this? I can feel it right here! How can I describe it? It’s almost like –” These people were naturally Focusing. From this Gendlin developed a means of teaching Focusing to those clients who didn’t know how to do it. This was so successful that people wanted to learn it for use in their everyday lives. The practice of Focusing has evolved from there, with Focusers being encouraged to support and Listen for each other. The means of teaching it has also developed gradually to a point where it is more of a supporting and facilitating the new Focuser to discover the skill naturally within.

I teach Focusing one-to-one or in a group. Groups may be in the form of a weekend, one day each month, or one evening each week. The big advantage of a group is that you get to experience Focusing, companioning and being companioned by your peers. A Focusing session is more powerful when you are supported by another human being and Listening to another human being. Focusing can be a privilege and a joy. Groups lead to Focusing partnerships which can be a very valuable part of your inner journey.

We live in a time when the development of the intellect is considered all-important. We are educated to think rather than to feel, to observe and analyse rather than to experience. We are encouraged to control and are afraid of our inability to do so. Focusing is a natural process. As the brain has become all-powerful, we have allowed our Focusing ability to be suppressed. It is a skill that can be relearned.

Bibliography

Gendlin ET. Focusing. Rider. Ebury Press. London. 2003.
Cornell AW. The Power of Focusing. New Harbinger Publications. Oakland. CA. 1996.
Cornell AW and McGavin B. The Focusing Student’s and Companion’s Manual. 2 Vols. Calluna Press. Berkeley. CA. 2002.

Rob Foxcroft

Around any symbol or emotion, you can feel a kind of resonance, anaura. This subtle aura is not merely associated feeling, but is itself the meaning of the symbol.

Here is another image. A symbol is a mere surface. For example, an
emotion – a feeling in the ordinary sense. It simply isn’t enough, when
we know only the thin surface, the symbol itself. We need to dip our
hands down into a thickness beneath, into hidden and uncertain
depths.

Or again. It is as if we are letting a vessel down into a cool, deep well.
Drawing up good water. Here, at this spring, dreams, images and
music find their interpretation, and ideas their origin. Here the spirit of
healing dwells.

Every word or image or feeling is pregnant – full of possibility. We may
sit with a symbol, gently touching or tapping it, sensing around, behind
and beneath.

What is this like? Perhaps like being in an ancient wood of oak, pine or
cryptomeria, with grey and mossy rocks, at a water’s edge – I may feel
wretched, but the source is constant. I have only to stay here at the
edge – only to be present. The source is like some place of rebirth. It
seems to be inexhaustible.

Listening to ourselves with compassion

Phases

Deciding – We make the turn to the source when the forward
movement is blocked. Something in your life is stuck, troubled, haunted or
puzzling. Or perhaps it is joyful, playful, longing or fertile. It may even be
hurtling forward or frenzied. Go slowly! You are deciding where to begin.

ResonatingWhat is this “something” about?
This blocked or uncertain place has a unique overall quality, mood or tone.
It has a story to tell, since it is connected to your life. Typically, the feel
of it is both subtle and distinct.

The feel is physical. It is a sense of meaning. A sense of aboutness. It
is the feeling of all-of-this. You can refer to it now, directly. It may come
right here in the middle of your body. Or sometimes the feeling is barely there
– a vagueness, a nothingness, an absence. There may be a two-way conflict, in
which both sides must be heard. Or perhaps there are several strands. Often
there is a feeling about the feeling.

Now you are looking for “handle”. This is a word or a phrase – or perhaps
an image, sound or gesture. It describes the quality of the feeling. It needs to
feel just right – so when you lose the feeling, the handle will bring it back.

Sensing-and-WelcomingWaiting for the gift of the felt
sense
.
Infinitely patient, intent and still, you are a poet and an artist. You place
your attention delicately and precisely, returning to the feeling over and over.
You are sensing for the crux of the issue. Little by little, tentatively,
words or images, sounds or gestures form.

When something comes which resonates, you will feel a distinct moment of
movement, a moment when it appears that change actually occurs. You
welcome this small felt opening or easing with thankfulness, taking time to
savour it. Afterwards, you ask: is there more?

