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23rd May 2020


  1. What do Focusing and Fairytales have in common?

Among the snippets of dreams, poems, and song-lines that pop up in my Focusing sessions, I often find themes from fairytales. To me the Land of Færy seems particularly apt for Focusing. I’ve been wondering why this is.

I suppose fairytales, like Focusing, often start off with a problem. For fairytale characters, this might happen in a number of ways. They may be under an enchantment – something which limits or binds them by a power which seems greater than they are – trapped into animal form, or into a 100-year sleep, for example. They they may have an overwhelming longing, do something which disrupts the status quo, act unwisely – such as stealing the witch’s cabbages, claiming your clever daughter spins flax into gold, giving vital information to a wolf. Or the character inherits a set of circumstances which predate and predict the predicament – wicked relations, poverty, something which sets them off to seek their fortune in the world. The fairytale describes a journey in which the central character has many weird and wonderful encounters, and in the process of which the insoluble is solved.

This journey reminds me of Focusing. In a Focusing session we start with a felt sense of a problem – our own version of an enchantment, trap, longing, impossible circumstances. This is something insoluble on its own level, that is, the level of what we already know. As we come into relationship with the problem, we meet felt senses within us that are new and unexpected; other currents, energies, forces, presences (we might experience them in different ways at different times). Through these encounters something new emerges. A felt shift may come, and when it does, it brings resolution. As in a fairytale, we’re on a journey from the imperfect to the perfect; a journey which takes place within our own unique realm of experience, guided forward by our implicit sense of what is complete and whole.

We know as Focusers that this process often takes us beyond our everyday sense of who we are and our place in the world, into another dimension: ‘Your physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact, the whole universe.’ (ibid. p.88). Rather like a fairytale character, we may meet tangles, traps, trickery and cunning on our adventure towards a sense of ‘all alright’. In other words, we meet other ‘partial selves’ that seem to exert these kinds of influences on us and our situation. But there are also unexpected encounters, magical solutions, and rare resources which rescue us within the process. That is, the implicit knowing our body-being holds may come in forms beyond anything we would have consciously dreamed up. By definition, the felt shift comes from something beyond what we originally knew, because it comes from, and opens up to us, a deeper level of implicit knowing.

With a felt shift, then, our energies integrate, or dissolve into Presence, perhaps in relation to just one single issue. We find ourselves complete and fulfilled in that respect. At that moment, in relation to that issue, it’s as if we find ourselves at the centre of our own unique kingdom or realm of being. Like the King or Queen of folklore, we’ve been on a journey and arrived.

So Focusing has much in common with fairytales. And fairytales are rather like Focusing. For a fairytale too is ‘part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times…’. Fairytales magically conjure up that sense of ‘all alright’. It’s a world in which the Perfect Princess lives happily ever with her virtuous and valourous Perfect Prince, abundant in riches, goodness and love.

Too good to be true? That’s precisely my point! This perfect world with its perfect ending is ‘too good to be true’ – but only to those parts of me that don’t inhabit it. Elsewhere in this realm-of-me, I have an implicit knowing that I can reach a place where difficulties settle and dissolve; where I’m no longer under the spell of my merged and entangled parts, where my problems are set free to find their own inner riches, love and fulfilment.

  1. Playing with Fairytales in Focusing: ‘What in me is like this?’

I started playing with fairytales (which seems more fitting than ‘working’ with them), because fairytale themes and characters often come to me spontaneously while I focus. This happens as I search for a way to describe what I do not yet have words for:

‘What’s this like….?’ ‘What’s this as if?’

Sometimes, I’m on a cliff-edge (fondly imagining my listener is too), because I know there’s an as-if forming in there. What’s it going to be…?

‘Ah. It’s like that moment the King tells the clever girl to spin wool into gold, and if she won’t, the King will cut off her head…It’s exactly like that!’ And then sometimes (not always), meaning might come…

‘I see now. It’s like having to do something impossible, but if I don’t manage it something awful will happen.’ This opens up some more…

‘And it’s like the part of me that’s worrying about spinning wool into gold is willing to give away anything for help. I can feel how awful it is for this one! It’s like when Rumpelstiltskin demands her necklace – even her unborn baby. Is that how the story goes? I think it is… he demands she’ll give him her baby when she marries the King…’ There’s more in those words ‘unborn baby’, and I sit with them, welcoming what they may hold.

