Gendlin’s View of Human Being: Interaction First

Leaf making ripples in still pondMy last piece on focusing ended with a definition of felt sensing as a “temporary wave, from the sea of being” (Madison, G.). What is meant by a temporary wave from the sea of being?

It is time to introduce Gendlin’s conception of human being. Note that I said “human being,” not “a human being.” For Gendlin, human being is “interbeing”—what we think of as an individual being is a “livings in the world, and living with” (Gendlin, 1978-79). He calls this principle Interaction First.

Gendlin conceives of human beings experientially not as separate “things” in interaction with each other. More radically, he sees our environments and us as a continuous co-creative process. We are not “inside our skins, but are our living-in the world, and living-with others” (Gendlin, 1978-79). Even our physical being is a continuous process with its inner and outer environments. Hence, in his view, it is impossible to conceive of human being as a separate entity. We are interbeing.

What is a living body such that it has the intricacy of our situations? … With the old concepts, people might say that Focusing is “subjective.” But clearly, if the situation is carried in the body, then a felt sense is not subjective. Objective then? No, also not, since “objective” means the units and patterns to which science limits anything it studies. We could fashion a new sentence that is neither subjective, nor objective, nor both: The body IS an interaction process with the environment, and therefore the body IS its situations. The body isn’t just a sealed thing here, with an external situation over there, which it merely interprets. Rather, even before we think and speak, the living body is already one interaction process with its situation. The situation is not out there, nor inside. The external “things” and the subjective “entities” are derived from one single life-interaction process (which they always bring along with them). (Gendlin 2004)

This is a radical view and paradigm shift that is difficult to absorb. We are used to thinking about ourselves and the environment “around us” through the lens and language of a Cartesian world. We are imbued with philosophical assumptions idealizing objectivity and neutrality and a mechanistic relationship of mind over body. For example, we may have heard of such concepts as the “observer effect,” yet we go about living in a way that leaves context out of the equation.

For Gendlin, the making of meaning is a pluralistic, contextual, constructed process; it is changing and dynamic, not static and eternal (Mitchell, 1993). Our lived bodily sense of things is a function of our interbeing, and our capacity for felt sensing extends us beyond the confines of our delimited physical body.

Recall that I started my first piece by saying that you have within you—“beneath” your everyday practical use of language—another dimension, an inner language that is an imagistic dialogue between you and your immediate experiencing. It is you speaking to yourself (and listening to yourself) in your own code. Gendlin calls it the zigzag between the everyday use of language and the way we may actually hold our experiencing in a bodily felt way.

Gendlin says that this kind of processing exists preconceptually, beneath our everyday use of language and concepts and the assumptions we have about how the world works. In focusing, we find our own language and meaning that is in fact much more specific and precise than our usual use of language. We find language from the sea of our being.

A client with a traumatic history sits quietly, with eyes lowered, pausing to find a way to articulate why his time in boarding school (60 years ago!) is still so meaningful to him. His life before boarding school was consumed by his father’s collapse into psychosis. He is sensing into the situation regarding boarding school—without any explicit reference to his catastrophic childhood history. After a full few minutes of silence, he finds one word that fits: Life at boarding school was “manageable.” At the point that he says “manageable,” tears come to his eyes. He doesn’t know why, but his felt sense tells him, preconceptually, that “manageable” feels right.

The therapist, attuning to her client, takes in “manageable” and acknowledges it. As it resonates within her, she realizes how much is contained in this word “manageable” for her client. Then she drifts into her own felt sense of his childhood and finds ‘unmanageable’ experientially embedded in the world of her client’s meaning making, the therapist quietly offers the newly emerging word “unmanageable” without any reference to his history, and the client considers it.

A few moments later, the client’s full catastrophe of life with his father’s illness impacts him, but in a different way. His therapist has offered a word that touches into his world precisely and with great specificity. What is captured here in two words—manageable and unmanageable—is much more than the common meaning of these words. The client is referring to the experiential world of living-with and living-in his father’s psychosis, as well as to the emergent significance of what boarding school provided for him. The unmanageable and the manageable.

 Notice that the felt sensing came first. With “manageable,” he has begun to capture the world of his experiencing—the profound relief of finding himself for the first time in a world that he could handle (boarding school). Then “unmanageable” is intoned, and he resonates with the years of struggling with the catastrophe of his father’s psychosis. “Manageable” arose as a temporary wave from the sea of being. “Unmanageable” emerged from their shared sea of being.

And this shared moment deepens their therapeutic journey.


  1. Gendlin. E. T. (1978-79). Befindlichkeit: Heidegger and the philosophy of psychology. Review of Existential Psychology & Psychiatry 16, 43-71.
  2. Gendlin, E.T. (2004). Five philosophical talking points to communicate with colleagues who don’t yet know focusing. Staying in Focus. The Focusing Institute Newsletter, 4 (1), 5-8. From
  3. Madison, G.,
  4. Mitchell, Stephen A. (1993). Hope and dread in psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books, pp. 285.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joan Lavender, PsyD, therapist in New York City, New York

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
  • casey


    September 7th, 2012 at 1:31 PM

    so this is to say that we are not distinct from the things around us..sometimes that feels right..everything is connected and no one thing is independent.bu it sure is hard to have this principle when our instinct and everything we have known goes against such a concept.

