Surprising as it may seem, communication is not about using the right words at the right time. Communication is much more than this - it's about what goes on inside us when we interact with others.
While we're affected by what happens around us, it's the state of our own inner world that really defines our communication.
Since meditation and mindfulness is increasingly well-known, this month-following the UK's first Mindfulness at Work Conference-we explore one of the ways in which meditation and communication overlap.
'Meditation' happens naturally
It's a natural part of being human that, every now and then, we become aware of ourselves, uniquely in this very moment. We turn within, and check to see how the world looks and feels from our own, private perspective. Whatever we call it (and people have different words for this), it's something we all do. So what does it really mean to say we 'meditate'? And how can we be sure we're helping ourselves by doing it?
What is meditation?
'Meditation' usually means that we consciously give space to this natural impulse to pause and look within. The point is that in meditation, we're choosing to do this. Whatever approach we use to do it, we take a moment... moments ... minutes... the time we need to tune in, and pay attention to what's within us.
Is meditation a 'working ground'?
Sometimes people talk about meditation as a working ground-where we 'work on the mind with the mind'. We strive to become more focused, more mindful, more kind - we even strive to become more relaxed. But the idea of 'working' in meditation has its dangers.
'Working' on our meditation implies that something needs to be worked upon; even that there's something wrong or lacking inside us; something that needs to be fixed. It may suggest we can tone up our embarrassing, flabby inner selves in much the same way as we tackle a work-out in the gym.
When even relaxing is a chore
This attitude springs from our efficient, competent, active self. Yet this mind-set has consequences. Sometimes, even the things we do to bring calm and well-being become something else to work at, to fit in, to do - or something to 'fail' at doing.
If we're trying to relax, our ability to diagnose problems and drive outcomes are not the tools we need. In fact, they are the very tools we need to put down... No wonder people say they find it 'hard to relax'!
Losing perspective in communication
The same is true in communication. A working attitude can cause difficulties. The impulse which sends us into solution mode may also get in the way.
Before we've discovered what's going on more widely, we're making analyses and forming suggestions. Before we know what our feelings are telling us, or what our needs are, we're planning a solution. Instead of really listening to another person, our own ideas are spinning round our heads, and popping out of our mouths. When we do this, we communicate without having a full picture. That's when our words are least likely to land well.
Take a break! Have a holiday!
Meditation can improve both our well-being and our communication, because it gives us a way to include and accept all our inbuilt tendencies in a helpful way.
The trick is to have a holiday attitude. What we need to do is to sit back - to listen, to watch, to sense, to feel - to be with whatever is there, just as it is. By doing this, we gradually understand the conditions we need, uniquely and individually. We learn how to give time to ourselves, so that we can unfurl naturally into whatever our experience brings.
Enjoying what comes
This holiday attitude is worth cultivating! On holiday, we have space to meet what comes with interest and curiosity. This brings a natural kindness and warmth to our inner world. We're more organic, able to go with the flow; to open up to our experience as it unfolds around us - as it does, at every moment.
And as we bring more gentleness and tolerance into our inner landscape, our communication changes too.
On one hand, we communicate with ourselves in a different way. We're more able to welcome even the judgmental voices that come our way, telling us that we're 'doing it all wrong'. These voices have their own stories, their own reasons. On holiday, we have time to listen even to those. And when a critical voice is fully heard, it stops being critical.
At the same time, we communicate less critically with others. When we can say, 'hello', fully, to whatever happens inside us - that's when we can say, 'hello', fully and effectively, to whatever goes on outside us. This is when meditation and communication truly blend.
A personal account and reflections on my journey with Focusing
But how can I know the direction of my own growth and development? If I decide what growth to aim at, my decision springs from my feelings and attitudes, how I am now. When my friends hear my change-aim, they might say, “Yes he would choose that. That’s typical of him”. My own plan for my change will keep me basically unchanged. But no one else can decide for me, either. […] People decide to change according to their present values. [Let your body interpret your dreams, Gendlin]
Thus very caring people resolve to be even more caring. They tend to feel bad about whatever bit of self-assertion they posses and strive to eradicate that.
Already determined and organized people aspire to be even more effective and successful. This way they become bigger but of the same sort. Basically unchanged.
I came across this quote from Gendlin several years ago. I still remember the buzz and nervousness of the light-bulb switching moment in my head as I heard it. This is not what I’ve been taught at school, neither on any of the personal development courses I took. It runs quite contrary to all of what I’ve read, yet somehow feels right, natural and also true with my experience of Focusing. So is there another path that growth can take?
My upbringing background comes from sports where every bit of effort made is rewarded by growth. I studied to be an entrepreneur where effort and determination that I cultivated earlier came very handy. I definitely understood the value of single-mindedness and forward planning. Whether it was in my studies, work or sport I have been very to moderately successful in achieving what I wanted relying on directed effort and striving.
Naturally I brought the same mindset to my inner life. Having already dedicated many years to practising on a Buddhist path exerting effort and struggling towards awakening my understanding of how inner transformation happens and how to go about that transformation has turned the corner.
What I didn’t know, even though I had a very vague and murky sense of it, was that something of a very different order altogether was needed when it comes to relating to and transforming the inner life.
Ever since I remember I have been pursuing the notion that I wasn’t ok. I couldn’t stand parts of myself and I wanted to be different. I didn’t want to experience lack of confidence, low self-esteem and lack of connection with others. I guess that I ascribed all of these to a weak part of myself and I would do anything to make them go. I wasn’t ok. I wanted to change. I wanted to be better.
So there wasn’t even much of a question for me to ponder about what way to change. It was going to be in the direction away from all those unwanted, embarrassing, unpleasant experiences - towards their right opposite. Buddhism provided me with a lofty image of what this ideal state would be. I was on a path and I put all my effort and skills into walking along it.
More difficulties were about to come.
How do we go about change?
