Doorways to the Embodied Self

Eugene Gendlin and the Felt Sense

Magazine Issue
July/August 2017
An illustration of silhouettes

On a hot August morning in 2012, I sat with 25 strangers in a former Capuchin monastery overlooking New York’s Hudson River. We were there to spend a week learning about a therapeutic process known as Focusing. I couldn’t have known then that this deceptively simple practice would alter my life.

Nor did I know much about Eugene Gendlin, the philosopher-turned-psychotherapist who developed Focusing back in the 1960s and originated the concept of a bodily “felt sense” as a path to healing. I’d learn only later how profoundly he influenced the mind–body practices that began to permeate US culture in the 1980s and are now a staple of many therapists’ practices. When I heard that he’d died in May of this year, at age 90, I was saddened. I’d always meant to meet him one day. I’d always thought there’d be time.

At the 2012 retreat, it was the promise of contacting Gendlin’s elusive felt sense that had brought us strangers together. Many participants had made a considerable effort to get there, traveling from a dozen cities in the US, as well as from Brazil, Sweden, Ecuador, and Canada. As we went around the circle and introduced ourselves, I learned that about half of them were therapists, with the other half ordinary folks like myself. Well, semi-ordinary. One young guy, an apparent James Dean fan, showed up in a tight blue T-shirt and rolled-up jeans, his black hair slicked back in an impressive pompadour. An engaging young woman from Toronto identified herself as a professional clown. There was a middle-aged man who hung back a bit, his impassive face and spit-shined shoes making me think of an FBI agent. There was a retired teacher, a massage therapist, a singer, a businessman. All of us had become intrigued by Focusing, each for his or her own reasons. My own motivation was curiosity. I was a psychology nerd who loved to learn about every form of therapy and healing. I’d taken a brief Focusing workshop earlier in the year. Now I’d have a chance to plunge more deeply into the felt-sense fray.

As I perched on my metal chair, I was vaguely aware that I didn’t want to be in the room. I batted away the thought. Of course you want to be here, I briskly told myself. You’ve come all the way from Philadelphia, and, by the way, you’ve paid good money for this workshop. Get a grip.

Our teacher was Ann Weiser Cornell, a highly regarded Focusing teacher and trainer, so at least I knew I was in good hands. She started with some psychoeducation about Focusing—what it is, how it works, what makes it distinctive. I scribbled notes. Then Ann changed tack. “Let’s put our notebooks down,” she said. At her prompting, we closed our eyes and quieted ourselves. “Now focus on the sensations in your body,” she said. I can’t remember Ann’s words exactly, but that was the idea. Obediently, I traveled inward, and listened. Radio silence. I waited. More nothing. Just as I was concluding that this Focusing thing was too weird for me, I felt a vague but insistent fluttering in my chest. No, it was stronger than fluttering. Closer to thumping. Until then, I’d been aware of no such feeling.

“Now try to find a word, phrase, or image that matches that felt sense,” Ann suggested. She encouraged us to start with the stem “Something in me feels,” rather than “I feel,” so as to not get flooded. I checked in again with the pounding sensation in my chest, and, after a few moments, an image emerged: a drumstick beating on my heart.

But wait, something else was nipping at me. It was like a hand scrabbling at my throat, trying to close it off. At the same time, I felt something like wings flapping through my upper body. What was it? This time, a single word appeared: sad.

“Now see if your felt sense has anything to tell you,” Ann said. “What does it want you to know?” Again, I drew a blank. Then out of the murk, I heard: What if they don’t like me? I flashed on James Dean, Mr. FBI, the charming clown, and all the others. I felt a wash of shame: how could I be this far along in life and still be tangled up in this pitiful stuff? Who was I, some kind of latter-day Stuart Smalley?

Ann encouraged everyone to stay with whatever was coming up, no matter how painful or strange. After a few moments, a young girl emerged inside me. She had skinny legs, stringy blond hair, and a look of desperation on her face. I saw kids on the playground running away from her, howling with laughter. My self-reproach melted away. I saw that kid and witnessed the wild, desolate look in her eyes. And I wept for her.

“Take a breath,” I heard Ann say. “Ask your felt sense what it needs.”

This wasn’t the end of the process. We’d go on to explore what our bodily sense needed, make a small step toward providing it, and then notice any shifts in our bodies. But what I’d just experienced was the heart of Focusing: diving beneath my thoughts, contacting my felt sense, and fully, compassionately standing with it. This is Eugene Gendlin’s signal contribution to psychotherapy: his insight that emotional understanding isn’t just linked to the body, but actually originates in the body. Then he created a process for accessing this body knowledge and using it as a springboard for healing. And remarkably, he shaped it in such a way that it could be used by anyone, anytime—in a therapy session, with a like-minded friend, or entirely on one’s own.

To many therapists, the basic elements of Focusing may sound familiar, even obvious. By now, they’ve been integrated into any number of clinical approaches, including Somatic Experiencing, Internal Family Systems, EMDR, guided imagery, numerous energy therapies, and virtually any method that makes use of mindfulness. All of these approaches include a process for communing with the body and honoring its wisdom. But in the mid-1960s, the healing potential of the body for therapeutic healing was a radical concept. The mind was king, the body its unruly subject. There was a smattering of somatic work going on, some of it based on Alexander Lowen’s bioenergetics and Wilhelm Reich’s work with “orgone energy.” But at the time, these approaches seemed fringy and hazardous to most therapists, the realm of pseudoscience. The perceived wackiness of these early body-based treatments may have only strengthened the conventional doctrine that the mind was a country separate from the body, a sovereign power whose borders required vigilant protection.

Then came Gendlin. “He was one of the first to articulate the mind–body connection” in a way that made sense to both therapists and ordinary people, says Jonathan Foust, former president of Kripalu Center and the developer of Body-Centered Inquiry. Foust was an early adopter of Focusing. At the age of 24, he read Gendlin’s 1978 book, Focusing, and began to weave its principles into his existing meditation and yoga practice, and later into his therapeutic work. But a clinician doesn’t need to be explicitly exposed to Gendlin’s work to be influenced by it, Foust said. “Today, many therapists don’t strictly use Focusing, but many of the mind–body modalities they use draw deeply on his contributions.”

Gendlin would go on to win some of the highest accolades in the mental health field, including the American Psychological Association’s first-ever award for Distinguished Professional Psychologist of the Year. Yet it could be said—only slightly tongue-in-cheek—that Gendlin was an accidental psychotherapist. As a young man, his passion was philosophy. Enrolled in the doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Chicago, he immersed himself in the phenomenological theories of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger. While still a graduate student in the 1950s, he became deeply interested in the concept of implicit knowing—the ways in which we grasp internal information before words are available to us. But he wasn’t satisfied with a purely philosophical explanation of this phenomenon, so he began to explore other avenues of understanding.

One day, he slipped into the University of Chicago’s student counseling center, which was then directed by the legendary humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. “I didn’t belong there,” recalled Gendlin in a 1981 interview. “I sneaked in and pretended I was a client,” thereby gaining access to written materials on psychotherapy. Gendlin found himself spending more and more time at the counseling center, talking at length with Rogers and reading deeply in the theory and practice of experiential and client-centered therapies. Increasingly fascinated by how people heal and grow, he applied to Rogers’ psychology practicum and began training at the center as a psychotherapist, even as he continued his philosophy studies.

Within a few years, Gendlin and Rogers began to collaborate on studies of thousands of therapy clients, with the aim of identifying the elements that correlated with successful clinical outcomes. As they analyzed the tape-recorded sessions, they noticed an intriguing pattern: the clients who made the most improvement made direct contact with their here-and-now bodily experience in the course of a session. The studies further found that when individuals paused and accessed a bodily sense, they could then speak of thoughts and feelings that had previously been outside their awareness. Gendlin coined the term felt sense to describe the deep, preverbal knowledge that’s embedded in the body and can set the stage for emotional healing. Over the next several years, he formulated a model for accessing and productively working with that felt sense—a practice he’d call Focusing.

So what is this thing called Focusing, anyway? It’s a fair question, since as Foust noted, many therapists who use the method integrate it into a broader therapeutic approach. But Gendlin’s original six-step model, initially envisioned by him as a self-help tool, goes something like this:

Clear a space. Find a comfortable, quiet place. Close your eyes and ask yourself a gentle question or two, such as “How is my life going?” Or “How am I, right now?”

Identify a felt sense. Let the response come from your body. Gendlin observed that at this point, “you will probably begin to encounter a lot of static from your mind: self-lectures, analytic theories, clichés, much squawking and jabbering.” Dip below the noise, he advised, until you encounter a particular bodily sensation that wants your attention. At this stage, the felt sense may be murky or vague. However it shows up, turn toward it.

Give the felt sense a handle. Allow a word or image to emerge that captures the essence of this body knowledge. It might be “jumpy,” or it might be “a tightness in my chest.” When the moment feels right, extend a silent greeting to it. This can be as simple as “Hello, I know you’re there.”

Resonate. Slow down here, toggling between your handle and your felt sense so your body–mind can check out whether the moniker you’ve chosen most accurately describes your felt sense. For example, an original handle of “anxiety” may become more specific and image-rich, such as “a cold hand clutching at my stomach.” Also, notice that your felt sense is only part of you, not your whole being.

Inquire. As you continue to keep your felt sense company, you might nudge it a bit, asking, “What’s the hardest part of this for you?” A little later, you might inquire, “What does this felt sense need?” Listen for an answer from your body, not your mind. When you get a response, notice whether you feel a visceral shift—perhaps a sense of a weight lifting, or clenched muscles loosening. The felt shift may open a new path for addressing a concrete problem, or simply generate a greater sense of aliveness.

Receive the experience. Welcome whatever you’ve encountered during the session. “Take the attitude that you’re glad your body spoke to you, whatever it said,” advised Gendlin. “You need not believe, agree with, or do what the felt sense just now says. You need only receive it.” Reassure your felt sense that you’ll be back again, if it wants to continue the process at a later point. Try not to set specific goals. “Focusing isn’t work,” Gendlin emphasized. “It’s a friendly time with your body.”

I can speak only from my own experience, but I agree: it’s a friendly time, even when it’s harrowing. On that first day of the Focusing retreat, after I wept for the desperate little girl, I asked her what she needed. “Stay with me” was all she said. I told her that I would, and sat down next to her. What happened next is hard to describe. Everything inside me felt subtly softer, like being swathed in feathers. There was nothing to watch out for, nothing I had to change.

For the remaining several days of the workshop, my coparticipants no longer felt like strangers. But it was more than that. My earlier fear that I’d be left out had pretty much dissolved. I talked with Ashley, the professional clown, and we bonded over our shared love of Motown. Midway into the week, I was hanging out with a half-dozen different people. I still felt wary of James Dean and Mr. FBI, but over the course of the workshop I got to know them a bit. (Dean was a gifted guitarist, while the G-man was a high-school history teacher.) I don’t want to sugarcoat my experience. In the days, weeks, and years afterward, I’d continue to struggle with my issue of belonging. I imagine it’ll always be with me. But Focusing has changed the dynamic. Nothing I’ve ever tried before has allowed me to befriend my frightened young self as quickly, or as deeply, as this particular practice.

As far as I can tell, helping people make this shift was what mattered most to Gendlin; certainly, he worked diligently at it for most of his life. Early on, he ran free community-support groups in Chicago to share Focusing with all comers: university students, faculty, neighborhood residents, and even homeless people. One student who wandered into a meeting in 1972 was Ann Weiser Cornell, my workshop facilitator. “I have a vivid memory of sitting in the library of the community church in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, a room meant for perhaps 40 packed with nearly 100 people,” she recalled in her 2013 book, Focusing in Clinical Practice. She saw people squeezing in wherever they could, “on the floor, sitting on tables, leaning against the walls—and Gene Gendlin, perched on a table at one end of the room, teaching Focusing in a relaxed, conversational style.”

What Weiser Cornell most remembers about Gendlin, who’d become her mentor and then her colleague, were his qualities of inclusiveness and compassion. At that early community meeting, she recalls, “His first words to the group were, ‘If you’re here, you belong here.’” And throughout her long experience coteaching with Gendlin, she says, “He could light up a room with the quality of his empathy.” He particularly sought out those who struggled with the practice. Weiser Cornell, who cotaught with him for more than three decades, remembers that after students had completed a Focusing exercise, he’d often ask them to share their experience. Invariably, the first few speakers would give glowing reports. “Gene would listen and nod and smile,” she recalls. “And then he’d say, ‘So now I want to hear from people who had trouble.’ I’ll never forget him grinning at the group, leaning forward. ‘Give me trouble!’”

