I was first introduced to the term focusing in the early eighties. I remember the moment when client came into my studio and told me she had heard this program on the radio, she just knew it was for her, and that she had to find out more about it. Later on, after she had attended her first workshop in Chicago she very gently suggested that this might be something that would interest me too. It seems this man Gene Gendlin was exploring something that was similar to what excited me, but from another background. Not long after that I had the opportunity to attend a workshop close to home that gave me my first experience of Focusing. The workshop was taught by two Jesuit Priests. They were just the men I needed to open up to a new experience of myself out of a background of Catholic Church and Jesuit education. It wasn’t until 1989 was I to connect with Gene Gendlin at the first International Focusing Conference in Chicago. I became certified as a Focusing trainer in the fall of that year.
At the time, my therapist had a dream that she shared with me that is still significant in relation to where I am with Focusing, and how it has evolved for me into something I call Wholebody Focusing. The dream was connected to how she perceived my work opening up. There was an image of an historic stone building sitting right on the border of two countries. The border ran through the centre of the house, and out of the solid stone foundations of the house came bright light, a sense of new life, bright and airy. It was full of new life, a wonderful feeling. There was a sense in the dream that the house had become too small for our needs so I had begun to expand it by building upwards, retaining the historical structure but now adding a modern piece which included the use of glass and plants to allow in fresh light, as well as new growth. This is Wholebody Focusing; something new, full of life, rising out of the stable foundation of Focusing and the Alexander technique.
My own background is in bodywork. I began training as an Alexander teacher in 1974 to explore a connection between my chronic back disorder and my life story. Somehow I knew that healing my back required a change in lifestyle and a look at the life story behind the back. Over the years, powerful insights and experiences affirmed for me that something inside ourselves knows better than any other authority what we need to heal our lives. When I heard something of Gene Gendlin’s connection to Carl Rogers, the father of client centered therapy, I knew that I was in good company.
Just before I was introduced to Focusing I had undergone a very dramatic body experience with the help of a Shiatsu Practitioner. Something inside of me moved me to ask her to place a heated pellet on the 7th cervical of the spine at the nape of the neck. When I felt the warmth of the little tablet, I must have dropped down to a deep place inside, perhaps into a light trance. What I experienced can best be described as my own evolutionary process. I saw myself emerging from an early form of life, a tadpole like creature. And then I proceeded to evolve up the scale of animal life to what I am now, a somewhat self-aware human being. But the message was clear: we have all the different levels of evolution in our body, which by knowing we can use as a resource for our lives.
Part of that knowing for me is included in F.M. Alexander’s work exploring improved bodily use and function. Gene Gendlin has since used the expression “blueprint” to describe a person’s innate potentiality he brings into this world which acts as a touchstone for how his life could unfold in a way that is uniquely right for him. My own experience taught me that our bodies know their full potential and how to become whole, given the right circumstances. When I was introduced to Focusing, I brought the general knowledge of a body worker and the life experience which stated that truth and direction came from within.
In this article I invite the reader to join me experientially as I connect two disciplines, Focusing and the Alexander Technique, which I call Wholebody Focusing. I address a question to my internal frame of reference (the body felt sense) and at the same time allow an inner directed movement to inform and express what comes in a physically spontaneous way. I mark one or two problems I had when I began to bridge the two disciplines. Finally, I hope to demonstrate that an inner directed movement which comes from the body as a whole makes a vital difference in the quality of the Focusing process experienced.
Now that I have outlined what I want to do and have asked you to join me in a Journey, I want to take a moment to drop down inside myself to ask this question: “What am I doing that is interfering with the natural functioning of myself?”
What comes right away is a strong physical reluctance to proceed further. There is also a familiar fear. “Do I dare speak directly from my own experience? Wouldn’t it be easier just to talk about my own experience? Couldn’t I talk about another person’s experience? Maybe I could talk about how someone else’s experience touched me? Out of that, I could offer what came as a demonstration of what Wholebody Focusing is for me! Anything but actually being with, and expressing from, what I am experiencing right now as I sit with this question!
As I sit with this, I notice some reluctance to proceed. That is the story of my life. The very moment I want to do something, this happens to stop me…
“What am I doing that is interfering with the natural functioning of my life?”
