October 14th, 2022
Rose Sposito is a Teacher and Facilitator of the a transformational body-based process that draws on the profound methods of Embodied Meditation and Inner-Relationship Focusing. Together they provide the tools to transform emotional challenges into emotional freedom. Rose has a private online one-on-one practice and teaches online group programs. She is a graduate and adjunct faculty teacher at Naropa University and holds a degree in Contemplative Psychology, National Licensure in Five-Element Medicine, Certification with Inner-Relationship Focusing, and a Coaching and Leadership Certification for Women. Rose is a longtime Buddhist practitoner and became a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1975. She teaches four Focusing levels to spiritual and psychotherapy practitioners and to the general public.
A Short History of Focusing:
- Developed by Eugene Gendlin (1926-2017) who was a younger contemporary of Karl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach (and client-centered approach) in psychology.
- Gendlin noticed that when he spoke to people about their issues, the way of using words and framing questions could invite deeper reflection. He would present questions such as: “How are you experiencing the whole of this right now?”
- Focusing is about using language as an invitation to go to a deeper place.
- Creating a safe and trustful environment is a central point. Clients must feel welcomed and safe with us. [Watts note: A similar approach has been developed by Engaged Buddhists using the Four Noble Truths in which the 1st Noble Truth is used as the initial pathway to investigate dukkha. Within group contexts, creating a safe space, such as a sangha of fellow sufferers, is essential]
Meditation and Focusing are two separate modalities:
- Meditation creates the ground and context for us to be able to settle the mind and body. It gives us the opportunity to come into non-distracted presence.
- However, this doesn’t mean we are necessarily going into the contents of our experience. The one thing Rose felt was missing from her meditation practice was that she was still carrying with her old hangups and background pain. She too struggled with suicidal ideation and dark spaces when she was younger. Labeling thoughts and emotions as in classic Buddhist meditation were possible but she was not instructed on how to go deeper with them. A such, the same issues kept coming up. She figured that meditation would clear these things up naturally, but psychotherapy work began to help as well.
- Focusing allowed her to be more present with these deeply painful parts, while meditation practice allowed her to cultivate loving kindness (metta) and the capacity to be with herself in a way that was spacious, that is, to see that the thoughts weren’t so solid after all. Resting in the nature of mind and awareness helped her to see the instability of her storylines. With the dharma as a support she could go deeper into the focusing process.
Focusing is about:
- being with whatever arises so that we can discover ways to be compassionate observers of our experiencing.
- Gendlin, “If you really want to smell the soup, don’t stick your head into it”. This means, don’t merge with the pain fully but develop perspective. Whatever arises, however painful, we can be with it without being it. Be with the anger, fear, depression in a loving way. Many things that begin to arise in our experience come about in our younger, precognitive and preverbal years. We experienced them but didn’t have the resources to cope with them.
- These unresolved or undigested events then become “parts” (using an Internal Family Systems term) that we carry with us. Parts occur because somewhere in our timeline something was interrupted (jolted). This is referred to as a stopped process. It then solidifies into a “part”. Parts only have a partial view of the totality. These parts like to hide, especially if someone grew up in a space with a lot of hostility.
- Focusing brings a loving compassionate awareness to those parts, being with them in a way that gives them empathy, and deeply listening to what they want to share with us. Deep listening and empathetic presence are two powerful tools that we use in the focusing process. Focusing is a body-based process that utilizes our awareness to be with what is distressing us at a deeper level. When the parts feel held, we become our own healing environment. We can be in relationship with our parts without them feeling alone. Isolation brings many old issues up because there are less distractions. Focusing allows us to become the loving curious environment where whatever didn’t feel safe to emerge before, can now emerge in safety.
- In Focusing anything can appear, and this is called the “felt sense”. If we are carrying specific issues or events that need our awareness, we first begin to sense the feeling. This feeling can be murky and unclear. Her clients will often describe their feeling in abstract terms or in somatic terms. Felt sense is like a compass that wisely navigates our experience to show us something about the issue at hand. In essence we are wisdom holders because these parts inherently have the wisdom to find their way back into the whole of us again.They want nothing more than to be reintegrated. We make meaning of our relationships through the lens of experience, this can be internalized through specific feelings that occur in one context but are carried into other contexts (for example, sexual trauma). Turning our gaze to the parts that are hurt is the crux of Focusing in which one says to oneself: “I am here now with you [parts]”.
Guided Focusing Session with Rose (click for video)
Question & Answer
Jon: I feel very grateful for your presentation. So much of what you have explained I feel I have been able to learn through my Buddhist teachers. It seems some Buddhists are attracted to Focusing because of what they felt has been left out of their Buddhist training. I feel very lucky that I haven’t experienced this lack in my own training. In this way, it’s inspiring to hear the dharma expressed in a different way through Focusing that may be more compatible with Western minds and people from non-Buddhist traditions.
