Focusing, somatic experiencing, and the compass of the body

In his seminal book, Focusing, Gendlin (1982) describes what he means by the ‘felt sense’:

“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.”

He goes on to describe a body-mind process that he refers to as ‘focusing,’ and proceeds to didactically break it down into six main steps or ‘movements.’ Like any dance or musical line, the more you practice this, the more it flows in a kinetic melody, to borrow Luria’s lovely phrase, that is, without needing to proceed step-by-step.

I’ve gone ahead and summarized Gendlin’s recommended ‘movements’ for those interested in this method, and added some observations that stem from a related body-mind practice, namely, that of somatic experiencing (SE). Its creator, Peter Levine, borrowed Gendlin’s term, ‘the felt-sense’ and harnessed it for his own use, his own brand of body mind therapy (Levine, 2010; Levine & Frederick, 1997). The interested reader is urged to read these authors’ respective books for a more detailed exposition.

1. Clearing a space

How do I feel? What’s bugging me today? What has me tense now?

“Don’t get snagged on any one problem… Stack them in front of you and step back and survey them from a distance.”

If possible, be a neutral observer , and remain “cheerfully detached.”

Keep stacking the problems/issues until you hear an inner voice say, “Yes, except for these, I’m fine.”

2. Felt sense of the problem

Which problem feels worse/heaviest/sharpest/stickiest right now?

Choose one.

Stand back and sense how as a whole, it makes you feel in your body. Feel the sensations of it (not words).

Monitor your self-talk and put it aside. You can listen to it another time. Turn off the self-analysis. For example, if you are prone to say, ‘Yes, but’ – put the ‘but’ aside. You can always come back to it later (Trainin, personal communication).

Focus on: “What does this whole thing feel like?” (the aura or gestalt of it)

Ex. the single feeling that holds within it and encompasses “all that” e.g., about your job, a relationship, etc. Avoid getting side-tracked.

Gendlin likens this to the feel of a musical piece (e.g., a symphony), which you experience as a whole, without needing to know its structure.

“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 stay with it, you might think, ‘Oh, that? You want me to stay with that? But that’s just an uncomfortable nothing!’ Yes, that is just how your body senses this problem, and at first that’s quite fuzzy.”

He proposes one should learn to pay attention to the aura, ignoring the rest.

Moreover, he advises that: “Once you have the feel of the whole problem, stay with it for a while. Don’t try to decide what is important about it.” The felt sense, then, is “the medium through which we experience the totality of sensation” (Levine, 1997, p. 68).

Following the principles of somatic experiencing (SE), I suggest choosing one sensation to work with at a time – our brain cannot attend to more that one sensation at a time, although we can shift our attention between sensations very quickly.

3. Finding a handle

What is the quality of the felt sense?

Find a word or two that capture it, such as: tight, heavy, restless-jumpy, or an image, say ‘a heavy ball and chain’ or ‘an oasis.’

Look for the core, the crux of the felt sense, a special quality emanating from it. (It might be a sense of tension or anxiety, perhaps of having done something inappropriate and regretting it, a sense of hopelessness or helplessness, pride. The words will come on their own.)

As you listen to your felt sense, you may now have a different ‘handle’ on what you’re dealing with – its definition may have changed somewhat. According to Gendlin, “This is what you are looking for: something that comes along with a body shift. Discard everything else.”

Often, this body shift is a discharge of excess, trapped, survival energy (see previous posts about SE).

“When a word or a picture is right, we call it a ‘handle.’ As you say the words (or as you picture the image), the whole felt sense stirs just slightly and eases a little. This is a signal, as if it said: ‘This is right,’ just as in remembering something you forgot. The feeling of what you’d forgotten guides your remembering. You know that any number if perfectly sensible ideas are not part of the feeling, and you just drop them, until you get something the feeling itself opens up into.

It is like the old children’s game of hide and seek. Someone who knows where the object of the search is hidden says ‘cold, colder, ice cold’ when you move in the wrong direction, and ‘warm, warmer, still warmer’ as you move in the right direction.

In this case it isn’t another person but your own felt sense that will say ‘cold, cold, cold’ (by not changing one bit) and then say ‘ah…warmer…hot! hot!’ (by releasing, or shifting just slightly in how your body feels it).” (Gendlin, my italics).

In the language of SE, each time our body discharges a bit of excess energy, it is as if this were a punctuation mark in our never-ending dialogue with our self. It shows us we are on the right track, that we are dealing with something that is bothering us, and makes room in our ‘container’ for what will follow.

4. Resonating handle and felt sense

Take this word or image (see above) and check it against the felt sense. See if it feels right. If it is, the way you will know this is via a felt release, perhaps in the form of a spontaneous breath, or some other sign of discharge, such as a yawn, goosebumps, trembling.

When this confirming sensation doesn’t come, try to sense your felt sense more precisely, let the word/s emerge on their own.

You need both words and feeling, to check the words against the feeling.

Perhaps a different ‘felt sense’ will appear, a slightly changed version of the previous one. Repeat the words (perhaps out loud) to get a sense of what they were about. This should allow the feeling to return. Eventually you may have a match between a feeling and the words that capture its essence; this may take a minute or so.

