An Exploration of Focusing in combination with Massage Therapy
Iris Cohort, November 2021
Part 1: Introduction
In this project I explored ways of bringing Focusing into a massage therapy session in order to help a client feel “resourced” — better able to be with what arises with the openness, curiosity, and acceptance that is Self-in-Presence. While I had a sense that Focusing would be greatly assisted by massage, I also wondered if the opposite would be true. Could massage disrupt the Focusing process? Or worse, could massage turn Focusing into spiritual bypassing, where Parts become so anesthetized that their voices can’t be heard and any blissful feeling generated by the massage leaves them out?
I found Focusing three years ago thanks to a horrific case of writer’s block. I felt like the writing I was trying to do for my website couldn’t happen because I was missing some crucial understanding. In a moment of frustration, my gaze drifted absently to my bookshelf, and landed on a book I hadn’t yet read: Gendlin’s classic, Focusing. I walked over, flipped it open and as I began reading, I got goosebumps. I didn’t know exactly what was missing, but I sensed with certainty that learning about Focusing would help me find it.
So here I am, almost three years later, coming toward the completion of my training as an Inner Relationship Focusing guide, again trying to write for my website, and again struggling with writer’s block. The difference is, after so many sessions of Focusing with skilled and trusted companions, I know that my “missing piece” has to do with the nuanced difference between Resourcing and Spiritual Bypassing. I also now have complete faith in the gifts of staying with an unclear edge in order to let the next steps of living forward come, not just into my awareness, but into being. This project has helped me do just that.
Part 2: Project Description
Ten of my long-standing massage therapy clients participated in this project. Each client received between 3 and 6 guided Focusing sessions without massage (discrete Focusing sessions) and at least 2 and as many as 20 guided Focusing sessions in combination with massage therapy.
The discrete Focusing sessions and the combined massage and Focusing sessions were in no particular order, though I did try to offer at least one discrete Focusing session before combining with massage.
At first, the discrete guided Focusing sessions gave clients a way to work with me during Covid surges, when it felt unsafe to work in person. Gradually, as clients felt comfortable returning to in-person sessions, we’d combine guided Focusing with massage. Sometimes, people returned to guided Focusing via Zoom because it was simply more convenient given the circumstances of their lives during a particular week. Finally, this month, November of 2021, I recorded interviews with eight of the ten clients who participated, transcribed those interviews, and compiled the responses by interview question. The questions were:
- In what ways does the addition of massage impact your Focusing experience, either positively or negatively?
- In what ways has Focusing changed the way you receive massage?
- How might you adjust the way we are combining Focusing and massage, either because something isn’t working for you, or because you’re just curious if something else might work better?
- How will you decide in the future whether to receive massage therapy and Focusing in combination or separately?
- Are there any benefits from Focusing and massage sessions that you are able to take with you into your daily life?
- What new confidence do you have in yourself as a result of our Focusing and massage sessions?
- Would you recommend that other massage therapy clients add Focusing to their sessions?
Over the course of this 10-month project, I experimented with how to bring Focusing into massage therapy for these 10 very different people. Each one needed something a little different from what I originally imagined would work.
At the outset, I thought I would only combine Focusing with the very gentle, deeply contemplative work of CranioSacral Therapy. I thought my client and I together would locate areas of blocked energy and bring our Presence to that place for a period of maybe 5-15 minutes of Focusing, as needed. I thought I would not move my hands much, in an attempt to be as unobtrusive to my client’s Focusing process as possible, lending my Presence in the form of my touch, and maybe also lending my ability to sense Focusing shifts with my hands.
Well … that turned out to be way too small a box for what wanted to happen, and what could be supportive to a client’s Focusing process.
Most clients have a favorite bodywork modality that they come back to again and again. For some, it’s CranioSacral Therapy, for some the more traditional Swedish/Deep Tissue massage, and for others Thai massage, an active form of bodywork during which the therapist moves the clients passively through a series of yoga-like postures and gives acupressure along energy meridians. Everyone who tried adding Focusing to massage stayed with their favorite modality. This both challenged me and allowed me to be highly creative.
