By Rob Foxcroft
written November 5, 2002
A group of Focusers met recently for a week on the lovely Scottish isle of Cumbrae, to explore Gene Gendlin’s book Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (1962), as part of the ongoing project, Focusing and the Power of Philosophy. Many people have asked for a simple account of our findings, so here, with some trepidation, I shall try to say just a few words in my own way without falling headlong into caricature. The book itself is hard to understand. I won’t risk claiming that this is what it says. Only that this is some of what I found there.
1. Two Aspects
Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning has two aspects: a philosophical aspect and a psychological aspect. The two are kept carefully separate. But they feed each other. The philosophical questions the psychological, continuously undercutting its habits and assumptions. The psychological applies the philosophical, taking it out into the world to see what difference it makes.
Looking at the relation between our experiencing and our symbols psychologically, Gene Gendlin opens up a new range of methods for inner process, many of which were later integrated into Focusing and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. These methods have to do with being aware of process. More precisely, they are concerned with being aware of experiencing, of felt meaning: the “associated parallel side” which invariably accompanies cognition. And these methods make use of the many different ways (not just one), in which felt meaning comes into relationship with cognition.
In Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Gene Gendlin is also looking at the same relation (between felt meaning and cognition) philosophically. In doing this, he opens up a radical vision of what it means to be a human being in the world. To take just one example: this philosophy tends to further undermine the old but still prevalent idea that a person comes into the world as an empty slate, on which the culture must write — that a person is (in any primary sense) the product of social conditioning. It substitutes for this passive machine-like being an active living person, a living body, who from the first and always is vigorously entering into situations and shaping them creatively and uniquely.
Gene Gendlin is of course not the only one to abandon the “empty slate” theory. No present-day Darwinian (and no psychologist) believes it at all. The exact degree of interplay is very difficult to establish — and perhaps is not quite knowable.
2. The role of felt meaning
It all starts with a question: “How does felt meaning function in cognition?” And a statement: “Meaning is experienced” (p44).
The question already implies two relationships:
- between what-is-felt and what-it-is-about; and
- between what-is-felt and words-actions-images.
Let’s call what-is-felt “this”; what-it-is about “of”; and words- actions-images “such”. Now we can make a simple diagram:
One of Gene Gendlin’s main conclusions reads like this (p221):
“From this study it follows
(a) that intellect is not in direct contact with perception or reality, however defined;
(b) that intellect always depends upon the functions of felt meaning.”
Using our diagram, we would say it this way: you can only get from of to such in either direction via this.
- Every perception or sense-impression (“of”) involves felt meaning (“this”).
- Every thought or image or cognition (“such”) involves felt meaning (“this”).
- There is no escape from felt meaning (“this”).
- There is no “path” from sense-impressions (“of”) to thoughts (“such”: i e words-and-images) that does not “pass through” or “travel via” felt meaning (“this”) (see Diagram 2).
Felt meaning is always present, however tenuously. It may be very tenuous indeed. But you can never totally bypass it. We tend, however, to skip from “of” to “such”.
We tend to pass over felt meaning (the “this”, the body-sense, the experiencing….) without noticing or taking account of it.
Yet we cannot express fully or freshly or creatively what any situation is about, without being present to the felt sense (to the thread of experiencing, to what is felt, to our bodily being-in-the- world…).
We cannot really live here (in the “of”), unless in forming words-and- images (the “such”) we are attentive to felt meaning (the “this”). Instead, as we skip lightly and mechanically from “of” to “such”, we miss out the actual living! – since by virtue of skipping we are left merely bringing with us stale concepts, stale ways of being in the world. We are relating to now as if it is merely a repetition of then, and so our relating is necessarily thin, uncreative, and less than fully human.
When we try to eliminate the felt dimension, we quickly find ourselves in a famine of meaning. Life becomes a jigsaw puzzle; or like making moves in somebody else’s game. Living is reduced to a game of chess.
In one sense, what is called “felt meaning” need not be in the body as such, since people paralysed from the neck down can still perceive, relate to the world, create, and sense inwardly. Even when the “usual” body is paralysed, a person can still sense the body from inside (“body” in the special sense in which the word is used here).
3. Experiencing is ubiquitous
I’m going to risk saying that it is impossible to experience life without felt meaning. Felt meaning is always with us, however tenuously.
At the Science Centre in Glasgow there is a device which lifts a rubber arm like a windscreen wiper out of a trough full of soap, so that it draws up a vast flat soap bubble like an incredibly thin curtain. We often speak of the felt sense as if it is either there or not there. Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning is saying something a little different, however: wherever there is meaning, there are:
- context (“of”),
- symbols (“such”), and
- felt meaning (“this”).
“Felt” meaning is ubiquitous, even when it is as thin as the soap bubble curtain.
Diagram 2 (Diagram 1 expanded):
A note about the word “felt”:
Notice that very often when Gene Gendlin (and this article) uses the word “felt” it doesn’t mean that you can always feel the “felt” as distinct bodily sensation. I’m sorry about this, but it doesn’t! It means that there is always “the having of a meaning”. You may or may not in practice be able to get a distinct bodily felt sense. Many meanings, says my friend Carol, are not so much “felt” as “under-felt” (like a carpet has an underfelt!). A person is not a computer. A computer does not “have” meanings, since there is no person there to have them. So another way to say this is: there is always a person there, who “has” the meaning (felt or under-felt).
But still there always is that having-of-a-meaning.
Question: Why is this important?
Answer: Because it means that a kind of sub- or proto-Focusing is absolutely ubiquitous in our lives. It wipes out any possibility of treating Focusing as
(a) just another tool or technique, useful sometimes, like other tools; or as
(b) an empirically observed intermittent behaviour pattern (“stopping and sensing”), such that later studies might cast doubt on earlier observations or their significance.
Gene Gendlin shows that our being-in-the-world centrally and crucially is felt meaning. Focusing, as a social form, simply enables us to enter in far more deeply to our inevitable existential situation.
The fundamental axiom: “Meaning is experienced,” is to be taken in the strongest possible sense.
