What is Focusing

Put simply, Focusing is felt-sensing. As such, it is a process that we all know. Well...at least... we can know it, if we becom e curious about how it happens that we understand situations in a lived-in kind of intuitive way. We can know it because we already are inwardly supported in our everyday lives by this very dynamic way of knowing our selves as situated in the world. We've got our own life-optimising genius built in! We tend not to reflect on how this happens, though.


With a little training, we can become more attuned to our inner processes, and then we might come upon this fundamental way we are, 'inside,' when we carry forward  the situations in our lives - from the most simple to the more complex life-changing situations. When  felt-sensing as a trainable process is spoken of, it is called Fosusing. It was named thus by the U.S. philosopher Eugene T. Gendlin, who in his writings has so clearly articulated the importance of the felt sense in our lives. A lot of his work can be read at the Focusing Institute's website.


Why is it called Focusing? Well, this has to do with how this way of giving attention to our inner life brings something hitherto unclear into focus. The act of focusing a camera manually is an analogy. I'll have more to say about how we can bring the fuzzy, unclear sense of 'something in there' into focus elsewhere on this site.


Focusing has especially been taken up in the psychotherapeutic community, because it empowers the client. In fact, Gendlin speaks of the felt sense as the 'client's client.' However, it isn't just for use in psychotherapy. As I said above, it underpins much of our daily life. And it is invaluable in many other fields of human endeavour - in business, politics, social and humanitarian services, artistic endeavours, and many more. The Focusing Instutute's website has a drop-down menu that lists fields where people are applying Focusing. Here are some: Afghanisthan, a better world, psychotherapy, expressive art therapies, trauma, addictions, body work, research, children, spirituality, medicine, creative process, science and business.


Just the most ordinary things in our daily lives can involve this activity. For instance, I have to cook a meal for my friends and I have to write this article for the website. I start the article. I'm enjoying writing, but I'm keeping an eye on the clock - because I still have to prepare the meal. As I go, I get 'a feel' for how the article is going vis-a-vis my need to start the meal and where I can neatly finish writing for today. As I do this, I don't work only from the 'logic' of time. I get a feel for how 'time' is living in me, in the situation that I'm in, and I let that 'feel' guide me. I let it tell me whether I can complete this section of the article before I need to go to the kitchen.


That's a simple, domestic thing. On the other hand, the 'situation' might be something as difficult and important as leaving a relationship, or leaving a job, and so on.  A felt sense is a place where some life process is stopped and where it needs our  gentle, attentive support to carry it forward.


It's not uncommon knowledge that we make our life decisions on more than a purely logical basis. We may include logic, but at some stage we usually consult our gut feelings and act on them. This experience is intricate. I said above that even without training we are already supported by our felt senses as they operate in us as we are situated in the world, during our day. Of course, it is a little more complex when you look at it; because the felt sense happens precisely because we are not separated from our world - because we and our world are not two. So, it's more like... felt-sensing is a dynamic way of knowing: ourselves-in-and-as-the-world-in-process.


So, in summary: Focusing is a human process whereby we find inner guidance by attending to the body's felt sense of the whole of something, including the more than we currently know about it. For example, our whole sense of a situation or problem. The felt sense is at first vague, or fuzzy, but from there you sense that you do know something about the situation. You might not have the words yet, but you can tell from the feel of it that it is exactly about something you know in your life. Eugene Gendlin, a philosopher and then professor at the University of Chicago, developed a easy-to-understand process of six steps to teach people who aren't felt-sense-savvy how to access the life-forward movement inherent in the felt sense. He developed this approach (based on his previous philosophical discoveries) when working with Carl Rogers, an influential psychologist who was the originator of 'person-centred psychotherapy,' at U of Chicago. The Focusing steps suggested by Gendlin bring the words we are seeking for that vague something (the felt sense), and when the words (or some other symbolisation, like: dancing, drawing, imaging...) come, then further life-process naturally flows.