Paths

Befriending – You are not the feeling – you yourself are not any
content.
You sit down quietly next to the feeling. You become profoundly feeling-
centred. You are here to listen with interest and great kindness to an
emerging story – here to be fearless and sincere with yourself, about how
things are going (or not going) in your life right now. You are preparing a
friendly welcome, since the feeling may be about to open.

Or maybe not. Sometimes it seems as if nothing will ever change. Still, you
can be with the way it is. We can be gentle, accepting, patient and enduring.
Nothing has to happen. We can always be kind.

Actively un-knowing – We can�t know what may come. We may be
carried
far beyond our limitations. Something shadowy and unformed is beginning
to stir in the silence of the heart. You are dwelling here for a little while –
waiting, asking and holding. It is essential to be uncertain – open, curious,
unintrusive, and deeply receptive.

Listening to one another with compassion

Contact – Contact is the key to any friendship. Until we are in
contact, the good which may happen is severely limited, and the evil
lowering.

When there is a real sense of meeting or encounter, an awareness of a
living contact actively sustained moment after moment after moment,
a profound mutual sense of accepting and being accepted by one
another may creep up on us. A quality of trust and safety flowers, and
a sense of rapport or mutual resonance may grow naturally.

Being in contact is a miracle, both in itself, and in its creative and
healing power.

Humanity – Everything we have learned or can imagine is with us.
Our feelings, memories, dreams and reflections inform our meeting,
and yet nothing must come between us, nor disturb what is unfolding.
Our sensitivity to the human condition is a vast and subtle
background, which profoundly illuminates what is happening here.

Humanity is imagination, out of which empathy is possible.

There is a clear duty to be vividly alive – to be in the body – to bring to
our listening our whole experience of ourselves, of persons, and of the
world – in so far as we can.

The person we are listening to has a right to expect that, because
otherwise what we are offering is inescapably – in the present moment
– an experience of conditionality, isolation, ambiguity, abandonment
and betrayal.

Humanity is about standing in the open – about having the courage to
be defenceless – about fully engaging with one another with the whole
of our being.

Humanity is about being aware of our own feelings.

Reflecting-and-Refusing – As the person says each little piece,
you say back the whole felt essence of it.

The person tends to pause, asking : is that right? – Listening is easy,
when the person refuses to be misunderstood!

Both people are taking great care that what is being said is heard in
just the way that it is meant, that nothing gets twisted or heard in a
merely conventional sense. In this way we know that what is meant is
what is heard, and so you and your companion stay close together.

Even so, some of what comes may be private, just for the person.

A listener is not a guide. Your work as a listener is to enter the other
person’s world, as if it is your own, but always without losing the as-if.

Always following – never losing sight of the person, the one who is
carrying this weight of experiencing, living it, going through both the
pain and the joy of it.

Our being together is gentle, vivid, friendly, supple, easy and
respectful. There is a natural sway here, to-and-fro, flowing forward.
Sensing-and-saying may tend to slow down, gradually becoming clear,
deep, wide, and strongly forward-moving.

Listening is very peaceful.

Listening is easy. You can do it.

From ancient times, listening – to ourselves and to others – has brought
gifts of imagination, vision, blessing and healing.

What happens may be surprising.

What comes may be fresh and new – forceful and active – or tender and
heart-warming.

Touching the Source – Brief Version

Listening to ourselves with compassion

Phases

Deciding
We make the turn to the source
when the forward movement is blocked.

Resonating
This blocked or uncertain place has
a unique feel, quality, mood or tone.

Sensing-and-Welcoming
We return to the body over and over,
as words or images, sounds or gestures form.

Paths

Befriending
We sit down quietly next to the feeling.
Nothing has to happen.

Actively un-knowing
We can’t know what may come.
We may be carried far beyond our limitations.

Listening to one another with compassion

Contact
An awareness of a living contact, actively sustained
moment after moment after moment.

Humanity
Humanity is imagination, out of which empathy is possible.
Humanity is about being aware of our own feelings.

Reflecting-and-Refusing
As the person says each little piece,
you say back the whole felt essence of it.

The person tends to pause, asking, �Is that right?”
Listening is easy, when the person refuses to be misunderstood.

Listening is contact, borne on the wings of empathy.
Listening is easy. You can do it.

