Direct Engagement with the Cleared Space in Psychotherapy

Abstract

     Clearing a Space was first developed as a preparatory step for Focusing.  Since then this process has been expanded to include a direct engagement with the Cleared Space.  Research results show its impact upon physical healing, recovery from trauma, greater self-care, and a shift in the nature of the change process.  Little attention has been paid to exploring its value within ongoing psychotherapy. This paper will demonstrate how this expanded approach to Clearing a Space shifts one’s relation to all particular issues in the direction of a greater unification of the person and alignment with higher values and purpose.  A summary of research and the presentation of 6 common characteristics of direct engagement with the Cleared Space will be presented. Discussion of two philosophical concepts will shed light on the difference this process makes in psychotherapy. A final discussion examines how this expanded approach to Clearing a Space may contribute to a more spiritually informed change process.

Key Words: Clearing a Space    

INTRODUCTION

      Gendlin and colleagues empirically demonstrated the experiential process that leads to successful personality change in psychotherapy and called it Focusing. (1969) The key to this process is pausing and attending to a bodily sense of an issue. This Felt Sense is distinctly felt but is unclear conceptually. Paying attention to the Felt Sense allows it’s meaning to become clearer because an interaction occurs between Felt Sense and emergent symbolization.  This is the central change process in Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. (Gendlin, 1964) 

     When the Felt Sense is acknowledged and then placed at a right distance, a space opens between the ‘problem’ and the wider person. Gendlin (1996) describes this space as a place of wholeness, separate from our ‘problems.’ Clearing a Space became the method to access this space and from here a fresh Felt Sense is able to form. (1982) Yet, little attention has been paid to the function of this ‘space’ when it is directly engaged in the psychotherapy process.

     Transpersonal Psychology posits that human beings are constituted by and participate in an infinite source that is generative of all of life.  (Assiglioli, 1976; Kierkegaard, 1954; Merton, 1968; Walsh & Vaughan, 1996; Wilber, 2000) This source is often described as space, formlessness, or ‘emptiness’, and spiritual practices, such as meditation, engage this dimension. Transpersonal theorists claim that whether or not the person is in direct relationship to this ‘space’ effects the kind of growth and development that is possible.  (Assiglioli, 1976;  Boorstein, 1997; Walsh & Vaughan, 1996; Tart, 2000)

     Psychotherapy often begins with what is not going well in one’s life, the stopped processes. This paper will discuss the value of the direct engagement with the Cleared Space within psychotherapy and show that this engagement generates a specific kind of change process.

     I hope to demonstrate how this expanded version of Clearing a Space enhances the capacity to center one’s life in one’s essential interconnection with all of life.  The central focus is no longer on solving particular problems, but becomes instead the desire to live one’s life in alignment with one’s higher values and purpose.  First, I describe the development of the expanded version of Clearing a Space and then summarize the research results demonstrating the value of this way of working.  Second, I present six characteristics of direct engagement with the Cleared Space.  Next, I discuss two concepts formulated in Gendlin’s A Process Model (1998), which clarify why this process is an important aspect of psychotherapeutic change.  Finally, I reflect upon how direct engagement with the Cleared Space contributes to a more spiritually informed change process in psychotherapy.

 

A Description of the Cleared Space:

“It’s like I came home to myself…It was like I had been away from myself for a long time.  It was incredible.  I could just rest there with all of Me.  I did not know about this, that there is this inner home, that is like the essence of me…and it is free of my ‘problems.”

 

 

     Clearing a Space (CAS) was originally understood to be a preparation for Focusing. This “first step” invites you to bring your attention towards the center of your body and listen to what issues in your life “keep you tense inside.”  You listen for what is currently keeping you tense inside. In this First Step you don’t go into any particular issue, but rather sense each as it comes in the body, and place each at a little distance. This is done in a metaphorical way by imagining stacking them in front of you, or putting them in a filing cabinet, etc. However, this is not only an imagery process. The putting out has to be a bodily experience that changes the body. After each issue is acknowledged and placed at a distance, you ask “Except for these things am I OK now?” When this process is complete a space opens up inside the body that has the quality of “Me” without these issues for right now (Gendlin, 1981). Our situation does not change externally, but internally we create a little space between the issues and ‘me’, and a greater bodily relaxation occurs. 

     Ordinarily our issues are carried in the body all stacked up together, and surface issues are noticed first.  Therapy sessions usually begin with talking about problems rather than speaking from what is directly felt. CAS is an experiential way of enabling the body to discern which issue really wants to be explored in this therapy session and to allow a Felt Sense of the issue to form freshly, enabling an experiential process to unfold towards the beginning of the session.

