Introduction to Focusing

by Vajrasara Rankin

Overview

Wolf Leaping over a GateFocusing is essentially a body-based process of awareness. It is a way of supporting people to be in relation to their inner world. Deep and careful listening is key. Through Focusing we learn to listen to ourselves with increasing sensitivity, curiosity and clarity. We are especially alive to the edge of our conscious experience. What we don’t yet, quite know. Sometimes referred to as the vague, fuzzy, uncertain place on the periphery of our awareness.

If we attend to this edge we often find that things form, as if emerging from a haze; maybe sensations, images or feelings; perhaps there are words, sometimes words that don’t make sense in the ordinary way. All of this is invited and connected with – and in so doing more emerges. We are learning to access what Focusing founder Eugene Gendlin calls “a special kind of internal bodily awareness”. To hear our body’s innate wisdom.

Focusing is a method that uses the body as a direct – and distinct – window into our inner world. It can help people to feel more connected, aware of themselves and alive. Focusing can help us take a radical new approach to our life. Through this skill or ability we can discover a powerful resource within. It can help to transform obstacles, resolve problems, loosen habits, increase potential, express creativity, and enrich our life.

Contemporary science claims that the body has memory, even every cell has an imprint or ‘memory’. Our bodies have been with us at all the events of our lives. And yet how often does it occur to people to consult their body? The apparent mind-body split in western society has hardly encouraged such an attitude. And how would we do it in a way that is reliable and not simply the thinking mind at work, deluding ourselves?

Focusing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, enabling the body to calm and to self regulate. Over time, practising Focusing makes a real difference. It stimulates the right brain faculties, which has direct access to the body-brain and viscera.

Ways to apply Focusing

Often people Focus on an issue or a problem, in order to find a fresh or non-conceptual understanding of it. Focusing can bring healing and relief to physical symptoms, and emotional difficulties. It can have remarkable results when applied to decision-making – letting your body make your mind up; or freeing up areas that are stuck, like action blocks. Many people turn inward and Focus with no particular theme or issue – to become attuned to what’s happening within. And to encourage what’s going well.

Focusing can enhance many areas – body, mind and spirit – even give access to profound or archetypal dimensions. It can increase our capacity for using our imagination creatively, releasing our self-expression, and learning to trust our intuition. It can to be delightful to Focus on areas that feel well, wholesome and vital – just to celebrate and amplify being embodied. For those who like to express themselves through movement and gesture, there is Wholebody Focusing.

Focusing may be used in conjunction with other disciplines, particularly various types of psychotherapy, Thinking at the Edge of reason, bodywork and trauma release work. There are also specific methods and questions of using Focusing with our dreams, which can tap into a potentially rich seam.

What’s involvedowl in flight

It’s an opportunity to pause and create a space to enable something fresh to come forward. It’s based on the premise that our bodies know more about our lives and the situations we find ourselves in than often we realise. With practice we can learn to get a sense of the ‘more’ that is happening unconsciously in and around us. Sensitivity, close listening and intuition are all involved. So we start by being as present as we can, and sensing into the body; trying to notice whatever is calling for attention. Then we take an interest in it. Gently and respectfully.

One way of attending to it is known as resonating – when we try out different words, symbols, metaphors to describe the inner experience. And through trial and fine-tuning our sensing we gradually find a ‘handle’ that really fits or describes this inner thing; or things plural. Then we take time to acknowledge and accompany whatever is found. We’re trying to sense from its point of view, and letting this something (or somethings) know it’s heard. Staying in touch with the edge where change and growth happens.

Felt Sense

In due course a Felt Sense of the whole topic or context may emerge. This phrase is a specific term used in Focusing to refer to a meaningful physical sensation. It seems to bring or encapsulate the whole of a situation or experience. A bodily sense, for instance – feeling full or heavy or tense – often isn’t the same as a Felt Sense. It needs to be meaningful sensation. A Felt Sense will open into something bigger or new. It will have forward-moving energy. We may not know its nature until we investigate and draw closer to the sensation.

