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Focusing and Spirituality: Buddhism

Roger Levin, Psy.D., Focusing Trainer, USA (rlevin@igc.apc.org)

The American meditation master Robert Aitkins Roshi once suggested in an introduction to Zen Buddhism that students beginning serious study of Dharma could find no better preparation than to learn Focusing. Buddhist Dharma holds that our perception of self and the world, in fact our entire sense of reality, is constructed of less-than-conscious habits of fixated attention which become rigidified into conditioned patterns of defensive judgments designed to control experiencing in order to maximize pleasure or avoid pain. However, it is these very attachments or conditioned habits of experiencing which are, paradoxically, the root cause of human suffering in the Buddhist view. Therefore, Buddhist meditation systems teach methods to radically de-condition attention through practices which reveal the state of non-judgmental, non-dual, unconditioned, and therefore infinitely open, presence beneath all experiencing.

There are two respects in which Focusing works as the best kind of preparation for Buddhist practices. First, conceived as a mental discipline, Focusing teaches how to approach experience with more relaxed attention so that practicers can find that productive middle ground between the usually stuck positions of either being simply overwhelmed by pain or just avoiding bad feelings altogether. In this way, Focusing works to loosen attachments to habitual and unproductive ways of construing and responding to problems. As a quasi-meditative and quasi-therapeutic practice, Focusing teaches the concrete steps to relax attention and create the openings from which to experience one's self and the world in new ways. Second, as a bodily discipline, Focusing teaches practicers to guide their attention by reference to subtle, bodily-felt experiencing. This is particularly important for modern Western sensibilities that out of cultural habit construe the body as a type of machine and ignore its crucial role in the creation of meaning. Buddhism, on the other hand, is based upon an implicit commitment to embodied knowing that is largely inaccessible to Western students who have not preliminarily trained their attention to follow subtle bodily cues.

In sum, Focusing links two basic skills that form the foundation of meditative mindfulness: the relaxation of attention which loosens attachments to habitually conditioned ways of self-experiencing and the guiding of self-experiencing by bodily sensing. While these preparatory skills are essential to the understanding and correct practice of Buddhist Dharma, the linkage of bodily guided attention with the working through of sedimented life issues remains not only unique in Western therapeutic settings but entirely unexplicated in the esoteric Buddhist forms most commonly taught in the West such as Zen and Tantrism.

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