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Malcolm Welland  MA, Dip CTP, Member CAPT, Clinical Member OSP

Malcolm Welland, psychodynamic therapist Toronto, Canada

A Focusing-Oriented or Experiential Approach to Therapy

The other day I was helping a friend put together an important email that required a certain amount of tact. I was there as a kind of helpful critic. In the midst of the writing, my friend stopped and bowed his head. Then he looked up with scrunched eyes and a pained expression. I asked if he was alright. He nodded. He looked away and drummed his fingers on the desk in an impatient manner. Then he started to jiggle his right knee up and down the way people do when they are really nervous. I was about to ask what he was doing when he got up from the desk and started pacing, raking his fingers through his hair. Suddenly I knew what the problem was. "Are you stuck?" I asked. Then he asked me for a synonym for a particular word. He was looking for just the right word because the word he had used in the email didn't communicate what he wanted. What struck me about this whole process was how physical it was. What appeared to be a completely mental activity had many physical manifestations. This simple situation is a good example of the connection between what goes on in the mind and what is expressed in the body. The connection exists though we are not necessarily aware of it and may even disregard it. The process called Focusing capitalizes on this mind-body connection.

Developed by Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, Focusing is used in therapy as an experiential approach "to find and change where your life is stuck, cramped, hemmed in, slowed down"1. Focusing requires that you turn your attention to the body. What you try to be aware of is the "body's sense of a particular problem or situation"2. The bodily awareness is not a specific emotion, although there may be emotions involved, and it is not a rational analysis or discussion of the problem. One can think of this process as "knowledge brought to conscious awareness through the body but it is 'bodily sensed knowledge'"3. When presented with a problem, we tend to remain with a painful emotion or ruminate intellectually. This approach suggests that another avenue to explore is "how is this problem in the body?"4. How is it being carried? What can the body tell me about this situation of which I am unaware?

When we put our attention into the body, using a Focusing approach, something sensed unclearly can be brought into greater focus. Often that bodily awareness produces what Gendlin calls a "bodily shift". This shift is a distinct physical sensation usually accompanied by a feeling of relief or a "coming alive". It is the "body moving to a solution", writes Gendlin5. He states succinctly that "[i]n Focusing you don't talk about a problem, you experience a physical shift in how it feels"6. In this way, change is experiential, not just intellectual. The experiential nature of Focusing is a key feature of this process since it bypasses the analytic mind and when it is used in therapy, it is very pragmatic. It can also be used in one's day to day life as in the example we began with, or even in just determining what it is about a particular situation at work we feel upset about. The intent of the focusing process, depending on the nature of the issue, is to resolve some aspect of the problem not necessarily understand it.

Gendlin writes that a physical sense of a problem

"is not a mental experience but a physical one. Physical. [This] bodily awareness of a situation, person, or event [is] an internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time [and] communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail. Think of it as a taste, if you like, or a great musical chord that makes you feel a powerful impact, a big round unclear feeling"7.

The totality of this bodily sense and its "big roundedness" is unclear for the simple reason that we are dealing not with the mind and its ability to separate and categorize, but with the body where a "physical sense doesn't come to you in the form of thoughts or words or other separate units, but as a single (though often puzzling and very complex) bodily feeling"8. Often in therapy we have this kind of "feeling" but are unaware of it specifically as a bodily feeling. All we are aware of is this "big round unclear" sense of something which we attempt to articulate and put into clear concise words. A common question put to the therapist is: "Do you know what I mean?"

This undefined feeling is often what lies behind the beauty we see in art or when we are moved in a deep and profound way. Let me illustrate and summarize this through two poems. These poems are taken from an essay by D. T. Suzuki, one of the first Easterners to introduce Zen Buddhism to the West. In these poems, Alfred Lord Tennyson and the Japanese poet Basho both describe their experience of looking at a flower while out for a walk in the countryside.

The first poem by Tennyson, Suzuki says, is illustrative of an "active and analytical" approach. There is a drive to make sense of things by taking "hold" of something and scrutinizing it closely, "root and all". Here is Tennyson's poem:

Flower in the crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies; --

Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower --- but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.