10th June 2005

Greg Madison

Eugene Gendlin is an existential philosopher who wants to point us back to our lived experience. He invites us to stand in our experience and then to ask from there, What kind of world is this? What is a human being if this kind of experience is possible? He wants to return the human being to a central place in our various ways of understanding life. Since the 1950s, Gendlin’s interests have lead him from the writings of Dilthey, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, etc. into collaboration with imminent psychotherapists and psychological researchers. Gendlin saw therapy as a unique place where the process of symbolising experience could be explored. According to Gendlin,

A person struggles with and finds words and other expressions for unclear but lived experience. What was felt but undefined by the client was thought to be unmeasurable and incomprehensible and it made people uncomfortable to talk about such a variable. When it correlated with success in therapy while other variables did not, people began to try to understand it more seriously (personal communication, c.f. Friedman, 2000:47).

This ability to stay with an unclear (but clearly felt) bodily experience constitutes a natural form of self-reflection called ‘Focusing’. Gendlin and others found that they could help people re-gain and value this awareness of how we experience our life situations. Focusing is a way of paying attention to one’s being-in-the-world, one’s interaction as it is experienced through the individual (but not separate) body. A felt sense is a temporary wave from the sea of being – it is understood as on-going process, not internal content. The psychotherapeutic usefulness of Gendlin’s philosophy is that it is ‘methodologically individualised’. But, he is concerned that this might be ‘misunderstood as individual rather than social or historical. The historical process is individual when we think further. History moves through individuals because only individuals think and speak’ (c.f. Levin,1997,p.95). So, according to Gendlin, our experience is not ‘subjective’ or ‘intrapsychic’ but interactional.

Life is not pasted together out of unrelated bits of perception, inherited concepts, or isolated internal objects. ‘We humans live from bodies that are self-conscious of situations. Notice the ‘odd’ phrase ‘self-conscious of situations’. ‘Conscious’, ‘self’, and ‘situations’ are not three objects with separate logical definitions’ (Gendlin, 1999,p.233).

Felt sensing often occurs in the middle area of the body, where we typically feel things; throat, chest, stomach, abdomen. Thinking and speaking while in contact with felt sensing is exact and not arbitrary. For example, I cannot convince a ‘tight clouded’ feeling in my chest to be something other than what it is. And if out of that feeling comes the word ‘terrified’, and there’s a sense that word really fits, then I can’t just make it something else. I am not free to just change it, to mould it into something nicer or more acceptable, or more consistent with my view of myself as a courageous person. Focusing entails acknowledging the reality of what is, and then being with it, rather than doing to it.

At times, my client and I can pay attention to this level of awareness explicitly so that we are together in a way that keeps us in contact with the felt experience of our being together. This includes being open to a flow of real-time movement, the said and unsayable, that exceeds and may contradict our own ideas about therapy/psychology/philosophy. ‘Such sensitive phenomenological attention to an implicit speech which is “not yet formed” is precisely what is precluded by standard conceptual thinking about the body’ (Wallulis, in Levin, 1997, p.277-8). It is a radical hermeneutics where nothing is ever understood for long. Psychotherapy is much more than just Focusing, but learning to make explicit the implicit and vague (but clearly felt) process of experience, can free us from forms of therapy that repeatedly obsess over the content of the client’s narrative.

Focusing is the opposite of forcing received wisdom onto our experience (even if it’s received from esteemed philosophers or teachers, including Focusing teachers). It is the opposite of saying ‘tell me what to do’ or of imposing the inner dialogue of social shoulds before we even know what we actually feel about something. It is a philosophically-grounded practice that is useful in therapy as well as our own daily living.

Greg Madison is an existential therapist and Country Co-ordinator for the Focusing Institute. He is currently teaching Focusing to students on the Advanced Existential and Integrative Diplomas at Regents College and University of London. He offers introductory training workshops to therapists and others who are interested in learning more about Focusing for themselves and for their way of being with clients.

Resources

Gendlin, Eugene
(1981) Focusing, 2nd Ed. New York: Bantam Books.
This was the first and remains probably the best introduction to Focusing; how to do it for yourself and share it with others.

(1986) Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams. Wilmette Ill: Chiron Publications.
Re-iterates the method of Focusing and introduces some theory. Concentrates on using Focusing to understand dreams.

(1996) Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. A Manual of the Experiential Method. New York: The Guilford Press.
Describes Focusing and how to integrate it into different therapeutic modalities and orientations.

