The Felt Sense: What, Why and How

While LW has seen pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion of Fo­cus­ing, I feel like there has been rel­a­tively limited dis­cus­sion of the felt sense—that is, the thing that Fo­cus­ing is ac­tu­ally ac­cess­ing.

Every­one ac­cesses felt senses all the time, but most peo­ple don’t know that they are do­ing it. I think that be­ing able to make the skill more ex­plicit is re­ally valuable, and in this post I’m go­ing to give lots of ex­am­ples of why that is and what you can do with it.

Hope­fully, af­ter I’m done, you will not only know what a felt sense is (if you didn’t already), but also will have difficulty un­der­stand­ing how you ever got by with­out this con­cept.

Ex­am­ples of felt senses

The term “felt sense” was origi­nally coined by the psy­chol­o­gist Eu­gene Gendlin, as a name for some­thing that he found his clients to be ac­cess­ing in their ther­apy ses­sions. Here are some ex­am­ples of felt senses:

  • Think of some per­son you know, maybe imag­in­ing what it feels to be like in the same room as them. You prob­a­bly have some “sense” of that per­son, of what it is that they feel like.

  • Like­wise if you think of some fic­tional uni­verse, it has some­thing of its own feel. Harry Pot­ter feels differ­ent from Star Wars feels differ­ent from Game of Thrones feels differ­ent from James Bond.

  • Some­times you will have a word “right on the tip of your tongue”; it’s as if the word is al­most there, but you can’t quite reach it. When you do, you just know that it’s the right word—be­cause the “shape” of the word matches the one you were reach­ing for be­fore.

Here are are a few pic­tures that I re­cently col­lected from the Face­book group “Steam­punk Ten­den­cies”:

How do you feel when you look at these pic­tures? What’s the gen­eral vibe that unites all of these pic­tures?

Likely you can find quite a few. If I put aside the words “steam­punk” and “Vic­to­rian”, next I get the word “me­chan­i­cal”. “Dark” also feels fit­ting.

What­ever the vibe that you get, it’s prob­a­bly some­thing differ­ent than the one you get from this col­lec­tion of images:

Look at the first set of images, then the sec­ond. How does it feel when you switch look­ing from one to the other? What kinds of changes are there in your mind and your body?

I like both sets, but look­ing from one to the other, I no­tice that the for­est images make me feel like my mind is open­ing up, whereas the steam­punk ones make it close a lit­tle. Com­par­ing the two, I feel like there’s some slightly off-putting vibe in the steam­punk set, that makes me pre­fer look­ing at the for­est images—which I would not have no­ticed if I hadn’t viewed them side to side. (I am guess­ing that some read­ers will have the op­po­site ex­pe­rience, of find­ing the for­est ones off-putting com­pared to the steam­punk ones.)

In­ter­nal emo­tional and men­tal states can also have their own felt senses. That shouldn’t be very sur­pris­ing, since your ex­pe­rience of e.g. a set of pic­tures is an in­ter­nal men­tal state. Here are a few ex­am­ples of felt senses from alk­jash:

  • When I solve a prob­lem in a cre­ative way (e.g. fix pos­ture by turn­ing in the shower), there’s a sen­sa­tion of en­light­en­ment at the back of my head which liter­ally feels like my skull is open­ing up. The words to this feel­ing are “I’ve dis­cov­ered a new di­men­sion!”

  • I some­times sit slouched over in bed for hours at a time brows­ing Face­book or Red­dit, play­ing video games, or binge-watch a sea­son of a TV show. After get­ting up from the slouch, my whole body is en­veloped in a haze of laz­i­ness and de­cay. The zom­bie haze is thick­est in­side my ribs. The words to this pres­sure are “Symp­toms of the spread­ing cor­rup­tion.”

  • A piece of my so­cial anx­iety forms a hard bar­rier that pushes against the cen­ter of my chest. I learned the words to this feel­ing from a post by Zvi: “Con­form! Every time you walk out­side the norm, think about the im­plicit ac­cu­sa­tion you’re mak­ing against ev­ery­one who didn’t try it.”

