Focusing & Meditation
Posted January 22, 2008on:
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I have just come from a 15 day silent Vipassana retreat. I believe that through the practice of integrating Focusing and meditation at appropriate times I experienced a deeper understanding of the relationship between my mindbody and my inner observer and my body’s wisdom in how it and when offers up insights based on direct experience.
This account is a simple reflection on my practice, at this point in time, in a particular context. In it, I am a scribe; writing my body’s experience of a living moment. So in the writing, which implies a sense of permanence because of its physicality, something in me wishes to exclaim: “this too is changeable and who knows what my next moment will bring.” I will briefly outline Vipassana mediation and then go on to describe my meditation practice and how it evolved.
“Meditation is the systematic training of attention. Attention is the deliberate placing of awareness on its object and awareness is the knowing of the object.”1
Buddhist meditation practices fall into 2 broad categories or qualities of attention-Samatha and Vipassana. Samatha means serenity or calm and this is developed through sustained concentration (Samadhi) on a single, primary object. The breath is one of the most common primary objects as it is easy to find and come back to if the mind wanders. If another object of attention arises and prevails, and this can be body sensations, feelings, thoughts, sounds, visual stimulus etc., then one shifts one’s attention there. When attention wanders again the meditator comes back to the breath or whatever primary object they had originally chosen.
Vipassana means insight or seeing clearly. The cornerstone of Vipassana is sustained mindfulness; a quality of mind that notices what is present, without judgement. “Mindfulness is an aware, balanced acceptance of present experience”2 as it is just now…and just now…and just now. There are 4 foundations of mindfulness in Vipassana practice: mindfulness of body (sensations), mindfulness of feeling tones (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), mindfulness of the mental and emotional formations (thoughts, desires, aversions) and mindfulness of the Dhamma or teachings or broader patterns of experience. We mentally “note” each experience so as to place our awareness on it. We might note the breath: in-out; rising-falling. We might note sensations; itching, stretching, aching. We might note our feelings: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We might note our thoughts; planning, imagining, remembering, intending. This practice is about knowing what you are doing, when you are doing it, in each moment. If you are planning, you know you are planning. If you are recollecting, you know you are recollecting. If you are walking, you know you are walking. Essentially, it doesn’t matter what or where the object of attention is-what matters is the continuity of attention over time.
With mindfulness we become aware of the changing nature of our experiences, the arising and passing away of the data that contributes to the experience, an arising and passing away of each reaction to the experience, the arising and passing away of the meanings we make of the experience. We notice that nothing is remains the same and we may begin to notice our repetitive habits, preferences, inclinations and reactions. We may start to see our made-selves with a certain clarity and compassion; clarity that comes from sustained objective attention and compassion that comes from seeing the frailty of our stories, beliefs, opinions, discomforts, pain, joys, desires, and attachments, that all arise and pass away; that are subject to impermanence.
My Vipassana meditation practice has been something of a paradox. I started meditating in order to both see myself more clearly and objectively, to be less “caught up in” myself. Paradoxically, the project ‘all about me” needed another me “the observer” so, at this point in time, I seem to have more of “me” not less. It seems I have entered into a new inner relationship which has its own particular intrapersonal dynamic.
The next paradox was that in order see me as part of a bigger picture; to get a sense of perspective, I had to be prepared to get closer in. A tug of war ensued between closer attention and the distance, a distance that “the observer” maintained in order to remain mindful and closer in to investigate experience. Ultimately and over time, this tug of war led to a kind of constructed objective-coolness with whatever was arising. In that objective coolness was some relief from my identifications. I could note away; “planning, planning, planning”, “remembering, remembering, remembering”. I was on the meditation object and seeing consistent patterns but I’m not sure I was becoming any the wiser about why so much planning, why was this memory so persistent, why did this particular quality of restlessness arise so consistently? As for the distance; I wondered if a different approach might yield more insights; if I could find a way to “be more with” these experiences and yet not get caught up in or identified with them. And then I chanced upon Focusing. Here, I found a way to be with “all of myself” as it arose each moment. I found ways to interact with something there, a bodily-felt sense that explicated my experience, a bodily knowing that was more than my conscious mind, more than feelings, emotions, sensations and past experience and it included them.
