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Finding the body's next step: ingredients and hindrances

James R. Iberg
Illinois School of Professional Psychology
Chicago, IL

Author's manuscript: This paper was published in 1996 in The Folio: a Journal for Focusing and Experiential Therapy, 15, 1, 13-42.

Concrete experience before abstract ideas

Everyday implicit meaning

The demonstration interview

Ten process events

Variables underlying the process events

Summary of the six variables as applied to the interview




Focusing theory and philosophy (Gendlin, 1962, 1964, 1981) turn upside down some widely held assumptions. Since humans are the "thinking" animal, many assume that human living should proceed under the control of conscious thinking and decisions.

Focusing theory delves into how something more basic is the foundation for thinking. This theory illuminates how authentic actions and verbal expression emerge from something "underneath" thinking: bodily felt experiencing. From this theoretical perspective, when personal change is necessary, what needs to be changed must be discovered from the "bottom up:" the body tells the thinking mind, rather than the thinking mind controlling the discovery process.

Thus the strange wording of the title: we seek the body's next steps in therapy, rather than the individual personality's next steps. Authentic further living may require the personality - and how one thinks - to change, so the body (experiencing) must guide the way. Some steps that bodily felt experiencing creates, the thinking mind could never imagine nor find on its own.

Concrete experience before abstract ideas

This paper is based on a lecture/presentation I gave at the First International Focusing Therapy Conference in Achberg, near Lindau, Germany, on August 8, 1995. The order I chose for the presentation was intentional in light of the axiom of experiential philosophy that experiencing is more basic than concepts (Gendlin, 1962). I wanted to have an actual experience to observe and refer to before launching a more theoretical discussion. After a few introductory remarks to set the context and remind us of the everyday familiar reality of implicit meaning (bodily experiencing), and its role in psychotherapy, I invited a volunteer to join me in a demonstration therapeutic interview. In this way, we produced fresh, firsthand interpersonal experiencing with which to illustrate the ideas presented later. These ideas describe several "process events" especially relevant to client focusing. By placing the demonstration first, then having a more intellectual discussion, I hope to reduce ambiguity, and correctly communicate the specific interpersonal and intrapersonal events I attempt to describe.

After the demonstration transcribed below, I discuss the process events in terms of how, if at all, each was illustrated in the demonstration. Finally, I offer some tentative ideas at yet a higher level of abstraction, hoping to identify a smaller number of variables which may underlie the ten more directly observable process events.

Thus, I start with actual experience, next I apply some descriptive ideas to that concrete experience, and finally I attempt to develop more abstract ideas fitting to the experience. If the more abstract ideas are well chosen, they should have application to many other experiences and reduce the cognitive load required to grasp the concretely descriptive process events.

Everyday implicit meaning

The following four points are offered to help set the context in which to understand the process events to be described later.

1. Experiencing functions implicitly beyond and outside of conscious awareness in complex and essential ways.

Fairly commonplace examples of this point are plentiful. When you are walking along a path in conversation with a friend, if you come to an obstacle in the path, often you don't even need a break in the conversation, but take account of the obstacle, make many adjustments in your path and the way you use your muscles to negotiate around it without having to think to yourself about what you are doing, and sometimes without even noticing at all that you made such adjustments or even that there was an obstacle.

Riding a bicycle or driving a car similarly involve much implicit functioning (especially once you have learned how to do these activities well): you adjust your speed and your balance, change your line of sight, take other people and objects into account, and many more things without the need for consciously thinking your way through these things.

Playing a card game with friends is another example. After you have learned how to play, the rules of the game function implicitly for you without requiring much conscious thought. Your conscious mind is free to enjoy the game, have a conversation, and enjoy the subtleties of play which develop. The rules operate implicitly in the background until someone violates one, when they become the explicit topic of discussion.

2. Much of therapy involves starting with what is explicitly in the client's conscious awareness and going on a search together to find that part of the the client's experiencing which is pregnant with meaning that is not consciously understood, but which relates to the problems with which the client wants help.

These pregnant spots in the client's experiencing are phenomenologically like "hot spots," or "buttons that can be pushed," or "sore spots," or "ripe places," which, when the search comes to one, usually reveal themselves with a bodily development: feeling "wells up," and the person's face changes, or their voice or rhythm of speaking changes. There is often a sense of vulnerability. The conscious client may not make much of such spots, or may even seem to prefer to veer away from them.

3. Almost every instance of non-conscious experiencing occurring as part of the discussion of the client's feelings, if brought empathically into the client's awareness, will be a step in the direction of the important pregnant spots.

That is to say, the "small" background ways in which the client reacts to talking about his or her feelings, or reacts to how you may be responding as the listener (feeling embarrassed or defensive, worrying about your evaluations, etc.), if brought from implicit functioning to explicit awareness, will bring the search closer to the larger, more important "hot spots."

4. The process events I will describe later represent commonplace indicators of implicit experiencing which may occur as a client talks.

If you learn to recognize these events, it should help you more quickly find non-conscious experiencing and zero in on the "hot spots" which will open up to focusing and change.

Noticing implicit process events involves something like a realization that the client who is talking to you also has right there with him/ her a mute but influential partner who has reactions to what is said and how it is said, and who anticipates what might be said. This mute partner actively influences how the talking client proceeds. The mute client leans this way and that, may throw up distractions, or feed the talking client jokes, or get the talking client to put on certain airs because of how the mute client feels. My general recommendation is this: when you notice the mute client in action, help the talking client notice him/her, too, and welcome the mute client to participate as an equal partner who has every right to feelings and to respect and understanding.

The demonstration interview

An American man named Ray volunteered to join me in a demonstration[1].

J1: did you hear my call for a volunteer?

R1: yes, I heard your call for a volunteer.

J2: so, what I said about something that's...[Audience member: no, he didn't hear that (inaudible) ten minutes ago] at the very beginning?

R2: oh, no.

J3: let me tell you then.

R3: oh, ok. I heard something about mute, silent, and talkative.

J4: the one thing I want to say again then, so you know it, is I'd like to have you choose something which is has been a little bit difficult to focus on, so that it isn't uh...

R4: so I'm in the focusing role.

J5: you're in the focusing role, and don't choose something that you know will go along just beautifully. If you have something that's just a little more difficult, although not the worst thing, because we only have twenty minutes.

R5: ok.

J6: uh, something that's a little difficult, is what I'd like to have so maybe it doesn't go so well, we have to look for the implicit meanings a bit.

R6: ok.

J7: ok? and I'm going to set my alarm, so that I don't have to think about the time, ok, so in twenty minutes you'll hear it beeping.

R7: ok.

J8: you don't have to stop (snaps fingers) "like that" but uh...that way I don't have to keep thinking about the time.

R8: ok. so I'm here in a focusing session.

J9: mmhmm, and I'm listening to you. it's like a talking client-centered therapy.

R9: ok. well, I definitely have something.

J10: you have something available to work on.

R10: yes.

J11: I think I see it come into your body as soon as we talk about it.


J11.1: I get an impression of a sadness or tenderness there.


J11.2: and I see you turn your head a bit, that's maybe part of it also. (incomprehensible) and I find myself wondering if it feels ok to be uh, going this,or

R11: uh, I'm feeling I'm going into it.

J12: mm-hm. uh, like that's happening. you're going into it. uh, maybe part of you isn't so sure that's what you want? or- I'm just wanting to check that out.

R12: uh, no I'm surprised by the intensity of it. it's

J13: stronger than you expected.

R13: yeah!

J14: mm-hm


R14: (sigh)

J15: there came a sigh.


J15.1: again I get that sense of sadness. I don't know if I'm right about that word, but there's some quality there.


R15: (incomprehensible) to get the quality but I don't, your words are pretty much on point.

