As we work: Teaching children to maintain
a state of flow by attending to the felt sense
From: The Focusing Connection Vol.XVI, Number 2 March, 1999
There is a dynamic balance that exists when movement is fluid and natural, or a good jazz musician is at the top of his form (or any creative process is flowing well), or someone is deeply engaged in learning. The kind of attention we fine-tune in Focusing can help achieve and refine this dynamic balance (which is sometimes referred to as a state of flow). In this article I describe something of how this kind of attention can be taught to children (and others) in the midst of endeavors that matter to them, so that they learn to maintain such a state of engagement or flow.
For many years I home-schooled my children. I operated within the constraints of two interwoven structures: what society and good sense dictate that a child must legally and should in good conscience know; and what character (ability, style, life meaning,…) the child brings to learning. In counterpoint to these constraints, there was the transparent response to what a given moment brought: something seen, something heard, something in the child that resonated with an experience and wanted to explore further.
In me, in response to all this, two kinds of caring were in a continual dance with one another: a caring that holds-within a structure, and a caring that releases-into the freedom and improvisation of exploration. My own task as teacher or guide required that I moment by moment find a balance between these. I received immediate feedback from two small beings who were mostly un-intimidated by me, who were also completely unimpressed by ideals and theory, and who were usually either obviously engaged, or obviously disengaged. After many painful falls, little by little I began to learn something about how to maintain my balance (most of the time).
I came, through daily observation, to know and respect the strength of the human drive to ask questions, to investigate, to experiment and see what will happen and then push it a little further, to synthesize, to collaborate with others - in short, to engage in a dialogue with many kinds of process, both within and without. I sought to create a fertile environment within which this drive to engage with or respond to process could be expressed and refined as fully as possible.
I discovered that one simple act was fundamental to the kind of learning I was fostering. It consisted of respectful and gentle inward attention, during an ongoing task, to what both knowing and not-knowing (and also the inner sense of “right” or “not right”) had to say about what might happen next. This skill of attending to the felt sense of the learning process itself became the core of what I taught my children and continue to teach other children and adults. As well as being the fundamental tool I teach, it is also the fundamental tool I use myself, as I teach.
This sort of felt-sensing is best kept simple and capable of being applied “on the fly” since it is being used real-time, sometimes in stressful situations (for instance, in a group that is disagreeing). The ideal setting is an ongoing endeavor where in a given session the child is both able to apply what they’ve already learned, and is also seeking to push the limits of what they can do. To teach a child how to do this I simply help them, as they work at their chosen endeavor, to go to the felt sense for guidance when it likely would be helpful.
Often, such a time arises because they’ve gotten stuck. At such a point I might say something like this: “So there’s something about the way you drew that part right there that doesn’t feel quite right...” - which I would say slowly, gently, and with an underlying attitude of respect and acceptance for what had been done. Sometimes the child notices something more about their problem that allows them to move forward again. Sometimes they get a sense for something they need next (a missing skill, for instance) in order to move forward-and in that case I’ll provide what is needed. Sometimes they make a decision by feeling into alternatives (one way that can work well is for them to feel the two alternatives in their two hands). Sometimes they just notice how the whole thing is feeling inside, and that simple act is all that is needed.
Two children came to work with me because their mothers were concerned about a lack of self-confidence, even in endeavors in which they had a strong interest. With both these children, when we first begin to work together they would often appeal to me to judge whether some part of what they’d done was good enough. I would refer their question back to them so that they were naturally led inward to their own developing sense of good-enough, and also felt that I was right there with them. For instance, I might say something like, “Does it feel finished inside you?” Again, the intonation, and the feeling underlying it, is half of the message- my nonverbal message would be that it could with equal validity feel finished or not-finished-and that in no way was I experiencing myself as the one to judge. Over time, they each became more and more confident of their own sense of goodness or rightness (and both mothers commented, after a time, about how much calmer and more confident each was in general).
Even when self-confidence is not the reason for our work together, making felt-sense-based choices is something I foster. At first I do this by reflecting the times I see a child making felt-sense-based choices (e.g, I see a small pause with inner attention followed by a choice and reflect it: “So that feels like the right thing to do next”). Later I begin to guide them to notice their felt sense at times when they are looking to me to provide an external judgement, as in this example:
I said to the child, “Why don’t you tell me the story of what is happening in this picture and I will write it down like I wrote down your story before.” She began telling me details about the picture and I reflected them, then said “I wonder where he might be going?” She launched into a story, and I said each word aloud as she dictated it to me. When she finished, I asked if she would like me to read her story to her.
Me: [Read the story.]
Her: It’s a good story I guess. [Her tone left hooks for me to respond positively or negatively, and she looked closely at
my face. Underneath there was a little flatness or disappointment in her tone, and her facial expression said the same.]
Me: A part that doesn’t quite feel right to you?... [said neutrally and tentatively]
Her: Read it again.
Me: [Read the story again.]
Her: No, I don’t like that part.
Me: What would feel right for it to
Me: Shall I read it again?
Me: [Read the story again.]
Her: No, I don’t like that part. [more revision] Now read it again. [and so on until she was satisfied].
The opportunity for inner attention happens numerous times in the course of an hour or so and typically takes half a minute or less each time. Since it is so simple and happens so often, it is naturally learned, just in the doing of it, and no explanations need be given about what we are doing. Two simple pieces are learned: knowing how to tune in to the felt sense in the midst of a task, and remembering or noticing that it is a good time to do so.
I find that the most important tool in bringing this about or teaching it is the quality of presence I bring to the process. When I convey a sense of infinite time and space to sit with the child (and my interest in doing so) it not only helps them slow down into listening very naturally; but it also models, wordlessly, Focusing attitudes which they can then begin to internalize and bring to listening to themselves even when I am not there.
It becomes evident that listening/ being-listened-to/ sitting-with is intrinsically valuable and enjoyable, which makes it more likely that they (with or without me) will naturally turn to it when the time is right. (Months after I finished working with one girl, her mother let me know that she was still using the Focusing tools she had learned with me, completely independently and without encouragement to do so.)
Also when I am present in this way it is easy to sense when we are at more subtly auspicious moments for turning inward-signaled by such things as the jerk of a pencil or a change in the way the body is being held. Simply modeling the noticing of what is happening, and listening respectfully to what it’s all about (maybe it’s time for a break), begins to teach this more subtle kind of attention to the body’s messages.
Finally, this kind of presence makes it possible to move sensitively in relation to a child’s leading edge.
There is a growing living web in here for the learner, and the growing and the web happen independently of me, but also I have something to do with them. How I relate to that process/structure can amplify or diminish it. I want to respect what is happening on its own, and not interrupt it, but also I do want to intervene, and make it shift and unfold into something new, a little broader or a little more subtle, or somehow carried forward. It is being nurturing, but also being catalytic. It’s a lot like a mother positioning herself right in front of her infant who is just learning to walk.
In doing so, she provides both a safe place, and an exciting opportunity. She is naturally guided by her own felt sense in this interaction, even without consciously attending to it. She knows that “this distance” is not too close, not too far, and she is “all there” with the infant, feeling each step in her own body and adjusting her entire demeanor moment by moment in response to the child.
It’s like the person who leads in tango, and there is an empty roundness in between the partners that is simultaneously full, too, like Gene’s “implies.” When I work with a child, we are dancing together around the implied. Gene says in Process Model: “Implying implies something so intricate that only a very special occurring ‘changes’ it as it implies itself changed.”
A receptor on a cell will only accept the neurotransmitter that fits there - and then when it is there, it catalyzes something, and a process can move forward. When I get the moment just right and respond with exactly what is needed, the shift or crystallization in what is known can be breathtaking.
But to know when it is time (and exactly what is needed) requires being as still as a pool of water: so still that even a dragonfly touching makes a ripple that is noticed.
Kye Nelson hopes people will see that this article is about much more than a way of working with children. She may be reached at 7307 Broadway #3, San Antonio TX 78209. < [email protected] >