BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 10, 2019 (edited February 13, 2022)
We live blind and deaf to the motivating force of feelings. Unnoticed they nudge us to act. We can develop a relationship with our emotions through the practice of focusing.
Feelings are a curious thing, different from the articulatable world we inhabit—the world of conscious logic. Yet, words are confining, creating inflexible boundaries and squeezing the complex richness into a litany of words. Feelings are ever-present within the being, but often go unnoticed. Only when we focus attention to their existence do we bring feelings to the light of consciousness, where the two vastly different worlds collide. Eugene Gendlin developed a six-step process of focusing in the 1960's. His therapeutic teachings is still popular today.
The conscious mind manipulates, crushing the flows of sensory data into chunks of recognizable meanings. The moment information touches our powerful mind, consciousness molds the underworld of feeling through logical calculations of naming and explaining.
Consciousness is part of human genius—and ignorance. Feelings, much different than logic, when brought to the surface often frighten the explorer, who often pushes the new discovery back into the darkness, where feelings continue to thrive unnoticed, silently do their bidding, guiding action, and creating drama.
Felt-Sense is bodily awareness of internal states. Often achieved through mindfulness practices.
The Biological Underpinnings of Emotion
At the primordial beginnings of feeling, the neurons emote, stirred from changes in the environment. Here in the underpinnings of life, the body lives, reacts, and struggles as it adapts to the surroundings. These instances of change begin in the body and are the start of a long chain of events that occur in microseconds.
During the journey, the changes often collide with consciousness where complex structures of thought give meaning to the movement already in process. We pull the wordless primordial feelings from the darkness, evaluate context and history and translate the internal movements into something easily grasped by logic.
"These instances of change begin in the body and are the start of a long chain of events that occur in microseconds."
The internal movements caused by biological reactions to events create the basic building blocks of feeling. We vary in ability to recognize these movements. Our childhood introductions to the goods and evils of feeling etch into our brain’s responses of openness or denial. Parents that work with children to attune to these marvels of life, teach the child a different form of intelligence that will serve them well in the world and especially in relationships. Our skill of proprioception or felt-sense is described by Jon Kabat-Zinn as the vital sixth sense (2018).
In the realm of body awareness, we discover the fundamental moorings of identity. When feelings are perceived and respected, we bring a greater understanding to experience with more specificity and precision than logic permits.
“Everybody has a continuous on-going flow of bodily lived experience. A felt-sense is formed when we deliberately pay attention to the flow of experience in relation to some situation or issue or problem” (Hendricks, 2007).
Embedded in consciousness is executive power. A function that creates a degree in interference in natural and automatic processes. Martin Seligman describes executive function as “focusing and ignoring distractions, remembering and using new information, planning action and revising the plan, and inhibiting fast impulsive thoughts and actions” (2012, location 112).
Focusing is a mindfulness practice of peering inward, giving attention to feelings, allowing the wisdom of our bodies to heal emotional injuries.
What is Focusing?
Focusing is a therapeutic approach to identifying and understanding messages proceeding from felt-sense. In the Journal of Humanistic counseling Katje Wagner writes focusing “assists clients in approaching conflict (whether defined as individual, relationship, social, health, and so on) with an attitude of curiosity and openness, entering into the unknown and allowing vague sensations and emotions to take form and express themselves verbally—in a way that gives a persona felt sense of meaning, promotes health, and enhances well-being” (2006).
Focusing is a technique to gain access to the wisdom of the body.
Understanding the Complexity of Feeling
Feelings are complex flows of chemicals, communicating between cells, gathering information from the senses and translating the data into survival behaviors. These working are intricate and complex, far beyond the logical explanation the proceed from our simple structure of words. We a bodily sense of each encounter, feelings without words. Feelings are foreign to most, without tangible words to describe felt experience. Focusing allows people to relate to their experience in a different way (Hendricks, 2007). We feel something but don’t know what it is.
Within consciousness, we march to less glorious goals, protecting egos and soothing failures. This game of words and superficial adaptations misses the greater agenda created through millions of years of the evolving life. Our simplistic explanations belittle the grand existence—the universe and the spectacular event of life. Our words cram all the wonder into the simplicity of our minuscule role. The priorities of the ego choke openness to experience, limiting the richness, and settling on logical constructions.
We demand words to correct feelings if the feelings depart from our misguided framework of understanding. We discredit, explain away and denying the existence of the greater part of life—feelings. With over-powered egos, we disassociate with our own humanness.
We should develop a healthier relationship with our feelings to utilize their power. The body is constantly bombarding the brain with information. The brain responds sending streams of messages back to the body. This is the body/brain feedback loop. The entire organism (body and brain) constantly adjust to adapt to the dynamic surroundings, predicting sensory clues forecasting future events.
