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Focusing in El Salvador: help with recovery from trauma and generating fresh thinking

Focusing and Thinking at the Edge: Tools not only for mental health, but for social change

It is widely recognized that fundamentally new strategies are needed to address the challenges facing our world; Focusing and Thinking at the Edge are such strategies, already present within the lived experience of human beings but not widely recognized.

Focusing and Thinking at the Edge can teach all people how to call on their own lived experience to address individual and societal challenges, heal conflicts, and to develop confidence in their own ability to think from experience.

In Focusing, we learn how to give our attention to the bodily felt sense of situations. The felt sense adds richness and depth to our awareness that is lost if we use the intellect alone. All human beings have bodies, thus all humans have access to their own "felt senses", and thus to the intricacy and accuracy that they can bring to finding the new directions we need in order to survive.

What is Focusing?

Focusing is not new. It taps into a very human process. This way of coming into one’s body sense of a situation has been documented throughout history by creative scientists, poets, philosophers and modern psychotherapists, but has not until now been made into teachable steps. Focusing is safe, because as one Focuses, one learns how to trust the body to protect and to move forward at the speed and the depth that the person is able to manage safely. But, what is Focusing? Focusing is an experiential process developed at the University of Chicago by Eugene Gendlin in the early 1960s based on research into the key factors needed for successful psychotherapy. Those who could be in touch with their inner body sense, which Gendlin calls “felt sense” were more successful in the results of their therapy. It did not matter which method of therapy was used, what mattered was the individual’s personal ability to tap into her or his felt sense. Focusing can be taught in a series of simple steps so that a person can stably access a felt sense of any personal, work or collective situation. Small next steps of needed change or knowledge come from paying certain kinds of attention to the felt sense.

In the context of emotional trauma, Focusing allows one to deal with strong emotions and reactions without ever having to tell anyone what is the cause of the emotion. This means that as a Focuser, one can deal with the emotions and felt sense of a situation or event without having to deal with the consequences of disclosing information. This can be vitally important in the traumatic war or post-war situations that exist in countries like Afghanistan and El Salvador. Focusing allows one to address one’s reactions and emotions and feel the relief of one’s inner truth being heard.

Focusing in Afghanistan

Focusing has been shown to effectively reduce collective and individual psychological suffering in diverse cultures and nations. It facilitates community building and helps shape a more coherent, fair and just society across ethnic, cultural and gender lines. It does this by teaching people how to:

  • Find small next steps of positive action as individuals and as groups.
  • Make decisions that “sit right” for them, rather than simply obeying leaders.
  • Resolve personal and collective trauma from war, poverty, illness and abuse.
  • Speak from a level of individual specificity that undercuts ethnic and cultural divisions and mediates diversity.
  • Form a wider bodily sense of their whole present situation so that they are not re-traumatized by strong emotions.

In Afghanistan Focusing is providing highly effective psychosocial wellness services at very low cost. Local leaders are taught the skills of Focusing, which they then teach to their own communities. The project has been successfully piloted in a number of community settings, with outcomes demonstrating both cost-effectiveness and local sustainability. UNIFEM has funded Focusing training in eight women’s centers in Afghanistan. The Focusing Islam project has been very successful and there are now numerous local Focusing trainers.

Focusing and Thinking at the Edge in El Salvador

Building on the success of teaching Focusing in Afghanistan, the Focusing Institute would like to respond to a request from a large, grassroots community organization in El Salvador. Sectors of Salvadoran society have been creating democratic communities and working on regional democratic governance for many years. Integral to this work are people of very little economic means and little formal education, all of whom have been victims of war, natural disasters and poverty. With Salvadoran society currently under much pressure from poverty and violence, it is important to find solutions as soon as possible. CRIPDES (The Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador) has demonstrated its ability to improve people's lives since its founding in 1984. 4.

One of our focusing trainers, Beatrice Blake, taught Focusing to the former president of CRIPDES, Marcos Aleman, when he was on a delegation of CRIPDES leaders visiting Maine in September of 2003, From that brief experience of Focusing, Sr. Aleman could see how Focusing could be helpful to people in leadership positions, like himself, and to CRIPDES members at large. At that time, Beatrice agreed to come to El Salvador to teach Focusing.

The potential of teaching Focusing within such a large community organization is exciting. If Focusing proves to be useful in a pilot CRIPDES community, it could be easily and efficiently replicated in many other CRIPDES communities, which exist in 7 departments (provinces) in five regions in El Salvador. For example, in the Department of San Vicente alone, CRIPDES is active in 57 towns and villages.


CRIPDES is a locally and internationally known grassroots social movement founded July 14,1984. In 1986 CRIPDES undertook the repatriation of Salvadoran refugees who had been living in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panamá. This process culminated in 1991, with support from the Catholic Church and other solidarity groups. In 1992 the Peace Accords were signed, establishing new rules in the relationship between the State and civil society, which allowed CRIPDES to change as an institution. Presently CRIPDES works with rural and semi-urban communities in order to: 

  1. Strengthen community organizations.
  2. Promote integrated development for women.
  3. Work in partnership with Sister Cities programs to make CRIPDES’ work known in the US and to inspire others who are working for change.
  4. Train and foster the goals of rural youth.
  5. Provide leadership training for men, women and young people.

It is important to mention that CRIPDES activities take place within the whole process of organization, community involvement and development which is now being carried out by the diverse institutions and organizations that work for the well-being of the population. CRIPDES aims for integrated projects that will strengthen the relationships between the various activists at work in the zone, the municipalities and the communities, generating a greater beneficial impact on peoples’ lives, and fortifying the work of all community organizations.

Current context 

CRIPDES leaders have determined that the Bajo Lempa region of the Department of San Vicente would be the best place to start a Focusing pilot project. Starting in 2007, CRIPDES San Vicente is undertaking a year-long program in mental health, leadership training and risk management, through which they hope to build leadership capacity and train 60 male and female leaders in five communities.

Teaching Focusing in these communities will enhance the goals of this project by providing a mental health model that is consistent with CRIPDES values of equality and self-determination. Training community members to recognize the felt sense of situations will help them access their inner wisdom. Training them to listen deeply to each other will help them create an atmosphere in which inner wisdom can emerge, and people can develop confidence in their own thinking in order to create positive change in their lives.

Integral to the training in Focusing and Listening will be the formation of “Changes Groups”, which will meet every week, providing a time and place to practice Focusing and Listening on a regular basis. Once people are trained, they will have a place to go each week to help each other take care of their mental and emotional health, and to work on creative thinking and expression as community leaders. A number of books, articles and visual aids about Focusing already exist in Spanish language and will be used in the training.

Thinking at the Edge

CRIPDES leaders recognize the potential for Focusing to improve the mental health of its members, and to prepare them to handle the challenges of leadership. But working with a social change organization like CRIPDES opens the possibility of taking Focusing one step further: Thinking at the Edge is a social science methodology, developed at the University of Chicago, which uses Focusing to make explicit lived experience that is not yet verbalized, so that others can replicate and learn from it.

The experience that CRIPDES members have built up over the decades could be a rich ground for new theories of social change. Perhaps important and inspiring contributions could be made by people with little formal education. True mental health brings the freedom to engage in building one’s dream

Pilot Project

CRIPDES Región San Vicente wishes to develop trainings for community members in Focusing in order to

  1. attend to community mental health needs that are not currently being met,
  2. facilitate teamwork and resolve conflicts
  3. access creative thinking about the challenges they face.

As a pilot project, they propose that Focusing trainers work at four levels:

  1. with CRIPDES San Vicente staff in order to provide self-care and to facilitate teamwork and creative thinking;
  2. with a women's group in the village of Las Anonas de Bajo Lempa, a region that has been hit hard by war, floods and earthquakes. Focusing trainers would visit Las Anonas twice a week, first to get to know the people informally, then to teach two two-hour Focusing trainings per week, interspersed with relaxation techniques;
  3. teaching Focusing and Listening to the men and women in the communities of Guajoyo, Granzaso, Miramar, San Bartolo and Las Anonas who wish to become community leaders;
  4. Teaching Focusing and Listening to CRIPDES national staff.

The goal of Phase I of this project is to test the suitability of the Focusing program in rural and semi-urban CRIPDES communities, and to create sustainable peer support (Changes) groups that are dynamic and can meet the needs of the participants. The initial phase will cover January through March 2007.

Initial Focusing and Listening training will consist of six two- to three-hour classes once or twice a week or over the course of several weekends, depending on the group. Then Focusing partnerships and/or Changes groups will be established, with coaching by a Focusing Trainer once a week for two months.

The methodology will include constant feedback by participants so that the program is adapted to their needs and abilities and so that it is culturally relevant and culturally sensitive.

At the end of Phase 1, the program will be evaluated by participants and CRIPDES staff to see if there are changes that need to be made, and if there is interest in going on to Phase 2.

Phase 2 will be the training of local Focusing teachers twice a week for one month, and supporting them in their first month of teaching so that they can expand the Focusing program to other groups. Teacher training will begin in April and continue through May, when a second evaluation will be undertaken to assess sustainability and to make any critical changes in the process or program.

Time frame of pilot project

The CRIPDES San Vicente Focusing Pilot Project would last from January through May 2007.

January 2007: Four-day training in Focusing for national CRIPDES staff; starting of Focusing partnerships, coaching every two weeks.

Six-class introductory Focusing training for CRIPDES San Vicente staff, schedule to be determined. At the same time, visits and classes in Las Anonas would be beginning.

February-March: Focusing partnerships will be formed with CRIPDES San Vicente staff and in Las Anonas. Coaching sessions will be set up twice a week in Las Anonas for the next two months, and once a week for CRIPDES staff. Meanwhile, other classes for those who are participating in leadership training can begin.

End of March: Project will be evaluated by the community and CRIPDES staff.

April: Those in Las Anonas who wish to can be trained in teaching Focusing and Listening twice a week for four weeks. Coaching sessions and Changes groups will be formed for those in leadership training. Thinking at the Edge workshops will take place for CRIPDES staff and anyone else who has had Focusing training.

May: Focusing trainers will accompany newly trained teachers as they teach. On-going coaching for partnerships in San Vicente and other communities will take place. Individual Thinking at the Edge projects can be followed up.

End of May: Evaluation of the project as a whole.

Certified Focusing Trainer Beatrice Blake will be present for the full five months.
At different times, other Spanish-speaking Focusing trainers will join Beatrice, including Dr Lyly Rojas, a psychologist who has extensive experience in teaching Focusing to women that have been victims of war, and Dr. Susana Diaz, who has been teaching Focusing to women in the poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires for many years. Funding must also go to a CRIPDES liaison and project coordinator.


Budget item

US $

Salary for Beatrice Blake: $1000/month


Salary for partner trainers: $1000/month:


Salary for project coordinator from CRIPDES staff, $1000/month:


High speed internet and phone  $400
Transportation within El Salvador $500
General operating support from The Focusing institute $2000
Project Consultant (15 hours ) $3000
Airfare from US, Europe or South America for trainers: $3500
Art supplies $200
Refreshments for focusing classes  $400



Last Modified: 01 February 2007