So far, these combined sessions have taken on one of the following forms:
- I begin with a brief pre-session conversation to learn about body aches and pains, and whether or not there is an issue to be explored through Focusing during the massage. We begin the massage, whatever the modality, sometimes talking a little around the issue before I invite movement into the container of Focusing. If there is no issue, I use my 27 years as a massage therapist to guide me to a blocked area in the body. I might work quietly there for a bit, before inviting the Focuser to bring awareness into the space between my hands, to the breath, and to the sensations present. The Focusing may then last for the whole massage, or it may come to a natural completion before the end of the massage. If the latter happens, we move into silence. Sometimes the client wants to stay silent, or sometimes they want to share a little about what came up during their process. I haven’t felt the need to guide what happens after the silence, except to keep my own grounding in Presence, and to take care with the process that is still unfolding, and not to comment unless I am specifically asked to.
- I begin with the same brief pre-session conversation to learn about body aches and pains, and whether or not there is an issue to be explored through Focusing after the massage. The massage itself then begins with an attunement oriented loosely around the starting point, and then proceeds in silence. Following the massage, and before any conversation, the client dresses for a seated Focusing session. I offer a lead in, inviting the the starting point named earlier, or anything else that wants company now.
- A variation on #2: Sometimes we’ve planned to Focus during massage and it just isn’t happening for whatever reason. I invite the client to allow the massage to be free of Focusing and to have a discrete seated Focusing session afterwards. This allows clients to use the massage for resourcing in whatever way feels appropriate in the moment, sometimes as a silent session, sometimes as a more human sharing through conservation. The Focusing afterward is seated, as above.
Part 3: What I learned from my clients’ experiences
In this section, I’d like to share my clients’ responses to my interview questions. Sometimes I’ll summarize, but for some questions, the responses are so articulate, surprising, and moving I just want to share them verbatim.
In what ways does the addition of massage impact your Focusing experience, either positively or negatively?
Most clients found the combination of massage and Focusing to help them connect to their body, to feel sensation, and to be with something longer whether that something was physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual. The sense of safety created by the massage was something several clients referred to. MT said, “I know immediately when your hands are near me or on me that I’m in a safe place, and a loving place with lack of judgment and good intention. That’s a very powerful frame to do the focusing work. Your touch seems to allow the Focusing to deepen quickly.” MT also reported feeling the massage experience made her less critical of the way partial selves and felt senses presented themselves, and was therefore able to allow her Focusing process to flow. Another spoke of massage offering a heightened awareness of shifts occurring.
Here are some things I was surprised to learn:
- I would have thought Thai massage would be too intrusive for the inner work of Focusing. MS taught me the importance of meeting someone right where they are energetically for this combined Massage and Focusing work. Thai massage offered a great way for me to join her high energy body and mind and gently guide her into the more balanced and stable Presence that allows for Focusing. Instead of being intrusive, my strong touch, my stretching her body this way and that, “prepped my body to be able to accept itself, and to accept my fierce critic and ashamed parts. “ She said, “When YOU are not afraid to touch me when parts are active, that helps me have the courage to be with them, and it helps so much to let them move.”
- Clients often referred to me, to the relationship between us, and to the massage as one and the same influence on their Focusing. That was inevitable I suppose, given the design of this project. So I can only report on the impact of MY touch, in the context of these longstanding relationships, on a person’s Focusing process. With a few clients I heard variations on this statement from MST: “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing this work with just any massage therapist or just any massage. I think about the massage experiences I’ve had at a spa, for example. I couldn’t Focus in that setting. This work requires trust, but also so much skill. YOU are fascinated by this work. That’s part of what makes it possible for me, that you care so much. That comes through.”
- SC tried to Focus during his massage, but couldn’t really do both simultaneously. Trying to Focus during his massage deprived him of the joy and benefit of the massage, but he wanted a Focusing experience as part of his session. This inspired me to try offering an attunement at the beginning of his massage, and then letting him drift into unguided silence. After his session, we’d have a 15-20 minute seated guided Focusing session. The post-massage Focusing sessions were so markedly different than SC’s Focusing sessions without massage. He was much more able to shift from his usual way of thinking into a more embodied form of sensing.
