Introduction to Refocusing

Refocusing is a way of exploring the connections between perception and physical interaction, and the ways that we we unconsciously impose limitations on ourselves. Bob Nimensky, a friend with whom I practiced Aikido, and I developed this approach in the 1970s, as we attempted to understand and replicate the fluidity in movement and apparent untouchability we saw in some high level Aikido players.

Involving each other in physically constraining interactions — choke holds, joint locks, and the like — we would look for ways to dissolve the apparent constraint and move as if it didn’t exist. We found we could do this by attending to and responding to aspects of the interaction that were normally unnoticed. When we were successful, the constraint would melt away, and the person being constrained could move as freely as if the constraint weren’t there.

You’ve seen ambiguous visual images like the faces/vase or the rabbit/duck depicted below. Look at them one way, and you see one thing; look another way, and you see something different. Your experience is not determined by the image itself, but by the way you bring that image into perceptual focus. A volitional shift in your perceptual focus will change your experience.


This is also true of physical interactions like those described above, it turns out. Not just your experience of the interaction, but its outcome, can be different, depending on your perceptual focus. The ordinarily expected outcomes of interactions like these — outcomes determined by relative skill, strength, leverage, and the laws of physics — require that both parties perceive and experience the interaction in the ordinarily expected way — as a physical interaction between two physical beings. But other, non-ordinary ways of perceiving are also possible, and can lead to decidedly non-ordinary outcomes.

Bob and I discovered that non-ordinary shifts in our perceptual focus could produce powerful non-ordinary experiences. We called our way of exploring these phenomena Refocusing, because that term seemed to capture the perceptual shifting that we employed. I know that this may sound like it violates ordinary common sense, but I ask you to suspend your disbelief at least until you have tried to experience some of the examples offered below and in subsequent postings.

As our explorations progressed, Bob and I found ourselves moving beyond our initial martial arts interest and into a much deeper exploration of the nature of human interaction, and ultimately, of the nature of reality itself. These experiences led to radical changes in my worldview and my ways of understanding and working with human experience, and changed the direction of my life. My book, The Reality Illusion, describes some of those changes. When I met Moshe Feldenkrais in 1980 I was drawn to him by the resonance I felt with his work, which I felt addressed similar questions. This led me to study with him, and to become a Feldenkrais practitioner. Bob and I continued to explore Refocusing until his death in 2007.

My Refocusing experience has played a profound role in my understanding and practice of the Feldenkrais Method, particularly with respect to the nature of the connection between practitioner and client and the ways that learning can be facilitated through that connection. I have shared some of these insights through workshops and through advanced training that I have offered for other Feldenkrais practitioners. (For example, see Focusing your Touch.) Until now, however, I have not attempted to teach the Refocusing process itself. It felt too personal and elusive, and too dependent on the idiosyncratic interpersonal dynamic that existed between Bob and me. But I’ve recently been reviewing videos that we made of some of our explorations, and I’m finding that they deepen and integrate my understanding of what we were doing. This blog series will attempt to articulate that understanding, in the hope that it can be of value to others as well, and that some will find the exploration itself as much fun as I do.

Being held down

Consider what happens as you get up from a chair. In the absence of any constraint you can get up in a variety of ways, all variants on the same basic theme. You move your weight out of your pelvis and into your feet, transferring support from the chair to the floor, and you stand up. Most people find that relatively easy. If someone stands behind you and presses down on your shoulders, though, what happens is quite different. Most people will struggle against the pressure on their shoulders, pressing their butt down into the chair in the process. Their feet will lift and come away from the floor, because it feels like they get more leverage that way.

Try this with a friend. First, sit down and get up once or twice. Then, with your friend standing behind you and holding your shoulders down, try to get up. Don’t think too much about it or try to “figure out” a fancy way of doing it. Just try to get up. The odds are that even after reading this, you will press hard against your friend’s hands with your shoulders and against the chair with your butt, while your feet lift slightly off the floor. I’ve used this demonstration in lectures and workshops hundreds of times, and only rarely does anyone do anything else.

Next, with your friend not holding you down, just sit there pushing your butt into the chair with your feet off the ground. Most people find that feels pretty silly. If doing that won’t get you up when nobody is holding you down, why does it feel like it will get you up when someone is holding you down? Have your friend hold you down again, and see how natural the struggle feels with his hands on your shoulder. Can you remember how you got up when the contraint wasn’t there — by shifting your weight forward into your feet and standing? If you can stay focused on the action of getting up, rather than fighting against the pressure of your friend’s hands, you may find that you can easily get up. If you have trouble doing this, ask another friend to gently guide you, as depicted in the video below.

It may seem unbelievable that you can be held down only if you agree to be held down, that it happens only because both parties participate in the same reality-defining agreement. This seems to violate everything that most people take for granted about how the world works and about the nature of reality. But that’s the territory that we’re exploring. Later on in this series I’ll address some of the physical and metaphysical implications of these experiences, but for now I’d like to stay with the experiences themselves.

Let the Ball move you

The next video shows an example of the Refocusing process that Bob and I used to move beyond ordinary experience and into the non-ordinary. The video begins with Bob holding a large ball, while I attempt to move it. When I hold the ball “normally” I can’t move it because of the resistance provided by Bob’s grip on the ball. When I shift my experience to one in which the movement seems to come from the ball rather than from my efforts, however, that resistance dissolves and Bob is pulled along with the ball in the same way that the holder was pulled along with the sitter in the previous video. We then switch roles back and forth, exploring further variations on the same theme.

I’m not going to say much now about what’s going on here. I’ll talk more about that in my next post. But first I’d like to see what kind of sense this raw video makes to people. Please watch it and play with it yourself. You can use any ball big enough for two people to hold at the same time. Balloons work fine. Please leave me a comment and let me know what you think about your experience.


Series NavigationLetting a Ball move you

6 thoughts on “Introduction to Refocusing”

  1. Hi,

    I really like this piece. I understand it and experience this piece as sourcing generative perception and not inhibited perception where the neuro-muscular expression is more of what you intend.

    I would enjoy reading and experiencing more of the overall model of refocusing.



  2. Reading this and watching the video demonstration was so timely. My mind has been focussed on terrorism due to the recent events in Boston.
    Your experiment illustrates for me, Gandhi’s thinking behind his quote:
    “A eye for a eye leaves the whole world blind”.
    The paradigm shift is simple and yet seemingly difficult for us humans to accomplish.

  3. Thank you for creating this blog. This first post of yours resonates in a lively way for me, bringing me back to your teachings during your two workshops in Vancouver, BC,

    Since our explorations together in BC and at the 2012 San Mateo conference, I have been working with balls of a variety of sizes and densities in my personal practice and with students. One of the benefits has been an increased ability to observe shifts in pain levels and cognitive processes.

    I look forward to reading all of your Refocusing posts!

  4. Thanks. For me, this has a very deep resonance with many of the principles that have come out of Milton Erickson’s work. And it adds some options for feeling and thinking about what Feldenkrais was attempting to elucidate with his work.


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