J16: mm-hm. mm-hm. you're too, you also notice that quality. you don't have so many words right now. yeah. is there, is there a handle for the quality, just a sensation kind of handle, or it's just there in the body now.


J16.1: and I have the impression even thought it's intense, it's ok with you to be with it. that's, hm.


R16: (sigh)

J17: and then comes a breath there.

R17: mm-hm (nearly inaudible).


J18: and then again some quality comes.


J18.1: and I'd just like to suggest if any, any words wish to come, or any images that you wish to say, I , I would welcome them.


J18.2: I'm curious to know how you feel toward this feeling that's coming up, is it, um, are you friendly to it? yeah.

R18: (incomprehensible)

J19: you got another angle on it or something that made you smile.

R19: mm. in part I was just remembering, I came in on the part where you were talking about the mute client, so I thought 'here I am.'

J20: (Laughs) where's the speaking client?

(both laugh)

J20.1: yes, it's a reversal in that way. mm-hm. mm-hm.

R20: ( deep sigh)

J21: there's a lot of feeling there. in the quiet place. it's quite intense. and I know the words don't quite fit it yet, but something like sadness in there. more than that, I think.


J21.1: you seem to touch it and, or it comes in fairly strongly and then it subsides a bit, and then comes back and, at the moment it's at a more distance, huh?


J21.2: is this feeling wanting something? ----- not, not especially, huh?


J21.3: there you saw something a little bit, huh?

R21: (in a whisper) repetition.

J22: huh.

R22: kind of ok, though.

J23: uh-huh. repetition, but uh, in an ok way.

R23: (incomprehensible whispering)

J24: uh-huh.

R24: (inaudible whispering)

J25: yes. yes. so it's ok that way you touch it and it comes and it goes. comes again.

R25: this is really (incomprehensible)

J26: it's hard, this process. it's difficult somehow. yes.


R26: (incomprehensible) acknowledging that part (incomprehensible)

J27: yes, that brings a lot of feeling, to acknowledge that is really hard.


J27.1: so, there's the feeling you are focusing on, and the way it's hard to work on it. mm-hm.

R27: (incomprehensible)

J28: you didn't notice something.

R28: did not know this.

J29: oh, something here you did not know before.


J29.1: I have the impression that it's like brims up to here. full.

R29: I have to keep my head above it.

J30: uh huh. mm. it feels it might uh swamp you? yeah. mm-hm.



J30.1: so that's, might be too much, might knock you down? no. (incomprehensible)

R30: it's just recognition. that's what I didn't know. I didn't know I was trying to keep my head above water. (incomprehensible)

J31: oh, I see.

R31: having to work so hard.

J32: that's what you realize. that's what you didn't know. that you were trying very hard to keep your head above water.

R32: (incomprehensible)

J33: mm-hm. yes, for some part of you it's much more difficult than you thought. more, what kind of difficulty is it? is it more scary, or can you characterize that?

R33: no.

J34: maybe, I , not even to speak it, but just for yourself.


R34: (sigh) it's just (incomprehensible) different angles with respect to (incomprehensible) I start to smile because I start to get this other perspective that comes in and observes the whole thing that's going on (incomprehensible) 'oh, yeah this , this is pretty neat.'

J35: mm-hm. yes, you just had that experience of stepping out of it and watching this whole exchange, and

R35: yeah, watching not only all of the internals but watching this, and this, and

J36: being amused by how much is, and even this bigger thing. yeah. pretty neat, you said, huh?

R36: and then I've still got this

J37: yes, and then you're still trying to keep it so you can breathe.

R37: okay: (much louder volume level).

J38: there you touch it again.


R38: the main thing is, it's almost like there's all these different levels.

J39: mm-hm. there are many different levels. that's one main thing about it.

R39: and I (incomprehensible) uh on some lev- which one is the one that's controlling my life? which one's the most important? something like that.

J40: (clears throat) you'd like to know which level is the one that's the most influencing in our life?

R40: (incomprehensible) yeah, it's like I can feel all these different things on different levels but, I wake up in the morning and go to the bathroom and brush my teeth and say 'ok'


J41: there's some, is it that there's a disparity between these different levels you feel and these mundane things like brushing your teeth?

R41: no, it's a lot more (incomprehensible) waking up,taking a shit, brushing my teeth is very important

J42: uh-huh, ah.

R42: and in terms that's the way I live my life and the way I'm even here.

J43: mm. those uh, basic things of living in this physical world are very important, in terms of being here. that's not a very good way I've said it there.

R43: I don't think it's so much the way we say it as much as it's like being aware that it's

J44: it's hard to articulate

R44: yeah, something that I don't know.

J45: yeah. then comes that, there's a look on your lips and your face that I see when you, that feeling comes up.

R45: (sigh)

J46: and it gives me a tender sense of something in my throat too.


J46.1: yeah. there you have it again.

(p:00:00:17, then Jim's watch alarm sounds)

R46: can we still have a minute?

J47: ok, what, it doesn't have to be that short, whatever you feel is (incomprehensible) right.


J47.1: it's a kind of delicate place, and yet very strong, it seems.

R47: mm-hm. yeah, it's (incomprehensible) real bitch. yeah, it's that hard.

J48: mm-hm. it really is that hard.

R48: it's like that's the piece that, that's the piece that wants to be known and that's what I'm trying hard to get and that's really difficult, in a sense to get, this is a , this is, really a bitch.

J49: there's that part of you that, those words say it. 'this is really a bitch' and it wants to be known and somehow that's hard to let that be known.

R49: yeah. it's like acknowledgement of (incomprehensible) and that's what I'll say I'm trying to make more solid or that's what wants to be made more solid is (incomprehensible) and if I can get that solidly then it'd cut me some slack.

J50: mm-hm. mm.

R50: if i really knew how hard it was, then I've got room to operate, but as long as I think of it as trifling or a small thing, then (pop) then it gets packed (J: mm-hm) so if I really get it that this is tough, then I can back off, or

J51: mm-hm. that'll give you space.

R51: that gives me, that gives me room.

J52: but you really have to let it be in the picture, that this is really tough.

R52: yeah, yeah that's, it's like that's the cornerstone, that's the key for, out of all the different things that are happening, the smile, the, yeah it's like there's my cornerstone 'this is tough.' get it, then I get some room. yeah. it's all right.

J53: it's ok to stop? thank you.

R53: thank you.

A pilot friend of mine told me, after reading this transcript, "you just got the engine running and began to taxi, and the time was up." Of course this is true compared to a whole therapy hour or a more complete focusing session. Nevertheless, in what follows I will show you many ways in which such "preliminary" work involves glimpses of implicit meaning which can, if the listener responds appropriately, help the focuser get more out of the exchange.

Ten process events

These ten events (Table 1) are not, and were not meant to be, mutually exclusive or "independent." There is, in fact, considerable overlap and intermingling of the meanings. Rather than being conceptually distinct, they are like focusing handles for actual exchanges I have observed from time to time in therapy: one exchange or even one feature of one exchange might be described with more than one of these descriptions. But at the time of the actual exchange, one wording seemed a better fit than the other. I suspect each wording captures a subtle aspect that another wording does not, just as it is true, on a more grand scale, that one theory highlights different features of human experience than does another theory about the "same" experience (See Gendlin's footnotes, 1968, and also Gendlin, 1962).

These events are intended to name several things which may happen in therapy that are particularly relevant to the effectiveness of the client's focusing. Some of them are obstacles to smooth focusing and some are opportunities. I'm not only trying to identify deviations from smooth focusing, but also normal productive developments in focusing which can be welcomed and built upon.