(1997) Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. Evanston Ill: Northw. U. Press.
A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective.

Levin, David Michael (1997) Language Beyond Postmodernism. Saying and Thinking in Gendlin’s Philosophy. Evanston Ill: Northwestern U. Press.
Different philosophical essays by fourteen different philosophers, with each essay including a reply by Gendlin.

The Focusing Institute, 34 East Lane, Spring Valley, New York, 10977 USA
Web site: http://www.focusing.org/
An excellent web site including articles by Gendlin and others, research evidence, a discussion list and other information.

by Susan Jordan

A good many people have heard of Focusing without knowing exactly what it is. Until recently there were only a handful of Focusing teachers in this country and a few groups practising Focusing together, but in the last few years Focusing has begun to grow as people have realised how much it has to offer. It is gentle, creative and often profound, and is a safe way of being with any experience, even the most disturbed and disturbing. It is based in an ability that most of us have, or can develop – that of listening to what our subtle inner feelings are telling us. What we find when we do so is usually fresh, new, surprising, and deeply satisfying: being with even the most terrible feelings in a Focusing way can actually feel good. Or, if we are Focusing with something ‘out there’, a problem or difficulty may start to shift of its own accord in a direction that we haven’t expected.

Focusing is not psychotherapy – though it may be used within therapy – and does not require a trained professional. It is a skill that can be practised, either alone or in a partnership, by anyone who has learnt it. It can be used in whatever way the Focuser wishes, as often or as seldom as you need. In a Focusing session the Focuser is completely in charge of their own process. People can Focus with one another on the phone as well as in person, and you can Focus with different companions. As in co-counselling, Focusing partners normally take turns at Focusing themselves and listening to someone else. Focusing partnerships can offer a unique kind of support, a space in which people relate to their own, and each other’s, deepest process with both naturalness and respect.

What is Focusing?

Focusing was first ‘discovered’ (or perhaps identified) in the 1950s by Eugene Gendlin, a philosopher and psychotherapist, during his research with Carl Rogers into what made psychotherapy effective. The conclusion he came to was that those who benefited most from therapy had the ability to sense vague, still unformed feelings in their body and connect this sensing (which he names the ‘felt sense’) with words and images that described it. This meant being able to discover what was not yet fully known, which in itself could allow the process to move forward. He noticed that during the process there would often be an opening or release in the body, perhaps accompanied by a sigh, and this he described as a ‘felt shift’.

Gendlin realised that those clients who could relate to their experience in this way already had access to a particular skill. What he came to call Focusing was developed as a means of teaching this skill to people who did not access it so easily. He initially formulated the Focusing process as a series of six steps: clearing a space, locating a felt sense, finding a ‘handle’ (a way of describing the felt sense), resonating the handle with the felt sense to see whether it fits, asking “What makes this issue/feeling so…?”, and finally receiving the shift if it comes. Clearly it is helpful if and when a Focuser experiences a felt shift, but experiencing a felt shift is not the goal of Focusing. The process remains open-ended, and even if a Focuser starts out by sensing into a particular problem he or she may end up in a very different place.

Although the description of these steps is highly specific, Gendlin was aware that essentially Focusing is a universal human activity rather than a set of techniques. As Focusing has evolved other teachers have found their own models, which may prove useful or may be discarded or re-formulated if they do not fit. One of Rob Foxcroft’s formulations has five stages – deciding, inviting, befriending, wondering, returning – while another describes the process differently again. Barbara McGavin and Ann Weiser Cornell, who have developed Inner Relationship Focusing, have defined Focusing simply as sensing a [bodily] response [to something], symbolizing that response, and sensing whether the symbolization fits. (‘Symbolizing’ is the same as ‘finding a handle’.)

Barbara McGavin and Ann Weiser Cornell also give a more concrete description of the stages: sensing into the body, sensing for what needs attention, coming into relationship with what’s there, deepening relationship, and coming out. What needs attention is nearly always seen as ‘something in me’ or ‘a part of me’ rather than simply ‘me’. Inner Relationship Focusing puts particular emphasis on the way that the Focuser’s larger awareness, often described as ‘Presence’, can make a compassionate, accepting relationship with the different ‘parts’ or ‘somethings’, without itself becoming them. Similarly BioSpiritual Focusing, developed by Roman Catholic priests Peter Campbell and Edwin McMahon, talks of Caring Feeling Presence and its ability to welcome whatever is there with kindness and acceptance.

