By Peter Kuklis (Viryakumara)
A personal account and reflections on my journey with Focusing
But how can I know the direction of my own growth and development? If I decide what growth to aim at, my decision springs from my feelings and attitudes, how I am now. When my friends hear my change-aim, they might say, “Yes he would choose that. That’s typical of him”. My own plan for my change will keep me basically unchanged. But no one else can decide for me, either. […] People decide to change according to their present values. [Let your body interpret your dreams, Gendlin]
Thus very caring people resolve to be even more caring. They tend to feel bad about whatever bit of self-assertion they posses and strive to eradicate that.
Already determined and organized people aspire to be even more effective and successful. This way they become bigger but of the same sort. Basically unchanged.
I came across this quote from Gendlin several years ago. I still remember the buzz and nervousness of the light-bulb switching moment in my head as I heard it. This is not what I’ve been taught at school, neither on any of the personal development courses I took. It runs quite contrary to all of what I’ve read, yet somehow feels right, natural and also true with my experience of Focusing. So is there another path that growth can take?
My upbringing background comes from sports where every bit of effort made is rewarded by growth. I studied to be an entrepreneur where effort and determination that I cultivated earlier came very handy. I definitely understood the value of single-mindedness and forward planning. Whether it was in my studies, work or sport I have been very to moderately successful in achieving what I wanted relying on directed effort and striving.
Naturally I brought the same mindset to my inner life. Having already dedicated many years to practising on a Buddhist path exerting effort and struggling towards awakening my understanding of how inner transformation happens and how to go about that transformation has turned the corner.
What I didn’t know, even though I had a very vague and murky sense of it, was that something of a very different order altogether was needed when it comes to relating to and transforming the inner life.
Ever since I remember I have been pursuing the notion that I wasn’t ok. I couldn’t stand parts of myself and I wanted to be different. I didn’t want to experience lack of confidence, low self-esteem and lack of connection with others. I guess that I ascribed all of these to a weak part of myself and I would do anything to make them go. I wasn’t ok. I wanted to change. I wanted to be better.
So there wasn’t even much of a question for me to ponder about what way to change. It was going to be in the direction away from all those unwanted, embarrassing, unpleasant experiences - towards their right opposite. Buddhism provided me with a lofty image of what this ideal state would be. I was on a path and I put all my effort and skills into walking along it.
More difficulties were about to come.
How do we go about change?
Recently I came across an extended teaching on dealing with hindrances in meditation. It stipulates that if one has a predisposition to a particular ‘hindrance’, one will be the most likely to use a ‘remedy’ of the very same sort to counter it. Just like with someone that decided the direction of their growth from their present values, the hindrance and its remedy work on the same level. They will ultimately not make much of a difference, quite contrary.
If we are in the mind frame of restless-anxiety the ready available options for addressing it are likely to be of the sort-it-all-out, make-a-list kind. Then we try our best to go though our lists and tick off the points, just to add more anxiety into our lives. If our hindrance is of the tired, inactive, sleepy sort we’ll be most prone just to sit with it.
In a similar way, the strategy that comes naturally to people with propensity to get overwhelmed with their experience is to ‘go into’ their difficult states in an attempt to deal with it. I’m one of them. I reckon that the people who find it difficult to engage with their experience will pursue the opposite path. They’ll tend to distance themselves even further from whatever is already present.
In this way, rather than helping ourselves out of the problem, we add to it. Just like the story about a man who found himself at the bottom of a pit, only to discover that his only tool in his handy toolkit was a shovel. Lacking perspective and already quite distressed he started to dig – digging himself even deeper.
A way out of this predicament is possible. Though it needs more understanding and a different tool.
Understanding ourselves - We are made of multiple ‘somethings’
So here we are, human beings composed internally of many different aspects, or voices, many different beings or ‘somethings’ as we call them in Focusing. Each one of these beings live in their own world and see everything outside of them from their own particular perspective (just as humans do). Each one of them has got its hopes, wishes, needs and fears and each one of them keeps on changing in time.
We, as heirs of this concoction of parts – sometimes also called life may recognize those particular voices and know these ‘somethings’ well. However, we are likely to have only a vague sense of who they are, or to know them only by their effect on us.
