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Connecting with Ourselves Through Focusing (Episode 31-39)

A practical method for enhancing the dialogue between our mind and body

Last year, after completing my interview with John Casey about Journaling, we talked further after the recording and he told me about Focusing, a method for deeper self-knowledge and healing. Focusing is a practice which entails much more than merely concentrating on a single point. It’s not the conventional concept of focused attention. I became curious, and investigated this practice, which until then had remained unknown to me. At least in explicit terms, because the more I learnt about it, the more I realized that I’ve been doing this myself for quite some time without consciously being aware of the practice. To learn more about our bodily knowing, and the dialogue between our mind and body, I’ve decided to dive into Focusing.


Focusing defined

According to the Focusing Institute, Focusing, a form of "felt-sensing," is a practice of allowing our bodies to guide us to deeper self-knowledge and healing. The felt sense is the intuitive bodily feeling for unresolved issues. According to philosopher Eugene Gendlin, the originator of the practice who coined the term, Focusing is a ‘metaphor for the process of recognizing vague, subtle, or ephemeral somatic sensations that could gradually be brought into focus, as one might adjust a pair of binoculars to turn a blurry visual image into clear, recognizable objects’ (Focusing Institute, 2022).


Focusing is rooted in Gendlin’s philosophy, which centers around the idea that living bodies “imply” their own way forward. In line with this, Eugene Gendlin has stated: ‘It seems to me that the most important central development is to become bodily sensitive to how the situation sits in the body, to let a bodily felt sense come. This is the spot where there is always an implicit unfinished further implying. If we permit it, it will expand and move from step to step, explicating and expanding our felt sense of the situation in which we find ourselves. More and more experience will come. […] There is always a further implying and a still further implying. The bodily experience of the situation, the quality, like “agitated,” “comfortable,” “desiring,” or “excited,” supplies the dimension that can then develop towards new possibilities. Those new possibilities are always implicit in experiencing. […] Bodily experience is always incomplete, and always leads to further steps of development if we make room for it in our bodies’ (Madison, 2014). Thus, Focusing provides a means for going beyond mere emotions and feelings, and for diving under these into our physical body to connect with something bigger that wants to unfold.


To learn about Focusing, I talked to Beth Mahler, a Certified Focusing-Oriented Therapist, and a practitioner and teacher of Focusing for many years. Beth has been a psychotherapist for over 19 years and is also Adjunct Professor Sociology of Death and Grief at William Paterson University of New Jersey. When asking Beth for a definition of Focusing, she responded by saying; ‘it is simple, yet profound. It is a natural organic process, that we already know how to connect with […]; this bodily felt sense. At some point in time […] we get cut off from this bodily felt knowing. [The practice of Focusing offers a way for] relearning something’ (Mahler, 2022). As Gene Gendlin stated, ‘[f]ocusing is a dialogue between our mind and the body’ (Gendlin, 2000). The quality to have that dialogue between mind and body, in my humble opinion, we’ve lost to a great extent, and are in urgent need of relearning. Focusing offers a means for doing this.


Reconnecting to what our body is telling us

‘The body is not at all what they teach us in school. It is something completely different. The person and the body are one system together. The body is not at all alone a physiological machine. The body and the person are all one’ (Gendlin, 2000). Through Focusing, we learn to reconnect to ourselves and our bodily knowing. There are many reasons why we become disconnected from this capacity to connect with our own bodies, and what it can teach us. This could be for instance due to people in our lives, repetition of a certain kind of parenting, grandparenting, teachers, and at times because we tell ourselves that this bodily sense of “movements” in our belly is not normal and not right, and we therefore ignore it (Mahler, 2022). Another reason could be a strongly preconceived medical model; if you feel something, you take something for it, ingesting it, as opposed to coming inside and checking in with the feeling. As Beth explained during our talk, often times we need to relearn that it’s okay to feel these inner-felt experiences, and how to tap into the bodily knowing that is connected to these feelings, and how to listen to them (Mahler, 2022).


Curiosity and letting go of judgement

We all make assumptions. We all make meaning. But we want to be free from these assumptions and predetermined meaning based on old experiences. Therefore, we need to cultivate curiosity, and let go of judgement. Then, we can see things for what they are, in this present moment. Then, we can receive from the bodily sensations, what wants to show itself to us. We want to check our assumptions and the meaning we attribute to things in the present moment (Mahler, 2022). This is a step we often miss. It requires conscious awareness to realize this and to shift our attention into the here and now. ‘To be curious means to question our own judgements’ (Mahler, 2022). When we can cultivate more curiosity, and muster to be non-judgmental more often, our lives will radically improve. Not only will our relationships with others improve. Perhaps more importantly, also the relationship with ourselves will improve. From there, our relationships with others will inevitably improve even further. This forms a positive upward spiral.


