I have wondered over-and-over again about the ‘Focusing attitude’ and the qualities of ‘therapeutic presence’ and ‘therapeutic environment’ along all these years of practicing focusing and psychotherapy. How can I know if I really embody what Gendlin (1981) described as “friendly listening” or what Ann W. Cornell (2002) named “Self-in-Presence”? And if that is the same as Wholebody Grounded Presence that I have learned from Karen Whalen? It sounds simple, but – it is deceptively simple…
Most of the time I felt that I have embodied some kind of ‘crossings’ of all my learning about quality of Presence with different teachers of Focusing. It also felt as if my body sense of it grew and expanded over time. However, when I started teaching focusing about 5 years ago, I wondered again about how could I describe it, sufficiently emphasise the importance of it, and help others to find their own experience of it… I have tried a few different experiential exercises and learned from many groups that I have facilitated. I have wondered about how could I adjust them to different learning styles and still stay true to the essence of the Focusing attitude.
I have learned to introduce bodily awareness with some simple Mindfulness related practice. Although that helped my students develop the ability to notice their experience with friendly acceptance, I had a strong sense that something was missing… And I wondered about that …
I have noticed in my own practice that I can be ‘just the observer’ that is aware of and is allowing what I am experiencing with friendly listening. I have also noticed how something different happens and how much more unfolds if I wonder about what I am experiencing and noticing. I noticed that everything inside me liked to be gently touched with wonder: Oh, there you are… I wonder about you, who you are, … what are you experiencing… how the world looks like from your point of view…
And I continued wondering ,…. like a child who is watching something for the first time ,… because every time is actually the first time…
Every time when something is touched with wonder, some alchemy happens, and nothing is the same anymore – it changes and it changes me. The touch of wonder has a rippling effect … And that is how my ‘wonder’ continually grew. Perhaps that is what Gendlin (1990) meant by saying that we all need to be “a human being with another human being”. I wonder if plants and animals can wonder… But it is so human to be in wonder, isn’t it?
When I teach Focusing I every time wonder about what can we collaboratively create together. Presence has become a state of being in wonder for me, a wonder about life that is emerging, that is co-created. When I have ‘Focusing conversation’ with a client who is on another side of the planet, I wonder how this process really works and how ‘big’ is my wonder to touch the other so far away… How can I ever find words and describe the energetics of being present with another human being?
I wonder if every-thing that is continuously touched with wonder of Focusing becomes wonder-full ... I sometimes wonder if that is the way to be fully alive and co-create the ‘wonder-full world’…
(Published in "InFocus" - The International Focusing Institute - September 2017)
In his book “Let your body interpret your dreams”, Eugene Gendlin, the creator of Focusing, explained that, “What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes”. (p. 178)
If we want to change something, we are used to convincing, pushing away, forcing, finding some way to make it change. Have you ever succeeded that way? Most likely not, or maybe just for little while. That way often creates a lot of resistance… In Focusing, we do something that may seem paradoxical at first. We actually let it be just the way it is and then we try to get to know it - we listen, sense, and we feel it. When we truly understand it and what it needs, it changes itself… The only way to change is not to try to change. Even a moment of sensing in our body allows it to change. From a Focusing point of view: when we sit with anything, it changes.
There is a lovely story that captures this well…
The Dog Story
(A version of the story created by Ann Weiser Cornell)
Once upon a time there was a child who longed for a companion to play. She was lucky because one day she was given a beautiful puppy.
The child and the puppy loved each other so much and were inseparable… However, the puppy being just a playful puppy would sometimes do some naughty things - peeing on the carpet or chewing daddy’s favourite shoes. The child’s parents were very angry and told the child to better discipline the puppy or it will not be aloud to come into the house anymore.
The child did her best, but the puppy was a playful puppy and sometimes it would forget what was not allowed. And the parents first sent the puppy to the porch and then, when it did what they didn’t like again they requested that it stays far-removed in the backyard… One day when the puppy came to the house through the door left open and found something smelling delicious in the kitchen, the parents yelled and chased it away. Whenever the puppy came back to the fence they would get angry, yell, and chase it away. The child was scared, and she didn’t want to upset her parents even more by saying anything, so she withdrew, sad and lonely.
Years passed… The family moved into a different town and the child, now grown-up, forgot about the puppy. But inside her there was still a place where something was missing… At times that ‘empty place’ inside her was so puzzling and she would go for a long walks to try to understand it.
One day, while going on one of these walks, she came on the edge of a forest. It was dusk, the night was falling, and while she was sitting on the log something moved in the darkness of the undergrowth… She was scared … and curious … at the same time… She didn’t move and kept watching… Her heart jumped when the two glaring eyes appeared from the darkness … Slowly, a dark, furry, muddy creature emerged… A part of her wanted to just run, and another part was sitting there motionless. Something was familiar about this ugly creature. It looked like a dog… A lost dog, untrusting, scared… The sense of familiarity grew in her body. What was it?... And then she could remember that her puppy used to look at her the same way and used to place its head in her hand in the same way… Her dog?! … She reached to pet it, but the dog fled into the dark…
It was getting late and she went home. Over the following weeks the girl returned often to the edge of the forest sitting and waiting until the dog came out. With everyday it trusted her more and more. Gently, she fed him and brushed its fur… And one day it followed her home.
