Method: Eugene Gendlin's Focusing

Focusing is a technique that lies at the intersection between meditation and therapy. In contrast to vipassana and its emphasis on supramundane insight into how consciousness operates, focusing is unabashedly about dealing with "your stuff," the worldly emotional baggage we all accumulate over a lifetime. It's about enabling growth and change in areas where we have stagnated. It's about becoming unstuck.

Focusing grew out of the observation by Gendlin and his co-workers that many people were not being helped by traditional therapy. Those greatly improved were distinctive in their ability to tap an internal process ignored by most clients. Gendlin determined to understand this process so it could be taught and used by anyone.

—Marilyn Ferguson, foreward to Focusing

This is achieved by working with a form of cognition called "the felt sense." Essentially, with focusing, you learn to work with what is fuzzily sensed and vaguely understood. This movement allows for a different, more holistic style of cognition than conceptual thought. This new style of thinking, in turn, enables one to approach long-standing personal issues in an entirely new light.

It will enable you to find and change where your life is stuck, cramped, hemmed in, slowed down. And it will enable you to change—to live from a deeper place than just your thoughts and feelings.

—Eugene Gendlin, Focusing

The name "focusing" is, I think, unfortunate (hence the scare quotes): the protocol is not really about focusing in the commonly understood sense of the word—concentration is involved, but it's not about concentration. Instead, I'd describe it as a language finding protocol. It feels more like carefully excavating than like focusing—you gently, patiently, tenaciously unearth something inside of yourself, carefully brushing it free of accumulated dirt until, suddenly, you recognize it—"aha!"—and are flooded with new understanding.

It's focusing in the sense of something coming into focus.

Baby's First Felt Sense

Some people learn this inner way fairly fast, while others need some weeks or months of patient inner listening and tinkering.

—the rest of the blockquotes, unless otherwise marked, are by Gendlin & taken from Focusing

The focusing protocol revolves around "the felt sense" and most of learning focusing is figuring out what is being pointed at by that phrase. It took me a month or so of frustrating on-and-off again investigation and many dead ends before I started to feel some confidence in finding this "felt sense" but, hopefully, with my (sage & very wise) advice here you'll have an easier go of it.

Note that in the phrase the "felt sense", the word "sense" is used in the manner of "the sense of something," not as in "the sense of smell." You can think of felt sense as synonymous with felt meaning.

On some level, you're already using this felt sense—you couldn't function without it.

Example: Consider the experience of saying the wrong thing. You're speaking and the wrong words come out of your mouth. An internal, self-regulatory process that monitors and listens to your speech triggers an alarm and there is the realization of "wait, that's not right."

Your attention then shifts onto the "felt sense" of what it is you're trying to say. It's a wordless… something, not easily described. It feels movementy and somehow embodied, but it's not obviously expressed on the body.

The moments that your attention remain on this felt meaning invigorate and inform what it was that you're trying to say. Knowledge in hand, you verbally correct yourself and continue speaking, now with more confidence.

One way of pointing at the felt sense, then, is to ask yourself, "What am I really trying to say?" Your attention will shift to… something. It's pre-verbal. When you say or write something that feels alive and self-affirming, this is where it springs from. And because it's prior to words, it just feels like, well… something. It can't be anything other than ill-defined because, once defined, it's thought. The process of figuring, defining, and translating it is the act of focusing.

A felt sense is something you do not at first recognize—it is vague and murky. It feels meaningful, but not known.

[…]

The felt sense is the holistic, unclear sense of the whole thing. It is something most people would pass by, because it is murky, fuzzy, vague. When you first stay with it, you might think, "Oh, that? You want me to stay with that? But that's just an uncomfortable nothing!"

Another scenario: When something is "on the tip of your tongue." You know what you're trying to say, but you're grasping and unable to find the word for it. You have the felt sense. You're missing the language. This internal act of searching for and finding the word you're looking for, along with the "aha!" once you've found the right one, that's focusing.

You can have the opposite experience, too, where you have words without felt meaning. I used to do this with my sister when we were kids: say a word over and over again. Soon, it will feel foreign in your mouth, alien, no longer a word but a sound. The felt sense has fallen out. Semantic saturation.

Here is another way of getting at it: think about how you'd use a wrench. Notice how your attention shifts to an inner space and there's a sense of motion? That's a felt sense.

Here are some more pointers:

Felt meaning is not inner imagery. Imagery can interact closely with felt meaning, but it is not felt meaning.

Felt meaning is not emotions. Emotions can interact closely with felt meaning, but they are not felt meaning.

Felt meaning is not bodily sensations. Bodily sensations can interact closely with felt meaning, but they are not felt meaning.