Recently I came across an extended teaching on dealing with hindrances in meditation. It stipulates that if one has a predisposition to a particular ‘hindrance’, one will be the most likely to use a ‘remedy’ of the very same sort to counter it. Just like with someone that decided the direction of their growth from their present values, the hindrance and its remedy work on the same level. They will ultimately not make much of a difference, quite contrary.
If we are in the mind frame of restless-anxiety the ready available options for addressing it are likely to be of the sort-it-all-out, make-a-list kind. Then we try our best to go though our lists and tick off the points, just to add more anxiety into our lives. If our hindrance is of the tired, inactive, sleepy sort we’ll be most prone just to sit with it.
In a similar way, the strategy that comes naturally to people with propensity to get overwhelmed with their experience is to ‘go into’ their difficult states in an attempt to deal with it. I’m one of them. I reckon that the people who find it difficult to engage with their experience will pursue the opposite path. They’ll tend to distance themselves even further from whatever is already present.
In this way, rather than helping ourselves out of the problem, we add to it. Just like the story about a man who found himself at the bottom of a pit, only to discover that his only tool in his handy toolkit was a shovel. Lacking perspective and already quite distressed he started to dig – digging himself even deeper.
A way out of this predicament is possible. Though it needs more understanding and a different tool.
Understanding ourselves - We are made of multiple ‘somethings’
So here we are, human beings composed internally of many different aspects, or voices, many different beings or ‘somethings’ as we call them in Focusing. Each one of these beings live in their own world and see everything outside of them from their own particular perspective (just as humans do). Each one of them has got its hopes, wishes, needs and fears and each one of them keeps on changing in time.
We, as heirs of this concoction of parts – sometimes also called life may recognize those particular voices and know these ‘somethings’ well. However, we are likely to have only a vague sense of who they are, or to know them only by their effect on us.
These aspects of ourselves know of each other, too. They have some sort of awareness of each other just as humans are aware of their close and distant family members, friends, acquaintances or neighbours. They can be in an amicable connection with each other, or lie in a dread of encountering each other (and anything on the scale in between).
What often happens is that one of those distinctive beings inside of us takes over the whole of ourselves (why this happens is another matter). When this happens, its particular view of the world becomes our view of the world, its hopes and fears become our most pressing hopes and fears. The way they would treat other parts of ourselves becomes the way we treat other parts of ourselves.
We identify the whole of ourselves with this particular aspect of us, in different words, we merge.
Moreover, we put our external and internal resources at the disposal of this part. We start acting upon its hopes, ideas and fears.
The sense of our growth-direction will come from this single aspect of ourselves, too. This part may have a very compelling vision, even an ideal towards which it wants us to develop. It may have a very sound reason to do that. Of course, it sounds very reasonable wanting to move away from selfishness or laziness and to be more caring or effective.
It sounds good. However, there is a catch! The part that we’ve merged with hasn’t brought more of our inner world on board with it. Right the opposite; somewhere in us there will be a vital part of our inner world that is going to feel under threat by this new development plan.
How can we know this is happening? Both of these two (or more) aspects of ourselves are now in conflict. And both of these aspects will let themselves be known to us and felt by us. We’ll hear an inner language of judgement or blame. Worlds like selfishness and laziness are good examples. We may hear ourselves speaking about throwing something out of ourselves. We are set on smoothing it out, transforming or purifying it, if you prefer. We may also have images and symbols of our inner life that convey a sense of conflict. We’ll feel anxiety, tension or their permutations in our body. And we may even have a clear notion of how all of this links to particular episodes in our own life.
So we set out to lead an inner war on an inner development front. It’s not difficult for this war eventually to turn into an entrenched one. We cherish the vision that one day we will be able to expel the enemy out of our territory.
I don’t believe that this kind of warfare could ever be won, even if the personal myth we follow suggests that it eventually will.
So how do we go about change in our life? How do we really change? Can we change by telling ourselves to be different from how we are? Can we really change into how we want to be?
The body is a cosmic system rich in implications and directions beyond conception. In a life we develop only some of what we “are”.
A growth-direction is sensed with your body [Let your body interpret your dreams, Gendlin]
I believe that we may not actually know what next step is needed on our growth-path. However, we can still get a good sense of our growth-direction. We ‘only’ have to learn how to listen to ourselves without taking sides. There is something available in our wider experience that we can draw on. The key to listening without taking sides is to be present with whatever comes to us without merging with it.
This also requires us to change our understanding of our inner world. It may take time to develop the trust that anything that makes itself known to us in our inner world has a good wholesome reason to do that. No matter how it shows itself to us.
The notion of ‘body’ in Focusing stretches far beyond the body that is enveloped by the skin. It is the body of our experience of the present moment that encompasses all our past experience and carries implications beyond our conception.
We can learn how to approach, and in time also to relate, to this rich cosmic system of all our known and implied aspects. If we can learn this way of being present with ourselves, listen and allow whatever needs to happen, it will manifest as a forward-moving step.
The result may be something that we would never be able to fathom merely by our logic. We would not be in position to orchestrate this kind of change by our mere will and effort. Somehow our bodies in themselves carry the wisdom of resolving the most tangled impasses. Somehow there is wisdom available to us on how to bridge opposing entrenched polarities inside us.
The key is to approach our inner lives from a vantage point where we don’t side with any of our multiple parts. That makes it possible to receive their various messages (using their felt sense in our bodies) without adding anything to their story or wanting them to be different. We receive them exactly as they are.
I find that there is an immense inherent kindness in listening to myself in this way. It has something to do with the willingness to give my full attention, and as much time as necessary, to whatever in me that is asking for it. With experience, I am learning to trust that I am able to keep anything company that comes up in my inner world. Be it a deep despair or the greatest overwhelm. Even parts claiming ‘what’s the point of this all’ are welcome. We can bear the unbearable in us, if we don’t merge with it.
I’m also learning how not to be tempted to act upon what I hear or feel. I’m learning how not to try to explain, justify, make it better, run away, give up or argue. I just listen.