 

     Since this initial application, new discoveries have been made about healing and development when CAS included a Focusing process in relationship to the Cleared Space itself. When an issue is placed at a distance, there is a noticeable easing (which may include a deeper breath) and a space opens.   When this process is expanded to bringing one’s attention to the Space that opens and then staying with this experience in a focusing-oriented way something different happens.

     First, one is invited to appreciate what it is like to be in this Space and to allow words or images to come that capture the qualities of the experience. This is called the Handle. To find these qualities the person brings a word or image back to the Felt Sense of the Cleared Space and checks for its accuracy.  This ‘trying on’ of a symbolization continues until there is an exact fit.  This is called Resonating because the body confirms the fit through a physically felt recognition. This is followed by the invitation is to stay with what the sense of this quality.  Then the person is invited to ask the following question and to notice what emerges:  “What is needed to bring something of this quality into my daily life?” 

     People describe experiencing a larger sense of “how my life wants to go without these problems” and new energy and resources.  Over time, a shift in the locus of the Self develops including a connection to a kind of ‘vastness or spaciousness’ and a profound realization that “I am not my problems.”  Often spiritual language or images become Handles.  It is as if CAS is a doorway into a source of life. This connection brings  ‘something to one’s situation that generates physical healing, release from trauma, greater self-care with steps of life-style change, and a spiritual connection with implications for how one wants to live one’s life. The original problems often shift or take on a different meaning placed in the context of this larger sense of Self.

RESEARCH RESULTS

     Several research studies evaluated the usefulness of CAS for people with health concerns. Grindler Katonah investigated its usefulness for people with cancer. (1991) With a sample of 12 people randomly assigned to the wait group or the experimental group and matched for severity of illness, practicing CAS resulted in a statistically significant decrease in depression and increase in positive body attitudes. Qualitative results revealed that through sustained practice, patients experienced steps of change that increased self-care. These results were sustained 6 months later.

     Klagsbrun and colleagues (2005) showed that a combined intervention of CAS and expressive arts therapies significantly improved the quality of life of 18 breast cancer patients. In another study, Klagsbrun and colleagues (2008) taught CAS to 20 cancer survivors and found these common characteristics: reduced somatic concerns, increased emotional self-regulation, mental clarity, and calm mood.  In one single case study, high Focusing activity correlated with a lower subjective experience of pain (Wadhwa, 2007). Sustained weight loss accompanied by increased commitment to self-care was demonstrated in two studies applying CAS. (Holstein, 1990; Antrobos, 2008)  A series of five studies demonstrated that CAS increased performance on complex mental tasks. (Zimring 1974,1983,1985,1990)

     Clearing a Space has been investigated as an intervention for treating trauma.  The Theory of Experiencing distinguishes affective expression from the Felt Sense of the problem. The Felt Sense, in contrast to emotions, forms a felt whole of the issue which brings forward new information.  CAS helps one find the right distance between “I” and “the issue” and brings the whole person into engagement with the trauma. This ‘right distance’ generates an experiential process that moves one’s present life forward beyond the patterning of the trauma (Hendricks 2003).

     Preliminary results from a study of CAS with trauma survivors indicate a significant reduction of trauma symptoms after 6 weeks of practice. Subjects developed a new purpose for their lives (Bhat, 2008).   Leijssen (2007) demonstrated how CAS helped a trauma survivor overwhelmed by flashbacks. The client said: “This process is in itself a healing one; it creates the experience of a ‘new me’, untouched by difficulties, but capable of finding a better way of relating to one’s problems...” See also case study results related to war trauma (Coffeng 2003 and Omidian and Lawrence 2007), abuse in indigenous cultures (Young 1998), work with traumatized children, (Santen 2007), suicidal ideation (McGuire 1984) and Borderline Personality Disorder (Grindler Katonah 1984).

     These outcome results and the range of documented clinical applications of this expanded version of CAS merit an analysis of the subjective changes described both in research and clinical data.  The following characteristics were identified.

 

 

CHARACTERISTICS OF CLEARING A SPACE

      The examples are single excerpts; however, the characteristics describe what develops over time through ongoing practice. This requires holding one’s attention in relationship to the Cleared Space for this dimension to interact with the psychotherapeutic change process. Focusing on particular issues also occurs as part of the ongoing therapy, but this is not the emphasis of this paper.

