What is focusing?
Focusing is a skill that can enable you to find where your life is stuck and to change, to live from a deeper place than just your thoughts and feelings. The process of changing feels good, it’s natural to your body, and it can feel that way in your body. It’s not “getting in touch with feelings”, nor is it meditation. The internal equipment needed to perform focusing is in all of us, but in most it’s simply unused.
Some people learn this inner way quickly, while others need some weeks or months of patient inner listening and tinkering. It’s a process in which you contact a special kind of internal bodily awareness, a felt sense. A felt sense is usually not just there, it needs to form. You must know how to let it form by attending inside your body. When it comes, it’s at first unclear, but it can come into focus and change. A felt sense is your body’s sense of a particular problem or situation, not an emotion. We recognise emotions. We know when we are angry or sad. A felt sense is something you don’t at first recognise, it’s vague. It feels meaningful, but not known. It’s your body’s sense of meaning. Focussing on your felt sense can allow your body to provide its own answers to many of your problems.
Your felt sense is not a mental experience but a physical one, your bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. Think of it as a taste, that doesn’t come to you in the form of thoughts or words or other separate units, but as a single bodily feeling. If you attend to your felt sense it will shift. You need to approach your felt sense by focusing to allow it to form and change. You can feel the change happening in your body, a physical sensation of something moving or shifting. It’s a pleasant sensation: a feeling of something coming unstuck inside, a body shift. The shift may take place specifically in your tummy; it may seem to happen all over the body; it might feel like a loosening in your chest; or relaxation in your throat. It doesn’t happen in your mind, it’s always in some way a physical sensation. You may experience a long sigh of relief, a loosening of some tight facial grimace, or a quick, comfortable relaxing in your posture.
Some counsellors (like me) use focusing as an integrated technique within their practice and there are also specialist focusing practitioners. To give you an idea of what’s involved here’s a step by step guide of how to focus. If you would like to learn more you could read an excellent little book by Eugene T. Gendlin (he developed the approach), Focusing: How to Open Up Your Deeper Feelings and Intuition.
How to focus
It’s a good idea to sit in some location that is at least slightly unfamiliar, so don’t try to focus while sitting at the desk where you work, nor while sitting in your favourite armchair. Sit in another chair, or on the edge of your bed. Or, if you prefer, go out and walk or lean against a tree. Get comfortable and grounded, and mentally relax. It can be helpful to close your eyes.
1. Clearing a space
Do this silently, pay attention inwardly, in your body, perhaps in your stomach or chest, where you usually feel things, see what comes there when you ask, “How is my life going? What is the main thing for me right now?”. Sense within your body. Let the answers come slowly from this sensing, don’t try to list every problem you can think of, but only what’s making you tense now. When some concern comes, do not go inside it! Stand back, say “Yes, that’s there. I can feel that, there.” Let there be a little space between you and that. Then ask what else you feel. Wait again, and sense. Usually, there are several things.
2. Felt sense
From among what came, select one personal problem to focus on. Do not go inside it! Stand back from it. Of course, there are many parts to that one thing you are thinking about, too many to think of each one alone. But you can feel all these things together. Pay attention there, where you usually feel things, and in there you can get a sense of what the whole problem feels like. Let yourself feel the unclear sense of all of that. You will probably begin to encounter a lot of static from your mind: self-lectures, analytic theories, clichés, somehow you must get down past all that noise to the felt sense underneath. Get yourself to shut up and listen, and feel, being patient. What you’re trying to get at is “What does this whole thing feel like?”. It isn’t easy at first. The felt sense is the holistic, unclear sense of the whole thing. It is something most people would pass by, because it’s vague. When you first stay with it, you might think, “Oh, that? You want me to stay with that? But that’s just an uncomfortable nothing!”.
