We are all survivors and I want to suggest that this is truly remarkable. Every last one of us has learned how to survive and function in the particular life we each find ourselves in. And here we are alive today. To congratulate ourselves for this feat is not to overstate but to name and recognize our genius in our ability to adapt to life and to develop skills that are exquisitely right for what is needed for us to function in our world more or less adequately.
We never question this ability. We take it for granted because it starts so young, until one day something happens and then the whole thing, our skill and our sense of our own ability are thrown into question. The event could be a simple thing, it could be something dramatic like an accident or a breakup, or it could be something gradual like the aging process. Whatever it is, what is real is that suddenly our ability to function and to know what to do comes into question. Depending on the situation, and the way we handle ourselves, this could come as quite a shock to our whole system, our whole survival system, even though we know it isn’t about our survival, but it feels like it is. We often panic at the very moment we need to be clear and centered, all because we don’t know what to do and we feel helpless in that frustration.
In short this whole thing could feel like it’s the end, with all the pain and despair that comes with that, or it could feel like the beginning of something, as strange as that may sound, with all the hope and promise that “new life” brings. It all depends on how we respond to situations in our lives that “happen” and how we respond to the realization that we “don’t know” what to do.
This article is an attempt to address this critical moment that seems to happen to all of us at some point in our lives. In this article I will explore a process that directly addresses the signal itself that says, “Something is not right in my life and I don’t know what to do.” I will explore a process that I have discovered that has created just the skills I needed to help me with my own critical moments in life, events that changed my life in ways where old survival skills were no longer useful, and were even detrimental. In fact, this is really my story, and the stories of friends and people I have worked with, stories of what happened to us, and what we did about it. I will also explore a larger issue, an issue that validates and gives meaning to whatever happens in our lives as an opportunity to expand beyond what we know and connect with something that is in us, but is bigger than we know ourselves to be. I will explore this as a spiritual journey addressing the spiritual questions of: Who are we? Why are we here? Why did this happen to us?
My own story starts with discovering the Alexander Technique after several back operations at the age of thirty-five, a time when it felt like I was at the very top of my career as an investment banker and consultant. A career that was actually going nowhere but I really didn’t want to know that. When faced with the probability of a degenerating back, a life sentence, I found the courage to take another look at my life. What was new was the insight to listen inwardly, perhaps for the first time, and that decision changed the course of my life. It was some time before I could name this inward experience. And then one day I was introduced to Focusing. Focusing is a process developed by Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago, a process that was rooted in the work of Carl Rogers, his mentor, called Client Centered therapy. I would like to start with Focusing because this is what I was really looking for from the beginning, where it really all started.
Focusing is all about listening inwardly and allowing something connected to our lives to come from there, something that feels fresh and new and positively creative. I want to say that what came for me twenty-nine years ago while having one of my first Alexander lessons is still as true and as rich today as it was back then, perhaps even more so now. My story is how Focusing and the Alexander Technique have come together in me in a way that feels so utterly physically, mentally, and spiritually gifted that I feel drawn to share this journey with others. To share what has been gifted seems so naturally my own next step.
In this Section I’m going to talk about three processes: Focusing, the Alexander Technique, and how they come together in the process I call Wholebody Focusing.
Focusing is often defined as a step-by-step process of paying attention to a bodily sense-of a situation, problem or creative project. It is more physical than feeling, and not merely body sensations, but the juncture where meaning is experienced in the body. Creative change arises at this directly-sensed edge of awareness, whether in thinking, psychotherapy, self-growth, art, or healing.
For example, I know I love to paint. I could quickly list all the reasons why I like to paint. But if I take a moment, and experience the whole sense of how “to paint” is for me, and let that whole sense drop down inside somewhere into my core — and then if I wait for a “body sense” to form of how my body actually carries this experience of painting, something very different comes. When I took a moment to do this, turned my attention inward and asked the question, “What does my body know about my love of painting?”, out of nowhere came a place in me that seemed to open up, a place that felt so loving. And then a phrase came, “This is loving!” And that felt very different from the list I had just made. It felt true, hitting a deep chord within me, and it felt rich and whole. It was not what I expected. This is an example of a creative change happening at the edge of awareness.
There are many possible approaches to awaken this Focusing experience. Each approach has its own qualities and outcome. One approach might be to ask inside in a bodily way: “What is the meaning of this?” “What’s the problem?” “How is this whole thing for me?” “Where in my body am I experiencing this?” Or another approach might be to ask inside: “What is there in the body right now?” “What is going on in there?” “What’s happening inside?” And then I step back and wait for something more to happen from somewhere inside of me that is at first unclear. This is Focusing, attending to something unclear in the body until something more comes.
The Alexander Technique is concerned with unconscious and automatic body functioning, and the way that some of these “habitual” responses are the causes of chronic physical disorders such as back pain and similar forms of dysfunction. F.M. Alexander realized early on how difficult it was for one to change these deeply embodied physical response patterns. Alexander teachers focus on ways to change dysfunctional patterns that are so embodied that they have become unconscious. They do so by attempting to replace “bad habits” through becoming aware of, and stopping an all too familiar dysfunctional response from being acted out. They then consciously “inhibit” the instinctive desire that comes at the same time, an instinctive desire “to do” that becomes even more intense when what to do is unclear. Instead of allowing us to do something to avoid the pain of not knowing, the teacher offers a set of orders to further prevent us from trying. The purpose of these directions is to make room for something else to happen, in Alexander’s words: “for the right thing to do itself.” An Alexander-type question might say something like: “What is in the way of my body’s natural functioning?”
