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Buddhism is concerned with something very general, and very human, that is, suffering and the release from suffering. In this paper I want to relate Buddhist ideas to a different approach to suffering, that of psychotherapy, and in particular to the focusing approach to psychotherapy which has been developed by the Austrian-American philosopher Eugene Gendlin (Gendlin 1986; 1996; 2003; Purton 2004; Welwood 2000). It is often helpful to look at one way of thinking from the perspective of another way: we may then see things which we had not noticed before. It is in that spirit that I want to bring focusing-oriented psychotherapy into relation with what I take to be the basic insights of Buddhism. At the end I shall also say a little about the philosophy in which Gendlin’s psychotherapy is grounded, which seems to me to be very compatible with Buddhist philosophical thinking.
Psychotherapy, like Buddhism, begins with the fact of suffering, and is concerned with the relief of suffering. There are many schools of psychotherapy, for example, Freudian, Jungian, cognitive-behavioural, person-centred, Gestalt, each with their own set of theoretical concepts and therapeutic procedures. There has also been a great deal of research done on the effectiveness of psychotherapy, and the results of this are of great interest. Broadly speaking, the research suggests that it matters little which theoretical concepts are employed, or which therapeutic procedures the therapist works with. The research findings are clear that psychotherapy can help people, but that no particular kind of therapy helps more than any other (Smith & Glass 1977; Stiles et al 1986; Lambert & Bergin 1994; King et al 2000).
However, whichever form of therapy is involved, there are two important factors which correlate highly with therapeutic change (Orlinsky et al 1994). One is that the relationship with the therapist is almost always important; people are more likely to be helped if the relationship is one in which they feel genuinely accepted and understood. That seems straightforward enough. The other factor needs rather more explanation. It is that people make better progress the more they are able to relate to their own felt experiencing. What this means can best be explained by giving examples of client-therapist interactions where the client does not relate much to their immediate experiencing. One kind of case is where the client talks about their concerns, but only in a very intellectual way. They may analyse their problems very acutely, but do not engage with them on a feeling level. In psychoanalytic terms they do not work through their issues. Another kind of case is that where the client talks only about external events in their life, and not about how they feel about those events, or about how those events strike them. They say what has happened, but not what it was like to have experienced those events. A third kind of case is where, by contrast, a client is completely overwhelmed by their experiencing: they are submerged in their depression or caught up in their fear or anger, and are unable to relate to what they are experiencing. In the first two cases the client could be said to be too distanced from their experiencing, and in the third, too close to it. There is evidence that if a client is, in these ways, unable to relate effectively to their experiencing they are unlikely to make much progress.
I need to say a bit about what I mean by ‘experiencing’ here. Consider the following fragment from a therapy session:
C: I was really angry, but also a bit scared
T: You were feeling something there – there was anger, but also fear in it…
C: Yes, as if I was sort of paralysed…or ….
T: You felt sort of frozen.
C: Yes (a bit doubtfully)… More like.. paralysed…I can’t quite express it…
Here the client is focusing their attention on their experiencing of a situation. There is something which they feel, but they have not yet found a way of articulating what they feel. That vague not-yet-fully-articulated experiencing is there to some extent in almost any situation. We meet someone and have an immediate felt sense of them. Perhaps they make us feel a bit uneasy, but we can’t, as we say, put our finger on what it is. Or on leaving a meeting we may have a felt sense that the meeting went really well, although it may take us some time to draw out of our felt sense what exactly made us so pleased. In the background of all our explicit experiencing is much that is, and often remains, implicit. If someone tries to explain why he decided to leave his job, he may articulate it in terms of ‘needing a change’. But that will not be the whole story. It is not just that he needs some sort of change, but that the job no longer fulfils his need to meet more people, perhaps, and that is to do with having taken this job because working on his own at the time felt easier, that other people threaten his need to be independent, yet …with so few people around it is lonely, though on the other hand he should be able to manage without other people, but what he’s been realizing lately is that people don’t mind being asked for help sometimes, and further he can see how all this comes from the way it was when he was young and his family kept moving house and he learned not to need people… This articulation of what is ‘in’ the feeling of wanting to leave his job could continue indefinitely; all of that is implicit in what we call ‘the feeling’ which he has.