  • Bob L

    Bob L

    September 7th, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    This is such a beautiful point of view of being that I have never read about before. Pretty deep for a Friday evening, but definitely some interesting food for thought.

  • Carson


    September 8th, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    “he sees our environments and us as a continuous co-creative process.”

    That’s one of the most beautiful quotes that I have seen in a very long time! I love the idea that we are all inter-related, connected to one another, that no one thing that we do doesn’t touch the life of another- everything that we do is somehow still related to another. Shoes the very importance of being true to our fellow man and aware that our actions have consequences far beyond who we are.

  • robert


    September 9th, 2012 at 9:14 AM

    “This is a radical view and paradigm shift that is difficult to absorb”

    This has been a problem with psychology since its inception, its radical views and paradigm shifts which are “difficult to absorb”. Although I agree with Carson that indeed it is a very beautiful quote when Gendlin says that, “he sees our environments and us as a continuous co-creative process”, it is not an “original thought, and it still sounds like a metaphysical paradigm, and this is just not acceptable at this time in the human experience. We need to mature as a race and not as individuals before we can grasp this type or style of thought. To mature as a race or a species, we need to introduce a “new paradigm” on a world scale and have it implemented into the curriculum, otherwise we have a fragmented social conscience as we do at present where only some people agree but are separated by distance or for some other reasons too many to mention.
    “when our instinct and everything we have known goes against such a concept.”
    Casey makes a good point here and supports what I am trying to say about the introduction of a new paradigm in that it must be something that is first, “believable” which Gendlin’s theory,” does not feel right”. Second, it must be “understandable”, while this theory goes against “instinct”, and again is “difficult to absorb”.
    Too bad, because like Bob stated, “This is such a beautiful point of view of being”… but still it is, “Pretty deep for a Friday evening, but definitely some interesting food for thought.”
    In conclusion, I would have to say that when any paradigm does beyond the comprehension of the five shared and physical senses of, sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, it just may be that is the things that utopian dreams are made of. With all respect, and admiration for your attempts to enlighten the masses, there is a new philosopher that is at present making some radical points and is attempting to introduce a paradigm that you may find interesting and perhaps intriguing. His name is Richard Crant and he can be found at
    Keep up the good work you are doing and I look forward to more comment on this page.

  • Jameson


    September 11th, 2012 at 2:34 PM

    not sure i get all of the technical stuff but i do appreciate the emphasis on the ever evolving and changing nature of humans and our reality

  • robert


    September 13th, 2012 at 5:33 PM

    “evolving and changing nature of humans and our reality”

    Could it be that we are gradually evolving into a state of being that is contrary to our true nature? Is it possible that somehow humans are digressing by terms of defining what a humane being is supposed to be?

  • Joan Lavender

    Joan Lavender

    September 17th, 2012 at 5:05 AM

    Dear friends,

    Thank you so much for taking the time, not only to skim, but to think about what I am writing about Gendlin’s work. It is interesting, because, of all the work I have ever been involved in, his is without a doubt that most “experience near”. That is why people are deeply “touched” by the practice of experiential focusing – it is lived, palpable, visceral.

    The question of changing a world consciousness is so vital, and yet so unrealized. Maybe technology is doing that? However, there are focusing teachers who live and work in the most challenging parts of the world, using it for mediation, teaching, as a survival “skill”, etc.

    I think that Gendlin’s ideas struggle with the same painful dilemma of hoping people can make a paradigm shift, when we all tend to not even realize what shapes our thinking. Andy Fisher’s book on Ecopsychology makes a good attempt, and uses Gendlin’s ideas to do so. By now, the mindfulness movement seems to be the most user-friendly way to absorb at least profound concepts that are difficult/impossible to grasp other than experientially. I think this is why it is hard to get these philosophies out. Ian McGilchrists The Master and his Emissary is a brilliant neurophilosophical (?) attempt too.

    Finally, for now at least, I suggest you read some of Gendlin’s ideas directly, on The Focusing Institute website. The experiential response is a beautiful work.

    Les Todres has written a good book on Gendlin’s work too.

    I do not mean to “cop out” by referring you to others, I would love to carry on this discussion directly….but it is Monday morning and time to stop for now.

    And I will reread your recommendations!

    Joan Lavender

  • robert


    September 18th, 2012 at 3:02 AM

    To understand completely or at least to understand enough about “human being” (Gendlin) or even what a human being is, requires a thorough investigation that takes years of multidisciplinary research and study. In today’s world, everyone has become an expert in just one field. I can understand some of the reasons for this and one of them is cost. Too bad more people weren’t so inclined to put aside a few pleasures and find the time or make the time to conduct such a research. If more people did do such a thing, I cannot help but to believe the world we live in today would be less stressed.

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