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Gendlin, E.T. (1999). Authenticity after postmodernism. Changes. An International Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy, 17(3), 203-212. From http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2052.html

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Authenticity after Postmodernism

Eugene Gendlin, University of Chicago

This paper examines authenticity from the point of view of process rather than arbitrary choice.

Authenticity has been misunderstood as arbitrary. So it could be anything at all. Look at how different the following were: Sartre wrote that since there are no given values, the individual must choose, but since this involves a better and a worse, the choice is not just for one person; it is necessarily universal, for all of humanity. But in Germany Heidegger denied anything universal. He wrote, on the contrary, that individuals are products of history and culture so that an authentic choice (although individual) could only be the historical destiny of a particular people. And in Russia Dostoevsky's Ivan thought neither of humanity nor a people. Rather, he said that without absolute values one could commit every kind of individual atrocity. Given this variety, we can understand how authenticity came to be (mis)understood as arbitrary choice, and why it seemed to have little to recommend it.

Instead of authenticity as arbitrary choice, I will present an authenticity based on the kind of process involved. In a way this is familiar. We often judge not by what someone decided but by how the decision was made. For example, someone decides to go to medical school, or to get a divorce. Then we don't usually evaluate the content (i.e. medical school is good; it will make you a healer, or bad; you will become a closed person. Divorce is good or bad.). Rather, we tend to support peoples' decisions if there was a process of deeply examining their motivations and feelings, and we are likely to be critical if we have the impression that this kind of process has not happened.

Today, if authenticity is invoked at all, it is usually a claim to have some special connection to experience. 'This (some life work, course of action, or statement) expresses what I most deeply experience,' the person may say. In psychotherapy [Page 204] those statements which seem to 'match experience' are valuable. Clients who speak in this way are more successful, even though the client may later contradict a statement with deeper, more authentic ones.

As a philosopher I began years ago with the recognition that there is no way

to compare statements to experience, to ascertain if they 'match'. Experiencing is so different from verbalization and action, no congruence in the sense of an equation of forms (as with two triangles) is possible. Experiencing is a thick, bodily-felt flow of situational events; it never has just one form or 'propositional content' which might be compared to words. And it changes momentarily in response to any statement, any thought. Even non-verbal attention directly to one's experiencing brings a change, and even just noticing such a change brings a further change.

Currently the philosophers of Postmodernism have caught up with us to the extent of denying the possibility of 'representation', 'accuracy', or 'copies' of experience, but this leads them to deny the possibility not only of authenticity but of all truth and values. There is now a group of philosophers in the U.S. concerned with 'After Postmodernism'. One way to move beyond it is the Philosophy of Implicit Experiencing (Gendlin, 1962; Levin, 1997; philosophy, www.focusing.org). The question of authenticity is not the impossible comparison of two contents. There is always just one ongoing process, but we can distinguish different kinds. There is after all a relationship involved, when statements are said to 'match' experience, but it is not an equation. 'Matching' misnames the kind of process that carries experiencing forward, while other kinds leave it stuck or shrink it. We can distinguish many more kinds, but let me clarify this rough two-way distinction.

For example, you see a film with a friend and discuss it afterwards. You felt the film's impact, but as you discuss it the impact shrinks and dies away. You feel that you didn't really have as much to say about it as you thought. In such a case you are sorry you analyzed it. But sometimes and with some people as you analyze and discuss it, more and more implications emerge and maximize the impact you had felt. Then you are impressed with how much you really had there, more than you thought. Of course, in that case you are glad you analyzed and discussed it with this person.

Psychotherapists strive for the kind of process which develops what is experienced. So it is vital to define this difference. Another example: When suicidal patients get really better, they typically say 'I never could have killed myself. I always loved life too much for that'. When I work with such a patient for some years in the crisis spots where one false move can be the end, I sometimes think with some irony, 'I wish it already seemed as if it never could have happened anyway'.

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My examples are meant to show that what is experienced cannot be defined, because what it will seem to have been depends on what kind of process happens next, whether it is carried forward or left stuck, shrunken, or negatively defined.

To provide the carrying forward process is not easy or certain, but we do now know a lot about how to provide it (Gendlin, 1996). And we have reliable measures to determine whether it is happening. We can also predict its typical results (Hendricks, in press). In this kind of experiencing, the mode of language is distinguishable by the kinds of connection across the pauses, revealing a role played by implicit experiencing. In what is now probably the most replicated finding in psychotherapy research, those clients are predictably more successful who attend directly to the bodily-sensed experiencing at the edge of what they can say.

