What is Focusing?

Focusing is a reflective ‘inner mindfulness’ practice generally done with a partner, who supports the Focuser in ’being present with’ whatever arises in their experience during the Focusing session.
Most of us operate on a largely cognitive level of functioning most of the time – this is fine up to a point, but it tends to preclude information that can only be accessed through the body.
The developer of Focusing, Eugene Gendlin, suggests that we experience life primarily in our bodies, and that ‘thinking’ is only one aspect of a much bigger realm of experience. This bigger realm includes physical sensation, emotions, images, memories, energetic imprints, and more. Gendlin has named the total experience of the body as ‘the felt sense’.

In Focusing I invite my body to communicate with me by letting go of thinking and bringing my attention into my body and opening to whatever arises. I ask my body for information, and intend to allow and accept what comes, even although this may not fit into any rational preconceptions I may have about what I ‘should’ be feeling at any given time. I then find the best descriptive words I can to convey my experience to my partner. E.g. “My right upper arm feels heavy and dense, as if it’s made of wood” or “I’m anxious and I’ve got a churning in my stomach and tingling in my hands like electricity”.

My partner, or Focusing companion, then reflects back to me what I have said, using the same descriptive words, but sometimes changing the verbs slightly to help support me to be present with (vs. be caught up in) my experience. E.g. “You are sensing a heavy, dense, wooden sensation in your right upper arm” and “You are noticing of a sensation of anxiety, accompanied by sensations of churning in your stomach, and a tingling, electrical sensation in your hands.”
This giving of attention to my inner experience invariably leads to a ‘shift’ or inner unfoldment.

Here is one description of what Focusing is, by American Focusing teacher Ann Weiser Cornell:

“Focusing is the process of listening to your body in a gentle, accepting way, and hearing the messages that your inner self is sending to you. It’s a process of honouring the wisdom that you have inside you by becoming aware of the subtle level of knowing that speaks to you through the body.
The results of listening to your body are insight, physical (and emotional) release, and positive life change. You understand yourself better, you feel better, and you act in ways that are more likely to create the life you want. Focusing is the fastest way I know to get to the truth of ourselves and live it”.

Accessing information from the body

It is generally preferable to Focus on felt body sensation rather than thoughts or ideas as this tends to allow things to shift or unfold more readily. I find that if I stay caught in my thinking, or my ‘story’ I am more likely to go round in circles, sort of stuck in rationality, and less likely to experience any ‘shift’ or unfoldment. I find that sensations, visual images, memories, words, poems or phrases can all arise from my body. Some people even get music or songs arising.

As well as going into Focusing open-ended, specific questions, issues, or decisions to be made can be introduced into the Focusing session in order to access a body response which can usefully inform the choice or help answer the question which one is unable to make by cognitive means alone.

Eugene Gendlin

The Focusing technique was originated by philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin in America in the 1970’s. Gendlin worked in association with Carl Rogers at Chicago University in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Gendlin was curious about why psychotherapy was effective in some cases but not others. Gendlin and Rogers (audio) recorded thousands of hours of therapy sessions with different therapists and their clients. The recordings were separated into two categories – those where the therapy was and wasn’t ultimately successful (as measured by certain specific criteria and agreed by both therapist and client).

On analysis of the recordings, the common factor they discovered in the successful cases was that the clients consistently accessed body sensation/experience, whereas in the unsuccessful cases the clients remained on a thinking or purely cognitive level.
Gendlin developed the Focusing technique initially to help psychotherapy clients to access body ‘information’ and thereby to support the effectiveness of psychotherapy. He published his book Focusing in 1978 and it became a best-seller. Here is a quote from Gendlin:

“What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes. Most people don’t know this. They think that by not permitting the feeling of their negative ways they make themselves good. On the contrary, that keeps these negatives static, the same from year to year. A few moments of feeling it in your body allows it to change. If there is in you something bad or sick or unsound, let it inwardly be, and breathe. That’s the only way it can evolve and change into the form it needs”. Eugene Gendlin

Process and experience

The non-judgemental, caring, listening presence of the Focusing companion is important in supporting the Focuser to be present for whatever is arising within. The process of a) finding accurate descriptive words, b) speaking my experience aloud, c) hearing/receiving my experience reflected back, d) looking afresh at what is now happening in my body, has the effect of taking me as the Focuser more deeply into my internal experience than would normally happen in a conversation, or a counselling session, or in meditation practice. The verbalisation and reflection process often causes a sort of resonance which causes a shift in body experience.