Bodily felt sense

As mentioned above, Focusing is the process of connecting with what the body is telling us, through the bodily felt sense. To clarify what this bodily felt sense is, Beth Mahler illustrated what you can experience with other people. As she explained, when together and connected with someone else, there can be a shared resonance felt. It’s the field of connection between people reverberating together energetically, or spiritually. It is what you feel with someone when you’re sharing the same wavelength. At the same time, you also become aware of it when you arrive at a point of disconnect, when you, or that other person said or did something, that breaks the flow. This is when one might ask a clarifying question, or in cases of less presence, where someone withdraws.


As we can experience this resonance with another person, so can we experience this with our own body. ‘[Focusing then, is getting] [t]he bodily take on the situation. For this you have to get passed the familiar feelings, being scared, angry, happy, etc. It’s beyond that where the bodily knowing lies. At the pit of your stomach. Where you are broadly uncomfortable when you have a problem, that’s where it starts’ (Gendlin, 2000). We can connect with our bodily felt sense by moving in the direction of the emotions we feel but venturing further ‘down’. In order to do so, we need to be able to stay present with whatever it is that we’re feeling. When we can do that, tension dissolves and a pathway opens up for further exploration and sensing.


Staying with the discomfort and tension

With Focusing, ‘we want to come to the edge of awareness, the place that [we] don’t yet know’ (Mahler, 2022). When we Focus, we “touch” and explore the unknown. It is the unclear holistic body sense of a problem we might be exploring, with curiosity and non-judgement, that can ultimately lead to a physically felt shift and a release of tension. For this, we have to stay with the unknown, beyond our emotions and fears. ‘Most of us have fear on the bottom. If we don’t notice that, we don’t get further’ (Gendlin, 2019). We’re afraid of living, afraid of making the wrong decisions, and saying the wrong things. “Touching” those fears is where freedom lies. We’re all gifted with the gift of alarm, through the experience of fear. However, we want to see what it is we’re actually afraid of. What we can find underlying this fear. When we explore this further, as Eugene Gendlin says, next to the fear there is a place which has no content. This is the place of not knowing. Not knowing is not blank. ‘Not knowing is the place where Focusing starts’ (Gendlin, 2019). If we stay with the tension we feel, it has a way of opening a door, as if it’s saying ‘okay, I’m developing trust that you’re going to stay here’ (Mahler, 2022). From there, we become able to move deeper and establish a connection with those feelings deeper down in the body. The more we are able to hold the space with what we are feeling, the more our body will relax and open up more. It’s similar as with people; we need to build trust before we start showing ourselves and open up more.


‘We want to get to the point where it’s safely uncomfortable, so that we can be with these bodily tensions, bodily discomforts, so that we can deepen connection with it’ (Mahler, 2022). When we’re not safe or arrive at a point where it doesn’t feel safe, that’s where our lower brainstem, our amygdala, our fight, flight and freeze responses are triggered. This prevents us from accessing this bodily felt sense any longer, and moves us away from it (Mahler, 2022). When we can stay with that place of discomfort safely, over a longer period of time, and are curious about, and continue to be non-judgmental, we ultimately will experience a shift, where that tension dissolves, and we become free from it. This is a real physical experience, that will be noticed in the body. This felt shift encourages us to come back to it, and explore more, ultimately releasing more, and growing, freed from (that) tension.


Becoming, and staying present

In order to deal with the discomfort we might feel, it is important not to urgently move away from that what we find uncomfortable. Instead, we should aim to stay there for a while, without judgement and with curiosity. It helps to actively focus on staying present during this experience, by for instance feeling your feet on the floor, or your behind in the seat. Being present in the here and now prevents one from being taken away by the emotions connected to, and above the felt sense. Being present allows us to see the quality of the experience for what it is in the here and now, instead of reflected in memories of the past (Mahler, 2022). We want to be in our stuckness, yet not get lost in it. Instead, ‘we kind of want to hang out there, noticing and resourcing back into present, back into grounding [ourselves] in this present moment’ (Mahler, 2022). Beth illustrates that here she often invites people to stand up, look around and really notice the present moment. This triggers our awareness to realize that not this feeling is unsafe, but the pattern of thinking, or the memory of past experiences where this feeling was felt strongly (Mahler, 2022).


