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.
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.
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.
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
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