Rev: Okano: Could focusing help us understand the areas where Buddhist meditation isn’t covering? Strictly speaking, high level Buddhist meditators aren’t concerned about the “contents” of meditation, but for us regular people, we need some access to this content to balance ourselves.
Rose: This is all about the human experience and listening to what another human being is going through. One of the greatest afflictions of this day and age is self-hatred, especially here in the West. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said if you understood anything about Buddhism, it is about kindness. The most important thing that we can give to these parts is kindness. Letting them know that we are here to receive deeply what they have to share with us. We need them to feel safe enough so that they can feel invited back into wholeness. Once they begin to live through us, they live through us at the age at which we are now. If we don’t spend time with parts, then we are living a partial life. So I invite you to go down there and meet those parts at the place where they are. Each of us has the answers within us.
Ven. Zinai: I would like to ask about the ambiguity at the beginning of the “felt sense”. At this time, the verbal mind cannot catch what is happening in the body. I think sometimes the client needs to take the risk of going inside to feel the sense. So how do you bring the client, and even oneself, to be willing to stay with the “felt sense”?
Rose: Staying with the ambiguity is one of the most profound things that we can support our clients to do. I give permission to them to stay in the open space to allow for something to emerge. So much of the Focusing process is about not knowing. We always want to default back to what we think we already know, but this process is about “what wants to emerge as a fresh awareness that wasn’t there before”. In this way, we can act as a guide for our client and to say to them that it is okay.
Ven. Zinai: I see thatthe openness to the unknown is vital to the process. How do you present the idea of “parts” to your clients?
Rose: I don’t really present the idea of “parts” to them. Generally, they tend to express it naturally. I ask, “How are you feeling that? Where are you noticing that right now?” Clients may see an image or point to a part of their body. Using the term “parts” helps us maintain spaciousness, which is where meditation is so helpful. When we go towards that space that feels hurt, we can use compassionate awareness and language. In this way, we can get in touch with our inner critic, whichInternal Family Systems called the protector, and form a positive relationship with it rather than feeling abused by it.The question arises ofhow can we become bigger than the parts that we are carrying around with us. We answer by giving the opportunity to make friends among these parts also showing them how they can be friends with themselves. They have wisdom and creativity.
Dexter: The difference between meditation and Focusing seems to be intentionality, in that Focusing is more of a guided intention towards these areas of brokenness in a relational way. In meditation, it seems we are more doing this in a detached way.
Rose: Yes, that’s true but we extend such loving kindness in our meditation practice too. One of my Tibetan teachers said that to even our most horrific monsters, we “give it a gentle handshake. If a monster comes to the door, give it a cup of tea. Then go back to your meditation practice.” One of the keys is settling down the environment. “Parts” want nothing more than to feel welcomed, safe, and worthy because they often carry shame. In this way, whatever arises, it is about being the bigger compassionate space.
Jon: What about the “parts” that are there but have become invisible?
Rose: There is a reason they have become invisible. Much of the time it is about safety. In Focusing process, the more we become aware and attuned to the whole environment, we may feel something that something is there but seems to be invisible. These things or parts can be manifest outside you or invisible inside. Going into my own Focusing sessions, if I identify with a highly critical part, then the invisible parts won’t feel comfortable to come out.Like a wild animal in the forest, parts can be startled and run away. We hold a soft open space and invite them to return in the way that it wishes. We allow it to be in its own relationship with us. If we spend time with ourselves as such, these invisible aspects might appear as a rock or wall. We disappear ourselves also by hiding out and becoming invisible. This can be a safe place to be. Something in us makes us do that. Being directly in touch with a part of us can be overwhelming. Meditation and Focusing allows us to look from a place of gentleness and kindness. Eugene Gendlin said, “The felt sense is a physical experience, not mental or emotional. A felt sense can form from an emotional experience or be triggered by a though or a story. But a felt sense is a bodily awareness of a situation, a person, or an event. It is an internal event that encompasses everything you feel and know at a given time. It is a whole bodily felt experience of something implicitly informing us into a new awareness and direction with moving forward. The felt sense is our ally. It is trying to show us something with images, sensations, a few words, or even a gesture that indicates a forward movement.
Rev. Okano: They say that in Focusing you can experience these Aha! moments. I have had such experiences before. For example, I was once in bad physical pain and I concentrated on the pain and stayed with it for a while. In the end, the pain revealed what it is, but it doesn’t reveal itself easily. The source is very deep. Sometimes I expect such a breakthrough and the “light” felt sense isn’t as Aha! As I hoped for since I tend to search for the big moments.