Human experiencing generally involves a tacit or implicit background. As we encounter new situations certain aspects of our implicit experiencing come into focus and are articulated. Someone says ’But aren’t you upset about she said ?’ We turn our attention to our experiencing and now it comes to us that, yes, we are upset. Such situations are often described in terms of having become conscious of what was previously unconscious. But that is misleading. It is not that the upset was there all the time, but rather that it was implicit, not yet fully formed, and that the person’s question and our giving attention to our experiencing made it explicit. If we give further attention to it, further changes may ensue. We may say ‘Well, its not so much that I’m upset, but more puzzled…I don’t know why she would say that…I’m more upset by not understanding her than by what she actually said’. These new forms of experience were not already there ‘in the unconscious’; they are forming in an ongoing process in which the person’s attention interacts with their experiencing.
But what exactly is interacting with what here? The person is trying out words and concepts, and seeing if they ‘fit’ with their lived experiencing. ‘I am not upset…well I am…but its more puzzlement…or a really quite deep uncertainty…’ The words draw out, or specify, aspects of the experiencing which up till than were only implicit. When we are trying to express our experiencing our words always emerge from and articulate something which is very real, but does not (yet) exist in a conceptualised or specified form.
This notion of what is implicit is central to Gendlin’s thinking. There is a preconceptual aspect to our experiencing with which our concepts interact. When we encounter a problem which we cannot resolve through the application of our usual concepts, we need to let go of those concepts and dip back into that rich implicit order from which our concepts arise in the first place. This is the procedure which Gendlin calls ‘focusing’. It is a procedure in which one sits down and gives attention to the whole felt sense of the problem, and then allows new concepts or ways of being to arise from the implicit ground of one’s experiencing. Here is an example:
Brenda is 40, her mother has recently died, and she feels she can’t cope with her job, her family, anything. She is depressed, off work. There’s a feeling of it’s all just too much. She is really in that feeling. But she has been to a focusing workshop and decides to give focusing a try. So she finds a quiet time and place, sits down, and brings her attention into the middle of her body. How does it feel in there about her whole situation? Lots of feelings going round, but mainly a heavy blankness. She makes a space for this feeling, steps back from it a bit, or imagines setting it down a bit away from her. Then she can acknowledge it, say hello to it, as it were. She focuses on the feeling, this heavy blank sense of the way her life is. Is ‘heavy - blank’ the right phrase? Sort of, but as she stays with it , it comes to feel more like a ’sinking’ feeling. She checks this against how it physically feels ..... Is ‘sinking’ right? ..... Yes , sort of ... then an image pops up of a time when she felt guilty about leaving her young daughter while she had an enjoyable evening out.... Somehow that catches the feeling too .... it’s the same thing... it’s a feeling of ‘I can’t have a good time’.....is that right.... All sorts of thoughts start to circle round this - a bit of her is feeling guilty, another bit is justifying her need to have a life of her own, but she knows that these are old tracks. She has been round those circles so many times. It is time to stop and listen to what the felt sense has to say. So she brings her attention back to the felt bodily sense of it all. There’s all that, felt inside. She waits for half a minute or so. The word ‘indulge’ comes to her. A bit of her, a familiar critical bit chips in with ‘You are self-indulgent’, and another equally familiar bit jumps on that, saying ‘But you know people need to look after themselves. You are so stupid!’ She lets this inner jabbering go by and comes back to the felt sense. Was ‘indulge’ right? She finds herself taking a deep breath. Yes - indulge. It’s a feeling of having undivided attention, of being nourished. That feels good. Something has shifted just a little.