And by listening, by just allowing what needs to be said or felt to be heard or sensed, something new and different emerges. A forward moving energy manifests. However, it may not give me the grand plan of how it is going to unfold, even though I may have sense of that. This process follows step by step.
"What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes. Most people don't know this. They think that by not permitting the feeling of their negative ways they make themselves good. On the contrary, that keeps these negatives static, the same from year to year. A few moments of feeling it in your body allows it to change. If there is in you something bad or sick or unsound, let it inwardly be, and breathe. That's the only way it can evolve and change into the form it needs." [Gendlin]
It knows what form it needs to take as its next step. You may not know it, even though you may think you know; and no one else in the world may know it either. We can support it to take the form it needs to take, but we cannot direct its change by our will alone.
We are not used to things changing through being gentle and kind, thinking that we must take decisive action or discipline ourselves with harsh methods. […] There has to be some kind of faith or trust in efficacy of gentle intentions to produce changes, for it doesn’t make rational sense that by being kind and patient, and by essentially doing less, we will transform in significant ways. We tend to prefer direct approaches to change, such as working hard on one thing or taking a prescribed course of training. [Unlearning meditation, Jason Siff]
Felt sense and growth-direction
When we listen in Focusing, we listen out for any signs of what may be calling for attention in our wide sphere of awareness. Very often it can be something that we would otherwise not notice. It may manifest itself with murky or unclear atmosphere around it. We may sense it somewhere in our body but have no words for it. Its presence and purpose may not be obvious, just implicitly felt.
I’ve learned that giving attention to those unclear, unspecific melanges in me allows them to get in focus. Their contours become clearer and their message may transpire or something else, something new, may emerge.
[…] our felt experiences come in the way they need to come, in the place and at the intensity that they need to be felt, in order to be met and to carry forward to what is next for them. […] any attempt to change our felt experience from the way it is will simply delay the process of carrying forward and life-forward change. [Focusing Tip#302, Ann Weiser Cornell]
I remember a recurring message from somewhere in my inner world that was pertained to the sense of my growth-direction. It sometimes came as an image and I often felt it in a form of a bodily sensed experience.
It started with me standing on firm ground. I then had a sense of an area of difficulty in my life. It was quite murky, vague and I felt a dreadful anxious sense if I went anywhere near it. Then a sudden jump, or a fly-over, appeared. I was able to bypass the difficulties altogether without engaging with them and I was transported to the higher ground where all was resolved and fine. I also had a sense telling me that there’s something about this image that is not possible, that things just don’t work like that.
I guess I set out to practice on my Buddhist path like that. I was wishing and hoping for a moment of transformation that would come with my next realization about myself. Maybe on my next retreat! (I am well aware that there are many different Buddhist traditions to the one that I trained up in. I guess that they may emphasize a gradual unfolding change (as in a paradigm of lotus) more than the paradigm of a path when it comes to growth direction.)
I find this image very symbolic of the whole attitude to growth that I adopted. I wanted to be somewhere else, not where I was just now. I didn’t have a way of engaging with what’s difficult other than trying to overcome it by will.
I find it interesting that I had an inner notion of this process and that it even came to me as an image. If I only knew what to do with its message!
I hope that I have learnt something from all of this. I guess that nowadays what I’m searching for when it comes to growth-direction is a holistic sense. It usually comes from my body. It is a sense of what’s needed next.
I give space to various thoughts, images and ideas about how I’d like to change or develop and I also give space to the feelings that come with them. Just waiting, giving space. I am not trying to implement any of that.
I pay attention especially if there is something in me asking for a radical change.
I pay attention especially if it involves an attempt to change something that I find difficult to be with. I try my best to listen to the part which is proposing the change. I know it has got its concerns and its hopes. I try my best to listen to the part of me that is under attack. It certainly needs it.
Naturally, I don’t have a clear idea of where and how is all of this going to go. Just a felt sense in the moment. There is often something in me that wants to know more and needs more certainty. And I remember to give it a kind listening ear.
Once we have discovered the depths and delights of Focusing, it can be difficult to answer the seemingly simple question, ‘What is Focusing?’ How can we sum up the subtlety and range that Focusing brings to our experience? How to easily express what it involves? Quite possibly, we’d need to explain a whole new, revolutionary relationship with ourselves. There may also be dramatic changes in the way we interact and engage with the world ‘out there’. Outlining how Focusing does all that can be challenging. After all, the felt-sense is by definition vague, fuzzy and hard to describe. That’s the whole point. We’re talking about something which does not yet have words, and which doesn’t even exist in the fully-formed way we normally relate to things.
Funnily enough, as a Focuser who is a Buddhist, I have the same problem twice over. Buddhism, like Focusing, also highlights the importance of our inner world, and offers practices (such as meditation) which leads us on a journey to discover the heart of who we are, or who we can be. Perhaps the same is true for anyone describing their chosen path; its difficult to do justice to something whose riches and significance affect our lives deeply. Yet Focusing and Buddhism share particular problems. Neither has an easily explicable doctrine (although both have a complex underpinning philosophy that defy your average cup of late-night cocoa); and above all, both are primarily about a process, or practice. This alone makes them hard to define. The chief content is our own, raw experience, the whole mysterious range of it; where we encounter – and learn to embrace – the highs and lows of being all-too-human in this ‘more-than-human’ world.
The issue is even embedded in the very word, Buddhism. The Buddhist term for Buddhism is Dharma, which points again to the primacy process, as it means Path. At the same time, Dharma means Truth, as in the truths contained in that path, or the truths we discover as we traverse it. Once again, this begs the question: what is that path, and what is that truth?
Trusting our own experience
In one well-known Buddhist episode dating back almost 2500 years, the Buddha was asked just this question by a group known as the Kalamas. Then, as now, there were many teachers around, each offering different approaches. The Kalamas told the Buddha that they were confused about what to believe or which method to follow. Going by his title alone, they were asking the right person. ‘Buddha’ is an adjectival title, meaning, ‘someone who has woken up’. It describes a person who has awakened, or become fully aware (by implication, anyone can become a buddha). Here, as we will see, is an overlap with Focusing. Both are practices based on increasing our awareness, or attention, with the result that different parts of ourselves ‘wake up’, or come alive, as we practice.
