What Focusing is and why it is useful

Human beings generally want to enjoy life and not suffer. Many traditions agree that these outcomes depend on how we relate to what we experience. “Focusing” is the name that philosopher Eugene Gendlin gave to an innate human capacity for engaging with our experience in ways that contribute to life “carrying forward” in satisfying ways. Focusing is something people do naturally to varying degrees, and can also learn to do, or do more deeply. Focusing can be done as a stand-alone practice, or as a way of enhancing other practices.

Scores of scientific studies over decades have shown that people who Focus are more likely to experience satisfying change when they engage in psychotherapy or other change modalities. [I used to have a more comprehensive link for scientific research, but it’s no longer active.] For his work, Gendlin was the awarded the first Distinguished Professional Psychologist of the Year award from the American Psychological Association (despite Gendlin being a philosopher rather than a psychologist). NVC trainers and mindfulness meditation teachers who I know find that Focusing supports and deepens their practices. I recommend it to my students as a valuable support for self connection.

What sound it look like if someone is just naturally Focusing? They might say something like, “I’m really annoyed that my housemate didn’t take out the trash,” and then they might pause, eventually saying, “No, it’s more like I’m feeling hopeless… I don’t even know why…” During the pause, the person would have been sensing inside, to see if it “felt right” to say that they were “really annoyed.” Likely, when they checked, they noticed a sense of deadness or lack of movement or lack of a “felt shift,” indicating that their body wasn’t “resonating” with their words. So, they waited to see if words might emerge that seemed more right. Maybe the word “hopeless” came, and they felt the pattern of inner sensations change, in a way that seemed to confirm that there was something significant about that sense of being “hopeless.” They trusted this inner indication enough to express that idea, even though it wasn’t yet clear why it would make sense.

So what? Why would it matter that a person checks inside to see where their feelings lead them? It is a matter of accessing our full wisdom. Some of the things that we know are easily accessible to our conscious mind. But a great deal of what we know is not, unless we know where to look. Some of what we know is stored in parts of our brain that make the information available through words. But other parts of our brain represent information in ways that are accessible to us only through body sensations and other nonverbal means. Focusing allows us to access and integrate the wisdom of our whole brain—which knows much more than than what is known by the verbally-oriented part of our brain that we usually rely on.

Some of the characteristics of Focusing are:

  • Focusing involves bringing our awareness to the “felt sense” of body sensations and perceptions, as they arise in the present moment, in relation to a particular topic.
  • Focusing involves noticing and following the trail of “resonance” between words, motions, or images, and the felt sense. When something “resonates,” we experience a “felt shift”—the pattern of sensations inside us change in a noticeable way.
  • Focusing involves patiently resting our attention in a place beyond what we already know, looking at what is initially vague and out of focus, and offering conditions that allow what was unclear to become clearer and more in focus.
  • Focusing involves trusting that our body-mind knows how to make life incrementally better, if only we are willing to offer kind attention to the places in us where something that is not yet consciously known wants our attention.
  • Focusing skillfully involves learning how “close” to get to a given inner experience, and how to relate to it in a way that is warm, accepting, and curious.

Focusing can be done briefly, for just a few seconds, or it can be done as part of an extended process that might last for ten minutes or for an hour. It can offer deep insight, or change how you relate to a situation, or support feeling calmer, clearer and more “integrated.”

Learning enough to Focus in ways that can be helpful is relatively easy. Dr. Gendlin originally offered a six-step model for how to Focus. However, there is a lot of refinement and additional technique that can be learned to support applying Focusing to creating deep healing and transformation. Specialized versions of Focusing that have been developed to support this; one of the most popular versions of Focusing is called Inner Relationship Focusing, developed by Gendlin’s student Ann Weiser Cornell.

Nonviolent Communication and Focusing are practices that share a common lineage, in that the founders of these practices, Marshall Rosenberg and Eugene Gendlin, were both students of the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers.

For me, Focusing is a favorite way of processing my life experiences. I experience it as a powerful tool for transformation. I encourage you to consider adding it to your toolkit.