These aspects of ourselves know of each other, too. They have some sort of awareness of each other just as humans are aware of their close and distant family members, friends, acquaintances or neighbours. They can be in an amicable connection with each other, or lie in a dread of encountering each other (and anything on the scale in between).
What often happens is that one of those distinctive beings inside of us takes over the whole of ourselves (why this happens is another matter). When this happens, its particular view of the world becomes our view of the world, its hopes and fears become our most pressing hopes and fears. The way they would treat other parts of ourselves becomes the way we treat other parts of ourselves.
We identify the whole of ourselves with this particular aspect of us, in different words, we merge.
Moreover, we put our external and internal resources at the disposal of this part. We start acting upon its hopes, ideas and fears.
The sense of our growth-direction will come from this single aspect of ourselves, too. This part may have a very compelling vision, even an ideal towards which it wants us to develop. It may have a very sound reason to do that. Of course, it sounds very reasonable wanting to move away from selfishness or laziness and to be more caring or effective.
It sounds good. However, there is a catch! The part that we’ve merged with hasn’t brought more of our inner world on board with it. Right the opposite; somewhere in us there will be a vital part of our inner world that is going to feel under threat by this new development plan.
How can we know this is happening? Both of these two (or more) aspects of ourselves are now in conflict. And both of these aspects will let themselves be known to us and felt by us. We’ll hear an inner language of judgement or blame. Worlds like selfishness and laziness are good examples. We may hear ourselves speaking about throwing something out of ourselves. We are set on smoothing it out, transforming or purifying it, if you prefer. We may also have images and symbols of our inner life that convey a sense of conflict. We’ll feel anxiety, tension or their permutations in our body. And we may even have a clear notion of how all of this links to particular episodes in our own life.
So we set out to lead an inner war on an inner development front. It’s not difficult for this war eventually to turn into an entrenched one. We cherish the vision that one day we will be able to expel the enemy out of our territory.
I don’t believe that this kind of warfare could ever be won, even if the personal myth we follow suggests that it eventually will.
So how do we go about change in our life? How do we really change? Can we change by telling ourselves to be different from how we are? Can we really change into how we want to be?
The body is a cosmic system rich in implications and directions beyond conception. In a life we develop only some of what we “are”.
A growth-direction is sensed with your body [Let your body interpret your dreams, Gendlin]
I believe that we may not actually know what next step is needed on our growth-path. However, we can still get a good sense of our growth-direction. We ‘only’ have to learn how to listen to ourselves without taking sides. There is something available in our wider experience that we can draw on. The key to listening without taking sides is to be present with whatever comes to us without merging with it.
This also requires us to change our understanding of our inner world. It may take time to develop the trust that anything that makes itself known to us in our inner world has a good wholesome reason to do that. No matter how it shows itself to us.
The notion of ‘body’ in Focusing stretches far beyond the body that is enveloped by the skin. It is the body of our experience of the present moment that encompasses all our past experience and carries implications beyond our conception.
We can learn how to approach, and in time also to relate, to this rich cosmic system of all our known and implied aspects. If we can learn this way of being present with ourselves, listen and allow whatever needs to happen, it will manifest as a forward-moving step.
The result may be something that we would never be able to fathom merely by our logic. We would not be in position to orchestrate this kind of change by our mere will and effort. Somehow our bodies in themselves carry the wisdom of resolving the most tangled impasses. Somehow there is wisdom available to us on how to bridge opposing entrenched polarities inside us.
The key is to approach our inner lives from a vantage point where we don’t side with any of our multiple parts. That makes it possible to receive their various messages (using their felt sense in our bodies) without adding anything to their story or wanting them to be different. We receive them exactly as they are.
I find that there is an immense inherent kindness in listening to myself in this way. It has something to do with the willingness to give my full attention, and as much time as necessary, to whatever in me that is asking for it. With experience, I am learning to trust that I am able to keep anything company that comes up in my inner world. Be it a deep despair or the greatest overwhelm. Even parts claiming ‘what’s the point of this all’ are welcome. We can bear the unbearable in us, if we don’t merge with it.