In answer, the Buddha tells the Kalamas that they should test everything against their own experience. ‘When you know for yourselves…’ that a practice or approach leads to harm and suffering, then don’t do it. ‘When you know for yourselves… that something is wholesome’, and leads to ‘welfare and happiness’, then do it. According to this, the Buddha’s definition is wide and inclusive. Similarly, on another occasion he explains: ‘Whatever conduces to positivity, to freedom, ... to simplicity, to contentment, to individuality, to energy, to delight in the good – that is my teaching.’
Is there a real basis for trust?
While I love these descriptions, I’m aware they come with a slight problem. To the Kalamas, the Buddha also added that one way of determining what to do, or which path to follow, is to notice whether ‘wise people’ blame or praise those approaches. So we still need to find some basis for trusting experience – either our own, or that of someone we find ‘wise’. And if we look for positivity, happiness, freedom (and so on) as the basis for following a particular method, it again raises the question of to what extent we can trust ourselves to know that is where the practice will lead.
For example, if I were a susceptible teenager, I might be persuaded by cool-dude peers that taking drugs is about freedom, individuality and energy. And that may be true on one level; it’s just that the implications of drug-taking are disastrously more than that. Similarly, we might decide to trust our bodies to know what to eat, or to get enough sleep – only to find we’re munching chocolate over late night movies. So how do we know when to believe our experience? How can I know for certain that something leads towards ‘delight in the good’; towards greater life, love and wisdom? These questions often emerge when we are learning Focusing. How can we be sure we are in touch with a felt-sense? How do we know that a felt-shift is leading us towards more wholeness and happiness? Wouldn’t a bomber feel a felt-shift of happiness when he or she has successfully released a bomb? So what, if anything, can I rely on?
Finding a touchstone
Both Focusing and Buddhism offer answers. Each suggests that we look within at our experience, and find a touchstone there that we can learn to trust. In Buddhism, this touchstone is described as a type of wisdom that may come first through hearing about something, then reflecting on it, and finally, from ‘becoming’. This third ‘wisdom of becoming’ means the way we develop as people. It’s not so much about what we do on the surface, but about becoming different underneath, in ourselves. In Buddhism, this ‘becoming’ refers to the root experience of being human, where we know we are interconnected with, and part of, the whole universe, mysteriously neither separate from it, nor merged and identified with it.
One reason we come to trust this ‘wisdom of becoming’ is because we begin to notice changes, perhaps subtle at first, in how we are affected by people and things. This gradually affects everything about us – our thoughts, feelings, behaviours, attitudes, responses, impulses and so on. Then our trust in our practice grows. This trust brings with it a sense of meaning, purpose and direction. It’s firm ground to stand on. We know, increasingly and instinctively, where we fit within the universe; we feel our intrinsic belonging in a world which is not really other than us. It’s a kind of coming home to ourselves.
A key Focusing tenet is that because we instinctively feel what’s wrong, painful or not-wanted, we therefore also know the direction towards what is good, right and life-giving. This direction is implicit, held in our wider being or body as a sort of knowing. If we are able to listen out for it and to follow it,we naturally move towards growth and expansion. Focusing practice involves finding this sense of rightness over and over again. We look for a fit, a resonance, a freshness – we listen to that wide, though infinitely accurate, bodily-held response to a situation to discover what’s needed, to know what our next step may be.
In Focusing, trust in our experience grows as we discover how the felt-sense not only applies to our inner world, but implicitly knows and takes account of our wider situation and those around us. A felt-sense is our felt-response to the fact that we are utterly relational and interconnected. In this way, a felt-sense is never purely personal. It moves us naturally from a self-referential perspective into a transpersonal realm. As I see it, ‘if a felt-sense is right for me; it’s right for the world’; that distinction itself dissolves. Through regular Focusing, we learn to trust that sense of life direction and forward movement. It’s like discovering our own inner compass.
Awareness and presence
Whether meditating or Focusing, the key to these insights lies in our awareness or presence. When I am simply aware of what I contain and experience – when I am present with it – I begin to feel the extraordinary responsiveness of a living being (me) to my whole environment. Both practices throw into relief the way in which everything is constantly shifting; how the minute I interact with something, it changes and I change. Just by being present with what is here, we stumble upon the truth, so well-described in both Focusing and Buddhism, that everything follows a process; everything is in-process.
In Buddhism this is known as conditionality (or ‘dependent arising’ – pratityasamutpada). It means one thing follows another; events flow from each other, a result always follows from (is contained in) a cause. With awareness, we discover the freedom to create different causes, and experience different outcomes. In Focusing, Gendlin describes something similar in his ‘Philosophy of the Implicit’. He shows how one single moment ‘contains’ the past, present and future, in that are all implied and known in that moment in ‘a unique implicit intricacy’.
Change happens anyway
The idea here is that change happens anyway. Our inner path or journey is simply what follows when we choose to influence the direction of change.Exactly how that change happens is a major question within both Buddhism and Focusing. Buddhism has developed a complex array of answers, varying from ethical precepts, to study, to mantra and prayer, to many different types of meditation, based sometimes on quite different inner premises. In Focusing, as in some Buddhist approaches, we see change as something that happens when we can be present with (aware of) what is happening, without asking it to change. Presence itself is enough; just as in the presence of sunshine, moisture and oxygen, a plant grows naturally healthy.
In a recent article, Gendlin was asked whether we can always trust this. ‘Is this process always moving toward the good?’ His reply is: ‘Definitely. It is always trustworthy.’ But this comes with a caution. Since this is a living process, it’s not something we can determine in advance. He adds: ‘What “trustworthy” means, though, depends here: it is your living forward, that it moves toward. It moves toward being able to breathe if you can’t breathe. It moves toward relaxing when you’re tense. … It moves toward more life. And yet—what that means varies.’
