Raising Children to be Real in an Unreal World
Erakko Taylor, Elizabeth and Marianne Thompson
...there was a little girl who thought that everyone, including herself, was special. But the people around her didn’t seem to think that. They called her big-headed, a nuisance, dummy mouth. They didn’t let her be sad or angry. One teacher even called her backward and lazy.
She wanted to be listened to the way she REALLY was. She wanted to be able to talk about her feelings and not pretend she was happy when she wasn’t. She wanted to be real. But everyone around her wanted to pretend; and slowly, slowly, the little girl thought that the only way to be loved was to pretend, too. She really, really wanted to be loved. So she learned to pretend like the other people and fit in really well.
A story by Gloria
Child Play Therapist
“What would it have been like if someone had listened to you in a Focusing way as a child?,” Ed McMahon asked us at our Millennium Gathering. He let us sit with that question quietly. We went inside, many of us deep into our felt senses, looking for an answer that fit with our own unique unfolding, our growth from child to adult.
But one woman in the room knew the answer – for the next generation. Marianne Thompson had begun, 18 years ago, to parent her three children in a vastly different way. She parented them as though their emotions and feelings were important. She taught them to listen to their inner world. She helped them to trust their own authenticity and to make decisions from that space inside themselves. She gave Ed McMahon and Peter Campbell the biggest gift one human being could give to another – trust in the discoveries they had made about how to develop human wholeness and authentic spirituality.
Marianne wrote down what happened that day – what memories it triggered – when Ed asked us to ponder...
What Would It Have Been Like If...
“The felt sense of the question immediately drew me inside to an inner terrain that felt so familiar and inviting. I remembered 20 years ago, after my first Focusing workshop, when I decided to dedicate my life to listening to our three children in a Focusing way. I wanted to become more emotionally available to them as they lived their own joys and challenges, pains, confusions, and hurts. Now, years later, I want to describe what that decision means in the relationship I have with my 22 year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
I often hear parents talking about how difficult the teen years are, how when their children ask for more freedom, they panic. “How can I let them go?”, “Can I trust them?”, “Will they do the right thing?”, are the questions I hear on their lips, see in their eyes.
How different it was for me.
Mothers want to make things OK for their kids. I remember that as Elizabeth developed a sensitivity to listening to her own felt senses, whenever she became overwhelmed with school work and neglected herself, her body would be let her know in the form of a bad headache. This frightened her. It even sometimes led to vomiting and feelings of being disconnected. My helplessness to do anything for her frightened me. I couldn’t magically make it better. There were no quick fixes. I learned I needed to first listen to my own anxieties in a gentle way before I could invite her to stay with herself. Feelings of responsibility, inadequacy, being a parent who couldn’t quickly make it better for her, all became invitations for me to learn how to let go of control.
I remember how a deep trust in both Elizabeth’s and my inner guide – our felt senses unfolding – was all I could hold on to. It truly became a beacon guiding both of us, and over a period of time I could feel a deep living faith begin to grow in me and in her. It promised, There is nothing that you can’t stay with in a Focusing way. In fact this trust in felt sensing has changed the whole inner landscape into a habitual, welcoming place that invites anything that is real, home.
An openness has developed between us, a quiet knowing that we are always there for each other, no matter what – not only during Elizabeth’s childhood and teen years but up to now, the post-college years. I’d have to say that a deep trust in the habit of felt sensing has made all the difference.
For me, there’s an inner freedom and pride as I watch her listen, decide, and choose what is right for her. Many people tell me she has a wisdom beyond her years.
I smile when they ask how that happened.
While talking on the phone the other day, my friend listened in amazement when I told her I had to hang up because Mom and I were going out to lunch. With envy, she said, “You mean you and your Mother go to lunch together? Wow! I don’t even like being near my Mom.”
Reflecting on her words, I cannot imagine what it would be like to not enjoy sitting with Mom over lunch, discussing my work, or simply being quiet together.
As early as I can remember, my Mother and I developed a special trust and openness with each other through Focusing. When I came home from school with something bothering me, she would stop what she was doing to help me gently hold my feelings. I even remember as a 12-year old, Focusing about the burden of wanting to please my Mother – with her sitting beside me! When I finished, she asked me if I could listen while she Focused.
I wrote in my diary that day, “When Mommy asked if she could Focus with me, I calmly said, ‘Sure’ – but I was very excited. This was the love I really wanted – to be with each other in a real and honest way.”
When I entered adolescence I trusted that relationship, even though there were times when I wanted to Focus alone. I felt a sense of pride when I focused by myself. With the awareness that I could Focus wherever and whenever, I was comfortable in returning to my Mother for companionship with overwhelming feelings.
Her companionship was invaluable when, as a 14-year old, I felt something inhibiting me from being with my father in an open way. Her understanding of Focusing and gentle presence allowed me to be with my feelings toward my Father. I am still amazed that the texture of that softness and gentleness towards my Father after that Focusing is still a precious part of what I feel for him now.
I thank both my parents for nurturing this gentle place inside of me so that it is the most treasured part of who I am.
