In any conflict between mind and body, follow the body’s wisdom. This is something I have come to trust after almost three decades of practicing as both a Jungian and a focusing-oriented therapist and teacher. Crossing the profound experiential practices of Gendlin’s Focusing and Jung’s active imagination has taught me not only that the body is ultimately right, but also that it takes skill and practice to unearth embodied wisdom. Our bodies speak to us in subtle ways, and teach us to listen with care and patience.
It’s an odd thing that our minds and bodies do not always agree. We may be surprised by what comes up from the body. There are times when I (or my clients) want to believe what our minds are telling us. For example, that engaging and beautiful person a client started dating ticked all the boxes, said all the right things. But her felt sense was telling her to steer clear. Later, she found out from the person’s previous partner that under the polished surface, the man was often selfish and cruel. Her body knew what her mind did not want to see. This kind of thing happens more often than we may care to admit.
Focusing brings embodied wisdom into awareness
Eugene Gendlin, a philosopher and psychologist, developed Focusing as a way to sensitively listen to one’s embodied wisdom by finding and following the felt sense. The first step in Focusing is to clear your inner space, and then attend to vague, bodily-felt sensations that arise in response to inner inquiry. A felt sense is tangible, but not immediately fully understood or articulated. If you bring an attitude of friendly curiosity, the felt sense opens, bringing clarity, insight and surprising shifts.
Intriguingly, Focusing can transform your inner attitude toward a situation without changing a thing in the external world. My article, The Inner Journey: Focusing and Jung (Folio, 2014) describes such a seismic shift. In it, fellow focuser Paula Nowick explains how Focusing brought relief to the desperate tension she felt with respect to her son. “Here, in my gut, was the simple, stark truth: I was helpless against his addiction. You might suppose I sank into even greater despair at this insight, but just the opposite happened; my spirit was lifted!” There was a massive sense of relief in knowing and acknowledging the truth of the situation.
Crossing Focusing and Active Imagination
Focusing can be practiced on its own, but is perhaps most powerful when used to deepen the experience of other forms of therapy or inner inquiry. I have found it to be an excellent way to enrich Jung’s process of active imagination. When these two processes are brought together, they enhance one other in profound ways.
In active imagination, it can sometimes be hard to discern what is authentically flowing from imaginal figures and what is more a flight of fantasy. Bringing a focusing sensibility, grounded in the body and welcoming of all that comes, these processes tend to run deeper and to bring welcome change. I suspect this is in part because when one’s own body has a part to play, there is more of a natural tendency to move toward health and wholeness. Psyche, and the realm of image, may be Trickster-like and potentially less concerned with our personal comfort.
Spider dream process
To provide one example, Sheila often dreamt of spiders, especially when she was feeling stressed or experiencing low self esteem. Through several sessions, we explored the associations to spiders, spoke with them, even befriended some of them. We often discussed them in the context of her challenging relationship with her mother, and while plenty of emotion surfaced and was processed, there was always a felt sense that something was missing. And the dream spiders kept returning.
When Sheila spent some time with her embodied sense of a particularly large and alarming spider image, she began to shake. With a flood of realization, she exclaimed, “The spider is me!” Once the waves of sensation subsided, she explained that as a child, her mother would shunt her to the side at family gatherings because she was ‘the ugly one’, dark and hairy like the spider of her dreams. Her siblings were more fair, and therefore considered more attractive in her family of origin. She realized that’s why she never liked looking at pictures of herself as a child. But when she really looked at her dream spider, she could also see its beauty, in particular, its soft brown eyes. The session brought a deep and welcome shift; after, she took out a childhood picture that had been stashed away and lovingly displayed it.
In my work with dreams, focusing and active imagination, I have found a beautiful synergy. I have been sharing this interwoven process with others through my writing, courses and talks. The interest in embodiment has increased dramatically in recent years, and there are many new avenues. But to me, Focusing remains the most developed, nuanced and respectful way to inquire into the body’s wisdom.
To learn the basics of Focusing with a Jungian flavor, consider attending Leslie Ellis’ upcoming live Jung Platform course: Focusing: Accessing the Body’s Wisdom. In this 4 class course Leslie will teach us how to focus and find what our body already knows about situations that confuse us. For more on the confluence of Focusing and Jung, we also have a course on Focusing and Dreams . You will learn how to sense into your dreams and find help in them.
Dr. Leslie Ellis, PhD, is an author, teacher, speaker and clinical dreamworker. Her book, A Clinician’s Guide to Dream Therapy (Routledge, 2019) offers therapists a primer in modern, experiential dreamwork.More Posts by Leslie Ellis