[…]

When someone says, can you explain that in different words? Your mind goes back to that, in other words, felt meaning.

When someone says, what do you mean by that? Your mind goes back to that, in other words, felt meaning.

When you're writing something, and it's hard, what you're searching for is felt meaning. Where you're searching is where felt meaning will be.

When you're writing something, and it's easy, you're drawing upon felt meaning.

When you lose your train of thought, you've lost your sense of the felt meaning you were speaking from. When you remember what you were saying, the what is felt meaning.

This quote is taken from Mark Lippman's Folding which is, not coincidentally, also the source of most of my other examples above: It has the cleanest, most practically informative descriptions of the felt sense I've found.

A Visual Demonstration

The core thing you're doing with focusing is concentrating, investigating, and examining something blurry until it comes into view. This is the focusing of your mind's eye.

Here's a demonstration. Each of the two images below initially appear as meaningless noise, but they aren't. There is a structure there, a something you can identify—but what? As you gaze as these images and try to figure it out, that's focusing, just with an extrospective instead of introspective tilt.

Hint: 1

Enormous hint: 2

Answer: 3

Now that you have some idea of what this focusing thing is about, let's move on to (one way of) working with it.

The Method Itself

Learning the focusing technique is a lot like learning a dance. In the beginning, you effortfully stumble through a series of steps but, with practice, the movement becomes fluid. You discard this scaffolding—it's no longer necessary to effortfully recall each step—and 'just dance.' With your attention free, there's space for improvisation. You realize that the original presentation of the dance, the initial series of steps you learned, rather than being the perfect, unassailable definition of the dance, was a pedagogical convenience, meant to get you to a state where you could go beyond it.

Treat this presentation of focusing the same way. Use these steps to get some handle on what you're doing, then experiment. Explore. Improvise.

As to not get overwhelmed, let's start with the core movement of focusing and then later fill in more detail. Remember my comment that focusing ought to be called language finding or translating? Here's how that happens:

  1. You first find the felt sense of a personal issue or problem.
  2. Next, you generate some language to describe that felt sense.
  3. Alternating attention between the felt sense and these words, does your description fit perfectly? Is there an "aha!", accompanied by a palpable sense of relief and a shift in the felt sense?
  4. If not, repeat steps 2 and 3 until you find something that fits just right.

Steps 2 and 3 here, this back-and-forth process of "resonating", operates at the border between explicit knowledge—that which can be verbalized—and gut intuition. This resonating is a sort of alchemy which transforms unconsciously held intuition into explicit understanding. It drags knowing across this threshold, out of the black depths of instinct and into the lighted realm of conscious awareness, suddenly enabling all of the standard powers of the reasoning, thinking mind to operate on it.

This is one of the two primary mechanisms behind focusing. The other is that, when attention is sustained on a felt sense for long seconds, it acts as a sort of catalyst or lubricant that encourages the felt sense to update, evolve and shift. This change in the intuitive, gut-level reality of a long-held issue then manifests in our lives as a disappearance: while living, we come to a point where we anticipate brushing up against this familiar block only to find, to our shock and delight, that it's gone! No longer stagnant and strangled, new possibilities open up, behavior changes, growth.

(Later edit: An additional mechanism and benefit of focusing is that it works directly against the tendency to flinch away from problem areas and cope through experiential avoidance. As it undermines this general tendency, it triggers a positive cascade, unblocking attention so it flows more freely through our lives, like a flood in the desert, greening everything in its wake.)

Cool, right?

Anyway, now that you're familiar with the core movement of focusing and why it works, let's take a more detailed look at the steps and actually doing focusing.

1. Clearing a Space

Find a comfortable position that you can effortlessly maintain. A comfortable chair, a zafu, your bed, whatever.

Set aside whatever you've been thinking about beforehand and vow to spend these next minutes with the focusing protocol.

Scan your body for any tension and relax any you find. Ease into this present moment. Give yourself permission to let go of whatever stress your body has been holding onto, at least for the duration of your investigation.

Next, build a little concentration. Starting from 1, count each breath up to 10. Once you reach 10, start counting down to 1. When attention wanders, let go of the distraction and return to the breath. Repeat this until the mind settles. Five minutes ought to be plenty. 4

Now, shift your attention onto that inner space where the felt sense appears. The traditional recommendation is to sink into the shoulder or chest area but, for me, I associate the felt sense more with "looking backward" into the area where the neck meets the back of the head. 5

Inhabiting this inner space, ask yourself, "How is my life going right now?". There will probably be some feeling response, usually not very pleasant. Then ask, "What is preventing me from feeling perfect right now?" When you get an answer, don't go into it and start amplifying it. Just let it hang out and ask, "Is there anything else?"