Rose: What you are describing is the part of us that wants and expects something to be a certain way. However, we need to open to the freshness of what can be. We are carrying things from lifetimes. Like raising a child, we need to allow the felt sense to mature as it needs, otherwise we may often miss the subtleties.
Rev. Okano: By expecting focusing to be a certain way, the mind is already creating something.
Rose: When the mind creates something, it isn’t being fully open. Sometimes we need to make ourselves small to feel what is there. Thisallows the unknown and deeper kind of wisdom to come through.
Gustav: Just now, Iwas working with a patient who was very angry as he was facing his last hours of life. It was quite disturbing but your guided Focusing session has helped to refresh me a bit. Anyway, I am about dreams and how they might be related to Focusing. I also had the image that Focusing is helping the two halves of my brain come together. Finally, my question is how far to go with Focusing andwhen to stop? Are there times when things can get to be too much?
Rose: I think we need to respect that impulse or that part that says, “I don’t want to go any further with this.” We are not here to act as investigators or interrogators.We are here with respect and gentleness and to meet the part where it is. The experience of a part disappearing can mean that it doesn’t want to go any further, and our response should be, “You can be this way as long as you need to be”.
Jon: When I teach meditation, I always start with a period of shamatha or calming practice which involves body scan and creating the space to allow whatever needs to come up, so that we then can bear witness to it. I tell students that a little bit of pain is good, but too much pain will just cause injury, so they should either move physically to a new position, return to body scan which can quiet painful thought processes or emotions, or simply end the session and find refreshment somewhere else.
Gustav: In this kind of process, I am wondering thenwhen to change from listening and allowing ourselves to go whatever way and the application of some kind of discipline?For me,meditation has always been about an open allowance within the container of discipline.
Rose: It goes back to resourcing and the ways in which we can nourish ourselves.How can you be accommodating and resourceful in these times?
Jon: I think you’re right Gustav. The discipline and the openness actually are present at the same time. Discipline is always present in the maintaining of posture and the application of mindfulness, but I think we can eventually find those disciplines make us more open to what arises and more accommodating. The two feed on each other and create something increasingly dynamic. I think creating a safe space as Rose emphasizes is actually an act of discipline.
Elaine: What is the physical aspect of the felt sense?I am rather tall, especially for an Asian, and often much taller than most that I knew while growing up. So I developed a felt sense of wanting to be smaller.One reason I came back to live in my hometown of Philadelphia is to be more deeply in my body and surrounded by the diversity of this city.I find different things emergewhen I am in different places.
Rev. Okano: I lived outside Japan for 20 years in the UK and Vermont, and for quite a long time I lived as a minority amongst Caucasians. I always felt asense that “You aren’t the same.” I became tired of this so moved toHong Kong, where although I didn’t understand the language but I felt safer because I was blending in.
Elaine: Yes, this is the boundary that I am exploring.
Jon: It’s kind of funny because on the contrary to you two, I didn’t feel comfortable among my own WASP people growing up in Baltimore. I always felt I had to compete and be judged hanging out with such white people. So I hung out with my black friends much more from elementary school all through high school. That’s why I think I also feel more at home in Asia.
Rose: Exploring the boundaries of who we think we are and of where we feel safe is important. How we are identifying ourselves? How can we expand our boundaries out to include other people as well? This can extend all the way into our ancestral history. We are carrying the stories that have been told to us about our family and these condition how we hold our identity and what makes us feel safe or unsafe.
Elaine: Different situations give us different resources. Boulder and Vermont are very monocultural in many ways, but they both have unique resources like strong Buddhist communities. In those places, I notice how my body reacts to that.
Rose: Parts of us emerge may emerge at any one time, so to be present to how we are showing up is the most important thing. It is all about how we are growing into our next implicit steps and going forward as human beings. What allows us to raise our gaze to meet our edges?Curiosity is one of the greatest gifts we have as human beings. Parts don’t want to stay stuck, but will do so into future rebirths.
Rev. Okano: You mentioned at the beginning how self-criticism and self-hatred are major stumbling blocks especially in the U.S.Many young people have this problem.How do you start a Focusing session with people who struggle to find stability?
Rose: First of all, I listen. You let the client speak first about what the issue is. You create an environment of safety and that they will only take on what they want to. You don’t want them leaving your office feeling worse about themselves.You want them to feel resourced when they leave, that they gained or learned something. It’s a slow process that you take someone through.
Ven. Zinai: Personally, I appreciate your guidance and feels well resourced from this session!