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FOCUS ON: Ann Weiser Cornell

An interview with Ellen Kirschner

Ann Weiser Cornell specializes in Focusing teaching and has developed Inner Relationship Focusing with Barbara McGavin.

Ann Weiser Cornell is one of the most creative and influential members of the international Focusing community. She developed “Inner Relationship Focusing” (with Barbara McGavin) and pioneered using a level structure for teaching Focusing. She authored The Power of Focusing, as well as more than 40 articles about Focusing, and has published her newsletter, The Focusing Connection, for 21 years. Ann has taught Focusing in 16 countries, supporting and encouraging other Focusing Coordinators in developing their own programs, including Mieko Osawa, Erna de Bruijn and Christine Langeveld, Elena Frezza, Kevin McEvenue and Paul Huschilt, Jane Bell, Cathy Pascal, and Mako Hikasa. She initiated the conscious study of “guiding” as a process in itself and wrote the first manual, recently re-written with Barbara McGavin as part of The Focusing Student’s and Companion’s Manual, Parts One and Two. She and Barbara are also the creators of “Treasure Maps to the Soul,” an application of Focusing to difficult areas of life. In the following interview, Ann tells her own story.

EK: As you look back on your long connection with Focusing — I understand you first met Gene Gendlin and learned Focusing in 1972 — I wonder what you would say stands out the most?

AWC: There are three areas where I feel I have made major contributions, that continue to be areas that I’m working in and developing. They are Inner Relationship Focusing, Treasure Maps to the Soul, and the elaboration of Focusing teaching as a non-therapist. In all three of these, Barbara McGavin has been my major collaborator, though of course I greatly appreciate the help of many other people, too many to mention by name.

EK: What is Inner Relationship Focusing and how did it evolve?

AWC: IR Focusing is actually a mode of teaching Focusing, to set alongside Gene Gendlin’s “six steps” and Ed McMahon and Pete Campbell’s Bio-Spirituality. The seeds of IR Focusing were planted in 1989-91 when I realized, as I worked with my individual clients, how important it was for their Focusing process that they treat their inner places with respect, interested curiosity, and a warm, open, allowing quality. I started to understand processes like “Getting a Handle” from this perspective: that if you’re sensing for the fitting description for something, that means you’re not criticizing it, running from it, analyzing it, etc. I began to teach advanced workshops for experienced Focusing people called “Focusing for the Inner Relationship” (Germany and England 1992, the Netherlands 1993) in which I showed how the relationship between the Focuser and the felt sense could be facilitated directly as a nurturing relationship, using specific phrases like, “You might sense how IT feels from ITS point of view.” There was a big impetus forward for IR Focusing in August 1994, when I read Barbara McGavin’s article (found on my website) called “The Victim, the Critic, and the Inner Relationship: Focusing with the Part that Wants to Die.” In it, she describes needing to say to a part of her, “It’s OK if you stay the way you are forever, if that’s what you need.” This total acceptance opened new vistas for me, and soon afterward I wrote an article called “The Radical Acceptance of Everything,” in which I pulled together a number of changes I had made in the Focusing process I had been taught, that all seemed to come under the heading of accepting what and how the process presents itself. Included were so-called distracting thoughts, felt senses outside the trunk area of the body, pain and other physical symptoms, and the “Inner Critic.” What if all of these were accepted and included rather than being discounted and pushed away?

And the final flower in the bouquet of the “radical acceptance” of IR Focusing was to accept that whatever comes, comes in the way and in the place that it most needs to be. In other words, no moving things out, as in “Clearing a Space.” In 1995, when Johannes Wiltschko and Klaus Renn invited me to give a presentation at the First International Conference for Focusing Therapy, I chose the topic “Relationship = Distance + Connection.” Instead of “Finding Distance” techniques, I advocated Inner Relationship techniques, such as acknowledging it, saying hello to it, being with it, and above all, acknowledging also the part of me that has feelings about it. This realization — that if we can’t be friendly and accepting to something in us, that means there is another something in us that also needs our acceptance — had been slowly growing ever since 1989. In my manuals published between 1991 and 1994, I called this The Feeling about the Feeling, and taught people to turn to it and make it the object of their Focusing, if it became an interference. As I partnered with Barbara McGavin to develop Inner Relationship Focusing and the Treasure Maps to the Soul material, this process of turning toward whatever in us isn’t able to be accepting became increasingly central. We also got interested in “who” that is, who can turn toward anything inside us. From 1991 to about 1996, I used to say “it’s your wholeness that can be with any part of you.” Then Barbara and I began to call it “The Larger ‘I’.” Finally, in 1998, Barbara brought in the word “Presence,” and that fit. Presence is the ability to be with anything in one’s self, neither merging with it nor pushing it away. Facilitating this ability became central to all our work, from Level One Focusing all the way through the intensive Treasure Maps retreats. We are still exploring the implications of Presence, and its related concepts “merging” and “exile.”

