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On Focusing and Buddhism

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by Barbara Chutroo
April 2003


Focusing, a deep, interactive technique for personal growth that draws upon the wisdom of the body, was developed by Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. It has frequently been referred to as a spiritual practice and compared to Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. While focusing doesn't aspire to be a religious teaching, it guides practitioners to a deeper level of knowing, an exploration of life and life's meaning, and an understanding of their lives and the larger context within which their lives unfold. Focusing is guided by an implicit philosophy that closely parallels elements of Buddhism.

A common technique of vipassana meditation is "noting" which is used to develop mindfulness. "Mindfulness", "emptiness" and "not self" are at the heart of Buddhist teachings and the meditation experience. The idea of "rightness" is central to the Fourth Noble Truth: the Eightfold Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. These practices and concepts have parallels in the focusing steps of clearing a space, finding a felt sense, finding a handle (linking that sense to meaning), experiencing the resonance of felt sense and meaning, and feeling a bodily shift. Focusing is primarily thought of as a technique, as is meditation, but unlike meditation, it is most effective when done in a partnership. Although It digresses from Buddhism in significant ways, these digressions also point to ways in which it might nourish and support Buddhist practice.

"Not Self" and "Clearing a Space"

The first instruction to the focuser is to "clear a space". As the focuser sorts through the static within her body/mind she, one by one, puts each issue aside. As each issue is acknowledged the focuser deliberately and kindly asks "What else is there?" and waits for something to emerge. Gradually a sense of quiet spaciousness develops that encompasses all the different mind issues but is larger than any of them.

The meditator has a corresponding instruction. "Arriving", the first level of meditation practice is described by Jack Kornfield as "a clearing or emptying of the mind and heart so that we can listen in a deep and new way" (p. 46). As the mind empties, the sitter becomes less identified with all the chatter that normally fills the mind. She is encouraged to see that she is other than the various identities she commonly associates herself with. The "I" changes from moment to moment and the "self" cannot be located anywhere. This is the beginning understanding of the Buddha's teachings of "not self": that the self is cannot be found in any of those passing phenomena we commonly identify with and cling to.

This understanding, that the "self" cannot be found or located, is fundamental to Buddhism. Focusing likewise presumes that none of what we normally identify with is, in fact, who or what we are. Clearing a space is a step by step strategy for peeling away what we identify as the self. The focuser is asked to quiet herself down and then ask, not her mind but her whole sense of being, how her life is going or "what (if anything) is keeping her from feeling good right now". Each problem or difficulty that arises in response to this question is then acknowledged as a part of the whole situation and respectfully placed to the side. Even the positive things can be set aside. Finally the "background feeling" that is always there is set aside as well. "By this means", says Gendlin, "you can sometimes come to an opening out, a sense of a vast space....Under all the packages each of us carries, a different self can be discovered. You are not any of the things you have set aside. You are no content at all!" ( p. 79),


Buddhism, as it has been taught, is a very methodical practice and is characterized by organized groupings and categorizations of human experience. Focusing, is nowhere near so methodically developed. In the practice of "noting" the Buddhist meditator is instructed to observe and distinguish among the actions of the various senses, of which there are six, these being the five senses we commonly identify and the mind itself, as it is manifest through thought processes or the syntactical, cultural context within which we experience life. This latter is commonly referred to in Buddhism as "mind objects". In this way, one cultivates awareness or mindfulness. In applying the technique, there is emphasis on a differentiation among the distinct sense experiences of sight, sounds, tastes, smells, physical sensations and mental events. For example, the meditator notes "seeing" as awareness of blue sky fills the visual realm; "hearing" with the song of the birds and the squeal of the sirens; "sensation" as a fly walks along an arm; "tiredness" as energy flags; "despair" as thoughts of failure and hopelessness set in.

