Few things make me as happy as discovering a way of seeing the world that illuminates both large political events and my own inner voices. I’m happy right now, because I’m ready to add another name to my list of uncolonized minds—the thinkers who have most inspired me through their willingess to engage reality, interrogate their own assumptions, and come up with fresh ways of seeing and naming experience. Welcome Eugene Gendlin to the excellent company of Jane Jacobs, Paulo Freire, Paul Goodman and my other intellectual heroes.
Gendlin is a philosopher who has focused a good deal of his work on psychology. You can get a wonderful sense of his work from listening to the audio of a talk in 2006. He demonstrates there what he means by “thinking at the edge,” which is a way of bringing to awareness the process whereby we actually come to understanding, rather than settling for the usual assertions of conventional meaning that never really capture it.
In the talk, Gendlin says that he doesn’t
…usually use the words “trust” or “truth,” because for me, the big words have so many different meanings that what I do when somebody uses…..I love the big words, too, but when someone uses them, then I always want to know, “Just here in this spot, in this sentence, at this juncture, what does this word mean, or do for you? If this word could mean just exactly what you mean by it… here… what would it mean?” And I ask very gently, “What would it mean?” I don’t say “Define your term.” Because if I ask it very gently, then typically, out come three or four very poetic, metaphorical, rich, fresh sentences, and those are very valuable.
I was thinking of Gendlin’s approach yesterday, when I got into a little back-and-forth on Facebook with someone who responded to the post-election tallies of red and blue states with the observation that the red state people are stupid. The red-and-blue meme is a conventional and wholly inadequate way of thinking about a very nuanced reality. On every “red” block in every community, no doubt, someone voted “blue.” No matter how granular the map, even precinct-by-precinct, the red/blue binary choice awards the entirety of the local vote to whichever party cast the majority, even if only a majority of one. What do you mean by “red state”? I wanted to ask my Facebook friend. Just here, just now, what do you mean by “stupid”?
That’s why I love the much more subtle election maps produced by Mark Newman of the Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems at University of Michigan. The one on the left portrays election results county-by-county, color-coding them in shades of blue, purple, and red to reflect the actual vote; the one on the right encodes the same results, but weights counties by population.
These maps are an embodiment of the answers we would get if we asked someone who understood complex systems this question: “Just now, what do ‘red state’ and ‘blue state’ mean to you?” It would take a lot of questions to travel from the perception of one who accepts “red state” as proof of stupidity to this kind of subtlety, but I think it would be well worth the trip. And from what I have discovered of Gendlin’s work, a willingness to explore within and without and the patience to ask and answer enough questions would make the journey possible.
I encountered Gendlin through the practice of Focusing, an astoundlingly simple and powerful method of seeking within, of understanding through experiencing. Focusing is a way of getting in touch with the body’s wisdom, and letting the felt senses you experience guide you to a deeper presence and acceptance, one that seems to enlarge room to move both in the interior world and the big world beyond. I learned the steps by listening to a short audiobook, then used how-to sheets available at the Focusing website as reminders as I followed them.
I was so impressed with what I was able to learn on my own, I decided to have a few sessions with Ann Weiser Cornell, a Focusing guru who practices nearby, and whose site also has many relevant resources. In each case, I was able to see something new in issues and feelings that were very old and familiar.
Focusing is not a problem-solving mode, nor does it entail a formal theory or structure of personality or diagnosis of the kind that can make some therapists feel like prerecorded messages. It is an elegantly simple, surprisingly powerful way of becoming more present to the felt senses—the various somethings that take up residence in our minds and bodies, issuing conflicting messages—and of understanding what they are saying to us, how they feel, what they want, and how we hold those things. The process involves asking a lot of open questions and listening to the body’s answers.
For example, one of the somethings—the felt senses—that emerged into my awareness was the something that believes what I was told so often and so loudly throughout my childhood: You want too much; you will never get what you want. I—the big I that hosts all such somethings—have been in hand-to-hand combat with this one all of my life. It has often felt as if I were required to erect a kind of dam of optimism to hold back that diminished view of possibility, lest it flood in and overwhelm me. This is heavy work.
When in a Focusing session I engaged in dialogue with the something that believes this childhood propaganda, I felt how much it was driven by the desire to protect me from disappointment, and how ironic it was that the form this protection took was urging me to surrender to disappointment and get it over with. But I also felt how much of my energy it had taken to stay in this argument, when I know there is no more a guarantee of future happiness than of misery. Who can foretell the future? The only accurate relationship to this question is to want what I want and remain in not-knowing about whether or not I will get it. The image I have is from a thousand adventure films: the heroine leans against a heavy door, pushing with all her might to keep the villain from entering. The longer and harder she pushes, the more powerful the villain seems (and the less capacity the heroine has to do anything other than hold back the door). Through Focusing, I had a visceral experience of stepping to one side, letting the door fling open and watching the villain, propelled by his own force, fly past.
In the talk linked above, Gendlin explicates this beautifully, speaking of trust:
I don’t use that word, but if I were to use it, I would say, then, “Trust not the feelings, but the process.” And by the process—for short, “trust the process”—what I mean is that we want to receive every different feeling. We want to welcome every different feeling, no matter how horrible, gruesome, whatever it may be, say, “Oh, yeah, there you are.” In Afghanistan, where they’re teaching focusing, they do it via the poet Rumi, who says that you own the guest house, and every feeling that comes is a guest. And welcome them at the door, no matter what they look like. It’s a hospitality concept, you see.
What that means is that you are not your feelings. You’re welcoming them, and in welcoming them, you sense yourself as none of those things. You have them. They’re guests. You take them in and you give them a room in your guest house.
Without any of the analysis I associate with conventional problem-solving or the prescriptiveness I associate with some therapeutic approaches, I realized that I could welcome my something and stop fighting it. I could tell it I understood, that I felt its fear; I could even offer comfort. And then I could move on.
This is the process I’d love to see shape our political discourse, too, the understanding that there is no finished truth, no final word separate from the people who speak them:
[T]he explicit implicit truth is never finished. And why would you want it to be finished? This is a question that I ask, “Why would you want to impoverish “being” to that extent that you want it to finish?” It doesn’t finish. It creates and creates and creates. It creates us, and through us it creates, and it doesn’t finish. Each new person is a whole new ballgame of creation. So why do you want it to be less than that? But even if you do, and you know why you want it to be less than that, it won’t be. It’s gonna go right on.
Now, I want to say that no concept, no logical form, no “shape,” I said in my title, no picture, no explicit event is ever going to be “the Truth.” But if you take the explicit event or the concept or the idea, the diagram, or whatever it is, if you take it together with where it comes from in you, if you take it together with what some people want to call “the context,”—which is pretty good, everything has an experienced context, that “cloud behind the feeling” that I was talking about —if you take any explicit, any logical form, any diagram, any picture, any concept, together with where it’s speaking from, then you have something, some truth, some angle, some entry into what’s going on.
This is one of the reasons I put such faith in art as a ground for understanding: because the implicit is given full value, because the meaning is understood as a transaction between experience and beholder, because it is always becoming, never finished.
I love this song by Joseph Arthur, “The Electrical Storm.” The album version is beautiful, but this live acoustic version is extremely sweet and seems so apt as an anthem for all those somethings.
I can see you now
You are me
You’re born and then you die
You’re born and then you die
And you are born