Here’s Dun­can Sa­bien de­scribing the ex­pe­rience of hon­ing down on a par­tic­u­lar felt sense (I’ve ed­ited out some ex­cel­lent elab­o­ra­tions and pic­tures that were in­cluded be­tween these lines; the whole post is recom­mended read­ing):

Okay, so there’s clearly SOMETHING both­er­ing me. And it’s got some­thing to do with Cameron.

Have we been fight­ing a lot?

No, that’s not it at all.

It’s more like — like — ugh, like I never know what to say?

No, it’s like I have to say the right things, or else.

It’s like — if I say the wrong thing, then ev­ery­thing falls apart and it’s all ru­ined.

And it’s like I’m the only one? Like, Cameron doesn’t have to pay at­ten­tion, just me. Cameron gets to —

— to —

— to re­lax. That’s it. Yeah. It feels like I’m the only one who doesn’t get to re­lax.

Mark Lipp­mann, in his doc­u­ment “Fold­ing” (cur­rently de­p­re­cated) pro­poses that the felt sense (or the felt mean­ing, as he calls it) ex­ists as a layer of in­for­ma­tion “be­low” lan­guage. He gives the fol­low­ing ex­am­ples:

  • Pick a word, such as “yo­gurt”, and say it many times over: “yo­gurt, yo­gurt, yo­gurt...”. Now even­tu­ally it may feel like the word has “lost its mean­ing”; the ver­bal han­dle of “yo­gurt” has be­come dis­con­nected from the felt sense it used to be as­so­ci­ated with.

  • It’s not just in­di­vi­d­ual words that are con­nected to felt senses; you can also know the mean­ing of a sen­tence that you just read, or have a sense of what a par­tic­u­lar para­graph was say­ing.

  • Some­times, if you are work­ing on a doc­u­ment close to a dead­line or try­ing to read some­thing when you are tired, you may find that the thing be­comes “slip­pery”. Your eyes might re­peat­edly pass over the same words, but you don’t un­der­stand what they are say­ing. You are failing to ex­tract the felt sense hold­ing the mean­ing of the text.

He notes that a felt sense can also be ex­pe­rienced as a thing or place to re­turn to:

When you say some­thing, and it doesn’t come out right, you try again. Where your mind goes be­fore you try again, that’s felt mean­ing.

When some­one says, can you ex­plain that in differ­ent words? Your mind goes back to that, in other words, felt mean­ing.

When some­one says, what do you mean by that? Your mind goes back to that, in other words, felt mean­ing.

When you’re writ­ing some­thing, and it’s hard, what you’re search­ing for is felt mean­ing. Where you’re search­ing is where felt mean­ing will be.

When you’re writ­ing some­thing, and it’s easy, you’re draw­ing upon felt mean­ing.

When you lose your train of thought, you’ve lost your sense of the felt mean­ing you were speak­ing from. When you re­mem­ber what you were say­ing, the what is felt mean­ing.

Why learn to tap into felt senses?

Why are felt senses im­por­tant? Well, a felt sense looks like it’s com­ing from some deeper in­for­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing layer in your brain: if you do any­thing at all (such as read or talk), you are tap­ping into that layer.

Every­one ac­cesses felt senses all the time. But you can learn to more ex­plic­itly pay at­ten­tion to the fact that you’re do­ing it, and thus do it more effec­tively. This has a great num­ber of benefits.

It’s use­ful for communication

The bits about text and mean­ing might already have sug­gested this: you can ex­press your­self most clearly when you have a good han­dle on the felt sense of your in­tended mean­ing. If you’ve ever found your­self say­ing “no, that’s not quite what I meant, I mean it more like...”, then you’ve been try­ing to con­nect with a felt sense bet­ter.

Fur­ther­more, differ­ent felt senses let you com­mu­ni­cate differ­ent things. mr-hire re­cently in­ter­viewed me on what I do when I’m try­ing to write some­thing that com­mu­ni­cates across per­spec­tives. As a re­sult of his ques­tion­ing, I ended up de­scribing it as some­thing like this; I’ve bolded each oc­ca­sion when I’ve made refer­ence to a felt sense:

When I see peo­ple talk­ing past each other, I get this frus­tra­tion, like… let’s say some­one is try­ing to ex­plain med­i­ta­tion to some­one skep­ti­cal. I see the skep­tic ask­ing ques­tions, and I can get a sense of what their model is like and which gaps in their model they are try­ing to fill with those ques­tions. And then the other per­son doesn’t seem to get that, and says some­thing else. It feels like there are two differ­ent per­spec­tives on the is­sue. They are al­most phys­i­cal shapes with some over­lap but which don’t quite al­ign, and I get an urge to build a bridge be­tween them, to get those two per­spec­tives joined to­gether.