In working with pain, the practitioner might be instructed to deconstruct the experience to its elements of "burning", "aching", "pressure". In being with these physical sensations, with their pure, immediate, value free nature, it is hoped that the meditator develops detachment, that she "clears a space" within which she can observe these phenomena not as her "self" but simply as phenomena. The emotional responses which overlay the pain: the fear, anger, hopelessness, etc., diminish as they are seen as value laden movements of mind: the sixth sense. Instead of "I am hungry", "I am in pain", "I am sad" she sees that "hunger", "pain", "sadness" occur but do not define us. This clear observation of phenomena as it unfolds in the practitioner is essential. The Buddhist meditator will bring attention and concentration to this understanding for years so at to deepen the ability to observe clearly and with benign, compassionate detachment the many precise components of this human life.

There is a process of noting in focusing ("finding a handle" and "resonating") but it takes on a precision that is unique to focusing which is in itself both liberating and transformative. It is a complex activity that attends to the subtle interplay between formlessness and form; to the arising of thoughts and emotions and to that from which they arise. The focuser tunes in to a vague, inchoate sensation that seems to hold "something" within it. Through the attempts to discover a name that "fits" the "something" (finding a handle") and with the patient attention of the listener, the inchoate takes on symbolic identification by means of whatever syntax (of language and culture) the focuser utilizes. The accuracy of the name is signaled to the focuser by means of "resonating" or asking the felt sense about the rightness of that symbolic identification. When the "handle" "fits", the felt sense signals this rightness by a release or "felt shift" which is felt in the body. Having been identified, that particular experience moves on of its own accord. The felt sense then signals something new and the process begins again.

It is the precision with which the "handle" (word or image) identifies that which is waiting to emerge that allow the process to continue. This is especially valuable in working with "stuckness" which can be gently questioned and accompanied until whatever unknown energetic impulse underneath it begins to reveal itself. The focuser sits with whatever is present but at the same time goes to that place from which it emerged to see what, if anything, is waiting in line next to be expressed. The noting is, thus, woven into the wholeness of each moment of experience. It is not guided by a systemic division of the senses and deconstruction of the experience. It is a noting of emergence, in itself a creative act.


In Vipassana meditation, noting is practiced in order to cultivate mindfulness or an awareness of the arising and passing away of experience. Mindfulness is one of the Buddha's seven factors of enlightenment. It is not related to the "mind" sense listed above as one of the six organs or "doors of experience" these being the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and "mind objects", but is rather a quality of gentle observation of, and detachment from, all of those experiences we generally think of as forming our "selves". "Mindfulness means seeing how things are, directly and immediately seeing for oneself what is present and true", it is "a clear awareness of what is happening in each moment" (p.62 , Kornfield).

In his organized way, the Buddha defined four foundations of mindfulness: mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of the mind, and mindfulness of "dhamma as dhamma". This last category of "dhamma as dhamma" is the most all encompassing. Dhamma is translated in two ways: with a capital D, it is the Buddha's teachings; with a small d, it can be translated as "all mind objects", "all things and states conditioned or unconditioned" or "all arising and passing phenomena". Gloria Ambrosia brings these two definitions together. She explains mindfulness of "dhamma as dhamma" as "mindfulness of Truth in the phenomena of experience" (p. 13). To engage this fourth foundation of mindfulness is to bring awareness and an investigative reflection to the arising and transforming of all phenomena; to the endless play of evolving forms. It is a humble and grateful being present with whatever is arising. Moreover, it includes "a certain quality of intellectual intuition, [which] is not an obstacle to mindfulness, but its natural consummation" (Olendzki, p.17). It is a contemplative exercise: "to direct the observing power of the mind in order to see for ourselves what the Buddha taught" (Ambrosia, p. 13).

The process of focusing is akin to awakening and engaging this fourth foundation of mindfulness. Although not couched in such an all encompassing philosophical framework it nonetheless directs attention and awareness to the whole complex experience of being and to seeing the truth of that experiencing as it becomes manifest in the world. However, unlike in most meditation practices, the focuser is not directed to note the arising and passing away of a given experience. Instead, she deliberately accompanies her felt experience and creates a space which invites the emergence of something new. When a newness comes that feel right and true, it carries with it an intrinsic a quality of insight.