Applications of Focusing

Both these strands of Focusing have developed from Gendlin’s original model, as have the many different applications of Focusing. For Gendlin the philosopher, one important area where Focusing can be applied is that of thinking. Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning explores the notion of ‘felt meaning’ and the way in which any thought, however abstract, is still sensed non-verbally in some way. Gendlin has developed a body of theory and practice, known as Thinking at the Edge, which enables people to tap into the felt sense of thoughts which are as yet beyond our conscious knowledge, meeting the creative edge and allowing what is new to take form. Other practitioners such as Josiah Hincks are using Focusing in a similar way to enable people to work more effectively with their own creative process. As with Focusing and thinking, the emphasis is on the activity rather than personal development as an end in itself. However, there are also many practitioners working with Focusing in therapeutic fields such as art therapy, sandplay, and dance and movement. Focusing can enrich other ways of working and make them more meaningful. As the articles in this issue show, the basic process of sensing into the body for what is needing to form and symbolizing it in a way that fits can be applied to almost any area of life, from financial investment to environmental conservation to cooking a meal. And it is not confined to a particular culture. Recently, for instance, American Focusing teachers have been helping people in Afghanistan to come to terms with some of their experiences of the war.

Can anyone learn Focusing?

In principle Focusing is something that is available to everyone. If someone is interested in learning it, then even if it is difficult to begin with and progress seems slow, they will find they get something from it. As with many practices, what works best is an open-minded approach: an ‘interested curiosity’. If someone is looking to Focusing just to help them get rid of a troublesome feeling or an uncomfortable symptom, it may be more difficult to explore what Focusing has to offer. If, however, they are willing to trust that something may happen, the outcome of which is unknown, they may well find – as with therapy and meditation – that unexpected changes do take place.

People vary widely in their ability to sense into the body. Some people are ‘natural Focusers’, while for others the whole idea seems at first foreign and difficult to grasp, especially if the way in which it is presented does not speak to them. Sometimes someone’s experience of pain and trauma has left them dissociated from their body, perhaps with deep fears of what they may find there; or, for other reasons which are not so clear, a person may simply not be very sensitive to their own inner process. Having preconceived ideas and expectations of what Focusing ought to be can also be a difficulty, in that someone will tend to discount what is going on and may give up because nothing seems to be happening. Or, at the other extreme, someone may be so overwhelmed by painful feelings that for the time being it is not possible to sense into them, in which case psychotherapy which enables them to dip in and out of body sensing may be a more useful starting point than a ‘pure’ Focusing session.

Some Misconceptions about Focusing

Because the name is ambiguous, Focusing is sometimes thought to be a technique for ‘becoming more focussed’ on a particular task or aim. (‘Focusing’ is usually spelt with one ‘s’ and given a capital letter to distinguish it from other kinds of focussing.) Gendlin’s use of the word in fact refers to the way in which something at first fuzzy and unclear gradually becomes clearer, as if one is focussing a camera. As this happens the Focuser may stay focussed on the same ‘something’ or may move on to something else, depending on the momentum of the process. There is no requirement to be with something for the whole of a Focusing session, and a Focuser learns for her/himself when it is helpful to stay longer with a particular felt sense and when the process needs to move on.

Focusing has also been seen as a therapy that someone undergoes. People sometimes talk about ‘being Focused’ by a partner or practitioner, but it is essential to Focusing that the process belongs to the Focuser and is entirely in her/his control. Focusing encourages people to take responsibility for themselves in a reciprocal partnership, where each person Focuses and listens in turn. Someone may of course choose to book a non-reciprocal session with a practitioner, but this does not imply that the practitioner is offering anything more ‘therapeutic’ in a Focusing session than a non-professional partner could.

