Last year when we worked on focusing we used the technique pioneered by Ann Weiser Cornell in her book The Power of Focusing, which was my own personal introduction to the method. It was a great introduction to noticing how the body communicates to us something we need to know about our deeper selves, and how we can tap into that and attend to it if only we took the time to pay attention, ask, and listen.
Purists might disagree, but I consider focusing a form of meditation because it is just another way of quietly coming home to ourselves. But focusing also feels different from most traditional sitting practices because it really asks us to focus on the body (rather than the breath). It also requires that we be more “active,” in that we are meant to engage with what’s bubbling to the surface, rather than simply letting those bubbles go. One Dreamer & Schemer said that the focus on the body gave her something to hook into more easily than perhaps more “abstract” meditations, and that the experience led her to gain a new appreciation for her body!
Cornell teaches us that when the body produces a certain sensation, it is revealing something about our inner truth. Any feelings of pain or discomfort are calling our attention to something beyond our physical state. When we are able to give loving attention to these signals from our body, we have the power to heal ourselves. Focusing is really about holding ourselves in unconditional love—giving ourselves, that is, undivided attention and not shying away from anything uncomfortable for fear of being hurt.
This year, my attention was drawn to the work of one of her students, David I. Rome, whose book, Your Body Knows the Answer, really called to me. He has a really beautiful, creative ability to describe bodily sensation with colorful, precise, even unusual language, and he encourages to do the same. He really teaches us, in other words, not to be so quick to jump to emotional labels so quickly. Instead of saying “I am sad” or even “I feel sad,” he challenges us to answer, “How am I feeling?” more descriptively and provocatively: I feel a dark heavy stone in my chest / I feel like a stretched out rubber band.
Remember that when we are working with the felt sense we are trying to reach a deeper truth about ourselves. Often that deeper truth is what we tend to ignore or repress, so it may be a bit shy in revealing itself at first. With patience, though, the initial feelings that emerge—the ones that are usually there to protect us—begin to give way to the real stuff. Anger, for example, often hides hurt or fear. But even something as seemingly benign or “positive” as jollity can mask a deep sadness.
Through a process of friendly attending—a gentle, open-minded, open-hearted, and earnest approach—we create a safe space for our more challenging emotions to emerge. (This is the same idea behind the shadow work of the Monster Celebration.) We are thus able to get to our hidden depths and bring to light what is asking to be healed and let go.
Rome’s approach to mindful focusing is very similar to Cornell’s, but I liked how he builds up to his full focusing protocol with smaller exercises (such as the GAP meditation from January’s gathering). I also like how he acknowledges that the sequence of steps he outlines is simply a guideline, not a prescription. He encourages us to practice with freshness, and letting the process develop and change organically.
Before the exercise I encouraged everyone to place themselves in beginner’s mind: “I am curious, I learn, and the body teaches me.” This places us in the inviting stance of empathic inquiry, where we face our emotions without the need for either aggression or defensiveness.
With that lengthy preface, below is an adapted version of David Rome’s MINDFUL FOCUSING PROTOCOL, which can be found on ppp. 54-55 of his book:
- GAP meditation
- Assume an attitude of friendly attending and find a felt sense in one of three ways:
- Work on something that us currently present and alive in your life, if not your body at the moment.
- Ask your body to show you what needs attention: “What wants my attention just now?”
- Bring to mind a situation that you have questions about and wish to resolve.
- Bring the felt sense into focus.
- Instead of jumping to labels and stories, describe its felt qualities using a worse, phrase, metaphor, image, or gesture.
- Ask yourself, “Does this resonate?”
- Empathic inquiry: pose a question and wait for the felt sense to respond. Rome’s sample questions are below, but feel free to develop a dialogue with your felt sense as you feel inspired to.
- “What makes [you, me] feel ______?” (e.g., “like a heavy stone” or “a stretched out rubber band”?)
- “What is the worst part of all this?”
- “What do [you, I] fear?”
- “What is that [you. I] want or need?”
- Acknowledge and appreciate what came up.
- Notice and receive any small steps, felt shifts (physical, emotional, mental), and insights.
- Ask, “Is there more?”
- Choose when to stop for now.
- Journal or draw your experience.
- Thank your body!
- Transition back to the world.
- GAP meditation
- Gently open your awareness outward. Notice and appreciate your surroundings. (If there are people in the room with you, appreciate how their presence also supported your practice.)
- Sense your own presence within and as part of a larger environment.
I gave everyone in the room the choice of either journaling or drawing. I particularly like the option of drawing to get around my right-brain tendency to turn everything into a linear, intellectual experience, but some people find that journaling opens them to further insight. As always, go with whatever is calling you in the moment.