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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.

Thinking at the Edge (TAE) has helped me move from feeling powerless about climate change to a place of hope, with clear steps ahead that feel right for me.

My TAE process developed into how to position myself before any storm on the horizon, not just climate change. So I feel like I’m ready to go with coronavirus, straight into action, without the weeping and wailing. Action, in the instance of corona virus, means:

I am moved and grateful to Merilyn Mayhew of Sydney, Australia for this rich essay on her transformational process in my 7-week online class in Thinking at the Edge (TAE). Merilyn and I want to share her story of how TAE led her from helplessness to hope on climate change. This attitude has extended to her actions around COVID-19 as well:

I’m thinking of one of my students, J, a young man 25 years old. He volunteers with a youth group in his community and at a camp for disabled children. I am inspired by the way he applies what he is learning. We first started corresponding when he signed up for a free lesson that involved reading about a Focusing experience and noticing the elements of Focusing. The homework was to practice the pause and notice one’s feelings.  After a couple of weeks, he wrote back that he couldn’t do the homework because it was very difficult to pause. I replied that he did the assignment perfectly, because pausing IS difficult. I could see that he had really taken the exercise seriously. We corresponded a bit more about befriending our inner world, and how that helps one to pause.

Now he is taking one of our interactive video classes. He brought a friend, R, another young man who works with youth groups, who has had no Focusing experience, but who naturally went into Focusing during the first class.  The class is very interactive. That is something I value. But it takes some reaching out to find those who are willing to work with their own lives, like these young men.

“You need to stand again in your own experiencing … in your own felt ongoingness, which is that intricate complexity inside of life … to put into the world
what hasn’t been said yet, that you are carrying from your particular experience.
 
—Eugene Gendlin

Going into my experiencing. What does that mean? For most of my life, I thought I had to fit myself into the systems that other people had thought or written . It’s true, I can’t hold onto ideas in a rigorous way. But thanks to my dear Gene Gendlin, developer of Focusing and Thinking at the Edge, I know how to go into my own knowing from “experiencing“. Knowing from experiencing is at a different level than intellectual smarts. In fact, some intellectually smart friends of mine become imprisoned in their intellect. The maelstrom of air-tight arguments leaves no space for who they are, for their own wantings, for the longings of the soul. So the smartness becomes a source of suffering and self-rejection. I want to extend my hand and say, “We are so much more than that!”

Right now I am dealing with three forms of software that I hoped would make my work more effective. But that’s not what is happening. So I am going to spend some time today going back to my felt sense of what I want to be doing. That brings me to something Gendlin has helped me to grasp. My goals evolve with my interactions. Since I started learning the software, I have had some real life experiences that show me what I love, what fulfills me, what I want more of. So today, I will stop and let my ideas catch up to my “experiencing”: my own felt ongoingness, which is that intricate complexity inside of life.

 

 

Just got this letter from a participant in our online class, Giving Language to Stress. It feels very fulfilling to have this feedback, because it speaks to my vision, many years ago, of why I wanted to switch from being an acupuncturist to a Focusing teacher. I deeply respect acupuncture and what it can do. Acupunture is my first choice when I have a physical problem that I am not able to handle myself. And yet there are so many ways that we can improve our health by becoming aware of the patterns held silently in our bodies. I am grateful to Sue for wanting to share her story, and publish it here with her permission.

“In your TAE tele seminar, Giving Language to Stress, I learnt a huge amount about how I carry stress. I have been a lifelong stress suppressor, so wasn’t very aware of my bodily manifestations of stress.  Most helpful to me was the notion that we all carry stress in ways that are unique to each of us, and, of course, that what we stress about, is also unique to each person.
“I learned that, for me, stress was activated by being caught by surprise, or shocked, in some interpersonal interaction. Being caught off-guard would prevent my ‘internal editor’ from checking or inhibiting my real, authentic response (in case it might cause me to experience disapproval, anger, or worse from the other person/s). This was intricately intertwined with a severe lack of assertiveness. I was doing Conflict Management in my Counselling course, and observed how hard it was for me to be assertive. This puzzled me, as I am very articulate and can argue my case well in many situations. But not, as the TAE & Stress course showed me, in situations where I was caught unawares, or was uncertain of potential responses.  This was all happening at a very unconscious level. My ‘internal editor’ was protecting or guarding me, so non-Focusing approaches didn’t make much headway.
“This was also one of the other benefits of TAE. The structured nature of the steps gave me what was necessary then: a way of looking at my stress that was less identified with the ‘blocking’ part, which felt ‘safer’.
“Using the step of taking a situation that triggered stress, and stepping back to look at the patterns in this and another similar situation, really brought my ‘internal editor’ into clear view.  I have since learnt that this response-suppression pattern consumes an enormous amount of energy, and is stress-inducing in and of itself! The cost of not being authentic is huge.
“Before your class, I started going to a great chiropractor, who tested my adrenal function. This involved placing a heart rate monitor on my chest, and then simply having me stand up from lying down. This sophisticated software, used by cardiologists, reads the body’s response to this effort. Around 1000 was normal – my graph was basically flat-lining! The chiropractor asked me whether I had been under huge stress, and back then, my answer was no, because I just didn’t recognise it!!
“So, a couple of years later, post your TAE course, and some good supplements (Adrenotone by Metagenics), as well as a couple of Focusing partnering session a week, my levels are up round 600+. In addition, a recent blood test showed my usually very high cholesterol levels – 7-8+ (family pattern) had dropped 2 points , as had my blood sugar levels.
“I attribute this to Focusing, and I have been very grateful to your TAE and Stress course for being the precursor to these great bodily improvements, and really opening up this whole area of stress, and my personal manifestation of that, in a way that has allowed me to release a lot of those blockages to living and feeling, authentically.” –Sue Burrell, Sydney, Australia

