Article for The Folio: Clearing a Space on the Workbench
by David Orth

Occasionally I'm cornered by someone wondering where I get ideas. I'm pretty sure this is the polite version of "how do you come up with this crazyshit?" Still, it's an interesting, though difficult, question. This article contains an answer I always wish there were time for - presuming anyone really wants to follow me down this rabbit hole. It was included in a journal of psychology ("The Folio", The Focusing Institute) dedicated to the life work of Eugene Gendlin - philosopher & psychologist. I've found in Gendlin's language a modern expression of a very ancient insight - and a suggestion of how to answer this question.

Some background:  Gendlin's classic, deceptively simple book, "Focusing" (1978), is celebrated by a growing circle of psychologists, contemplatives, and philosophers. "Focusing" - as Gendlin defines it - is a rare practice enabling us to access the detailed knowledge we all carry implicitly in our bodies as irreducible events of sense joined to meaning - what he calls the 'felt sense.' Though rare, most of us naturally engage in Focusing from time to time. My theme is that, for me, building and designing are complex human acts that begin as this delicate, inner awareness grounded in sensation.

Focusing is not new, but neither is it what we ordinarily mean by 'focusing.' It is, we could say, to ordinary focusing what a tiger is to a cat. Older traditions have variously referred to it as 'inner attention', 'self remembering', 'knowing thyself', etc. Gendlin's special genius and contribution were that he described this enigmatic skill in a clear, systematic way that we modern folk can understand and practice. This skill is tricky to explain because it is something we do inside ourselves and because we tend to intellectualize about it on the one hand - or mystify it on the other. The traditional references to this skill have often been in allegorical language (e.g., the biblical 'the eye is the light of the body' or Gurdjieff's idea of doubling & reversing the arrow of attention). The effort, however you approach it, results in surprising and often transformative insights. For me, Focusing is like discovering a layer of myself that is quiet and unclear - like a child really - a very smart child that struggles to speak - but only if I'll take the time to listen. While Focusing is simple and fundamentally human; we tend to obstruct it by our frequent intellectualizing & emotional reacting.

Gendlin parsed this self awareness skill into 6 steps, the first being "Clearing a Space" from which I take my title. Also of note is that he later expanded this skill into a method called Thinking at the Edge (TAE). TAE applies Focusing to developing new theory - new patterns of thought. My article takes a parallel track - demonstrating how Focusing contributes to building and to visual design - especially at the edge of what is possible for us (new skills) or at the edge of what is being done in the field (fresh design/art). I call this adaptation Working at the Edge (WAE).

A short version of the essay was printed in the Focusing Institute newsletter in January 2011.

Link to the full version here.