Elizabeth and her brothers David and John never attended a Focusing workshop. They never read a book on Focusing. Never touched any of the resource material from the Institute. What they did have were committed parents.
Because Elizabeth kept a diary, beginning in Elementary School, we have – for the first time – an account of a child growing up Focusing, in her own words. It is an extraordinary story. It validates what many of us, as adults, have suspected all along. If children are encouraged to listen to their feelings and be real, they will naturally grow into an authentic gifted adult.
We begin with a ten-year old, writing how it felt to be the smallest of three siblings.
Whenever I go to a party with my family, all the guests there ask John and David how old they are and what grade they are in. They act like it’s so important because they’re so old and David is going to be in High School. They barely pay attention to me because I’m only going to be in the sixth grade. So I started to Focus on that, because it makes me feel that I’m not important to anyone. When my parents say goodnight to me at bedtime, I start Focusing.
After a few days of Focusing, my family and I went to see Dead Poets Society. When the movie was out, my family started talking about it as we headed for our car. I was walking behind them feeling left out of things. It seemed like my family didn’t even notice I was there. Then suddenly a word came to me. I felt Left Behind. After that everything changed inside.
Before those words came to me, I felt not good enough to be important. After the words Left Behind came, I didn’t feel that anymore. I felt that I was good enough to be important.
By the age of ten, Elizabeth knew that when you heard your real voice inside you, nothing outside could make you feel bad. Knowing that made her feel good enough to be important.
With her mother’s guidance, Elizabeth had been Focusing for six years. She remembers, “I was three or four years old when I started. I stayed with the natural feelings of a child. Fears of the dark. Being afraid that I would die. Seeing someone without a leg. I started with fears like that. That gave me a big confidence in Focusing.”
She was just discovering herself and her values in the safety of her home where her feelings were listened to and valued. She assumed she could be her true self. In school, however, out of the protection of her parents she met a very different world. The peer pressure of Junior High descended on Elizabeth’s world. The first inkling of an interior struggle to validate herself appeared in her diary when she was 12 or 13 years old:
“I am your voice. When you neglect me you are neglecting yourself. When you bury me, you are burying your spirit. But when you look me in the eye as a friend-to-friend, I will speak to you and lead you on your journey.”
My voice is a precious gift that I have. Yet I am still learning how to take care of that little voice inside me. My voice has been ignored many times and when I ignore her, I fall into the grasp of others. I let others control me. I feel stupid and small yet I try not to be controlled because my mind knows I shouldn’t let that happen. When I try to obey my mind it doesn’t give me the satisfaction I want to have. What I want is to be myself without trying. I know the only way to be myself is to listen to my wise, little voice inside me.
Recently when I was Focusing, trying to be gentle with that little voice inside, the words that came were “When you neglect me you are neglecting yourself.” These words were so powerful, so right on! I knew I had been neglecting my voice inside me and I realized that without my little friend I cannot be true to myself. I suddenly realized what my feelings of confusion and stupidity were all about. My inner friend lets me be myself and without her I am swayed by people around me.
At times it is so hard for me to be gentle with my friend, yet once I Focus it seems so, so easy. My inner friend will always be part of me, but I am still waiting for the day when my friend and I will walk hand in hand without ever letting go.
It came as a shock when other classmates, especially girls, began to taunt her. She slowly realized she could be true to herself – or be true to a popular image of a young teen girl. When asked to write an essay about freedom – what it means to be free – she made her decision. Here are the words she wrote:
Free Inside Me
Freedom may be taken for granted, but some people never experience the glory of being honest and true to yourself and friends. When you’re free inside yourself, the song comes out of you. When you’re peaceful, the peacefulness comes from inside you.
When adults talk to children, their idea of freedom is something like this: “You’re lucky you weren’t a slave. You have a home and family. You are healthy and don’t have scurvy. Don’t worry. Be happy.” That tells us to ignore our feelings and pretend everything is all right.
Being in seventh grade, I’ve noticed classmates who are not comfortable with themselves. They tell me I should wear my bangs up; my clothes are out of style; I should shave my legs.
I thought I had to change my way of life to fit in with the school. This is what many girls entering Junior High think. They lose who they are and enter this other world.
But I know how to stay with these uncomfortable feelings. When I can hold my hurt feelings in a gentle way, the story underneath them breaks through. Then the meaning of my feelings becomes clear. When other girls see that their words don’t bother me anymore, they become puzzled. They can’t understand.
They don’t know that the freedom inside myself of knowing who I am is the best gift I can ever be given.
Elizabeth’s essay was one of the first signs Ed and Pete had that something amazing was unfolding in that child’s life. Ed began rethinking the structure of the Focusing approach. An academic all his life, a very learned man, a psychologist devoted to mapping out a path to healthy human growth – he began to realize that a child, in all her innocence, was pointing the way.
He remembered, “My top priority has always been to discover better ways to pass BioSpirituality on to future generations. I slowly came to realize that as a child, if I had been helped to develop the habit of felt sensing, I could have bypassed the entire period of therapeutic recovery which so many of us are forced to go through.”