Don't get snagged on any one problem. Just list the problems mentally, the big and the small, the major and the trivial together. Stack them in front of you and step back and survey them from a distance. Stay cheerfully detached from them as much as you can. "Well, except for all of these, I'm fine," you can now say. It might be an awful list but that is all. "There's that business about George and Joanne. And there's that loneliness thing—yeah, I know that one well, that's an old one. And there's that funny little one about what I said to Chris yesterday." Do you feel a small increase of well-being in you? Keep stacking the problems until you hear something say, "Yes, except for those I'm fine."

2. Picking a Felt Sense

From the issues you dredged up in the last step, choose one to focus on during this focusing session.

Once you've settled on something, you need to find the felt sense of the thing. This can be tricky. Be patient. The felt sense doesn't respond as quickly as thought, give it at least 30 seconds. 6

At first there may be nothing there until a felt sense forms. Then when it forms, it feels pregnant. The felt sense has in it a meaning you can feel, but usually it is not immediately open. Usually you will have to stay with a felt sense for some seconds until it opens. The forming, and then the opening of a felt sense, usually takes about thirty seconds, and it may take you three or four minutes, counting distractions, to give it the thirty seconds of attention it needs.

Here are some techniques for finding the felt sense:

You are trying to get down to the single feeling that encompasses "all that about my relationships with …" or "all that about quitting my job." The feeling contains many details, just as a piece of music contains many notes. A symphony, for instance, may last an hour or more and contain thousands of separate musical tones, sounded by many diverse instruments, in a multitude of combinations and progressions. But you don't need to know all these details of its structure in order to feel it. If it is a symphony you know well, you only need hear its name mentioned and feel the aura of it instantly. That symphony: the feel of it comes to you whole, without details.

You are trying to make contact with the felt sense of a problem in the same way. Let your sensing go inwardly down past all the details that can distract and sidetrack you, past all the squawking and jabbering, until you feel the single great aura that encloses all of it.

Once you have found a felt sense of the issue, move on to…

3. Getting a Handle

Generate a word or words to describe this unclear sense of the problem. I generally start with something prosaic, like "sad" or "stuck" and, if those don't fit, iterate toward more idiosyncratic language.

4. Resonating

Alternate attention between your newly generated language and the felt sense of the issue. Does it fit perfectly and feel just right? Is there an aha! and a flood of relief? 7

There is a distinct physical sensation of change, which you recognize once you have experienced it. We call it a body shift. When people have this even once, they no longer helplessly wonder for years whether they are changing or not. Now they can be their own judges of that.

5. Asking

Now ask: what is it, about this whole problem, that makes this quality (which you have just named or pictured)? Make sure the quality is sensed again, freshly, vividly (not just remembered from before). When it is here again, tap it, touch it, be with it, asking, "What makes the whole problem so ____?" Or you ask, "What is in this sense?"

If you get a quick answer without a shift in the felt sense, just let that kind of answer go by. Return your attention to your body and freshly find the felt sense again. Then ask it again.

Be with the felt sense till something comes along with a shift, a slight "give" or release.

6. Receiving

Receive whatever comes with a shift in a friendly way. Stay with it a while, even if it is only a slight release. Whatever comes, this is only one shift; there will be others. You will probably continue after a little while, but stay here for a few moments.

Sense if your body wants to stop focusing or to continue. Does it say, "Wait! I just got here, let me be here for a day or so. This feels new"? Or does it say, "Let's not stop here, this isn't a new place yet. I don't want to be left herel"? Imagine going on and sense its reaction, then imagine stopping and sense its reaction.

Troubleshooting

I recently responded to an email with some more pointers on "focusing." I have reproduced it here below. Of the information on this page, this is the most current.

—-

Jim,

Thank you for the kind words.

As for the felt sense, I have come to believe that this feeling of stickiness or non-fluency is an intrinsic part of the process. Think about when you are figuring something out for the first time: it doesn't feel easy. The mind takes a while to clamp onto it and recognize it with fluency. So I think it is probably a good sign that you are hitting on periods of stickiness.

Actually the most disconcerting thing about it and I'm betting this is what has inspired your email is that the mind at first is not used to spending time at this layer of consciousness that precedes form. Before one has recognized an object, there is just this ever-shifting ocean of sensory noise, from which the "things" of experience are solidified. The adult mind is so accustomed to and conditioned to the experience of form—experiential objects that make sense—that it flinches away from this pre-verbal layer, finding it eerie or discordant. (This discomfort starts to fade with repetition and familiarity, although I will admit I still regularly find it jarring.)

