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Connecting to Our Soul Through Feelings

John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT

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Is psychotherapy effective in dealing with troubling issues and helping us grow? If so, how so? Back in the 1960's psychologist Eugene Gendlin sought to answer these questions through extensive research at the University of Chicago. His colleague, Carl Rogers, had already received accolades for his work on what happens between therapist and client that's helpful--namely, unconditional positive regard, empathy, and congruence. Gendlin wondered what happens within clients who are growing in psychotherapy.

Gendlin and his colleagues pored over thousands of tapes of therapy sessions with therapists of varying orientations. After examining the tapes, researchers could determine fairly easily whether therapy would succeed or fail. This research earned Gendlin the Distinguished Psychologist of the Year Award issued by the Clinical Division of the American Psychological Association in 1968.

What Eugene Gendlin discovered was that success was determined not by what the therapist did, nor by what the clients talked about, but rather by how they talked. Successful clients were not highly verbal or analytical. Instead, they allowed themselves to experience and tolerate feelings that were vague, blurry, and unclear--and they allowed these feelings to unfold in their own time and way. They attended to their inward, bodily-felt world, rather than spinning their mental wheels. These naturally gifted clients could sense inwardly and contact the ever-changing flow of their experience without being overwhelmed by their emotions. They slowed down, took time to sense their feelings, and listened to whatever message these feelings were trying to convey. This enabled them to take small steps forward in their lives.

Gendlin called this natural process Focusing and developed teachable steps so that others could learn how to attend to their inner world in a friendly way. The key to Focusing is allowing ourselves to be inwardly drawn toward our "bodily felt sense" of personal concerns. By resting attention within our body (where feelings and intuitions reside), we release our futile attempts to analyze, control, or seek quick fixes to complex issues. Feelings live in our bodies. Resolving tricky or difficult issues must involve contacting, working with, and speaking from our subtle, underlying felt sense of life concerns. By inviting a more creative part of ourselves to reveal what it knows about our lives, we can take our next step forward. Although the issue may not change, the way we hold the issue (gently, caringly) allows a deeper sense of peace and well-being. Rather than seeking solutions with our mind, we find resolutions in the way our body holds feelings and issues.

Gendlin referred to this process as "trusting the wisdom of the body." In his book Focusing, published in 1981, he expressed the value of going with troubling emotions: "Every bad feeling is potential energy toward a more right way of being if you give it space to move toward its rightness." This sentiment is reminiscent of the advice given by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki in the book Zen Mind Beginner's Mind: "To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him."

Giving our feelings space gives them room to breathe and move, rather than staying stuck. Oftentimes, we're not gentle toward our feelings. We may think something is wrong with us for having feelings such as fear, sadness, or shame. We may try to push these parts of ourselves away in a misguided attempt to feel better or look good.

Building on Gendlin's work, others have applied this approach to other areas, such as healing, creative writing, dance, decision making, and conflict resolution. In 1986, I coauthored, Being Intimate, which applies Focusing to relationships. Peter Campbell and Edwin McMahon, Catholic priests with Ph.D.'s in psychology, have recognized that befriending feelings is a key to healthy spirituality. A genuine spiritual life must include the life of the body. Many spiritually inclined people bypass their feelings in an attempt to be spiritual or promote a self-image of being spiritual. This "process skipping," as Campbell and McMahon call it, leads to inauthentic spirituality. Our emotions merely go underground, fueling a "shadow" that inevitably sabotages our lives and relationships. Focusing allows experience to unfold from within. We allow our attention to drop inside our bodies, then be receptive, cultivating an attitude similar to meditation. We trust that whatever feelings, perceptions, or understandings need to emerge will gradually unfold, without pushing the river.

Campbell and McMahon express a tender attitude they call "caring, feeling presence" in their book, Bio-Spirituality: Focusing As a Way to Grow. In this insightful book the authors state: "Most of us only feel our uncomfortableness with a problem or our need to control it. Rarely, however, do we experience what it is like deliberately and consciously to be in the body's sense of negative issues without immediately being pressured either to control or eliminate whatever hurting, scary, or other feelings are there. This openness to bodily knowing within the Focusing process sets the stage for real and sometimes dramatic change as hurting places are allowed to unfold."

It may be surprising to discover that it can actually feel good to be with what's real inside us--even painful, scary places. Strength and confidence grow by knowing we can be with whatever comes up in our process. This is true empowerment. As a result, we become less defended, less shame-bound, and more open to ourselves and thus more open to intimacy. We become more available to love and be loved. We become more whole and learn to affirm ourselves as we are, echoing the words of Trappist monk Thomas Merton: "For me to be a saint means to be myself."

Improved communication can also come from Focusing because we're closely connected to what's really going on inside us. We're more aware of our authentic feelings and have a clearer sense of what they're about. Relationship problems often boil down to self-awareness problems. There can be no communication without self-awareness. Without knowing the deeper layers of our experience, we may only communicate what's on the surface, such as anger or blame, and never get to the more vulnerable hurt, fear, or shame that underlie them.

Being intimate with our outer world will always rest on the quality of self-connection. Focusing offers a pathway toward our authentic heart--a tender place within us where we simultaneously resonate with the life outside ourselves.

John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal and coauthor of Being Intimate. He has a private psychotherapy practice with offices in San Francisco, San Rafael, and Graton, California. He was a writer and contributing editor for Yoga Journal for ten years and has appeared on CNN, CNBC, and NPR stations. John is a certified Focusing Trainer, and an adjunct faculty member of The Institute of Imaginal Studies. For more information, please visit www.johnamodeo.com.

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