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Focusing: A Path between East and West?

Astrid Schillings, Focusing Certifying Coordinator, Germany (schillings@compuserve.com)

(Translation: Bill Fraser - 1999)


A few waves plucked from the ocean of synchronicities, given that icebergs drift endlessly in the sea of the implicit.

Over fourteen years ago now, I put these waves into an article on 'Zen and Symbolising, Zen and Focusing', and fell between all the stools. For Buddhists it was too much based in therapy, for therapists it was too radical.

Coming fresh from Japanese Zen, I felt deeply in me an existential need to resolve this "falling between the stools" in a pragmatic way: to rearrange my life, to resume practising as a psychotherapist, while at the same time not smothering my burning question about life, which I experienced at the time as a painful but fertile rent in the fabric of existence. The path of western philosophy and religion was closed to me - I could not bear to hear philosophising or preaching about this rent. What I needed was a way that was lived and experienced - which I found in the East in meditation and in the West in the person-centered approach of the psychologist Carl Rogers and the philosopher Eugene Gendlin. I insist on the term "person-centred". "Gesprächstherapie" (talking-therapy) is an unfortunate and superficialising way of putting it in German. The point is to free the person as existential process.

In the mean time, discussing meditation, focusing, spirituality and therapy together has become acceptable, even normal. And yet - for me the important thing is the "in-between", Gendlin's "....", when there is something which will not come and there is only a living and pulsating bareness between what is already known. This "in-between" is the subject of this essay at various different levels. Focusing as the finger pointing to the moon? - A moon beyond a particular tradition or culture?

Let me approach these different levels circumspectly with a brief sketch or two, in the knowledge that the few pages available to me will not be enough. Please bear with my highly compressed language.

Many people brought up in a Christian culture see pictures and symbols from the Christian tradition when they meditate. This also happened to me. It was "Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Since my Japanese Zen teacher did not want to talk to me about it, I turned to the Jesuit and Zen master Father Enomiya Lassalle, whom I met in Tokyo and who gave me the following to think about on my journey: many Christians consider Buddhists to be immature because they have not yet arrived at a personal God; many Buddhists would say the same of Christians because they still stick to a personal God. "What is it really about here?" asked Lassalle with his own inimitable and youthful wisdom. It dawned on me that he meant presence. Absolute presence. With or without names, personal, transpersonal, beyond the transpersonal. All this is not the point. Absolute presence is undivided ... not fragmented, to speak with Krishnamurti.

I will come back later to this pearl of absolute presence because it is critical to an examination of what focusing is saying or not saying.

The Buddha himself, after attaining enlightenment, spoke of the non-self (anatman) as one of the characteristics of all beings. He meant that nothing is imperishable, completely of and for itself, existing in its own right as something fixed. He contrasted this with the doctrine of atman, which Hindus understand as the highest self. Buddha used the negative form of the word to convey the inexpressible truth - in the Judeo-Christian tradition "thou shalt make to thyself no image ..." - not allowing concepts to interpose themselves.

Now it is interesting that Buddhism talks of the Middle Way, that is to say neither belief in a substantial self (form) nor belief in a non-self (emptiness) is the right way. To cling to either is regarded as ignorance. Even staying attached to the "neither-nor" is ignorance. Adhering to projections (concepts) is seen as an illusion about true reality. That old word "way" or "path" is what we mean by "process" in today's language. No substantial self, as a fixed entity, but not simply nihilistic nothingness either. In other words, a complete interpenetration of simultaneous emerging and disappearing in a "total interaction" as we would put it today, or in Gendlin's language: an order carried forward without beginning or end, in which everything is continually being crossed with everything else. In the "Shobogenzo" of Zen master Dogen (Japan, 1200-1253) we read: Therefore, knowing, practising, and enlightening the essence of continuous development is to go beyond the ordinary. 'Complete interpenetration' does not mean that everything is all mixed up together. Each thing is contained in every other and at the same time is separate in and for itself. A person as process is no exception to this.

In essence it is a radical form of disidentification. Again, I would like to keep this point for later, to see how it can apply in focusing.

What I would like to concentrate on here is Professor Gendlin's discovery that we can in fact translate between philosophical systems that are logically self-consistent by appealing to the felt sense, going with what the body feels to be the meaning and switching to the language of another system. We do not have to take on board all the concepts in the other self-consistent system in order to make our felt meaning understood. Exactly what we are not saying is that one theory or philosophy is being blindly translated into the other.

The same goes for the understanding of the self or the non-self in eastern philosophies, which are psycho-philosophies in the form of a path that is lived. Thus if a realised Hindu says "I am that", he is everything, boundless. And this for him is God. If a realised Buddhist says her ego, her 'I' has died, she means just that. A Tibetan Buddhist master, Kalu Rinpoche, has put it this way: "If you are no-thing, you are everything, if you are everything, you are no-thing."

