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24th May 2020

FOT and the Greasy Beast

Philosophy Spirituality Therapy

FOT and the Greasy Beast:

Welcoming the undomesticated nature of living process

Greg Madison

All forms of Focusing offer deep transformational experiences. So much so that I sometimes wonder if, as therapists, we add much extra value in FOT sessions. What can therapy, especially Focusing Oriented Therapy, offer that enhances the potential of an already powerful Focusing process? How can therapy, a modern western culture invention that emphasizes the individual, be appropriate for other cultures?

I think there is a role for FOT that could be deeply valuable in the world. In therapy we add in the therapist as a person for the client to meet. The therapist, like the Focusing Guide, sits in the chair as another person before s/he offers any knowledge, insight, technique or method, theory, assumptions, or interventions. In contrast to most Focusing sessions, in FOT there are two people sitting with their eyes open looking at each other expectantly. This is a culture. The expectation of interaction is different from a guided Focusing session. It is more like the difficult everyday world where we have problems with other people. The likelihood is that between therapist and client there are some shared values and beliefs and also some diversity. In FOT the interpersonal dynamic of this new ‘culture’ is explicitly attended to. Usually in Focusing sessions the quality of the being-together is fundamentally important but not explicitly talked about. Usually the Focuser is paying attention to the process that we call ‘inner’, already diving into the uniqueness that exceeds the culture of meeting.

FOT offers the unusual experience of attempting to remain connected with the ‘inner’ while simultaneously attending to the world of others, or the ‘interaction’ or ‘the meeting’. Even experienced Focusers can find it difficult to remain connected to themselves when in relationship with other people. Culture so easily takes over and replaces that connection. FOT works in this territory where we try to acknowledge all that comes in-between people as well as ‘the between’ itself. It works cross-culturally by connecting to what is more than culture.

When two people sit across from each other we are already in cultural assumptions. Why sitting across, why two individuals? Why not the whole village? Why not sleeping side-by-side and dreaming together? Why speaking? Cultures give us set principles and expectations for carrying on a daily life, for how to look at things and how to feel about what happens around us. The cultural influences in a FOT session include the therapeutic orientation of the therapist, as well as each person’s specific national, ethnic and socio-economic assumptions, religious traditions, philosophical beliefs, personal history and implicit values. FOT is always a cross-cultural experience, but in a unique way. Therapists seldom look closely at how they already impose a culture. We often don’t even realize our implicit assumptions let alone examine them closely. Focusing therapists also need to explore their assumptions – the context of therapy and the society within which it is practiced can be objects of inquiry in our felt sensing.

Focusing gives us an alleyway through the ready-made concepts, to a deeper level where we have a larger sense of living, beyond what society has fenced off as its perimeter. Focusing therapy invites another person close while we sense deeper. That person gets into our sensing so that they become the ‘toward’ that our senses can relate to. They witness, receive, and most importantly they give us a response towards which we can sense more. Between two in therapy, living can be released from received meanings, the exiled greasy beast of our animal nature can be welcomed back into its birthright. As children our wildness is constantly pressed into the uniform of our culture, how we should look, act, think… Each culture creates exiled greasy beasts. By working with, through, and beyond culture, FOT is culturally sensitive while subverting culture. Our cultures are manifest in the session, but as therapists we want to feel through the culture to the fundamental humanity in our client in order to reveal to them how their humanity affects us.

In FOT clients learn to bring their awareness to what didn’t fit the culture, what couldn’t be constrained by convention so it was labelled as too wild, uncivilised, ‘not-me’, and driven out into oblivion. It is deeply healing when another person celebrates the return of what culture said could only be repugnant to others. The focusing therapist, regardless of culture, offers the interaction where the person comes home to himself or herself. The culture can’t do that. Culture does many valuable things but it does not know how to encourage me to recognise that the home I carry with me will open its doors and windows, throw down its walls, when it meets the depth of another.

If therapy works, the client becomes more marginal to their culture, not more ‘adaptive’ in some simple form-fitting way. In FOT we make efforts to set aside what is ‘in-between’ in order to attend directly to ‘the between’, where relational felt sensing gives us a ‘home’ that is fluid and palpable but not fixed. New and precise meanings and insights arise, which do not exist in explicit culture. The client returns to their daily world where as mother or father they work tirelessly to fulfil what they know is expected of them. But the client has opened up to more than the cultural expectations and has a desire to take steps towards a deeper rightness than culture alone provides. The client becomes an agent of culture change.

Our common humanity is palpable. It is not based upon shared knowledge or collected information. Our commonality is the living process. We understand each other because we are the same sort of process. The unique differentiations and diverse cultures do not have to be a barrier if we are willing to relate from that formless commonality. Focusing and FOT have spread around the world into diverse cultures because these practices offer a way to connect to the eyes of the beast hiding behind the various veneers of culture.