‘Her unborn baby… my unborn baby. There’s something really strong in that. What is this? What’s this like?’… More felt-sensing, as I wait for something felt but unformed to emerge.

‘Is it like the best in me? My unborn, best me? My next steps into a living-forward energy…?’

And so the session goes on. I’m resonating between my felt sense and the characters/themes of the story. Sometimes the resonance comes to me of itself, and sometimes I go looking for it because it draws me. What exactly is Rumpelstiltskin? Is he something in me? Is he some kind of energy or way of being? An attitude? Or is there something in my life which is like that? It may take a while for the story and the meaning to unfold. Sometimes the meaning seems quite secondary, and only comes some sessions later.

At this point, Focusing with fairytales is very like Gendlin’s description of working with dreams. Only after giving real space to the different aspects and symbols of the dream do we come to the point where we ask, ‘What in my life is like this?’ (Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams Ch.1.5). Or perhaps, in relation to the fairytale, ‘What in me is like this?’

  1. Drawing on the Richness of Story

I work (or play) with fairytales, myths and legend in different ways. Having discovered first-hand how much richness these tales hold for my unfolding Focusing journey, why wait for them to come to me? I can also go to them. This is like giving attention to dreams, writing them down or recording them, and so encouraging them to come. In the same way, I enjoy reading fairytale and myth, and discovering themes that catch my attention.

I remember noticing a sense of shock which came to me in the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s when she tells the wolf where her grandmother lives. ‘No!’ I want to call out to her. ‘That’s a wolf you’re talking to!’

I’m almost squirming with hopeless frustration.

‘Don’t do it, Little Red Riding Hood!’

With such a strong response, it’s clear there’s something worth exploring in me. So I begin by opening up the felt sense in my ‘No!’ The distress I’m feeling as I know Little Red Riding Hood is about to divulge the address of her beloved, sick grandmother, to a WOLF.

I don’t just take this to Focusing sessions. I live with it as a problem. Every now and then, I take it out, dust it off, muse on it. I witness again the distress of all that – the motif in the story. I spend time with that felt sense, letting myself feel and acknowledge how awful some part of me feels about telling a wolf where someone special is, someone who’s wise and loving, but sick… And gradually, the themes begin to open up, or some felt shifts in relation to the issue.

I find it’s important not to rush the themes, or to try to understand them too quickly. Our aim is to come into relationship with what is there, not (necessarily) to understand it. As Ann Weiser Cornell says (Focusing Tip 234), ‘Focusing is not a process of insight, it’s a process of relationship. It’s through relationship that change happens in the direction of fuller life.’  Or in Gendlin’s words, ‘understanding is a by-product’ ( Focusing 2007 ed. p.79). Our experience is often in danger of being hijacked by what part of us knows – often our clever, analytical, critical, want-to-know-and-solve-things selves. Working with dreams, Gendlin suggest we apply ‘bias-control’ (Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams Ch.10). This might involve applying the opposite sort analysis on purposein order to loosen the grip of our consciously-held views and values – because if we identify solely with those, it means we may lose a new growth direction, and just become more of the same (Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams Ch.8 p.49).

Sometimes, like a dream, fairytales come to me unbidden. This happened recently when I watched Tim Burton’s animation film, The Corpse Bride. I hadn’t expected a major Focusing moment to emerge, but it did, suddenly and unexpectedly. Having started the film in a downcast mood, by the end of it, I felt transformed. Something has changed in me – the story has in itself produced a felt shift. So I begin to muse and focus on what this may be.

I can feel at once that it relates to the figure of the Corpse Bride herself. So I sense and search for those energies in me with the question:

‘What in me is like this?’