The Felt Sense may be hard to convey and easily misunderstood. It emerges before thought. Gendlin says it’s apprehendable in the body but pre-conceptual. “A Felt Sense is something we do not at first recognise – vague and murky. It feels meaningful but not known. It is a body-sense of meaning.” It’s a combination of bodily sensation, feelings, images, and also associations, thoughts, perhaps memory. A Felt Sense will usually have a couple of those aspects. Typically a Felt Sense starts off unclear, without us having suitable words. We need to sense, and enquire to discover the words that fit our experience. Often symbols or strange / compound words (for example: sad-sweet-heavy) capture the essence best. And then the Felt Sense – perhaps gradually, or maybe quite quickly – comes to light.

“A Felt Sense is body and mind before they are split apart … When we learn Focusing we discover that the body finding its own way provides its own answers … Without tapping the deeper bodily level, we would stay stuck with the thoughts and feelings of what the issue appears to be at the beginning.” (Gendlin)

Our hunches and intuition frequently help us to discern whether a sensation in the stomach is significant, or merely digesting lunch. A Felt Sense seems to evoke a sense of the whole naturally. So it is not interpretive or fabricated. It is not simply a sensation that the rational mind has decided carries meaning. It is more dependable – the intuitive knowledge that rises up when we tune into the body. It’s the place from which the unfolding self unfolds. The Felt Sense keeps the whole journey anchored in the body. Checking back with it as we move forward keeps us on track.

Gendlin describes Focusing as development beyond symbolizing, where a new kind of object (the Felt Sense) forms in a new kind of space. The forming of a Felt Sense is a fresh type of ‘carrying forward’ – or forward-moving energy – already a kind of resolution. We need to sit with a Felt Sense long enough for what is implicit within it to form in consciousness. Through contact with this bodily Felt Sense, Focusing brings a remarkable potential for transformative healing, or learning, or vitality in our life.

Felt shift

A felt shift occurs when something we have been attending to, changes or frees up. Maybe a block is released, tension evaporates; perhaps a fresh emotion arises, or a solution is discerned for the first time. Frequently more energy comes with this shift. Or clarity dawns. What we’re hoping to encourage is this  carrying forward – typically there is more flow, or a new sense of alignment. Our natural resourcefulness and a sense of what’s right for us today can emerge.

According to Focusing teacher Allan Rohlfs: “When we pay attention in a specific way to our Felt Sense, words arise and move the feeling. That movement is change. Movement is always forward, towards more life. The language chosen is helpful only when it brings this movement.” What moves the experiencing forward comes from the person themselves – when they identify whatever connects them to living more fully.

Focusing is fluid not static. More about verbs than nouns. As Rohlfs says, “It’s about experiencing, and feeling. A small yet huge difference reflecting a dynamic changing reality.” By Focusing we can move to more freedom, more congruence, a greater sense of wholeness. In Focusing the emphasis on forward movement is interwoven with a sense of meaning.

Sometimes a Felt Sense expresses itself through particular wordplay, even puns. When investigating a painful feeling, one friend had an image of a soft toy being chopped up and the word “cut” came. After some exploring, the handle which fitted precisely was that “he felt cut up” about the issue. In a session of mine, the Felt Sense was in my bottom and contact with the seat. The word “rely” came repeatedly. I tried out: “I can rely on my bottom” … to my own and my companion’s amusement. Eventually the message which resonated exactly, and felt significant, was: “At bottom I can rely on myself.”

Focusing with others

Focusing is a tool for inner development, which can be done alone or with others. At the outset we need a teacher or guide to demonstrate the process and teach the skills involved both as Focuser and as a listener. In due course we can then proceed solo or find a companion and swap roles. Many people find it most helpful when undertaken with other people, frequently in pairs. Newcomers sometimes wonder why a companion is needed – and whether Focusing alone might be simpler, or more relaxing.

