Here’s an intriguing technique if you’d like extra insight on what to do, what you really want, or how you really feel about things.
It’s called focusing. And it’s kind of like meditation for people who principally think their way through life, rather than feel or intuit.
Perhaps most of us fall into that first group. It’s the way we’re taught to deal with problems at school. To think with our heads. To act like serious, logical professionals and grown-ups. Rather than weak, irrational and impulsive chancers.
Yet in neglecting the heart, gut or body, what if we’re losing out on valuable sensory information – intelligence, outside of our heads?
According to psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin, there’s experience and wisdom in our bodies that can emerge as sensations and feelings, if you listen for it.
Ever got a funny feeling about being somewhere (or something or someone) that you just can’t place? When you think about a big upcoming event, do you feel butterflies in your stomach, or restless – like you want to run?
Here’s a story for you
25 years ago, I learned to drive. I used to get out of the car sweating, cramped up and stressed out. Now, whenever something is troubling me, those same muscles in my back and hips (psoas) tighten. I take that as a signal something needs attention, or I’m neglecting something.
Focusing is listening for signals like that.
It helps us sense what’s going on inside. And we do it by giving ourselves space to scan and tune into signals we might otherwise have missed or ignored in the body.
If you only remember one thing…
It helps to not analyse or overthink this. But that’s (hopefully) one reason that led you here. To try something new and different, to escape old habits of staying in the head.
So the tip is to just sit with things as they are, like an open-minded experiment, and be curious about whatever sensations emerge in your body.
It’s OK if it takes a while. Be silent if you need to. Take your time. Feel what’s going on in your body, instead of your head. You’re naturally curious anyway – you’re human. So there’s very little effort required here. Just feel the feelz..
A focusing routine for you to play with
I’ve tried to write the steps or script below as if I’m there with you. Support from a fellow human is always nice, and seems to make focusing a whole lot more enjoyable and meaningful. But I’m probably somewhere else now, getting all tangled up in my head. Or hip.
So you’ll have to make do with my endearing style of writing about it.
Try focusing for 5 minutes if you’re new to this practice, experimenting alone. I usually do about 15-20 minutes when I’m working with someone in a guided session, reflecting back what comes up – it’s just nicer and more supportive. If you’d like to try that, drop me a line.
One last thing…
Like with meditation, it takes a while to get used to all this sitting still and being completely present, in-the-moment. Give up if you need to fart or run away from the demons.
Here’s one way to practice focusing
- Are you comfortable? Sit, stand or lie somewhere safe, ideally where you won’t be disturbed. Set a timer if you like – one without a blaring klaxon.
- Breathe in. Imagine drawing air from all around you, from your hands and feet, into the shoulders and hips, and towards the centre of your body. Then breathing out, imagine the air moving back out from the centre of your body, to the shoulders and hips, then out of the hands and feet again. Do this a couple of times, finishing at the centre of your body, then breathe normally. Feel yourself relaxing or settling into where you are. Now close your eyes if you want to.
- Clear a space: ask yourself how’s life going? What’s the main thing for me right now? No doubt you’ve got lots of different concerns on your mind. So the invitation is to give the mind a break by just seeing how you feel overall about these concerns. It’s kind of like zooming out on a family photo – the overall feeling you get from it, rather than zooming in on a pesky individual relative, or what a car crash that wedding was the day it was shot. Spend a little while being there with all your problems, questions, issues and challenges (I’ll call these ‘concerns’ from now on) and how they make you feel.
- What would you like to focus on? Amongst everything that comes up, choose a single, pressing concern. Stay zoomed out, feel what that single thing is all about – the whole thing. Unclear is normal. Feelings are fuzzy, after all.
- What are the qualities of that feeling?: Sit with how you feel about that concern. See what it’s like in your body, how do you react. Scan for sensations like warmth, relaxation, pain, urges to move.
- What word/image/phrase pops up? For example: tight, heavy, stuck? Or a hanky on the breeze, a cat in a tree? Or “run, run like hell,” or a line from a song. Anything goes. Random stuff like this pops up all the time, when you think about it.
- See how it fits: now go back and forth between the felt-sense of your chosen concern and the word/phrase/image. Does it feel appropriate? Does anything change while you compare them? Spend a while doing that.
- Ask what makes this problem feel so [whatever your word/image/phrase was]? Notice what happens in the body, any new sensations (like a twitch, ache, tingle). If it does (optional), check the new sensation against the word/image/phrase and see how one affects the other. This happens the more we tune into the body and get used to this weird focusing thing.
- Welcome: whatever happens, the invitation is to just welcome it. Whether it’s unclear or unresolved, pleasant or nasty, or even if that whole experience left you a bit bemused – just be welcoming. Thank yourself for taking time to try something new, and giving yourself some space.
- Come back to life. Open your eyes. Stretch, breathe, move. Return to thankless chaos.
How did that go? What did you find?
I was a bit dubious when I first began. It all feels a bit pseudo-scientific. Like we should be balancing our chakras with spirit. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just don’t usually operate in that realm.
Perhaps that’s why thinkers like us are drawn to it though?
At first not much seems to happen with focusing. That’s OK. Give it time. This is practice after all. It gets deeper as you get acquainted with your bits and pieces again.
Why keep up with focusing?
I don’t know about you, but looking back on life so far, whenever I made up my mind about something, I realise much of that started in my belly. I had a bodily, gut feeling; a sense-like intuition.
And you know what, when I acted on that, good stuff usually followed.
It was only after the gut-feeling signal that my head rationalised it. It’s like I had to think it through and justify the felt-sense before I acted.
Where do you get feelings like that? In the chest? Heart? Brain? Ass?
Given that example, I suppose I’m curious to cut out the middleman. And see if I can get clearer insight from my body too, as well as my head, and hopefully my cold, dead heart one day.
Maybe it’s worth persevering because what we’re really onto here is an extra, untapped tool (the body). And it has something useful to lend to all those decisions and actions you take everyday. Chances are you already do this, at some level, and focusing simply raises your awareness a bit.
Just in case you think I’ve totally lost it, here’s some edgy research that says we’d all do well to listen to our bodies as much as we listen to our heads.
Also: if my guidance above didn’t work for you, try these videos from the International Focusing Institute.