What was even more amazing was that a 14-year old girl was passing it on to a 7-year old child, Kristen:
They Call Me a Dork
Elizabeth loved being with little children. Babysitting was such a responsibility – to keep them safe, to give them love, to play with them. One day, Kristen, her seven-year-old charge for the afternoon, whispered, “Can I tell you something?” Elizabeth immediately sensed there was something big under that question, and found a quiet place where they could be alone.
Sobbing, Kristen said, “Kids at school are making fun of me. Because I don’t do things their way they call me names. They call me a dork.”
Most 13-year old babysitters would have consoled Kristen. “You’re not a dork.” “You should tell your mother.” “Maybe you could make a few changes.” But Elizabeth had not been brought up that way. So instead she asked, “Where do you feel this hurting inside you?” And Kristen pointed to her stomach.
Could she hold it like her kitten, Elizabeth asked. Kristen immediately questioned, “Why are you asking me that? What do you mean? My kitten is an animal. My hurting place is inside me.”
That took Elizabeth by surprise. Her mother always taught her to stay with whatever was real inside. So, one child answered the other as best she could, “I do it because it makes me feel better.” That seemed to satisfy Kristen.
Gradually Kristen found a way to be with her hurt feelings – she could ask them to play with her. But when they wanted to talk, Kristen started to fidget and get anxious.
Elizabeth reassured her. “It’s all right for you to feel what you feel.”
Minutes later, Kristen’s face lit up in sheer joy and she told her feelings: “I really heard you!”
Her little body showed her the most beautiful picture – golden hands holding an egg inside her body. And that egg held the feelings that hurt her so much. The wisdom inside showed her how to care for them. She could hold them very gently, knowing they were valuable – because golden hands were inside her.
Elizabeth experienced these new openings into her interior life as a result of staying with felt senses. But she also had to learn how to take the scary things to that inner space. It was one thing to be angry at feeling left behind, but it was another to be really scared – and to sit with that. One day when she was 13, she became sick with the fear of staying with scary feelings. After it was all over, she wrote a letter:
Fear and Sickness
Tonight I had a very powerful Focusing experience. It started a little more than a month ago when I was ignoring a feeling that wanted very badly to be listened to. I kept thinking of something in the future that I was excited about (like bringing my teacher’s rabbit home for the weekend), and ignoring what I felt right then.
It became so bad that when it was time for me to bring the rabbit home, my eye ached excruciatingly and I even vomited. I just couldn’t be with my scary feelings gently!
After that I started living each day as though I was weighed down. Something was always “there” keeping me from feeling good. I was so scared that my eye would start hurting again, so I put up a blockade blocking me from my feelings.
Every few days Mommy would lead me in Focusing and I would Focus around that issue but never on it. Just yesterday I noticed I couldn’t keep on living this way. I was always tired and it seemed as though I wasn’t living. That night before I was going to sleep I wrote a poem in my mind. I realize now I would never have written it if I hadn’t been going through what I was. Here it is:
Where Only I Could Climb
I started out as an infant, new to the world.
I looked upon the world with fresh, young
eyes, with delightful ambitions ahead.
I grew older, breaking away from the hands
that supported me and grew into my own.
I started the great climb!
I came to stumbling blocks of pain, fear, and
sorrow. When I picked them up and
caressed them with a loving hand they slowly
melted away and I journeyed on.
I came to plateaus, looking over the horizon
and the path I had just climbed.
I never camped in one place but continued
striving for the top, where only I could climb.
The next day I sat down with Mommy again. I Focused on an entirely different subject but it led into my fear of pain. Mommy told me what you had said to her: “Places like these need a little more care.” It then dawned on me. I needed to relax and let go into my fear.
I did just that. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and went into my painful fears. That was when I noticed – there was nothing there!
I had plunged into my fears, letting go as the little voice inside me told me to and all my fear of pain melted away. It was as if I dived into a pool and the water melted away, but I had a soft landing.
I was so shocked at the sudden occurrence that I let out a giggle and couldn’t stop laughing. I was so amazed at how good it felt inside. I couldn’t believe that all I had done was let go into my fear and yet I was so afraid of letting go before!!
I kept repeating to myself how extremely wonderful it felt inside. I felt as though I could actually live again! The whole memory of the pain vanished no matter how hard I tried to think of it.
I feel as though I’m walking on water!!!
What happens when a child isn’t taught how to be with scary feelings?
Gloria Bruinix, a children’s therapist, focuses with children and realizes that she must also stay in touch with her own inner story. One day, not taking time to be with her exhaustion, she experienced great frustration in her session with Christopher. That evening her husband offered to guide her in Focusing. This is what happened:
“I pictured Christopher sitting in a castle with glass walls. I could so plainly see what was happening with him, but I could not penetrate the walls. I couldn’t get through!!
After sitting with that feeling for a while, I sensed a change. I would crash through the walls! I then felt how weak I was. So, I picked up a battering ram and asked 10 Vikings to help. We all ran at the door and smashed through. Victory!
But Christopher was no longer there. We scared him away.