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24th May 2020

Palpable Existentialism. A Focusing-oriented Therapy

Philosophy Therapy

Palpable Existentialism: A Focusing-oriented therapy

 

Greg Madison PhD

In a recent edition of this magazine (Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol. 19, No. 4, August 2013, p.72-80) an extract was published from Ann Weiser Cornell’s Focusing in Clinical Practice (Cornell, 2013). I want to carry on from that article and assume enough familiarity with Focusing (Gendlin 2003) in order to take the next step into ‘Focusing-oriented therapy’.

 

Cornell’s book offers a comprehensive introduction to Focusing for the clinician, offering examples of how Focusing as a method might be incorporated into sessions. Mostly this describes Focusing as a kind of stand-alone import. This illustrates the fact that there is still little written about how Focusing actually integrates with an existing orientation to psychotherapy and how that integration changes both how Focusing is practiced and how therapy is understood. In some sense this integration is more sophisticated but also more primary than Focusing itself.

 

What does Focusing-oriented mean?

Focusing is not a therapy. It can be described variously as a personal growth method or a spiritual practice, a philosophical or creative practice, a form of generative thinking or even a ‘way of being’. A Focusing-oriented therapy is usually not just guiding clients through a Focusing experience at some point during the therapy hour. That would be ‘the use of Focusing in therapy’, which Cornell’s text describes very clearly, or a guided Focusing session, which she has also described well (Cornell, 1996). A Focusing-oriented therapy is another step and involves therapeutic application of the wider experiential philosophy from which Focusing itself emerges. In this sense ‘Focusing-oriented’ is somewhat of a misnomer.

 

Exposure to the philosophy underlying Focusing can challenge how we understand living (Gendlin 1997a,b). If these new understandings are embodied through the therapist’s regular Focusing practice, they will influence how we understand living process and therefore how we work therapeutically. Two upcoming texts will, for the first time, illustrate a diverse range of international therapies that have developed as ‘Focusing-oriented’ (Theory and Practice of Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy and Emerging Practice in Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy. Greg Madison (Ed.),Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014).

 

‘Focusing-oriented’ therefore signifies the thorough integration of an experiential sensitivity and its accompanying philosophy with any ongoing therapeutic orientation. What is described below is based upon an integration of Eugene Gendlin’s work (Gendlin 1997a,b; Levin 1997) and existential psychotherapy. Hopefully it shows how the experiential emphasis of Focusing enhances existentialism and how the deconstructive and phenomenological spirit of existentialism transforms the potential of Focusing. Combining these orientations makes the practice different from what one finds in either orientation alone.

 

The experiential-existential level is primary

‘Palpable existentialism’ (Madison & Gendlin 2011; Madison 2010) is the practice of crossing Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Philosophy of the Implicit’, including Focusing practice, with the basic tenants of the British School of Existential-phenomenological psychotherapy (van Deurzen & Arnold-Baker 2005; Spinelli 2007) . A hallmark of this integration is its intention to work from what is revealed in the real relationship between therapist and client, as heralded by existential therapists (Spinelli 2007) and made palpable by some Focusing-oriented therapists (Madison 2010, 2014a; Preston, 2014).

 

The body is the doorway to the palpable ‘self’ underneath concepts and the opening onto its continuity with the vastness beyond (Gendlin 1964). From this view each individual (therapist as well as client) is an opening, not only onto himself or herself, but also onto the unfinished process of existence. In therapy we often try to understand what appears in that opening; usually only the self that appears, not the vastness.

 

Both existential and experiential approaches encourage us to pause our usual living so that the weight of cultural and conceptual assumptions do not smother the novelty that might emerge from paying attention to the moment-by-moment idiosyncrasy of any individual’s experiencing. In order to understand ‘the person inside’ we must get beyond the camouflage of belief and assumptions. But can we form a therapy from a basic openness like that?

 

Every year we add a handful of new acronyms to the plethora of theories and techniques swaddling contemporary psychotherapy. Whilst not wishing to undermine what each new approach highlights, I am concerned that what I say below could in fact be concretised into just another approach with a catchy abbreviation. My intention is to be guided by what is intuitively familiar to many experienced practitioners: the implicit process underneath the various approaches emerging today.

It sounds arrogant to say that the mode of therapy I am presenting is ‘underneath’. Like I am claiming it’s more profound. Let me be clear – the experiencing level I describe is ‘less than’ a therapeutic skill; it is the fundamental experiencing that makes us human. According to Gendlin’s philosophy, bodily experiencing makes it possible for us to function, walk across a room, hold a conversation, think, imagine, create, and it is what makes human change possible (Gendlin 1997a,b). It is a meta-level, primary. Other approaches assume it and build on it in many useful ways.