It varies, this movement towards life, because we are never the same person in the same situation (as Heraclitus said: you can never step into the same river twice). And perhaps here’s the key to how or why we can trust our experience. Trust grows with practice; with the safety to get it wrong, to experiment, to find what works for us. Gradually, we learn to feel, follow and trust our inner compass in every new landscape.
As a Buddhist-Focuser, my practice is to understand the natural order of things more fully. I may think (as a Buddhist) in terms of a dependently-arising flow of reality, or (as a Focuser) of living forward – and there are no doubt other equally relevant frameworks and approaches, which are meaningful to people in different traditions. However we frame it, the point for me is to experience it more completely – to gradually align myself with it. To be alive in the very moment to whatever is impliedin that moment. Then, following that living forward energy becomes a natural, joyful and spontaneous response to living. Perhaps one day, the whole of life will feel like that. In the meantime, I’m happy to experience just tiny moments; those small, precious steps which Focusing, meditation – and just being alive – so gracefully grants me.
Although nativity cribs and mangers may be far away from Buddhist minds at Christmas, there’s a mythic theme that speaks to me. How to find a haven, a safe place at this dark time of the year? Not a cattle stall as such, but still, an inner sanctum; a place of simplicity, surrounded and supported by nature – where what wants to struggle into new life can do so; where what is yet unborn can find birth.
The questions evolve as I practise. How can I be a safe haven, in myself? Can I become, myself, a place where other beings, whoever they are, find rest and comfort when needed?
My wish trickles into my meditation. Sitting becomes a crucible where safety distils. In meditation, I meet and interact with inner impulses, I discover inner selves. That’s where unknown and unexpected guests arrive each moment.
As I watch myself greet each guest, I discover how safe I really am. How do I respond to each impulse? With subtlety and skills gained from my practice of Focusing, I listen and watch with curiosity.
I’m not entangled in each impulse; I’m not separate from it. I don’t measure distances here. It’s all about relationship. I seek to feel that vital connection with life, in whatever form it comes my way. I don’t presume to know better than any impulse – be it thought, feeling, sensation, image, or dreamy nothingness.
I lose it; I find it. I lose it again. I enjoy doing both. That’s when safety is most alive.
In this issue, we bring you two very practical articles about applying Focusing principles to ‘real life’. The first, starting on this page, is on how Focusing can assist Buddhist practice. There has been interest in this topic for a long time. We have a great list of back issue articles on Focusing and meditation. Recently there seems to be an extra surge of interest. Locana (Elizabeth English) is both a certified Focusing teacher and an ordained member of the Triratna Buddhist Community, and she has agreed to do a series of articles for us — of which this is the first — under the title, “Explorations in Focusing and Buddhism.”
Gendlin says, ‘There’s always more.’ And I imagine for many Focusing Buddhists, his recent interview on Focusing and Buddhism (http://www.tricycle.com/feature/focusing) taps into a well-oiled curiosity. I’ve been a Buddhist for almost thirty years, and in that time, I’ve explored a range of Buddhist practices. I’ve attended retreats in wild and lovely places, practised meditations of different kinds, chanted mantras within strange and beautiful rituals, studied exotic Sanskrit texts, followed ethical precepts and founded friendships within the Buddhist community or sangha. These experiences have certainly informed and enriched the person I’ve become. Even so, in my onward journey of becoming (it’s a process that never stops, after all), Focusing has become an invaluable aide. Over this past half decade, Focusing over has opened up whole new seams of inspiration, and furnished fresh approaches to familiar practices.
But when two profound practices meet – such as Buddhism and Focusing – it’s probably best to pause before leaping to compare how they differ or overlap. Any distinct system will hold its own particular insights and jewels. Often, it’s good to experience those first on their own terms, and within their own frame of reference. And yet, we cannot separate what we are now from the threads which have informed and influenced us in the past. Our exploration of different practices, and how they relate to each other, is inevitable and ongoing. So it is with some caution, as well as excitement, that I add my own voice to the others which have gone before, and to share some ways in which, for me at least, Focusing and Buddhism interact and intertwine.
In this article, I look at how Focusing enriches the way I understand, experience, and so practice Buddhism. This may amount to little more than glimpses into something larger. Still, I hope it might be the basis for further, ongoing explorations (by others, as well as myself) into the insights that come when Buddhism and Focusing meet.
Ways into Direct Experience
Buddhism and Focusing both tackle the issue of life and how we live it. And both begin by looking within at our own, direct experience. In Focusing, Gendlin’s extraordinary contribution is to point our our implicit knowing, a ‘preconceptual feeling’ he calls the felt-sense. As Focusers, we know that the felt-sense encompasses the whole of an experience; the ‘all-that’ of a situation which is here, but which as yet has little form or no words. It’s the first inkling of a response as it stirs into awareness; a creative opening, as when a new poem comes, complete and whole. As a seasoned meditator, learning about the felt-sense, made immediate sense to me. It addressed a whole aspect of my experience, one which came to m often, but confusingly, because I had no words or concepts to describe it (a lovely example of what Gendlin calls ‘an instance of itself’). In discovering the felt-sense, I find a new dimension opens up. I discover afresh the tremendous subtlety, accuracy, beauty, depth and infinite possibilities of my inner world. I gain a far fuller appreciation for our human potential; a new sense of what it might mean to become someone ‘fully awake’ – a ‘buddha’.
So Focusing supports my Buddhist practice in two ways. On one hand, it brings a freshly felt understanding of where Buddhism is heading – of what it might mean to be awakened. On the other, it gives new impetus to the practices which lead there. The classic metaphor here is that of a journey, of inner growth as an active exploration. It is one embedded deep within Buddhism, as dharma (the Buddhist word for ‘Buddhism’) is often translated as Path. Yet dharma also means the Teaching or Truth. This implies a different kind of process; transformation which grows organically from the gradual unfolding of what is real and true, from within. For me, it is this second perspective which chimes most closely with Focusing.