The Buddhist syntax highlights the fact of impermanence: the perpetual arising and passing away of phenomena. Within this impermanence, transformation is implied but not emphasized. Focusing on the other hand highlights the transformation of phenomena, the constant evolving of form. Impermanence is implied but is not emphasized. The felt shift of focusing is innately pleasure; the focuser gently invites a newness of ripening and growth, however that manifests.

It surreptitiously undermines attachment and the anxiety associated with loss because the focuser always lets go into a place where the body signals wellness. The subtle emphasis resulting form the commonly used language of Buddhism (the language of impermanence) has tended to invite a lack of full engagement with the world. An tendency many Buddhists have had to strive against resulting as one example, in the school of Tantric Buddhism. In focusing's engagement of the process of transformation within the ordinary human dynamic, it might be more akin to this school which argues that enlightenment is to be found in a full immersion in life's experience rather than in studied contemplation. It advocates for a detached but simultaneously full immersion in the richness, drama and complexity of life (dhamma with a small 'd').

The "resonance" of focusing is a dance between the felt awareness, as signaled by the body, and cognition or form. From a vague inchoate sense something new emerges in a shape determined by the individual's cultural framework. It may be a new understanding of an individual's life story or a new way of being in relationship to another or to oneself. An expansive awareness is the context within which focusing unfolds but it invites interest in the emergence into syntactical context. The felt process can be deliberately used to facilitate the transformation from inchoate into the phenomena of symbolic syntax. This form may be words, an artistic medium like art or music, mathematical concepts, or any other aspect of cultural organization. Every cultural medium, all "mind objects" can be the means by which new ideas, new experiences and new insights arise even as they are the means through which to see the truth of the Buddha's teachings. Although it may be implied, this process is not explicitly described (to the best of my knowledge) within the Buddhist system.

Likewise, the felt sense, which is key to focusing. is not identified in Buddhism. It is not one of the six senses noted above nor one of the five parallel senses of western conceptualization. Nor is it equivalent to mindfulness. Mary Hendricks describes it as "having within it the ground that gives rise to the emotion [or thought] not just the emotion" (p. 3). It holds that which the focuser is aware of and that which has not yet come into being. It's a subtle experience of something definitely felt, yet, vague, blurry and without sharp parameters. It's close to the Western concept of a "sixth sense" that suggests a felt awareness of something intuited, but not directly reachable, and asks for a quiet attention in order for that something to be known.

Focusing contends that there is a bodily response connected to the felt sense as the emergent experience becomes manifest. The focuser may patiently explore and reject numerous emergent possibilities if there is no, or an inadequate, bodily response. Unlike the felt sense, the felt shift which occurs upon a successful focusing movement is immediate and clear and contains a sense of relief and carrying forward. An example is the felt sense which signals a realization of remorse and the relief that comes with the corresponding knowledge and act of contrition. With an experience of true contrition, there is a bodily sense of relief: a felt shift, a sense of weight being lifted.

Although this particular way of paying attention to the self emerging into form is not an explicit focus of Buddhism, in his teachings, the Buddha often points to the fact of the origination and dissolution of experience and the "knowing" of how experience and phenomena arise and pass away. "The Bikkhu [monk]...."knows" how the non-arisen [phenomena] arises; he "knows" how the arisen [phenomena] disappears" (p. 115, What the Buddha Taught") It does not say how this knowledge is experienced but we can safely presume that what is translated as "knowing" is not the intellectual accumulation of scientific fact we equate with "knowing" in the West. Rather, it something more deeply felt: a visceral knowledge. Of course, the knowledge pointed to by the Buddha is tremendously deep and wide. It includes the arising and passing away of all phenomena: all beings and sentient creatures, all syntaxes and symbolic representations, every material element of our material existence as well as levels of awareness and states of being that are far beyond the ordinary. But, keeping within the confines of daily human experience, focusing guides the practitioner to an experiential "knowing" of her evolving self, of the arising, transforming, and passing away of the many steps of the complex cultural dance of beingness we engage in day to day.