Exercise – the habit of felt sensing:
Of course, it is possible to become aware of some of the hidden ingredients of our experiencing, without any special techniques or exercises, as people have done from time immemorial. But I’ve been asked to apply each of my points in a simple way. Here’s a suggestion:
- We all want special times set aside for Focusing, either alone or with another person. Perhaps you have already found that after Focusing for some time, you started to be much more aware of felt experiencing (and to draw upon it) at all sorts of odd times during the day. A way to explore the ideas in this section would be to make a point of touching in with your felt sense in all sorts of situations as you go about your day.
Let me try to say what this suggestion is pointed at.
If having a felt sense and allowing steps to come from it were a special case — a technique, like (say) the use of two chairs in gestalt therapy, or the Six Hats tool-cum-structure in De Bono’s thinking courses — then it would make sense, if we only paid attention to the felt sense within the context of specially set-up Focusing situations.
But if, as Gene Gendlin says, felt meaning is absolutely ubiquitous, then it follows that Focusing is really nothing like these specific techniques. If felt meaning is always present in every perception and every cognition (that is, everywhere), then surely we would want to be aware of felt meaning: if not absolutely all the time, then at least continually, at all sorts of little intersections in our lives.
Would you merely feel flayed and undefended, if you were too much aware of felt experiencing all the time? Would you become impossibly and painfully over-sensitive? I don’t think so. Not unless it became an experience of ceaseless intensity. If you were to allow yourself to rest in the sustaining ordinary, the ordinary texture of patterns and rituals, but easily slipping in and out of depth, then surely you would get to feel a whole heap less flayed and exposed than most of us usually do?
- How would it feel to you, to make a point of stopping for a few moments here and there throughout the day: just touching in with the felt sense of this present situation, where you are working, resting, talking, listening, playing music, or whatever?
- How would it feel to you, when something in your life or work or relationships needs to be taken forward, to make a point of stopping now and then to invite a felt sense of all-about-that to form, and just to be with that felt sense for one or two minutes?
- How would it feel for you, in these moments of stopping, to make contact sometimes with your own deep values, and feel what they bring to you in this moment, and how they apply just here in your life?
This wonderful phrase, “the habit of felt sensing” was introduced by Peter Campbell and Ed McMahon, by the way.
I want to end this section with a story. Nine years ago, I went to see a well-known teacher of meditation. I said that I could find some peace whilst meditating, but that when I went back out into my life, it was if anything even more painful and chaotic. He said: “You know nothing at all about meditation. Meditation has nothing to do with sitting. Meditation is awareness without judgment in the whole of your life.”
It is in just this spirit that I’m putting to you the idea that “Focusing is access to felt experiencing in the whole of your life.” One makes the turn to Focusing when the forward movement is stopped.
4. A Third Way in Philosophy
Here are two ways of seeing the world, with which I guess we are all familiar:
- There is ONE true reality, even if human beings can only ever grasp or express an approximation to it. This (“the traditional world- picture”) is rigid, in that it tends towards confining the world in a single scheme.
- There is NO true reality: reality is what you choose to make of it — lots of schemes can be made, and each is as good as the next. This (“the post-modern kind of world-picture”) is despairing, in that it tends towards finally robbing us of all significant meaning.
Gene Gendlin introduces a third way:
3. There are MANY true realities, and yet they are not arbitrary! This view (“the philosophy of the implicit”) seems strange at first, but is founded in familiar experience. It avoids both of the extremes, and is both fluid and hopeful.
What does the phrase “founded in familiar experience” mean here? It means you can go and see for yourself:
- Is it, in your direct experience, ALWAYS and inevitably true that whatever you understand can open up further? Or is it, on the other hand, true that you can EVEN SOMETIMES reach a final and unalterable truth, and know that it is both true and final?
- Is it, in your direct experience, EVER true that it is arbitrary what scheme of understanding you bring to bear upon a problem or situation? Or is it, on the other hand, MORE OR LESS INVARIABLY true that the scheme you use affects how you are in the situation, and the results which will follow?
Two questions arise at once:
- What is this “third way”?
- Is there anything particularly unique in Gene Gendlin’s “third way”?
I will say a few words, firstly and prematurely, about the second question. Is there anything particularly unique in this “third way”? I’m particularly unqualified to say anything here, but will risk a few tentative words. As I understand it, many thinkers are working in this general area. The elements in Gene Gendlin’s approach to the area which I see as being unique have to do:
- with direct reference to the “having” of a meaning;
- with his close analysis of a variety of “functional relations” (not just one!) between “experiencing” and “symbolisation”;
- with the ever-present option of creative regress to the having of the meaning, and of going on freshly from there; and especially
- with applying these principles continually, in the act of saying something, to the saying itself.
All of this will become clearer in the following pages.
The uniqueness is thus fundamentally methodological. But it has wide- ranging implications.
What is this third way? It will be easier to say first what it is not, just as Gene Gendlin does in Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning.
The philosophy of the implicit – negative statements:
- No explicit scheme can ever be final.
- Nor is the body’s implicit knowing final.
- Nor is this philosophy saying that the body’s living in situations constitutes (in any sense) a living manifestation of the implicit order of the universe, as we are going on in it. No statement is being made either about the nature of reality, or about the possibilities of human knowing. Though this philosophy will turn out to have large implications both for the question, “What can we know?” and for the question, “What is the ultimate nature of reality?”
The philosophy of the implicit – positive statements
This philosophy offers a set of experienceable facts! For example:
- Direct reference. For any specified meaning (any “such”) we can always refer back to the experiencing involved in having that meaning (to the “this”). At any point and in relation to any meaning we can still turn back to the had meaning, the felt sense. Always.
- Felt knowing. In so referring back, we can always draw freshly upon implicit pre-verbal knowing (the felt knowing which is the “this”, or is in the “this”, or flows from the “this” or to which the “this” is a gateway — there are countless possible metaphors).
- Symbols. From a felt meaning, in a series of ways, symbols are formed. By the use of symbols, a felt sense is evoked.
- Not just anything. When we refer directly to the experiencing involved in having a concept or specified meaning (the “this” or felt sense), we quickly discover that what a person can “say”, here, is not just anything, only just precisely those words, that will satisfy the felt sense. (The “this” insists on just precisely the “such” that it wants, or likes, or is pointing to, or has in it, or will be completed by. And so forth.) Or perhaps the explicit is not verbal in this case. What a person can authentically draw or sing or picture or do or in any way envision or believe is not just anything, but only just what arises from the felt sense.
- Escape from the arbitrary. We may or may not be “cut off from any ultimate truth”, but we are not victims of arbitrariness: because not “just anything” will do. Thus this philosophy escapes from the relativism which regards all schemes as equally valid and equally arbitrary.
- Always more. The felt knowing (“this”) is always more than anything which could ever be explicitly said or symbolised (as a “such”).
- Escape from the absolute. What is felt is always more than what can be said. When we refer directly to experiencing, any scheme can be carried forward further. It follows that no given scheme can have final authority.
In this way this philosophy escapes from the absolutism which maintains that there is a fixed knowable truth “out there”, and that what we have to do is find or submit to it.
8. Kinds and instances. In relation to any explicit statement (“this”) we can ask “What kind of experiencing was this statement an instance of?” (see below, section 10).
It is very tempting at this point to say: “The felt or feelable meaning is what is fundamental, foundational.” This is what I first wrote. Many people have fallen into treating the felt sense as a kind of all-knowing oracle, because of seeing it as foundational in this sense.
But that is quite mistaken. It tries to set up the kind of bodily sensation which we call “the felt sense” as a kind of odd metaphysical entity: as a “foundation” that is in some way outside of Focusing. Is it (in this very wide sense) even in principle POSSIBLE to be “outside of Focusing”?
In a rather loose sense I do think felt meaning is “foundational”. I guess it has to be, because in some sense it is all we have. But it’s a weird kind of “foundational”, right? It isn’t foundational because of some already-formed structure which makes it so, but because (on the contrary) it is the already- underneath of that or any other structure.
OK. If I see red, “seeing” red already involves the having- of (the felt meaning), AND some kind of symbolisation, AND the situation of my seeing — beyond the mere sense-impression. The word “red” is only intelligible when I have a meaning for which “red” is the symbol, in a situation, and in relation to a whole scheme of colours.
- There’s no having-of that is not already conceptual and situational; just as
- there’s no conception that is not already a having of and a being- in-situation; and
- there’s no being-in-situation that is not already a having-of and conceptual.
The three are utterly bound up together. “Of”, “this”, and “such” are inextricable, necessarily always interwoven. Felt meaning is only foundational in the sense that it is the living referent, the having- of in the living body. If there is no living referent, then there is nobody there for any structure or situation to be there for.
The point I was making when I fell into error was about the fragility of the structures made in words-or-images. We have grown up in a world where most people are still living from inside a traditional world-picture. They think certain received truths are absolute. It’s tempting to say: “NO! the foundation is not in received truths, but in the felt body”. But equally mistaken.
I’m not trying to make the felt sense into a metaphysical foundation. But what we are saying does have implications both for metaphysics and epistemology (for thinking about the ultimate nature of reality, and for thinking about the nature of knowing)!
Because it leaves us in a space of “continuous philosophy”, where the dogs keep barking all the time, and never go to sleep.
All of this is much more than saying, “Your body (magically) knows your way forward, your next right step.” It is saying: All words, actions and images arise within situations, and through the medium of felt meaning. All human symbolisations whatsoever arise within a being-in-situation.
What is foundational is the process by which “of” and “this” and “such” carry one another forward: the process in which our living in situations and our symbolic forms are mediated by the functioning of felt meaning.
5. The importance of logical schemes
Once we have words and other symbols, they form patterns for a time, and for so long as one of these patterns holds, it has all kinds of logical implications.
Many people are scared of logic. So-called logic gets treated as The Supreme Unchallengeable: “But that’s not logical!”, said with great contempt, is often used as the Big Put Down.
On the other hand, “That’s not logic!” often is an answer to a statement which is perceived, for example, to contain a contradiction.
I should not like to give the impression that the philosophy put forward in Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning is in any way hostile to logic, reasoning, or traditional schemes. On the contrary, we do need some scheme for any present time and purpose (how would we ever build an aeroplane without one?). When this philosophy says that no scheme could ever, even in principle, be final, that is not intended to imply that schemes are without value.
Schemes are essential. And logic should serve to structure the scheme with which we are dealing.
But the scheme has to accommodate itself to direct reference, to the felt sense. The logic which structures the such must give way to the this. This is a radical reversal of the traditional hierarchy, of the usual philosophic procedure.
Logic should begin from a point which is sound, proceed by clear steps to a conclusion which is valid, give rise to observables which can be tested — and be pregnant. By pregnant, I mean that at any point we can re-enter the felt sense, to see what new insight or foolishness this chain of reasoning has brought us to!
The peculiar power of Gene Gendlin’s distinct philosophical vision lies in this: that we get to keep both the power of reasoning (the logical process) and the directly referring to a felt sense (the experiential process).
These are such immense things to say! I feel we need to be clear that Gene Gendlin is making huge philosophical claims: that his ideas, if we accept them, will change the whole way in which we see the world we are living in.
It isn’t just that, like others, he accepts as an “everyday” truth that all scientific, social, and other such patterns are “provisional”. (Though it is often said that many people may perhaps “need” some sort of settled world, and would perhaps be unable to escape from despair or cynicism if that were undermined.) It is that Gene Gendlin locates in our immediate felt experiencing a middle way between the settled and the provisional or arbitrary.
• Behind your Focusing, do you have certain explicit schemes, which are never allowed to be opened up freshly by the process of referring inwardly?
Most of us have certain schemes which are so much part of us that they are all but invisible, or which are so strongly reinforced by social authority that it is terrifying to question them. But just as by Focusing on the background feeling wide, global patterns can shift, so by entering into background schemes, you may find a path to big changes. You can search out these rigid or traditional schemes and explore what the effects might be, if you began to see them as temporary human constructions.
But I am not asking you to let go of any good scheme or cultural pattern which serves you in your life. That would be foolish, since everybody needs some cultural patterns to live inside.