These two ways of describing inner change are reflected in one of Buddhism’s central approaches to realising our human potential: the practice of meditation. Some meditation is about actively generating buddha-like qualities. Other meditations seek to create conditions in which our inherent qualities can shine forth. This latter is about being where we are now more and more fully, and the alchemy that follows when we are. And it’s here that Focusing practice has become such a vital support for me. The Focusing attitudes and approaches, which I learn and re-learn in every Focusing session I do, have become the bedrock for my meditation. For example, one of Focusing’s great gifts is the way it allows us to accompany and welcome our experience, even when that experience feels difficult, confusing or contradictory. Even experienced meditators may be surprised at the subtle wisdom that Focusing brings to the inner world, particularly the way a Focuser can nurture a clear awareness of what is unclear; the process of watching and waiting as a felt-sense gathers, grows and shifts.
In Buddhism, this sort of awareness is sometimes described as a deep recognition of the way in which our experience ‘self-liberates’; that is, how our feelings, impulses, thoughts and sensations naturally arise, continue and pass. Experiencing felt-shifts within Focusing has helped me to understand this. Whether Focusing or meditating, I can watch with fascinated attention as some unknown energy or impulse emerges (often fuzzy and vague), then forms and shifts. For me, this happens mostly through images, metaphors and association, mixed with symbolised body-sense and feeling. So it’s with relief I’ve discovered that body-sensation does not have to be the sole or primary means of grounding my experience, as some meditation practices advise. Again, in some types of meditation we are offered the choice to let our thoughts and feelings pass ‘like clouds in a blue sky’. Focusing has taught me the value of watching and befriending the clouds as they gather, storm and swirl. So I rest with those clouds (not inside them, but with them, in a way I sense that they might like) until, through the power of empathy and presence, they are ready to dissolve into space. As both Focusers and meditators know, when the ‘clouds’ are strong emotions or old patterns, the way they shift and release is some sort of miracle.
Ways to Awareness and Presence
As a result of all this, I often feel more empathy. I find I can better embrace other people’s experience as it forms and moves for them, even when that might be challenging. The more I hold my own experience within this kind, spacious awareness, the more natural it is to do that for them. In the gentle words of Kevin McEvenue: the more space there is for me, the more there is for you. I now know more deeply that, 'as within, so without'. Many Buddhist practices focus on ways to develop kindness and compassion for oneself and others. Through Focusing, a natural kindness has come into my life, unbidden. It has opened up new vistas for me onto the ideal, so beautifully expressed in Buddhism, of limitless compassion and understanding.
The down-to-earth reason for this is because Focusing is so good at helping us spot when we are embedded in a tangle of thoughts and feelings (I’m hurt/angry/upset/good/bad). Buddhism talks about feeling the pain of two arrows. Initially, there is the ‘first arrow’ – the fear, pain or hurt triggered by something which happens. Then there is the extra dart we introduce when we try to do that impossible thing of pushing away our experience, or of grasping after it. So the ‘second arrow’ refers to the added wrangles and tangles which happen inside us when we don’t like feeling things like worry or pain. Focusing practice has helped me understand the two arrows in a very practical way. In Inner Relationship Focusing , we come into relationship with the parts of us that are wanting or not-wanting our experience, and learn how to move forward by holding them both in presence. This is a precious insight for any Buddhist whose classic dharma teachings revolve around the human impulses of craving and aversion. In this way, my Focusing practice has brought me a new sense of freedom and hope; a welcome lightness around what is difficult or painful.
Buddhism has a lot to say about the way we merge and identify with our experience (‘this is me!’). It talks about this as the creation of self or selfhood, as if we have a special faculty for creating ideas of who we are: (theego, or ‘I-maker' (ahamkara). Focusing practice gives me a wonderful opportunity to see how I forge and coagulate around my experience from moment-to-moment, creating ongoing ideas of a me or self. In the course of a Focusing session, I begin to disentangle and unmerge from the me’s and somethings that make up my usual sense of myself. Whether I feel overwhelm, uncertainty, pain, or inspiration, uplift and wonder, I’m more able to welcome these simply as aspects of what is happening right now, watching them shift and change organically. So I feel safer around experience, my own and other people’s.
This means that, at root, my understanding of my self is changing. I’m learning more about the flow and process of life – how utterly fluid experience is. I gradually find a space where I know that I am not really made up of any one fixed thing; I come into a new relationship with my ideas and deep-rooted sense of self. In fact, I find that there isn’t really a me here, in the way I usually feel it. I begin to experience a quality of being which Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin call Self-in-Presence.
Self-in-Presence means we can simply be present with whatever happens, whether that’s something inside us, or in the world outside. Remarkably, this is even enjoyable – however difficult or painful the experience is. That’s because once we are present with something, the qualities of understanding and kindness flow naturally towards it. However shakily or momentarily we are present, the more painful that thing is, the more compassion and empathy arise in response.
Ways to Freedom
At root, both Focusing and Buddhism are practices based on presence and awareness (I see the terms as interchangeable). These open up new perspectives, where we experience ourselves and the world in a radically different way. Buddhism describes this radical difference in terms of freedom. In one sense, this freedom is freedom from. It’s when we overcome habitual obstacles and limitations, and outgrow our inner aches and pains, our wanting or not-wanting, and the whole gamut of difficult emotions based on old ways of seeing ourselves and our lives. It’s a radical way of clearing the space (Gendlin, Focusing, Chapter 7).
In another sense, freedom is more than this: it has a unique quality of its own. We may feel freedom as a rare and precious joy. This comes having from a different kind of response to the world. Many of our entrenched responses are reactive; that is, they are created and conditioned by our current attitudes, feelings, thoughts; our past experiences and future expectations; everything that makes up my current sense of me. As that sense of self changes, and as Self-in-Presence grows, we no longer merge with our reactive responses. Open to our felt-sensing, and alive to the ever-changing flow of things, we are free to feel whatever comes into our lives in a fresh, creative way. As Buddhism puts it, we can move beyond conditions altogether, towards complete and radical freedom. The Buddha conjures up the image of the ocean. ‘Just as the ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so this dharma of mine has one taste: the taste of freedom.’ (Udana, 5.5) For me, this is where the practice of Focusing and Buddhism meet.