F.M. Alexander observed that the body had to come alive as a whole in order for change to happen in a part. He observed that change happened out of a conscious relationship between an activated whole-body self and the part, and by making room for something new to happen rather than acting out of old habit. He also observed that any attempt to fix or make better through his own efforts only made it worse and defeated the very thing he wanted to happen.
Wholebody Focusing is a combination of the Alexander Technique and Focusing. In truth I have never felt comfortable with an external authority on how I should be, even if it was intended for my own good. My inner self never felt fully seen or appreciated and that didn’t feel right. One day, through a powerful physical experience with a Shiatsu teacher, combined with my own inner sense, I experienced that change could happen out of my body’s own inner wisdom. In fact, the change of functioning that came out of my body’s own wisdom not only embraced all that I knew from Alexander, but so much more, as there was life in it that I could identify as my own. I began to move spontaneously while at the same time having a sensed vision of where I came from and where I might be going. Both inner-directed spontaneous movement and inner knowing were happening at the same time. As often happens in Focusing, I seemed to get in touch with my own inner blueprint of how I can be, in a very physically alive way. I realized in that moment that what Alexander imposed from without could be awakened from within, in a form even better than Alexander or I could have imagined.
The Wholebody Focusing process gives us a way to access the body’s awareness of its own wholeness as a physical experience that has a sense of inner direction and purpose all its own. The body seems to be energized from within.
Some of the ingredients necessary for a poorly functioning part to change are:
Alexander would call this an awakening of the body’s “action potential”. But there is a big divergence in attitude at this point that separates Wholebody Focusing from the Alexander Technique, although the issue remains the same (i.e., change in functioning). Rather than saying that the habit is faulty and destructive and I know a better way, we can help ourselves embrace the habit and give it all the space it needs to reveal itself in how it has served our lives up until now. We get a bodily felt sense of what we do and discover that the habit has been there for very good reasons. At the same time, because it is in the context of the whole body, the resonating between the two (between the whole and the part) opens up the part to new possibilities it had forgotten or didn’t know were possible.
Wholebody Focusing starts with noticing body sensations. It starts with noticing how the feet are connecting to the floor, for example.
Wholebody Focusing begins with paying attention to sensory things happening, and we focus on this sensory activity as a way of becoming more aware of what is happening inside the body as a whole, starting with the feet and then moving the attention upwards. The intention is to awaken and stimulate this kind of sensory attending. Out of this stimulation we begin to notice other places and other bodily felt qualities. We are becoming aware of and looking for more sensory information, especially those physical qualities that point to specific postures that seem to underlie what is going on in us. At the same time we also become more aware of the body as a whole.
Just for a moment, imagine a physical dysfunction that is really beginning to get you down. Where is it? Can you find the place in the body that suffers it the most? Notice what you normally do when it begins to bother you. Do you disassociate from the pain in some way? How about doing just the opposite? How about embracing it, letting it be there just the way it is rather than pushing it away? See if you can allow it to be even more “just that way” in the context of the whole of you, with an attitude of unconditional acceptance of how it is, where it is, and what it seems to need. Then step back and make room for something more to happen directly out of the place in question. This is the Wholebody Focusing attitude, this is where we begin, and this is the starting place for more to happen.
The starting point in Wholebody Focusing is paying attention to what is happening in the body right now and making more room for that to expand or move in the context of the body as a whole, rather than trying to figure it out. It is not a denial of the problem. It is really trying to clear some space and create a safe distance from the problem long enough to have a well grounded sense of myself. From that grounded sense of me it feels easier to notice the place where my body experiences the problem.
I would like to suggest that the body, in its wisdom (before dealing with any specific issue, or even before naming an issue), wants to create a safer context for the issue. It does so very naturally and instinctively by grounding itself in a sense of the body as a whole as its natural support system. For example, what comes in me when the sense of the whole body is present is an awareness that I really can stand on my own two feet and be with this thing that feels like such a challenge. Yet just minutes before, this felt too overwhelming.
Again I also suggest that the first thing the body wants to do for itself is to become more open and more receptive to what is going on. It creates a safe context to do this. In Alexander terminology, the first thing the body wants to do is to expand and connect up to itself in a whole-body kind of way. This is often experienced as a kind of freeing up of the head-neck relationship and a lengthening and widening of the back, a process that seems to shift the physical postural tendency from one of defended against to one that is more open and receptive. This also creates a major shift in our attitude towards, and our response to, whatever is happening. The qualities that come with this change of attitude could be described as more open, less judgmental, more accepting; and this shift is often accompanied by a sense of compassion and empathy and even gratitude for what is there. The body posture itself seems to expand towards one that feels more positive and self-assuring.
For example, I am working with a man who is paying attention to a very scary and hurting place in his body. It isn’t easy for him to be with this place, but this is what we did.