I have found no two Focusing experiences to be the same, with different sessions taking me through a vast terrain of inner experience that I never realised existed before I started to Focus. I can connect with a wide range of emotions, sensations, images and also a sort of ‘inner knowing’.
One common aspect, whatever the experience, is that, in a state of presence, there is generally a sense of ‘ok-ness’ and acceptance of whatever I am experiencing. I have found it to be true that if I really acknowledge and give space and ‘compassionate attention’ to whatever is going on in my body then a positive ‘shift’ does happen – and this shift is in a creative ‘living forward’ direction. Such a shift is generally characterised by feelings of relief, expansion and well-being. It’s as if my body really does want to heal and for me to grow and develop and is just waiting for the right kind of attention to do so.

A friend who Focused with me for the first time recently, described her first experience of Focusing as being like a very deep and profound meditation where time ceased to exist. She was left with a feeling of peace and joy which stayed with her for the rest of the day.

Allowing and witnessing ‘sub-personalities’ or ‘parts’

The Focusing process powerfully and effectively brings me into the ‘witness’ or ‘presence’ part of myself where there is space and permission for my experience to be just as it is, and where I have come to trust the ‘rightness’ of that experience even if I don’t understand it. There may be different apparently conflicting ‘parts’ or ‘sub-personalities’ that emerge during the Focusing session, but by staying rooted in presence, these parts can just be together without it being a problem e.g. ‘needy child’, ‘father’, ‘inner critic’, ‘negative destructive part’, etc.
At the end of one session I had the visual experience of being like a huge fat Buddha who contained within himself a number of such parts as spheres – but the Buddha had lots of space and compassion inside himself for these parts, and he was smiling – the overall experience was one of expansiveness, joy and freedom!
So my experience of Focusing is often one of acceptance and integration of different ‘psychological components’ – this invariably creates a feeling of peace and spaciousness.

Focusing practicalities

Most Focusing is done by people finding a Focusing partner (or partners) and arranging to meet periodically to Focus together. A typical length of time to Focus for is half an hour (for each person), but session length can be anything from 10 minutes to an hour. A typical get-together for Focusing might go something like this: touch-in/sharing over a cup of tea; decide who will Focus first; first person focuses (for 30 min); second person focuses; further sharing. That tends to take about 2 hours in total. You can Focus as often as you want, depending on time and partner availability – that could be anything from once a fortnight to several times a week. Focusing can be done quite effectively by phone or skype as well as face to face.

Further information & courses

As regards initial further reading I would recommend ‘The Power of Focusing’ by Ann Weiser Cornell. This is relatively short, practical and succinct and provides an excellent introduction. For source material read ‘Focusing’ by Eugene Gendlin. Both of these books are readily available on Amazon.
You can also find further information on Focusing, including downloadable articles, on the British Focusing Teachers Association (BFTA) website www.focusing.org.uk
For information on Focusing day and weekend workshops in the South West area contact me (contact information below).

‘Treat each guest honourably’

The basic premise of Focusing is that our bodily experience, our feelings and sensations, if fully allowed, are useful, wise and informative, and lead to a shift or development of consciousness and well-being.
Nowhere have I found this idea more clearly and beautifully expressed than in this poem by Rumi:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Rumi

My hope in writing this is that some of you reading it will be drawn to giving Focusing a try – I wish you well in your Focusing journey!

Gordon Adam. March 2011.
Contact: gordonadam@blueyonder.co.uk

[This is an amended and updated version of an article originally written for the Bristol Insight Meditation Group newsletter in November 2008]