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What is Focusing?

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     Consider this situation. I begin to leave my room in winter. As I near the door, something makes me stop. I don't know what it is, but something in me feels "not okay."  I turn back and see that I've left the bar radiator on. (Bar radiators are not illegal in Australia.)

     In itself, this isn't a problem; but I notice that my scarf is hanging too close to the radiator for comfort.  Straight away the 'something' in me relaxes. If I were to stop and check inwardly, here, I would be conscious that the vague sense that had stopped me previously 'added up' or pointed to this. There is the outer situation, and it explains my present shift - the ease that has come about in that 'not-okay' place. Now I can fix the situation, and relax even further.

     My intention was to walk out, but at the door the something arose in me, in the middle of my body. What was that? A sense of not okay, sure... but this vague 'not-okay feeling was more than any old vague something. It was a specific vagueness. It wasn't about a million other things that are not okay in my life - when I saw the heater, my body knew it was that exactly.

   Here's another example, from psychotherapist and Buddhist writer John Welwood:

For example, a man feels empty after a brief converstation with his father on the telephone, without exactly knowing why. Although his surface mind, which operates through linear, focal attention, is still in the dark about what just happened, his body-mind senses and seems to know tacitly the deeper implications of this exchange. He feels this as a hollowness in his solar plexus. By inquiring into the complex tangle of felt meaning he experiences after getting off the phone, he could begin to unfold various aspects of it – such as guilt, resignation about not being heard, helplessness, and the longing for a more genuine relationship. Some of these are immediate responses to what just transpired, while others go back to a whole relationship of thirty years. Yet all were implicit in his initial empty feeling. (1)

   images/whale.gif (29212 bytes) This implicitness - the deeper, tacit, inarticulate knowing - contained in the orginal feeling unfolds when it is given a certain type of attention.  Eugene Gendlin, a contemporary philosopher, calls this attending process, Focusing. The vague something that is attended to (all about that situation) he calls the felt sense. Focusing, then, is a natural type of inquiry. It is described nicely by Kevin Flanagan, a Focusing teacher:

"On one level Focusing is a bodily felt way of knowing and assessing a situation or a problem, one that is ruled not by the intellect or reason but by intuition or gut feeling. This visceral (gut) feeling is almost unconscious; it knows something, but that something may be unclear to the conscious mind, like a vague or uneasy feeling in the body. That is, until you focus on it. Then everything starts to become clear." (2)

"Focusing is a mode of inward bodily attention that is not yet known to most people.... General descriptions do not convey focusing. It differs from the usual attention we pay to feelings because it begins with the body and occurs in the zone between the conscious and the unconscious. Most people don't know that a bodily sense of any topic can be invited to come in that zone, and that one can enter into such a sense, " says Gendlin.

   A bodily-felt sense, and the felt-sense-attending process that follows it, named Focusing by Gendlin, indicate a distinct level of human process.   Such process arises out of the interactional nature of humankind.     When we put an organism into a system, the system enters the organism in many ways.  So, it isn't just that my body interacts with its environment (recalling Alan Watt's comment, that the outline of my body is the in-line of the environment), but, actually, the environment is in me, just as I am in the environment. One form of this entering in, is in my bodily-felt sense of a situation. When I close the door to my room, and I have unwittingly left the bar radiator on, I have the environment in me at that moment,  in the form of a felt sense, which in this case tells me something like, "Things are not okay..."   Knowing this, I can take a step toward changing the situation.

   Gendlin did a great amount of research into the existence and value of the felt sense, a level of human process that is often ignored because it is subtle. To quote from an interview with Ann Weiser Cornell:

Focusing is a skill of awareness that involves sensing inwardly, sensing a certain kind of inner experience that everyone has but that we haven't learned is important. It is turning attention to something called a "felt sense" -- a kind of body awareness that is subtle and (at first) unclear. For example, an uneasy feeling in the stomach or a fluttery feeling in the solar plexus or a slight tightness in the chest. These sensations are subtle enough that you can easily ignore them -- and in fact many of us do.

What Eugene Gendlin discovered when he did the research that lead to the development of Focusing was that these body sensations carry messages from a kind of holistic inner awareness. By listening to these, you find that they contain a great deal of wisdom. They also contain what is called the life forward direction, the forward movement of your organism, so that you can actually use the awareness of these subtle sensations for positive life change -- and feel the results in your body. (3)


1) John Welwood,  Toward a Psychology of Awakening,
2) Kevin Flanagan, Everyday Genius, p.18
Interview with Ann Weiser Cornell: http://www.seekerscircle.com/Interviews/InterviewAWC.htm


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