What are Felt Senses?
Some felt senses are strong enough that they force themselves into our awareness, like the feeling of butterflies in your stomach before going on stage. But, most of the time, felt senses lie below our ordinary level of consciousness. Only when we deliberately bring gentle, inquiring attention inside our body do we perhaps notice a fluttery or jittery sensation. Once we recognize this subtle felt sense, we can learn a lot about what it is that’s making us uncomfortable, and this often leads to a relaxation of the inner tension and fresh energy to go forward.
Felt senses are subtle sensations experienced in a bodily, non-conceptual way. We have to gently focus our awareness within, sensing for any kind of unclear or cloudy sensations. Felt senses can feel as if they are already there when we bring attention inside, or they can form only after a while, like a photographic image slowly appearing in developing solution. In either case, patient non-judgmental waiting allows the felt sense to stabilize and come more into focus. Once it is fully present, we can begin a process of empathic inquiry. We let the felt sense have its own integrity, separate from our observing self—almost as if it were another being living deep within us. We ask it questions, such as “What are you fearing?” or “What are you needing or wanting?,” or even “How old are you?” We start an inner conversation.
Once we have posed a question to the felt sense, it is important that we wait and let the answer, if any, arise freshly from the felt sense itself. We are not answering the question from what we already know, but waiting for the “other person” — the felt sense — to say what is true for it. Often the answer comes as a sudden insight, an Aha! or, Now I see it. Along with the insight comes a “felt shift,” a change in the felt sense itself, usually a release or softening. Sometimes the shift is also marked by a deep outbreath or a feeling of tears about to come.
Here is a personal example (condensed from my book Your Body Knows the Answer).
I used to get angry or anxious when interrupted while working. On one such occasion, I gave myself time to bring my attention inside. I noticed a constricted, achy feeling in my chest. After giving it some friendly attention, the constriction softened and became more a sense of vulnerability. I stayed gently with this new feeling, and after a while I remembered a scary time as a child when I was lost in the woods.
Then came a sudden insight: my irritation at being interrupted was connected with a fear of losing my train of thought, like being lost in the woods and not knowing how to get back. Remembering the huge anxiety I felt as a child when I was lost in the woods, making it conscious, allowed me to see that getting interrupted now, as an adult, is very different. Even if I’m thrown off course for a bit, I know I can get back to whatever I was doing or thinking before the interruption. This realization brought a bodily sense of relaxation and confidence, and it was a significant step in becoming less reactive to being interrupted on future occasions.