I get a lot of questions from new and potential clients who are interested in exploring Focusing as a healing modality. Here, I'll explain my perspective on Focusing and my own unique application of it within my clinical practice.
Sometimes when people ask me to explain how Focusing works, I use the metaphor of a haunted house. Most of our psyches are like haunted houses: the basement is dark and scary, there are rooms in disarray, there are ghosts and skeletons in closets. We avoid going in certain places of the house because we are scared, or we don't even like to be in our house at all! Focusing is like shining a gentle light on the parts of our houses we fear, and illuminating all the rooms we may not even be aware of, which contain much wisdom and insight to support us. The shadowy parts of ourselves can reach out for the light. The haunted house of the psyche becomes a lighter and safer space, where we can feel free and at peace, find love, and thrive.
Focusing is a simple self-integration tool that anyone can learn to use. It involves holding an open, non-judgmental attention to an internal knowing which is directly experienced but is not yet conscious. Think of it as spending time with a feeling that you can’t quite identify or put into words just yet. Focusing can, among other things, be used to help one become clear on what one feels or wants, to obtain new insights about one's situation, and to stimulate change or healing (Cornell & McGavin, 2008). Focusing utilizes the felt sense of the client to direct inner explorations into sensations that inform other feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs on a not-yet-conscious level. Creating presence for these "parts" allows them to emerge into one's consciousness.
There are 3 components of Focusing that help to explain how the process works:
1) Sometimes, by simply tuning into the breath, grounding your energy into the Earth, and naming the physical and/or emotional felt sensations, the spell of those negative sensations or mood is broken. It’s a simple practice but it takes just that—practice. You have to learn to listen to yourself. As Freud said, “The mind lies, the body always tells the truth.” When we validate the parts of ourselves that want attention, much like a small child that’s acting out, the parts feel seen and supported, and any accompanying felt sensations such as tension or anxiety relax.
2) By strengthening your inner witness—the part of yourself that exists in nonjudgmental observation (yes, I promise it’s in there!), you are able to watch how you respond to life with a helpful distance, rather than living in an unconscious reactive state. You can see how and where parts of yourself get activated, and you can give yourself the choice of how to respond. It is only when we merge with our emotions and beliefs e.g., “I am crazy” or “I’ll never be happy” or “I’ll always be alone” that we feel suffering. Cultivating the inner witness allows us to be aware of our different parts and energies, and to hold them in neutrality. Thus, whatever comes up around and within us is much more tolerable, and we are able to meet whatever is with higher awareness
3) Focusing cultivates presence and acceptance, gateways to expanded consciousness and higher frequency states. While most of us have learned to exist in the past and future, being here and now creates true connection with ourselves, with each other, and our world. It is not possible to truly connect with anyone or anything unless you are in presence, which is why so many feel lonely and isolated: not being in presence creates separation. Enhanced acceptance provides the ability to move in flow with life. When we are in non-acceptance we are in resistance with life, and stuck. Negative presentations of non-acceptance can look like over-attachment to beliefs about how one “should be,” or resistance to reality because it is too painful. It can seem counterintuitive to allow space and for uncomfortable sensations, but being present with discomfort creates acceptance—and liberation.
A Brief History of Focusing
In the 1950s, Eugene Gendlin was conducting research around the effectiveness of psychotherapy at the University of Chicago within his PhD program. He determined that an internal bodily awareness, or “felt sense,” led to therapeutic success. Gendlin later studied under and collaborated with Carl Rogers, who founded a humanistic, client-guided approach to psychology. In their work together, Gendlin and Rogers found that deep and lasting change depended upon the client’s ability to validate their own internal felt sense. And in a departure from traditional psychotherapy of the time, they found that this process occurred outside the verbal domain and could be self-taught. Focusing emerged as a clinically sound therapy, and supported a somatic (i.e. engaging the whole self beyond the mind), autodidactic approach to psychotherapy.
In the 1970s, Ann Weiser Cornell was studying under Gendlin while working on her PhD in linguistics. Incorporating her linguistic background, Weiser Cornell collaborated with Gendlin and expanded Focusing to include the guiding process (where a client works with a trained practitioner to explore felt senses), the concept of the inner witness, and the idea of radical acceptance. (Yes, Tara Brach is a fan J.)
Today, Focusing Resources offers trainings both remotely and via workshops all over the world.
