The Felt Sense: What It Is and Why It’s Important
In the 1950s Eugene Gendlin, a young graduate student at the University of Chicago working with the great American psychologist Carl Rogers, set out to discover why some people in therapy have successful outcomes and others don’t. By means of carefully controlled analysis of scores of audio tapes of therapist-client sessions, Gendlin and his team were able to demonstrate that the crucial variable was not the kind of therapy practiced or even the skill of the therapist, but rather a capacity that the successful clients manifested from the very first session that was lacking in the unsuccessful clients. This was the ability to connect with and speak from a non-conceptual, bodily-felt experience of the issues that were troubling them.
Instead of speaking in fully-formed, logically consistent sentences, the successful clients speech patterns demonstrated a more tentative, uncertain, groping quality. They might tell the therapist, “I’m not sure how to say this.” Or they might say one thing, then stop and say it differently: “I have this kind of heavy feeling in my chest; well, not exactly heavy, it’s more like oppressive . . .” By analyzing the speech patterns of the successful clients—those who were able to get fresh insights into their problems and actually make positive steps of change—Gendlin demonstrated that these individuals were in touch with some kind of unclear inner sensation, a subtle, bodily-felt meaning, that couldn’t be fully expressed in words. Gendlin called this non-verbal inner source of knowing the bodily felt sense, or simply the “felt sense.”
Felt senses can be found in a subtle, mostly unrecognized zone of experiencing inside us, a kind of border zone between our conscious and unconscious. This level of experience lies below our everyday awareness of objects, thoughts, emotions and beliefs. It is an embryonic form of awareness in which “body” and “mind” are not separate. Felt senses are both bodily experienced and meaningful. They embody the unique reality of our individual lives in ways that can’t yet be put into words.
Felt senses lie under the radar of normal consciousness. They are unclear somatic sensations that for the most part go unnoticed. Yet they are not wholly unconscious; they can be “found” by bringing a special quality of gentle mindfulness to the zone of subtle bodily experiencing in which they form. When attended to with friendly but dispassionate attention, felt senses that start out vague and indescribable can show up with greater clarity and presence. A felt sense can come alive and offer what it already knows about life situations that you—the conscious, conceptualizing you—don’t yet know. By entering into a process of inquiry with the felt sense, spontaneous flashes of insight and intuition can occur that generate novel perceptions and understandings, leading to fresh solutions to life’s challenges.