In the early 1960s, Eugene Gendlin, a psychologist at the University of Chicago was trying to find out which factors make psychotherapy effective. He researched lots of different therapy modalities. Eventually, he discovered that it wasn’t what the therapists were doing that determined whether a client was able to change their life. Instead, what made the difference was what the clients were doing.

The clients who experienced the biggest changes were able to slow down, tune into their inner experience, become aware of the vague, hard-to-articulate sensations in their bodies, and speak what they were feeling aloud.

They were able to access what Gendlin called a “felt sense.” In his book, Focusing, Gendlin writes—

A felt sense is not a mental experience but a physical one. Physical. A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time— encompasses it and communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail. Think of it as a taste, if you like, or a great musical chord that makes you feel a powerful impact, a big round unclear feeling.

Gendlin discovered that with persistent practice, anyone can rediscover their ability to access felt sense and connect to inner wisdom.

He laid out of practice to help people access felt sense and the wisdom of the body, and he called this practice “Focusing.” Focusing is one of the central practices that I come back to over and over again to help my clients unstuck and clear about what they want.

The following is a very brief introduction to the Focusing practice. For much more in-depth training, I highly recommend The Power of Focusing, by Ann Weiser Cornell and her courses at FocusingResources.com. Keep in mind that Focusing can be much easier to learn with a guide or partner, so if this feels hard to do on your own, I encourage you to take an introductory course or reach out to a coach or therapist who is skilled in this methodology.

Also, keep in mind that if you hear nothing, that’s okay. I find that the biggest obstacle that gets in my clients’ way of feeling their bodies is wondering if they’re doing it right, pushing too hard, or expecting too much. I invite you to let go of trying to figure out if you’re feeling the right thing. Just look for something, anything. Even nothing is something. Notice whatever you’re feeling and see if you can let the feeling be, even if you don’t think you’re feeling what you’re supposed to be feeling.

I invite you to follow these steps as I guide you through them—

Before you begin, choose what you’ll give your attention to.

You can Focus in two ways— you can ask your body what is wanting your attention in general, or, you can spend time with a particular issue such as an old habit, a difficult decision, a challenging emotion, or something you want to bring in to your life.

Get quiet and comfortable.

Find a quiet place free from distractions. Grab your journal and a pen to take notes. If any niggly thoughts are wandering around your brain, take a moment to jot them down so that you don’t have to hold onto them. Let your mind know that it doesn’t need to be productive or figure anything out for the next few minutes. Make sure that you’re warm enough and get comfortable.

Then, slowly, sense into your body.

  • Let your belly relax. Take a few slow, deep breaths, and feel how your body moves with each breath.
  • Feel your feet on the ground. Allow the weight of your body to sink down and be held by the chair, the floor, the earth.
  • Then, bring your awareness gently into the middle area of your body. Your jaw and throat. Your upper chest. Your solar plexus, at the bottom and middle of your ribs. Your belly.

Ask your question.

Ask yourself whichever question you’d like to work with today:

  • What wants my attention now?
  • How am I about this issue?

Pause, and notice what arises.

Let the sensations or emotions that you notice be as they are, without trying to change them. You are just noticing what you’re experiencing.

Say hello to what you notice.

When you notice a sensation, say to it, “Hello, I know you’re there.” We start most conversations with a greeting, and your body deserves the same care and respect that you’d give another person. You invite your body to tell you more by saying hello to what you’re sensing.

Then, notice how the sensation responds. It may feel immediate relief from being noticed. Or it may grow clearer and stronger as it’s given the opportunity to communicate with you. Say hello to each new sensation that arises. Go slowly and gently.

If there’s an unfriendly part of you who thinks this is all silly or tries to make the other sensations go away, notice where this unfriendly part is in your body and say hello to it. If multiple, even contradictory, sensations arise, just say hello to each sensation that arises.

Describe the sensation.

Find words to describe the sensation. Words that describe a physical sensation might include hot, tingly, squeezing, light, movement, painful, closed, cold, tense, hard, heavy, empty, pulling, holding, warm, turned on, full of energy, awake, alive.

When you find a word, check how it feels in your body. “Tightness. Is tightness right?” Don’t push to find a perfect description. Just experiment and ask if there’s more until you feel a sense of “Yup, that’s it.”

Try not to create a story about the sensation. You’ll know you’re going into your storytelling mind and out of your body if you hear yourself saying things like— “It reminds me of the time my father…” or “It feels like betrayal or hopelessness,” or “I think it means that I should…”

Sit down next to it.

Once you’ve chosen a sensation to focus on, sit down next to it in your mind’s eye. Rather than diving directly into the sensation, imagine that you are a curious and compassionate witness or friend. Gently allow and observe the sensation, without being overwhelmed by it or needing to protect yourself from it.

Listen with curiosity.

Gently ask the sensation questions you’d like to ask, such as—

  • What do you want me to know?
  • What do you need?

Keep asking— Is there anything else?— until the sensation feels complete.

Say goodbye and thank you.

When you feel ready to return to the rest of your day, thank the felt sense for spending time with you. If it is a promise you can keep, tell this part of you that you won’t forget about it and you will be back. Slowly, feel your feet and your hands and open your eyes. Give yourself a moment to sit quietly before bringing your attention back to your day.

Please share, and I will make sure to respond!

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