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23rd May 2020

Explorations in Focusing and Buddhism: 1. How Focusing can help Buddhist practice

Spirituality

Gendlin says, ‘There’s always more.’ And I imagine for many Focusing Buddhists, his recent interview on Focusing and Buddhism ( HYPERLINK “http://www.tricycle.com/feature/focusing” http://www.tricycle.com/feature/focusing) taps into a well-oiled curiosity. I’ve been a Buddhist for almost thirty years, and in that time, I’ve explored a range of Buddhist practices. I’ve attended retreats in wild and lovely places, practised meditations of different kinds, chanted mantras within strange and beautiful rituals, studiedexotic Sanskrit texts, followed ethical precepts and found friendship within the Buddhist community or sangha. These experiences have certainly informed and enriched the person I’ve become. Even so, in my onward journey of becoming (it’s a process that never stops, after all), Focusing has become an invaluable aide. Over this past half decade, Focusing over has opened up whole new seams of inspiration, and furnished fresh approaches to familiar practices. 

But when two profound practices meet – such as Buddhism and Focusing – it’s probably best to pause before leaping to compare how they differ or overlap. Any distinct system will hold its own particular insights and jewels. Often, it’s good to experience those first on their own terms, and within their own frame of reference. And yet, we cannot separate what we are now from the threads which have informed and influenced us in the past. Our exploration of different practices, and how they relate to each other, is inevitable and ongoing. So it is with some caution, as well as excitement, that I add my own voice to the others which have gone before, and to share some ways in which, for me at least, Focusing and Buddhism interact and intertwine. 

In this article, I look at how Focusing enriches the way I understand, experience, and so practice Buddhism. This may amount to a little more than glimpses into something larger. Still, I hope it might be the basis for further, ongoing explorations (by others, as well as myself) into the insights that come when Buddhism and Focusing meet. 

Ways into direct experience

Buddhism and Focusing both tackle the issue of life and how we live it. And both begin by looking within at our own, direct experience. In Focusing, Gendlin’s extraordinary contribution is to point our our implicit knowing, a ‘preconceptual feeling’ he calls the felt-sense. As Focusers, we know that the felt-sense encompasses the whole of an experience; the ‘all-that’ of a situation which is here, but which as yet has little form or no words. It’s the first inkling of a response as it stirs into awareness; a creative opening, as when a new poem comes, complete and whole. As a seasoned meditator, learning about the felt-sense, made immediate sense to me. It addressed a whole aspect of my experience, one which came to me often, but confusingly, because I had no words or concepts to describe it (a lovely example of what Gendlin calls, ‘an instance of itself’). In discovering the felt-sense, I find a new dimension opens up. I discover afresh the tremendous subtlety, accuracy, beauty, depth and infinite possibilities of my inner world. I gain a far fuller appreciation for our human potential; a new sense of what it might mean to become someone ‘fully awake’ – a ‘buddha’.

So Focusing supports my Buddhist practice in two ways. On one hand, it brings a freshly felt understanding of where Buddhism is heading – of what it might mean to be awakened. On the other, it gives new impetus to the practices which lead there. The classic metaphor here is that of a journey, of inner growth as an active exploration. It is one embedded deep within Buddhism, as dharma (the Buddhist word for ‘Buddhism’) is often translated as Path. Yet dharma also means the Teaching or Truth. This implies a different kind of process; transformation which grows organically from the gradual unfolding of what is real and true, from within. For me, it is this second perspective which chimes most closely with Focusing. 

These two ways of describing inner change are reflected in one of Buddhism’s central approaches to realising our human potential: the practice of meditation. Some meditation is about actively generating buddha-like qualities. Other meditations seek to create conditions in which our inherent qualities can shine forth. This latter is about being where we are now more and more fully, and the alchemy that follows when we are. And it’s here that Focusing practice has become such a vital support for me. The Focusing attitudes and approaches, which I learn and re-learn in every Focusing session I do, have become the bedrock for my meditation. For example, one of Focusing’s great gifts is the way it allows us to accompany and welcome our experience, even when that experience feels difficult, confusing or contradictory. Even experienced meditators may be surprised at the subtle wisdom that Focusing brings to the inner world, particularly the way a Focuser can nurture a clear awareness of what is unclear; the process of watching and waiting as a felt-sense gathers, grows and shifts.  

In Buddhism, this sort of awareness is sometimes described as a deep recognition of the way in which our experience ‘self-liberates’; that is, how our feelings, impulses, thoughts and sensations naturally arise, continue and pass. Experiencing felt-shifts within Focusing has helped me to understand this. Whether Focusing or meditating, I can watch with fascinated attention as some unknown energy or impulse emerges (often fuzzy and vague), then forms and shifts. For me, this happens mostly through images, metaphors and association, mixed with symbolised body-sense and feeling. So it’s with relief I’ve discovered that body-sensation does not have to be the sole or primary means of grounding my experience, as some meditation practices advise. Again, in some types of meditation we are offered the choice to let our thoughts and feelings pass ‘like clouds in a blue sky’. Focusing has taught me the value of watching and befriending the clouds as they gather, storm and swirl. So I rest with those clouds (not inside them, but with them, in a way I sense that they might like) until, through the power of empathy and presence, they are ready to dissolve into space. As both Focusers and meditators know, when the ‘clouds’ are strong emotions or old patterns, the way they shift and release is some sort of miracle. 

