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.
“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
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.