 

However, an experiential-existential integration maintains its continuity with the experiential ground that gives rise to any model (including its own). It welcomes the vast expanse of human existence that eludes knowledge and explanation. This orientation is probably very unfashionable, so I will have to advocate for it. Compared to other practices it holds in abeyance, rather than adds to, theoretical predictions or ‘knowledge’. I will have to appeal to what you directly know from your own felt experience of sitting many hours with clients in order to convince you that insubstantial is vital – vital but perhaps not always sufficient.

 

An insubstantial model

In order to be ‘evidence-based’, therapies must now be uniform enough to be ‘administered consistently’, ‘manualised’; therapy is treated as a prescription, a standard dose for any patient. The therapy room has become another medical intervention. These approaches have a comforting robustness. Useful manuals have arisen for how to respond to each pattern of client behaviour. But no client is just a pattern and no therapist is consistent even with him or herself, let alone with any specific ‘treatment’, school of thought, or any manual of how session number five should proceed.

 

Intuitively we know that every therapist is his or her own ‘integration’. Our whole living process, much more than we could ever say about life, is the foundation out of which we understand people and practice therapy. In this sense there is no such thing as a ‘focusing’ therapist, an ‘existential’ therapist, a ‘person-centred’ or ‘psychoanalytic’ therapist, as if knowledge of a particular theory could wipe out our living experience and become a new foundation for being. Every moment shapes us by evoking a response; the world rouses and elaborates us, affecting how we live in the next instant and how we respond to the world as it further affects us.

(‘Exhilarating Pessimism’, Madison, 2014a, pp.145-164)

 

Contemporary psychotherapies that are endorsed as ‘valid’ might obscure how much we don’t know, how flimsy and exposed we become without these claims to knowledge, especially when face to face with the unique dilemmas of a specific person. Often we keep our insecurities and foibles hidden behind our backs during sessions, giving the illusion that we know more about life than we possibly could.

 

We forget that like our clients we are also in the midst of living. There are times it would be convenient to conceal that we are all learning on the job. As a therapist I am motivated to appear ‘wise’, ‘sorted out’ and ‘living well’. Unfortunately, therapy treatments, techniques, credentials and degrees do not make me an expert on how to live. The client and I sit together, connected through our human vulnerability yet I am encouraged to make even this relating into a technique. We bolster our own security if we can construct theoretical explanations for the unpredictable vicissitudes of human interaction. But we know they are constructions. Theories and techniques land like a woodpile between the client and myself; something solid to hide our deepest insecurities from one another.

 

For over twenty-five years I have supervised and lectured in various cultures as a psychologist and psychotherapist, yet I must confess that rather than ‘knowledge’ about psychotherapy or the ‘wisdom’ of experience, I often still practice from not-knowing. I do not dispute the important place of experience and education, but I also see how often our textbook ideas fail; interpretation, reframing, mindfulness, existential challenge, Focusing, Socratic dialogue, and other techniques fail to help. I know how often I fail.

 

The universe vastly exceeds our maps of it. Humans are always more complicated than any scheme we bring to them. So it is not surprising that as therapists we have each had moments when our educated attempts to help have fallen flat, our reaching out has not touched the other. Our training, our techniques and scripts, have not done their job and we are left holding an empty bag looking blankly at our client who looks blankly back. When we feel we have nothing else to offer, out of desperation there is an opening to what was always there. It is basic, primary, and without stable form.

 

Palpable existentialism adds experience to existential therapy, and existence to the practice of focusing therapists. It imbues my living with the potential of experiential process and the pessimism of an existence where sometimes there is no way forward. Below I outline some of the ways in which each orientation transforms by crossing with the other.

 

The homelessness of process

 

Gendlin’s philosophy is a reminder that body is process (Gendlin 1997). When we come ‘home to the body’, as some people say, we do not find a home of substance. The body is not like a house. If home is security and stability then through the body we discover that at bottom we are homeless. As I have suggested elsewhere (Madison 2009) we become homeless not because we have been exiled from home, but rather because we have been exiled by home from the flow of the self. The coziness of the tranquillized ‘substantial’ distances us from the self that calls to be known as the elusive and ungraspable. Why do we build a home on top of the open underneath?

 

According to the existentialists, in the expanse we feel a deep sense of unease that has metaphysical origins and which experientially is a doorway to unfolding insight, ‘… we, human creatures, perceive dimly in the experience of the uncanny, that the world rests on nothing. It has no basis or ground’ (Gray 1951, p.116). Or as the philosopher Karl Jaspers says it, ‘The bottomless character of the world must become revealed to us, if we are to win through to the truth of the world’ (Jaspers 1932, Philosophie, p.469, c.f. Gray 1951, p.117).

 

The existentialist thinks it is therapeutic to perceive the reality of human existence without the spin of what we would like it to be. This intention corrects a subtle assumption in Focusing and Gendlin’s philosophy to see the body as carrying us ‘forward’ towards forever better possibilities.

