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Thinking at the Edge

Thinking at the Edge is empowering

Thinking at the Edge (TAE) empowers us because it shows us how to think and speak from what we know from living.  Teaching TAE brings me joy and faith in the future of humanity. I love to see the smiles on my student’s faces as they discover their own ability to generate ideas from their experience.  

In this article, first I’ll lay out the problems with the common concept of what thinking is, then I’ll attempt to explain the new way of thinking that happens in Thinking at the Edge and give some examples. Next, I’ll show how Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit takes us beyond the helplessness and despair of Postmodern philosophical theories that deny that we can say what we mean. After that, I’ll give an example of how Thinking at the Edge has empowered me. Finally, I’ll give you a short guide on how to practice TAE for yourself.

What is usually meant by “thinking”?

Somehow, we think (feel, are accustomed to the idea, believe) that only very smart people or “experts” can think (formulate valid ideas, propose realistic solutions, understand what is going on). I have often felt that I was incapable of thinking (coming up with new ideas, understanding the big picture, knowing what would work). 

In the above paragraph, I have offered many different meanings for the word “think”. Post-modern Deconstructionist philosophers like Derrida have convinced society that words can no longer have meaning. Of course we can still look words up in the dictionary and find the meanings that are currently agreed upon. But we need new understandings. New words and phrases allow us to say new things. For instance, the meaning of “to think” has all the above meanings and many more, but the agreed-upon meanings do not contemplate the empowerment to think and speak that happens in Thinking at the Edge. 

What do I want “thinking” to mean?

I’ll attempt to define “thinking” in terms of Thinking at the Edge. First, you notice something you know but cannot yet put into words. There is a subtle bodily felt sense of this. You can learn to notice and describe the felt sense instead of skipping over moments when you struggle for words. You’ll learn to welcome it with openness and receptivity. When you welcome the bodily felt sense of something that has no words, it responds to your interest. Words, phrases and images start to come. The felt sense will offer you examples of times when you have experienced the knowing you are trying to articulate.

At first, especially, it works best to have a listening partner who accompanies you in this space, writing down what you say.  It doesn’t take long: usually a 20- to 25-minute session is enough to make some steps in the process. Further sessions will enable you to speak about what was previously unclear. 

Examples of felt sensing

Here are some examples that are similar to the felt sensing you use in Thinking at the Edge. You might recognize them.

  • An artist senses what color is needed next in a painting.
  • An actor immerses himself in a character. That feeling guides his portrayal.
  • A mother senses something in her child’s demeanor that tells her the child is becoming ill.
  • A musician ‘hears” the notes and chords that will convey a certain feeling.
  • A coach senses that one of his players has a problem, even though nothing has been said. 
  • Authors “love their characters”. From that love and receptivity comes an unfolding of what each character will do or say in a situation, and that in turn influences the course of the novel.
  • A gardener senses that a plant needs something, but cannot put her finger on it at first.

Once we have a felt sense, it can dialog back and forth with our intellect. As that dialog happens we must make sure that the felt sense is not left out.

Deconstruction can now be seen as making way for something new

Post-modern ideas like Deconstructionism have lead to a kind of helplessness, stagnation and despair. They make it seem that true communication is not possible. But Eugene Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit, and its practice, Focusing, open up new realms that value and validate human experience in the creation of meaning.

Instead of trying in vain to agree on the lowest common denominator and impose definitions on experience, human experiencing can enrich meaning and make words more relevant to our situations.  We can actually pay attention to our experience instead of wondering automatically “Is it just me?” Thinking at the Edge empowers us to open up relevant meaning instead of imposing outside, publicly agreed-upon definitions.  When there is space to explore the experiencing behind words, real thinking and communication start to happen. 

How Thinking at the Edge has empowered me

Teaching TAE has shown me that I can think from what I have lived. For example, if I am looking at the subject of “communication”, I can 

  • Notice and name my own experiences. 
  • Acknowledge gaps in my understanding and, instead of skipping over them, go into them, explore them. 
  • Recognize what blocks communication, separating us and diminishing us.
  • Concentrate on communication that connects, validates and encourages us.

It reminds me of the Quakers, who stood up for the right to experience God in their own ways, by waiting in silence for the Light. They had no patience for “steeple-houses” (churches) and priests, the accepted ways of connecting to God. 