Shared resonance and Focusing

‘The more there is in the environment, the more difficult it becomes to have […] a clear line of shared resonance where [one] might be able to connect deeper with [ones] own bodily felt sense of that resonance’ (Mahler, 2022). Between each individual’s unique thousands of experiences, we can find a shared resonance between people. When we tap into that, we can connect deeper with our inner experience and tap further into our bodily felt sense (Mahler, 2022). Therefore, doing this together provides a catalyst for the process of Focusing. It sparks and connects so that we as an individual can come closer to our own inner experience. It helps to stay present, together. Focusing alone and trying to self-regulate is much more difficult than co-regulating the experience together. Therefore, it helps to be supported in the process, and have someone there to respond to, and encourage your noticing. Someone who asks inquiring questions about it. Central for this process are always the abilities to be curious and nonjudgmental.


The six steps of Focusing

‘The inner act of focusing can be broken down into six main sub-acts or movements’ (Gendlin, 2003). Focusing is not a static or linear process. However, for familiarizing oneself with this practice, understanding these six steps is very helpful. In order to represent this as accurately as possible, I am citing the following Focusing Manual from the book ‘Focusing’ by Eugene Gendlin:

  1. ‘Clearing a space. What I will ask you to do will be silent, just to yourself. Take a moment just to relax. . . . All right—now, inside you, I would like you to pay attention inwardly, in your body, perhaps in your stomach or chest. Now see what comes there when you ask, “How is my life going? What is the main thing for me right now?” Sense within your body. Let the answers come slowly from this sensing. When some concern comes, DO NOT GO INSIDE IT. Stand back, say “Yes, that’s there. I can feel that, there.” Let there be a little space between you and that. Then ask what else you feel. Wait again, and sense. Usually there are several things.

  2. Felt sense. From among what came, select one personal problem to focus on. DO NOT GO INSIDE IT. Stand back from it. Of course, there are many parts to that one thing you are thinking about—too many to think of each one alone. But you can feel all of these things together. Pay attention there where you usually feel things, and in there you can get a sense of what all of the problem feels like. Let yourself feel the unclear sense of all of that.

  3. Handle. What is the quality of this unclear felt sense? Let a word, a phrase, or an image come up from the felt sense itself. It might be a quality-word, like tight, sticky, scary, stuck, heavy, jumpy, or a phrase, or an image. Stay with the quality of the felt sense till something fits it just right.

  4. Resonating. Go back and forth between the felt sense and the word (phrase, or image). Check how they resonate with each other. See if there is a little bodily signal that lets you know there is a fit. To do it, you have to have the felt sense there again, as well as the word. Let the felt sense change, if it does, and also the word or picture, until they feel just right in capturing the quality of the felt sense.

  5. Asking. Now ask: What is it, about this whole problem, that makes this quality (which you have just named or pictured)? Make sure the quality is sensed again, freshly, vividly (not just remembered from before). When it is here again, tap it, touch it, be with it, asking, “What makes the whole problem so ⎯⎯⎯?” Or you ask, “What is in this sense?” If you get a quick answer without a shift in the felt sense, just let that kind of answer go by. Return your attention to your body and freshly find the felt sense again. Then ask it again. Be with the felt sense till something comes along with a shift, a slight “give” or release.

  6. Receiving. Receive whatever comes with a shift in a friendly way. Stay with it a while, even if it is only a slight release. Whatever comes, this is only one shift; there will be others. You will probably continue after a little while, stay here for a few moments.

IF DURING THESE INSTRUCTIONS SOMEWHERE YOU HAVE SPENT A LITTLE WHILE SENSING AND TOUCHING AN UNCLEAR HOLISTIC BODY SENSE OF THIS PROBLEM, THEN YOU HAVE FOCUSED. It doesn’t matter whether the body-shift came or not. It comes on its own. We don’t control that’ (Gendlin, 2003). As Beth highlighted during our talk, the receiving step is very important and cannot be overlooked. As she said, often at the end, we’re eager to get into action and chance something after having gotten answers to our asked questions. However, the receiving step is very subtle in this present moment, this is an important time to really connect with the bodily felt sense, the new felt shift and allow oneself to receive what the body is showing you (Mahler, 2022). This is where we have to slow down, and pause; take time. It is a step that cannot be rushed. When we receive the freshly felt sense that is new, that’s where change can occur (Mahler, 2022). This newly felt sense needs to be heard, alike we people desire to be heard. When we are heard, we can let go of tension, become free, and move on, lighter and more loose.