I felt total despondency. The Vikings and I shut the door and left. We were sitting outside the castle completely discouraged and I felt very stupid. Why didn’t I know better?
I heard a noise and looked up. I could not believe my eyes. Christopher had opened the door himself. I felt so humbled. In all of my arrogance and sureness that I knew what was right I had forgotten the most important element.
That is not my castle. Those are not my walls. That is not my right to break through the doors. If I could teach him about the special place inside...
Having done the scariest thing possible – just staying with scary feelings – Elizabeth’s whole world seemed to open up. How unlike Gloria’s image of Christopher imprisoned in a glassed-in castle would be 14-year old Elizabeth’s dream one night about her interior world:
It was any child’s fantasy! A palace full of emeralds and diamonds. This palace isn’t an ordinary palace; it’s a palace inside you. You can only open the door to this palace when you are able to be gentle with your feelings. Only when they feel safe will the door open. Inside this beautiful palace, cherry colored walls are embroidered with red velvet drapes, matching silk carpets. Looking up you see chandeliers made of emeralds, and gold frames on every wall. This palace has an infinite number of levels with tiny, secret elevators going up to each level.
While I was there I had a fairy godmother who always floated in front of me, like a little Tinkerbell. She was awesomely beautiful, an older, wiser version of me. She wore a velvet dress hooped out around her tiny feet that were covered with golden slippers. She spoke very little. Her peaceful face told me everything.
She led me everywhere like a bright light in front of me that I always followed. Behind all of the nooks and crannies were tiny elevators. My little fairy led me to one of these elevators. It was behind a gold wall. Only when I walked up face to face with the wall would it open. Once inside with my precious fairy a little gift wrapped with golden paper and a white bow appeared. It was as if my fairy gave it to me yet I never saw it in her hands.
The best gift I received was a beige sweater so beautiful I didn’t want to touch it for fear of it only being my imagination. The middle of the sweater had tiny flowers sprouting up. When I put it on, my stomach felt just like the flowers on my sweater: new and fresh. What I remember most about this sweater is that whenever I put it on I felt safe and cozy. It was exactly like the palace, in that whenever I went into the palace nothing could hurt me, just like when I went inside my sweater.
That night I left my safe palace to venture outside. I had to get my face made up and to do this I had to go to a make-up shop. I remember this place was in a crowded mall. Everyone dressed the same in the most gaudy outfits ever imagined. They were giggling and laughing and moving with the exact same motions. It felt so fake! The difference from the palace and this crowded mall was overwhelming. I felt I couldn’t be myself and when I thought about it, it felt like no one was themselves. Everyone was a robot, laughing and giggling.
When I reached the make-up shop the people in charge took one look and sized me up. They hustled me over to a chair and immediately started painting my nails and trying different shades of lipstick on me. One person went to a belt rack, took this ugly white belt off it, and forced it over my sweater. It made the rich charm leave my precious sweater. No more did I feel safe in that sweater. I felt like plastic. My arms were weighed down and my muscles ached excruciatingly. Nothing was real anymore.
My palace seemed so far off and unreachable. When the people were finished with me my fairy godmother led me back to my precious palace that I thought I had lost forever. Once inside, my belt and makeup disappeared. Once more I felt safe inside my sweater. I knew THIS was where I belonged!
After recording the dream, Elizabeth wrote to herself, “This dream has given me so much hope. When I can be with my hurt and scary feelings so that they feel safe and cozy with me, then I will be back in my palace. My palace, like my inside place, is a home for me, in which I can always trust and be myself. Words can never describe how BEAUTIFUL this palace is to me!!!
Eight years later, she is still intuitively aware of every corner, every velvet curtain, every cranny: “These textures in me feel like the sensuous life I live when I felt-sense my way through the day.”
In spite of the growing trust between Elizabeth and her inner guide, there were times when she just didn’t want to listen to her feelings – when she struggled with the Focusing process. She wrote in her diary:
Bumps on the Road
I didn’t want to be gentle with my feelings. I wanted to do everything that I knew I shouldn’t do – be mean to them and ignore them. I knew that wasn’t right so I tried to be gentle with them but I just couldn’t. Suddenly an inspiration came. I would ignore them, I would be mean to them. So I sat there trying to ignore my feelings and the most amazing thing happened. I couldn’t!!
I was unable to be mean to the most precious part of myself. I paid attention to how that felt and suddenly I had the biggest urge to be so, so gentle with this precious place. At that moment my feelings “unwound”.
Both the Mother and the children had to grow into the process. Marianne wrote in 1991:
“Parents must first know how the process feels inside before they can ever guide a child or open up the spiritual dimension. It takes personal dedication, flexibility, and time. You have to be willing to leave your projects and just go sit with a child when the need arises.”
A Different Way of Parenting
One night, her firstborn, David, was having trouble sleeping. He got up and looked for his Mother, asking if she would sit with him. At school, he had seen a movie about a cancer-stricken man whose leg was amputated. Later, fitted with a prosthetic, he had run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.
Marianne could tell David was really frightened, so she asked him, “What are you feeling?”
He touched his stomach and said, “I feel really scared in here.”
