John Welwood on Focusing

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The following excerpts come from John Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening. They are about the felt sense and the process of Focusing.

[Welwood speaks (p.88) of recognising] "the emergence of unconscious material as the unfolding of the subtle body-mind knowing, which has been enfolded in consciousness in [a] holistic way…" [and then writes:]

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.

The Unfolding of Experience 89

The Holographic Nature of Felt Experience

The richly patterned texture of our inner experiencing is analogous in certain ways to the structure of a hologram. For instance, if you ask feel now, what you get when you first refer inwardly to your bodily felt sensing is a blurry whole. Or try referring to your felt sense of a person in your life. What is your overall feeling about your father, your whole sense of him? Letting go of any specific memory, thought, or image, let yourself feel the whole quality of your relationship with him. Underneath any image you may find a blurry whole felt sense of your father and your relationship with him. This felt sense a global feeling-texture, feeling-color, or feeling-tone, rather than definite form you can readily articulate. Nonetheless, it is still quite distinct from your felt sense of other people, as you can see by comparing it to your felt sense of your mother.

A felt sense contains implicit felt meaning. Felt refers to the bodily component; meaning implies some kind of knowing or patterning, though not of a logical, conceptual kind; sense indicates that this meaning is not yet clear. Implicit literally means "folded into, enfolded." [end p.89]

90

Just as a hologram is blurry because it is a compressed record of many overlapping wave patterns, so a felt sense is fuzzy or diffuse because contains a number of overlapping meanings that a given situation for you, based on all the different ways you have interacted with it. Notice that your felt sense of your father includes all the ways you have ever experienced him. It is like a holographic record of all your interactions with him (analogous to interference patterns). All your joys, hurts, disappointments, appreciations, angers - all of your whole experience with him is holographically compressed in this one felt sense. The felt sense is blurry in that it includes all of this implicitly. This implicitness is not sharply defined, but rather functions as a global background. Much of our everyday experience functions in holistic background way.

The Unfolding Process

The unfolding that happens in psychological inquiry is a process of making implicit felt meaning explicit. It often begins with a diffuse kind of receptive attention to the whole felt sense of a situation, underneath all one's different thoughts about it. Clients who cannot let go of a strict reliance on focal attention and tolerate ambiguity are much harder to work with, because their words are not coming from a felt sense, but rather from previous ruminations they have thought many times before. Since the way they speak about their problem is not fresh, alive, or connected with present experiencing, no unfolding occurs. Nothing new is happening.

Yet when we can tap into and speak from a diffusely felt sense, rather than just pouring out our thoughts about it, this allows a fresh articulation of what is true for us, which was not accessible or expressible before. It is only out of the initial blurriness that something can unfold, something we may have vaguely sensed but not yet realized. That is why we usually have to let ourselves not know before we can discover anything new.

Eugene Gendlin developed the Focusing method in response to research suggesting that psychotherapy clients are more likely to 91 change and move forward if their words tap into and come from presently felt experiencing, which often seems unclear or ambiguous at first. This research also suggested that therapy does not generally teach clients how to tap into this implicit body-mind knowing. Focusing was a major innovation because it showed people exactly how to use diffuse attention to attend to an unclear felt sense.

For example, a client comes in feeling depressed about his marriage. At first he speaks about his unhappiness with his wife, giving voice to complaints, guilt, and frustration. But his words are rather lifeless. He is talking "off the top of his head," without any fresh inward reference going on. As a therapist, I guide him toward his felt sense of this situation underneath all his thoughts and emotional reactions. How does he feel this situation in his body? I might let him feel this out for a while without saying much. Often just connecting with it in this way provides some relief and encouragement to delve further into It.

Describing his felt sense, he says, "It's a heaviness in my stomach." Now that he is in contact with this heavy feeling, he can begin to unfold the implicit meaning contained in it. This involves a certain kind of inquiry and attention that allows the global heaviness to come into sharper focus. This is somewhat analogous to deblurring a hologram by highlighting major contours, so that particular features emerge from the blur. What helps my client bring his attention to the implicit is a question from me: "What's so heavy about this for you?" Again he returns to his felt sense and we wait for something to emerge.

 

"It’s anger, just sitting in my gut," he now says, "weighing me down, eating me out from the inside." With this next step of unfolding his words start to gather force. As he feels into the anger he has now articulated, the next direction appears: "But even more than angry, I feel tremendously disappointed in her. She's not there for me the way used to be." Pause. His words have even more energy now. We seem to be on the verge of something new emerging. "But I'm also disappointed in myself. Things used to be so good between us, and now we don't even listen to each other." He takes a deep sigh now, as he is getting closer to the core of what he is feeling. I can tell by his (p.92) shaky tone of voice that he is close to opening up something larger and more significant. He is no longer talking about his felt sense; he is speaking directly from it. His next statement really cracks it open: "And you know, I'm just now realizing that I haven't felt my caring for her in a long time. That's what's so heavy. I've locked away my love and sat on it for months now. I'm having a hard time feeling my love anymore." Something in his body is now releasing - he breathes more deeply, tears start to form, and the blood returns to his face. He is now in a much different place than when he first walked in half an hour ago.

[There is a] progressive, zigzag process of unfolding, with the client alternating between a connection to a vague felt sense ....  and articulation of the meaning implicit in that sense. The content of these realizations is not what is significant here. More important than the particular discoveries of anger, disappointment, or blocked love was the dynamic movement of unfolding, which allowed for a spontaneous felt shift as he articulated what his body-mind already sensed and felt implicitly. [Figure illustrating this zigzag process is omitted here.]

