I moderate my mind like a focus group, and you can, too.

Karen Faith
6 min readFeb 13, 2021

“Thanks everyone for being here. Your input is valued. I want to hear from each of you, and will give all of you the opportunity to speak. Please be completely honest, as it helps us help you. When you share, speak directly to me, not to the others, and try to make any requests reasonable within the limits of time and space.”

This is the way I typically open focus group sessions. It is also the way I meditate.

I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of me in here, in the mind of Karen Faith. I am not referring to psychiatric illness. And I don’t believe I am terribly different than any of you neurologically, by which I mean, I am possibly different. But it isn’t terrible.

I simply noticed, some time ago, that I was arguing with myself. And then wondered, if I didn’t agree with me, who is I and who is me in that scenario? It turned out that there are quite a few of me. There is a sentimental, super emo me. And an intellectual, analytical me. Those two argue a lot. There’s a me who loves sharing my writing publicly, and another one who would rather die. Those two had it out a few minutes ago and made an agreement to let one of them have their way.

Some of us, and this time I include you, regard these as feelings or thoughts, and have perhaps done a little personal homework accepting that we can have conflicting feelings at the same time. We can feel excited about a new job, and also dread it. We can be tired and also want to stay up. We can adore someone who we also feel annoyed by. We know this. And when we’re honest and rational, I think we can reasonably accept that these are common experiences–that we’re not crazy to both love and hate camping, for example. It does me no harm to embrace that I feel both ways about it.

But what about the thought that I’m worthless? Or that no one has ever really loved me? Or the shame that I will never escape the difficulties of my past? Those feelings are just as real as my joy at meeting a puppy on the sidewalk, but they are tougher to live with. And they send many of us to therapy. Or yoga. Or the nearest bar. And for the last 20 years, you could bet good money you’d find me in one of those places at any given time.

Because I wanted to quiet those thoughts. To stop feeling the weight of them. So I affirmed their opposites loudly in the mirror. I forced distractions on myself. I journaled, listened to podcasts, took baths and played music. And I cried and slept it off when I could. I went to hypnotherapy, hydrotherapy, and homeopathy. But still sometimes, when I was alone, I would hear myself shouting, “SHUT UP” to my own mind, because I could not tolerate the presence of those inaudible but somehow very loud voices. Do you have them?

In my work, I am a qualitative researcher. I spend/spent time with people in person, in order to understand their experiences as deeply as possible. My job is to practice empathy with strangers. To place myself in their shoes, and to receive everything I can about their world. For over ten years, I have shadowed people in their work, in their homes, while they shop, eat, drive, date, and even dress. I’ve asked them to share about their lives honestly, openly and vulnerably. And I noticed something that will come as no surprise: they were more open when I was.

I know this because I once watched it shift in real time. I remember sitting in the living room of an unpleasant woman who was feeding french fries to an infant as she snapped at me that she would never have her children vaccinated because of the artificial ingredients of the shots. Nevermind that she said this an inch of ash deep into a Virginia Slim. The entire scene challenged my willingness to be neutral. I needed to connect with her, and didn’t want to. I didn’t like her. I didn’t respect her. I didn’t want to spend a single moment with her. And the project required that I spend 3 hours, and that I use that time to really understand her. What she longs for. What she needs. What compels her to go on.

Sitting in front of her, I brought my awareness to my breath, second hand smoke and all, and imagined that my breath was inflating a shiny soap bubble filled with pure love. The good kind. Not affection, not admiration, not compassion, but unconditional love. No baggage, no beliefs, no demands, no fears, just total and complete acceptance and goodwill. And I imagined that bubble of pure love expanding until it contained my whole body, and then hers. And in that moment I saw a mother feeding her baby, in a world she did not trust. I told her I could see that she cared about protecting her son, and I asked her to tell me if she got that from her parents. And then we had a conversation. And I learned about her. Why she was afraid and angry. How she fought her fear to make a family. And what she needed to help her move forward.

It would be 2 more years before I learned to do this with myself. But it started just as simply. I heard the thought, “you are a worthless, selfish piece of shit.” And, whether out of exhaustion or epiphany, instead of shouting back, I deepened my breath and said, “Is that true?” And she answered me, that voice.

Don’t get spooked. This is all just thinking happening. But the part of me asking and the part answering did in fact seem like different parts. She explained that it wasn’t true, but that I hadn’t been listening, so she was trying to get my attention. So I asked her what she needed me to know, and it was simple. She was embarrassed that I’d been chatty with someone I should have listened to. And she asked me if I would please be more considerate with others. And I told her I would. And I thanked her for telling me.

As I continued the dialogue with myself, I found more of me. More voices, with more points of view, some of them more fun than others. And the imagined environment of my mind began to look a lot like a focus group facility: a round table of wildly mixed characters and one moderator keeping order with gentle but firm boundaries, probing questions, and, most importantly, gratitude.

I thank my selves for their contributions no matter how distorted or negative they may seem. Because we are all me. We are a team. We all want the best for us. Even my shaming voice wants me to be better, but like a hammer thinks everything is nail, shame is the tool she has. When I question her and ask her to be clear and kind, she tells me exactly what I need to know: what she needs to feel whole, and what she’d like for me to learn. But she only does this when I honor her personhood, when I embrace who she is without condition. Just like the frightened mother, she only does this when I show her love.

So while my openings for focus groups and meditation sound almost identical, the closings are a bit different. At the round table, back when we were around tables, I would hand out parking validation and remind everyone to sign for their cash. On the cushion, I say, “I love you. Thank you for helping me see what you see.”



Karen Faith

Karen Faith is an ethnographer and founder of Others Unlimited, empathy training for research, collaboration, and citizenship.