Suzuki notes that Tennyson "separates the flower from the place where it grows"9. His need to know must be satisfied. He is using his intellect to make sense of his experience.

Suzuki then contrasts Tennyson's experience with Basho's poem which is grounded in the physical totality of the flower. Basho's poem is the traditional Japanese Haiku:

When I look carefully

I see the nazuna blooming

By the hedge!

The nazuna, a flower known in English as Shepherd's Purse, is a weed. This makes Basho's experience all the more interesting since the flower is not particularly special and possibly not worthy of the attention he gives it. Basho "lets an exclamation mark say everything he wishes to say. For he has no words to utter; his feeling is too full, too deep and he has no desire to conceptualize it"10. Basho's poem illustrates a more "focusing" approach. He has a fuller or more "rounded" experience of this flower and as such it is not present to him in words or categories. He shows us his experience by pointing to the flower's presence.

There are three features of Focusing and its experiential approach which are important to keep in mind and which are also relevant to the therapeutic situation. The first is that, in Focusing, we approach something, not in terms of its parts, but by trying to step back to get a sense of the whole issue, situation or the whole person as much as we can. It is unfamiliar territory for us because the wider, larger view of things is unclear and the mind is not comfortable with things that aren't clear. We need to let "the whole sense of the problem form not arguing with it, not challenging it"11. We allow things to take their time and develop in their own way. We learn to trust a natural process within our bodies. "We follow the body's way of finding answers to our problem. Such a process brings about change"12. This attitude is very important because it is a corrective to what Ann Weiser Cornell terms our modern tendency "to fix things":

"Focusing apart from any other method of inner awareness and personal growth is a radical philosophy of what facilitates change. How do we change? How do we not change? One way assumes that to have something change, you must make it change. You must do something to it. We can call this the Doing/Fixing way. The other way, which we can call the Being/Allowing way, assumes that change and flow is the natural course of things, and when something seems not to change, what it needs is attention and awareness, with an attitude of allowing it to be as it is, yet open to its next steps. Our everyday lives are deeply permeated with the Doing/Fixing assumption."13

This brings us to the second feature which is that Focusing, because it relies upon what the body "communicates", is itself dealing with change. Gendlin reminds us that

"Focusing is based on the expectation of change and as such it envisions the person as a process capable of continual change and forward movement. The "problems" inside you are only those parts of the process that have been stopped, and the aim of focusing is to unstop them and get the process moving again. When you are focusing correctly, you not only expect change; you create it in the very act of focusing"14.

Such a viewpoint is needless to say, very optimistic and positive. The third point to bear in mind is a simple but powerful one. When dealing with the "cruxes of life", some of which are demanding, painfully difficult and confusing, "focusing allows you to approach any [difficulty] with equanimity. Instead of backing away from it in fear, you walk right up to it and find out what's out there"15.

While an analytical approach can often be very helpful, Focusing and a Focusing-oriented approach, provide us, through our awareness of the body, with another perspective and an opportunity to bring about change in therapy. Our bias at times is to be persuaded by the fact that we understand something because we know something about it. Listening to what comes from inside the body affords us the opportunity to be aware "of" something and not just "about" it.

Cited texts

Cornell, Ann Weiser. "Three Aspects of Focusing." The Focusing Connection March 1998.

Fromm, Erich, D.T. Suzuki, and Richard De Martino. Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. New York: Harper, 1960.

Gendlin, Eugene. Focusing. New York: Bantam, 1982.

Malcolm Welland 2010 May not be duplicated or distributed without permission of the author.

1 Eugene Gendlin, Focusing (New York: Bantam, 1982) 4.

2 Gendlin 10.

3 Gendlin 25.

4 Gendlin 19.

5 Gendlin 25.

6 Gendlin 67.

7 Gendlin 32.

8 Gendlin 33.

9 Erich Fromm, D.T. Suzuki and Richard De Martino, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (New York: Harper, 1960) 3.

10 Fromm et al. 3.

11 Gendlin 29.

12 Gendlin 10.

13 Ann Weiser Cornell, "Three Aspects of Focusing," in The Focusing Connection, March 1998.

14 Gendlin 67.

15 Gendlin 30.