- LH spoke of the way my touch “wandered around her body” and invited her awareness to “wander around in the space of her being” and that symbols arose naturally out of this permission to wander in all levels of her being.
In what ways has Focusing changed the way you receive massage?
I would not have thought to ask this question without SC. He alerted me to the way the Focusing process can influence a massage client to be less of a “chatty Cathy” and more attentive to their moment-to-moment body experience. So I included this question in each subsequent interview.
Many people told me that massage is no longer as passive an experience for them as it was before they learned Focusing. They are more of an active participant, and as a result the effects are deeper.
LH noted that the changes in her body were so much deeper because of the Focusing. “I think I was relaxed enough to move into that segue (a felt sense shift) and my body was more receptive and my head was more receptive to accept those images more deeply. They were way more deeply a part of everything. There wasn’t anything trite about that image. It had a lot more depth just like the massage had more depth, the longer I was there. So that was the massage helping my focusing. And so my Focusing helped the massage because there’s no way that in 20-30 minutes my right leg could feel this way. Maybe it could have after 3 massages.”
Massage for Focusers is no longer just a “feel good” experience. Sometimes it’s really hard work, but so meaningful that the difficulty is worth it.
LB said, “Massage is not as passive a process for me anymore. I am more of a participant. Also, Focusing helps me not to get so relaxed that I actually ignore what my body is telling me about my life and my spiritual journey.”
For MST “Rather than getting comfortable with a relaxing massage, sometimes I’m actually willingly getting uncomfortable if we are being with a difficult place. Maybe it’s not the same as getting a wonderful relaxing massage where nothing else goes on, but you miss so much depth if that’s all it is …”
Some clients also mentioned the way Focusing has helped their massage experience address more than just their physical body.
JS has a heightened awareness of his body a couple of days before his massage, “I’m trying to be in touch with what my body needs in the way of touch and healing before I come. I hadn’t thought about it quite like that before. And now massage is far more than a body experience. I sense how the mind, body and emotions are all connected. It’s a whole being experience.”
MS expressed it this way: “There’s more to it than just relaxing a sore spot, there’s so much more to it. YOU’VE always known it, and I’ve known that you knew it, but … Now I understand that this is so much more. It invites me to be a participant. So yes, the dimension of massage is much deeper for me now.”
How might you adjust the way we are combining Focusing and massage, either because something isn’t working for you, or because you’re just curious if something else might work better?
Here are some responses that will impact the way I offer this work.
- Many people requested that their sessions be recorded for later review. I used to feel very uncomfortable about this request, but after I myself have received recordings of my Focusing sessions from my mentors, I see the immense benefit, and feel less alarmed offering it. I’ve given two massage/Focusing Sessions with recordings since hearing this request freshly during these interviews, and so far the earth still rotates on its axis.
- AP asked if there could be some way to add a teaching component to our sessions during which I could share an aspect of my own spiritual wisdom. (We had an interesting conversation about how to do this without hijacking her process.) I’m considering …
- LH wondered how her Focusing experience would change if we started her massage in different positions. She had such a strong felt sense shift in a session when she moved from prone to supine, that she’s just curious if that would always be the case.
- SC, who does not want to Focus during his massage, is curious about moving directly from attunement to silent massage in the area of throat, chest, and belly to allow him to be with what wants his awareness on his own, accompanied by touch, but without verbal guidance. He’d like to try coming out of massage and into his guided Focusing having had that deep personal connection to himself first.
How will you decide in the future to receive massage therapy and Focusing in combination or separately?
This was a difficult question for people to answer. Most said they wouldn’t want to receive massage without Focusing ever again. Several commented that Focusing alone is very satisfying and rewarding, and that if circumstances require, they will definitely choose Focusing without massage. But there were a few notable exceptions:
- MT appreciated my intuitive read on what might be right for her one day when she arrived drained, beleaguered and exhausted. She was relieved when I suggested she not Focus that day, but use her massage time to relax and replenish her inner resources. That allowed her to notice the benefit of a resourcing massage from time to time, and would chose it again under similar circumstances.
