Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Eugene Gendlin is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Chicago. For 15 years he and his colleagues did research that led them to conclude that psychotherapy patients who showed tangible changes on psychological tests and in their lives after therapy, were different than those patients who did not. They concluded that the difference between patients who changed and those who didn't was detectable in recordings of early sessions in psychotherapeutic treatment.

The difference that Gendlin and his associates observed was so easy to detect that Gendlin says that they were able to explain this difference to inexperienced young undergraduates, and that once this difference was explained to them, they were able to easily detect the difference between patients.

The difference is in how patients talk, which is an outer sign of what they are doing inside themselves.

Gendlin calls the thing that the patients who changed do inside themselves an "internal act," a "process," and an "uncommon skill," and since the mid-70's he has referred to this "internal act" as "focusing."

"It is a process in which you make contact with a special kind of internal bodily awareness. I call this awareness a felt sense," writes Gendlin.

Focusing, says Gendlin, is a natural inner act, and he emphasizes that "[a] therapist is not necessary in focusing."

By "felt sense," Gendlin means a physical experience.

"A felt sense doesn't come to you in the form of thoughts and words or other separate units, but as a single (though often puzzling and very complex) bodily feeling."
"Since a felt sense doesn't communicate itself in words, it isn't easy to describe in words."

Nor is a felt sense an emotion. "It has emotional components in it, along with factual components. But it is bigger than any single emotion, more complex - and much less easy to describe in words."

Gendlin notes that the equivalent of "hundreds of thousands of cognitive operations are done in a split second by the body." The body, he says, is a biological computer, "generating these enormous collections of data and delivering them up to you instantaneously when you call them up or when they are called up by some external event. Your thinking isn't capable of holding all these items of knowledge, nor of delivering them with such speed."

To illustrate what he means by "felt sense," Gendlin suggests that the reader think of two people who play a major role in his or her life. In his illustration he uses the names John and Helen.

"Let your mind slide back and forth between these two people. Notice the inner aura that seems to come into existence when you let your attention dwell on John, the sense of 'all about John'. Notice the entirely different aura of Helen."

Your sense of John or Helen doesn't come to you as thoughts, he says, as "discrete bits of data that you gather together in your mind." Your sense of John or Helen comes as a felt sense; it is bodily felt.

"The amount of information [about what John looks like, how he speaks, how you met him, what he does for a living, conversations you've had with him, etc.] is staggering - yet somehow, when you think of John, all the relevant facts and feelings come to you at once."

Gendlin says that to engage "[t]he inner act of focusing" is to touch an "unclear holistic body sense" with a receptive attitude. This usually results in a "body-shift," a shift in the felt sense, but whether such a shift occurs or not is not within our control.

Gendlin says that focusing "differs from the usual attention we pay to feelings because it begins with the body and occurs in the zone between the conscious and the unconscious. Most people don't know that a bodily sense of any topic can be invited to come in that zone, and that one can enter into such a sense. At first it is only a vague discomfort, but soon it becomes a distinct sense with which one can work, and in which one can sort out many strands."

In Psychotherapy and Spirit: Theory and Practice in Transpersonal Psychotherapy, California Institute of Integral Studies professor Brant Cortright says:
Another approach to body awareness is focusing. Developed by Eugene Gendlin..., focusing brings awareness of the bodily felt sense into sharp relief. Very much in the tradition of Reich's and the existentialists' distrust of the mind and verbal approaches that may stay intellectual, focusing uses the awareness of the bodily felt sense to access the body's wisdom of emotional life. It is noteworthy that it has been adapted by transpersonal therapists working both in theistic-relational traditions [he names two Catholic priests], and in non-dual traditions [he cites John Welwood's Buddhist-influenced approach as one example]. Both traditions insist that one obstacle to spiritual development is the mind, and one way of getting out of the head is by tuning into the body. Focusing can be a powerful way of accessing feelings by tuning directly into the "edge" of emotional-somatic experience.

The body-centered approaches collectively ask the question: how can we go beyond what we don't engage in? Bringing awareness or mindfulness to bodily experience is the first step in becoming present, in grounding the person in his or her somatic reality. The body is the entry point into presence. As presence deepens and the sensitivity to perception refines, there is an opening into the transpersonal, a movement beyond the self into the immensities of sensory wonder and spiritual awe.


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