Sarah was feeling shut down. It was winter. At the time, our three-month old son Eden had a mild fever, and she’d been cooped up in the house with him for days. I thought fresh air would be good for both of them, but nothing I’d been saying could convince her to go outside. I was getting impatient.
“Let’s take the stroller to the park right now!” I said. It was pitch black and minus ten, with thick snowflakes blowing past the street lamp.
She looked at me with great forbearance and said, “I have a better idea: let’s do the felt sense.”
I had forgotten. This was our night practice, something we sometimes did at the end of the day, when we were out of sorts with each other and needed to reconnect.
The “felt sense” was coined in the 70s by a brilliant University of Chicago philosopher and researcher named Eugene Gendlin. At the time, Gendlin was interested in the question of what makes psychotherapy successful. Did it have to do with the modality of therapy, or with the therapist? In his research, he discovered it was neither. Rather, it had to do with something the person in therapy felt free to do. Those who got the most out of therapy seemed to all do something similar: directed by their therapist, they were able to get a clear nonverbal sense of their body’s experience in the moment, a subtle stream of intuitions and sensations which Gendlin called “the felt sense.” This became the basis of his own influential style of therapy, known as “Focusing.”
I said to Sarah, “Close your eyes, and place your attention inside your body. What’s coming between you and feeling ok in this moment?”
It wasn’t me just mansplaining – it was a standard opening. She knew what to do.
“I feel tension in my neck and shoulders, they feel hunched.”
“It’s funny. It reminds me that I used to carry myself with my shoulders back. I felt good – confident. But now I’m always hunched over Eden, feeding him, looking at him. My body has taken on a new shape.”
This is what Focusing is like – maybe it starts with a sensation, but the full meaning of what’s going on is larger. It also involves associations, images, and even memories. I repeated what she said back to her, while she deliberately stopped and explored and felt into her experience.
She cocked her head. “There’s something else. A vulnerable feeling in my eyes.”
“It’s like I’m not just protecting him. I’m … huh. Huh.”
I stayed quiet while she worked it out.
“Yes, that’s it. I’m also protecting myself. Oh. Wow.” The insights started to unspool.
“If I’m on the street or in a restaurant and he starts crying, I realize I often feel that people are judging me.” Her voice was tight. “It’s like this with new mothers. Everyone has an opinion about how things should be done. It makes me want to stay hidden, where I can safely make mistakes.” She sighed. “That’s why I don’t want to go outside.”
Her breathing was deeper now, more natural. “Fuck those people,” she said, laughing, her face flushed. The whole room felt different.
“I feel better,” she smiled. “More space in my chest, lighter.” She rolled her shoulders, and then put her hand on my leg, suddenly flirtatious. “My love, what do you say we go out for breakfast tomorrow?”
Why am I sharing this? Not to convince you to take up Focusing, although it is an excellent practice. Or to have a baby test your limits. More to give an example of how the core skills of practice – equanimity, concentration, care, clarity – can be remixed in many different ways, to deeply beneficial effect.
In this case, when we bring awareness to the subtle urges and beliefs that live in our body and underlie our behaviors, then they no longer control us in quite the same way.
This is an awareness superpower, and it doesn’t belong to Focusing. We can harness it socially by talking with a sympathetic friend, or moving our body in yoga and noticing where we feel resistance, or – of course – meditating on our body’s experience of the moment.
As we send our awareness inside, we change. More of us comes alive.
Sarah’s urge to stay hidden will come back. That’s the sobering news that any experienced practitioner, in any modality, will tell you: learning is a gradual path. But if she stays aware, then the patterns that limit her will have less and less influence. This is one of the gifts of practice, both the healing and the empowerment.
What I’m reading
Focusing by Eugene Gendlin. Gendlin’s short practice manual had a big impact on body-based psychotherapy and contemporary trauma work. It’s also a straight-up great read, elegantly-written and filled with fascinating anecdotes.
Gendlin, it turns out, also had a vision for the democratization of mental health: he imagined small leaderless groups Focusing with each other in community centres around the world.
Focusing is bigger than ever. Gendlin demonstrated that healing and connection don’t belong to any one modality or authority, and that we can all learn to create a safe container for each other. His work was foundational in the creation of the Consciousness Explorers Club.
Thank you Eugene. And thank you Jan Winhall, who introduced me to Focusing so many years ago.