This is what I mean by maintaining a sense of the whole person. We look for a safe place that is observable, that can be named, and a place that can be accessed at will when needed. Something very specific happens in the body when we start paying ourselves attention in this way. Given this kind of attention, the body tends to awaken to its inner processing. As an Alexander teacher I would name it as the body beginning to expand and let go of its habitual posturing, and beginning to have a sense of itself as a whole. In fact this is the first thing the body wants to do. The spontaneous but subtle shifts and movements are all part of the body’s wanting to release itself from all-too-familiar and habitual defensive postures (fixed, frozen etc.) that the body finds so exhausting, and find a way back to a whole body support that it knows.
I suggest that the body actually changes its posture dramatically when given this kind of attention. This is especially so when a particularly stuck or hurting place is given unconditional acceptance and permission to be just the way it is and permission to reveal itself even more. It changes its posture from one that seems so tight or held or pulled down, to one that feels more soft and more open, more connecting, more expanding, and more accepting of what is there. In fact these parts of ourselves welcome this kind of attention. Given not only non-judgmental attention but also permission to be, they often begin to express their story.
For example, I notice the fear place in me welcomes this kind of unconditional attention. It is more than the fear itself, it is the part of me that suffers and endures the fear. My tight jaw and my head seem to feel relieved and begin to soften and feel not quite so tight and held. I sense that they begin to rethink. And that is what I am looking for and what I welcome. They seem to begin to rethink how they react to life’s fears. They might begin to rethink that maybe they don’t have to hold this fear posture so tightly. Maybe, just maybe, there might be other ways of dealing with threatening situations!
My willingness to be with this place that holds the fear is the starting place for a whole new process to begin. It gives this physically painful part of me an opportunity to notice what it does and to begin to rethink how it might react in other ways to deal with fearful situations. As it begins to notice what it does and at the same time begin to rethink what it has always done with a sense of new possibilities, there is a tendency to soften and let go a little and at the same time to reach out for connection with other parts. This reaching out and expanding and connecting seems so natural, and it happens both from the part that suffers the fear and from the whole of me that wants to come to the support of it. A relationship happens between the part that is suffering the fear and the whole of me that is standing in its own empowerment. This relationship provides an opportunity for a change or a shift in the way I carry the issue.
F.M. Alexander explored conditions necessary for change by suggesting that what is awakened through the use of his method of inhibition and giving order is an awakening of “the primary control,” a relationship that happens between the head and the neck and spine. The first order is “Let the neck be free.” Alexander teachers know a lot about the importance of this head-neck connection starting at the Atlanto-Occipital joint. The top of the spine, where the spine connects to the brain stem, is like the doorway for awareness to connect to the body as a whole, as well as the place where balance and coordination is sensed. This is where a sense of an overall bodily expansion seems to literally “stem” from, and where a very specific searching for meaning is activated.
One of the fundamental conditions of Wholebody Focusing is a conscious awakening of the older part of the brain (the central core) in conjunction with the central nervous system accessed through the spinal cord. When we are in a defended mode (as in fear or panic) we close everything down at this point. We shut off the flow of information between the two in order to focus all our attention on fight, flight, or freeze. In other words, this relationship between the “old brain” and the body posturing is altered to prepare itself to fight or to protect itself in some way. We “pull down” the drawbridge and prepare to do battle. Our mind and body become focused on doing one thing. It is a kind of defense posture that limits the kind of stimulation that naturally flows through the body, and instead channels it all in the service of a single task.
I am attempting to describe what happens in the most simple of terms. Although I make no pretense to have a profound grasp of brain function, it would seem to me that the “old brain” is very much involved with fight or flight and protection, and the “new brain” (the surrounding cortex) is more involved with consciousness and awareness, that is, with being aware of what is happening in the moment and being able to think about it and make choices. The “old brain” seems more involved with keeping us alive, regulating the body functions, and keeping us safe. But its “tunnel-vision” shuts down one avenue of solution and is unable to simultaneously consider several avenues among which it might choose; and it is slow or even unable to change direction as the situation develops and better avenues open up. It is the cortex that enables us to see these choices, while the “old brain” drives us to immediate and determined action. Sensory awareness gets disconnected when the “old brain” shuts down and turns off its normal connection with the spinal cord. There is a kind of freezing of awareness when this happens as the fight/flight mechanism is triggered. If this triggering is repeated often enough the defensive posture becomes automatic whenever a similar situation stimulates it. This response pattern becomes fixed, automatic and unconscious, and hence very difficult to change.
The Wholebody Focusing Process is a way to stimulate the “old brain” to rethink itself in the context of what is happening now rather than react in a habitual pattern that has become frozen and automatic. It begins to become more conscious of what it has been doing (i.e., the habit) and at the same time there is a conscious wakening to new possibilities as it begins to stretch out, expand and reconnect with the body as a whole. It is then that this part of us begins to realize it can make choices and not just act out of instinctive or automatic reflex. It seems to say to itself: “I am so tired of having to make such an effort. Do I have to? Is there another way?”