Knowledge is gathered to to properly respond by allocating sufficient energy to organs and tissue. The process is imperfect. Life is unpredictable. Our predictions (largely unconscious) often fail. The body/mind bond signals the occurrence of prediction errors, sounding alarms, and igniting somatic markers. When learning occurs, we adjust, making necessary changes when similar events repeat.
Learning does not always occur. We force the somatic warnings back to the darkness, justify and blame, covering the havoc with the beautiful cloths of self-justification, protecting our delicate egos, and opening ourselves to further hurt from reoccurring mistakes.
Eugene Gendlin and Focusing
Eugene Gendlin during the 1960’s and throughout his career examined the function of focusing. Working closely with famous American psychologist Carl Rogers, he discovered that patient’s approach to felt-sense was highly predictive of the outcome of therapy, regardless of the style or skill of the therapist. Successful clients, instead of speaking from “fully-formed, logically consistent sentences…demonstrated a more tentative, uncertain groping quality” (David Rome).
The tentative language and uncertainty by some clients suggest a respect for the living complexity within felt-experience. Over-intellectualizing, forcing feelings into well-formed sentences, enables conversation but limits exploration.
Felt-experience is confined to the smallness of language. However, we live in a world of structure. A system of exchange and connection developed through cultures of words. Our relationships demand familiar and agreed upon meanings. To flourish, we can’t abandon our conscious existence and reliance on logic. We are challenged to integrate the vast underworld of feelings with the more structured world of logic.
During most of our awake hours, we focus on the outside world, responding to others and making plans. Bessel van der Kolk writes, “Neuroscience research shows that only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside” (2015, location 3810).
Focusing on the visceral affects creates an additional level of biofeedback for evaluating prediction and examining errors. Our initial investigations into felt-sense may lead to a sense of vagueness—a murky encounter with foreign wordless experiences; but with repeated voyages into the soul, we gain clarity and definition in the clusters of sensations. Our new exposures to felt-experience updates our brain’s model of the world, refining predictions and the value of experience on our soul.
The body is the foundation of the conscious mind. Our mind and body are intimately connected. Although in discussion, we separate their functions, in reality they are one. We cannot be divided up into definable parts without diminishing the astonishing compilation of the whole wondrous human organism, infinitely more than a sum of the parts.
We need consciousness, logic, and cultural learning to survive. We also need a healthy connection with feelings. Antonio Damasio wrote, “The most elementary product of the protoself is primordial feelings, which occur spontaneously and continuously whenever one is awake. They provide a direct experience of one’s own living body, wordless, unadorned, and connected to nothing but sheer existence” (2012).
Our ultimate wellness depends on a working relationship between the inner world of feelings and the outer demands of structured learning. We must integrate these competing worlds to transcend the limitations of each.
We must build a bridge between felt-sense and cognitive understanding where both modalities of wisdom can co-exist. We work to cultivate both mentalities, not sacrificing one for the other. We cultivate feelings through attuning to the internal movements, allowing feelings to exist without the constraints of words.
We paradoxically expand the connection through occasional labeling and exploratory searches into meanings hidden within the feelings. We give more depth to these connection by expanding our vocabulary of emotions, providing more granularity to words relied upon to when discussing incidents of emotion.
Giving Feelings Space
By directing attention to the body, we become explorers of the mysterious, enlightening our minds to a different facet of living, free from the logical world of language and judgments. These proprioceptive examinations reconnect us with the very source of life. We reclaim vibrancy and an alternate, perhaps even superior, concept of our identity.
We Coax feelings into the open with non-judgmental kindness. In the security of kindness, we learn more of ourselves. Curiously, we observe felt-experience without the damaging harsh judgement or simple labels. The amount of our income, the balance of our bank accounts, and size of our vehicle serve no purpose in the world of feeling. The value of these trinkets of modern life is created through a conceptual structure of words. The practice of focusing invites a different evaluation for life, where mere existence infuses vibrancy back into the daily humdrum. We contact a living source of energy, by embracing the feelings. With practice, the feeling of existence gains clarity, establishing a helpful presence in our lives.
We can utilize the energy of feeling without smothering it. The power gives life and substance to our being. The master learns to give and take from multiple forces, using the resistance of one, while drawing energy from the force of the other. Together the two powers of feeling and logic merge together, and we transcend the parts. Orderly but not boring, unpredictable but not chaotic.
Gendlin's Six step Program of Focusing
Gendlin in his extensive writing and research created a template for building the bridge. He taught a six-step program for achieving success in both worlds. Like any other technique, steps can enlighten and interfere with the underlying concepts, too much focus on the structure and we lose the expansiveness of curious undefined explorations into our beings.