I’m going to suggest an exercise, then answer an obvious question about it, and then give an example, which will show some part of the immensity of the philosophy, and something both of the power and the frailty of reasoning.
• In your Focusing, do you get to keep also the power of logic and reasoning? Do you at times follow up the logical implications of what you are saying, or trace the assumptions which lie behind the scheme you are sitting in?
Question: So what? Why would we want to have logical schemes as well as Focusing?
Answer: I’m going to give three quick answers to this:
- You don’t have any choice. Just as being human means that you exist in a world in which felt meaning is ubiquitous, so also being human means that you live in a world permeated through and through by conceptual schemes.
- Since the schemes are there anyway, you may as well have the power of them, instead of letting yourself be their passive victim.
- In the public world, we communicate by means of common schemes (common assumptions, agreed structures, patterns, procedures). Unless you can move about confidently in the world of given schemes, your power to bring about any good effects in the public world is very limited.
Example: Let me try to illustrate, by playing a little at the edge where this philosophy has implications for such questions as:
- What is the nature of the order of the universe? — and
- Can we know anything about that order? And if so, what and how?
THEN it follows necessarily that all traditional religious and scientific schemes and all social and cultural and intellectual patterns are provisional (yes, I said ALL), and not one of them has any final authority or substance.
THEREFORE (1) in respect of ANY scheme, and in the context of ANY present matter, we would need to go see what felt meaning (the felt sense, freshly referred to) had to say about it (in other words, the philosophy of the implicit implies having an openness to seeing things in new ways);
AND (2) IF more than one person was involved, THEN we would all have to listen to one another, SO THAT what came (and is still coming) from your felt sense and what came (and is still coming) from my felt sense could have their effects on one another (in other words, the philosophy of the implicit implies dialogue).
THEREFORE IF the two premises I started with are sound [P1 and P2] and IF the argument is valid and IF the felt sense is an ever-moving-forward (I guess we would each agree that it is, judging from our own experience), THEN there is NO final truth, but ONLY “the going on that is going on”.
HOWEVER each of the temporary, provisional schemes has its own logical implications. Including of course this one, that I am just now making here. (I am trying to bring out the power of logical patterning, as I write, by highlighting logical connections.)
for example (the example which follows is quite long – it is both cheeky and perfectly serious; it will hint both at the power and at some of the difficulties of logical argument):
IF we agree to accept the scheme or premiss, “God will send our children to hell for being bad”; AND IF we agree to accept the scheme or premiss, “Beating the shit out of them will make them good”: THEN it might seem to follow necessarily that “Any truly loving parent will batter his or her children at every opportunity”.
But I doubt it. EVEN IF we were to accept the premises as being sound, I doubt whether the conclusion would be valid. If you were to pause and do a little Focusing just here, it might come to you that quite other conclusions could equally well follow instead:
“Such being the case, any truly loving parent would:
- put God in the dock;
- defy Him, whatever the consequences;
- deliberately choose to have ‘bad’ but unbattered children;
- ask some serious questions about this term ‘bad’, and about the kinds of ‘good’ end that can be the product of ‘evil’ means; and
- ask some difficult theological questions, viz:
- ‘Is God God BECAUSE he is good?’ IF SO, God is bound by goodness, and THEREFORE God is not omnipotent (Uh-oh).
- Or on the contrary, ‘Is goodness good because God says so?’ – i e at any moment (in principle), God might lean down from a cloud and say, ‘Hey, I’ve changed my mind! New rules for goodness, from today!’ IF SO, goodness is merely arbitrary, and THEREFORE no standard of goodness is permanent in its nature?” (double Uh-oh….)
SO we don’t need to feel scared of logic (I hope I showed that!). Fracture a structure of pure reasoning at any point, and the whole thing comes tumbling down. We can still search for gold among the ruins.
I think many people are frightened of logic. You don’t need to be!
Some of the purposes of philosophy (keeping it simple) are:
- to create new concepts
- to examine concepts
- to examine assumptions
- to create new lines of argument
- to create new kinds of argument
- to look at premises and see whether they are sound
- to clarify arguments and see whether they are valid
- to return to felt meaning and see what we have learned
- to enter into a process of “continuous philosophy”.
I feel certain that Gene Gendlin has put forward a powerful and convincing case for the two premises from which I started in this example. I think it is a world-changing case…
It is clear to me that IF these premises are sound [P1 and P2, above], THEN we really have to reckon with “the sheer enormity of Gene’s philosophical claims”.
Gene Gendlin has not only introduced a good psychological tool, Focusing:
IF we go with him (and others travelling on similar paths), THEN the whole way in which we see and live in the world is radically and uncomfortably affected, SUCH THAT we can no longer have any permanent fixed points in the world of schemes and explicit formulations.
- We do have the “going on that is going on”: the ever-repatterning formulations which are continually arising from an ever-being-carried- forward world of felt meaning. We do still have the felt sense, and we can trust the chain of steps which arises here.
- We also have the power of logic to build structures. We can see where the structures take us, and we need not fear structures, since at any point we can refer back to the felt sense in a kind of creative regress, and see where our logical, rational thinking has brought us to.
• In your Focusing, do you get to keep also the power of logic and reasoning? You could experiment here, quite playfully, and see how a chain of reasoning can lead you to a new place, and so to a new felt sense, from which steps can be made which would not otherwise have come.
- We have lost the old settled world: there is no ultimate truth, according to this philosophy.
- We have escaped from despair: it is not the case that “any scheme is as true as any other”. On the contrary:
- Only this can truthfully be said at this point, which arises just here, very precisely, from this present felt sense. The “implicit knowing” is more demanding, more precise, more exacting, than anything that can be explicitly stated.
It is a little like what Mendelssohn said about music: “The problem about saying what music means is not that music is vague; but, on the contrary, that music is so much more precise than language”. Felt meaning (implicit knowing) is exactly that: “so much more precise (and intricate) than language”.
So this philosophy leaves our world different. It cuts us off from the hope of final truth, but without abandoning us to the despair of arbitrary schemes. The world in which we live becomes an entirely more fluid thing, when it is seen under the light of this philosophy.
