“Focusing” by Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D.

book cover

This is the 25th anniversary edition of Eugene Gendlin’s original book explaining his Focusing method for the general public. I sought it out after learning Inner-Relationship Focusing and Untangling(TM) from one of his students, Ann Weiser Cornell.

Eugene Gendlin’s approach is deeply kind, and goes back to the essence of Focusing, which is keeping someone company in their process by listening.

Focusing came out of research into psychotherapy, so it shares that fundamental bias that the problem lies inside the individual, rather than naming systemic, societal issues that cause individual distress. The book does not mention race at all. It does include women as Focusers, but unfortunately feels the need to evaluate their size and attractiveness, where men are not described in those terms.

That said, when Focusing is used with care and respect for the wider context, it can bring contact and movement to stuck places inside us.

Gendlin’s six steps, with some notes:

  1. Clear a Space. Ask what is between you and feeling fine. Let your body answer. Don’t go into any one issue, just acknowledge what’s there. This can bring relief in itself, bringing attention to troubles without drowning in them.
  2. Felt Sense. Choose one issue. What is your sense of all of it? Yes, that unclear muddy queasy sense – that. This is how your body has this issue, including all the past events it links with and all the subtle signals that you have sensed in the present. It is not divination – your body might have opinions, but it cannot tell the future.
  3. Get a Handle. This is a way to keep coming back to this felt sense. What word, image, phrase, or sound expresses it just right?
  4. Resonate. Keep checking your handle with the felt sense, adjusting as needed. If it fits, sense the fit several times.
  5. Ask. “What is it, about the whole problem, that makes me so —- (put in your handle)?” Or, “What’s the worst of it?” or “What would make it okay?” Let the feeling stir and provide an answer.
  6. Receive. Take time to receive the answer. Be glad it spoke. Protect it from critical voices.

At some point there may be a shift in the felt sense, a releasing or unknotting, a deep breath, more ease. Focusing is the act of paying attention, and does not require a shift to be “successful.” Sometimes we just need to sit with ourselves without demanding a change.

This book is friendly, gentle, kind, just as Focusing is meant to be. It emphasizes that Focusing is supposed to feel good. If it stops feeling good, back up and find the place where it went awry. Being heard about something very difficult should feel good in the midst of the difficulty. If it starts feeling weird, also back out, since it’s not meant to induce a deeply altered state.

I’m not sure how this book would read for a beginning Focuser. For me, it was illuminating, after experiencing several different people’s interpretations of Gendlin’s original method. I’m keeping the idea of being gentle, and stepping back to feel a response to the whole of a situation.

I will also note that Gendlin described Focusing, rather than created it. People have been paying attention to their body sense of a situation and keeping each other company in many ways across time.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams” by Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D.

book cover

Eugene Gendlin did research into what makes psychotherapy effective, and distilled what he found into Focusing. The client/Focuser pays attention to what is unclear but present inside, and the therapist/Companion facilitates that.

In this book, he applies Focusing to interpreting dreams. You get a sense inside of the dream, and then ask one or more of the following questions and feel for a bodily response.

First, love and enjoy the dream, whether interpreted or not. The next one may be clearer if dreams feel welcomed. Only the dreamer can interpret a dream. An outsider can offer questions, but the dreamer is the one who knows.

(Associations)
1: What comes to you?
2: Feeling of the dream?
3: What happened yesterday?
(Place, Story, Characters)
4: Visualize the place or setting of your dream. What does it remind you of?
5: Summarize the story in a general way.
6: What/who do the important characters remind you of?
(More with characters)
7: What part of you is that?
8: Be that person? Let your body respond like a character in the dream.
9: Allow the dream to continue
(Decoding)
10: Symbols? “Standard” symbols, or “What kind of thing is that?” For example a bridge crosses from one side to the other.
11: Body analogy? High up in your head, lower down in your body, underground unconscious.
12: Counterfactual: What in the dream is different from reality?
(Growth and development)
13: Childhood associations?
14: Personal growth? Where is your growing edge, your stuck place, your struggle?
15: Sexuality? How might the dream apply to how you express yourself sexually?
16: Spirituality? How does the dream relate to the numinous?