The tyranny of the technique must be carefully guarded against. Techniques are the foundation of logic, providing an easy escape from the purpose of wordless and judgeless examinations of self. Proceed with caution.
Clear a Space
Gendlin’s first step is to clear a space for observation. This is achieved through curious, non-judgmental, dispassionate approaching of internal experiences. Discovering feelings within the body, without a need to name or explain. This step is inline with eastern practice of meditation. During these explorations, we uncover the feelings that existed unbothered by consciousness but severely impact our lives.
Second step is to identify felt-sense. We give clarity to discoveries, noticing pressure, emptiness, and warmth inside. We continue to simply observe, respecting the unknown, standing in awe of the mystery.
Give Felt-Sense a Handle
During the third phase, we give the felt-sense a handle. Here we begin the integration—build a bridge. We selectively label one of the discoveries. This shouldn’t be immediate; too quickly and we lose the expansiveness of feeling without words and judgment. We might be drawn into the same routine of manipulation through labeling, losing the greater wisdom gained. But at some point, we need to draw the feeling out and give it a handle, that we can use for integration into the essential world of logic.
With the fourth-step, we return to observation, evaluating the handle in connection with the feeling. How does the words resonate with the feeling? Are they adequate? Do they properly describe the feeling? Do they help incorporate the feeling into healthy action? We examine the sense of wrongness discovered in our assigned words. We are trying to mediate our habit of our habitual blind and deafness to feelings. Initial handles often fail to adequately describe the felt-sense. Instead of giving a handle that serves egotistical needs, we try to provide a handle that bring the reality of the feeling to a graspable existence in our conscious world.
Give Felt-Sense a Handle
Moving to the Fifth step, we seek guidance from the newly discovered forces. What wisdom does this feeling impart? How can we address the emptiness or the constriction?
Give Felt-Sense a Handle
The sixth and final step is to receive the experience with openness.
Gendlin's Classic Six-Steps
Although Gendlin originally intended his six-step guideline as a self-help program, it quickly became a modality of therapy. Emotions are confusing to many. Feelings frighten. Working through the process without professional guidance may slip quickly back to old patterns of harsh judgments and denials. We may need an experienced therapist to hold our hand as we walk through the mysteries of feeling (Wagner 2006).
The six-steps are a technique to assist. But the truth is much deeper than the technique. I worry that during the labeling and inquiring steps, we will lose the power of non-judgmental examinations, allowing our conscious mind to manipulate the gains for self-serving egotistical advances. The tyranny of the technique prevails and we slink back into our discomforting existence. The rule, the law, and written covenant, while necessary for the logical mind, derails the spirituality of a deeper practice of focusing. We must cultivate the two mentalities: feeling without words, and better words to describe the feelings.
Discovering the World of Feeling
So, before you venture into the techniques of integration, learning first to discover the world of feelings is the priority. The Buddhist practice of bare attention is a good place to start, essentially a combination of Gendlin’s first two-steps. We do this by giving “clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of attention (Epstein, 1995, pp. 109-110).
By giving pure, uncorrupted attention to moment to moment experience, we cultivate a new relationship with felt-experience, a new perspective that invites deeper insights and changes the path to learning. Only through cultivating this new world of felt-sense do we create the opportunity to connect feelings with the conscious world of logic, bringing the two experiences into a larger whole.
Feelings, without words, will always remain somewhat mysterious if we allow them to exist without fear of their power. We can befriend them, enjoy them and thrive on their wisdom. We can be enlightened by the wonderful world of felt-experience. And in Winnicott’s remarkable words, only in this “state of not having to react” can the self “begin to be.” (1958, pp. 183-184)
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Barrett, L.F. (2018) How Emotions are Made. Mariner Books; Reprint edition
Damasio, A. (2012). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Vintage; Reprint edition
Epstein, M. (1995). Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. New York: Basic Books.
Hendricks, M. (2007). The Role of Experiencing in Psychotherapy: Attending to the “Bodily Felt-Sense” of a Problem Makes Any Orientations More Effective. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 37(1), 41-46
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2018). Proprioception—the Felt Sense of the Body. Mindfulness, 9(6), 1979-1980.
Kolk, B. V. (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Atria Books; Reprint edition.
Wagner, K. (2006). Inside Out: Focusing as a Therapeutic Modality. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 45(1), 45. Retrieved from Questia.
Winnicott, D. W. (1958) Birth Memories, Birth Trauma, and Anxiety, “In Collected Papers: Through Pediatrics to Psycho Analysis. New York: Basic Books.