EK: Tell us more about your prolific partnership with Barbara McGavin, and the work you call “Treasure Maps to the Soul.”

AWC: I met Barbara in 1991, and we became close friends immediately. The following year Barbara brought me to England to teach on “The Inner Relationship,” and our teaching and creative partnership grew from there. In September 1994 we were about to teach a series of workshops together, when I went through a profound personal transformation that involved realizing that I’d been using alcohol addictively. To understand what had happened, Barbara and I found ourselves Focusing in every free moment. With her help, I had a shift from seeing the addictive behavior as shameful, to turning with compassion toward the part of me that wanted to drink, and hearing what it really wanted for me. We realized that the very parts of ourselves that we try to get rid of and deny are like “treasure maps” — they point to where a part of our wholeness has been pushed away and is waiting to be re-included.

Although we felt shaky at first about the insights we were gleaning and the methods we were developing, we found that people immediately wanted to hear them. Our first official Treasure Maps to the Soul workshop convened a year later, in England. Since then we have taught TMaps three or four times a year, and the retreats have been a way to develop the theory, which we are planning to put into book form.

EK: Tell us about your activities and influence as a Focusing teacher.

AWC: As a non-therapist, I have done an enormous number of first Focusing sessions with people, because the first session is often all that people have, going on then to take a workshop and become a Focusing partner with someone. So I’ve done maybe fifty first sessions a year, for almost 20 years now. I feel that I have learned so much from all of these people. Doing all these sessions, added to my linguistics training and my teacher’s mind (“simplify,” “explain,”...) led to a number of understandings that I’ve put into my Level 3, 4 and 5 trainings, and my manuals. Perhaps most of all I’ve been fascinated by the process by which people can learn Focusing and make it a part of their lives, first by having an individual session, then by joining a workshop and becoming a Focusing partner. I’ve taught Level One Focusing at least 4 times a year for about 20 years, and I’m always learning from my students and making changes and improvements in how I teach. (I’m not sure but I suspect I was the first one to teach in “levels,” because I wanted to make it clear that there was more to Focusing than could be gotten in just one workshop.)

EK: You have also made a great contribution in training Focusing teachers. Tell us about that.

AWC: I do have a lot of experience--with ads, directory listings, introductory talks, radio shows, e-mail, and the web--that I’m happy to pass along to newer teachers. In 1999 I taught a workshop for Focusing teachers on teaching to groups, and I’ve repeated that workshop in 2002 and 2003, and am about to offer a Focusing Teacher’s Retreat with the same material. It’s not only about group process and course design, but also a lot about marketing. And I should also mention teaching for certification, which I’ve been doing since 1989; 43 students of mine are Trainers. I’ve developed a way of working with people at a distance, and working with other Trainers, so that for example people from Switzerland and Germany, working with me, also were woven into their local Focusing communities and could operate as Trainers in their home countries.

EK: I know you’ve been in the Focusing world for over 32 years. Perhaps you could share something of your history.

AWC: I met Gene Gendlin at a meeting of the first Changes group in Chicago in 1972. I was 22 years old, a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Chicago. I learned Focusing for myself, my own personal growth, never dreaming it would become my life work! I taught linguistics for a few years after getting my Ph.D., but it didn’t feel right. I moved back to Chicago, and in 1980 I called Gene, whom I hadn’t spoken to in years. He invited me to help teach the Focusing workshops he had begun to offer. From 1980-1983 I regularly taught with Gene, along with many others, at his bi-monthly Focusing weekends.

EK: What were Gene’s early Focusing workshops like?

AWC: We would start on Friday afternoon, with one assistant (he called us “trainers”) for every two or three participants. He would sit with us all in a circle, and talk, and then guide the group through an exercise. After the exercise he would say, “You probably didn’t get much from that but now go off with my excellent trainers and they will
really show it to you.”

EK: What did the trainers do?

AWC: We received no training or instruction from Gene – he just assumed we could do what he said we could do. So when I was off with my two or three people after the exercise, I took people through a version of what Gene had done with the whole group. I often wouldn’t even let them speak! But people asked questions, and I realized that letting them speak meant being able to tailor the instructions more to them. I also wondered very much what the other trainers were doing in their little groups. We began to call what we were doing “guiding.”
I noticed that I was using linguistics in this “guiding” thing we were doing. One Sunday morning I offered a presentation called “The Language of Guiding,” where I talked about what I had been noticing. The trainers decided we needed to meet with each other and learn from what we were doing. We started a Focusing Trainers organization which met regularly to learn from each other. In 1983 I decided to move to San Francisco. Before I left, I offered a two-day workshop on guiding, and thus began a long history of elaborating this method of verbal facilitation. I still believe and teach, though, that empathic listening is more important than guiding (which we now call “reminding”) and that just being there as a person is most important of all!

EK: Thank you.

To learn more, visit Ann’s website, www.focusingresources.com

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