What's the difference between clients who do well in therapy and those who don't? According to Eugene Gendlin, successful therapy clients listen to their bodies.
Specifically, Gendlin's research found that successful therapy clients reference their bodies in the moment as they talk about their problems. These clients say things like, “I have this funny feeling in my stomach,” or “it’s . . . uh . . . it’s right here in my chest, a tightness.” Unsuccessful therapy clients stay up in their heads as they talk.
To help clients listen to their bodies, Gendlin created a skill called “Focusing.” Focusing helps us listen to our innate embodied wisdom, our inner knowing. Focusing is a great tool for getting in touch with our real wants and feelings, for managing emotions, for letting go of self-criticism, and for making clear and centered decisions.
Focusing is easy to learn and elements of Focusing are found in many present day somatic therapy approaches. While it's helpful to work with a professional to learn Focusing, once learned it's a skill that you can practice on your own.
Over time, as you deepen in your practice of Focusing, you may get a sense of your connection to the whole of life. We're part of a flow of life that is constantly emerging, and our bodies can sense this mystery while simultaneously being an expression of this mystery.
What am I listening for in my body?
You're listening for a “felt sense” in your body. Your inner knowing (see previous post on flesh and bone knowing).
“According to Gendlin, the felt sense is the preverbal, whole-body sense of something that is vague and unknown at first; it arises from the body and mind before they are split apart” (Prendergast, 2015). This means our felt sense is embodied — it involves the aligning of our mind, body, and emotions with our environment. It arises from a place that is deeper than our normal, everyday awareness.
How do I listen?
The best way to listen deeply to yourself is to have an attitude of curiosity, openness, and nonjudgment. The following protocol has been simplified but it'll give you a taste for connecting to your embodied wisdom.
1) Slow down, settle into your seat, take some deep breaths, and bring yourself into the present moment. Move your awareness out of your head and into your body -- especially pay attention to your throat, chest, stomach, and abdomen.
Ask yourself “what wants my awareness now?” Without forcing something to happen, wait until some kind of inner sensation makes itself known to you. It may be a tightness in the throat, a heaviness in the chest, a squeeze in the belly. This is the entrance into your felt sense.
2) Observe the felt sense and try to find words to describe it. Remember, your felt sense is a gestalt of sensation, emotion and belief that arises from a mystery bigger than you so this process may feel unclear at first and it can't be rushed. Perhaps there is a word, a phrase, an image, or a gesture that captures the quality of the felt sense. Stuck, clogged, tight, weighted, a ball, rushing, moving, spiraling, a waterfall. Try out various descriptors until you find the right one.
3) Engage your felt sense in friendly conversation. You want to approach your felt sense with an attitude of acceptance and empathy. Your conversation will be most productive if you let your felt sense be just as it is -- without trying to change it, fix it, or manipulate it.
Ask your felt sense a variety of questions: “What do you want me to know about you?” “How are you feeling?” “Do you need something from me?” You’ll have to listen carefully. As answers come to you, be sure to check in with your felt sense and ask “did I get it right?” Your felt sense will likely shift in this process and reveal a new understanding.
4) Wrap up the conversation by thanking your felt sense for what it's shared, and let it know you’ll be back another time. Remember, you're starting a conversation and a relationship with your inner knowing that you're hoping to nurture and deepen over time.
It takes practice!
If you’ve spent a lifetime ignoring your body, it'll take time and patience to develop a relationship with your inner knowing. There are obstacles and pitfalls along the way -- we can be fooled, thinking we’re listening to our felt sense when we're really listening to a reactive feeling or somatic contraction that's arising from a hidden negative belief.
When we're accurately attuned to our inner knowing we also tend to feel a relaxed groundedness, an inner alignment, an open-heartedness, and a spaciousness.
Action: Follow the protocol outlined above and see what happens. Allow the protocol to be a pointer. As they say in Zen, "don't mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon." What's being pointed to is an always present inner knowing of your deepest truth.
Great self-help books on this topic include:
1) In touch: How to tune in to the inner guidance of your body and trust yourself, by John Prendergast
2) The power of focusing: A practical guide to emotional self-healing, by Ann Weiser Cornell
3) Your body knows the answer, by David Rome
picture from WIX