In developing Focusing as a model for community mental health in El Salvador, I
am very fortunate to be working with the Association for the Development of El
Salvador (CRIPDES) the largest rural organization in the country and a leader in
the Salvadoran social movement.
CRIPDES was founded in 1984 to support people displaced by the Salvadoran civil
war. CRIPDES organized and accompanied re-populations, strengthened local
organizations so that people could stay in their communities, and called for a
negotiated solution to the war.
After the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, CRIPDES became the Association of
Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador. Its current mission is to
strengthen and develop organizing in rural communities as they struggle for an
economically, politically, and socially just society. Day-to-day, CRIPDES
supports community organizing of the rural population, popular education and
mobilization for political advocacy.
Today, CRIPDES is made up of 300 rural communities organized through seven
regional organizations. National and regional leaders are elected democratically
from among community members. Many CRIPDES communities have sister cities in the
US, organized by US/El Salvador Sister Cities. See www.elsalvadorsolidarity.org.
Despite El Salvador's reputation for violence and gangs, CRIPDES communities are
quite peaceful. They are all composed of people whose families joined the
popular uprising during the 70's and 80's and were combatants, or had to flee to
the mountains or to other countries during the war. They do not want to relive
the war experience. Although the peace accords were signed 15 years ago, poverty
and lack of economic opportunity are still prevalent. Community organizations
like CRIPDES give structure and meaning to people's lives, and help them
continue to fight for social justice.
New drawings of the Focusing process
When i read Rob Foxcroft's poetic focusing steps on the Discussion list, it
inspired me to make a drawing of the process. My final version is below, on two
pages. it helps a lot to have these drawings, because I can explain the process
to new people more easily and even if more experienced people are there, it
helps them understand it better. We can refer to the steps as we are doing
focusing as well.
Many people here have not had the opportunity to go to school and many
are still learning to read. Having the pictures helps non-readers be able to
understand and talk about the process.
The Río Lempa runs through this area, and everyone responds to the metaphor
of problems being like eddies in the river, where things go round and round and
can't get back into the flow.
Focusing steps 1 to 4
1. In the river of your life there is an eddy. It sometimes causes pain, or it
can be something new that you want to realize.
2. Say hello to the pain or the difficult places
3, Make your spiritual connection so that the pain and strong emotions can
settle down, and create a clear space inside to invite a felt sense of the whole
4. At first it will be cloudy and you might think that nothing will happen. But
if you give it time, a sense of the whole situation starts to form. As it
becomes clearer, it also might have many facets.
Focusing steps 5 to 7
5. Words, images, textures and memories might come from the felt sense.
As you show them to the felt sense, it will give you feedback on whether they
are relevant or not. If they are relevant, the felt sense will ease.
6. All the things that come to you should be welcomed as guests who have new
gifts to bring you.
6.1 Sometimes there is something inside that does not want to welcome the gifts
of the guests, and sees them as dangerous. It might seem like it wants to save
you from something bad, but it is often a part of you that is afraid of change.
Sometimes you just need to ask that part what it needs in order to be
comfortable. Then, if you reground yourself in your spiritual connection, this
voice often calms down, and you will feel a new green plant growing inside. Like
all small, tender plants, this new green shoot needs to be protected from too
much sun, and needs to be watered with love and care. It may contain new steps
forward that you can take in the situation.
7. Thank your felt sense for what it has shown you. Hopefully, you will feel the
river of your life flowing again, and even have a little boat to travel on it
It helps a lot to have these drawings because it enables me to explain the
process as a whole at the beginning of a class. As you all know, it is rather
difficult to explain focusing to new people without their having experienced it.
I use the pictures to show where we are headed, and then i work on Listening. i
have found that it is fun to use the giraffe and jackal puppets and ears that I
bought from the Center for Non-Violent Communication. The puppets help a lot in
explaining about empathic listening.