It also reminds me of the recent revolution in music distribution. Now everyone can hear “their” music through Pandora, Spotify, etc. As a result, the record labels and radio stations no longer determine what we can listen to.

Thinking at the Edge empowers us to make our own thought connections, based on experience.

It’s time for us to learn about our own capacity for generating new ideas

“…I am very aware of the deep political significance of all this, People, especially intellectuals, believe that they cannot think! They are trained to say what fits into a preexisting public discourse. They remain numb about what could arise from themselves in response to the literature and the world. People live through a great deal which cannot be said in the common phrases. People are silenced! TAE can empower them to speak from what they are living through.”  —-Eugene Gendlin, Introduction to Thinking at the Edge

Right now, people are living through unprecedented situations. It becomes clear that economists and politicians, spiritual leaders, even scientists, don’t know the answers. This is an opening for new ideas, new ways of doing things. This moment is offering transformation. We need to empower ourselves to think and communicate from a generative place in order to meet the opportunities that might not come again.

Empower yourself with Thinking at the Edge 

Do you skip over moments where words are difficult to find?
Do you try to complete someone’s sentence when they struggle to express themselves?
Try welcoming those moments
. Here’s how:

  • First of all, take time to slow down right there and breathe.
  • Don’t strain your brain.
  • In that moment of pausing and relaxing, notice if there is a place in your body where the thing you are trying to express “lives”.
  • Next, describe how it feels in your body. It could be a pressure or tightness, a vague cottony feeling, a slight discomfort, a subtle feeling of excitement, an image, or many other subtle sensations.
  • Patiently go there and be with that place with interest and receptivity
  • You might feel it start to unfold into the words you were seeking. 

Find out more about my online classes in TAE.

focusing brings insight on our inner battles

Here’s an example of how Focusing partnership brings insight into our life issues. 

The issue: I have a triggering experience

I was at an online meeting with a group of friends. We started meeting with each other over 25 years ago. We all used to live in the same small town, and had formed a support group with each other while we all had young children. We would take 15 minutes each to share whatever we were going through without being interrupted. This “15 minutes for me” proved invaluable to us all as we navigated the seas between motherhood and selfhood.

So here we were, reunited after several years of not meeting. Five of us were together in one room in the town where we used to live, and myself and one other were online, via Skype. Skype was not working well, and I was getting increasingly annoyed. I had suggested before the meeting that we could meet by Zoom, which works better for groups than Skype. But the group had not encouraged me to pursue this idea, and I had not insisted. My annoyance with the inadequate technology was affecting my sharing when my turn came up.

I take my triggering experience to my Focusing partnership

Later I decided to Focus on this, because I didn’t understand why I had been so upset. In one way, it seemed like such an unnecessary attitude on my part. I hadn’t devoted a lot of energy to thinking about the technology before the meeting. Neither had I prepared an easy way to shift over to the new technology if problems arose. So why couldn’t I just accept that, instead of getting mad about it?

Also, I noticed I was blaming people in the group for not listening to me about the technology. I could have judged myself for overreacting and left it at that. Luckily, I had a Focusing partnership coming up, so I decided to Focus on that issue in order to gain insight on the situation.

My initial understanding of the problem:

What came to me first: “I know that Zoom is much better than Skype for multi-person calls because I use Zoom all the time for my online classes. The other people in my women’s group don’t do much online, so they aren’t aware of the potential difficulties. If I had thought about it more, I could have gently guided everyone over to my Zoom room. My experienced knowledge would have made for a more successful online meeting.”

I allow a bodily felt sense of the problem to form

I noticed something in me that didn’t want to impose, didn’t want to insist, even though I clearly had the knowledge and experience to make the meeting better. The “not wanting to impose” felt like a buzzy, chaotic sensation in the lower part of my head. When I noticed and welcomed the sensation, I could feel that there was much more going on there. The feeling lowered into my throat. It felt as if there were a war going on between two opposing tribes. “Yes, there does seem to be a lot going on inside about all this”, I realized.