Neil Friedman’s adaptation of the Zen story
(Captures the marvellous way Focusing bridges the subtle and ordinary levels of reality)
Once upon a time there was a gathering of healers, wizards, therapists, channels, mystics, sorcerers and disembodied spirits. Each had a time to get up and do his or her particular miracle.
Quite the pyrotechnics! One walked on fire. One hypnotised the entire audience without their knowing it. One foretold the future. One read past lives. One stood on one leg in a bizarre position until his whole body shook. One did medical diagnoses based only on each audience member’s name and age.
Then a short, plain-looking man got up. It was his turn. He said: “My miracle is that when I am hungry, I eat; when I am thirsty, I drink; and I know when I am hungry and when I am thirsty and what I am hungry for and what I am thirsty for…”
Then he sat down.
He was the Focuser…
Once upon a time, the sun and the wind argued about who has a stronger influence on mankind… They noticed a man passing by and decided to have a contest to show which one of them could separate the man from his coat.
The wind went first and it started blowing and blowing… but the harder it blew, the more tightly the man wrapped himself in his coat… Then the sun had its turn, simply shining and warming the air until the man happily took off his coat…
The Focusing attitude is of a friendly, gentle attending like the sun…
Focusing teaches us to think, sense, feel and stay open to new possibilities, to ‘more’ - like poets, artists, and ‘break-through-scientists’. We learn to dip below the surface of the known and reach beyond the thinkable, to stay open in a paradox of being and living, vulnerable to desired change that gives birth to ‘new us’.
First, we learn to pause and re-connect with the richness of our experience of the present moment, and gently go below the reactive surface level into the deep layer of primary, core feelings, needs and longings. In this process, every layer has to be ‘unlocked’ with a symbol that is like a very specific key that opens the door to go further. We have to wait here for the symbol to form itself and we then check back if it ‘fits’. And like with the keys, we sometimes try a few until the right one ‘clicks’ and the door opens. That opening, subtle or very distinct, is always felt in the body. Something inside changes… we go forward, with every step we are more in touch with what is true and alive in ourselves.
Maybe this sounds little daunting and not so easy to imagine. Yes, there is a combination of depth, wonder and mystery in this process, a combination of technique and an artistic sense. Yes, there is often this inner feeling of excitement and trepidation, it's similar to when an artist stands in front of the blank canvas, clear paper, or holds an instrument. It is like facing a ‘not yet known’ and allowing it to come knowing that we can’t make it come. A something inside wants our attention, wants to be seen, listened to and known. It wants to take a form, to become a word, an image, a sound, or movement… It holds some meaning, something relevant to our life or to the situation we are currently in. And it wants to be listened to…
The gift of Focusing is re-discovering, polishing and fine-tuning our ‘inner compass’, a reliable guide to self-knowing and creative expression, that helps us navigate the complexities of relationships and make our life choices. Once learned and refined with practice, it is always there, available and ready to be used, something that nobody can take away.
Focusing opens the door to the subtle currents of being which guide us toward what is right, true and real for us in our own lives. It gives a voice to something in us that didn’t have a voice before and unifies us into a better integrated ‘whole’ with its gentleness and acceptance.
Body-mind psychotherapy: Accessing the wisdom of the body
We are born with the ability to know how we feel from moment to moment and use that information to navigate our life choices. However, the emphasis on intellect and thinking in our society, as well as our experiences of hurt while growing up have caused us to lose trust in our bodies and our feelings.
Our thinking minds are keen to know, to be clear, certain and correct, and they are impatient with a vague hard-to-describe body awareness that we directly experience about our life situation. The problem comes with situations that are hard to understand and uncomfortable, with confusing information and feelings, with a sense of being stuck. How can we use our minds to connect to the present body awareness, instead of guessing, assuming, doubting, and going around in the circles? Focusing gives us simple and clear steps. Focusing is actually re-learning and re-fining that natural skill and re-connecting the mind, body and spirit into one whole again.
In Focusing-oriented/ experiential therapy (FOT) the body is seen as a totality of being before the split between body and mind. The body is seen as an ongoing process of experiencing and interaction with its environment. As such, the body senses many more nuances in a situation than we are able to verbalise in the moment and it feels implicit meaning. As such, the bodily knowing is of a far more complex nature than rational knowledge. Our conceptual minds search for meaning by noticing already formed patterns and by linking and creating order. What is not formed or clear is considered a disorder or out-of-order. However FOT perceives that what is not already formed, what is vague and not yet clear as of a greater order, more intricate and finally differentiated than any forms or concepts, but not yet fully grasped and articulated. In Focusing we get familiar and open to something that is directly sensed in the body, neither known nor just unknown. Gendlin (1981) has named this a ‘felt sense’.
