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Focusing as a Force for Peace: the revolutionary pause

From Mary Hendricks-Gendlin's keynote address at the 15th annual International Focusing Conference in Germany.

Mary Hendricks-Gendlin, Ph.D., is the Director of The Focusing Institute and can be contacted at info@focusing.org. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

Focusing is a force for peace because it frees people from being manipulated by external authority, cultural roles, ideologies and the internal oppression of self attacking and shame. This freeing has to do with an ability to pause the on-going situation and create a space in which a felt sense can form.

When we know how to focus we refuse to take ourselves or any other person as merely an instance of a culturally defined category or group. We don't say, "I am good, you are bad." Or, "I am a wife and mother" as though this defined the total of who I am. Or "You are the doctor, I am the patient," as though our interaction would then be governed only by the meanings of those roles. Or "I am a Christian or a Moslim" as though the ritual forms would then exhaustively define my spiritual life.

I will tell you a story about pausing the cultural role level of a situation so that a felt sense can form. You will see that this pausing allows "the patient" to break the culturally expected role behavior of unquestioned acceptance of the external authority of "the doctor."

A story about pausing

At 1:23 on a Saturday afternoon a perfect baby girl was born after a short, uncomplicated labor. She was born in a birthing room at a modern suburban hospital in mid America. Her mother and she being free of drugs took a long deep look at each other, bonding for life.

The father rushed back to work to conclude a large presentation. The pediatrician the family had selected was not on call. His partner filled in. The mother was told by a nurse, " The baby is a bit jaundiced. The doctor wants you to stay overnight in the hospital so we can keep an eye on her."

Upstairs on the ward, a few hours later, a technician came into the room and took several vials of blood from the baby's heel. The baby cried out each time.

A few hours later, another technician appeared, needle and vial in hand.

Mother: "What are you doing?"

Technician: "We need to take blood for some tests."

Mother: "Wait a minute. Stop. You just took her blood. What is this test for?"

Technician: "To check on the jaundice."

Mother: "Wait. I need to think about this. [She is quiet for several minutes.] If the results of this test are positive, then what follows from that?"

Technician: "Then we wait twelve hours and repeat the test."

Mother: "Humm. [Quiet again.] So why do we need to do the test now, if the only result is that you wait 12 hours and repeat it?"

Technician: "To keep track of what is going on."

Mother: "We will wait twelve hours and then I will consider whether to do the test then."

Technician: "But the doctor ordered it now."

Mother: "I'm sorry, you do not have my permission to do any more tests on my baby."

An uproar ensued. The mother, quite tired from having just given birth and trying to learn how to breast feed her baby, was visited by a stream of technicians, floor nurses and others. Most said , "You should do what the doctor orders!" A few said, "Good for you. You do what seems right to you."

At about 9 PM the pediatrician called the mother in her room.

Doctor: "If you don't have the tests I ordered, then I cannot be responsible for your baby."

Mother: "I agree. You are no longer responsible for her. I no longer wish to work with you."

The mother called another pediatrician who came early the next morning, examined the baby and said, "She is fine. You can go home." As the family prepared to leave, one of the nurses said, "Dr. ______ is doing research on jaundice in babies. He does blood tests on all the babies, for his research."

Twenty years later the New York Times reported findings that the threshold for pain is lower in adults who had physical pain as babies. Both parents were glad they had minimized the pain experienced by their child on the day of her birth.

" Wait a minute."

What was I doing when I said to the technician, "Wait a minute. Stop." I was pausing the on-going situation, making a pause in which I could let my bodily felt sense of the whole situation form. If I had simply responded as expected and said, "Yes doctor," then the situation would have carried forward, but only from within the routine pattern. By pausing the routine, I am able to form a sense of the whole, entire situation, not just behave from within the expected pattern. It was a quite complex situation, and I needed to have all of it functioning so that I could make good choices.

Notice this odd phrasing–"I stopped the situation so I could get a sense of the situation." What does this mean? And why was I able to do this? It is because I deeply know something here– That it is one of my deepest rights as a human being to free myself from any situation so I can form my sense of it. This is the kind of knowing that is a good start for a Thinking at the Edge (TAE) process. There is something I know which I can not yet say in any expanded way. A first sentence is: When a person can pause and go inside and say "what is my sense of this situation," that is the thing that makes one less vulnerable to oppression.

We can go to A Process Model, in which the generative power of pausing is philosophically derived. At least three levels of "feeling" are defined: feelings-in-behavior, culturally slotted emotions, a felt sense.

Emotions are instinct and culture bound.