Turning toward my felt sense and staying with it brings a new perspective

As my Focusing partner listened in silence, I stayed with it in a Focusing way. Soon I could sense that the war was between my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother projected an aura of self-confidence. She was sure of herself. This led her to a lot of successful creative endeavors which are unbelievably inspiring. But her self confidence did not leave room for other people. My mother was always doing her best to follow in the footsteps of her mother. All the while she felt an inner frustration and resentment at not being seen for her own merits, her own selfhood.

The felt sense of a battle had lowered into my body. Now I could feel it as a pressure in my heart. As I stayed with it, I could feel that my loyalty was to my mother. This implied a rejection of my grandmother’s tendency to steamroll those around her. In a restaurant, my grandmother would imperiously send food back if it were not to her liking. I always found that embarrassing. It seemed to symbolize everything I rejected about my grandmother, everything I didn’t want to be.

I could now see that insisting on having the right technology for my women’s group meeting reminded me too much of my grandmother. Even though I was very familiar with a better system, I was hesitant to “impose my will” on the group by insisting that we use Zoom. It was less complicated internally for me to just go along, without sharing what I know. That way I could maintain my inner loyalty to my mother, and not risk becoming a steamroller of others, like my grandmother. Wow, interesting!

I gain insight about how this is affecting my life right now

It came to me that I want to emerge from this period of my life with more confidence to share what I know. I need to find a balance between sharing what I know and feeling that I am imposing on others.

That evening I was going to go to a dinner for cancer survivors. I could feel myself facing the dilemma all over again–how can I share what I know in this new group of people? I realized that I could go to the dinner “armed” or “prepared”, by making copies of articles about the research done with Focusing and breast cancer by Doralee Grindler Katonah and Joan Klagsbrun. The research shows that even doing simple Focusing exercises, like Clearing a Space, can prolong the lives of cancer survivors. This gave me a jumping off point for sharing what I know. At the end of the dinner, there was a brief time to introduce oneself and say what we were involved in. I mentioned the articles, and several people asked me for information afterwards.

This is an example of how Focusing partnership brings insight

Gentle reader, if you have gotten this far, I have been describing the insight that can come from a Focusing partnership.

First, I had an uncomfortable, triggering experience. Then I explored it with the quiet, receptive listening of my Focusing partner. I found that there was a lot more going on there than I had been aware of.

As a result of my Focusing partnership I became aware of negative and a positive “instances” of how the issue acts in my life:

Instance 1 (negative): I got angry at my women’s group for “not listening to me” about meeting on Zoom instead of Skype, even though I had not really explained the advantages or set things up to implement what I know.

Instance 2 (positive): I went to the cancer survivor’s dinner “armed” with articles about how Focusing has been proven to increase longevity in cancer survivors. It led to several inquiries about Focusing.

With the insight I have gained, I am much more likely to be bolder about sharing what I know. 

In conclusion, Focusing partnership brings insight on any issue you are facing. Try it!

Creative thinking partnershipI recently had the pleasure of being interviewed about creative thinking partnership by Serge Prengel of ActivePause.com You can listen to the interview here.

The wordless, empty space is a bit disorienting at first.

Serge: We all are interested in thinking creatively, thinking outside the box, and yet, in the experience of it, when we have something difficult to resolve, we kind of tense up and that seems counterproductive. You’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of thing.

Beatrice: I have been thinking about it because I used to think I couldn’t think. We think that thinking is something that really smart people do, really creative people do, but not something we can do.
When I want to think about something what I notice at first is a space that feels empty. And probably for all of us that blank or empty, wordless space is a bit scary and disorienting because we want the words to be there. In school you are trained to be the one with your hand up, saying “Teacher, I’ve got the answer.” A place where there are no words is uncomfortable and strange.

Serge: Imagine the teacher and the little kid, and the teacher says “So, what is the answer?” and there is a perceived urgency and impatience, and the kid says “Uh, uh, I don’t know!” and that is really a very uncomfortable position.

We don’t conceive that we have a process, our own unique wiring, apart from what is being demanded of us on the outside

Beatrice: We don’t conceive that we have a process apart from what is being demanded from us on the outside.
It’s our own unique wiring. I remember Eugene Gendlin saying, if you don’t honor this and find out how to express it, your unique way of perceiving the world will die with you.