 

Challenging optimism

 

‘Carrying forward’ is Gendlin’s term for the bodily process that occurs when what the body implies should happen actually does happen (see Gendlin 1997). When the experiential implying actually occurs, there is a bodily shift that is referred to as ‘positive’ and ‘life affirming’ (for example, Gendlin 1984). But this optimistic description does not take into account that the body propels itself towards what? Expanding openness, yes, but also its own aging, increasing fragility, and final demise.

 

Human being is a carrying forward to death, a ‘being-unto-death’ as Heidegger (1964) proclaimed. Carrying-forward has a feeling of ‘rightness’ due to a release of bodily tension, but it is no yellow brick road. On this topic Gendlin can be read as an optimist rather than as an existential philosopher. This would put him at odds with the British School’s balance between human givens, facticity, tragedy, and human potential (Spinelli 2007). Gendlin anticipates the criticism and says his view is not ‘sloppy optimism’. ‘With so much suffering and destructiveness all around us, optimism is an insult to those who suffer’ (Gendlin 1996, p.23).

 

Gendlin and his colleagues clarify that the energy of the forward movement ‘is not optimism or preference for the positive’ (Gendlin et.al 1984, p.272). The life energy that is released from ‘being-with’ any experience is what is valued, not some preference for ‘positive’ and ‘optimism’. But why then are these values associated with the bodily shift and so prevalent in the Focusing world? A description that sounds pessimistic is no less valid if it resonates with life experiencing. Resonating, that flow of energy, is the key. The positive bias obscures the existential context.

 

Existential-phenomenological therapy values the intention to confront existence as clearly as we can, given our capabilities at any given time. It is an attempt to value what is ‘true’ over what is ‘life affirming’ in conventional terms of happy, adjusted, and comfortable. We are taught that our goals are achievable but not to question what the purpose of achieving them would be, given the whole context of a human life.

 

The existential does not override the experiential; they go back and forth between grounding and symbolizing, informing and refining each other. In experiential-existential therapy the point is that the therapist must be willing to enter the unknowing flow of experiencing and acknowledge the realities it momentarily reveals. If we converge the experiential and existential we can create a practice within which existence and experience can be taken as one. Moments of existential insight are simultaneously valid for both client and therapist.

 

Challenging the conceptual in existential therapy

 

Anything existential that is not experientially given remains theoretical conjecture (including what I’ve said here), no different from any other dogma or therapeutic creed.

 

It is ironic that philosophies about embodiment can engage our intellect only. Since the 1950s, Gendlin’s writings have run parallel to the existential-phenomenological tradition, having much in common with Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Existential therapists read these pivotal philosophers’ ideas about the body but without a practice that points back to the body these insights remain conceptual. We have body philosophies but how do we actually dwell with our bodily being? Where do these philosophies come from if not from the body, yet we rarely go back to this implicit source itself.

 

According to Gendlin (1966) experience is not definable by concepts, rather, concepts get their definitions from bodily steps of experiencing. If we use theory (or concepts or philosophy) experientially, concepts become ‘the ‘epiphenomena’, pointers whose sole meaning consists of the experiential texture at which they point’ (p.207).

 

Palpable existentialism relies upon our own experience, as it is concretely felt in our bodies. It does not rely upon you first understanding Sartre, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and then applying these philosophies to your life and your work with clients. It relies upon the primacy of connecting with your own experiencing process. Then you can read those authors and others, with explicit attention to your body, constantly asking yourself – does this ring true for me? If we try to live within existential philosophy we remain students of the ‘existential tradition’ but not existentialists. To be an existential psychotherapist means, from this view, to be experiential. Existentialism is palpable.

 

Focusing is phenomenology

 

Gendlin is careful not to set himself up as another expert; he wants his philosophy to point us back to ourselves. His message is empirical and not another doctrine. The intention is to help break the hegemony of received meanings so that the source of thinking can be found. The experiential process follows the basics of phenomenology as it is applied to psychotherapy (see Spinelli 2007). The process is descriptive rather than interpretive, it brackets preconceptions and it treats all aspects of the phenomenon equally, i.e. there is no such thing as resistance.

 

In this way Gendlin is doing a kind of phenomenology that keeps returning back to experience after it formulates something from experience. He was discovering that there is a kind of unformulated experience that can be pointed to – an experience that is not itself just another formulation but implicitly includes everything that we have previously formulated and lived. There is something coming freshly that is more than fixed content and symbols (something that is not itself a ‘thing’, see Madison & Gendlin 2011).

 

From this view, existence is equated with experiencing. It is not a set thing, not a snapshot that could ever be described. It is a movie, but a movie that responds and changes in the very viewing of it.

 

Feeling the experiential-existential relationship

 

In therapy we add the therapist as a person for the client to meet. The situation is already more like the difficult everyday world where we have problems interacting with other people. The likelihood is that between therapist and client we will experience some of the trouble we both usually have in the rest of our lives.