I suggest it begins to rethink, kind of crudely at first. And then it remembers that it has this other part of itself that can help here, in fact it has the support of the whole body. This “new brain” part can question more consciously what is going on here, and what has gone on in the past, and compare that to what is going on now. And then there is a shift, and perhaps an even greater sense of the whole self gets triggered that points us in the direction of something more, beyond what we could imagine for ourselves out of our own life experience to date. I believe this kind of insightful thinking happens when the whole self comes together in this way, when the whole self has found a sense of inner unity or integrity as a whole person. The “old brain” doesn’t seem to be as conscious as the “new brain.” It seems to be more instinctive, but very clever (in a way the “new brain” is not) in how to maintain life when confronted with life-threatening situations. In other words the “old brain” seems to be more part of the unconscious and instinctive processes. The “new brain” is more part of consciousness and what it is to be aware.
I am working with a man who snores so badly that the snoring is interfering with his relationship with his wife and deprives him of a good night’s sleep. I invite him to get a body-felt sense of what he does the moment he begins to nod off. Because he knows Focusing, he is able to go back and be with what happens and describe it. How, when he relaxes and lets go, his jaw drops forward and down and becomes a heavy weight on his windpipe. This causes deep snoring and then he chokes off his breathing so that he wakes up and then the process starts all over again. The question is, can we stop this pattern without medical intervention?
These are the steps we follow:
We both knew that this experience needed to be repeated and reinforced and the story heard more fully. We were looking for a change in the way the windpipe functions as well as the way the jaw responds in daily life. As they come more into their own we hoped that the snoring would become less and less an issue. Sometime later his wife noticed that his snoring was no longer an issue between them. They were both surprised. Something had changed and they didn’t even know when or how.
Here we have an example of a maladaptive survival skill becoming a destructive force in a person’s life. And our question is, can we access the body’s own wisdom to change this deeply embodied habit? This experience shows us that the windpipe has its own knowing of how it would like to be if it could, and that it has its own way of asserting itself towards this end. At the same time it is clear that the larger story needs to be explored of why the jaw is the way it is. There is a story, a story of how the young boy kept himself safe by not speaking. He learned to control his responses by holding back and tightening his jaw. What kept him safe in early life has now become a destructive force when he relaxes and lets go of control, as in sleep.
What Wholebody Focusing affirms as a Focusing process is the importance of being well grounded in the body with a posture of open receptivity. If we are well grounded in the body base we avoid a lot of the pitfalls that can happen when we try to get in touch with a painful issue and then try to bring it into the body and attempt to get a body sense of it. In fact when we start with a traumatic issue it is very hard to get grounded in the body completely, at least a sense of the body as a whole. We are already triggered in the old response pattern, and it is almost impossible to let go of the trauma long enough to become fully embodied with a sense of the whole that is there to give support. It is my experience that the more grounded I am in my body in a whole body kind of way, the safer I feel “being with” something that often feels too scary or too overwhelming to be with. It is as if the body, as a whole, becomes the safe container for what wants to be seen and heard. The more I sense my wholeness the safer I feel to be with what is troubling me.
Another basic principle of Focusing is affirmed here. When we pay attention to what is going on inside we notice some things are calling for our attention more than others. It is like when we are in a social gathering, we sense that some people want to connect with us, and others hardly even notice that we are there. It is the same with our inner life, some parts will be calling us for attention and yet there are other parts that seem totally uninterested in our attention.
We make that discernment when we pay attention to ourselves in Wholebody Focusing. When we pay attention to those parts of us that want attention, connection happens with ease and something more opens up from that connection. There might be other parts of us we would like to connect with, but if they are not ready to open up to us nothing will happen. Again, just like with people we might feel attracted to, if they are not ready to make a connection with us nothing will happen between us. In other words, the desired connection has to be mutual in order for the “more” to present itself. The body, in its wisdom, seems to have its own road map toward growth and healing. Our job seems to be to make room for this inner-directed process to unfold in its own unique way.
The Wholebody Focusing process is all about being aware of my body as a whole, standing on my own two feet, as it were, and also listening to a part of me that needs attention. It is really having a sense of both at the same time. In fact there are three elements:
The me-being-with is that sense of me that is aware and is able to hold in its consciousness the sense of the whole and the sense of parts at the same time! The me-here, that holds the awareness, does just that. It holds in its consciousness a sense of the whole self next to a sense of a part that is hurting (for example). Change happens at this place of inter-relationship activity, this bumping up against one another, the whole and the part. And then I become aware that something has changed, often with an element of surprise. But only when I give my consent to the change does it complete itself.
I invite you to take another moment to go back to the previous example of being with a body dysfunction that is giving you some pain. This is what often happens:
Holding in awareness and giving consent is the new element in the evolution of the process. The injured part instinctively knows how to keep safe and protect itself from harm, but it isn’t aware of “possibilities” beyond what it knows instinctively. It cannot think the unthinkable!
In naming three elements, I realize those elements could each be subdivided into more elements. But these are the three major elements. It is very difficult to be with an injury unless you are at the same time well grounded in the sense of the whole of you, and also know you can move to a place that feels safe if you need to. If attention is given totally and completely to the part that is injured it seems to take over and become your reality and that is often too much to handle. It is very natural to try to “escape” or run away or use some familiar survival skill to take care of yourself.
And this makes sense experientially as well. In a Wholebody Focusing discernment exercise called “Limitations versus Possibilities,” for example, we are asked to have a body-sense of Limitations and then Possibilities in order to explore how differently they affect us. We discover that there needs to be a relationship between what we sense are our body’s limitations and what we sense are possibilities beyond these limitations. We discover that, in fact, the two are connected; one cannot function without the other. Implicit in our specific limitations are our possibilities! The hard part is to stay with both and allow them to interrelate long enough to present what wants to happen next.
