When I describe to others who are unfamiliar with Focusing, what it is, I often get the comment or question if Focusing isn’t just the same as Mindfulness. In this little piece I would like to try to outline some of the differences and similarities between Focusing and Mindfulness.
To start with, I would like to mention that I have some Focusing colleagues who view Focusing as a kind of a Mindfulness practice, or a practice of becoming Mindful. Others would say that you need to be Mindful to be able to do Focusing. I would say, myself, that I do become Mindful from doing Focusing, so why isn’t Focusing ‘the same as’ Mindfulness?
Being aware that there are many different practices of and approaches to both Mindfulness (meditation) and Focusing, I will try to outline some differences as well as similarities, as I see them at this point in time.
1. Differences (in no particular order)
1.1. What they try to achieve
Said in a rudimentary way, Mindfulness is often trying to achieve peace, and calm through awareness, and in that way one might say that it has a goal of coming to a particular ‘state of mind’; as ‘the observer’ of thoughts feelings and reactions. It can be said to want to achieve a stillness of the ‘mind’ and being present in the ‘now’.
In Focusing, the goal is to give inner space to what is going on in the ‘body’, so that what is there can be accompanied in the unfolding of its own, innate change process. Hence, one thing we could say that Focusing is trying to achieve (if anything) is to be with an allow the change that wants to and tries to happen. This can be done by for instance ‘asking a question inside, and waiting for a kind of an answer’.
On the other hand, I would like to call on one of my first Focusing teachers’ words here: “In Focusing, there is all the time in the world for nothing to happen”. From that point of view, one might also say that Focusing opens up a space where change can happen if it wants to.
Another thing Focusing looks to achieve is the “aha-moment. This is connected to getting in touch with your inner knowing about your situation – this ‘more’ that we ‘know’, sometimes called ‘the wisdom of the body’. This is called Felt Sense, and is a quite specific kind of human bodily experiencing.
1.2. Felt Sense – a feature of Focusing – and ‘the body’
Hence, one big difference is the Felt Sense, (coined by Eugene Gendlin, founder of Focusing) which is central to Focusing (the practice is also sometimes called Felt Sensing). Having a Felt Sense form of the whole of a situation, might be said to be a goal of Focusing. This might be connected to what Gendlin once said: “The way most people I’ve spoken with practice mindfulness is that they sit upstairs and everything comes up the stairs and they say, Oh, he’s angry, Oh, he is this,and Oh, he is that. They just sit upstairs and look at it all. I say, No! Go downstairs! But of course, not back into the feelings, rather the body feel of the whole thing. Then you have a felt sense, and that is how you can truly detach. Just being frozen upstairs is a kind of strong discipline, but it doesn’t give you the body easing, the body shift. If you are just the observer, you don’t change» (Heuman 2011 – Focusing, in The Tricycle). This is connected to the view of the ‘body’ as a place where our knowing of situations can ‘come’.
In Focusing the Body is seen as a knowing organism, which means that you can tap into your own knowing by attending, with active, open curiosity, to your lower body, such as your chest, stomach, and belly. In Focusing you wait for ‘something’ to arise ‘in there’, that can give you a ‘more’ about whatever situation you are in. For more about the Felt Sense, check this post out.
1.3. Modes of practice – alone vs. partnership
Another big difference is that Focusing is largely based on ‘speaking’ in a peer partnership, where there is a Focuser and a Listener (Felt Senser and a With-Senser), whereas Mindfulness is largely based on silence, either alone, or in a group of people.
Hence, we can say that Mindfulness is mainly about your relationship with yourself, whereas Focusing is both about your relationship with yourself, with that which arises, and in addition, it is practiced in relation to another human being.
The relationship in which Focusing happens, the Focusing Partnership, is often perceived as a space in which you can ‘be yourself’ with the other person, and you can explore topics of your life, out loud or with a lot of silence, without the other person being intrusive, giving advice, or telling their own story. This kind of ‘space’ is something many Focusers deeply value as liberating and validating.