Focusing is a technique created by Gene Gendlin, a philosopher and psychologist. “Focusing is a mode of inward bodily attention. Focusing occurs exactly at the interface of body-mind. It consists of specific steps for getting a body sense of how you are in a particular life situation. The body sense is unclear and vague at first, but if you pay attention it will open up into words or images and you experience a felt shift in your body. In the process of Focusing, one experiences a physical change in the way that the issue is being lived in the body. We learn to live in a deeper place than just thoughts or feelings. The whole issue looks different and new solutions arise.”2 This process, as described, feels good. It releases energy even if what I find there feels pleasant or unpleasant because the shift contains all my direct experience both past and present, and from that place, in my body, something deeply meaningful emerges. For me, I experience this as first-person insight. Through Focusing my living experiences became whole and life serving rather than accidental, coincidental, predetermined or pathological and something to be analysed out of existence.
As Focusing “involves deliberately attending down where activity arises and staying with something”3 this felt sense becomes another object to which I can attend in my meditation practice. In this process, that part of me that stays with and attends to the felt sense is that same as my “observer” in meditation but the quality of my attention has a more embracing, less neutral, quality; a kind of content-less self that can speak for the felt sense, can understand it, and can hold a safe space for it. In this way, Focusing also brings my attention to bear on the quality of relationship I hold with myself. I have become my own good listener to what my body knows and holds. I experience Focusing as a particular kind of relationship or conversation I have with my own bodily-felt wisdom.
“Both Focusing and Buddhism address the issue of being present to our life as it is felt right now. Both are interested in bringing caring and compassion to our moment to moment experience. Both are geared toward reducing human anguish – not by bypassing feelings, but by attending to them just as they are. Both encourage us to trust the wisdom of our own experience, rather than rely upon external authority to tell us what is true or right.”4 Both Focusing and meditation can accompany us to our limits of self-identification because we pay attention at the edge our awareness where something fresh can come, something with which we are not identified or enmeshed. In both practices we are mindful of the discursive mind, emotions and feelings, sensations and then we open into a deeper awareness and relationship with ourselves that invites insight and acceptance.
So, having developed a solo Focusing practice over the last few years I decided to introduce Focusing into my mindfulness practice on this retreat. Focusing has 6 key movements:
Clearing a Space: A checking in. Asking “how am I just now?” or acknowledging what is present.
Sensing the felt sense of the experience: “What does this experience feel like?” Attending to its unclear, fuzzy edge.
Finding a handle: “What is the quality the Felt Sense” “How would it like to be described?”
Resonating: “Is this it exactly?” until a felt shift occurs that indicates that the description is meaningful.
Asking: What is it about x.y.z. that makes me feel like ….? “What is it all about…?” “What’s really in this….?”
Receiving: Welcoming whatever comes as a first step in living forward and being open to something more.
Over the fortnight I noticed three critical shifts in my practice. Firstly, using Clearing a Space at the start of a sit to sense into what had come to the cushion with me and acknowledging its/their presence. After Clearing a Space I had a more centred intention to “sit”, a more spacious start and a safe container for whatever came in the sit.
Secondly, I rested into the support and warmth of “Presence” in the relationships or interactions I was holding with myself; maintaining a safe container for both the “me” experiencing and the “me” noting. Presence is a word also used to describe an aware, balanced acceptance of experience. It has the sense of being able to turn towards something with patience, with warmth, with a gentle kindness. The quality and nature of our Presence influences what will come to our attention. So, at the start of my sit I may ask myself ‘what quality of Presence or attention do I need in this sit, or do I need starting this sit?” I invite my body to let me know what it needs as a safe container in this moment. Sometimes I get expected answers such as compassion, kindness, and warmth. Other times I get unexpected answers such as “curiosity, opening wider, going easily today, light hovering, or patience”.
