An Interview with Mary McGuire

Mary is a Director of the Focusing Institute, Chicago USA.

What “focusing” is and how it came about.

Focusing is like paying attention to something inside that isn’t yet clear. Dr. Eugene Gendlin, University of Chicago, was a student of Carl Rogers in the early sixties. They had a counselling centre there where Rogers taped therapy sessions with therapists from all the different orientations. When they listened to some of these recordings, Gendlin became very interested in why some people change in psychotherapy and why some others do not. Often people will stay in psychotherapy for years and they say: “Doctor says I’m doing well”. Gendlin listened to short segments of these tapes and began to successfully predict which clients would make real, permanent and last­ing change. What he found was that people who make changes talk differ­ently to those who do not. It’s like we can talk about feelings for twenty years and nothing changes – but if we get quiet and talk from a place inside ourselves, where that feeling is held or carried, then it can move. An example would be, let’s say I’m angry and I can tell you about how angry I am. Telling you is not going to change it, in fact it is escalated. If you were to ask me to sense inside where my body carries that anger, then I would get quiet and find there’s a whole place in my body out of which the anger’s coming. In focusing we call that a “felt sense”.

When we talk about a felt sense we are talking about how the body sums up all experience, we live every situation with our bodies. An example would be; I walk into a room of one hundred people and I don’t have to look at each person to know whether I feel OK or not – my body registers it. It’s very much a connection of body/mind/spirit we’re talking about. A lot of people tend to rationalise everything, but there’s a whole wisdom carried in the body that Gendlin wanted the ordinary person to be able to reach. That we call focusing.

When Gendlin discovered this he wrote a book because he wanted to get help for ordinary people. Not many can afford to go into therapy. He started having “changes” groups. He would go in and teach people how to listen to each other and how to focus. Part of the work of the Institute of which I am a director is to develop workshops for people from all walks of life. Gendlin did not want this to be exclusively in the hands of the therapists. He wanted people helping people and building a very supportive kind of community.

Focusing is different from getting in touch with feelings because it’s like getting in touch with the whole “body feel” and how my body carries that. In his book focusing, Cendlin developed a six step process. We teach this process but that is just the map. We know that inside we’re much more com­plex than any six step process.

There’s another thing that’s very important with focusing. We call it the “Focusing Attitude”. It is a very different attitude than we usually have in everyday life. It is an attitude of being very gentle and friendly, allowing, welcoming all the different parts of us, not criticising, not judging them, not putting them down. It’s leaving out the “shoulds” and “oughts”. By allow­ing whatever is the truth in the moment to be here, and spending time with that and keeping it company, it can move, it can change.

I think there are places in all of us that maybe are a little discouraged, a little hurt, but we don’t show them. We say: “I’m strong and I don’t show this part of me”. Inside I carry that around with me and I cry alone or I feel these things alone.

Focusing is: spending time with places that, maybe, didn’t get to live. Something may have happened in our past and got stopped there. Focusing allows you access to where energy is tied up so that it can open and move in its own direction.

Gendlin believes that inside of us is a direction for our lives. “It” knows – there’s a wisdom carried in the body. People will often say “Well, get in touch with your inner self”, but some don’t show you how to do that. Focusing is a whole process of getting in touch with the inner self. The focusing attitude is like an umbrella and the attitude of being gentle and friendly applies inside me as well as if I am working with you. It’s open, no judgement whatsoever, because whatever the truth of you in the moment is, that’s welcome. We need to teach people how to welcome it. Most of us are used to being very harsh on ourselves. We put ourselves down. We say: “You can’t do this or that”; “you can’t be this or that”. There’s an energy flow stopped there so the focusing attitude is very important.

Having a safe climate is another thing we talk about. I think everyone has a right to feel safe. I keep myself safe in focusing by checking in if something needs to be expressed or said and if it doesn’t, that’s fine. It’s just as accept­able to be in a group and not speak as it is to speak. So, you need to check in, is it right, right now, for me to be here?. It’s a constant checking in with ourselves. I think that most places that are stuck or didn’t get to live will only speak if it feels safe. You know, if I have a younger part of me that’s been hurt, it isn’t going to tell me anything if it’s not safe, like, if I’m going to jump on it and repress it again … so having the umbrella is what holds the whole process.

I want to say something about the steps, even though they are for teaching purposes. Once you have a map you can make many detours. Focusing is something very specific, a very specific way of attending to a place inside. The first step of focusing, Gendlin called, “Clearing a Space”. At the beginning, when he wrote the book, he called it a Preliminary Step to Focusing. If he wrote the book again, he would not do that because it’s much more than that, it’s the whole thing. There are so many applications for “clearing a space” that are powerful. One of our certified trainers in Chicago did a study with cancer patients using just the “clearing a space” and found tremendous results. The doctors were amazed. The cancer was in a place in the body they had stopped relating to. Something had gotten repressed. In focusing, when you have a shift, you feel like the body is whole again.