This type of unfolding, which moves back and forth between articulation and the nonarticulated, is at the heart of all creative discovery, whether in therapy, the arts, or the sciences. As therapist Edgar Levinson observes, "The process of therapeutic change has its own phenomenology that is no different from the way an artist arrives at visual concept or a mathematician at a new formulation." And in words that could apply equally to poetry or psychotherapy, philosopher Max Picard suggests that speech has potency and depth only when it arises out of a larger, undifferentiated space beyond words, moving "from silence into the word and then back again into the silence (p.93) and so on, so that the word always comes from the center of silence.... Mere verbal noise, on the other hand, moves uninterruptedly along the horizontal line of the sentence.... Words that merely come from other words are hard . . . and lonely." Physicist David Bohm describes how a creative physicist should proceed in a similar vein, using language also fitting for therapy: "One has to observe the new situation very broadly and tentatively, and to 'feel out' the relevant new features."

 

In writing this chapter, for instance, I started with a diffuse felt sense of what I wanted to say, which I have to keep referring back to along the way. I can't know exactly what I want to say except by letting it unfold word by word, sentence by sentence. Each sentence leads to the next, which in turn builds on what has previously unfolded. At the end of this chapter I should have discovered the full range of my intent (though, of course, there's always more). Similarly, implicit in that whole sense of your father I asked you about earlier there is probably a whole novel about your relationship with him that could unfold from it. Your whole novel (all six hundred pages of it!) is holographically compressed in your very first diffuse felt sense of him.

Once an implicit felt sense has opened up - whether in therapy or developing a new scientific theory - things are never quite the same again. What is creative or healing about the unfolding process is that it allows us to experience ourselves in a larger way than before. This "larger way" results from the dynamic back-and-forth interaction between two ways of knowing: that of the surface/focal mind and that of wider body-mind. Each step of the inquiry brings to light a new facet of the felt sense, which starts to move and shift, like a tangled ball of yarn unraveling. As we pull on a given strand, this loosens the whole tangle, while also revealing the next strand that needs unraveling. Gradually the shape of the bundle changes - the problem no longer feels the same.

While any life problem may have many different angles or many facets, there is usually one central tangle, one central crux sometimes two or three). Bringing this central concern - usually unresolved way of relating to ourselves, to other people, or to life – into awareness helps the tangled situation to unravel and release.

(p.94) Another client of mine came in feeling a pervasive lack of fulfillment in his life. Over the course of many weeks he had to explore many different facets of this emptiness before the crux of the problem could reveal itself. Finally he realised that it was not that something particular was missing from his life, but that he couldn’t let himself consider his heart’s desire. "That would make me feel too vulnerable." Many earlier steps of working with the felt sense of emptiness were necessary to lead to this point (just as an artist or scientist has to spend a great deal of time considering the various dimensions of a creative problem before a breakthrough can occur). Now he could see that the real issue was not something missing in his external life, but his own fear of letting himself know what he really wanted. Instead of seeing his life through this distorting lens, he could at last see the lens itself that was causing the distortions. Seeing that he was not just a victim of circumstance brought a huge sense of relief, allowing him to approach his life in a whole new way.

Therapeutic unfolding thus has three main stages: widening attention to feel out a global felt sense of a situation; inquiring directly into this felt sense; and, by successively articulating it from various angles, discovering its crux, which releases its stuckness and allows new directions to reveal themselves. In this way , confusion gradually moves toward clarity, wrongness toward rightness, and disconnection toward connection. As Gendlin suggests, every life problem contains in it a sense of a new direction, of only we can let it unfold: "The sense of what is wrong carries with it… inseparably, a sense of the direction toward what is right…Every bad feeling is potential energy toward a m ore right way of being if you give it space to move toward its rightness."

 

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Focusing - which was the simplest, most penetrating, experience-near therapeutic method I knew - still did not go far enough.

Focusing involves attending to an unclear bodily felt sense while remaining extremely respectful, gentle, and attentive toward every nuance of experience that arises from it. Seeing how concrete steps of experiential change can emerge from attending to a felt sense is an important discovery - something that people who use spiritual practice to avoid their feelings and personal experience would do

learn. Yet as Focusing is commonly practiced, there is often a bias toward unfolding meaning from a felt sense, toward resolution, toward looking for a felt shift. In this way, it can become a "doing" that maintains a subtle I/it stance toward one's experience. The bias here can be very subtle. Wanting our experience to change usually contains a subtle resistance to what is, to nowness, to what I call unconditional presence - the capacity to meet experience directly, without filtering it through any conceptual or strategic agenda.

The subtle spiritual pitfall of psychological work is that it can reinforce certain tendencies inherent in the conditioned personality: to see ourselves as a doer, to always look for the meaning in experience, or to continually strive for "something better." Although psychological reflection can certainly help people move forward in important ways, at some point even the slightest desire for change or improvement can interfere with the deeper letting go and relaxation necessary for moving from the realm of personality into the realm being, which is only discoverable in and through nowness – in moments when all conceptualizing and striving cease.

When we let experience be as it is, instead of seeking to alter any way, the focus of inner work shifts in an important and powerful way. No longer is our experience something apart from us that we need to change or resolve; instead, the focus widens to the larger field: how-we-are-with-our-experience. And when we relate to our experience in a more spacious, allowing way, it becomes less problematic, because we no longer exist in an I /it, subject/object tension with it.

 


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