A leading Focusing teacher, Ann Wesier Cornell, explains that the majority of people (90-95% in her estimation) struggle to Focus alone, and find the presence of another hugely beneficial. The person listening is the companion and reflects back what the Focuser finds and expresses. The Focuser is always in charge, can determine the level of disclosure and safety, and may stop at any time. In this sense it is naturally respectful, non-directive, and analysis of the other is discouraged. The companion just follows; they don’t need to be an expert, nor even to understand. The key is simply to be present, as a one human being with another.

Partnership

Focusing exchanges are an empowering way of developing presence and a capacity for deep listening (both of oneself and another). We can learn a great deal by accompanying others in their process. The companion brings mindfulness and empathic connection to a wide-open allowing space. Their own attention can be very supportive, and helps to keep the other centred and concentrated. (S)he also supports in reflecting back the words and gestures in such a way as to support the Focuser staying present to what’s going on within. Being sensitive and receptive in both manner and tone of voice.

Sometimes the companion helps to keep the process on track by using certain language or phrases, or may make suggestions. A partner may also attend to what is implied, or functioning implicitly, but is perhaps still shadowy, not yet consciously known. To focus with a partner, we ideally need to be able to be in Presence, while we Focus ourselves, and while our partner has their turn. This is one of the great values of Focusing partnership – it invites and draws out our larger or wiser self. It can also bring empathy, intimacy and friendship.

Facilitative language

The way we listen and the words we choose can affect the quality of what happens. The Focusing guide or companion develops skills in being present to the other and uses language that supports the Focuser in being with whatever is unfolding inside.

We are looking for a middle way between two potentially unhelpful ways of approaching our experience. These are, on the one hand, over-identification with something inside; and on the other hand, denial of something inside. For example, if we notice some fear and say ‘I’m scared’ – it may feel as if it is me, all of me. We are identified with that, we’ve become one with that fearful emotion. When we’re ‘merged’ with one part of ourselves, there is little space for anything else. If the feeling is intense this can easily become overwhelming.

A skilful companion will use language that facilitates the Focuser in being with a part but not engulfed by it. We would not say back: “You are scared’. Rather we’d say: “You’re sensing something in you is scared.” This wording has a slightly distancing effect, it creates room around it, and allows for other experience in the mix to be noticed and felt.

The opposite pitfall is when we deny the scared emotion – we repress that part or feeling – reluctant to experience it. It still affects us of course, leaving us uncomfortable or worse. So we put energy into not attending to it. We turn away, stay vague around it, or even block it out. The companion can gently support the Focuser in hearing the part of them that doesn’t want to be with the scared place.

A middle way can be found. This facilitative language tends to bring more space for the Focuser and supports them in finding a way to be with whatever arises with empathy.  It is subtle but can have a big effect. A bit like stepping back to be a kindly witness. Typically different ‘parts’ of ourselves emerge, and invite our attention.

According to Gendlin: ‘Focusing is an “I” spending time with an “it” – or often many “its”.  However the “I” is an I without content.’ This “I” that Gendlin refers to is our awareness, which has an observer’s role. What Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin call Self-in-Presence. Like a benevolent parent listening impartially to all their brood.

As we greet these inner places (or parts, or voices), they generally change. Commonly they want to be acknowledged or included – after which they may calm down, perhaps shift in intensity, or morph into something new. Often they have a particular message to impart. These ‘somethings’ may lead us on an unpredictable journey. Many insights and broad life-learning can be gleaned from Focusing.

Lost or exiled parts

On any given day we might wish to be or feel something: I might want to feel happy or be efficient. Clearly something inside wants to feel that way. But what about the places that don’t feel happy or together? Maybe they’re scattered, chaotic or miserable today. These parts have their causes, and their story. They hold information about what they (we) need. By giving attention to our feelings and various parts, we discover the gifts they hold. The further away we push unwanted parts, the harder it is to hear what they’re missing. We may lose touch with them altogether. That’s how ‘lost parts’ are created. Sometimes the routes to discovering what we want and need is through first listening to what those parts don’t want.

