Focusing: An Internal Knowing

Sarah Bell, MA, MTA, RCT-C

Focusing is a type of self-awareness discovered and developed by psychotherapist and philosopher, Eugene Gendlin. His explorations on the subject began in the 1950’s when Gendlin was researching at the University of Chicago as a student of Carl Rogers. Gendlin and his team of researchers were interested in the effectiveness of therapy. They asked questions like: How do we know therapy is working or not? How does it make a difference in people’s lives? He found that successful patients had a shift in perception following an internal process. This process was observed and later developed into what is now known as Focusing, a felt sense (Gendlin, 1981). When your felt sense of a situation changes, you change and therefore, so does your life. A felt sense is not a mental experience but a physical one, a bodily awareness of a situation, person, event, an internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time. This knowledge is encompassed during focussing and communicates the whole to you all at once, rather than detail by detail (Gendlin, 1981, p.37). In addition to this felt sense, Gendlin describes a six-step process: clearing a space, the felt sense, finding a handle, resonating, asking and receiving.

From November 18th to December 2nd 2020, I virtually attended an introductory level Focusing course. It was titled “Focusing for Change Practitioners” and taught by Katherine Long of Focusing UK. In total, the course was eight hours in length, plus a one on one Focusing session with Katherine. The course was experiential in nature. During each course, we spent about 30 minutes going over Gendlin’s work, talking about what resonated with us, or what came up for us throughout the week. The rest of the course was devoted to our experiential learning, where we practiced listening and focusing in pairs. Each week, Katherine slowly brought in new concepts, e.g. pausing, using space/silence, gently repeating back what the focuser had to say. At the end of the sessions, the listener might say “Would you like to talk/make meaning of anything that came up?” and the focuser could choose what felt right in the moment.

In our first session Katherine described the focuser and their internal world as a wave. The listener is hearing/seeing part of their experience. I find the wave metaphor helpful, as it suggests someone is always in motion, and we as listeners are only ever seeing one small portion of what is going on. I found this a good reminder for my own therapy work.

In learning how to facilitate a focusing session, we learned there is a listener and a focuser. The listener invites the focuser to breathe/settle and do a body scan. The focuser does the experience then waits to see what arises. Depending on the focuser’s preference, the listener can repeat what the focuser says, or they can be minimal in responses. If nothing comes up, the focuser might spend some time deep breathing. The listener and focuser agree on an amount of time to spend, and then the listener can gently encourage the focuser to “come back” when there is a minute or so left. The focuser is completely in control, they can say stop at any point and can take a step back. Core values associated with Focusing are gentle curiosity, non-judgement and simply “being with” whatever comes up and seeing what it has to say.

One thing that has resonated with me over the years in my personal and professional practice of focusing is the idea of saying “part of me is feeling this.” For example, if the focuser says “I’m feeling tension and anxiety in my neck” the listener might repeat, “part of you is feeling tension and anxiety in your neck.” The idea of saying “part” is that it lessens the impact and enables the focuser to be with the feeling/sense in a compassionate way. This separation helps us to befriend ourselves and sit with feelings one might find difficult, such as anger, shame and sadness. Instead of judging the feeling, through focusing you learn to curiously ask, ‘part of me is feeling anger, I wonder what else is there….what part of me is feeling this…’

It is also important to note in focussing that we don’t always know what’s coming up for us. We might not be able to name it, but maybe we can feel it. I really resonate with the idea of a felt sense being a pre-articulate, knowing and working with it and seeing what comes up. When we focus our lens on that internal felt sense, are there any words/music/images being used to describe it?

My focusing process has deepened over the years, for example, my inner thoughts changing from “this isn’t working” to “this is making a change, I hear you (negative thoughts), tell me what you have to say.’ Over the years, when I have focusing sessions, I can feel a physical shift in my body. Where there was tension at the beginning of a session, afterwards I often feel a physical release in the body, a lightness, a freedom.

As with any research/methodology, you often have more questions to delve into that come up as you go along. I am curious about focusing with people with dementia and their caregivers. Sometimes memories bring up a fixed narrative around them. Focusing could invite a freshness of perspective, and perhaps could invite people with dementia to have a new/changed narrative around their memories. Such as “What is present, is there something I haven’t noticed/sensed/felt before. How can we treasure and honour/remember people in a present way, instead of our fixed memories or narratives around them?

Lastly as a music therapist I want to discover how focusing as an intervention and way of being could be used with music. I plan to continue my training to become a certified Focusing practitioner. I am excited to be on this journey, especially in a time when things feel perhaps stagnant or stuck.

I will end with this poem I wrote reflecting on the way focusing has helped me to become aware of my internal dialogue. May you too be gentle and kind with yourselves.

Gentle Reminder

be with yourself the way you play piano gentle, spacious, curious
speak aloud the way you play confident, sure, honest

be with yourself the way you play piano

uninhibited free joyful and patient

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Published : November 2, 2022