Dr. Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy of the implicit really supports this discovery. For example, I encourage people to get to know their habits well, no matter how destructive they are. It is essential that we get to know them for what they are and how they affect us. Why? Because implicit in that knowing is the possibility of a whole other way of being and functioning beyond them! I suggest that knowing who your monsters are is the key to knowing how to free yourself from them. The monsters hold the key of their undoing! Being able to say, “This is what I do,” is the implicit next step beyond that, a next step that is usually not yet fully formed or clear.
This is a kind of open-ended non-judgemental way of knowing what it is I do. It is about staying with the body sense of this truth long enough for the “more” to appear that is implicit in this knowing! It is not saying that something sensed is okay as it is. It is naming something as it is without judgement in order to allow something more to come directly out of the truth that has just been named. There is a sense of discovery and wonderment. There is also trust that something new will surface, so trust is part of this process. I have a saying, “The old habit will never let go of us until it knows there is an even better deal in town!”
I suggest that there is a necessary thing that happens when we hold both our limitations and our possibilities in consciousness. Without this necessary thing happening we wouldn’t be able to sustain our attention long enough for something more to happen. I am suggesting that something presents itself in this relational space that is larger than what I know. There comes a kind of force in me that is not only larger than me but also a force that is able to show me possibilities that I would have never thought of on my own, and even present the means whereby these possibilities can be realized in me if I can give my consent to their unfolding.
I suggest that we become aware after the event! Something happens inside of us and I describe it as a relationship thing, a relationship between the whole and a part. We hold this relationship in our awareness not knowing what is going to happen and suddenly something changes, in fact the whole thing changes and then we become aware of that change. This is Focusing! This is the kind of experience that builds faith and trust in one’s self as a person, a person who is in tune with his/her own life. It gives me faith that I can trust not only in life, I can trust in my own life. There is a kind of empowerment process that happens here. I believe that what we are really searching for in the Wholebody Focusing process is a strengthening and an empowering of the human condition that I would describe as a sense of “Me Here”, standing on my own two feet with a greater sense of my own congruence. To me this is all about why I am here: to become more the whole person I was meant to be. Wholebody Focusing is a way to uncover the blueprint of that unfolding.
Joseph Campbell once responded to this issue of why we are here by saying that what we are searching for in this life is not so much to understand life or ourselves but to discover within us a resonance between what feels alive in us and that larger sense of life which seems connected to the whole universe. In other words we are here to experience what it is to be alive in the context of life itself. I would suggest that understanding in this context has its own place and its own right time.
Something very significant happens when these three elements come together. There is a shift in how we are with ourselves. We become aware that we have shifted and we do feel different and we are given an opportunity to give our consent to that change. I suggest that this “happening” comes about because something is present that is more than just that-familiar-me. At this point we could withhold consent and then nothing happens, nothing changes. We may be a little more informed but nothing changes fundamentally.
I am suggesting that when these three elements come together and interplay with one another there is a larger sense of self that appears. And this sense of the larger self appears out of the blue, and there is nothing that we did to invoke its presence other than allow these elements to interact within us. If I had to give it a name, I would say the larger self is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the experience of what we call God or Higher Power or the vast mystery of the universe or the great beyond, different names depending upon the spiritual tradition. I can appreciate why some traditions step back from naming what is essentially an experience larger than what we can know. The experience of this — this something which is bigger than us — is awakened, and I am suggesting that it is this presence of the larger self that has the information and energy we need to become more the person we were always meant to be. Contained in the sense of someone or something larger than me is the sense of infinite possibilities, those kinds of possibilities that are beyond my customary ego limitations.
I call this experience a presence of the larger self because it seems to be contained within me, and not something that comes out of the heavens, or some other external source. It seems to happen through an expanded sense of myself. When this sense of the larger self is present I often feel bigger, more expanded and even loved. I am suggesting that this presence of something larger than me is what makes this kind of change possible. We are accessing within ourselves something larger than ourselves that has this quality of possibility to allow us to change and the powers needed to do so.
How often have I heard someone say, “I know what I want but I don’t know how to get there? What do I do?” This is the magic moment. This is an opportunity to be with both: both the knowing what I want and the not knowing how to get it. This is the place where change happens, directly out of the not knowing. And all you can say is, “I’m in a new place, it feels different, I don’t know how I got here.”
There is a fundamental change in attitude that happens here, a very different way of thinking than what we are used to.
We experience the whole self as having the good energy in it to not only be with a part that is hurting, but also the energy and the insight needed for change to happen. This is what some people call the third option. An option that is almost impossible to define.
In that “coming to know” that we are referring to is both a knowing of what is wanted and at the same time the means to get there. There is a term for this that comes directly out of the Alexander Technique, the “means whereby,” a very strange phrase and yet essential to describe this kind of experience. Another way of saying this using Focusing terminology is that “implicit” in this quality of knowing is the means whereby this action step happens.