The Christian mystics of the West talk about the emptiness of God. Here once again - the reference systems, the roadmaps are different and equating them over-quickly with each other can bring confusion, and yet when it comes to the ultimate truth ... unity? The really enlightened ones probably argue among themselves less often, that is more the business of the institutionalised officials of the faith, who of course exist in most traditions in East and West. The former seek the "experience" of revelation, the latter seek the power to lay down definitions, which can also lead to holy war. In other words, identification with the symbols removed from the "felt" meaning.

In the West, direct revealing of the ultimate ground and the way to get there have either not been cultivated or been punished at the stake, because experiencing, direct insight into the nature of the divine, does not fit the church's idea of God and the world.

Wondering how people capable of creating and upholding ethical and cultural values could also legitimise destruction, violence and discrimination caused Gendlin the philosopher - an Austrian Jew who as a boy escaped the Holocaust - to investigate the links between experiencing and thinking, experiencing and symbolising. He became interested in Rogerian psychotherapy because that was where this connection was being worked on. Gendlin's philosophical work "Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning" was turned for the first time into a research project.

The valuing of the individual as a person has not always been so self-evident to us in the West and looks back on only a short history of 300 years. The bloody combats fought to establish human rights have their origins in this fragile source. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is indefatigable in stressing the importance of these rights. As I have said already at a conference on psychotherapy and Buddhism, a person cannot be quickly written off as a neurotic ego-trip. A person should be seen for what they are - a process state of being - valuable, sentient, gifted with the potential for illumination, love, creativity and suffering.

As our western rootedness in a tradition of community and shared security has faded in both secular and spiritual terms, we have gradually discovered the "individual" as intrinsically valuable. In step with this evolution, we have come to see the other face of that tradition: violence, oppression, corruption and abuse of power. This other face is present in both East and West, with one difference. The East kept open, within its feudal and fossilised-seeming traditions, an entryway for directly accessing the ultimate ground.

For example, it is impressive how paradoxical language or actions in Zen, as instanced in the koan question, provide a highly specific means of pointing to the implicit behind the implicit (David Bohm), that which is not nameable or even, in the end, experienceable in the customary sense. By this constant "breaking" of concepts, our experiencing - our direct insight - is carried forward (to use Gendlin's language) in the direction of the unnameable. Of course we must first understand the words that are being broken in their conventional meanings because only then will the breaking process raise/remove (Hegel's 'aufheben') the meaning to a "higher" or "deeper" level. The purpose of the exercise is to break through the confines of logic by paradoxical, non-logical use of (say) language by forcing the disciple into experiencing. The mind which was trapped in logical thinking and natural, organismic expectations is then ideally released into a state of unconditional openness and awakeness. This state should take one beyond experiencing, it is absolute presence, described as dynamic, brilliant and empty.

Here is a Zen koan, from an unknown source.

When the Many

are reduced to One,

to what is the One


In Tibetan Buddhism this is called "crazy wisdom". Here again it is paradoxical, illogical, crazy language or action which carries experiencing forward towards attainment of the ultimate ground. In Buddhism, this ultimate ground or emptiness is seen as pure potentiality, the fullness before manifestation. The fullness that comes before the concepts of life and death.

So where does this felt-sense come from which drives some of us more, some of us less, to ask about the meaning of life: "Where do we come from, where are we going?" Where does that fertile rent come from, the rent in the self-evident quality of felt existence as well as in the logic of thought? This felt-sense must surely also have given birth to philosophy in the West. The dictionaries define philosophy as love of wisdom and the search for knowledge about nature and the meaning of existence. Gendlin stresses ('Thinking at the Edge' seminar in 1998) that he is not teaching in the field of the spiritual or the absolute, that he is only a "customer" there himself, and yet the language and practice of his approach to experiential process implies that also ... opens a door ...

Since I only have a few pages available to me, I would like now - perhaps a little prematurely - to draw some of these threads together.

Gendlin gave the following short definition of focusing during a seminar (in 1992): "Focusing is what I call the time we spend being with something which is there in the body but not yet known inside us." The steps of change which follow, the opening up of many new possibilities, are no longer part of the focusing, Gendlin said at the same seminar. But the change steps come through the focusing, according to him. In essence it is all about friendly attention, staying with what is unclear. Giving space for the unfolding by being present in a non-intrusive way.

The six classic focusing steps and the various manuals, as we know them from using their support in psychotherapy, creativity, and many other areas, are like extra help for when things get stuck and the process is frozen. All the many methods of meditation fulfil much the same purpose. They too are an aid so that awareness can simply stay with what is and let unfolding happen ...

Both meditation and focusing work by pushing us up against the limits imposed by our identification ... using friendly presence as a tool. If our awareness is directed toward the stream of direct experiencing ('focusing on the ongoing experiencing'), Gendlin speaks of focusing. The meaning lies in the experiencing, not in the concepts, and the concepts and symbolisations help to carry experiencing forward. Here precisely is the meditative/contemplative quality of the person-centred approach. The key is to accompany what is, to be present, without judging. This intentionless but friendly presence opens up space, space for change, whether it be in focusing, meditation or elsewhere ...

