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Mindfulness

Focusing: A Step Beyond Mindfulness Meditation

Focusing is a powerful method for working through our distressing emotions.

Key points

  • Mindfulness involves learning to accept distressing thoughts and emotions non-judgmentally and compassionately, and also letting go of them.
  • Focusing brings a special kind of interested and compassionate listening to our distressed inner states.
  • What we least like about ourselves can change more easily when we listen to our troubled inner places as we would a dear friend.

Mindfulness is everywhere these days. Hundreds of new books have been written about it. Major corporations offer programs on it to their employees. Top-tier universities, like Harvard, Brown, Oxford, and UCLA conduct rigorous research on it. There are some neighborhoods in the vicinity of UCLA where you can’t throw a spiral-bound dissertation without potentially hitting a mindfulness research subject.

OK, that’s probably an exaggeration.

Yet why not? Innumerable studies suggest that practicing mindfulness can make you physically and psychologically healthier. Mindfulness possibly may help people sleep better, increase memory, reduce depression and anxiety, improve the functioning of our immune system, and improve our ability to handle stress. It may even slow down aging.

But what exactly is it? Mindfulness can be described as the act of consciously keeping your attention focused on the present moment in a calm, accepting, and non-judgmental manner. It’s paying attention to whatever’s going on inside you—your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations—as well as what’s going on around you, without immediately labeling any of it “good,” “bad,” “right,” or “wrong.”

Since most of us don’t normally go about our lives in this manner, people cultivate mindfulness by learning and practicing some form of mindfulness meditation. To practice mindfulness meditation, you typically sit calmly and pay attention to your breath, and when your mind inevitably wanders, you gently let go of whatever you’re thinking and come back to your breath. Lather, rinse, and repeat as many times as necessary.

Over time, and with lots of practice, you can (hopefully) learn that you are not the same as your thoughts or feelings. You can let go of reactive thinking and harmful, habitual emotional patterns since they are not as inseparable from you, nor as “real” or “true” as they may seem.

Developing the ability to reflect upon your thoughts and feelings instead of simply reacting is vitally helpful to living an emotionally successful life

But for all the benefits of mindfulness, when it comes to emotions, it appears to have a subtle blind spot. While mindfulness professes a non-judgmental and compassionate acceptance of emotions, it also views them as not particularly worthwhile or useful.

But are our feelings really this pointless? Are our mistaken feelings nothing but… mistakes? Or are they trying to speak to us, help us, get through to us?

Focusing: A Powerful Method for Emotional Awareness

What if all your emotions, even the ones you least like, are trying to tell you something important? If that’s the case, then all the effort you, I, and everyone else puts into quieting, correcting, or fixing “erroneous” emotions and states of mind could be itself the true mistake. Might it be more healing, and more conducive to wholeness, to listen, deeply and compassionately, to all that is within you—and not just listen, but engage with all aspects of your inner self, as you would with your best friend?

This is the path followed through the process of “focusing.”

Focusing is a mind-body self-help approach developed in the 1970s by psychologist Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago. The story begins back in the 1950s, when Gendlin was conducting research on what made some people gain more from therapy than others. Gendlin found that the therapy clients who progressed most rapidly in therapy were those who worked through their issues by intuitively getting in touch with a subtle, unclear feeling inside them that he called the “felt sense.”

This felt sense was nothing like standard therapeutic insights. Perhaps surprisingly, it was also different from what we usually think of as feelings—what we feel when we say, for example, “I’m scared,” or, “I’m angry.” The felt sense was vaguer, harder to put into words, yet clearly visceral. It was felt in the body.

Many therapies today use the term “felt sense,” but before Gendlin named it, nobody had ever identified it. Gendlin found that some people instinctively knew to tune into their felt sense when they introspected in therapy. Many even began doing it in their very first session. And they’d continue doing it as long as their therapist didn’t get in the way. When they tuned in and stayed with their felt sense, what started out vague, fuzzy, and hard to explain became clearer. New understandings emerged. The more they did this in subsequent sessions, the more they changed and grew in therapy.

