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Zen And Focusing

by Janet Jiryu Abels, Sensei

"Be with just this."

How many times have we heard those words in Zen teaching? But what do we do if the "just this" that we are being encouraged to "be with" is simply too painful or too overwhelming or too frightening to hold? What then?

How many times have we heard the Buddha’s exhortation to "be a lamp unto yourself"? How many times have we been encouraged in Zen to "trust yourself"?

But what if the "yourself" we’re being asked to trust is vague ("Who is the ‘myself’ I’m supposed to trust?") or too lodged in the mind’s compulsions or too awful? What then?

What to do when the same old feelings of anger, resentment, anxiety, envy, insecurity, failure, unworthiness, and shame keep rising up in zazen and our life, no matter how long we sit? We know we should just "be with" them, but what if this seems an impossible task? What then?

It seems to me that finding a practical answer to these questions is very important if Zen training is to meet people in their stuck and disconnected inner places and bring them to greater wholeness. The alternative is possibly using the mind-discipline tools of Zen to push down unwanted, uncomfortable and unknown feelings to a place where they can be tightly controlled – until their next unexpected and possibly explosive appearance. Zen training encourages us to be with the reality of who we are, not the illusion of who we ought to be.

Zen practitioners, as well as those who follow other forms of depth meditation, are beginning to discover that there exists a simple, natural, practical, and accessible method to help us do this difficult work. It is called Focusing and, I’m very happy to announce that we are beginning to offer it at Still Mind Zendo as an available tool for any practitioners who wish to use it in their work of awakening.

Focusing was first articulated by the psychologist and philosopher Dr. Eugene Gendlin in the 1960s. It is a simple method that helps ordinary people not only to be with their difficult feelings and realize that they are, actually, doorways to inner freedom, but also to begin to access their "body knowing" (as opposed to "head knowing") on an ongoing basis as a primary source for that "trusting of yourself." Here is a quote from the back cover of Dr. Gendlin’s book Focusing (Bantam paperback): "Focusing guides you to the deepest level of awareness within your body. It is on this level, unfamiliar to most people, that unresolved problems actually exist, and only on this level can they change."

Being aware of the felt sense of an unresolved problem and allowing it to change is essential, it seems to me, for the practice of "letting go" that is Zen. As the British psychologist Prof. David Fontana writes: "There are dangers in moving towards self-transcendence without first achieving self-understanding. One needs a strong self in order to have the resources to go beyond it." He also writes, "The Buddha taught that we should look into the self, get to know and understand it fully, recognize its purpose and its function. Certainly we must not mistake it for our ultimate identity, but at the same time we must not misunderstand its richness and its complexity, and also its essential role in helping us to live in this world and relate to others and to our own deeper nature."

Accessing the richness and complexity of the relative self through the doorways of difficult feelings, learning to see that they are not what they seem to be but rather are guides into the truth of our whole self, is the work of Focusing.

I myself came to Zen six months after I had discovered the Focusing process. In those early years of Zen practice, Focusing was indispensable to me in "being with" the myriad feelings that inevitably arose in zazen when I ceased "being busy" for a few moments; the feelings of being overwhelmed, of frustration, anxiety and failure that invariably arise in this practice. In my Focusing times, away from the zazen mat, these feelings, and many others, unfolded and came to be seen as "just myself." Relieved of their burden of "stuckness," judgment, and guilt I could accept them as amazing teachers leading me to a deeper awareness of my "body knowing," showing me how to trust this "knowing" at ever deeper levels and so to trust myself. Another word for "body knowing" is, of course, "experiential knowing," which is the "knowing" of Zen.

Focusing is not Zen, nor is it the only mind-body practice that can assist our explorations of Zen. But because it is so close to the process we follow in zazen, it is exceptionally helpful as a tool to assist us in the ultimate work of Zen, which is the surrender of self.

I feel deeply grateful for having been opened to Dr. Gendlin’s extraordinary teaching by my teachers in Bio-Spiritual Focusing, Drs. Peter Campbell and Edwin McMahon, and for having trained and certified as a teacher of Focusing. Since becoming a Zen teacher I have sometimes shared the process on an individual level with some of the students I see in daisan. Now, in cooperation with Julia McEvoy, an SMZ senior student and a trained Focusing instructor herself, Still Mind Zendo will be offering bi-annual Focusing workshops for any sangha member who wishes to participate.

The Vimalakirti Sutra says: "Reality is perceived through your own body." Indeed.

Sensei Janet Jiryu Abels is the founder and resident teacher at Still Mind Zendo, a Soto-Rinzai Zen community located in the Chelsea district of Manhattan (www.stillmindzendo.org). She has had a private practice as a certified spiritual director since 1988 and received her training as a Focusing teacher in the early 90's at the Institute for Bio-Spiritual Research.

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