CREATIVE REFOCUSING

This summer, while wandering about WaikikI Beach,  I happened into a gallery featuring large photographs of landscapes and was struck by their “presence”.  To begin with they were nicely framed (see last weeks post) but there was something else about them that I couldn’t put my finger on.  In talking to one of the salespersons I learned that the photographer had figured out a way to solve the “depth of field problem” facing photographers, so that everything in the pictures, from foreground to background was “in focus”, that is they were equally clear or  sharp (like the photo on the right,above).Typically, because of the mechanics of cameras, photographers are confronted with a choice of whether to focus on subjects in the foreground (leaving the background looking blurry or unfocused) or focusing on the background, which necessarily means that objects up front will appear fuzzy. The photo on the left above and the one in the middle reflect these two extremes.  Generally when we view photos we are used to seeing images that approximate one or the other of these two.  However there are techniques (see “hyperfocusing” and “photo stacking” ) that can be used to try to produce photos where both the foreground and background objects are equally in focus and clear.  In the world of photography, this outcome in rare.

I started thinking about all of this while writing my last post (Creative Reframing in Art and Life ) since much of what I said was derived from Eugene Gendlin’s book called “Focusing” (1978).  The essence of his therapeutic technique is helping patients focus on, (pay attention to) a “felt sense” of whatever issues or problems they are dealing with.  I argued that “creative reframing” entails learning to shift attention to somatic processes that are not in our awareness and  that this can lead to new ways of seeing ( more accurately “creating” ) our reality.  This time I want to play with a “sister metaphor” which I call “creative refocusing”.  It is basically looking at the same process as reframing but I find that using more than one metaphor to describe the same thing or process can be useful.  “Listening” to our “felt sense” of a problem entails a refocusing of attention.

Years ago I took a biofeedback seminar from Dr. Lester Fehmi and have found his theoretical ideas on attentional focus to be helpful in thinking about personal transformation.  According to an article by Fehmi and Fritz, most of us, most of the time, are operating in what he calls “Left Hemisphere Narrow Focus” modes of attention, which he describes as the “most habitual and most generally reinforced attentional mode in our society” (24) . In other words,  we focus narrowly on our internal thoughts and in extreme cases this can manifests as obsessive worry and preoccupation with recurrent throughts.   They go on to say “This refers to the wakeful state in which mental effort is expended to exclude certain aspects of experience through a narrowing or constriction in the some of attention”(p. 24). As in photography, when our reoccurring thoughts are the focus of attention, background objects (somatic signals, including our “felt sense”), although present, are “out of focus”.

Much of his research involves trying to train subjects and patients to shift to what he calls “Right Hemisphere Open Focus” modes and this is what I refer to as “refocusing”.  Using biofeedback equipment, subjects learn to attend to what I have referred to earlier as internal somatic signals that are not in our awareness while in a narrow focus mode.  The biofeedback machine is programmed to emit a particular sound whenever subjects shift from narrow focus to open focus so they can learn to include these somatic signals into their awareness.  Here is what I find to be most fascinating about this research :  Fehmi and Fritz state that “….after succeeding in the biofeedback training many trainees report that they had proceeded to the point in training at which they had given up on the task altogether, only to discover that the feedback tone would occur even more frequently after they had stopped actively trying”.  This seems to parallel what Lehrer (see the first three blog posts) reports happening in folks that have had creative insights as well as my own experiences in practicing Zen meditation.

It is this fundamental shift in attention that I see as being the basis of what I called “creative reframing”.  Being able to get out from under the view of reality that is perpetuated by our internal dialogue, allows for the emergence of new perspectives or insights. This “refocusing” of attention, then is what allows truely “creative reframing” and it seems that this skill is learnable with biofeedback training.  I would suggest that this is a key skill that can be learned by practicing Zen as well.