The “Clearing a Space” is a way of having a relationship with each thing that the body is carrying, but not being identified with it. There is a Me (or I) and an “It”. All my problems or situations, that weigh on me are “it”. It’s an I/it relationship and even if there’s only a hair’s breadth between, I can sense Me as more than it. Another way is to put it out of the body – imagery is very powerful here. Putting things out and sitting back – aahh! – and feeling myself whole. The “clearing a space” has also been used with school children and with very disturbed children with behavioural problems and lack of concentration. When they can be taught to put things out, then they can be there to concentrate on school work. You can do “clearing a space” just to feel yourself whole, or you can do it before you want to work on something. When I have to work on some life situation, I want all of me there, you know, I don’t want to go into the sink holes.

Focusing teaches a way of being beside something but not in it. Like, if I’m scared to swim, I can sit by the pool, I can glance at it – oh!, I’m scared – but you don’t push anything – and then maybe, I’ll put my toe in. So, it’s a step by step by step process and there’s no forcing and there’s no pushing – gentle listening to our bodies.

You try to listen to where life is trying to come forth. It’s a very positive thing. You don’t think in terms of: “What’s wrong with this person?” You think, “Where is there life coming up?” “What might help here?” It’s a very life-giving kind of process. So, “Clearing a Space” is that first step.

And then, let’s say the person has a space between “them” and “it” and they’re going to work on it. Then we would say – OK, leave that situation right there, where you can touch it, but, you don’t need to be in it! You can be at the right distance – only the person inside knows – and let your body feel where you carry that inside … it’s somewhere between your throat and your lower abdomen – that we teach, but you can have other barometers. So, a “felt sense” becomes like a handle – you might say: “Is tense the right word?” and they’ll say: “No, it’s more like heavy”. So that’s the handle, like on a suitcase – it picks up the whole thing. And then you would ask – “Well what is it about the situation that makes it so heavy?” And, you’re not asking the intellect because it has given a hundred answers already, but it hasn’t changed, they still have this feeling. So, you’re asking “it” directly and if the friendly attitude and the caring are there, it might – or it might not be ready to move, and it doesn’t have to. I’ll give an example: If I’m working with an autistic child and the child comes and sees me and sits in my office for ten minutes every day and the child never speaks. Would you say anything is happening? It’s not when the child speaks that the change is happening – it’s all along … Then there is the “Receiving Step: You’re grateful something spoke, or you just keep company with some part that hasn’t got listened to, for years, maybe. It’s taking time to really notice that in some way the body now is a little different. There’ll be other steps, this is one step.

With feelings that want to wait, I think the majority of us either run away and say; “I don’t feel anything”, or we become overwhelmed and sink into despair and depression. Focusing is neither of those. It is a way of keeping company with something without being in it and without having to run away. Gentleness is very important. I call some of my places inside my “child places”. It’s a metaphor, and people can use different metaphors, but it helps me to say, how would I be with a little child who was hurting? I’d take the child on my knee and I’d be very gentle – so, can I be that inside? Gentleness is a very important aspect of focusing and with another person you need to be able to listen to yourself and also listen to them if you are facilitating their process.

The foundation and baseline for all this is Rogerian Listening but in Focusing it’s a little different. We call it “Experiential Listening” where I will point to the felt sense out of which some words arc coming. For example, If you told me you felt jealous, I would not say “so you feel jealous”. I’d say, “so there’s a place inside that feels jealous” or, “so something there is jealous” or, “somebody in there is jealous”. I’d be pointing to the place. At first the person might say, “Well I think I might have got a “felt sense”, but I’m not sure – then there’s teaching to be done – to let people know that the body carries everything, that it registers everything.

If you think about it the big cry with children is always “Nobody listens.” Listening is a very powerful thing. It’s a real treat to have someone give you that kind of attention. In Focusing we have what we call “Focusing Partner­ship”, where two people will get together for whatever length of time they set each week. Half the time is totally for me and the other half is for you. That’s very powerful, for some people, it’s the best therapy they get.

Focusing is a very empowering process because we say to people (and they really get this) “You’re in charge of your own process.” Focusing is not another method of therapy – it’s a way of using anything the person knows more effectively. Let’s say I’m scared of something but I don’t know what I’m scared about. I panic every time I do such and such. Now, I can have a million thoughts about why I panic, and it’s not going to help me – If I can really get in touch with that whole place in my body out of which the panic is coming … often it will be a memory of earlier times … once I can get in touch with that and give it room, then I can heal.