There is a reason why I am attracted to this question! I am sure doing something right now, I can feel it. I just don’t want to; I don’t want to open up in a way that I know I can. I don’t want to drop down inside and experience the embodiment that I am meant to experience. A part of me resists the possibility of opening up to myself in this very specific “wholebody” way.
At the same time, I can feel some changes going on in me as I acknowledge my resistance. In spite of myself, I am becoming more aware of my legs and pelvis and lower back, my neck and spine. So I am experiencing what I call a “both” (two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory experiences). In this case, it is both a reluctance to open up to myself, and an actual opening up process happening at the same time. I feel laughter in me as I become aware of this. It seems ironic. I am doing the very thing that I am saying “no” to! And, somehow I am able to be with both.
This is the new piece: the ability to be with both parts at the same time. That is something I had never even thought of before, much less knew how to be with. There was nothing in my research or that I had found in other resources that pointed to this possibility. I can both feel my body’s resistance concretely in my forehead, neck, and jaw, and at the same time, experience some life in my legs and lower back. I can feel the very warm and friendly movement in my back and also be aware of a cold ‘stuckness’ in my head.
Now there is some movement in my shoulders. They want to undo, to let go in some way and almost spiral around to the left. It is a leftward rotation emanating from the spine, through my shoulders, and right into my hands. My body, from inside myself, becomes more active. And now, I am aware of my head and my neck, and of a connection between them. My eyes and my upper chest: all these different pieces seem to be changing physically. As they do so, their relationship with one another shifts too. An actual physical adjustment is going on in my whole posture set.
This is what happens when I drop down inside of myself: this kind of dynamic posture set, for want of better words. It starts with an awareness of how I am carrying myself: parts of me in relationship to other parts; whether they are disjointed or tight; held or stuck, until they form a whole pattern of self expression. Then, I might be aware of a story. It could be an expression of fear for example, or defended, or a holding back and not wanting to. I can almost see the frame of my whole body right down to the bone as though I am a skeleton in a particular posture. But the posture is dynamic because, as I am aware of it, it begins to change as though joints in relationship to other joints, and parts that are connected to these joints begin to change their relationship to one another. Then a subtle movement begins to happen all through my body. That seems to be where my attention is now. The attention has shifted from the stagnant stalemate of disparate parts to an underlying, alive, knowing, purposeful movement.
There is a kind of movement here. It seems to be taking me somewhere in a very physical way, as though I am searching for something. That searching is especially there in the rotation of the head neck relationship. At the same time, I can feel my feet come alive and there is some flow happening through my whole body because of this very gentle subtle activity at the joining of my head and neck (the atlanto-occipital joint, where the head actually attaches to the spinal column.) This is a familiar place to me. As a body worker, I know how the body is able to close off the flow of information from the head down the spine and through the whole body at this atlanto-occipital joint by contracting the four sub occipital muscles. It is a survival tool, used to psychologically retreat into a defended posture. What I am experiencing right now is the opposite. I feel the flow through this joint, the opening up of connectedness at this point where the head and the spine meet. This flow seems to be carrying a kind of restorative, healing energy through the spine into the lower back, into the legs, through the arms up into the head, through the whole body. And as I sit with it more, I notice that it seems to go to the parts of me that seem to need it the most. It penetrates the tightness in my eyes. It permeates the woundedness in my back. It touches the inflammation in my right knee. Oh, there is my stomach! All those places in me that have a need for some restoration, some repair work, receive this energy’s special attention.
My whole body is opening up and the first thing that it seems do is repair some of those parts of me that need it. But the back and forth head-neck rotation continues as though searching for something more. At the same time this repair is going on there is more here. And the only way I can describe that is the sense of more “Me”. I have a sense of my own self separate from the repair process. Yes, the only way I can describe this is: “How it is to be Me!” And that sense of Me is now spreading throughout my body, from my head to my genitals, to my legs, feet, everywhere. And although I am sitting down, I am sensing how it would be for me to be standing in my own power, a very upright kind of posture.