What is implicitly lived but unstated is always with us, and always exceeds what our statements taken alone can convey. To make the implicit explicit, represent it, state it, is impossible. So it has seemed that we cannot enter into the implicit. On the other hand, psychotherapy consists largely of doing just that. Therapists know that sentences are helpless without their context, their background, and their capacity to ring into what has already accumulated and is our implicit sense of the person who is now saying just this. We understand not just the statements as if they were written down alone, but always something more that the person intends to convey through them. Every statement comes

with a '.....' at the end. We hope that the person will enter further into this '.....', this edge, even when what is said seems just this, just closed. It helps to know that in the very nature of human experiencing nothing is ever just this, ever without a '.....' as well. Our finished phrases and inner entities are learned products. We all employ those, but as experiencing human beings we vastly exceed them. Attention to the bodily-felt edge can reveal this in every moment. When what wants to be spoken is only partly formed, if you can stand it as a '.....', then odd and quite newly formed phrases soon come from it. They develop it further, but not into something else, rather into something that follows from what you wanted to say and carries 'it' forward.

Your thinking happens largely implicitly. For example, you may find a spot that is pregnant but not yet open. Compared to the myriad things you know and need not tell yourself about, such an opaque spot stands out, and calls for your attention. Another way you have with the implicit, is when you make an effort to put the implicit 'to one side', so that your next step of thought can come purely from what was stated so far. This is logic. A next step of this kind will be 'logically consistent' with the previous step. It is well known that every logical system eventually 'crashes', i.e. becomes insufficient, and a new one must be designed to carry on. For this purpose also we have developed newly precise

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ways of proceeding. When logical systems are kept in their logical integrity and also related to implicit entry, the resources of analysis are not lost, but attain to new powers.

So far my examples are familiar, but they are not widely discussed or understood. Insofar as you follow me in pointing out these differences, you are doing 'entering the implicit'. Many further steps and strategies of thought become possible there.

That the implicit cannot be 'made explicit' has seemed to be a great difficulty. As a philosopher I have converted it into an advantage: the fact that the implicit is always with us enables us to find it actually performing its roles in the very act of stating them. A new, experiential kind of concept becomes possible. 'Carrying forward' is one such concept (also 'unseparated multiplicity', 'implicit governing', 'crossing', and others (see 'philosophy' on www.focusing.org)).

The arena of experiencing has been avoided by philosophers because it seemed to be an infinite morass. Many philosophers give up in the face of 'contextualism', the recognition that words change meaning in different contexts. It is said that no language is possible for philosophy (as if philosophy cannot possibly use ordinary language). Philosophy seems at an end if it must enter the endless morass of implicit experiencing.

But postmodernism has at last shown that the philosophical considerations are endless. Each philosophy can examine every other. There is no limit to what can be made out of any text, if enough other considerations are brought to it. The philosophical examination of assumptions is endless. Postmodern philosophy now views itself as an endless morass. Meanwhile we have found that philosophical entry into the implicit can provide a grounding, not of course as something explicit, not even something to which one could 'point' (as if it were a thing in space). The implicit can be examined and employed only ininteraction with symbols, attention, words and actions. But then it has characteristic kinds as I tried to show in some simple examples, and these can lead to a kind of concept in which the implicit provides what the concept tells about.

Authenticity can become the new 'centre' after the decentring by postmodernism. An 'authentic' process is the kind that carries forward what is implicit so that it is engaged and comes to speech or action. There are many further specifications within carrying-forward.

The practical application of this philosophy is called 'focusing'. Yes, as in ancient times, philosophy now includes a practice. This is a bodily kind of attention, not to mere sensations but to an at first unclear, implicitly complex bodily sense-of a situation, problem, or aspect of life. Therapy deepens immediately with some clients if they are asked what physical sense comes in the [Page 207] middle of the body in relation to what is being worked on. With half a minute of repeated direct attention, clients can assign a 'quality word', e.g. 'heavy', 'fluttery', or 'tight'. Then small steps come to say the crux of the problem. Each brings a slight (later large) 'shift' and release, a direct sense of validity, although further steps may again change the whole problem. Other clients take much longer to find the bodily location where focusing begins. Without disrupting the hour, most clients gradually learn it from small questions now and then, such as 'What comes in your body?' 'Is it jumpy or heavy, or how?' and 'Stay a little while with that 'heavy' sense'. 'Can you let it come again?' Once one is familiar with this process, one knows that steps of relief come. Then it is not so hard to stay with (or keep returning to) the bodily sense of the problem even when it seems not at all promising.