She asked, “Can you be a little more open and gentle with that scary feeling?
He took quite a while just sitting with it. Marianne asked, “How does the worst part of that scariness feel?”
“It’s the way I feel about that man dying.” In the movie, the young man eventually collapsed and died of lung cancer.
Marianne quietly asked if he could stay with how that felt inside. He nodded.
Ever so quietly with tear-filled eyes he said, “I’m really afraid of pain and suffering,” and took a deep breath.
He digested this feeling. Eventually he said, “The scariness is all gone.”
Rather than telling him he was okay, that he was young and strong, that the man with cancer had gone to Heaven, or to just go to bed and be quiet – he was invited, by his Mother, to be real.
The “miracle” is that when we stay with the ghost-in-our-closet – that intensely scary feeling – it can become a friend.
Death, pain, and suffering frighten us. We believe the only thing truly separating us from death is our health. Even children feel vulnerable and frightened when something doesn’t feel right. We go to the doctor, sit shivering in our thin paper or cotton gown, and wait to be examined. Then we wait, anxious, to hear the results. When Elizabeth was 14, her feelings took a roller coaster ride when she visited the doctor and this time, Focusing provided her with a safe seat for the scary trip:
I Didn’t Scream...
A few months ago, my doctor told me I had scoliosis. I sucked in my breath. I couldn’t believe it. Even though my mind knew it was just curvature of the spine, I kept thinking it was a deadly disease.
I started to cry. Mommy took me in her arms. She told me that I had a minor case and probably would need only a few check-ups. It didn’t help. I was scared.
So, until the next appointment, I gently carried my scared feeling about something being wrong with me. I never actually sat down to listen to it. I just carried it gently while doing my every day things.
It slowly started changing, and I found myself looking forward to the next appointment. Something inside me wanted to know more.
The doctor told me I had a very minor case of scoliosis and to come back for an annual checkup. I didn’t scream or hold my breath out of fear. I was so peaceful with that scary feeling deep inside that I didn’t even care if I had to wear a brace.
I’ve noticed when I carry around my feelings, just noticing them, not ignoring them or pushing them away, I become much more peaceful inside. Something inside gives me strength to be myself and take what comes next.
Whenever this change happens, the song from Les Miserables comes to me – “Is there life beyond the barricade?” If only everyone could know that, yes, there is.
How much can you tell your Mother? When does a child “cross the line” and learn that it is not safe – if one wants to be loved and protected – to talk about certain things, to feel certain ways, to ask certain questions. One of the scariest boundaries concerns a parent’s love. “Will you love me if I am mad at you?” “Will you love me if I say I hate you?” Both David and Elizabeth tested that boundary.
I Hate You
Marianne recalls the night, long ago, when David was mercilessly teasing Elizabeth, and her husband Lance strongly reprimanded him. He began to cry and she realized that the hurt was too painful for him to stay with head-on. So she asked him, “Is it okay if I guess at what I thought it would feel like inside me if I were in your place?” He nodded.
So she began to mention several things. He kept saying, “No,” or “Sort of,” – but mostly they weren’t on target. Then she asked, “Does it feel like you hate Daddy?”
He looked down and forcefully said, “Yes!”
Marianne was amazed that he could do this checking with his felt sense and could feel the difference between what felt right and what felt slightly or way off.
As always, she stayed quiet while he took time to take in the rightness of what he had said. Then he went back to his homework easily.
Elizabeth also struggled to find her place with her Father. During the vulnerable adolescent years, rather than risk a real relationship, she hid behind teasing – but the seeming separation between them felt like a hard, unbending wall. She never thought “in a hundred years” it could possibly change.
How could she admit these feelings, even to herself? The only companion for Focusing was her Mother. Would such a feeling be okay? Safe? Could she be true to herself, even when she had confused feelings toward a parent? Courageously, still 14, she moved into deeper terrain within herself:
I Don’t Really Know Daddy
It all started so long ago, I can’t remember when. Lately I have felt that my father and I never really speak. It seemed the only way we could be with each other was through teasing. At night when he would wash the dishes I would tell him jokes and we’d laugh but it seemed like we never really “spoke” to each other. When he’d take me to school he would ask me if I had any tests or how my classes were going but I never felt comfortable sharing.
When I was in Japan, Yusuki, the father of the family I stayed with, said my father was a prince, after I told him how he drives me to school every day. With my mind I knew he was but that wasn’t enough. When I came back from Japan I tried to remember Yusuki’s words, but because I didn’t feel his words inside me, nothing changed.
The past month I knew I had to Focus but I was dreading it, partly because it was so hard for me to put all these thoughts into words. I was embarrassed but I went to my Mother and asked her if she would Focus with me.
I began to cry. I told her. I said, “I hate it when his face gets so hard.” But I knew it was so much more than that. I began to sob. “It feels like we never really communicate.” It took me awhile to say this but I choked out, “It feels like I don’t really know Daddy.”