Table 1. Ten Process events indicating implicit meaning

  1. Client seems off balance in relation to feelings, lacking a friendly, receptive curiosity toward the feelings.
  2. Client has wrong distance from feelings, either too much or too little to work comfortably and productively with them.
  3. Client seems to be having evaluative reactions to his/her feelings
  4. Client seems to accept imprecise expression for what is felt
  5. Feelings well up spontaneously
  6. The client seems to have feelings, but not know what to do with them
  7. There is inconsistency between what the client says verbally and some of the non-verbal signs of feeling.
  8. Client hurries past feelings to talk about implications and anticipated consequences
  9. Client reports sensations that are only physical, like sore muscles or a headache.
  10. Client expresses conflicting feelings and seems to favor one side over the other.


My hope is that these articulations of process events will help the reader recognize some signs of what more the focuser feels than that of which he or she is already aware.

I know these ten are not an exhaustive list of such process events. I would welcome your descriptions of similar events you have witnessed, so that I can add to the completeness of the list. This is what I have gathered so far.

One criterion I have for utilizing these process events is that they be expressed in language which the client can recognize as an accurate description of his or her experience. Thus it was fortunate that Ray was present, so he could tell us if in some way our discussion of his focusing, structured by the framework of these ideas, went astray or became inaccurate from his point of view. He did correct some of our interpretations of his experience in the discussion which followed the demonstration, and I have tried to remain true to what he said here. Thus, although these process events are intended to illuminate parts of the client's experiencing which were "unconscious" up to the point of being identified, we do not abandon the client-centered axiom that the client is the final authority about what is "really" going on.

Related to this axiom is a principle for how to use the process events. I would like to make a careful application of these events when I hope to guide the client to more effective introspection. Ideally the interaction should be non-directive in the sense that the client makes process improvements, rather than being directed to do so by the therapist. The specific method I recommend and try to use to minimize directiveness is a two step approach. The first step is a simple empathic reflection of the event. First, I check with the client to see if the event I think I witnessed did or did not occur. This forces me to use language the client can recognize, and to avoid proceeding on incorrect assumptions about what is going on for the client. If the client indicates my perception was incorrect, then I know to continue listening. If the client affirms my perception of a process event, I may make a guiding suggestion relevant to the particular event that occurred. This second step may not be needed, since when a process event is well reflected, the problem may resolve itself: as soon as the client sees the process event, he or she has taken a small step back from it, which is a position from which adjustments and changes which improve the process can be made and often are made spontaneously. If the client does not spontaneously find an improvement in the process, I then make guiding suggestions. The kind of process improvement in question here is evaluated by the client: improvement means the client finds the process more rewarding, more insight-producing, less painful, more productive, etc. I try to help the client achieve this kind of improvement, first by good empathy, but secondly by offering suggestions. Suggestions are offered when improvement does not flow spontaneously from empathy. I recommend first reaching a confirmed understanding of a process event to give the improvement every chance to come spontaneously from within the client, but if it does not, I make a suggestion, rather than letting the client proceed oblivious to a small change which might bring improvement .

Event number 1: The client seems off balance in relation to feelings, lacking a friendly, receptive curiosity toward the feelings. By "balanced in relation to feelings," I refer to the way it is possible to investigate how one feels while having part of you anchored solidly in being ok. Even when what you feel is very disturbing or painful, if you proceed at the right pace, making sure you are ready to proceed, stopping if you need to have a break, you can maintain a sense of the process being good, even if what you are investigating is not at all "good." If this kind of balance is maintained, one can then hold curious, friendly attitudes toward whatever is there. Event number one is when something is wrong with this balance: you get an indication that the client is hesitant or reluctant to proceed, or is suffering and not at all ok with how the process is going.

I did some checking with Ray about this matter. At the beginning, when he wasn't saying very much, and he seemed to be turning his head away (J11.2) I asked him if it was ok to be going with "it." His response (R11) was ambiguous in terms of balance, so I tried to check again (J12). His response this time (R12) indicated that he was not experiencing distress about the process, but was surprised by its intensity. At this point, I think the real purpose of inquiring about the balance had been served: Ray had noticed how he felt about having his feelings come up and had found his own words to describe that, which is a good sign of balance.

Just a little while later (J16.1) I checked the balance again with an empathic guess that it was ok. This was followed by silence, and then some non-verbal developments (R16, J18) that suggested Ray was proceeding with focusing, although he was saying few words to make it clear what he was experiencing.

Event number 2: The client has the wrong distance from feelings, either too much or too little to work comfortably and productively with them. The idea here is that focusing is most productive when the focuser has some intensity of feeling, but not so much that it is needlessly unpleasant. One might maintain a sense of balance by staying totally clear of troublesome feelings, but then one would have too much distance to make any headway: one would have balance, but no change.

Sometimes emotions become extremely intense. How then is one to work with them productively? Gendlin has taught for many years that one need not be overwhelmed by emotional intensity to focus productively. In fact, real progress seems to involve maintaining a part of oneself that is apart from the intensity, and supporting that part as one explores the intense emotion. This means monitoring the process so that it is possible to choose to stop or take a break if it becomes too intense, not losing the sense "I am choosing to explore this. I can stop for a while if I want to and come back to it later."

Finding a good distance was at issue in the work with Ray. He talked at R29 about being nearly swamped by it. At J30 and J30.1 I was checking to see if it was too overwhelming. At the time, Ray didn't answer my query directly, but emphasized that it was "just" recognition that he was trying to keep his head above water (R30). He had not previously known he was having to do this. After Ray read a draft of this paper, he told me his situation at this point in the interview was one of having too much distance from a very overwhelming feeling. He felt in danger of being overwhelmed, and responded with too much distance at R34, which he characterized in retrospect as "dissociated."

Event number 3: the client has evaluative reactions to the feelings that are there. Evaluative reactions to feelings are the most common alternative to friendly receptivity to feelings. I addressed this with Ray at J18. First, as Ray had been silent for some time, I tried to communicate a welcoming, friendly attitude toward whatever his feelings might want to express. Then after another long silence, I asked more directly whether he was feeling friendly toward it (J18.2). Here, in the absence of any clear signs of what was going on, I decided to check on what might be getting in his way. Interestingly, his affect shifted in quality just after this (R19), perhaps suggesting that he took a little step back from his feelings and was then able to see them in a larger context.

Sometimes clients have quite obviously critical reactions toward what they feel. I have a client who has very strong romantic feelings about a relationship that ended. He is grieving about the end of his romance. He often says something which reveals his evaluative reactions to his feelings. He says "but it's so 'juvenile.' I'm 48 years old. Why should I be crying about romance?" That's clearly an indication of an evaluative reaction which complicates his ability to be with his felt sense in a friendly way.

Process event number 8: the client hurries past feelings into thoughts and concerns about what the feelings mean. This did not seem to be happening with Ray. We saw no evidence of his rushing into thinking. He was very much staying silently with his feelings. But with many bright, intelligent people it does happen. They may quickly begin anticipating what problems will come in the future, and go away from the sense in the body. If that happens, I suggest first testing your understanding of the situation with an empathic guess about what's happening: perhaps "it seems like you are moving into thinking about this now, away from the sensations of it. Is that right?" If this is the case, and they don't of their own volition come back to the bodily sense, you might suggest that they do so, but watch carefully to see if there are indications that they don't want to, or that it is somehow uncomfortable for them to do so. If you get a sense of that, then try to understand that.

Process event number 4: the client accepts imprecise expression for what is felt. This was not a problem with Ray either. You may have noticed several times my understanding response was technically ok, but Ray didn't like it. It wasn't quite right for him. Ray's standard for precision seems high. At J12 I guessed that maybe part of Ray would rather not go into this, and at R12, he made a definite correction, telling me it was other than my guess. This kind of correcting by the client is a sign of the healthy form of this process event.

At J41 I communicated my tentative understanding of what Ray had just said (R38-40). At R41-42 Ray tells me in no uncertain terms that the emphasis was quite different than I had put it. Again he shows that he wants and expects accuracy in the words we use to discuss what he feels.

This is the standard we hope to see in focusing. But many people are not so clear about the authority their feelings should have over the words that are spoken about them. Some people have the attitude that "if you say so, it must be right." This is especially true for some people who as children were consistently told how they felt when the truth was otherwise: a parent might have often said, for example "oh, stop crying, it doesn't hurt that much." If the listener says "it sounds like you must be angry," and the focuser says "well, I didn't think so, but maybe you're right," it may signal this problem. You may detect this problem by watching carefully to see the client's reactions to your "less than your best" responses. It doesn't matter so much if you are right or wrong in your reflections or your attempts, but look carefully to see what happens next. If the way the client reacts is to quibble with your words to improve them, then you know they demand precision. If, on the other hand, they scrunch up their face and seem to be trying to make your words fit, but their body is saying it doesn't, then take the initiative to say something to the effect of "I don't think I got that quite right. It doesn't seem to fit. Did my wording seem incorrect somehow?" In this way you can invite them to seek more precision of expression, and you model an attitude of respect for the authority of their own experiencing.

Process event number 5: feelings well up spontaneously. This event is at the heart of a therapeutic focusing exchange. I refer to moments when the speaker's body becomes activated with visceral expression of feeling and emotion. The matter is no longer being discussed only abstractly, but has become an immediate emotional and sensory experience. Theoretically, this is a moment in which bodily experiencing becomes accessible for direct focusing. We saw several nice examples of this with Ray. Although they cannot be "seen" in the transcribed interview, my responses indicate where I saw feelings well up, and how I acknowledge this event: see J11-11.1, J18, J29.1, J38, J45, J46.1.

These events may have been more obvious to those present than would typically be the case, because Ray was talking relatively little. There was little conceptual material to distract listeners from non-verbal expression where one most clearly detects this event. When feelings well up, the speaker's vocal quality often changes, perhaps slowing its pace, and becoming more tentative or halting and "softer" somehow. The person's face changes. I saw an expression come over Ray's face that I reflected as "sad" or "tender." Later in the exchange we spoke explicitly of how his bodily feeling was coming in and then fading away and then coming back in again (J25). We also talked about the feeling as distinct from the words we were using to try to describe it (J21).

Tenderness is often expressed when feelings well up, which probably has to do with the vulnerability of the doorway opening up to the felt sense. A person in touch with a felt sense has opened the self to experiencing more full and complex than the usual sense of self. Some of what is sensed may threaten or contradict the usual self-image, which makes for a sense of vulnerability.

When feelings well up, the person is in a condition more conducive than usual to insight and change, so it's a therapeutically valuable development. But sometimes the speaker is surprised by this development, or does not recognize it for what it is.

Some people seem to react as if the welling up of feeling is an undesirable development, perhaps something to be embarrassed about because it seems to be evidence of losing control or being "overly emotional." I have a relatively new client for whom feelings well up regularly, but she doesn't seem to think it's important, and she seems puzzled that I am interested and react positively to this event. I say "What's that?" with obvious curiosity and warmth, and she tells me a little and then goes away from it. I suspect she still has complicated feelings about whether it's safe to let those feelings be seen, and that she has not yet noticed how this event often precedes insight and relief. I think her trust in me to react respectfully and warmly is still developing, but already I am communicating to her that this event is something we can be interested in, rather than something to be avoided. At a minimum, when feelings well up, I want to acknowledge that event, perhaps simply saying "something happened there," or "your feelings came alive there."

Process event number 6: the client has feelings, but seems not to know what to do with them. The description in this case is pretty self-explanatory. And my example for event number 5 of the woman who didn't realize that feelings welling up is a promising development also illustrates this event. Feelings come and the body gets activated, but the client doesn't know what to do next. I suggest first reflecting that: "you have some feelings there, and it seems like you aren't sure what to do with that." If the client says "yes, how can I do anything with that?" I have the focusing idea of "asking." So I may say "well, as you sense that, what kind of friendly question can we ask that would be right for that feeling?" You as the listener may have a question appropriate to the client's felt sense, and you might suggest that. It might be, for example, "what makes it so sad?" You want a question that is specific to what they have been telling you, but open-ended. If you've established that they don't know what to do, then a natural next step is to offer an "asking" kind of question.

Twice in the interview with Ray I attempted guidance of this kind, and it is apparent that I failed to follow my own guidelines in each case. At J21.2, I offered the question "Is this feeling wanting something?" In just a few seconds, Ray indicated that this question wasn't right. In retrospect, I could have first said "you are in touch with that feeling coming and going. Are you wondering what to do with it?" That would have checked out my implicit assumption that he wanted my help with what to do, which he well may not have. If he didn't, I would like to have respected that. Judging from J21.3-R23, the idea of asking may have fit, even if my specific question did not. If I had reflected first, Ray's response might have suggested a more fitting question even if he did want my help.

Process event number 7: there is inconsistency between what the client says verbally and some of the non-verbal signs of feeling. When this happens, it is a pretty strong hint that there is implicit meaning functioning that is not fully conscious. A common example is when people talk about fear or sadness and at the same time giggle or laugh nervously. I try not to "pounce" on this event or say "what's this discrepancy!" which the client might take as scolding, which would only make anything not yet conscious go farther away. Instead I try to be gentle, and I might say "you're telling me about sadness and fear, but your face is smiling, and I don't quite understand," trying to help bring more of the whole of what is being felt into awareness. A variant of this event occurred just before J11.2, when Ray was turning his head away from me and the audience. In that case, there was not quite inconsistency between verbal and non-verbal, but the non-verbal was saying something which had not been verbalized. I reflected the head movement, guessing that it was related to what he was feeling. Although Ray's response was incomprehensible from the tape, Ray told me, after reading this, that the head movement preceded any knowledge of why: in retrospect, he said it was very hard to look at the feeling and the head movement gave him an "obliqueness" to adjust the distance.

Process event number 9: the client reports sensations that are only physical. Sometimes people have purely physical sensations to complain about. This was not the case in this demonstration. Perhaps a headache, or a sore back, or sore muscles is reported as only physical. Suppose you say "so you have this pain in your back, and it sounds like that's just there in your back, you don't have a sense of that meaning anything." In reply, the client says "Yes, I was golfing and I swung the wrong way and my back is sore." If the client was this straightforward, I might leave it at that. But if the client went on to say "I'm such a klutz!" it would suggest more than just physical sensation. Then a guiding suggestion that I might use is "When you're feeling that pain, is there some way you react to that in here [pointing to middle of body]. Is it an emotionally disturbing thing, or something like that?" To explore if and how it's more than just a physical thing.

And finally, process event number 10: the client expresses conflicting feelings and seems to favor one part over another. Perhaps the client doesn't only feel hurt, but also feels compassion for the other person, and is scared of what's going to happen, so there is a mix or a variety of feelings. Sometimes people will have a bias for part of the feelings and be biased against other parts. One might prefer to be compassionate, and have difficulty acknowledging anger. If you detect something like this, try to help the client step back to be more accepting of all feelings as various parts of a complicated reaction. If one takes sides with part of what one feels, one has only partial self-acceptance. When one accepts each different part of one's feelings as equally legitimate, as simply there and worth listening to, one is more accepting of the whole person one is.

Variables underlying the ten process events

Studying the ten process events for common themes led to the variables listed in Table 2. Articulating these clarifies why focusing can be so different from one time to the next for any one person, or from one person to the next: if each of the six variables had only two levels, there would be sixty-four different combinations of these variables, or sixty-four kinds of focusing situation.

