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Gendlin, E.T. (1957). A descriptive introduction to experiencing. Counseling Center Discussion Papers, 3(25). Chicago: University of Chicago Library (8 pp.). From http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2125.html

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A DESCRIPTIVE INTRODUCTION TO EXPERIENCING

Gene Gendlin

At any moment, no matter what may be specifically going on in me or outside of me, I find that I can directly refer to a flow of feeling in myself, which I shall term "experiencing."

Usually I am also explicitly aware of some of what is going on. I am thinking thoughts, observing people and things, feeling certain feelings, and so forth. No matter what is specifically going on, I can point in myself to the felt activity or felt process which is involved in my having a feeling, thinking a thought, perceiving a perception, turning to a subject of conversation, etc.

I find, that whatever is occurring in me, I can always directly point to a felt process which is involved in whatever is occurring in the present moment. I can point to this felt process and ask myself: "what kind of experiencing is this?"

Now I must hurry to explain that this question "what kind of experiencing is this?" is my private notation. I don't really mean what "kind" in any strict logical sense. I am usually not really after a "kind." But asking myself this question focuses my attention on the felt activity and usually I then find myself referring directly to a felt activity, an as yet unknown "this feeling," an experiencing. (I am using these terms as roughly synonymous since they name something that I do not here define adequately.) Therefore, when I ask myself "what kind of experiencing is this?" I am referring directly to a "this," [Page 323] my experiencing, and asking myself "what is this?"

I find that there is always an implicit answer to my question in the felt experiencing to which I refer. I never find a blank, I always find some "this" which feels to me as if I could say something about what it is. Usually I arrive at some formulation which interests me, or which is pertinent to whatever reason I have had for asking about it.

On the other hand I find that what I say about it is usually very insufficient. Of course, sometimes I cannot say about this experiencing just what it is. But even when I can, I am struck by the fact that there would be an endless amount to be said about it. What I do say about it seems to depend on my purpose for asking. If I know just why I'm asking, I can often get a conceptualization that seems to be THE right one. But, if I don't know why I'm asking (say I do it just for an experiment) then there seem to be an endless amount of possible conceptualizations of it. From nearly every possible angle I could find something to say in it. Whatever moment of experiencing I have differentiated—even a very specific aspect or quality of the experiencing, if I differentiate that—seems to be infinitely rich in implicit meaning.

Now, this is just what you would expect, if the "this" to which I point is a slice of "experience." However, there are two aspects of "this experiencing" which do not conform to the usual definition of "experience."

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  • 1) Experiencing is something of which I am aware in a felt implicitly meaningful way.
  • 2) Any—no matter how finely differentiated—little aspect of experiencing is just as endlessly rich in possible conceptualizations. Let me discuss these in turn:

1) implicitly meaningful felt awareness:

Rogerian and other theories speak of "experience" as aware or unaware content. I find however, that "this" experiencing is really neither aware content (since I don't have a conceptualization of it, or know what it is) nor is it unaware content (since I am aware of it in a felt implicit way.) Thus experiencing is neither quite aware nor quite unaware. Furthermore, it is not "content." At least, it seems to be capable of being a source of endless amounts of contents. I can conceptualize it endlessly, accurately or inaccurately [1] to be sure, but endlessly. Thus experiencing appears to me to be something quite different from the contents of the conceptualizations I form of it. Experiencing appears capable of supporting very many conceptualizations, of giving birth to endless content, yet it is still there afterward, ready to be conceptualized even further. No matter how much and variously I conceptualize it, it is still there as something else, something felt, something I can point to quite apart from the accurate conceptualization.

[1] (I can discover errors in my conceptualizations as I check them back against the implicit feel of the experiencing itself. Of course, my checking may not reveal many errors I make. But even so, many various conceptualizations of it are accurate.)

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This observation leads me to define the term "implicit" (or "implicitly meaningful") and its opposite, "explicit." I would like to define "implicit" and "explicit" as naming just this observation, namely: the relationship between an aspect of experiencing and the countless conceptualizations to which it can give birth. I shall call these countless meanings "implicit." When they are conceptualized, I shall call them "explicit." I will NOT imply that before conceptualization they were all the time "in" the experiencing already. By "implicit" I do NOT mean that "explicit" meanings are there, but hidden. I mean that they are "implicit" i.e. that they CAN be conceptualized, but the experiencing which is "implicitly" meaningful is in itself something else. To bring this home, let us say I have conceptualized my "this" experiencing in a certain accurate way. Now a meaning has become explicit. However, I can still refer directly to "this" felt experiencing in which this meaning is even now still implicit! Experiencing (that which is "implicitly meaningful") remains different in nature from explicit meanings even after some meanings have been explicitly conceptualized.