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“Focusing is not Zen, nor is it the only mind-body practice that can assist our explorations of Zen. But because it is so close to the process we follow in zazen, it is exceptionally helpful as a tool to assist us in the ultimate work of Zen, which is the surrender of self”. See “Zen and Focusing” by Janet’s Jiryu Abels Sensei

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Another important idea that comes our of Fehmi’s writings is that the attentional shifts he talks about are not what we typically hear about as in the literature regarding left brain functioning versus right brain functioning.  Moving into the Open Focus mode does not necessarily involve shutting out our thoughts and cogitive processes associated with Left Brain functioning.  Rather, it is different from the narrow focus mode in that it does not exclude the internal bodily signals that are ignored when narrowly focused on our own thoughts.  This observation runs contrary to statements I have heard by both artists and Zen practioners suggesting that their goals is  to function exclusively in their right brains.  As I showed earlier,(the first 3 posts on this blog) the research in creativity suggests that this probably not useful or even possible for  those interested in becoming more creative.  As for Zen;  James Austin, who has exhaustively studied the psychophysiology of Zen, states…”the proposals that a meditator becomes wholly “right-brained” can not be supported” ( Zen and the Brain, pg. 365).

To return to the photographic metaphor, creative “refocusing” is not moving from extreme foreground focus (with background ignored) to one where the background information is the focus of attention while ignoring the foreground.  Rather it is more like the third picture above where foreground (our internal dialogue) and background (internal sensations) are equally clear and salient.  In this open mode we are able to appreciate all aspects of our lives and are better able to respond to each new situation as it arises, because we have more information to work with.  This seems to be essential to creativity in both life and art.

4 thoughts on “CREATIVE REFOCUSING

  1. If I understand you correctly what you a describing in your summary is Vipasana, or Insight Meditation. The practice of developing concentration and then bringing it to focus on the sensations of body and mind, becoming aware of the internal talk and its attendant responses in emotions and consciousness.

    “Focusing is not Zen”… I have an acquaintance who is a Ron Paul supporter. He is convinced the the Federal Reserve is “The Creature from Jekyll Island.” He proclaims himself an absolutist. His religion is existentialism. In my opinion he has a limited view, a limited focus. My perspective is that I strive to be both an Absolutist and a Relativist.

    The use of Hyperfocus as metaphor I think is almost Zen appropriate. It suggests being aware of all things at all times, seeing the foreground and the background clearly.

    To make it completly Zen I would consider the use of Selective Hyperfocus. A process of finding out what is behind the house (in your first pictures) without losing sight of the big picture. In other words, the Awakened state.

  2. This speaks to what I have been doing more and more in my life but have not been able to really explain except to describe being in touch with my “gut feeling”. This doesn’t exclude using rational thought but rational thought is guided by the felt sense of an experience. It occurred to me that zazen is the “engine” that drives my ability to be in the open focus mode rather than the narrow focus mode and it is not something that needs to be forced, it presents itself and it is my free choice to go with the flow.

  3. Beth and David, I like that you are both discovering the fun of playing with metaphors. I like the idea of “Zazen as an engine” because it fits with my sense that we actually build up energy by practicing refocusing over and over again as we sit on a daily basis and that that energy becomes available for refocusing when we face problematic situations in daily life. David, I thought about using “hyperfocus” as a main concept in the refocusing post, but discovered that Wikipedia defined the term as follows: “Hyperfocus is an intense form of mental concentration or visualization that focuses consciousness on a narrow subject. To me that sounded too much like what Fehmi and Fritz called “narrow focus”.

    Regarding your first point in your comment: In the post when I tried to explain what I meant by “creative refocusing” I did talk a lot about developing body awareness and so I can see how you related that to techniques practiced in Vipasana meditation. In some forms of this practice, students are encouraged to focus on specific parts of the body in what seems to approximate a “narrow focus”. My personal experience with Vipasana was that I was first instructed to attend to the breath and then later to “open up” to whatever is happening in the moment. This is very similar to my experiences with Zazen. What I was trying to point out is that whether it is biofeedback, Zazen or most other forms of meditation, there is a widening of attention so that the “somatic sensations” that are always there but often overlooked, are also included in one’s consciousness.

    • I follow your points and concur. However my experience with Insight Meditation (Vipasana) covers a variety of practices to bring awareness not only to the breath but also to body and mind. To pick out particular aspects of these states. To cultivate this awareness an ultimately to be able to hold them in the background while consciously directing attention to particular aspects of them.

      This is why I suggested the goal is to be both aware of the large and narrow picture simultaneously.