Giving consent activates the happening. By giving consent you are giving consent to what wants to happen, and by giving consent you are also giving your consent to the means whereby this does happen. It is not just giving consent to a possibility; it is also giving consent to the realization of this possibility in your body. So whatever you make possible for yourself in your heart or body-mind is then able to manifest itself. It is the wise man that chooses what he wants carefully, the saying goes.
This reminds me of a piece from scripture that goes something like this: whatever you shall release on earth will also be released in heaven. Often this is associated with the authority of the church, but here it is associated with the relationship between the unique self and the larger self. The consent of the individual self fundamentally changes the way we are in relationship to the larger self! In other words, I suggest that by giving consent in this kind of process everything changes more than we know or could imagine.
In Wholebody Focusing we make room not only for what is wanted but also the means whereby this wanting could be realized in the body. We stay with the wanting and wait for the getting. Implicit in the “movement” so characteristic of Wholebody Focusing is the “action step” needed to move our lives forward in a way they were meant to be from the very beginning! This is a good example of bringing together the essence of Focusing and Alexander.
I would like to go a little deeper into the nature of “giving consent”. When we are able to hold in awareness the whole and the part in question, possibilities arise in consciousness. Our job is to give consent to what wants to happen here that feels not only true but also a natural next step that feels just right. This is a very powerful force, this giving of consent. Unless consent is given, nothing happens. This brings me back to my childhood interpretation of the story of creation, how God made the world in seven days etc. The part I liked the most is when He described what He created that day and then said, “That is good.” It is only when He pronounced, “That is good” that I envisioned the whole thing coming alive. Up until that moment it was just an image in His imagination. It seemed to me that God needed to give His consent to its realization in order for it to happen. I feel we are doing much the same thing here. We are noticing what is happening between the parts, and between the parts and the whole, and then at some point it feels natural to give our consent to some specific possibility. We often find ourselves saying almost spontaneously: “I like that. That is good!” This is consent-giving and I believe this is what brings new life and awakens the body to new ways of being and functioning.
What the Alexander Technique and Focusing have in common is an awareness of the power of “not doing” in order to allow something more to happen that seems to come directly out of a relationship between the whole self and the part in question as an action step. There is also an awareness of the power of “giving consent,” consent that seems almost spontaneous when it happens from the core of the whole self, acting as one. Consent seems to come from a place in me that knows, a place in me that knows that it knows without questions, without doubt. It does need expression, but there is a kind of welling up of a “yes” rather than an effortful “yes”. It is more organic as it is more whole, welling up from the whole of me. It is very much like a plant reaching out to the warmth of the sun and at the same time saying “yes” to it! It seems beyond my ego. It is more of a tendency or an impulse from the whole person and there is an element of gratitude in the “yes” at the same time. “This is what is wanted” seems to come from the sense of a larger self rather than from the selfish little me that simply wants what I want and must have!
I would like to pull this all together in the remarkable story of Paul, a man suddenly confronted with a life crisis similar to a crisis we all may have faced.
For some time Paul had been diagnosed with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This is a condition where the median nerve in the wrist is being pinched in the carpal tunnel and this causes the symptoms. Such a condition is often associated with pain, tingling or numbness in the thumb, index and half the ring finger. Paul had reached his limits; he couldn’t go on. He felt despair; there was nothing he felt he could do. His wrists were just too full of pain to sit at the computer one more time. He had had enough and he didn’t know what to do, where to go. His wrists felt cold, with a kind of dull aching and it felt like they couldn’t do the work he had to do.
Fortunately Wholebody Focusing was an important part of Paul’s life, in fact Wholebody Focusing was developed and expanded as it has been through Kevin McEvenue and Paul working with one another over the last twelve years. Paul had already received all he could medically. Special braces had been designed and fitted to support his arms and wrists while typing and at night while he slept. He had been thoroughly tested for loss of strength, loss of grip, etc. The results suggested that he was in an early stage of a chronic condition that could worsen if not relieved.
On this particular day he decided to do something different than what would be considered normal. He put his worries aside, sat down and started to pay attention to himself. He paid particular attention to his wrists with a Wholebody Focusing attitude. Paul listened inwardly to the physical sensations in his wrists and allowed himself to feel that pain just as it was without the usual tendency to try to fix or judge or push away. He just listened to the pain, felt the pain and made room for the pain.
Suddenly he became aware of his gut, something very unexpected in this context. There was such a knot there in his gut, and it felt connected to the pain in his wrists. As he made room for the knot he was filled with a new wave of despair. He could see how he couldn’t work any more, couldn’t support himself the way he has, even though he hates computer work. He was reminded of how he isn’t sleeping and how it has been ten years doing work he doesn’t like. Now he can’t work, can’t even sleep. How is he going to support himself? Despair deepened as he realized that he can’t even do the work he hates to support himself and he is reminded that he has long lost the skill of doing the work he loves. Despair deepened in the realization there was nothing he could do about this; that was so clear. He felt powerless.
Again, this time he did something different, rather than drown deeper in despair he chose to accept the truth that he was powerless and that he didn’t know what to do. He decided to listen to the pain in his stomach that felt connected to his wrists, as this felt new and maybe part of a larger story. Once again he realized that he couldn’t do anything, that what was needed was beyond him, beyond his ability to make it right.
And then there came a shift in the pain itself. If it could be put into words, it felt like there was a shift from a pain that felt stuck to a pain that felt almost pleasurable although still painful. He continued to just listen and pay attention to what was there.
