On a hot August morning in 2012, I sat with 25 strangers in a former Capuchin monastery overlooking New York’s Hudson River. We were there to spend a week learning about a therapeutic process known as Focusing. I couldn’t have known then that this deceptively simple practice would alter my life.
Nor did I know much about Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher-turned-psychotherapist who developed Focusing back in the 1960s and originated the concept of a bodily “felt sense” as a path to healing. I’d learn only later how profoundly he influenced the mind–body practices that began to permeate US culture in the 1980s and are now a staple of many therapists’ practices. When I heard that he’d died in May of this year, at age 90, I was saddened. I’d always meant to meet him one day. I’d always thought there’d be time.
At the 2012 retreat, it was the promise of contacting Gendlin’s elusive felt sense that had brought us strangers together. Many participants had made a considerable effort to get there, traveling from a dozen cities in the US, as well as from Brazil, Sweden, Ecuador, and Canada. As we went around the circle and introduced ourselves, I learned that about half of them were therapists, with the other half ordinary folks like myself. Well, semi-ordinary. One young guy, an apparent James Dean fan, showed up in a tight blue T-shirt and rolled-up jeans, his black hair slicked back in an impressive pompadour. An engaging young woman from Toronto identified herself as a professional clown. There was a middle-aged man who hung back a bit, his impassive face and spit-shined shoes making me think of an FBI agent. There was a retired teacher, a massage therapist, a singer, a businessman. All of us had become intrigued by Focusing, each for his or her own reasons.
Our teacher was Ann Weiser Cornell, a highly regarded Focusing teacher and trainer, so at least I knew I was in good hands. She started with some psychoeducation about Focusing—what it is, how it works, what makes it distinctive. I scribbled notes. Then Ann changed tack. “Let’s put our notebooks down,” she said. At her prompting, we closed our eyes and quieted ourselves. “Now focus on the sensations in your body,” she said. I can’t remember Ann’s words exactly, but that was the idea. Obediently, I traveled inward, and listened. Radio silence. I waited. More nothing. Just as I was concluding that this Focusing thing was too weird for me, I felt a vague but insistent fluttering in my chest. No, it was stronger than fluttering. Closer to thumping. Until then, I’d been aware of no such feeling.
“Now try to find a word, phrase, or image that matches that felt sense,” Ann suggested. She encouraged us to start with the stem “Something in me feels,” rather than “I feel,” so as to not get flooded. I checked in again with the pounding sensation in my chest, and, after a few moments, an image emerged: a drumstick beating on my heart.
But wait, something else was nipping at me. It was like a hand scrabbling at my throat, trying to close it off. At the same time, I felt something like wings flapping through my upper body. What was it? This time, a single word appeared: sad.
“Now see if your felt sense has anything to tell you,” Ann said. “What does it want you to know?” Again, I drew a blank. Then out of the murk, I heard: What if they don’t like me? I flashed on James Dean, Mr. FBI, the charming clown, and all the others. I felt a wash of shame: how could I be this far along in life and still be tangled up in this pitiful stuff? Who was I, some kind of latter-day Stuart Smalley?
Ann encouraged everyone to stay with whatever was coming up, no matter how painful or strange. After a few moments, a young girl emerged inside me. She had skinny legs, stringy blond hair, and a look of desperation on her face. I saw kids on the playground running away from her, howling with laughter. My self-reproach melted away. I saw that kid and witnessed the wild, desolate look in her eyes. And I wept for her.
“Take a breath,” I heard Ann say. “Ask your felt sense what it needs.”
"Just as I was concluding that this Focusing thing was too weird for me, I felt a vague but insistent fluttering in my chest."
This wasn’t the end of the process. We’d go on to explore what our bodily sense needed, make a small step toward providing it, and then notice any shifts in our bodies. But what I’d just experienced was the heart of Focusing: diving beneath my thoughts, contacting my felt sense, and fully, compassionately standing with it. This is Eugene Gendlin’s signal contribution to psychotherapy: his insight that emotional understanding isn’t just linked to the body, but actually originates in the body. Then he created a process for accessing this body knowledge and using it as a springboard for healing. And remarkably, he shaped it in such a way that it could be used by anyone, anytime—in a therapy session, with a like-minded friend, or entirely on one’s own.
Gendlin’s original six-step model, initially envisioned by him as a self-help tool, goes something like this:
Clear a space. Find a comfortable, quiet place. Close your eyes and ask yourself a gentle question or two, such as “How is my life going?” Or “How am I, right now?”