Although I was embarrassed to say that, it felt really right and I began to calm down. I went inside and tried to be gentle but it was very hard. This place inside me was one of the most important places I had ever stayed with. It needed lots of attention. I put my hands on my stomach where I felt all these feelings and tried to be gentle. I let go of my thoughts and words and fell right into my feelings. Then the most beautiful words came – “There are two sides to the story.”
It felt so right. A huge wave of relief and freedom swept over me. I felt so free.
I said with a tear-stained face, “Daddy does so much for me and always tries to make conversation with me but I always put up a gate between us. Now the gate is open and there is a palace beyond.
It felt like hands inside me opened and a bird flew out. I feel so peaceful. Focusing is the most wonderful gift that has ever been given to me!!!!!!!!!!
It had lasting effects on her relationship with her Father. Now 22, she says, “Focusing that day was the turning point, because ever since, I cherish the gentle place I feel inside myself whenever I am with my Father.”
Looking back, Elizabeth believes, “Junior High was the decisive point for Focusing. I chose that route for the rest of my life.” She added, “In Junior High, girls seem to lose their self-confidence. Focusing was sort of my saving grace. That is how I gained my self-confidence.
Buoyed with that sense of self-worth, she began High School. There, she moved from dealing with peer pressure to being immersed in what seemed to her to be an insane educational system.
What felt so right at home – being listened to – ended at the schoolhouse door. She felt she was never really heard in school. With very rare exceptions, this sense of disconnection continued through High School and College.
“When teachers asked questions to the class,” Elizabeth explained, “I felt such pressure to speak without giving time for the felt sense to be heard. I remember English class in High School. I didn’t have anything to say, but students were expected to think and say things off the top of their head.”
One teacher sarcastically said to her one day, “Thanks a lot for sharing, Elizabeth.” She vividly remembers, “That hurt.”
The one exception was an assignment in drama class. Even now, she calls it a “precious moment”. What was it? And how did the other students react?
Acting Out Real Life
It’s funny how we always resist, and when we are able to do what we resist we wish we could do it again. This just happened in my drama class. My teacher assigned the class monologues for our midterm. Instead of giving us a scene from a play, we were told to write about something from our own life experiences that is real to us. He was trying to teach us that acting isn’t pretending; acting is putting oneself in that character’s shoes and feeling the feelings of that character. Only then can the actor make the audience weep or laugh.
Everyone resisted. “I can’t think of anything to write about,” said some. “Why do we have to make our own monologues?” asked others. My teacher replied, “Every year I give this assignment and every year people resist, but I always enjoy this assignment the most.”
After all the monologues were given, the class asked the teacher, “Why can’t we do this more often?”
This was the first time the actors were real, and the realness of it captured the audience. Through the sad stories and the funny stories the audience was there, clinging to every word. As a class, we discussed the monologues and I felt as though we were united in our felt connection to each other through the stories we had shared.
While we presented our monologues, the normally noisy class was silent. I think we all realized what real acting was, but many of us realized even more. I realized that when we can be real, we take off our masks, and I think we all felt a sense of freedom. The felt connection and freedom inside myself reminded me of how I always imagined what education should be like – a way for students to connect with their own enthusiasm and felt senses.
As I now recall the inner freedom I felt in that class, I am reminded of how I feel after I’ve Focused – after I’ve been real with myself. So many times I resist the feelings I know should be listened to. Why? I don’t have a clear answer but I can guess. I’m afraid of those feelings and yet I know that when I do listen to my feelings, I feel so much better. It appears so hard, yet it is really quite easy!
As the academics intensified, so did the “disconnect”. The drama class experience remained vivid and important to Elizabeth, “perhaps because I have had so few opportunities within the formal, structure-bound classroom, a way to share out of a deep, reflective felt sense, rather than spout off short, reactive sound bytes. This may have been my first conscious awareness and expression of the typical disconnection I so often experienced in the classroom.
“I hardly envisioned how difficult the struggle would be to recreate such an environment for myself in the educational process. I felt something inside of me was squelched so I tried to write about this.
She began her attempts when she submitted a possible valedictorian address for graduation from High School:
For Thirteen Years...
As education emphasizes expanding the mind it badly neglects integrating our minds with the rest of our bodies. We have undergone rigorous academics from long years of math, science and English. We are told that all these courses will help us become successful adults. I have often wondered what is success, if success is really more knowledge, more facts, more information?
The author Morris Berman addresses this issue in his book, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West. He writes, “There may be more interesting things we can do with our minds than leave our bodies.”
For thirteen years we have been taught to value what is clear and precise, but where is the imprecise and unclear allowed in schools?
We know how to solve math problems, but because our own bodily senses are not problems to be analyzed they are often ignored. When sitting in class hearing the teacher lecture we often have these bodily senses that stimulate excitement, intrigue or boredom, but because these feelings are often vague and hazy, and because they don’t equate with a certain number or a certain fact, we often miss them or are at a loss as to what to do with them.
Yet, these fuzzy feelings are the key to an interrelationship between information and the body; they are the doorway to our own personal interaction with education.
The spark of excitement that comes from listening to a line of poetry, a piece of music, or taking part in a stimulating class discussion is our body’s way of communicating to us what our minds alone cannot decipher.
