It was June 12, 2017 and I was in New York City for Dr. Eugene Gendlin’s memorial service. It was important for me to be there. Gene, as we students called him, was the teacher who changed the course of my life, personally and professionally.
At the memorial service, those close to Gene told heart warming stories about their time with him. One of the most moving talks was his son’s story of growing up with Gene as his father. I especially liked his story of being small and crawling into his father’s lap, looking up at him and saying, “When I grow up I want to be just like you.” Gene replied, “Oh no, you want to be just like you.”
I first met Gene nearly 40 years ago. I’d just completed my Masters degree in Social Work at the University of Toronto and dreamed of somehow combining what I knew as a yoga teacher with the western psychology I’d learned at university. As a yoga teacher, I knew that people don’t really heal unless change happens in their bodies. I needed an approach that worked with the body.
On my very first trip to Chicago to learn from him I was a yoga practitioner in search of a guru. I needed a way to weave the wisdom of the body into western psychology. Focusing offered a blend of east and west and, at the same time, was psychologically sound in terms of western psychology.
In those days, none of the current western psychologies recognized the role of the body in healing. That’s different now. Many therapies have learned from Dr. Gendln, usually without going him credit. Maybe it’s intellectual theft or maybe it’s that mysterious phenomenon where different people simultaneously “discover” the same approach, story or solution to a problem.
Gene started life 90 years ago as a Jew in Vienna Austria. His father left a meeting to discover swastikas everywhere in the town’s centre. It was 1938 and the Nazi occupation was underway. He knew not to return home and gathered his family to make their escape to Holland and finally to America. Gene was eleven.
At the University of Chicago Gene earned Phd’s in both philosophy and psychology. Inspired by Carl Rogers, he developed the model he called Focusing, a six-step system that teaches people to access their unconscious knowing through learning to read their bodies’ physical responses to life’s situations and problems.
Gene always made it clear he was nobody’s guru. In spite of the fact that we, his students looked up to him in awe, he made it clear he was an imperfect being. Someone once asked him how he avoided becoming a guru figure. Gene replied that a little honesty went a long way. For me, the fact that he smoked was jarring. After all, for yogis the body is the temple.
In those early days we students were mostly from North America. Today Focusers belong to a worldwide community. The memorial service was the end of a remarkable life but it also marked the current state of a blossoming approach to life.