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Gendlin, E.T. (1981). Movement therapy, objectification, and focusing. The Focusing Folio, 1 (2), 35-37. From

[Page 35]


E.T. Gendlin, Ph.D. May, 1981

More powerful than letting words come from a felt sense may be letting body movement come. Usually, when one has a felt sense, one lets either words or images come to characterize the quality of the felt sense. It is heavy, sticky, fluttery . . . that sort of character is meant by "quality." It has been important in focusing to emphasize getting this quality first. To sense the quality of a felt sense first means spending some time, thirty seconds or so, directly with the felt sense. It helps one not to go directly into content about the problem. The quality — heavy, like glue, nervous — whatever, will then be asked about. What is it about the whole thing, which is so . . . heavy?

An image might be better even than words, to get the quality. And perhaps a dance movement would be even better.

Now, the main problem usually is that a felt sense has not formed. A felt sense is an odd sort of datum, a wholistic sense of what's unresolved, a sense of the whole thing. "The whole thing" might be a problem or some other kind of concern — for instance, something I want to write or paint, or even dance. Shall I move directly into feelings about my problem, or shall I first let a felt sense of the whole thing form? Focusing is all about not going directly into the usual feelings. One puts those down, gently, and comes out of them first, if one is already in them. Focusing is all about first letting a felt sense form. Now, in a quite similar way, one would also say: do not move directly into writing or painting or dance. First let a felt sense form.

In creative writing, Sondra Perl (Linguistics, Stylistics, and the Teaching of Composition, L & S Books) found it powerful to ask her writing classes to do just that, before even beginning to write. The direct sensing and spending time with a body-sense of the whole, greatly improved writing.

If a dance had, to begin with, what artists call "an idea," then as in creative writing it would probably help to let a felt sense of the whole thing form, and to stay with that for some seconds or a minute before moving.

If we speak of dance therapy, and there is some life problem, or some aspect of life that needs working on [mdash] we would ask the person first to let a felt sense of that problem form. Then dance from that.

In contrast to this focusing approach, many people value exactly the opposite: outward expressiveness without any deliberation, without any inward step between.

Many people think that only such "spontaneous" expression is "real." This issue arises with any kind of expression or objectification: emotional

[Page 36]

expression, self-disclosure, writing, dance, screaming in primal therapy, etc. This view is not quite right. Something puzzling makes a large difference here: what comes from a felt sense is usually quite new, as a felt sense is quite new itself. What comes without a felt sense forming is usually quite old, often repetitious.

If one simply lets one's body move into some sort of movement, there is very often some simple, pretty empty, mechanical movement readily available. While this can be touted as spontaneous and direct, it isn't as undefensive as it might seem. My movement teacher (Leni Serlin) years ago caught my usual chop-chop that always came out of me in response to music, and showed me that I could respond in movement from much deeper levels. I could be sensitive to the movements of others, to the space, to the specific music, and of course to what was going on in me, and thus allow something inside me to form, before launching into movement.

It is in this sense of something forming, first, so that movement can then come from it, that the felt sense is perhaps the deepest kind of "letting form." Especially this is so if there is a problem, or aspect of life, to be worked on.

I believe that this is so with all kinds of objectifications — crying, talk, images, movement, plastic creation — anything objective and external that we live into. I might say we "body out into" something like that, a medium, an objectification. Any of these can come from a felt sense, if a felt sense is first allowed to form. Or they can come without that.

Even if there is inward attention, I would like to emphasize that a felt sense is very different from other kinds of inward data. A felt sense is at first unclear and unrecognizable, a unique bodily sense. . . of some specific aspect of life or situation. So it differs from emotions, anger, fear, or joy which we do recognize right away. One has anger, fear, or joy within some problem, situation, or concern. A felt sense is a sense of the whole of it . . . rather than one of the recognizable feelings we can have in a situation.

Having now spoken of movement coming from a felt sense, let me speak about the moments right after a movement. Again, this applies not just to movement, but to any objectification or expression, for example, the moments just after one cries, or just after an image comes.

Having made a movement, one can make another. If an image has come it easily leads to another. Having said something one moves into something more to say. Instead, however, one can turn one's attention inward to try to sense what the movement came out of (or what the image or words came out of). After the movement, too, a felt sense can form. It is the sense of the source of that movement.

If a felt sense was there before, then after the movement it will have altered. If it wasn't there before, it must form, now.

Ideally there would be a felt sense first, a movement (or image, or words, etc.) would come from the felt sense. Then, sensing again afterwards, one would find the felt sense changed or new, as a result of the expression that has occurred.

[Page 37]

This is what I take Pam Noel to mean, in her paper in this issue, when she speaks of keeping the movements small, and sensing for one's body sense between each and the next.

The same kind of "zig zag" between expression and felt sense, back and forth, characterizes any therapy or change process, in my opinion. An expression can lead to a changed whole-body sense, from which, in turn, a new expression can arise. To skip that zig-zag process usually leads to repetitiveness rather than change. Therapeutic change consists of new whole body formations.

Expressions are stepping stones for organismic change, new whole ways of being. Just emitting, just expressing, catharting, emerging of what is old does not, alone, make for change, even though it is valuable in itself. The opportunity needs to be provided to the body, to form the whole sense of . . . whatever is being worked on. Such opportunity can easily be structured into any mode of working, so that the outward, expressive steps are in a zig-zag relation to whole organism inward formation.

But one must be clear that "feelings," as we usually use that word, are also already expressions, objectified, when we know what they are, when they are already cut and distinct. Only the whole-bodied, at first unclear sense of a whole concern or aspect of life, the "felt sense," is a formation of the whole organism, rather than just only this, or just only that. A felt sense is that moment's unique whole, the way the whole organism has that specific problem or concern, the whole-body version of that problem. Therefore it is necessarily unique and new each time, and through it even a small change becomes a new whole, a change in the whole constellation.

For instance, some aspect of my life, say in my childhood, left me with a lot of anger. It will help, indeed it will be essential, at some point to feel that anger through and express it in some way. But I may have expressed it, shouted it, pounded from it, over and over many times. What then?

We are very concerned today, with intensity, too concerned with it.

A felt sense (if I sense, in the middle of my body, "what is that whole thing for me, now . . .?") may be much less intense. Indeed, it may be hard to keep a hold of, yet it can be very distinctly there. . . a quality of unresolvedness, a sense of unease perhaps, or a flutter or a heavy quality. From that body-sense of that whole aspect of my life (within which the old anger still is) . . . from this directly sensed but cognitively unclear felt sense a movement may carry me forward into a new step of wholistic change. Sensing, right afterwards, what difference that movement has made, or how, now again, "that whole thing is for me . . . " will enable another small step. Such a zig-zag process consists of new steps, "steps" both of movement, and of the organism.

ŠEugene T. Gendlin

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  • Biographic Note: Eugene T. Gendlin is a seminal American philosopher and psychologist. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and taught there from 1963 to 1995. His philosophical work is concerned especially with the relationship between logic and implicit intricacy. Philosophy books include Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Language Beyond Post-Modernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin's Philosophy edited by David Michael Levin, (fourteen commentaries and Gendlin’s replies), and A Process Model. There is a world wide network of applications and practices ( stemming from this philosophy. Gendlin has been honored three times by the American Psychological Association for his development of Experiential Psychotherapy. He was a founder and editor for many years of the Association’s Clinical Division Journal, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. His book Focusing has sold over half a million copies and has appeared in seventeen languages. His psychology-related books are Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy.
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