The word ‘focusing’ is a visual metaphor. It describes looking carefully and closely at something that is there but is blurry and vague, like looking through binoculars, and bringing it into focus so that it can be seen, known, named, understood… And that is a process that has steps of refinements, little adjustments until it’s clear what is actually there. However, Focusing process has an essential receptive aspect, a very specific way of listening that is probably better captured with an auditory metaphor: a kind of inner listening that is able to hear not just the ‘loud mind’ but also the gentle ‘whispering of the heart’.
The key to a successful Focusing process is that receptivity and the quality of our awareness and connection to what we are experiencing. In Focusing we approach our experience with friendly, interested and respectful curiosity. And like in any good relationship, we are available, responsive and engaging with it.
Yes, this sounds like a good therapeutic relationship and the very ‘thing’ that makes therapy work. With this Focusing attitude and relational emphasis we (therapists and Focusing companions) model the quality of relating to our clients that changes the way they are with themselves and their unfolding experiencing. We could say that our clients gradually learn to become the therapist for their own inner process, something that Gendlin (1984) rightly called ‘the client’s client’. They learn to be with their emotional experience with a sense of safety, trust and compassion, the qualities that provide the experience of a secure attachment bond.
Despite robust evidence of its efficacy in psychotherapy and counselling, Focusing has not yet enjoyed the recognition it deserves. Nevertheless, it deserves careful study and artful application.
There is ample of research suggesting that the strongest predictors of positive outcome in therapy are (a) the quality of the client-therapist relationship, (b) the personal characteristics of the therapist, and (c) the resources the client brings to therapy (Hubble, Duncan, Miller, 1999; Wampold, 2001). "Client feedback" has been specifically identified as the most important relationship factor that decreases dropout rates and improves therapeutic outcomes (Miller, 2004; Miller, Duncan, & Hubble, 2004). A unique feature of Focusing is its constant, moment-to-moment relational focus with elaborate methods for routinely "checking in" with a client using the particular quality of the therapist's presence and her or his attuned responsiveness. Checking -in is crucial and ongoing. Furthermore, as a client-centred therapy, Focusing incorporates sophisticated means for helping clients identify, honour, and express their personal realities, resources and inner truths. Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy assists clients in removing the judgments, doubts, and fears that block the access to their innate wisdom and self-understanding.
Focusing-oriented therapists ‘walk their talk’ and practice Focusing for enhancement of their own self-awareness and their ability to embody empathic therapeutic presence with every client. There is a high correlation between therapists knowing Focusing and clients having positive therapy outcomes, as reported in the research of Hendricks (2001). A part of what Focusing-Oriented therapists do is a continuous attending to both their own ‘felt experiencing’ and the experiencing of their clients. They are in touch with their own felt senses and have access to ‘embodied situational knowing’ (Cornell, 2013) in the relational field that also includes both what is going on for the client and between themselves and the client, moment-by-moment. In other words, the therapists' bodily experiencing contains an inner synthesis of their own experiencing in the moment; their personal values and beliefs, previously acquired professional knowledge and expertise, as well as the client’s experience.
While what we know as therapists is important, ‘how we are’ present with our clients impacts them in many ways. “Our authentic personal involvement, emotional responsiveness, and unavoidable subjectivity, far from interfering, are essential features of every successful psychotherapy”(Wallin, 2007, p.171). It is of enormous importance how aware we are of what we bring into the therapy room and into the relationship. The more we can advance our personal development, attending to and further unfolding our own stopped processes, the more we can be available for our clients in integrated, grounded and compassionate way.
To conclude, therapists who know and practice Focusing are embodying grounded compassionate presence and are in contact with their own felt sensing during therapy. They are more available to their clients as a genuine person, more able to access embodied, situational, felt knowledge about the client’s unfolding process and implied needs. They are better responsive to transference, counter-transference with faster recognition, ease and clarity. They listen deeper and better, conceptualise faster and are able to look after themselves in better ways.
- Cornell, A. W. (2013). Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Gendlin, E. (1981). Focusing, Second Edition. New York: Bantam Books.
- Gendlin, E. (1984). The Client’s Client. In J. M. Shlien and R. Levant (Eds.), Client-Centred Therapy and the Person-Centred Approach. New York: Praeger.
- Hendricks, M. N. (2001). Focusing-oriented/ Experiential Psychotherapy. In D. Cain and J. Seeman (Eds.), Humanistic Psychotherapies: Handbook of research and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Hubble, M. A., Duncan, B. L., & Miller, S. D. (eds). (1999). The heart & soul of change: What works in therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Miller, S. D. (2004). Losing faith: Arguing for a new way to think about therapy. Psychotherapy In Australia, 10(2), 44-51.
- Miller, S. D., Duncan, B. L., & Hubble, M. A. (2004). Beyond integration: The triumph of outcome over process in clinical practice. Psychotherapy In Australia, 10(2), 2- 19.
- Wampold, B. E. (2001). The great psychotherapy debate: Models, methods, and findings. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Wallin, D. J. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford.