At the busy intersection of Mt. Lucas Road and Ewing Street, Les Fehmi’s unassuming ranch house has a sign out front: Princeton Biofeedback Center. Fehmi is a psychologist with rooms full of equipment; he attaches sensors to his patients’ heads and monitors their alpha waves. This kind of biofeedback was popular in the late 1960s and fell out of favor in the ’70s, yet Fehmi has used it to develop a revolutionary concept.
His radical method, called Open Focus, has been proven to reduce pain, help concentration in work and sports, and deal with all manner of stress-related health conditions, including anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and migraines. The concept: instead of focusing narrowly on Some Thing, whether that is a task or an aggravating boss, diffuse your focus. Focus on space, or “nothing.” Nothing? Zero?
“Nothing is a great and robust healer and is critical to the health and well-being of our nervous system,” Fehmi writes in his book, “The Open Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body, written with journalist Jim Robbins (Shambala Press, August 2007, $22.95). “Space, silence, and timelessness cannot be concentrated on. Seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling, and thinking of space — while simultaneously experiencing timelessness — is a powerful way to let go, the most powerful way that I know.”
“Open Focus” transforms lives but can be difficult to learn without guidance. Twice Fehmi tried to write a book so as to pass it on to those who were not his clients, but with limited success. Other therapists around the country teach Fehmi’s method, but it remained pretty much of a one-to-one learning situation. So Fehmi has been transforming lives one by one, patient by patient, over four decades — always dreaming and hoping for the time when he could help everyone, not just those who came through his door.
Fehmi’s co-writer Robbins regularly contributes to the New York Times, Scientific American, and other major magazines. He encountered Fehmi while he was doing research for his book “A Symphony in the Brain: The Evolution of the New Brain Wave Biofeedback.” Robbins has deftly translated Fehmi’s scientific theories into succinct and compelling prose. On Friday, October 19, at 4:30 p.m., Barnes & Noble MarketFair will host a reception for educators and the public, at which Fehmi will speak and sign his book. Open Focus can be taught in the schools, Fehmi says, “Kids as early as five or six can melt into pain/anxiety/ stress almost instantly, and it’s gone,” he says.
“Stress is not a done deal,” says Fehmi. “It’s better thought of as a force that strains our body and mind. Open Focus is a way of reversing the strains of stress; it allows all systems to return to homeostasis. It changes everything, every system of the body, in the direction of homeostasis and balance and recuperation and healing.”
The Open Focus book explains these theories and provides exercises, both in words on the page and on the audio CD that comes with it. The book has garnered enthusiastic reviews from, for instance, health guru Andrew Weil, a Dallas Cowboys football coach, and this writer.
Full disclosure: In 2001 I spent several months learning Open Focus because I wanted to avoid taking medication for high blood pressure. It really worked. Even now, when I am stressed, I replay the words in my mind: “Can you imagine the space between your eyes…” and I can feel my sinuses loosen up and my blood pressure drop. But I rarely used Open Focus in the workplace. Fehmi’s book gives a clear account of how to do that, and now doing Open Focus, as I go along, makes my day go much more calmly.
The book is chock full of success stories. Fehmi tells of the man who was cured of ulcerative colitis and the woman whose migraines disappeared, the jazz trumpet player who no longer froze from nervousness at auditions and the agoraphobic who conquered her panic attacks. Years after the initial treatment, when she was getting ready for her daughter’s wedding, the agoraphobic collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital, unable to swallow even her own saliva. Medical alternatives failed and she called for Fehmi, who gave Open Focus therapy at her bedside; she recovered sufficiently to attend the wedding.
Among the most compelling stories is the author’s own experience, in 1973, when he experienced the searing pain of kidney stones and formed his first hypothesis. “I searched out the precise location and gave it my full attention,” he writes. “Then, instead of fighting it, I surrendered to it. I allowed myself not only to fully feel it but also to bathe in it and completely dive into it and accept it. Immediately the pain ceased and a wonderful feeling of lightness took its place. The world around me grew brighter, and I felt more present and centered. To my astonishment the pain was gone for a full day.”
Nearly 40 years later, Fehmi is eager to bring this method to the masses.
Fehmi’s patients, hooked up to biofeedback equipment, listen to his recorded monologue in a darkened room. As they hear the beep beep beep sound that is triggered by their own alpha waves, they learn how to “pay attention” in the Open Focus way. Or, at a video screen with a Pac-Man style game, their alpha waves propel the Pac-Man through the maze.
“It is a powerful way of ‘attending’ that improves physiological normalization in every aspect. It allows stress to dissipate throughout the space,” says Fehmi. “Everyone has the ability to heal their nervous systems, to dissolve their pain, to slow down and yet accomplish more, to experience the deeper side of life — in short, to change their lives for the better dramatically.”
Fehmi’s father immigrated from Turkish Cyprus and worked as a waiter, but died when Fehmi was 11 years old. He and his sister and mother, who was an immigrant from Germany, scraped along on public assistance. “I remember I had one crayon, and one pencil,” he says. Terrible at reading but good at math, he managed to get into New York City’s math/science high school, even though he could barely read.
“My mother just kept saying, you can do this, just do it. I struggled so hard. I could not read much more than a few pages until I was 16,” Fehmi says. Finally at age 16, he wanted to read Erskine Caldwell’s racy “God’s Little Acre.” Propelled by (perhaps relaxed by?) hormones, he gradually read more pages at a time and solved his reading disability.
After two years at the City College of New York, Fehmi enlisted in the Army, went through Officers’ Candidate School, and served at a guided missile base in Fort Ord, California. He finished college at San Jose State in 1961 with a psychology major plus minors in math, physics, and electrical engineering. After earning his PhD in physiological psychology at UCLA, he took a teaching position at State University of New York at Stony Brook. Biofeedback was his specialty.
Unfortunately, by the time he came up for tenure, charlatans and false claims had tainted the field. “Biofeedback in the mid ‘70s was very hot but very much ahead of its time,” he says. “People selling equipment said you would get instant enlightenment. I had been doing it since 1967 and, though I had had the dramatic experience from my own alpha training, I knew it wasn’t instant. Everybody jumped on a bandwagon.”
When he lost his job, he was divorced and paying child support. “It was a difficult time for me, but I had had this sense, all along, that this is why I am here on this earth, to do this,” he says. When a psychiatrist from Princeton offered an opportunity to set up a biofeedback practice, Fehmi accepted with alacrity. After a year he was able to move out of the psychiatrist’s office and into the Mt. Lucas Road space.
Fehmi has three children and two grandchildren. He and his wife, Susan B. Shor, a social worker and therapist, have a joint practice. They had known each other for many years and married in 1996. (“It was love at first sight when I met her at a conference on the Princeton campus. I was absolutely transported,” says Fehmi).
Similariaties can be drawn between Open Focus and Eastern religious practices, but most of the other ways to accomplish the same results require a divine focus. Fehmi adamantly resists comparisons, insisting that Open Focus is science-based and should stand alone. “Some religions relate to the idea that God is everywhere and meditating on that is like meditating on space. I am not suggesting these other ways are not helpful, but I am suggesting that the effectiveness has something to do with changes in the way one attends. By adding this knowledge to what they do, they can expand it and deepen their practice.”
In addition to believing Open Focus can be taught to kids in school Fehmi also says it can be taught en masse to adults. Some people immediately fall in love with the idea that just attending to space while you are working or writing makes everything so easy. They can use it immediately. Says Fehmi: “I’d like to do group sessions in Yankee Stadium. This is the most important learning anyone can have.”
Author Event, Friday, October 19, 4:30 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair. Les Fehmi, author of “The Open Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body,” presents a workshop for educators and the public. Register. 609-716-1570.
Princeton Biofeedback Center, headed by Les Fehmi, Ph.D., and Susan B. Shor, MSW, CSW, holds an Open Focus training on Monday, November 5, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 317 Mount Lucas Road, Princeton. $265. 609-924-0782.