By Dr. Leslie Ellis
Okay, I will admit it: I find meditation a tad boring. I have tried and never stuck with it, and I am betting I am not alone. We all know we should be meditating; its benefits have been well documented. But for me, the practice is too passive, detached and not compelling enough to lure me to sit watching my breath and my thoughts come and go. However, I deeply value the cultivation of inner life and have an alternative (or complementary) practice to suggest for those, like me, who don’t love to meditate.
Clearing a space. This simple practice is from focusing, a way of attending inside to our embodied felt sense, the place where we know a great deal, most of it not yet articulated. Focusing, developed by philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin, is a deeply-embodied, gentle and respectful alternative to meditation. (For more on this, I recommend the audio book, Focusing, narrated by Gendlin himself.)
Clearing a space (CAS) is the first step in focusing, and can stand alone as a practice to clear inner clutter, manage overwhelm and increase feelings of well-being. You can begin the same way you would if you are meditating: by settling yourself comfortably in a quiet place. You can do this anytime, anywhere – in your car waiting to pick up your kids, at your desk before starting a new project, at home when you first wake up or before going to sleep. It is a way to clear a space inside, temporarily sweep it free of worries and distractions so you can breathe easier, focus on a task, or begin a deeper journey inward.
Simple steps to clearing inner space
Once you have settled your body, bring your attention inward and first, just check in with yourself from the inside. Take a few deep breaths and then ask yourself, Is everything okay? Often it’s not all good in there, but if it is, just acknowledge and enjoy that! If not, ask yourself, What is between me and feeling all-okay? And then, very importantly, let the answer come up as a felt sense from your body, not down from your mind.
What comes may be a clear sense of a current concern – a family member’s health issue, a big deadline, an interpersonal conflict. It could also be a vague sense of foreboding with no content at all. Welcome whatever comes, but don’t engage with it. Simply set it aside and ask, Is there more? Greet your inner concerns one by one and set them outside your body. Some people like to picture a shelf where they place them, a beautiful container, or a place in nature where they can rest. I send them to different places: work concerns to my desk, for example.
To be clear, this is not a practice advocating for shunting aside and ignoring the things that concern you. It is more about temporarily clearing your inner space from these concerns so you can be with yourself apart from all of that. Most people find this simple practice gives them a breath of fresh air, an open space to rest in even in the midst of turmoil. (If it doesn’t do that, but tends to add to your overwhelm, it’s not for you.)
Benefits of clearing a space: the research
This powerful practice can even offer solace to those with massive concerns. Joan Klagsbrun did some research into using CAS with women with cancer. One of her participants checked inside and found a deep concern that her daughter would not remember her when she was gone. But through clearing a space, she was able to find the place in her that existed apart from her disease. And from there she made a plan to create a scrapbook for her daughter as a momento.
Research has shown that CAS consistently brings a sense of well-being apart from difficult life issues, reducing depression and trauma symptoms, and increasing self-care and a positive body image (Grindler Katonah, 2010). Klagsbrun, Lennox, and Summers (2010) conducted a wait-list-controlled study exploring the effect of CAS on the quality of life of 17 women with breast cancer and found CAS to be an effective stand-alone method for stress reduction and for improving quality of life. Elliott, Davis, and Slatick (1998) reviewed process-experiential approaches to therapy for PTSD. CAS was offered as an example of how to help the client create an inner safe place for clients to retreat to if needed during exploration of trauma.
I have used CAS in my work treating refugees with PTSD, in my psychotherapy practice and in my teaching of focusing. Generally people report a sense of being able to breathe more easily, a sense of inner expansiveness, increased calm, less overwhelm. It also paves the way for deeper inner explorations, and that’s why Gendlin suggested it as a first step in the process of psychotherapy. The beauty of this practice lies in its simplicity. It can be a quick, portable, easy way to clear the inner clutter, find your authentic self in the midst of chaos, and be reassured that you are indeed in there, and at some level, all is well.