Thinking Toys #5 — Focusing

One of the most powerful and easy to learn introspection techniques is Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing. The basic structure can be broken down into six steps, although he encourages experimentation and breaking the rules once you learn the basics. You can perform these steps slowly, over 30 minutes to an hour, or quickly, often in just a few seconds once you’ve learned the moves. You can perform these on your own or with a partner. Here is a short form of the instructions from his website:



1. Clear a space

How are you? What’s between you and feeling fine?

Don’t answer; let what comes in your body do the answering.

Don’t go into anything.

Greet each concern that comes. Put each aside for a while, next to you.

Except for that, are you fine?


2. Felt Sense

Pick one problem to focus on.

Don’t go into the problem.

What do you sense in your body when you sense the whole of that problem?

Sense all of that, the sense of the whole thing, the murky discomfort or the unclear body-sense of it.


3. Get a handle

What is the quality of the felt sense?

What one word, phrase, or image comes out of this felt sense?

What quality-word would fit it best?


4. Resonate

Go back and forth between word (or image) and the felt sense.

Is that right?

If they match, have the sensation of matching several times.

If the felt sense changes, follow it with your attention.

When you get a perfect match, the words (images) being just right for this feeling, let yourself feel that for a minute.


5. Ask

“What is it, about the whole problem, that makes me so _________?

When stuck, ask questions:

What is the worst of this feeling?

What’s really so bad about this?

What does it need?

What should happen?

Don’t answer; wait for the feeling to stir and give you an answer.

What would it feel like if it was all OK?

Let the body answer

What is in the way of that?


6. Receive

Welcome what came. Be glad it spoke.

It is only one step on this problem, not the last.

Now that you know where it is, you can leave it and come back to it later.

Protect it from critical voices that interrupt.

Does your body want another round of focusing, or is this a good stopping place?



An example of what this process looks like may be helpful. Every morning after meditation I spend about 5-20 minutes practicing Focusing. Today I explored my feelings around my relationship with one of my Grandmothers. I find our interactions aversive and stressful — one of the rare instances in my life when I regularly have this experience. To start, I called to mind the act of interacting with her, and memories of previous interactions. I tried to sit in that for 15-30 seconds. This is longer than it seems, try timing yourself! After a few seconds, a distinct felt sense started developing. You can also think of this as a gut feel. The important thing is to focus on the lower level sensations and emotions. I then began generating a list of words or phrases and checking to see how well they resonated with the felt sense. Hot, weak, small, heavy, tired, pity, muted. Some of these caused more of a jolt of recognition than others. After a moment, I converged on the handle of “heavy muting, unseen unrecognized”. I checked back with the felt sense to confirm a correspondence. Then I started asking it questions: “What is in this feeling? What is the worst part? What does it need?” Right away, I noticed an overwhelming sense of being taunted. It’s not that I have a strong urge to be heard and seen here, but rather that I was being invited to be heard and seen but then being denied the experience! Instead, I was having something else imposed upon me — the something else being her fantasy of what she wants me to be. This was an especially interesting realization for me because I pride myself on my ability to create my identity and experience. And here was an example, staring me in the face, of how I was allowing someone else to get in the way of this! If I was as good as I thought at constructing my experience, I surely would not be sensitive to the “silly” projections of my Grandmother! Having this insight provided some relief but the work is not done yet. The next step would be to explore how to help resolve the situation through action — a job for next time.



What happens when we introspect? We are often trying to better understand something about ourselves or our experience. Ideally, this understanding can correspond to the implicit beliefs causing our emotional reactions. This helps identify the sorts of interventions which can transform our emotional state. These are not always logical nor do they always make rational sense! 

Focusing is one framework for connecting with this implicit belief structure. By breaking complex feelings into parts and finding language that fits, we can understand them bit by bit. With understanding, some of the more unpleasant feelings seem to begin to dissolve. Alternatively, the understanding can help point to actions that you can take to resolve them.

For a more comprehensive introduction to focusing, I highly recommend the short audio book narrated by Eugene Gendlin.

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Also published on Medium.

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