So then I start get­ting some ideas about it, of what kind of an ex­pla­na­tion would fit that hole in the skep­tic’s model, and what would make those per­spec­tives sync up, and there’s a sense of har­mony and beauty in what that finished ex­pla­na­tion would feel like. Then I have all of those scat­tered ideas and I note them down and try to find some­thing that would feel like a unify­ing frame­work, where the ideas wouldn’t feel sep­a­rate from each other but rather be part of a co­her­ent struc­ture. And I try to make use of that unify­ing frame­work to write it so that there’s a smooth flow of one idea to the next, so that each thing flows nat­u­rally to the next.

And while I’m writ­ing it, I make sure to come back to a sense of my tar­get au­di­ence, and try to have a feel of what they would think of my ex­pla­na­tion. Some­times when I’m writ­ing in es­say it starts feel­ing hard to say who I’m writ­ing to, and then I might end up writ­ing some­thing on Twit­ter or Face­book, where I have a clearer sense of who’s go­ing to read this, and then that might let me make progress.

I hadn’t ex­plic­itly thought about it in those terms, but mr-hire’s pok­ing helped me make more aware of all the felt senses that I was fol­low­ing: and he was ex­plic­itly dig­ging them out of me in or­der to teach them to oth­ers. Hav­ing them, I can turn them into ex­plicit guidelines to ask my­self (or oth­ers), such as:

  • If you need ideas, is there any par­tic­u­lar situ­a­tion whose felt sense gives you ideas, such as get­ting frus­trated by two peo­ple failing to com­mu­ni­cate and see­ing what they could be say­ing in­stead?

  • If you have sev­eral ideas, do you feel like you could get a sense of how to ex­plain them in such a way that they flow from one thing to an­other?

  • Do you have a clear feel­ing of who you are writ­ing to? If not, could you get one, such as by writ­ing some­thing on a so­cial me­dia or as a fo­rum post or imag­in­ing a spe­cific per­son read­ing it?

It’s use­ful for cre­at­ing and ap­pre­ci­at­ing art

As an ex­am­ple of differ­ent felt senses be­ing use­ful for com­mu­ni­cat­ing differ­ent things, Lo­gan Strohl writes about the use of them in art:

Pick an ex­pres­sive medium. Could be sketch­ing, po­etry, mu­sic, what­ever.

Then, get in touch with a felt sense. You don’t have to name it. But try to get in­side of it.

What is “get in­side of it”? Right now there’s a tight­ness in my so­lar plexus. I can de­scribe it “from the out­side” like so: It’s the bot­tom of a sort of hot, slightly vibrat­ing rod of sen­sa­tion that goes from my so­lar plexus to the mid­dle of my throat. The sen­sa­tion re­sponds to aware­ness of my im­me­di­ate au­di­tory en­vi­ron­ment (I’m in a coffee shop); the so­lar plexus tight­ness gets tighter when I pay at­ten­tion to the tap­ping of a metal spoon against a metal jar, and starts to wob­ble a lit­tle when I pay at­ten­tion to the mu­sic in the back­ground.

Rather than de­scribing it from the out­side, I can also let the felt sense ex­press it­self “from the in­side”. This is a kind of at­ten­tional trick, I think, which seems to in­volve set­ting down my per­son­hood story and let­ting the felt sense con­sume aware­ness.

Then, while “in­side” of the felt sense, I can be­gin to act on my cre­ative medium. If I choose (just a few) words, the so­lar plexus felt sense types this:

wob­ble siren sharp and hot fight for warm­ing Per­sian mu­sic hold ready park­ing alarm to pro­tect chang­ing chang­ing chang­ing noth­ing safe

Lo­gan then goes on to de­scribe the pro­cess of draw­ing a pic­ture from in­side the felt sense, let­ting each line res­onate against the felt sense and only draw things which feel true to it.

