Personal Truth and the “Felt Sense”

Inquiry in both spheres is facilitated by inviting attention to the felt sense of experience: the internal knowing which is directly experienced but which has not yet been formulated in words (“implicit”, “unformulated”, or “undifferentiated”). This way of attending to our inner experience—sensing into it and feeling it directly—is the foundation of mindfulness practice.

Felt sense was first identified by the psychologist Eugene Gendlin (1978), who noticed that it was one of the key elements in successful psychotherapy. He described this experience as the composite body sensation, often visceral, which carries the emotional meaning of something—for example, the jittery feeling in the stomach when we stand up to speak in public, or a heaviness in the heart when we think of a distant loved one. The felt sense, as he described it, was often (but not always) elusive, vague, subtle, and hard to describe in words; paying attention to it facilitated change in psychotherapy. Gendlin went on to create a therapeutic process or method, “focusing”, for helping patients learn to pay attention to the felt sense. This method could be used to invite deeper awareness of our feelings and thoughts as they were emerging.

Simply defined, focusing is a self-reflective process for attending to the inner knowing that speaks to us through the body. We can “focus” when we are “stuck” or want to discover what is true for us at a deep level (Cornell, 2013). Focusing is a useful process within the psychotherapeutic hour or at any time that we want to get more clear about something. A clinical illustration will perhaps make the psychotherapeutic relevance of “felt sense” more clear. It was an instance in which I used the language of “felt sense” to clinical advantage with a patient for whom I thought the language of “mindfulness” would have been off-putting:

Clinical Illustration 4.4: Catherine

Catherine was a 72-year-old patient who had enormous difficulty making decisions, among many other problems with daily living. Even minor choices were associated with considerable anxiety. My first clinical efforts focused on helping Catherine expand her framework of understanding of the problem: she was very concerned with making the “right” decisions, but she had trouble figuring out what the “right” decision was. In our work together, she discovered that she feared that if she made the wrong decision others would disapprove of her, reject her, or—at the very least—that she would be exposed as inadequate.

One day, as she was in the middle of describing one of her decision dilemmas to me in obsessional detail, I said to Catherine that in addition to how scared she felt about making the right decision (which had been the focus of our recent work), I imagined that obsessively “ping-ponging” back and forth between the various options might itself contribute to her feeling nervous. She wasn’t sure what I meant, so I suggested that she might find it interesting to just pause for a moment and get a felt sense of her predicament. I then guided her through a very brief focusing exercise: what did her current indecisiveness feel like? As she turned her attention inward and began to sense into her experience (following upon some guiding prompts from me) Catherine first experienced how anxious her body felt. Then something shifted and she began to feel much more calm and quiet.

Catherine was both impressed with and puzzled by this experience. It surprised her that her inner sense could change so rapidly. The calm and quiet feeling was a new experience for her. As we discussed all of this, I highlighted the difference between the feeling of trying to figure something out vs. just looking at/being with the feeling of indecisiveness. (This could be considered implicit mindfulness training.)

A flood of associations followed in the wake of this brief inquiry. We talked about childhood experiences in which Catherine had had to make decisions which were way beyond her developmental capacity at the time and for which she had had little or no support. As she put this together for herself, she saw that she had never really learned how to make decisions. The idea that there was an alternative to figuring things out had never occurred to her.

Focusing on felt sense is especially useful with patients like Catherine who are unsophisticated about introspection. In addition to being a new experience for Catherine, it naturally unfolded into an opportunity for her to take a more compassionate view of her difficulty with decisions, so understandable in terms of her developmental history. Focusing is a “neutral” psychotherapeutic intervention which I describe to patients as turning inward and tuning into intuitive awareness. It is very useful even in those patients who have little or no interest in mindfulness or meditation. It serves to help patients get in touch with and articulate their feelings, and it develops the habit of pausing in the midst of experience in order to self-reflect.

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