As we begin, here is an invitation for you:
In your mind’s eye, create a mental picture of a wolf. The wolf is alone; perhaps he is a young male who’s just left his mother’s side, setting out for his first solo adventure. The sun is setting, and our wolf is atop a hill, standing, all four paws on the ground. His head is high, his eyes scanning the horizon. His ears are perked, swiveling to capture sounds from all around. His nose receives all sorts of information from the evening breeze, information that would be imperceptible to us, his human observers. Perhaps his tail is lifted ever so slightly as it curves gracefully behind him. He is fully alive, vibrant, and completely in the present moment.
Now imagine what it would feel like to be that wolf. Feel the pads of your four paws on the ground, the bones and sinews of your legs supporting your spare, muscular torso. Feel your spine elongate as you gently test the wind with your finely honed sniffer. Feel the strength and springiness in your shoulders, your haunches. Imagine you are ready to respond in a split-second to any tiny change in the environment, reacting from instinct before you can even think about it.
Feel the energy that arises in your body as you spend a moment with this experience. And congratulate yourself, because in doing this exercise, you are contacting your felt sense.
The felt sense is a term coined by Eugene Gendlin to describe our innate sense of everything we know and experience in a wordless, non-cognitive way, from the interior of our bodies. The common term “gut instinct” is closely related, as is the scientific term interoception, the process of sensing inside the body. Dr. Gendlin founded a school of therapy he called focusing. Essentially, focusing involves paying attention to our felt sense, and learning how to work with what it has to say. As the focusing website says, “This sensation in your body is called a ‘felt sense.’ It lies behind your thoughts and feelings and is significant and full of meaning. It is a message from your body to you, and will speak to you when you listen.” As Dr. Peter Levine is fond of saying, its language is sensation.
Much of this non-cognitive, somatic information involves not only our body, but also our reptile brain. As I have noted in previous articles, we are interested in the body and the reptile brain because this is where most mental health symptoms “live.” The felt sense is the place where we can work with painful symptoms to get them to subside. Then, the energy these symptoms used to drain from us becomes available for more joy and more productive engagement with the world.
Although modern Western thought has been quite resistant to this idea, there are other valid ways of knowing things besides our thoughts. In some cultures, people regularly converse about this innate, biological, or instinctual source of knowledge. As owners of living, human bodies, our access to our intuitive felt sense is our birthright! It is where the experiences of pleasure, joy, and liveliness originate.
Our felt sense is incredibly useful when we cultivate a relationship with it. As the focusing website points out, “Your body knows more about situations than you are explicitly aware of. For example, your body picks up more about another person than you consciously know.” Although modern Western thought has been quite resistant to this idea, there are other valid ways of knowing things besides our thoughts. In some cultures, people regularly converse about this innate, biological, or instinctual source of knowledge. As owners of living, human bodies, our access to our intuitive felt sense is our birthright! It is where the experiences of pleasure, joy, and liveliness originate. Unfortunately, there is very little discussion or guidance about the felt sense in our culture.
So, then, how do we cultivate a better relationship with this “interior us”?
Well, some of us have to be careful about it. If we have a trauma history, whether or not we’re aware of it, the felt sense is (predominantly) where it lives. In my experience, this is why some people have a difficult time even accessing any of their interior sensations: They are dissociated (disconnected) from their inner selves as a protection from the traumatic residue.
Unfortunately, shutting down pain inherently involves shutting down at least some pleasure. On the other hand, some people experience emotional flooding, physical pain, or other distressing experiences when they turn their focus inward. Of course, this is not true for everyone. People’s experiences with their inner selves vary greatly, largely depending on their life histories. Many people already have a rewarding and lively relationship with their inner lives—and that is ultimately one of the primary goals of somatic psychotherapy.
For more information about focusing, please refer to the focusing website. For those who suspect or already know that contacting this aspect of themselves can be challenging, I would recommend working with an experienced guide, such as a somatic psychotherapist. The work of Dr. Levine uses the felt sense as one of several fundamental tools for trauma healing. Pursuing such therapeutic support can greatly help in reclaiming access to one’s birthright of joy and vibrant well-being.
- Gendlin, E. (2016). What is Focusing? The International Focusing Institute. Retrieved from http://www.focusing.org/newcomers.htm#what
- Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
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