- MST recognized that when she’s dealing with a crisis, or a very specific physical pain, she would probably choose massage separate from Focusing until things calmed down enough to make Focusing possible again.
- SC will enjoy them as part of the same session, but separately.
- LB will be moving to another state shortly, and will be so glad for the ability to continue Focusing on Zoom.
Are there any benefits from Focusing and massage sessions that you are able to take with you into your daily life?
This question came to me after the first few interviews were already conducted, so I didn’t get everyone’s response. For those I did ask, the answer came so easily and eloquently that I want to share them verbatim:
AP: “I have developed this new practice of doing several breaths of joy in the morning. It’s a three part breath, with movement of my arms. I say, I…am…here. That’s what came as an organic outflow of the experience of massage and Focusing. It came out of the intent to both be embodied and to start my day from a Focusing place.”
JS: “In the days after our sessions I reflect about the experience, I’m more attuned to what my body needs, what my body is saying. What happens is not just here (in our session), but before and after. I feel freer. More at ease. That’s appearing in my life. I’m listening to my body more than I ever have before. In other words, I’m much more aware, not suppressing my pain.”
MS: “When I lose Self-in-Presence, and I can if I get anxious, I can remember where we felt something, and if I can’t get the same thing from how you touched, I can at least get close. I can calm myself down. I can remember that it was an experience. It came, and we brought our bigger self to it and, IT MOVED. It’s not going to get stuck. That’s my fear. That I’m going to get stuck, that’s my enneagram 7 thing, that I’m going to get stuck, and I can’t tell you enough how grateful I am that I can be with something and feel it, that it’s real … I didn’t just make it up … and that it genuinely moved.”
MT: “I think it always reminds me not to get so far away and back in the head, not to lose track of the body connection. I am totally convinced that work that is done only at the intellectual level, or at the head level, is not the whole story and missing so much of what can help somebody change or move through something that they’re stuck in. So I always get reminded after one of our sessions to sense into my body, not only in my work, but to maintain that as I live in my body, in my life.”
MST: “It really has helped me to have you remind me that the feelings that surface that are difficult, and that I might want to push away, are trying to bring something to my attention. I’ll remember that kind of teaching outside of our session … And the images that come during our sessions tend to stay with me, even more than the conversation about them.”
LH: “It’s hard to verbalize … It’s something like the skill of hope. And the reminding of the bigger picture. Today there was this tight little knot without any possibilities, besides rotting, and then gradually, by staying with it, another option appeared. A way in. Talk about taking something into life with you!”
Is there anything you have gained confidence in as a result of combining Focusing and massage?
This was by far my favorite question. Wow, what responses!
AP: “I think I’ve gained confidence in the belief that the body is a safe place. CranioSacral Therapy and Focusing together have given me the embodied experience that that is true. And that has been a difficult thing for me to believe. I came from a mindset that the body was dangerous, was not to be trusted, should be transcended, and that really you shouldn’t even feel. Those were the implicit messages of my religious and cultural training. Nice girls don’t feel things, especially in your root chakra! Not until you’re married! I mean, seriously. It’s very damaging. You certainly don’t love or inhabit your body. I sense that I am an ally now to my body, and I am on my side. That is big. It feels like a recalibration, an internal physical recalibration. Relationships are shifting internally.”
JS: “In my presbyterian heritage, my experience of faith was from the neck up. Now faith is a whole body experience. And I mean that not only in terms of sacramental gestures such as bowing and crossing, but also a part of life — it’s much freer. Any kind of prayer is embodied prayer, and I feel that in a way I never have before. It’s so much richer.”
LB: “For me, the most important thing is that I have access to a meaningful contemplative practice. I value that aspect of my spiritual journey, but I just can’t do Centering Prayer or similar contemplative practices on my own. When I come here, I can access the sacred within me, with your help, and I cherish that experience.”