  1.  Each issue finds its ‘right’ place

     When practicing CAS in this way, one doesn’t automatically put something out at a distance.  Instead, each Felt Sense of a situation is involved in the process.  We ask:  Is ‘It’ ready to go out?  If not, what is needed?  Then, each Felt Sense generates an image of where to place itself. The Felt Sense carries an intricacy that is greater than we can think. Allowing for this intricacy even in this step is necessary in order for the issue to be released to it’s “own” place.  A kind of beauty is revealed through each issue placing itself in relationship to the larger Whole such that the whole organism’s living is carried forward. Contrary to the emphasis upon detachment in spiritual disciplines, in this process, the “issue” releases itself while remaining part of the whole at the same time.

Example:

C.  It is interesting I had this reaction:  “You can do it.”  Then I felt fear.

     (Silence)  I’m sitting with the fear.  I’m going like this (gesture) – like how about you

     go out here, but there is some resistance…like a bowling ball that wants to roll back.

    (Laughter) It keeps rolling back. 

T:  OK, maybe ‘It’ needs more attention- like ‘It’ needs something before it can go out. 

       Sit with it and be interested in what it may want to say or need.

C: (Silence) It’s like I am trying to be tender with the fear. “It’s OK for you to be

     here.” I feel more at peace…I’m not in a hurry…It’s further away

     now…the fear is lighter and luminescent.  It’s not scary…. It’s healthy…. It’s

     companioning me now…

 

2. Brings Increased Well-Being

     Entrance into the Cleared Space releases the tightness that comes from all the issues stacked up inside our bodies. Often a breath occurs when an issue is placed at a comfortable distance. Energy is freer.  One is no longer burdened by “all of that.” Laughter may spontaneously emerge.  This is a taste of a way of living unencumbered by a particular difficulty.  This increased well-being helps one act differently.  Action steps that are taken are crucial to experiential change (Gendlin, 1996). Taking a step can be difficult.  However, once something new occurs, everything is changed by the impact the action has on everything else.  (Gendlin, 1998)  A step forward enhances self-regard.

Example #1:  Upon discovering the Cleared Space, a cancer survivor exclaimed:  “Oh, this is how I felt before I became ill  … healthy again!”

 

Example #2: “I suddenly feel like I have the energy to stand up to my husband.  I’ve wanted to do that for a long time, but I felt dragged down by guilt.”

 

3. Direct experience of one’s essence

     Through Focusing we can find what is true for us about any experience or concern - the exact symbolization that carries forward the situation. Yet, there is another experience of ‘Me” that is more central, a directly felt connection to an essence of one’s being that lives through all of one’s situations. Even in the midst of a deep loss or failure this “Me” remains intact and whole. Difficulties in life can leave us fearful of ‘losing ourselves” or fearing ‘a part of us has died.’  But even with this fear, when we find our way to this Opening into the Cleared Space, there one is!   Alive. Free! In touching the Cleared Space we experience wanting more life for its own sake. It comes for someone who is terminally ill.  Even then, IT is there….a kind of force or strength that “rolls through all things” (Wordsworth, 1964) and can never be destroyed. Over time the entering into the Cleared Space stimulates a desire to center one’s life in this wider Self.

Example #1: ” There’s nothing cluttering my space…yet …….I still sense ‘something” but with a different quality….. I feel like I have come home (sigh)…like I’m connected to the stream of my life.  (Breaths)…It’s an unfettered feeling.   Like a path had been cleared and I can now move ahead from my essence. …(head nods)…

 

Example #2:

T: Is there a word or image that fits the quality of the Clear Space?

C:  Clean…..and ….light.

T:  Clean and light. Is that the quality that exactly fits?

C:  Mm…(head nods)…. (Pause)

C:  I just want to stay here.  It’s so free. I feel free.

T: You feel free.

(Pause)

C:  I never knew I could experience anything like this!  (Eyes open wide.) (Mcdonald, 1984)

 

Example #3: “What comes is that the cancer is a tunnel, which is limited and constricted, but I sense that it’s the illness that is limited and constricted, not me.”  (Klagsbrun, et. al. 2005)

 

4. Increased Confidence

     Often situations and existential uncertainties carry fear.  Fear itself may contribute to a block in one’s experiencing. Fear tends to constrict one’s view or ability to sense what feels right from within. Thus no Felt Sense can form (Hendricks, 2003). This Direct Encounter with the Cleared Space releases fear and increases confidence that an answer will come, without trying to figure something out.  With this connection to the “More” one realizes there is something larger participating in one’s healing. A confidence in life and life’s process is strengthened.

