Thursday, 5 January 2012

Explorations in Focusing and Buddhism: 2. Can we trust our experience?

Forthcoming article:

Explorations in Focusing and Buddhism: 
2. Can we trust our experience?

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 implied in 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.


Eugene T. Gendlin. 2011. Eugene T. Gendlin, founder of an innovative self-actualization technique with transformative potential, talks with Linda Heuman.’ In Tricyle Magazine. Fall 2011.,0
Buddhist References: The Kalama Sutta (A.3:65); The Teaching in Brief to Gotami (A.8:53 (iv.280),  Vin ii.259); The ‘Three Wisdoms’ (e.g. Dīgha Nikāya sutta 33)
Heraclitus. Fragment 41; Quoted by Plato in Cratylus  See:

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