By Beth Mahler and Serge Prengel
What do we mean by “the space between?”
In this article, we are going to talk about two ways to think of it. The first one is to think of it in terms of time. In this case, the “space between” is essentially the pause. The magic of Focusing, and the magic of mindfulness in general, cannot happen unless we make space for it, unless we take a moment to pause. When we don’t pause, we’re on automatic pilot. There is a momentum that keeps things going on the same track. Taking a pause gives us an opportunity: It allows for the possibility of seeing things in a different way. For something to change, for creativity to happen, we have to make space for it. So think about the pause as what allows for Moment A to not be fused with Moment B by creating a “space between.” We’re not going to talk more about the “time” aspect in this article because the pause is something that’s very familiar to all of us Focusers. We’re bringing it up as a way to put this discussion within the context of finding, or making, space.
Another way to think of the “space between” is to think in terms of space, as opposed to time. Think visually: Imagine a chair where the client, of the Focuser sits. Another chair, facing it, where the therapist, or the listener sits. And, between the two, something that we so take for granted that we don’t even notice it: “the space between.”
What is that space? There’s you. There’s me. And there’s what happens between you and me. Notice how evocative this phrase is: “what happens between you and me.” It is not just about the physical space between you and me. It is about the process, the interaction. So, when we’re talking about what there is between you and me, we’re talking about paying attention, not just to what happens to you or what happens to me, but to the interaction itself.
We all know that Focusing has to do with process and interaction. So we’re not talking here about something new. We’re simply talking about paying more attention to this aspect. Being curious as we sense into the process of interaction itself. Remembering that “process” does not mean something abstract, something outside of what happens to you or what happens to me… but it’s another perspective that enriches our experience. So let’s look at this in terms of felt experience.
For Beth, as a mother, this is what “space between” evokes: It feels similar to birthing a child, the space between inception and holding your baby in a loving embrace, able to meet in a new way, with skin touching skin, caressing the softness of creation, and stepping forth in new territory, filled with a multitude of spaces between. Interaction begins, then growth occurs in the space between. But let’s pause to think about all the spaces between: the space in the body that allows a felt sense to form; the space of time between planting a seed in soil and when the first sprout begins to grow; the space between that gives us moments to practice patience, pause, and anticipation of change. In the dark unknowing space of the human body, the body has amazing capacity, and we are there to witness from the outside space, it’s shape changing, still with an unknowing curiosity what that infant will look like or feel like to touch.
Now relate this to a felt sense. What happens in that unknowing space between two when curious pausing can allow and invite the body’s amazing wisdom to grasp from midair the energetic potential that holds wisdom and growth potential. When great physical distance might be just the right ingredient for the space between to draw a person’s awareness to something that might otherwise go unseen. I can imagine it like looking up into the night sky in the midst of a grief process when everything inside of me is intense with sadness and pain, grief and loss, and in that moment my eye catches the amazing and beautiful sight of a shooting star. In that great space between, something deep and unknowing inside is touched deeply, and gently gives light and hope into that moment.
The space between a therapist and a client, a teacher and a student, is an incredible space we know and cherish. A client comes to a therapist to challenge themselves and to come up against some vague knowing that something is holding them back from their innate growth potential. They come to a therapist of their choosing to be listened to and cared about. A therapist comes toward a client, a client comes toward a therapist in this space between, to sit with will and skill, to explore and experience the subtleties of this space between. A therapist readily accepts a client’s need for less space between being alone with this [their struggle, their stuck place, their relationship issue], wanting a closer proximity to someone who can be present, curious, and contemplate together what they are up against.
In supporting and inviting a client to be open to the space between, a therapist needs to be ready and able to be in deep dark unknowing spaces, and to keep safely grounded themselves, giving just the right amount of spacious air between therapist and client so a client has open space to grasp from midair the energetic potential that holds wisdom and growth potential. It might be the midair inside their body waiting for a felt sense to form. It might be in the midair between therapist and client, that a client can become aware of a relationship pattern. A rupture and repair in the therapeutic relationship can light the way with awareness and space between the client and their spouse, [child, struggle].
Let’s now go back into a conceptual framework, to get a sense of what this perspective entails when we look, for instance, at therapy. In a medical model, the patient goes to see a doctor, and the doctor makes a diagnosis and treats the patient. Doctors experience themselves as looking at patients from the perspective of an outside observer. We have separate units: the patient unit, and the doctor unit. The processing happens inside one of the units, the doctor, the same way processing would happen in a computer.
Gendlin’s process model invites us to not think of this just in terms of these units, but to pay attention to the process itself. In practice, the doctor is still going to use their skills in order to help the patient heal. But we have a different sense of what makes this happen, as we pay attention to the process of interaction.
Now, you may ask, is this just a quirky way of looking at things that we Focusers have? Is that vastly different from the way the rest of the world sees things? Well, let’s stay with medicine, clinical practice, and the world of evidence-based research. Time and again, when testing new medications, researchers have noticed how strong the “placebo effect” is. The placebo is an innocuous pill, a sham if you will. But, time and again, studies show that healing happens from receiving a placebo. To the point that any new treatment has to be tested against a placebo, to determine whether it has an efficacy other than that which simply comes from being prescribed by a doctor.
So, even in hard-nosed approaches to clinical research, we have come to acknowledge that a major role is played by the healing relationship. What is healing is not necessarily the personality of the doctor, but what the doctor represents within the social context in which this interaction happen, i.e. the faith we have in the power of science and medicine to heal us. This is what exists, hidden in plain sight, in the space between the doctor and the patient. Obviously, it is very much present in the space between therapist and client, and in the interaction between Focusers.
Paying attention to the “space between” means being conscious that what is happening is a process between us. In addition to simply sensing what’s changing in me as the Focuser, or how I as the listener resonate with what the Focuser is saying, we are sensing into that something else, the something “more” that the process itself is. Now, we cannot observe the process independent of what is being processed. The process does not happen unless we are processing something. We sense into the process as we are in process.
Imagine being on a raft in a river, paying attention to the flow that is carrying us as we go through rapids, so we’re more in tune with it and we can work with it as opposed to getting in its way.
When we’re talking about paying attention to “the space between,” we are not talking about trying to analyze it in order to define it once and for all. Imagine you’re into butterflies. You could be a scientist who captures butterflies and pins them to a board, and you have a collection of dead butterflies. As Focusers, we’re not that interested in dead butterflies. We prefer to look at living butterflies and let them guide us to new places.
So paying attention to the space between is not a way to characterize that space once and for all. It’s a way to find an entry point into a process, in order to be carried forward by its energy. Of course, this is very much the attitude we have when we do Focusing. We get into a Focusing mode as an entry point to process something. Each time we go into this process, it has freshness and newness, because it’s not a repetitive redoing of an empty process, it is a way to freshly be in interaction with either another person or an issue that we’re trying to make sense of.
It all happens in interaction. Paying attention to “the space between” means paying attention to the process so we can be better carried forward by it, like the flow in the river mentioned earlier. We are deepening our felt understanding of the process as we pay attention to “the space between.”
Beth Mahler and Serge Prengel. Originally written for The International Focusing Institute, September 2018.