Often it seems that our unique gifts are our problems

A lot of people live without even knowing that they have a right to find out, “What is my way of perceiving the world? What insights come out of my unique wiring as a person?” We think those are our problems.

But I’ve learned from teaching Thinking at the Edge that the things that bother us, where we feel a little lost or like outsiders–if we actually pay attention to those very things, we will find our gifts there. A creative thinking partnership gives us a safe container in which to find those gifts. 

Serge: That is how we will find something that is original, that is us, rather than trying to buy it from the catalogue.

Beatrice: Yes, that’s thinking outside the box, but we don’t even have to let the box be defined by someone else. It’s thinking from who we are, our own experience, and then finding where that could be applied.

Serge: So if we want to really find something, find our original thinking, think outside of the box, there is going to be some degree of unease, discomfort, maybe even a little bit of pain in it.
By talking about it, we are validating that that’s the case–you can’t have access to it without going through that moment of disruption.

Welcoming the blank, wordless space

Beatrice: Yes. What is it that gets us through that blank space where we don’t know? We can easily slip into feeling “I don’t have the answer, I don’t know anything, I can’t do this.” That’s one way we could go.
But with Focusing, we learn another way to go. We can say “Oh, wow, here is this blank space without any words. I can welcome it, pay attention to it. I can ask someone to listen to me right there.” Because it’s hard to get into it all by yourself when you are just discovering this.

Serge: So it’s as if we have a map, and there are all these places with roads and forests and towns and then this area that is blank. We associate entering this area with signs that say “Danger! Wrong place! Difficult!” Instead we could say “Wow!”
It will be more difficult to navigate than if there were roads and signs, so that’s why it’s useful to have a person who helps us attend to this inner space.

Creative thinking partnership means listening in a special way

Beatrice: Explorers don’t go out into the mountains or the desert alone, they have their teams. Our listener is on our team.
It requires a very special kind of listening. This kind of listener doesn’t feel he has to intervene or come in with his own ideas or advice, or finish your sentence for you. Those are all aspects of the normal kind of conversation. This kind of listener welcomes the silence of the explorer.
“Oh, you’re in a place where you don’t have any words. Great! I’m right here with you. We’re exploring this together and I’m going to listen because I know that’s how you will move ahead.”
The listener doesn’t feel any responsibility for making this work, solving anything. The listener is there for the explorer.
Later they switch roles: the listener becomes the explorer and the explorer becomes the listener, so both have their turn.

Serge: One person could be exploring vast territories that are part of his or her inner landscape. Then the other person might be exploring a whole different landscape.

Beatrice: As the explorer becomes interested and receptive to his or her own inner space, things are going to start coming up. It’s only by doing this process that you can see how things start coming up out of this big nothing place.

The listener embodies the patience of planting a seed and letting it grow

Serge: Usually thinking is conceived as a solitary endeavor, where we are trying very hard to do something. We want to have answers and the blank moments are unpleasant, a failure. But if we didn’t have these blank moments, nothing new could happen. You can’t have a plant without the seed. We’re recognizing, Wow, what an uncomfortable and disturbing blank moment. That’s the seed.

Beatrice: You put the seed in the ground and nothing happens for weeks. You have to have faith. You can’t say “I planted my seeds yesterday and there is still no tree!”

Serge: For all we know, the seed might be dead and nothing IS going to happen. There is that aspect of the waiting as opposed to trying to dig harder. The listening, instead of trying to force anything or trying hard, is like watching the process, watching the ice melt, watching the tree grow. The listener exemplifies that and helps the explorer get it.

A creative thinking partnership session doesn’t take long

Beatrice: At first it sounds like it would take a lot of time that we don’t have. But if you are able to do this concentrated exploring with a good listener, 20 minutes is all it takes to get some breakthroughs.

Serge: When you start the process, it is very likely that neither you nor your partner will be very good at it or very comfortable with it. So it’s really learning by practice.

Beatrice: The whole attitude toward exploring these deserts and forests is one of interest, curiosity and openness to what we find there. Not a gotta-get-there, gotta-come-up-with-this kind of thing. Both on the part of the explorer and the listener there is an open spaciousness.
In our society we all have so much to do and if we slow down for a minute and pay attention to what is going on inside, the first thing we come to will say “You don’t have time to do this exploring, you’ve got to pay those bills.” We are in a rhythm of ‘what I gotta do.”
The first purpose of a listener is another human being who says “Hey, it’s OK for you to take 20 minutes out of your busy life to explore this something that you are interested in. Find out more.

