Listening that encourages new ideas
Henrik, the main character in the short Danish film On My Mind, is a metaphor for the felt sense. He is in a delicate and deeply significant situation that is difficult to articulate. He knows what he needs to do, but the people he encounters do not know how to create an atmosphere in which his meaning could emerge. Listening and reflecting would have provided the simple accompaniment needed for his felt sense to “carry forward”. In my current class in Listening so that Change Steps Can Happen, we tried to pinpoint the moment when an adequate reflection of his words would have made a difference.
Carrying forward is an interactive process that can be blocked by conventional cultural notions. Cultural forms make for a comfortable social flow, but do not recognize the body’s capacity to make meaning. The body’s meaning-making process always wants to go further toward life. Pre-determined social forms can block and misinterpret it.
Welcoming what is unclear
The first part of the film is a metaphor for the Focusing process. Nobody understands what’s happening in the first two-thirds of the film. We don’t understand, and the characters in the film don’t understand. This how it is at the beginning of a Focusing process. Things are felt but unclear. That lack of clarity must be welcomed in order for something new to emerge.
We need to develop new ways of interacting in these troubled times. It behooves us to be open to what is felt but not yet able to be put into words.
When we look back from the end at a Focusing process, it all makes sense. I invite you to watch this excellent 16-minute Oscar-nominated film. Where and how would you have reflected Henrik’s words?
Then come back and read my comments below (spoiler alert). Let me know if we’re on the same page.
Creating an atmosphere of safety, empathy, openness and trust for a felt sense to carry forward
Even though the bartender is trying to be sympathetic to Henrik, her first reaction to him is a rather judgmental suggestion. She says, “You don’t have to gulp [your whiskey] it all at once. It’s OK to enjoy it.” Knowing what we know by the end of the film, this invitation doesn’t serve to create an atmosphere of safety, empathy, openness and trust.
How “round, closed, common notions” get in the way
After the first interrupted attempt at recording, the bartender says “It’s a nice song,” which establishes some rapport. Henrik tells her that it’s his wife’s favorite. “She says it makes the soul fly.”
This could have been an opening. In fact, with these words, Henrik is indicating exactly why it is necessary for him to sing that song. But instead of reflecting this, the bartender asks him three questions, based on conventional notions of why a husband would want to record a song for his wife. Given Henrik’s unusual situation, these questions only block his self expression, especially the last question: “She’s not dead, is she?” This question brings a final draining of the whiskey glass, and a deep sigh.
We don’t have to think of the right way to respond from our limited understanding. We respond by reflecting words that express the body sense.
After sighing into the class, Henrik says,
“Look, the dew. The story it tells”.
“What’s the story then?” asks the bartender.
“A human breathed here. And now it’s gone. An imprint of the soul.”
That’s a pretty deep statement, and I imagine a bartender wouldn’t know exactly how to respond. But as good listeners, we don’t have to respond from our own limited understanding of what is happening. We can just reflect back the life-forward meaning that we sense in the words.
A Focusing listener might say, “Oh, this is something important (that touches you, that means something to you). A human breathed there and now it’s gone. That droplet is an imprint of the soul.” This open acknowledgement of a “something” helps validate it. Its meaning might not be clear yet, but the felt-sensed meaning is definitely “there”. Hearing his words back would have shown Hendrik that his feeling was worth exploring.
But the moment is lost, with the bartender’s silence and a strange gust of wind that blows through the bar. Henrik seems to give up on the possibility of being understood. He just wants to get back to recording the song.
Cultural logic ignores the intricacy of the body sense
With her three questions, the bartender applies a cultural logic to Henrik’s need to sing the song. Is it for their anniversary, or his wife’s birthday, or to commemorate her after death?
In his article, The Small Steps of the Therapy Process: How They Come and How to Help Them Come, Eugene Gendlin says that carrying forward is “…picking up on where the person is, making contact with where the person really is. And the very contact changes the form…..The steps are an interactional process.” (p. 212, paragraph 4)
Listening in a Focusing way is knowing that the “body sense” is capable of being carried forward into its own right way of being
If Henrik’s “body sense” had been acknowledged, a carrying forward might have happened. This would have enabled him to express his reasons for insisting that the recording needed to be made NOW. It would have avoided the argument with the bar owner, given that the owner immediately understood the situation once it was expressed.
But, of course, there would have been less drama to make a movie about.
Expressing the body sense brings relief and opens possibilities
When a felt sense is expressed and reflected in a Focusing session, there is often a bodily sense of relief. A way forward opens that had not previously been seen.
We see this in Henrik’s ability to be calm, dignified and confident as he encourages his wife’s soul to fly away at the moment of death.
Felt sensing and carrying forward: implications for the helping professions
Henrik followed the dictates of his felt sense, even though he was not understood at first. The well-intentioned bartender wanted to relate to him, but their communication was limited when she asked questions that were based on her accustomed cultural and conversational patterns.
An open way of listening and reflecting would have helped Henrik move forward. An agenda on the part of a listener can impose an already-existing pattern. That doesn’t leave space for the kind of interaction that seeks to contact and faithfully reflect the felt sense. Contact with the bodily felt sense brings something new and full of life.
Implications for the world
Can you feel the implications of this for the evolution that needs to happen in order for life to continue on this planet? The logic that we have grown up with no longer serves us. Nobody knows what to do. War and fighting have been “go to” solutions for millennia, but internationally we are too aware of the destructive power unleashed by the weapons that have, up to now, seemingly insured safety and security (at least for NATO). In the US and elsewhere, polarization leads to people not being able to listen to each other, and that eventually results in violence.
Change steps are an interactional process that respects and facilitates the ability of the body to “make sense”. This sense-making does not necessarily correspond to any already formed system of logic. It changes as it is carried forward. The changes come in a precise way, arising from the body’s implicit knowing of what will make life better.