The relationship to focusing here is that with focusing you're asking yourself something like, "What do I really mean by this?", and there are these long uncomfortable seconds that follow, where there is no experience of form. (There is an aliveness here but in the beginning it may just seem empty.) So the mind interrupts the process with some worry, like, "there's nothing here! It's not working!" But really you just need to stick with that waiting and unknowing.

I'm reminded here of this passage from The Cloud of Unknowing, which captures this poetically:

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

Often, it can take a lot of repetition with a specific trigger, "What do I really want to say about [thing]?" before you start to feel you are getting anywhere. This is normal: you are trying to recognize something new, and that takes practice. This process is a lot like working through a problem set of concrete examples in mathematics. It can be frustrating, a slog, but it's necessary if one is going to grasp the layer of abstraction above it, that which ties the examples together.

Although I haven't succeeded in finding this felt sense or what you call felt meaning I realised that it's probably located around my forehead or my arms. The main obstacle I'm facing right now is to actually get in touch with this feeling and located it precisely.

See, the thing about this felt sense is that you will never get ahold of it as precisely as you want it, because by the time you do, you'll have transformed it into form and thus words. The wanting for it to be precise is the mind's craving for form. Fuzziness and imprecision is a characteristic of focusing. In fact, to perceive the act of focusing well is to ever more clearly recognize this lack of clarity.

As for its location, it is best to use the largest scope of awareness possible. Try to make it as expansive as you can, including as much of the body and the feeling of inner space as you can manage. You'll notice that it collapses and that's OK, just open back up again. You get better at this with practice. What you need to recognize for different things and different times will manifest in different places, and sometimes in several places at once, so don't clamp down on any one part of the body or mind and ignore the rest.

It can also be helpful to focus first on relaxing into the body and feeling at comfort with the present moment. Notice any tension and try to let go of it. Give yourself sincere permission to let go of worries and just work on this one thing for the next 5, 10, 15 minutes. Try to embrace the feeling that there's nowhere you need to be, no one you need to be, and nothing that needs to be done. Unarmor yourself. Be open and defenseless, unassuming, allowing whatever may come up to come up.

Then, shift into this expansive awareness and start asking yourself questions, and just notice whatever happens. Is there a feeling of movement, of shifting, of fluxing, an aliveness? Pay attention to that. When it fades, repeat the question or a new one. What is this? Eventually something solid will surface into consciousness.

I'm not too certain about how to get it stable enough to write from it; my usual tact is to start writing, notice when I'm experiencing conflict, and then expand awareness and let the feelings shift and morph and work it out. I'll go back and forth like this, between writing out and verbalizing the conflict, and just feeling into it and allowing it to change.

I suspect that one can learn to more fluidly move between these, to better stabilize the felt sense in the body (although only after the initial sticky period), and to let that feeling more fully drive what one is saying. I'm terrible at this sort of tantric, full-manifestation of emotion so YMMV but if you think of a bodily feeling as being a bit like a newly lit fire, one that you can breathe energy into to strengthen, doing that to the embodied sense of something and then just letting that overwhelm your thinking, filtering mind, just letting the feeling itself speak, pour itself out, that's the goal. This is what I imagine Mark Lippman is doing when his writing is at its most energized.

IIRC the book Writing Down The Bones has some useful pointers around this.

I would be very happy if you can give me some more examples or descriptions about this felt meaning.

You know when you hear a strange noise in the night and you are startled into alertness, straining and trying to place whatever you heard? This is focusing. That straining, that listening for danger in the night, that trying to hear something where there is only vaguely a something, that's what you're aiming for.

I also like the example of trying to recognize something from a fog, but I think I included that in the original article.

Hoping this helps—ping me if you end up with any writing you want to share!, Robert

Further Reading


  1. Both scenes contain animals.

  2. The animals are black and white in the image and in real life.

  3. The first is a dalmatian drinking and the second is the face of a cow.

  4. You likely naturally incline toward thinking of the end of a breath as the end of the exhale. This is also the moment one is most vulnerable to distraction. You can resist this tendency by, instead, incrementing your count at the end of the inhale.

  5. If you're not sure where the felt sense presents for you, spend some time playing with the examples in the section above.

  6. It's longer than it sounds! Try calibrating yourself by counting down with a watch.

  7. This feeling is unmistakeable. When you've had it, you'll know.


If you have questions, perspective, doubt, or a simple longing for general camraderie, you can communicate with me directly by emailing robert at 99theses dot com. Don't hesitate. Your correspondence is personally enriching.