As meditators, we spend a lot of time on the cushion developing mindfulness, awareness, lovingkindness, and other contemplative faculties. “Focusing,” a complementary contemplative practice, allows us to build a bridge from what we’re doing in our sitting practice to what’s going on in the rest of our lives.
This is because Focusing works directly with the wisdom of the body and specifically the quality called the felt sense. The felt sense is a subtle level of experience that’s nonconceptual.
If somebody steps on our toe or spills hot coffee on us, there’s an immediate strong physical sensation. Felt sense is more vague or unclear. It’s about something more than just the sensation itself. But often, it’s not clear what it’s really about until we really spend time with it in a gentle and welcoming way.
Eugene Gendlin, the founder of the Focusing practice, refers to the “philosophy of the implicit” in describing the felt sense. The implicit is a level of experience which has not yet taken shape or taken form, but constantly gives rise to novelty, to fresh forms, fresh patterns, fresh experiences.
When we invite the felt sense to come into focus, it can give us a great deal of wisdom and intuitive insight, helping us to work through problems and challenges, release blockages, and discover fresh energy for moving forward in positive ways.
What we call the “Focusing attitude” is the intention or attitude with which we approach the felt sense. Quite similar to the attitude of mindfulness, it is gentle, patient, welcoming, and nonreactive. It’s a friendly presence toward whatever may arise.
Frequently, there are aspects of ourselves that we don’t like. There is a certain inner voice that most of us have, which can be called the inner critic. It’s the voice that says, “You’re bad, you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’re incompetent, you’re phony,” and so on.
In Focusing, we’re trying to be inviting to whatever wants to show up, but we don’t want to submit to the judgments of this inner critic. You don’t have to reject it, but understand that it’s just a certain aspect of yourself, but it is by no means who you really are. When we hear this critical voice, it’s alright to acknowledge it and set it aside.
Encountering the Felt Sense: An Introductory Practice
Come back to your body, your posture, the sense of being present, as much as you can, dropping thought. Begin by noticing physical sensations that are simply physical sensations. We can start by noticing the feeling of where our body is contacting the chair or the cushion or the ground.
Then move your attention around the body and notice any other places where there are physical sensations. Notice and perhaps briefly name these physical sensations, but don’t dwell on them.
Bring your awareness more into the central region of the body, from the neck down to the bottom, and really try to sense into the inner space there. This is a three-dimensional space, and a very sensitive one.
You may find some purely physical sensations in this space, like if you have a stomach ache or a pain in your back. Now, try to change the quality of your attention so that it is more sensitive to the subtle texture of your lived experience as it is going on in your body.
There might be different felt senses in different locations. The chest, the heart region, and the breathing contain a lot of feeling about what’s going on for us, as do the stomach and the gut. Explore around and see whatever is there for you right now.
After you’ve sat with the felt sense and kept it company for a while, then find a word, a phrase, or an image that seems to fit the quality of that felt sense. Imagine it as a kind of landscape. How would you describe the landscape that has the quality of how you are just now? You can use descriptive words like hard, soft, jittery, warm, cold, round, sharp, sinking, fluttering.
The interesting thing is that as we try out different words, the felt sense, just like a person, knows what its own name is. If we try a description and it doesn’t really fit, then the felt sense doesn’t feel comfortable with that. It’s always the felt sense that is primary, so we can adjust the descriptive phrase, or, as Gendlin calls it, the “handle.” Gendlin calls this adjustment process “resonating.” It’s a kind of moving back and forth between the verbal conceptual realm and the nonverbal felt sense. Through this process of naming, labeling, and giving a handle, the felt sense will respond and become more present.
When you feel comfortable with this practice, and the felt sense is more stable, vivid, and present in your awareness, you can enter into an ongoing dialogue with the felt sense. You can pose questions to it. When you ask a question, you want to stay with the felt sense and not answer it from your head or from what you already know.
If the felt sense has to do with a problem or a situation, you can ask what it is about this problem or this situation that brings this quality. You can use the handle here. It might be this jumpy quality. What makes it jumpy? And you wait.
There are many different questions you can ask, any question you can think of. But once you are with the felt sense, a very good set of questions is: What are you wanting? Or what are you not wanting? What do you not want to happen? A lot of our felt senses have a protective function. But when we can experience directly what it is that we’re not wanting or that a part of us is not wanting, then it gives us a lot of space to either say “Yes, that’s true, I really don’t want that,” or, “That’s kind of old news. Maybe that’s something from earlier in my life.”
Sometimes, you may get a little flash of insight, something fresh that pops out there. When that happens, there’s actually a subtle shift in the felt sense itself. It’s like something that has been blocked is able to move a little bit. This is the quality of intuitive insight.
Adapted from David Rome’s Dharma Talk “Focusing for Meditators: Accessing the Wisdom of the Felt Sense”
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.