Bodily Felt Sensing, the Heart of Gendlin’s Experiential Philosophy

Close up of eyeIn my first piece, I said “we want to move into the place where meanings can reconstellate…we sit quietly, eyes lowered, with attention inside.” But what precisely are we paying attention to?

We are paying attention to the forming or coalescing of an internal phenomenon Gendlin calls bodily felt sensing (BFS) or bodily felt experiencing. Since BFS is a central concept in Gendlin’s philosophy (and is best grasped when sensed directly), I want to be clear conceptually about what it is and what it is not.

Gendlin’s construct of BFS is a holistic unity that cannot be divided into the traditional divisions of mind and body. If you are reading Gendlin from a Cartesian separate mind/separate body, it may take you some time to grasp how BFS is different. I think of it as the smallest indivisible microunit of experiential process.

Each of the descriptions below emphasizes different aspects of this central concept (the italics are mine).

“A felt sense typically forms in the trunk area of the body, as an unclear but tangible sensation. If attended to directly where it forms in the body, a felt sense can respond with new meanings, confirmed with shifts in the bodily feeling.” (Barnett, L. & Madison, G.)

Sills describes BFS as a kind of “global perception of the whole of arising process in any one moment of emergent experience – a sense of “all of it.” All those sensations, emotional tones, mental constructs, symbols and images that compose our self-constellations are directly experienced as an embodied and coherent whole.”

“A felt sense is not (only) a mental experience but a physical one. Physical. A bodily awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time-encompasses it and communicates it to you all at once rather than detail by detail. A felt sense doesn’t come to you in the form of thoughts or words or other separate units, but as a single (though often puzzling and very complex) feeling.”(Gendlin, G., 1981)

At any moment, one can refer directly to an inwardly felt datum. Experiencing, in the mode of being directly referred to in this way, I term the “direct referent. … At first it may seem that experiencing is simply the inward sense of our body, its tension, or its well being. Yet, upon further reflection, we can notice that only in this direct sensing do we have the meanings of what we say and think. For, without our “feel” of the meaning, verbal symbols are only noises (or sound images of noises)..” (Gendlin, E. T., 1964)

“Focusing is a way of paying attention to one’s being-in-the-world, one’s interaction as it is experienced through the individual (but not separate) body. A felt sense is a temporary wave from the sea of being – it is understood as on-going process, not ‘internal content.’” This initially unclear bodily feeling is referred to as the ‘felt sense.’ It is physically felt, more than clearly defined emotion, and incorporates a whole constellation of this and other situations, now and other times, self and others, elaborated by language. By staying with a felt sense, a shift in meaning may eventually occur that brings a physically felt relief in the way the body holds that issue. (Madison, G.)

Although the content may be vague at first, with practice, the focuser (and the listener) can  identify the phenomenon of BFS distinctly. It is manifested in the quality and prosody of the focuser’s language. Also, BFS, carries within a potential to transform or to move, to “shift” as you come in contact with it. Further, it is accessed through the body, as an epiphenomenon of our experiencing self, yet cannot be localized in the physical body proper.

What BFS is NOT

It is not sheer emotion, yet includes emotions within it.

  • It is not sheer emotion, yet includes emotions within it.
  • It is not “pure” thought, yet includes thinking within it.
  • It is not purely physical, yet includes physical sensations within it.
  • It is not imagery, yet includes imagery within it.
  • It is not memory, yet includes memories within it.

This “temporary wave, from the sea of being” is embedded in a worldview that has implications for our notions of relationality and communication, as I will explain in the next article.


  1. Barnett, L., Madison, G. (2012). Existential therapy (p.83). New York: Routledge,
    p. 83.
  2. Gendlin, G. (1981). Focusing (p. 33). New York: Bantam New Age Books.
  3. Gendlin, E. T. (1964). A theory of personality change.  In P. Worchel & D. Byrne (eds.), Personality change (pp. 100-148). New York: John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from
  4. Madison, G.
  5. Sills, M. (2006). “In this body, a fathom long…” In J. Corrigall, H. Payne, H. Wilkinson (eds.), About a body, working with the embodied mind in psychotherapy (pp. 199-213). New York: Routledge.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joan Lavender, Psy. D., Clinical Psychologist, Focusing Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • amy

    May 21st, 2012 at 3:23 PM

    whoa, pretty deep stuff here
    this is going to take a little bit for me to process

  • Jeanette

    May 21st, 2012 at 4:40 PM

    Would this be something that is comparable to meditation, and do you find that there are many therapists who are well versed in thsi area, enough so that they can teach their patients how to use BFS correctly and really benefit from it?

  • Joan Lavender

    May 21st, 2012 at 5:37 PM

    Hello Amy,

    Yes, this is pretty deep stuff, also very beautiful. YOu might want to go onto The Focusing Institute website to learn more about the therapy, philosophy, method, research etc. Or ask me a question. There is a world of new ideas to learn here.
    Joan Lavender

  • Joan Lavender

    May 29th, 2012 at 8:20 PM

    Hello Jeanette,

    Experiential Focusing and meditation have a general attitude in common; of acceptance, of openness and of valuing what comes up for us spontaneously. Beyond that, they are quite different practices with different aims. Focusing values the actual “content” that arises during a focusing process: I believe that meditation aims to go beyond all content to a different sense of self. Having said that, people who practice meditation are often drawn to focusing because it has a distinctly spiritual or transcendant quality. There are more and more people who have learned about Experiential Focusing; it is a global community, and one that is very receptive to newcomers.
    You might want to go onto The Focusing Institute website, to learn more about the philosophy, practice, psychotherapeutic integrations, other applications and research.
    Or ask me another question!
    Joan Lavender

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.