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Five Reasons Why Focusing is Not Better Known (Yet)

by Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD

This article originally appeared in the November 1996 issue of The Focusing Connection.

Whenever people become enthusiastic about Focusing, or contemplate going home from a workshop to present it to their friends and colleagues, the question inevitably comes up: “Why isn’t Focusing better known?” Or, as I heard it at a talk I gave in New York recently: “Why haven’t I heard of this before?”

When this question arose at a workshop I gave in Germany this August, I found myself answering, “Well, there are at least five reasons.” These are the five reasons which came.

The first reason why Focusing is not better known (yet) is that it isn’t very dramatic or flashy to watch and to experience. A therapist or practitioner who uses Focusing doesn’t get to look impressive. We don’t seem to be experts, wielding magic. We look like we aren’t doing much (and that’s true!). So practitioners who need an ego-boost are not attracted to Focusing.

Some popular methods are very dramatic. People spend a weekend lying on their backs, breathing and sobbing. They feel that such work is very “deep.” (Cathartic methods, in which crying and rage are experienced, are often felt by the client as “deep.”) Have they really changed? Perhaps not – but after all that crying, they feel they must have changed! Or perhaps the practitioner orchestrates the drama, talking to the person’s “parts,” moving them to different chairs, having them talk back. Not only the client but also the observers are very impressed. Something really happened! Focusing, by contrast, usually looks and feels very subtle. Watching a Focusing session, especially if you don’t know what to look for, can be like watching the grass grow. Even the people who stay with it are unlikely to run home and tell all their friends.

The second reason why Focusing is not better known (yet) is that Focusing is so general in its purposes that it is hard to understand, and hard to sell. In the early days of European settlement in America, people in a travelling “medicine show” would sell an elixir which was hailed as a cure for “anything that ails you.” This magical medicine was supposed to cure anything, from broken legs to menstrual cramps. When analyzed, it was found to be primarily alcohol and water.

In modern times, people are confused when a method is brought forward which is useful for so many purposes, from improving therapy to decision-making to grounding spirituality to healing childhod sexual abuse. It would probably be easier for them to grasp a tool with one purpose. In our discussion last August, the therapists in the room, practicing mainly in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, recalled that insurance forms ask for the specific purpose of any process or technique used.

We know that describing Focusing is difficult anyway. New people, hearing about Focusing, want to know “What is it for?” and when we can’t tell them, their eyes glaze over. People tend to connect with methods that will help with something that’s hurting or bothering them right now. Even if Focusing would help, they don’t recognize it as what they need when they hear that its purpose is something vague and general like “getting in touch with yourself.” So I feel frustrated when I give an introductory talk to a large audience. I know that some people need to hear how Focusing helps release blocks to action, others need to hear how Focusing will help their therapy get moving, others need to hear how Focusing will help them deal with overwheming emotions. I can’t give an individually tailored talk to each person! (When I think that most people have found Focusing by chance and Divine guidance, it amazes me that Focusing is as well known as it is!)

Compare EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which has become quite well-known in just a few years. EMDR clearly has the purpose of recovering and processing traumatic memories. The simplicity of its purpose surely has something to do with its popularity.

The third reason why Focusing is not better known (yet) is that the steps of Focusing teaching froze in 1978 when Gendlin’s book Focusing was published, and at that time the first step of Focusing was Clearing a Space. Most Focusing teachers still teach Clearing a Space as the first step of Focusing, and this is a problem for a number of reasons.

(a) Clearing a Space is not part of the essence of Focusing. It is simply not a very Focusing-like thing to do. Focusing is spending time with something unclear, allowing it to be as it is and sensing how it is. Clearing a Space (in its classic form) moves things out. So it isn’t spending time with things, and it isn’t allowing them to be as they are. The fact that Clearing a Space isn’t a very Focusing-like thing to do means that when people learn Clearing a Space as the first step of Focusing, they tend to be confused about what Focusing is.

(b) Not everyone can do Clearing a Space. So when people learn that Clearing a Space is the first step of Focusing, and they can’t do it, they either give up on Focusing, or they do Focusing but they feel so sheepish about it (“I’m not doing this right because I’m just spending time with what I feel instead of moving it out”) that they don’t tell anyone else what they’re doing.

(c) Not everyone should do Clearing a Space. If their feelings are subtle, hard to find and easily lost, they shouldn’t set them out. So, once again, they either don’t do Focusing or they don’t tell others about it.

Focusing is hard to describe anyway, and the fact that Focusing teaching froze in 1978 has meant that, when teachers are asked, “What is Focusing?” the answer has too often been, “Focusing has six steps.” Having six steps is not what Focusing is. This is led to unnecessary confusion when people hear about Focusing, and attempt to tell others about it.

I’d like to make it very clear that my objection is not to the process of Clearing a Space, which many people find useful, but to teaching Clearing a Space as the first step of Focusing. This makes it sound as if one must do Clearing a Space in order to do Focusing, which I don’t think anyone would claim.

The fourth reason why Focusing is not better known (yet) is that it is radical. It goes counter to the mainstream trends and themes of our society. We live in a world which emphasizes rationality, speed, and clarity. Focusing brings in a way of knowing which is holistic and intuitive rather than purely rational and logical. It honors what is fuzzy and not-yet-clear, and it is not instantaneous.

Many years ago, when a friend and I were planning to teach Focusing in a business setting, we were told that business people would never stand for Focusing “because it isn’t fast.” Whether or not this was actually true, we were sufficiently discouraged to drop our plans. The perception is that the mainstream requires speed.

Similarly, Focusing is not goal- and results-oriented. I remember once doing a Focusing demonstration in front of a naive audience. The focuser was a fellow teacher, and he announced that he would use the session to work on a decision. He brought awareness into his body and sensed into the decision. He found a part of him that didn’t want to make the decision yet. As he spent time with this part, it opened up into a deep feeling about many parts of his life. It was a great session. After he opened his eyes and we asked for questions, a woman raised her hand and said, “But when does he make the decision?”

Many people are attracted to Focusing because they recognize that it will support them in changing their lives in profound ways. I suspect that as many people avoid it, when they hear about it, because they recognize that if they listen to the voice of their own truth within, they will have to change their lives. “If I listened to my deeper wisdom, I would have to leave that job, or leave that relationship, or quit that addictive behavior. And I don’t want to!” Society supports the slumber of the true self. “Have another drink, another cigarette, another pain pill,” it says. When we open up to our inner guide, we don’t only risk losing society’s comfortable supports, we will lose them. Our friendships will change. We will awaken. This isn’t so easy. And yet there is something inside us – I like to call it the soul – which will not rest until this happens.

The fifth reason why Focusing is not better known (yet) is best expressed as the answer which was given at the talk in New York. Janet van Berger, the host of the talk, knew little about Focusing but much about speaking to audiences. When a wide-eyed woman in the first row asked “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” and I was about to launch into my four reasons, Janet smiled at her and said, “You haven’t heard of this before, because now is the time.” For each person who has found Focusing, and any other life-changing way of being, there is a right time. Perhaps we are now verging on the right time for Focusing and the world. May it be so.

This article appears in The Radical Acceptance of Everything, by Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD and featuring Barbara McGavin (Calluna Press; 2005). Learn more about this book.