Have you ever set off on a trip with a nagging sense that you have left something important behind; you think hard; nothing comes to mind. It’s as if your body knows but can’t speak. Eventually, halfway to your destination, the item pops into your head. Even if the item was important, along with the feeling of frustration, you’ll probably notice a release of tension in your body. We tend to live in our heads a lot of the time, thinking about plans, people, problems, or past memories and sometimes completely forgetting that we have a body at all. In our heads, we tend to think that all useful processing happens in our brain, yet the whole of our body is interconnected with a complex nervous system. Like many other animals, we have a central nervous system that includes the brain and spinal cord. Although we think of the brain as a separate organ, it’s really a specialized part of the whole nervous system. The spinal cord, which contains over thirteen million neurons, is connected to the limbs and organs by the peripheral nervous system, which extends across the whole of the body.
The felt sense refers to the awareness of what’s going on in our body at a subtle level. Although we notice when our body tells us that we’re hungry, or feeling tired, the felt sense is more about the body holding something unacknowledged and unexplored, about a situation, event, or problem. The felt sense may include feelings that could be released, if only we were more aware of what’s going on inside us and were more able to build a clearer and more compassionate relationship with our body. Another way of understanding felt sense is to bring to mind two people whom you know well and then recall the subtle differences between the felt sense in your body, when you’re with one person and then with the other.
In the early 1960s and 70s Eugene Gendlin, a psychotherapist, and others developed a form of therapy called “Focusing”, which is about connecting with the felt sense of the body as a useful resource for resolving often unacknowledged issues in our lives. The Focusing process works from the bottom-up and uses the natural wisdom of the body, rather than top-down from the mind, to discover answers and resolve held emotions and physical tension. The basic steps include finding out what’s going on inside, letting the felt sense form, describing with words or images, finding a handle word or phrase that resonates with the body, and then asking questions and receiving responses. This process helps to bring clarity to the whole vague and indistinct complexity of the felt sense.
Becoming familiar with the felt sense in the body brings a range of benefits:
- By tuning into the whole of our body, we bring ourselves into the present moment and make use of a broader range of inner resources.
- Developing a relationship and working with your own felt sense can allow you to become more aware of what’s going on for you in any particular situation, as a way of gaining useful insights around both positive and negative issues in your life.
- Connecting with the felt sense takes us “out of our minds”, by reversing our normal top-down thinking to a more bottom-up awareness of what’s going on for us in any moment.
- Becoming more familiar with felt sense connects us to our innate sense of aliveness, vitality, and energy that otherwise goes unnoticed and taken for granted.
The emergence of secular mindfulness in the 1990s and the Focusing approach from the 60s and 70s have many things in common. Both include developing greater awareness of the body, accepting and working with whatever emerges in our lives and allowing emotions and feelings to be just as they are. Within mindfulness we often scan the whole of the body, relaxing and releasing any tension we encounter and also practise being aware of the body as a whole, full of vitality and sensations. Both of these practices also include compassion and kindness to others as well as ourselves.
Cultivating mindfulness appears simple at first, but as things develop you realize that there’s a whole world to explore both internally, externally and in-between. With awareness and practice you can become much more skilful in working with the waves of thoughts and emotions while exploring your felt sense opens an ocean of possibilities.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
Then play the second practice to explore and experience your felt sense through this adapted and shortened version of the Focusing process, that’s designed to give you a taste of the usefulness of this approach.
Suggested weekly practice
- See if you can spend a few minutes after you wake up scanning your body, aware of the sensations, from the soles of your feet to the top of your head, and bring gratitude and compassion.
- Tap into the felt sense in your body during the week and explore this hidden resource and see what it is telling you.
- See how aware and familiar you can become with the sense of aliveness, vitality, and energy in your body.
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