The Handle Word: Getting a Grip On What Your Body is Saying

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Felt senses are there inside our bodies, carrying intricate, complex information about all of our thoughts and feelings, histories, pre-dispositions, cultures, traumas and loves. But what to do with them?

This is the third of a series of posts on the six step process of Focusing, discovered by psychotherapist and philosopher Gene Gendlin. It is a natural process, which is not dependent on the six steps, but they can be really helpful.

In the previous posts, “Clearing a Space” and “The Felt Sense: A Sense of All of That…”, I introduced the first two steps. The first: clearing a space inside us, in the region of the body where we tend to feel hunches, gut feelings, senses of joy or sadness or discomfort. The second: to gently acknowledge all the thoughts and feelings that are going on in there (as well as in our heads and hearts), then pick one of those issues and let a sense of it form in that place. (You can also ask a general question about how your life is going, or what is blocking you, and wait until a felt sense forms of that).

Felt senses are different from thoughts and feelings. They might appear as something like a metal spike, or a vague quality of jumpiness, or a sense of grey scratchiness, or a green fluid, or a heavy ball or sticky mud. They are always tangible, yet never obviously “the heavy feeling of being depressed” or “the anger about so-and-so”.

Vague, somewhat strange and indefinable, not open to interpretation or explanation, yet definitely there when we allow them to be and direct our attention. OK, felt senses are there, carrying intricate, complex information about all of our thoughts and feelings, histories, pre-dispositions, cultures, traumas and loves. What to do with them?

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As they are sources of all that complex information, we want to be in contact with them, and that can carry us forward, on further in our lives, in an easy intuitive unforced way. Which is what everybody would like!

To enter into contact with someone, it is good to be able to call them by name. Our names do not give people an entire explanation of our lives — but if you call someone’s name in a crowded room, they will instantly turn around. So it is good to find a name for the felt sense at this moment, even though if the felt sense changes, the name will change too.

The phrase “handle word” may seem a little clumsy, but Gendlin likens it to the handle on a suitcase, if you tug on it, the entire suitcase comes your way. it is a way of getting a grip on this fragile, nebulous kind of thing arising in the middle of us. So if our attention wanders, or the felt sense wanders, we can call it back.

The handle word will always be a kind of quality. It won’t be an explanation or a judging word. It won’t be a sad thing or a good thing or a bad thing. It might be a sparkly, shivery, gloopy or jumpy thing. Sometimes there is no word but an image or even a physical gesture, but usually a word will come. We know that this is the word, because there is a sense of rightness, something like a sense of relief. When we have this, even if we go no further with the steps, we have come into contact with something of the “livingness” we are doing, moment by moment, something of the actual texture of how our bodies experience everything we do, say, feel and think, throughout our lives.

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