The power and potential of these feelings are explicitly portrayed in the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus. Mr. Holland, a High School music teacher was teaching a young girl how to play a piece on her clarinet and after repeated attempts he finally asked the girl what she liked best about herself. She responded, “My red hair because it reminds my Dad of the sunset.”
Her teacher then told her to play the sunset.
Unsurprisingly she played her piece perfectly.
We cannot make our own music, whatever it may be, by simply practicing the notes. Only when we take time to notice and thus follow our inspiration, our sunsets, will we be able to compose our own music.
While sitting in my Spanish class a few months ago I remember overhearing someone say to one of the student producers of the film Drogas En Columbia, “Why did you spend your whole Spring Break working on this film? You could have just written a few pages in Spanish and received an 'A'.”
What this questioner failed to grasp is that these students listened to their glimmer of excitement and dared to follow a journey in which grades held little importance. They took their education to another level, engaging the whole person in the educational process.
By taking time to notice what inspires and captures our imagination, we become a part of our learning. We become self-explorers. Our bodies are capable of limitless wisdom and now we must give birth to this fragile and awesome inner life.”
Elizabeth poured her heart out into this paper. It is obvious that the possibility of education meant something to her; it is equally obvious that the school was not ready to engage in authentic learning. It was not the valedictory speech chosen for the Class of 1996.
The struggle for real education, as described so clearly in her speech, continued into College. She realized, “The professors themselves do not know a lot about listening to the felt sense. The classroom environment rarely nurtures the ambiguous vague senses that originate out of our desire for a felt connection with what we are learning. If they had,” she believed, “There would have been a lot more creativity.”
In trying to cope with an education system that divided the mind from body wisdom, Elizabeth sometimes tried to push her feelings away. She admits, “I became disconnected, especially during tests. I went into survival mode. I got through the tests but then I got a physical reaction. There were times when I really wanted to ignore my feelings, because staying with them was never easy.”
She struggled to be educated in a system that invalidated her own inner body wisdom about education.
She honestly admits, “Only now that I am graduating do I feel a tremendous, child-like freedom in the realization that this mind/body split found in the educational system will no longer include me.”
John, a few years older than Elizabeth, experienced the same educational system. He did not keep a diary. In fact, he is sometimes at a loss as to how to explain the process that went on within him.
He admits, “My experience is similar to Elizabeth’s, but maybe I didn’t recognize it as much. When I go away and go hiking, it is probably the same thing – trying to reconnect instead of just memorizing.” He thoughtfully added, “Maybe it is just being quiet and alone. It’s more like relaxing and slowing down. There’s a gut feeling.”
How do You “Do It”?
One of the key questions to both John and Elizabeth concerns method – what technique do they use? Traditional BioSpiritual Focusing teaches a step-by-step approach. But what happens when a child just grows up with a process that feels as comfortable as breathing? Can they identify any processes they are using?
John said, “I don’t think it is that easy. Decisions are really hard to make, especially about job and career. It just takes a lot of time. I still think about things a lot to see if they make sense. But I also want that gut instinct.
For John, when something begins to stir inside, he feels the need to slow down – to change his pacing so that the feeling has time to unfold. He goes on a hike, or finds some quiet time to be with himself. It is his way of staying with that inner process – and realizing that there is a body-mind connection. Both are important in the decision matrix.
For Elizabeth, the process has a flow-like quality to it. She has a highly developed instinctual sense for the felt sense. She knows when one wants to unfold. She can feel and identify the fuzziness of it that says “more”.
When Ed asked them to describe the habit of felt sensing at the Millennium Gathering, John wrote back that he would be happy to share, but he couldn’t really think of what to say because what Ed was calling the “habit of felt sensing” was – in his words – “second nature to me”.
Upon reading that, Ed got very excited. As he recalls that moment, “Something in me said, “That’s it. That’s what I’ve been suspecting all along. They were not taught Focusing our way. They haven’t used any of the Focusing structures and systems we developed to help people process stuck experiences. Marianne simply shared the bare minimum about a hidden story in their feelings, how to care for them, and then listen and wait. In that way, she enabled these youngsters to begin life without filling and carrying a sack full of unprocessed emotions all their life.”
For decades he wondered what would happen if a child were raised with the felt sense. Now, he had the first solid glimmering of a new horizon. “I saw evidence,” Ed relates, “that within these children, the habit had taken root in them – not only during crises or problems – but even in their approach to decision-making, creativity – to life itself.”
That excited him.
Looking backward, he began to see the signs. The times when David would “go off by himself”, or take time with how it felt inside him to be in the Southwestern Indian ruins. Then there was the day John rushed home from school, excitedly telling Marianne, “Mommy, I can go inside and listen to something I feel even when you’re not there with me. I did it in class today, and it worked.”
When one lives a real, authentic life, the story never ends. There is always a new chapter to unfold. Becoming an educated adult is a milestone – a major one. Elizabeth graduated with an Anthropology/Spanish major, Summa Cum Laude, and plans to go to graduate school. John is in his last year of Law School, and David, who graduated with a Biology major, is currently the senior marketing agent and co-owner of an Internet service provider.