Our rational mind might want to insist on doing something. For instance, taking more exercise. Our intentions are valuable, showing us what we long for.  They can also be tyrannical. So what about those parts within that don’t want to exercise – that prefer rest and ease? They have a right to be heard. They may baulk at being overruled.

When we ignore or dismiss parts, they get lost or ‘exiled’. So we set up inner conflict. These energies cause trouble when ignored. As the old saying goes: “What we resist, persists”. Of course, we may carry out our intentions through gritted teeth – but there’s commonly a price to pay. When we leave out parts of ourselves, we feel unsettled or incomplete. We may experience emotional backlash. Or find we’ve somehow squeezed the life – even the joy – out of ourselves.

Parts of ourself also get exiled when events have been overwhelming or traumatic – and survival seems to depend on us not experiencing them. Or when others have ignored aspects or needs of ours – perhaps when we were young. Whatever the cause, there is a gentle, empathic way of reconnecting to these estranged parts.

Lost parts make themselves felt, directly or indirectly. We may experience them as physical pains, intractable feelings, stress or emotional turbulence. And we can discern them in habits that seem to sabotage us, unconscious remarks, spontaneous associations, or in our dreams.

These visitors appear for good reasons. When we stop resisting them, we can reclaim the energy – bringing more balance and integration. By welcoming our lost parts, we move towards inner peace. Our task is to hold with care and attend equally to all our parts – those we like and those we don’t. If we listen without bias, even the unruly ones have something vital to convey.

When we turn towards what feels scary, horrible or tangled, we usually find there’s more space, more clarity. And we’re no longer fighting what is. So we learn to acknowledge and hear it all. We even value the ambivalence. This kind of inner listening leads to a radically different way of relating to ourself.

Ann Weiser Cornell has asserted: “Everything inside you is trying to save your life!” If we take on this challenging perspective, we’ll see that even the most frightening feeling, violent image, or critical voice is actually an inner protector with our best interests at heart. And this can support us in developing transformative self-acceptance.

Eugene Gendlin

Focusing was first identified in the 1950s by Dr Eugene Gendlin, a psychologist and philosopher. It came to light during research when he noticed a self-reflective behaviour that some people did, which supported healing and growth in psychotherapy, while others hardly changed. As he and colleagues researched, they found that those clients who benefitted most had a natural way of consulting their bodily Felt Sense. Focusing became a learnt method and practice of inner attention that encourages this natural skill. Gendlin has been teaching this since the 1970s, and over time Focusing has developed its various current forms.

He doesn’t advocate prioritising sensation and feeling, and dropping thought – his interest lies in a body-mind synthesis. “Thinking in the usual way can be objectively true and powerful. But when put in touch with what the body already knows and lives, it becomes vastly more powerful.”

Gendlin’s work is centred on change, specifically how experiencing, presence and words interact. It is inherently an investigation into and philosophical understanding of process, motion, human nature and growth through awareness.  “Under all the packages each of us carries, a different self can be discovered. We are not any of the things we have identified. We are no content at all.”

Now in his 80s, Gendlin is still an active figure in the international Focusing world. Many of his own students have taken Focusing forward in new or slightly different directions. This sense of freedom and experimentation is encouraged. Gendlin is inherently curious and receptive to new ideas and practices. He has urged: “Don’t just do Focusing, mix it with other disciplines – keep it alive”.

There are many forms and applications of Focusing. And there is no one prescribed ‘correct’ method. The Focusing community seems to have minimal rules and regulations, and aims to apply the spirit of Focusing itself to how the community functions and inter-relates.  A sort of benign anarchy is characteristic of the Focusing community – to support a sense of latitude, freshness and personal initiative.

More resources and information see: www.focusing.org  and www.focusing.org.uk