Reflecting on this focusing session she may not be able to explain quite why she feels a bit better. Perhaps all she can say is that something came in her, as tears might come, something which has to do with feeling good about having undivided attention. Something which she has not quite experienced before. The process of the session could, afterwards, be analysed in terms of the concepts of various schools of therapy. They could all throw some light on what was going on, but that intellectual understanding of the process is not needed for the process to take place, any more than you need to understand why you are sad before you cry. Through putting aside our usual formulations and listening to what is there at a preformulated level, we allow space for something new to come.
In this process of giving our attention to what is implicit, the body plays a significant role. We sense situations not so much with our eyes or ears, but with that vague sense which tends to located in the centre of our body, in the chest and stomach area. Imagine coming into a room where there are a lot of people, and you get a sudden sinking feeling as you notice someone there whom you really don’t want to talk to. You feel anxious. Should you walk out again? - But that would be very noticeable.. would it be better to take a deep breath and go up to them.. perhaps it would be better quickly to cross to the other side of the room…All this would be implicit in that sudden sinking feeling you got in your stomach when you spotted the person. Sounds and visual impressions come into the picture of course, but your felt awareness of the situation is there in the centre of the body where we feel such things. In focusing, attention is given to that bodily-sensed awareness of situations which is prior to their articulation in words and concepts. It is that bodily-sensed awareness which Gendlin calls the ‘felt sense’. The felt sense is how the body is registering the situation. In that felt sense is a vast intricacy of knowledge and experience, all that has for us led up to this situation and made it what it is for us. In our felt bodily reaction there is summed up in a non-conceptual way all that the situation is and how it could develop. In order to move forward it may then help us to give some attention to this felt body-sense.
In Gendlin’s view psychological disturbance arises from our tendency to lose touch with our immediate experiencing and get caught in general patterns or concepts. We jump from one idea to another, or from one emotion to another without pausing to get a felt sense of our situation as a whole. It is not that concepts or emotions are of no value in human life, but that when we get caught in them, or attached to them, they cannot function for us in carrying our experiencing forward. Psychological disturbance, for Gendlin, is a kind of stuckness in which the free interactive flow between the implicit and the explicit, between the forms and what lies beyond form, is blocked.
If this is to make any sense, we need to be able to say something about that which lies beyond the forms, beyond concepts. The difficulty is that once we do say something about it we have given it a form, we have caught it in a concept. Gendlin’s way around this difficulty is to point to the places where the concepts change, those moments where we say ‘It’s like this’, then sense into our experiencing, and realise that it is not exactly like this, but like that. For example ‘It makes me feel sad…no…not really sad…actually angry’. We can refer to that, to which we gave attention, and which first manifested as sad and then as angry. We glimpse it in the changes from one form to another. There is that which lies beyond the forms. In the Buddha’s words:
There is an unborn, an un-brought-to-being, an unmade, an unformed. If there were not, there would be no escape made known here for one who is born, brought to being, made, formed. But since there is an unborn, an un-brought-to-being, an unmade, an unformed, an escape is therefore described for one who is born, brought to being, made, formed.
(Udana VIII, 1-3; Nanamoli, 1972, p. 223).
In effective psychotherapy people move not so much from less satisfactory forms to more satisfactory forms, but towards a lesser attachment to any forms. Carl Rogers, Gendlin’s close colleague, wrote (1967, p.171),:
Clients seem to move toward more openly being a process, a fluidity, a changing. They
are not disturbed to find that they are not the same from day to day, that they do not al
ways hold the same feelings toward a given experience or person, that they are not al
ways consistent. They are in flux, and seem more content to continue in this flowing cur
rent. The striving for conclusions and end states seems to diminish.
In the Buddha’s terms, there is a movement from the formed to the unformed. This does not mean that we abandon the forms, but that we take them less seriously. The forms are temporary manifestations of that which is beyond form. The forms are what Buddhists call samsara, but there is a sense in which samsara is not distinct from nirvana, or that which is beyond form.