Gendlin wrote only a few books on Focusing, but he made each one count. His first, published in 1978, was a slim self-help manual appropriately titled Focusing. To date, it’s sold more than 500,000 copies and has been translated into 17 languages. Many people use Focusing as a do-it-yourself practice, dipping into their felt sense when they feel vaguely anxious, despondent or simply “off” in the course of daily life, and thereby gaining some comfort and/or a fresh way of looking at a life problem. Others cultivate Focusing as a daily practice of awareness, like meditation.

For many others, however, self-help Focusing isn’t enough, and Gendlin understood this. In 1996, he published Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, which laid out a method for weaving the practice into clinical work. And weaving is the operative word here. Focusing, all by itself, isn’t a school of psychotherapy, and Gendlin never presented it as such. Rather, he envisioned it as a tool that therapists could use to help clients tap into feelings that are lodged in the body, sometimes frozen in place. Many psychotherapists utilize some form of Focusing as an entryway to more encompassing and eclectic work with clients, including those suffering PTSD, addiction, chronic pain, social anxiety, and depression in both adults and children.

For many clinicians, the idea that the body can pave the way for emotional healing is now an article of faith, as in “tell me something I don’t know.” But until quite recently, most of us didn’t know. Even if we sensed the connection, we had no clear map of the route between body and mind. Early on, with little fanfare, Gendlin plotted a course. He was one of the genuine pioneers of mind–body psychotherapy.

Now, five years into my own Focusing process, I believe it’s been transformative. I don’t say this lightly. Dipping into my body this way allows me to discover my rawest feelings about a particular problem I’m facing—feelings that are often startlingly different from the ones I think I have. Second, it allows me to make contact with those feelings and genuinely look after them, rather than shoving them into the basement of my psyche, where they grow ever more lonely and frantic.

When I tell people about my Focusing practice, some say, “Oh, it’s like mindfulness meditation.” In some ways, it is. Focusing and mindfulness practice share an emphasis on being in the present moment, making contact with one’s body, and accepting whatever emerges. But while mindfulness meditation has taught me to observe those sensations and then return to my breath, Focusing invites me to dive into whatever I’m struggling with and stay a while. As Gendlin said in a Networker interview, “The mindfulness I observe in America is a good thing up to a point. . . . But the mindfulness that I see practiced is like sitting at the head of the stairs forever: ‘Oh, I see anger; oh, I see impatience.’ And I say no, go downstairs with your attention. You go right downstairs into your belly and your chest,” where, he believes, you discover treasure: the dammed-up, choked-off places that need your attention. Speaking of his work with psychotherapy clients, Gendlin said, “I don’t have to figure out why they’re stuck. I have to make connection with the stuck so that it moves. The worst kind of stuck wants to move forward.” Focusing is a way to facilitate that liberating shift, allowing “life to open up for us.”

Because of the genuine healing that Focusing offers me, I continue to practice it regularly. Most Monday mornings, I meet with my friend Cathy, who accompanied me on the 2012 retreat and who lives only five minutes away. At her place or mine, we settle in and catch up over coffee. Then we quiet ourselves. We focus, each in turn, the other listening deeply and occasionally mirroring.

In between, I practice on my own. First thing nearly every morning, I sit by myself on my living room couch and close my eyes. I locate a felt sense—something gnawing at my insides, usually in my stomach, chest, or throat. Most often, I haven’t been fully aware of it until that moment. Next though it feels a little corny, I say, “Hey, I know you’re there,” and give it a handle. Then I keep it company. “What’s up?” I ask. The felt sense may be able to articulate the problem, but sometimes, it just wants me to hang out. When I sit down beside it, I often experience something lift from me, something dark and burdensome. This shift doesn’t happen every time, and it may not be dramatic. Often, I simply feel a little lighter. My breathing deepens. I stand up and begin my day.

And, when I remember, I nod and silently thank Eugene Gendlin.


Illustration © Doug Ross

Marian Sandmaier

Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the 2021 ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at