I’m also learning how not to be tempted to act upon what I hear or feel. I’m learning how not to try to explain, justify, make it better, run away, give up or argue. I just listen.
And by listening, by just allowing what needs to be said or felt to be heard or sensed, something new and different emerges. A forward moving energy manifests. However, it may not give me the grand plan of how it is going to unfold, even though I may have sense of that. This process follows step by step.
"What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes. Most people don't know this. They think that by not permitting the feeling of their negative ways they make themselves good. On the contrary, that keeps these negatives static, the same from year to year. A few moments of feeling it in your body allows it to change. If there is in you something bad or sick or unsound, let it inwardly be, and breathe. That's the only way it can evolve and change into the form it needs." [Gendlin]
It knows what form it needs to take as its next step. You may not know it, even though you may think you know; and no one else in the world may know it either. We can support it to take the form it needs to take, but we cannot direct its change by our will alone.
We are not used to things changing through being gentle and kind, thinking that we must take decisive action or discipline ourselves with harsh methods. […] There has to be some kind of faith or trust in efficacy of gentle intentions to produce changes, for it doesn’t make rational sense that by being kind and patient, and by essentially doing less, we will transform in significant ways. We tend to prefer direct approaches to change, such as working hard on one thing or taking a prescribed course of training. [Unlearning meditation, Jason Siff]
Felt sense and growth-direction
When we listen in Focusing, we listen out for any signs of what may be calling for attention in our wide sphere of awareness. Very often it can be something that we would otherwise not notice. It may manifest itself with murky or unclear atmosphere around it. We may sense it somewhere in our body but have no words for it. Its presence and purpose may not be obvious, just implicitly felt.
I’ve learned that giving attention to those unclear, unspecific melanges in me allows them to get in focus. Their contours become clearer and their message may transpire or something else, something new, may emerge.
[…] our felt experiences come in the way they need to come, in the place and at the intensity that they need to be felt, in order to be met and to carry forward to what is next for them. […] any attempt to change our felt experience from the way it is will simply delay the process of carrying forward and life-forward change. [Focusing Tip#302, Ann Weiser Cornell]
I remember a recurring message from somewhere in my inner world that was pertained to the sense of my growth-direction. It sometimes came as an image and I often felt it in a form of a bodily sensed experience.
It started with me standing on firm ground. I then had a sense of an area of difficulty in my life. It was quite murky, vague and I felt a dreadful anxious sense if I went anywhere near it. Then a sudden jump, or a fly-over, appeared. I was able to bypass the difficulties altogether without engaging with them and I was transported to the higher ground where all was resolved and fine. I also had a sense telling me that there’s something about this image that is not possible, that things just don’t work like that.
I guess I set out to practice on my Buddhist path like that. I was wishing and hoping for a moment of transformation that would come with my next realization about myself. Maybe on my next retreat! (I am well aware that there are many different Buddhist traditions to the one that I trained up in. I guess that they may emphasize a gradual unfolding change (as in a paradigm of lotus) more than the paradigm of a path when it comes to growth direction.)
I find this image very symbolic of the whole attitude to growth that I adopted. I wanted to be somewhere else, not where I was just now. I didn’t have a way of engaging with what’s difficult other than trying to overcome it by will.
I find it interesting that I had an inner notion of this process and that it even came to me as an image. If I only knew what to do with its message!
I hope that I have learnt something from all of this. I guess that nowadays what I’m searching for when it comes to growth-direction is a holistic sense. It usually comes from my body. It is a sense of what’s needed next.
I give space to various thoughts, images and ideas about how I’d like to change or develop and I also give space to the feelings that come with them. Just waiting, giving space. I am not trying to implement any of that.
I pay attention especially if there is something in me asking for a radical change.
I pay attention especially if it involves an attempt to change something that I find difficult to be with. I try my best to listen to the part which is proposing the change. I know it has got its concerns and its hopes. I try my best to listen to the part of me that is under attack. It certainly needs it.
Naturally, I don’t have a clear idea of where and how is all of this going to go. Just a felt sense in the moment. There is often something in me that wants to know more and needs more certainty. And I remember to give it a kind listening ear.