But graduation is also the door into living and giving and sharing that authentic nurtured life. Elizabeth continues to reflect on how this inner process of listening guides her in major life decisions:
What Lies Ahead?
I can vividly recall what it felt like to begin my senior year in College with no idea of what I wanted to do afterwards. All I felt was unnerving anxiety.
While working in public relations and college career counseling that year, I learned more about myself through felt-sensing than I could have imagined. Once connected to the felt senses that arose from my work experiences, I felt my own excitement in knowing that they would guide me forward in my life choices. When connected to this place inside, anxiety and worry were no longer a part of my career search.
Felt sensing my way through my work that year opened up doors into interests and capabilities I never knew I had.
While teaching a college class one day as a peer career counselor, something felt a bit off inside. I felt some sort of clash with who I am and how I work best. I didn’t know quite what it was, but I did know how to listen to that feeling with gentle curiosity. Walking across campus that evening, it dawned on me that my personality really isn’t compatible with teaching a class. I would much rather work with people individually than teach a large group and wind up ignoring the individual’s voice. With that awareness I discarded teaching as a possibility that I had considered for a long time.
Again in my public relations work, I felt something off about being one person in a large company. I really enjoyed the creativity involved in the work. I tried convincing myself that this was enough to expect out of a job because I wanted to conform to the business environment.
But I’ve learned over the years I can never deny myself the stories behind my felt senses. I realized that my energy and motivation stems from helping individuals, one-on-one. My work as a peer career counselor at my college fit exactly with who I am and how I work best with people.
Yet any time I reverted back to the worrying mode, I lost the curiosity and safety in exploring what felt on track. Even this summer when applying for graduate school to become a college career counselor, I wondered once again whether teaching would be more practical. I was confused because I tried dissecting my career choice into parts, to figure out exactly how much of the work would allow me to do what I enjoy.
I asked my mother to sit down with me as I let go into all the confusion of once again “not knowing”. What came to me was how right it felt to simply notice all my enthusiasm for career counseling without dissecting the job into parts. When I am connected to this enthusiasm without the “mind control”, I know I have made the right decision.
Surprisingly, as I was growing up I always told myself that I never wanted to “help” people using Focusing in a formal fashion. Little did I know how important this way of being would become to me, and how I could never ignore this process in the work I choose.
I’ve seen so many of my peers choose fields by responding to parental pressure, money, and not knowing “what else to do.” I guess I never realized that listening to those vague, nebulous felt senses is something that not all people naturally do when making such important decisions. Having grown up with this vibrant inner world, there is nothing I want more to do than help others connect with their own felt senses when choosing their careers.
An Experiment of Love
It was an experiment, really. No one had ever tried to raise a child using Focusing as the guiding force for human development. Marianne stepped into that brave new world with absolute faith in the process. For her, the logic was simple:
“It was so important for me not to raise disconnected kids. We have no television. We never had one. Never, truly, did any of the three kids say they were bored. We never signed them up for all these activities.
“It was not easy for me because I do remember the stress of being a young mother. But I will be forever grateful I had Focusing for myself from the time they were born.
“Parents want the best for their kids. But you cannot cover 24/7 for your children so you teach them a way to take care of themselves.”
Both Ed and Pete have devoted their life to the belief that Focusing is the lodestone to healthy human development and authentic spirituality. For Ed, it comes to this:
The poet Rilke once wrote, “We live our questions into our answers.” We are the experimenters willing to commit ourselves to this process as a way of life. It is not something to put out an emotional brush fire. It is a commitment. That is the key.
Parents are longing for a way to love their children into healthy human wholeness. They just don’t know how.
We need to recognize that in our culture, we are literally drowning in a sea of information and entertainment. Within that overwhelming cultural bias, we can easily lose our spirit and our confidence. We can easily lose the body feel of grace – the giftedness of being connected to something larger than ourselves.
That is what is happening in our culture today. As a result, we have a tremendous pathological problem of people being disconnected with addictions and violence.
To develop the habit of felt sensing, you cannot fill up your time with TV, movies, radio, reading, planning, worrying, thinking. It takes a commitment. You have to give felt sensing some space in your life.
We have to create space inside to just be real – to notice the sound of crickets or the shades of green on a Spring day. It does involve a change of lifestyle. It does take discipline. You have to have some kind of priorities for yourself and you have to make some choices.
But the process is easy. Just three steps. That’s all:
1. Identify what is real through your feelings.
2. Notice if you sense there’s a story behind that feeling.
3. Then nurture it.
Ed McMahon is stunned by the results of simply raising three children as though Focusing were the most natural thing in the world. Always in love with children, always deeply concerned for their future, he is endlessly grateful to Marianne for her courage and her absolute belief that this was the way to raise children connected to their wholeness, giftedness, and innate spirituality.
Let this issue end with his words:
That simple, yet profound presence to what was real inside themselves enabled these young people to begin life without severing their natural connection to themselves. They were encouraged right from the start to move into the habit of noticing their felt senses, and then taking time to nurture them.
That made all the difference.