I have to say it feels really good to be with myself in this way. And I’m surprised and a little shy to name the word that describes this for me. It’s a word I rarely use. The word is “behold.” I behold myself becoming a whole person in some way. I behold how it is to feel more whole. “Behold” seems to fit this experience as I witness my whole body opening up to more life. An image forms now. I see myself as an antenna-like creature, pulsing with life, attuned to everything within and outside of myself. It is a sensibility without need or desire. I am simply enjoying this experience of the flow and the pulsing as well as the sense of what is out there. Yes, the image of the antenna matches my upright posture. I too am expansive. My body spreads itself out like an antenna receiving waves of information from the air and from the ground. Hah! To be more! That’s the experience. I was going to say to receive more, and I think that is also implied. But it is essentially to be more!
Now I am having a critic attack: “No one is interested in this process. They might want to know about Wholebody Focusing, but they certainly don’t want to have to endure one of your sessions
Let’s set the critic aside and go back to that sense of wholeness. What a joyful experience it is. It feels so expansive, so open, like a container. I think that is why I use the word “antenna”. My image is of some kind of container that acts like a receptor. But it is also dynamic. It lives. At the same time, I feel the pain in my knee cap and I know that there is some inflammation there. But it feels different now. It has changed. It feels tingly, not in a painful way, in a positive way. It may be inflamed, but it is tingling as though there is some positive energy there at the same time. So I can allow its painfulness without worrying that it is getting worse. Yes, I can sit with this knee cap, and enjoy the painful tingling, because it feels good at the same time. It may be damaged or inflamed, but, right now seems to be being healed. I mean that in just that way, “it seems to be being healed.” As I say that, I feel a connection between the lower back at the base of the spine and the knee cap. The connection is very specific, and there is powerful energy emanating from the lower back through to the knee cap. That feels good.
I feel something in my sinuses and elsewhere in my head. The word for this is “powerful.” It is as though the whole of me is brought to attend my wounded knee. Oddly enough, my attention is not narrowed on the problem knee. Rather, my whole awareness is broadened in a way that the knee is the central figure of attention. I expand, open up, feel powerful and carry the wounded knee within this stance.
It is new for me to identify this experience of “expanded focus”. I used to associate the word “focusing” with a concentration of attention and a narrowing of focus. When asked to bring my attention into my body and drop down inside and see what was there in my center, I almost did that literally. I tried to get smaller. I could actually feel my head squeezing as I tried to shrink my awareness down through my esophagus, into my central Focusing place! Now, I am experiencing just the opposite. I am becoming larger than the habitual me. My posture is more expansive than usual, and the larger I become in this connected way, the more present I am to this wounded part that needs attention! The sore knee is there in a way that feels okay; perhaps not as alive, not as strong, but it is there. It strikes me suddenly, that this again is one of those paradoxical situations I love so much in Focusing: I am experiencing pain and pleasure simultaneously. Woundedness and Healing.
I want to put out another pitfall for me in paying attention to myself in this way. Rather than staying in that place that feels so alive, so good, I can easily get caught up in the pain of the knee and forget the rest of me. It is as though I am curious, and want to know what the pain is all about (and I want to know now!). So I let go of the body sense of where I am, and look for something else, some understanding or meaning. Unfortunately, I forget the grounded knowing that is coming out of my own experience and what that wants to reveal to me. It is so easy for me to set out on a quest for understanding and to forget the wisdom in the moment. Similarly, it is easy to see the answers outside myself in others, and loose touch with my own.
With this thought, I open my eyes, as though to reinforce the truth for me of that last insight. It is easier for me to look outside for the answers. This is the way I use my eyes to see, to seek out, try to absorb information, rather than allowing information to be absorbed quite effortlessly through the eyes into me. Although I know my own story and how it lives from within, in what I call a “wholebody” way, I can quickly turn my awareness in another direction, and try to be/have something that is not me. Of my own experience, I say, “this can’t be Focusing,” and then effort toward something I think must be.
I feel some tightness, I feel my spine being pulled off center at the very thought of this. And I think the key words here are “trying hard” and “trying harder.” Woo, I can really feel my spine being pulled off its center. It is so different from the upright posture I enjoyed a minute ago. Yes, I am really being pulled off my center by this thought.