The response is clear and immediate. Suddenly I’m with an old, familiar aspect of myself, but in an entirely new way. Many a long Focusing session has revolved around this complex knot, but now I find I can accompany and empathise with that partial-self, because I have a way to perceive it more fully through the character of the Corpse Bride. Once again, I’m resonating between my felt sense and the character: her faded, maggot-ridden beauty, her dashed hopes, her longing, her desperate attempts to grab what she needs (in this case, the young groom) and to fit it into her world. I begin to feel how she’s present (in me)  at any moment when a hope, or wish or life-energy is un-acted, unexpressed, unrequited – whenever there is life-energy which doesn’t quite find its way into life. Like the Corpse Bride, that beautiful fresh energy is ‘murdered’ just as it’s about to be fulfilled. I can sense how this relates to specific moments of my life, as well as in more general ways, when a life-direction wants to be lived, and yet is cut short.

Through Focusing in this way, I’m able to welcome the Corpse Bride felt sense in me much more fully. I feel a whole new freedom to be in her presence. Or to be in presence with her. Then other characters from the film also start asking for attention… what or who, for example, is doing the murdering?

The answer to that comes to me one day as I give a little space to a moment of grumpiness over my work. In my mind’s eye the wicked aristocrat from the Corpse Bride suddenly appears. Having killed the Corpse Bride years before, he’s now planning to marry, abduct and murder the New Bride. There he is in me – a sort of nasty ‘I don’t care how you feel, just get back to work’ attitude. I see immediately how he drives underground the more receptive, flowing parts of myself, which then feel stressed and sore. So I live with this wicked male energy  –  and begin to see links with other fairytales; other characters who seem to act for the best (in worldly terms), but at great cost, like the King who threatens to cut off the clever girl’s head if she won’t spin flax into gold. Once again, this gives me a clearer way in to exploring my felt senses of those aspects in me.

Then the New Bride herself begins to speak. I explore her energies, the felt sense that she brings…beauty, love, fresh life. I notice how often I’m unaware of the New Bride, how blank she seems for me. But as I approach that blank-unaware place with curious wonderment, I now find I’m holding two things within me: the Unlived-and-Unloved (the Corpse Bride), and the Living-and-Loving (the New Bride). Both are there equally. With this comes another movement forward. I find the Living-and-Loving one is making her presence felt in me. She’s taking up her natural place. Her beautiful being begins to find a fresh, clear voice, no longer drowned out by the part of me that has merged and identified with the Corpse Bride. She fills me up intensely for several days.

So the themes continue to blossom and unfold. Often other fairytales help to bring the understanding which one tale alone does not. I notice other aspects of the Corpse Bride – sisters in Færy  –  such as the Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. All aspects of the feminine in various stages of fulfilment: dead, sleeping, trapped. Of course, at this point, it would be very easy to turn to other sources, and to read classic interpretations of these tales by others  –  and that may prove valuable and fascinating. But in the first instance, what’s important is how the themes emerge and land in me. As with dreams, ‘The interpretation comes inside the dreamer or not at all.’ (ibid. Ch. 3.6). Classic psychoanalytic-theory may be helpful, but it’s our own felt-response to the story that holds the richness for us.

This reminds me that coming into relationship with ourselves is itself a journey. For some deeply-merged, deeply-engrained aspects of ourselves, that journey may take time, and different approaches can prove useful. The approaches are gateways which allow whatever needs attention to move into awareness  –  not necessarily into understanding, but into wholeness. So whether it comes as a body-sense, or movement, or feeling, or image, what is key is that we allow it to arrive within us, resonating with it – trying to allow it the form it needs. And at times, a fairytale or myth may speak just the language we need to reach down to the exiled parts, and allow them to come to life. Then we can engage with them, and they can come to life in us. At this point, we could truly be said to be living in a fairytale.[CUT THIS LAST LINE??]

Elizabeth English D.Phil (Oxon), (also known by her Buddhist name, Locana), may be reached at Contact – Elizabeth English. She is a certified teacher and trainer in Focusing, and also in Nonviolent Communication™. To discover more about her work, in both personal and professional settings, see Life At Work – Professional and Personal Development. She would be happy to hear from anyone on this subject or any other Focusing -or- NVC related topics.

Elizabeth now teaches Mindfulness at Cambridge University. She offers courses online mindfulness and meditation courses, and is author of a book on mediation, infused with focusing:  Journeys to the Deep: A Gentle Guide to Mindfulness Meditation.

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