The practical issue is how we can encourage the process of letting go of our attachment to the forms, so that new forms can arise, and so that in the transformation of form we can sense that which lies beyond form. The Buddhist way is that of meditation, of allowing the forms to arise and dissolve. Meditation helps to reduce our clinging to some forms and avoiding others; and it helps to reduce the confusions in which we live. But it is also true that confusion, clinging and aversion can interfere with meditation, and here Gendlin’s focusing procedure may be of interest to Buddhists.
Gendlin’s procedure is designed to help people stay with, and relate to, their immediate experiencing. They can then dip into that experiencing and discover new ways in which to formulate their concerns. Buddhism is less concerned with reformulating our concerns than with transcending them, but there is an initial process of staying with the forms which are there, which seems common to both traditions. In some traditions of Buddhism there are ‘preliminary practices’ which are designed to concentrate or stabilise the mind, and the early parts of Gendlin’s focusing procedure could be seen as a practice of this sort.
Confusion, aversion and attachment
The focusing procedure usually begins with what could be called Making a List. Often there are many things which are troubling us at the same time. Together they generate a sense of unease or anxiety which is hard to work with because each trouble distracts us from the others. Here it can help to do something like what we do when we have a great many external things to do: we take a bit of time to sit down and make a list. It seems initially that the number of things to be done is infinite and overwhelming, but once the list is made we see that there are after all only perhaps fifteen! Making the list doesn’t get anything done, but it clears us a bit of space. We can now prioritise the things and work at them one at a time. In the same way we can take time to notice what are the things which are disturbing us at present. It can help to ask ‘What stands between me and feeling fine right now?’, or to try saying ‘Everything is perfect in my life right now’ and then noticing that bodily response which says ‘No, it’s not’. In that response we can sense the things that are not right; usually there are several, some big, some small. We just note them, without going into them. We say ‘Apart from that, is everything fine?’ and see what response there is.
Each of the concerns needs to be acknowledged –‘That’s there’. Each of them can be sensed as an emotional whole, such as ‘all that business about Charlie leaving’, or ‘all that thing about what Anne said last night’. It would be impossible to spell out all that is in each emotional package, but they can be sensed as wholes. The thing about Charlie leaving is distinct from the thing about what Anne said. This part of the focusing practice can be seen as reducing confusion. If we are using focusing as a therapeutic procedure we can then try to get a sense of which package – which mind-object - needs our attention most, and can then proceed to work with it.
However, things other than confusion can stand in the way of mindful attention. Often we can sense that a mind-object is in some sense too far away for us to experience it properly. There is that trouble about Charlie, but it’s surely not important and we don’t really want to look at it now; or someone says ‘You really do seem upset about the Charlie business’ and we say ‘No, no, its nothing’. We can shy away from giving attention to troubling things; naturally so, because we want to avoid what is painful. But the focusing practice encourages us to come closer to the painful places, to be more friendly towards them. Instead of turning away we can say ‘Oh yes, that’s there. All that thing with Charlie. Let me make some room for that…how does it make me feel?…sort of knotted up inside…oh, yes, that knotted up thing…let me just stay with that for a while...’ Instead of the aversion to difficult experiences we turn our attention towards them in a friendly way, and then often something new emerges about what is painful, and what might help.
Then there is the opposite kind of case, where the mental object is too close rather than too distant. We are caught up in our fear or overwhelmed by our sadness. Rather than being able to acknowledge in a friendly way that there is fear there, we become the fear. Here focusing suggests ways in which we can get some distance from the emotion which we are experiencing. Just saying ‘That’s there’ can help, or ‘I’m noticing my fear’. These ways of putting it help to create a distance between me and my fear. I am here, and there is the fear, over there, as it were. In that way I can separate from my fear, and then I can begin to relate to it. Gendlin suggests some visualisation practices which can help with this (some people discover such practices for themselves). For example, we can imagine taking our emotional problem, for example, all that anger and resentment we have about Charlie, and visualise it as a package which we set down some distance away. We might sense how far away it needs to be for us to feel comfortable: not so far that we lose the felt sense of it altogether, but not so close that it overwhelms us. Or that fear we feel in our chest: we lean forward and then gradually sit back, leaving the fear there in front of us. Or we imagine our sadness projected onto a big screen – there it is, over there, and here am I looking at it.
