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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.

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!

 

Focusing and Nonviolent Communication are inter-related.

NVC brings the awareness of beautiful human needs and how naming and blaming divert us from expressing what we need. Then Focusing can give us insight into ways that we can fulfill that need.

The bodily felt sense that is at the center of Focusing practice, shows us what our needs are, if we learn how to pay attention in a kind and gentle way. Giraffe language teaches us to look for feelings and needs instead of  judging, analyzing, diagnosing, giving advice, etc.

Focusing teaches how  to listen beyond  concepts and theories, to what is real inside us. In the Netherlands and the UK, I shared simple NVC games that we use in El Salvador to teach Listening, self empathy, implicit intricacy (the many-faceted nature of the bodily felt sense of a situation), resonating between words and the felt sense, and that the Focuser is the one who knows what he or she is feeling.

Participants felt that these games were helpful for themselves and in their work.

Many thanks  to Harriet Teeuw of  Nijeholtpade, Friesland; to Erna de Bruijn and Christine Langeveld of Focus Centrum  Den Haag; and to Mohamed Altawil and David Harod of the Palestine Center in Hatfield, UK, for arranging these workshops for me. And thanks to Harriet and René for making it possible for Nicolas Areiza from El Salvador to attend the weeklong training in Being Seriously Playful. It was a transformative experience for all!

The photo is of psychologist and woman-of-the-world Branca Sa Pires of Portugal modeling the giraffe ears I made.

Science tells us we are basically machines,
that consciousness, meaning, and spirituality are
Impossible…and yet…
Since we humans are here,
we can be certain that
we are not impossible.

A conceptual model of “reality”
that makes us seem impossible
has to have something wrong with it.

— Eugene Gendlin, A Process Model, Chapter III

For a wonderful introduction to Gendlin’s philosophy, go to http://lifeforward.org/id2.html

How listening and being heard brings hope

“She just didn’t hope. Didn’t know how to begin to hope.
I imagine that after thirty years the machinery for hoping requires more than twenty-four hours to get started, to get into motion again…..

“And she was still groping, you see. She was still trying to find something which that mind which had apparently not run very much in thirty years, could believe in, admit to be actual, real. And I think that she found it there, at Hightower’s, for the first time: someone to whom she could tell it, who would listen to her. Very likely that was the first time she had ever told it. And very likely she learned it herself then for the first time, actually saw it whole and real at the same time with Hightower. “

–William Faulkner, The Light in August, Chapter 19