This must have gone on for two hours and more. And at the end of this time there was no clear resolution. He went off to work. But when he sat down at the computer he noticed his fingers were different, they seemed to be reaching out towards the keyboard. There was a kind of conscious trembling in the fingers as though they were stretching with a wisdom all their own, not his wisdom or even his consciousness. It was his fingers’ conscious wisdom. What seemed to be flowing out of his fingers was love, not the feeling of loving, but love itself. And that surprised him, he hates using computers!
In that moment he sensed a whole relationship change not only with typing at the computer, but also with people at work and the work itself. The chronic pain was gone. It was actually pleasurable to sit at the computer. It felt like all of him was doing the typing not just his fingers. It was like a dance coming from the whole of him engaged in making his fingers push down on the keys. This felt surprising and gratifying at the same time.
That night he slept. The chronic pain had dropped by about 80%. Over time he continued to have a good night’s sleep as the chronic pain disappeared completely. He stopped wearing the braces to type or at night to sleep. They didn’t feel needed; in fact, they seemed in the way of typing. They had protected him from falling back into old habit but they prevented him from moving into this new way of typing. Looking back, there hasn’t been the need for them since.
His work habits seemed to change spontaneously. He started to take breaks during his work periods. He started to smile at his co-workers, and in time developed friendships with some of them. He began to have a relationship with the computer rather than feeling smothered by it. This event happened seven years ago. Today if he works on the computer for too long, like continuously for days, he is reminded of the pain. In fact, the pain returns sharply, even more sharply than before, as a signal to stop and take a break. But it is a reminder rather than a return of a chronic condition. Paul’s experience of his wrists and how he was willing to listen to them is an excellent illustration of those special qualities inherent in the Wholebody Focusing attitude, namely:
I want to say more about this sense of the larger self in the context of the Wholebody Focusing process. Wholebody Focusing is a process of the whole person acting directly out of his/her own integrity. This is manifested when the sense of me-being-with is holding in awareness a sense of the whole body and at the same time a sense of a part that is needing attention. I suggest that when these aspects of myself come together in this way something larger than me is awakened. This sense of more-than-me seems to gently inform me of new possibilities beyond what I know, possibilities that feel just right for my life in the context of how it is lived now. And if I am able to give my consent to what wants to happen in me, I feel a sense of a new me.
I suggest that this kind of change in our lives happens through no effort of our own other than a willingness to come together in this way as a more or less whole person, and the willingness to give consent to what obviously feels naturally right for my life. I would also suggest, given my personal spiritual tradition, that what is awakened in me is a conscious awareness of the Presence of the Holy Spirit, informing me of how I could be and giving me the strength I need to embrace this.
So there are two things that happen. I become inspired as to what is needed in my life right now as a next right step and I am given the empowerment I need to embrace this. What is left for me to do is to give my consent, nothing more, nothing less. This is the process needed to change our lives fundamentally. This is the process that is needed to rethink the unthinkable. This is the process needed to become the Whole Person we were always meant to become from the beginning. This is what it is to be born again to new life. But as every mother knows, giving birth to a new life is both joyful and painful at the same time. Giving birth to growth changes in our lives contains both the sense of new life and new possibilities. This can be painful because what is new is a stretch beyond what is familiar and comfortable.
Twenty-nine years ago I suffered several back operations for a herniated disc and it looked like I would have a chronic back problem all my life, perhaps with more operations etc. To say that my back problem was a gift and an opportunity back then would have been crazy-making for me at the time, but not now. The back problem changed my life; it changed the way I look at life. I have a different attitude towards my life now, and what a gift that has proven to be. Now I see events that happen to me as gifts. They may have happened accidentally, but they did happen, and now maybe they can be seen as opportunities that at first were unclear.
At the same time it is still easy to believe that I can’t make changes that I really want for myself. I have a negative belief system that tells me that the more I want something the less I can get it! It tells me that no matter what I do, how hard I try, no good will come of it! It suggests that it would be much wiser to put myself in the hands of those who know or those who can! Only they can fix me, I can’t! So goes this belief!
In Focusing we know this voice as the voice of the critic speaking. There is a critical part of me that says I can’t. It is a voice that tends to undermine rather than give support. It is easy to believe it because it is very clever and it often undermines with half-truths. And it is partly true; I can’t do this all on my own, make the fundamental changes I need to grow in my life. I need the intercession of something larger than myself to take me there. What is that?
A year ago I had an eye operation that rendered me blind in my left eye due to an infection caused by contamination during the operating procedure. Staphylococcus-epidermidis, a postoperative bacterial infection, is a major cause of hospital-acquired infections. Of course I felt helpless as to what could be done, but I could make room for the pain of it with a Wholebody Focusing attitude. Because I felt so upset and so full of pain I felt the need for someone to sit with me while I listened to myself and to the eye that was infected. What transpired was remarkable and unexpected. The eye itself seemed to tell me to give the prescribed medication space and time to do its work. My fears and negative expectations were not helpful. In time I started to see again, gradually at first, until the sight was almost completely restored. But there was so much more that came in the healing process that was totally unexpected. I became aware of how I used this eye to control what I see! Now the right eye, the one that was habitually lazy, had to grow and live up to its potential! This brought subtle changes in the way I process information. Questions arose; maybe I don’t need to see as well with this eye as I think I do? Maybe there is something I need even more? Maybe this eye condition points to that?