There is in focusing and meditation a kind of space in which we can create a distance between ourselves and our mind objects. This is not a physical space, of course, but nor is it the same as the image space in which we might visualise putting our emotional packages down, some distance away. This becomes clear if we visualise putting our trouble down, yet when we check how that feels in our body, there is no change. In that case we have imagined creating a space in which we are separate from our problem, but we haven’t actually done it. In Tibetan Buddhism visualisation techniques are used in developing qualities such as compassion or courage, and it is interesting that here too the distinction is made between the image as such and the actual power or deity which the image represents (Beyer 1978). The actual power has to be brought into the image before the image can be effective.
Getting into a position to relate effectively to one’s mental objects can be seen as a matter of relating to oneself in the way one relates to other people. We often treat ourselves quite differently from the way we treat others, as if we were in some way different or special. This can be a matter of us liking ourselves more than we like others, of feeling that we are more important than others, or it can be a matter of liking ourselves less than we like others, and seeing others as more important than us. Traditional religious teachings are usually aimed at those with the first kind of difficulty, whereas psychotherapists more often work with people who have the second kind. Either way, there is an illusion involved: in reality we are all simply people, and we all suffer. What matters is that there is suffering, but it is an illusion if we feel that our suffering is worse than that of others, just because it is ours. It would similarly be an illusion if we thought that it was worse for someone else to be upset just because it is them. Mostly, of course, we tend to be biased towards our own happiness, but in modern culture there is a curious twist in which a significant number of people don’t like themselves, and try to make others happy at their own expense.
The Buddhist view is that compassion should be for all sentient beings, just as Christianity teaches that we should love our neighbour as ourself (not less, but not more, either). This compassion is an attitude that comes from standing back from ourselves and seeing our troubles simply as troubles, rather than as our troubles It is a matter of adopting an attitude towards them which is like the attitude which a kind and wise friend would take. Such a friend would not evade or ignore our troubles, but neither would they allow themselves to get caught up in them. They would maintain a certain distance in order to be able to relate to us effectively. This is the attitude encouraged in focusing, but also, I think, in Buddhism.
Gendlin’s focusing procedure developed partly out of his psychotherapy work with Carl Rogers, but also out of his philosophy of experiencing. This philosophy (Gendlin 1984, 1986, 1997a, 1997b) has much in common with certain forms of Buddhist philosophy. It is a philosophy which makes processes and interactions more basic than states and entities. In Gendlin’s scheme there are individual beings, but they exist only in interaction with other beings. There are, as in Buddhism, no selves as independent entities.
Gendlin sees the modern world as one which is dominated by atomistic conceptions which have developed with the rise of science. If we leave aside the quantum concepts of theoretical physics our world-view is essentially a mechanistic one in which people are seen as highly complex physical systems. We are, in effect, machines. But to see the world in that way deprives it of purpose and meaning, and indeed of living things and sentient beings as we ordinarily conceive them.
This kind of concern about our modern world-view is of course quite widespread, but there are few alternatives available which allow for the importance of the scientific way of seeing things. Gendlin does not deny that the world can be seen in the way that science sees it, or that for many purposes that is a useful way of seeing it. However, for him science does not portray the reality of the world. Science is itself a human affair which involves a particular way of being in the world. Human life involves far more than can be captured in the conceptual nets of science, and Gendlin’s philosophy develops a model which allows there to be living organisms, and sentient beings in the world without introducing anything like Descartes’ notion of mind as something distinct from matter.
For Gendlin living things are what he calls ‘interaffecting’ wholes, in which each element is what it is through its being affected by all the other elements, which in turn are what they are partly through their being affected by the first element. In the case of sentient creatures a more intricate kind of interaffecting is involved in which the organism interacts not only with its environment but with its own registering of its environment. Then with human beings comes the extra dimension of symbolisation, which is nevertheless prefigured in Gendlin’s account of living things.
