Integration Requires the Body: Focusing and the Felt Sense
by Ann Weiser Cornell
From Ron Kurtz in Hakomi to Peter Levine in Somatic Experiencing, body
psychotherapists have been looking to Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing process for
illumination on the somatic dimension of emotional healing and change. What
Gendlin’s work on Focusing has to offer to somatically oriented therapists is a radical
understanding that the body is much more than a collection of physiological
processes. The body is nothing like a machine. The experienced body, the livedfrom body, is where meaning is made.
At the heart of Gendlin’s work is the revolutionary concept of the felt sense. The
forming of a felt sense is a breakthrough moment, which takes a person outside his
or her usual concepts and habitual categories. It’s not the same as having a simple
emotion or thought. We speed up to think; to get felt senses, we slow down and form
a new bodily awareness of some life situation.
Clients who are stuck in frozen, fixed structures, forms of habitual thinking and
feeling, often seem as though they are going around in circles. Their thinking and
storytelling is repetitive and even their emotions come at the expected places,
without bringing relief. When the therapist facilitates Focusing for the client, a truly
new experience becomes possible, one that gets outside of the habitual ruts the
client has been circling in and allows new meaning to emerge.
Getting felt senses in psychotherapy taps into the same ability that artists use to
sense what is missing or needed in a work of art. When clients get felt senses, they
drop down below language to the creative soup that lies beneath. Felt senses
embody the following three crucial characteristics.
Felt senses form freshly. A felt sense can’t be the chronic ache in your shoulder or
gut that’s been there all week. For a felt sense to emerge, there needs to be an
intention, a pause, an invitation, such as “Let me see. . . . How am I feeling right
now about what happened?”
Felt senses are “of a whole situation.” A felt sense is an intricate whole that sums
up, captures, includes, contains, all the aspects of a situation at once. Those aspects
can then be unfolded or unpacked in a way that’s quite different from just having
emotions or talking about a problem.
Felt senses have a “more than words can say” quality. A felt sense contains so
much that is subtly uncategorizable that it takes time to find an apt description for it.
Often a single word is inadequate and a pair of words is needed instead, like “jumpy
queasy” or “tight constricted.” Metaphors and similes may be useful as well, such as
“like a knotted rope” or “like a heavy boulder.” Even after a description is found,
there’s typically a sense that there’s more that remains unspoken.
Bringing Focusing into clinical practice has two implications: First we need to
recognize the felt senses that arise naturally, helping clients stay with them despite
an understandable resistance to dwelling with an experience that is usually murky
and hard to describe. And second, we can help the client invite felt senses to form—
instead of, or in addition to, the habitual stories and “It must be…” explanations that
clients can get stuck in. Inviting a felt sense is like a 90 degree turn: Instead of
following your familiar, habitual superhighway of concepts, let’s take this turn into a
quiet pathway in the forest where we may encounter something surprising that takes
us to a new place.
Even more valuable for therapeutic change than the client's felt senses is the
therapist’s own ability to be in touch with her or his felt senses, during the therapy
process. The therapist's bodily felt sense is the source of attuned interventions that
occur in the mutually felt interactive space. This is why our new one-year training
program, Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change, starts with the
practitioners learning Focusing from the very first day, and practicing it with each
other. Building on this foundation, participants learn how to recognize felt senses,
how to nurture and invite them, and how to help clients stay in aware body contact
without moving into intellectualizing or storytelling.
Another powerful concept that is key to the Focusing process is what we call Self-inPresence. This is what we call a person’s ability to stand in their strong self and
provide compassionate support to the raw, wounded, and vulnerable places inside.
This is why we call our work “Inner Relationship Focusing,” because a healing
relationship is cultivated inwardly that mirrors the positive attachment relationship
that was needed in early childhood. The role of the practitioner is to be Self-inPresence and to facilitate the client to be Self-in-Presence, and in our training
program we show an array of subtle and integrative methods for doing this. Clients
are empowered through the very work of healing and no longer need to feel afraid of
their strong emotional states.
It’s probably obvious to the reader how well this work integrates with Somatic
Experiencing, Core Energetics, and other body psychotherapies. In the Focusing
world we are big advocates for combining methods for mutual enhancement.
Focusing goes very well with other methods; especially methods that are bodybased and respectful of the client’s essential wholeness. For practitioners who are
already successfully working with other methods, our training program includes
discussions about how to combine them with Focusing.
Bringing Focusing into your body-based practice asks you to be comfortable letting
go of orderly logic and analysis and to allow yourself to follow the client into the
murky, hard-to-describe dimension of felt experience. As the client describes and
acknowledges the felt sense, he or she is actually moving into new life possibilities.
The concept of the felt sense is based on an integrative view of the body - not as
opposed to mind, but as encompassing it. Therapies which put the body at the
center, like Focusing, are much more likely to offer a coherent, wholistic experience
of integrative healing.