2) No matter how finely differentiated, it is endlessly rich:

As we noted, it would not seem surprising that a moment of "experience" contains so many possible contents of conceptualization (so many implicit meanings). However, even if I do not take a whole moment, even if I very finely distinguish my "this" experiencing, still I find myself referring to something capable [Page 326] of very many conceptualizations.

From the construct "experience," as usually defined, it would follow that there are a great many contents in any moment, but any one such content is just itself. Why can I differentiate one single aspect of my present experiencing, (as I feel it implicitly) and then still find endless possible conceptualizations implicit in it?

Perhaps, if "experience" were conceived of as a process, this question could be answered. Any content, no matter how well differentiated, involves a moment of the total process then going on. This total process isn't simply other contents. It is the ongoing organismic activity of the moment. These organismic processes can be viewed as chemical, physical, visceral, etc. Any explicit content, any concept or percept, can occur only as supported by a living organism, i.e. by physiological and visceral processes.

I have made two points: 1) An individual can always point to an awareness of an implicitly meaningful flow of feeling which I have termed "experiencing." 2) Any, no matter how finely differentiated aspect of this present flow of feeling which the individual might point to is capable of countless possible conceptualizations.

I would like to propose a) that the construct "experience" be considered not only as bunches of contents, but also as ongoing organismic processes; b) that a term "experiencing" be employed to refer—not to the theoretical construct "experience." but rather to the directly given felt datum of implicitly meaningful feeling.

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Application in Therapy

What I have said can be employed to describe what happens in therapy:

As a counselor, I am very aware of the client's direct reference to his present experiencing. I try not to consider the client's words as simply cognitive meanings, but as arising from a present experiencing. I view his expression as an expression of the experiencing itself, as he is directly referring to it. For example: the client comes in and sits down and says "now what shall I talk about, let me see." Most often this expression indicates not merely that he wonders what to talk about, but also that he is in that moment turning his inner attention to his momentary present experiencing and referring directly to it. When he next says, "I'm tired," I know that this isn't irrelevant, nor is it cognitively relevant. It is simply the first conceptualization of the present experiencing to which he has just given his attention. Next he might say, "I don't know what I'm doing" which of course may be relevant to some problem, but more often it is again a very rough conceptualization of this experiencing. And so on.

Later in the hour when the client is probably working with some very specifically differentiated "this" (instead of the whole glob he finds as he starts) the client still refers more or less constantly to his present "this" experiencing. As he tries to conceptualize something exactly, I remain concerned about his direct reference to his felt, implicitly meaningful feeling process. The several things he may say about such a "this" are often cognitively unrelated. Yet they are very much related in the [Page 328] sense that they take their rise as conceptualizations of "this" feeling, or this moment or aspect of present experiencing. In my responses I also try to refer to his present experiencing.

Conclusions

Experiencing is a present, felt activity, or more simply, a felt "this."

In the case of any explicit content, one may directly refer to experiencing as involved in having that content, and thus point to some differentiated aspect of experiencing. One may call this experiencing "this."

Any "this" experiencing can be conceptualized in a great many ways, yet "this" experiencing will remain (perhaps change slightly) as an implicitly meaningful felt "this."

Experiencing can be differentiated (aspects of experiencing can be pointed to as a "this" and thus differentiated) in a great many ways. The apparently endless possibilities for conceptualization do not seem to be reduced by such differentiation. No matter how finely differentiated, countless conceptualizations appear possible.

Experiencing differs from "experience" as usually defined in that 1) it is neither strictly "aware" nor strictly "unaware." It is felt and implicitly meaningful. 2) it is not cognitive contents. Rather it is implicitly meaningful, the term "implicit" refers to the many possible conceptualizations of the experiencing which can be made without thereby eliminating the experiencing itself. Hence experiencing is itself something different in nature from the contents of conceptualizations.

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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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