By Matt Zepelin
As a graduate student in history, I often find myself asked questions of the following sort: “What is your field?” – “What are you studying?”– “What will be the topic of your dissertation?”
Like all of us, I have my well-worn answers—I’m in the History Department, I study American intellectual history, and I plan my dissertation to be on the conceptual development of the fields of family-systems theory and somatics—but I’ve noticed for a long time that my answers are only rough approximations, signposts to interior feelings and processes which are more lively than the words tend to capture.
For example, if I ask myself right now, “What am I studying?” and check into my felt-sense—the internal field of sensation and association in my body and mind—I see an image of one of my historical subjects, Gregory Bateson, looking tall and grave in an ill-fitting three-piece suit. A sprawling garden sits behind him to his right, and the garden overlaps at its edges with nearby woods. I feel an eagerness in my body; I want to move toward this scene and learn more about it. It quickly elicits questions in me: “Why is he standing away from the garden and with his back to it?” – “Why does he look so serious?” – “Can I rotate my view of this image, and see it from another angle?”
From here, I know there are multiple directions in which I could continue to explore—the shifting sensations in my own body, phrases that come up in association with the image, emotions, alterations in the image, and so on. Having done such explorations many times, I have no doubt I could work with this image for 30 minutes or longer and learn a lot about my sense of Gregory Bateson. And, as a result, I would probably feel clearer about what I want to write about him.
In sum, doing this process—which is known generally as Focusing or, in a more sequentially determined format, as Thinking at the Edge (TAE)—I would gain access to things that I know about Bateson and about my interest in him that my normal, discursive thought process likely could not.
I don’t mean to suggest that next time I am asked what I study, I will proceed to describe a fantastical image of Gregory Bateson. We need our shorthand answers, our broad shovels of communication. But don’t we want the spade as well, not to mention the fingernail and the nerves underneath?
“A felt sense is not a mental experience but a physical one,” writes Dr. Eugene Gendlin, creator of the Focusing method, in his book, Focusing. “A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time—encompasses it and communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail.”
In our culture—and in academia especially—analytic, language-centric thought-processes are prized to such a degree that other forms of thinking, processing, and knowing have been relegated to the margins. That doesn’t mean they’re gone—our more bodily, intuitive, and holistic forms of thinking are never gone—but we can ignore them to such an extent that they become rusty, even foreign-seeming.
Imagine yourself in an ice cream shop, standing in front of a case with many flavors. To which flavors are you attracted? Which can you discount immediately? For most people, these answers come prior to thinking. We know what we prefer in that moment, and only after do we tell ourselves why. Our consciousness edits an experience that includes but is not limited to language and rationality. It does so in order to come up with a narrative that makes sense to us. We need to have such narratives, but ignoring the reality of the pre-verbal, somatic, emotional, or ambiguous in ourselves can be disempowering, even deadening.
It may seem a big leap to go from choosing an ice cream to forming a history dissertation—or even a problem in physics or math—but the dynamics underlying the simple choice are also there, are always there, in other forms of thinking and choosing. Although the scientific method has shown enormous power through its insistence that its practitioners resist bias and subjectivity, resistance to our own intuitions, body-level insights, or seemingly irrational associations too often robs us of our own creative energy. It can rob us of our personal (as opposed to scientific) accuracy, our self-awareness, our vitality to pursue tasks with our whole selves rather than only with the parts we allow to speak in the process.
My experience doing Thinking at the Edge with Beatrice Blake, a Certified Focusing Professional with whom I did a ten-session series, was that awareness of my personal, emotional, and embodied reasons for pursuing a certain topic in history enhanced my ability to make clear choices in what to concentrate on and how to go about it. Between my work with Beatrice and weekly Focusing phone sessions with a partner, I have developed the ability to check in with my felt-sense of an issue or a topic whenever I take the time to do so. In a low-key way, it’s like having a superpower: an ability to relate to and take steps within one’s relationships, career, and thinking that isn’t even acknowledged, much less supported, within the broader currents of the culture.
There is a slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous: “It works if you work it.” Focusing is a practice that works if you work it. The means to greater self-awareness and greater discernment within processes, projects, and situations are not random or unfathomable. Just like learning to shoot a basketball or speak a new language, through effort, patience, and repetition, we can learn to relate to our interiority with increasing skill and efficacy. By “interiority” I don’t mean something closed off from the outside world, but rather each person’s unique and intimate mirror, filter, barometer of and participant in the world—the roots of our engagement, in whatever fields that may be. Learning the practice of Focusing has given me grounds for confidence and tools for constructive action. But no need to take my word for it . . . try it out! Focusing may help you to realize that you yourself are the basis for your own movement, the impetus for carrying forward with whatever you care to do.