All this is possible because living bodies are made of the situations that they are in. Here's another example, from psychotherapist and Buddhist writer John Welwood:


For example, a man feels empty after a brief converstation with his father on the telephone, without exactly knowing why. Although his surface mind, which operates through linear, focal attention, is still in the dark about what just happened, his body-mind senses and seems to know tacitly the deeper implications of this exchange. He feels this as a hollowness in his solar plexus. By inquiring into the complex tangle of felt meaning he experiences after getting off the phone, he could begin to unfold various aspects of it – such as guilt, resignation about not being heard, helplessness, and the longing for a more genuine relationship. Some of these are immediate responses to what just transpired, while others go back to a whole relationship of thirty years. Yet all were implicit in his initial empty feeling. (1)


This implicitness - the deeper, tacit, inarticulate knowing - contained in the orginal feeling unfolds when it is given a certain type of attention.  Eugene Gendlin, a contemporary philosopher, calls this attending process, Focusing. The vague something that is attended to (all about that situation) he calls the felt sense. Focusing, then, is a natural type of inquiry. It is described nicely by Kevin Flanagan, a Focusing teacher:


"On one level Focusing is a bodily felt way of knowing and assessing a situation or a problem, one that is ruled not by the intellect or reason but by intuition or gut feeling. This visceral (gut) feeling is almost unconscious; it knows something, but that something may be unclear to the conscious mind, like a vague or uneasy feeling in the body. That is, until you focus on it. Then everything starts to become clear." (2)


Says Gendlin:


"Focusing is a mode of inward bodily attention that is not yet known to most people.... General descriptions do not convey focusing. It differs from the usual attention we pay to feelings because it begins with the body and occurs in the zone between the conscious and the unconscious. Most people don't know that a bodily sense of any topic can be invited to come in that zone, and that one can enter into such a sense."


A bodily-felt sense, and the felt-sense-attending process, and the 'felt-shift' that accompanies a real meeting with the felt sense, these indicate a distinct level of human process.   Such process arises out of the interactional nature of humankind.   When we put an organism into a system, the system enters into the organism at many levels.  So, it isn't just that my body is a separate thing that interacts with its environment (recalling Alan Watt's comment, that the outline of my body is the in-line of the environment); but, actually, just as I am in the environment, so the environment is in me. One result of this entering-in is my bodily-felt sense of a situation. When I close the door to my house, and I have unwittingly left the cat in, then the environment makes itself felt in me at that moment:  in the form of a felt sense; one which, in this instance, tells me something like: "Things are not okay..."   Knowing this, I can take a step toward changing the situation: "Let's see... what is this trying to say? Ah, yes! The cat!"


Gendlin did a great amount of research into the existence and value of the felt sense, a level of human process that is often ignored because it is subtle. In an interview with Ann Weiser Cornell said:


Focusing is a skill of awareness that involves sensing inwardly, sensing a certain kind of inner experience that everyone has but that we haven't learned is important. It is turning attention to something called a "felt sense" -- a kind of body awareness that is subtle and (at first) unclear. For example, an uneasy feeling in the stomach or a fluttery feeling in the solar plexus or a slight tightness in the chest. These sensations are subtle enough that you can easily ignore them -- and in fact many of us do.


What Eugene Gendlin discovered when he did the research that lead to the development of Focusing was that these body sensations carry messages from a kind of holistic inner awareness. By listening to these, you find that they contain a great deal of wisdom. They also contain what is called the life forward direction, the forward movement of your organism, so that you can actually use the awareness of these subtle sensations for positive life change -- and feel the results in your body. (Ann Weiser Cornell, in unsourced interview.)


Again: living bodies are made of the situations that they are in, ineluctably interactional and felt-sensing is our doorway into the more-than-we-already-know about our situations.



1) John Welwood,  Toward a Psychology of Awakening
2) Kevin Flanagan, 
Everyday Genius, p.18