Now my eyes close again and I come back to center. My spine realigns itself. That’s funny; as though my spine is my center, my alignment. So I want to point out once more what happens inside of me as a habitual response. I deny my own process and what I naturally become aware of when I pay attention inwardly. I seem to look for some other experience, like the “right way” or the “right kind of experience.” I try to make my own way match the “right way.” I might try to do what I think Gene Gendlin would do. But he does what he does so well. And, when I get caught in this trap, I deny my own rich experiencing which moves me forward when I am willing to accept and attend to it.
What I have learned from all of this is that I can stand in my own life, in my own upright posture set. I can live from my own sense of “Me Here,” and embrace, at the same time, what in me isn’t working so well. And I can feel the joy of saying that. I am both my possibilities and my limitations. I am trying too hard and learning to allow. I am what is new and becoming and old habits that keep me “safe.” And as I say that, something new is coming here that hasn’t been formed before: my limitations are my boundaries; I can’t live in infinite possibilities; and yet, I can be more than I am now. It is the relationship between the limitations and the possibilities that creates the structure that makes it possible to be something; something more. In accepting the limitations I define the boundaries essential to my well-being. When I define my boundaries, I become aware of possibilities. With possibilities, there is hope and direction. That does feel new.
It amazes me that most of the things I wanted to cover in this article seem to come up one after the other as I allow myself the luxury of a Wholebody Focusing session. First, there was the question, “What am I doing that is interfering with the natural functioning of myself?” Then came resistance, an acknowledgment of both a wanting to move forward and not wanting to. And, then: progress. I allowed my awareness to wander at will from one physical part to another until some movement started in me. In the movement, I noticed connections between parts of me that were both tangibly physical, and psychologically insightful. My life seemed to be moving forward from within. It was not my job to understand, only to allow the flow to follow its own wise course. My job was to attend, receive, acknowledge, name. I am pleased to identify how Focusing has allowed my life to move forward and to unfold its possibilities in new ways. The Alexander technique gave me an experience of what was possible. But it required that I get there through the hands of an Alexander Teacher. I could not sense my own life’s direction on my own; the intense wanting to recreate experiences brought on by a teacher got in the way. As I wanted so much, I tried so hard; so hard did I try, that I defeated the very thing I wanted in equal proportion to the wanting. I was defeated in either trying too hard or in giving up altogether. I had not yet learned to make room for both — the wanting and the trying.
All this changed when I learned from Focusing to behold. Focusing taught me to sit with both the part of myself that knows how my life wants to unfold, and the very things that get in the way of it. Focusing showed me a way to be with the paradox, the conflict (apparent conflict really), of holding two disparate parts equally in a way that brings an integrative next step. I would not have thought this was possible until I experienced it myself.
Wholebody Focusing (what I offer) is new possibility. If I can stand in (or sit with) a “wholebody” experience of myself and give attention to the movement that is moving me through something, this moving part of me seems to show me a new way of being with myself beyond my limitations. The very movement seems to take my life forward and actually give me a new experience of myself beyond what I know. A part of me becomes my inner teacher and shows me other ways of being that I couldn’t possibly have known through my habitual self. The movement that I refer to in Wholebody Focusing is physically expressive and insightful. Its revelations are totally in keeping with what I need as growth steps for myself. It isn’t fantasy; it isn’t a journey of the imagination. It feels very grounded in my own possibilities, in my own needs, in my own body, and in my own life.
I really want to qualitatively define this further. I want to say that Wholebody Focusing is an embodied experience of myself, that brings me the sense of an inner teacher that actually helps my life move forward at a very conscious level. It shows me a different way of being, a different sense of myself, and allows me to express all that it brings physically. I embody what conscious knowing brings and more: what is not yet conscious. People who observe others working at workshops often marvel at what they see as the unfolding of another’s life, and how we embody that. The groundedness unique to Wholebody Focusing makes the containment of possibility possible.
Kevin McEvenue, 1997 & revised and updated 2003
An original form of this article was written as a Chapter in a book entitled “Focusing in Progress” published The Focusing Zentrum Karlsruhe, Germany in honor of Eugene Gendlin’s 70th Birthday.