You are more than your states of annoyance, rage, more than your thinking, your problems. In focusing we say that you have them, you are not them. Via what is felt in the body, we can come closer to these places of meaning, where we can take up an inner relationship with them. This means listening, being with them, attending to them. In our focusing we let them become personal, let them speak, move, paint, whatever. A repeating "angry-cramped" will perhaps let out a small, abandoned girl. Gendlin explains: there is no negative energy, because what is negative, what is blocked, always bears the solution implicitly in itself. As long as I identify unconsciously with the small girl, I will keep falling into a state of anger. Once the identification becomes conscious, I can work with it. To express it in a Buddhist way: evil as such does not exist, only ignorance, by which is meant obstruction through identification.

It is important to realise that this also applies at a transpersonal level. "Transpersonal" means "going beyond the person". If we identify with a group, a nation, a tradition or a symbol, this is still identification. This is why the Nazi propagandists used transpersonal symbols like the barred cross (crux gammata), a sun wheel or swastika turned the wrong way round, in order to concentrate power. The "small self" is left behind so that we can serve the transpersonal - it is the identified ego which conquers, murders, moralises or prays and meditates. That is seductive because identifying with a larger cause is strongly energising. But this is "borrowed" energy, not energy we have worked for. I am trying to make clear the narrow line we walk, not indulging in polemics. We can even identify ourselves with focusing.

What we need, therefore, is a personal process of unfolding through all the levels. The person understood as unfolding process, who identifies less and less with the contents of consciousness, less and less with a solid self.

Gendlin points out that we usually think of situations as outside us, split off from us inside. But the felt-sense, the physical feeling of the whole situation or the whole problem, is "inside". By bringing this internal feeling of the whole in all its complexity (its intricacy) into consciousness, by forming a relationship with it, we experience it as "not me"; I have a sense of the situation, it changes, it opens, and I am not that sense. Yet at the same time the situation is not simply "out there". And it is presence, being with this experiencing, which brings us closer to the self which is no contents.

We can use focusing, as well as certain forms of meditation, to solve our problems, to work on our traumas or to reduce stress. That too is important and valuable. But we can also shift the axis and use these tools to work every day on the felt edge of the question "Who is this presence from moment to moment?"

I still need some of that extra help. To be continued.




Dogen, Zenji, Shobogenzo, Vols. I-IV, Nakayama Shobo, Tokyo, 1975-1983

Dürckheim, Karlfried Graf, The Way of Transformation - Daily Life as Spiritual Exercise, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1971, paperback 1980

Gendlin, Eugene:

Focusing, New York, Bantam Books, 1978

Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy, New York, The Guildford Press, 1996

Thinking Beyond Patterns: Body, Language and Situations, New York, in: "The Presence of Feeling in Thought", 1982

The Responsive Order: A New Empiricism, Netherlands, in: "Man and World", 1997

How Philosophy Cannot Appeal to Experience, and How It Can, in: "Language beyond Postmodernism", Evanston, Ill., Northwestern University Press, 1997

Karmapa Wangtsschug Dordsche: Mahamudra, Ozean des wahren Sinnes, Munich, Theseus Verlag, 1992

Krishnamurti, Jiddu:

The Flame of Attention, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1984

The Awakening of Intelligence, London, Victor Gollancz, 1980

Levine, Stephen, Who Dies?, Bath, Gateway Books, 1986

Packer, Toni, Meditative Inquiry, in: "What is Meditative Inquiry?", Springwater Centre, 1995

Rogers, Carl, On Becoming a Person, London, Constable, 1979

Schillings, Astrid:

"Zen und Focusing", Focusing Informationen, 1986

"Zen und Symbolisieren", Rütte Forum, 1989

"Notes From The Therapy Room", conference paper for "Buddhism and Psychotherapy", Bad Münstereifel, 1996

"Weisheit und Liebe in der Psychotherapie", conference paper for "Buddhism and Psychotherapy", Bad Münstereifel, 1997

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I am That, Acorn Press, North Carolina, 1988

Trungpa Rinpoche:

Crazy Wisdom, Boston & London, Shambala, 1991

Spiritual Materialism, Boston, Shambala, 1973

Wellwood, John, Principles of Inner Work, in: "Psychological and Spiritual", The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1984, Vol. 16, No1


About the author:

Astrid Schillings is a clinical psychologist/psychotherapist practising person-centred psychotherapy and teaches focusing as a certifying coordinator of The International Focusing Institute, New York, in addition to many years of meditation in different Buddhist traditions. Permission to teach meditation in silence from Graf Dürckheim. Intensive study of Krishnamurti led to her now studying with Toni Packer . She gives seminars on finding sense in everyday life through meditative exploration. She has her own psychology practice and "Space for Accompaniment on the Way" in Cologne.

Address: Brüsseler Platz 6, 50672 Cologne, 0221/56 25 770

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