The relational 'revolutionary pause': How Focusing Therapy welcomes the deeper nature of 'between'

by Greg Madison
Published in TFI Newsletter In Focus June 2013

All forms of Focusing offer the possibility of deep transformation.  So much so that I sometimes wonder if, as therapists, we add much extra in Focusing Therapy sessions. What can therapy, especially Focusing Oriented Therapy (FOT), offer that enhances the potential of an already powerful Focusing process? And how can 'therapy', a modern western 'treatment' for individuals, be appropriate for all cultures?

I think there is a role for FOT that could be valuable worldwide, and different from just Focusing. For instance, in therapy we add the therapist as a person for the client to meet. The therapist, like the Focusing Guide, sits in the chair as a full person before s/he adds knowledge, insight, technique, theory, assumptions, or interventions (including Focusing invitations). However, in contrast to most Focusing sessions, with FOT there are two people sitting with their eyes open looking at each other expectantly. The expectation of interaction is different from a guided Focusing session. This creates a culture to be explored. What interaction is expected? How will we live it forward? The situation is already more like the difficult everyday world where we have problems interacting with other people. The likelihood is that between therapist and client we will experience some of the trouble we both usually have in the rest of our lives. In FOT the interpersonal dynamic of 'our new culture’ is explicitly attended to. We call it the relationship. Usually in Focusing sessions the quality of the being-together is fundamentally important but not explicitly talked about. Usually the Focuser is paying attention to the process that we call ‘inner’, already diving into the uniqueness beyond the ‘cultures of meeting’.

FOT offers the unusual experience of attempting to remain connected with the ‘inner’ while simultaneously living with others. Even experienced Focusers can find it difficult to remain connected to themselves when in relationship with other people. After years of Focusing, we still know how to argue without listening (ever been to a Focusing International?). How can we live the intricacy we find through our Focusing in the wider world where culture predominates? FOT works in this territory where we try to integrate our palpable insights into situations with set expectations and social patterns. This kind of therapy is ‘cross-cultural’ by revealing how culture works in us while also touching what is more than culture. Coping with the presence of the therapist while sensing deeply, already gives an experience of how to cope with the neighbors, the workplace, the village elders.

When two people sit across from each other we are already within cultural assumptions. Why sitting across? Why two individuals? Why not the whole tribe? Why not sleeping side-by-side and dreaming together? Why speaking? What to say and not say? Cultures give us principles and expectations for carrying on in life, for how to look at things and how to feel about what we see. The cultural influences in a FOT session include the therapeutic orientation of the therapist, as well as our specific national, ethnic and socio-economic assumptions, religious traditions, philosophical beliefs, personal history and implicit values. FOT is always a cross-cultural experience, but in a unique way.  Therapists seldom look closely at how we impose a culture. We often don't even realize our implicit cultural assumptions let alone examine them closely. As Focusing therapists we need to Focus explicitly upon our assumptions about Focusing, therapy, and the society within which we practice, as these assumptions come in-between us and our clients.

Focusing gives us an alleyway through the built concepts, to a larger sense of living, beyond what society has fenced off as its perimeter. Focusing therapy invites another person close while we sense deeper. That person gets into our sensing so that they become the ‘toward’ that our living can relate to. They witness, receive, and most importantly they give us a response towards which we can sense and respond more. By working with, through, and beyond culture, FOT is culturally sensitive while subverting set cultural patterns. Our cultures are manifest in the session, but as therapists we want to feel through the culture to the fundamental humanity in our client in order to reveal to them how their humanity affects us.

In FOT, clients learn to bring their awareness to what didn’t fit the culture, what was labelled ‘not-me’, or driven into oblivion. It is deeply healing when the therapist celebrates the return of what culture said could only be repugnant to others. The Focusing therapist offers the interaction where the person begins to live from the unknown within. The culture can’t do that. Culture does many valuable things but it does not know how to encourage a person to discover where culture in fact comes from.

If therapy works, the client becomes more marginal to their culture, not more ‘adaptive’ in some simple form-fitting way. In FOT we make efforts to set aside the usual obstacles, in order to attend directly to the interpersonal fullness that is fluid and palpable but not fixed. New and precise meanings and insights arise, which do not exist in explicit culture. The client returns to their daily world where they work tirelessly to fulfill what is expected of them. But the client has opened up to more than the cultural expectations and has a desire to take steps towards a deeper rightness than culture alone provides. We hope that the client, by learning to live their unfolding uniqueness in the culture, becomes an agent of culture change.

Alex has a two-year-old son. In therapy he has been exploring how he does not feel alive; though he loves his son, being a father feels heavy, like he is just going through the motions. He wants to feel fully alive but he also wants to fulfill the expectation that he put his child first, now and in the future.  How can Alex honour his own need to be fully alive now and also be a good father? The therapist reflects back each moment of Alex’s experiencing, watching for what resonates and what doesn’t fit. The therapist needs to imagine, bodily, the whole experience of Alex’s life with this tension and respond from that bodily feeling. The therapist responds directly as someone who has come to know Alex but also as a person who is now becoming aware of his own assumptions about the sacrifices expected of a father. He offers a bigger context from this knowing. 'Alex, I know how much you love your son and want the best for his future. You also feel you need to honour your own life, and to trust that somehow if you live fully in the present that’s the best future for you and for your son. I want that too - both should be possible.’ Here Alex gets a chance to respond to the therapist's feeling of the whole. The therapist is beginning to meet Alex’s experience with his own experience.  Alex gets to respond not only to the sense of his own words (their deeper resonance, as the therapist reflects these back), he also gets to respond to what it feels like for the therapist to meet him in this living. 

FO therapy is one place where a father might free himself from an oppressive ‘cult of family’ and instead develops his own way to support the living that wants to come through for himself and his son. Out of the exchange above you might already sense that a new cultural edge begins to form where a father might find that his own fullness and his role as a father can coexist, though he has never witnessed that before. Inch-by-Inch people free themselves a little from responding automatically from the implicit messages they learned from their cultures. The therapist does more than reflect back the deeper sense of what each person is living in 'the automatic'. The therapist also offers him or herself as the environment within which the client learns to live culture forward, in a new way.

Our common humanity is palpable. It is not based upon shared knowledge or collected information. Our commonality is the living process ‘between’. We understand each other because we are the same process ‘source’. The unique differentiations and diverse cultures do not have to be a barrier if we are willing to relate from that implicit commonality. Focusing and FOT have spread around the world into diverse cultures because these practices offer a way to connect through to the living source that culture covers over.

Greg Madison Greg Madison is an London-based existential psychologist, senior university lecturer and researcher, and international trainer with extensive writings on existential and experiential therapy and the deeper significance of 'home'. Greg has been a Focuser since 1981 when he was an undergraduate in his native Canada and he is a long-time Certifying Coordinator for the Focusing Institute.

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