Any action (and, in animals, any behavior) involves feeling, but not as a separate sequence. Any action or interaction is a carrying forward of the body and so we feel our actions. I call such feelings the "in-behavior" or "in-action" type. A Process Model

Animals as well as humans have on-going sentient experience of themselves in their environments, which includes their particular histories (e.g. knowing where the food is, liking to curl up next to their favorite human when he sits on the coach, knowing exactly how he likes it–not to climb on his lap but to sit with just the paws on his lap.) But they do not make an inner datum of this on-going sentience, as such. In addition to this sentience, animals also have a kind of "emotion." If the cat is peacefully lying in the sun, comfortable in its known environment and a dog or strange cat suddenly enters the door, this wider sentience dramatically narrows. The tail puffs and attention is narrowed upon just that event. Everything else disappears. In animals "emotions" are part of "fixed action patterns." Fixed action patterns are studied in a branch of animal psychology called Ethology. Ethologists say that behavior is "built into" the body.

In animals an emotion is a behavior in response to an immediate situation, not an internal entity. The cat does not puff its tail by thinking about a situation or because he sees a picture of another cat. His tail only puffs when the strange cat is present. Emotions are present in behavior. If animals could make an inner datum out of fixed action patterns they would have emotions as we do. If they could made an inner datum out of the whole on-going sentience of the situation in which the other cat appeared, they would be able to have a felt sense.

In contrast to animals, humans can have both emotions and a felt sense as an inner datum, without the situation being literally present. The basic sensing of our sentient tissue process and behavior becomes an inner datum through a process called "versioning." Versioning happens when there is a pausing of behavior. In the pause we get a version of the whole situation. We "have," "feel," the whole situation, because it is on-going in our body, but without the kind of change that the usual next behavior would make. The usual behaving changes the situation. When the usual behavior is paused, we get a symbolic or patterned version of the situation. Symbolic means a "doubled" kind of behavior sequence. A behavior makes a difference in both the literal physical situation and in a non-literal situation. For example, when you are asked to vote by show of hands in a crowded room, then the behavior of raising your arm is both voting and it is also being careful not to hit the person next to you as you raise your arm. Both are changes in the situation, but not in the same way. The change that voting makes is not visible here now behaviorally. The "voting" arm raising is not behavior in the physical situation. You don't affect the situation with your arm, as you would by hitting someone. One sequence is both symbolic and literal. It is doubled.

Such "doubled" or symbolic sequences are culturally elaborated in humans. We might say that emotions in humans are culturally elaborated fixed action patterns. Emotions arise at certain cultural junctures, when particular behavior sequences and expectations occur. For example, in a culture in which disrespect is shown in certain ways, the emotion of anger arises if that behavior occurs. Or if status is conferred by certain accomplishments then pride or shame occur around acquiring or failing in these accomplishments. Our bodily living consists of situations or "stories," and at specific junctures within the stories we feel certain emotions. Culture is the known routine actions and feelings which a situation consists of. Culture belongs "to all of us within the community." Every culture offers a number of different ways one can respond and feel in a situation, but each of these ways would be recognized by other members of the culture as familiar. If people don't feel and respond in the expected way, culture is said to break down. When X situation occurs we are supposed to feel Y emotion and something is strange about us if we don't. We are not supposed to be able to individually version culture further.

The capacity to have a symbolic or patterned sequence allows the formation of language and with language comes the capacity to have "kinds". For humans there is such a thing as "a tree" not just this tree which is shading us from the burning sun right now. Proto humans could make a "tool" on the spot to kill this deer for food, but they could not think about the next hunt and take the tool with them. Culture is "kinds" or patterns of interaction.

Situations are kinds (they are "kinded"), created by versioning, that is to say as instances of a collected context. A human is a mother, a son, a ruler, a peasant, a man.

The first kinds are "archetypes," original kinds, types of interaction contexts. In these the people acquire role-identities, not as single individuals but in context with each other. And, of course, these are structures of interactions with each other, that is to say they are situational structures: the ways a husband acts in relation to a wife, a younger person toward an elder, a wife's brother to a husband, etc. A Process Model, pg. 210.

A felt sense is a bodily sense of how the whole wider situation is for us.

A felt sense develops after language and culture and emotions. All individuals have many strands of experience which could be differentiated and which do not fit the cultural patterns. But to allow the whole of this on-going experience to form as a bodily felt sense one has to pause the cultural story. This is still somewhat new for most people.

The reason the distinction between an emotion and a felt sense is so important is that when one can form a felt sense of the whole situation, new possibilities for carrying forward are implicit that do not exist from within the usual cultural-emotion sequences.

Culture was a huge development, but when people are grouped into "kinds" it brings the potential for a new level of violence. On the other hand, when people differentiate their felt sense of some situation, they create a field of new distinctions that are at a different level than the general or cultural categories. Hearing someone speak from this felt sense level, one has a different felt response than when responding to ideological, normative or cultural categories. As focusers listening to someone speak from a felt sense we often don't even perceive "a husband" or "an Irishman". We feel this particular human being here– this Being right this minute who looks out at us from inside–who is not exactly equated with any particular content because there is always a "for further" going on. When we hear someone from their intricacy, we don't feel like killing or hurting them. We spontaneously feel a deep connection and a valuing of the person. This connection is the basis of conflict mediation that we know about. We have something to contribute to peace.

The usual, culturally patterned interactions would not continue on their regular way if one of the participants failed to have the "slotted" feeling. If you do not feel respect for the saint, chagrin when called to order by the authorities, pleased when given a gift, (and so on,) the culturally structured interactions would then fail to work, to continue as usual. A Process Model

We know how to help people "not continue on their regular way" and yet respect the cultural and other differences between people. Here is a recent example from our discussion list. Yasmine has expressed something many of us feel – that the forms of our culture or religion do not quite work for us. Rob suggests how we can use Focusing to shift from the level of culturally prescribed outer forms to an experiential intricacy and differentiation that may let the forms work again for us and actually be carried further. Notice the pausing and waiting and body sensing.

Focusing can carry forward cultural forms into experiential intricacy

Dialogue from the Focusing Institute International Discussion List

Yasmine: I am interested in being a "Moslem Focuser." I am attending the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca next week (3 million Moslems gather there for about 7 days in what is supposed to be a deeply spiritual experience) and it would really be great to incorporate Focusing. I know this is probably a personal thing, but any suggestions are welcome.

Rob Foxcroft is a Focusing Trainer from Scotland. He can be reached at rob@werewolf.ws

Rob: What is Focusing about, you say?

When you go on Hajj, will you not be stopping (often): actively sensing into your body, to see how the journey is carrying you?

Before you go, will you not be listening within your self for everything which comes between you and being at peace with life, and with all sentient beings?

When you put on the simple clothes which the dead wear, will you not feel in your body something of your own fears and uncertainties about death and mortality?

When you take off your usual clothes, you put on the same simple dress as everybody else is wearing. Will you not be noticing how the radical equality of all believers affects your heart?

When you leave your ordinary life behind, will you not want to notice freshly what this experience of simplicity is teaching you?

During the several days, will you not be asking something like, "What are my true values?" - and waiting (without prejudgment) for the heart to respond?

Will you not be sensing in your body some feeling of the history and tradition, of which these places are the embodiment?

Will you not be sensing something of the meaning of sacrifice? of the meaning of ritual actions? of the meaning of home?

I imagine that at every point, you will need time.... Not just to stop and feel a sense of meaning: but to let steps come from that sense of meaning.... You will, I feel sure, be making a space into which new understandings can emerge. . . .

So you will need time. Time to be quiet and alone. Time to let go of the known (the defined thought). Time to be quiet with the unknown (that which is not yet formed, and can only, obscurely, be felt)?

When you return, may you not find in your body (five times a day), a new feeling of meaning and significance, as you face towards the Kaaba?

I imagine that in the context of the Hajj, Focusing may look something like what I have tried to describe. You will have to see for yourself.

Yasmine: What you have written has touched me and my husband in a profound and beautiful way. You gave new spiritual dimension to a ritual that had become indoctrinated in narrow interpretations. Many Moslems are seeking a more tolerant and universal interpretation of Islamic dogma. As I write this my thirteen years old son is asking me if I have a problem with Islam because he has a problem with many of the things he reads or is being taught at school. It requires tremendous courage to reexamine traditional values and beliefs that have been passed down to us; it takes special courage at times like these to talk about love and tolerance, when many Moslems feel a need for blind loyalty because of the many discriminating, hateful and racial attacks. Thank you again Rob. We pray for peace and love for all mankind.

The felt sense level implies a new ethics.

Emotions are a narrowing of the body sentience of the whole situation. They prevent us from being aware of the whole situation. We all know the injunction when we are angry to "count to ten" before acting. This is because we are likely to ignore many aspects of the situation while we are angry and say things we will later wish we had not said. This is the popular understanding that emotions narrow our sense of the whole situation. Because it is part of the cultural pattern itself, feeling an emotion cannot change the pattern which gives rise to it. If we feel anger at an insult made to us in public and yell back, we may alter the situation by our yelling, but we do not alter the pattern that engenders the yelling in us. If the same insult in public occurs again, we again are enraged at it. Emotion is a huge change in our bodies and may also change the situation, but it is not a change in the pattern. Rather it is a change in us and in our behavior which the pattern itself prescribes.

As our practice of Focusing deepens, we make this discrimination more and more between what is an emotional, culturally determined response and what is from the wider sensing of the whole from which a right next step may come. We become reluctant to act in relation to another person from the cultural level if it would violate the particularness of "this person in there."

The Rawandan genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed in 8 days, was carefully and methodically prepared some years in advance by a systematic campaign defining people in groups and assigning emotions to identify groups.

Each time we help someone find the capacity to pause and form a felt sense we increase the ability to think for oneself, and to not be emotionally manipulated by ideologies and rhetoric like "the Axis of Evil."

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