Among the snippets of dreams, poems, and song-lines that pop up in my Focusing sessions, I often find themes from fairytales. So in the past few years, I've returned to some of my favourite childhood haunts – those yellowing pages of my old fairytale books, and the magical worlds they conjure up. To me the Land of Færy seems particularly apt for Focusing. I’ve been wondering why this is.
I suppose fairytales, like Focusing, often start off with a problem. For fairytale characters, this might happen in a number of ways. They may be under an enchantment – something which limits or binds them by a power which seems greater than they are – trapped into animal form, or into a 100-year sleep, for example. They may have an overwhelming longing, do something which disrupts the status quo, act unwisely – such as stealing the witch’s cabbages, claiming your clever daughter spins flax into gold, giving vital information to a wolf. Or the character inherits a set of circumstances which predate and predict the predicament – wicked relations, poverty, something which sets them off to seek their fortune in the world. The fairytale describes a journey in which the central character has many weird and wonderful encounters, and in the process of which the insoluble is solved.
This journey reminds me of Focusing. In a Focusing session we start with a felt sense of a problem – our own version of an enchantment, trap, longing, impossible circumstances. This is something insoluble on its own level, that is, the level of what we already know. As we come into relationship with the problem, we meet felt senses within us that are new and unexpected; other currents, energies, forces, presences (we might experience them in different ways at different times). Through these encounters something new emerges. A felt shift may come, and when it does, it brings resolution. As in a fairytale, we’re on a journey from the imperfect to the perfect; a journey which takes place within our own unique realm of experience, guided forward by our implicit sense of what is complete and whole.
We know as Focusers that this process often takes us beyond our everyday sense of who we are and our place in the world, into another dimension: ‘Your physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact, the whole universe.’(Gendlin, Focusing 2007 p.88). Rather like a fairytale character, we may meet tangles, traps, trickery and cunning on our adventure towards a sense of ‘all all right’. In other words, we meet other ‘partial selves’ that seem to exert these kinds of influences on us and our situation. But there are also unexpected encounters, magical solutions, and rare resources which rescue us within the process. That is, the implicit knowing our body-being holds may come in forms beyond anything we would have consciously dreamed up. By definition, the felt shift comes from something beyond what we originally knew, because it comes from, and opens up to us, a deeper level of implicit knowing.
With a felt shift, then, our energies integrate, or dissolve into Presence, perhaps in relation to just one single issue. We find ourselves complete and fulfilled in that respect. At that moment, in relation to that issue, it’s as if we find ourselves at the centre of our own unique kingdom or realm of being. Like the King or Queen of folklore, we’ve been on a journey and arrived.
So Focusing has much in common with fairytales. And fairytales are rather like Focusing. For a fairytale too is ‘part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times...’. Fairytales magically conjure up that sense of ‘all alright’. It’s a world in which the Perfect Princess lives happily ever with her virtuous and valourous Perfect Prince, abundant in riches, goodness and love.
Too good to be true? That’s precisely my point! This perfect world with its perfect ending is ‘too good to be true’ – but only to those parts of me that don’t inhabit it. Elsewhere in this realm-of-me, I have an implicit knowing that I can reach a place where difficulties settle and dissolve; where I’m no longer under the spell of my merged and entangled parts, where my problems are set free to find their own inner riches, love and fulfilment.
2. Playing with Fairytales in Focusing: ‘What in me is like this?’
I started playing with fairytales (which seems more fitting than ‘working’ with them), because fairytale themes and characters often come to me spontaneously while I focus. This happens as I search for a way to describe what I do not yet have words for:
‘What’s this like....?’ ‘What’s this as if?’
Sometimes, I’m on a cliff-edge (fondly imagining my listener is too), because I know there’s an as-if forming in there. What’s it going to be…?
‘Ah. It’s like that moment the King tells the clever girl to spin wool into gold, and if she won’t, the King will cut off her head...It’s exactly like that!’ And then sometimes (not always), meaning might come...
‘I see now. It’s like having to do something impossible, but if I don’t manage it something awful will happen.’ This opens up some more...
‘And it’s like the part of me that’s worrying about spinning wool into gold is willing to give away anything for help. I can feel how awful it is for this one! It’s like when Rumpelstiltskin demands her necklace – even her unborn baby. Is that how the story goes? I think it is... he demands she’ll give him her baby when she marries the King...’ There’s more in those words ‘unborn baby’, and I sit with them, welcoming what they may hold.
‘Her unborn baby... my unborn baby. There’s something really strong in that. What is this? What’s this like?’... More felt-sensing, as I wait for something felt but unformed to emerge.
‘Is it like the best in me? My unborn, best me? My next steps into a living-forward energy...?’
And so the session goes on. I’m resonating between my felt sense and the characters/themes of the story. Sometimes the resonance comes to me of itself, and sometimes I go looking for it because it draws me. What exactly is Rumpelstiltskin? Is he something in me? Is he some kind of energy or way of being? An attitude? Or is there something in my life which is like that? It may take a while for the story and the meaning to unfold. Sometimes the meaning seems quite secondary, and only comes some sessions later.
At this point, Focusing with fairytales is very like Gendlin’s description of working with dreams. Only after giving real space to the different aspects and symbols of the dream do we come to the point where we ask, ‘What in my life is like this?’ (Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams Ch.1.5). Or perhaps, in relation to the fairytale, ‘What in me is like this?’
3. Drawing on the Richness of Story
I work (or play) with fairytales, myths and legend in different ways. Having discovered first-hand how much richness these tales hold for my unfolding Focusing journey, why wait for them to come to me? I can also go to them. This is like giving attention to dreams, writing them down or recording them, and so encouraging them to come. In the same way, I enjoy reading fairytale and myth, and discovering themes that catch my attention.