What’s the quality of this unclear felt sense? Let a word, a phrase, or an image come up from the felt sense itself. It might be a quality-word, like tight, sticky, scary, stuck, heavy, jumpy, or a phrase, like “have to perform”, or a combination of words might fit best, for example, “scared-tight” or “jumpy-restless”, or an image. Stay with the quality of the felt sense till something fits it just right. When a word or picture is right, the whole felt sense stirs just slightly and eases a little, as if it said: “This is right,” just as in remembering something you forgot. Finding the right handle gives you only a small bodily shift, just enough so you can tell the handle is right. You will have to sense for this small shift, so that you don’t miss it.
Go back and forth between the felt sense and the word, phrase, or image. Check how they resonate with each other. See if there is a little bodily signal that lets you know there is a fit. Many people keep hold of a felt sense quite well until they get the very first words for it. Then, somehow, the feeling disappears, and they have only the words. If that happens, obviously you cannot check the words against the feeling directly. So, you must let the felt sense come back, not necessarily the same feeling as it was, but the felt sense as it now is, perhaps a little changed. It’s all right if, of its own accord, the feeling changes, too, as you perform this matching procedure. Let both sides, the feeling and the words, do whatever they do, until they match just right. When you get a perfect match, the words being just right for the feeling, let yourself feel that for a minute or two. It’s important to take this time: it’s your body changing. Don’t rush on, you just got here!
Now ask: “What is it, about this whole problem, that makes this quality (which you have just named or pictured)?”. Make sure the quality is sensed again, freshly, vividly (not just remembered from before). When it’s here again, be with it, asking, “What makes the whole problem so...?” Or you ask, “What is in this sense?”. If you get a quick answer without a shift in the felt sense, just let that kind of answer go. What comes swiftly is old information from your mind. At first, the question to the felt sense may not get down to it, but the second or third time you ask, it will. The felt sense itself will stir, in answer, and from this stirring an answer will emerge. Return your attention to your body and freshly find the felt sense again. Then ask it again. Be with the felt sense till something comes along with a shift, a slight “give” or “release”. One of the most important things in focusing is open questions. You ask a question, but then you deliberately refrain from trying to answer it through any conscious thinking process. Asking a felt sense is very much like asking another person a question. You ask the question, and then you wait. There is a distinct difference between forcing words or images into a feeling and letting them flow out of it. The words and images that flow out of a feeling produce a body shift. The body shift is mysterious in its effects. It always feels good, even when what has come to light may not make the problem look any better from a detached, rational point of view.
Receive whatever comes in focusing, welcome it. Take the attitude that you’re glad your body spoke to you, whatever it said. This is only one shift; it is not the last word. If you are willing to receive this message in a friendly way, there will be another. You need not believe, agree with, or do what the felt sense just now says. You need only receive it. You will soon deeply experience that once what comes with a shift is received, another shift will come. What your body then says will be quite different. So, permit it to tell you now whatever it must say first. You may want to stop focusing after this, or you may go on. But don’t rush on immediately. If you decide to stop, know that you can leave this place and return to it later. It’s like a spot in your inner landscape. Once you know where it is and how to find it, you can leave it and come back tomorrow. Welcome anything that comes with a body shift but stay a little distance from it. You are not in it, but next to it. “I can’t solve this all in one day,” you say to yourself. “I know it’s there. I can find it again. I can leave it for a while.”. You’re neither running away nor going into it. You sense that there is space between it and you. You are here, it is there. You have it, you are not it.
If during this process you have spent a little while sensing and touching an unclear holistic body sense of your problem, then you have focused. It doesn’t matter whether the body-shift came or not. It comes on its own. We don’t control that. If you feel no change, no shifts, then come back and try again later, or tomorrow. Eventually, you will find yourself performing the inner act of Focusing and the more often you do it, the easier and more natural it will seem.
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About Vanessa Francoise
I’m fully qualified and have a Foundation Degree in Integrative Counselling. I excel at helping people to overcome anxiety and panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, phobias, addictions, anger and rage, and low self-esteem. My primary interest is with people rather than diagnoses, but I have a special interest in schizophrenia and psychosis.