Bodily sensations are thought to be internally simple. It is not yet widely known that one can invite and have abodily sense-of an implicit complexity. Below the usual repetitious feelings, there is a murky zone. Yes, the problem involves a mesh of unnamed feelings. And below that murky zone one finds at first nothing, then abodily sense. The situation arouses for example a heaviness, or something jumpy, or perhaps a sense of trying to walk as if deep in mud, or a restlessness, or an uneasiness. If we then ask, 'Is 'uneasiness' the best word for this?' we find that the bodily sense is quite precise. It can answer! It can say no, and a better word can come. 'Aha, more like apprehensive, braced for something.' If this new word is checked with the bodily sense, one finds, perhaps,

'Yes, braced, that's the word'. At that point just this word has a great value.

If we ask into this physical 'braced', just what in the problem makes the braced, one becomes able to speak from it. What 'it' says has an immediately experienced truth value. After a few steps one may get to an edge where, for a while, there is nothing more except the sense that more must come. New steps will come there. There something speaks with a quality that is beyond one's usual fears and conditioning. This physical attention is deeper than most people have experienced. Time slows somewhat there, and a different space with many dimensions and 'locations' opens there. People who meditate need to sit in a different position, because while meditation is valuable in itself, it skips over the body that lives our situations.

Most therapists do not know focusing as a special process, but they recognize my description. They wish this for their clients, and assume that it sometimes happens. What is new is only that we have made it specific and can now teach it to the public and in many fields (Gendlin, 1981). Here is an example. Ask yourself what kind of thing must be happening in the silences between one step and the next, to have led her from what she says before to what she says after a silence.

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C: I want to leave Chicago. The noise outside bothers me.

T is silent.

C: You don't think that's real. I can tell.

T: The noise is crowding in on you, coming into your far-in place.

C: It's like darts hitting my body. I can't stand it.

T: It really hurts!

C: (silence) . . . I keep feeling a sense of no meaning in my life.

T is silent

C: (silence) . . . I just want to leave everything. It's that same spot where I want to die. My wanting to live and to die are so close, these days. That's why I haven't been able to touch this place. It gets misty there, still. It's real foggy.

T: You can feel wanting to live and, also, wanting to die, both right there, in the same inside spot, and that spot gets foggy, too.

C: (silence) . . . I don't want to relate with anyone. I wish there were no people to see [at her work place]. They don't mean anything to me. There is no meaning. When will my life ever have meaning? It feels like it never will. And I need meaning, right now.

C: (silence) . . . I also feel hesitant about relating to you. I know you're there for

me, but it's like I'm not allowed to want that.

T: Is that, what you said before, about your father?

C: (silence) . . . No, uhm. But I am glad you said that about my father, because, uhm,

I can feel that this is not with him. This is different. It's not like with my father.

T: It is not about him.

C: (silence) . . . uhm, I can hardly touch it. It's . . . I can't want my mother. I, I can hardly say it.

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T: You can't want . . . her.

C: (silence) . . . That is where I feel the noises like darts.

T is silent.

C: (silence) . . . It's real early, real early.

T: It feels like a very, very early experience.

C: (silence) . . . I cant want-anything.

T is silent

C: (silence) . . . This needs to rest, and it can't. If it lets down and rests it will die. It needs to keep up its guard.

T: There is such a big need and longing, to rest, to let down, to ease, but somehow also, this part of you can't rest. It feels that it will die if it stops being on guard.

C: (silence) What comes is: maybe it could . . . if I could trust something.

T: It could rest, if you could trust something.

C: No, no: maybe it could rest, if I could trust something.

T: It's important to say 'maybe'. Maybe it could rest, if you could trust something.

C: (silence) . . . Now, suddenly, it feels like a house on stilts that go into the earth. All of me on top, where the noise is, that's a house and it's on stilts. It got lifted off of this sore place. Now the sore place is like a layer, and it can breathe. Do you know those steel posts they put into the ground, to hold up a building? [T: Uhuh] These stilts are like that. All the noise and coming and going is in the house, and the house is on stilts, lifted off, and the stilts go into the ground.

T: Those steel stilts go into the ground. You feel them lifting the whole house up, off of you. And underneath, that sore place can breathe.

C: (silence) . . . Yea, (breath), now it's breathing.

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T is silent.

C: (silence) . . . It's bathing in warm water.

We notice that the stilts were not just an image. Along with the image came a new bodily state, a physically different way of being, described as 'now it's breathing', and 'it's bathing in warm water'.

