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Transforming the Mind ~ by Peter Shepherd



Sensate Focusing

Who of us has not experienced butterflies before a test or an important interview? Who has not felt a pinch in his heart when he sees a loved one? Who does not feel a lump in his throat on learning about a tragedy that has happened to someone close? Whose anger was not aroused many times upon witnessing evil or injustice? Who of us is completely free of bottled fear - the kind that makes us feel tense but does not allow us to relate it to a specific or defined thing? Who has not felt depressed, or just in a bad mood that goes on and on? These are emotions we live with - but we don't have to ...

"Sensate Focusing" is the application of concentrated and focused attention in a systematic way to influence one's emotional state. By focusing on the plethora of sensations occurring in daily life, you will be able to relieve tensions, pains and any other unpleasant sensations and feelings; put an end to psychosomatic disturbances; resolve indecisivenes; change unwanted habits. In short, you can use the technique to influence the course of your whole life, and each detail in it as well, by mastering your emotions.

“What you resist, persists, but what you are fully conscious of and able to experience, dissolves.”
Obsessive thoughts, unacceptable emotions, bad feelings and moods, various urges and desires, psychosomatic ailments and every thing that makes us feel guilty, are the result of fast, unconscious processes occurring in the mind incessantly. Just as focusing on the feedback of measuring instruments in "biofeedback training" enables one to change physiological functions like brain waves and electrical conductivity of the skin, so can focusing on the sensations of the body change the programs of the mind that are involved with them.

Focusing is a natural activity that you already do many times a day - alas, it is done by you half consciously, for too short periods and in a very inefficient way. The technique of Sensate Focusing was developed (independently by Professor Eugene T. Gendlin and Dr Ilan Shalif) for people who are no longer willing to relate to their emotions like the weather - about which one speaks but does nothing at all to change - but instead wish to purposefully influence their feelings and sensations by fully viewing them, so they are no longer resisted and suppressed. For what you resist, persists, but what you are fully conscious of and able to experience, dissolves.

Gendlin found that those who obtained lasting results from psychotherapy had the ability to focus on their emotions as they affect physical sensation, or the therapist was able to encourage them to do so. They were then "in touch with their feelings" or "grounded". Changes in mental cognition are transient if underlying programming at the level of deep-brain (limbic system) emotional systems and body musculature systems is unaffected. The emotional programming (and hence behavior) remains the same and the realizations soon become forgotten.

Mind-body disintegration, caused by the repression of primal trauma or unconfrontable reality, is all too common, hence the failure of many in-the-head forms of psychotherapy that do not take account of this split. Such dis-integration is also the required state for hypnosis and succeptibility to further conditioning. But when one is properly integrated with one's feelings, changes in one's belief system automatically re-program the emotional and musculature systems and so behavior can change accordingly. Sensate Focusing is designed to help you achieve that integration.

The following will introduce you to the primary technique of Sensate Focusing:

Concentrated attention to a sensation or a feeling may sometimes strengthen it temporarily. Also, frequently the unpleasant feeling focused on can unexpectedly change into another intense and unpleasant one - before relief comes and saves you. Therefore, the use of the suggested procedure for the self-maintenance of the emotional system - without an experienced friend or coach - is not recommended to those at "high risk" for emotional flooding or acute psychosomatic disturbances. These reservations are also relevant to those who are in intensive medical treatment, intensive psychotherapy or any other intensive therapy or who think they need it - whatever the reason may be. It is not recommended to be self-applied by those who are very anxious as they are liable to get an anxiety attack.

However, if you are of a normal state of mind but want a basic improvement in awareness and control of your feelings, you are invited to take the following steps:

  1. Sit comfortably, with support for your head so that the knape of your neck is relaxed, the head and the neck are in a straight line with the spinal cord that is straight as well. This prevents muscular defenses in the neck from cutting off sensations.

    Take a small tour of your body. The starting point may be the place you are usually aware of feeling once you have discerned that you are in a bad mood or that you have unpleasant emotions or feelings or sensations. It is recommended that you choose as the starting point, the place where you are now feeling the worst or where you can feel some tension.

    Usually this point is located in the intestines, chest, neck or the head. Less frequently it is located in the nape of the neck, shoulders, back, feet or hands. Sometimes it is hard to describe a more accurate location of those feelings as many of the parts in our body have scientific names that are not part of our daily vocabulary. Also there is a common lack of proficiency in focusing attention on feelings and sensations that are of a low or moderate intensity, but this will soon get better with practice.

    After you pay a brief notice to the starting point, start to scan slowly the various regions and organs of your body. Don't verbalize them - just feel them. Pay attention, for a short while, to the various sensations of each - whether you can define them as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The feelings may be subtle or not so subtle and include pressure, pain, tension, pulsation, temperature, pleasure, etc and connect with various emotions like anticipation, fear, grief, anger, boredom, joy, apathy, protest, hate, love, etc.

  2. The aim of the following task is to deepen your acquaintance with the felt senses of your body. After the general scan of the feelings and sensations of various parts and regions of the body, try to localize the exact location of one of your body sensations and focus on the sensation for one to two minutes. Choose the one you know the most, the one that is the most interesting or the most intense. Typical sensations are: facial tensions, pressures and pains in the head, throat, neck, chest; constriction and other disturbances of the diaphragm; pains, pressures, constriction, spasms and other nasty feelings in the intestines; various problems with muscles - especially those of the lower back.

    Note: It is hard for anyone who is not skilled and experienced to continue concentrating on a point of the body without drifting into some other physical or mental activity. Sometimes the focusing itself arouses a chain of associations or other cognitive processes. This might interfere with the ongoing focusing or even prevent its continuance. Here are three options one can implement when this happens:

    • Give in and change what you do for a while.
    • Intensify the efforts of focusing to overcome the distractions.
    • Choose any simple word or a syllable that first comes to your mind and repeat it silently many times. "Eeee..." is particularly effective. This mantra-like repetition paralyzes the distracting thoughts and enables you to continue focusing.

  3. Localize the exact address of the previous target of focusing (if it still exists) or the most suitable sensation that you have now, by imagining touching it with your fingertip and focus on the sensation for one to two minutes more. Focus on the point where it is the strongest or where it is most easily paid attention. Let it become for a short while the central focus of the body as a whole. Whether you feel the pulsation or not - try to sense the minute changes that happen all the time to the intensity of the sensation, its quality and its borders.

    Frequently, even a short focusing can supply the processes mending emotional programs with a sufficient amount of natural biofeedback. This enables them to solve very quickly the problem responsible for the arousal of the felt sensation and thus stop it. In this case, just search happily for another felt sensation to focus on. Or the sensation may increase after the initial mental defense program has broken down - just continue focusing and healing will occur.

    Though it does sometimes happen, usually one does not get rid of a feeling that is "a frequent uninvited and unwelcome visitor" after one successful session of focusing. In order to make it disappear, one has to repeat the focusing for quite a few times during the course of a week or two.

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