Ways to Awareness and Presence

As a result of all this, I often feel more empathy. I find I can better embrace other people’s experience as it forms and moves for them, even when that might be challenging. The more I hold my own experience within this kind, spacious awareness, the more natural it is to do that for them. In the gentle words of Kevin McEvenue: the more space there is for me, the more there is for you. I now know more deeply that, ‘as within, so without’. Many Buddhist practices focus on ways to develop kindness and compassion for oneself and others. Through Focusing, a natural kindness has come into my life, unbidden. It has opened up new vistas for me onto the ideal, so beautifully expressed in Buddhism, of limitless compassion and understanding.

The down-to-earth reason for this is because Focusing is so good at helping us spot when we are embedded in a tangle of thoughts and feelings (I’m hurt/angry/upset/good/bad). Buddhism talks about feeling the pain of two arrows. Initially, there is the ‘first arrow’ – the fear, pain or hurt triggered by something which happens. Then there is the extra dart we introduce when we try to do that impossible thing of pushing away our experience, or of grasping after it. So the ‘second arrow’ refers to the added wrangles and tangles which happen inside us when we don’t like feeling things like worry or pain. Focusing practice has helped me understand the two arrows in a very practical way. In Inner Relationship Focusing, we come into relationship with the parts of us that are wanting or not-wanting our experience, and learn how to move forward by holding them both in presence. This is a precious insight for any Buddhist whose classic dharma teachings revolve around the human impulses of craving and aversion. In this way, my Focusing practice has brought me a new sense of freedom and hope; a welcome lightness around what is difficult or painful. 

Buddhism has a lot to say about the way we merge and identify with our experience (‘this is me!’). It talks about this as the creation of self or selfhood, as if we have a special faculty for creating ideas of who we are: the ego, or ‘I-maker’ (ahamkara). Focusing practice gives me a wonderful opportunity to see how I forge and coagulate around my experience from moment-to-moment, creating ongoing ideas of a me or self. In the course of a Focusing session, I begin to disentangle and unmerge from the me’s and somethings that make up my usual sense of myself. Whether I feel overwhelm, uncertainty, pain, or inspiration, uplift and wonder, I’m more able to welcome these simply as aspects of what is happening right now, watching them shift and change organically. So I feel safer around experience, my own and other people’s. 

This means that, at root, my understanding of my self is changing. I’m learning more about the flow and process of life – how utterly fluid experience is. I gradually find a space where I know that I am not really made up of any one fixed thing; I come into a new relationship with my ideas and deep-rooted sense of self. In fact, I find that there isn’t really a me here, in the way I usually feel it. I begin to experience a quality of being which Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin call Self-in-Presence. 

Self-in-Presence means we can simply be present with whatever happens, whether that’s something inside us, or in the world outside. Remarkably, this is even enjoyable – however difficult or painful the experience is. That’s because once we are present with something, the qualities of understanding and kindness flow naturally towards it. However shakily or momentarily we are present, the more painful that thing is, the more compassion and empathy arise in response. 

Ways to freedom

At root, both Focusing and Buddhism are practices based on presence and awareness (I see the terms as interchangeable). These open up new perspectives, where we experience ourselves and the world in a radically different way. Buddhism describes this radical difference in terms of freedom. In one sense, this freedom is freedom from. It’s when we overcome habitual obstacles and limitations, and outgrow our inner aches and pains, our wanting or not-wanting, and the whole gamut of difficult emotions based on old ways of seeing ourselves and our lives. It’s a radical way of clearing the space (Gendlin, Focusing, Chapter 7).

In another sense, freedom is more than this: it has a unique quality of its own. We may feel freedom as a rare and precious joy. This comes having from a different kind of response to the world. Many of our entrenched responses are reactive; that is, they are created and conditioned by our current attitudes, feelings, thoughts; our past experiences and future expectations; everything that makes up my current sense of me. As that sense of self changes, and as Self-in-Presence grows, we no longer merge with our reactive responses. Open to our felt-sensing, and alive to the ever-changing flow of things, we are free to feel whatever comes into our lives in a fresh, creative way. As Buddhism puts it, we can move beyond conditions altogether, towards complete and radical freedom. The Buddha conjures up the image of the ocean. ‘Just as the ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so this dharma of mine has one taste: the taste of freedom.’ (Udana, 5.5) For me, this is where the practice of Focusing and Buddhism meet.

Dr. Elizabeth English is also known in the Focusing community by her Buddhist name, Locana. She is an ordained member of the Triratna Buddhist Community, and author of a book on Tantric Buddhism, ‘Vajrayogini’ ( 2002, Wisdom Publications). She is a certified trainer in Focusing, Nonviolent Communication™ and a teacher of Mindfulness. To discover more about her work, or sign up for her Communication Tips, visit: www.lifeatwork.co.uk. 

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