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The Focusing Technique: Confirmatory Knowing Through the Body

by Ann Weiser Cornell

Inner Knowing, Helen Palmer (Ed.), Tarcher/Putnam, 1998, pp. 159-164. ISBN: 0874779367

Focusing is a body-based technique that helps to confirm inner knowing. Author Ann Weiser Cornell, a focusing teacher, offers a few simple steps that enable us to attend to "felt-sense" bodily signals that bring fuzzy, preverbal knowledge into conscious awareness.

This "ability to receive and confirm inner knowing" through focusing is a fundamental human ability that most people in Western cultures have lost. Yet all it takes is quiet and the patience to attend to vague physical impressions, until they become defined and meaningful.

Unlike techniques that depend on releasing inhibiting habits and old beliefs, the focusing technique is a way of attending to inner knowing until it blossoms into awareness.

FOCUSING is a body-oriented process of self-awareness and emotional healing, in which we learn to become aware of the subtle level of knowing that speaks to us through the body.

The Discovery of Focusing

The Focusing process is based on research into successful personality change done by Eugene Gendlin and his colleagues. They compared successful therapy clients with unsuccessful ones, discovering that success in therapy could be predicted from client behavior in the first few sessions. If at some point in the session the client had an unclear bodily awareness, and slowed down his or her talking in order to refer to this and try to symbolize it, then the psychotherapy would ultimately be successful.

Gendlin named this unclear bodily awareness the "felt sense," and the process of attending to the felt sense, in such a way that meaning emerges, he called Focusing. He developed a method of teaching Focusing, taught it to therapy clients and others, and eventually wrote a book for the general public (1981). By 1997 Gendlin and his colleagues had brought the Focusing process to schools, businesses, hospitals, religious communities, and tens of thousands of individuals throughout the world.

Although Gendlin developed it as a teachable technique, Focusing is not an invention. It is a naturally occurring skill that can be observed in people of all cultures and backgrounds. The ability to receive and confirm inner knowing through Focusing is a human birthright. Unfortunately, Focusing ability is trained out of most people living in industrial and postindustrial societies, which place a premium on logical, intellectual ways of knowing. Most of us must be retrained in order to use Focusing effectively, and even people who have retained their natural Focusing ability can benefit from learning it as a consciously accessible skill.

The Felt Sense

The key concept of Focusing is the felt sense: a body sensation that is meaningful. Examples include a jittery feeling in the stomach as you stand up to speak, or a heaviness in the heart as you think of a distant loved one.

A felt sense is usually experienced in the middle of the body: abdomen, stomach, chest, throat--although felt senses also occur in other parts of the body. A person may get a felt sense of "this relationship," or "that creative project," or "the part of me that has a hard time with public speaking," and so on. Felt senses are different from emotions, although they are likely to contain emotions. If emotions are like primary colors, felt senses are like subtle blends of colors. The emotion might be "fear," but the felt sense of the fear would be more like: "jumpy, almost excited," or "frozen like a rabbit in the headlights," or "clutching in my throat, won't let go." There is a uniqueness to a felt sense, a quality of "here is how it is right now, for me."

Felt senses are often (but not always) elusive, vague, temporary, subtle, and hard to describe. One of the most difficult aspects of learning Focusing, for most people, is the shift of attention from experiences that are definite, clear, and unmistakable (like headaches) to experiences that are, as Gendlin puts it, "indefinable, global, puzzling, odd, uneasy, fuzzy."

Feeling "Too Much" or "Too Little"

People typically come to learn Focusing from two ends of a feeling spectrum. On the one hand, we have people who are troubled by feeling "too much." Their stomachs tighten each time they assert themselves. They have a constricted throat for hours after a difficult phone call. Such people have no doubt that their emotional life has an impact on their bodies--in fact, they often wish it didn't! To them, Focusing offers a way to have a friendlier, more positive relationship with feeling experience. They learn to acknowledge their bodily felt senses without becoming overwhelmed by them. Further, they make the almost miraculous discovery that when these felt senses are listened to and "heard," they lighten, soften, relax, and often release completely.

The other type of person who comes to learn Focusing is someone who feels "too little." This person has thoroughly learned the lesson of our culture: that the body is devoid of meaning and should be ignored whenever possible. When he or she puts awareness in the body, it feels blank, like nothing is there. This is the person who simply cannot answer when asked, "How do you feel?" For this person, learning Focusing means learning how to feel (rather than ignore) the body's meaningful reactions.

The Focusing Process

In its "long form," Focusing is done either individually and silently, as in meditation, or speaking out loud to a Focusing partner or guide. A typical Focusing session takes from ten to sixty minutes. The person who is Focusing usually keeps eyes closed as he or she attends inwardly. In its "short form," Focusing can happen in a few moments, at a stoplight while driving, for example, or during a phone call.

Although every Focusing session is different, I have identified typical stages, for teaching purposes. These stages are described with key phrases that the focuser says inwardly.

"I'm sensing into my body." The focuser begins the process by bringing awareness to the body. First, awareness can be brought to the outer area of the body: hands, feet, the contact of the body with the chair. This serves as a grounding in body awareness. Next the focuser brings awareness into the middle area of the body: throat, chest, stomach, abdomen. These areas are sensed from within.