Later, she said:

C: 'When I was little I played a lot with stilts. I used to go between the power wires on them. It was dangerous, but it was play! I used to make taller and taller ones, and go on them there. Stilts! I haven't thought of those for years. Play, and danger. How does this process do that? It uses all these things to make something that wasn't there before.'

These intricate new steps come each time from the silent '.....' which precedes each step. Such steps are not imposed by the therapist, nor do they already exist in the patient. They are not the common social forms. Steps of this sort can occur in all types of psychotherapy if the patient is invited to let the physical sense of what is being discussed come in the middle of the body. The steps can include much from the past, but a bodily felt sense is always in the present, this sensed whole, now. The problem with mother, and the play with stilts in the danger zone are from the past. But in focusing the past does not repeat; rather it changes as it functions in new steps. What made her play with dying when she was a child is surely implicit, but it is changed in this present, here. Her wanting which was then blocked and stopped, is now carried forward in intricate new steps. There is a new and recognizable authenticity in which what we merely think or decide is often undone and further precisioned in newly intricate steps that move the whole bodily aliveness forward.

Is this bodily-personal authenticity arbitrary? Might people who give in to every impulse feel their bodies carried forward? This is a vital question for ethics, and for psychotherapy as well. Those who have experienced this bodily carrying forward know the vivid difference. But this and what follows are all now empirical questions, because the carrying forward process can be reliably distinguished. People who select themselves for psychotherapy become open to other people, more concerned about them, and also more intolerant of their own 'sleaze', (tendency to let themselves go, claim they cannot help themselves etc.) and so distinctly more ethical. Even people who begin with painfully extreme consideration for others and not for themselves become more actively ethical by [Page 211] becoming stronger, making distinctions, and speaking up when necessary. God also changes from being small and punitive to being a positive cosmic force beyond the edge of what can be understood. In spiritual detachment one gradually becomes a thick bodily presence, rather than only a thin part of oneself.

Little has been reported about the kinds of people who do not come to therapy, but one report on several decades of offering this process to prison inmates strongly corroborates our observations (Wolfus and Bierman, 1996: Bierman, 1996/1997; Hendricks, (in press)).

Old and destructive ways are rejected in the very act of discovering and experiencing them. This is an internally reflexive 'ethics' which develops when the human organism carries forward its own possibilities in this bodily manner. Genuineness comes to be highly valued. The need for closeness with others develops beyond merely satisfying one's own needs. The reality of the other person is preferred to mere projection and merger. Those who have always deprecated themselves and those who have long needed to feel superior both arrive at a new equality. Every code will be eschewed, but these characteristics are not so far from the ancient virtues of sincerity and justice. However, this authenticity is defined not by its outcomes, but by its kind of process.

The definition of this process holds across at least some cultures. For example, our research findings are corroborated by those from Japan. Indeed, when I have worked there with individuals, the process is so familiar, I have forgotten that I am in Japan. Once in a while an individual has to explain something about 'Japanese fathers', or about some festival, to lead me across something I would otherwise not understand, but this is easily done. I needn't understand the whole thing, only what it means just now to this person, which is characteristically unique and more intricate than the public meanings. But, when my part is over and people act as groups again, then the culture becomes impenetrable to me. It is as groups that cultures are impenetrable to each other. It is the public meanings and the common phrases that we cannot grasp. But individuals regularly find that they are living bodily on a more intricate level from which they can speak in this perfectly understandable way.

A process-conception of human nature emerges here, not as any definable content, not as already shared meanings, but as the newly intricate understandability that is created in this kind of process.

Eugene T. Gendlin is Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. He is author of several books, including Language Beyond Post-Modernism: Studies in Concept Formation in the Work of Eugene Gendlin.

References

Bierman, R. (1996/97); Focusing in Therapy with Incarcerated Domestically Violent Men. Focusing Folio, 15, (2) 47-58

Gendlin, E.T. (1962) Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. Evanston, IL: Northwestern

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University Press.

Gendlin, E.T. (1981) Focusing. New York: Bantam

Gendlin, E.T. (1996) Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford

Hendricks, M. (in press) Focusing-Oriented/Experiential Psychotherapy. In D. Cain and Seeman (eds.) Handbook of Research and Practice in Humanistic Psychotherapies. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Levin, D.M. (1997) (ed.) Language Beyond Postmodernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin'sPhilosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press

Philosophy: on www.focusing.org

Wolfus, B. and Bierman, R. (1996) An Evaluation of A Group Treatment Program for Incarcerated Male Batterers. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 40, 318-33

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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 (http://www.focusing.org) 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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