A new 3-class in Giving Language to Stress starts Tuesday, May 19 at 6 p.m. Eastern (Wednesday at 8 a.m. in Australia). Or sign up for private, individual sessions.

Here is a beautiful quote from Monseñor Romero that could be used to introduce Focusing, the Pause, Thinking at the Edge (first in Spanish, then in English):

“Vivimos muy afuera de nosotros mismos. Son pocos los hombres que de veras entran dentro de sí, y por eso hay tantos problema. En el corazón de cada hombre hay como una pequeña celda íntima, donde Dios baja a conversar a solas con el hombre. Y es allí donde el hombre decide su propio destino, su propio papel en el mundo. Si cada hombre de los que estamos tan aproblemados, en este momento, entráramos en esta pequeña celda, y desde allí, escucháramos la voz del Señor, que nos habla en nuestra propia conciencia, cuánto podríamos hacer cada uno de nosotros por mejorar el ambiente, la sociedad, la familia en que vivimos.”

“We live very much outside ourselves.
Few people really enter inside themselves,
and for this reason, there are so many problems.
In the heart of each person there is a small, intimate place [like a monk’s cell], where God comes down to converse alone with us. That is where each person decides his or her own destiny, his or her own role in the world.
If each of us who have so many problems, in this moment, would enter into this small cell, and from there, listen to the voice of the Lord, that speaks to us in our own conscience, how much could each of us do
to improve the environment, the society, the family
in which we live.”
–Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero,
from his homily of July 10, 1977

“TAE stems from my course called “Theory Construction” which I taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Students came to it from many fields. The course consisted half of philosophy and logic, half of the difficult task of getting students to attend to what they implicitly knew but could not say and never considered trying to say. It took weeks to explain that the usual criteria were reversed in my course. Whereas everywhere else in the University only what was clear counted at all, here we cared only about what was as yet unclear. If it was clear I said “We don’t need you for this; we have it in the library already.” Our students were not used to the process we call “FOCUSING,” spending time with an observation or impression which is directly and physically sensed, but unclear. All educated people “know” such things in their field of study. Sometimes such a thing can feel deeply important, but typically people assume that it “makes no sense” and cannot be said or thought into.

“Oh,” one student exclaimed when he grasped what I was looking for, “you mean something about which we have to do hemming and hawing.” Yes, that was just what I meant.”

Eugene Gendlin, PhD

This afternoon, 4 “empathizers” showed up on the daily conflict resolution call from 4-6. There was Jesse from North Carolina, Harald from Portugal, Jonathan from Scotland, and myself.

There were no “takers” for our services, so we ended up having a fascinating discussion for 2 hours.

The calls that Jonathan and Jesse have been in on had to do mainly with problems within the movement, like friction between protesters and homeless people who have been living in places that are now Occupy sites, or who have joined Occupy sites. Jesse pointed out that often this is the first contact protesters have had with the realities of poverty in the US. Also mentioned were dealing with the reality of winter coming and of inner resources wearing thin.

While admiration was expressed for the way the movement is self-organized and not willing to define itself yet in one way or another, there was also concern that there needs to be inquiry into what we DO want. Visioning needs to be done about the society we want to create.

Jesse observed that in the day to day necessities of survival in the camps, not enough time and attention go into connection to self, in ways that can renew inner resources AND lead to the visioning and thinking process. Those actively involved in the protests often have had no experience with the value of empathic listening or thinking from the felt sense.

If deep listening and thinking in new ways are not incorporated into the movement, there is the danger of easy enemies being targeted: there might be no real recognition of the part we all play in having created this societal and economic structure that doesn’t work anymore. We run the risk giving all our energy to “removing Mubarak” (in the US, the “one percent”) but having no real and lasting change.

We agreed that the kind of empathic listening that we offer can do a lot to facilitate the change that needs to take place.

We somehow need to build trust in our services and get people to experience the value of touching into what is emerging from inside, both to prevent burnout, ease pain and aid the new thinking process.

Jesse’s observation from listening to the protesters was that “a lot of the pain is from raw confusion of what to do next.”

From my perspective, it would be great if all the people familiar with Focusing and Thinking at the Edge could inundate the Occupy Wall Street groups, pencils in hand. It could go a long way to allowing fresh thinking and action to emerge.

It felt to all four of us that human interaction is uniquely central to these protests, and therefore those of us familiar with Focusing, NVC and other tools for peace really need to take our place as part of it. We need to let the protesters know that we are there for them not just when conflicts erupt, but also to listen deeply to their ideas, discomforts, and soul urgings, so that the movement can really express the richness it wants to bring to the world.