MS: “You can dismiss these pieces (Parts) so easily, and tell yourself that they’re not real, and you can journey through your life feeling very hollow and afraid that there’s nothing inside you, that there’s nothing moving you, that there is no solid space to stand. And even if you’re not thrilled with some pieces (Parts) that you see in the beginning, the certainty that there is a YOU in there . . . It’s so profound. I’ve lived a long time being afraid that there wasn’t anybody in there. And making a shiny pretty world around me to live in because I was really afraid of what was inside of me. I’m still afraid, but not as afraid because we’ve experienced it together and I know.”
MT: “I think it always affirms that if I listen and tune in that I really know what I need, the answers aren’t out there, they’re in here. And they’ve always been. If I trust my intuition and my inner knowing or my higher self, or my Self-in-Presence, I guess you guys call it, that it will lead me in the right direction, that I won’t go astray.”
SC: “I think that’s what I’m learning in this process. I can talk all around the subject and tell you all kinds of things about it, but to just let IT tell me what it is, is the harder part. Yeah that was an interesting … breakthrough moment. I was hearing a word, I wasn’t clear what the word was, and then “fatigue” came. It’s interesting how your mind can take you down these places where … get you all over the tips of your skis. But now I know I can let the feeling in my body speak to me. I can listen. And I get something different than what my mind has to say.”
MST: “This work encourages you to embrace that truth, and you can then release the difficult emotion inside, which is very different from pushing it down, or pretending it isn’t there. It flew off just like that bird I saw in my chest flying freely off. It’s freeing.”
LH: “When we work together like this, light is cast onto a problem in a way that shifts. Bringing a problem into focus, being with it … allows for creative thinking and reacting and it brings change.”
What would you say to other massage therapy clients about the value of adding Focusing to their session?
AP: “I would say that adding Focusing enables massage to be more than something one is receiving, but enables one to begin to inhabit and embody and have a relationship with stuck or stopped places in our body that are in need of our presence, our compassion and our awareness. It allows massage to not be a passive process. Instead of it being something someone is doing for or to you, it seems to me that adding Focusing helps massage to become a dialogue with one’s body.”
MS: “I would try to discern if they are ready to know themselves …There’s a willingness required. This is all about blockage, that you’re addressing in Focusing, if you want to overgeneralize. So if you’re not willing to touch in or investigate and be curious about your blockage and you try to do this work, there’s a chance the blockage will get bigger.”
SC: “I would say you definitely want to try it and see if it takes you to a different place, in either direction. The Focusing might take you to a different place in your massage, and the massage might take you to a different place in your Focusing.”
MT: “We tend to think as rational people that if there’s a question we want answered, like what’s our next job or should I get out of this dead end relationship, that the way to do it is by just thinking it through, and this is a technique that involves feeling it through as well as thinking it through, and learning how things are affecting you on a physical level rather than just on a thought level, because that’s only one of our ways of knowing. So I would say that this is closer to unlocking intuition, closer to that sort of knowledge that we don’t necessarily always turn our attention to, knowledge we may even have been taught to avoid or distrust.”
MST: “It’s hard to come in here and have someone touch your body and then not want to share. There’s an intimacy that naturally develops and I want to talk about my challenges. The Focusing is a really good way of getting there. It helps me get to whatever my growing point is, where there’s some kind of struggle inside. And addressing it helps us get to a new place that still incorporates who you were before, but it helps you get a little bit bigger in an expanding way. It’s freeing.”
Part 3: What I learned from my own experience
When I first began this project, I noticed that many of my Focusing practice clients had beautiful, transcendent experiences of freedom, love, and what I would call communion with something larger than themselves. They were experiences of Self-in-Presence but also something more. For one thing, awareness of Parts fell away. While these were clearly nourishing and uplifting sessions for the Focuser, and for me, something in me became worried. Was I, in my valuing of spiritual experience, somehow guiding people away from necessary parts work, or was this movement a natural and healthy flow of their own Focusing processes? Was this spiritual bypassing or resourcing?