Now it gets worse! Everything I just said is precisely an example of the kind of provisional scheme which (according to THIS scheme) can never be final, but only relative to the whole interaction between “of”, “this” and “such”: situation, felt meaning, and explicit symbols.
Hey! It’s chasing it’s own tail!!!
6. What would I like the word “————” to mean?
I was teaching the use of this question to a group, when a woman volunteered to work with me, who had just heard terrible news. I listened for a while. At a certain point she said: “I’m just sitting with it.” I suggested, rather tentatively: “I wonder if it would be OK to ask yourself, ‘Just what kind of sitting with is happening here?… What would I like this phrase to mean?… What is the special meaning-to-me, which the words sitting with have just here… just at this moment?…” There was a pause. “Oh,” she said, “This is an all- embracing kind of sitting with… It’s like” — she opened her arms out to embrace an invisible friend.
The question opened up the experiencing and the process. “…It’s like I can still be here, and also be holding them at a distance… holding the circle and embracing them from outside… protecting them in their grief from further harm, whilst they begin to deal with their loss… that’s the kind of sitting with that this is…”
Now a funny phrase came: “It’s a safe happen.” This odd phrase (“funny language”) was exactly right, and we stayed with it.
So we made progress by Focusing on the private meaning of the word (the phrase “sitting with”), rather than on the situation itself. We were Focusing into the such, rather than into the of.
Here is a simple do-able something:
• Every word you say (for example, when you are Focusing) brings with it a structure of public meaning — what we all know it means. But you can enquire into the private meaning-to-me: “What does this word mean for me, here?” Or, “What would I like the word ‘————’ to mean?”
I shall take as examples the word “AWARENESS” and the word “ANGER”. In either case, I shall try to show the difference between a further exploring of the situational response (the usual Focusing approach), and an enquiry into the private meaning of the concept represented by the word.
To an extent, in the usual Focusing, we are all the time going further into the meaning of the words we use:
Example 2 (usual Focusing):
“There’s AWARENESS here… it’s a being present… a kind of listening… a wanting to be present, which also has in it a restlessness at having to be present… it’s like it’s not enough if I let myself be just passive… this situation seems to require some active commitment of myself, some way… oh yes, now I have it! I see what I have to do…”
Example 3 (usual Focusing):
“There’s ANGER here… it’s a kind of edgy, defensive tensing… with fear and uncertainty behind it… it doesn’t trust me to make safety for myself when I am in this situation at work… no, that’s not it — this part is angry and scared at me, because it doesn’t trust me to remember it even exists!… well of course there would be an angry there…”
In these cases, the person is enquiring into the situational response. The process opens by going further into the way in which this feeling is brought forth by the situation.
But instead (or as well), you could enquire into the concept that the word holds or embodies:
Example 2 (private meaning version):
“What would I like the word AWARENESS to mean here?…
“The word for what’s here seems to be AWARENESS… Now, what am I asking the word ‘awareness’ to mean here? What kind of word is this, for me?… OK, it’s a label which has a range of meanings in religion, philosophy, psychology, and so forth. “But what is it doing here? Can I put down all that baggage, which the word brings, and sense freshly into my meaning of the word ‘awareness’… I can find all kinds of awareness going on right here… Awareness of sense impressions… Of body sensations… Of different ‘parts’ of me, with differing energies… And awareness of awareness! That’s neat!… but what about this ‘awareness’, that brought the use of the term
“This ‘awareness’ is not the same thing at all as (say) religious awareness and all that stuff… Not even the same kind of thing… It is more like ‘a being present and listening to me’… ‘how I am in the world and how the world is in me’… OK, what kind of way of me-in-the- world-and-the-world-in-me is this ‘awareness’… It’s something like ‘a way of being in the world that allows me to see things as I experience them’… Not as the company culture experiences them… But fearlessly, with a certain secret fierceness…. So that I have a quiet strong commitment to my own seeing… and the word ‘awareness’ gets to mean ‘a really active standing-in-my-own-experience’…
“Now, let’s take that meaning back into the situation… But hang on a minute! I could use this active energy all over the place in my life!… it fits at work, and at home too… There’s a whole thing of not-really-engaging, that this ‘awareness’ is the exact opposite of… ”
Example 3 (private meaning version):
“What would I like the word ANGER to mean here?”
“There’s anger here… Now, what am I asking the word ‘anger’ to mean here? What kind of word is this, for me? What work am I asking the word to do? How is the word setting about earning its living, right here?… OK, it’s a label for a broad surging of sensation which comes between me and really feeling what I’m feeling… So this ‘anger’ is not the same kind of thing at all as (say) sadness, since it is more like ‘a not-feeling’… OK, what kind of not-feeling is this anger… It’s something like ‘a protective not-feeling’… I wonder, is it just anger that functions as a protective not-feeling in my life… Oh my! My life is just full of protective not-feeling. Whew!…”
I wonder if I have managed to convey the difference to you? In the first case, we are enquiring into the situation (what we called the “of” in section 2). In the second case, we are enquiring into the concept or symbol (what we called the “such”).
Question: Why might it be helpful to go into the private meaning of a word?
Answer: Because when a word brings with it its familiar baggage of meaning, the person often loses connection with the special meaning that is felt right here.
Public meaning (as it were) moves in and takes over. The person’s ongoing experiential process is hijacked. Social meanings move in like terrorists, and stop the truly individual process from being carried forward freely.
When this happens, there can still be a Focusing process. Life goes on. But the free life of the process, its truly individual opening up, has been stolen away. The person has been returned to a thinner world of public meanings, from which layer upon layer of experiential specificity has been discarded.
Entering into the private meaning of crucial terms protects the person’s unique experiencing of the situation, and enables her to stay there.
7. Focusing on this Focusing: Focusing on the internal act
Now it gets even more interesting! Mostly in Focusing (so far as I am aware), we are concerned to explore the relation between the felt sense and the situation. (The point of the dance to and fro between “this” and “such” is to illuminate the “of”. Most Focusing is “of-centred”). There is a dancing to and fro between felt sense and words- or-images, but it is directed at opening up the “this-of” relation: at producing or releasing felt shifts or steps, which change one’s way of being in some one situation.
In Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Gene Gendlin is suggesting that we practise Focusing on the internal act: on the relation that is currently going on between felt sense and symbols. (In this section we’re Focusing on the relation between “this” and “such”.) We often say, “I’m inviting a felt sense to form”, or “I’m asking it what it needs”, or “I’m resonating”, and so forth. I guess we must by now have several hundred terms for specific inner acts, each of which describes some action familiar to Focusers. Focusing people have every reason to be grateful for this wonderful sharing of insight, for our ongoing conversation about process.
Each of these terms emerged freshly at some time during a particular Focusing process. A person Focusing turned back upon herself, to Focus upon this very internal act going on here, and to see what it was. She paused from asking the felt sense about the outer situation, and asked it instead about how it was experiencing her relationship to it! From a specific felt sense, she specified a particular internal act, and taught it to the rest of us. Now it is a public, pre-packaged unit
At some point, Gene Gendlin perhaps turned back on himself and noticed the checking back movement which we now call Resonating. He watched it, named it, and gave it to us.
- Next time you are Focusing, you could abandon all the pre-packaged forms of internal action. Instead, you might ask: “What internal act is going on here?” Let a new expression, newly describing this present inner activity, in which you find yourself engaged, emerge freshly and immediately out of this present Focusing process.
(On Cumbrae, we found this simple move electrifying. Somebody commented, “I feel cheated, as if I was only shown the half of it. Why was I never taught this?” Another person said, “Why would I ever do the usual Focusing again?” A third person said, “This takes me right behind my own habits, as they colour the whole of my life.” — Yet all we were doing was applying, in a very simple way, some ideas from Gene Gendlin’s book, which happen not to have become part of our usual ways of Focusing.)
- You could ask further: “What internal act should be going on here?” You are inviting the felt sense to show you what kind of being-with it needs, right now.
I’m aware that many Focusers already ask something like this. The difference I’m trying to catch is something like this: if you ask this second question, you might try being really careful to let it open up a fresh process of sensing-into-internal-action, such that the sensing-into-internal-action becomes the point of the process, the central thing going on. I guess we generally use this question as a way to choose a pre-packaged inner action, and as a bridge, to enable us to go further with a sensing-into-this-situation. (There’s nothing wrong with that!)
- What Gene Gendlin is suggesting, assuming I understood him, is that you might try Focusing really deeply and patiently, not on this felt sense as it stands in relation to that external life situation, but on this same felt sense as it expresses your present way of going to and fro between felt sense and symbols.
You are Focusing on the “this-such” relation. The this is the felt sense. The such is the symbolisation in words-or-images-or-sounds-or- movement. You are Focusing directly upon the inner relationship between this and such as it is manifesting right here.
For this reason, the first of the questions I just discussed is likely to go deeper than the second – since it is an enquiry, and not a method.
The first example in Section 6 also illustrates this section, since although we started by enquiring into the private meaning of a phrase, it led the person into exploring the internal act in which she was engaged.
8. Wild playfulness: “Crossing”
Now I have to make a diversion. It begins with a difficult sentence.
Gene Gendlin says this: “Any experienced meaning can schematise a new aspect of any other experienced meaning.” After puzzling over this for a couple of days, I wrote in my copy of his book: “He really means it!”
What does he mean? Let me begin with an example, rather than trying to explain. After all, he is not announcing a principle, really, but pointing to an experienceable fact. It’s a try-it-and-see!
Example of crossing:
Imagine that you just became a Focusing Trainer and you want to market yourself.
Take some other field which has real meaning for you: a hobby, a relationship, a project, a vehicle, a sport. Anything at all, so long as it has nothing to do with marketing! Take a look into your felt meaning of this other field — how you feel about the other field. Let some sentences or words or images come up.
Now let’s have some fun. Apply those words, sentences, images to the self-marketing project! Say to yourself: “There must be some way in which these statements can also be true of the marketing thing!” And as you sit with the two felt senses, side by side but touching, crossings will bubble up, one after another…
Some of them will be easy. But just where you get stuck, wait and play. After a while, odd, fresh, liberating ways will emerge, in which the thoughts about the other field can also in some sense be true of the marketing.
It is just where you get most stuck, that the crossing which comes will usually be most delightful, most illuminating — will bring the most fresh light to your marketing project; will free you from your stuck idea of “self-marketing”.
So what is crossing?
You can “cross” any two meanings, via your felt sense, so that one illuminates the other. This (in other words) is an experiential version of the well-known lateral thinking. To cross is: to let facets or aspects of some (unrelated) subject cast light on the subject you are working on.
• Suppose you want to see Subject A in a new way.
Take some entirely unrelated Subject B. Find several characteristics of B.
Now by referring to your felt sense, let ways emerge in which these characteristics of B are also (perhaps unexpectedly) characteristics of A
This freely playful process, particularly when you are stale and stuck, is almost sure to cast light in all sorts of delightful, fresh, indispensable ways
Three people in our group used the idea of “Spanish dancing” to cast new light on “democracy”. Spanish dancing demands passion and commitment. It has a tightly controlled form. But if you really live inside the form, then you can really make the form work. It is easy to see how all of this get you to take a fresh look at democracy.
Another person used the idea of “a sardine” to cast light on “my love”. (In Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, there is a great deal of discussion of the line, “My love is like a red, red rose”). Just as a sardine spends most of its time in a tin in the cupboard, so a life-partner needs to be left in peace much of the time, not burdened with constant emotional chewing. Just as a sardine has nutritious crunchy bones, so also in a relationship it is when you don’t avoid the crunchy hard bits that the relationship grows. Just as a sardine should be swimming freely in the open Atlantic, so the person you love should swim free in the vast ocean of the world where they belong, along with your love and trust.
The links between the two areas can be found without Focusing, but much more apt and powerful crossings are found when there is inward body-sensing.
This is a lot of fun to do. And more than that. At points where the crossings were not merely surprising and unexpected, but penetrating and insightful, the wild playfulness occasionally became very moving.
Sometimes it will stick: “There’s no way that this (which is true of B) could apply here (be true of A)!” But by waiting just at that edge, where the two felt senses are sticking, and crossing is refusing to happen, and sensing into that intersection, some insight will suddenly blossom, which will ring true, breaking through the previous habitual seeing of the situation.