“The sense of rightness is not only a check of the handle. It is your body just now changing. As long as it is still changing, releasing, processing, moving, let it do that.” Give your body all the time it needs for this settling.

5. Asking

“If a big shift, an opening, and a bodily release have already come during the earlier movements, [above] you go right to the sixth movement, receiving what has come with the shift.”

More commonly, a ‘well-fitting handle’ allows for a tiny shift, enough for you to know it (and you) are in the right direction; as this sense of rightness resonates within you, you are ready for a shift that probably will change the definition of the problem.

In this movement, you ask the felt sense what it is.

Initially, you may need to spend a moment or two with the unclear felt sense— it can be quite elusive. You can return to it, time and again, via ‘the handle.’

The handle allows you to experience the felt sense as vividly present right now, not just as a memory. You might ask, “Is it still here?”

If so, you many ask, “What is it?”

Gendlin provides the following example:

The word “jumpy” may lead to your asking yourself, “What is it about this whole problem (whatever it is) that makes me so jumpy?”

The immediate answers that come to mind are not what you are looking for, and, like passing clouds, you can let them go.

The answer of the felt sense is different, but first you must contact it again, so it is fresh and fully present, which may require using the ‘handle’ to get it back.

In both focusing and SE, you learn to ask yourself open-ended questions and expect the answers to come from your body or felt sense, not intellectually or from a conscious place. It is as if you were asking someone else a question and waited for them to answer, says Gendlin – as opposed to having ready-made answers, consisting of previous thoughts, conclusions or analysis regarding the issue at hand.

The answers that come from your felt sense may surprise you, or be accompanied by a sense of insight, of “Oh. So that’s what it’s all about!”

These words produce a body shift, a discharge. They are fresh rather than repetitive and stale.

“The body shift is mysterious in its effects. It always feels good, even when what has come to light may not make the problem look any better from a detached, rational point of view.” (Gendlin)

We cannot control when a shift comes.

As long as you are immersing yourself in your felt sense, you are focusing (and ‘SE-ing’ yourself, to use a term coined by Gina Ross).

Gendlin suggests asking yourself one of the following questions:

What is the worst of this (e.g., what is the ‘jumpiest’ thing about all this – if your handle word was ‘jumpy’)

What does the felt sense need (e.g., what would it take to feel okay?)

However, in SE, we would probably not ask, ‘what is the worst of this,’ since we prefer to work from the periphery to the center of the trauma, and not jump right in, to avoid potential re-traumatization (Ross, 2008).

Regarding the second question, we might ask, “If anything were possible, what might help you deal with [whatever it is, for example a sensation of constriction].

Once we have spent a few moments sensing the unclear felt sense, Gendlin suggests we may wish to take a break:

“Focusing is not work. It is a friendly time within your body. Approach the problem freshly later, or tomorrow.”

6. Receiving

Gendlin’s advice:

Whatever comes in focusing, welcome it … (be) glad your body spoke to you, whatever it said. This is only one shift, it is not the last word. If you are willing to receive this message in a friendly way, there will be another. If you will go this step of change, which is next now, there will be more change, whatever is next now.

You need not believe, agree with, or do what the felt sense just now says. You need only receive it.” (my italics)

Once you do, another shift will occur: “What your body says will be quite different. So permit it to tell you now whatever it must say first.

He adds: “Keep that new sense of what would be a right direction and don’t worry now about the form it will eventually take.” (my italics)

He points out that it is not always feasible to carry out the deep need one may contact in its first form or manifestation (for example, one which might require one to make drastic life changes, such as impulsively leaving one’s partner, children, job.) But, he says, at least you may “know where the trouble is.” It is important to protect this realization from one’s negative self-talk e.g., ‘what good is it, if I can’t do anything about it?’ One should let it breathe.

Gendlin suggests that one allow oneself to receive what comes from focusing by staying next to it (as opposed to within it), and giving it (whatever came up) and oneself, a space.

One can close the door, and later on revisit what has just opened up, usually followed by a discharge or body shift, by seeking and using a ‘handle’, as before.

The important thing: be attuned to your body—does it want to stop focusing, or continue? Before you stop, be sure you know how to return to that place you may wish to revisit. Gendlin recommends noting what came just before the last shift. The example he provides is as follows:

… suppose you had a ‘handle’ image of a ball of wool tightly bound, and from asking what made that, your good shift came and moved your problem one step toward solution. You would remember not only that step itself but also what immediately preceded the shift. That helps, later on, when you recall the step, to get it back with full bodily realness. From the preceding image it will come back fully again. It helps to find this before stopping.” (my italics)


Gendlin, E. T (1982).Focusing. New York: Bantam.

Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Levine, P. & Frederick, A. (1997) Waking the Tiger. Healing Trauma. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books & ERGOS Institute Press.

Ross, G. (2008). Beyond the Trauma Vortex Into the Healing Vortex. A Guide for Psychology and Education. Los Angeles, CA: International Trauma-Healing Institute.

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