I got part of my answer from my own Focusing. During class 12 of Getting Free, a class called “Widening the Horizon of Possibility”, Ann led a guided exercise called Felt-Sensing It All. My process presented me with a new possibility in my confusion around Spiritual Bypassing and Resourcing. I had a vision. I was in a high school, walking down a wide staircase. Two conflicted Parts were walking up the staircase, bickering with each other. They looked at me, smiled, and waved. I waved back and continued down the staircase to an important class. This felt so incredibly significant. Over time, this vision has settled like snow in a snow globe and revealed the following truth that is life changing for me.
The larger me, walking down the stairs, is heading toward an experience of Communion — a union with something larger than myself that reminds me of my essential nature and offers me comfort, nourishment and renewal. The bickering Parts have not yet given me their full message. The stopped processes that generated them have not yet been fully seen or understood by me, so these parts have yet to be integrated into the larger whole of the bigger me. AND these two processes can go on simultaneously, as parallel processes. One side of the staircase for Parts work, one side for the Resourcing of Communion. Spiritual Bypassing only occurs if I feel I have to ignore Parts in order to experience Communion, and if I don’t come back from my Communion and use my Resourcing to be with my Parts.
This teaching, from my own Process, feels right and true to the whole me. It did indeed Widen the Horizon of Possibility. I was helped to develop this knowing further by an intriguing blog post written by Luke Healy titled “Why We Need to Spiritually Bypass” (https://www.integralchristiannetwork.org/writings/2021/1/2/why-we-need-to-spiritually-bypass). What he speaks of as healthy spiritual bypass I would call by a different name. I’d call it Resourcing. But the shock value of his title helped me sense that the connection between Spiritual Bypassing and Resourcing might be less two polar opposites than a continuum.
Now as I work with clients, nothing in me worries that I’m encouraging Spiritual Bypassing. I suspect I may be uniquely wired by temperament and training to influence a client’s relationship with themselves toward love and respect, self-acceptance and gentleness, even a transcendent experience of joining a larger force of Love and Light. I’m no longer afraid of this leading a client away from inner work they value and want to do. I know I’m also able to support clients in being with difficult material. I can step into the larger perspective of their Process drawing their awareness to first one side of the staircase and then the other, back and forth between Parts work and Resourcing, and know it’s good and right and in service of the unfolding of their highest potential.
In the experience of the 10 clients who participated in this project, and my own experience, Massage Therapy and Focusing benefit one another synergistically. The combined sessions brought greater benefits than the sum of the benefits from Massage or Focusing separately, at least in our unscientific and subjective assessment.
Massage helped awaken body awareness and “turn up the volume” on sensations. It also acted as a resource for Self-in-Presence, providing a sense of comfort, grounding and safety for being with whatever arose wanting the Focuser’s awareness. Massage did not cause Parts to be bypassed, as in relaxed away or repressed, but it did make them easier to be with, presumably because the whole larger self of the Focuser could receive the relaxing effect of the massage.
Focusing changed the way these 10 clients now receive massage. There will be times when they will choose massage therapy free of Focusing, but the general consensus was that Focusing has forged a new relationship with their bodies. Massage is no longer something they will passively receive, but a way of being in communication with the body, a way of being an ally to the body.
All of these clients are attuned to a spiritual dimension of life, and for them our combined massage and focusing sessions became a contemplative practice, and by that I mean a way of turning inward to experience the presence of the Divine within. For me it was particularly gratifying to hear that this felt like embodied prayer, and that the lasting impact was a heightened sense of not being alone, that guidance, teaching, and healing is always available, from within.
For me personally, I came away from this project aware that my energy and my nature do impact others. Of course they do. I’m less troubled that my grounding and quieting nature might somehow soothe parts into oblivion, and I’m also more aware that such a risk exists. I feel that we are protected now by my conscious lack of bias. I truly value both sides of the staircase equally, and this feels like a further movement toward my own Self-in-Presence.
As I finish this writing, I feel as if my 10-month long Focusing session is coming to a close. I thank my process and the Spirit within for all that came. I thank these ten sensitive, deep and wise clients who explored with me, and shared themselves so generously. I bow to my teachers, my mentors, and my Focusing partners. And to all that is still unresolved in me, I turn toward you with warmth and respect, and I assure you I will return to this Focusing space.