What is here urged are inward practices of the mind at deepest levels, letting it swing like the needle, to the polestar of the soul.
—Thomas R. Kelly,
A Testament of Devotion
One of the most important responsibilities of a member of the Religious Society of Friends is to lead one’s life in ways that enhance the ability to experience the Light within.
In my own development as a Quaker, there have been three particularly helpful influences on this aspect of my spiritual growth. One was a relatively brief but powerful relationship with a Quaker spiritual nurturer who helped me remember to turn and return to the Light within. Another is the Testimony on Simplicity, which encourages me to eliminate as much clutter from my life as possible, so that I can hear the still, small voice.
The third influence, which is the topic of this article, is a practice I have been doing for many years, which provides a step-by-step process for finding the place of inner truth that precedes language and other forms of symbolic expression. This process was developed by a University of Chicago philosophy professor and psychologist, Eugene Gendlin, and grew, in part, out of his experience of sitting in meeting for worship at Pendle Hill when he was a young man. He gave the name "Focusing" to this process. In a recent conversation he said, "Focusing arises from within a deep tradition that Quakers preserve for the world."
Focusing consists of a set of specific steps for finding an inner, silent place of deep bodily knowing that precedes thought and symbolic expression, and constitutes a person’s most basic experience of their situation.
A fruitful way of thinking about the relationship between the silent worship of Quakerism and Focusing is to imagine two overlapping circles: there is an area of commonality and two areas of complementarity.
The commonality between Focusing and Quakerism includes four elements: Truth resides within each person, rather than in external authority; Truth can be experienced directly by a person without the need for an intermediary, either human or symbolic; Truth is larger, deeper and more fundamental than any symbolic expression; and every single person is valuable. In addition, the centrality of bodily experience in Focusing is an element that early Friends took for granted in their religious lives, but is probably less available to present-day Friends. Scott Martin, in his recent article, "Quaking and the Rediscovery of Primitive Quakerism" (FJ, May 2001) considers this important subject in detail.
The way that Focusing complements my religious life as a Friend is by providing a specific, Quaker-friendly practice that I can use in addressing the problems of everyday life, so that more of my energy is available for living my ministry, rather than it being diverted to preoccupation with personal problems. As I introduce the six steps of the Focusing process, I will give an example of each step from my own experience. My experience is printed in italics.
Clear a Space
In this step the focuser acknowledges one by one the problematic concerns of daily life, without engaging emotionally with them. As each concern comes into awareness, the focuser greets it in an accepting way, and puts it aside temporarily.
I’m worried about my daughter who hasn’t called for several weeks; why doesn’t she call me? I’m trying to lose five pounds and limiting my food intake feels very unpleasant. I made a commitment to a friend and now I want to change my mind; I feel bad about this.
From the assortment of concerns, the focuser chooses one, and without thinking about or analyzing the problem, scans within his or her body in order to experience the body’s wordless expression of that concern. Some people find this step very easy, while others need more support and assistance in learning to find the felt sense.
I decide to focus on the concern about weight loss. Without analyzing the problem I turn my attention to the subtle, somewhat vague sensations in my body, and notice a feeling of discomfort in the region of my midriff.
Get a Handle
The focuser seeks for a word, image, or phrase that captures the essence of the felt sense. The handle almost always expresses something sensory, like "tight," "jiggly," "jumpy," "hot," etc.
I try out a few different handles: "broken," "shattered," "in pieces."
The focuser matches the handle with the felt sense, to see if the handle really fits the felt sense. If it does, the Focuser experiences the feeling of that fit; if it doesn’t, the Focuser tries another handle until one does really fit.
The words "in pieces" fit the felt sense very well. I let myself appreciate that fit.
In this step the focuser poses one or more questions to the felt sense and its handle, in order to bring the deepest meaning of the felt sense into conscious awareness. For example, a question might be: "What makes this problem so jittery?" Another might be "What does this jittery feeling need?"
I ask, "What is it within me that is in pieces?” I very quickly become aware that, while my life is very full, I keep the different aspects of my life quite separate from each other. The result is that the richness of my life doesn’t nourish me as well as it might.
In this step the focuser experiences an internal shift, whereby the beginning concern is eased and a fresh understanding emerges. The focuser can either stop at this point or repeat the steps with another aspect of concern.
I feel a sense of relief; the discomfort disappears and I have the beginnings of clarity about some changes I need to make in my life.
Although I originally learned these steps from the small book entitled Focusing and practiced it by myself for many years, I have since participated in programs offered by the Focusing Institute in New York City. In addition, now I much prefer to do Focusing with a partner, which brings with it a respectful intimacy with another person that is certainly missing in most of our social relationships and very often missing in our emotionally close relationships with family members and friends. My own experience of Focusing with a partner is that it allows me to glimpse the delicate mystery of another human being and leads me to feel more connected and tolerant in all of my relationships. I feel less distracted by peoples’ personalities and more able to experience them on a deeper level. For Friends, who place such a high value on community, Focusing provides a mechanism for moving beyond tolerance to true spiritual intimacy, both in the context of the monthly meeting and in our relationships with the larger community.
My Focusing experiences usually bring a sense of surprise, since the deep, pre-language knowing of the felt sense and the customary busy activity of conscious thinking very often produce sharply contrasting ways of approaching life. Invariably, in my experience, the understanding and consequent actions that proceed from the felt sense seem clearer and deeper than the understanding and actions that proceed from logical thought. One’s experience after a Focusing session is often, "I had no idea that was in there, but I know it’s true."
Another characteristic feature of a Focusing session is that it always produces a subtle physical change, perhaps a slight blush, a sigh, tears, or the release of muscular tension. This change is not deliberately "produced" by the person, but rather, it wells up from deep inside. I know first-hand that the physical shift has a spiritual quality to it, and it brings to mind a passage from Barclay’s Apology:
The soul has its own sense as well as the body. And that is why David, when he wants us to know what divine goodness is, calls not for speculation, but sensation: "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 30:8). The best and truest knowledge of God is not that which is wrought by the labor and sweat of the brain, but that which is kindled within us, by a heavenly warmth in our hearts.
Focusing seems to bring one closer to a point of spiritual alchemy, whereby body transmutes into soul and soul into body.
I know that some Friends are concerned that paying attention to one’s own problems is a form of self-indulgence, and that a person’s time and energy are better spent serving the world. My own experience is that Focusing not only releases more of my energy for service, but that it helps me to choose the forms of service that are really right for me.
Focusing has been an invaluable resource to me on my spiritual journey, and I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce it to other Friends.