"What wants my awareness now?" or "How am I feeling about that issue?" Once awareness is in the body, the focuser may discover that there is a felt sense already there. ("Yes, there's a tightness in my stomach; I've been feeling it all day.") The other possibility is that the middle of the body may be feeling fairly clear and open, but a felt sense can come if invited. The focuser gives the invitation by saying something like, "What wants my awareness now?" or "How am I feeling about (some particular) issue?" The focuser gives the invitation inwardly, in the inner area of the body, and waits. The felt sense usually forms within about sixty seconds.

"I'm saying hello to what's here." When the focuser becomes aware of something, he/she greets it, by saying, "Hello. I know you're there." This is a powerful and important move that marks the beginning of the inner relationship.

"I'm finding the best way to describe it." Now the focuser describes the felt sense, using a word, or words, or an image, or a sound or a gesture. The focuser is finding a symbol that will fit or match the feel of the felt sense. This is usually quite simple, for example: "tight," "heavy," "squeezing," "angry pressing," "a knot," and so on.

"I'm checking back with my body." Any words, sentences, images, or ideas that come from the felt sense need to be offered back to the felt sense for confirmation. When the focuser finds a word to describe the felt sense (e.g., "tightness"), he/she then offers that word back to the felt sense to make sure it is right (accurate, fitting). Later in the session, when whole sentences emerge from the felt sense (e.g., "This part of me is afraid of feeling good"), these too are offered back to the sense in the spirit of "Did I understand you correctly?" Anything emerging in the process is checked back with the sense to see if it feels right. This impels the forward movement of the process, and helps the focuser stay grounded in the body.

"Is it OK to just be with this right now?" Inheritors of Western industrial culture, especially Americans, are very oriented toward doing, toward making something happen. So it can be a very powerful inner attitude to just be. This is a process of being with something without agenda, spending time with it, keeping it company--and no more.

"I'm sitting with it, with interested curiosity." Now the focuser spends time with the felt sense with an attitude of friendly, respectful curiosity. The quality of inner attention in this stage can be difficult to achieve at first. It involves an attitude of openness, of "not-knowing," of receptivity. Most people are more used to talking to themselves ("Come on now, get it together!") than to listening to themselves. Even experienced focusers may find that patience is called for. Fortunately, if some inner aspect interferes with the attitude needed for this step, it itself can be treated as a felt sense to be focused on. ("Let me just be with this impatience I'm feeling.")

"I'm sensing how it, feels from its point of view." The focuser shifts empathically from his or her own point of view to sensing the felt sense's point of view. This is like sitting with a friend who doesn't feel like talking. You can still be curious about the friend and empathize with how she or he is feeling. The felt sense rarely "talks," yet the focuser can sense its mood.

Sensing from the felt sense's point of view is essentially the difference between "It feels uncomfortable" (my point of view) to "It feels scared" (its point of view).

"I'm asking . . ." The focuser has become an empathic listener to his or her own inner felt sense. By this time, the focuser may be receiving more and more intricate levels of meaning. This is the part of the session that is hardest to describe, because it is so variable. But if not much seems to be happening, the focuser may want to invite meaning by asking gentle, open-ended questions, like, "I'm asking it if it has an emotional quality," or "I'm asking it what gets it so scared" (if "scared" is the emotion).

"I'm letting it know I hear it." The meaningful communication from the felt sense is received and acknowledged. This often results in a felt shift of relief, release, warmth, or other pleasurable feelings.

"I'm saying I'll be back." "I'm thanking my body and the parts that have been with me." As a way of ending the session, the focuser tells the felt sense that he or she will return to it at another time for further "conversation" and takes time to thank and appreciate the body.

Confirmatory Knowing

The knowing that comes through Focusing is often surprising, and operates from its own logic rather than following in a linear fashion from something previously known. Its signal can be an intensification or a releasing. It can also be a sense of flow, fresh air, opening, expansion, or the like. Tears are a strong confirmation: tears that have nothing to do with sadness, but rather with the rightness of the knowing--"truth tears." In contrast, the body's way of saying "No" is a feeling of something being "off," an uneasiness, a wrongness, limitation, or contraction, or backing away.

The Wisdom of the Body

Many people now understand that our bodies "know" what good health is, and can show us the way to optimum physical health if we so desire. But to see the scope of the body's wisdom as exclusively physical is to take too narrow a view.

Our bodies are wise in ways hardly ever acknowledged by our culture. Our bodies carry knowledge about how we are living our lives, about what we need to be more fully ourselves, about what we value and believe, about what has hurt us emotionally and how to heal it. Our bodies know which people around us bring out the best in us, and which do not. Our bodies know the right next step to bring us to more fulfilling and rewarding lives.

Learning Focusing means returning to a kind of nonanalytic knowing that connects us to our wholeness. We build a better relationship with our emotional life. Trust in our own process deepens. Focusing becomes an inner "compass" that points the way more and more reliably the more it is used.


This page was last modified on 27 May 2004

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