Focusing and the "Right Action"

The fourth of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha's teaching is the Eightfold path: the path for the cessation of suffering. It is generally translated as "right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration". Although some of these "rightnesses" can be spelled out in a reasonably cut and dry fashion as in "do not slander", "do not kill", "do not cause harm", "do not work in an arms factory", there are those times in daily life when rules don't fit a situation and an individual is left to somehow find a "rightness" appropriate for their immediate dilemma. The case of Jarvis Masters, a man who has come to Buddhism while serving a life sentence in prison, boldly illustrates this dilemma. He is daily challenged anew to find a "right" action, a "right" word, a "right" effort in one of the morally harshest environments a person can find themselves. "Rightness" cannot always be codified or guaranteed by a rote following of rules. When Buddhism is alive, rightness is an ongoing questioning and assessment of the immediate truth of the moment. It is a fresh response that bypasses the emotional habits and actions a person is accustomed to. How do we know what is "right"?

Some people find rightness by what they call an inner voice, the still quiet voice within. Generally, however, it is not experienced as a voice in the ear or a thought in the mind but as a sense within the body. It is something that somehow signals through the body the rightness of a given action. The quieting concentration of meditation, like the clearing a space of focusing, sweeps away the usual mind/body activities that stand in the way of this still quiet voice, which is the felt sense in focusing, in order to allow it to be experienced. Mary Hendricks refers to a "pausing" in focusing, of the usual behavior and feeling, a pausing of "the cultural story of one's life". This pausing is that part of the process that opens a space for a new understanding, a new action, a new idea to take form. It slows the formation of habitual emotional reactions and invites a larger view so that something new can emerge which is not a continuation of old patterns.

The felt sense, or the still small voice, comes into this space of pausing. In receiving a spacious attention, it assists to identify and guide the manner or form of a new emerging possibility and the body signals its "rightness" by a visceral sense of relief or letting go. In this way, the focuser's own being cues her in to the balance she needs to ride the waves of her life's experiences. It tells her that what is being born and dying in that moment is the true and right course of her life. For each of us, our continuously emerging, unique, expression of being hungers to come into form. Focusing is a way to pay attention to, and nurse, that process. It is a tool that assists life's metamorphasizing in order to follow the thread of truth, or of the dhamma unfolding; a framework through which to find the path to "rightness" in one's life, even in prison. Perhaps everyone's true being, hungering for expression and birth, is continuously guided by an inner sense to take form exactly as it should. The practice of focusing, and the teachings of Buddhism, bring a mindful facilitation of this process. Focusing as with Buddhist meditation and study, is a way to discover, on the deep level of inner experiencing, what is right.


Ultimately, Buddhism is about becoming awake, awake to the vast depth and breadth of all levels of existence: material reality, inner reality and of absolute reality which brings a transcendent non-ordinary awareness. Focusing does not have such grandiose ambitions. But focusing, as with meditation, is a technique that invites the practitioner to explore a truer level of her being. Through the practice, our bodies, our emotions, our cognition, and our felt sense become the means by which to learn the intimate truth of our particular lives as well as to nurture our unfolding potential. By guiding an unfolding process of growth, non-attachment and right action in the activities of daily life, focusing helps to actualize the Buddha's teachings. For the Western mind, that is often undeveloped in so many areas, the integration of focusing into Buddhist practice has the potential to unlock stuck patterns and allow insight to emerge.


Ambrosia, Gloria Taraniya, 2002. The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, Insight Journal, Fall, 2002, pp 13-17

Gendlin, Eugene 1978, Focusing, New York, Bantam Books, Random House.

Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, 1987, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, the Path of Insight Meditation, Boston, Shambala Publications

Hendricks, Mary, "A Felt sense is not an emotion: it is a new human development", unpublished

Masters, Jarvis, Finding Freedom, Writings From Death Row, Padma Publishing

Olendzki, Andrew, 2002. The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, Insight Journal, Fall, 2002, pp 13-17

Sri Rahula, Walpola, 1967, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd edition, London, The Gordon Fraser Gallery, Ltd.