There is a whole chapter on question 10, symbols, and it dates the book, with references to Indians in stereotypical roles rather than respectfully referring to Native Americans, and what is now a slur to refer to someone with developmental disabilities.

Bias control: Listen inside in a friendly way, rather than arguing with or criticizing what comes. Notice if you are reflexively interpreting a dream to agree with what you already believe and ignoring parts that disagree with that.

Invite a growth direction from the dream by noticing what is new, different, unaccustomed for you. Consider small actions that move in that direction.

Dreams, especially over time, can give a sense of where we are with a longer process or issue.

Grounding dreams are a special case of this. Many people have dreams of being above ground level, which can correspond with not being connected with the body and the physical sense of being supported by the ground. “The ground holds you with ease, solidly, as an adult can hold a child. You can exhale all the way, stop being careful, let go, just be.” Our capacities are more available to us when we trust we are solidly held by the ground, like a strong person who can move things by pushing off the ground.

Recommended as a compassionate set of tools for interpreting dreams and listening to yourself and your body.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Politics of Trauma” by Staci K. Haines

book cover

Subtitle: Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice

Recommended to me by: Darryl C.

This book rang true to me from beginning to end. Staci Haines combines embodied trauma work with social justice, and everything she says fits with what I already know and takes it further.

Many healing modalities view trauma and abuse as individual problems. Instead, Haines puts trauma and abuse in the context of our abusive social structures that put individuals in harm’s way. White supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and environmental destruction divide us from one another and keep us from learning the skills we need to treat each other with care. They keep us divided from ourselves as we try to heal.

Safety, belonging, and dignity are core needs that should be met together for everyone. Traumatic and abusive situations put one in conflict with another – we can choose either safety or dignity, either dignity or belonging. Our bodies deeply learn traumatized ways of responding to the world.

We can form declarations and commitments: statements about our core beliefs and goals that guide our healing. For example, “I am a commitment to be in my skin without apology.” (Lisa Thomas-Adeyemo) We can discover what commitments and declarations we have unconsciously adopted or had imposed upon us. Declarations can be personal or community-oriented or both.

We can find what supports us and practice resilience, reminding ourselves to come out of trauma mode. Social justice organizations can also collectively practice resilience. We can rebuild safety and trust at the embodied, physical level. We can relearn boundaries and requests.

To help someone heal, we blend with the patterns that are already true for them, and help them notice what the pattern has been taking care of for them. As the body is supported and honored, the underlying physical and emotional memories and holding patterns can be released. We can help someone feel allied with, exactly as their body needs to feel it.

For example, make a fist with one hand. With the other hand, try to pry it open. How does that feel? Instead, let your other hand support the fist with curiosity and kindness. How does that feel? What happens with your fist? With the rest of your body?

Trauma is held in the body through bands of tension, or absent slackness. A healthy body has relaxed presence. Somatic opening is encouraged by blending with what is there and allowing it to release and transform. While emotions often arise during a release, cathartic emotion is not the goal.

We can discern what shame is ours and what belongs to others. We can blend with shame, hearing its messages, and look underneath to what it is hiding or protecting. Often shame is preferable to feeling powerless, helpless, or abandoned. We can learn to take centered accountability rather than being over- or under-accountable for our actions. We can sit with the complex questions around our responsibilities. We can learn about forgiveness of others and self-forgiveness. “Even if … [shameful act or belief], I am forgivable.”

We can learn to be present with ourselves and with others at the same time. We can learn to hold contradictions and conflict. We can learn how to have generative rather than destructive conflicts.

Personal healing and social justice organizing can support and serve each other.

I loved this quote at the beginning.

The Church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.
—Eduardo Galeano, from “Window on the Body”

Highly recommended for activists and healers!

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Bodyfulness” by Christine Caldwell, PhD

book cover

Subtitle: Somatic Practices for Presence, Empowerment, and Waking Up in This Life

Recommended to me by: Darryl C

“Bodyfulness” is the embodied version of mindfulness, presence without leaving the body behind. Caldwell brings in Tibetan Buddhism, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and her own experiences with movement and presence. The different modalities felt awkwardly pushed together in places, with superficial coverage of anatomy and neurology. Perhaps she came to the topic from an academic perspective and forgot to talk with bodyworkers and others who make a lifelong practice of body awareness.