 

When I sit with my client, I am a new manifestation because I am here with this person. A therapist who tries to adhere too much to a method deprives their clients of being accessible, leaving gaps where another real person should be. We need to be self-aware, not neutral. An ‘absent’ person has less to offer therapeutically. Professional knowledge and skill is first embodied within the person of the therapist and arises directly from that person when the interaction calls it forth, not when a treatment agenda prescribes it. This is an attempt to practice without letting ‘knowing’ get in the way of ‘meeting’.

 

The therapist’s feeling response to the client must be genuinely available in order for the client to respond further. How it is available or disclosed is an important question but it should not be artificially kept away from the client at the moment when the client needs a responsive environment in order to reconstitute his own life processing.

According to Gendlin,

We know best with children that this is a personality development process. … such a relationship requires that the therapist’s feelings be expressed as clearly his own, and the child’s as clearly the child’s own. To protect another’s freedom we do not need to paralyze ourselves. That would give him only a useless emptiness instead of a full relationship in which he is free. We need to express our feeling reactions and then still let him be free—by virtue of the fact that these reactions are our own. They don’t preempt his. We point again and again at his, ask about them, make room for them, refer to them—even at a time when, perhaps, he remains totally silent and neither expresses anything of his own feeling life, nor has it at all clearly (1966, p.242).

 

The therapeutic relationship is of two real humans living in close proximity. We look at each other (or not). We see our look taken in and reflected back. The room resonates with meaning before a word is spoken, even before ‘the look’. The look already arose from the interactive process that makes us who we become when we are together. Such ‘existential communication’ remains a crucial influence on what happens next, it is the medium of the session.

 

Some Focusing-oriented therapists, influenced by the respectful non-directive intention of person-centred trainings, are not inclined to emphasise the relationship with explicit interventions. The existential Focusing-oriented therapist is more likely to verbalise some of the process of relating, to make it a part of the content of sessions so it is lived symbolically as well as experientially. Although this is an instance of the back and forth from experience to words that Gendlin highlights in his philosophy and in the Focusing method, it is uniquely existential to invite dialogue about the moment-by-moment felt relating as it happens in sessions.

 

Experiential-existential therapy invites another person close while we sense deeper. That person gets into our sensing so that they become the ‘toward’ that our living can relate to. They witness, receive, and most importantly they give us a response towards which we can sense and respond more. As therapists we want to feel through the assumptions, beliefs, conventions, to the fundamental humanity in our client in order to reveal to them how their humanity affects us.

 

The experiential-existential therapist senses for the kind of interaction that encourages the client to begin to live from the unknown within. Culture does many valuable things but it does not operate in the sphere of the unique human process. If therapy works, the client becomes more marginal to their culture, not more ‘adaptive’ in some simple form-fitting way. The client returns to their daily world where they try to fulfill what is expected of them. But the client has now opened up to more than the cultural expectations and has a desire to take steps towards a deeper rightness than culture alone provides.

 

Inch-by-Inch people free themselves a little from responding automatically from the implicit messages they learned from their cultures. The therapist offers him or herself as the receptive environment within which the client learns to live forward, in new ways.

 

If we are experientially present, clients learn to bring their awareness to what was labeled ‘not-me’, or driven into oblivion because it was ‘negative’ or ‘pessimistic’ and made others feel uncomfortable. It is deeply healing when the therapist celebrates the return of what culture said could only be repugnant to others. It is even more healing when the therapist says ‘me too’ implicitly, ‘through this we belong with each other’.

 

Manualised therapies help clients to behave appropriately in the office and to pay their bills, but how sad to think our job is only to revitalise that robot of the conventional in the consulting room. Can we risk a subversive psychotherapy that is grounded through intricate experience itself? Our common humanity is palpable. It is not based upon shared knowledge or imposed routines. Our commonality is the living process ‘between’. We understand each other because we are the same process ‘source’.

 

A brief clinical example

 

Some years ago I developed a psychotherapy department in a large inner city hospital. Our practice was consistent with the experiential-existential approach described above. One Friday afternoon I received a referral from the neuroscience nurses to meet Mr. Young, a middle-aged patient who was creating a disturbance on the ward. When I arrived at the nurse’s desk the ward sister warned me that Mr. Young had been difficult and demanding since his admittance a week before. Today he had become even more agitated while waiting for transport back to his local hospital where he would soon be discharged home. To die.

 

I could see a large man standing halfway down the corridor, watching me with suspicion. I approached him, introduced myself, and asked if he would like to step into the day room where we could have some privacy. Before I had even sat down Mr. Young began to describe his experience at the hospital, being ignored by nursing staff, and worse, the disrespectful treatment by the consultants, … ‘If I had met any of those men a week ago, in my club or in my office, they would have treated me with respect, as an equal. Here, because I’m wearing one of these (he picks at his hospital gown) I’m nobody. You would not believe how they told me about my scan results!’

 

Mr. Young was visibly shaking as he spoke. His face was contorted and red with rage. I was sitting back in my chair, constantly grounding myself, feeling my body, but unfortunately not knowing what to say. All I could manage was, ‘You have had an awful experience here and it’s clear you are very angry about it’.

 

I seem to have added to Mr. Young’s rage. He ignored my comment and looked hard at me, ‘A week ago I was having breakfast with my wife. The last thing I remember was seeing the paramedics walk past my dining room window. Then I woke up two days later in this place. Now they tell me, like they are talking to a dog, that I have an inoperable brain tumor and at most I have three months to live. How would you feel? HOW WOULD YOU FEEL?’

 

He dragged me out into reality; far beyond any professional response. I could have acknowledged his rage, or said ‘no one can know what it is like for you’. I could have patronized him with messages like ‘how difficult’ etc etc. But this man was desperate to be met as a real person and I could not hide from his claim on me in that moment. We stared at each other while I paused to take his question seriously. Suddenly I could feel the panic and hopelessness inside of me as I imagined being in this man’s situation. I answered evenly, ‘I would be devastated.’ Immediately there were tears in his eyes and then in my eyes. This intimidating millionaire and I had met.

 

We stayed there on the edge of emotional collapse; our bodies inclined forward, eyes fixed on each other. He described how a month before he had bought his own private airplane to celebrate the beginning of his retirement. He and his wife had planned a year of travel. Then, entirely out of the blue, he had collapsed and now he was here, about to return home with a death sentence. I listened with my body, taking it all in experientially, as much as I could, shaking my head. ‘It is so hard to take this in’ ‘I feel sick’ ‘How can this be true?’ Who said what?

 

I felt no urge to contradict the bleak outlook with something positive. What happened to Mr. Young could happen to me – this is the human shock we hide from. In order for him to recover from his shock I had to feel mine. I had to have it as real as possible. We spoke frankly. My job, if I had one, was to step back into my open body every time I tried to find an angle, an agenda, a closing-down, a side-road or a theoretical red herring. I felt responsible to stand up to existence by not putting anything in the way. But could I stand it?

 

After forty minutes the transport team knocked at the door to take Mr. Young away. We stood at the door, faced each other and shook hands firmly. ‘Thank you’ is all he said but I felt his appreciation resonate deeply. I left our meeting feeling vulnerable and weak. We never met again but I still remember Mr. Young. He must have died over ten years ago, yet I feel haunted by what I had to confront in myself so that he could regain his humanity. There was no ‘forward direction’ but there was a meeting and an expanding, briefly. I had allowed myself to be affected because he had demanded it. If we had more time, many other things might have happened. Other skills might have come into play, but only insofar as they resonated with Mr. Young, and not to obscure the abyss underneath.

 

Summary points

 

  1. Therapist interventions arise from the therapist’s ‘internal’ felt sense of what is alive experientially in the moment, not from theoretical postulates of what is important or even explicit indications from the client. Such an intervention can make explicit something that was, until then, inchoate ‘in the flow’; we speak in a way that expands the whole feeling of the session.
  2. But it is not exactly the feeling that we pay attention to, but the ‘knowing’ that is implied within the feeling. So, a ‘negative’ feeling can feel good when it is acknowledged not because we are affirming the ‘negative’ but because we are acknowledging the deeper ‘truth’ implied in the feeling.
  3. Our common humanity is palpable. It is not based upon shared knowledge or collected information. Our commonality is the living process ‘between’. We understand each other because we are the same process ‘source’.
  4. A philosophy of implicit experiencing gives us the concept of the ‘lived body’ as ongoing unfinished process, an insubstantial flow that can ground whatever we offer as therapists.

 

References

Cornell, Ann Weiser (1996) The power of focusing. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Press.

Cornell, Ann Weiser (2013) Focusing in clinical practice. The essence of change. New York: WW Norton and Co.

Gendlin, E.T. (1964). A theory of personality change. In P. Worchel & D. Byrne (eds.) Personality change. pp. 100-148. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Gendlin, E.T. (1966). Existentialism and experiential psychotherapy. In C. Moustakas (Ed.), Existential child therapy, pp. 206-246. New York: Basic Books.

Gendlin, E.T. (1984). The obedience pattern. Studies in formative spirituality, 5(2), 189-202.

Gendlin, E.T., Grindler, D. & McGuire, M. (1984). Imagery, body, and space in focusing. In A.A. Sheikh (Ed.), Imagination and healing. pp. 259-286. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood

Gendlin, E.T. (1996). Focusing-oriented psychotherapy: A manual of the experiential method. New York: Guilford.