Table 2. Ways in which focusing experiences can vary

Variables of relationship between focuser and external situation

A. degree of complexity

B. actuality of trust: bodily felt sense is faint or absent vs. distinct and tangible

Variables of focuser's inner psychic structure

A. relationship between symbols and reality: congruence vs. incongruence

B. position from which the focuser approaches feelings: ego vs. witnessing

Variables of the focuser's existential stance

A. attachment to symbols vs. surrender

B. attitude toward life and living things: sacred vs. profane


Variables involving the relationship between the focuser and the external situation

Complexity. Bodily experiencing is absolutely unique to the individual. The subtle qualities as sensed in the body could not be exactly the same for anyone else. This is because the situational complexity , or intricacy, cannot be precisely the same for any two individuals. Each person has a detailed life history of experiences, some of which relate to the situation at hand. In addition to different life histories, the current set of relationships and behavioral patterns which bear on the situation at hand is not the same for any two people.

People have feelings about situations. A bodily felt sense is the subtle quality of feeling for a whole situation which helps one know whether a next step is the right next step or not. In order for a bodily felt sense to form for a situation, the focuser must have freshly in mind all the important intricacies that matter about that situation. This does not mean thinking about everything all at once, but often does mean sequentially reviewing related events, emotions, thoughts and self-concepts until a feel for the subtlety and complexity of the situation begins to form in the focuser's body. Sometimes feelings are at the start sensible in the body, but even then, a review of the intricacy of people, interpretations, and events is often desirable to form the most full and subtle felt sense possible. As Ray asked me to emphasize after reading this, however, body sensations and movements often lead the understanding of why they are as they are.

Note that the degree of complexity making up a felt sense varies both within the individual and in the external situation. A conflict with one of your friends is less complex than one involving that friend and also your boss, especially if the friend and the boss have problems you know about in their relationship, too, or if the friend and the boss tend to talk together about you. That example shows variation in external complexity.

Situations of roughly equal external complexity can affect you very differently internally if in one case more of your personal insecurities or vulnerability are engaged than in the other. That shows variation in internal complexity.

One way the complexity variable is evident in the process events is that often feelings only well up (event #5) after considerable discussion of the external situation and related emotions and associations. Sometimes only after the full complexity is brought to mind and accepted, the body responds with a felt sense.

A process event involving internal complexity is number 10: sometimes the focuser describes several different emotional responses to a situation, some quite the opposite of others: perhaps hatred and love, fear and nurturing impulses, etc.

Ray's focusing provides an interesting version of complexity: in this case, more than in the typical focusing exchange, there was little content verbalized to reveal complexity. In cases like this, the challenge is greater for the listener to follow and imagine feelings on the basis of less information than usual. Eventually in the interview, a kind of complexity did become apparent when Ray talked about having certain feelings, but also having some difficulty acknowledging them to himself.

The range of complexities of situations people focus on is broad. To focus effectively, the actual full complexity relevant to the focuser on that occasion must be to some degree perceived, so the body and mind can total up all important considerations and form a felt sense of all that. The listener's job is extremely important in this regard, because, as illustrated with Ray, even the focuser may not feel and appreciate the full complexity until talking it out in dialogue with a listener. As the listener, you might ask yourself, if the process doesn't seem to be moving along, "have I heard and do I understand the full complexity and nuances of the situation the focuser is telling me about? Where does the focuser's story seem complex but unclear in how it is so?"

Actuality of trust. Focusing involves the person being able to stay with a conceptually unclear, but distinct bodily quality of sensory feeling which is definitely a response to an issue or situation of concern. There must be enough intensity of feeling for the focuser to detect the body sense. Many times at the beginning of a focusing session, no particularly distinct feeling is present in the body. It then may take some time before the intensity level rises or the perceptual acuity increases so the focuser can detect or locate the felt sense. Several things may need to happen during this time. It may simply take some time to let the senses adjust to a higher level of sensitivity. This is analogous to how it takes the eyes about 30 minutes in the dark to achieve their full night vision capability. Shifting from an external focus and normal daily conversation or normal thinking to the inward receptivity of focusing is like going from daylight into a dark inner cavern - one must give oneself time to adjust to "the dark."

Another thing which may take some time is to have enough interaction to determine that the listeners (both other and self) are going to be receptive, understanding, and non-judgmental. If the conditions are right and safe enough, the inside feelings may "come out" and let themselves be seen, growing in intensity.

As already mentioned, it can also take some time simply to review enough of the intricacy of the situation so the full body sense of all that begins to form.

It is not always the case that the focuser must work to increase the intensity of bodily feeling. Sometimes emotions are too intense, making the prospect of paying attention to them unwelcome - painful. In such cases, it may take some time for the focuser to find conditions for working in which the emotional intensity lessens so that the more subtle, multifaceted, holistic body sense can be detected without placing the focuser in unwanted pain.

Earlier work has discussed the client's manner of referring to immediate intensity-of-personal-feeling as "client experiencing level" (Klein, et al, 1986), or client "openness to experience" (Rogers, 1961). What I would like to emphasize is that the client's access to a bodily felt sense is a fundamentally interactive matter: it happens if the conditions are right. What are right conditions on a given occasion depends both on what is provided from the outside and the requirements from inside the focuser.

Gaining access to a felt sense is a natural development when a person is wondering about a meaningful situation, not feeling pressed to take immediate action, and the circumstances are quiet enough, friendly and non-judgmental enough, safe and accepting enough, and the person pays attention to inwardly sensed feeling. Thus, rather than describing the formation of a felt sense as primarily a condition within the client, I prefer to call it the "actuality of trust," to emphasize its interactional character: whoever/whatever is the external environment must provide good conditions and the focuser must receive them as a safe opportunity to look inward for feelings. When these conditions are met and a bodily felt sense forms, we can say that trust is an actuality. I believe the essentially interactional nature of this development is what Rogers was getting at (Rogers, 1957) with conditions 1 and 6: that the client and the therapist must be in psychological contact, and that the client must to some degree perceive the therapist's empathy, genuineness, and positive regard. When these conditions are realized, something happens: a felt sense forms and becomes detectable to the focuser.

Even though the external observer may not see any difference from the previous day when a wild animal allowed an approach to within eight feet, if trust is not actual to the same degree today, the animal will flee well before the observer gets that close. What makes for a certain level of actuality of trust may be events that happened to the animal since the last contact: if something left a bodily impression of danger, the animal may have higher standards for the same level of trust than the day before. It may be that for the time being, no conditions provided by the observer could make trust an actuality at eight feet of distance. Felt senses seem to be like this, "knowing" quite precisely just what conditions, if any, are trustworthy at a given moment. If a person has been traumatized, it may take considerable time in safe conditions before trust can be actualized again.

Many of the process events of Table 1 relate to actuality of trust. I recall telling Carl Rogers (in 1980 at the first International Forum for the Person Centered Approach in Mexico) about some of my insights and experiences which, after the deaths of my parents, had increased my hope that there is a larger reality than we can perceive, within which I might one day again see and talk to Mom and Dad. Carl listened quietly, intently, and respectfully, without joining me in my enthusiasm. His manner and presence so fully received my feelings that it permitted more of my full feelings to come forward, and I experienced another wave of tears and grieving, which was quite a surprise to me and unquestionably healing. In retrospect I would say that Carl provided such trustworthy listening conditions to me that my full felt sense at that time could form, so it welled up (event #5), involving a correction of a kind of one-sidedness (event #10) or imbalance (event #1) that had developed in my conscious perspective ­- I had been clinging a bit too much to hope. The actuality of trust created in talking with Carl corrected the imbalance, modifying but not crushing the hope while at the same time giving full welcome to my grief over the losses which are real on this level of reality.

The exchange with Ray illustrates the actuality of trust in a way which reverses something I see more often. Usually people talk for a while - and it's often quite a while - before any feelings get activated visibly in the body. But with Ray, we had only just begun (R9-J11) when something was obviously welling up for Ray. I don't think trust was fully actual at that point, judging from his silence and his turning his head away. This is not to say that Ray was feeling any distrust of me: rather only that the circumstances and the event of our encounter had not developed adequately at that point for him to have a fully formed felt sense on which he could focus from a right distance. The fact that bodily feelings became visible so early and reappeared throughout the interview (J17-18, R20-J21, J29.1, J38, J45-46.1) is an indication of a fairly high degree of actuality of trust.

As someone's listener wanting to help actualize trust, we can always ask ourselves what Rogers and his students have taught us to ask: am I understanding the person as he experiences it from the inside? Am I refraining from judgment of the person and her circumstances? Do I have a prizing feeling (see below on "sacred and profane") toward this human being that I am listening to? It also may help the listener relax to remember that there are conditions the focuser brings to the situation which influence whether or not a felt sense will form and become apparent: it is not necessarily the case that anyone is failing if not much happens during a particular focusing attempt. On the contrary, the speaker's organic wisdom is likely adjusting to many factors and looking for certain improvements before opening up further.

Variables involving the focuser's inner psychic structure

Symbols and reality: congruence vs. incongruence. One might say that what focusing is all about is achieving congruence. When what we feel in our body is not represented accurately by our ideas, self-image, emotions, or behaviors, we need to focus. When incongruent, the reality of one's organismic experiencing is not well-represented by the symbols for what is felt. Focusing is the process of developing more congruent symbols for organismic experiencing. The point is not to publicly reveal one's innermost reality indiscriminately: rather the point is that one can make more intelligent choices about what to reveal publicly when one is not "deceiving oneself."

A simple example of incongruence is when a trusted friend greets you with "how are you?" Feeling glad to see the friend, you say "fine!" which is true in part. But in the next moment you find yourself a bit distracted by certain unpleasant, unhappy nagging feelings that can't be fairly included in the description "fine."

When we are able to focus, and we find more accurately fitting words, self-understandings, emotions, and/or actions, the body feels relief. That's how we know we have found the right symbols: the body tells us so with that sense of relief or "rightness" about the new symbols. With your trusted friend, you might feel such relief if you say "I'm really glad to see you, but there is something troubling me."

People new to focusing may not have noticed the subtle relief of becoming more congruent. Some relationship partners actively undermine the other partner's congruence, consistently defining the partner's experiencing in incongruent ways in order to maintain power over the partner (Evans, 1992).

Many people believe it is more important to maintain rationality than it is to seek congruence. In the realm of personal feelings, our cognitive abilities can produce obstacles to progress. Our cognitive abilities enable us to know a great deal of fixed knowledge, like 2+2=4. But much of human experiencing is not so orderly and certainly not fixed. We keep on growing and changing, and the meaning of a situation keeps evolving as more things happen and we learn more. In this realm, it is a mistake to try to hang on to symbols that have become "obsolete," just as it would be a mistake for a pilot to use an aviation chart that was not up to date. The new chart may, on cursory glance, look "just like" the old one, but on closer inspection, near the airport, where the pilot will be flying at low altitudes, one may discover a new radio tower or a construction crane that represents very important information. In focusing, we want to achieve the most up to the moment representation of what we feel and experience that is possible.

Another motive that may work against movement toward congruence is the desire to uphold appearances. If one has come to believe that it is important to maintain a certain image in the eyes of others, one can end up ignoring or suppressing some of the truth about how one feels for fear of losing face or receiving disapproval. Regaining congruence does often move one toward having the courage to be openly true to oneself even if others may not like it.

In general, we are concerned about incongruence because it represents confusion vs. clarity, and the more incongruent person tends to feel less enthusiasm, hope and personal power than the more congruent one. The difference is one of the spirit of life at our center being diminished vs. being nourished (Evans, 1992).

Incongruence can vary in duration. Disparity between symbols and experiencing can develop in a few seconds: what one was feeling at one moment can change significantly depending on what is said or what happens in the next moment. Although it may have been true when you said you were "fine" a short time ago, that may quickly become an incongruent description of how you are if another person says something which is disturbing to you. Such minor incongruence is normally remedied quickly, and thus is of very short duration.

However, it is also possible to live with incongruence over long periods of time. Some people feel tremendous relief when, after many years of living in a marriage or a job that everyone kept telling them they were so lucky to have, they finally can acknowledge serious dissatisfactions. Such regaining-congruence relief is undeniable, even though along with it may come confusion and worry about what the future may hold.

Some clients in psychotherapy have to work hard to discover their own wishes and feelings after many years of being told what to feel and want by significant others. Sometimes a whole subgroup of normal human experience is labeled repeatedly by significant others as "weak" or otherwise undesirable. A person subjected to this unhealthy training may develop a tendency to preserve incongruence whenever a feeling in that subgroup is felt. This means a guarded, less than relaxed quality of life for the individual, but beyond that, it can have serious consequences for the children and others the person influences (see Miller, 1986, 1986).

After learning that certain feelings are to be avoided at all costs, it can be quite threatening to allow oneself to acknowledge such feelings. Managing such a threat can be one important dynamic behind an overactive inner critic.

Here you may notice how inner psychic structures can affect the actuality of trust. Long standing incongruence is likely to increase the requirements for the actuality of trust, perhaps to a level so high that "nothing happens" in terms of obvious felt sense formations for many sessions as the client slowly and carefully assesses the interaction, perhaps with considerable disbelief, to determine if those always-before-rejected kinds of feeling are really acceptable in the therapy relationship.

Longer standing incongruence naturally takes more time to change, and resolving it may be resisted because of the threat to the existing self-image. But people seem to have an urge toward becoming more congruent which in the long run is stronger than the resistances to congruence (cf. Freud's idea of the "repetition compulsion"). Upon resolution, there is proportionately more relief for long standing incongruence than with incongruence with a shorter history. One form the relief takes is that of understanding things about oneself that have been puzzling for a long time.

For example, one thirty five year old client who has lost fifty pounds in the past year now sees how her overeating, and also some of her social mannerisms served to protect her from a kind of humiliation she first felt when her father derided her for being too fat as a teenager (before she was obese). Having become more congruent with her vulnerability about being seen as she is, she has freed herself to lose weight, identify less with her former social persona, and she has increased her self-understanding. Another example I have observed several times is considerable relief felt by persons who have fought against a gay sexual orientation for many years. When the person finally comes to accept and acknowledge the urges and preferences he or she feels, there is often substantial relief (although many other feelings may come, too).

The issue of congruence to experiencing runs through all the process events, but it is particularly clearly involved in number 4, which refers to times when the client fails to hold a high standard for the congruence of what is said about herself. Number seven also directly involves congruence, since in that case, the words of the client appear to leave out some parts of the fuller experiencing of the body. Patterns of long-standing incongruence may result in many instances of process event number 3, if the client has learned that certain feelings are undesirable and to be avoided or denied.

There is evidence of movement toward congruence in the interview with Ray, beginning at R28 through to the end. He clearly states he has seen something in this focusing which is in his experiencing that he had not previously known. At R34 there is an indication of a very close tracking of his experiencing with his conscious awareness: he reports, as it is happening, a change in the quality of affect, maintaining congruence with changing experiencing. Finally, at R48-50 Ray "tastes the relief" congruence can bring. Although it is a challenge for him to maintain congruence to certain feelings, he can see that he would benefit from doing so: it would give him "room to operate," or allow him to "back off."

