Focusing as a mindfulness practice
If you're an experienced Focuser, you can skip the first part of this page and go to "What makes this a mindfulness practice".
In this page's title, the word "focusing" is not used in its usual, everyday sense. It refers to a process of inner awareness that was originally identified, explored, and developed by Eugene Gendlin. Since then, a worldwide community of Focusers has been carrying this process forward.
As Eugene Gendlin was researching the process of psychotherapy, he noticed that the best predictor of a successful outcome was the client’s ability to stop in their tracks for an ahamoment. He went on to study this natural process in order to make it possible for people to make more use of it, in therapy as well as in any other context. He came up with the name "Focusing" to describe the process that allows a felt sense to form and progressively come into focus, much as an image comes into focus when you adjust the lens of a Single Lens Reflex camera, or binoculars.
Now, take a moment to check what you remember about the paragraph that was right above the picture.
You probably remember something about people getting an ahamoment. Also something that has to do with the sense of focusing a lens. But do you remember the bit about the client’s ability to stop in their tracks? What makes a difference is the client's ability to stop in their tracks, to pause, as opposed to continuing on automatic pilot. And that is what makes it possible to have the aha moment.
Of course, the pause is not the only thing. There are many ways to enhance this natural process. But nothing will happen if you don't pause.
More often than not, it's just a small pause. It feels like a natural part of the conversation, so you may not notice it, and others may not notice it. But it is the pause that breaks the flow of automatic pilot. The following is a 2-minute demo of what such a pause sounds like in real life.
If you see this text instead of the image of a sound player, click on the link below to play the file from your computer.
The process may be called "Focusing", but the most important step is to "unfocus" from automatic pilot. It takes a pause to unfocus. When you pause, there is an ever so slight sense of surprise (hence the "hmmm" sound you might make). This temporarily unfocused, disoriented mode is needed to activate your natural ability to re-orient, i.e. to focus on what is actually going on right now.
This has to do with the paradox of mindfulness:
- It is totally natural for us to be on automatic pilot (i.e. mindless), in the sense that mindfulness is engaged only when we need it;
- It takes gaming the system to engage mindfulness (the intentional pause, which interrupts the mindless autopilot mode);
- The disruption automatically engages our inner GPS, i.e. the natural way our whole organism takes stock of the environment and adapts to it, most of the time below awareness.
So, a very simple way to describe Focusing is to think of it as a mindful practice:
- You give yourself an opportunity to shift from mindless autopilot by "unfocusing", i.e. taking a pause (which can simply be a beat, a brief moment);
- As this pause disorients you, your built-in GPS takes fresh stock of the situation. This is similar to what Zen practitioners call Beginner's Mind. This is essentially a "right brain" process, implicit rather than explicit;
- You then engage your "left brain" in making the fuzzy felt sense from the "right brain" progressively more explicit.
Hence: If you don't know anything about Focusing, the most important step you can take is to start practicing intentional pauses. And to have some curiosity about the subtle things that may be happening inside as you do so.