A friend recently asked how my one-on-one sessions work. I explained what “Focusing” is and how we can allow our body to guide us directly to the place where we feel most, stuck, or wounded, and to trust the body to take us through the pain to deepest longings and the natural wisdom that is available to all of us. My friend has been on a 10-day silent retreat and has enough first-hand experience to know what a powerful teacher the body can be, and also what it feels like to truly touch our suffering.

When I told her I did this work with some frequency she said “Woah. You mean you’re right there with people when they go into those deepest places? And you do this regularly? That must be really intense for you!” She was also taken aback that people could go to those places with someone else.

I acknowledged that it can be intense, but I said that it’s a mutually healing process. I said that to be the listener is to receive not just their words but to attune my whole body to their energy and to hold a compassionate space for whatever arises. In a sense, I am right there with them.

And, I added, it turns out the deep dark stuff is the same for all of us.

“What?!”

“Yeah, really” I said. “It’s the same… rejection… isolation…death…loneliness… a belief that we are fundamentally flawed or unlovable.”

“What?! Really?!”

“Really.”

We both started smiling and laughing. We talked about how we go through so much of our lives thinking we are alone with these fears, only to find out after years of agony that everyone else is facing the same stuff. And somehow, in moments like this, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming anymore.

Body centered inquiry techniques like Insight Meditation and Focusing are powerful tools – these processes allows us to pause and to truly experience the deep fears and beliefs that underlie so much of our suffering.

I have struggled with anger issues my whole life, and for me, this process meant coming into contact with the deep deep belief that I was a monster, incapable of truly loving people and destined to hurt them.

Yet it wasn’t until one evening on a trusted teacher’s couch that I was able to really touch the pain that I’d held inside for all of these years. And it wasn’t until I said out loud “I think I am a monster incapable of loving people”, and felt the weight of that in my body and allowed the wave of sorrow and tears to crash over me that I could start to heal. In the presence of the unconditional love of another person, I could bring light to one of my darkest places. The work didn’t stop there of course- over the last four years I have been working diligently to acknowledge harms done and make amends and to heal the parts of me that drive the anger – but I could never have gotten to this point without first sharing my pain with someone else.

So often, the healing begins when we open up to another person and when we allow ourselves to touch our pain and trust that in that moment of surrender we are loved and cared for. In that moment, feelings that seem infinitely large can fit into the spaces between words. A friend can hold our pain with a loving acceptance that might be difficult to maintain on our own.

I never used to understand it when my teachers told me that they were learning from our time together, but it’s starting to make sense. The teachings come not from our lips, but from the communion of two beings being open and loving with one another and finding that we share a common humanity. At that moment when one person is sharing completely from the heart and another person is receiving in directly into theirs, the identities of student and teacher evaporate and what is left is love.

In an interview with Krista Tipett on On Being, Father Gregory Boyle tells a story that illustrates it well:

So this kid Louie, I’m talking to him and he’s complaining about something. Finally, at the end of it, he says, “Hey, G, give me a bless, yeah?” I said sure. So he comes around to my side of the desk and he knows the drill and he bows his head and I put my hands on his shoulder. Well, his birthday had been two days before, so it gave me an opportunity to say something to him.

I said: You know, Louie, I’m proud to know you. When you were born, you know, the world became a better place and I’m proud to call you my son, even though,” — and I don’t know why I decided to add this part — “at times you can really be a huge pain in the ass.” And he looks up at me and he smiles and he says, “The feeling’s mutual.” And, you know, suddenly kinship so quickly. You know, you’re not sort of this delivery system, you know, but maybe I return him to himself. But there is no doubt that he’s returned me to myself.

All of us have the capacity to play either role. We can share the truth of our experience and our feelings with someone, allowing ourselves to be honest and vulnerable, or we can be the listener, the one who holds the space and receives whatever arises with love and acceptance. And in the process, both the speaker and the listener are returned to their humanity.

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A Note on listening and Focusing: we all have the capacity to listen, even if it takes a little practice. In the most basic kinds of listening, all we need to do is maintain a silent, receptive and loving presence for someone. As mentioned in this post, Focusing is a more structured type of listening, where a Focusing guide helps sometime feel into the essence of an issue and to allow their body to guide them through the pain and into their own deep wisdom. If you’re interested in learning more about Focusing and how it works, you can email me, pick up a copy of Eugene Gendlin’s book “Focusing“, or check out the website of the Focusing Institute.