The space of calm, awareness and observing that comes from cultivating Mindfulness, is often perceived as relieving, validating and liberating as well.
1.4. Inside/outside, engaging/disengaging
In the sense that Mindfulness can be said to be a practice of directing your awareness, it can both be about becoming aware of what is going on around you (outside of you), such as taking in the air, a sunset etc., or becoming aware of the social situation you are in right now, as well as becoming aware of thoughts, feelings, reactions (inside of you) etc. And to some extent, Mindfulness trains you to ‘disengage’ with this, in the sense of being the observer, to ‘just’ be aware of, without judging, engaging etc. Another way to say it is that the directing of your awareness as such is the point of Mindfulness.
In the sense that Focusing can be said to be a practice of directing your awareness, we can say that Focusing also is a ‘being with’ what happens ‘inside of you’. This entails saying ‘hello’ to what arises inside, and ‘sitting with it’, rather than letting it go, to get to know it from its point of view, for example. In that sense Focusing is about engaging with and relating to, also without judgement, rather than disengaging from thoughts, feelings, reactions etc. happening inside you. We can say that the directing of your awareness, rather than being a goal in itself, is to bring something into Focus.
2. Similarities (in no particular order)
There are, of course, similarities between Mindfulness and Focusing, and at the same time, the approaches or ways in which those are practiced may as well be what clarifies the differences.
In some way, based on what I wrote earlier in this piece, we might say that these two practices have Mindfulness, in a rudimentary way, in common. By this, I mean that if being Mindful can be described as becoming aware of and being able to direct your awareness, then that is a common feature of Focusing and Mindfulness. The difference being that in Mindfulness, that is the main goal, in the sense that you let what happens in your ‘mind’ drift past, and come back to the state of being aware whenever you ‘get caught’ by thinking or feeling, or other content. In Focusing the becoming aware of and directing of your awareness can be said to be a vehicle to let what needs your attention now, come into focus.
2.1. Non-judgemental attitude
Both practices are non-judgemental in their becoming aware: Mindfulness through ‘letting things be’ and Focusing through welcoming and relating to what arises.
Along with the non-judgemental attitude, acceptance is maybe something that they have in common. On the other hand, Gendlin once said he thinks acceptance is too passive, and that Focusing does more than accept, it acknowledges (which Mindfulness also does), but then also makes space for what is there to change, which is more of an active relating to.
We might say that in Mindfulness there is acceptance through letting things be as they are, whereas in Focusing, acknowledgement happens while relating in such a way that change can occur.
Self-compassion is maybe one of the similarities between these two practices, at least in the Mindful Self-Compassion traditions of Mindfulness, but they are also different. I might claim that the self-compassion cultivated in Mindfulness is based on the distance from the ‘content’ of your mind, whereas in Focusing it comes from relating to it.
2.2. Compassion with others
One might also say that both practices can result in becoming more compassionate toward others, as you become more compassionate with yourself. In Mindfulness through a knowing that the person isn’t their content, maybe, and in Focusing through discovering that there are always good intentions and constructiveness, even in so-called ‘bad’ feelings and thoughts and inner critics.
2.3. Modes of practice – distance and observing
One might also say that distance and observing, or becoming aware of, is a common feature of Focusing and Mindfulness, but they are utilised in different ways
Mindfulness is cultivating a distance from which you can become aware of, ‘observe’ and ‘let go of’ what goes on inside. One might say that you are informed about and by the ‘distance of being aware’, so that you don’t need to ‘become’ your feelings, thoughts and responses to the world. In Mindfulness, leaving things as they are and not ‘going into them’ is a goal.
Focusing is cultivating a distance from which you can become aware of, and then relate to and ‘learn directly from’ what goes on inside. One might say that you are informed about and by your feelings, thoughts and responses to the world. In Focusing you do not merely observe but become aware of so that you can relate to and get to know. The distance is a means to come into deeper and more meaningful contact with what happens.