Although Focusing works with feeling at a profound level, it does not necessarily involve expressing feelings. In older humanistic models there was often an assumption that the client needed to become totally immersed in the feelings in order to express them as fully as possible. While Focusing certainly does not exclude expression, the emphasis is on ‘sensing into it’ rather than ‘getting it out’. ‘It’ will then let the Focuser know whether and in what way it wants to be expressed. Rather than presupposing that one can already identify the feeling – for instance “I’m ANGRY!!!” – Focusing takes time to sense more precisely into its particular quality and to get alongside it. This involves moving into the wider, containing space of Presence. To quote Gendlin, “If you want to smell the soup, you don’t stick your head in it”. In this particular case, as you sense the ‘anger’ it may turn out to be irritation, frustration, annoyance, fury and/or a whole host of other shades of feeling, sensation and emotion, some of which may not be anger at all.

Focusing and Psychotherapy

As I have shown, the applications of Focusing are much wider than the ‘therapeutic’ alone. Nevertheless, for many people Focusing remains primarily a tool for personal growth and exploration, either in its own right or in the context of psychotherapy. Focusing on its own is not sufficient to help many people who come to psychotherapy, where working in and through relationship provides a kind of ‘holding’ that Focusing does not offer. A Focusing session is an intense voyage into one’s inner world, either with a companion or alone; in a psychotherapy session the inner voyage is held in a wider context, and being there with another person is equally important. Ann Weiser Cornell describes the differences very clearly in an article which can be found on the Focusing Resources website. Despite Gendlin’s research, my experience is that people who do not readily access the felt sense can still benefit a great deal from psychotherapy and in time may well learn to touch into their own inner sensing, particularly when the therapist holds the work in a Focusing way.

Within psychotherapy Focusing can be an extremely important means of connecting with experience. Some approaches, such as Core Process – in which I trained – see felt sensing as an integral part of the process for both therapist and client, while increasingly others are learning to incorporate Focusing as an experiential tool. In Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy Gendlin describes in detail ways in which a psychotherapist of any school can bring Focusing into the work. More recently Campbell Purton, who has set up a course in Focusing-oriented psychotherapy at the University of East Anglia, has described using a Focusing approach within person-centred therapy (see other articles on this website). Peter Levine’s work with shock and trauma relies on Focusing to ground experiences in the body and re-integrate them as a whole.

Some of the articles on this website explore the interface between Focusing and psychotherapy in more depth. Knowing how to use Focusing interventions in psychotherapy takes care and judgement, but what can always be useful is the Focusing attitude, the sense of Presence and the larger space, of kindliness and acceptance towards whatever arises. It can help therapists to acknowledge and be with their own difficulties as well as those of the client.

Focusing and Spirituality

Although Focusing did not start out as a spiritual practice and is not affiliated to any religious tradition, many people feel that contacting a larger, more compassionate space within themselves has a quality that they would call spiritual, whether or not they belong to any particular tradition. Buddhist practitioners may find that Focusing has an affinity with certain mindfulness practices, while Quakers may see it as something that can lead them to a fuller experience of the Inner Light. In America Focusers have brought their awareness to Jewish festivals and practices. Bio-Spiritual Focusing, mentioned above, has been helpful to people from different denominations of the Christian church as well as people who have no formal religion. Focusing does not require a belief in the spiritual; it enables people to define their experience in their own way, whatever that may be.

Further Reading

You can find a further selection of articles on the Focusing Institute, Focusing Resources and Bio-Spirituality websites.

In addition the following books may be of interest.

Campbell, Peter and McMahon, Edwin Bio-Spirituality – Focusing as a way to grow (Loyola Press, 1997)

Gendlin, Eugene Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (Northwestern University Press, 1997)

Gendlin, Eugene Focusing 2nd edition (Rider, 2003)

Gendlin, Eugene Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy: a manual of the experiential method(Guilford Press, 2002)

Levine, Peter Waking the Tiger – healing trauma (North Atlantic Books, 1997)

McMahon, Edwin Beyond the Myth of Dominance – an alternative for a violent society (Sheed & Ward, 1993)

Purton, Campbell Person-Centred Therapy – the Focusing-oriented approach(Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Weiser Cornell, Ann The Power of Focusing (New Harbinger, 1996)

Weiser Cornell, Ann The Radical Acceptance of Everything (Calluna Press, 2005)

Weiser Cornell, Ann and McGavin, Barbara The Focusing Student’s and Companion’s Manual, Parts 1 and 2
(Calluna Press, 2002)
This article was first published in Self & Society,2005, Volume 33 No 2, published by the Association for Humanistic Psychology in Britain