There are practices to try out in each section to explore body awareness.

8 principles of bodyfulness:

  1. oscillation – movement through a range, with a preference to stay mostly in the middle of the range. Our cells, our organs, our whole body, all have oscillations.
  2. balance – pausing, like balancing on one leg, and also being centered, not getting stuck at the far end of an oscillation
  3. feedback loops – sensing and moving, trading information back and forth. Also cross-connections between different systems.
  4. energy conservation – habits conserve energy by not having to figure them out every time. Movement plans (such as reaching, or standing) do the same thing at a body level.
  5. discipline – practice leads to grace. “Use it or lose it.” This was a brief section and felt grafted on.
  6. change and challenge – our bodies change under the challenge of new needs or a new environment
  7. contrast through novelty – when something is new, it gets our attention and perhaps elicits change.
  8. associations and emotions – guide our actions, memories, experiences.

4 themes

  1. breathing – this book, about awareness of the body, says that gravity does the work of the outbreath. Which moves up. No. The diaphragm relaxing up into a dome shape lets the outbreath move without additional effort. This error alone made me lose all confidence in this book.
  2. sensing – add kinesthesia to the usual 5 senses. Balance the amount of sensory awareness, and the amount of attention inwardly or outwardly.
  3. moving – motor plans and motor development, probably from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Some basic exercises to address trauma held in the body.
  4. relating – borders, boundaries, and coregulation.

Bodyful Applications included material on oppression, activism, and bodily authority. It also explores the contrast of bodylessness: ignoring the body, seeing the body as a problem or project, hating the body, and making one’s own or other people’s bodies wrong.

Unfortunately there is an ongoing theme of “curb your addictions” and “fix your eating habits” in the examples. It seems strange to have judgmental examples in a book about body awareness and acceptance. Also there is a non-ironic positive use of “trickle-down economics.”

This is such a great topic, addressed in an oddly skewed way, as if it’s trying to match up modalities that don’t quite fit. It has interesting information, but I can’t trust any of it when basic facts about breathing are simply wrong. It would be a good start for someone who hasn’t thought about body awareness at all and needs a step by step introduction to the idea.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Victory Over Verbal Abuse” by Patricia Evans

book cover

Subtitle: A Healing Guide to Renewing Your Spirit and Reclaiming Your Life

Recommended to me by: Reading Patricia Evans’ earlier books about verbal abuse many years ago

Patricia Evans named the severity and prevalence of verbal abuse and offers validation and healing for survivors. Her earlier books “The Verbally Abusive Relationship” and “Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out” focus on describing verbal abuse and coping with it. This book focuses on healing from the aftermath once the abuse is over. She recommends no contact with abusers.

She states clearly and repeatedly that verbal abuse is not the survivor’s fault. The abuser has projected their self into their victim and is not recognizing the victim as a separate person. Healing involves recognizing that and rebuilding one’s self.

The book includes a summary of what verbal abuse is, including survivor stories, brief descriptions of trauma healing modalities, and a set of 52 affirmations such as “I am confident even as I confront the unknown,” with a page or two of accompanying text.

The trauma healing modality called “Healing the Spirit” had some victim-blaming quotes, but the rest of the book is wonderfully free of that.

Recommended if you are in the process of healing from verbal abuse and would like an understanding guide.

Patricia Evans’ website.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem

book cover

Subtitle: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies

Recommended to me by: Naomi Ardea

Resmaa Menakem is a Black psychotherapist and teacher. He addresses the ways white supremacy, which he calls white body supremacy, is perpetuated through trauma in Black, white, and police bodies. He says we each have to learn to settle our bodies, individually and collectively. He distinguishes the clean pain of addressing and healing trauma from the dirty pain of avoiding it.

I appreciate the insights and settling practices in this book. African-Americans have a history of trauma from slavery, as well as the day-to-day trauma and stress of racism. White people also had a history of trauma before colonizing the Americas. This trauma is passed down the generations through epigenetics and patterns of traumatizing behavior. He brings up the trauma of inflicting or witnessing violence, which afflicts police bodies.

He says white bodies and police bodies reflexively feel threatened by Black bodies. He talks about police saying they “couldn’t help it” and “feared for their lives” when talking about shooting and killing unarmed Black people, often in the back. He adds “annihilate” to “fight, flight, or freeze,” but never discusses it directly as a trauma or nervous system response.

He asserts that white bodies have generational trauma from historical conflicts in Europe. He does not address the trauma of immigration itself, abandoning all that is known for a wholly unfamiliar place, leaving behind family and social connections. In addition, his emphasis on generational trauma elides individual present-time trauma, letting individuals off the hook.

There are some metaphors and simplifications that don’t work for me. Calling the vagus nerve the “soul nerve.” Saying it causes or holds emotions that are held in the whole body. Saying that it is responsible for activation responses in the body, when those are caused by the sympathetic nervous system. Saying it makes us human. No, reptiles and mammals have vagus nerves.

Most of the suggested exercises in the book are intended to settle the body, or to mindfully and gently address an activating memory. And then, on page 199 of the hardcover edition, at the beginning of the chapter on Mending the White Heart and Body, a sickening, violent act is described with the specific invitation to put yourself in the scene. It is not even marked as an exercise in the same way as the other exercises, and there is no content warning.

I had a teacher in a massage class once who similarly ended a guided meditation in a shocking way. I think some people imagine that they need to show people what trauma feels like, when many of us have plenty of experience with it already. I am disappointed that the book was published with this mistaken assumption included.

The final chapters contain concrete advice for creating cohesive and resilient social justice groups and events.

Overall, this is an important book with important ideas. It takes a step forward into addressing the trauma of slavery, racism, policing, and white supremacy.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Inner Work of Racial Justice” by Rhonda V. Magee

book cover

Subtitle: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness

Rhonda V. Magee is a Black woman law professor at the University of San Francisco. She has studied mindfulness in depth, and uses it to get through difficult conversations about race with students as well as live with ever-present microaggressions. She teaches mindfulness to help people pause before reacting, increase inner tolerance for strong emotions, and to stay connected with themselves and others.

The first half of the book very gently and slowly encourages the reader to admit that racism exists and might be part of their lives. This is the opposite of Layla Saad’s direct approach in Me and White Supremacy. I can see that different approaches work well for different people.

The strongest message of the book is that we need to stay in mindful, non-violent conversation with each other (and ourselves) about race. Not until the last chapter does she add a caveat about retreating from people who threaten violence. I would add a second caveat about people who are simply not listening or engaging in good faith. Most of her examples include students or workshop participants who have chosen to learn from her, or community members who have an existing motivation to stay connected.

With the addition of those caveats, I agree that we are all in the racist soup together, each learning at our own pace, and we can do our best to be kind to people who are not as knowledgeable as we are, just as more knowledgeable people continue to be kind to us. I wanted to see more about reaching one’s limits and reacting with anger and frustration. There is a place for that, as well as a lot of good work to be done in the world with mindful listening.

Highly recommended for people who are new to anti-racist work, or new to meditation, but not both. I think it would be difficult to learn both from a book at the same time. I have some experience with both and the pace felt slow, but I still got a lot from the book.

Meditations and articles at Rhonda V. Magee’s website

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents” by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD

book cover

Subtitle: Practical Tools to Establish Boundaries & Reclaim Your Emotional Autonomy

Recommended to me by: Reading Lindsay Gibson’s previous book

This book repeats some material on emotionally immature parents from the previous book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, in a way that is more focused on how the adult child feels rather than focusing on the parents. It develops more material on how to resist emotional takeovers and how to develop a more functional relationship with emotionally immature parents in adulthood.

The premise is to be sure of your own value, and relate from that place, rather than hoping the parents will recognize and nurture your value. There are some good detailed suggestions for how to build a trusting relationship with yourself. The process could take a long time, even with therapeutic support.

There were occasional mentions of creating more distance from emotionally immature parents, but for the most part this book focuses on staying in relationship. I would have liked to see more about danger signs that indicate it’s better to stay far away.

I’ve been mentioning this book to lots of clients. Recommended for great analysis and ideas for how to regain autonomy and heal from immature parenting.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents” by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD

book cover

Subtitle: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents

Lindsay Gibson tells it like it is. There is a lot of clear analysis of the ramifications of dealing with emotionally immature parents, without any waffling about, “Maybe the kid is the problem after all.” Emotionally immature parents are held responsible for falling down on the job.

