When I was training to become a spiritual director, I learned Eugene Gendlin’s focusing process, a way of unlocking all of the knowledge and wisdom that our bodies hold for us. Since then, my relationship to my body has changed. When my shoulders ache, or my stomach is upset, or my sciatica is acting up, I don’t assume that it’s only because of some physical malady. Instead, I think about how my body is mirroring the state of my soul. Pain in my shoulders usually means anxiety. Sciatic burning in my knee usually means too much lassitude. I’ve come to trust my body, and to listen to it.
This Covid-19 outbreak has made me realize that I’ve been somewhat one-sided in this understanding. Yes, my body might reflect the state of my soul. But the state of my soul also reflects the state of my body. Usually, I just distract myself from sickness with books and TV, weathering a cold or flu by trying to ignore it. These days, I find myself anxious about any cough or sneeze, and I’m guessing that the same is happening to you. It’s allergy season, and my eyes are watering constantly, and I find myself worried about confusing symptoms, thinking that a sneeze is hay fever when it’s really something much worse.
So I sat down this morning to practice focusing, thinking that it might help, and it did. It allowed me to pay close attention to my body, to see where my emotions were manifesting in my muscles, but also to really breathe, and receive a message of health from my lungs, at least for today. And during this time, one day’s assurances might need to be enough. So here is the process that I use. I hope it helps you as it helped me.
- Bring your consciousness into your body, starting with your feet. Pay close attention to them, how they feel, how your blood moves through your arches and heels and toes. Slowly move your attention up through your body – through the muscles of your legs, your hips, through the juices of your stomach as they gurgle away, through the beating of your heart and the rise and fall of your lungs. Move your attention into your shoulders, your neck, your face, until you have paid attention to all of your body, from your toes to the top of your head.
- Take three deep breaths. With each breath, breathe in until your entire body is filled with air. Hold that breath for three seconds. Let it out, exhaling until your entire body is empty of air. Hold that emptiness for three seconds. Breathe in again, repeating this process through a second and third breath.
- Move from the top of your head to your chest in three breaths. Breathe deeply into your hair, your scalp, the neurons firing in your brain. Then breathe deeply into your mouth and throat, into your tongue, your teeth, your soft palette, your voice box. Finally, breathe deeply into your lungs, feeling your chest expand.
- Let your breath return to normal. You are now centered in your body.
- With your body relaxed, conduct an inventory of your thoughts as they float to the surface. As each thought arises, acknowledge it, but don’t follow it. Instead, imagine that you have a basket sitting on the floor beside you. Place each thought in that basket, especially the ones you’re most drawn to. You’ll have a chance to revisit them. Keep going with this inventory until you’ve acknowledged all of the ideas, worries, hopes, relationships, and events that are occupying your attention.
- Now, consider all the thoughts in that imaginary basket. Which thought is most important to you? Which do you want to explore more? With your imagination, reach into the basket, take that thought out, and place it back into your body. Where does it want to reside within your body? My anxious thoughts always want to live in my shoulders. My hopeful thoughts always want to expand from my chest. Where in your body does the thought you’ve chosen to focus on want to be placed?
- Having given that thought a home, take a moment to feel what’s going on in the rest of your body. If the thought is heavy on your shoulders, are your stomach muscles tightening to support it? If the thought is swelling in your chest, are your toes tingling? Let your whole body acknowledge the thought and ask every part of your body to help you to hold it.
- Invite words, memory, images, anything that arises out of the feel of your body. Is your spine holding a memory that you weren’t aware of? Do your hips have something to say? Pay attention to changes in the feel of your whole body as different parts of you speak to one another. Grace might express itself in a physical shift.
- When you feel that it’s time to end this focusing period, pause a moment to nurture the sense of your body and your soul. Express gratitude to God for giving you a body as well as emotions and a mind. All of these things are part of your wonderful and glorious soul, part of you, God’s beloved child.