Focusing: Unlocking the Wisdom of the Whole Self

emotional skills integrationFocusing is a simple mind-body awareness technique that is surprisingly little-known, yet remarkably effective. It introduced the practice of mindfulness long before that word became popular, and it remains one of the most skillful ways to discover the truth of your own feelings, thoughts and sensations.

In working with ayahuasca and other plant teachers, we need ways to attune to subtle emotional experiences, bringing them to the light of consciousness with gentleness and respect. Focusing is one of the practices I turn to most frequently in plant medicine work.
It gives me the patience and skill to work with difficult, compressed states of being, helping coax them into full release—which invariably yields a deeper understanding of what’s going on deep inside. The feeling of something half-known blossoming into awareness is palpable and highly pleasurable, like solving a mystery

Focusing weaves together processing in both brain hemispheres to unlock the wisdom of the whole self, liberating it from left-brain logical thinking that tends to dominate in modern culture. It helps you get clear on what you’re actually feeling in the present moment, in an accepting, nonjudgmental way that allows deeper levels to emerge. Real change comes from connecting with ourselves on the inside in a different way—a way that frees us to go forward into life, moving beyond repetitive thoughts and feelings.

Focusing does this by paying attention to something very elemental and yet overlooked: what things feel like in your body. If you think for a moment about the kind of attention you generally pay to your body, things like diet, exercise, health-—maybe fashion— probably top the list. These kind of external reference points treat the body as a task, a chore, another to-do. But what if the body was actually a source of support? What if the body had its own innate sense of the truth of what is happening? What if it was giving us information about things all the time . . . and we just weren’t paying attention?

The Felt Sense

Focusing works with the felt sense, the bodily awareness of a situation, person, or event.

This innate level of awareness is hardwired into every one of us, as part of being alive. It exists at a different level from thoughts and feelings. The felt sense can be subtle, slow to form, and easy to overlook. Often we experience it as a hunch, a gut feeling, an instinct— for instance, the feeling you get when someone is lying to you and you just know it, without being able to explain how. The felt sense generally starts off as a sensation in the core of body, perhaps the throat, chest, or stomach. It’s the subtle, wordless, possibly vague knowing/understanding/experience of how this whole situation is for me.

Here’s a simple exercise that gives a feel for the felt sense: 

Pick two people you know socially – not too close, but not too distant. Say, Ryan and Nicole. Evoke each of them clearly. Ryan on your left side, Nicole on your right. 

Now, without thinking about it, sense the qualities of each of these people. Here’s Ryan, hmmm, it feels like this when he walks in the room. And … here’s Nicole. Sense her energy, what she brings into the room. Take your time to get a clear sense of the ‘flavor’ of each person. 

The difference you feel between the two, the quality of each person—this is the felt sense. ‘All about Ryan’ vs. ‘all about Nicole.’ The feeling of ‘all this’ that’s hard to articulate, but complete and whole in itself—that’s the felt sense.

Working with the felt sense requires a delicate touch, the ability to let this possibly unclear knowing arise in its own way and reveal itself in its own time, without forcing a label on it. It can feel formless at first, and maddening to lack the words to describe it. Try to be gentle with it, rather than impatient or demanding. Working with a Focusing facilitator or partner can help open up this new territory. 

The Six-Step Process

Focusing happens more or less in a six-step sequence outlined below, adapted from Eugene Gendlin’s book Focusing. While it takes practice and possibly guidance with a facilitator to get its full benefits, it’s worth touching in here to see if you might want to pursue this further yourself.

1. Clear a Space: Sit in a quiet place and bring your attention inside your body—perhaps to your stomach, or your chest. Now ask yourself, “How is my life going? What’s between me and feeling fine?” and notice what arises in your body. Keep sensing within your body, and let the answers come, slowly, from this place.

Don’t go into any particular issue that comes up. Greet it, acknowledge it, and put it aside for a while, next to you. Then repeat the process: “What else? What’s between me and feeling fine?” Generally it takes at least a few cycles to get to a place where we feel complete with this step. Once you get there, you can spend a moment or two just feeling the ‘fine’ that lies beneath your ordinary experience.

2. Felt Sense: Pick one personal problem from your pile to focus on. Don’t go into it. What do you sense in your body when you sense the whole of this problem?
Sense all of that, the sense of the whole thing, the murky discomfort or the unclear body-sense of it. It might be heavy, or buzzing, or dense; like a dark ball or a big rock or a tight knot. Whatever arises, listen to it without judgment and continue looking inside with curiosity.

3. Get a Handle: What is the quality of the felt sense?
What one word, phrase, or image comes out of this felt sense? (tight, jumpy, stuck, dark, frantic, deflated …)
What quality-word would fit it best?

4. Resonate: Go back and forth between the word/image and the felt sense. Is that right? If the word and felt sense match, repeat the sensation of them matching several times.
If the felt sense changes, follow it with your attention, and let different words/images arise.
When you get a perfect match, a sense of the words/images being just right for this feeling, let yourself feel that for a minute.

5. Ask: Now, ask the felt sense: What is it, about the whole problem, that makes me so __________? (whatever your word is.)

Just wait for the answers to arise from the felt sense inside your body.
If you’re feeling stuck, you can try some questions:

What is the worst of this feeling?
What’s really so bad about this?
What does it need?
should happen here?
Don’t answer; wait for the feeling to stir and give you an answer.
     What would it feel like if it were all okay?
Let the body answer.
     What is in the way of that?

6. Receive: Welcome what came. Be glad it spoke. Know that it’s only one step for this problem, not the last. Now that you know where it is, you can leave it and come back to it later. Protect it from critical voices that interrupt.
Does your body want another round of Focusing, or is this a good stopping place?

The above exercise takes time to learn, but in even a round or two you can start to sense what’s going on in your own inside, perhaps in a different way than you’ve experienced before.

More Resources

Eugene T. Gendlin, Focusing

Ann Weiser Cornell: The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing

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