Gendlin decided this process could be taught to people, who could then do it on their own without a therapist, especially if they paired up with another “focuser” and traded focusing sessions. His 1982 book on the method, titled (appropriately enough) Focusing, sold more than a half-million copies and has been translated into 17 languages.

Over the past four decades, focusing has been taught to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. It has been changed and refined in many ways by different teachers, most prominently Ann Weiser Cornell, author of The Power of Focusing, who developed her approach, called inner relationship focusing or IRF, over 30 years ago. IRF is now practiced by "focusers" in more than 20 countries on five continents.

Focusing, and especially IRF, involves a very special way of listening to your inner self. It posits that all of our inner states have a good reason, from their point of view, for being the way they are and a purpose for existing. That’s why changing how you feel inside to the “right” way is so hard, and rarely very successful for long. Being fully “heard” and understood through the focusing process allows our inner feelings to change of their own accord, often transforming them into positive forces in our lives.

Or, as Ann Weiser Cornell phrases it, “Everything inside you wants to save your life.”

Developing an “Inner Relationship” Through Focusing

Like mindfulness meditation, focusing begins with a patient welcoming acceptance of their inner experience. The first step of focusing is to sit quietly, then notice and identify what you’re feeling in your body as closely and honestly as you can. For example, it might be, “Yes, I am afraid of my boss,” or, “I have this nervous, jittery feeling in the pit of my stomach.”

Then you do nothing—not a single thing—to make it go away or even explain it. You simply pay attention to it exactly the way it is.

But accepting all of your feelings, or felt senses, isn’t enough. You need to develop an inner relationship with them. As you accept your feelings, you acknowledge that they’re only a part of you. You can do this by simply saying to yourself something like, “A part of me is afraid,” or, “Something in me is angry,” or, “I’m noticing a feeling of sadness in my chest.”

Then, you can “keep company,” in a sense, with the part of you that’s afraid, angry, or sad, just as you would with a friend who’s feeling troubled. We call this disidentification, and it’s key to the healing process in focusing.

The idea that you have separate, living “parts” inside may sound a bit odd. Yet it’s precisely the ability to “step out” of your hurt, incomplete, unresolved feelings and problems while remaining emotionally connected to them that gives you the power to heal them. When you move out of total immersion in painful or angry feelings and just be with them, frozen and stuck emotions and inner states can melt and flow and change. Even strong, painful, and confusing emotions can be felt and healed.

True disidentification is a remarkable and transformative experience. It’s not imagined, but a fully engaged cognitive and emotional bodily-felt state. Disidentification allows for an extended two-way communication between your exiled inner feelings and your whole self, which listens with acceptance and compassion. As the process unfolds, layers of hurts, fears, anger, and denied or conflicting inner “parts” emerge into awareness, leading, as they are heard and understood, toward a resolution and new integration of your whole self.

The Felt Shift

This integration process creates felt shifts that often provide an entirely new understanding of whatever issue you’ve been struggling with. These are bodily-felt solutions that you wouldn’t have reached by “thinking things through.” Felt shifts are completely different from consciously trying to become a “better,” less reactive person. They feel as if something disconnected within your being has been reconnected, something misaligned has come back into alignment.

While all forms of mindfulness meditation have great value, IRF shows that no feeling or place inside you needs to be denied, rejected, or corrected. You don’t need to meditate for years to discover that you have the ability to embrace and listen to everything within you with compassion. You can directly experience it.

Your feelings, all of them, have something good to give you if you know how to listen to them.

References

Epel, E., Daubenmier, J., Moskowitz, J. T., Folkman, S., & Blackburn, E. (2009). Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172, 34–53. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x

Siebrecht Vanhooren, Annelies Grosemans & Jeroen Breynaert (2022) Focusing, the felt sense, and meaning in life, Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, DOI: 10.1080/14779757.2022.2028660

Early, A., Krycka, K., Perlstein, A., ZAROGIANNIS, P., Afford, P., Boukydis, Z., ... & Ikemi, A. (2014). Theory and practice of focusing-oriented psychotherapy: Beyond the talking cure. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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