Gendlin, E.T. (1997a) A process model. New York: The Focusing Institute. Corrected version (2001) is available http://www.focusing.org/process.html.

Gendlin, ET (1997b) Experiencing and the creation of meaning. A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. Evanston Ill: Northw. U. Press.

Gendlin, E.T. (2003) Focusing. How to gain direct access to your body’s knowledge. London: Rider

Gray, Glen J (1951) The idea of death in existentialism. Journal of philosophy, 48 (5): 113-27

Heidegger, Martin (1964) Being and time. (Trans. J Stambaugh, 1996) New York: SUNY Press

Levin, David Michael (1997) Language beyond postmodernism. Saying and thinking in Gendlin’s philosophy.Evanston Ill: Northwestern U. Press.

Madison, Greg (2009) The end of belonging: Untold stories of leaving home and the psychology of globalization. Charleston SC: Createspace Publ.

Madison, Greg (2010) Focusing on existence: Five facets of an experiential-existential model. Person-Centred and experiential psychotherapies
Vol 9 (3): 189-204.

Madison, G & Gendlin, ET (2011). ‘Palpable Existentialism: An Interview with Eugene Gendlin.’ In Existential therapy. Legacy, vibrancy and dialogue. Barnett & Madison (Eds.)

Madison, Greg (Ed.) (2014a) Theory and practice of Focusing-oriented psychotherapy. Beyond the talking cure. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Madison, Greg (Ed.) (2014b) Emerging practice in Focusing-oriented psychotherapy. Innovative theory and applications. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Preston, Lynn (2104) The relational heart of Focusing oriented psychotherapy. Pp.127-144. In Focusing-oriented psychotherapy. Beyond the talking cure. Madison (Ed.) London: Jessica Kingsley Publications.

Spinelli, Ernesto. (2007). Practising existential psychotherapy: The relational world. London: Sage Publications.

van Deurzen, Emmy & Arnold-Baker, Claire. (2005). Existential Perspectives on Human Issues: A Handbook for Therapeutic Practice. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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24th May 2020

Focusing for the Therapist

Decisions Spirituality Therapy

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Focusing for the Therapist

Greg Madison, PhD, Focusing Institute Country Coordinator

(Published in The Focusing Connection, 2003)
*Focusing is a natural way of being with our own experience, patiently, until it becomes more clear. Information on Focusing can be found at www.focusing.org

Unknown to most clients, psychotherapy remains governed by many theories and ‘rules’, the actual purpose of which may be to protect the therapist from his or her own anxiety . In this short piece, an existential therapist uses Focusing to attempt to remain open to the difficult experience of being with a dying client. Through this example of his work in an acute hospital setting, Greg suggests that Focusing can be a crucial aspect of redefining therapy as a human relationship rather than an expert one.

The medical and nursing team called me to meet Loyola, a patient who was refusing to accept her terminal diagnosis and return home. Walking onto the ward I became aware of a nervous feeling in my stomach. Although feeling nervous is not unusual for me, I decided to focus on this particular ‘nervousness’ and it soon became clear that it was about carrying the staff’s expectation that I would convince Loyola that she had to go home. The nervousness was that she might see my ulterior motive and realise that she could not trust me to listen to her openly. But finding the meaning of my nervousness at that moment felt exciting and it suddenly became easy to set aside the staff’s expectation. I approached Loyola feeling much freer to really meet this new person. When I entered her room, she was sitting up in bed and her short hair and slim figure gave her the appearance of a young boy rather than the 54-year-old grandmother that she was. She responded to my openness and with a broad smile indicated that she was happy to talk with me.

The senior ward nurse offered us his private office for our session. As I closed the door, Loyola asked simply and directly, ‘What can you do to help me?’ Somewhat taken aback, I took a seat and replied with the usual banality ‘Sometimes talking about your feelings can help’. This sounded trite in the circumstances and I was aware that I spoke from some sort of ‘therapist script’ rather than from a deeper sense of our situation – it alerted me again to the presence I needed to maintain in order not to retreat into a role. As Loyola began to speak of her current ‘trouble’ and her mastectomy three years ago, a look of pain crossed her face. She tapped her remaining breast saying ‘Now this one’s gone all hard. They are giving me medicine to fix it like they did the last time’.

Although she was insisting on more treatment, Loyola seemed somewhat unconvinced about the possibility of a cure. She concluded our session with the statement ‘I know this is not my time to die. Medicine and God will cure me’. I asked Loyola how she felt about talking to me and she paused to check her feeling (yes, a natural Focuser!), then announced ‘I like you, can we meet again?’ I left feeling excited and looking forward to our next meeting. I hoped that the next session might present the opportunity to naturally introduce Focusing to Loyola, but not as a technique that I could hide behind.