Eugene Gendlin on A Process Model

Focusing is a practice, not a theory. My friend Susana Alvarez from Argentina recently posted a saying that roughly translates to: “Communists until they get rich, lesbians until they get married, atheists until the plane starts to fall…”. I wrote back, “But Focusers forever.”

That’s because, by Focusing,  we tune into our own felt experiencing as long as we have bodies, to get our own body perspective on what’s happening.

Right now I am translating parts Marshall Rosenberg’s Speak Peace in a World of Conflict. I’m translating it into Spanish to be sure that I am faithfully transmitting his theory to my students in Latin America. His theories are extremely enlightening.

However, I have studied Gendlin. Therefore, I want to make sure that theories never become more important than the lived experience of my students.

AND, as Rob Parker points out in our Process Model class, it is also important to read a new theory with a humble mind, rather than thinking that one can discuss it from one’s own  philosophical stance. Once we have studied and understand the new theory, we can discuss it from within the new theory itself.

Theories are conceptual frameworks

Apparently Gene Gendlin used to entertain himself when he was young by absorbing various theoretical frameworks and seeing that he could out-argue proponents of those theories from within the frameworks they espoused. He could do it because he saw them all as “conceptual frameworks”, whether Marxism or evangelical Christianity, or what-have-you.

This awareness is so revolutionary! It could mean so much for peace if people could be taught from childhood to value their living experience rather than having to fit themselves into a theoretical structure.

Focusing and what it means and how to use it–all this grows as I grow. That’s why I can be a Focuser forever, within whichever theoretical framework I find helpful at the time. I am struggling to understand A Process Model. I want to understand Gendlin’s theory of what Focusing means and how it is possible. You can get a sense of Gendlin and of A Process Model from Nada Lou’s delightful 1998 video. But even if I don’t quite understand A Process Model, I do understand what Focusing is from having practiced it. So Focusing is practice, not theory, and as Gendlin says, A Process Model “is just a theory.”

Snowden and the felt sense

Citizenfour won an Oscar for best documentary of 2015

A felt sense feels right despite the uncertainty of the circumstances. This illustrated in the documentary Citizenfour, a quiet, thoughtful, inspiring film about the week in June 2013 when Edward Snowden turned over thousands of classified NSA documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in a Hong Kong hotel room. Snowden was a contractor with the National Security Agency. He had become increasingly concerned about global surveillance programs run by the NSA with the cooperation of telecommunication companies. He wanted US citizens to know that their data was being turned over to the government, as it would be in China. 

“…every time you wrote an email, every time you typed something into that Google search box, every time your phone moved, you sent a text message, you made a phone call … the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment were being changed. This was without even the vast majority of members of Congress knowing about it. And this is when I start to think “Maybe we need to know about this, maybe if Congress knew about this, maybe if the courts knew about this, we would not have the same policies as the Chinese government.” *

Snowden had tried to raise his ethical concerns through internal channels at the NSA but had been ignored. He knew that he had to set up his revelations very carefully. Instead of the more random Wikileaks style, Snowden chose to turn his information over to Greenwald and Poitras, principled journalists who had, themselves, been subjects of surveillance. He trusted that they would not sensationalize the issue. He hoped that his revelations would open the subject for public debate.

By hoping to alert Americans to their loss of freedom, he was setting himself up to lose his freedom completely

When they met for the first time in Snowden’s hotel room, Poitras asked if she could film their interaction. We witness their first uneasy meeting. Snowden deals quietly and poignantly with having left his partner of many years, his job, and his family without having revealed to them any of his plans. He has stepped out into an action space, not knowing what would happen next.

Greenwald’s initial article was published in the Guardian, then Poitras’s article was published in the Washington Post. The next day, Snowden followed his plan to reveal his identity. He wanted people to know that the information was coming from a concerned citizen and not from some unpredictable rogue entity.

