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Focusing: A Self-Help Tool for Self-Awareness and Emotional Healing

By Ruth Hirsch, MSW, MPH

Naomi was outwardly happy, active in her community and her children’s schools, and working part-time in a satisfying job when she came to see me. “I’d really like to get in shape, but just don’t seem to be able to stay on a diet, or get the exercise I know I need.”
Conventional wisdom would advise her to use willpower to “just stick to a diet.” Unfortunately, as most of us know, willpower alone simply won’t help us to accomplish many of the things that we’d like to in our lives. Despite knowing what might be “good” for us, it is as if there is another part inside that has other ideas.

In Focusing we find that by turning our attention to these other places, by showing them respectful curiosity and even compassion, they open up and share with us what is going on for them that has made them say no to what another part wants.
For Naomi, by listening to the parts of herself that did not want to go on a diet, she learned that they were scared of what losing weight might mean for her. So, it wasn’t that they didn’t want to diet per se, but that in their own way they felt that they were protecting her.
Once Naomi was able to hear this, to be curious about what this part was really scared might happen, to really take this in, and to show compassion to this place, staying on a diet became relatively easy for her.

In everyday living, we normally move so quickly that we are aware of only surface layers of our lives, the people, events, and such that are right in front of us. There is so much more that is important, that affects us in many ways, but we’re not consciously aware of. When we slow down a bit, we might have the sense of a vague feeling, perhaps sadness, anxiety, or a not so subtle feeling that something is missing, or even a wanting for something in our lives to be different. We usually brush these feelings away, determined to move forward, to not be sidelined by something that feels peripheral, or worse, that threatens to upset the balance of our already full lives.

We are all blessed with far more wisdom than we can access through our
conscious minds. Focusing is a body-oriented process we can use to access
deeper levels of knowing not readily accessible through our conscious minds
that involves a unique way of paying attention and listening to oneself and
to others; It involves shifting attention from the level of conscious
understanding to the vaguer edge of thinking/feeling/sensing.
The process of Focusing allows us to “see” and “hear” at increasingly deeper
and subtler levels within. We learn how to “listen” to our hearts, to our
souls, to our inner depths. Focusing promotes the deepening of understanding
of oneself and others, and thereby facilitates insight, healing and growth.
The process may be done alone, with a partner, or with a professional such
as a therapist, body worker, spiritual leader, or guide.

Focusing was developed by Eugene Gendlin , PhD, based on research into the question, “What leads to successful outcomes in psychotherapy?” Gendlin found that clients who connected with a vague edge of awareness progressed more rapidly in therapy. He developed the process of Focusing to allow others who do not do this naturally to be able to shift their attention in this way.

What does Focusing offer us that is different from other inner awareness
processes? Focusing differs in three important ways from many other
techniques that involve listening within in that it is:
1.      grounded in the body;
2.      a practical, specific process that may easily be learned. Essential aspects of the process include the important steps of acknowledging, accepting, and caring about whatever is present; and
3.      inherently a tremendously empowering process in that it involves “looking” directly at our inner experience. This differs from the general approach of western and nearly all alternative approaches to healing of trying to get rid of what is perceived as uncomfortable or otherwise unwanted feelings or physical sensations.

How does Focusing differ from mindfulness meditation? The goal of mindfulness meditation is to notice what is present in one’s consciousness, but not to engage with it in any other way. Just to notice. The process of Focusing takes mindfulness meditation several steps further to actually acknowledge, and then to be curious about and compassionate to all that we notice. The goal is to cultivate a positive inner relationship. That is, whereas the meditator’s goal is simply to observe what is present in the inner space, the Focuser engages in compassionate curiosity and active listening to whatever is present.

What results can you expect from Focusing? A few examples of some of the
many benefits include:
. Improved relationships;
. Inner peace;
. Clarity and ease in making decisions;
. Improved attention; and
. Enhanced spiritual growth and understanding.
Focusing “expands” our experience to allow us to feel more whole. Many
people have a dominant mode of experience. That is, our worlds are primarily
experienced on the intellectual, emotional, physical, or spiritual
dimension. The process of Focusing enables us to experience reality in a
more integrated way, which creates a more holistic, multi-dimensional
experience.
Focusing enables us to make peace with who we really are. So often we think
of ourselves in one way, but our bodies or emotions or spirit (or all
three!) seem to be drawn in different directions. Focusing is a process that
helps us come to a sense of ourselves that is more integrated.
The essence of Focusing is to be present in a compassionate and spacious way
with what is true in the body/mind/spirit at a given time. While the
Focusing process does involve specific steps, most important is not so much
the structure of the process. Rather, maintaining an attitude of kindness,
curiosity, patience, spaciousness, and general acceptance with whatever is
in us that wants to have our attention, to be “birthed,” is most important.
Focusing is a profound approach to honoring and understanding aspects of
inner experience that are often hidden from conscious awareness. Although
developed as a mind/body practice, Focusing offers a way to inform and
enhance our spiritual lives as well.

Suggestions for further reading:
Web Resources
The International Focusing Institute website: http://www.focusing.org/
The author’s website:  http://www.ruthhirsch.com
Books & Manuals
Cornell, Ann Weiser (1996). The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide to
Emotional Self-Healing. California: New Harbinger Publications.
Gendlin, Eugene T (1986) Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams.
Illinois: Chiron Publications.
Gendlin, Eugene T (1981). Focusing. Second Edition. New York: Bantam Books.
Hirsch, Ruth G. (2010). Focusing Training Manual: Level One & Two. Second
Edition.