In the first class i talk about the focusing steps in the pictures and then i
have people just listen to each other for three minutes each. Even in this
simple exercise, people feel different, because they are not used to being
In the second class, I explain the different between the giraffe, who has the
biggest heart of all the land animals (25 pounds!) and who quietly observes,
listening for feelings and needs in itself and other people. The jackal
represents the way most societies communicate today, blaming, analyzing and
judging others. We play a game where one person draws a card with a feeling
written on it (excitement, anxiety, etc.). The person who draws the card says "I
feel...(whatever the card says)". The person wearing the giraffe ears reflects
back what the first person said. Then i, with my jackal ears, show them what
they are not supposed to do--console, give advice, minimize, agree, disagree,
etc, etc.. My examples give them inspiration to play with the whole thing in a
second round, where they take over the jackal ears, and there is usually a lot
In the third class I give a demonstration of a focusing partnership, now that i
have people in each community that know how to handle a focusing exchange. If I
am working with a new group, i do a demonstration of focusing myself. Then we
work more on listening.
In the fourth class, I focus and and we go around the circle, having people
repeat back what i say at each pause in my focusing session.
In the fifth class, we work with the felt sense, and having people listen to
After that, i try to work with small groups in a coaching format. Depending on
the number of people, we either exchange focusing turns, or have one or more
people as observers. That way people can practice and have me there to help them
if they have questions. Right now I have four small practice groups in one
village, one group each in two other villages, and a practice group in San
In one of the villages, my faithful student L. and i did a demonstration of a
focusing partnership this week, and two new people observed. It felt really good
to have a focusing partner in one of the communities. L has learned that all he
needs to do is listen quietly. I had a very deep focusing session with him
during the demonstration. He has what he calls his "inner friend". Last week he
could not get in touch with his inner friend during his session, but this week
he did, and it brought tears of gratitude to his eyes.
In another village, I have four practice groups based on already existing
friendships. In one group, M wanted to work with what to say to people who were
trying to run her life. She had told them off, and then later didn't feel good
about how she had acted. She felt really angry at them, and I told her about the
"fight or flight" response. When she focused, it seemed like she just needed to
say hello to her violent feelings and they calmed down.
P said she has actually hit people and pulled their hair when she has been
really mad. She said that some people were spreading rumors about her and she
wanted to focus about that. Her sister had advised her to address the situation
by asking those people to forgive her, but her felt sense told her that she had
done nothing wrong, and had nothing to ask forgiveness for. I asked her what she
does to feel strong and at peace. She said, 'First I go to a room where I can be
alone. Then I cry. Then i ask God for help. i feel I am talking to God, and i
end up feeling an indescribable peace.' I asked her how that peace feels inside,
then asked her to bring the situation into that space. After awhile she said "I
need to forgive THEM". That made her feel better inside.
In another village, where i hadn't been for quite awhile, R, L and M came as
always. L was going through a difficult situation and was able to let her
feelings out in front of everyone. M tried to tell her that everything would get
better, and R tried to tell her what he thought the reason for the trouble was,
so i was able to model just listening and repeating until she had expressed
everything she needed to say. They could see that her smile and laugh came back
I also did a fun non-violent communication workshop with the CRIPDES San Vicente
staff, and another one at a place by the river.
I have done one NVC workshop with the staff of Provida, an organization that
provides health and mental health services. We will do another one this weekend.
I am introducing Focusing concepts as i teach NVC.Then we will do three Focusing
So far i am working on building people's trust to do focusing exchanges with
each other. I have only found a few people who are willing to demonstrate the
process in front of other people, and many express reservations about focusing
with their neighbors. Gossip and rumors seem to be one of the biggest problems
that people struggle with here. When i taught focusing to Marcos of
CRIPDES in 2003, he was interested in it because you do not have to reveal the
content of what you are focusing about. But often neighbors seem to think they
know what their neighbor is focusing about, so that whole thing has to be worked
My own focusing process told me that this is a reality that i must accept.
That gave me the clarity to discuss the whole issue with my village class. They
all agreed that it would be best to divide into small partnership coaching
groups, made up or friends that trust each other and couples.
The other challenge is consistency. All the people I am working with are very
busy with work and meetings, so it is hard to find a regular schedule. The
people who are really interested make an effort to come, even though they can't
always make it. I am learning that sometimes I have to pay more attention to
tracking people down. There is a lot of resistence to letting one's true
I have about a month and a half left in my 5-month commitment to be here. I see
teaching focusing here as a longterm commitment, and plan to return.