Example:

     J. faces a difficult decision whether or not to continue chemotherapy after the 4th return of ovarian cancer. Fear about making the ‘wrong’ decision grips her.

 

T:  There is so much you’re feeling right now…how crucial this decision is and how you don’t really know what is right for you.  Let’s take some time now, to imagine putting ‘all of that’ outside you at a little distance. This doesn’t mean getting rid of it. I am inviting you to put ‘It’ out in a place where ‘It’ can rest for a few moments, while we are together here.

 

C: (Breath)…(Minutes pass)…OK…I did it…I was noticing all that is there and then the thought came….’put it in God’s hands’.  But it wasn’t just a thought…I could really imagine placing it outside of me…in the center of a flower…. (begins to cry)…Oh, my God…. I feel such relief…just in letting go like this.. I really need this…. (Sighs)…

 

T:  Take the time you need to experience that relief …

 

C:  (silence)…..But I still need to make a decision…

 

T:  Yes, …perhaps you could begin by asking that sense that is in God’s hands and held by a flower….what will help?

 

C:  (Silence)…What came was….Wait.…and the answer will come…That feels right…I know that will happen…..I feel more relief and confidence…that in time I will know what I need to do.

 

5. Awakening to the Significance of one’s Life

 

      The experience of sitting with the Cleared Space often includes recognizing the unconditional significance of one’s life.  One realizes that one’s value is not contingent upon outcomes. Rather, one’s life is inherently significant.  Thus, living itself, “my life” as it is, is what life is about.   This felt insight begins to change one’s sense of purpose.  Being becomes more important than doing.  A way of life that expresses one’s values becomes more central. Over time a greater commitment to self-care develops.  Steps of Change emerge that have to do with exercise, diet, spiritual practices, attention to relationships, etc.

Example:  She was a student waiting to hear from her choice internship sites.  She was preoccupied, anxious.  She was not sleeping well and had a cold for a week.  She made a place for the anxiety, for the cold that wouldn’t go away, and a sense of “my self-esteem is at stake.”  She said:  “This defines me…I have to succeed…She found a place for “This” to rest at a distance.  Then she brought her attention directly to the Cleared Space and waited.  Tears arose…and then the words:  “More than success I want to be accepted just for myself…no conditions of worth…” Her eyes opened and she smiled:  “I had no idea that was what was under all of that!”

 

6. Not one quality but many:  What emerges fits what is needed

     Qualities that emerge in the Cleared Space resemble a kaleidoscope. Handles frequently described are:  Peaceful, Still, Comfort, Clear, Whole.  Other Handles describe ‘Something’ so big and significant that it can never be grasped; yet it is Real.  The languaging may have an explicit spiritual valence – like sacred, profound, and ‘awesome’. Images and gestures become Handles as well:  “I’m on a hill overlooking a valley, there are cows dotting the hillside, and the words that come are ‘simple and divinely peaceful.’ I can feel the presence of something…sacred” (Klagsbrun, et.al. 2003).

     The purpose of finding a Handle isn’t to define the experience but rather to access more of what the Cleared Space offers for this moment. When the explication exactly fits what carries forward is a shift in one’s relation to all the issues in the direction of a greater unification of the person.

Example:  In this example the person found several issues he was carrying.  One involved a business project demanding attention.  Another was a wish to devote more time to musical development.  Another concerned his research.  As each was laid out he found “fighting for attention,” a background feeling they shared.  He acknowledged feeling pulled by each of these commitments, yet none get fulfilled.  When the Cleared Space opened after setting each concern at a comfortable distance, the quality was:  Gratitude. He felt this quality and tears welled up.  Then he listened for how to bring this more into his life and said:   “I suddenly have this sense that all of these seemingly divergent issues could become harmonized; no longer competing for attention.  If I trust that they are actually all interconnected there will be a rhythm for engaging each in relationship to each other."

 

     Transpersonal Psychology posits that human beings are constituted by and participate in a Unified Consciousness that dynamically generates life. (Assiglioli, 1976; Walsh and Vaughan, 1996; Kierkegaard.1954; Merton, 1968; Wilber 2000) What it means to be a person is that we are both/and. The unique and the universal, the personal and the transcendent constitute each other.

 

Meister Echkart:  “God has left a little point where the soul turns back upon itself and finds itself.  The eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me.  My eye and God’s eye are one and the same” (Courtois 1990, p. 18).