Can a blossom ring true? Well of course it can, when you let blossoming and ringing cross in just this way we are talking about!
A blossom suddenly catches the eye (just as a bell catches the ear)… It leaves a resonance in the mind… It is transient and quickly gone… Its beauty and transience are all bound up together… It is utterly itself (“true” in one sense)…. And clear in form and colour (“true” in another)…
You can use this kind of crossing in the usual Focusing session. You can also apply it to just about any project. Crossing is well-known outside Focusing. For example, it has a central role in Edward De Bono’s famous lateral thinking. But crossing, like other practices, is more powerful, when you take your felt sense with you.
After a while, you should get to feel that this playful poetic bubbling up could go on renewing itself for ever, like the tireless playing of children.
9. Turning the language back on itself
Now the next piece is weird. But when we applied it, once again light was cast in all directions!
This section is about a special case of “crossing”: applying the symbols which fit the external situation to the experiencing of the internal act. We are going to take the Handle, which is about how the felt sense carries the life-situation. We are going to assume that the same Handle is an apt description for the quality of the internal act, the relation between the symbols and the felt sense.
This section is about how you can use your own language to unlock or open up the relationship between the felt sense and that very language. We are combining the methods outlined in Sections 7 and 8, above. Let me try to make this clear.
Example 1 (a personal matter):
I am feeling something (“this”) which I am calling “being impatient with my wife”. How could it possibly make any sense to take that as referring, right here, to my relationship to myself in this moment? — or more precisely, how could these words (“impatient with my wife”) be construed as a handle for the felt sense. It is the same felt sense, but now it is being regarded as a felt sense of the internal act that (right now, as these words come to me) is relating my felt sense (“this”) to its symbols (“such”)?
How is what I’m doing a kind of impatient-with-my-wife-ness? What kind of process is this? Is there a way that those words could describe the inner process? In what way is “impatient-with-my-wife” like how I am treating myself in this particular situation (which I describe or have a Handle for as “being impatient with my wife”)?
To find out, I have to refer freshly to the felt sense. What comes there?… Well, many things!:
- I’m “impatient” with myself for feeling this way; and impatient for the process to move forward… impatient also at the process in its resistance to coercion… moreover, the impatient has in it a not-listeningÉ. which applies (sadly) as a not-listening to myself and as a not-listening to my wife.
- In what way is the felt sense “a wife”?… Well, I’m bound into my life, just as one is bound into a contract of marriage… On the other hand, there’s a being sustained by Focusing, almost without noticing, just as I am sustained by my wife… and so little aware of it. Suddenly I am touched. There is an edge of tears, which leads into and arises from a shimmering present complexity, which connects to vast global habits of mind…
- Then there is the child we have. Here many threads cross… One is this: when I am “impatient with my wife”, it harms our child… When I am impatient in the inner relationship, the new growing in me is bruised, stunted and damaged. As I re-read this later, something opens, and tears come…
- Finally there’s the word “being”. As I sense into it… I feel a slight but unmistakable quiver of shame… The shame is (or is in) a kind of passivity, which the word “being” seems here to be pointing at… So I ask: with my wife, am I both impatient and (in some way) being or acting helpless, as this seems to imply?… Also, right here, in this Focusing transition, is my inner relation one both of impatience and of defeat or giving up on myself?… Is “impatient defeat”, to widen further, how I go about my living?… Well, no wonder this is a stuck place, since that is the kind of being with myself and others that I am pervasively caught up in!
Example 2 (a professional issue):
Let us suppose that I have an overwhelming despondency about marketing myself. The very idea that “marketing” and “myself” could belong in a single thought makes me feel weird and troubled.
“Despondent… weird… troubled…” — these are words which describe the felt sense, as it arises in this marketing situation. This is how the situation makes me feel. It seems very odd to say, “Is there some way in which these same words could describe how I am relating to myself, as I am Focusing just now?” But let’s do it anyway, and see if anything comes.
(1) My being-with-myself: is that also “despondent”?… Am I despondent about the process too?… Oh yes, that’s easy enough: I am despondent about marketing, and about this Focusing getting me anywhere with my marketing… And I still wince every time I say the word… And yes, my Focusing often has a despondent gauze over it, a not-expecting anything good to come of it…
(2) Is it also “troubled”, the way I am being-with-myself?…. Yes, it is troubled like the seas off the isle of Canna – “Bumpy Alley”, the sailors call it, where the tides come around the islands from all directions, and the waves come at each other from all angles… That is so typical of how I am in my life: that there would be several tides all flowing at once…. That it is hard to concentrate on any one thing, when so many energies are counter-flowing…. And hard to live in the outer life, when the inner world is so bumpy
I was so sick in Bumpy Alley…. Yes, and came to a wonderful remote island… Yes, my inner life is like that too: a fever, but also it brings me to wonderful magical places…
(3) Is the inner relation “weird”?… Now there’s an interesting question. My head says, “Of course you’re weird!” – quite kindly, but unmistakeably… But nothing is coming in the body. OK, in this marketing spot, is there some “weird” about how I am relating to myself?… well, there’s a wanting and not-wanting… As if putting myself out there “blows my cover” in some way… Is that weird? (Here I actually went to the dictionary!) Well, weird has to do with the Fates… Oh yes, that fits — that kind of fatalistic “Nothing will help! It’ll always be the same!” — that’s my old familiar background feeling, quietly glossing this new situation…
(4) And there’s a second aspect to the “weird”. Deep down, there’s a space of feeling different… Weird like strange, damaged, even unearthly or shadow-ridden… I can easily touch a sense of myself as a creature of shadows… How could I decently put myself forward in the world, when all that is underneath?…
(5) Finally, I wonder if there’s some way that my Focusing, particularly this Focusing, is a “marketing”?… Well, marketing is taking what you’ve grown these weeks, and selling it to the people who don’t have that… But they may also have grown something, and we could exchange… That fits exactly how I am in myself… I want something to grow that will not only feed me, but also others – and for them to be also coming back with something newly grown…
(6) So does all of this give me any new openings in my self-marketing problem, as the “impatient defeat” place gave me something for my family life? Yes, I find that it does. It enables me to go further into the stuck, blocked place.