Realizing that there are different degrees of incongruence may help the listener to appreciate the wisdom of the client's own pace of exploration, and to detect and appreciate some of the feeling reactions that the client may have to emergent feelings. To acknowledge these feeling reactions is often the proper next step for the person in the struggle to become more congruent without threatening the existing self-image too much. In this way the listener witnesses reactions that might, without the listener's accepting presence, stop the client's process of exploration.

Ego vs. Witnessing. A second intrapsychic structural consideration is the position from which the client approaches his issue. For good focusing, the client repeatedly occupies a position which permits the activity of detached "witnessing." It is possible to observe what is true without evaluating, simply seeing what is there. Gendlin has talked about this in terms of always keeping part of yourself solidly "ok" as you focus. Marshall Rosenberg's non-violent communication skills (Rosenberg, 1983) require the person applying them to occupy the witnessing position in order to identify what is observed apart from emotional and evaluative reactions to it.

Wiltschko (1995) has called this position "I" as opposed to "ego." He says that the "I" is the subject, not the object. The "I" is blank. The "I" is free. Wiltschko also claims "The 'I' is always there - even if it is sometimes or for a long time withdrawn, hidden or lost. It is neither sick nor healthy. It is always intact, inviolable" (p.23). When the focuser does not occupy the witnessing position, then he takes a position somehow aligned with one interest or another. Wiltschko discusses this, as does the Jungian analyst A.U. Vasavada, as being "identified with the ego." Wiltschko defines ego as the contents of awareness, what the "I" sees, or what it "has." Sometimes with painful or scary issues, it may seem difficult to find the witnessing position, yet it can be found, perhaps it must be found, in order to be able to "find the whole self" and focus effectively so what one feels can open up and change.

Process event number one, where the client is off balance in relation to feelings, directly indicates that the client is not positioned for witnessing. Event number two (wrong distance for focusing) also indicates that the witnessing position has not yet been located. Event number three, in which the client reacts with evaluation to feelings indicates again a failure to be in the observing, non-evaluative, non-reactive witnessing position. Event number eight, in which the client too quickly moves beyond what is felt into possible implications, may also result from not being solidly enough situated in the witnessing position. And also event number ten, in which the client takes sides when there are conflicting feelings, indicates a failure to be in the witnessing position, since witnessing sees whatever is there, without bias and in its entirety.

The difference between Ray's communication at J11.1-11.2, when his non-verbal communication was different from and not included in his verbal report, and at R36 and R38, where he takes a fresh look at his feelings with equanimity shows movement toward being more solidly in the witnessing position. His attitude from R48 until the end likewise demonstrates an awareness of complex and various feelings from a position of acceptance.

For some people, self-critical reactions go on and tend to recur without the person recognizing that as only another part of what is going on. Rather, these persons identify with the critic, granting it a higher authority than other parts of experience.

It can help the listener sharpen empathy to simply ask "does my client seem to be witnessing all that is happening inside, or are some of the feelings and reactions occurring without the client noticing them as such?"

The focuser's existential stance

Attachment vs. surrender. A crucial part of every successful focusing experience is "letting go." However you have had it up to the point of a felt shift must melt, or dissolve, or break up, so that something new and more right and true can come. This is a moment of "death" for the extant definition of self, and is often a bit disorienting or dizzying. Knowing that there is a passage like this can help make it more tolerable and less scary. After many times through this passage, one notices that really nothing substantial is lost anyway, so it becomes less scary, and after a while less disorienting. Still, the letting go must happen. As Campbell and McMahon (1985) put it, we must remain open to being surprised.

When one has developed to a certain level, having certain skills and a certain identity, it is then appropriate to assert oneself going forth in the world. To fail to do this could mean acquiescing to everyone else, and this would not be authentic living. One's unique perspective and contribution would be sacrificed. In this sense, it is not always correct to surrender one's own position or views.

In the course of life, there are extended periods during which one's cognitive understanding of self and others and how things work serves very well and one can and should live with confidence and assert oneself with others. But demarcating these periods come times when the existing structures of one's understanding and personality fail to do the job. Incongruence forms, with corresponding pains and irritations. One repeatedly gets messages that one's way of thinking is mistaken. Then it is time to let go of the old, and welcome in the new. Piaget has called similar alternating phases of the cognitive development process "assimilation and accommodation."

Discerning the proper moment to shift from self-assertion to surrender is not a trivial matter. When the realities of life demand change, the need to surrender eventually becomes quite clear. Change is not necessarily something one welcomes even after the need to do so has become clear. Dr. Vasavada reminded me that even during periods of assertion of one's self in the world, it is possible to hold an attitude of non-attachment, which is probably what differentiates authentic self-assertion from rigid ego-controlled attachment. In an advanced condition of maturity, one has the ability to accept surrender at a moment's notice, trusting something larger than oneself to assert a true and accurate representation of reality.

An attitude of surrender is there in process event number 5, when feelings well up spontaneously. In order for this event to occur, the person must let go to it: some everyday composure is lost. Similarly, when the client has feelings but doesn't seem to know what to do with them (event number 6) we might say the moment of letting go is at hand. Event number 1, when the client seems off balance in relation to feelings, may indicate that the client is not yet ready to surrender to what is there (and here you can see overlap with the idea of the witnessing position: when witnessing, having no reactions to what is there or attachment to how things have been, one can surrender to what emerges).

Ray seemed quite well able to surrender to not-fully-known experiencing, as discussed under process event number 5 and the actuality of trust. He hinted at some difficulty surrendering to a "piece that wants to be known" at R48, and a tendency he may have to brush that off or evaluate it as "trifling" (R50), so surrendering is probably a relevant idea for him. Ray did say, after reading this, that surrendering to the idea that it was overwhelming was "tough."

The listener may find it helpful while listening or later when reflecting on a focusing session to ask "what, if anything, was there that the client seemed to have difficulty surrendering to?"

Sacred vs. Profane. The final variable which seems to underlie the process events is the client's attitude toward life: self and other living things. This is not necessarily the client's typical or characteristic attitude, but rather the attitude held for those moments during which the focusing process is undertaken. I do think that as focusing experiences accumulate, one tends to move in the direction of having a characteristic attitude of sacredness, since this attitude seems very much a part of healing and growing experiences. Thus the attitude that life and living things are sacred gets reinforced by its association with the truth and with personal insight and relief.

But what do I mean by "sacred" vs. "profane?" By an attitude of sacredness, I mean a respect for the unknown and a respect for meaning in pain and unpleasant experiences, as well as in pleasant experiences. This attitude involves something like faith that what one feels and experiences can and will become part of a constructive life process if one approaches it properly and is willing to learn. It involves something like awe for the creative power of things beyond one's small personal sense of "me." Humility is felt in the face of forces larger than "me." In relation to others it involves an attitude of respect and reverence. There is a humility which prevents quick and hard conclusions about the motives and worth of another being. There is a sense of being partners in the drama of life, rather than adversaries, even during times of disagreement and conflict.

For the listener, the sacred attitude is something I often feel after a session, later in the day, when, reflecting on the session, I realize I was able to achieve, with my client, the delicate understanding of the complexity of his or her feelings necessary to really understand, to achieve the actuality of trust, so that the felt sense of the client's process as it was in that moment could form, and become explicated in a way that carried the process forward to a better place. For example, a client had for many months seemed stuck in not being able to let go of a former lover who has been obviously gone for these months. Many times when we had talked about letting go, he agreed that he needed to let go, but he got stuck because it seemed that in order to let go, he would have to somehow diminish the beauty and specialness of what they had had together. On the day on which I later felt the sense of the sacred, we found our way, by the end of the session, to a distinction which allowed him both to affirm the need to let go, and to preserve the proper sense of the unparalleled (in his experience) degree of perfection of their relationship. It had to do with distinguishing the "beloved" as projected from within his soul, from the particular person who had come close to matching that ideal. In making this distinction, we could honestly say that his lover had come closer than anyone else ever had in measuring up to his soul's ideal beloved, so his lover deserves extremely high praise. Yet at the same time, in some important ways, which we could specify, this person fell short of measuring up to the ideal projected from his soul, and thus it could not be right for him to linger with this person as the one he would accept to fill the place created by his soul's ideal.