“Emotionally immature parents fear genuine emotion and pull back from emotional closeness. They use coping mechanisms that resist reality rather than dealing with it. They don’t welcome self-reflection, so they rarely accept blame or apologize.”

“Understanding their emotional immaturity frees us from emotional loneliness as we realize their neglect wasn’t about us, but about them. When we see why they can’t be different, we can finally be free of our frustration with them, as well as our doubts about our own lovability.”

“If they don’t make a solid emotional connection with their child, the child will have a gaping hole where true security might have been.”

Two chapters cover characteristics of emotionally immature people in themselves and as parents. There are some interesting insights here, for example, “They have an inconsistent sense of time,” which leads to issues with accountability, responsibility, and planning. At the same time these chapters feel harsh and angry, very much “them” vs. “us.” Since we all behave in emotionally immature ways at times no matter how hard we try to be considerate, it makes for uncomfortable reading.

The book later notes that we naturally respond with anger at an attachment figure who is non-responsive or abandoning.

Four types of emotionally immature parents are described: Emotional/anxious, driven/perfectionist, passive/avoidant, rejecting/mean. These types are not revisited in later chapters.

Children of emotionally immature parents create healing fantasies about what will finally let them receive the connection, nurturing, and emotional responsiveness they crave. They also create a role-self which is their best effort to get what they need from difficult parents, rather than living as their true self.

Children of emotionally immature parents tend to be either internalizers or externalizers (locus of control, but without using that phrase). There is some lip service here to people combining both styles and balance being the goal, and at the same time a clear preference for internalizers as being more emotionally mature and capable of growth.

To heal, release self-defeating roles, for example being small and self-effacing in an effort to elicit a caring response. Acknowledge true thoughts, feelings, and opinions, whether or not you choose to share them with parents or others.

As an adult, avoid getting hooked by an emotionally immature parent through detached observation and maturity awareness (estimating people’s probable level of emotional maturity). If someone is showing signs of being emotionally immature:

  1. Express boundaries, feelings, etc. and then let it go
  2. Focus on the outcome, not the relationship
  3. Manage the relationship rather than engaging.

Emotionally immature parents may feel safer and respond better to this more distant approach – or not. It is still calmer and emotionally safer for the adult child to alter their expectations to better match the parent’s capacity and skills.

The books answers objections people may have to the maturity awareness approach, and then details how it feels to be in relationship with an emotionally mature person.

In this book’s example stories, on the positive side, the men and women seem like real people, not gendered stereotypes. In the second half of the book, there is some variety of names that includes different cultures. On the negative side, as far as I could tell, there were no same-sex couples nor trans nor non-binary people.

Lindsay Gibson clearly brings a wealth of thought, research, and experience to this book. There is a lot of great information here, and at the same time it can be uncomfortable to read. Recommended.

The publisher New Harbinger has a download available of all the exercises in the book (pdf) which give you a great summary of the content as well.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“To Become the Sun” by Ani Rose Whaleswan

book cover

Subtitle: Natural, Living Metaphors for Truama, Healing and Spirit

Recommended to me by: Ani Rose Whaleswan. I’ve known the author for a long time online, and I contributed an essay to her collection We Have Come Far.

A lyrical, grounded, wise, hopeful book that shares Ani Rose Whaleswan’s connection to nature and positive metaphors for healing.

Each chapter explores a metaphor in depth and ends with questions to think about and a note about non-violence. The metaphors are: Mountain, Pearl, Unfolding Flowers, Stones, Compost, Hummingbird, Wave, Embers, and Shadow. The book is about healing rather than trauma, and while it discusses some of the effects of trauma, it does not have explicit traumatic material.

There are also a lot of quotes and references to other wise people’s work, including one of my favorites from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (see below). Unfortunately the quote is (presumably accidentally) misattributed to a white man. The book is double spaced and has not been professionally edited.

Highly recommended for new ways to think about the process of healing from profound trauma.

I first encountered this quote on the English AP exam and loved it so much I made sure to remember the author and title to find it later, even in the middle of taking the exam.

When god had made (the man) he made him all out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into a million pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another.—Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Available at Amazon.