Focusing and Jewish Mysticism
Going Down to Go Up
Judaism is overflowing with maps of spiritual transformation. One prominent example from Hasidic Mysticism is the path of descending for the sake of going higher [yerida l’tzorekh aliyah]. In this journey, you are called to face inner constrictions, difficulties, and suffering directly. Travelling towards your fears may seem counterintuitive compared to our culture’s standard approach of bypassing (i.e. avoiding pain and distracting ourselves from inner turmoil). However, an inner descent traversed with presence, curiosity, and self-compassion leads you to clarity, understanding, and positive transformation.
Focusing is the Vehicle
While Hasidism offers many teachings on transformation, it is relatively sparing in the methods. In our era, Focusing, developed by Eugene Gendlin in the mid-20th century, is a simple and profound tool for encountering your inner blockages 1. This method of self-inquiry uses the body as the medium to explore, understand, and ultimately transform your inner world for the better. By first entering into a state of calm, then feeling into body sensations, you receive coded messages from your subconscious. Insight into your inner dynamics arises as you examine these symbolic communications (which come as images, words, movements, and beyond). A shift occurs which is felt physically, emotionally, intellectually and often spiritually. This shift is embedded within your body and naturally integrates into who you are with the right self-care.
You can also intentionally mark the shift and symbol to explore it more later on. All this is to say, Focusing allows you to enter into a constricted state, be present with it, gain understanding, and grow.
Embodiment is a Jewish Ideal
As challenging as it is to generalize about an entire tradition, it is clear that Judaism values living out our insights and ideals through action. For the last 2000 years Jews have not had monks. Our practices focus us on daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms and responsibilities. Any spiritual work, any cultivation of consciousness, or any inner healing must not lead us towards bypassing our worldly tasks. Quite the contrary, the ultimate fulfillment of spiritual experiences is to embody them in our day to day lives. This kind of contemplation leads us to evolve our relationships with our families, our communities, our world, and ourselves.
In this sense, embodiment practices – which are inherently physical and grounding – are very aligned with this Jewish ideal. Working with the body as a medium for self-knowledge is compatible with a lifestyle of engagement with the earthly2. Being in our bodies enables us to experience somatic realizations and shifts while being rooted in our daily experience and in relationship with our friends and loved ones.
1 Focusing is one example of a contemporary form of somatic inquiry. It co-exists along other embodied practices such as Somatic Experiencing, Haikomi, Kedumah, the Diamond Approach, Compassionate Inquiry, and many more.
2 Other practices such as asceticism which involves physical self-deprivation or astral travel in which one’s soul/mind leaves the body draw one away from physicality to connect with spirit. With the right balance, context, and guidance these can be beneficial tools but as regular practices they do not aim to increase earthly connection compared with somatic introspection.