Another moment of sensing the sacred came for me after a first session with a couple in which I did the simple thing I often do with couples, which is to slow down their interaction and ask them each to reflect what the other said, so that they could each feel more understood by the other than they had for some time when left to their own devices. Again witnessing the power of this simple tool (listening to each other a little better) always impresses me: here I saw it relieve the man in the couple from the position of being the confused and demented one and his color and energy grew noticeably as he sensed the possibility that he could escape this "loser" (as he put it) position in his wife's eyes. Glimpsing the possibility of regaining respect and tenderness for each other where hurt and anger had set in definitely feels sacred to me. Where death had begun to set in, new life has been found.

The contrast is a "profane" attitude. This involves an attitude that the consequences for one's actions don't extend much beyond one's immediate situation - that one's impact on others and the world we live in is minor and insignificant, or that one can do what one feels like without having to be concerned about the consequences to others and occasionally worse, that others can be controlled and manipulated for one's own ends. A profane attitude is one in which one doubts that there is anything meaningful or constructive that could be made of a situation. The feelings and opinions of others are not taken very seriously. Things just seem as they are, simple and well-defined with "obvious" implications. This is a hardened, arrogant attitude. On the surface, it may appear as despair, anger, depression, or apathy. It may develop as the result of a history of being treated with a profane attitude, or from a history of frustrations, neglect, or abuse. Many of us fall into a profane attitude on a particular issue when the ego perspective or the inner critic dominates. Process event number one, in which the client lacks a friendly attitude toward their feelings is indicative of this problem. A profane attitude may also be the problem with process event number four, when the client is rather apathetic about the precision of the words used to express his or her feelings.

With Ray I think we saw evidence of the sacred attitude in his assertiveness about which words were correct for his feelings (as discussed under process event #4). Also overall he seemed to demonstrate a respect for what was not fully known in his feelings, and a humility about having the "answers" (see especially R38-R43).

For me as the listener it did happen with Ray, as it often does when I am able to listen deeply to a person, that I felt honored by his willingness to open up with me, and I felt a sense of marvel at the delicacy and intricacy of his feelings.

The usefulness of this distinction for the listener is perhaps mainly in that it can remind us to hold an attitude of reverence for the complexity and subtlety of the client's process even when the client does not have that attitude for herself. If the listener can attend to something the client mentions as important even though the client would appear ready to brush it off, this can be an essential step toward bringing out the complexity necessary for a felt sense to form. For the listener to maintain a sacred attitude can also be crucially helpful in maintaining the witnessing position in the listener when the client becomes extremely emotional. The listener's recognition of a profane attitude when the client says "so I feel my angry feelings, so what?" may alert the listener to some of what remains only implicit in the client's experiencing. Perhaps the listener can imagine what complexity would be there if the client held a sacred attitude toward these feelings and ask if the client senses anything like that.

For people who are characteristically stuck in a profane attitude, the challenges are great. The listener must be very patient, and tolerate considerable skepticism and sometimes disrespect or mockery. It may help the listener to imagine the witnessing place in the client, to see if that clarifies what is there "behind" or "under" the things the client says and presents explicitly. The listener has to do more "reading into" what is felt but not said in such cases, and should not be discouraged by getting no cooperation for some time. Working with such a person is a challenge to the listener's ability to stay grounded in his or her own bodily felt sense and good focusing attitudes, and this is a challenge which will strengthen the listener over time if the listener focuses on the feelings that come up in the process.

Summary of the six variables as applied to the interview with Ray

Complexity. The exchange provided minimal information regarding either the external or the internal complexity related to the feelings on which Ray focused. There was a hint of the internal complexity having to do with his reluctance to acknowledge an overwhelming feeling.

The actuality of trust: this seemed to be at a good level, and to improve over the interview.

Congruence: Ray expressed some difficulty fully symbolizing an intense feeling, but there was movement toward more congruence over the course of the interview.

Witnessing: this too seemed to improve over the course of the interview. Ray's later tracking the developments in his feelings seemed more close and to have more acceptance and objectivity.

Surrender/attachment: there is some indication that there may be an aspect of self-image to which Ray is attached, supported by his comment that the idea that his feeling is overwhelming is "tough."

Sacred/profane: on this variable, the interview seemed nicely in the sacred area.

Thus, the thrust of this "process-diagnosis" is as follows:

1. The therapy encounter "helped" in that there was movement toward the desirable position on congruence, witnessing, and surrender. More therapy encounters like this one would probably continue to help on the issues discussed, and there is little sign of mismatch between listener and focuser.

2. Our attention is brought to the intense feeling Ray experienced and that it is tough for him to acknowledge just how intense it is and to find a good working distance in relation to this feeling.

3. Minimal data on the complexities related to the intense feeling suggests potential benefit from more fully laying out the "aboutness" related to this feeling, and also from exploring if there is a self-image that feels threatened by the intense feelings.


The ideas I presented here have usefulness toward discovering the wisdom of the body through focusing. The process events and the underlying variables, which vary from time to time and from person to person, have to do with whether or not one can decipher this wisdom. Where the focuser is on the six variables can help characterize the kind of focusing process a person has had. This helps to elucidate the specific kind(s) of problems that came up to get in the way of focusing movement. Specific corresponding movements or changes facilitating of focusing are implied. The process events and underlying variables have been described and discussed in relation to a demonstration clinical interview.

The six variables represent a kind of process-diagnostic scheme which has a very broad applicability potentially undercutting typical diagnostic categories. Where the process events are very concrete and suggest concrete responses in the moments following the event, the six variables characterize more general features of the focuser's process and related strategies which may be facilitative. In both cases we differentiate the inner workings of the client and the relationship with the therapist into several types of focusing situations, rather than placing individual clients into nosological groupings. This is responsive to the need to study "patient dimensions cutting across [diagnostic categories of] disorders" identified at a meeting at NIMH to brainstorm about psychosocial treatment research (Pilkonis, 1995).

Clinically, the promise of a process-diagnostic scheme lies in reducing the likelihood of thinking of the client as pathological. Too often such thinking leads to reducing the person to little more than the category into which the client has been diagnosed. The reduction is seductive, as the clinician is naturally drawn to relief from the effort required to continue to examine the facts, preferring the more static mind-set of knowing what is wrong with the client ("well, now that's settled"). By differentiating types of focusing situations, the emphasis is kept on the details of the interpersonal and intrapersonal ingredients that are relevant to achieving therapeutic personality change (Rogers, 1957, Gendlin, 1964).

Tools to help people maintain a more person-to-person, or "I - Thou" perceptual attitude (as opposed to "I - it") are important not only theoretically (Rogers, 1957), but also practically, to help the listener counteract the fundamental human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to trait characteristics where we would attribute the same behavior of our own to circumstances (Jones & Nisbett, 1972). This human tendency may be one of the central mechanisms underlying the unfortunate continuation of profane attitudes around the world which manifest as racial and ethnic prejudice, and as disregard for the finite resources of the earth, so the importance of how we think about people as focusers and listeners should not be minimized nor kept to ourselves.


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[1] The transcription follows the guidelines suggested in Mergenthaler & Stinson (1992).

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