 

      Whether or not the person is in direct relationship to this Space has bearing upon the kind of development that is possible. Structural Theories of Personality see change as occurring within the Personality and thus this Larger Source is not accessed or explored. When we only Focus on our problems this larger dimension becomes obscured.

Psychotherapy can restore this connection and the ability to interact with our daily lives from this Space. 

 

TWO PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPTS

 

1)  ONE IMPLYING

     Gendlin (1962) illuminates how the Implicit functions in experiencing. The Implicit is felt as a whole and carries a multiplicity of unfinished meanings.  It implies a next step forward. I believe the Implicit includes our participation in this larger “consciousness” that moves through all things…the Whole of the Whole.

     It is easy to forget during psychotherapy that when we focus on a particular issue, we are focusing on a part of this larger whole. Gendlin (1998) explains that all subprocesses of the organism imply each other and each subprocess is changed by how each affects all the others.  Thus, it is a mistake to address a particular issue as if it stands alone. “The body’s implying is always all one implying…. The whole process implies the next occurring of the coordinated processes…. it is a logical implication of our concepts that a resumed process does not imply its own continuation; only the process as a whole implies it.”  (Gendlin 1998, pp. 24-25.) When one includes CAS in an ongoing psychotherapy process one senses from the largest Whole. New resources become available found at that interstice between the unique and the universal, including expressions of the ultimate meaning of one’s life as it relates to the larger patterning of the universe.

 

2) ATTENTION AS ACTION    

    When we make a Felt Sense the object of our attention we are applying attention in a certain way.  It is a kind of seeking, looking for, and waiting. “In response to the pointing and the pursuing, the feel itself becomes more distinct like something there, a datum, an object, something in a space that wasn’t there before.” (Gendlin, 1998, p. 216)  This is a kind of action because it creates the interaction that enables the Felt Sense to open. When we bring our attention to the Cleared Space we generate the interaction that elicits the forming of a particular quality needed in this moment; for example, stillness. This enables a new kind of carrying forward.  By asking ‘How can I bring this quality into my daily life?’ something from this larger whole becomes available as a resource in one’s life. This is a wider place that allows for more possibilities.

 

A NEW FUNCTION OF FOCUSING

     Focusing on the Cleared Space differs from Focusing on our Felt Sense of a situation in important ways.  First, the process of resonating the Handle with the Cleared Space serves a different function.  In regular Focusing, the Handle serves to carry forward a newly explicated meaning of the situation.  The Handle found within the Cleared Space brings forth a quality of the Larger Source so that it can transform our way of living.  Second, when we do notice these felt qualities, our attention is drawn to them. There is something different about both these qualities and our attraction to them. Although they carry an affective valence, they are not usual emotions. These are ways the body experiences coming into direct contact with our true nature. Over time, these experiences develop a kind of staying power which functions as a balance to whatever issues are troubling, making it possible to explore them within a larger context.  It’s as if the equanimity (or joy, or peace, etc.) wants more of itself, producing a kind of inner stability to this Center, that then is able to function in relationship to difficulties in one’s life. The power of these Qualities is more akin to a kind of desire, a wanting. The sense of wholeness and well-being is already there and cannot be threatened by an obstacle as it may have felt it was before. It chooses itself out of a desire to have more of itself. This staying in the equanimity place becomes its own carrying forward and so more life comes from this direct source. 

     Spiritual development is often understood to include strengthening our ability to pull ourselves back to the center.  Having a strong keel in the sail boat means that it rights itself easily no matter what the wind or wave pattern.

 

CONCLUSION

 

      Human beings, even in the midst of their suffering, want to reach towards the ‘More’. There is a wanting to live from the Larger Self, even with pain and constricted patterns. This expanded process of Clearing a Space shows us that there is a Space that is directly sensed and not defined by our current life issues.  It brings into focus an experience of what it is like to be alive unconstrained by these same issues. When the qualities of the Cleared Space are directly sensed from the Body, they have a kind of power, an inclination to sustain themselves. Over time a desire to live from this “Center” arises, and a way of living becomes more important, while the particular outcomes of situations become less important. Often steps of living that support this alignment emerge. Our organism is strengthened in its ability to bring these qualities into our daily living.  Whether or not the person is in direct relationship to this Larger Whole has bearing upon the kind of growth and development process that is possible. Living from our undivided wholeness creates our integrated participation in the life before us, fresh, open to all that comes. Psychotherapy needs to engage these farthest reaches.