Symbolisation gives human beings the capacity to reflect on their own experiencing, and to stand back from their experiencing in the way which is characteristic of focusing and of meditation. Gendlin in effect starts from the fact that human beings can meditate upon their experiencing, and then asks what the world must be like if that is to be possible. His answer is that the world must have certain characteristics which are associated with meaning. Meaning cannot be accounted for in mechanistic terms, so we have to think of the fundamental nature of the world as incorporating something akin to meaning. Just as in language words are interdefinable and cannot exist as separate entities, so in the world generally there cannot be entities which exist in independence of other entities. Individual beings exist as part of an interaffecting matrix, just as individual words exist as part of the matrix of a language. It is a way of thinking which in some ways resembles that found in the Hwa Yen school of Buddhism, with its central image of Indra’s net, in which every element reflects every other element (Chang 1971).
In Gendlin’s philosophy human life is an ongoing interaction process in which our experiencing is always in interaction with forms or patterns. Forms or patterns include words, images, gestures, music, dance; anything which can give expression to or symbolise our experiencing. Our experiencing gives rise to forms which express it, as when we write a poem. But also the forms change our experiencing, as when we read a poem and come to experience the world differently as a result. The forms are fleeting; what continues is the process which gives rise to the forms. Psychological suffering arises when the free movement between form and what lies beyond the forms is blocked.
We then get caught in the forms, attached to the forms. We become caught in particular ways of seeing things, and frame everything that happens in terms of our familiar concepts, rather than seeing how those concepts could be changed through our fresh experiencing. Or we fix our attention on the seemingly objective outside world and do not notice how our world changes with changes in our experiencing. Or we get caught in what seem old patterns from the past, and fail to notice that in the present things are not really the same. We see the patterns rather than being open to what is fresh and new in our experience.
In Gendlin’s view psychological suffering arises from our getting caught in the forms, rather than allowing the forms to be transformed by our experiencing. This seems very close to what the Buddha taught: that all forms are impermanent, and that suffering arises from our attachment to the forms.
Beyer, S. (1978) The Cult of Tara. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chang, G.C.C. (1971) The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism. Pennsylvania State University Press.
Gendlin, E.T. (1984) ‘The client’s client: the edge of awareness’ in R.L. Levant & J.M. Shlien (eds) Client-centered Therapy and the Person-Centered Approach. New York: Praeger.
Gendlin, E.T. (1986) Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron.
Gendlin, E.T. (1996) Focusing-oriented psychotherapy (New York: Guilford Press.
Gendlin, E.T. (1997a) Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Gendlin, E.T. (1997b) A Process Model (New York: Focusing Institute).
Gendlin, E.T. (2003) Focusing. London: Rider, 2003.
King, M et al. (2000) Randomised controlled trial of non-directive counselling, cognitive-behaviour therapy and usual general practitioner care in the management of depression as well as mixed anxiety and depression in primary care. Health Technology Assessment, 4 (19), 2000.
Lambert & Bergin, 1994 The effectiveness of psychotherapy. In A.E. Bergin & S.L. Garfield Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change Fourth edition. Chichester: John Wiley, pp. 143-189.
Nanamoli, Bhikku (1972) The Life of the Buddha. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.
Orlinsky, Graw and Parks (1994) Process and outcome in psychotherapy – noch einmal. In A.E. Bergin & S.L. Garfield Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, Fourth edition. Chichester: John Wiley, pp. 270-376.
Purton, C. (2004) Focusing and Person-Centred Therapy. London: Palgrave, 2004.
Rogers, C.R. (1967) On Becoming a Person. London: Constable.
Smith, M.L. & Glass, G.V. (1977). Meta-analysis of psychotherapy outcome studies. American Psychologist, 32, 752-760.
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Welwood, J. (2000) Toward a Psychology of Awakening. London: Shambhala, 2000.
Much information on Gendlin’s work, including some references to its relationship to Buddhism, can be found on the website of the Focusing Institute: www.focusing.org.
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