Home   |   Newsletter Table of Contents   |   Previous Page of Newsletter   |     Next Page of Newsletter

Focusing and Therapeutic Intersubjectivity

by Greg Madison, Coordinator, England

Excerpted from Greg Madison's article, "Focusing, Intersubjectivity, and 'Therapeutic Intersubjectivity,'" Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. XXVI, 2001: 3-16.

Greg supervises counsellors and works as a therapist in various public and private settings in London. He also teaches Focusing and existential therapy to advanced therapy students at Regents College, where he is completing his Ph.D. in psychotherapy.

As I sit across from clients, my intention is to be with them as they explore their life experience. To do this, I let my attention fall down into my body. There I can hover with a physically felt sense that includes a present feeling of the other person, how we are together, my present mood, what I understand about therapy... in fact, many aspects of the situation all at once without grasping onto anything in particular. In order to do this, I must not impose preconceived ideas and psychological theories. This paper is an attempt to 'match' the theories of 'intersubjectivity' to my own experience so that they elucidate, rather than obscure, what happens between my client and me.

I know that I am not a tightly sealed skin-bag, packed with the permanent details of an insular life. I realise there is no personal 'I' separate from my body. Intersubjectivity rightly challenges the Cartesian mind/body dualism that splits our science, culture, language, and the way we interpret our own experience. It questions the notion of 'inner' life and 'outer' reality, subject and object. Man is not an object, locked within his essence like a chair. Although we stand out as objects, we also connect to other objects through our consciousness. We are intentional, directed towards things without being simply reduced to a thing ourselves. Intersubjectivity is an attempt to understand that we are both, subject and object, where 'the subject is his body, his world, and his situation, by a sort of exchange' (Merleau-Ponty, 1964,p.72).

Eugene Gendlin argues that we can move beyond the subject/object distinction if 'we become able to speak from how we interact bodily in our situations' (Gendlin, 1997,p.15). Interaction signifies the connecting field in which perception is possible. Interaction does not divide into two perceptions - between two people, there exists one interaction. Gendlin writes of a '....', the sense of a situation, and the implying of a next move in that specific situation. Since it includes implying an action that has not yet taken place (and possibly never will),

the '....' is not just a perception, although it certainly includes many perceptions. Is it then a feeling? It is certainly felt, but 'feeling' usually means emotion. The '....' includes emotions, but also so much else. Is it then something mysterious and unfamiliar? No, we always have such a bodily sense of our situations. You have it now, or you would be disoriented as to where you are and what you are doing... Isn't it odd that no word or phrase in our language as yet says this? 'Kinaesthetic' refers only to movement; 'proprioceptive' refers to muscles. 'Sense' has many uses. So there is no common word for this utterly familiar bodily sense of the intricacy of our situations... In therapy we now call it a 'felt sense' (Gendlin, 1992, p.346-7).

Situations are process, and this is therapeutically useful. It shows a body sense that is always intersubjective. This sense is never separate from the situation and never merely internal. It is also not chaos, a mish-mash of perceptions or concepts. It exceeds ambiguity because it is intricately woven. It includes more than we can bring into our awareness or our language. Yet it is readily accessible in experience and thus we are able to work with it phenomenologically. It is not a theory. It is there.

Where does the gradual shading of world and personal perspective become the specific hue of 'my own' experience?

Intersubjectivity (in both Merleau-Ponty's view and Gendlin's view) certainly challenges the everyday sense of having one's own 'pure' experience, of being a self-contained and defined subject standing back from and perceiving a world of objects and others.

The psychotherapeutic usefulness of Gendlin's philosophy is that it is 'methodologically individualised'. But he is concerned this might be '...misunderstood as individual rather than social or historical. The historical process is individual when we think further. History moves through individuals because only individuals think and speak' (Levin,1997,p.95). So, our experience is not 'subjective' or 'intrapsychic' but interactional. Its location is 'inside' but it is the outside-inside. According to Gendlin, what we feel is not inner content, but the sentience of what is happening in our living with others.

In therapy, I can pay attention to it in a specific way. This brings new information about my interactions in the world of other people. This process allows the bodily '....' to take steps forward. It is never permanent content. It is further process. Language, when it speaks from this '....', is a way to live the situation forward. 'Such sensitive phenomenological attention to an implicit speech which is "not yet formed" is precisely what is precluded by standard conceptual thinking about the body' (Wallulis, 1997, p.277-8). The body becomes person and world together. It is subjective and intersubjective as they are always, together.

I can invite my client to sense what he is feeling bodily with me right now. If he elects to do this, after some silent 'focusing' he may say he is tense, and it feels like he is holding back from me. After another silence, he might say it's like he really wants to say something but is afraid how I will react. Then, "No, it's like I feel I want to confess something". This word brings a deep breath and a slight easing. Saying the word carries the process along briefly. Then he is silent again. As the session continues, it carries our interaction forward, because our attention is on our one intersubjective world, as it exists each moment in our individual bodies.

Newsletter Table of Contents   |   Previous Page of Newsletter   |     Next Page of Newsletter

This page was last modified on 07 November 2003

All contents Copyright 2003 by The Focusing Institute
Email comments to webmaster