(7) But it also enables me to come up with a way of presenting myself in the world which is more authentic — something like this:
- Have you ever felt different from other people? As if your secret self must be kept hidden at all costs?
- Have you ever felt hopeless about being able to put yourself out in the world?
- Have you ever felt as if you would sink and drown, because so many different energies and needs are making conflicting waves in you?
- Have you ever longed for a safe space of meeting, somewhere that you could openly bring your whole self as you really are – and also where you would be under no pressure to reveal more than feels safe? – where other people would come, also bringing an openness – and some real exchange of meaning and being could happen?
In Focusing Partnerships, just such a depth of real meeting grows – just such an openness of being deepens.
The process I just went through has certainly brought me to words and ways of speaking that I would not usually have come to. So the example serves its purpose, which was to show that this special case of crossing can bring new steps when you are working through a professional project, just as it can when you are going down into a personal issue.
At wonderful moments in this process, which seems so odd at first, we have seemed to be carried forward in a delicate-strong double process, where almost every word seems to be referring both forward to the life-situation (the “this-of” relation), and back to the Focusing process itself (the “this-such” relation). Both aspects of the process were being carried along together, so that we could turn towards either at any point.
- You are Focusing on some situation in your life. Let a felt sense form of this situation. Now look for a few words or phrases or an image, which will capture the quality of the felt sense.
Now you are going to take those words or that image, and treat them as if they were a description of what you are just now doing inside yourself.
At first, these words or images describe the felt sense as a being-in- situation (they are about the “of”). Now you are turning the language back on itself. You look at the same felt sense in its other aspect, as an internal relation-with-symbols. And you cross the words or images back with the felt sense in this other aspect (the felt sense as being about the “this-such”).
10. Instance of itself
Finally, I want to say something preliminary about Gene Gendlin’s “IOFI Principle” (pronounced “aye-of-aye”, by the way), which he introduced in 1962, and was still writing about in 1997. It is referred to, for example, in the final sentence of A Process Model, at the end of a final section which makes fourteen specific references to Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. I feel this is sufficient to show that both the IOFI Principle and his earlier book are still of central importance for Gene Gendlin. Let me see if I can say something simple about that importance.
As I have it, Gene Gendlin sees the IOFI Principle as a way to “solve the problem of how to have, if you like this way of saying it, continuous philosophy, that is to say a continuous undercutting and re-examining, a continuous concept-formation, fresh emergence of form — and also still have consistent connected bodies of knowledge”.
As always, I shall try to clarify this by giving you something to do. I am not trying here to teach the subtle philosophy of the IOFI Principle: merely to enable you to enter into a certain kind of experiencing, out of which IOFI may perhaps be understandable.
Make a statement. By “a statement”, I mean a statement about something genuinely important to you (for example, a creative project). It is essential that in making this statement you are a real person, actively engaged in a real situation.
(2) Internal act
In making that statement, what internal act were you engaged in? What were you doing inside yourself? You can take time here, to really explore the internal act (the “this-such” relation), just as we did before.
Gene Gendlin says, “Any statement is an instance of itself”. Usually the idea of an instance or a kind means that we are taking a pre-existent category, and fitting (or forcing) the present thing into it. To treat something as “an instance of itself” is to turn this procedure upside down.
You can take any statement at all, and asking your felt sense of that statement, ask: “What kind of statement is this?”
The question may apply either to the statement as it refers to an external situation, or to the internal act of stating: “What kind of internal act is this, out of which this stating is happening?”
Be very careful not to bring your pre-existent categories with you. If you do that, you will miss the whole point of what we are attempting.
Instead of that, you are inviting the felt sense to come up with some fresh new category, universal or kind (which has never existed before in the whole history of the world, since it is forming now and here in relation to just this statement). You are looking for a kind, category or universal that will form freshly and uniquely out of the whole field of relevant experiencing which surrounds the statement out of which the new “kind” is forming.
Then you can apply this “instance of itself” question again, to this new category which just emerged from your felt sense: “What kind of category or kind is this?” You are backing and backing from specificity into universality: but in a funny new way, since this universality arises utterly uniquely from the present felt experiencing which surrounds the statement you started from.
(4) Funny language
If you keep on backing away into universal kinds, and at the same time staying in touch with your original statement and its felt field or shimmer, then you will get to “funny language”. I don’t know why, but you will! You will know it when you find it.
You will come to a point where you find yourself quite spontaneously using words in odd, playful, highly personal ways that are not part of the usual public language. You are using words now in a way in which neither you nor anybody else generally uses them. Your felt sense will insist on this.
Funny language is inevitable, since what it describes is by definition something (a class or category) which has never been made before.
Hang on to the funny language lovingly!
(5) Global application
Somewhere near to the funny language spot, something opens or comes, which applies not just here (to the statement you started with and in its context), but all over the place in your life – and perhaps in many other contexts as well!
We have seen these steps happening already in several of the previous examples. I know that I should now go back and pick out the spots for you. But time is pressing upon me as I write! If you now go back over the examples, looking for the word “kind”, for “funny language” and moments of global application, I hope they will not be hard to find. (I have highlighted most of them with italics.)
I’ve tried to draw your attention to just some of the main themes in Gene Gendlin’s book Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. I have written about them in my own way, and I have tried to write simply, though I know that I have failed.
The week I spent recently, exploring Gene Gendlin’s book with a group of wonderful students, was one of the most magical of my life, so it is appropriate that I should end with thanks: to Campbell, who guided us, to Barbara, who conspired with me to set this “hare-brained scheme” in motion, to Kye, who helped me to understand many of these ideas, to Mary and Chiara, for reading this writing with wisdom and kindness, to Gene Gendlin, who made it possible, to Peggy (my mother) for a close reading and for unfailing love, to my family, and to all my Focusing friends and students.
Rob Foxcroft is a Focusing Co-ordinator, a musician, and the founder of the project, “Focusing and the Power of Philosophy”.
He can be contacted at: