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Grass Roots Globalization: Creating Free, Self-organizing Spaces in the Social Body

Keynote address given at the 17th annual Focusing Conference, Toronto, Canada, May 2005

by Mary Hendricks, Ph.D.

Mary Hendricks, 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 not just subjective

Ways to bring Focusing into Social Change Organizations

Here is an example:Teachable Focusing Moments

Focusing Articulates Implicit Intricacy and New possibilities

Approaching the Gap From the Structure Side

A Fresh Understanding of the Bigger picture: Interhuman Attention as the new “product.”

The Free Spaces that TFI creates in social structure

Present Day “Worker’s” Education

We are working on the gap between an individual person doing Focusing and how that gets across to impact institutions. As I talk, perhaps you can have in mind some social structure which you are part of – the parent’s organization at your child’s school, a social work agency, your church or synagogue, a classroom, a jail, a hospital. You could try to sense how you might bring any of the Focusing steps I name, or others, into that situation.

I’m going to approach the question of Focusing and Political Action from two angles: one experiential and one structural. By structural I mean the economic, civil and political systems which organize our living. Many people are now working on how inner processes like meditation, rituals, intuition might impact on the larger structures. We are part of that development when we articulate how Focusing can cross the gap and affect these structures. During the year we have been engaged in some experiments and have made a little progress in filling in the gap.

Focusing is not just subjective

First from the Focusing process side: To consider Focusing as an introverted internal process which is “just subjective” is philosophically wrong and is a way of discouraging us from understanding Focusing as a political force. It is to deny that our bodies ARE linguistic, situational, and interactive to begin with. Our felt sense is OF our lived situations. It is my bodily sense of how all of “this” situation is for me now. When my felt sense opens up I say, “Oh that is what this situation is for me.” It often implies steps of action in my situations.

When I speak from or act from my felt sense some politically important things happen: When asked to take a political action, or to carry out a treatment plan with clients, or grade student papers or join a movement, as a Focuser we can do the following:

In these ways our experience and interaction with others is not just regulated by external authorities, bureaucracies, majority vote, cultural norms. We are less able to be emotionally manipulated and are less likely to engage in inflammatory rhetoric.

Klaus and Johannes from Germany came last week to visit with nine of their Focusing colleagues and students One man told us, “I was doing political action for 20 years until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Later when I discovered Focusing I realized that I had been totally disconnected inside. I had sort of tossed myself into action.” When we do the steps above we can act politically from an inwardly connected place instead of losing the felt sense.

Here is an example where following these steps led to a change in an institutional structure. Many years ago, when I was hired on the Core Faculty at ISPP, I wanted to teach Listening and Focusing and suggested that it be a required course for all first year students. This request was granted. I should have felt good. But I had an uncomfortable body sense. When I focused on it I felt that it was not possible to ask students for such a degree of personal vulnerability and still meet the school’s requirement that I give grades. So I tried to sense what I could do. The step that came was to agree with the students that everyone would receive a B grade just for coming to class, regardless of how well they learned these processes. Meanwhile I made my case to the administration and was able, after several semesters, to get the course to be offered on a Pass/Fail system. This made a tiny free space at the school.

My point is that when a situation is structured for you and you focus to see whether it fits for you this is already a political act. By staying connected to your felt sense of the situation you behave differently in it. And further if you are in a position to change the structure, even just for yourself, or for others too, this is a further political act. Your so called “inner process” of Focusing leads you to behave differently and may reach or make changes in structures.

So far I have talked about how an individual Focusing even silently or speaking and acting from a felt sense in a situation, is a political act itself. Now I want to look at how we can help the leaders and participants in social change organizations to Focus during their meetings.

Here are aspects of a model that are emerging:

Ways to bring Focusing into Social Change Organizations

Teachable Focusing Moments
  • Set up safe space for yourself in the group by asking for a listener
  • Model Focusing and Name each step as you do it

Coach the Organization’s facilitator

  • Demonstrate by Focusing yourself as you talk with her and name each of your Focusing steps as you do them.
  • Help her focus on what she wants to happen in the group and name her Focusing as she does it.

Introduce CHANGES model

  • Structured from the bottom up –participants generate their own topics from what is live for them, rather than being structured by the facilitator
  • We don’t have to all agree-- no majority vote or consensus or committee decides what we do.
  • Any participant can invite others to join in a break out group

“Spot the Focuser” (Mary Jennings)

  • Notice who is “close” to Focusing
  • Help that person Focus
  • Name that they have just Focused

Document exactly what you did and what happened, so we can build models


Here is an example:Teachable Focusing Moments

TFI has a team—Ruth and Rosa are both here-- working on how to bring Focusing and TAE into social change groups. We have been collaborating with Foundation for Ethics and Meaning (FEM) whose mission is to bring inner processes into political activism. This collaboration is a laboratory to develop a model. We would like to offer a Focusing break out groups service for conferences and organizations.

Since we are participants in FEM, not official facilitators, we could not just directly teach Focusing. At an early meeting we tried in a formal way listening to each person who spoke. This failed. People felt it was artificial and superficial. So we developed a plan to create and name “teachable Focusing moments.” A teachable moment is when you create conditions for the Focusing process to happen right now and then name it, or, if someone has just Focused spontaneously you can point to it and name it.

At a recent meeting their facilitator lead us in an exercise: She said: How we are in groups is likely to be a transference repetition of how we were in our original family. We are going to break into small groups and discuss what role each of us is playing in Groups?” Although this was an attempt to see how an inner process affects us at a social level, the content was being structured from the outside. Also, we were not being helped to find the body sense and how to speak from it.

This was an opportunity to create a teachable focusing moment in the small group. I modeled our way of making a safe space by asking for a listener for me and showed how, because I had a safe space, I could go in my body and get a felt sense of the situation and task. So, I set up the conditions so I could focus, then I modeled Focusing and named each step out loud as I did it.

This is how it went:

Back in large group there was another teachable moment. Instead of reporting my answer to the question we were given, I could name the Focusing response I made to the external structure and explain that by altering the situation to create a safe space and therefore being able to check in my body how it was for me, I did not just do what I was told when I sensed that there would be some violence to me and perhaps to others. We usually want to cooperate with the leader, but this can be a way we oppress ourselves, if we don’t know to check inside. Focusing can often create a new way to participate that does feel comfortable in the body and which may free others to speak from a more fresh place. It can deepen the whole group process and connect people to each other.

In each meeting the three or four of us on the Focusing team find teachable moments – we reiterate the basic focusing points by modeling and naming them in the moment.

Through coaching FEM’s own facilitator and by modeling Focusing so that we are trying to speak from a felt sense, we have achieved some changes in the structure.

Many participants have commented on how good and how different they feel in this group.

Our team has been documenting each kind of teachable moment. A model is emerging which we can take to other social change organizations to further develop.

I’m sure many of you are also doing things like this. If not, you could try making and naming teachable Focusing moments when you get home in whatever your social structures are. It takes some courage and it helps to have another focuser there. Even as experienced Focusers we often have to focus in the group on how hard it is for us to feel sate and stay connected to a felt sense. I’m thinking of Ruth at the last FEM meeting. She asked me to be her listener in the large group and needed to articulate how painful the first part of the meeting had been and how hard it was to stay connected in her body and not just “leave” psychically. Once she got this articulate she was fully present and beautifully able to acknowledge what each of the prior speakers had shared. If you try this out in your own institutional setting, please let us know what happens so you are part of building models.

Focusing Articulates Implicit Intricacy and New possibilities

Another political relevance of Focusing is that it articulates a field of intricacy so that new possibilities emerge, which did not exist before. Instead of having only the limited pre-existing options and force fitting the particular situation into one of them Focusing helps us to a new and creative specificity.
I got the following note several weeks ago from Mark Marvald, one of our FOTs.

I use focusing on a daily basis and so I have come to trust those who use it too. My mother (age 79) lost her husband of 59 years (my dad) and has been going through a terrible depression. Although she deplores anything medical like anti-depressants, she is now sort of open to taking them and asked me for the name of a psychiatrist in her area. …I am asking you at the Focusing Institute for a referral….a Psychiatrist who does focusing would be THE BEST referral. Hey, even an MD doctor who does focusing would be a great referral. I guess it is that I trust that someone who knows Focusing would have more of a skill for the listening that I would want for her to have –someone who would be able to “not know” so that he or she could come to know my mother.

In any area, whether with lawyers, or clerks, or doctors, most of us, given equal specialized knowledge, would prefer a professional who knows Focusing. Why? Because where standardized procedures exist,(and we would not want to be without them)individuals are often considered to be merely instances of a category in that system or bureaucracy. A psychiatrist who knows Focusing would exactly WANT Mark’s mom to differentiate her own felt sense of her situation. She will articulate a whole lot of experiential intricacy (after all she is the one who is living the situation). The doctor will hear things from her that may completely change an initial impression based on the standard check list and the silenced patient. Out of their real interaction, specific steps will come that fit Mark’s mother more exactly and which will therefore be more successful.

We would be more effective if Focusing were included in all training work in human (and animal) areas. All of us deal with some institutional structures, whether they be mental health agencies, schools, churches, synagogues. We can offer these “articulating intricacy” spaces to patients, colleagues, children in these structures and ask for that space for ourselves in our functions there. Articulating specificity is a major contribution we can directly make in any interaction and social institution we participate in.

Approaching the Gap From the Structure Side:

So far I have talked about ways in which Focusing is not just subjective but is already a political act which changes interactions and structures. But now let’s come at the gap from the structural side.

Part of the problem with existing forms of societal organization is that there is no place in them for this intricacy articulating process. The infrastructure and procedures of Civil, economic and political life ignore the human situation. Although many of these structures evolved to feed, care for and protect people, their very constitution requires them to ignore the human information which would let them achieve their official goal. They are top down structures that have no way to take account of human complexity. There are many socially concerned people in all larger structures, and there are increasing attempts to think how to alleviate problems at a global level. Some creative processes are being incorporated into parts of these structures, like scenario planning, stress reduction, listening.

Occasionally a project stumbles upon someone in a key position to articulate implicit knowledge and then it is more successful. Here is an example: The World Bank and Exxon Corporation undertook to build a 1,000 kilometer oil pipeline across the African nation of Chad. The NGOs objected and Exxon hired an anthropologist who had lived there for 30 years and was a free lance consultant to the NGOs. Ellen Brown knew everybody and knew all of the situations. She put together a team of sixty people to work for her, did a detailed baseline study of the development area and calculated the likely disruption as a result of the oil project. Then she went to work on every issue posed by the NGOs. Here is one example:

Exxon’s first instinct had been to dig its gravel out of a quarry which seemed like a reasonable way to get it, but Ellen Brown proposed a different route. By local tradition, widowed mothers earned their living by sifting gravel from the local rivers, so Exxon bought from them instead of quarrying it, boosting the income of a disadvantaged local group…on issue after issue Ellen Brown challenged the oil company’s usual way of doing business. And the company was usually prepared to listen.

Ellen Brown knew how to articulate the needed human/situational specificity from her lived knowledge of the particular situation. For every problem posed, she found new possibilities which had not existed before. Her solutions and action steps were totally outside the usual kind of top down standard procedures. Focusing as intricacy articulating can modify and shape global structures to take account of the human situations. We have something to offer. We can help find and support Ellen Browns. We know how to teach people in key positions how to articulate the human intricacy and the importance of doing it. We have a needed skill.

A Fresh Understanding of the Bigger picture: Interhuman Attention as the new “product.”

We need a fresh understanding of the structural level and where inner processes like Focusing fit in. Many of us care passionately about our world and at one time have been politically active. But we have become discouraged. What is going on seems too big and out of our reach. I’d like to share with you some of Gene’s thinking about the larger level.

As we know, in agricultural society the local farmers made almost everything they needed and consumed what they made. Trade was minor. There were just a few things people could not get. Almost everyone produced what they consumed With the development of machines, agriculture no longer required everyone’s labor. 5% of the people could produce the food and necessities for everyone. Gradually everyone else went into the developing towns and worked in industry. We had the Industrial revolutions.

The embodiment of the Industrial exchange economy is money. When you want to exchange a dress for bread, you need coupons to make an exchange possible. One dress would be worth 100 loafs of bread. Obviously the dress maker does not want 100 loafs of bread. So everything needs to be measured in units. The new structures grew in the towns. Because each Duke wanted the products being produced and shipped, he gave a town a charter of rights. It had its own organization, money, guilds. If a serf escaped to the town, he was free. These were new social structures developing. In order to have trade, one needed to be able to write a receipt for goods in Venice that was recognized in Belgium.

This development to an industrial economy took about 300 years during which both the new institutions and the old agrarian structures existed together. The new industrial developments were often constrained in the old land holding structures. E.g. to get your manufactured product from the port city to Paris, you had to pay 14 tolls to land owners. But even though there was this constraint, the old organization of land owners and peasants was no longer actually functional. It was hollow and eventually the industrial organization also took over agriculture.

We are again at this kind of juncture. Like agriculture before, Industrial production is done by a decreasing percent of people. People are variously discussing the next stage as “the support economy” , “the knowledge economy.” Gene would like to call the new “product” interhuman attention. The new structures involve managing people through interhuman attention. The people running the existing structures are no longer producing anything. Their job is people, emails and memos. The old structure still constrains us, but is becoming hollow. Gene likes to use the example of rush hour in all the cities of the world. We still all sit stalled in rush hour traffic along with everyone else when there is actually no longer a need for us to all get to a physical location at the same time. Most of us sitting on the expressway at 9am or 5pm don’t work in a factory where we have to show up physically at a common time to take our place on the conveyor belt. Our old social structures are industrial structures in which everyone has to agree to the same top down plan. We could as well send our emails from home, schedule our clients for off peak hours, plan strategy and make decisions by teleconference.

Analogous to the 300 years of shifting from agriculture to Industry we are in a period of co-existence of old and new structures. Here perhaps is another example. Reebok corporation runs sweat shops in Indonesia. The women do not earn a wage they can live on while Reebok profits to shareholders and CEOs continue to go up. And every year Reebok gives $100,000 in Human Rights awards and spends thousands for a gala ceremony. How do these two aspects co-exist? We can say it is a deliberate public relations strategy, but whatever the motivation, there is no Ellen Brown to deal with the human complexity involved, which would be considerable.

As FOTs or Focusing teachers, we still reduce our process to time units and sell our kind of interhuman attention by the hour. We have to do this because we are still in the money system. But it can help us to know that these are the old structures, not what is newly being created. We all know there is no price on Focusing; it is someone’s own life process and relating. Interhuman Attention and Intricacy Articulating will lead to new social, civil and political forms of organization, no longer controlled by the money and exchangeable units structures. And we are teachers of this new process which will increasingly be needed everywhere and is already being welcomed in many of the existing structures, because it is in fact needed. They are coming to us to learn how to manage people, because that is now what they are really doing.

The Internet has almost broken out of the money structure. You have to be wealthy enough to buy a computer and an on line service, or at least live in a country that has basic infrastructure and internet cafes, but beyond that the world wide web is a space unregulated from the top down and not controlled by money. For example, you can belong to Move On by going to their website. We could say that the free things are very important to look at, as part of the new forms trying to come into being.

The Free Spaces that TFI creates in social structure:

Several weeks ago an 80 year old client of mine gave me a CD of the Dalai Lama chanting for Healing. The cover says, "The Dalai Lama has requested this CD be copied and distributed freely. It is used for all types of healing." This is a new structure.

Its importance has to do with it not requiring money to access healing. This is a grass roots process! The spread of healing is not controlled from the top down. Each person who copies and gives it to a friend does so at their own expense, so cost is distributed. There is no central list of who is distributing it and to whom it is being given. Each person decides whether they want to copy it and to whom they want to give it. The distribution can’t be stopped because it is outside the official structures. It is not subject to tax and business regulations because it is not being sold. It is a technological product and you have to have a CD player to listen to it.

When a space is created which doesn’t require money in order to participate, something new may be happening -- people have a voice who don’t otherwise, people can connect with each other around what directly matters to them to make some kind of parallel infrastructure. These efforts are fledgling and fragile but they are growing in scope. We need to treasure them.

Focusing is partly constrained in the money structure. A lot of our people aren’t here today because they didn’t have the money to come. Part of why we have trouble getting Focusing out into the world is because we lack sufficient money.

On the other hand, TFI and the Focusing community offer many “free” entry portals and ways to come together and participate in our interhuman attention and intricacy articulating. At each one of these points we are creating the new social forms.

A few weeks ago Kevin McEvenue sent a post to the Coordinators discussion list, which beautifully stated this point.

The resources of material found on our website now are just what will be needed for those coming after us. I feel so grateful for those who had the vision to create this resource. I know this is something I couldn't have done on my own.

Something needs to be said and owned, especially by me. I felt a shift in me some time ago from 'what can the Institute do for me' to 'what a wonderful gift I have in Focusing, it has changed my life and now I am living a truly inner directed life. That sense of natural gratitude that comes in me has shifted the way I think about the Institute. Being involved with organizing the Presentations for the Conference I can't help appreciate the wealth of material evolving out of how Focusing is growing in so many vital ways and I feel I am a part of that.

Many people are working with us to make all of this happen. I especially want to acknowledge Renee La Roi from Canada, as one of our newest volunteers. It takes her 3 – 6 hours for each new article she puts up on the website.

I hope I have conveyed that we are in midst of something new and any ground we gain counts.

Present Day “Worker’s” Education

On a more personal note, I have a wish that we would explicitly “talk politics” together. I think it can feel frightening. I wonder if we would be able to speak from a felt sense and stay connected inside? Would our prizing of our diversity hold ? Could we bear the anxiety and grief that staying conscious of what is going on in the world brings? I would like to learn from one of our members who is a human rights activist from a developing country, from Pat in Afghanistan, from Edgardo who lived through the repression in Chile, from Suzanna who works in the barrios of Argentina, from Elena who is part of the middle class which is being destroyed in Argentina. I don’t think this is so easy to do. Elena and I have a deep and caring connection. Last night we were having a conversation about the economic situation in Argentina. She said something that indicated she didn’t like the policies of Chavez in Venezuela. I felt, “Oh no. What if we don’t agree about that? As far as I understand, the CIA is about to murder him because they were not able to bring down his government by fomenting trouble internally. He keeps the oil money in his country.” Will we lose our connection? But perhaps we could participate in and help to create today’s equivalent of “workers education” for ourselves so that we are aware of what is happening and can see the new world development to which we can contribute a vital dimension?

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