A Felt Sense of What’s Important

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Thoughts and feelings can argue with each other forever, but the ‘felt sense’ can reveal some of the wisdom to be found in our complex of thoughts, feelings, histories and relationships.

The felt sense, a concept taken from Gendlin’s focusing, is a kind of vague background sense we can feel in our bodies, a sense of our whole lives and situations. Or it can be a vague yet complex sense of one particular part of our experience. It’s harder to explain than it is to feel. Often we call it a gut feeling, or intuition, and save the concept for special occasions, when it leaps out at us and is hard to ignore. In fact felt senses aren’t really exceptional at all; they guide us at all times, to whatever degree we are aware of it, and they nag at us when we insist on going against them, too.

The term felt sense can be used in situations such as when we know we’ve forgotten something but don’t know what it is. There seems to be a sense of that thing but we can’t quite bring it to mind in an explicit way. We know it but we cannot say what it is. In the same way, we know a lot about our experience of people we’ve just met — hundreds of tiny pieces of information we’ve picked up from their body language, their style of speech and dress, and all the associations and connections we hold in our minds with anyone they might, however strangely or remotely, remind us of, and all the associations and connections we have in turn with that person, whether or not we even remember explicitly who they are. It all sounds impossibly vague and abstract, but it’s extremely concrete when someone walks into the room and our skin starts to crawl, without rational justification.

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So asking a felt sense of what is most important in our lives right now to arise is a great way of bypassing rational arguments on the battlefield of the mental plane — arguments which would otherwise be telling us what should be most important according to others, according to ourselves, and then again what actually feels the most important, etc. The felt sense takes all of this into account in producing that particular flicker in the belly we get when we ask the question, and this flicker will respond to analysis in a simple yes or no way. It opens up when we find the right words for it, bringing a palpable sense of relief, and it refuses to answer when we’re solely thinking, or only feeling, and not taking into account the whole complex of thoughts, feelings, histories and relationships involved. The felt sense can accommodate all the contexts that somehow we do keep track of even though we couldn’t possibly hold all the relevant information in explicit form; one life would be too short to elucidate it all.

While it may seem at first glance to be merely physical, or irrational, being with the felt sense (whether according to a specific focusing procedure or simply sitting with this, our sense of something that we somehow know, yet can’t yet know or say) allows this to reveal some of the huge amount of wisdom it contains. It can reveal the relevant pieces among the huge amount of information we’ve collected, and the connections between these pieces of information which constitute wisdom — not the knowledge that can be enumerated and learned from books, but the wisdom of our lives.

So find a quiet place, pay attention to what’s going on inside yourself, and be alert to what’s happening in your body in the places you usually feel things — probably the belly and chest areas. Ask for a sense of what’s most important in your life right now to arise, and listen to whatever kind of weird feeling might emerge. It won’t tell you everything; it couldn’t possibly. It might not have words at all. But it knows exactly the next step to take, while thoughts and feelings could argue with each other forever. It’s the sense of relief that tells you you’ve got it right. All you need to do is listen, and wait.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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