… this is what artists are ac­tu­ally do­ing when they cre­ate things. They’re do­ing ad­di­tional stuff too, be­cause what I’ve de­scribed is merely ex­pres­sion, and art is a kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a re­fined form of ex­pres­sion that usu­ally in­volves de­sign and edit­ing in ad­di­tion to ex­pres­sion. But I think the un­re­fined ex­pres­sion is at the core of art.

This matches my ex­pe­rience when I’m do­ing role-play­ing or writ­ing fic­tional char­ac­ters: each char­ac­ter has their own felt sense, and writ­ing them is of­ten about get­ting in­side that felt sense. Char­ac­ters may start with a weak felt sense, but “take on a life of their own”, when that sense gets fleshed out and be­comes strong enough.

Some­times I have difficulty ex­press­ing a par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter, in which case I have lost my con­nec­tion to their felt sense—their “essence”, so to speak. On a few oc­ca­sions, I have in­ten­tion­ally cre­ated char­ac­ters by tak­ing as­pects of the felt senses of my friends, and blended them to­gether into a new whole that feels right.

I have also heard of po­etry be­ing de­scribed es­sen­tially as try­ing to con­vey a felt sense through words.

I think much of art is ba­si­cally all about evok­ing felt senses. If you have that as an ex­plicit con­cept, you can look at a piece of art that you like, and at­tempt to de­scribe its felt sense in greater de­tail. That may help you dig deeper into what about it you like, and make you feel that thing you like more.

It’s good for know­ing what you want

Tap­ping into felt senses as­so­ci­ated with the things that you want feels valuable in gen­eral. Rossin writes:

I used to think of my­self as some­one who was very spon­ta­neous and did not like to plan or or­ga­nize things any more or any sooner than ab­solutely nec­es­sary. I thought that was just the kind of per­son I am and get­ting overly or­ga­nized would just feel wrong.

But I felt a lot of aber­rant bouts of anx­iety. I prob­a­bly could have figured out the prob­lem through stan­dard Fo­cus­ing but I was hav­ing trou­ble with the nega­tive feel­ing. And I found it eas­ier to fo­cus on pos­i­tive feel­ings, so I be­gan to ap­ply Fo­cus­ing to when I felt happy. And a com­mon trend that emerged from good felt senses was a feel­ing of be­ing in con­trol of my life. And it turned out that this feel­ing of be­ing in con­trol came from hav­ing planned to do some­thing I wanted to do and hav­ing done it. I would not have no­ticed that ex­pe­riences of hav­ing planned well made me feel so good through nor­mal anal­y­sis be­cause that was just com­pletely con­trary to my self-image. But by Fo­cus­ing on what made me have good feel­ings, I was able to shift my self-image to be more ac­cu­rate. I like hav­ing de­tailed plans. Who would have thought? Cer­tainly not me.

Once I re­al­ized that my self-image of en­joy­ing di­s­or­ga­ni­za­tion was ac­tu­ally the op­po­site of what ac­tu­ally made me happy I was able to be­gin me­thod­i­cally or­ga­niz­ing and schedul­ing my life. Since then, those un­ex­plained bouts of anx­iety have van­ished and I feel hap­pier more of the time.

Some­times I get the feel­ing that a thing that I’m do­ing seems good on pa­per, but in prac­tice it just feels like a de­mo­ti­vat­ing chore. Often this means that the thing that I think I’m go­ing for is not the thing that my brain is ac­tu­ally op­ti­miz­ing for, and it’s pre­dict­ing that the pro­ject in ques­tion will not fulfill its ac­tual op­ti­miza­tion goal. If I can then lean into the felt sense of what I ac­tu­ally want, then I will feel more mo­ti­vated to pur­sue it.

For ex­am­ple, re­cently I have been try­ing to de­bug my aver­sion to­wards dat­ing sites. There seem to be sev­eral com­po­nents to that aver­sion, but one in par­tic­u­lar is a vibe of “I don’t ex­pect this to re­ally work” that I tend to get at the point when I start to browse other peo­ple’s pro­files.

Which raised the ques­tion of… doesn’t work for what, ex­actly? Not just “for get­ting into a re­la­tion­ship”; what’s the deeper de­sire that makes me want a re­la­tion­ship in the first place?

So far I had been kind of waf­fling back and forth on the ques­tion of “do I want chil­dren”, so my search filters had in­cluded peo­ple with var­i­ous an­swers to that ques­tion. But then I ac­ci­den­tally ended up do­ing a search where that an­swer was re­quired to be “yes”, and no­ticed that the kinds of pro­files I got in re­sponse—or just con­sis­tently see­ing “wants chil­dren” on all the re­sults that I got—gave me a much felt sense of this could lead to some­where promis­ing.

The main thing doesn’t seem to be just the thought of hav­ing chil­dren, but also some­thing about the po­ten­tial part­ners gen­er­ally be­ing the type of peo­ple who want chil­dren [due to some per­son­al­ity trait which I haven’t ver­bal­ized yet, but which was more ap­par­ent in the pro­files that I started see­ing]… which started mak­ing the whole dat­ing site thing seem more ap­peal­ing again.

In a way, find­ing this par­tic­u­lar felt sense when I was feel­ing de­mo­ti­vated, feels like the same kind of thing as find­ing “who was my tar­get au­di­ence for this piece of writ­ing again” when I’ve been feel­ing de­mo­ti­vated by writ­ing. In ei­ther case the brain is pur­su­ing some op­ti­miza­tion tar­get, but can­not pro­ceed and re­acts by de­mo­ti­va­tion if a clear op­ti­miza­tion tar­get can­not be found.

Michael Smith (Valen­tine) has re­cently been talk­ing about lean­ing into plea­sure, and of how so­ciety tends to cause psy­ches to be built around avoid­ing pain rather than pur­su­ing joyful bright de­sire. I’m com­ing to agree with Rossin’s post in that we prob­a­bly tend to un­der­value us­ing felt senses to look into the pos­i­tive, and don’t pur­sue the “bright de­sire” as much as we could—in part be­cause we haven’t spent time re­ally dig­ging into the felt senses of en­joy­ment. (Though it needs to be stated that of­ten one’s mind has rea­sons for why it con­sid­ers it nec­es­sary to feel bad, so it does of­ten make sense to in­ves­ti­gate those rea­sons first.)

Gen­er­ally, your aes­thet­ics en­code in­for­ma­tion and as­sump­tions about what your brain con­sid­ers valuable [1 2 3]. Aes­thet­ics are to a large ex­tent ex­pressed in felt senses.

It’s use­ful for figur­ing out what’s both­er­ing you

The “stan­dard” use for the felt sense, from Gendlin’s origi­nal book, is figur­ing out what both­ers you. Dun­can Sa­bien already gave us an ex­am­ple of this pre­vi­ously, when figur­ing out why an imag­i­nary “Cameron” was both­er­ing him. Listen­ing to felt senses is the foun­da­tion of Fo­cus­ing-Ori­ented Psy­chother­apy, as well as prac­tices such as In­ter­nal Dou­ble Crux, In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems, Co­her­ence Ther­apy, and ex­pe­ri­en­tial forms of ther­apy in gen­eral.

This ex­cerpt from Un­lock­ing the Emo­tional Brain de­scribed “Richard” get­ting in con­tact with a felt sense of what his mind thought would hap­pen if he ex­pressed con­fi­dence:

Richard: Now I’m feel­ing re­ally un­com­fortable, but-it’s in a differ­ent way.

Ther­a­pist: OK, let your­self feel it—this differ­ent dis­com­fort. [Pause.] See if any words come along with this un­com­fortable feel­ing.

Richard: [Pause.] Now they hate me.

Ther­a­pist: “Now they hate me.” Good. Keep go­ing: See if this re­ally un­com­fortable feel­ing can also tell you why they hate you now.

Richard: [Pause.] Hnh. Wow. It’s be­cause… now I’m… an ar­ro­gant ass­hole… like my father… a to­tally self-cen­tered, to­tally in­sen­si­tive know-it-all.

Ther­a­pist: Do you mean that hav­ing a feel­ing of con­fi­dence as you speak turns you into an ar­ro­gant ass­hole, like Dad?

Richard: Yeah, ex­actly. Wow.

As a re­sult of hav­ing sur­faced this felt sense, Richard was then able to ques­tion it and re­vise the be­lief con­tained in it.