I remember noticing a sense of shock which came to me in the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s when she tells the wolf where her grandmother lives.
‘No!’ I want to call out to her. ‘That’s a wolf you’re talking to!’
I’m almost squirming with hopeless frustration.
‘Don’t do it, Little Red Riding Hood!’
With such a strong response, it’s clear there’s something worth exploring in me. So I begin by opening up the felt sense in my ‘No!’ The distress I’m feeling as I know Little Red Riding Hood is about to divulge the address of her beloved, sick grandmother, to a WOLF.
I don’t just take this to Focusing sessions. I live with it as a problem. Every now and then, I take it out, dust it off, muse on it. I witness again the distress of all that – the motif in the story. I spend time with that felt sense, letting myself feel and acknowledge how awful some part of me feels about telling a wolf where someone special is, someone who’s wise and loving, but sick... And gradually, the themes begin to open up, or some felt shifts in relation to the issue.
I find it’s important not to rush the themes, or to try to understand them too quickly. Our aim is to come into relationship with what is there, not (necessarily) to understand it. As Ann Weiser Cornell says (Focusing Tip 234), ‘Focusing is not a process of insight, it's a process of relationship. It's through relationship that change happens in the direction of fuller life.’ Or in Gendlin’s words, ‘understanding is a by-product’ ( Focusing 2007 ed. p.79). Our experience is often in danger of being hijacked by what part of us knows – often our clever, analytical, critical, want-to-know-and-solve-things selves. Working with dreams, Gendlin suggest we apply ‘bias-control’ (Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams Ch.10). This might involve applying the opposite sort analysis on purposein order to loosen the grip of our consciously-held views and values – because if we identify solely with those, it means we may lose a new growth direction, and just become more of the same (Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams Ch.8 p.49).
Sometimes, like a dream, fairytales come to me unbidden. This happened recently when I watched Tim Burton’s animation film, The Corpse Bride. I hadn’t expected a major Focusing moment to emerge, but it did, suddenly and unexpectedly. Having started the film in a downcast mood, by the end of it, I felt transformed. Something has changed in me – the story has in itself produced a felt shift. So I begin to muse and focus on what this may be.
I can feel at once that it relates to the figure of the Corpse Bride herself. So I sense and search for those energies in me with the question:
‘What in me is like this?’
The response is clear and immediate. Suddenly I’m with an old, familiar aspect of myself, but in an entirely new way. Many a long Focusing session has revolved around this complex knot, but now I find I can accompany and empathise with that partial-self, because I have a way to perceive it more fully through the character of the Corpse Bride. Once again, I’m resonating between my felt sense and the character: her faded, maggot-ridden beauty, her dashed hopes, her longing, her desperate attempts to grab what she needs (in this case, the young groom) and to fit it into her world. I begin to feel how she’s present (in me) at any moment when a hope, or wish or life-energy is un-acted, unexpressed, unrequited – whenever there is life-energy which doesn’t quite find its way into life. Like the Corpse Bride, that beautiful fresh energy is ‘murdered’ just as it’s about to be fulfilled. I can sense how this relates to specific moments of my life, as well as in more general ways, when a life-direction wants to be lived, and yet is cut short.
Through Focusing in this way, I’m able to welcome the Corpse Bride felt sense in me much more fully. I feel a whole new freedom to be in her presence. Or to be in presence with her. Then other characters from the film also start asking for attention… what or who, for example, is doing the murdering?
The answer to that comes to me one day as I give a little space to a moment of grumpiness over my work. In my mind’s eye the wicked aristocrat from the Corpse Bride suddenly appears. Having killed the Corpse Bride years before, he’s now planning to marry, abduct and murder the New Bride. There he is in me – a sort of nasty ‘I don’t care how you feel, just get back to work’ attitude. I see immediately how he drives underground the more receptive, flowing parts of myself, which then feel stressed and sore. So I live with this wicked male energy – and begin to see links with other fairytales; other characters who seem to act for the best (in worldly terms), but at great cost, like the King who threatens to cut off the clever girl’s head if she won’t spin flax into gold. Once again, this gives me a clearer way in to exploring my felt senses of those aspects in me.
Then the New Bride herself begins to speak. I explore her energies, the felt sense that she brings...beauty, love, fresh life. I notice how often I’m unaware of the New Bride, how blank she seems for me. But as I approach that blank-unaware place with curious wonderment, I now find I’m holding two things within me: the Unlived-and-Unloved (the Corpse Bride), and the Living-and-Loving (the New Bride). Both are there equally. With this comes another movement forward. I find the Living-and-Loving one is making her presence felt in me. She’s taking up her natural place. Her beautiful being begins to find a fresh, clear voice, no longer drowned out by the part of me that has merged and identified with the Corpse Bride. She fills me up intensely for several days.
So the themes continue to blossom and unfold. Often other fairytales help to bring the understanding which one tale alone does not. I notice other aspects of the Corpse Bride – sisters in Færy – such as the Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. All aspects of the feminine in various stages of fulfilment: dead, sleeping, trapped. Of course, at this point, it would be very easy to turn to other sources, and to read classic interpretations of these tales by others – and that may prove valuable and fascinating. But in the first instance, what’s important is how the themes emerge and land in me. As with dreams, ‘The interpretation comes inside the dreamer or not at all.’ (ibid. Ch. 3.6). Classic psychoanalytic-theory may be helpful, but it’s our own felt-response to the story that holds the richness for us.
This reminds me that coming into relationship with ourselves is itself a journey. For some deeply-merged, deeply-engrained aspects of ourselves, that journey may take time, and different approaches can prove useful. The approaches are gateways which allow whatever needs attention to move into awareness – not necessarily into understanding, but into wholeness. So whether it comes as a body-sense, or movement, or feeling, or image, what is key is that we allow it to arrive within us, resonating with it – trying to allow it the form it needs. And at times, a fairytale or myth may speak just the language we need to reach down to the exiled parts, and allow them to come to life. Then we can engage with them, and they can come to life in us.