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  • Focusing

    What is Focusing?

    "I wish I could show you ...
    When you are lonely or in darkness
    The astonishing light of your own being!"


    People who come to learn Focusing get a glimpse of a special way of coming home to themselves.

    Focusing teaches you how to turn your attention inside your body and listen, so the energy of your life can be freed to move forward. With Focusing, people begin to create an inner climate of caring presence, which allows them to let go of "fixing", controlling, forcing, shaming, manipulating, judging, and all those violent ways we use to abuse ourselves and others. Focusing reveals a potential for direction and meaning that lies hidden in the feelings which surround how you carry issues in a bodily-felt way.

    History of Focusing

    Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D. was a Philosophy student who became one of Carl Rogers’ early graduate students in Psychology at the University of Chicago in the 1960’s. 

    Carl Rogers, Ph.D. is known for developing client-centred therapy in which the therapist has deep respect and genuine caring for the client as a person with potentialities.  Rogers noticed his own experience, “When I can be my feelings then they change”.  As a therapist, he tried to be with his client in an open manner, present to the feelings and attitudes in himself at the moment.

    He emphasized the concept of Congruence and Incongruence as important components of his theory.

    Congruence: “being able to feel your feelings physiologically and allow them to symbolize themselves accurately”.

    Rogers realized that this was the way to human wholeness.  He learned that the therapist’s personal congruence in the relationship with the client, in turn, allowed the client to be more congruent with whatever was real inside him or herself.  He found that being congruent as a therapist created conditions, such as, more open listening, unconditional acceptance, respect and positive regard for the client which, in turn, helped the therapeutic process. Rogers had emphasized the external relationship between therapist and client (open listening, unconditional acceptance, and positive regard) as creating the necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic change. 

    As a student involved in the research of Rogers' theories, Gendlin began asking himself:

    “How does this process of wholeness (congruence) take place inside us?” 

    "What is going on inside the client when congruence happens?”

    “What is healthy psychology?”

    Dr. Gendlin discovered that the real difference was: successful patients tapped into an internal process that most clients ignored.  Dr. Gendlin grew to understand this process so it could be taught and used by people. 

    He identified a healing process centred on how individuals carried their experiences in the body and how this was given time to be recognized and owned.  One of the implications of his discovery was that it is not the traumatic experience that creates psychological pain.  Rather it is the being out of touch with how the experience is carried in the body that creates the blockage and being stuck.  The lack of forward movement creates the pain.  Dr. Gendlin identified the steps that individuals used to get in touch with and successfully process their experience.  He called these steps “Focusing”.

    Focusing:  A simple way of being with yourself that allows your inner story to unfold.  A way of attending to the bodily “felt sense” that tells a story and moves forward.  This is not a mental process.  In Gendlin’s words: “The entire inner landscape changes when there is forward movement in the experience process”.


    Lucy and Dr. Gendlin

    Lucy Bowers with E.T. Gendlin, Ph.D.


    Edwin McMahon, Ph.D. was a student of Rogers at the same time on the West Coast.  Like Gendlin, McMahon was intrigued by Rogers’ notion of ‘congruence’.  As a Jesuit, he was asking “What is healthy spirituality?”

    Peter Campbell, Ph.D. was a colleague of McMahon and co-founder of the Institute for Bio-Spiritual Research.

    McMahon had the same questions as Gendlin, realizing that understanding the process of congruence would help us to better understand the psychological dynamics of what religion called “holiness”.  Familiarity with congruence would also help us to establish criteria for evaluating the health or pathology of religious practices. 

    Around 1967, Peter Campbell stumbled onto Gendlin’s work while doing graduate work in Canada.  Something felt right about Gendlin’s approach and he gave the material to McMahon for him to check out.  At this time, McMahon was trying to explore the healthy psychological dynamics of “holiness” and did not know about Gendlin’s “Focusing”.  He evaluated Gendlin’s work and said that he was simultaneously elated to discover it, and terrified at the prospect of personal changes that it would require him to make.

    They tracked Gendlin down in Staten Island where he was on sabbatical and the three began collaborating and offering workshops together.  McMahon and Campbell simultaneously did 3-4 years of personal work with Focusing.

    Both priest-psychologists recognized the similarity between Gendlin’s Focusing to ancient Judeo-Christian traditions and spiritual exercises.  At the time, Campbell and McMahon were researching how religious practices contribute to health or pathology.  Taking Gendlin’s work another step, they soon realized that it depended upon the recognition and allowing of a “gift dimension” in life to operate within us (called “grace” in Christianity).  They continued their research and practice.

    McMahon and Campbell added significant points to Gendlin’s original Focusing steps.  They developed “caring-feeling-presence” which is a special body-way of being with difficult inner feelings.  They also emphasized that the focuser needs to respect his or her resistances, not trying to overpower them but always asking if it is “OK” to be with them.  McMahon also added a nurturing step at the end of Focusing as a way of creating greater bodily-felt “kinship” and a sense of continuity with one’s inner process.

    In 1975, McMahon and Campbell founded the Institute for Bio-Spiritual Research.  Today, they continue to promote Bio-Spiritual Focusing through a network of regional coordinators and facilitators around the world.


    Gendlin’s book Focusing came out in 1978

    McMahon/Campbell’s book Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a way to grow – came out in 1985

    Gendlin’s ground-breaking article: “A Theory of Personal Change” – is reprinted in New Directions in Client-Centered Therapy by Joseph T. Hart and T. M. Tomlinson, eds., Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1970, p. 129-173.

    McMahon’s book Beyond the Myth of Dominance, An Alternative to a Violent Society, Sheed and Ward, 1993

    Campbell’s article, “Academic roots of the Bio-Spiritual Movement”, (Appendix A in McMahon’s book, Beyond the Myth of Dominance, offers a partial history of the development of Bio-Spirituality)

    Gendlin received an award from the National Psychological Assn., in 1970 for his most important discovery/contribution to the field of Psychotherapy.

    From a conversation with Edwin McMahon – Ann McGlone (August 1993)

    (Updated 3/94 in phone conversation with Peter Campbell)

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