In the first part of the film, we get to know William Binney, a mathematician/cryptologist who devised a lot of the data-intercepting methods that are used today by the government. Binney had expected that his inventions would be used in a way consistent with the US constitution. However, he saw that after 9/11, data intercepting systems were used to track everyone, indiscriminately. He resigned on October 31, 2001 after 30 years with the NSA. The FBI interrogated Binney after he contributed to a 2005 New York Times exposé on warrentless eavesdropping. In July 2007, the FBI, raided his home. They confiscated his computer, discs and personal and business records. Citizenfour also documents congressional hearings and court cases in which NSA officials flatly deny or deflect surveillance charges. Snowden had a lot of examples of what can happen to people who protest NSA policies. 

To see someone put his life on the line like the 29-year-old Snowden, is quite compelling. We follow him day by day until his escape to the office of the UN High Commission on Refugees and his eventual exile in Russia. 

A cinematic example of felt sensing

I am interested in cultural examples of felt sensing. The slow, sensitive nature of this film shows Snowden listening to a felt sense. The felt sense can often be at odds with practicalities, but it leads to an inner sense of congruence and truth. 

From minute 56 to 58 of the film, there is a moment that illustrates what a felt sense can look like. After the journalists have revealed his identity (but not his whereabouts) to the media, Snowden gets some worrisome news from his girlfriend about government efforts to find him. He stands up, walks to the window, and stares silently outside for awhile.  Then he turns and says “It’s an unusual feeling that’s kind of hard to describe or convey in words. Not knowing what’s going to happen the next day, the next hour, the next week, is scary….. but at the same time it’s liberating. The planning comes a lot easier because you don’t have that many variables to put in play. You can only act and then act again.”

Here are the elements of felt sensing that you can see in these two minutes from Citizenfour. Snowdene pauses and senses inside as he stares out the window in silence. He notices a feeling that is hard to put into words. Like many of the most dynamic felt senses, it is multifaceted and paradoxical in nature. On one hand, the uncertainty of his situation is scary. On the other, it’s liberating. He is no longer planning things in his head. He knows he must just act, then act again.

Felt sensing can never be done by computers

This is why I teach Focusing and Thinking at the Edge. Not all of us have Edward Snowden’s courage and commitment to act on our conscience in a public way as he did. And yet we have many felt senses every day. Paying attention to our felt sense can help us act with integrity in situations large and small. In Citizenfour, we can see the simplicity and the clear direction that happens when Snowden gives expression to his implicit knowing. The felt sense feels right, despite the uncertain circumstances. 

As a species, we need to develop and trust this innately human felt sensing capacity. We all have it, and we can learn how to listen to it. Felt sensing can never be done by computers. It is not based on “the numbers” of probability. The felt sense gives us access to the whole of our situation, in all its implications, so that we can act as human beings.

Felt sensing helps us pay attention to what makes us human. Our humanity must always balance technology. Felt sensing reveals new and relevant truth, and when it does so, we feel free, liberated. Balancing our inner truth with our technological knowledge enables us to find new possibilities, far beyond probabilities that depend on what has gone before.

*Here’s a link to a recent interview with Snowden.

 

Many people think they have to fit their reality into some belief system or another, whether it be religion, atheism, paganism, science, communism, “the bottom line” or what have you, as if there were just one system that held the ultimate truth.

On the other hand, many people sense the miraculous mystery of life and have no need to believe or prove themselves right or argue about it.

The bodily felt sense is an excellent indicator of personal truth. When truth is there, the body feels full of life and meaning. It feels open, and new possibilities arise.

The bodily felt sense of situations is part of the process of life and what moves life forward. It is not about belief systems or conceptual frameworks. Familiarity with felt sensing can help people get perspective on the polarization that is happening in America that prevents us from living the values upon which our country was founded.

When we know how to Focus and how to Listen, we can listen for the reasons that each person feels as he or she does.

A body sense of wanting to convince, or of fear that if one is not an exemplary representative of ones belief system, one will “go to hell” or “be exposed as a hypocrite”—this body sense might feel tight, troubled, pressured, uncomfortable, limited and limiting.

Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit has a practice: the practice of Focusing.

Children are not encouraged to pay attention to something inside that feels and knows.

And I am sharing my thoughts with you, dear reader. Let me know what you think!