Once again I was given an opportunity to access my inner knowing process to not only help in the eye-healing process but also my own healing process in becoming more whole. I began to uncover so much more in what was truly needed in my life now. I feel so grateful for this opportunity! An eye specialist really couldn’t have helped me with the larger story. She could attend only to the eye, not to me. This is like my back problem: as it began to heal, it gave me the opportunity to think in this new way and what a gift that has been for my life as I look back on it now!
This is the starting point in Wholebody Focusing. In the end the question still remains: what is this someone or something that I sense is larger than me that can help me make changes needed to grow my life? What is this someone or something that can give me a sense of the next step as well as the energy needed to take it? Who is this, what is this, and is some kind of relationship possible? How and in what way? Why is giving consent so powerful? How can I access this power? Wholebody Focusing addresses these questions experientially.
Now that I have put out what Wholebody Focusing has been for me, I think what I am coming to in this article is the question: how can my life experience benefit you? How can Wholebody Focusing enrich your life and give you a skill you need?
I invite you to take a moment to choose something that is troubling you, something that is more than a thought, something that you can sense in your body.
You may notice that this kind of inner dialogue is going on all the time. Without even noticing it, your organism is giving you signals continuously and you are responding to these signals not only continuously but also almost automatically and you hardly notice. Everything seems just fine until suddenly one day the normal response patterns don’t work. Panic seems to be part of it and compounds the problem. Now comes the question, what to do?
This is the point where it would be very useful to have a skill you can trust. When the normal patterns of taking care of yourself break down, and yet something inside you is demanding attention and you don’t know what to do, Wholebody Focusing might be a very useful skill for dealing with these signals. Wholebody Focusing is really a listening skill, a very special kind of listening skill that enables one to listen to a bodily felt sense of a problem that has a body-based signal calling for your attention. Listening to what is there, listening to a body-based signal and allowing it to inform you of what might be needed is a very different way to respond to these kinds of signals. Isn’t the normal reaction an effort to try to silence the signal itself rather than choose to listen to it?
There is no right way to be with these kinds of problems, but there are ways that could be more life-affirming than others. I suggest that Wholebody Focusing is such a way, a skill in fact; more than a skill, it is a process of being with an issue in a way that is very different from what we are used to. We may not be able to change the condition or situation, but we can change the way we carry it, a way that is potentially life-affirming rather than one that leads to depression and finally to the bitterness that so often comes with despair.
What we offer is a process that has really worked for us, and has been tested over many years. We have found it a safe way to be with something troubling inside, something that we would normally avoid facing because we don’t know how or would be too afraid! Now we feel we have a skill we can trust to face fears, those scary signals that tell us that something isn’t right, or something is out of sync, or something just needs attention.
Wholebody Focusing, a fully embodied listening skill, offers an opportunity to explore those signals that call for our attention, with the trust that by doing so we can expect a positive outcome, even if the facts of the issue remain unchanged. What has changed is the way we carry the issue, and that is what really counts. We feel confident we can face an issue that is problematic, knowing that we have a good chance to find some space and inner peace with ourselves regardless of what unfolds. This is not a denial of the problem; in fact, by creating a sense of distance from the issue rather than drowning in it, we are better able to see what is possible. Is it not easier to accept what I am, knowing what is possible, than to continue to fight the impossible?
The Wholebody Focusing process is teachable. To start, it is a process that really calls for a teacher, a partner or a good listener, someone willing to be present to you without any agenda, someone who is willing to hear you and accept you just the way you are, without trying to fix you or give you advice or help you in any way other than to act as a caring presence.
Again there are many ways to learn this process or to use this process in a way that fits your own life and practices. I like to teach people Wholebody Focusing related to a life-changing situation. We might explore this situation through Wholebody Focusing combined with something they love to do, maybe a creative discipline like movement or dance, or painting, writing or singing; maybe it is a particular path towards self-discovery or a spiritual journey. Gene Gendlin suggests that Focusing works best in conjunction with another discipline and I fully agree with him.
However, experience teaches me this is not a process that can easily be done on your own. It needs another person just like we need the presence of another person in order to grow. I think it was Paul Tillich who said — we become a person in the presence of another person and in no other way.
If I were to name a mission statement at this point in my life, this is how it would read:
In my own life I have learned over time that to come to know and accept my dysfunctional habits without judgment is the biggest and hardest step to take. And yet I have learned that this is the starting point, this is where the deeper, larger self calls us to attend. I have learned that it is the whole embodied self that creates the safe space for truth (what is) and possibility (what is possible) to co-exist at the same time. This is where and how change happens and more.
I want to teach my clients a way to access this inner knowing, an inner knowing that comes out of a sense of the whole in relationship to a part, in some kind of dynamic movement that seems to move the whole life process forward from within, in ways we can’t imagine. And I realize I can teach only what I know and what I live forward. Now I come to realize this is all I really know.
I would like to end with something that I discovered on my journey that is particularly meaningful to me. I came to realize that when a part of me is able to feel loved, it wakens to its own healing.
Kevin McEvenue, March 17, 2002