Identify a felt sense. Let the response come from your body. Gendlin observed that at this point, “you will probably begin to encounter a lot of static from your mind: self-lectures, analytic theories, clichés, much squawking and jabbering.” Dip below the noise, he advised, until you encounter a particular bodily sensation that wants your attention. At this stage, the felt sense may be murky or vague. However it shows up, turn toward it.
Give the felt sense a handle. Allow a word or image to emerge that captures the essence of this body knowledge. It might be “jumpy,” or it might be “a tightness in my chest.” When the moment feels right, extend a silent greeting to it. This can be as simple as “Hello, I know you’re there.”
Resonate. Slow down here, toggling between your handle and your felt sense so your body–mind can check out whether the moniker you’ve chosen most accurately describes your felt sense. For example, an original handle of “anxiety” may become more specific and image-rich, such as “a cold hand clutching at my stomach.” Also, notice that your felt sense is only part of you, not your whole being.
Inquire. As you continue to keep your felt sense company, you might nudge it a bit, asking, “What’s the hardest part of this for you?” A little later, you might inquire, “What does this felt sense need?” Listen for an answer from your body, not your mind. When you get a response, notice whether you feel a visceral shift—perhaps a sense of a weight lifting, or clenched muscles loosening. The felt shift may open a new path for addressing a concrete problem, or simply generate a greater sense of aliveness.
Receive the experience. Welcome whatever you’ve encountered during the session. “Take the attitude that you’re glad your body spoke to you, whatever it said,” advised Gendlin. “You need not believe, agree with, or do what the felt sense just now says. You need only receive it.” Reassure your felt sense that you’ll be back again, if it wants to continue the process at a later point. Try not to set specific goals. “Focusing isn’t work,” Gendlin emphasized. “It’s a friendly time with your body.”
I can speak only from my own experience, but I agree: it’s a friendly time, even when it’s harrowing. On that first day of the Focusing retreat, after I wept for the desperate little girl, I asked her what she needed. “Stay with me” was all she said. I told her that I would, and sat down next to her. What happened next is hard to describe. Everything inside me felt subtly softer, like being swathed in feathers. There was nothing to watch out for, nothing I had to change.
For the remaining several days of the workshop, my coparticipants no longer felt like strangers. But it was more than that. My earlier fear that I’d be left out had pretty much dissolved. I talked with Ashley, the professional clown, and we bonded over our shared love of Motown. Midway into the week, I was hanging out with a half-dozen different people. I still felt wary of James Dean and Mr. FBI, but over the course of the workshop I got to know them a bit. (Dean was a gifted guitarist, while the G-man was a high-school history teacher.) I don't want to sugarcoat my experience. In the days, weeks, and years afterward, I’d continue to struggle with my issue of belonging. I imagine it’ll always be with me. But Focusing has changed the dynamic. Nothing I’ve ever tried before has allowed me to befriend my frightened young self as quickly, or as deeply, as this particular practice.
For many clinicians, the idea that the body can pave the way for emotional healing is now an article of faith, as in “tell me something I don’t know.” But until quite recently, most of us didn’t know. Even if we sensed the connection, we had no clear map of the route between body and mind. Early on, with little fanfare, Gendlin plotted a course. He was one of the genuine pioneers of mind–body psychotherapy.
Now, five years into my own Focusing process, I believe it’s been transformative. I don’t say this lightly. Dipping into my body this way allows me to discover my rawest feelings about a particular problem I’m facing—feelings that are often startlingly different from the ones I think I have. Second, it allows me to make contact with those feelings and genuinely look after them, rather than shoving them into the basement of my psyche, where they grow ever more lonely and frantic.
First thing nearly every morning, I sit by myself on my living room couch and close my eyes. I locate a felt sense—something gnawing at my insides, usually in my stomach, chest, or throat. Most often, I haven’t been fully aware of it until that moment. Next though it feels a little corny, I say, “Hey, I know you’re there,” and give it a handle. Then I keep it company. “What’s up?” I ask. The felt sense may be able to articulate the problem, but sometimes, it just wants me to hang out. When I sit down beside it, I often experience something lift from me, something dark and burdensome. This shift doesn’t happen every time, and it may not be dramatic. Often, I simply feel a little lighter. My breathing deepens. I stand up and begin my day.
And, when I remember, I nod and silently thank Eugene Gendlin.
This blog is excerpted from "Doorways to the Embodied Self," by Marian Sandmaier. The full version is available in the July/August 2017 issue, Left to Our Own Devices: Is It Time for Therapists to Be Concerned?
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Illustration © Doug Ross
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