It helps you know when you are triggered

I think of “be­ing trig­gered” mean­ing some­thing like “a part of you tries to force a par­tic­u­lar out­come even if your other parts would dis­agree of this be­ing a good idea” (this feels closely re­lated to the Bud­dhist no­tion of crav­ing for spe­cific out­comes).

If I think about situ­a­tions where I wish I had acted differ­ently, they in­clude things like

  • I told my cousin that I was in­ter­est­ing in mov­ing some­thing closer to psy­chol­ogy, ca­reer-wise. My cousin said some­thing that I thought im­plied she didn’t think I knew much about psy­chol­ogy, re­flect­ing a very old model of me. I felt a strong de­sire to cor­rect that mis­con­cep­tion, and there was some­thing of a sharp force­ful­ness in that re­sponse, try­ing to force her into think­ing the right thing.

  • I over­heard some par­ents treat­ing their child in a way that felt to me hurt­ful to­wards the child, and there was a de­sire to in­ter­vene and force them to act differ­ently to­wards their child. (But of course I knew that it wouldn’t do any good.)

  • I got a mes­sage that I would have preferred not to re­ceive or read, but for as long as it re­mained un­read, there was an in­sis­tent tug­ging, as if some­thing was try­ing to force it to be­come read, and an­other some­thing try­ing to force it not to be read.

Be­sides the spe­cific and some­what differ­ent felt senses in all three of those situ­a­tions, there’s also a shared gen­eral felt sense of… some sort of wrong­ness, as if my mind feels that there is some­thing wrong about the world, which needs to be fixed. As long as that part is try­ing to force that fix, I can’t think or re­act en­tirely freely.

When I’m trig­gered, it’s not always clear to me: I might be so strongly trig­gered that the thought just seems like ab­solute truth to me, or the trig­ger­ing might be sub­tle enough that it might pass al­most un­no­ticed. But if I pay at­ten­tion to the sense of wrong­ness that I typ­i­cally get when trig­gered, I can have some­thing of a trig­ger-ac­tion plan of “no­tice when I am trig­gered, and pause to see what the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse could be”.

The op­po­site of the wrong­ness of be­ing trig­gered feels some­thing like the In­ter­nal Fam­ily Sys­tems no­tion of “the 8 Cs of be­ing in Self”: “con­fi­dence, calm­ness, cre­ativity, clar­ity, cu­ri­os­ity, courage, com­pas­sion, and con­nect­ed­ness”. Notic­ing that I do not have those kinds of felt senses also helps to no­tice when I’m trig­gered.

Conclusion

There are a num­ber of ex­pla­na­tions of how to do Fo­cus­ing, that is, tap into your felt senses. Some here on LW in­clude ones by (par­tic­u­larly recom­mended!) Dun­can Sa­bien, alk­jash, and Mark Xu. The Fo­cus­ing In­sti­tute offers this page of six steps, which are fur­ther elab­o­rated on Eu­gene Gendlin’s book.

My per­sonal fa­vorite set of for­mal Fo­cus­ing in­struc­tions is in Ann Weiser Cor­nell’s The Power of Fo­cus­ing; for some rea­son, ev­ery­one always seems to recom­mend the origi­nal Fo­cus­ing book, even though AWC’s in­struc­tions feel ten times bet­ter to me.

That said, I always feel like for­mal Fo­cus­ing in­struc­tions risk mak­ing the felt sense feel like this ex­otic su­per-spe­cial thing, and then you might end up won­der­ing things like “is this re­ally the felt sense” way too much. Re­mem­ber: the felt sense is noth­ing spe­cial. If you un­der­stand what this sen­tence is say­ing, you already have ac­cess to a felt sense—the one which tells you what the mean­ing of this sen­tence is.

Thus, my fa­vored ap­proach to tap­ping into a felt sense is just “imag­ine I was ex­plain­ing this feel­ing that I have to some­one else, tak­ing the time to find the words and de­scrip­tion that res­onate the most”.

In other words, in ex­plain­ing felt senses, I would recom­mend you to go not for the felt sense of “ex­plain­ing some ex­otic and spe­cial thing deep in my sub­con­scious”, but rather for the felt sense of “ex­plain­ing a thing in my ev­ery­day ex­pe­rience and just want­ing to find ex­actly the right words for it”.