Beyond Talk Therapy
Psychotherapy is a useful tool that can bring about much change. Verbal processing is a vital part of the therapeutic process. However, I feel that many of us are being asked to go beyond the level of words to heal. This is something Eugene Gendlin corroborated in evidence-based clinical research in the 1960s. In my experience, there is much healing beyond the mental, intellectual level. Furthermore, talking too much about stories/your issues/problems only strengthens your attachments to them if you're not properly moving the energy around. On a vibrational level, consider that like attracts like. Many times we can actually reinforce what we don't want due to unconscious programming. (A program is a set of thoughts, emotions, or behaviors organized around a belief system one assumes to be true, but is actually highly subjective. For instance, if I want to earn more money but believe that making money means I’m selfish, guess what will be unconsciously thwarting my ability to generate abundance?)
Frequently, the less-conscious parts and energies within us control our experience: how we feel, how we function physiologically, what we think, how we behave, how we relate to others, and, most importantly, what we believe. We come into the world with a karmic curriculum, the lessons we’re here to learn (your spiritual team plays a role in this; I’ll share more about that in a minute). As our ego develops, our wounding is imprinted on it, in large part, via our beliefs. Assessing and addressing the underlying belief systems we hold is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful tools we have for our healing. Getting to the root of what we believe can unlock some of the most profound change imaginable.
We are complex, multidimensional beings, who exist far beyond the levels of our egoic, mental minds. There is much in our world we cannot control or even know—and yet we strain to define everything with words, believing that “knowing” is the answer to our suffering. Focusing is one way to develop a more complex and holistic relationship to ourselves and our environment by incorporating our feelings and all the nonmental resources into our awareness. Better yet, Focusing allows space for the not-knowing—and all the acceptance and presence that exists in that state.
How Focusing Works
Of all the modalities I study and practice, I always find myself coming back to Focusing. It's simple and non-dogmatic, and it allows people to help themselves. All that’s required is commitment and a bit of practice. Focusing echoes many of the tenets of Eastern Philosophies, which are connected to much ancient wisdom.
The process works as follows: after being guided into a relaxed, meditative state, a client is invited to simply notice any felt sensations within the body. By opening to the felt senses, one is immediately transported out of the mental body, connecting with a deeper knowing beyond the level of the mind. A client might then notice a tightening around the chest. As we begin to spend time with that sensation, the client confirms that the tightness connects to feeling vulnerable, and that perhaps this feeling of constriction helps her feel safe—it keeps her heart protected. She recalls an image of herself as a young girl, feeling scared and alone after learning her parents will be getting divorced. And so, by spending time with felt senses–and holding them with compassion and without judgement—images and memories arise, and the client uncovers helpful aspects of her wounding and programming that directly relate to her physical, mental, and emotional experience in the present.
Focusing doesn’t always center on energies that are having a hard time. Sometimes, we tap into highly positive and pleasant parts, such as protection, love, joy, compassion, and angelic guidance. We connect with those parts of us that are just waiting to come out into the light and share their gifts and wisdom.
My Focusing Training & Approach
In 2007, my brother passed away unexpectedly. During this time, I observed an uptick in supernatural phenomena in my everyday experience, which led me to find support outside of mainstream western therapy models. I found my spiritual teacher, Jane Bell, who is a certified Focusing trainer and who had previously co-led classes with Ann Weiser-Cornell.
In our seven years of work together Jane guided me in weekly Focusing sessions. She helped me strengthen my inner witness, which gave me the ability to identify those parts and energies within myself that need help. Soon, I began to work towards a more compassionate and loving relationship with myself.
In addition to my work with Jane, I have completed the Focusing Institute’s four levels of training, studied with Focusing Trainer, Nina Joy Lawrence, and applied Focusing in both an academic and clinical settings.
There are many paths to consciousness. Each of us will take a different route, and there are many tools and modalties we can use along the way. For me, Focusing has been an essential tool, and it’s one of the modalities that I'm here to share. The people who generally benefit most from my approach have a bent towards the spiritual and metaphysical—those with a heightened awareness of all the invisible energies in our world—and those who are seeking deeper change that goes beyond the level of behavior and symptom. Our journey is about soul-level growth, healing, and transformation.
· Focusing (1978)
· Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams (1986)
· Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy (1996)
· The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to Emotional Self-Healing. New Harbinger Publications, 1996.
· The Focusing Student's and Companion's Manual, Parts One and Two. Calluna Press, 2002. (with Barbara McGavin)
· The Radical Acceptance of Everything: Living a Focusing Life. Calluna Press, 2005. (with Barbara McGavin)
· Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change. W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.