Thirdly, I noticed the changing role of noting. At the beginning of a sit noting tended to be on the most predominant sensation eg. Was it physical, feeling or thinking? Oftentimes the noting arose out of a persistent sensation or feeling or thought. So if I had a persistent sensation my back I would go there. If a thought persisted I would go there. I found that just doing simple “noting” eg planning, planning, planning; pressure, pressure, pressure led me away from the experience rather than into it. It kind of distanced me and didn’t capture the fullness of that experience. It also had a sense of separateness from the experience. It felt like a stone skipping over the surface of the lake; it was fast, surface oriented and moving “onwards” rather than “into”. So, in the end, rather than just “noting” I tended to acknowledge or say “hello to”. Foe example, “ahhh…hello there planning” or “hello tugging sensation on the inside of my left knee…I sense you there”.
Then I would sense into that something more all about what needed my attention using a focusing approach. My attention would rest on this process of getting a handle and resonating with the direct experience also being aware of the whole quality and journey of “movement” towards the felt shift where the “noting” finally captures “just how it is”. I would stay open to receiving what came and then sensing if there was still something more; if yes:– staying with it; if not:- going back to the breath.
I ended up practicing something like this for the most part:
Breath or Bare Awareness as Primary Object
1. Setting up the sit: posture, commitment, intention
2. Bringing attention to the whole body here in this room.
3. Bringing attention to where my body makes contact, up the back, neck, shoulders, head, face, front of body, contact again…resting into the support then finally in to the focusing space inside.
4. Checking –In: noticing & acknowledging how it is in there
5. Coming to a Clearer Space if needed
6. Inviting my body to let me know the quality of attention it needed just now; inviting Presence
7. During the Sit: Mindfulness of whatever was arising
8. Initially bringing my attention to my primary object, usually the breath.
9. Allowing when attention moves to secondary object and then investigating within a Focusing model – this was effective on both mindfulness of body, feelings and thinking.
10. When felt shift occurs moving back to primary object
11. Remaining aware of Presence during the process
Or: Investigation as Primary Object
1. Setting Intention
2. Asking or inviting “what my body knows and can show me all about……..x,y,z.”
3. Remaining open in through the Focusing movements to what comes
4. Resting in that awareness
Ending a sit:
1. Recollecting experience
2. Coming out mindfully
3. Letting go; becoming mindful of next experience (usually trying to get up gracefully despite stiffness and creaking joints)
I had a number of insightful experiences incorporating Focusing and meditation. I was able to be with the body’s experience, the feelings and the thoughts. One sit, in particular around inviting what my body knew and could show me “all about calm and concentrated meditation” was surprising and affirming. I found that I was able to” just sit” for up to two hours, and up to this point I had been hanging out for the 45 minute bell). I became very aware of the quality of Presence, and I can only describe the experience as going from sticky (thoughts stick, sensations stick etc) to slippery & smooth. My breath became very smooth and even, thoughts came and went but didn’t drag on my attention and body sensations were just body sensations; just another potential point of focus; but a real sense of physical and mental ease developed. I can remember thinking my heart is still and there is no where to go, no other place to be. The detail in those sits was phenomenal and I remember feeling so “at home” allowing and enjoying waves of joy and gratitude at the richness of it all and how my body just knew. These sits lasted for 2 days (and then I got attached to them and all kinds of other responses arose which were interesting in themselves as a meditation object but not half as pleasant).
How about that!!!!!! My body did know and could show me. Focusing gave me a way to invite and allow and stay with my present experience and with investigation. Focusing has taught me to trust my own ability to hold a safe space for exploration, to wait for and welcome fresh insights as they arise from my bodily-felt direct experience, just in this moment.
1. Kearney, P., Introducing the Mahasi Method, May 2006, http://dharmasalon.net/page4/files/06_Mahasi_method
2. Focusing Institute, Focusing Fact Sheet, http://www.focusing.org/fact_sheet.asp
3. Gendlin, E., Focusing Oriented Psychotherapy, Guildford Press, New York, 1996, p.19
4. Amodeo, J., Focusing and the Spiritual Life, www.focusing.org/focusing_and_the_spiritual_life.html