In traditional therapy, often the therapist remains more or less anonymous, a friendly face showing little sign of struggling to live a life of his or her own. Some theories of therapy insist that certain practices are crucial in order to elicit and interpret the client’s ‘unconscious’ defences and anxieties. If Loyola and I were to truly meet, it was evident from the outset that our therapy would be based upon a shared ‘unknowing’ rather than an ‘expert’ analysing a ‘client’. I was also aware that a large part of our therapy would depend on my ability to remain aware of my felt experience and ‘that part of me’ which was terrified of witnessing Loyola’s struggle to live. I also knew that I wanted more than anything to remain fully present to this person; an ethical call to acknowledge her as a legitimate person, not a problem to be solved. In doing so, it became increasingly clear that I was being challenged to open to my own mortality.

As I arrived on the ward the next week, the medical team stopped me and reiterated that they could do nothing for Loyola and they were anxious to discharge her to community care. She was resisting this as leaving the hospital would amount to accepting that she was dying. There was talk they would have to call security to escort her from the ward if she continued to refuse to cooperate. Could I ‘help’? I said I would check whether she fully understood the situation, that’s all I could do. This time as I approached Loyola, our relationship brought that old nervousness together with a tinge of responsibility. The necessity for some kind of action.

Loyola smiled from beneath her oxygen mask when she saw me. Her breathing now made even a short walk to the nurse’s office difficult, so I pulled a curtain around her bed and sat down next to her. I asked if the doctors had spoken to her about her condition. She confirmed that they had, but she didn’t understand why they wouldn’t help her like they did three years ago. ‘If it’s all they can do, then I want them to just chop it off’ she said, motioning to her remaining breast, ‘I don’t want to die, it’s not my time.’

I became aware of something in me that wanted to recoil from all this. I wondered if there was a part like that in Loyola and I felt a surge of gentleness towards her. The idea that Loyola, terrified and uncomprehending, could be wheeled from the ward against her will, pressed me to ask gently, ‘Loyola, how do you know it is not your time now?’ She replied immediately, ‘I’m certain of it, God would not want to take me now’. ‘So it’s up to God?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes, He made me and He’ll save me’. I heard a pregnant open place in me say, ‘Yes, I guess it’s only up to God now since the doctors can’t help any more’.

Loyola stopped pulling at her bedclothes and stared at me. Her eyes were fixed steadily on mine and after a long pause she asked ‘You mean they can’t stop me from dying?’ We were silent. Her expression drained from her face. My body felt totally alive, every detail of the moment, the moment many of us dread, was vibrant. I had a felt sense of life that encompassed not only Loyola and myself, but everything. After a long silence, she slowly looked up, right into my eyes, and said ‘Then it’s up to God. I will pray for a miracle. It’s not my time yet, I know that’. Her faith allowed us to retreat from that apparition of non-being and paradoxically I felt a little dulled, though relieved.

In our following sessions, as Loyola’s life began to shrink around us, we became increasingly connected to each other. On a Thursday afternoon, I arrived at her bedside as usual. She was now very weak and removed her oxygen mask to whisper something to the relatives gathered at the foot of her bed. They nodded, looked at me and left us alone. I pulled the curtain and sat down with Loyola. Again, the silence descended around us and I felt a deep love for this woman I had known less than three weeks. I know it was my Focusing awareness that enabled me to feel this, rather than the usual ‘professional relationship’ of therapist and client. After a few minutes, I said ‘You’ve not been well the past few days so I haven’t been staying very long’. She nodded. There was nothing more to say. She struggled to remain conscious and every few moments managed to stare hard into my eyes, as if to say, ‘please look at me’, which was the hardest thing for me to do. But I did not look away, or analyse, or diminish her with platitudes. I had spent time after each of our sessions Focusing on my response to her situation, learning and preparing myself to be as open as I could to any eventuality. Now this was her dying, unexpected and unwanted. During those silent minutes I imagined my head on that pillow, struggling to breathe. It felt like we were children who had accidentally strayed too far into the woods, and only one of us would make it back. Perhaps we are all children in the face of death.

The following morning a doctor called to say that Loyola had died shortly after I left.

How should I refer to that time Loyola and I spent together? Was it therapy? I did not diagnose her with a mental illness, pathologise her ‘denial’, give her advice or homework, or interpret her behaviour. I did not fight with her defence mechanisms, encourage her to think positively, or to realise her full potential. Instead I used a Focusing awareness to try to remain open in myself to the mystery of what was happening to her and between us. Perhaps it was only when Loyola saw my readiness to grapple with my own death that she felt our therapy, and her life, could come to an end. Perhaps it was really my therapy after all?

Greg Madison, PhD

London, UK

 

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8th Feb 2016

Reflections on Being (Some Sort of) a ‘Focusing-Oriented’ Therapist

Therapy

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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.

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8th Feb 2016

Focusing: a Resource for Practitioner and Client

Therapy

Page intro block

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 .

  • 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)

 

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