Natural occurrence of process skipping, and stopped process

At times, almost automatically we might skip something in the process of Focusing, because we’re not ready for that felt bodily sensing of it (Mahler, 2022). Or our process is stopped because of things, or triggers in the environment, that connect us to that felt sense. Then, as Beth explained during our talk, we can stop our process by pausing and sensing (Mahler, 2022). A stopped process is not a bad thing, although people at times relate to this word as being negative, or something being wrong because the process has stopped. ‘If you’re stuck, can you stay with the stuckness?’ (Mahler, 2022). Then, stopping the process ultimately offers a way of unsticking something. Stopping then, can offer a pathway to progress. However, it might take multiple Focusing sessions, of spending time with this “stuckness”, to finally be able to release it, and an action step can follow, and a change. Therefore, as Beth articulated, a stopped process, is a very relevant part of its progress.


In closing

The dialogue between our mind and body; this is a big topic. Let alone the bridges that can be crossed when this dialogue can take place freely and uninterrupted through curiosity, and non-judgement. At least, I hope that the above has shed some light onto the intricate connection between our physiology, and our mind, and how the exchange between these seemingly different parts of a whole can provide new insights and helps us release tension and heal. Personally, I am grateful that the topic of Focusing has come to my attention for 39 Ideas for Life thanks to John Casey. To be honest, I’ve felt some hesitation to write about this topic, not feeling sure about my abilities to make this as practical as I know it to be. Therefore, if your interest has been triggered, I also warmly invite you to explore the sources below and to learn more for yourself. Also, take time for watching, or listening to, the interview with Beth Mahler. Interestingly enough, through curiosity and non-judgement, my world to Focusing, and through Focusing, has greatly expanded. I wish you nothing less.



Image: Still of Eugene Gendlin, taken from video by Nada Lou.

 

Interview


Last year, after completing my interview with John Casey about Journaling, we talked further after the recording and he told me about Focusing, a method for deeper self-knowledge and healing. Focusing is a practice which entails much more than merely concentrating on a single point. It’s not the conventional concept of focused attention. I became curious, and investigated this practice, which until then had remained unknown to me. At least in explicit terms, because the more I learnt about it, the more I realized that I’ve been doing this myself for quite some time without consciously being aware of the practice. To learn more about our bodily knowing, and the dialogue between our mind and body, I’ve decided to dive into Focusing.


Focusing is a technique for tapping into the bodily knowing, grounding ourselves, and to explore and experience our whole selves and what’s needed to find growth and healing.


To learn about this practice of Focusing, I have talked to Beth Mahler, a Certified Focusing-Oriented Therapist, and a practitioner and teacher of Focusing for many years. Beth has been a psychotherapist for over 19 years and is also Adjunct Professor Sociology of Death and Grief at William Paterson University of New Jersey.


Anyone interested in getting to know themselves better will greatly enjoy this episode, and appreciate all the knowledge and examples shared by Beth Mahler. I know I did!


Focusing profile of Beth Mahler: https://www.focusingtherapy.org/for-clients/find-therapist/beth-mahler/

Focusing Institute website: https://www.focusing.org

International Association of Focusing-Oriented Therapists website: https://www.focusingtherapy.org




 

Sources


Focusing Institute, 2022, Learning Focusing. https://focusing.org/felt-sense/learning-focusing, accessed on 21 March 2022.


Gendlin, Eugene, 1996, Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy: A Manual of the Experiential Method.https://amzn.to/3CWJ1Xz


Gendlin, Eugene, 1997, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning: A Philosophical and Psychological Approach to the Subjective. https://amzn.to/3u8G81O


Gendlin, Eugene, 2000, Eugene Gendlin introduces Focusing. https://youtu.be/j7PEC5Mh5FY, accessed on 18 March 2022.


Gendlin, Eugene, 2003, Focusing: How to Open Your Deeper Feelings and Intuition. https://amzn.to/3wmHita


Gendlin, Eugene, 2019, Finding a Safe Place - with Eugene Gendlin Ph.D. https://youtu.be/AVuiU64oSgc, accessed on 20 March 2022.


Madison, Greg (Editor), 2014, Theory and Practice of Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy: Beyond the Talking Cure. https://amzn.to/3wpnO7t

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